The Little Word that Chokes Me

chokingIt’s easy to be thankful when there’s money in my wallet, food in my belly, and friends by my side. Our hearts tell a different story when terrorism is in the news, immorality is in our faces, and sickness invades our families. When the Bible tells us to be thankful in “all” circumstances—it includes both scenarios.

It’s not hard to make a list of things we’re not thankful for—cancer, broken relationships, anxiety, hate, and sin, to name a few—but the Bible doesn’t instruct us to make that list. It instructs us to be thankful all the time.

  • “…give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father…” (Ephesians 5:20)
  • “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
  • Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

The word that chokes me in these verses is “everything.” Everything? Even in that list of things I’m not happy about? Evidently so. If Paul, who was bound in a dungeon because of his faith in Jesus could be moved by the Holy Spirit to say give thanks in all circumstances, maybe we should listen.

Could you be thankful if you were sold into slavery and then falsely imprisoned? If not, you wouldn’t be thankful for how God used Joseph to reunite his family and save many from starvation.

Would you be thankful for a judge who didn’t care about justice and knowingly condemned an innocent man while letting a terrorist go free? If not, you wouldn’t be thankful for the way God arranged our salvation.

Scripture isn’t telling us that we should be happy about pain and suffering, but instead that we trust God enough to be thankful during pain and suffering. You never know what he might be up to!

Above My Pay Grade

abovepaygradeWe have all sorts of names for the same phenomenon: back-seat driving, arm-chair quarterbacking, second-guesser…you get the idea. When Neil Anderson was the editor of the Gospel Advocate, he said that based on the letters, emails, and phone calls he got, he must be the only person in the world who didn’t know how to run his business! All of us have this tendency to question things over which we have no control.

There’s an interesting little line in one of David’s Psalms. Pay attention to the end of it: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1)

I wonder sometimes if we don’t set our eyes on things “too great” for our finite minds. We question God more than is healthy. We forget that his ways are infinitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9). Paul chastised the Corinthians by asking, “Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” (1 Corinthians 2:16). I imagine after that part of the letter was read, there was silence–kind of like when God showed up and started asking questions at the end of Job.

God needed to humble Jeremiah, so he said to him, “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” (Jeremiah 12:5) In other words, “Jeremiah, you are in over your head this time. You can’t keep up with me!” Paul again said, “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” (Romans 12:16)

There are some conversations and questions that we really ought to let pass us by. Sometimes we just need to say, “That’s above my pay grade. I don’t know the answer, but I know the One who does!”

…and I didn’t even know it!

I was reading from Genesis 28 the story where Jacob had a beautiful vision in the middle of the wilderness. Having no place to go, he took a stone and lay it under his head as a pillow. As he slept, he saw a ladder where the angels of God ascended and descended, and God affirmed his promise to be with Jacob and his descendants. His words when he awoke from that dream caught my attention: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)

Jacob isn’t the only one in scripture who had this experience. Much later in Israel’s history in 2 Kings 6, Elisha’s servant was afraid. Israel was vastly outnumbered. The city was surrounded by an army with horses and chariots. He cried out, “What shall we do?” Elisha’s answer was beautiful: “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha prayed, and God opened the eyes of the young man so that he saw that the mountain was overflowing with horses and chariots of fire. God was present, and the servant didn’t even know it.

On the morning of the resurrection, two men were walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They kept recounting the story of the weekend’s events—the late-night trials, the arrest, and the death of the beloved rabbi. As the men walked, Jesus joined them and spoke with them about the Messiah and how he had to suffer for them to see glory. After their eyes were opened and they recognized the one with whom they walked, they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?” (Luke 24:32) They were literally walking with Jesus, and didn’t know it.

I share these three stories to say this: sometimes you feel alone. Sometimes you don’t think your prayers are making it past the ceiling. Sometimes you’re not sure what future you have at all. When you feel that way, let scripture remind you of this truth: God can be present right there beside you—and you didn’t even know it.

Realer than Real

Each one of us tends to treat our own experiences as the gold standard by which all others are judged. If I’ve my first car was a Ford that broke down a lot, I’ll probably believe that all Fords are junk. Very little will change my mind. No survey, no statistic, and no article in Consumer Reports has the power to unseat my experience.

This fallacy in thinking affects every part of our existence, but it is likely at its most dangerous in the spiritual realm. When we talk about pain and suffering, we have a hard time comprehending why these things happen. We can’t imagine anything that would make it worthy.

I was reading a book about heaven that illustrated this thought. Calvin Miller wrote:

“If I tried to define heaven, I would likely fall into the same trap as people who write serious theological works on the subject. I  have read a few of these books, but I almost always get the feeling that the authors are taking their celestial pictures with weak cameras and cheap film, ultimately producing only vague images of God’s wondrously vast reality. Apart from the glimpses of heaven that one finds in the Bible, how much more can we know for now? I think Isaiah 55:9 says it best for me, in the Lord’s own words: ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”

The pictures we take from our experiences are vivid images in technicolor, while the images of things not yet experienced are lackluster. In Christianity, we cling to the truth that there are things truer than my feelings, realer than my experiences, and more promising than what I see right in front of me.

In the words of Jesus, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Peter wrote, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)

May we be the people who rejoice in the things that are more real than the reality in front of our eyes.