Last week I talked about resting in God’s love and grace. His love is sufficient. We can’t add to what he has done. We can’t earn his love. We can’t make him love us more. He has already brought everything to the table, and gives it to us freely.
So why is it so hard to remember that? Why do we feel like joy is elusive, like we are such failures, like we aren’t living up? Why do we so easily lose sight of the fact that his love is sufficient, and the righteousness that he gives us complete?
If you feel that way about your own life, you are far from alone. I think that we all struggle with that at some points in our walk. For most of us we struggle with it most of the time. The original twelve disciples had a hard time overcoming their preconceptions. They thought they knew what Jesus was going to be about, what he was going to do. After spending three years with Jesus, they still hadn’t let go of their preconceptions. “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” (John 14:9) Their preconceptions interfered with their ability to understand what Jesus was doing, and got in the way of their belief and faith. They still struggled with servanthood, and with worrying more about what other people thought about them than the truth. Most of us struggle with similar issues. I’m sure there are a wide variety of causes for these difficulties, but it seems to me there is a common thread for many of us. I know some of these have popped up recurringly in my life.
We’ve been lied to, and the lies are hard to expunge from our world view. These lies fill our culture, our churches, our media and our music. I’ve talked about some of these in previous posts. In the American culture, we are lied to about money and value, about the purpose and goal of life. Jesus told us that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If your treasure is in the bank, or your home, or your stuff, or even in your works or ministry, your heart is not with God.
We have also been lied to about responsibility and doing good, that our security and success is up to us. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Be a self made man. Get a good job and secure the future of your family. As a source of security and true success, all of that is a lie. We cannot even count our days. Money is vapor. Health is fragile. Life can be gone in an instant.
The bigger problem isn’t really how fragile life and our physical well-being are, though. The bigger problem is that we are too concerned about our life and our physical well-being. Whether it is fragile or not is not really the point. The real point is that it isn’t the whole picture, and it isn’t even close to being the most important part of the picture. We are caught in the Matrix, and we can’t see the real world all around us. The real world includes the spiritual world. It is the world in which we are immortal, and in which the real significance of today’s decisions is how they impact us in our relationship with God, and in eternity, not how much they impact us next week. The relationships that really matter are the ones on a spiritual level, not the little conflicts and hurt feelings that will be forgotten so soon anyway. The battles that matter are the spiritual battles. The treasure that matters is the treasure of heaven, the treasure that will not be burned up when the world is made new. These aren’t just “someday far away” kinds of things. They are also the true reality here and now. In these areas, where we place our focus makes a huge difference.
We tend to think that our joy should be found in our circumstances, but we focus our attention on the wrong aspects of our circumstances. In Christian circles we point to joy in spite of circumstances, like we just need to be tough enough. James says that we should consider it complete joy when we experience trials, because trials bring perseverance and faith. The trials will pass, but the work that God is doing in our hearts will remain. This isn’t joy in spite of circumstances, but rather joy because we know that God is making good use of the trials. Rather than focus on the difficulty of the trials, we should turn our attention to the steady hand of our faithful Father who loves us and is working in our hearts for our good. He is working toward completing the good work that he started when he first devised his plan for your life and mine before the world was formed. Our attention needs to be on God and what he is doing–on what he is really doing rather than on what we expected him to do. That doesn’t change the circumstances, but it puts the circumstances in perspective and gives them their meaning.
On the spiritual level we know that the battle is already won. The point of the battle isn’t to see who will win or find out the outcome, because it has already been decided. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said in John 16:33, “but take heart! I have overcome the world.” The point from here is our transformation and our eternal relationship with God.
The battle is a spiritual battle, and the outcome isn’t in doubt. The goal of the enemy isn’t even to win any more. Its just to do as much damage and prevent as much progress in your heart as possible, and in so doing steal as much from God’s glory and our experience of his kindness and love as is possible. From our point of view the goal of the battle–of the trials and tribulations of this life–is our growth in our relationship with our Father, the growth he is bringing about in his children whom he loves deeply. The enemy doesn’t want us to remember or to believe any of that. And so he whispers lies to us. He tells us that this isn’t really true. Did God really say that? Is that really what he meant? Can he be trusted? Does it really apply to me, today?
The fact of the matter is that we are under attack, all the time. The chances are that even now someone is whispering lies to you. I’ve found that the attacks are most active when I am thinking about God in ways that help me to grow, that strengthen my relationship with God. I sit down to read my Bible and immediately three dozen reasons not to read it materialize. Does that ever happen to you? I get excited about what I am going to say to someone about God, and then I get all twisted around myself trying to get it out. I settle down to pray and immediately a kid fight breaks out, or someone falls down. We know that our battle is not with flesh and blood, but with spiritual forces. We know that there is someone who doesn’t want us to grow, and doesn’t want us to build each other up.
While it is helpful to remember that we are in a spiritual battle and to recognize when we are being attacked, I don’t think we really need to focus on the spiritual battle itself. In fact it can be a distraction too. The fight with Satan’s minions is not our purpose or goal. When I find myself under attack I pray for God’s intervention in those circumstances, and praise God for who he is and what he’s doing in my life (even when things are hard), and the enemy flees. I find that what works best isn’t focusing on fighting the enemy, but rather on pursuing God. So even the efforts of the adversary become a tool in my growth in following God.
And I think it turns out that this is the answer to all of these challenges. We don’t do well when our primary focus is on anything other than our relationship with God. If I want success in my spiritual walk, I need to pursue God. When I read my Bible I read it for the purpose of knowing God and deepening my relationship with Him. When I pray I pray as if I’m talking to someone I know, who listens to me and cares about what I have to say. He is here now, and he loves me beyond my wildest imaginings. It is that relationship that truly matters. Our circumstances and the relationships with those around us take on their own meaning in the light of our relationship with a loving God, and his love for each of those others with whom we interact. My relationship with you takes on a new depth when I realize that my Father who I love and loves me even more also loves you with that same unimaginable love. The trials of my life take on a new meaning when I truly realize that God really is in control of my life (even the trivia, and even the things the enemy tries to use against me) and has already won the total and complete victory. God is good and all that he does is good.