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The Season of Isolation

May 18th, 2018

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88:18)

We prefer those psalms that speak of the overcoming love of God, such as Psalm 23 that proclaims “The Lord is my shepherd,” and “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We rejoice with the psalmist who explains his feelings of weakness and poverty but then breaks through with faith in God, such as Psalm 40:17 that says, “I am poor and needy, yet the Lord thinks about me.”

But Psalm 88 is also inspired of God for the upbuilding of our souls. In this psalm the psalmist feels isolated, but there is no break through of victorious faith in the midst of his aloneness. There is only the isolation. What should be our thoughts in the days of isolation, when friends avoid us, when even God seems to have deserted us, and our faith is feeble and weak? Rest assured that such days come to us in life, when, due to sickness, or perhaps a shameful thing in our life, or perhaps for no reason at all except that we are falsely accused, that those who should befriend us and comfort us desert us. And in such circumstances our faith is so weak we can no longer feel God’s presence – even though He is certainly there. He will never forsake us (Matt. 28:20).

A Cry to God

The first thing that recommends this psalmist to our hearts is that despite his circumstances and his feelings of aloneness he had the faith to cry out to God. Often that is the first key that brings us out of depression – not the faith to claim the victory, we are not ready for that, but the faith to complain to God. To claim is better than to complain, but at least the complaining prayer leads us to speak to the Author of Life.

An Acknowledgement of God’s Steadfast Love

The second positive attribute we notice is that the psalmist knew that God’s love was steadfast, reliable, steady and dependable. God loves us because of who He is, and He relates to us in His grace. The psalmist did not change his definition of God’s love. He retained it in his mind for what it was and what it shall always be – strong, eternal, gracious, and steady.

Many a person in isolation will let his soul’s doubts pollute his mind. He’ll say to himself, “I guess God is not loving as I thought Him to be,” or words to that effect. But this isolated psalmist retained the knowledge and the expectation of biblical faith. He said: “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” (Psalm 88:11) He did not say to God that His love was not steadfast. He used the word chesed that is also translated as God’s “loving kindness.”

He Identifies the Heart of the Matter

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. He does not accept that any type of life worth living can be achieved away from God. The psalmist did not complain merely because men had rejected him, but because he felt that God had also rejected him. It was not the absence of God’s hand that hurt him, so much as the absence of God’s face. He said to God:

But I, O LORD, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:13-14)

An element of faith is found in that expression. If life was not what he wanted it to be, he still did not cast away the definition that God had given him. He continued in prayer and in calling on the Lord. His prayer was a duty, but not merely so. It was not a dead action that he thought would reap some results. Prayer was for him communion with God, as one speaks with his dear friend.

He Left the Matter with God

Even in the abruptness of its ending this psalm teaches us something. The author does not break through to praise and faith. He ends his prayer as he began it, in a sense of isolation. And there is how we often end our prayers. We must let God answer in His way and in His time.

I recall a man in a church where we had previously served experiencing a severe isolation like this, after we had gone to serve oversees. He was falsely accused of a sexual crime against a minor. Of course, the matter needed to be investigated, but during the police investigation the man and his entire family felt overwhelmed with isolation. The church people did not know what to believe. The mother had formerly sang in the middle of the adult worship choir, and she had a lovely face that was expressive and encouraging. Suddenly, due to this false accusation, she felt rejected, alone, isolated, and shamed, as did their teenagers and especially the husband himself.

It took most of a year before the matter was legally resolved and the man was pronounced innocent, but how many sleepless nights did they experience during that time? How many times did they pray such a prayer as Psalm 88 to the Lord? Some supported them through it all, but even then, people wondered if the accusation was true. During this painful process the family found out who their true friends were, and they were not who they had thought they were.

The reasons we may feel isolated are too many to name. But in such times, and I believe we shall experience them at least once in our journey of life on this earth, take the matter to God. If you do not have the faith to claim, then at least have the faith to complain to Him. And as long as we are still talking to Him, God can guide us through it all. Remember, it was Job’s complaints and accusations against God that sparked God’s response. And though God rebuked him, He used it to also comfort and restore him.

Daily Devotions, Dealing with Difficulties, Psalms

Teach Me Your Ways, Lord

May 17th, 2018

Now if I have indeed found favor in Your sight, please teach me Your ways, and I will know You and find favor in Your sight. (Exodus 33:13 HCS)

Exodus 33:12-23 has three profound requests that Moses makes of God: to know His ways, to have His presence, and to see His glory. The order of these requests, the ways that they are phrased, the precise words that are used are exact and intentional. This is a place in the Word of God where we should “get it right,” where we should read carefully and see how profoundly different the Christian faith is from all other faiths.

Steer clear of old paganism

It is often as important to know what the Bible does NOT say as to know what it does say. The old paganism that has been around for centuries merely seeks for God to help us a little bit. In paganism we set the agenda. We will advise him and tell him what we want and our best hope, in this way of thinking, is that he will simply do a few good things for us. If we are close to him he will bring success in business, luck in love, or a healthier life. He may lift a curse, or help our children, or destroy our enemies.

No doubt there are many things in our lives we do take to God in prayer – and our health, our relationships, and our financial success are three major things in our lives. The difference between Christianity and paganism is in this: that our major concern is not merely getting God to do what we want Him to do, but letting Him do in our lives what He wants to do – and that is to change our hearts, our values, and the ways we think. He sets the agenda, not us. While we can come to Him with all our concerns and ask boldly and freely of Him, we must always realize that He has greater things in store for us than we could ever imagine.

It begins with grace

Moses began his request saying, “If I have found favor in your sight.” The whole of the story of Moses’ life shows God taking the initiative. God miraculously saves his life as an infant. God provides for him an education and protection. God helps him find a home in the wilderness, and God calls to him from the burning bush and sends him back to Egypt to deliver his people. God goes before the nation in the wilderness and leads them.

Moses “found favor,” or “grace,” only by responding to what God offered. The word translated “favor” is chen in the original Hebrew, and it was used much as we use the word “grace” in English: charm, favor, grace. When we say a person is gracious or a woman has grace, we mean that there is some excellence of character and kindness, or of beauty, that is offered freely to the undeserving. Grace cannot be earned by the recipient. It may be appreciated and received, or spurned and disrespected, but never earned.

God’s grace is also never earned. He bestows it freely on us because He has purchased it through the death of Christ for our sins. We may feel that we have discovered God, but in reality we “find” His favor because He found us first. Our finding is the response of our faith and acceptance to the message of His love.  The word chen in man’s relationship with God was first used for Noah: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen. 6:8). Noah thought differently from others and believed God was good. He found grace by recognizing grace and respecting and appreciating God’s goodness.

Have you found the grace of God in Christ? This means to appreciate His gift – He died for our sins – and to respond genuinely and gratefully.

There is a process of learning

The next phrase is “teach me your ways.” Knowing comes through learning. Learning involves identifying, understanding, and seeing how it applies in life. Learning requires analysis (breaking it down) and synthesis (putting it all back together) and the capacity to place a value (comparing it with other things we have learned) on what we have learned. No one has ever known something without going through these stages. Some are short term and can be accomplished in a few minutes, but others, especially comparing and valuing what we have learned, take a life time.

This imbeds in the Christian message the essential step of a change of heart. We must receive God’s grace and learn His ways. Now coming to Christ is no longer just about me getting my little agenda items taken care of. Now it is God grasping my heart and teaching me to think as He thinks, to love as He loves, and to live as Christ lived. As Paul wrote: “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Phil. 3:12 NLT).

What a profound thought this is! In a spiritual sense, we in this material earthly life are like starving beggars that are excited over a bountiful feast placed before us. We respond with eating, and we must eat spiritually by faith of what God provides, but some never get beyond that first step. They simply want more and more of the One who feeds and provides for them. Others, however, see the grace that kindness provided, and wish to be like the one who gives.

This was Moses’ prayer: God, would you teach me to love like you love? God, would you show me the ways of your heart? God, if I have found favor, would you give me the grace to share your favor with others?

The only way to please God

The final phrase of his prayer is the deeper knowledge of God and the deeper expression of His favor and His pleasure on our lives: “I will know you and find favor in your eyes.” Again, there is a depth to these words that takes time and space to evaluate. The final phrase, “in your eyes,” sets the standard of all that the Christian is to do and to be. What does God think of me, of what I do, of what I think, of who I am?

Faith is the only thing we can do to please God (Heb. 11:6), and though faith can express itself through obedience, through sacrifice, through praise, and through a thousand other actions, until there is faith all of these actions are meaningless. Faith leads to knowing God. The more we know of His heart, the more we understand His ways, and the better we know Him.

We find grace at our salvation, but we continue to find grace throughout our lives. And, just as it was at our salvation, just as it was in that moment when we first trusted in Christ, it was God who first found us, so it is throughout our lives. He finds us first that we might respond to find Him also. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

 

Daily Devotions, Moses