Tag Archives: Using Scripture for everyday problems

Burying Expectations: The Secret of Contentment Part II

Last spring, I dared to pontificate upon the Secret of Contentment.  Unfortunately (or otherwise) whenever one presumes to teach on a subject, all manner of new information is bound to be discovered about it afterward.  In my case, I found I had not yet acquired a very large piece to the contentment puzzle.  So God is now teaching me to bury my expectations.


It’s hard to live without any expectations.  We make plans and expect them to come to pass just as we outlined them.  We hope and dream for the future and expect that if we work hard enough our plans will come to pass.  Much discontentment is rooted in frustrated expectations.  I think nothing steals joy and causes anger, disappointment, and depression more than this.


Take a simple thing like transportation.  I get in the car and fully expect to arrive at my destination safely and in a reasonable amount of time.  Why do I expect that?  I’ve lived and driven in a major city for 35 years! I ought to have learned better by now.  I know that drivers are careless, reckless, insane!  I know full well that traffic jams are a thing, that accidents happen, that cars break down, that tires go flat.  And yet instead of acknowledging that every time I arrive anywhere unharmed and on time it’s purely by the grace of God, I get frustrated when things go wrong.


It’s impossible to get anything done without any plans, but if we expect our plans to go exactly the way we think they should, we are setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment.


Proverbs 16:9  says “The mind of man plans his way,  But the LORD directs his steps.” Proverbs 19:21  “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD, it will stand.” Expectations are another way of trying to feel in control of our lives and circumstances.  If we can come to grips with the simple fact that we are actually in control of nothing, aside from our own behavior, we will be better able to be content in whatever life throws at us and whatever God gives to us.


I’ve been studying the book of Exodus lately, and it’s made me think a lot about false expectations.  I’m sure Moses did not expect freedom to take almost a year and ten horrible plagues.  And it was obvious that his people’s circumstances were growing a great deal worse before they finally got better.  Then, when the people were finally free and poised to enter the Promised Land, I’m sure 80-year-old Moses saw retirement and rest in his near future.  He surely did not expect the people to refuse to enter the land.  He must have been horrified to realize that it was his lot to lead these whiney, all-too-human people around the wilderness for 40 more long years.


Or maybe he wasn’t surprised after all.  After 80 years’ experience, perhaps he’d learned better than to believe in happily ever after in this life.  He was, as we are, living on a  battlefield in a fallen world.  The world is broken, and there are diseases and accidents and natural disasters that we can never plan for or avoid.  People are broken and have free will and sin natures and they will do whatever they please—we can never plan well enough to account for all the astonishing, bewildering, horrifying things people will do.


Jesus warned us:  “In this world you WILL have trouble”.  He never said He’d put us in a bubble to protect us from it.  He just promised He’d be there with us as we deal with it, and that HIS plans will prevail over all the worldly chaos, in His own time.


As my friends and I grow older, we have often commented to each other that our lives have not turned out as we had expected.  “I’ve done everything I was taught to.  I’ve done what I was supposed to.  I followed all the rules,” one friend said to me once as she suffered through a tragedy in her life that had happened due entirely to another’s actions.  “How is this my life now?”


That’s a hard question.  We may do the best we can with our lives, following Scripture and serving others; unfortunately, this does not prevent trying circumstances from coming our way.  But as Christians, we should not be living righteously in order to have good, trouble-free lives for ourselves.  We should be living for Christ and for Him alone.  Then we can trust Him, not to shield us from real life on a broken planet, but to guide us through it with our best interests in mind.  It’s also helpful (and perhaps comforting) to realize that our lives are not all about us.  God will use our trials to bless others and bring them into a greater knowledge of Him.   If we bury our expectations and focus our attention only on Him, we may find the freedom that comes from dying to self and, with that, true contentment


As I prayed about these hard questions, God, knowing full well how I think and what I need, gave me this poem.  I will now depress you all with it—but struggle on through to the end, because hope is there.


I Did Not Expect

Kneeling at the grave of “what ought to have been.”

Tombstone’s inscription reads, “Dreams, Hopes, and Plans,”

Costing a lifetime of doing my best,

Doing all that I know, doing all that I can,


Now buried beneath the deep muck of reality.

Body rotting, decaying more years than I knew.

Trading the corpse of the beauty I longed for;

Trading it in for the ugly but true.


Future now waits for me there in the dust:

A path through a graveyard I did not expect.

Can’t see the borders of this Potter’s Field,

Can’t see where it’s going—no sign to direct.


Can only see footprints that glimmer through twilight.

Can only hear whispers of “Come, Love, this way.”

Can only believe that the dead things, once buried,

Will germinate into new beauty one day.


There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making plans and dreaming dreams.  The wrong is in placing our hopes in our own dreams and plans and expectations. Our hope is to be in the Lord and in Him alone.  Everything else must be held loosely.


Romans 8: 23-25  “But we ourselves who have the Spirit also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our hope, because who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.


Psalm 71:5  “For you, O Lord, are my hope; my trust, O Lord, from my youth.



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Draw Swords!

My family loves the “Lord of the Rings” movies. We watched them in the IMAX theater on opening nights. We bought the DVDs and watched them repeatedly. We still constantly quote lines from the movies to one another, and we even enjoyed the special features so much that we still quote lines from them to each other. Yes, we are total geeks. But as interesting as my readers may find these facts of my family life, that’s not the point of this blog entry.

One of the stories the actors told in the special features particularly caught my interest. The actor who played Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen, felt it important to stay in character as much as possible. And in his mind, Aragorn’s sword was what defined the character. So, Mr. Mortensen carried his sword everywhere he went. He put it in the back seat of his car where ever he drove. He carried it into restaurants and leaned it against the wall close at hand. He took it with him into his hotel room and slept with it near. His sword was always either in his hand or so close to him he could grasp it at a moments notice. He spent many hours learning how to use it with the guidance of an expert swordsman. He spent many more hours practicing what he had learned. He told a story about one time while on his way down the street from the sound stage to his car, still dressed in his costume and practicing his riposte and parry with his weapon, he was stopped and questioned by the police. Apparently this “desperate, Rasputin character,” as he put it, had alarmed the neighbors and they had called 911.

The point is, because he dedicated so much time to learning about his sword, constantly practicing and handling it, he became intimately familiar with it. Although he had never touched a sword before beginning the filming of “Lord of the Rings”, he became an expert swordsman in a matter of months. Such dedication for something as ephemeral as a movie.

I know you can see the obvious connection coming. We as the People of the Book should learn a lesson from Mr. Mortensen. Our Sword, the Sword of the Spirit, deserves at least as much attention from us. We should let it define our character. We should practice and study it constantly. We should carry it with us everywhere we go. We might actually frighten a few people, too! But that’s all right; the important thing is to become so intimately familiar with it that we become experts in the Word. Then we can go on to help others learn more about this Sword. Most importantly, we can teach our children how to wield it effectively.

Ephesians chapter six outlines the “armor of God” that we are commanded to put on. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the preparation of the Gospel of peace, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith: these are all :defensive. Our only weapon against the enemy is the Sword of Spirit. Only the Word of God; not human knowledge, not our own thoughts or logic. His word alone. But it is powerful enough to defeat the devil and all his followers, if we use it properly. I’m afraid some of us, with only a weak grip on the sword or sketchy knowledge of its character, only harm ourselves with it. It is, after all, a two-edged Sword.

We parents and teachers owe it to our children to be as intimately familiar with the Word of God as we possibly can. That takes time, dedication, attention, practice, determination, and help from those who have more experience that we have. The more we know, the more our Sword will define our characters. The more we practice, the more our children will see the importance of studying God’s Word. The more we allowed God’s Word to permeate our beings, the better equipped we become to do God’s work in the world, including our most important job: raising our kids in the fear and knowledge of the Lord.


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Teaching Our Children to Doubt Effectively

I’ve reached an interesting age. I am not so old that I cannot remember what it was like to be a teen-ager and young woman; I am old enough that my own children have now all either reached or passed that stage of development of character. Talking to my kids is enlightening, for I’ve discovered that the spiritual journey that each of us believes to be unique is actually fairly universal for every child raised by believing parents. It looks different in each person, but basically it is the same. Each of us reaches a time in our lives when we must examine the beliefs of our parents and decide for ourselves whether we accept them.

And I’ve found that most of us react in one of two ways: either after a struggle, whether lengthy or brief, we accept our parents’ beliefs as true; or after this struggle, we reject the teachings of our parents with varying degrees of hostility or regret. What makes the difference between these two opposite conclusions? I believe we as parents must equip our children to deal with the normal doubts and questions about faith from an early age. After all, we have been through this ourselves. We have, one hopes, acquired the tools necessary to doubt effectively.

Doubt. Such a frightening word. Many Christians are raised to believe that doubting is sinful. It’s true that Jesus gently rebukes His disciples on occasion for doubting Him. I can imagine it was a disappointment to Him for those who lived with Him and witnessed His miracles and heard His teachings on a daily basis to doubt Him. But He never said they were sinning. Doubting is one of the most human ways we have of processing information and experiences in order categorize and quantify them. God knows this: He made us this way! Denying the need to work through our faith on an intellectual level is to deny our humanness. It’s a path we must all walk down, some of us for a short time, some for far longer. Some of us leave the path and wander off into trackless wastelands. But it’s a process that is necessary for each of us to endure in order to make the faith of our parents real in our own lives.

So what tools do we give our children in order to help them get through this process successfully? The first and most important tool is truth. We must admit to our children that faith is hard; that Christianity is sometimes unbelievable; that the world is a mess and hard to understand; that God is unfathomable and that there are questions we will have about Him and how He works that will never be answered in this lifetime; that it’s okay to have questions and to feel angry and resentful about how horrible the world is and to wonder why God lets things go on when it would seem more humane to put a stop to the pain and suffering and ugliness once and for all.

How do we know that it’s okay to doubt and to question God? Because so many of the writers of the Scriptures we turn to for truth did so. The writers of the hard passages, that we often pass over when teaching the Bible to our children, and all too often avoid reading ourselves. When is the last time you taught the book of Habakkuk to your young child? Now there’s a man who could express dismay about how God was handling the world! Or the book of Lamentations? Jeremiah could express depression and disappointment with unsurpassed eloquence! Do you pick through the Psalms and avoid the ones that rant bloodthirstily against the enemy or question God’s involvement in human events? Read through these Scriptures and remember as you read that these words are inspired by God Himself! II Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Does God understand our questions and our doubts? Looks like He does. Read Habakkuk 1:1-3: ‘The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received: How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.’ Notice that this the oracle Habakkuk received from God; Habakkuk did not come up with this himself. God not only is okay with our questions and our doubt, He apparently encourages it! Read Lamentations 3:1-20: ‘I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead. He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked. Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help. He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows. He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.’ This is not some rebellious sinner speaking, one who deserves such treatment: this is the prophet Jeremiah, who obeyed God all of his life and suffered for it. This is the Jeremiah who was warned from the beginning of his ministry that no one would ever listen to him and that he would be persecuted for speaking God’s Word to the people. God not only is not angry at Jeremiah for all this self-pity, He records it in His Holy Scriptures for all believers to read and empathize with. God is not threatened by our doubts and our questions. He understands that we are dust and that we can’t see the whole picture that He sees.

This leads me to the other tool with which we should equip our children: a safe place to take our doubts and questions. Hopefully, we as parents can be a safe place for our children to come and talk things out. I admit, I am not good at this. It is a terrifying thing, watching your child walk along the brink of the high cliff and not want to snatch him back from the edge of doom! I tend to panic too quickly. My husband is much better at this than I, and so I have tried to let him handle this important spiritual responsibility without sabotaging his expert efforts!

But the very best place for anyone to go with doubts and questions is to God Himself. If we can steer our children to the throne at an early age with their easier, more childish questions, they may automatically go to Him as adolescents and adults with their weightier, more difficult matters. That’s where Habakkuk and Jeremiah went with their rants and depression. Read Habakkuk’s prayer in his book, chapter 3: ‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. “Selah” His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.’ (verse 2-4) And his conclusion in verses 17-19: ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.’ Read Jeremiah’s declaration in Lamentations 3:21-33: ‘Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust– there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.’

As it turns out, when we bring our doubts and questions, our anger and grief to the throne of God and place it all before Him, we find that the answer is not intellectual after all. Faith is a matter of trusting Him in spite of circumstances and in the face of adversity, and this faith comes from knowing His heart, not His mind. We can never fathom the mind of God and can never hope to understand why the world He created works the way it does. But we can know His heart. He has written it on every page of His Word; He pours it out on us whenever we come to Him in humility and need. It can’t be grasped by the intellect. But only in intellectually understanding this can we intelligently set aside the need to understand everything and accept our own inadequacy and His superiority.

It is absolutely necessary for every child of believing parents to struggle with God in order to come to a strong, personal faith of our own. Doubt is often the route by which we come to peace with God and with faith. But it can also be the vehicle that speeds us away from God, often forever. This happens when we do not take our doubts and questions to the Source of all knowledge and depend only on our own intellect and the words and opinions of others. Our minds are limited and fallible, and so is every other humans’. It’s good to talk to others during a crisis of faith and it’s good to think things through on our own. But in order to come to the truth, one must ultimately come to the Truth. The Heart of Truth is greater than anything our little human minds can conjure.


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A Hedge Story

To understand this story you first must know two things about me: first, I love trees.  Some people have pet animals; I have pet trees.  I have been known to go outside during tornadoes and ice storms to lay hands on my trees and pray for them.  We’ve never lost a branch in a storm!
Secondly, I was raised in the country, miles from our nearest neighbor.  Moving to Nashville, Tennessee, was traumatic for me, and living in such a large city was almost unbearable to me until we found the house we live in now.  We have a back yard, small, but full of trees, and best of all, there was a 10-foot-high hedge enclosing it on two sides.  A beautiful hemlock fir grew in the corner where the two sides met.  I could sit in my back yard and the hedge would block out all the other houses and the streets.  I could almost pretend I was in the country again.  My hedge played a big part in my adjustment to city life.
We were friendly with the neighbors whose property backed ours, and sometimes we visited through the hedge.  I knew they had moved away, but the hedge prevented me from noticing that new neighbors had already moved in–until one day, I came home to find my hedge was gone!  I ran to the back yard and gazed in horror at the little stumps, cut off at the ground.  I fell to my knees and wept aloud.
At that moment, my new neighbors walked up, gathering up the last mangled limbs of my hedge.  “Oh,” the woman said, “was that your hedge?”  The man just laughed and said, “Don’t make such a fuss.  It’ll grow back.”  I was sobbing too hard to say a word to them, and I decided to let my husband deal with the situation.  I was only thankful they had not also decided to cut down my hemlock tree in the corner.  Of all the trees in my yard, it was my favorite.
Four years later, I watched  over my pathetic, twelve-inch hedge as the bush-whacking neighbors moved out.  Soon I saw through my kitchen window that a new couple was moving in.  My children and I were all sick with walking pneumonia and I decided to wait until I was better and then I would bake some bread and welcome the new couple to the neighborhood.
But before I was fully recovered, the new neighbor paid a visit to me.  She came over on a Sunday evening to tell me that she and her husband were putting up a fence in the morning and that, by the way, their property map put their property line four feet over into our yard.  I didn’t know what to say.  Our yard is beautiful, but very small.  Removing a four-foot strip from the back would take sizeable chunk out of it.  Worse, it would put my barely recovering hedge and my precious hemlock tree on the wrong side of the fence.  I told her I would dig out our own property map and would talk to my husband and we would be over in the morning to discuss the matter.  “Come early, then,” she advised.  “The fence installers will be here at 9 a.m.”
In a daze, I woke up my husband so he could get ready for work.  He is a police officer and works the third shift, so he starts his day at 8:30 in the evening.  As he dressed, I told him about the neighbor’s visit.  He was furious that they had waited until the evening before the work was to be done to tell us of their plans, making it impossible for us to do anything about it.  He started talking about lawyers and courts and surveyors.  I could envision a legal tangle stretching out over years, and no matter who won, hard feelings between us and our neighbors for as long as we both lived here.  It was a nightmare.
I got my husband off to work and the kids all into bed, and then I was alone with God.  “Lord, what shall we do?” I asked.
“Remember Isaac and his wells,” God said.
I said, “No, really, what do we do?”
“Remember Isaac and his wells,” was the only answer I received.  My ladies’ Bible Study had recently gone through Genesis, and so this story in Genesis 26:18-25 was fairly fresh in my mind.  Rather than fight with his neighbors over the precious, life-giving wells of water he had dug in his desert home, Isaac chose to let them have the wells and move to another location.  He did this several times before he found a place where he could live in peace.  But I had other passages of scripture running through my head!
“What about that verse in Leviticus about not moving your neighbor’s boundary posts?” I asked.
God said, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
“But you told Joshua to go to war over land,” I reminded Him.  I was actually trying to argue with God by using His own word!
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace,” (Romans 14:19) He said.
I got the point.  Living in peace with my neighbors was more important than keeping my property.  I said, “All right, I can give up the land.  I can even give up that pitiful hedge.  But, God, I just can’t give up my tree.  You know how much I love that tree.  You might as well ask me to give up one of my kids!”
“Isaiah 55,” I could almost hear Him sigh.  I looked up that chapter, which is full of God’s promises of blessing to His people, many of which will not be fulfilled until the Millennium.  One of the promises is an abundance of trees.  God told me gently, “You will have all the trees you can possibly love–later.  This tree in Mine.  I put it there for a purpose.”
For the first time, I considered the possibility that God’s purpose for that tree might not actually  include me!  Might God have had a purpose for the hedge, as well?   I asked Him, and He simply said, “Who was your neighbor?”
I went cold, because I didn’t know the answer to that question.  For four years, my previous neighbors had lived behind me and I never even knew their names.  In fact, I never spoke to them after the day they destroyed my hedge.  If I had to refer to them at all, I simply called them “The Hedge Killers”.  It was easy not to speak to them, as they were also avoiding me.  I had not realized how much bitterness I had held for them.  They had cut down a hedge, but I had built up a great wall between us.  I might have shown them what Christ is really like, forgiving and loving; but instead I showed them what I am really like.  Now God was showing me what I am really like, too.
“Don’t do it again,” God said.  It was too late to be a witness for Him to the previous neighbors, but I had a chance with the new ones.  I had a choice.  I could go to them with the attitude of protecting my property and my rights at all costs; or I could go to them with the attitude of reaching out to them for Christ, whatever the cost.  Would I let this fence they were building become a wall between us, or would I use it as an opportunity?  God was showing me that their eternal souls were more important than a hemlock tree, a hedge, a piece of property–or my own rights.
I began to pray that my husband would come to the same conclusions so that we could approach the neighbors with a united sense of purpose.  The next morning, when Rich came home, almost the first thing he said to me was, “Do you remember the story about Isaac and his wells?”  That night as he had patrolled,  God had shown him all the same scriptures that He had shown to me.
We went to our new neighbors that morning and we were able to talk to them about Christ.  And, incidentally, they apparently concluded on their own that we were right about the boundary line and they put their fence up just where we would have wanted them to, if they had asked us–which they didn’t!  We never even discussed it.  We were too busy talking about more important things.
I thought I had surrendered everything I had to Christ: my house, my money, my car,  my time.  Yet when it came to something that was really important to me, I found I was still claiming ownership.  This incident forced me to concede that everything belongs to God: all my stuff, all my property, my privacy, my comfort, my kids.  Everything is His.  He’s just letting me use His stuff for a while.  The minute I gave up ownership over my tree, I felt a great burden roll from me.  Since He owns everything, it’s up to Him to take care of it.  Since He’s taking care of everything, I have nothing to worry about.  I had known this in my head, but this knowledge needed to enter my soul until I could truly believe it.  The only thing I am responsible for in this world is being obedient to Him.
“Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Matthew 22:37-40


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