loving

Our God of Hope

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By Linda Rex

ADVENT—Hope
What if you found yourself in the midst of a committed relationship in which no matter how hard you tried, you could never get it right? What if you were the one who was unfaithful, unloving, and insensitive? What if you found yourself too often breaking the other person’s heart rather than sharing your own heart in humility and gratitude?

If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that at some point in our relationships, most probably more often than we realize, we are this way. We find ourselves saying hurtful things, being unfaithful in our thinking and/or behavior, and showing our loved one disrespect by the things we say and do. We may or may not care about the effect of our behavior upon them, depending upon the state of our own heart and our relationship with them and God.

We may find ourselves despairing of ever being other than what we are, of never experiencing the blessings of a life in loving relationship with another human being, or even with God.

The story of the Old Testament tells us how God, even while knowing what the outcome would be, entered into a relationship with human beings, calling them his own, and giving them life in relationship with himself. He gave them a way of life which would enable them to experience his grace and grow in their knowledge and understanding of him and his ways of being.

In spite of all of God’s efforts to love his people and to be gracious towards them, his covenant people more often than not were unfaithful and unloving toward him. They ignored his clear revelation of what life in the presence of God looks like, and chose to establish their own rules for living. They depended upon other people, themselves, and the things of the earth rather than relying upon God for everything. God’s most loving efforts were met with resistance, rejection, and disrespect.

And yet, God did not dissolve the relationship. He relentlessly pursued his beloved children. Yes, he allowed them to experience the consequences of their unloving behavior, but he never made it a condition to his relationship with them. He is a covenant God, who keeps his covenant relationships while at the same time being free to dissolve them if he wishes to.

He sent prophets who warned them of the consequences of continuing their unfaithful, unloving behavior. Jeremiah acknowledged their inability to fulfill their covenant commitment to their God apart from his gracious intervention. He called for God, The Hope of Israel, to intervene: “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for You are my praise.” (Jer. 17: 14 NASB)

In the midst of the darkest days of Israel’s history, they heard no prophetic word from God and were exiled far from their homeland. They knew they deserved the desolation of their temple and being removed from the land they loved: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.’” But God said to them, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.” (Isa. 49:14-16)

God’s word to his covenant people through the prophet Isaiah gave them hope. The prophet wrote of a messiah who would come to deliver his people from oppression and to usher in the new age of the Spirit, when “all flesh will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Isa. 49:26b)

And it was not enough for God to redeem his people and restore his relationship with them. He went on beyond and included all humanity in the prophetic word of hope. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s Suffering Servant who would come and restore his people and through them, all humanity: “And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and My God is My strength), He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations… Break forth, shout joyfully together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God.” (Isa. 49:5-6, 52:9-10 NASB)

Today we can look back on the events which took place following these prophetic messages. We know the amazing way God kept his word of hope which he gave to his people in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We can recognize God’s faithfulness and compassion, and understand we are included in God’s redemptive work.

Because of what God has done and is doing for us through his Son, and how he is working today in and with us by his Spirit, we can have hope in the midst of our own difficult circumstances. We may find ourselves in dark places, but we can know Jesus is present with us in the midst of them by his Spirit. We know Abba is carrying us, faithfully loving us and working for our redemption and salvation.

And this gives us hope within our own broken relationships. We turn to Christ, to Abba, and by the Spirit gain the grace to live in ways with one another which are a reflection of the divine life and love. We find in Christ by the Spirit the ability to say no to that which is unhealthy and evil, and yes to that which is wholesome and healing. It is Christ dwelling within us by his Spirit who brings us into his own faithful, loving relationship with his Abba, and enables us to participate with him in it. And this overflows into our own human relationships as the Spirit flows between and amongst us all.

And so, the apostle Peter calls us to “fix [our] hope completely on the grace to be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13 NASB) We are to hope in Jesus Christ—in the God of hope, who is our blessed hope in every situation and circumstance, because he is gracious, loving, and faithful.

Thank you, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for sending us your Son, and giving us your Spirit. Thank you that you are The God of Hope who rescues us from sin, evil, and death, and you meet us in the midst of every relationship by your Spirit so we may live together in oneness, in a recognition of and respect for our uniqueness and our equality. Grant us the grace again, to trust you in every circumstance, and when things grow dark and dreary, please shine your bright rays of hope in and through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 NASB

Sight-giving Light

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By Linda Rex

It’s very interesting to me the many ways in which God works in our lives in order to get our attention and help us to learn things about ourselves we would not otherwise see. Often, we go about our daily business, dealing with life as usual, never realizing there are significant issues with the way we handle certain things. We may not want to admit it, but we each have blind spots which are obvious to others, but which we cannot see.

One of the ways God brings light into these areas of blindness is by challenging our preconceived ideas regarding certain people, places, or things. By placing us through various circumstances in situations we would not have chosen for ourselves, or situations we did choose but they turned out differently than we expected, God exposes parts of our character which we are often able to hide under the glitz of performance.

Another way God pours his light into areas we are blind to is by placing people in our lives with whom we have to interact whether we like it or not. For example, an introvert such as myself may find herself forced to sit in a big circle of seventy people and have to tell how she feels about being present at that particular event at that particular moment whether she likes it or not.

Would I normally have chosen to tell such a personal feeling to that many people who are strangers to me? No. But the requirements of my situation have forced my hand—I will do it whether I want to or not. And I have to own that I would prefer to gloss over the way I really feel rather than expose myself to all those people and admit I’d just rather not be present in that situation. I’d rather be hiding somewhere else where I can just be me, away from the inspecting, critical examination of myself by people I don’t know and don’t believe are safe.

So, in just a few brief moments, I have gained insight into my own heart and mind, and into how I react in difficult and uncomfortable situations. I have learned something about my own character and my propensity to fudge the truth rather than to make other people feel bad or myself look bad. If I pay attention, then I will make note of this response and determine when faced with this situation again, I will act with boldness and integrity, and speak the truth in love.

If, however, I’m not paying attention when this happens, but ignore what is going on inside my head and my heart, I will react to the situation in a way which isn’t necessarily healthy or loving or honest. I might spend much of my life in this way, reacting to similar situations, and not realizing what is really going on. Blinded to this truth about my character, my behavior, and my responses to certain stimuli, I might go on oblivious, depriving myself and others of the opportunity to live in and experience God’s best.

But what if I took a different approach? What if I stopped in the midst of what is occurring and paused long enough to see things as they really are? What if I took the time to feel what is going on in my heart and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, before reacting to the situation?

One of the things they told me in Christian counseling classes about bad habits is the need to place some significant distance between the stimulus or trigger and the behavior it leads into. The larger this gap is, the more distance there is between what triggers our response and the response itself, the more opportunity there is for the Holy Spirit to get in there and go to work.

I was listening to a young lady today, Kayleigh Vogel with Explore What Matters, talk about this very thing. The more they study the human brain and the psychological/physiological responses to stress stimuli, the more they realize there needs to be a proactive effort to create this distance and to enter into it in such a way we choose our response rather than just doing what comes naturally. She was saying the current studies in the neuroplasticity of the brain show over time our response can be changed as new pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced.

But there must be some effort to pay attention to what is going on inside of us. What drives our decisions? What drives our responses? Is it a gut-reaction, or is it a true expression of what we really value and believe is most important? This is worth reflecting on.

One of the things we do as we get to our adult years is to choose a career or find a job. More people are being intentional about what they choose to do for a living, while others grab what is available, just being thankful they have a job. But at some point, it would do each of us some good to consider this question: Does this job or career bring me joy? Does it really resonate with something deep inside me, with my values and what I care about most?

This is true also about what we do in our daily life, or how we respond to the stress we experience day by day. We all have choices we face. They teach us things, and we grow as we make those choices. We should not be afraid of them, but realize—these are opportunities to learn about ourselves and other people, and about this wonderful world we live in—opportunities to grow as human beings and open ourselves up to the refining, transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

As we make choices and other people make choices, and we experience the reality of life in an imperfect world, we can embrace all this as a wonderful opportunity to learn things about ourselves we would not know otherwise. And we can embrace it all as an opportunity for God to mature and refine us, and to transform us more perfectly into the nature of Jesus Christ.

And we can thank God we have new opportunities to see the blind areas of our character and lives as God’s light shines in those dark places, and opens them up to the redeeming power of God’s grace through Jesus our Lord by his Holy Spirit.

Abba, thank you for all the ways you bring us to see things about ourselves and our hearts we would not otherwise see, were it not for your love and grace. Thank you that by your Spirit, you continually shine your light in all our areas of blindness and bring us into a deeper understanding of who God are and who we are in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [or overpower] it.” John 1:5 NASB

When Forgiving is Hard

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By Linda Rex

This morning I was listening to the You’re Included interview with David Torrance “The Grace of the Finished Work of Christ” (https://www.gci.org/yi/dtorrance104) and “Already Forgiven” (https://www.gci.org/yi108). I was struck once again by the significance of all that Jesus did for in his life, death and resurrection, specifically in regards to our ability to forgive the unforgiveable. And he calls for us to do just that, because being forgiving people properly reflects who we are as image-bearers of God.

I’m beginning to see that much of the mental anguish we go through in life has its basis in our inability or unwillingness to forgive wrongs done to us. Many of us go through life with deep emotional, mental, even spiritual wounds caused by significant people in our lives. We carry the hurts from our childhood into adulthood or from relationship to relationship, and they twist our thinking and feeling, holding us hostage in ways we don’t even realize or may even be willing to acknowledge.

It is inevitable that at some time in our lives we are going to be faced with the challenge of forgiving someone a wrong that we just can’t let go of. When that event comes back over and over in our mind and colors the way we think and feel about what’s going on in our life today, that is the time when we need to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive.

But facing the challenge to forgive does not begin with us. We, of ourselves, are inadequate for the task. Even if we knew we needed to forgive and wanted to forgive, we may find ourselves unable to. The hurt or wrong may just keep rehearsing itself in our minds and hearts and we are unable to let it go.

This is especially true when there is a significant injustice involved. Forgiving may feel like we are letting someone off the hook for a very real wrong they have done.

But this isn’t the case at all. What a person may have done or said that violated us in some way is not ignored or passed over. Rather, it is put in its proper place—in the hands of a loving, just God, who is both our Judge and the one who was judged in our stead. Instead of us seeing that justice is done, we place this issue into the hands of the One best qualified to handle it—he is impartial and he is gracious, and he will deal with the issue in his own time and way.

Yes, there are times when we have to take action to protect ourselves and others from future harm. But, even so, we need to do so in a spirit of grace. Forgiveness does not require us to turn our backs on justice, but asks that justice be executed with mercy and compassion.

Placing our hurts and wrongs into the hands of a loving, just God, not only frees us from the need to make someone pay, but it also enables us to approach our need to forgive within the context of community. God does not ask us to forgive all on our own, under our own power.

God is the one, who since the beginning of time, forgives. If God had executed justice without mercy every single time one of us humans had done something wrong or hurtful, the human race would have long ago become extinct. Thankfully, forgiveness is God’s nature.

Because God knows we can’t forgive the way we should and need to, God gave us his forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in his life and death, experienced some tremendous violations of his personhood and was horribly abused. There is nothing that we as humans experience that he cannot and does not sympathize with. Yet, his final words on the cross included these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

This same divine capacity to forgive is ours. God has given us in Christ and by his Spirit all that we need for life and godliness. (2 Pet. 1:3) Therefore we are able to forgive—in Christ. It is Jesus’ forgiveness that we draw upon and live out.

Jesus taught his disciples that forgiving others is something we need to do so that we are able to participate in God’s forgiveness of us. (Luke 17:3-4) It’s a relational thing, something we do in community with God and each other. We forgive and we are forgiven. We are forgiven and so we forgive. This is what it looks like to live joyfully and lovingly within the Triune relationship of Father, Son and Spirit and with each other. It is our nature as God’s children to forgive, so we forgive.

So in the midst of whatever we are struggling with, we acknowledge the reality that forgiveness is not going to be something that is humanly possible on our own, but is instead, a divine reality that we participate in. We agree with God that forgiveness is not something we are able to do on our own, but is something we need from him—we need Christ’s forgiving heart and mind. We need the forgiving Spirit of God to change us from the inside out and enable us to forgive.

And God will do that. We make the choice to forgive and we seek from God the power and ability to forgive. God will begin, as we participate with him in the process, to change our hearts and minds and enable us to forgive. And we thank God for the gift of forgiveness that he gives us from his Son Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit.

This gift of forgiveness is life-transforming and healing, and we participate in it gratefully throughout our lives, in every situation we may find ourselves needing to be forgiving or forgiven. It is God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. May you experience and share with others the grace of God’s forgiveness in your life today.

Forgiving God, thank you for the gift of forgiveness. May we be as forgiving of others as you are of us. Thank you that in Jesus and by your Spirit we participate in your divine life and love, sharing in your forgiveness just as we share in every other part of your divine nature, through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives…. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:14-15, 17 NASB