Sunday, June 10, 2018

Love Hopes...

     Have you ever struggled to hope? Have you ever found yourself in a season where it seems your prayers for a break through of some sort are consistently met with more hardship or struggles? Perhaps like me, you don't struggle with the faith to believe God can act on your behalf, but what you perceive as His lack of response has left you feeling hopeless at times that He will. Let me bring you along on my journey to understand what it means for love to hope all things. Perhaps it will encourage you and shed some light on your own struggle with hope! My journey began on a Wednesday night in church...

     After reading the passage on love in 1 Corinthians, the preacher issued a challenge. She told us to close our eyes and ask God to speak to us about what part of love we were lacking. As I sat there waiting and listening, I expected Him to say that I was lacking patience. It seems to be something He never tires of working into me. He didn't. Instead, I heard God say "Love hopes all things". This completely took me by surprise because I tend to consider myself a pretty hopeful person! Over the next few days I questioned God regularly about it. I read and reread the passage, turning the words over in my mind. I just couldn't figure out what exactly He was getting at.

     One morning as I was headed out to take care of my mom I heard God say, "You haven't prayed for her healing in a while." He was right, I hadn't. It wasn't like I had made a conscious decision to stop asking. I guess I just figured He wasn't going to heal her on this side of heaven, since my prayers for healing had consistently been met with the worsening of her disease. After thinking about it for a minute I responded to God with, "I've never stopped believing that You can heal her, but why continue asking when my requests are only met with more suffering?" Then He said, "Hope is different than belief."  I spent the rest of my car ride pondering those words. On the car ride home I told God that if it really mattered to Him, then I wanted to hope. I hadn't realized that I had lost it until  He pointed it out to me. I asked Him to work hope into me, to show me  what it means to exercise hope, and to teach me the difference between hope and faith or belief.

     In the month that followed I did whatever He told me to with regard to this. Whenever my mom was struggling and feelings of exhaustion or sadness would begin to crowd in on me, I prayed for healing. When her pain was constant, chronic, and led to sleepless nights I enlisted the help of a few close friends to help me pray for her. As we saw answers to these prayers, we praised God together! I began to notice my hope and my strength increase little by little. Burdens become lighter when we share them with others who lovingly come alongside and partner in praying us through. Hope increases when we have others to rejoice in answered prayer with. Everything God brought to mind  to exercise my hope...I did.  I brought the lessons that I learned with me into the ministries I served in, and into the conversations I had with others who were also desperate for hope. Without me knowing it until much later, this made me a target.

     I had gone to the healing service for the sole purpose of sitting in the pew and praying while people went forward for healing. However, God nudged me to go forward and request prayer for my mom. It had been an intense week of suffering for her. Hoping all things had not come easily that week and I was weary. I went up for prayer out of obedience, and because I didn't want to lose what ground I had gained in this area that I am growing in. I told the person praying for me that I wanted prayer for my mom because she has five diseases and needs healing. He prayed, but it wasn't at all what I expected. He prayed that God would give my mom and I the grace we needed to endure the suffering. He prayed that when we were done being tried we would come forth as gold. When he finished I went back to my seat crushed. Why would God spend a month working "Love hopes all things" into me only to leave me hopeless? Why call me to exercise hope and come forward for prayer for healing, only to leave me sobbing over the prospect of more fiery trials instead? Then came the waves of despair and condemnation...I felt so guilty for not wanting to even hear the possibility that God would give mom and I more suffering instead of healing. I felt guilty for being tired of the refiner's fire and not wanting to be made into gold. I felt guilty for questioning why the person who prayed over me had not prayed for healing at all. It all became too much and I left the service early feeling hopeless, hurt, and questioning God. Over the next few days I prayed a lot, talked with some trusted and more experienced friends in the faith, surrendered my desires for healing to God, and waited to hear from Him. I learned something else about hope during this time. Satan doesn't want us to have hope in God because hope is contagious and may spread to other downcast souls. If it spreads, they too may dare to ask God for big things. Hope is a witness. Hope never gives up believing that God will show up even when things look dark.  Satan wasn't happy once I started sharing  what I was learning about hope with others who were struggling. So...he came after me in a place I never expected him, with the sole purpose of rendering me hopeless.  Because I tend to wrestle and talk to God about things until I understand what it is He wants me to know about them, I came through with my hope in tact and I learned a valuable lesson. Finding hope in God and spreading it makes you a threat to the enemy, and not even a healing service is off limits to him when it comes to hunting you down and messing with you!

     A few weeks later, I was sharing some of this with one of the men who serves on our church care team. God used him to further my journey in hope. Jerry is new to the care team and I hadn't met him before. He encouraged me to thank God for my mom's healing even though it hadn't happened yet. This is what God told Jerry to do when he was praying for healing from cancer. Jerry has been healed! My conversation with Jerry reminded me of when my husband was laid off and we had bills to pay. Often, I would thank God ahead of time for paying the bills as an act of faith. I honestly had no idea how we would pay those bills and no physical evidence in my bank account that we would be able to, but I knew God would provide for our needs and I thanked Him for that. He always came through! I figured it couldn't hurt to do the same concerning my mom's healing because I know He will heal her, be it here and now or in heaven. Every time she had a rough day I thanked God for healing her. Every time she had a sleepless night because of chronic pain, I thanked God for healing her. Instead of bracing myself for more of the same news or for bad news, I thanked Him for good news while we waited for her latest lung scan results. Guess what? Her lung scan showed slight improvement in her lungs and her oxygen levels have improved as well! This is the first time we have ever received good news about her lungs or her oxygen levels. I noticed during this time of thanking God for her healing, that the more I thanked Him the more hopeful I became. The more hopeful I became, the more I wanted to understand what the word hope meant. I thought that if I could get a better understanding of what it means within the context of the Bible, I would be able to understand why it mattered to God so much that I not be lacking in the "love hopes all things" department. So, I did some exploring.

     I looked up verses with the word hope and then I looked up the meaning of the word hope within the context of those verses, in the Greek or the Hebrew languages. What I learned was that proven character produces hope. (Romans 5:3-4) Proven character is defined as "the state of having been tried, the mark or sign which provides positive proof of the trial". Hope in these verses is defined as " confident expectation of good, intense anticipation, earnest expectation." We can't have hope without proven character...without having come through trials. Trials have a way of causing us to be more dependent on God and less self-sufficient. As we become more dependent on God, our eyes are opened to all the ways that He is at work on our behalf and our confidence in Him grows. This produces hope in us and we come away from whatever trial we are in with an "intense anticipation and an earnest expectation" that God will work all things for our good in the next trial. Romans 15:3  tells us that God doesn't just want us to have hope, He wants us to abound in it. "That you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."  The dictionary defines abound as " to exist in large numbers or amounts, overflow with, be alive with, and to be overrun by".  Are you? Are you overflowing with hope? Alive with hope? Overrun by it? 1 Peter 1:3 says, " Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." We aren't just to abound in hope, we are CALLED to a LIVING hope! In the Greek living means "lively, active, and enduring." So... if I put that with my previous definition of hope that means we are called to a an intense anticipation, earnest expectation, and a confident expectation of good that is active and enduring.

    I believe it matters to God that I don't lack hope because hope is the anticipation that God is going to do something and that what He does will always be for my good! It means that no matter how dark or difficult the circumstances are surrounding the trial I am in, I know the light is coming. No... the Light (Jesus) is already there! He was there at work in the beginning of the trial, He is at work now in the trial, and He has already gone ahead to the part of the trial that is yet to come. That is why I can thank Him for healing that I cannot see yet! Love hopes all things, is simply keeping watch with earnest expectation that God is going to show up because He IS our Living Hope.

     Are you struggling to hope like I was? Let me leave you with this last bit of encouragement from Habakkuk. Habakkuk questioned God because of all the injustice he saw in the land. In chapter one he says, "How long O LORD, must I call for help,but you do not listen?" Sounds like he is pretty hopeless here.  After he complains and questions God extensively he says this, " I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guard post. There I will wait to see what the LORD says and how He will answer my complaint." (Habbakuk 2:1) Let's be like Habbakuk.  Let's go ahead and ask our questions and work through our feelings of hopelessness before God...then let's be "love hopes all things" personified and stand at our guard posts watching and waiting with an intense anticipation, earnest expectation, and a confident expectation of the good that God is going to do!

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Dare Not To Despair....

     Sometimes, worship on a Sunday can feel like a dare not to despair. People are raising their hands, clapping, and smiling as they sing songs about God's power and love. I look forward to worship, but it's hard to joyfully sing about a God who can do the impossible...when your prayers for the impossible continue to go unanswered. Suddenly, the joyful songs that others sing feel as though they are going to crush me! The lyrics jump off the screen and mock me...questioning whether I really believe them to be true.

     Yesterday we sang about an unstoppable God. The words "Fear is losing ground to our hope in You" came stumbling out of my mouth as tears rolled down my cheeks. I heard the question in my heart, "Is fear really losing ground in your life to hope in Christ?" As the song continued and we sang, " Impossible things in Your name they shall be done." I felt a bit of frustration and resentment rise to the surface. I am used to frustration...but resentment? When is God going to do these impossible things I keep asking of Him?  Will He do them?  I stopped singing and began praying. I've been down this road before and maybe, so have you. These are the kind of thoughts that lead to the road of despair. The dictionary defines despair as "the complete loss of hope, discouragement, pessimism". For my purposes here, I will add to it: Discouragement and loss of hope in God. Pessimism due to continued trials and lengthy suffering. 

     In the last month, we were told that my mom's lungs have significantly worsened. Just as we were beginning to wrap our minds around what that means for our family, she experienced some unexpected rapid weight loss. So in the days leading up to this week's worship service, I was with her at the doctor's office when they used words like "blood work and cat scan to look for tumors". I spent some time Saturday pleading with God to have mercy. I said things like, "I believe You still heal and can heal, but since You STILL haven't...could You at least have mercy and not add one more suffering to her?!!!!"  I honestly thought I had left all that at home, at His feet in my prayer time. It took me by surprise when it resurfaced during worship as we sang about God doing the impossible. I believe God had begun speaking to me about my Saturday prayer, when I heard that question in my heart about fear. He wanted me to work it through, to ponder...was fear really losing ground to my hope in Him? My Saturday prayers were desperate and had been full of fear, accusation, and weariness. I was afraid of my mom having to endure more suffering. I was also afraid of having to watch her suffer more myself. Fear often has some level of accusation with it. In my case it could be found in the words "STILL haven't".  I also believe the Enemy took that accusation and ran with it...his way of distracting me from working through the question God was asking. He ran with it right to those words "Impossible things in Your name they shall be done" and stood there snearing...reminding me of prayers for complete healing that have gone unanswered.

     The truth is, I shouldn't have been surprised...if I wasn't so tired maybe I even would have seen it coming! You see, when we got the news about mom's lungs last month I made a decision. I was not going to give Satan a chance to take me down the road of despair by messing with my thoughts and causing me to question God's goodness all over again. I refused to waste any more time on the "Where is God in the midst of suffering?" questions that I asked and God answered last year. I had determined in my heart that the moment I sensed a challenge to His goodness or a desire to focus on the suffering and the struggle, I would counter it with praise and an acknowledgement of the truth of who God really is.  I just never expected those challenges to show up in a Sunday morning worship service. Once I recognized them as such, it began to feel like a dare. I felt defiant. I felt like I was being dared not to despair.

     One of the definitions for the word dare in Merriam Webster's Dictionary is, "to have the courage to contend against". Contend against despair is exactly what I did! I stopped praying right around the time the worship team began to sing, " Nothing shall be impossible. Your kingdom reigns unstoppable. We'll shout your praise forevermore. Jesus our God unstoppable." I sang it! I sang it with all of my might and that is how I answered fear and despair! I used the song to remind the Enemy of who God is and to affirm my faith in Him even if He hasn't done every impossible thing I have asked Him to do! In that moment fear really did lose ground to my hope in Christ.

     So why share all this? Two reasons. First, For those who think church is just a bunch of nice songs and a speech by a're missing out. Church is interactive and I think me sharing my experience speaks to that. Church is where I get to love God with other believers. I show up each week looking forward to loving Him through worship, and expecting to hear from Him throughout the service. I sit with pen and paper in hand during the sermon not because my pastors are awesome orators, (Though they are good.) but because God has given them a message for me and I don't want to miss it and I must write it down! I encourage you to go to church with the anticipation that God will meet you there. True, I spend time with God each day on my own...but look at what He accomplished inside of me in just one church service through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the praises of the people around me. Second, I have a dare for you. I dare you not to despair. I dare you to answer every "STILL haven't", every fear, and every "If God is such a good and loving God, then why?" with praise. Stop those thoughts that lead to despair with praise for who He really is. If you're not feeling it because you're hurt and angry, then remind yourself and the Enemy that He is your Creator. Stop and praise Him for giving you the breath in your lungs and the voice to express that hurt and anger to Him...He'll take it from there.