More Than Manna

Humility and the experience of character building are not what I was seeking or expecting when I gave my life to Christ. I used to pray that God would make me more like Jesus, but the instant I experienced pain or ego-puncturing I quickly backtracked and told God to disregard my request – and fast! So I can easily understand how the Israelites became disgruntled and frustrated when they expected to enter the Promised Land after Moses led them out of Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert for 40 years.

The Israelites were tasked during this time with trusting God, worshiping no other gods besides Him and obeying Him. After all of the miracles they had seen the Lord perform in Egypt and during the exodus, it would seem that trusting the Lord and remaining faithful to Him would be a no-brainer. But I so easily see myself in the restless Israelites in that despite all of the beautiful, merciful acts the Lord has done in my life (albeit on a smaller scale than parting the Red Sea), and even after all the ways He has blessed me so abundantly, I still find it hard to be still and trust Him during the wilderness periods of my life.

A few months ago I was so sick from Fibromyalgia that I could do little beyond the most essential everyday tasks – caring for my son, completing required work for my job, doing laundry, etc. I would lay in my bed wondering how God could possibly use me when I was in what I considered to be a weakened, ineffective position. During this time, I was forced to ask for a lot of help for things that I wanted to do myself, and I was often unable to participate in many of the activities I enjoyed.

Not having the physical, emotional or mental ability to do whatever I put my mind to as I had easily done in the past was certainly humbling. I had to depend completely on God for the energy to do the things I must do and to provide for my needs. It was during this wilderness season of my life that I read a devotional that outlined the valuable spiritual lessons the Israelites learned during their 40 years in the desert. They learned not only humility but also that adversity didn’t mean that God had abandoned them. On the contrary, God provided for their needs by giving them water from a rock, quail to eat in the evening and manna to eat in the morning (Exodus 16-17).

Manna was a bread-like substance that was perhaps naturally-occurring and multiplied supernaturally by God, or it was supernaturally provided by God to the Israelites in the wilderness. According to Numbers 11:7 (New International Version), “The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin”. Apparently the Israelites gathered the manna, ground it up and made pancakes that tasted like honey (NIV Life Application Study Bible, page 119). Though manna sustained the Israelites, they soon became bored with it and desired meat and the more flavorful foods they had enjoyed back in Egypt. I, too, often hunger for more than what the Lord gives me, especially during difficult, trying times. I don’t enjoy having to cast my complete dependence on the Lord. When He gives me manna, I often want a steak!

But at the same time, God teaches me that under all circumstances my needs are met when I look to Him and His provision. I come out of the wilderness with an appreciation for not only the manna, but for everything above and beyond the manna as well.

In Exodus 16:1, the Israelites set out from the city of Elim and went to the Desert of Sin. This desert was “a vast and hostile environment of sand and stone. Its barren surroundings provided the perfect place for God to test and shape the character of his people” (NIV Life Application Study Bible, page 119). It seems the Lord allows our “desert” periods to humble us, to teach us to depend on Him and to obey Him, and to mold us into what He wants us to become.

Taking into account the Israelites’ response to God’s provision during their 40 years of desert wandering, I must ask myself how I respond to God during my wilderness periods and travels. To not complain about illness, heartbreak, loss, betrayal, financial devastation, etc., is a tall order to be sure! It’s comforting to know that God can not only handle my whining, but He responds to it as when the Israelites complained to Moses during their desert stay and Moses took their complaints to God. The Lord not only heard their complaints but by His infinite grace He responded with love and provision (Exodus 15:22-27; 16-17:1-7).

Even when things are going well and I’m out of the wilderness, I can easily start to grumble about God’s manna for me. For this reason, I avoid going window shopping because I find myself starting to think about the things I don’t have or can’t afford. And while I don’t covet a fancy car or a mansion, I can easily become discontent and envious of people who have the freedom to travel to exotic places, who have lots of free time, and who don’t have to work as hard as we do. I can also envy those with pretty hair, perfect bodies, certain positions within the church, specific spiritual gifts that I don’t possess, and the list goes on.

The manna God gave to the Israelites was clearly seen in the material, but in those times when I feel like all I’m getting from God is the same manna over and over again, I can take comfort in the spiritual manna that Jesus offers. When I find myself dissatisfied with what God has given me and hungering for things I think will fill my soul and satisfy me, it’s time to fix my eyes back on Jesus and remember that He, the true bread of life, is the only one who can nourish and sustain me, be it physically or spiritually.

When the Jews of Jesus’ day asked Jesus what miraculous sign He would perform for them to believe in Him, they referenced the manna God gave to their forefathers during Moses’ ministry. The Jews were hoping Jesus would perform a sign greater than the gift of manna from heaven. But rather than doing a miracle, Jesus instead informed the Jews that He was the true bread of God who “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). He is the only one who can satisfy our deepest longings:

“…I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty”. (John 6:35)

“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:48-51)

Beloved warriors, I pray that during our wilderness periods we will look only to Jesus to meet all of our deepest needs as He is the only one capable of doing so. If we look anywhere else, we will only be hungry again.

References:
Zondervan NIV Life Application Study Bible. Fully rev. ed. Kenneth L. Barker, gen. ed.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Print.

http://www.keyway.ca/htm2002/manna.htm

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The Dilemma of Suffering

Everyone goes through periods of intense suffering, and the temptation for many is to question God about why He allows His children to suffer. Some people will even go as far as to renounce their faith in God because they can’t understand how a good God would permit such trials in their life. Periods of suffering present us with the choice to either walk away from God or to run to Him.

There are times in our lives when it seems like nearly everyone we know is going through a major difficulty. My current prayer list is so long that I told my husband one of the reasons I’m thinking of taking a break from Bible study, or at least moving to a smaller group, is because I just can’t handle any more people and their needs and problems. It’s too much! At present, a friend of mine is suffering dreadfully from metastatic colon cancer, and she re-started aggressive chemotherapy that left her vomiting all the way home from treatment. Another friend’s marriage is falling apart. Yet another friend has struggled with alcoholism for years, and she’s currently back in rehab trying to get sober again after a year fighting breast cancer. I recently learned that a good friend’s son was diagnosed with ADHD, a compulsive disorder and a tic disorder that could lead to alcoholism and depression. A woman in my Bible study group found out that her 19-year-old daughter has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And this is just a small sampling of the many tragedies occurring in the lives of my friends and loved ones, but you get the point. Life is definitely in session!

Because I look to the Lord for help in understanding with my pea-sized brain what only He can comprehend, and because answers and comfort for life’s most difficult questions and realities are found in Scripture, you may think I’m going to talk about James. “Well”, you may say, “perhaps she’s going to refer to James and encourage us to count it all joy” (James 1:2). Excuse me, count it all what? I don’t think so! Nevertheless, Scripture has helped me change the way I look at suffering and to appreciate the great blessings it brings.

So how can we approach this topic of suffering with the goal of obtaining at least an iota of understanding or at the very least some peace, comfort and consolation about it? The best way I can answer that question, and mind you I’m no expert, is to try and view suffering from God’s perspective. For me, it’s easier to accept suffering when I remind myself that it is accomplishing some purpose, and that purpose primarily is growth in my walk with Jesus. A survey of the Scriptures informs me that suffering is useful for refining us, for allowing us to experience what Christ experienced, and for coming to truly love the Lord without expectation of return.

One comforting aspect of suffering is that is isn’t something we experience in vain. God uses our suffering to accomplish His purposes in us. A period of trial is a time of refining and purifying, a time of burning off the impurities within us and bringing us to maturity. No wonder during difficult times in my life I feel as if my feet are being held to the fire! Scripture often refers to the refining process for the purpose of purifying us:

See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
(New International Version Isaiah 48:10-11b)

I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. (Isaiah 1:25b)

While these verses may not be initially encouraging to us during our time of refining, the Lord may be praised for the end result of the refining process. Note the psalmist’s words:

Praise our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
and kept our feet from slipping.
For you, O God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
(Psalm 66:8-10b)

As the Bible explains, an important process in the technology of refining precious metals was checking for the removal of all impurities by heating metals in a crucible (Psalm 66:10 NIV note). We can liken our suffering to the process of refining as it accomplishes the same goal: God seeks to purify His people in order to make them more Christ-like. We can take comfort in the fact that our suffering is not meaningless; it results in the strengthening and development of our character.

In Romans, Paul identifies the fruitfulness that comes out of suffering: “…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).

As our character develops and grows, we are more able to feel compassion for others. And though we may feel like God is distant during our difficult times, He does offer us comfort in our suffering:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

A second benefit of suffering that Scripture often references is that through it we experience a small taste of what Christ encountered in this world. In this way, we draw closer to Him. As Paul the apostle writes in his letter to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

For me personally, my response to God during a period of suffering is an indication of how deep my faith and trust in God are and how strong my relationship with Him is. It’s an opportunity for me to assess the purity of my love for Him. Am I truly seeking to follow the Lord no matter what? Am I still wanting, in some cases expecting or even demanding, that God fulfill my wish list? Have I given every area of my life over to Him? Periods of trial bring me face-to-face with those tough questions, and in answering them honestly I can pray that God will help me truly love Him without any expectation of return except for the irreplaceable joy that comes from following Him and doing His will to the best of my ability.

I’m coming out of a time of intense trial and suffering from health issues and depression, and I am still in recovery from the whole experience and feeling fragile. But the good news is that I have a better understanding of who I am relative to who He is. My hope is that the experience has made me more right-sized and humble, and that it has left me with a greater sense of selflessness and compassion.

Do I consider suffering “pure joy”? Well, I’m not there yet. But at least I recognize what God may be trying to accomplish in me, and I am honored that He is further developing me for use in His kingdom. My prayer is not that I won’t kick, scream, cry, grieve and otherwise act out in my pain, for that is what makes me human, but that the Lord Jesus would carry me and give me His power in my weakness and that somehow through this process the Father would be glorified.

Reference:
Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Fully rev. ed. Kenneth L. Barker, gen. ed.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Print.

The Lord Hears YOUR Prayer

Sometimes people find it too difficult to pray during their darkest moments in life. For me, it has been the opposite. I have a long history of depression, and during my last bout of deep depression I clung to the Lord with all of my strength. I was like the woman in the Bible who had been bleeding for 12 years: I thought metaphorically that “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed” (Matthew 9:20-22 NIV). I imagined myself on my knees with my arms wrapped around Jesus’s ankles never letting Him get away from me. He was and is my only hope.

I believe that one of the many positive outcomes of suffering is that we are provided with an opportunity to grow closer with the Father. I have learned during my periods of trial that these are also times for me to examine my beliefs about God and what my relationship with him is based on. Is my love for Him based on who He is rather than what He can give me? Can I, like Job, say “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21b NIV)? Am I all in no matter what the cost?

A pivotal moment in answering these questions came to me as I was sitting alone in my car parked in the garage. I had just returned from the health club where my husband, son and I had gone. My son was going to the kids’ club so that my husband and I could attend a yoga class. We were several minutes late, and the entire yoga studio was filled with mats and people but we tried to squeeze ourselves in. When I tried to squeeze in to a space toward the front of the class, a gentleman in the class told me there was no room. At the same time, the instructor made a point of reminding the class to come a few minutes early. My husband and I left the room, and I was embarrassed and hurt that the folks weren’t gentler with us. But it wasn’t their fault. My depression was just so intense at that point that I was very fragile and sensitive. I told my husband I needed to go to the car, and I barely made it there before I burst into tears. I didn’t want people coming to the gym and seeing a crazy lady crying hysterically in her car, so I made the quick drive home for some privacy.

I pulled into my garage and closed the garage door, turned off the car and sobbed and wailed. I cried out to the Lord in desperation thinking that I was losing my mind. “Where are you?” I pleaded. “Please, I’m begging You!” I prayed. I was convinced that my husband was going to have to take me to a mental institution because I was certain I was having a breakdown. Would God really let me fall apart like this? After crying hysterically for a long time and begging for God’s help and telling Him I really couldn’t do this alone, I finally calmed down somewhat. I knew that I had a choice: Continue to follow Him and trust Him in my deepest despair and pain or try to find relief elsewhere. I affirmed then and there that no matter what, I would be His. There was no other option for me, nowhere else to go. I wanted His way; the way of light, purity, holiness, goodness and love. I embraced the words uttered by Simon Peter after Jesus gave a hard teaching and many of His disciples decided to turn back and stop following Him. Jesus asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”, and Simon Peter responded, “Lord, to whom would we go? You alone have the words that give eternal life” (John 6:68 NLT).

I wish I could say that after confirming my commitment to God that day something miraculous happened. But actually all I heard in the darkness of my closed garage was silence. During those times when it seems I’m not getting any response to prayer, it’s easy to think that perhaps God isn’t hearing me. The propensity when He appears to be completely absent is to doubt Him and whether or not He really loves and cares about me. I refer to the book of Daniel for Biblical proof that God not only hears prayer but acts upon them immediately.

The prophet Daniel was dismayed that Jerusalem would be desolated for seventy years according to what he understood from the scriptures, and he pleaded with God through worship, confession and petition. But Daniel was divinely interrupted by the angel Gabriel even before he finished praying:

While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill – while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me and said to me, ‘Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given’… (Daniel 9:20-23a NIV, emphasis mine).

The book of Isaiah also tells me that God hears our sincere prayers while we are still in the midst of saying them: Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear (Isaiah 65:24 NIV).

When the Biblical patriarch Abraham was nearing the end of his life, he wanted to ensure that his son Isaac would not marry one of the local Canaanite women. So Abraham sent his servant to his native homeland in the Haran district to obtain Isaac a wife from Abraham’s own country and from his own relatives. When the servant arrived in Nahor in the Haran district, he prayed that God would answer Abraham’s prayer for a wife for his son. The servant prayed fervently that he would know who God had chosen to be Isaac’s wife if after she came out to the local spring to draw water the servant would ask for a drink she would not only give him a drink but all of his camels also. Rebekah, the woman who would become Isaac’s wife, went down to the spring “Before he [the servant] had finished praying” and gave both the man and his camels water to drink in fulfillment of the servant’s prayer (Genesis 24:15 NIV).

God’s Word explicitly tells us that not only does He answer prayers, but He answers them while we are in the midst of praying. For Daniel and Abraham, this was obvious. But for those of us who don’t receive such clear and immediate answers to desperate, heartfelt prayers what hope can we hold on to? Sometimes it feels like my prayers are hitting a brick wall and that God has just decided to let me squirm while wondering if I’m ever going to receive a response.

A friend once told me that when I pray, I need to expect in faith for God to respond. My problem on many occasions has been my lack of belief that God will answer my prayer and that He will speak to me. At these times I have to remind myself that God not only created me but that He also died for me, so why would he just drop me on my rear end and leave me here on my own now? I hear from God when I wait for answers to prayer with determination, expectation and anticipation. I can take a lesson from the prophet Habakkuk.

Habakkuk was complaining, as I often do in my prayers (perhaps a better term is “whining”), about the corruption and apostasy of Judah. He wanted to know from God why He wasn’t taking action against so much evil. Though Habakkuk’s prayer was specifically about the violence and injustice taking place in Judah, the tone of incredulity and impatience behind his prayer may be likened to the prayers I so often utter:

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?
(Habakkuk 1:2-3)

When God responds to Habakkuk and Habakkuk doesn’t like the response he receives (can anyone relate?), the prophet challenges God with more questions about justice thus demonstrating that God can more than handle our questioning of Him and why He allows certain things to happen. The lesson I take from Habakkuk is his determination to wait until he hears a response from the Lord on his complaints:

I will stand at my watch
And station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
And what answer I am to give to this complaint.
(Habakkuk 2:1 NIV)

The image is one of a guard looking out from his tower anxiously awaiting the arrival of a response from the Lord. This is how I am to posture myself when I’ve offered my prayers to God. I must take it on faith that I will receive a response, and even if I don’t like the answer I receive I pray that I will still be able to declare:

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.
(Habakkuk 3:18b-19 NIV)

My fellow warriors, I pray that the Lord will richly bless you with His peace and the knowledge and assurance that He does, indeed, hear YOUR prayer.

What’s In a Name?

If you’re reading this blog, you may be wondering why the website is entitled “Valiant Warriors”. Though this is a title I feel applies to everyone who is a follower of Christ in today’s day and age, the title has special significance to me.

Originally, I planned to entitle this site “Wounded Warrior”, but after further consideration I realized this title sounded too defeatist. The current title, “Valiant Warrior”, came to me after my pastor preached a message about who God says we are as individuals. After listing examples of people in the Bible whose names were changed by God, the pastor asked the congregation to spend a few moments in quiet prayer asking the Lord to speak His name for us into our hearts. When the name “Valiant Warrior” spoke to my spirit, I was taken aback. Who, me? Valiant?!

There are several instances in the Bible of God assigning people names, and He generally did so before anyone else could have observed the name’s characteristics in the named individual. In the Old Testament, God changed the Biblical patriarch Abram’s name to Abraham. The name change occurred when the Lord appeared to 99-year-old Abram to confirm the covenant God had made with him. God promised to make Abram (Exalted Father) the father of many nations and to be his God and the God of Abraham’s (the Father of a Multitude) descendants after him. Interestingly, the Lord made this covenant with Abraham even before Abraham had any children with his wife, Sarah. But God knew the bigger picture and what Abraham would one day become (Genesis 17:1-8), and that He would give Canaan (i.e. Israel) as an everlasting possession to Abraham and his descendants.

In another Biblical example of a name change, Jesus changed the disciple Simon son of John’s name to Peter, which means “rock”. In the gospel’s various accounts of this famous disciple, however, we find that Peter, rather than being solid and stable like a rock, was often just the opposite. In fact, Peter is better known for being Jesus’ impulsive disciple. Peter’s lack of stability is evidenced during Jesus’ arrest when he strikes the high priest’s servant and cuts off his right ear (John 18:10). In perhaps his most famous demonstration of un-rocklike behavior, Peter three times denied being Jesus’ disciple (John 18:15-18, 25-27). Despite Peter’s weak moments, however, Jesus was able to see from the very beginning what Peter could and would eventually become by God’s grace.

If the Lord was indeed assigning me the name “Valiant Warrior”, what exactly did that mean? Merriam-Webster defines “valiant” as “possessing or acting with bravery or boldness: courageous” and “marked by, exhibiting, or carried out with courage or determination: heroic”.

Despite my doubts and uncertainty that this was truly the name God had chosen for me, I received confirmation regarding my nomenclature during my morning quiet time shortly after the pastor’s message on God’s specific name for us. I journal and write letters to God regularly, and on this particular morning I wrote in desperation as I often do praying for strength as chronic illness frequently left me feeling weak and concerned that I wouldn’t be able to meet the day’s demands. At times during my journaling, I pray for God to write back to me and in faith I put pen to paper with what I sense the Holy Spirit saying to me. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that immediately after that particular journaling session, I picked up a devotional containing this verse:

Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer (2 Timothy 2:3-4 NIV).

I’ll be honest with you, I love Jesus, and it’s truly my heart’s desire to please God and be a good and faithful servant. But I can’t say that I enjoy the enduring hardship part. In fact, for most of my life I’ve tried to run from, drown out, stuff down or cover up pain and suffering. Seeing that God has faith in me as a good soldier, a valiant warrior, able to complete the mission for which He has put me on this Earth through His power and the strength He gives me, however, makes me feel like a hand-picked member of His army (which indeed I am!). He’s called me to do what only I can do, and it’s going to require courage.

If you sense that God has a specific name for you (and he does), yet you don’t feel worthy of that particular title, take heart! As with Peter and Abraham, God is likely growing you to become the person he knows you have the potential to be. God knows our strengths and what we’re capable of, and He has faith in us. If we surrender to His plans and allow him to fill us with His power, there is no limit to what we might achieve in this life!

In addition to whatever name God has specifically assigned to you, I believe that if you’re reading this post you are a valiant warrior too. The challenges and struggles that accompany life on planet Earth are not for sissies, and I pray that we can have each others’ backs as we walk through this life together. Like it or not, we’ve been deployed in the Lord’s army!