Sunday, August 30, 2009

Encouraging Endurance - Or, avoiding Ishmaels.

A pastor I know in Michigan once told me that he sat in the front row of his own sermons. My weblog’s description says that I write about what God teaches me through prayer. Very often, I feel like I’m exposing my own life in Jesus rather than teaching others how to live. For example, Ribs, Patience, and Trust. So I’m going to get a little personal here.

I believe that God has made several promises for my life. I’ve written all of them down and regularly read through them as I pray. He has fulfilled some of them and this encourages me to keep asking for the others. Even so, I have yet to see the other promises fulfilled. Sometimes, as I wait, I become frustrated and even despair. “Will these ever happen?” When I talk about it with other believers, I feel silly because I know in my heart God is faithful. The knowledge of God’s faithfulness, though, doesn’t necessarily make me feel better.

Certainly, you all have experienced this feeling. It’s easy to forget we serve an infinite God who lives outside of time, who created time and has sovereign control over it. Spiritually, we can grow weary in trusting and waiting. In that weariness, I have looked for distractions. Then the distractions become idols as I seek comfort from the frustration. God told me those promises to give me hope for things to come and I believe this is why the writer of Hebrews encouraged believers to endure in their waiting. Hebrews 10:36, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” (NASB)

In The CJB (Complete Jewish Bible) translation, the word “trust” substitutes for the word “faith”. Trust implies that a person’s life demonstrates their belief in the truth. They have a confidence in what they know. Hebrews 11:1 describes, “Trusting is being confident of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see.” The following verses describe how different men in the Old Testament trusted God’s promises and were called righteous. This lifestyle is so important, the writer says in verse 6, “And without trusting, it is impossible to be well pleasing to God, because whoever approaches him must trust that he does exist and that he becomes a Rewarder to those who seek him out.”

Of all the people mentioned in this passage, I like the one about Abraham best. Hebrews 11:11, “By trusting, he received potency to father a child, even when he was past the age for it, as was Sarah herself; because he regarded the One who had made the promise as trustworthy.” One could read this verse and think, “Yeah, Abraham. He must have really trusted God with the promise of a son.” But even Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting at one point. In Genesis 16, Sarah pimps her Egyptian slave-girl out to her husband so they can have a child somehow, anyhow. Abraham doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight, which I find interesting.

So he has sex with his wife’s slave. Of course, this attempt to speed along God’s promise through their own wisdom turned ugly. Hagar, the slave-girl, becomes pregnant with a son named Ishmael. Only then does Sarah regret her actions. She complains to Abraham, who shrugs his shoulders and denies any responsibility in the matter. Sarah quickly comes to hate Hagar, treating her “so harshly that she ran away”. Craig Brown, pastor of City Church in East Nashville, noted how Exodus uses the same word for harsh treatment to describe Egypt’s cruel abuse of the Hebrew slaves. Sarah didn’t just say mean words and give cold looks. This wasn’t mere gossip with the other slaves to vilify Hagar. She beat the shit out of this poor woman, possibly to a point near death.

Looking at the story of Hagar this way, we might think differently of this righteous man of faith who’s trust stood as a testament in Hebrews 11. Instead of judging Abraham, though, we need to recognize this as a cautionary tale of what can happen when we fail to endure. It would do me well to remember what can happen when I try to take matters in my own hands because I’m frustrated and impatient.

When God appears to Abraham in chapter 17, he falls on his face in repentance. In no passage do I see where God punished Abraham for his sin (unless you consider adult circumcision punishment). What does God do? He repeats His promises. He encouraged Abraham to trust His promise and wait for the miracle.

In light of this, we can read that famous passage in Hebrews 12:1-4 with some new perspective. “So then, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (referring to the people spoken of in chapter 11), let us, too, put aside every impediment – that is, the sin which easily hampers our forward movement – and keep running with endurance in the contest set before us, looking away to the Initiator and Completer of that trusting, Jesus – who in exchange for obtaining the joy set before him (or promised to Him), endured execution on a cross as a criminal, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Yes, think about him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you won’t grow tired or become despondent. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in the contest against sin.”

Jesus, as our example, endured death on the cross because of God’s promises. He knew of the promises in the Old Testament where God would bring salvation through His Son, the Messiah. He repeatedly told His disciples that He had to suffer and die so God might fulfill these promises. During the beatings, mockery, unjust trials, shame, and crucifixion, Jesus could have called down angels and had them slaughter every offender. Yet He obediently endured and continued to trust the Father through it all.

Among the many things I believe God wants to give me, He has promised me a wife and children. A few years ago, I “grew tired and became despondent”. It pains me to say it, but I picked someone who I figured would say yes. We dated, got engaged, and I went on my merry way toward sinful misery. God, in His mercy, convicted me and I ended the relationship. Since then, I’ve continued on in trust, allowing Him to direct my steps toward a wife. But the path doesn’t always make sense and I must admit that I find myself again growing tired. I’m saying this partially to let you know of my own journey in trusting God. I’m also saying this because I need to sit in the front row of my own sermon. Abraham was 100 years old when God gave him Isaac as a son. I don’t think I’ll have to wait that long for God’s promise in my life, but shouldn’t I trust Him as if I did? Do I ever have a right to let doubt and weariness justify my own Ishmaels?

As an encouragement, I’ll end with James 1:2-4. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB) God uses hard times like these because it produces endurance. It makes us stronger, more able to handle bigger promises and the challenges involved. James tells us that endurance through these struggles will come to our good. In them, we will lack nothing.


Marissa said...

Thank you for sharing one of the many gifts God has given you whether it be writing or speaking. This really hit home with me as God has me on a journey which seems to be very similar to yours. Trusting and waiting, not always patiently! I am truly blessed to hear that there are others on a similar journey. Thanks!

d said...

Hi my friend! Wow... we need to do that roundtable discussion, or at least coffee, soon. I met with Craig on Friday, and he had some really good words for me (and I believe all of us wrestling with this subject). Then I journaled about/through Heb. 12:2. I'm trackin' with ya, is what I'm sayin'... I'll be in touch!