Hope and a Good Future

“‘I say this because I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have good plans for you. I don’t plan to hurt you. I plan to give you hope and a good future‘” (Jeremiah 29:11 ICB, emphasis mine).

My son handed me a 3″ x 5″ card with the above words written in my own handwriting. I didn’t even remember writing it. But there it was. At the time, I had been asking God for a guiding theme for our family in 2019. Our church was planning “New Beginnings” as a theme for the new year. And I so wanted that to be for us too. It sounded so nice–it sounded exactly like what I needed. But I knew in my heart God had something different in mind for us. So when Journey casually handed me this card, with this verse in an obscure translation, I didn’t just brush it off…well, I almost did.

For me, Jeremiah 29:11 was an overused verse. I categorized it under  my “cliche verses” file, along with Philippians 4:13. You know, the verses that are printed on coffee mugs and T-shirts. And because it is so often used, I tended to discount its truth, as if somehow its popularity made it less true. But God’s word is true no matter how many farmhouse-style signs are printed with it. So after I got over my snobbery, I allowed God to begin to speak to me the truth of this verse.

In its context, it’s part of a letter the prophet Jeremiah sent to the Babylonian exiles. In this letter, he’s basically giving them some less than thrilling news and some instructions:

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’ This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Do not let your prophets and fortunetellers who are with you in the land of Babylon trick you. Do not listen to their dreams, because they are telling lies in my name. I have not sent them,’ says the Lord. This is what the Lord says: ‘You will be in Babylon for seventy years'” (Jeremiah 29:4-10a NLT).

The exiles believed that their time in Babylon was going to be short. They thought they would be returning home soon. But this letter from Jeremiah breaks the news that they would be there for 70 years, so they might as well unpack and get to living. I can imagine how disappointed they felt. I’ve been there. It’s that moment when you realize there’s no quick fix to the mess you’re in, no “special prayer” to make it all go away. And God surely knows too and that’s where we get to this beautiful promise of a future and a hope:

“‘But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope'” (Jeremiah 29:10b-11 NLT).

During the past year and a half, I’ve felt like an exile. I’m in a place I never intended to be–living in a “land” that feels foreign and scary. But I’ve had to make my home here and allow myself to grow. It can be dark and frightening here. But God has promised “hope and a good future.” How exciting and reassuring is that?!

So I embrace Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise and a guiding theme for my family this year. As we move into and through 2019, this promise will lead us. When fear and doubt creep in, as they will, we can point back to the promise of “hope and a good future.” And we can remind ourselves that God is a promise keeper and that His word does not return to him void (Isaiah 55:11).

The Victorious Life

Happy New Year! I hope your year is off to a prosperous beginning.

As a point of personal reflection, I’ve been reading through my personal journal from the last year. It’s been both encouraging and challenging to review the things God taught me in 2018.

The following is an entry I made last Good Friday (March 30, 2018). I decided to publish it here because I believe it best encapsulates what God taught me in 2018:

What does a victorious life in Christ look like? Is victory in Christ a life without trials and challenges? Is it a life where everything always works out as planned or hoped for?

That’s what I wish it looked likeā€¦all of my troubles and challenges all tied up neatly in a pretty bow. No pain, no discouragement. But that’s not victory in Christ. That’s a fairy tale. John 16:33 says, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

I’ve been looking at “victory in Christ” all wrong. I’ve somehow bought into the lie that because my situation hasn’t resolved itself the way I’d like, I’m not experiencing victory.

The victorious life is not a life absent of trouble. It’s one that enables me to walk forward in the challenges. It’s one that gives me crazy, ridiculous joy and peace in midst of the most heart-wrenching circumstances.

This is the victorious life: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2-3). The victorious life is one where God is with me in all of my troubles, carrying me and not allowing them to overtake me.

I think about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace. They still had to go through it. God could have prevented them from even being put in the furnace. But He had a greater victory in mind. He allowed them to walk through it, but He kept them and walked with them. As a result, King Nebuchadnezzar worshiped the one, true God (Daniel 3).

God could rescue me from my troubles. He could have kept me from going through any of this. But He has a greater victory planned. He is walking with me through this. And others will worship the one, true God when they see His hand keeping me in the midst of the flame.

Victory in Christ is not the absence of trouble, it’s the presence of God in the midst of it.

Will I Still Trust?

“…Let it be to me according to your word.”
– Luke 1:38 ESV

As Christmas has approached, I’ve been reading, or rereading, the Christmas story. For the first time, I’ve been really intrigued with Mary and her response to God, “…Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV).

It seemed so easy for her to respond to God with a “yes.” She had only one question, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34.). That would have been the least of my questions: “What am I supposed to tell my parents? What about Joseph? What’s he going to think? And all the people in town? They’ll judge me for sure! What do I tell them?”

I always want more information. I want to know how and why and when. I’m sure Mary had the same questions in her heart. But she responded with faith instead of more questions. She had a choice to believe what the angel was telling her or demand more information.

Can you imagine if she hadn’t been so willing? What if she had told the angel, “Let me think about it, weigh the pros and cons and get back to you.” Seems reasonable, right? But that’s not what God was asking of her. He wasn’t asking her to put this plan through some decision matrix and get back to Him. He was asking her to trust Him.

“You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
-Luke 1:45 NLT

Because she trusted God and took Him at His word, she was able to take part in the greatest story of all time. It was said of her, by her cousin Elizabeth, “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” (Luke 1:45 NLT).

I’m not always going to get my questions answered. So the bigger question is, “Will I still trust God, even when I don’t have all of the answers?”

Roots and Rocks

Have you ever planted a garden? I have not! But I remember watching my grandmother turn a corner of our yard into a small vegetable garden.

One of the first things she had to do was get rid of what was already growing there–in this case grass (much to the chagrin of my father). I watched her mark out a space and begin to transform this once lush patch of grass into what looked like a barren wasteland. She turned up the soil. Dug up roots and rocks and left nothing but a bare spot in the corner of our yard.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. Soon we had a beautiful vegetable garden with the best-tasting green beans and tomatoes growing. It was amazing to see the transformation. But it all started with what looked like destruction, at the time.

Sometimes, I feel like that little vegetable garden is my life. God decided to take my life, which looked fine but wasn’t really functioning beyond aesthetics, and turn it into something fruitful. But sometimes the process feels devastating. Like that patch of dirt my grandmother was turning into a garden, there are roots and rocks that need to be dug up in my life in order for fruitfulness to take place. There are roots of bitterness, jealousy, and selfishness. Each one needs to be dug up and rooted out. There are rocks of hardheartedness and disobedience that need to be tossed away.

I like to think that I’ve accomplished a lot of growth in recent months. But then I’m confronted with an attitude or a thought, or even an action, I thought I had dug up a long time ago. Every time I discover one of those lovely remnants of what once grew in my “garden,” I’m reminded just how far I still have to go.

From time-to-time, I’ll pray Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (NLT). But if I’m being honest, I mean, really honest, I usually only pray it when I’m pretty sure God won’t have anything to point out. I pray it when I’m feeling pretty superior about this Christian-walk thing. But inevitably, God responds to my phony prayer with very real answers. He points out the hidden sin, the wrongly-adopted attitude or the unsubmitted area of my heart. He points out more roots and rocks.

You see, in order for a garden to continue to grow, there has to be maintenance. My grandmother spent a lot of time in that garden, even after the vegetables began to grow. She continued to pull up weeds and remove errant rocks. If she hadn’t, before long, the garden would have reverted back to a useless patch of dirt. That’s actually what happened. When she moved back to New York, no one took the time to keep up her garden. Eventually, it just became a dead patch of dirt where grass wouldn’t even grow.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” -Philippians 1:6 NLT

I don’t want that for my life. I don’t want the growth and fruitfulness God has brought to be lost because I’m unwilling to deal with the things He points out. And He doesn’t want that for me either. That’s why He continues to dig around in my life. Because whether I meant it when I prayed it or not, He intends to “lead me along the path of everlasting life,” for His name’s sake. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Superhuman Faith

Recently in my Bible reading, I’ve been taking a deeper look at the life of the Apostle Paul (also known as Saul). He didn’t do anything halfway. Even before his conversion, he was passionate about eliminating the new believers. In Acts 8:3 it says, “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Acts 9:1 says, “But Saul still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest…” He went all in!

So it’s no surprise that once Paul had an encounter with Jesus, he used this same passion to disciple the followers of Christ. But he didn’t have it easy. As a matter of fact, when the Lord appeared to Ananias in a vision about Paul, He told Ananias, “…Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). From the outset of Paul’s ministry, he was on a path of suffering.

Even on his first ministry excursion he had to escape for his life by being lowered down the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). I’m not sure about you, but at that point I probably would have questioned if I had heard from God. But not Paul. He continued on despite constant persecution and threat of death. Not only did he continue on, but his zeal for Christ never wavered. Wow! I wish I could say that.

When he and Silas were thrown in prison, their response was to pray and sing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). I think eventually I get to the point where I’m praying and giving praise to God in the face of adversity, but it’s not usually my first response. When I’m faced with opposition or discouragement, I tend to question God’s goodness to me.

Paul almost seems superhuman to me, with an extra measure of the “Jesus gene.” But I’m reminded of James 5:17a which says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…” I believe the same is true of Paul. He wasn’t some extraordinary person. Yes, he was chosen by God, but so are we (see 1 Peter 2:9). I believe what sets Paul apart from me is that he found his joy in God, not his circumstances; and he took God at His word and trusted and obeyed Him.

I am far too fickle with my trust in God. I have really good moments where I’m “all in,” like Paul. But then I waver at the slightest opposition. My prayer is that as I continue to study Paul’s life, I will learn how to trust and obey God as he did. And be able to confidently say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Wanting His Presence Over His Answers

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like going through hardships and difficulties. If I had a magic button that I could push to make all bad things go away, I certainly would use it. Sadly, no such button exists–at least not that I’ve found.

So often, I want God to rescue me from my struggles. “Just make it go away, God!” (Seriously, I’ve prayed this prayer.) After all, isn’t that why I’m a Christian, so I can avoid hardships?! Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what the Bible says. John 16:33 says, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (NLT, emphasis mine).

So what’s the point? I’m learning that hardships and suffering are permitted in our lives for a number of reasons. One of them is to draw us closer to God. (They’re also used to refine us. But that’s a post for another day.) As I’ve walked through my own brand of suffering, God has faithfully reminded me that He is with me. While I know and firmly believe He can swoop in and “make it all go away,” I believe He is giving me something greater–His presence.

Isaiah 43:2-3 says, “When you go through the deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through the rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you” (NLT, emphasis mine). I love the realness of this verse. It’s basically saying, “Look, you’re gonna go through some really hard stuff. But I will be with you and these things will not overtake you!”

Isaiah 41:13 says, “For I hold your right hand–I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you'” (NLT). This has been a particularly comforting verse for me. Envisioning the God of the Universe holding my hand–like a father holds his daughter’s hand–has allowed me to walk through things I never thought I could face.

There are so many other verses that promise God’s presence. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 NLT
  • “This is my command–be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 NLT
  • “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20

While I still want the bad stuff to go away, I’m learning to pray as Moses did: “… If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place” (Exodus 33:15 NLT).

Share Each Other’s Burdens…

Reaching out for help is not easy for me. It’s not that I want to appear stronger than I am. I’m more concerned about inconveniencing anyone else with my problems. But sometimes the burden gets to be too much for me to bear on my own. In those moments, I’m thankful for the handful of family and friends on which I can lean.

Earlier this week was one of those moments. When I reached out for help through prayer and encouragement, the enemy of my soul tried to bring condemnation. His accusations were directed at my faith. He tried to tell me that I was somehow weak and not faith-filled enough to combat my emotional trial on my own. And I almost fell for it. I almost started to doubt my spiritual fortitude.

But then God, in His gracious love for me, reminded me of Israel’s battle against the Amalekites. “As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. Moses’ arm soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset” (Exodus 17:11-12 NLT). The victory was dependent upon Moses being able to keep his arms lifted. But he couldn’t do it on his own. He needed help.

Galatians 6:2 says, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (NLT). I am quick to offer support to someone who is walking through difficulty. But I’m more hesitant to receive support from others. However, there is no shame in needing help. As the challenges of my current circumstances begin to weigh on me, it’s okay for me to reach out for support. God has blessed me with an amazing support network. And I would be foolish not to use them to keep my hands steady.

Trusting the Dream Giver

A few days ago, a friend and I were talking about how we walk through difficult times without always knowing why or what the end of the story will be. She pointed out that the people of the Bible also walked through hard times not knowing the why or seeing the end of the story–which got me thinking about some of them.

Joseph was one of those people. As we find him in Genesis 37, his life was on track. Sure his brothers weren’t huge fans, but he was deeply loved by his father. On top of that, God spoke to him through dreams. And they were good dreams:

“‘Listen to this dream,’ he said. ‘We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!'” (Genesis 37:6-7 NLT).

“Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. ‘Listen, I have had another dream,’ he said. ‘The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!'” (Genesis 37:9 NLT).

Then his life took a dramatic turn. His brothers, jealous because of the favor he received from his father and these dreams that foretold of them bowing to him, sold him into slavery. Suddenly, his life was very different than the one he had envisioned. He found himself in a foreign country, working as a slave. But the Lord blessed him, “The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did as he served in the home of his Egyptian master” (Genesis 39:2 NLT). However, despite finding success, this wasn’t exactly the fulfillment of his dreams. He was still off track somehow.

Once again, things took an unfortunate turn. He was falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown into prison (Genesis 39:6-20). I can only imagine how Joseph felt. On that first night, I wonder if he cried out to God in frustration and desperation, “There must be some mistake! This can’t be right! What about the dreams you gave me?! How will they be fulfilled from here?!” In that moment, I believe Joseph had a choice–he could bemoan the unfulfilled dreams and become bitter. Or he could keep his eyes on the Dream Giver and trust Him to do what He said He would do. I think the story shows that he chose to trust God because, once again, God blessed him, even in prison: “But the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him His faithful love. And the Lord made Joseph a favorite with the prison warden” (Genesis 39:21 NLT).

But I’m sure this was a choice he had to make over and over again–in moments of fear or loneliness. Or when he successfully interpreted the cup bearers dream. I’m sure he thought this was the moment when all things would be set right. But the cup bearer forgot about him. And he was stuck in prison for two more years! I can imagine how hard it was for him to pull himself back up and say, “I will trust you Lord, no matter what!” But I believe that’s exactly what he did.

We all know the conclusion of the story. He was released from prison and saw the fulfillment of his dreams (Genesis 41-45). But none of it would have happened if Joseph hadn’t chosen to trust God–over and over again.

“God is not a man, so He doesn’t lie. He is not human, so He doesn’t change His mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” – Number 23:19 NLT

I’ve been given this choice too. I can choose to focus on the dream that is unfulfilled or the promise that has been unmet. Or I can keep my eyes on the Dream Giver and Promise Keeper. God’s Word says, “God is not a man, so He doesn’t lie. He is not human, so He doesn’t change His mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” (Number 23:19 NLT).

So I will choose to trust the Lord, no matter how many detours life seems to take. I will choose to trust Him, no matter how many times I get my hopes up that this will be the moment that all things are set right, only to be disappointed in people again. I will “hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep His promise” (Hebrews 10:23 NLT).

I can’t see the end of my story, but I know that God does. So I choose to trust Him, no matter what!

The Struggle for Joy

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV).

I’ve discovered the secret of living a life full of joy. Wanna know what it is? Thankfulness. Finding something for which to be thankful will always point me back to God and restore my joy. But here’s the problem: Most of the time I don’t want to be thankful. I want to complain and moan and cry and whine. Being thankful is just too much work. It’s just easier to complain, and frankly, sometimes it feels better–at least for a moment.

This weekend, my kids and I took a quick road trip to Legoland. What should’ve been a two-hour drive, stretched to nearly three hours. My kids, who are usually pretty good with long car drives, were becoming impatient. The traffic was cutting into their play time. But being the good, hypocritical mom that I am, I encouraged them to start looking for things about which they could be thankful. I even quoted scripture to them: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV).

Then Monday rolled around and all I could see was what was going wrong in my life. I complained and whined and got a sinus headache from all the crying. Then Tuesday came and more of the same. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I shake this funk I had stumbled into? But this morning, as I took a step back, I realized that in all my complaining, not once had I really taken the time to offer worship or give thanks. I had spent the better part of two days feeling sorry for myself and telling God how He was failing me. No wonder I was in a funk.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s essential for me to be honest with God–to tell Him truthfully when I’m struggling. We all need those unfiltered moments. But even in those times of “realness” with Him, something productive and life-giving has to come out of it. The only way I know how to do that is to take the focus off myself and my problems and look to Him.

So that’s what I’m doing. It’s not easy. It requires me to be intentional about what I’m thinking and talking about. But I’m choosing thankfulness and joy today.

What about you? How do you pull yourself out of a joyless funk?

It’s Time to Let Go

As a parent, I’ve learned that life is a series of stages that we move in and out of. When my kids were younger, I was always a little slow catching up with them and their changing stages. I like consistency and I’m not a huge fan of change. So it’s difficult for me to let go of something, even if it’s not working anymore. I would fight for a week to get them to do what they had done before. It wasn’t until it dawned on me that maybe they’d outgrown it, that we were able to move on to something that worked better.

During this journey, letting go of what I thought I had in my marriage (even if it really wasn’t what it should have been) has been difficult. It felt too much like giving up. But I realized something the other day: No matter what happens in our future, no matter what miracle God does for us, we are never going back to our old life. That life is gone. And just like with my kids and their changing stages, if I’m unwilling to let go of the past and what doesn’t work anymore, I will never be able to grab hold of what God wants to do now.

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV).

I love Isaiah 43:18-19, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God isn’t asking me to let go of something without offering me something far better. I want the new life God has for me, whatever it looks like. And that is going to require that I let go of a life that is gone and doesn’t work anymore.

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