Monday, June 8, 2009

Going Through

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

                        Isaiah 43.2

Going All the Way

The tradition I grew up in included a regular feature called “testimony service.” Usually at Sunday evening or midweek worship, the minister asked a lay-member to officiate an informal period for other worshipers to report answered prayers, personal growth, and so on. Like all standard practices, a conventional structure and codified lingo developed over time, and seasoned testifiers used them liberally. For instance, most began with “I thank God for being saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost” or, “Giving honor to God, the Head of my life, to the pastor, and all my brothers and sisters in Christ.”  From there, they segued into struggles they overcame or lessons they learned. (The AA meeting format draws on these conventions, by the way.) Finally, each testimony typically ended with requests for support—“I ask each of you to keep me in your prayers,” etc.—or a declaration: “It’s my desire to make Heaven my home,” “I’m going all the way with Jesus,” and other similar phrases.

Going all the way was a powerful pledge in that it perfectly balanced going through, a catch-all we often used to indicate our problems were too personal to share, too complicated to condense, or too debilitating to discuss. “I’ve really been going through something lately” told everyone more than enough to know whatever followed the admission was significant. But “going through” also had a second usage that reversed its other meaning. Spoken in the present tense by itself (“I’m going through”), it became a statement of determination—a defiant refusal to be defeated by circumstances and opposition. Sure, we had other euphemisms with comparable rings: “My heart is fixed and my mind is made up,” for example, or “I won’t let go of God’s unchanging hand.” Going through carried uncommon resonance, because to get where we were going—going all the way—meant going through trials and hardships and doubts. That’s why we talked about going through so much. We even sang about it. One of our hymns explicitly ended with “I started with Jesus and I’m going through.”

Getting Through

We have every confidence we can go through whatever befalls us because getting through isn’t left to us. God’s Word promises again and again He will see us through our difficulties. We believe that. First, we join David’s unyielding belief God stays with us through thick and thin. To paraphrase Psalm 23.4, we place complete assurance that even in the face of death we have nothing to fear because God is with us. Second, we trust Him to thwart any efforts against us. In Isaiah 54.17, He guarantees, “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.” This doesn’t mean we glide merrily along without injury, shielded by supernatural Kevlar. The promise says nothing aimed at us can succeed in the end. Listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4.8-9: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Finally, we know we’ll outlast any trial to rise, phoenix-like, from any setback; we have it on Scriptural authority that ultimate victory is ours. According to Romans 8.37, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Emphasis added.) The love of God conquers all. It gets us through.

Floods and Fires

It should be noted that promises to get us through difficulties implicitly predict we’ll face tough times and endure strenuous tests. In Isaiah 43.2, God describes our trials as floods and fires. We will experience frightening periods of feeling overwhelmed, when it seems like an unseen earthquake launches a tsunami toward us with unstoppable force. People and things we rely on—partners, friends, jobs, institutions, etc.—not only fail us. They rise against us, threatening to wipe out everything we hold dear. Whether or not we see the waves coming, Isaiah says we can expect floods. It also tells us to anticipate fiery times when flames encompass us and we fear we’ll never escape with our lives and possessions intact. Before we panic, however, we should do as the verse suggests: go through—pass through the flood, walk through the fire.

God promises to be with us. He says troubles that deluge us won’t sweep us away. How does this happen? Isaiah 59.19 reveals one way that God saves us from being completely overwhelmed. “When the enemy comes in like a flood,” it says, “the Spirit of the LORD will put him to flight.” Our adversaries can only do so much before God’s Spirit raises barriers to force them back. When fire breaks out, we summon faith and courage to walk forward, trusting His protective power for our safety. Thinking we should be exempt from floods and fires is misguided. Thinking God’s task is flood and fire prevention, rather than protection, misses the point. Times of flood and fire are when we look for Him, when He reveals Himself, when we discover the reality of His power and supremacy of His love. We need floods and fires. With nothing to go through, we’ll never experience how God gets us through. And getting through gives us a testimony worth telling.

We go through floods and fires so we can testify to God’s power to get us through.

(Tomorrow: Wrong Crowd, Right Reasons)

Postscript: Online Bible Study Guide

Two online Bible studies are scheduled this week, one on Thursday evening (6/11) and another on Saturday morning (6/13). Information about times and how to join is available here. Meanwhile, as promised, here a link to the preliminary study guide for those who want to read ahead:

Why Pray When You Can Worry?


Cuboid Master said...

Tim, thank you for the time and love you invest in your blog and now in the online Bible study group. I will definitely read ahead. Tell your momma how wonderful her son is! (I think she knows.)

Tim said...

Dear CM, thank you in return for all the time and love you've showered on me. You and everyone else here have blessed me many times over. To say the pleasure is all mine doesn't begin to express my appreciation, and thanks to God for bringing us all together.

And as for Mom, well, she could probably toss a thousand or so examples of me not being as wonderful as she'd like... Being a mom, you know how that goes.

Be blessed, my great friend,

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

Hello T,

Here I am again. I waiting and wondering and you have once again written something I needed to hear. Are you in my head? Things here are very crazy and I never seem to have a moment that I can just breathe. I feel tired overwhelmed, and well, quite frankly angry.

I understand that we will all face tough times, but is there a time when life will not be so hard and I will want to wake up and smile? I have3 much love inside me. I try to write of this as much as possible, but I also feel drained, as if darkness has covered me and I remain lost in a field of mazes and fog. All I know is, I just don't know anymore.

Soft love,

Tim said...

Dearest T,

Your feelings are justified--trials will exhaust us, frustrate us, make us angry. But since we can't control what's behind our floods and fires, we must take care not to let the emotions they trigger lead us. I've found in my own life when I "go with what I feel," long after the floods recede I'm still wading through the backwash of bad feelings they set off.

It's not ours to know if there will ever be a trouble-free time in our lives. In fact, the Bible comes out and says there won't. Job 14.1 reads, "Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble." And Jesus says in John 16.33, "In this world you will have trouble."

But before we throw our hands up and go with what we feel, we should also look at the two statements framing what He says. The entire verse reads: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

The surest way to get out of the fog and leave the mazes is to take heart and find peace in Christ. It's not easy. It takes a lot of letting go to get there. But knowing your enormous love, I also know you've experienced what it's like to want to love someone but can't because they won't release their doubts and fears to trust your love. That's what keeps us from entering Christ's love and peace. We're too wary of making the leap because we're not sure what to expect. So we prefer hanging on to what we know and trusting what we feel--even the worst of it--over diving into something we can't explain and relying on what we believe.

(Have to break this into two parts because it's too long for Blogger... Continuing below.)

Tim said...

(Continued from above...)

T, I can't tell you why or how this works--I'll never be able to--but it does. The problems that drag us down may drag on, but they'll never drag us under once we believe without any doubt Christ has already defeated them on our behalf.

I know it sounds nuts and I know I sound like a nut, like some Pollyanna dreamer living a bubble. But it's not as crazy as it sounds. And though I may be crazy, my confidence about this isn't the babbling of a lunatic. And here's why.

Faith cuts off the air to our problems. It starves the fear that feeds them and it defeats the doubt that sustains them. When we look at troubles intended to make us think one way but insist on believing the exact opposite, we wrest control from them and strip their authority over us. When we wake up in the morning and the first things we see are problems waiting to torment us and we counteract their pessimism with hope, we take their weapons and tie their hands. We hold THEM hostage.

They can sit there as long as they like, because they're no longer a threat and we've got better things to do--like passing along the love in our hearts and reaching out to others who need help. Because after we master this first nutty principle, we move on to the next crazy idea, which is giving others what we need. "Give, and it will be given to you," Jesus promises in Luke 6.38. "For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

Don't know how or why this works either. I just know it does.

So what do you need, T? If you need the darkness to lift, do everything you can to lift someone else's darkness. If you need more faith to know for sure, do all you can to encourage someone else to have faith. If you need to release the love bursting inside you, do your best to let someone else shower love on you.

None of these has to be a project. Most often they happen in moments spread throughout the day and across lots of people. The point is we're giving freely to reverse the flow. And if we know or meet people who don't want what we have to give, so be it. Another opportunity will come along for us to give what they've turned down to somebody else.
Sometimes, just knowing somebody sees him and recognizes she exists or having a random stranger show him/her kindness is all it takes to turn somebody's life around. I've been there myself. So nothing we do is ever small, and no gift ever goes unrewarded.

And when we believe this--when we know we've taken charge of our problems and then take the liberty of offering the little we have to others--we surprise ourselves by waking up with a smile.

You're not as drained as you feel, T. You've got so much love and joy and kindness stored up inside you that I have every reason to believe once they find a way, they're going to pour out of you in torrents. You don't need to know this--you just have to believe it.

Big, big, big (and very soft) love,