Paradise Lost?

shutterstock_732751837Have you ever walked through tough times in your life and come out on the other side, only to be plunged back into difficulties?  It’s one of the most discouraging things in life to think you have finally hit some smooth sailing and then your boat overturns again.  In my life, these times have rattled and shaken me to the core.  I have felt defeated, like the sun was never going to shine again, and have often felt like maybe God is mad at me for some reason to have allowed more trouble in my life.  Of course, there are all the cute quotes out there that remind us God is always good and is always working for our good.  Heck, I even believe that, but man, sometimes I don’t feel it.  I sit and wonder what God is up to and why there are times it feels like He yanks me out of a pleasant place only to drop me into a difficult, depressing or downright terrible place.  If I’m being totally honest, it makes me question His goodness and wonder why He doesn’t just put me (or others) in that pleasant place and let us stay there.  Sometimes it is life circumstances that just hit us, but sometimes God actually calls us out of the good places for a reason.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a man named Lazarus.  Many of you may know of whom I am speaking, but let’s take a look at it for a moment. Lazarus was a dear friend of Jesus (and also the brother of Mary and Martha).  He became extremely ill, so Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus telling Him, “Lord, the one you love is sick,” because they KNEW Jesus had the power to heal him.  It probably seemed like a no-brainer that Jesus would come and heal his friend, especially since the Bible tells us that Jesus not only loved Lazarus, but also loved Mary and Martha.  They were a dear family to Him, and you’d think He would immediately run to take care of it.  But He didn’t.  He told the messenger, “This sickness is not going to end in death.  No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  Then He stayed where He was for two more days before telling the disciples “let’s go back.”  When they asked why, Jesus told them that Lazarus was asleep and He was going to wake him up.  The disciples crack me up because they told Jesus that if Lazarus was sleeping, then he would get better.  As usual, they missed what He was saying, so Jesus had to clear it up by saying, “Lazarus is dead and for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.  Let’s go.”  That sounds a little harsh, but Jesus also knew his disciples needed some strengthening of their own faith.

When Jesus got to where Lazarus lived, He found that he had already been in the tomb for four days!  Martha hears that Jesus is coming so she takes off to meet him.  She gets to Him and says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” I always feel like Martha was irritated or even scolding when she said it, like “you took too long and now look what happened!”   So Jesus tells her that her brother will live again, but Martha misunderstood and thought He was talking about the resurrection.  After a brief conversation, Martha goes to get Mary.

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When Mary reached Jesus, she fell at His feet in anguish, crying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Same words, different emotion behind it.  The Bible says it was her anguish that deeply moved and troubled Jesus.   He asked where they had buried Lazarus, and then He began to cry.  Yes, He cried openly.  As a result, some people thought, “See how He loved him,” but others started to criticize.  They said, “He opened the eyes of the blind, couldn’t He have kept him from dying?”  What happens next is best read in the verses themselves (John 11:38-44)…

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.  “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”  Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  When He had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Most Christians use this account to share the incredible miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead, and it IS miraculous.  We hear sermons about how God always shows up right on time, even when we think He is “four days late.”  We hear preachers and teachers talk about Jesus’ love for His friend and the emotion He showed in weeping openly over the situation.  Those are all great things to consider, but how often do we look at how Lazarus probably felt?  If I was Lazarus, I would have been ticked off!  Think about this for a moment:  Here’s a guy who had been really sick and was miserable.  He eventually succumbed to his illness and died, but in that moment, he was immediately in the presence of God.  He was in Paradise!  He has no more pain and doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore.  As a child of God, he is finally home.  I imagine him hanging out with Moses and Abraham, or maybe some of his loved ones who had already died.  What a great homecoming!  What a great time!  All the crap he had to endure on this earth was finally passed, and he could relax.  But then, from beyond the grave, a voice calls to him, “Lazarus, come forth.”  If I was Lazarus, I would be thinking, “Are you kidding me?  After everything I’ve been through, You are calling me BACK?!!  I’ve attained more than I could imagine and You are yanking me back into a world full of trouble, evil, pain and suffering.  Leave me here!”  We don’t know what actually went through Lazarus’ mind, but I think of how I would feel if it happened to me.

shutterstock_427738096There was certainly a bigger purpose for bringing Lazarus back than just relieving the grief of his family.  God used that event to show who He is and that He IS who He says He is.  He used it to show His power, but also his mercy and love.  Look, there was no denying the miraculous nature of what happened.  The Bible tells us that Lazarus was in the grave for four days already and that he stunk!  No one could deny he was dead – I mean “dead” dead!  There was no way to say what Jesus did was a parlor trick or anything else.   It was most definitely effective!  Not only that, but the disciples needed their faith strengthened, and Jesus knew that bringing Lazarus back would accomplish that.  But again, what about Lazarus?  What good did it do HIM to be brought back?  He lost all of the perfection of Heaven, AND he would have to go through an earthly death TWICE!  Is it just me, or does that seem mean to anyone else?  I’ve felt bad for him on that piece, because it really feels like he got the short end of that stick.  I think that’s why we don’t often talk about this piece of the story.  We don’t want to think that God would purposely bring us back from something amazing – or even perfect – just to drop us back into something where we are going to have to struggle.  We can say all day long that we’d be ok with it since it for His glory, but I really don’t think that’s how our hearts react when it happens.

So what was in it for Lazarus?  Think about it this way:

  • Lazarus got to see Heaven and knew exactly what it was like.
  • Knowing what was waiting in Heaven, and that death was not to be feared, would most likely have caused Lazarus to live with a boldness and courage he never had before or might not have had any other way.
  • He got to experience what the rest of us have to take on faith. He believed God, but he actually got see his faith realized with his own eyes, ears and hands.  That would definitely give you a new certainty most people don’t get.
  • He was free when he died and went to Heaven, but he was liberated when Jesus called him back to this world. One of the definitions of being liberated is “releasing someone from a state or situation that limits freedom of thought or behavior.”  By coming back after experiencing Heaven, Lazarus was liberated from fear and anxiety over death.  He was liberated from any doubt that God’s word was true.  He had seen it and it changed him.

So back to present day and all the troubles we endure in life.  I don’t have the big view that God does.  I know that His word tells me that “all things work together for good to them who love God and are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).  I know that God loves us and cares about everything we are going through.  When we cry, He cries (remember how He was moved by Mary’s grief).  He knows exactly where we are, all the time.  Jesus knew Lazarus was dead without anyone telling Him.  He told it to the disciples even though he had not received that message from anyone.  God knows what we’ve endured to get to those pleasant places in our lives – places HE has actually created.  So why call us back away from those places?  Because it can change us for the better if we let it.  It can liberate us if we look at things differently.

shutterstock_293580959When things are going well for me, I need to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I’m sure Lazarus wasn’t worrying about things on earth after he died.  He was simply enjoying being in Heaven.  I need to do the same thing in life’s pleasant places.  I need to just sit back and marvel at how true God’s word is, and that He has taken care of me just as He promised He would.  I need to just relax in that place and not worry about what else might or might not happen.  I’ll be honest, that is NOT a natural or easy thing for me to do, but it would be so much better for me.  When we worry about what might be coming next, we drain all the joy and peace out of the pleasant places in life.  When we do that, we wring the joy and confidence in God out of our lives as well.  Then we wonder why we are so stressed or why God feels so far away.

In those times when we are called out of the pleasant places back into difficulties, it’s so easy to be frustrated and even angry with our Heavenly Father.  We may say, “it’s ok because I know He is working this for His glory and my ultimate good,” but it often becomes just words.  It hurts to be pulled back from the pleasant places.  It hurts when we have to endure challenges after we think we’ve conquered them already.  It is frustrating and so often causes us to immediately lose sight of everything God has done for us or how He has, in the past, brought us through trouble TO the pleasant places. We need to learn to think differently about the challenges.  Rather than seeing them as a punishment or reprimand, we need to recognize that God needs people in this world who have seen first-hand what He can and will do.  He needs people who have unshakable confidence in our eternity so that we can live liberated lives here.  He needs people living courageous lives, in spite of their circumstances, because that kind of life touches and changes the lives of others.  Through that kind of life, we have opportunities to share what we have seen and know to be true about our God who loves us so much.

One last thought about this story:  Notice that Jesus called Lazarus by name.  He didn’t just come back to the grave and say, “come out.”  Do you know why?  Because if He had done that, everyone who was dead would have come out.  He specifically called to Lazarus because God does not operate in generalities.  He operates specifically, personally, on a one-to-one basis.  He has specific plans for each of us, and each of us has a different journey to walk. In spite of our different callings, God wants ALL of us to have peace, confidence and joy.

shutterstock_82458775So the next time I hear, “Deanna, come forth,” I’m going to take a quick look around before I leave the  amazing place in which I’m standing, and consider all He did to deliver me from trials in the past. By doing that, I can walk back into this flawed world with complete confidence and security in the truth of His word.  Only then can I live a liberated life, free of worry and fear in my circumstances, because I have seen His glory and His fulfilled promises first hand.  THAT knowledge and experience in the pleasant places is what will change the way I live in every place else.

Blessings!

24 To Life

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This may be a strange way to start this post, but recently I saw a television show that chronicled the last 24 hours of freedom for people who had been sentenced to years in prison.  It not only evoked several different emotions, but it also caused some discussions about what you would do if you knew you were going to prison tomorrow.   After the show was over, I didn’t think much more about it until a few days ago.

shutterstock_342646817Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual battles we face in this life.  At times, I really struggle to hang onto my faith when the enemy continually tries to get me to doubt what I know to be true about God and His nature toward us as His children.  I mean, I know the right things to say and even think, but it is so easy to get caught up in fear, frustration, sadness and a host of other emotions when we are faced with life’s difficulties.  Even the apostle Paul shared his struggle with the battle between our human nature and our spiritual one.  He said, “What I want to do, I don’t do, but what I hate, that’s what I do.  I don’t do the good I want to do, but I do the bad that I don’t want to do, and then keep on doing it.”  Man, he sounds a a lot like me.  Paul explains that it is his sin nature that causes such a problem because once we are saved, we know what we should do, but we often struggle to follow through with it.  Not only that, we struggle what to think, which then causes confusion in our emotions as well.  It’s easy to see why we are so often tangled up within ourselves, walking the line between fear and faith or doubt and trust.

I’ve come to realize that every battle in life is a “spiritual battle.”  Every difficult circumstance I’ve faced has always come back to my perspective on my circumstances.  Whether it was physical pain/illness, financial, professional or relationship issues, the true battle comes not in something I can see or touch, but in my mind where I struggle with confusion and doubt about what to do or how to feel.  Our battles are spiritual!  We have an enemy, and you can call him whatever you want, but God has assured us he is the enemy.  1 Peter 5:8 tell us “Be alert and of sober mind.  Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  Ephesians 6:10-17 tells us about the armor we need to put on in order to fight and defeat the spiritual enemy.  Even Jesus, Himself, had to battle spiritually with Satan and his influence/temptations.  (Matt 4:1-11).  There are so many scriptures that talk about the battle between us and sin, or us and the enemy.  So yes, we are at war with the evil influences and tactics of our enemy in this world, but why is he so relentless?  Well, to answer that in a more contemporary terms, he is living in the stage of his existence that is 24 to life.

shutterstock_234987922Our enemy KNOWS his eventual fate.  The judgement and sentence has been declared and sealed!  Revelation chapter 20 describes exactly what awaits him.  He knows how it all ends, and yet he still has his last 24 hours of freedom before it all comes to pass.  He cannot run or hide from his fate, so he is determined to wreak as much havoc as he possibly can until that time.  He is continually trying to keep the unsaved from believing in Christ, but his greater successes come in trying to keep saved children of God from living the abundant life God has promised to us.  I will always believe that Satan’s greatest accomplishments come within churches full of believers.  God has promised to reveal himself to ALL men (Titus 2:11), so Satan can’t keep someone from the reach of God.  He has a much better chance at getting Christians to fall away from the truth than preventing someone from hearing, seeing, or knowing it.  Satan loves to blind people.  He loves to turn believers into unbelievers.  2 Corinthians tells us that he blinds the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.  I think we’ve done a huge disservice in taking this as referring to only those who have not accepted Christ as their Savior.  Yes, Satan can blind the unsaved so that it is harder for their hearts and minds to be opened, but he does NOT have the power to keep God from reaching them.  GOD IS ALL POWERFUL!  So then we have to look at that verse a little differently.

We, as people of faith, are often “unbelievers.”  We read the truth and know all the right words to say, but do we actually LIVE what we know is true?  Do we trust God in all circumstances or do we spend our time in worry and fear?  Do we forgive others, even if they don’t ask us, or do we hold grudges?  Do we let our ethical or moral standards fall in those times there is something we want?  Do we love others regardless of race, creed, religion, etc. or do we put conditions on our love?  Do we stand in the midst of life’s storms and get frustrated and angry, or do we put one foot in front of the other and follow wherever God wants us to walk, because HE knows what is best for us (Romans 8:28)?  This world is full of Christian Atheists who have accepted Christ as Savior, but then never live the abundant life He has promised because we let Satan blind US!  We become the “unbelievers!”  It doesn’t mean we are no longer saved or no longer God’s children, it simply means we have stopped believing what He says.

I have struggled with anxiety my entire life.  I have also struggled with physical issues since I was 18 months old that have been debilitating at times.  I worry.  I am afraid of something bad happening to people I love.  I struggle to hold onto peace in my heart during times of trouble, though most people wouldn’t know it.  Like many of you, I have learned to stand strong externally during difficult times but am often reduced to a fearful, frustrated heap that is full of doubt when no one is looking.  Thankfully, as I have studied and prayed more, God has continually revealed more of His character and how He interacts with us.  Being able to secure His word in my heart has changed me, not because someone preached it to me or even from simply reading it, but because I have sought to deepen my personal relationship with him as my “Abba Father.”  Abba is more than a pop group or musical!  “Abba” is the equivalent of our term “Daddy.”  shutterstock_419104021My relationship with God has shifted from a good relationship to an intimately personal one.  As a result, I have learned to relax IN HIM instead of relaxing because of Him.   There is a huge difference between knowing all the right verses and knowing Him.  There is a difference between seeing Him as a loving entity who can help you and recognizing Him as a Dad – as your “Abba Father.”

So back to the enemy for a moment…  He wants nothing more than for you, as a believer, to not believe.  He wants nothing more than to blind you so that you forget who you are and who your “Dad” is.  He is scrambling in this world because he knows he cannot win, and he cannot unseal his fate.  He is angry at God and wants to hurt him, but the only way he can hurt God is by distracting us and causing us to doubt the truth.  Satan’s fate is coming like a freight train. He knows it, but as long as he is still free and walking the earth, he is going to do everything in his power to destroy God’s reputation and steal our peace, joy and strength.  If he can keep us tied up in knots, then no one will ask us for the reason we have hope because we won’t look like we have hope!  When you realize that Satan is living HIS 24 to life right now, it can give you a whole new perspective on why he is so relentless.  His time is limited, and he has to mess up everything he can while he still has time.  He is DESPERATE!

Beginning to see the enemy as a powerful adversary, but also a desperate one, helps me understand why he refuses to give up the fight.  It explains why he keeps coming at me, trying to scare and frustrate me as I walk this journey of life.  He’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, but I have the power IN CHRIST to stand strong and keep my peace and joy.  I have the ability to be content.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13)  Those “things” aren’t material.  All through Philippians chapter 4, Paul was talking about attitudes and perspectives.  I CAN think on the good things mentioned in verse 8.  I CAN rejoice in the Lord always – in ALL circumstances.  I CAN stop worrying and being anxious.  I CAN have peace.  These “things” are not easy.  These “things” take continual reminding and refreshing in our hearts or we fall back into the abyss of fear and doubt.  THESE are the “things” I can do through Christ who strengthens me!

shutterstock_542670394I’ll leave you with this last thought: We are also living in our own 24 to life period.  We all have a finite number of years on this earth.  Once those years are gone, we lose our opportunity to reflect the love and nature of our Father in Heaven to those here on this earth.  We lose the chance to make things right with the people in our lives.  We lose the chance to leave a positive mark on our own little corner of the world.  I don’t know about you, but I want the people who know me to look at me and say, “She is her Father’s daughter.”  I want people to see His nature in me because I love and forgive.  I want them to see someone who struggles with worry and fear but who also steps back and remembers the truth so that I have peace and contentment.  I am living 24 to life.  Though that “life” means eternity of peace and joy in Heaven, I want my “24” down here on Earth to not only be abundant for me in all ways, but to be an abundant encouragement and strength to everyone around me.  I pray that for myself, and I pray that for all of you too.

Blessings!