Look Up!

Within one week’s time, I was bombarded with messages to “look up.” A friend emailed about it. Someone else talked about it in conversation. A guest speaker mentioned it. Then we sang about it a church. And if all that was not enough, I heard Psalm 121 quoted no fewer than three times in one day. You know the one: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

I may be a little hard of hearing sometimes, but I’m not deaf! After the first few times, God had my attention. It was clear that He wanted me to get my eyes off what I usually look at and look up instead. At Jesus.

It’s really easy for me to get caught up in bad news, roadblocks, negative reports, setbacks, and disappointments. Have you ever noticed how statistics and trends rarely point to anything good? But when I spend too much time concentrating on the negatives all around me, my hope plummets and my prayers falter.

So God wants me to look up.

One way I am trying to do that was by spending some time looking at the scenes of heaven and Jesus that John paints in Revelation. I narrowed it down to six:

Revelation 1:9-18

Revelation 4:3-11

Revelation 5:6-14

Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 15:2-4

Revelation 19:11-16

I’ve been taking one a day and reading it through slowly, with time in between each reading for reflection. As I lift my gaze, I see amazing things. Holiness. Power. Majesty. Glory. Beauty. I see multitudes of worshipers. A lion that looks like a bleeding lamb. Redeemed people from every tribe and language and nation. No more tears, pain, or sorrow—all have been replaced with peace and joy.

As I pray with eyes lifted up like this, my perspective changes, kind of like the old song promises it will: “The things of earth grow strangely dim.”

With my eyes fixed upward on the breathtaking scenes of heaven, I also see how important intercession is. God keeps my prayers in golden bowls, just waiting for the right time to answer them. My faith rises as I see Him in heaven, poised to step in and make all things new. Looking up helps me to see that there’s nothing Jesus can’t save, and nothing God is unwilling to redeem. And that gives me faith to pray—with eyes open, looking up!

Ezekiel Can Wait

In case you’ve been wondering the specifics of my morning routine (I mean, aren’t you just dying to know?) here they are:

• The cat wakes me up. It is still dark outside. Very dark.
• I stumble to the kitchen and start the coffee.
• Shivering, I head to the thermostat and turn up the heat.
• Then I go into my home office to start up the computer and read emails.
• Next I go back to the kitchen to get my brew (strong, bold, black, thank you).
• Finally, I go to my special spot in the living room for time with God—
• –unless a cat trips me on the way. If so, I feed cat.

The whole routine takes less than 15 minutes. And I like it. But something went wrong last week. Steps one through three went fine. But on the fourth one, the email one, I found an unpleasant communication which I knew I would have to reply to. I harrumphed, collected my coffee, and went to the living room. I was mad. And hurt. And frustrated. Although I hadn’t woken up grumpy, I was now.

So what did I do? I shoved the email out of my mind, picked up my Bible, and planned to have a wonderful time with God. I mean, really, I didn’t want to show up grumpy in His presence, right?

I opened my Bible to where the bookmark was: Ezekiel. (Yes, I do actually read Ezekiel. I can’t say I understand it very well, but I truly believe that all Scripture is profitable [see 2 Timothy 3:16] so systematic reading of Scripture—all of it—is part of my spiritual discipline).

But before I could delve into Ezekiel’s astonishing visions and sobering warnings, God stopped me.

Are you really going to ignore what you’re feeling and read Ezekiel—of all things—as if nothing had happened?

I was startled by His question. Was God actually challenging me postpone reading the Bible that morning?

It seems that He indeed was. It seems that He would prefer to talk to me about my feelings and attitude than help me make sense of Ezekiel. At least on that particular morning.

I sighed and closed my Bible. Grabbed my journal. And poured out what I was feeling. I didn’t try to pretty it up. I just dumped it on Him, like I would dump it on a trusted friend.

And He patiently listened! Instead of condemning me for what I was feeling, He helped me understand where those feelings were coming from. He helped me release the hurt and anger. And confess my pride. Then He talked to me about how to offer a high-road response to the email that had offended me.

I didn’t ever get to Ezekiel that day. And I didn’t get very far on my prayer list, either. But God and I did important work that day. He tended to my heart and helped me respond constructively to a hard situation. If I had read Ezekiel that day and prayed my prayer list—as is my habit—I would have missed all that. And I probably would have made the situation worse by reacting out of my hurt feelings rather than out of God’s grace.

What did I get from all of this? You might think that I learned not to read emails before my morning time with God. That would probably be good thing for me to learn, but I haven’t yet. What God did clearly remind me of, though, was that relationship with Him—sharing my heart with Him honestly, listening to Him, and receiving His help and correction—is even more important than rigidly keeping to my Bible-reading and prayer schedules. Yes, yes, yes, I will continue my good habit of reading my Bible and praying each morning! But, sometimes, when God and I need to have an important conversation, that conversation will come first. And that’s okay. Ezekiel can wait.

God Is Seeking a Few Good Ears

Lots of people are good at talking, but blessed few, it seems, are good at listening. Have you noticed that?

When someone comes along who actually seems interested in listening to what I have to say, I know that I’ve been given a rare gift. I have a few friends who listen to me well—and I assure you, they are keepers!

The quintessential Good Listener, however, is God. I know that I can always count on Him to hear whatever I want to say to Him. It’s His job, after all. He’s God. He has to listen, right?

This idea was reinforced for me last week when I was reading Isaiah 65:24. There, God promises that “before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” I love that! It reminded me of what the David said in Psalm 139:4: before a word is even on my tongue, God knows it!

But Isaiah, speaking for God, wasn’t finished yet. Just five verses after reassuring us that God is committed to listening to us, Isaiah drops a bomb. The gift of listening has not been given reciprocally. I imagine wistfulness in God’s voice when He says, “When I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen” (66:4).

We know for a fact that God wants us to talk to Him. A faithful friend, He delights in listening to us. He wants us to tell Him what is on our hearts and minds because He is interested in us and loves us. But, Isaiah makes it clear that God wants more than just a one-sided relationship. He also has things on His heart and mind. He would like someone to listen to Him!

Earlier today a close friend thanked me for listening to the things that she cares about. She’s one of those rare people I can always count on to listen to me. It made my heart glad to hear her say that she also feels listened to by me. I’m grateful that we have a reciprocal relationship.

I want to give that same gift to God. I have a long way to go. I still do far more talking than I do listening. So, borrowing from John the Baptist, my prayer is, Lord, Your speaking must increase but mine must decrease! (John 3:30).

Selective Hearing

I love it when God says comforting, reassuring, and encouraging things to me. And I love helping other people also learn to recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice speaking loving and gentle words to them.

So, I stopped dead in my tracks the other day when I was reading in Ezekiel. God warned Ezekiel about false prophets who deceived people “by saying that everything is alright, but it’s not alright” (13:10, GWT). He compared them to people who build flimsy walls and then try to cover them up with paint. Instead of repairing and fortifying the walls so the people would be protected, these prophets gave false messages of peace that were nothing more than wishful thinking.

God’s words jolted my soul.

I asked myself, When I write and teach about listening to God, do I remind people that sometimes His words won’t be easy to hear?

I acknowledged that I do . . . but maybe I need to say it more boldly and more frequently. So I’m saying it now: We need God’s words of warning every bit as much as we need His words of encouragement.

It’s true that the Lord speaks with grace, giving messages of acceptance and hope. Unlike the enemy, God does not speak with condemnation or send messages of despair and shame. However, that doesn’t mean His words are always warm and cozy.

There are two sides to grace. On the one hand, God does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). He is kind, patient, and forbearing with us. But that kindness, patience, and forbearance is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). One of the ways God expresses His kindness is by pointing out areas of sin and spiritual blindness. In love, He warns us, corrects us, and steers us away from the enemy’s traps.

If He said, “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11), that wouldn’t be helpful. In fact it would be destructive because it only gives a sense of false security.

Paul said that people who hear from God should “speak to people for their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort” (1 Corinthians 14:3).  I like the encouraging and comforting parts. But the strengthening parts are just as important. That means that sometimes the words I hear from God will make me uncomfortable. In order to strengthen me, He will need to point out weaknesses, sins, and danger zones. Sometimes He will need to put a halt to my plans. He may put me on a detour. Or prepare me for danger ahead.

People sometimes ask me, “How can I know that I’m hearing God accurately?” There are several ways I usually answer them. But I think I need to add one more to the list: If I’m hearing only soft and cozy words all the time, I may be practicing selective hearing. When I’m hearing God well, I will most likely be hearing words of encouragement and comfort, and words that strengthen (i.e. warn, challenge, convict, correct) me.