This Is a Test

While reading through Deuteronomy last week, I came across a fairly familiar warning: “Never test the LORD your God as you did at Massah” (6:16). It shows up in Deuteronomy and a few other places in Scripture.

Test God? Who, me? I’d never do such a thing. Surely not! I kept on reading because I didn’t think it applied to me.

Are you sure?  that still small Voice asked.

“Well, I think I’m sure,” I replied. After all, I wasn’t planning to do something reckless and then expect God to protect me. I wasn’t going to jump off any cliffs or towers, and wasn’t that what testing God boiled down to? (See Matthew 4:5-7).

God wasn’t ready to dismiss the subject as quickly as I was. He led me to do a bit of Bible study. Just what happened at Massah, anyhow? He probed.

My review showed that Massah was one of the places where a few million thirsty Israelites grumbled at God during their 40 year trek in the wilderness. They needed water, and God wasn’t providing it as fast as they thought they needed it. Which led them to think He wouldn’t provide it at all. So they tested Him. They said, irritably, “Is the LORD here with us or not?” (Exodus 17:7, NLT).

When God didn’t meet them on their timetable, they doubted His care. Some of them seemed even to have doubted His existence. This was their pattern throughout their entire wilderness journey. When God came through, they worshiped, celebrated, and recommitted themselves to His leadership. But when He didn’t show up in exactly the way and time they thought He should, they doubted. They complained. They tested. They turned to idols. They did 180s and headed back toward Egypt.

“But God, I don’t do that! I’ve never turned my back on You!”

In the absolute sense, that’s true. I sensed Him saying to my heart. But there have been some rather long, silent stretches in our relationship. There’ve been times when you haven’t shared your needs and longings with Me because you thought I would disappoint you. Sometimes you pull away in a futile effort to protect your heart.

Child, don’t do that. That’s an enemy trap! Just when you need Me most, he tries to get you to think I’m holding out on you. He tries to draw you into his snare of doubt. Don’t go there. Draw near to Me! Whether you see Me or not, draw near. Whether you feel me, or not, draw near. Even if I seem to tarry, draw near!

I knew what God meant. My prayers tend to be most faith-filled and passionate when I first start praying about something. Then, as time passes, the passion dwindles, the faith fades. Eventually I may stop praying about that subject entirely. Or I pray about it in a perfunctory way, without heart or hope. And I had to admit—that’s not very far away from saying “Is the LORD here with us or not?”

“I hear You, Lord. I’m so sorry that I let doubts creep in when your answers seem to be slow in coming. Keep my faith fresh. Energize my hope. Renew my passion. Help me to stay in there with You, not doubting, not complaining, not testing, until You come through.”

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Do You Like Me?

I barely know enough Spanish to order takeout from Taco Bell. But I attend a Spanish Bible study anyhow. Spunky of me, eh?

I can’t say I track with a lot of what the others talk about. I can read fairly well, but listening and speaking are still tough. Nevertheless a couple of weeks ago in our study of John, er, I mean Juan 21, a bit of conversation caught my attention. The other women were discussing the way Jesus restored Peter after his three-time denial.

—Simón, hijo de Juan, ¿me amas más que éstos?

—Sí, Señor, tú sabes que te quiero —contestó Pedro.

Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” And Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

But here’s what caught my attention: in Spanish, Peter uses a different word for “love” than the word Jesus used. Amar, Jesus’s word, means “to love.” Querer, Peter’s word, means “to want, like, have affection for.” Jesus asked Peter “Do you love me?” and Peter replied, in essence, “Yes, Lord, I like you. I have affection for you.”*

The exchange happens a second time, just like the first.

—Simón, hijo de Juan, ¿me amas?

—Sí, Señor, tú sabes que te quiero.

To Peter’s hurt and dismay, Jesus asks yet a third time. In English, Jesus is quoted as asking the same question as time number 2: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But in Spanish, notice the difference:

—Simón, hijo de Juan, ¿me quieres?

—Señor, tú lo sabes todo; tú sabes que te quiero.

In His third round of questioning, Jesus scales it back. Instead of asking the harder question, “Do you love me?” (unconditionally, sacrificially), He asks Peter an easier one: “Do you like me? Do you want Me as your friend?”

After class, my bilingual friend gave me her take on it. Jesus knows us inside and out, she explained. He wants us to be honest with Him. Whereas previously Peter had boasted of a love for Jesus that he couldn’t live up to, this time Peter was finally being honest. “I like you, Jesus. I want to be Your friend. But I’ve proven that I don’t agape You. When it came down to it, I didn’t love You enough to stand firm under pressure. My love for You falls short of what You deserve.”

So, in compassion, Jesus reached down to Peter’s weakness. Okay, then, Peter. I know that you’re made of dust. I know how hard it is to be faithful under pressure. So I’ll meet you where you are. Do you like Me, Peter?”

As I pondered the Spanish words and my friend’s interpretation of the passage, I recalled Psalm 51:6 which says that God desires truth in our innermost beings. God doesn’t require spiritual perfection. He just asks for honesty and humility. That’s what Jesus was after with Peter. And that, in the presence of Jesus’s love and grace, is what restored Peter.

That’s how I want to relate with God, too.

God, I can’t hide anything from You anyhow. You know my heart. So help me to be completely honest and humble with You. Thank You that You don’t require me to be something I’m not. Help me to grow up into the kind of love and faith You deserve. And in the meantime, thank You for accepting me just as I am.

*The original Greek uses two different words as well, agapao (unconditional, sacrificial love) and phileo (friendship, affection). Because the Spanish language has different words to express the idea of love, the Spanish Bible carries nuances that the English Bible does not.

Busted!

Know God cover2The following is an excerpt from my new Bible study, Knowing the God You Pray To, released this week by PrayerShop Publishing (prayershop.org). You may want to consider using it for personal or group study. Leader’s guide is available.

Consider the following true statements about God:

  • Ÿ God is Creator and Sustainer of all that is, overseeing galaxies and natural disasters, nations and kingdoms, and unseen spiritual realms in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.
  • Ÿ God is love, grace, and mercy and does not delight in punishing people.
  • Ÿ God is Judge and Ruler over every living creature, with full authority to govern and reign.
  • Ÿ God is a miracle worker who raises the dead, heals the incurable, parts the seas, turns water into wine, stops the sun, and feeds multitudes from a single lunch sack.

Does one of those descriptions of God resonate more with you than the others? Which one?

I read the above list of God’s characteristics to my twentysomething son so we could talk them over. I felt a bit exposed when, after hearing the description of God as Judge and Ruler, he interjected, “That’s the one you really believed, isn’t it?”

He was right. For many years, that was my dominant view of God. This viewpoint was biblically sound and led me to a high view of God. However, focusing on this one aspect of God’s character also led me to a distortion that constantly affected the way I lived, felt about Him, and related to both Him and others. My son went on to describe how he had observed this belief affecting me: “You believed that God was always out to make sure you got everything right and was just waiting to punish you when you didn’t.”

That is how I reacted to God. I felt as if I were constantly on trial before my Judge and had to work hard every day to measure up. I desperately needed my view of Him as Ruler and Judge to be balanced by an equally accurate view of His love, grace, and mercy. When God started revealing those aspects of Himself to me, I was gradually able to relax and enjoy Him more. I began to talk to Him in new ways.

Instead of prayers dominated by concerns about performance (“Help me obey” or “Help me please You” or “Forgive me for messing up”), I could now begin connecting with God as a loving Father and Friend who enjoyed me, invited me to take risks, redeemed my mistakes, and understood my weaknesses. Gradually my prayers became more open and vulnerable (“Father, I am struggling to love this person—will You help me understand what’s really going on inside me?” “Jesus, I’m afraid. I want to trust You, but this circumstance is really making me anxious. Please help me rest in Your love and see Your grace for me.”)

What’s been especially surprising and encouraging is that when I relate to God in these new ways, I sense His pleasure. He is glad I am relating to Him with a bigger, richer, more accurate picture of who He is. I hear Him saying, “Child, I longed to touch your heart, but I couldn’t when you focused solely on getting everything right because you were fearful of being punished. I love being able to simply love you and pour out My grace and mercy into your everyday life.”

Can you relate with my experiences? Is a one-sided view of God affecting how you relate with Him? I hope that, through this study, you’ll begin to find new freedom and depth with Him.

No Expiration Date

God’s mercies are new every morning, right? Many of us are familiar with that wonderful promise found in Lamentations 3. In verses 22-23 Jeremiah assures us that,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

I’ve probably read those verses a hundred times, at least. I’ve memorized them. I even know a couple of different tunes I can sing them to. Nevertheless, I was blown away by something new God showed me in that passage recently.

A bunch of friends and I had gathered to enjoy an afternoon together with God—a mini-retreat of sorts. As we meditated on various Scriptures, including those verses from Lamentations, one of the younger women made an observation.

“There are new mercies every morning—but the ones from yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that are still active. They never come to an end!”

What an incredible thought! Every day, God gives us new mercies. But they don’t have an expiration date—they keep accumulating while God continues to add new ones each morning! If He’s been doing this since the beginning of time—which I suspect He has—then there are hundreds of thousands of mercies are still in operation. How can the earth even contain so much mercy? No wonder the Psalmist exclaimed, “Your mercy, O LORD, fills the earth (Psalm 119:63)!

This simple but profound insight encourages me as I pray. Instead of just thanking God at the end of a day for the gifts and mercies of that day—as if the day is done and so are they—I now try to start my morning with gratitude for the previous day’s ongoing mercies. From that heart attitude of thanksgiving, my faith is stronger as I ask for the mercies I need for the day ahead.

What mercies has God given you today? They’ll still be there tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. That very fact is a mercy in itself! God indeed is “full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11)!