Genesis 21 tells the story of Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. Through no fault of her own, she has been involved in Sarah and Abraham’s crazy scheme to “help” God out by taking pregnancy matters into their own hands. Now, some 14 years later, Hagar and Ishmael (her son by Abraham) have been cast out of their home. Sarah has had a son of her own in the intervening years and she does not want Ishmael around as a rival to Isaac. And so Hagar and Ishmael have been turned out into the desert with a loaf of bread, a bottle of water and the clothes on their backs.
This, by any definition, would be considered dire straits. Having no hope of rescue, Hagar and Ishmael have sat down in grief to await their deaths.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt that way. Abandoned. Alone. Without options. Without resources. Rich in anguish, but poor in every other way. Life lately has been quite difficult and strange. COVID-19, loss of jobs, illness, injury, death of loved ones, financial difficulties, relational stress, more questions than answers. And in the face of those circumstances, visitors have come calling. Their names are Despair, Discouragement, Confusion, Anger, and Fear. Perhaps you’ve met them.
There is another visitor, though. His name is Holy Spirit, and He tells a different story. It’s the same story we find in Genesis 21: 17
“And God heard the voice of the youth, and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?”
Let me interrupt the story long enough to say this. Really? I mean, really!!!! On the surface, this looks like a very unobservant angel. Does he really have to ask Hagar what troubles her? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? She’s homeless, destitute, betrayed, abandoned, and anticipating not just her own death, but the death of her son. And this makes the angel’s next sentence all the more astonishing. “Fear not.”
I don’t know about you, but this seems the perfect time to be afraid. If not now, when?
But the angel isn’t finished with the sentence. “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the youth where he is.” Ah. This is a “but God” moment.
“This isn’t the life I planned on.” A lament uttered by a friend recently. Truth be told, it’s a thought that almost all of us have had at some point. And it surprises us, puzzles us. Leaves us wondering, “how did I get here?”.
Youth tends to see the world definitively, in shades of black and white. Youth is certain that life will unfold a certain way, that dreams will unfold in a particular timing, that things will be as they are expected to be. It’s the hopeful and passionate launching ground from which we set out in life. And there is great comfort in believing that there is a straight and linear march toward our hearts’ desires. But life isn’t straight and the paths before us often appear more like tangled knots and Rubik’s cubes. Even more astonishing, we find along the way that perhaps we don’t know ourselves as well as we thought, both for better and worse.
So what do we do when we find our souls in this lament? When the marriage we longed for never appeared, or did appear but has now ended in painful divorce. When finances fail, jobs are ripped out from under us, health is assaulted, relationships fracture, infertility strikes, abuse occurs.
The answer is not one simple thing, but rather a collection of necessary responses on our part.
1. Grieving what has not yet been (and perhaps will never be). This may mean facing a legitimate sense of regret and loss.
2. Grieving what has occurred that was outside what we had hoped for our lives. This too may involve regret over our part in choices/behavior that have derailed or detoured us from the truth of our hearts and the best for our lives.
3. Finding comfort in God’s ability and intention to turn “all things for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purposes”. Trust the great Redeemer, the powerful Restorer who delights in healing what is broken and who will direct our steps back toward health and wholeness.
Allow that our “broken road” may actually have been designed, at least in part, by God. Please hear clearly that I am NOT saying that God authors disaster or heartbreak or that He approved awful things that may have happened to you or those you love. I am, however, saying that we often lack clarity about what we need and about the process of growing into maturity of character and identity. God sometimes leads us a different way than what we anticipated, or even wanted. But He does it FOR OUR GOOD. Always, for our good, for our welfare, and not our calamity.
Ultimately, these things must lead to a basic bottom line. We must come to a place where we know Father so well that we are able to trust that He is good and He is for us. We must trust that He is able, and perhaps more importantly, willing, to throw the force of Heaven into action on our behalf.
I love Spring. It’s my favorite season. The world starts to wake up from its winter slumber. Daffodils poke their heads up, trees bud and flower, life stirs. And for some odd reason, we often feel drawn toward cleaning out, cleaning up, and bringing order to chaos. Ah, yes. Tis the season for spring cleaning.
For many of us, life is usually such a whirlwind of activity that there isn’t room or time to really get things in order. We’re too busy, too rushed, overcommitted and stretched thin. But what if someone called a big time out? What if life slowed down? What if I got stuck in my house for a couple of weeks because of a worldwide pandemic? Oh yeah, here’s comes the silver lining to COVID19!!
And what if, just maybe, this big time out actually contains an invitation for us. What if it’s an opportunity to look at how we live, what we value, where our priorities lie? Maybe it affords us time to learn stillness and contemplation. Those tend to be lost arts in this day and age. And perhaps, in our newfound stillness, we find ourselves face to face with God.
It’s interesting that scripture never says, “be busy and know that I am God”. Rather, it is a call to stillness. “My soul, be quiet before God, for from him comes my hope. “ (Psalm 62:5 International Standard Version) In the quiet, we can actually hear God speak. In the stillness, we can feel the breeze of His presence and the warmth of His embrace.
I’ll be very honest and say that stillness did not come naturally to me. When God first asked me to try it, I thought He was trying to kill me. I fidgeted and squirmed, and protested and walked away. I couldn’t hear a thing, feel a thing, sense a thing. So I fidgeted some more and got straight on to the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” phase. But God insisted, and so I tried again, and again, and again. Until stillness actually came. And then so did God, and He brought peace with Him, and companionship, revelation and life. And all of the sudden my soul understood the value of stillness and the wisdom of a God who knew that I needed it even when I couldn’t see it.
So here is your invitation, from a God who knows you, loves you, and wants your company:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away.
‘For behold, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
‘The flowers appear on the earth once again;
The time for singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
‘The fig tree has budded and ripens her figs,
And the vines are in blossom and give forth their fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away [to climb the rocky steps of the hillside].’”
“O my dove, [here] in the clefts in the rock,
In the sheltered and secret place of the steep pathway,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear your voice;
For your voice is sweet,
And your face is lovely.”
Song of Songs 2: 10-14
In a world gone mad with fear and uncertainty, when the earth can only offer our limited scientific understanding, when life turns on a dime and all that we know fades away, here is God - wanting to meet you, and bless you, and keep you. May your heart turn toward Him so that you can hear His song over your life, over your family. Jesus cares about you and the worries of your heart. Father has never been caught off guard and has planned even now for your welfare. If you find yourself needing to talk, reach out and I'll be happy to do that with you.
When traumatic things happen in our lives, they tend to shake up our sense of who we are. Sometimes to the point that we feel forever changed by those things. It is true for each of us that our story is made up of the events and relationships of our lives. We are shaped by experiences; but more importantly, we are shaped by what we do with them and how we react to them. In this sense, trauma and other difficult things, do not have to define us. We do not have to take on their identity or nature. Instead, we hope in One who has promised to make all things new, including us. We hope in His compassion and gentle healing touch. We hope in his ferocious love for us and His commitment to our good.
And so we walk thru the pain, letting our feelings receive validation and seeing how our thinking and behavior might be altered. But we do not stay there. We insist that our feelings bow to truth. We bring our thinking in line with the culture of heaven. We declare the promises of God - even if they are still in the distance. We fight to keep our souls in a good place, knowing that the Trinity fights for us and alongside us.
Ultimately, we find ourselves on the other side. With richer stories to tell of who God is and who we are in Him. We go deeper into life that is truly life. And one more nail is struck into hell's coffin.
When we first moved to our current house, there was a tree in the back yard that was a bit of a mystery. You could barely tell it was a tree as vines had grown up and covered it over. Some dead fruit on the ground suggested that it was probably a fruit tree, but that was the only clue I had - it was that unrecognizable. So I chopped away at the vines and uprooted them so they wouldn't come back at the tree. When the tree was visible again, it was a strange sight - bent, gnarled, growing at odd and unsustainable angles as it had been forced to do under the weight and covering of the vines. I had to prune off a good third of the tree just to get it back to viable. Truthfully, I wasn't sure it would survive what I had to do to it. But it did. And more than survive, the tree began to thrive, to be tremendously fruitful, and to grow to its new shape. This year it is covered in (I estimate) about 1500 pears - so many that the limbs are breaking (literally!) with the fruitfulness.
Often times, life, circumstances and even our own choices come at us like the vines - covering and weighing us down to the point where we are unrecognizable, even to ourselves. We lose our shape, our fruitfulness, and all we can do is simply fight in whatever ways our souls can muster, to find the light of day. And we wonder - am I too far gone? Is my soul too gnarled, too bent? Has too much damage been done? And could I ever survive what might be necessary for my healing and restoration. And God replies: you are not too far gone. You are not beyond restoring. You've not been lost forever under the weight of life and stress and loss and pain. You're still in there, I'm still for you, and i will make a way to bring you back to yourself, back to the truth of you written in Me. I will bring you back to my good plans and purposes for your life. You will always have a place in my heart, in my house, in my kingdom.
I invite you to hope today. To believe that the vines weighing down your soul can be broken off. To believe that the pain inherent in the process of restoration will be worth it. Working together, we can find you again and help you back to life and fruitfulness.
Scripture reveals that God has primary passions and desires: to love and be loved, to be honored for Who He is, to exist in union and oneness, to act creatively and procreatively, to exert rule and authority, to relate intimately. Since we are made in God’s image, these are also our primary drives and passions, but the fall of humankind has corrupted our understanding of them as well as the ways in which we walk them out.
For example, the exercise of authority has all too often degenerated into tyranny. Love gets confused with lust or fleeting emotion. Union is watered down to only involve sex (physical joining) without any joining of soul or spirit. And self-esteem is now gotten through what we do (e.g., achievement, money, domination, people pleasing, etc.) rather than what or who we are (people who are deeply loved, desired and valued by the Father who made them). In a similar way, marriage has come to mean things other than what God intended.
We can call French fries “health food”, but it doesn’t make it so. Things are not so much defined by the labels we put on them, but rather how they’re actually lived out. So it becomes important to distinguish what is and isn’t love, what is and isn’t marriage. Born in heaven, marriage is God-sized. God intended it to be a glorious and powerful thing. An in-life representation of how Jesus feels about us. In the end, many of the troubles we have in marriage come from our underestimation of it. We have settled for something far too small. The remedy is to get a God-sized view of marriage rather than settling for the watered down version we’ve experienced.
The Big Picture
So what did God intend when He put Adam and Eve together all those years ago? We know that God’s relationship with humanity takes two primary forms: Father and Husband. We begin our life with the Trinity when God steps in and makes us His children. He becomes our Father, the one who authored us, delights in us, provides for and protects us, and who has planned for our future. When you jump to the end of the story, the final stage of humanity sees those children raised to maturity as the Bride whom Father presents to His son, Jesus. That is the pinnacle of our existence – to live intimately with a Husband who loves us so desperately and devotedly that He gave His own life to save us. We walk, hand in hand, face to face with Jesus – sharing his life and joining Him in adventure and purpose.
Adam and Eve, and all their offspring ever after, were meant to be tangible expressions and representations of this life that was to come. They were to demonstrate the glory of love, the intimacy of being one flesh, the meaningfulness of lives lived with a common purpose and mission. Does that sound like any of the marriages you know? Does it look like your own marriage? If your answer is “no”, don’t despair, because I’ve saved the best question for last: Do you want it to? I hope that your answer to that one is “Yes!”. It is possible for your marriage to walk in that kind of glory and goodness. God very much wants that for you and is invested in helping you get it.
It is important to know that there are forces at work in opposition to you having a glorious marriage: your own brokenness and woundedness, your partner’s brokenness and woundedness, errant models of love and marriage in our culture, and an enemy that is hellbent on destroying you.
The great news is that God is a restorer, a healer, a “repairer of the breach”. He is more than able to heal your brokenness and set you on the path to life that is truly life. It will take your cooperation, and sometimes the help or mentoring of others. But your soul does not have to stay in its current state of despair or disarray. God is also the definer and keeper of Truth. That means that errant representations of love and marriage can be exposed and rejected by us. And the enemy is defeatable, if we know his schemes, partner with God in his demise, and take up the right weapons of warfare.
God’s restores our souls in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it is alone in holy moments between you and the Spirit of God. More often, God involves other people in concert with the work of the Holy Spirit. Those could include wise ones in your life, pastors, teachers, counselors, or coaches. If you’d like to take a coaching approach, I will be more than happy to meet with you to help you identify how the wounds of your heart are operating in your marriage (or in your life at large) so that we can develop a plan for instituting new ways of perceiving and responding.
The Bad and the Ugly
To have the kind of marriage we were meant for, we have to be able to distinguish it from the pretenders. I’ve given you a brief picture of the Good. Here are the Bad and the Ugly. The counterfeits of marriage include being technically (legally) married, but not emotionally, relationally or spiritually joined. What I mean by this is the situation where two people occupy the same physical space, but there is no oneness of focus or purpose. There is a lack of emotional intimacy and sharing. They might even be living with vastly different values and goals. This looks and feels more like being roommates or business partners.
Then there are those marriages which are founded on faulty motivations such as pure convenience, or the goal to gain financial security or social status. These relationships may function in terms of meeting those goals, but they don’t provide the care, nurture, intimacy or oneness of a true marriage.
Yet another counterfeit is when a relationship is characterized by abuse, control and manipulation, or neglect. These things are not love and don’t belong in marriages (nor in friendships or any sort of emotionally intimate relationship such as parents and children). Unfortunately, these types of behaviors are much easier to identify if you’re outside the relationship looking in at it than if you’re an active participant in the relationship. So, under the banner of “how do you know it when you see it?”, your marriage may be compromised by abusiveness, control or neglect if (and this is not a comprehensive list):
◙ one partner attempts to dictate who the other spends time with (e.g., forbidding contact with family or friends)
◙ one partner determines the use of finances to the exclusion of the other’s input
◙ one partner dictates to the other things such as what they should wear, when they must be home, who they can speak to, etc.
◙ disagreements include behaviors such as throwing things or destruction of property
◙ anger or disapproval is demonstrated by physically striking/shoving the other person or threats of violence
◙ sex is withheld as punishment
◙ sex is demanded or taken without consent (including while the other is sleeping)
◙ there is name calling
◙ one partner makes little or no effort to inquire about or take into consideration the other’s feelings, needs, or experiences
◙ one partner spends the majority of their time away from the relationship and/or are physically present but not emotionally or intellectually present (e.g., always thinking about work or prioritizing other things/people over the marriage relationship)
Fighting the Good Fight
The writing has been on the wall since the beginning of time. Satan, furious at a God he is far too small to defeat, has taken aim at what God loves: us. Satan’s original tactic was two-fold. He accused the character and heart of God, and he created division in marriage. And that has been his strategy ever after. You must recognize that your marriage has an enemy intent on bringing you down. If you don’t see that, you won’t be able to wage an effective battle for your relationship. Your enemy is not your spouse. Instead, you and your spouse have a common enemy. You can withstand and put down the assault with a united front against him, using the weapons of truth (of you, of God, as found in scripture), righteousness (good choices that line up with doing things God’s way), and love. I am more than happy to help you learn how.
In the beginning God created (by forming from nothing) the heavens and the earth. (Gen. 1:1, Amplified Bible) By faith (that is, with an inherent trust and enduring confidence in the power, wisdom and goodness of God) we understand that the worlds (universe, ages) were framed and created (formed, put in order, and equipped for their intended purpose) by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. (Heb. 11:3, AB)
You might find it odd that I say that those two passages are the basis for hope. Let me explain. God created all that we know out of nothing. He didn’t need starting material. God was the starting material. Everything that lives and breathes and exists was formed out of God Himself. He used His very being to bring all of this into existence, including your life. What that means for us in the most practical sense, is that God’s intervention in our lives doesn’t rest on anything we bring to the table, except a willingness to have Him intervene. We don’t have to have our acts together, we don’t have to have resources to contribute toward our problem, we don’t have to have ability.
If your life is failing apart, or your marriage is a hot mess, that’s OK. Because the power to change that lies in the person of God. In His goodness. In His faithfulness. In His power, and wisdom, and kindness. All you have to bring is a desire to be changed and a willingness to cooperate. And even that is a bit sketchy, since one of my favorite prayers in scripture is the man who said, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) Sometimes that’s where we have to start. “Lord, I’m willing; help my unwillingness. Lord, I want change; help the part of me that is comfortable staying in my mess. Lord I believe you, but I confess that there are times I struggle with that. Help me in the struggle”
Things are never too far gone, too dead, too decayed, for God. It is never too late for God to save the day, so it is never too late for you to hope. God made all of this out of nothing. Let's press on toward life together.