Yesterday morning, I read a few chapters in 2 Samuel. In chapter 5, David sought the Lord before two different encounters with the Philistines. Each time, God answered and gave direction, though his guidance was different each time. David listened and found victory.
In chapter 6, as the ark of the covenant was brought into the city, David danced before the Lord, worshiping and celebrating. Though his wife criticized him, he defended his actions as being done for the Lord alone regardless of who may have witnessed him. The Lord appeared to justify David here.
In chapter 7, the Lord made magnificent promises to David. David, upon hearing the word of the Lord, responded in humility and reverence. He prayed confidently in light of the promises of God.
Throughout David’s life, we can detect a pattern of reverence and obedience. God was central and primary to David’s life, Lord over all of his ways. David sought the Lord before he went to war, refrained from acting against God’s anointed, and lived with a recognition that God ruled over all things.
Of course, David wasn’t always faithful. We see him tempted to take vengeance when wronged by Nabal (1 Samuel 25), though we see too the faithfulness of the Lord in that story. Later, we see David fall to a host of sins, with devastating consequences (2 Samuel 11-12). Yet in spite of the depth of David’s sins, he consistently returned to the Lord, understanding that, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). Even when he strayed, David eventually returned to a place of surrender.
The stories of David’s sins are instructive in that they illuminate how our own sins often work. If David’s strength was his commitment to keep the Lord central and primary in his own life, his weakness was his tendency to let something else take that central and primary place. So too with us. We err when we place anything else as first in our affections. Leisure, pleasure, comfort—each have their proper place in our lives. When we elevate them above their rightful places, however, shifting our hope from the Giver to his gifts, we move our entire trajectory from the pursuit of the Lord to the pursuit of self.
But David’s heart for the Lord is a worthy example for us. Let us be people who hold the Lord higher than anything else, who keep him as central and primary in our lives. Let us be people who seek him first, love him first, and order our lives around him. Let us be people who see God as God and who respond accordingly.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”
On multiple occasions over the last year or so, I’ve caught myself wondering what God was doing in my life. In part, I’ve wondered this because his recent methods don’t fit my expectations. It’s as if his focus has shifted from particular actions to internal motivations and desires.
In the past, spiritual growth seemed closely tied to my external behavior. Don’t do this, avoid that, make a habit of practicing these things. Such a focus makes tracking progress somewhat simple, because you can clearly see your successes and failures. Trials, in such seasons, seem to affect those external behaviors. As I seek to build a spiritual discipline, I’m tempted by busyness or distraction or circumstance, and I have to respond either by surrendering to the Lord or to my desires. While the pursuit of holiness in outward actions isn’t easy, you can get used to it a bit. Distractions may become more complicated and temptations may increase in strength or in frequency of appearance, but you still appear to have a clear choice between two paths. You grow accustomed to the type of trials you face.
Now, however, the Lord’s focus seems to be on the internal side of life. As healthy habits have formed and external behaviors aren’t as difficult to manage as they once were, it’s as if God has moved below the surface, showing me that my motivations, desires, trusts, and hopes aren’t as grounded in the Lord as I may have once assumed. I may do the right action, but I may do it for the wrong reasons, acting out of selfishness, fear of others, pride, or any number of motivations rather than acting in faith and obedience to God. My desire may be for my own glory rather than for God’s. Trials, then, are not so clear cut. When the focus shifts to my desires and motivations, the situation is a lot more confusing and complicated.
At first, a shift in trials discourages you. You move from a place of confidence to a place of uncertainty. What once felt like known territory suddenly becomes foreign and unfamiliar. But the change is good, as is the work God is doing. When you meet a new variety of trial, an unexpected and unknown test, you’re reminded that you can’t weather such tests in your own strength or wisdom. Rather, you need the Lord, as you always have. Growth and progress only come as a result of submission to him.
In this way, no matter how trials may change throughout your life, they remain constant in their function: to drive you to the Lord. Trials reveal our weaknesses, uncover our insufficiencies, and highlight our need for further sanctification, further surrender, and further help from above. And thankfully, the Lord is faithful in every trial. Indeed, though the variety of trials seems far more vast than we ever anticipated, the grace of God remains sufficient for them all.
Confession: I wish you would do my will, For I would rather not surrender all. I would prefer more say in what you call Me to within your kingdom. Only kill Those parts of me with which I wish to part. Pick from the list I curate, then begin To excise only my unwanted sin, But leave the rest lest you disturb my heart.
O weak desire, false freedom, foolish dream. Such service would be fiction, for the throne Would be yours in name only. Lord, remove Me from my central focus and redeem All places where my heart is still like stone. In grace and mercy, pardon and reprove.
How do you respond (w)hen t(h)e w(i)nd (s)hakes your tem(p)orary dwelling? when the thund(e)r b(r)eaks your sense of calm?
(w)hen t(h)e l(i)ghtning (s)trikes your storehouses? when all around you is (p)urifying floodwat(e)r and fi(r)e life-giving, all-consuming?
What do you do when the Father answers your prayers with a storm and a whisper?
Do you run away? Where else would you go?
There is a response when the w(i)nd sh(a)kes your te(m)porary dwelling. when the thunder (b)reaks your sens(e) of calm.
when the lightning (s)trikes your storehouses. when all around you is purifying floodwa(t)er and f(i)re, (l)ife-giving, a(l)l-consuming.
This poem would not be what it is today without the contributions of Andrew Wilson. He helped with both the structure and the content, improving the rough draft immeasurably and guiding the poem to its final form. I’m incredibly grateful for his feedback.
I don’t mean to suggest that God might fail to provide for his people, that he may somehow lack the power of sufficiency to be for us all we need. He possesses all power and glory, lacking nothing. Objectively, he is enough for us. I’m asking instead whether I recognize his sufficiency and rest in that truth. And the answer, sadly, is that I often don’t.
I’m reading Deuteronomy, and I found myself challenged by a thought I had when reading through chapter ten. After some description of Israel’s journey, Moses writes,
At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God said to him.
The tribe of Levi was given a special role, a particular ministry. God provided for them too, but he did so in a different way than he provided for the other tribes. He was Levi’s inheritance.
I realized as I read that I would have likely felt a bit discontent with my lot if I was a Levite. Instead of considering what might be meant by “The LORD is his inheritance,” my mind fixated on “Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers.” I focused more on what would be withheld than on what would be given, more on the difference in provision than in the provision itself. I read the words “The LORD is his inheritance” and thought, “Would that be enough for me?”
One great benefit of this year has been the shaking of every shakeable foundation. For so many of us, our sources of comfort have been exposed and lost, some for a time and some forever. What once kept us content and happy can do so no longer. And as we panic at the loss of security, we face afresh the question I returned to in my devotional time: Is the LORD enough for me?
I confess that I don’t trust him like I should. I don’t rest in him like I could. I look more to what he’s withheld or taken than to what he’s given. I cling to fleeting things in the face of the eternal. But he gives more grace, allowing further setbacks, further confusions, further losses. And with each new challenge, I’m given the opportunity to love him, trust him, wait for him, hope in him, rest in him, and live for him. He tests my faith that I might grow, shattering all insufficient idols out of love. I’m tired and I’m torn, but I’m thankful, and I pray that I’ll pass the test, that faithfulness will be my response no matter the trial. He is enough. Let me learn to trust him.
While many sayings of Jesus bring great comfort to our souls, some can deeply disturb us. Luke records one such saying.
And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
Jesus’s words here call to mind similar texts throughout Scripture. Paul calls believers to be living sacrifices, for example, and the author of Hebrews speaks of enduring in the struggle against sin (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 12). But what does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up the cross? What does following Jesus really entail?
I don’t think denying ourselves means we self-flagellate, depriving ourselves needlessly of joys that God gives. The Lord created a world filled with good things, things that fill us with wonder as we partake. Food, drink, fellowship, art, sport, work, travel—we can enjoy all these and more with thanksgiving. “So,” Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). True, we live in a world broken by sin, and we feel in our own bodies the effects of the break. Good things may be twisted, good desires corrupted, good gifts turned to vices. But so long as we do not sin in our partaking, we may partake in worship.
At times, however, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. Sometimes, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of some good thing in order to better serve a fellow Christian (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). At other times, we deny ourselves the pursuit of our own plans in order to submit to the will of the Lord (Proverbs 19:21; James 4:13-17). In these ways, we act out of love for the Lord and for people.
I find myself tending to think of self-denial as singular instances of action rather than as a lifestyle of surrender. In both of the above cases, for example, I can misread the text to pertain only to specific cases, to particular times and places where I have to give up my choice for that of another. But what if self-denial is more of a lifestyle, a settled conviction that the Lord reigns over every desire, every decision, and every direction of my life? How might that change the day to day journey?
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would change how I view persistent desires. The strength and the persistence of a desire may lead me to assume I am justified in pursing the desire’s fulfillment, but such a conclusion does not necessarily follow. Sin finds its root in our desires, growing toward death as we pursue our desire’s fulfillment apart from the Lord’s provision (James 1:13-18). At times, I’ve prayed for some desires to be taken from me, for me to be granted freedom from the struggle. I don’t believe such prayers are wrong. But the Lord may not answer such prayers for relief. Paul, for example, prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, for the harassment he underwent to be withdrawn; but the Lord saw fit to leave the thorn, for his purpose was Paul’s sanctification (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Lord uses the struggle, our ongoing self-denial, for good, even if we can’t see or understand his purpose in the midst of the fight.
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would also change how I view allegiance to Christ. Relatively speaking, I have not had to sacrifice to the same extent as many other Christians. I stand amidst a mighty throng of martyrs and missionaries, of those who chose Christ over family, friends, health, safety, and life itself. Though all Christians bear crosses, some do seem to have a heavier weight, a fiercer struggle. And when the call of Christ requires your all, when devotion to the Lord means a greater denial than you ever realized you could make, you wonder if Christ is worth it. Ultimately, that’s the question we must answer: is Christ worthy of the greatest extent of self-denial? If pressed, will I surrender my deepest desires, my ties to family and friends, and my comforts and securities in this world for the sake of this Jewish teacher? Is he worth it? Jesus claims that he is: “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He even raises a challenge to those of us who doubt: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). More than that, he walked the road before us, suffering on our behalf to save us from slavery to sin and death. His cross was heavier than any he calls us to bear. He can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). But he doesn’t just sympathize with us; he changes us for good (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Admittedly, we could embrace our desires, follow our dreams, and live according to our plans. That option remains on the table. But what do we really gain, especially if we lose ourselves in the process? Furthermore, who has the Lord ever cheated? Who has the Lord ever failed? Who has come to the end of a life of faithful service and concluded, “The Lord was not enough”? If God has promised to provide for our needs as we seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6), then, though we may feel a lack of some good thing, we will have all we truly need. He knows best, and his love and faithfulness have already been sufficiently proven (Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8).
Self-denial, if understood as a way of life, will require far more than we may be comfortable surrendering. And I think that’s part of the point. Jesus didn’t downplay the seriousness of the path of the kingdom because he knew the gain far outweighed the losses. Paul understood this point well, forsaking any earthly gain and rejoicing in any present weakness for the joy of knowing Christ (Philippians 3; 2 Corinthians 12). The twelve disciples faced persecution and death for their allegiance to Christ, and they rejoiced. The people of God are a people of peace, peace that surpasses any counterfeit offered by sin. So we need not fear self-denial for the sake of Christ. We may mourn the losses we experience in this life, but we may bear our crosses with joy. We are the followers of the Son of God, those called from death to life, those made sons and daughters of the King. Let us not fear the loss of this world; we stand to gain our souls.
Some hopes are dashed upon the throne of grace, Are lifted up in pray’r to be denied. And though it seems the Father hides his face, We need not fear that he will not provide. But his provision oft is of a kind Perceived unkind while in the midst of loss. What he deems “need” is diff’rently defined. Sometimes the crown is traded for the cross. But crosses borne in faith will always form Our souls as needed, so we need not fret. His grace suffices for the fiercest storm. None who trust full in him shall feel regret. But it is faith—not sight—that shows the way. God is our shepherd. We need ne’er dismay.
You submit your request to God, trusting that he knows best but hoping he’ll fulfill your desire. But he doesn’t.
I’ve wondered before if he doesn’t grant my requests because I’m asking wrongly. James wrote of this problem, defining the error as asking “to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So I’ve prayed for the Lord to help me to ask rightly, to purify my desires. I’ve been convicted of sins and have repented of idolatry. I’ve begun to think about prayer differently, reevaluating my intentions and goals as I bring my requests to the Lord. But sometimes his answer remains “No.”
I’ve also wondered if he doesn’t grant my requests because of my lack of faith. Maybe I’m just not trusting him enough. Maybe I’m failing to exhibit the faith spoken of in Hebrews 11. Maybe I give up too quickly and simply need to be persistent in prayer like the widow in Luke 18. So I’ve prayed more boldly, more persistently, more hopefully. I’ve begun to consider what praying in faith might mean, how long persistent prayer should typically last, what the Lord had in mind when he taught on prayer. But sometimes his answer remains “No.”
I rarely understand the reason for his “No.” I’ve questioned, sought, wondered, and cried, but I don’t have many answers. But I have a history of experiences that testify to the goodness and faithfulness and love of God. Though I often didn’t understand his purposes in such seasons, I can look back and see how every “no” was for good reason. I also have a deeper love of the Lord and trust in him borne from extended seasons of unfulfilled desires. As I waited on him, he shaped my soul, humbled my heart, and renewed my mind.
I haven’t risen above the fear and worry that often come when God withholds what I request of him. I’m far from perfect faithfulness. But I think, by the grace of God, I’m growing. I reflect on his work in my life thus far, and I am comforted. His answer may be “No,” but his purpose remains good. So I have hope for all present and future circumstances, hope grounded not in what I can see or feel in the moment but in what I know to be eternally true: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).