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.
I’m beginning to wonder if faithfulness often feels like failure.
Recently, some trusted individuals told me they associate me with faithfulness. While I’m humbled, I don’t feel very faithful; I feel more like a failure. I look at my walk with the Lord and see all the times I waver, all the times I doubt, all the times I second-guess my way and misstep. I see the conviction of the Lord, his discipline in my life. I see all the ways I struggle to submit to his lordship, all the ways I feel disappointed by his plan for my life, all the ways I wish things were different. I feel more faithless than faithful, more fearful than full of faith.
True, I’m thankful. I see the ways he’s blessed me in this season. I can see some of the wisdom in my present location and how he’s enabled me to do what he’s called me to do. I know he’s at work, and I can detect hints and whispers of that work as I pursue faithfulness. I am not abandoned or lost. He knows where I am and knows what he’s doing. I can count it all joy when I meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2-4).
I guess I assumed faithfulness would look more like boldness or strength than timidity or weakness. But both boldness and strength are found not in the individual but in the Lord of the individual. Christ is the source of contentment, the certainty of salvation, the power in weakness. If we stand, we stand in him.
I want to be faithful to him in all things, so I pray for faith to grow, for love to deepen, and for hope to endure. I pray for contentment when I’m disappointed, for wisdom when I’m confused, and for peace when I’m troubled. I’m challenged by the truth that faithfulness is often tied to obedience, and I pray for strength to obey, to walk by faith when I can’t see the way. I pray that I would abide in Christ and would be a witness in this season to his power, mercy, and grace.
In short, I pray often and seek him, confessing my inability and trusting in his sufficiency. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe faithfulness is not defined by having the answers but by following the one who does, not by having the strength in oneself but in obeying the one who is strong, not by being capable oneself but by surrendering to the God who is. Maybe God is glorified more by continued repentance and surrender than by a perfectly executed journey. Maybe faithfulness really does feel like failure sometimes.
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.
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.
God gave Moses specific instructions regarding sacrifices, priests, relationships, rest, and a number of other subjects, and his instructions are recorded in the book of Leviticus. As you read through the book, you begin to realize something: the Lord requires the best, not merely the comfortable or the convenient.
Take sacrifices, for example. Only specific types of animals are accepted, and acceptable animals often must be without blemish and of a certain age. The people couldn’t simply give God the wounded or small of the flock, the weak or the unwanted; they had to give their best. The same goes for the priesthood. The holiness of the role of priest seems to be illustrated in the high standards God set forth for those who could hold such a role. God’s servants couldn’t behave any way they chose; they were to be, in a way, the best of the people, the model of obedience and holiness.
God’s standards haven’t changed. He still requires the best of us. “You therefore must be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He wills our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and he remains “the LORD who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).
Such sanctification is not always convenient or comfortable. Paul chose his words well when he called us to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). We heed the call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23), a worthy yet difficult calling. Discipline and correction factor regularly into the process (Hebrews 12), as does grace for our failures (1 John 2:1-2). He refines us, molds us, and purifies us, and the process is often painful. He requires the fullness of our hearts, minds, and spirits. He requires the best of us.
It’s encouraging, then, to remember that God not only requires the best from us, but he also does what is best for us. He causes all things to work together for good, holding us in his unfailing love (Romans 8). He knows us intimately (Psalm 139), cares for us deeply (1 Peter 5:7), and gives wisdom for the journey (James 1:5-8). He doesn’t merely do what is convenient or comfortable in our lives. Indeed, his work may feel at times like a wound (consider Paul’s wrestling with the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12). But because the Lord is good, we can trust him in all circumstances, all seasons, all stations of life. He will always do what is best. Indeed, he has already done what is best for us by giving us the perfect, spotless lamb to save us, meeting our greatest need and ensuring he will not fail us in our lesser needs (Romans 8, James 1).
So let us offer our best to the Lord, withholding nothing as we learn to love and serve him better. Let us understand that he is worthy of our best, worthy of our very lives. And let us rest in the truth that God loves us and will always do what is best, trusting that “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.
Haunted by the fear of what comes after
That hard resignation of all hoping
In all plans of mine, the feeble groping
For a road that will not warrant laughter.
Rip a wall down and remove a rafter–
So it feels when dreams begin to crumble.
“All is lost!” – the thought when you but stumble.
Can we lose and not despair thereafter?
Faith and patience: bittersweet but proven.
Bitter, for they bid us leave our hiding
In the safety of our sight and timing.
Sweet, for we, though limited, yet move in
Sov’reignty’s provision, e’er abiding
In his goodness, t’ward him ever climbing.