My knowledge of God … advanced slowly through many stages, and with a vast amount of useless conflict and wrestling, to the place where I … discovered to my amazement and delight His utter unselfishness, and saw it was safe to trust in Him. –Hannah Whitall Smith (emphasis mine)
I opened a new (to me) devotional book this morning and read these words from 19th-century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith. Though I know very little of Smith’s life or spiritual journey, her description of that journey jumped out at me. How often have I wrestled with God? How often have I felt conflict in my relationship with Him, convinced God wanted nothing more than to squelch my enjoyment, my desires, my dreams?
Of course, none of those feelings of mine are rooted in the truth of Scripture that I have so long read and studied. My accusations fly in the face of such promises as “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4) and “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). Still, in the dark, discouraging days, it is too easy to blame God.
Learning that “it [is] safe to trust in Him” is a lifelong process. It is a journey of discovery that involves both pain and delight – just as we learn to love, know, and trust a husband or wife. Smith puts it this way:
“I simply mean becoming acquainted with Him as one becomes acquainted with a human friend; that is, finding out what is His nature, and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”
Learning to know and trust God can involve “useless conflict and wrestling” or it can begin by believing He is trustworthy, then proving it over the course of a journey taken with Him and “finding out His nature and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”
A couple weeks ago I said different ways of reading the Bible could be compared to taking a walk, driving a car, or flying across the country. Just as different modes of travel will give different perspectives on the land, so each way of reading the Bible offers unique insights.
Today I want to talk about one way, but I’m going to change the metaphor—from taking a walk to soaking in a hot tub. Some might call this meditation; but because that word can scare some people away, I prefer to use the hot tub image: we soak in the Word (the Bible) so that we can soak the Word in.
Soaking in the Word means sitting quietly with a short passage for a long time. Maybe it’s a dozen verses; maybe only one or two. Read it. Read it again. Read it aloud. Read it in different translations.
Then sit quietly. Does one word or thought penetrate your mind? Look again at the text and find that word or phrase. Turn it over in your mind. Chew on it, as it were.
Read the passage again, slowly. What’s happening in your heart? …your mind? …your soul? Do the words encourage you? Do they bring refreshment or peace in the midst of chaos? Or is there a challenge in them—a behavior to change, a sin to confess, a relationship to mend? Talk with God about what you are sensing. Ask for forgiveness, courage, or strength; or say thank you for the encouragement. Praise Him for reaching into your soul.
Finally, sit quietly with God. Sometimes I imagine Jesus sitting on the couch with me, or across the table, just being quiet and enjoying each other’s company. Other times I imagine myself curling up in Abba’s—the Father’s—lap and resting my head on His shoulder. Enjoy God’s presence.
Further thoughts: I’ve been spending some time soaking in Colossians 3 over the past few weeks. It is a rich, challenging, and encouraging passage. Let’s look at the first few verses.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-3, English Standard Version)
If then: Sometimes if means, maybe you have, maybe you haven’t; and sometimes it means, since or because. That’s the sense here—Because you have been raised with Christ…. There is a confidence here, a certainty about our relationship.
So what? So, seek…[and] set your minds on things that are above, not … on the earth. It’s a matter of perspective. Am I seeking only what’s on earth—job, security, home…? What does it look like to seek what’s above—the things of God? What does He want me to seek?
Take some time today to soak in this passage. See what God does in you.
Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.
Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word.
If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?
Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.
But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.
If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.
Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.
Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.
We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.
One week. 400 miles. Seven schools. Eight assemblies. Three evening programs. Three morning services. One four-hour class. Back-to-school night. Date night. Whew!!
For the first time in too long, I took a breather this morning. I opened my Bible to the Psalms of Ascents—those psalms that ancient Israelites would sing on their pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the annual feasts; psalms that called reminded them of God’s presence, his power, his protection…even their unfaithfulness to him. I was drawn to Psalm 121, the second in this collection:
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.
This morning, I needed to lift up my eyes to the Lord, the source of my help and energy. I was reminded of Jesus’ habit of going off by himself, whether late at night or early in the morning, to spend time with his Father. I don’t do that enough—or well. Those times were not only rejuvenating for him, they also kept him focused on his priorities.
In the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark, we get a glimpse into what I expect was a typical day in Jesus’ life. He comes into a town (Capernaum, verse 21) on the Sabbath and goes into the synagogue to teach. While there, a man with an unclean spirit comes in, whom Jesus proceeds to heal. Afterward, Jesus goes over to his friend Simon’s (for lunch and a nap, perhaps?), where he finds Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. He heals her. By evening, Simon’s front porch is crowded with the town’s sick and demon-possessed—just the kind of folks you want hanging around the neighborhood, right?! In fact, Mark says, “the whole city was gathered together at the door.” (Mark 1:34) And Jesus, being Jesus, heals them. He casts out a bunch of demons. And then, presumably, he goes to bed.
Early the next morning, Jesus gets up, gets out of town, and prays. This is where it gets hard, particularly for those of us who are doers. The teaching, the healings—those aren’t the hard things; we thrive on the action and, yes, on the attention and affirmation they bring. And they’re good things, important things, even God-honoring things. But Jesus knows what is too easy for me to overlook: the power to do those good and important works comes from the Father, and the power comes through a relationship with him. Not from doing things for him, but from being with him. So Jesus gets alone and prays.
As if this isn’t hard enough, this getting quiet with God, what comes next is almost as amazing to me. Simon and some others track down Jesus and tell him, “Everyone is looking for you.” Undoubtedly, many of the previous evening’s healed patients had gone and told their friends, who gathered in the breaking dawn on Simon’s porch. Some undoubtedly wanted to be healed, but I suspect that many more just wanted to see a healing for themselves. And Jesus’ shocking response is, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”
Did he really say that? Did Jesus—the loving, compassionate, healing son of God—just turn his back on sick people desperate to be made well? Yes. You see, Jesus knew what his mission was: to proclaim the kingdom of God. More than once, Jesus healed for the express purpose of glorifying God (see, for example, John 9). He healed out of compassion and in response to expressions of faith (see Mark 5:25-34). But Jesus’ primary purpose was not to heal; it was to proclaim. Even his great prophecy-fulfilling claim in Luke 4:16ff (cf. Isaiah 61) is not primarily about showing compassion; it is about proclaiming good news.
And so, after a hectic day of teaching and healing, woke early, got alone, and prayed. The time alone with his Father helped him focus on his mission and rejuvenated him for the days ahead: more healings, more people clamoring for a piece of him, more people wanting more from him than just the truth.
Our days are busy and hectic. Work, kids, school, chores, spouse…all clamor for a piece of us until we feel we need to run away screaming! But don’t wait that long. Get some time away where you can be quiet before God and just soak in his presence. It’s not always easy, especially if you’re not in the habit. You may need to start small: seven minutes in the car before you walk into work; or thirty minutes in a coffee shop once a week. Read Psalm 121 (or Psalm 131—it’s even shorter!) and reflect on God’s help. Lift your eyes and heart to God.
Then do it again. Tomorrow, the next day, next week (but don’t wait too long). Make it a habit. Get time alone, quietly, regularly, with God. Soon seven minutes will not be long enough; once a week will not be often enough. But I know that as you do this, you will become refreshed and will be able to refocus on what God has in store for you.