Tuesday, November 20, 2012

That hassles might be part of favour

Like many of us, I've often been asked to cite my favourite Bible verse. However, I've never been asked to share my least favourite, and I've had a few. High on the list was James 1:2 - 'Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.' I'd flick really fast past that to something I liked better. Endurance wasn't a quality I was interested in developing, because it suggested that I'd be having to put up with unpleasant things. If all my hopes and plans fell into place, I wouldn't need endurance anyway.

I always chafed at being told to put up with hassles, let alone consider them pure joy! Hassles are annoying, nasty and often sad. Favour is what I wanted to focus on claiming. I wanted the blessings of Abraham, passed down to his spiritual descendents. I wanted to claim the promise that when we rely on Jesus' sacrifice for us, we have been redeemed from the curse of the law. Surely, I reasoned, the curse of the law must include all these annoying hassles. Get them out of my life.

Whenever I heard James 1:2 quoted, I'd listen politely but close my mind. It was a bit of a hassle that it was even in the Bible at all. Count it all joy indeed. It seemed to go against the way God wired the human brain. We automatically like nice stuff and shun bad stuff.

But today got me thinking. I was reading a story that made me realise there really is back-up in nature for James' advice. It was a reflection written by Napoleon Hill (the "Think and Grow Rich" author, but this was a different book). His grandfather used to be a wagon maker. While the neighbours were cultivating plantations of protected oak trees, Napoleon Hill's grandpa used to make sure he had a few oaks standing in open fields where they were exposed to the full force of blazing sun and blasting storms. As a result, timber from them was undoubtedly superior quality. It had struggled to hold its own against the elements, making it tough, flexible and valuable. It could be bended into arc-shaped segments for wagon wheels without breaking, and could also bear the heaviest loads.

What if the same is true of us? Not every unpleasant experience breaks us at all. They might be the sun and wind that strengthen us, fill us with beauty and make us stronger and more valuable.

I took my children out of school determined they would never had to deal with the physical and emotional pain I experienced year after year from bullies. It was treatment I believed had permanently damaged something deep inside of me. What if it made me a stronger person instead? Maybe the times my kids have gone through worrying, anxious experiences which I couldn't prevent have made them stronger too. Maybe I should stop feeling bad that I can't shelter them from all trials.

I've just finished writing a new novel, named "Along for the Ride." I'm hoping it may be one of my most potentially helpful one for readers, and I'm proud of it as I read it over, but I see that I'd never have been able to write it if I hadn't gone through some bad personal experiences, which I drew upon as I wrote it. It's been my way of creating a thing of comfort and beauty out of lots of pain. (I never went through a fraction of what my hero goes through, but I had enough other things happen to shape me so I could understand him.)

For so long I'd assumed trials and favour must be entirely separate and incompatible, like water and electricity, but what if they go together at times? What if some hassles are even part of favour? Perhaps instead of whining, we should be grateful to consider that we've been planted out in the open fields for a particular reason. I used to react to trials by saying, "I can't be in God's favour at all. I'm getting battered and bruised and I want it to stop." Maybe a more appropriate way to respond is, "Okay, these must be some of the heatwaves and storms that are making me stronger and more valuable for some purpose."

Having said that, I do believe the wisdom is in discerning which trials fall into this category. I do strongly believe that some things should be actively resisted. It all keeps life interesting.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

that beliefs can set as hard as concrete

Exodus 9: 20-21 tells us, "All of Pharoah's servants who had respect for God's word got their workers and animals under cover as fast as they could, but those who didn't take God's word seriously left their workers and animals out in the field." The Message.

Perhaps your reaction is the same as mine. "What? They must have been crazy. At this stage, this goes beyond taking God's word seriously. Could they really be that stupid?" The hailstorm that was being predicted through Moses and Aaron was strike #7 in Egypt. The Nile River had turned blood red, the land had teemed with frogs as a result, gnats and flies swarmed over everything and then the poor livestock succumbed to a fatal disease. After that, the people themselves were covered with sore, festering boils.

If it had been me hearing the hailstorm prediction, I like to think I would have hurried to get every living thing under cover as fast as I could. "They've been right about six other plagues. There's a good chance they'll be right about this too." Could anyone really be stupid enough not to say the same thing? It seems the answer is yes. Can stupidity sound a bit like intelligence? The answer, again, is yes. Would you have listened to this sort of reasoning? "It's just one very bad natural disaster. The terrible thing with the river water made the frogs surge up and then their dying carcasses attracted the insects, which attacked the stock and made them sick. No wonder we got sick too. It has nothing to do with those Hebrews and their predictions about their non-existent God. Don't give in to them and let them see we're afraid."

It might've been the sensible sounding response of people who desperately didn't want the Hebrews' words to prove true, but in their zeal to keep believing what they'd always believed, they turned blind eyes to several things they shouldn't have. Moses and Aaron predicted each of the plagues before they occurred, so taking the seventh one as a warning should have seemed reasonable. Also, several of the plagues could have been taken as direct affronts to the gods the Egyptians had worshiped for generations. For example, they depended on the god Hopi for the life-sustaining waters of the Nile. But the people didn't want to think that life was any different to what they'd always been taught was true.

We see this sort of stubborn clinging to set beliefs, which looks like stupidity in retrospect, has been happening throughout the centuries. Nicolaus Copernicus was treated like a heretic for daring to suggest that the sun was the centre of the solar system rather than the earth. His view was greatly at odds with the Medieval Church which declared that the earth must be the centre as God's most favoured celestial body. Then down the track, Christopher Columbus was treated similarly by people who thought he couldn't possibly discover land across so much water and that it would be unsafe to travel as far as he intended in that direction. (I'd been taught to think that he was ridiculed for thinking the earth was round instead of flat). And I remember reading about the ridicule experienced by a man named Semelweis, who dared to suggest that medical mortality rates would go down if hygiene methods such as hand-washing by the surgeons, were put into place.

Well, we're living in the 21st century now. Can anyone in our day and age be so blinkered and stubborn? I have observed the answer may still be yes. In researching the novel I've just finished, I was reading up about miracles. Many Christians (including me) declare that God has worked on their behalf in miraculous ways and even non-Christians and secular scientists call it the force of belief. Either way, there are thousands of recorded cases of those who have been cured, healed and prospered, yet so many others are still paying no attention because it goes against what they've always believed and experienced.

I wouldn't be a bit like this myself, at times, though, would I? Would you? Have you ever had a friend or family member of whom you've said something like this? "I can talk to ---- with proof until I want to explode with frustration, and they still refuse to listen." Well, aren't we being the same as them, when we keep browbeating them with our opinions, wanting to keep believing that, one day, they might listen? This attitude of wanting to keep comfortably believing what we want to believe is even making its way into popular literature. At the start of the fifth Harry Potter book, "The Order of the Phoenix", Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, tells everyone that Harry is being a silly alarmist when he insists that Lord Voldemort has returned and not to listen to him. It turns out that Fudge is the silly one. It gets me nodding with interest when stories reflect life. John Kenneth Galbraith said, "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." Why are we so resistant to changing our minds about anything?

I never want my mind to get so closed up that it resists and creaks whenever anyone tries to prise it open, so they have no choice but to give up and walk away. I don't want to be like those Israelites who said, "The giants are too big for us and nobody can ever talk me into going in to take the land." Nor do I want to be like the ones who shrugged and said, "The hail stones won't hurt us." I want to be like David, who said, "Even though that Philistine is huge, brash and covered with armor and everyone believes he'll murder me, I'm covered by the promises of God and he isn't." Or like Mary, who knew that her pregnancy would be highly unusual and the people would surely talk, but still said, "Let it be done to me as you have said." Or like Jeremiah, who said, "I'm going to buy real estate here in Jerusalem, even though every one believes it's hopeless and wants to sell up."
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