Between – Psalm 73:1-28
Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever…But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, That I may tell of all Your works.
This psalm is a meditation on the indulgence in and the deliverance from envy. Asaph, the writer, gives us a first-hand account of his battle with this formidable foe. Prior to his liberation, he claims that his wits had devolved to the level of a beast. He made a wise move though; he carried his troubles to God. There, as he worshipped in the sanctuary he found his footing; everything came into focus. In the place of worship he learned the objects of his coveting were illusory. Most importantly though, God himself was enlarged in his perception, becoming more than sufficient compensation for grievous circumstances.
Are battles with envy a familiar battleground to you? They have been to me. However, in the midst of the battle, I was not at all honest about them. In my first major skirmish with this enemy I think I too had devolved to the level of bestial perception.
When I was 37, I was on the outside of my family circle, watching my (now-x) brother-in-law take his place as the son my father never had. Adding to the drama: While my personal vision of a simple life, working with my hands within a Christian community was imploding, my brother-in-law was about to realize his dream of becoming a somebody in this world as the heir-apparent to the business enterprises owned by my Dad. My father needed a succession plan and my brother-in-law was it-by-default since I had vowed to never work for my Dad. I was descending; my brother in law was ascending, I was jealous.
But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Like an ignorant beast, I had not appreciated how this vow–of-avoidance had been driving my life. This vow (of self preservation) had even infiltrated and found a home inside my spiritual vision. I did not perceive my true motives until, like Asaph, in my bitterness, I was pierced (as he has put it).
When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant;I was like a beast before You.
Those who have glimpsed my heart wonder why I seem to camp around the theme of suffering. It is because, without the pressure which God permitted (or created, I don’t know) through suffering, I would still be living in deception as to why I had charted the course I had for my life. Without the pressure arising from; the financial vacuum created by my vocational path, the strain of immediate and extended family relationships, a failing business, body, and vision, I do not believe I would have experienced the goodness of God to the degree I have.
Most painful to me was the notion that my Father in heaven was somehow underwriting my demise. God’s passive (yet intimate) -involvement in my debacle tortured me; “Why God? Oh why?!” I know that God, as the agent-of-cause (where suffering is concerned) is theologically-incorrect in many circles. This is uncomfortable since many of my friends live within these circles. Yet, I cannot side-step the fact that I was in a very dark place which my Fathet-in-heaven had either orchestrated or permitted. Neither can I sidestep the fact that pressure, in its various forms, appears regularly in the stories of those who have known God intimately. My conclusion, though out of step with many, is that suffering is integral to child rearing. Even Jesus learned obedience through the things which he suffered. (see Hebrews 5:8)
In that season my sanity was stretched, attempting to envision my package of troubles evolving into any kind of Romans 8:28-good outcome. Sadly, envy and bitterness were having a heyday in my heart. In my body, soul and spirit, I was hanging by a thread while my brother-in-law was feasting off of the fatted calf. Regarding this and a litany of other matters, my soul was screaming, “WHY GOD?!” The silence was deafening. I was actually developing a morbid curiosity, thinking; “Ok this is going to hurt but I will at least have a front row seat for the spectacular crash that is surely forthcoming.”
Shame too was dog piling. I had had enough dealings with God by this time to know Him as incredibly loving and faithful. My thinking was disastrous and I knew it. I was deeply ashamed. With this backdrop, given my stinking attitude, my simple prayer was; “Please, PLEASE, do not let this season pass without showing me what it is you are after.” My confession was; “Surely Lord I am a dumb beast.” My request was, “Please lead me out of this valley. And…..if possible, please soften the landing of my impending crash.”
God’s word of deliverence to me was not at all what I expected. While I was chafing at the injustice of my circumstances, wanting relief, wanting vindication from those whom (I perceived) had marginalized and abused me, a scripture passage just stuck in my perception. It was Romans 12:18…..
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Immediately, the Spirit highlighted the fact I had serious ought in my heart toward a few people. I was indignant at the abuse I believed I had suffered at the hand of these vermin. I perceived reconciliation happening if and when these scoundrels returned to me with adequate sorrow for their crimes. My hurdles were; a) I also knew reconciliation was priority #1 with the Lord, b) that it was possible and, c) that it did depend on me (not them). I knew exactly what I was being asked to do and it was the most unfair – unjust – impossible directive conceivable! What I had feared had befallen me; I was to take up my cross and follow him.
This is an example of just how unlike my ways are compared to God’s. The Lord made it very clear: Restitution for any crimes (real or imagined) against me by them was between God and them – not me. That situation (if it even existed) was off-limits to me! I was to deal with one thing and one thing only – my own deceived heart, which was ensnared in unforgiveness, envy and bitterness. Note; Sadly, like a Pharisee, my heart was totally convinced of its righteousness and innocence. Foolishly, I wanted a trial where justice would be served; I knew a jury of my peers would exonerate me on all counts.
Again, like a beast who had forgotten that it was God with whom I had to do, I was either unwilling or unable to see these things until I obeyed the mandate to make peace with all men (well… two to start with anyway). It is not the time to tell the account of those reconciliations but suffice it to say they happened within weeks of receiving the Romans 12:18 mandate.
It was an astonishing watershed affair to experience God pouring his grace and mercy into one circumstance after another, especially into my parched soul. So, what launched this turn about?I believe it was because the Lord had never taken his hand off of my life (even in my extreme mess) and that as I reached up for his help, He was waiting and ready to deal with the root issues which were driving so many of the hurtful ways in my life. When I determined to obey, something alive immediately began growing in my heart. I could then acknowledge, with Asaph (with great confidence)….
Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me into glory.
Though I despise the misery brought on by testings and trials, I cannot edit them from my story nor from my theology. Without suffering’s assistance in coming to the end of my rope (body, soul and spirit), I would never have known God’s presence in my decent or at the crash site. Really, what could I possibly exchange for the value of coming to personally know God’s love and faithfulness, even when it was expressed by way of the severe mercies which He permitted to touch me? Without these chapters in my story, how would I even have a story – to ever come to proclaim with Asaph….
Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Was my suffering just the reaping of what I had sowed? Was it a customized cross designed to crucify certain aspects of my personality which were, in their own way, killing me? I confess, I do not know the precise answers to these questions. I strongly suspect, in a mysterious way, both are true. I believe at all times and in all ways, (especially in the darkest messiest times) the Lord is faithful to His Word and that truly all things can work toward our good if we are willing to obey. My claim is: the messy chapters of my spirituality have culminated in an ability and willingness to say (often in the presence of contrary perceptions and feelings)….
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all His works.
Obedience in this circumstance required that I let go (die to) my right to justice on my terms. It also required I let go (die to) my vision for my life. Whether my interpretations mesh theologically with others or not, I cannot control (therefore also becoming something I must relinquish). Regardless of its popularity, this type of dying (or relinquishing) is what I perceive Jesus calls us to do when He commands that we take up our crosses, deny ourselves and follow Him.
Lessons learned? As far as it concerns us, God wants us to take responsibility for our own hearts. We are to watch over our own motives, dreams and ambitions with all diligence. We aren’t called to do this for others. God will make far more headway with them anyway when we let Him be Lord by letting go of our judgements against them. This will do, both their hearts and ours, worlds of good.
By the evening of the day when I made restitution with the second party, God met my wife and I in a supernatural way which involved prophecy – something I had seen sorely abused. Imperfect as prophecy is, I heard the Lord say some things through people that could have only come from the One who searches men’s hearts.
That evening I was given a prophetic word that God was going to return to me the borrowed axe head which had been dropped into the river, which when recovered would be mine exclusively. (from 2 Kings 6:1-7). The person offering this word reported that this passage had just dropped into his mind (much like the Romans passage had in mine), that he had no earthly clue what it meant, that he was just the messenger. Like Mary, I held that word in my heart, wondering what it might mean.
Although I had no ambition to reclaim my rightful place of inheritance as a first born son, it was accomplished in spite of me. Allow me to explain. The extreme pressure of this season revealed my so-called righteous motives were co-mingled with motives of self-preservation which protected me from feelings of rejection, which my Dad provoked. My vow to never work for him, when honestly restated was; “Over my dead body, will I ever, by God, let my Dad (or any other person) hurt me with their rejection. No way! No how!”
I was in relationship with God but if I was going to go on with Him as a disciple, I had to break this vow, return to my earthly father and see how life would play out in a place and in relationships I had been fleeing from, in fear, my whole life. If Jesus was to be Lord, things beneath the surface, like inner vows and roots of bitterness could not be allowed to drive my life as the father of lies would have preferred.
Without it being at the forefront of my ambition, God arranged it such that I would take my place as a first born son in the family business and in our extended family. I have served as its president for the better part of the last two decades. God prospered the business and our family in this interval. Favor has relentlessly followed me in this unlikely, unanticipated chapter of my life. More importantly, love prevailed.
In that same space of time an estranged son and his father reconciled much of their turbulent (really non-existent) relationship. My father accepted Christ just before he died of cancer in 2002. The borrowed axe head indeed became mine. Even greater applications of this prophecy are accruing to my heart as I am living in greater harmony with my own identity-in-Christ. Indeed, He has done (and is dong) exceedingly abundantly and beyond my wildest expectations.
This is why I reject doctrines which excuse believers from suffering, trials, tests and discipline. While they admittedly provoke some fear and trembling, none of these words, understandably, have negative connotation to me.
Father, indeed you would have us to hear Your counterintuitive words of deliverance. Oh Lord permit our trials to break our darkened hearts such that Your redemptive power and light pour in, setting us free from all the things which would blunt our understanding of your loving ways. Liberate us from the delusions of our own righteousness. Break us down such that our only foundation is You. Proceed ahead Lord, creating in us clean hearts which give You Your rightful place as Lord in every facet of our lives. All for the sake of Your beautiful and glorious name and Your unending kingdom. Amen.