Wow. December is like living in a clothes dryer. As I reflect on the past year, all kinds of emotions tumble me around.
In some ways it has been the best year ever. I’ve studied the Bible with people and baptized people. I have had many great times with family and friends. I’ve seen God work in amazing ways. But I can also think of how I fell short, my challenges, the things that still need to change.
It was like this in the early church too. After the stoning of Stephen, a great persecution broke out against the church, and the Christians were scattered. It was a terrible time, as Saul went from house to house, dragging Christians out of their houses and sending them to prison.
But then Saul had an encounter with Jesus and was converted. That ushered in a period of rest and fruitfulness for the church: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” Acts 9:31
Living for God is always like living the opening line of Great Expectations — “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” There are unbelievably good ups, but many things pull our hearts down.
Another place this is illustrated is in the life of Paul when he went to Asia. God blessed his work, but his heart was torn. “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia. (II Cor 2:12-13)
Then, in Macedonia, Paul experienced great trials, but God gave him just what he needed for encouragement. “For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus.” II Cor 7:6
Here is the key word for Paul in II Corinthians: “BUT.” No matter how hard it got for Paul, he didn’t leave it there. The blessings of God always trumped his challenges.
- “BUT this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again.” I Cor 1:9
- “BUT thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.” II Cor 2:14
“But.” What if I said that one small word every time I started to get discouraged today?
What if every time I started to feel defeated, I remembered all the blessings of God?
- At that time you will say, “I will praise you, O LORD. Although you had been angry with me, you turned your anger away from me, and you comforted me. Look! God is my Savior. I am confident and unafraid, because the LORD is my strength and my song. He is my Savior.” (Is 12:1-2)
If I met every challenge with “but,” I would want to tell everyone about the Lord, as Isaiah 12 goes on to say: “At that time you will say, “Praise the LORD. Call on his name. Make his deeds known among the nations. Make them remember that his name is highly honored. Make music to praise the LORD. He has done wonderful things. Let this be known throughout the earth.”
Serving God, and just living life, can bring us through exhausting experiences. But God is the God of all comfort, and he provides wonderful sustenance for us at just the right time.
- “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16)
- “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Rom 15:5
In closing, I want to share this super encouraging passage from Isaiah 51. I have marked some of the verses in bold, because they are so meaningful to me. They remind me that my people pleasing can be the source of my grief, and that our Almighty God can be the source of true comfort. Things may seem chaotic and disheartening, BUT there is a sure hope for me, and for all who feel trapped and oppressed.
“Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals
or be terrified by their insults.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment;
the worm will devour them like wool.
But my righteousness will last forever,
my salvation through all generations.”
I, even I, am he who comforts you.
Who are you that you fear mere mortals,
human beings who are but grass,
that you forget the Lord your Maker,
who stretches out the heavens
and who lays the foundations of the earth,
that you live in constant terror every day
because of the wrath of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction? . . .
The cowering prisoners will soon be set free;
they will not die in their dungeon,
nor will they lack bread.
For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord Almighty is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth
and covered you with the shadow of my hand”