The Lord Will Fight For You

There’s a fine line between acting in faith and trying to gain freedom in my own strength. I tend to think that if I talk about a struggle enough, if I analyze it from every angle and dress it in different words, I’ll be able to finally discover some insight that will set me free once and for all from thought patterns that keep coming back to haunt me. Now don’t get me wrong, there is responsibility on my part to be proactive in setting my mind on what is good and true, the way that I’ve been approaching it until now hasn’t been effective.

I’m reading a fascinating and insightful book by J.P. Moreland, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace. Moreland, a theologian and professor, recounts his experience with mental illness (he had two anxiety-induced nervous breakdowns 10 years apart) and practical steps we can take to replace toxic thoughts patterns with what is true. One of the most enlightening things I’ve gotten from the book so far is that fighting our toxic thoughts by camping out with them and analyzing why they aren’t true actually reinforces the thoughts and keeps the neural pathway that these thoughts reside in well-oiled. Moreland writes:

“The key is not to ruminate about the message, arguing with yourself why it isn’t true or drawing out horrible implications of it. Such rumination, even telling yourself why the message isn’t true, actually depends the brain grooves that trigger the message and makes it harder to get rid of. The goal is to dismiss the message…” (71).

My strategy, so far, has been just this, to ruminate, gritting my teeth, determined to kill the negative thoughts. But I see the irony, trying to fight the battle against distorted thinking with the logic of the mind in which the distorted thinking resides is foolish. Instead, I need to “dismiss the message,” as Moreland says, by acknowledging that the thought is a lie and refocusing my attention on something solid and true.

A good friend recently said the same thing to me, that redirecting my thoughts rather than dwelling on them will play a huge part in experiencing freedom. She used the analogy of a dog being trained, a mental image which stuck with me. When the dog acts out, a smart owner redirects the dog’s attention rather than reinforcing the action through long, drawn-out punishment. So instead of punishing myself every time I have a thought that I think I should have grown past, maybe the wisest thing to do is to submit it to God, refuse to self-flagelate, and redirect my attention to something that I enjoy, whether that’s writing a blog post, listening to Susie Larson’s podcast, taking a trip to the Russian grocery store, or watching Jim put Dwight’s stapler in Jello.

When the Israelites found themselves surrounded on all sides-the Egyptians ready to strike and the Red Sea blocking their way, no human battle strategy could save them.

No human battle strategy could save them, but God could, and he did. Moses told the people, “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.” (Ex. 14:14)

And God fought for them in a way only He was able: he parted the sea and His people walked to freedom. They had to step forward, yes, but it was the Lord who led the way.

In the same way, when freedom seems impossible to me, perhaps it’s because I’m trusting in my mind rather than trusting God to lead me to mental victory. No amount of analysis on my part will lead to freedom; instead, my victory will only come when I rest my weary mind, submit my thoughts to him and say, “Lord, only you can fight this battle.” So may I trust His healing process, may I rest my mind, and may I take joy in the fact that He is fighting my battles, and that He always wins.

On Giving God Advice

“And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Genesis 17:18

When God told Abraham his wife would have a biological son, Abraham laughed. It sounded great, of course, but it was impossible. They had been down this road before with nothing to show for it. Nothing except Ishmael of course, who, although he wasn’t Sarah’s son, seemed to be a good enough substitute. Abraham was too tired to start hoping again, so he decided to make a logical suggestion to God that would be easier on everyone. “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Like Abraham, I have the very bad habit of giving God advice.

Almost always, it has to do with a man that, for whatever reason, it just isn’t working out with.

And I catch myself praying like this:

“Lord, I love his heart for you. I’ve prayed for a godly man for so long; can’t you see what a great team we’d be for your kingdom?”

“Lord, I know you can change hearts [insert 1 to 3 verses to support my argument], so will you change his heart toward me? We’d be so great together [insert dissertation on our compatibility].”

But behind the flowery words and the Scripture citations isn’t a heart submitted to God or His word, but a heart scrambling in fear, fear that unless I present a carefully crafted argument for my heart’s desires, He’s going to forget about me.

And although I’m saying “Lord,” I’m stripping Him of the title and claiming it as my own.

What I’m really saying when I pray those prayers is this:

“Lord, I know better than you, why can’t you get with the program?”

“Lord, if only my plan might live under your blessing.”

I love God’s response to Abraham, a patient response that extended over years of his inability to trust that God would do what he said. Abraham and Sarah had taken things into their own hands with the Ishmael incident some years before (Genesis 16), yet God appeared to Abraham again, reassuring him that His promise was as good as ever. Abraham, though, was still stuck on fitting Ishmael into a mold God clearly had not created him for.

It’s pretty audacious to give advice to the Creator of the universe and the Creator of our own hearts, yet He continues to gently, patiently lead us when we can’t escape the confines of our own logic.

So this is a reminder to myself that the next time I start giving God advice, I step back and reflect on just how much higher His thoughts are than mine (Isaiah 55:9), remembering the miraculous birth of Isaac that expanded into a story so much bigger than Abraham and Sarah.

I’ll end with this powerful quote from Susie Larson:

“If the devil can get you to doubt God’s provision, you’ll grab for yourself and miss the wonder of God’s goodness….If the devil can get you to doubt God’s timing, you’ll rush ahead and miss the wisdom of His ways.”

So let’s trust in His provision, refuse to grab for ourselves, and wait in confidence for the revelation of God’s goodness that ministers to the intimate places of our heart, yet extends far beyond our small story.

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Genesis 17: 15-18 (New International Version) 

God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

 

When You’re Struggling to Believe God’s Promises

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Psalm 13:1-2

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Sarah had had it. She was done. The promise of that long-awaited child had been nonsense, a joke, perhaps a figment of Abraham’s imagination.

For far too long, her “how long?” had only been met with silence and the steady aging of a finite frame.

So when the visitor brought it all up again, she laughed.

It was a cynical laugh, as dry and bitter as this childless life she’d been living for ninety years.

What else could she do?

Cynicism was safe, and when she compared it to God’s track record with this teasing of a son, cynicism could at least be trusted to provide what it promised: realistic expectations for this dusty, aching life.

“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

A son. Next year.

Hope jolted her for a split-second before the laugh spoke reality over the cruel fiction.

Who did this visitor think he was to stir things up again?

She couldn’t open her heart to hope one more time. If her hopes were dashed again, she would crumble right into the grave.  

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The older I get, the better I understand Sarah. Following Jesus truly is joy and meaning and life! Yet there is a tension between this eternal life Christ has saved me into and the current life on a dying earth where things are not what He meant them to be. Because although the longer I live the more I see the goodness and love of God, at the same time, my pain has become sharper, my questions bigger, and my desires deeper. There is a vivid history of God’s faithfulness in my life, but too often, instead of retelling that story, I look behind and despair that I haven’t received the things I’ve longed for or fully shed the chronic struggles that keep me small-minded and self-conscious.

There are so many “how longs” that test my faith in God’s goodness and love for me:

“How long, O Lord, will I feel this way?”

“How long, O Lord, will I struggle with this sin?”

“How long, O Lord, will I yearn for what you haven’t given me?”

You say that if your child asks for bread, you won’t give him a rock, so why are my teeth cracked and my mouth full of earthy grit?

And like Sarah, I’ve let the “how longs” scratch at my throat until all that comes out is a dry, cynical laugh.

When the “how longs,” consume me, I question His promises, desperate to understand:

“You say that if your child asks for bread, you won’t give him a rock, so why are my teeth cracked and my mouth full of earthy grit?”

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“If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:1

In the not-yet, with blurry human eyes, His promises may seem untrue.

But the beautiful thing is, the fulfillment of God’s promises is not dependent on our ability to grasp them. God did not take away his promise because Sarah laughed. Not only is he patient with our “how longs” and cynical laughs, but He still plans to fulfill His promises in a way that exceeds what we could imagine.

God not only gave Sarah the son she had longed for, but drew her into a story so much bigger than herself, making her the first woman in the line of Jesus Christ.

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“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Ephesians 3:14-15  

There’s a fascinating parallel between Sarah and followers of Jesus.

Sarah laughed even after God gave her a new name embedded with His promise. Sarai became Sarah because God wanted her name to mean “mother of nations.” But even with her identity heard each time someone spoke her name, she struggled to believe.

As Christ-followers, we’ve been given a new name, a family name, derived from the very name of the One who saved us, but we, like Sarah, still struggle to believe the promises embedded in this new identity. I’m finding that no matter how much evidence I see of God’s goodness, I still question, I still doubt, and I still cry, “how long?”

I want to be a woman who laughs at the future and not at God’s promises.

But in my heart of hearts, I want to be a woman who laughs at the future (Proverbs 31:25!) and not at God’s promises.

So I’m praying that I would believe the promises embedded in my new name more than I believe my human eyes.

That I would read the truth and speak the truth with conviction regardless of how I feel on a given day.

And that I would remember Sarah and take heart, knowing that God’s promises will be fulfilled in a way so much broader, sweeter, and more eternal than the ways I’ve cried for them to be.

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Genesis 18: 1-15 (NIV, emphasis mine)

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

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Genesis 21: 1-2

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.