“What do you see?” If you read through the prophets, you find God asking the prophets this question many times. I think it is still an important question today, one we need to ask God. “Father, what do you see? Jesus, what do you see? Holy Spirit, what do you see? What do you see when you look at me?”
I think that for many of us, our own sinfulness fills our vision, and we are pretty sure it fills God's vision also (or would if we dared go into His presence). Like the Israelites, we'd rather not hear His voice or come too near Him, because we think it pretty likely there would be some yelling and hitting if we did. We hope we're not so bad that we would be killed, but our hungry hearts, which long for the love of the Father and Lover and Counselor, are so filled with a sense of shame that we dare not risk entering His presence.
Several years ago, I had an exchange with God regarding the Father's image of us. At the time, I was having one of those 1:00 a.m. experiences when you are exhausted and irritable and still have a lot of work in front of you. I found myself very angry with Joshua about something. I don't even remember what it was. I was trying hard to keep from yelling at him, but my anger was building. Suddenly, I remembered the passage about temptation, where God promises to provide a way out. With desperate hope, I prayed for God to provide the way out so I wouldn't yell at Joshua. Then, I found myself yelling at him anyway.
I was crushed. I had tried as hard as I could. I had asked for help. Yet I had still failed. I turned back to God and prayed again, “Where was the way out? I couldn't find it.” Instantly, I had a picture of God with His back to me. I felt hurt and asked, “Why would you turn your back to me when I needed you?” Immediately, I received two things: an understanding and a worded answer. The understanding was that my Father was choosing not to see something that would tarnish His image of me. God knows who I am, and He knows that it is no longer I who sin, but sin which is at work in me. He chooses to see me as I am, not as I do. The words were “I can't take away your sin yet, because the reason you don't want to sin is that you are afraid of me. I can't take away your sin until you understand my grace.” Both the words and the understanding came with a sense of deep love and tenderness that I can't replicate in writing.
“The reason you don't want to sin is because you are afraid of me.” As soon as He said it, I knew it was true. I was afraid of God's anger. I was afraid of what God might do in His anger. I clearly deserved and needed punishment. How else could I learn to be good? About a year later, God would ask me whether punishment was working, and I had to answer that, no, I was so terrified of punishment that I couldn't move. He then asked why I insisted that He punish me. I thought that was a strange response. However, at this point, I couldn't see that punishment wasn't working, and I couldn't think of any method except punishment to get me to obey.
“I can't take away your sin until you understand my grace.” In my mind, grace meant another chance, specifically, another chance to run the gauntlet. I had to try to get through the tests without falling down, but if I did, I could try again. Unfortunately, each successive attempt found me starting with greater injuries than the time before, so I fell sooner. To be honest, I didn't find grace a very hopeful concept. I knew that a second chance at running the gauntlet shouldn't be the definition of grace, but grace didn't seem very powerful and motivating. I felt pretty sure I could prove that even before the just judge: those times I wasn't punished and did the same thing again, those people who weren't punished and kept doing wrong, those times I let wrongs go and was hurt again by the same people. In my mind, grace needed force and punishment to help it achieve its intended purpose, yet God indicated that my perspective on grace was wrong.
I longed to be perfect and sinless, but God said that couldn't happen until I understood His grace. So I prayed again, “Then, please, teach me your grace!” I also began to meditate on this exchange. The understanding that God cherishes His vision of me as a beautiful image was comforting and life-giving. I had a pretty poor image of myself. His statement about my being afraid of Him led me to confess to Him a few months later that I didn't really love Him but was serving Him out of fear. It was troubling that I wasn't fulfilling the most important command, but was only trying to act as if I were. His statement that He couldn't take away my sin until I understood His grace kept me seeking to understand grace. Nearly four years later, I have come to understand that at least part of what God was trying to teach me is that grace is not removal, grace is supply. Fear has to do with punishment and removes strength from us, but grace has to do with love and gives to us strength, power, and even authority. We need strength to fight the battle, so we must put aside fear, guilt, worry. I have also come to see that what Christ did on the cross was bigger and more powerful than anything I imagined.
We need to know that God chooses not to see the sin at work in us, but has placed it behind His back on Christ's shoulders at the cross. When He looks at us, He does not see failures and sinners, but rather, He sees favored, beloved, pleasing sons and daughters. In John Jesus says that God the Father loves us even as He loves Jesus, not less than, not differently from, but just as. We also need to ask God to give us a true understanding of grace and the immensity of its power and authority and effectiveness.
Now, I need to tell you, shortly after I had this experience, I was sharing with a woman I highly respected, and she told me she didn't think that the experience was from God. I've been reluctant to share this story on the blog for fear of the same thing happening, but this past week, two things happened that have nudged me to share. Firstly, my oldest daughter, Alitzah, drew a two-sided picture based on a conversation she had had with God. On one side of the paper, she drew God smiling down at people enjoying creation; on the other, she drew God with His back to someone sinning. Secondly, I ran across a verse. In Isaiah 38:17, Hezekiah says, "for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back." I felt it was time to share.
When we lived the nomadic life of a bush missionary, habits were a constant battle. I have heard that it takes about six weeks to form habits and a few days to break them. Well, when we were living in the bush, we would be home about six to eight weeks, the perfect amount of time to make a habit. But then team meetings and the need for English conversation and groceries would send us to town for about a week. During that week of rushing to accomplish doctors’ visits, government paperwork, meetings, shopping, one special activity for the children, the habits I had worked hard to form slipped away. When I returned home, I would have to start all over again. I never found anything that worked for me.
One thing which really troubled me was what to do when the children were stressed in transition. Did I make allowances or keep exacting standards? I remember talking with an older woman about this. She told me that I must always maintain strict discipline because if I didn't the children would be lax and undisciplined adults.
This idea bothered me. It certainly seemed valid. We've all seen "spoiled" kids. It certainly seemed Biblical: "Spare the rod; spoil the child." Yet something troubled me, and I didn't understand what or why.
However, here I had a very good reason why God had to be a Father who drives us to obey Him by fear rather than leading us to obey Him by love. If God were to spare the rod, He would spoil the child. He has to maintain strict discipline or we will fall away. That's just the way we are. We backslide, so God has to stay behind us with the rod.
While I was trying to work through this thought and before I was able to put it into words as an objection, God spoke to me. "If that is true, Heaven becomes impossible." Suddenly, I began to remember Scriptures about Heaven: no pain, no crying, no suffering, perfect love without punishment. God spoke again, "You are trying to build your righteousness on a foundation of punishment and rewards." Here, I don't remember the words, but rather the idea. If we build our righteousness on a foundation of punishment and rewards, in Heaven where there is no punishment, the very foundation of our righteousness will be removed, and our righteousness will crumple. I remember God's next words, "You have to build your righteousness on a foundation of love. Love will remain."
I don't know whether this is as thought changing to anyone else as it was to me. Punishment and rewards may be the steps that move us from ground level into the house of righteousness, but they are not the foundation. Even these steps themselves must be built on the foundation so that they don't separate from the house. In order to enter righteousness, we must move off the steps and over the threshold. We must be people who will obey fully and completely, simply because we love.
This revelation didn't answer all my questions. It actually brought more, but it did bring some serious challenges to my faith. God basically said that I cannot hold onto both my hope of Heaven and my belief that our righteousness must be maintained by fear and external pressure. Only one can be true. I have to let go of one or the other.
About five or six years ago, I began praying daily for unity in the church. I longed for unity. Disunity is incredibly painful. I also saw that divisions in the church made the work of the church range between tremendously inefficient and completely ineffective.
As I prayed, I searched the Scriptures to discern what God promised regarding unity and whether unity was something we should expect now, or only in Heaven. There were so many Scriptures which made my heart ache with longing. Psalm 86:11 and Ezekiel 11:19 expressed my longing for a united heart. How I wanted to stop fighting myself to make myself do what was right! How I wished to have one heart with the people of God! Jeremiah 3:22 expressed my longing to be cured from backsliding. How often had I thought I had conquered sin only to find it back again! Jeremiah 31:31-34 filled me with longing for the new covenant we won't break. I longed for Isaiah 59:21 with God promising that His word and His Spirit would not depart even from my children and my children's children.
In the New Testament, I searched Jesus' last prayer, from John 17. Jesus prays twice that we would be one so that the world may know. As I read this, I wondered, does this mean that unity is something Christ expects to happen here on earth while we are still in the world? If unity is not going to happen until after the world can no longer repent, what would be God's purpose in having unity be a demonstration of truth to the world? Would He do it only to prove the world wrong before its condemnation, or does God intended this to be a final witness calling the world to truth before judgment?
As I read Ephesians 4, I saw that Paul says that the church was given apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers until. I had never before noticed the word until in that verse. That means that something different will come afterward. After the until comes the whole body attaining the unity of the faith and maturing into adulthood. As I meditated on this verse, I realized that every prayer for the church focused on good leadership. I wondered what would change if we focused our prayers upon the maturation of the whole body.
However, as I searched the Scriptures, I also found many passages that talked about people falling away from the faith, about people not maturing as they should, about fighting in the Church. I wanted to believe the Scriptures of hope, but what was I to do with the other Scriptures? I know our tendency is to consider the verses of hope as only figurative or for after our death, but is that right? We can't throw out any passages. If the Bible is literal, both must be literal. If the Bible is figurative, why are only the messages of hope figurative? How would physical death change our character?
As I meditated these questions, I saw that repeatedly through Scripture, God had placed a mountain of blessing and a mountain of curses before His people. The Old Testament reminds me of a "choose your own adventure" book. If you go this way, this will happen. If you go that way, that will happen. I wondered whether there was a circumstance where a prophecy could still be true even if it didn't happen. Certainly Jonah and Nineveh showed that. Could prophecies that seemed contradictory be equally true, but only one be fulfilled? I wanted to hope so, but I wasn't sure I did.
As I was reading Scripture, I was struck by Moses' prayer for the Israelites in Exodus 33-34. God tells Moses that He will not go with the Israelites anymore because He might kill them on the way. Moses begins to pray, Who will go with us? remember that we are your people. God answers, My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. Moses then says, If your presence doesn't go with us, don't let us go. (I thought, Didn't God just say yes?) God promises again to go with them. Moses asks, show me your glory. God passes His glory before Moses declaring His name. Afterward, Moses asks God one more time to go with them, though God has already said yes twice. This time, having heard God declare His name, His character, Moses believes God's promise to go with Israel. The promise is consistent with who God is.
As I meditated on this passage, I felt God was asking me, 'You keep praying for unity. You have searched the Scriptures and seen my promises of unity, yet you still keep asking. Why don't you believe me?' This wasn't a time when I heard words, but rather a nagging idea. Jesus often told the Israelites, If you don't believe Moses and the prophets, you won't believe me, even though I do great signs and wonders.
I felt as though God were saying to me, "Stop praying for unity in the church, and tell me why you think it is impossible. What is the tree? Why don't you think I am a Father who will lead you to obey me through love, rather than drive you to obey me through fear? Who do you say I am?" We can't believe God's promises unless we know they fit His character, so both questions, "Why don't you believe these Scripture promises?" and "Who do you say I am?" were really a single question.
As I said at the beginning, I am not writing this blog chronologically. All these questions which were one question came Spring/Summer 2011. I spent the next two years dialoging with God about my reasons for unbelief. My hope is that the God who is faithful and just has received this dialog as confession and will forgive and cleanse.
Psalms 86:11 (ESV)
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.
Ezekiel 11:19 (ESV)
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
Jeremiah 3:22 (NIV)
“Return, faithless people;
I will cure you of backsliding.”
“Yes, we will come to you,
for you are the Lord our God.”
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (ESV)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord, ’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Isaiah 59:21 (ESV)
“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”
John 17:20-23 (ESV)
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Ephesians 4:1-16 (ESV)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Exodus 34:5-9 (ESV)
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff- necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
The flood gates of God's speech opened up that day I prayed that God would show me His justice. His response, "I am faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse you of all unrighteousness," was beautiful and freeing, but how could I receive that promise? That same day, as I went downstairs to work on supper, I began to contemplate the whole verse. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
If we confess. That seemed to be the way to receive the promise, but it filled my heart with ache and longing. You see, I confessed my sins all the time. Father, I yelled at the children. Father, I yelled at my husband. Father, I shouldn't have bought that. Father, I should have been fixing dinner instead of checking email. It sure didn't seem very effective for cleansing. I did the same thing again another day. So as I opened the refrigerator, I asked God plaintively, "Is that all we do, confess our sins? That doesn't seem like enough. Don't we have to do more?" God's response was simply to repeat the whole verse, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all righteousness." In other words, He said, "What did I say?"
God said it, so it must be true, but my heart still ached to see it. As I continued to contemplate the verse over the next few months, God gave me two comforts. One was another word in response to another query from me. The other was another parable building on the parable about roots.
First, as I was sitting one day teaching one of my daughters to write an A, I told God, "You must be so angry with me, because I know I shouldn't get angry and yell, but I still do it." I don't know the context. Had I just yelled at someone? All I know was the beautiful answer, "Do you get angry with your daughter for not getting her A perfect? She knows what it should look like." No, I don't. I know that knowing what an A should look like is different from being able to form one. I knew also that God was saying He wasn't angry with me, but that He has grace to teach me how to form righteousness. As I thought on that message, I watched myself teaching my daughter. I had my hand over hers, helping her form the letter. I began to pray that God would take my heart and help me to form right responses until my heart learned the form.
Second, I continued to contemplate what it means to confess our sins. As I said, I confessed all the time. It seemed I was always having to confess something. It left me feeling like a horrible person. All I could see was the things I was doing wrong. I began to think about what God had said about me trying to mow while He was trying to remove the roots. I began to picture a tree. I saw that I was trying to pluck off leaf buds (temptations) before they could unfold. When leaves (sinful action) did open before I could get to them, I would confess and apologize. I began to feel God asking me, "Why confess the leaves? Let's deal with the tree." I saw that as long as the tree was there, there were going to be times when I couldn't keep up with leaf production. Spring always comes with a burst of buds. I could get people to help me, to hold me accountable, and I might get further than I would have on my own, but inexorably, spring arrives with a burst of leaves.
I began to wonder, "What is the tree?" I looked at specific leaves I've dealt with repeatedly. Yelling at the children. I saw that when I yell at the kids, it's usually from fear of what injury might happen or what people will think of their behavior. Yelling at my husband. That's often a preemptive strike because I think I'm wrong for having a difference of opinion from him. Worrying. Did I mention that I worry? Here is where it got interesting. I saw that I worry about money because I am afraid I won't have enough. That was shocking, because I thought I believed God would provide; after all, Jesus said God would.
As I pondered this, I remembered God showing me both carrots and weeds in my garden. Believing that God will provide does not necessarily preclude believing that God won't provide. But weeds steal nourishment from the good plants. My faith that God will provide cannot grow strong and healthy as long as my thought that God doesn't provide grows alongside it. So I was back to the question, "What is the tree?"
Why do I believe God won't provide? I saw two thoughts with it. One, I am afraid that God has provided, but if I don't get everything exactly right, the enough won't be enough. Every spending purchase becomes agony, because I feel God has an exact formula that is just short of impossible to discern and follow, and if I were good enough, I could figure it out. Two, I am afraid that God has planned it out for me to have enough, but other people aren't cooperating. There are lots of people connected with my money who might get in the way of what God tried to provide – bosses, co-workers and those I serve, store owners, politicians and IRS agents, doctors and insurance agents, thieves.
As I considered these things, I saw that I still hadn't identified the tree. I had identified branches. So what is the tree? I felt as though God were asking me, "Is that really me? Will I really say, 'I provided and protected, but you messed it up?' or 'I provided and protected, but others prevented me?'" To be honest, I wasn't sure, but here God was asking me again, "Who do you say I am?" When I told Him I longed for a Father who would lead me to obey Him by loving Him, not drive me to obey Him by fearing Him, He had asked, "What makes you think I'm not like that?" Now He was asking, "Is that really me?" As long as I think that's who God is, my thoughts are going to produce lots of leaves, but how can I stop thinking of God that way? Isn't it true?
I have always been afraid of God's justice. Justice, as I understood it, a close relative of vengeance and punishment. Justice meant sinners in the hands of an angry God. It was a God so angry with us that He had to punish. Fortunately, Jesus offered to take our punishment. Now, God could offer us the mercy He couldn't give us before. In my understanding, we either receive justice or mercy, not both.
Because I was afraid of justice for myself, and because I knew we were to bless those who curse us, I would ask God to be merciful to those who hurt me. I would pray for Him to deal with them in His mercy, not His justice. Jesus told us to pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." I wanted my sins forgiven, so I endeavored to forgive the sins of others. But that 70 times 7 times gets hard!
Three years ago, I was in the midst of the stormy sea. We kept being pulled over by police for speeding when we knew we weren't speeding. They wanted a bribe, of course. We didn't want to pay a bribe, so Joshua wasted time at a farcical court only to be fined anyway. We had a houseworker who would come to our house and tell me everything others were doing wrong. She would also tell me everything she thought I was doing wrong. I had a pretty good idea what she would be telling others when she left my house. Our water kept disappearing because the city council liked to eat the money they were supposed to administrate. This list could go on. I could include my own sins, like my girls saying that Mommy was yelling at them more. Oh, I wanted to stop yelling. I was begging God to help me be victorious. Oh, I wanted unfairness to stop. But in both cases, I kept praying diligently that God would deal with me and with others in His mercy, not His justice.
Things only grew worse, and then God became silent. I had heard Him say that He wanted to remove the roots, and I had the parable of the gardener growing in my mind, but for three or four months, I stopped hearing God's voice. Oh, I longed for His voice!
I remember sitting on my bed one day, thinking and examining my heart. I was tired of praying for mercy. I was tired of people wronging us. But even more, I was tired of wronging my family. I remembered my youngest sister telling me I was afraid of justice. Now my youngest sister and I, the oldest daughter in our family, had opposite problems. She was afraid of mercy because she had been "favored" as a child. She felt it had kept her from growing as she should have. I had been the one who was held responsible if I or any of the younger children erred, so I was afraid of justice, which I identified with punishment, harshness, and, well, injustice.
Well, as I sat there on my bed, looking at my heart, I saw that my heart wanted justice! My heart didn't care whether it was religiously correct to pray for God to be just to those offending me. My heart wanted justice for myself and those hurting me as well as for my family, whom I was hurting. So I prayed, "Father, I have been praying for mercy because I am afraid of justice, but really, I just want justice. Please show me your justice."
Immediately, I heard God speak, "I am faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness." Now I know that is not the whole verse, but it is what God spoke into my heart that moment, and it set my heart free to dance. God's justice isn't vengeance and punishment. It is forgiveness and cleansing. I thought God's justice toward us was fulfilled on the cross, with Christ bearing our punishment, but that was only movement towards fulfillment. The fulfillment of justice is forgiveness and cleansing.
Mercy and justice have kissed. I don't have to override my heart anymore, forcing myself to pray for mercy, not justice. I can pray for God to be just with those who have wronged me, and it isn't a prayer against them, for vengeance. Instead, it is a prayer on their behalf, for forgiveness and cleansing. Even more than that, I can pray it for myself! I had been begging for cleansing, but I had been asking God not to do it in His justice. Yet justice, together with faithfulness, is the very part of His character which gives forgiveness and cleansing. My confused prayer was rather like asking my husband to kiss me without using his lips! Praise God for His faithfulness and justice! Praise God for forgiving our sins and for cleansing us from all unrighteousness!
There are times when we are out in the middle of the sea in the midst of a storm. There are times when we despair of life itself. There are times when the storm is so strong that all the faith and trust we think we have grown seems to disappear entirely. There are times when our hearts and our lives resonate the chaos of the storm rather than the peace of Christ. During those times, we despair of righteousness itself as we watch all the worst comes out of us, just when we thought we were doing better. During those times, we despair of love itself, "Don't you love us?" During those times, we remember that it was Christ, himself, who put us on this boat without him, and our hearts cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" During those times, as we look at our lives, resonating to the chaos rather than the peace, despair would tell us that He has forsaken us because we aren't good enough. How thin our single strand of faith seems in the midst of that furious storm!
It was during one of these times that I asked the Father a question. Paul tells us to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Well, I was filled with fear and trembling as I asked God the question I couldn't restrain any longer. "Oh, God, if I hated sin, ... I know you hate sin. Please don't be angry with me. I'm not arguing with you. I just want to understand. ... If I hated sin (and I know you do), and I knew certain situations brought out the worst in my children, I wouldn't put them in those situations! But you do. You are wise. You must have a reason. Why, Father?"
Immediately, I heard a thought, "You are trying to mow. I want to remove the roots." But over the next month or so, a parable grew in my mind. In this story, a gardener had a visitor. Of course, he did what anyone who loves gardening wants to do – he took his visitor to see the garden. The visitor looked at the garden, and then he asked the gardener, "Why are there so many weeds?" The gardener explained, "It's been raining for two weeks, so I haven't been able to get out and weed. Now the sun has come out, but the ground is still too wet to weed. The rain and sun have caused the weeds to grow." At that point, I felt as though God leaned over and asked me a thought, "Didn't the carrots need the rain and the sun? The weeds did not grow because of the rain and sun. They grew because they are planted in the ground."
I do not believe God was saying the gardener planted the weeds. The Bible tells us that an enemy planted them. Still, if there weren't weed seeds and weed roots in the ground, weeds would not grow. The rain only showed us what was already in the ground. We couldn't see it before because it was hidden underground, but it was there nonetheless, and God wants to remove those hidden roots of sin. This still isn't a full answer. This still leaves us asking, "What does it mean? How do we get rid of the weeds?" However, as I think about this story, three comforts come from it.
First, the God who sees our hearts saw our sin before it grew out of our hearts into our actions and thus became visible to us and everyone around us. God saw it, because it was already there. He saw it, and He loved us. He loved us when we had this sin hiding in our hearts, and He does not forget that love when the sin grows into action. He isn't even surprised.
Second, there were carrots in the garden, not only weeds. Two things are at work in us. Sin is at work, yes, but the Spirit is at work, as well. The sin that is at work in us is not us. It is working against us. It is only distortion. It is not creation. The Spirit who is at work in us is us. The Spirit is working on our behalf. We are born of the Spirit. We are a new creation. We are being made one with God. We are of God's kind! Our us-ness is with God.
Third, God said, "I am trying to remove the roots." He is at work. He will accomplish His work. Someday, we will stand before Him spotless, without any hidden blemish. He has already credited righteousness to us. That righteousness will be ours, inside and outside! The sin which is at work will be completely removed, and what will remain is the righteousness born of the Spirit within us.
One day probably five years ago, my daughter came to me with a request. I don't even remember what the request was, but it was a life changing incident in my relationship with God. You see, I spoke to my daughter. She asked me for something, and I answered with words. I don't remember what I answered. Did I say yes or no? Did I give a vague maybe? Did I say "in a minute"? I don't know, but my daughter knew and understood what I said.
I don't remember what I answered, because it was not my response that was life changing, but rather the fact that I used words to answer her. I can't imagine not using my voice to answer her without the image of a stern, hard face popping up in my mind. Parents do not simply hand or deny their children the things for which they ask. We actually verbally answer, because we are in relationship with them. In that moment, I saw clearly that God is a FATHER.
Always before, I had looked to the result of my prayer as my answer. For example, if I prayed for God to heal someone, if they became better, I took that as a yes. If they didn't get better, the answer was obviously either wait or no. It was a discouraging way to pray. I was never actually certain what the answer was. Even if the person became better, I wasn't sure that was God saying yes. Maybe the person would have gotten better anyway. If the person stayed sick, I didn't know whether the answer was wait or no, unless they died, of course.
At the time I had my revelation that God has a voice, I had just begun reading a book by Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer. In the book, he reminded his readers that God always answers prayer. When I read this, I was still thinking of the result as the answer, but when I heard my daughter ask me something and myself answering verbally, I knew that a result is not an answer. A verbal response is an answer. God is not a vending machine. A vending machine dispenses results. God is a father. He relates with us, and relationship requires words and communication.
The image I had of God was of a loan officer reviewing my application and stamping approved or denied. I didn't expect God Himself to answer me. I just waited to see whether I received my check. I wanted to qualify for my loans, so I did whatever I could to make the loan officer approve my application. On my application, I might stress my righteousness, my neediness, my sinfulness, my good motivations, whatever I thought He was looking for. And I got everyone I could to submit letters of reference – their prayers. Then I waited. It was an anxious time. When I got my check (or not), I wasn't sure what it was about my application that made Him say yes (or no), so I didn't know how to do better the next time.
Well, when my daughter had a request, I used my voice and answered her, and in that instant, I knew God, The FATHER, must have a voice and answer our requests vocally. I started to ask Him not to answer my requests only with actions, but first to answer vocally. I must admit, I have had some interesting vocal answers. God is quite humorous. From believing and experiencing that God vocally answers prayers, I was able to grow to believe that I could converse with my Father.
"You should have ...." Those words have been like a cancer ravaging my heart and mind and soul, and my body. I was dreadfully afraid of getting it wrong, of hearing, "You should have ...." I was afraid of angering or even disappointing God by the things I failed to do, and the list of tasks I felt God wanted me to accomplish daily was oppressive. I also believed that God expected me to meet every need I saw in everyone around me. I lived with a constant sense that my work was unsatisfactory to God. When God said to me that I only think of Him sitting, I tried to think of Him standing and acting. Is it any wonder that the only action I could imagine Him taking was hitting me?
Well, four years ago, we were in Nebraska during our furlough from Kenya. My husband was teaching for one semester at Nebraska Christian College, and I was praying for all of my husband's students. I would read their journal responses to the books they were reading and ask God to lead me in how to pray. While I was praying for one student, at the end of the semester, I found a journal response from mid-semester. In her response, the student had asked to come and talk with us since she was struggling. More than a month later, we had still not responded, because we hadn't even seen it.
I had gotten up very early that morning in order to pray. It was just about dawn, and I had already been up praying for a couple of hours. So now, I was weary, and when I should be feeling that I had accomplished something for God, I was instead dealing with with an intense attack of guilt. I had an anguishing ten minutes listening to the accusations which were pounding at me and berating myself. Then, to my surprise, I heard myself making a bold declaration aloud, "I will not accept this guilt. God could have blinded me for a purpose. I'm going to ask God to judge me. If I am guilty, He will tell me." I am still amazed that I was able to say that at that time. I believe it was the Spirit at work.
I called the student and invited her to dinner. It was the last possible day we could meet before I left. We ended up sharing our stories for about three hours and saw that God was teaching both of us many similar things. We also prayed together. As the student prepared to leave, I asked her, "Did God accomplish what He had for our meeting together tonight?" The very first thing she said was, "It was good you didn't answer when I first wrote to you. I was trying to go to people. God wanted me to go to Him." God had judged me and found me guiltless!
The student went on to explain that because we did not respond, she found herself crying out to God instead, and He answered. God's grace in that situation was amazing. Had I seen her response earlier, I don't think I could have believed that God didn't want me to act. Knowing me, God instead found a way to demonstrate clearly to me that I don't have to answer every need. He loves it when people come to Him themselves. Even Jesus said we don't need Him to talk to the Father for us. Because of my delayed response, when the student and I talked, what I shared was confirmation and encouragement for what she had already learned from God.
That one incident did not remove my struggle with guilt and my fear of hearing, "You should have ...." I would try to ask God before jumping in to answer needs I saw, but doubt kept eating at me. What if I am just making excuses not to help? What if that wasn't a principle to follow, but an exception? What if God is disappointed with my selfishness?
Two years later, I was on a tight schedule. I had three stops to make and two children in tow. In Nairobi, getting one thing done from your list is considered a good achievement for your day. I needed to get all three things done, and before traffic hit. (We rank #4 worldwide in commuter misery.) As I left stop number two to head further into Nairobi for stop number three, I was pushing a cart with my children and my purchases. I passed a woman struggling with her cell phone. Someone was trying to help her, and I passed on by. As soon as I passed her, guilt washed over me, pounding at me. The whole walk to the car accusations assaulted me. As I opened the back door to put my purchases in the car, I heard God speak an idea. I can't remember the exact words, but this was the essence: "I will not attack you afterward for not acting. I will speak to you beforehand if I want you to do something." Peace filled me.
God is the God who says, "Come away with me to a quiet place and rest." He is the God who told Martha that Mary had chosen the better way. He is the God who said, "Let the little children come to me." Jesus said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." When Jesus said these things, the Father said these things. In the prophets, God cried out that He longs to hear us call Him Father. But even reading these things, I didn't understand.
One day, one of our daughters was asking why the word LORD is often in all caps in the Bible. My husband loves that kind of question, so he began to explain to our children how the Hebrew names of God are translated. Now two days before, a Kenyan friend had told me that her husband was having some time off work and had asked her to let their houseworker off so that they could have some family time. I understood. We do the same thing. Well my husband got to the name Lord GOD, and said that it could be translated Lord LORD.
In that moment, I heard God speak. He said, "You've always been afraid of the 'Lord, Lord' passage." Well, that was certainly true. He continued, "You have always thought that I was saying, 'You haven't worked hard enough; get away from me.' That is not true. I am saying, 'It is family time; let the slaves and servants go.' I knew that He was saying, 'If all you ever do with me is ask me for a list of things to do, then leave. This is family time, play time, I want the people who have gotten to know me.' He was also saying, "You've always tried to be my slave, but you're not a very good one. You aren't meant to be a slave. You are meant to be a child. Be my child."
It is hard to put into words exactly what God says. Sometimes, I hear words and other times, thoughts; sometimes, I see a picture or have a story come to mind. One thought that began to come to mind is that I try to earn my rest. After my work is done, I can rest. But I started to see that we have to work from rest. I had this thought, "You don't say to a car, earn your petrol (gas)." We can never earn our rest. It is a gift.
I also began to understand the Hebrew day, which begins at sundown. What happens in families at sundown? The evening meal, the family fun time, bedtime. All restful. In the Hebrew week, there are six days, each beginning with rest followed by work, which culminate in the seventh day, the weekly Sabbath, a day of complete rest and celebration.
One day, my friend Joyce told me a story. She had asked God, "Do you play?" and God told her to watch her husband. At that time, Joyce opened her front door to go out but saw something that made her shut it immediately. She said, "Don't open the door. The cat has a mouse and wants to hide it in the house." William, Joyce's husband, whispered to her, "Watch this." He opened the door and shut it quickly while tossing a small ball across the floor. He yelled, "A mouse!" Their daughters began to shriek. At that moment, God leaned over to Joyce and said, "I am a Father."
One of the hardest things I have done has been sitting on top of my children's toys to play, without saying anything about the room. The interesting thing to me has been that as I play with them, the children are much more willing to work with me. Also interesting is that I am more rested and able to work as well.