As humans, it seems that our memories work like a sports highlight reel. We remember the highs and how wonderful those times were, and we remember the lows and how terrible those times were. Like a line graph on a plot, we remember certain moments and most of the rest of our lives simply connect one dot to the next.
As I dig through my own mental filing cabinet of memories, I find this to be true. I can easily and readily recall the high's and low's, but everything in the middle seems to be like the packing peanuts that hold everything in place. When I remember the highs, or the good times, it is not uncommon for a particular memory to stick out in my mind because of what someone else did selflessly for me. Oftentimes the selfless acts of others make the deepest impressions. For example, I remember one time when my mother took a $100 bill and put it under someone's windshield wiper in a blank envelope with no name attached to it. I also remember one time that my father, when we were just visiting a church, jumped in and started moving tables and chairs even though we all knew we were never coming back to this church. I remember one time, as a teenage driver, that I backed right into a woman in a Wal-Mart parking lot and dented her up car pretty good. I got out, albeit nervously and reluctantly, and she said simply, "God Bless You and I hope you have a Merry Christmas." I owed her, bigtime, and she helped me when she certainly didn't have to.
I think these memories stick out in our minds because they are so counter-intuitive to what our selfish human nature is wired to do. We are wired to be selfish, and we are wired to look out for ourselves more than others. And yet, as Christians, we are called to have the attitude of Christ. Paul summarizes that attitude in Philippians 2 when he writes,
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!"
Talk about selfless! Here was the immortal, eternal, all-powerful King and Creator of the world and everything in it who left EVERYTHING to become NOTHING for us and did so gaining NOTHING in the process, aside from a relationship with us. THIS is how much He loves you. THIS is the greatest demonstration of selflessness the world will ever know. And, THIS is the standard to which you and I are called. By the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, we are called to view others the same way that Christ views us.
By displaying such a humble, Christ-like attitude toward others, Christ can use us to make these same deep, indelible impressions on others. By working through His people, Christ becomes the points on the line graph of their lives. Pray that the Holy Spirit will make you aware of the many opportunities you have to display the attitude of Christ to those around you. In doing so, you never know how deep an impression Christ will make on them through your selflessness and obedience.
One of the beautiful aspects of living life with others, through all our highs and lows, is the depth of relationships that are developed in the process. It is one thing to spend a few years with someone and then move on, but it is another thing entirely to endure life with someone over an extended period of years and observe and participate in the work of the Lord together.
In 2 Samuel 23, we have this beautiful scene of men gathered around a dying King David as he utters his last words to them. What makes this scene so significant is the fact that these men had endured years of extreme highs and lows together. They had endured living on the run and in caves, and they had also enjoyed reigning over a great and glorious kingdom. Here were men who had literally gone to war for one another, and the chapter is a re-living of some of their times together.
It is a wonderful reminder to me of the fellowship that Christians enjoy as we live life together in the Lord. As we soar on the heights of life's accomplishments together and wade through the depths of life's tragedies together, there is a beautiful and almost unexplainable interweaving of life which cannot be undone.
One word sits beneath all of these circumstances: together. It is the unique aspect of living life together with others that brings about a deep, abiding level to the Christian life that is not possible for us if we try to go at it ourselves. What happens when Christian brothers and sisters cling to the Lord together and "bear one another's burdens", as Galatians says? Not only do all parties involved grow closer together, but, even more glorious, the Lord receives wonderful honor as His Spirit works in the lives of everyone involved.
Multiple times in this chapter, as Samuel recounts some of the incredible feats of David's mighty men, he concludes with the phrase, "and the Lord brought about a great victory."
Time and time again, both in the record of Scripture as well as in our own lives, we see this truth at work: the Lord weaves together our stories and testimonies with those he has put in our life to bring about great victories for us, for others, and ultimately for Himself. We see this through the struggles of the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, through the lives of the disciples in the New Testament, and through the lives of those we know and love each day.
One of the greatest temptations of the flesh is to hide ourselves away from the struggles of those around us. In one sense, it is safer to live life this way because we have a natural tendency to protect ourselves from things that cause us pain. And yet, in a much greater sense, we are missing out on the beauty of "life-on-life" discipleship and the glorious fruit that the Lord brings about in our lives when we do this. We discover that not only does the Lord use this beautiful fellowship to use us to minister to others, but He also uses others to minister to us. And, in doing so, in each case, He brings about a great victory for us and for Himself.
Take time to reflect on those people in your life that the Lord has used to bring about great victories. It is a wonderful thing to remind each other of the victories that the Lord has brought about in your life. Oftentimes it seems that others remember your victories in greater detail than you do, and that you remember their victories more vividly than they. Let us encourage one another with the victories the Lord has brought about in our lives as we do life together.
As a Soldier in the Army Reserves, one of my requirements is that I pass the Army's physical fitness test twice per year. This includes push-ups, sit-ups, a 2-mile run, and a weigh-in.
Much of your confidence, or lack thereof, going into the test has to do with how disciplined you were in preparing to take the test. In my case, I did fine on the test itself but it was much more difficult than it should have been because of my own lack of self-discipline in preparing properly for the test.
I often wonder how many times this is the case for us in our spiritual lives. Does serving the Lord feel much harder than it should? Does prayer ever just feel difficult? Does worship not seem to come naturally? It may well be that, like me, the level of difficulty increases because of our own lack of disciplined exercise. It is much like Paul wrote to a struggling church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 9:24 when he said,
"Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
Run in such a way that you may win, he says. If you have ever run or seen a runner who is training to win, then you know that it takes discipline, consistency, running when you don't feel like it, and pushing yourself to a place that stretches your limitations. So it is with our walk with Christ. We must be disciplined - praying and walking with the Lord for the benefit of simply being in His presence. We must be consistent - reading His Word regularly and letting it penetrate into our hearts and minds. And, most importantly, we must allow His Holy Spirit to stretch us to places that are uncomfortable for us.
We find an excellent biblical model for what this looks like from the early church. Luke tells us in Acts 2:42 that,
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."
The devoted themselves, Luke tells us. This is a serious commitment. This is not practice when it was convenient, or when it felt good, or when there were no scheduling conflicts. No, this was a steadfast and unwavering devotion to be with the Lord and with His people. Is it easier not to be devoted in this way? Sure it is! And it has been happening for all of church history. The author of Hebrews cautioned against giving in to such a thought process in Hebrews 10:23-25.
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near."
In our personal lives as well as in our corporate lives it is easy and incredibly tempting to neglect discipline, but it will always be to your detriment. If your walk with the Lord feels much harder than it should, then perhaps, like me, your self-discipline has disappeared. We must run after the Lord as one who runs to win. We must read, serve, pray, worship, and love even when our body is telling us to do the exact opposite. The harder our life gets, the greater our need to be with the Lord and His people. Make it a priority to be a disciplined Christian who loves the Lord enough to spend time with Him regularly and often. You will not be disappointed in the difference it will make in your life.
Earlier this week, I was talking to someone about a difficult situation they were facing. I asked them how I could pray for them, and their response humbled me greatly. They simply wanted me to pray that they would be comfortable with God’s will, and whatever that entailed for them. They did not ask for prayer for a specific outcome that they wished to achieve, and it demonstrated their deep understanding (and also, I’m ashamed to say, my own shallowness) of the sovereignty of God and His control over our lives.
In 1 Chronicles 29, King David is motivating the people to give to the Lord by pointing out the sovereignty of God. He notes that everything they have belongs to the Lord anyway, and that even the most treasured of their possessions are but gifts from God, who rules and superintends over every detail of our lives. In verse eleven, He states:
“Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.”
I often wonder how many times we forget this simple truth. How often do we forget that everything in this world belongs to the Lord? How often do we view ourselves as being in control of our realm, and others as being in control of their realm? We see ourselves as the captain of our ship, and that we have earned and deserved that which we have accumulated, and it is therefore our right to be in charge of our lives and decisions.
Everything in the world belongs to the Lord. Most importantly, this includes all the individuals that comprise the human population – to include you and me. You belong to the Lord. The Lord created you for the purpose of knowing and loving Him, for your life to somehow glorify His Name, and to spread the wonderful news of His love.
Part of this involves His divine superintendence over our affairs. There are many times when we simply do not know what to do, or what the outcome of our decisions will be. It is in those times that we trust most faithfully in the Lord and His sovereignty over our lives. As we give ourselves to Him, and as we trust in His omnipotence and omniscience, we find incredible liberty in the freedom to exercise our own will and yet the assurance that we cannot exceed the confines of His will being accomplished through us.
I recently read an illustration of A.W. Tozer’s which deals with the sovereignty of God and the freewill of the individual. I hope that it helps to cement the fact that, as Christians, we have a tremendous assurance in the fact that God is sovereign. No matter what happens in our lives, God is in control and He is always faithful to use our life circumstances to bring us into a greater understanding of who He is and to accomplish His glorious purposes through us.
“An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. On board the liner are several scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree. They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port. Both freedom and sovereignty are present here and they do not contradict each other. So it is, I believe, with man’s freedom and the sovereignty of God. The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history. God moves undisturbed and unhindered toward the fulfillment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began. We do not know all that is included in those purposes, but enough has been disclosed to furnish us with a broad outline of things to come and to give us good hope and firm assurance of future well-being. We know that God will fulfill every promise made to the prophets; we know that sinners will someday be cleansed out of the earth; we know that a ransomed company will enter into the joy of God and that the righteous will shine forth in the kingdom of their Father; we know that God’s perfections will yet receive universal acclamation, that all created intelligences will own Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father, that the present imperfect order will be done away, and a new heaven and a new earth be established forever. Toward all this God is moving with infinite wisdom and perfect precision of action. No one can dissuade Him from His purposes; nothing can turn Him aside from His plans. Since He is omniscient, there can be no unforeseen circumstances, no accidents. As He is sovereign, there can be no countermanded orders, no breakdown in authority; and as He is omnipotent, there can be no want of power to achieve His chosen ends. God is sufficient unto Himself for all these things.”
In the military, there is a term known as the “fog of war”. It describes the chaos of battle and having no idea of what is happening around you. You can lose your sense of direction, your sense of strategic competence, and your understanding for how the engagement is developing around you.
Like the fog of war, life itself has much “fog” associated with it. We each find ourselves in various circumstances in which we have absolutely no idea as to how things will turn out. All we know, at that moment in time, is what is right in front of us and what we can feel. Nothing we encounter throws curveballs with the frequency and intensity of life. We experience loss, confusion, panic, worry, anxiety and a host of other emotions. We may not be sure who is in control, but we know it is most certainly not us.
I recently read an article in the Washington Post that described the chaos of the Sultana. It was, and still is, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. 1,700 men were killed when the ship exploded and, ironically, this came after the conclusion of the Civil War. The ship that represented freedom and safety for these men who had survived four years of brutal warfare would be their agent of death. Here is an excerpt that described the chaos of the situation.
“The men on the boat had seen all manner of death and despair.
They had witnessed friends and fellow soldiers shot dead on muddy battlefields. They had endured dirty, disease-ridden Confederate prison camps in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They were tired and injured, sick and underfed.
But, in late April 1865, they also were happy and relieved.
Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The Civil War had drawn to a close and, however improbably, they had survived it.
Months earlier, on Christmas Day, a Union soldier from Ohio named John Clark Ely had sat in a prison camp in Mississippi, wondering whether he would see home again. “Such a day for us prisoners. Hungry, dirty, sleepy and lousy,” he wrote in his journal. “Will another Christmas find us again among friends and loved ones?”
Now he seemed to have his answer.
Ely was among the more than 2,000 paroled Union prisoners of war, many of them still teenagers, crowded aboard the steamboat Sultana as it pulled away from the docks at Vicksburg, Miss., on April 24. They were headed up the Mississippi River, bound for their farms and families in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other places they hadn’t set eyes on in far too long.
“Oh, this is the brightest day of my life long to be remembered,” Ely wrote before the trip commenced.
The brightness would not last.
“All of these guys were on their way home after going through so many ordeals,” said historian and author Alan Huffman. “People were just dying around them constantly for four years. You set foot on this boat and you think you’re on your way home. You’re home free. And really, the worst was ahead.”
For two days, the woefully overcrowded boat lurched northward. Melting snow in the north had contributed to one of the worst spring floods in memory. The Sultana stopped in Memphis on April 26 and continued north later that night. About 2 a.m., seven miles upriver from Memphis, a boiler exploded. Two more exploded in rapid succession, visiting yet another hell on men who had already endured so much.
“Some were killed instantly by the explosion. Others awoke to find themselves flying through the air, and did not know what had happened,” Huffman wrote in his book, “Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.” “One minute they were sleeping and the next they found themselves struggling to swim in the very cold Mississippi River. Some passengers burned on the boat. The fortunate ones clung to debris in the river, or to horses and mules that had escaped the boat, hoping to make it to shore, which they could not see because it was dark and the flooded river was at that point almost five miles wide.”
Still others faced a horrible choice: remain aboard the floating inferno, or jump into the river and risk being drowned by the panicked masses in the waters below. Making matters worse, many of the men didn’t know how to swim.
“When I came to my senses I found myself . . . surrounded by wreckage, and in the midst of smoke and fire,” an Ohio soldier recalled in a collection of survivor essays, “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors,” published in 1892. “The agonizing shrieks and groans of the injured and dying were heart rending, and the stench of burning flesh was intolerable and beyond my power of description.”
“It was all confusion,” remembered one Michigan soldier. “Brave men rushed to and fro in the agony of fear, some uttering the most profane language and others commending their spirits to the Great Ruler of the Universe.”
“There were some killed in the explosion, lying in the bottom of the boat, being trampled upon, while some were crying and praying, many were cursing while others were singing,” recalled another Ohio soldier. “That sight I shall never forget; I often see it in my sleep, and wake with a start.”
We can each likely think of scenarios in our life where the unexpected occurred and turned our world upside-down. We didn’t know what tomorrow would be like, we didn’t know the outcome of decisions that we had made, and we seemed to be drowning in confusion and fear.
But, as Christians, we have a blessed assurance. As we are in the midst of Holy Week this week, we look to the One who DOES know the beginning from the end. We reflect on Him who has conquered all of our circumstances by His sinless life, death, and resurrection.
As long as we are in this world, we will certainly be subject to the circumstances around us. We will continue to experience the “fog of life”, and we will, time and time again, be confronted with fear, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty. But, hold fast to the words of Christ recorded in John 16:33 where He says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” We serve a God who has overcome the world. He is sovereign and, though we may get lost and disoriented in the fog, He does not.
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.