Feb 3 2011

In God We Trust

“In God We Trust.” In the United States, we all recognize this phrase, which appears on all of our money. Obviously, this is hardly the case as far as our nation goes—and for that matter, it’s not always easy for we who believe, either.

To a child, there are few things more important than trust. Because children are not self-sufficient, they must rely on others—typically, and preferably, families—for basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing, as well as love and companionship. It’s a terrible, terrible thing when children grow up without any or even some of these things. Unfortunately, this is common in many parts of the world, and is not that uncommon in our own country.

At some point, even children with good families learn that their parents are fallible, or at least not omnipotent. Parents cannot always provide everything a child wants or needs. They can’t walk the halls with them at school to protect them from bullies, and they can’t keep family pets from being run over by cars, no matter how much they would like to.

However, we have a friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). This does not mean that God will always keep the bullies away, or ensure that pets live forever. However, while parents often don’t seem to understand the stresses of being a child, our “closer than a brother” God does understand, and is there to provide comfort, understanding, and healing.

There are unfortunate teachings prevalent today that leads some people to believe that God is there to make us healthy, happy and prosperous. This “Santa” notion of God is one of the worst things we can teach our children. The reality is that life is hard, but God is faithful.

When I was a child, most often sermons were taken from the Gospel readings of the day. I grew up listening to the words of Jesus, as he talked about God’s faithfulness. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” “Consider the lilies of the field.” And, more specifically, John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

As a young boy I understood that it was not God’s plan for us to be trouble-free, but that God was there to see us through. After all, Jesus himself had to suffer. And, Jesus promised that God would send the Holy Spirit to be a comforter—not to make us comfortable.

Life on the prairies of Minnesota was hard; I often joke that where I grew up, pain and suffering was a way of life, not something to sue others for. The winters were grueling and often dangerous, with below zero temperatures, ice and snow. The summers contained their share of hardships as well. I learned how to drive a truck at age 12, and from then on, my summers were busy helping on the farm (before tractors had air-conditioned cabs).The news was full of the war in Vietnam. People I knew died from sickness and accidents. Crops were destroyed by hail. Typically, we were poor.

In all of this, we trusted in God. Not that this is anything to brag about; in fact, I think we trusted in God because we really didn’t have any alternatives. Yet in spite of these hardships, I believe I had a happy childhood. God proved faithful, whether we were in times of abundance or in need. While I didn’t always understand the reasons why (for that matter, I still don’t), I grew to understand that God could be trusted. In this world we will have tribulations, but we rejoice, knowing that Jesus has overcome the world. This is our hope.

  1. What kind of God were you taught, a God who is there to make your life comfortable and keep us prosperous and healthy, or a God who comforts us during our times of need?
  2. How does your view of God change how you approach life and deal with trials?


Aug 28 2010

Even in the Darkest Moments

For children, as you may recall, the world is a very unsettling place. Parents often take the place of God for children, which is one of the reasons I believe God invented them. Parents model God to their children. Parents, though, are all too human (I’m a parent, so I am painfully aware of this fact); sometimes they let us down. However, I understood early on that while parents and other people can and will fail us, God never fails. He is perfectly trustworthy, always, even when it seems He isn’t listening.

Of course, the reality about trusting God is that you don’t need to do it — or at least it’s quite easy — when everything is going well. When we really need to trust God, it’s typically because we’re in some kind of crisis. Either we are fearful of the future, or we are fearful of the present. We find ourselves in some situation where we know we lack control, and distrust our own ability and the abilities of those around us.

The rest of the time, we probably don’t even think about trusting in God; we can take God for granted. Even when we think we are trusting God, often we are merely trusting in something we can see, and imagine that God is standing behind the scenes, pulling strings like some invisible Geppetto. For example, I can trust God for my finances because I happen to have money in the bank. If that were not the case, I’m sure I’d look at life a bit differently.

I do hate when my ability to trust in God is really tested. The first time I can recall really having my faith challenged was the day before my fourteenth birthday. We were having a terrible rainstorm, and I was in our entryway trying to keep rain from pouring under the door, when my aunt came bursting in. Within a few moments we understood that my uncle had been in a terrible car accident at an intersection about a half-mile from my house. Had it not been storming so hard, we probably could have heard the impact and could have seen the crash site (I lived on a country gravel road). Of course, had it not been raining so hard, my uncle may have seen the other car coming.

I recall sitting in our car outside the hospital emergency room, praying harder than I had ever prayed in my life that my uncle would be okay. Eventually, my parents came out to tell me he had been dead at the scene.

At that moment, I was confused. Could we or could we not trust God? Why were my prayers completely ignored? I don’t recall how I eventually worked through the issues, but I do know that my faith in God remained, even if I never understood why God didn’t save my favorite uncle.

Trust is like grace; you aren’t aware of how much you need it until you need it. The whole concept of trusting God would be moot if we didn’t have the need to trust in God. Because we live in an imperfect “world, with devils filled” that “should threaten to undo us,” as Martin Luther wrote (A Mighty Fortress), our ability to trust will be tested. This is not to say that God “tests” our faith to see whether He’ll save us or not. Rather, I think it’s like testing a parachute — you only really know it works after you’ve jumped out of the plane.

I am not claiming any kind of unique ability to trust; in fact, I’ll claim the opposite. I admittedly am a very weak and often undisciplined person. I have never been “religious” simply because I fail at it so miserably. I require loads of grace, even to get through one day. Part of the grace that I have been given is the knowledge that God is there, and that I have to trust Him, no matter what.

I am often unable to put on that strong, “man of faith” persona that some people expect from Christians. I don’t think trust requires us to be brave or strong at all. Trust by definition requires us to be weak, to recognize that we’re completely helpless without God. There are times when I am totally freaking out. I have occasional panic attacks. I have suffered from nearly every stress-related condition you can think of. However, deep down I know without a doubt that God is there, and I have no choice but to trust Him, even — or perhaps especially — in the darkest moments.

Questions:

  1. Think back to your childhood; how did you learn to trust?
  2. When has your ability to trust been really put to the test?


Aug 26 2010

Trust And Obey

In Sunday School, we used to sing this song:

When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
~ Lyrics by  John H. Sammis, 1846-1919

It’s a very interesting little song. If you look at the words, you can see that it would be easy to give the song a legalistic twist so that the message becomes, “If we don’t trust God enough and fail to obey Him, He won’t abide with us.” Unfortunately, far too many of us have been subjected to this kind of bullshit, which is definitely a contradiction to Romans 8:38,39. Fortunately, no one close to me saw fit to pile this kind of legalism on me as a child. There were a few legalists in the area, but I knew enough to be able to shake off their craziness.

The message of this song, as I understood it as a child, is this: We can obey God, because we can always trust Him. If we ask for bread, He won’t give us a rock (Matt. 7:9). Obedience is not so that God will be happy with us, obedience is so that we will be happy. Our lives simply work better when we operate according to God’s direction.

This, of course, is one of the main messages of the Old Testament. It seems that nearly every story, from Adam and Eve to Noah, Abraham and Moses, repeated this theme – God could be obeyed, because He could be trusted.

There’s an old story that I’ve heard over the years about a hiker who falls off a cliff only to grab on to a lone tree branch sticking out over the abyss. The hiker begins screaming, “Help! Is anybody up there?”

After what seems like hours, a booming voice answers, “I’m here.”

“Who are you?” the hiker yells.

“I’m God.”

“Can you help me?”

“Yes. First, let go of the branch.”

The hiker takes several moments to consider this, and finally yells, “Is anybody else up there?”

God is not capricious. He doesn’t ask us to jump through hoops or make sacrifices simply for His amusement. Sometimes obedience is so we can accomplish one of the “good works” that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10); often, however, I suspect it is simply for our own good, so that we avoid or be rescued from our own “cliff-hangers.” In other words, it’s so we can enjoy abundant, happier lives.

Being able to obey – even when it seems our only option – is sometimes difficult. However, if we know God and believe that He loves us, and that He can be trusted, it becomes easier to “let go of the branch.”

Questions:

  1. Are there circumstances in your life where God is asking you to let go of the branch?
  2. What, if anything, is preventing you from letting go?


Aug 25 2010

Wheatfield Trust

A close cousin to the truth that “God loves me” is the belief that God is absolutely trustworthy. When I was a child, I was taught that we could trust God, no matter what. As Psalm 55:22 says,

Cast your cares on the LORD
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous fall.

This simple truth – what some would call an over-simple truth, or even a fairy tale – was taught in Sunday School and also reinforced in the “grown-up” Sunday morning sermons, with topic verses such as “Remember the lilies of the field… (Matt. 6:28)” and “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? (Matt. 10:29)”

The “rugged individualism” of American culture would tell us to be self-reliant, trusting in our own abilities and hard work to succeed. Trusting in God is seen by many as merely a cop-out. However, trusting in God’s provision was a way of life in northwestern Minnesota, which was a completely agrarian culture and full of hard-working folk who expected very little in the form of hand-outs. When I was growing up, the area consisted mainly of small family-owned wheat farms. There was no pretense that we could control much of anything. We tilled the soil, planted and fertilized; the rest was out of our control.

I lived about four miles from the Red River, which boasts some of the best farm land in the world. What that meant was that about half of our land could be flooded every spring. Eventually it would be dry enough to cultivate and plant. And with one 3-month growing season, we didn’t have much time to spare. As the grain would grow and ripen, hail storms were our greatest fear – one good storm could wipe out the majority of a crop. Storms, it seemed, could come out of nowhere. It could be clear in the morning, then all of a sudden the air would change; in an hour, it could be pouring rain.

If we made it to late summer without losing any crops, we battled the rains which always seemed to show up the week of harvest. After the grain was cut and laid into swaths to dry, every rain diminished the value of the crop by washing away color and nutrients, and delaying the harvest for another couple of days. It was like watching your money washing down the drain.

Until the grain was sold or put into storage, nothing was for certain. Even then, there were risks. Grain is a commodity, sold on the open market similar to how stocks are traded. With one shot for a year’s income, sometimes farmers would take out loans with the crops as collateral; other times, grain would be sold short if the prices were high enough, with a guaranteed future delivery. Will the price drop, or go up? We were always subject to the whims of the grain markets.

We trusted in God’s providence. We could control nothing; all we could do was to be faithful and plant the seed. (All this was much too stressful for me, which is why I finally gave up farming.)

Living a lifestyle in which we knew the world was out of our control, trusting God was a logical decision. As Peter put it so well, “Where else would we go? (John 6:68)” Of course, many of us know that even in a culture of semi-monthly paychecks and 401(k)s, nothing is guaranteed. In the last couple of years, millions have learned this the hard way. Jobs disappear, as do investment portfolios, homes and retirement plans.

The myth of self-sufficiency dies hard. But when you’re a child growing up around people who are wise enough to see “from whence our help comes,” it’s perhaps easier to learn trust.

Questions:

  1. Have you ever stopped to think about the culture in which you grew up?
  2. What did your culture as you were growing up teach you about trust?