Big Problems Just Mean a Big Life

big-problems_3537904106People with small lives don’t have big problems.

That was the nugget of wisdom that fell out of my mouth during a talk with a couple of friends about the $h!t-storms they were experiencing recently.

Drama and trauma with friends. Bosses. Legal issues. Relationship issues. Money issues. Crises that just seem to happen out of nowhere, that blindside you. And you’re stuck there, confused, steaming with anger, wondering where the heck God was, and what he was doing – or if he was doing anything at all.  Does God even care?

“Is God cruel?” my friend asked.

This is real life stuff.  Stuff happens. Life happens, and it isn’t always pretty. And we shouldn’t expect it to be.  Even with God on our side, we should not expect everything to just fall into place easily, readily, smoothly, and think we’re just gonna experience happiness, peace and joy all the time.  It’s just not realistic. Nor is it good faith.


And a scene from the life of Moses suddenly took on new relevance. I don’t remember if it was in The Ten Commandments movie or not, but there’s this scene after Moses has his encounter with the Burning Bush, and God commissions him to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go!”  The Hebrew people had become so populous in Egypt that the Egyptians feared they were becoming a minority in their own country. So the politicians decided to implement a form of immigration control: first, kill all the newborn Hebrew baby boys. Then enslave the people (to keep them under control). And after Moses passes on God’s message to the top dog, Pharaoh, to let the people leave to get on with their purpose, Pharaoh responds by ordering that straw no longer be given to the Hebrews in order to fill their daily quota of brick-making. Now they had to go scrounge for straw themselves – and not miss their quota: “not one brick less!” (Exodus 5-6)

And the Hebrews do what we all do. Gripe. At the slave-drivers, at their foremen, at Pharaoh, and even at Moses.  “Why have you done this to us? You have made us a stench in Pharaoh’s nose, and now given them a reason to exterminate us. May God judge you for what you have done” – this from the Israelites to Moses. And you know Moses had to be thinking, “this is what I get for trying to help.”

So Moses gripes to God. “Lord, why have you caused all this trouble for them? Why did you even send me here? Ever since I went to the king to speak in your name, he has treated the people worse than before. And you have done nothing to help them!”

Moses expected great things. He had this moving encounter with God, gotten his marching orders, received a new purpose in life, a new mission. He was gonna be the savior of his people.  And it all just got worse. It all went downhill from that point on.

And most of us will experience this in life. We get a moment of inspiration, we discover a new found purpose and meaning to life. We may even have had a fresh encounter with God that has revitalized our spiritual life.  We’re on fire with new life, new excitement, new mission, new energy, new purpose. Everything seems to make sense now: “this is what I’m on this planet to do!”  And then … everything begins to fall apart. Nothing works out the way we planned. All the scenarios we played out in our heads about how things would happen, how our life would go, how events would transpire … all come crashing down around us. And we’re left traumatized and in shock.  Shaking our heads to clear the confusion – what just happened? Did I make all this up? Was this just some fantasy, some delusion?  What happened to God? Why is all this crap happening to me?!

And here’s God’s response: “Now you will get to see what I’m about to do. By my mighty hand and my outstretched arm, I will compel Pharaoh to let my people go.”

In other words,
the bigger the problem, the greater the power.

The deeper the crap, the more amazing the outcome.

Little problems don’t require divine intervention. We can handle them ourselves. What bragging-rights does that give God?  It’s the big stuff, the stuff too big for us to handle, that requires the supernatural, the miraculous.

People who are content with little require little. Those who are happy to have small lives, to just have a convenient job, to pay their bills and have a comfortable home where they can just relax and watch the football game on Sunday afternoon – what need do they have of mighty displays of the miraculous?

My gut feeling when talking with my friends about the startling amount of difficulties they were experiencing was that they were destined for bigger things. Big trouble means a big life.

That doesn’t mean that every little situation was going to work out wonderfully. That did not mean that suddenly things were gonna start falling into place.  Even knowing God was working in the process does not mean it was gonna be easy.  In fact (unfortunately!), it often means the opposite.   But it’s the big picture where things begin to make sense. It’s in the looking back afterwards that we get to see the divine power at work, doing things beyond our control, even beyond our imagination. And it never is how we expect. God never works in ways that we could have predicted.  That’s way too small for him, way to restraining. And way too small for us!  We deserve bigger things. For those who want it, for those who feel it deep inside their gut, we have bigger things in store, bigger destinies. Destinies that touch the world around us.

Those who don’t want that kind of big life probably won’t experience these kinds of big difficulties.  They’ll have challenges appropriate to the size of their dreams.

And for Moses and the complaining Hebrews, they got to witness the amazing hand of God – to the point that we’re still talking about 3500 years later. And they even made a movie about it.  Beyond that, here’s a little nugget: they not only got a new freedom and vision for themselves, they get to see a new side of God they hadn’t seen before. “I appeared to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai, God Almighty. But I did not make myself known to them by my holy name, Yahweh, “I AM”.  This name is for you, from now on …”   Oh, and by the way, “I have heard their groanings, I have seen their troubles, I remember my promises, and I will deliver them …”

That’s the message to those going through some deep doodoo right now. It never happens like we expect. And we gripe and moan about it. That’s okay. That’s human.  It’s the end results that count.  The bigger the problem, the greater the solution. The more resistance, the more spectacular the outcome.  Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:28, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose…”

To doubt God, to ask where he is in all the stuff that’s going on, that’s human. It’s okay.

Our mistake is putting our “faith” in how we expect God to do things, rather than “trusting” that he’s gonna work it all out in the end.

That’s the real mark of a vital faith, a solid spirituality.  “We’re gonna get through this, and God is gonna make it all work out for our good. And in the process, we’re gonna grow, we’re gonna become better and stronger, and we’re gonna see a new face of God we’ve never known before.”

So as hard as it might be to do in real life, our game plan when going through the deep doodoo is pretty simple: Don’t focus on the immediate situation. Don’t lose heart over the immediate circumstances. Don’t get lost in the details of the small picture. The grander scheme, the big picture, is where it all makes sense. The more complicated the situation, and the uglier the mess, … the more clearly it indicates a bigger outcome, a more beautiful and purposeful life.

Small lives don’t require a divine “outstretched arm and mighty hand”.  Big lives do. And that’s where you’re headed.
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photo credit: B Rosen via photopin cc
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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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From the Dust Bowl to Your Destiny

camals“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran” (Gen 28:10).

What could be possibly one of the most boring verses in the entire Bible suddenly jumped out at me with such intensity and meaning, I just had to stop and stare at it for a while.

Jacob was a weasel. He was a trickster, somebody well-skilled in passive-aggressive behavior. He was a mama’s boy and a manipulator. He let people walk all over him. He was weak and wimpy. And I’m sure he was full of insecurities and self-doubts, and maybe even a little self-hatred. (Hey, kinda like a lot of us!) But he was also a man with a destiny. He had a role to fill in divine history, and God wasn’t gonna let a few personality flaws interfere with his ultimate plans.

So there he was, hanging out in Beersheba, a dusty little spot on the map, barren of life and luxury except for some scrub grass suitable only for livestock and a few wells his grandfather had dug. Not the kind of place to build a name for yourself. Not even the kind of place to build much of a life. But he wasn’t stopping there. He was on his way to Haran, a rich, exotic city sitting on the trade routes of civilization, looking for a wife and his future. Caravans carrying goods from Mesopotamia to Egypt, from Persia to what is now Turkey passed through that city, and it was known for it’s gold, spices, and precious stones. He was going from the southern most outpost of fertile land to the excitement of the big city in the north. But it wasn’t the city that held the key to his destiny. It was the journey itself.

“When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night …”
For many of us on the journey to new life and purpose, we overlook this important aspect: sometimes you just gotta stop moving, and camp out for a while. Something was about to happen to Jacob — he was hours away from that famous vision of angels ascending and descending the ladder between earth and God, a new revelation of God and about himself — and if he’d forced himself beyond that resting spot, if he’d continued his journey through the night in a hurry to get where he was going, he would have missed it. Like him, most of us tend to be restless. We’re running ahead at full steam, trying to escape (or at least change) our current situation, and reach the next stage of life, something better and more meaningful. But if we don’t slow down, if we don’t take advantage of our current situation, if we don’t learn whatever it is we’re supposed to glean from the present experience, we won’t be ready for that next step. Sometimes we have to slow down enough to listen.  And for once, perhaps for the first time in his life, Jacob doesn’t blow the opportunity. He rests. And then God speaks.

“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
What’s missing here? Those of us who grew up in Sunday School can fill in the blanks. The title always goes “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But that hasn’t happened yet. Jacob already had some years and experience under his belt, but he hadn’t come fully into himself yet. He hadn’t realized his full identity, nor had he developed a satisfactory relationship with God. His faith was still with the God of his fathers — or to put in another way, it was his parents’ religion. He had yet to really make it his own. But it’s during this journey that all that changes. It’s in the desert, in the sand, in the middle of nowhere on his way to somewhere, that God becomes real to him. And his life is changed from that moment on. After this trip, the God of Abraham and Isaac becomes the God of Jacob.   A new relationship, a divine partnership, is born.  And when that happens, nothing remains the same.

“I will give you and your descendants the land … You will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you …”
It’s here, at this place of camping out, this place of quiet resting, at a break in the running, that Jacob gets the promise of the destiny he’s been looking for. God assures him that he will ultimately come into his own: he’ll inherit the land. But more than that, the purpose of his life is suddenly made clear: through him the whole earth will be blessed. It’s at this moment, at that rest-stop on the journey, that his life suddenly comes into focus. He is somebody. He has hope and a future. He is worth something.  All that scheming and manipulation, that striving for recognition and favor, the tricks and deceit, even his passive weakness, have not disqualified him from a purpose-filled and fulfilling life.  His mess-ups couldn’t shake the love and favor of God for him.

And on top of that, God promises to watch over him: “I am with you, and will watch over you wherever you go … I will never leave you …”  A new depth and quality to his life appeared out of nowhere in that moment.  It’s the breakthrough he needed in his quiet desperation, proof that his life had significance, that the world would be a better, more blessed place because of him.

His story continues, and a few chapters past this passage is another well-known event in his journey. It’s years later. He’s arrived in Haran, married the woman of his dreams (actually, got four women in the process), had eleven sons, and with God’s favor had become prosperous, despite his flawed character. And on one lonely night, still seeking to fill the void in his soul, he wrestles with a divine stranger till daybreak (Gen 32:24). Even though he’d achieved many of his goals — the love of a life-partner, a family of his own, the successful business — he’s still longing for deeper fulfillment. And he refuses to let the stranger go until he gets something from him: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” But that’s exactly what the divine visitor came to do, and he gives Jacob a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men.” That life of constant struggle — deep within himself, with others around him, his family, and with God — God uses as material to forge his new identity. Though his journey in life would continue on for many more years, that part of the search for identity was finally complete. He now knew who he was, and what he was all about.

And none of this would have happened if he’d stayed in the dust bowl of Beersheba, if he hadn’t left his father’s house in search of his destiny.

For many of us, this is the story of our lives.
We’re restless and wanting more. We feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled where we are right now, and we have this nagging feeling in our guts that “there has to be more than just this.” There is.  A lot more. Your job is not done; your life is not stalled out. You are not stuck in the mud, or in the rut of your day to day grind. For those wanting more, there is new purpose and greater significance; there is a coming into your true identity, becoming all you were meant to be; there’s a deeper relationship with God, and a more fulfilling destiny — something bigger than yourself, something that will impact the world around you.   But it all happens along the way. It happens in the journey.

So don’t stop pressing. Don’t stop seeking God for more. Take advantage of where you are now, learn what you can, grow in the place where you’re planted — you’re more likely to hear the revelation you need to get you to the next step when you’re still enough to listen.  But don’t think that’s where your journey ends. You may be in a dusty spot, hanging out by a few wells of water, surrounded by little more than herds of sheep and goats, but Haran is calling. The fullness of your God-designed identity and destiny still await you. And this is God’s promise to you, as well as to Jacob. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. You’re gonna make it. You’re on the road from the dust bowl to your destiny.

 

Throw Out Your Map

man_mapDespite all my efforts, I am not the master of the universe. And, in fact, although I can certainly influence the direction of my life, I’m not even master over my own destiny.

That’s kinda tough news for a guy. I was at a men’s bible study last night, and of the nine of us there, most of us had come to this sad conclusion also. Well, perhaps not so sad. For most of us there, it was actually a liberating revelation. (Although I admit, I’m still working to reach that state of contentment.) For the most part, we all tended to be controllers, decision-makers, problem-solvers, fixers. We wanted to impose our order on the situations around us, and make things “right” (at least “right” as we saw it). And maybe that’s a basic human characteristic, not just a guy-thing.

Speaking solely for myself here, I can tell you that trying to be master of your own destiny is exhausting work. And it’s frustrating when reality refuses to conform to your wishes. Most of us at the meeting had come to the conclusion that, contrary to what we tended to think, our way was not always the best way — and certainly not the only way — of doing things. And we don’t have to be in charge all the time. The liberation occurs when we realize that God is actually the grand orchestrator of our lives, and that the best place to be in life is in surrender and cooperation with his plans. If we could do that, we could (almost) sit back a bit and try to enjoy the ride.

This is not an attitude of complete passivity, of course. That’ll get you nowhere. We all have to put some muscle into it, to throw our efforts and energies toward the direction we feel God would lead us. But ultimately the final destination, the final results, are not up to us. Sometimes, if we spend enough time soul-searching and pressing God, we’ll get a glimmer of what our final destination looks like, but it is almost never reached by the way we anticipate or plan. Like that old saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, all we can do it take that next step that is right in front of us, pursue it whole-heartedly, and wait for the next step after that to reveal itself.

I remember one time, a long time ago when I was working for a theological journal in Israel, a woman wrote in asking us to pray that God would show her his will for her life. My first reactive thought was “yeah, you and me both, sister.” But then as I sat quietly for a moment staring at her letter, words in a quiet whisper broke clearly in my mind: “look where you’re at right now. That’s where it begins.”

We can become so lost trying to see through the fog of the future, trying to see the road all the way from where we are to the end the journey. But we’re never shown the entire path. And perhaps that’s an act of mercy on God’s part. If we knew in advance everything we would encounter, we might get overwhelmed, lose heart, and never even want to venture out. And perhaps it’s because that is the nature of our quest: we’re supposed to live in the present, in the here and now, and trust God as we go. Will we trust God — will we have the guts — to take that next step, not knowing exactly what we’re stepping into or what might happen there or where it will lead us to next?

It is a futile effort to try to map out the trip from beginning to end. (And where would the fun be in that?) Our single responsibility is take that next step, whatever it is revealed to be. Our only concern should be to say “yes” and then to dedicate ourselves to that task at hand — not trying to figure it all out. The path will be stretched out before us, but we can only take it — and only see it — one step at a time.

Guys hate asking for directions. We like to know the way and every leg of it. But if we want to finally end up where we’re supposed to be, if we want to have a successful and exciting journey, we have to begin by first throwing out our maps.