What You Seek, You Find
This week I received a message from a person who happened to read one of the earlier sermons in the Survivor Babylon series. She wrote to ask my advice about a hard time she is going through. After many years of hoping and praying, she recently started a course of study in a field very close to her heart. Unfortunately, things have not gone well. Her first three papers have received failing grades, and one of her instructors made some disparaging comments. Leaving out some of the personal information, here is part of what she wrote:
When I started I was scared even when I stepped out in faith to do something which labeling had told me I was inadequate.
The course has been very difficult for me and sometimes I have almost reached the breaking point. I stumbled on your website a few days ago. I read all your messages on Survivor Babylon and was intrigued with the phrase ’I am right where God wants me. He is in control and will use this incident somehow.’
Then she makes raises some good points that anyone would ask in the same situation …
1. I don’t understand why if God opened the door for to me to go back to school, I am struggling so much.
2. I don’t understand why the demoralizing low grades.
3. I have prayed for God’s help and heaven seems like brass. There’s been no progress.
4. Does God want me to fail my exams after opening the door?
5. Am I right where God wants me? Twiddling my thumbs and hoping against hope?
6. Is this an ’all things work together for good for those that love the Lord’ tag?
Pastor Ray, I know you are not God, but I am asking for your counsel and for God to speak a word through you to me, if He would.
I appreciate her honesty. I am beginning this message with her email partly because she wrote it in response to this sermon series, and partly because we’ve all been in similar situations. It’s very tough to take a step of faith, especially when you feel inadequate, and then have it more or less blow up in your face. Deep inside we all like to think that if we obey God and do what he tells us to do, then things may be tough but they will work out somehow. And in the macro sense, that statement is certainly true. Obeying God is always the best way to go, and the fruit of obedience will always be ultimately sweet to the taste. But it’s that little word “ultimately” that trips us up. Sometimes obedience may seem quite bitter to us when we have tried to do the right thing, ventured out in faith, taken the next step, obeyed God’s will with as much courage as we could muster, following the leading we were given, and still we end up frustrated and wondering if somehow we made a mistake.
No “Welcome Abraham” Signs
Whenever those thoughts come to me, and they do come from time to time, I recall the circumstances that greeted Abraham when he finally arrived in the Promised Land, having left Ur of the Chaldees not knowing where he was going, by faith following God’s call. And when after much difficulty, he finally reaches the Promised Land, who is there to greet him?
Hebrews 11:9 says that he lived in tents. He was like a foreigner in the land of promise. In many ways this is even more remarkable than leaving Ur in the first place. As long as he was traveling across the desert, he could dream about the future. But when he got to Canaan, all illusions disappeared. Think of what he didn’t find:
* No “Welcome, Abraham” sign.
* No discount coupons from the merchants.
* No housewarming party.
* No visit from the Welcome Wagon.
* No mayor with the key to the city.
* No band playing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
* No ticker-tape parade.
Nobody expected him. Nobody cared that he had come. Nobody gave him anything.
God had promised him the land . . . but he had to scratch out an existence in tents. Hundreds of years would pass before the promise was completely fulfilled. Abraham never saw it happen. Neither did Isaac or Jacob.
God works across the generations to accomplish His purposes; we’re worried about which dress or shirt to buy for the big party this weekend.
Was Abraham in the will of God? Yes. Was he right to leave Ur? Yes. Was he doing what God wanted him to do? Yes. Why, then, was he living in tents? Because God’s timetable is not the same as ours. He’s not in a big hurry like we are. God works across the generations to accomplish His purposes; we’re worried about which dress or shirt to buy for the big party this weekend. There is a big difference in those two perspectives.
Famine in the Promised Land
But there is something else even more remarkable in Genesis 12. What happens when he gets to the Promised Land? He moves from place to place, he sets up an altar and worships the Lord. Then a famine strikes (verse 10). What’s up with that? Here’s a man who has dedicated everything to follow God. He sacrificed his career, gave up his security, traveled a long distance, couldn’t even find a home of his own, and now there’s a famine? How do you explain that? As it turns out, Abraham ends up going down to Egypt where he gets in trouble because lies about Sarah to Pharaoh (verses 11-20). It doesn’t make any sense. Why the famine and why the test?
The answer is, the test is the whole point. After all that Abraham has been through, you would think that God would give him a period of peace and quiet. Life is rarely that simple for any of us. God often sends trouble following a period of prosperity in order that he may test our motives. Are we serving him just because things are going well? But what if we lose our job? Our marriage? Our friends? Our reputation? Our wealth? Our home? Our health? Will we still serve him then?
God often sends trouble following a period of prosperity in order that he may test our motives.
Donald Grey Barnhouse commented that just as every coin has a head and a tail, so every event in life either draws us to God or leads us away from him. If Abraham had stayed in Canaan during the famine, he would have learned to trust God in a brand-new way. If he hadn’t lied to the Egyptians, he would have given God a chance to meet his needs without resorting to deception. But because he didn’t do those things, that same famine led him away from God.
How much better it would be if we would learn this lesson. Instead of complaining at every trial and saying “Why me?” we would be better off to say, “Lord, what are you trying to teach me through this?” Every difficult situation gives us the opportunity to become a student of God’s grace or a hapless victim of negative circumstances.
When the famine comes, remember that God has not abandoned you. He sends the famines of life in order to see if you will trust him even in the most difficult moments. We should say, “Here is another opportunity for me to trust God. I wonder what wonderful things he is going to do for me this time.” It’s not easy to say that. Sometimes it takes more grace to stay in the Promised Land than it does to get there in the first place.
What Difference Will This Make in 10,000 Years?
Now I come back to address the questions raised in the email. And of course, to the specific situation I can give no certain answer. We rarely can know when we are in the middle of a discouraging circumstance why it is has happened or how things will turn out. Sometimes in our quest to do God’s will, we focus too much on questions such as, “Am I right where the Lord wants me to be?”
Good question, but to ask it that way puts too much of the focus on us and on our own decisions. We naturally tend to see life with ourselves at the center of the universe. We naturally spend hours worrying about questions regarding our career, our education, and our future plans. On one level, this is healthy. If we don’t think about our future, no one else will either so we ought to spend some time thinking about the details of life. But life doesn’t begin and end with us. Deep inside we know this is true, but we live as if the universe exists for our personal benefit. Recently I read about a football team that lost a big game by the humiliating score of 51-0. It’s hard to get beat that bad in football. You really have to play lousy to lose like that. After it was over, the coach, trying to console his players, told them to forget it about because “there are 800 million Chinese who don’t even know we played a game today.” (This was some year ago. Today he would say 1.3 billion Chinese.)
Ninety-nine percent of what you worried about this week won’t matter three weeks from now, much less 10,000 years from now.
And along that line, I am reminded of something I heard Vernon Grounds say. When we face a major decision, we ought to ask ourselves, “What difference will this make in 10,000 years?” He went on to say that most of our decisions—the ones we agonize over—won’t matter at all in 10,000 years. What a liberating way to look at life. Ninety-nine percent of what you worried about this week won’t matter three weeks from now, much less 10,000 years from now. In the year 2452 it won’t matter whether you lived in Minnesota, Santa Fe, or South Carolina. But what will matter is that you decided to follow Jesus Christ. All those trivial, piddly details that soak up so much energy will in that day be seen for what they really are–trivial, piddly details.
With regard to the specific questions, it may be that my correspondent needs to find another line of study. Perhaps God allowed her to enter the program not in order for her to graduate, but to allow her to see that she has gifts in other areas. Or perhaps this is simply a test to develop her perseverance. Or a way for her to see previously unseen weaknesses. Or perhaps it is a test of her motives. Who knows? I heard a godly man pray, “Lord, you did not bring us this far to cause us to fail.” True enough, but our definition of failure and God’s definition are two different things. Today’s “failure” may be a steppingstone to whatever God has for us tomorrow. We simply can’t be sure about these things in advance.
Good News from Jeremiah 29
In all of this, our starting point is very significant. In times of great discouragement, we can start in one of two places:
Starting with our problems leads to confusion and more discouragement. Starting with God leads us to the only solid ground for hope. I am not smart enough to reason my way from my problems back to God. If I get a rejection letter (it’s happened to me more than once), I really can’t read any great divine purpose into that. It’s just a no. Period. Maybe it’s no, not now. Or no, not this. Or no, move in a different direction. Or maybe it’s just no, and don’t spend too much time dwelling on it. My point is, when I look through the tiny lens of my life and try to divine God’s huge purposes, I am like the flea riding on a cow’s tail trying to count the stars in the sky. You can’t start with yourself and hope to find satisfactory answers.
If you start with you, you’ll end with you and be no better off.So we have to start with God.
That’s where Jeremiah 29 becomes so instructive. The last part of the message from God to the disappointed exiles in Babylon contains a promise, a condition and a reward.
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (vv.12-14).
The promise is, I will hear you when pray (verse 12).
The condition is, Seek me with all your heart (verse 13).
The reward is, I will bring you home (verse 14).
Consider what these things mean:
God always intended to bring his children home again.
God invites them to seek him even in captivity.
God desires an intimate relationship with them right now.
I find this very suggestive and very hopeful. As we peer into the unseen future, we know that God intends to bring us to his appointed end for us. That means he will see to it that we are led step by step from where we are to where he wants us to be. But exactly how he will get us there, what intermediate steps we will take, that is not revealed. And certainly it means for us what it meant for the exiles, that sometimes we may feel that we are consigned to Babylon, that God has forgotten us, that we have messed up so badly that there is no hope or future for us. God says, “Do not judge my purposes by what you see in the mirror or what you see around you.” God is reminding his people that they are in no position to judge him at all.
Sometimes Slow is Best
What is left for us when we find ourselves discouraged and confused? We are invited to seek the Lord. What a thrilling thought this is. God wants us to seek him because when we do, we will find him. He’s not playing hide-and-seek with us. He is always near at hand. And do not miss the point of Jeremiah 29. This invitation to seek God was given to his own wayward children who had blown it so badly that they were taken from their homeland and transplanted into the heart of heathen idol-worship. Many of them would never go home again because they would die in Babylon before the 70 years came to an end.
What do you do when you find yourself in Babylon?
Seek the Lord!
Seek him with all your heart!
Seek to know him!
“Sometimes slow is best.” There is great wisdom in those words.
I smile when I think that God desires an intimate relationship with us even when we’ve blown it badly. Sometimes we just have to slow down enough to hear God’s voice speaking to us. I got a call from a friend in another state. Some months ago he felt led to step out in faith and start a new ministry. I agreed to help him and encourage him in whatever way I could. He called to say that he is slowing down the process in order to have time to work through some issues with spiritual leaders he trusts. As he explained it to me, I felt the Holy Spirit confirming in my heart that this is the right decision. We Americans love to rush forward with our plans because we’re in a hurry to serve the Lord. But God’s timetable and ours are two different things. I told my friend about a conversation I had with a Chinese pastor who in discussing our dreams of working together said, “Sometimes slow is best.” There is great wisdom in those words.
Better to Be in Babylon
As we study the events of life and try to discern what it all means, keep in mind that God intends to bring us to the place where our hearts will be focused on him alone. And that explains why it was good for the Jews to end up in Babylon.
Were they being punished? Yes, but that wasn’t the end of the story. God put them there so that in Babylon they would seek him in a way that they had not done in Jerusalem. He does the same thing with us.
Thus Jerusalem can become like Babylon to us, and Babylon can become like Jerusalem because God is not limited by time and space. He cannot be contained in buildings built by man—not even by the beautiful temple in Jerusalem. He is above and beyond all human limitation. When Paul explained this principle to the men of Athens in Acts 17, he pointed out that God gives us life and breath and spreads us out in different nations around the globe—and he does it “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26). Have you ever wondered why you were born into a particular family at a particular moment in history? After all, you could have been born 500 years ago or in Brazil or India or New Zealand. Why did you end up where you are right now? God arranged everything in your life so that you might seek him. You are where you are right now because God wants you to seek him and to find him. He desires a personal relationship with you.
This sheds some light on things like cancer, the death of a loved one, financial collapse, and the breakup of a marriage. Why would God allow such things? One part of the answer is that God uses these awful events to teach that we can’t make it without him. Many of us could testify that it wasn’t until we hit rock bottom that we finally found the Lord. When you are flat on your back, totally broke, health gone, marriage dissolved, children estranged, career ruined, with nowhere to turn and no hope in the world, in the blackness of that moment you cry out, “Oh God, have mercy,” and he responds, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask for my help.” So we learn the hard way that life is meaningless without the Lord.
Our Own Personal Bablyon
We come at last to the bottom line as we face our own personal Babylons. If you are in a hard place right now, do not despair and do not think that God has forgotten you. Remember these truths:
* God often puts us in places we don’t like so that we are forced to confront our own weakness.
* We will often be in those places longer than we like.
* Those times are wasted if we mope or complain or become bitter at God.
* Those times are redeemed if we use them for our own growth, to serve others, and to know God better.
If you are in a hard place right now, do not despair and do not think that God has forgotten you.
The great mystic Thomas a Kempis (who wrote The Imitation of Christ) said, “Seek God, not happiness.” We have it all backwards. We seek happiness and hope to have God thrown in as a bonus. But we end up with neither. The paradox of the gospel is that when we truly seek God, we find him, and we get happiness (deep fulfillment, lasting joy, the abundant life) too. But it takes years for many of us to figure that out, and some of us never get it straight. To the very end, we pursue earthly happiness and our own agendas and we wonder why life leaves us frustrated and disillusioned.
What do you see? What you see determines what you seek.
If all you see is Babylon … you will be miserable.
If you see the hand of God, you will have hope.
Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” There are always choices to be made, even in the tiniest details of life. I was struck by a scene from the final episode of the recent miniseries on the life of John Adams. He is now almost 90 years old, having outlived his wife, several of his children, and all of his contemporaries (except Thomas Jefferson). His health failing, Adams looks and moves like a very old man. Yet on a sunny day at Peacefield, his Massachusetts farm, Adams takes a walk on a country lane with one of his sons. ”I am not tired of life,” he says. “I still have hope.” Pausing to catch his breath, he bends over slightly. “It’s time to go home, father,” his son tells him.
Leaning on his son’s shoulder, Adams says, “Rejoice evermore,” as they turn for home. Seeing his son’s puzzled look, Adams grabs his son’s face and laughs. “Rejoice evermore. It’s from Saint Paul, you fool!” Then spying a tiny blossom, he adds, “I have seen the queen of France bedecked with millions of dollars in jewelry, but I tell you (pointing with his walking stick to the tiny blossom), there is more beauty in that flower than I ever saw in the court of France.”
What you see determines what you seek.
As Adams turns to slowly walk back to the house, he says, “Abigail often told me I needed to appreciate the beauty of small things more than I do. She was right. Now I find that if I look at the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”
Life is so short for all of us, we come quickly, we leave quickly, we will all be buried someday. But oh, how precious is the gift of life, and how blessed we are to be here. Even in Babylon, we can seek the Lord. What sadness if we go through life complaining about our misfortune, focused on ourselves, and blind to all the beauty that God has placed in our path.
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