The Swamps: A Frustrating Irony

the swamps

Bugs, snakes, rodents, birds, and wildlife galore! These are just a few of the animals occupying one of the most fascinating habitats in the world.  Alligators swim freely through the swamps, building enormous nests for their eggs.  Birds soar through the sky, landing in trees at their leisure.  These animals live in an environment that perfectly suits them.  They live extravagantly where they are.

But in the midst of this animal Taj Mahal, there’s a shack where a person lives.  Unlike the animals, this person is not suited for the swamps.  His home cannot endure the water, his body cannot endure the temperature, his young are not safe in their nest.  This man lives in constant envy of his prey.

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A frustrating irony of the swamps.

Have you ever been in a swamp like this? One where everyone seems to glide in the water around you, but you can’t seem to set one foot in the ground without landing in quicksand? I’m sure we’ve all been there.  It’s horrible! We sit in our little shacks focusing on the bugs swarming around us rather than the people we love eating frog legs with us.  Truthfully, we rejoice in each mosquito zapped by our lanterns and fish caught in our nets.  We hurt those we envy, bitterly rejoicing in their demise.

A Friend in Need

JOB 34

The phone rings.  You look down.  It’s her.  Again.  It’s not that you don’t like her or even that you mind talking to her.  After all, she’s one of your closest friends.  It’s just exhausting to talk to her right now.  There’s nothing you can say, nothing you can do.  She’s miserable.  Rightly so, she’s been through a lot, but when will it end?

We’ve all been there.  Maybe it’s not an extended season or a deep hurt, but we’ve all had a friend that’s unhappy and we don’t know how to help.

Job’s friends are my favorite example of this.  They were definitely clueless, exhausted, and exasperated.

These guys started out well.  They did something incredibly supportive,

Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense” (Job 2:13 HCSB).

Can you imagine? I’ve been in some pretty intense moments with people, but I can’t imagine sitting in silence with someone for seven days and seven nights.

How meaningful that must have been for Job!  While he was experiencing unspeakable grief, his friends just sat with him.  Their presence was somehow enough.

But his friends should’ve stopped there.  Can you relate? I can.  Their words completely failed them.  Their initial patience was squelched by their final exasperation.  Instead of continuing to sit and listen to their friend, they started attempted to “fix” his problem.  Their advice was poorly timed, insensitive, and frankly heretical.  Not knowing what to do, how to help, and who God really is caused them to majorly fail as friends.

Of course, there are times to call a friend out.  That’s a huge part of being a friend that is too often neglected, but checking our motives and trusting God’s control are essential as we partner with our hurting friends.

Job 42:7 ESV shows what bothers the LORD about Job’s friends, “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.'”

This passage begs the question: what does my response to hurting friends say about God?

I hope it reveals trust.  I hope it reveals His love.  I hope it reveals His character.  I hope it reveals His grace.  I know it doesn’t always, but I pray I begin to respond better to a friend in need.

The Art of Humility Through Fasting

the art of humility through fasting

Fasting.  Undoubtedly my least favorite discipline.  Even in January when resolutions remain and rich food isn’t appealing, there is just nothing that draws me to fasting.

Every time I speak to a woman about fasting she seems to confess that numbers dropping on the scale easily becomes the focus of fasting.  That focus sounds a lot more like an eating disorder than a discipline.

But there has to be a point to it, right?

I dabbled in fasting a little before moving to New Orleans, but I still didn’t quite understand the point.  There seemed to be a lot of unknowns and blurred lines.  I didn’t hear anyone teach fasting, only allude to it.

When I moved to New Orleans, I learned that many of the professors are passionate about this topic.  Within my first year, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention came to speak about prayer and fasting.  He, along with many other SBC leaders, is also passionate about fasting.  He addressed aspects of fasting that are often avoided or unspoken.  As a result of things he said and conversations that followed, a renewed interest for the topic was sparked in me.

The aspect of fasting that plagues me the most is why we fast.  

Jesus fasted while He was in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4), but He didn’t say much about it.  The Pharisees even criticized Jesus’ followers for their lack of fasting (Luke 5:33).  Since I already don’t enjoy missing a meal, it would be pretty easy for me to use that as an excuse to just avoid this discipline.

But after Jesus’ disciples were criticized,  He responded, “You can’t make the wedding guests fast while the groom is with them, can you? But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them—then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:34-35 HCSB).  

We are still waiting on the groom to return, so the excuse that Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast is out…Jesus clearly still saw a point to fasting, especially until He returns.

The instructions Jesus gave about fasting also show that He valued fasting.  Jesus said, “Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18 HCSB).

Jesus didn’t say, “if you fast,” He said, “whenever you fast.”  He expected it.  So why did He expect it? He gives us a clue here.  It was for private worship, not personal glory.

To me, that sounds a lot like humility.  Simply put, it seems that this discipline (like so many others) is part of making us humble.  Sanctifying us.  Making us more like Him.  I think Psalm 35:13 (HCSB) gives good insight to this mysterious discipline:

Yet when they were sick,
my clothing was sackcloth;
I humbled myself with fasting,
and my prayer was genuine.

Don’t miss the third line.  I humbled myself with fasting…and I love that genuine prayer follows.  Of course! Prayer is so much more genuine when said in humility, directed by the Spirit.  Not our proud flesh.

So how do we increase our humility through fasting? Practically, what does that look like? 

I think true fasting from the Bible requires abstaining from food.  Don’t get me wrong, I think there are times where God leads us on other types of “fasts” (i.e., social media, TV, chocolate, etc.).  I am just not convinced that’s the type of fasting that really brings biblical humility as mentioned in the Bible.  We can live without excess, but we can’t live without food.  The discipline itself requires trust, faith, and humility.

Taking that kind of stance on fasting inevitably stirs up all kinds of questions.  Who should fast? When should we fast? How often should we fast? How long should we fast?

Like so many things in the Bible, fasting doesn’t seem to be clear cut.  We aren’t bound by the Law.  We don’t have specific fasting requirements we have to maintain.  However, I do think believers should be in the habit of fasting, especially with prayer.  James 5 provides wisdom about the timing of certain types of prayer.  Like these types of prayer come at different times, so fasting appears to be synonymous with different seasons.  It is up to us to be open enough to follow God in this area, desiring His humility to run through us.

Disclaimer: Please seek the Lord’s guidance as you consider fasting.  If you do not have a relationship with Him, let that be your first priority.  After that, make sure you’re reading the Bible regularly and systematically, accompanied with prayer.  Make sure God’s telling you to fast before you do it, and use discernment.  He could tell you to fast for an extended period of time, and He can sustain you.  However, He could also be making you humble by asking someone else to pray and fast for you (this could be especially true if you’re facing health problems or you struggle with an eating disorder).

Iron Sharpens Iron

IRON SHARPENS

Iron sharpens iron,
    and one man sharpens another.  

Quoted often, I fear that I sometimes allow Proverbs 27:17 to become a cliche in my own life.  Instead of clinging to the resounding truth of this Scripture, I let it fly through my head like any other useless thought.

But when I actually take time to meditate on it, isn’t this verse powerful?

Just think about it, iron sharpening iron? There’s a reason I’m not a metal worker.  I don’t even enjoy sharpening kitchen knives.  The process terrifies me.  It involves so much force as one object becomes more like the other.  The process takes a practically useless object and makes it an incredible tool.  Similarly, we are called to sharpen one another.  We spend time with people who challenge us, so we become more like them…so we become more like Jesus, the One who’s image they bear.

Recently, I’ve found that iron-sharpeners don’t just hold me accountable when they call me out.  Somehow their humanness sharpens me too.  It makes me aware of my own humanness.  Friends, even godly friends, say things that offend me sometimes.  It could be them acting sinfully, but I’m realizing that a lot of times it’s just me reacting sinfully.  When I find myself reacting strongly, I have to figure out a way to get past it.  These relationship annoyances force me to stop what I’m doing and examine myself.  If it weren’t for other people in my life, I wouldn’t have to stop and examine myself like that.  People are a huge part of God making me more like Him.

The Hebrew translation of this verse is actually “sharpens the face of another.”  Despite all the pain involved in sharpening, God uses it to change our countenance.  There is such rich beauty that comes from this kind of relationship.

As an introvert, I can spend quite awhile by myself and feel okay, refreshed even.  I can fool myself into thinking I don’t need people.  I’m fine on my own.  Right?

Wrong.  Time alone is good.  Needed.  Time alone with God is essential.  These times should be treasured, prioritized, and protected.  Jesus spent time alone with the Father often, but God designed us to be with other people too…with iron-sharpeners.  Isolation is a great time to let sin creep into our lives.  We’re vulnerable by ourselves.  Kind of like a dull kitchen knife or razor, we may not notice it’s that dull until after it’s sharpened.  We ease into using our second-best.

As a people-pleaser, I can spend time serving and feel like I’m fulfilling my people requirements.  I’ve been with people, so I’m good.  I’m not isolating or withdrawing, so I’m fine.  Right?

Wrong.  Serving is good.  God expects us to serve.  Why waste the gifts He’s given us? But serving isn’t a replacement for iron-sharpeners.  It may be a good place to find other iron-sharpeners.  It may be something God uses to bring growth, but chances are it’s not really where iron-sharpening happens.  It’s more like the place where the knife gets used, rather than sharpened.

Finding iron-sharpeners is difficult.  It usually means increasing vulnerability and admitting weakness, two things that go against our human pride.  I am quite possibly the slowest iron-finder around.  It’s taken me a year and a half to even really invite iron-sharpeners into my life since I moved to New Orleans.  Despite a lot of time surviving on a dull or only slightly sharpened blade, I am so grateful for the people the Lord’s placed in my life and how He sharpens me through them (whether I want to be sharpened or not).  Please do not stop actively seeking out others to do the same for you.