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Walking with God Through Adversity: Seven Lessons from the Heart of Hannah

The book of 1 Samuel begins with the story of a remarkable woman of God named Hannah.  As I meditated on her life I marveled at her heart towards God.  This woman’s simple faith allowed her to walk with God through her deepest valley.  God placed her story in  Scripture as an example of how a follower of God walks with Him through adversity.  Here are seven lessons we can all learn from the heart of Hannah:

Lesson One: Acknowledge God’s Sovereignty

“the LORD had closed her womb.” (v.5)
The very first thing we learn about Hannah is that she knew ”the Lord had closed her womb.” It’s clear that she and her husband saw her infertility as being under God’s sovereign hand. Without any help from sophisticated theology textbooks or philosophy courses, they were able to see the obvious truth that the being who created the universe must also be the being who orders its every event. Acknowledging God’s control over all our life’s circumstances is the essential first step to a life of walking with Him.

Lesson Two: Affirm God’s Righteousness

Next, we can see that Hannah saw God as righteous.  Even in her deepest distress, she never accused God of being unloving or unjust. There is nothing in her prayers to suggest she cried out, “Why did you do this to me?” Her attitude parallels Job 1:22, where the Bible says that Job never “charged God with wrong.” If the first step of walking with God is to accept that He is in control, the second step must be to affirm Psalm 145:17 that, “the Lord is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.”

Lesson Three: Keep Following in God’s Ways

“So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord”  (v.7)
When confronted with deep soul pain, many people make the choice to walk away from God. Not Hannah. Year after year, she remained faithful to worship Him, even if it meant traveling to Shiloh with another woman who delighted in making her miserable. She could have feigned illness, or could have outright refused to go. Instead, she continued to obey God’s commands year after year after year, fully knowing how hard the road of obedience sometimes was. 

Lesson Four: Go to God With Your Pain

“She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.” (v.10)
Acknowledging God’s sovereignty and righteousness and remaining faithful to Him does not mean we have to stuff away our pain or pretend it doesn’t hurt. God is a loving Father and He both understands our pain and desires that we pour out our heart to Him. Hannah, David, even Jesus in the Garden freely poured out their pain to God.  He always received them, and He will always receive us.  We can freely pour out our heart to God.

Lesson Five: Ask God to Intervene

O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant…” (v. 11)
Trusting that God knows best does not mean we do not ask for our desires. God does not answer to Hannah, “Why are you asking me for a child?” For that matter, can you remember anytime God reprimanded anyone for asking Him for a good thing? No, that is not the way of a loving Father with His children. Part of walking with God is putting our requests before Him every day.

Lesson Six: Trust God With All Your Heart

I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life (v. 11)
Hannah’s vow here is not an example of mere crass bargaining with a deity. No, it is a mighty expression of her faith. Hannah declares to God that she knows that He can open her womb, and that she is more than happy to respond to His grace with her faith in dedicating this still future child to Him.

Lesson Seven:  Let Your Joy in God Transcend Your Own Desires

Lastly, Hannah’s song of joy in 1 Samuel 2 shows us that her joy in God transcended her own desire to keep her son by her side. There is no hint of regret or misgiving in dedicating her beloved son for the sake of the Kingdom.  She rejoices in God and sings:

My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.

There is none holy like the Lord;
there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.

May we all strive to have a heart like Hannah that exults in the Lord everyday as we walk with Him.

How to Be a God-Focused Encourager

a little flower by higetiger

Think of the last time you were encouraged, genuinely, deeply encouraged, by someone.  Pretty sweet, wasn’t it?  We all need encouragement in our lives, and we all need to learn to be encouragers of each other.

If we would learn to be a better encourager by example, there’s none better than one of the first followers of Jesus named Joseph.  Wait, you probably don’t even recognize his given name Joseph, but his nickname Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.”  That’s the kind of guy he was, a man known for his encouragement.  His encouragement was so important to the church that he is mentioned by name 33 times in the New Testament, more than anyone else who wasn’t an apostle.

So, how did Barnabas do encouragement?  Studying him, it’s clear that he was known as a God-focused encourager.  No matter where he went or what he did, his heart remained focused on God, and his encouragement to others flowed from a heart filled from God and with God.

There is one key verse in Acts that gives us some clear yet concise insight as to why Barnabas was such an effective encourager:

When Barnabas came (to Antioch) and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. (Acts 11:23)

First, we see that Barnabas let God lead him to people.  He did not wait for someone to come to him.  He traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch with the specific purpose to encourage the Christians there.  The Bible records that the church in Jerusalem specifically asked him to go to Antioch.  If we are focused on God, He will guide us to people to encourage, either through the guiding of our church or friends or circumstances or through the Spirit.  Don’t you think that God has someone for you to encourage today?  If you remain focused on Him He will show you who.

After he came to Antioch Barnabas saw what God was doing.  One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is, “What is God doing in the life of this person?  Where is God at work?”  Being a God-focused encourager doesn’t mean throwing out generic “Have a great day, hang in there, trust in God, blah blah blah” cliches.  It means taking the time to listen, to observe, and to ask God to show you a person’s true need.

We next see that Barnabas was filled with joy at seeing God’s grace.  The old saying goes that there is more “caught” than “taught.”  That principle is absolutely essential in encouragement.  As we move into another person’s life, our hearts should be filled with God’s joy.  Seeing who God is and where He is moving in another person’s life is incredibly energizing and empowering.  Sharing our joy in God with both our words and our lives is the most powerful encouragement we can ever give to each other.

Finally, we see that Barnabas encouraged others to be God focused.  We all need encouragement in every aspect of our lives.  I’m sure Barnabas was known for saying things like, “Say, have you lost a few pounds?”  “That’s a great job you did with your house.”  “You’ve got a great sense of humor.”  “That’s the best stew I’ve had all month!”  But most of all, he was known for encouraging people to look to God in all they did.  Being a faithful Christian was a terribly hard thing in 1st century Palestine, but Barnabas clearly saw both the challenge of leading a faithful, God-focused life and the absolute necessity of it.

So, will you be like Barnabas today?  Will you be God-focused enough to let Him lead you to the people that you can uniquely impact, to see what God is doing in their lives, to move with joy into their lives, and encourage them to fix their eyes on God?  I know, it sounds like a tall order, but as you let God guide and empower you He will surely accomplish great things through you for His glory.


Learning Through Life

bookcoversmallI’ve been working on an anthology of some of my posts, and it is finally here!  I’ve entitled it Learning Through Life, and it has 46 short chapters drawn from my writings over the years.  My only desire with the project is to make my writings more accessible for people to read, so a PDF E-Book is FREE and the 148 page paperback is $7.47, which is the publisher’s printing cost (hope LULU.COM doesn’t find out I put “zero” as my markup!).

I would love everybody to have & enjoy this free e-book. 

Here is the link: Light Along the Journey Media

How Full Is Your Bucket?

How Full Is Your Bucket? is a enjoyable short book that could have been a long magazine article or blog post that winsomely describes a simple psychological concept: giving and receiving genuine compliments, caring, and help = GOOD;  giving and receiving cutting, criticizing, and other negative vibes = BAD.  There it is.  I just saved you fifteen bucks.

Ok, there are a lot of warm anecdotes and some interesting research tossed in there that makes you think, and a few simple strategies to keep in mind:

  1. Prevent Bucket Dipping: both you and others
  2. Shine a Light on What Is Right
  3. Make Best Friends
  4. Give Unexpectedly
  5. Reverse the Golden Rule:  Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

His point that every day we have about 20,000 individual moments, snapshots in our conscious lives, and that every moment counts for good or ill, really hit home for me, and that these little individual moments really do add up both for us and the people around us.

Besides the price, the only thing I would add to what the book says is to not leave God out of the equation.  We shouldn’t be kind to other people just to increase our warm fuzzies count, but ultimately to glorify God and please Him.  And though God has designed us to receive joy from others “filling our bucket,” ultimately Christ must be the inexhaustible fountain in our souls.

The Heart of Esther

This week’s Bible study looks at the book of Esther, specifically the first two chapters. To approach studying Esther or any book, it’s helpful to consider its type or style, technically called genre. The book of Esther is historical story: it contains accurate historical facts, but it is much more than just a news briefing: it highlights plot twists, constructs parallels, brings out ironies, and masterfully interweaves other elements of good story-telling into one of the truly great writings of the ancient world. It is not prophecy or law or theology: in fact, God’s name is not even mentioned in the book.

So, we need to realize that Esther is not a theological tome to be dissected, but a story to be enjoyed, pondered, and applied to our lives. And that is indeed how God wants us to see historical sections of Scripture. Paul speaks of God’s purpose for historical narrative in 1 Corinthians 10 when he says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did….they were written down for our instruction.” So, we need to ask what examples, what lessons, what principles about the nature of man and the nature of God are contained in this book that God wants us to understand.

Another important question to always ask is who the original audience was— who originally read the book and why? The Book of Esther was written to the Jewish nation to explain the origin of the feast of Purim. It still occupies an important position in Judaism, being one of only five books that are ceremonially read aloud every year by every orthodox Jewish family.

Finally, when you approach any passage from the Bible, you try to discern its purpose. “Why is this passage in the Bible? Why did God sovereignly choose this information to become part of His inerrant Word?” Now, obviously, we cannot fully know the mind of God in this matter, but at least framing our minds to seek out what God is trying to teach us in a passage is a sound foundation for study.

With that background, let’s plunge into chapter 1. The first eight verses describe a six month long party given by a guy named Ahasuerus, which is a Hebrew name corresponding to the Greek name Xerxes I. Now why spend eight verses just to describe a party given by one man, when the Bible only spends one verse to describe the party his wife gave in verse 9? I think that God wanted to make clear what kind of man this Ahasuerus was. When you try to picture who Ahasuerus was, just think Donald Trump. No, really, think about it. Guy with an ego the size of a planet, filthy rich, loved to let everyone know how rich and powerful and special he was, threw lavish parties, had a trophy wife, and get this: enjoyed firing people. And to top it off, both of them had major setbacks which left them with big chips on their shoulder. The Donald has had all his financial near collapses, and Xerxes had the Battle of Thermopylae: yes he was the king that got his 2 million man army’s butt kicked by 300 Spartans. That had to have left a nasty bruise on the old ego.

So, how does this story start out? Donald, err, Ahasuerus throws a six month long party celebrating…himself. At the end, he commands the trophy wife to come out and parade in front of his drinking buddies. Now, here is a crucial juncture, and one that we would do well to think about. Was this a righteous, honorable ruler? No, and God wants to make sure we understand that fact. Was he asking his queen to do something that offended her? Yes. So what was the Queen’s response? She said no. And here’s another interesting thing to note: the Bible doesn’t say why she refused. There’s all kinds of theories, but we don’t actually know. Whenever the Bible is silent on something, even a little thing, it means one thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. She might have had a very “good” reason, or a petty one, but God didn’t put it in because he didn’t want us debating on the supposed merits of whether she had a “good” reason or not to disobey her husband and king.

See, here is where this whole “these things took place as examples for us” theme kicks in. The point of the story is not whether she had a “good” reason to disobey the king, but rather the point is that she chose to disobey. There is a basic Biblical principle of obeying authority, even evil authority, if it does not cause us to disobey God. Our natural man, however, wants to buck on this, just like the Pharisees tried to buck Jesus in Matthew 22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in His words. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.

Check it out: the Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into giving them a “good” reason to disobey evil Roman authority, but Jesus would have none of it. Queen Vashti’s response to her evil authority was ungodly, and even the ungodly king and his court saw it. And what was the consequence for Vashti’s ungodly response? “You’re fired!”

In fact, the Bible spends the rest of the chapter going into great detail of this very concept, and how Vashti was a poor example of obeying authority and that this example would affect not only her but many others. This whole concept of giving honor and respect and obedience to authority seems foreign and backward and simplistic and offensive to 21st century ears, but Jesus and the apostles clearly established it as not just cultural, but Biblical and God-honoring behavior.

If Chapter 1 of Esther looked like The Apprentice: Persian Edition, then Chapter 2 is definitely the very first season (like, from 2500 years ago) of The Bachelor. Here we had dozens, perhaps hundreds of women gathered from all over the kingdom obviously strictly for their physical beauty, and this young woman Esther who the Bible plainly states “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” was among them.

But verse 9 says something very important in the Hebrew which is not obvious in English: Esther won the favor of Hegai, the administrator of this whole contest. This word favor is the Hebrew hesed, which is a very powerful & rich word in Hebrew that describes the covenant loyalty love, mercy, kindness, benevolence & devotion that God has for His people. Esther did not win the hesed of this powerful man just by her looks. It is evident that she won his hesed by listening carefully to his words (verse 15) and the words of her cousin Mordecai (verse 8 & 20).

So, verse 17 shows the result of God’s work—His blessing Esther with beauty, both of soul and body, His placing her “in the right place at the right time” and her heart responses of respect and obedience to authority. She gets five responses from Xerxes: First, she gets love, which in Hebrew is a broader word than mere sexual desire: the word is actually first used in Scripture in Genesis 22:2 to describe Abraham’s love for Issac. She gets grace, the word first used in Genesis 6:8 “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” and she gets Xerxes’ hesed favor. She gets the crown, and lastly she gets a great feast.

So, just to make sure, let’s review the contrast: Vashti has feast, disobeys authority, loses crown, bummer. Esther obeys authority, gets crown, has feast, ends up saving the entire nation (read the rest of the book!).

So what does God want us to learn from the book of Esther? Not that she had a beautiful body, but that she had a beautiful heart, for this is what God looks on (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Peter 3:3-4). Esther teaches us that God wants us to glorify Him by showing the difference between living in a imperfect, sinful world among corrupt authority figures with a human, self-centered heart versus a God-honoring, submissive heart. The Greek word hupataso (click the hyperlink to do a word study), submit, is used in the New Testament in multiple books to describe a believer’s response to authority. It is used to describe our relationship to God, to employers, to parents, to government, to husbands, and to other members of the body of Christ. The application is pretty clear: where in our lives do we need to have the heart of Esther to glorify God by submitting to authority?  Where can we advance His kingdom by giving up our own way?

From Rebelling to Embracing

God leads all of His children on journeys from rebelling to embracing. We start our lives in rebellion—against God, against His knowledge, His will, His love. (Romans 1:25, Romans 5:10, and many others). Through God’s grace, we progress to acknowledging, then accepting, then embracing God. When we embrace God through the miracle of regeneration and see Christ’s sacrifice and atonement, we are Christians, children of God. There is a further sense, a further step, however. As we journey as children of God, we continually encounter people, situations, trials, areas of God’s will that, in our humanness, we will rebel against at first. Growth and peace comes from God’s grace remolding us to accept, then embrace these difficult situations as God’s best(Romans 8:28).

I remember a story from Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography The Hiding Place where she describes being in a German camp, grumbling and despondent over the unbelievably filthy conditions of the bunkhouse where she was. Later, she discovered that the bunkhouse was so bad that even the guards did not want to go around it, thus freeing her to freely share the Bible and Christ there. What on a human level was an abomination was on God’s level His most loving provision.

What is in your life today that you need to ask God to bring you from rebelling to embracing?

Peter’s Seven Lessons on the Sea

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  (Matthew 14:22-33 ESV)

I have found it very helpful to study passages and ask the question, “Why?”  It comes in very handy for God to be all-knowing and all-powerful—it means that He always has a good reason behind everything that happens.  When you look at an event in Biblical history with the question “Why?” in mind, you can learn about the nature of God and the nature of His dealings with men. I have written about the “Why?” behind God’s actions with Joseph in a previous post Why Did God Let Joseph Go To Prison? 

Today let’s look at a very famous passage through the same lens of “Why did God do that?”  The disciples are at sea and Jesus and Peter end up walking on the water.  Why?  The short answer is that Jesus had some lessons for Peter and the rest of the disciples to learn.  The long answer is as follows:

Lesson 1:  The path can be hard where Jesus sends us.  Jesus had instructed the disciples to go on ahead in the boat while He prayed.  He could have arranged their voyage to be smooth, but it wasn’t.  This is a lesson most of us hopefully have already learned, but it bears repeating: just because the way gets hard doesn’t mean that we’re out of God’s will.

Lesson 2: Jesus is Lord.  Funny how difficulty makes us look to God’s power in a way that ease does not.  This is the first time in Matthew that Peter addresses Jesus as “Lord,” and the only previous time the disciples addressed him as “Lord” was the other time they were in the boat and wanted something from Jesus (to calm the storm.)  It’s actually a great word study to study the situations where people address Jesus as “Lord”— the overwhelming majority of the time it is when they want something out of Him.  Jesus wanted the disciples to learn that He was indeed Lord, but He also wanted them (and us!) to progress to the point where we see and worship and cherish Him as Lord not for what He can do for us, but for who He is, “Truly You are the Son of God.”

Lesson 3: We Don’t Have to Fear When Jesus is With Us.  You would think that after all the miracles the disciples saw, fear would not be in their vocabulary.  But Jesus knew that they were human; and so he reassures them with his encouraging words to not be afraid.  When we are dealing with the unknown, fear always wants to be at our side, but we too need Christ’s encouraging words to our hearts.

Lesson 4: Jesus Wants Us to Ask. Jesus could have simply commanded, “Peter, come out here to me.”  But instead He waited for Peter’s desire and faith to move him to ask the impossible of Jesus.  This is a recurring theme in Christ’s ministry; many times He waits for someone to ask before He moves supernaturally in their life.  So it is with us as well; Jesus is waiting for us to ask.

Lesson 5: Nothing is Impossible for God.  You would think that the disciples would have already learned this by now, but apparently no one had but Peter.  After all, there was no chorus of “Me, too, Lord!” after Peter’s bold request— the other disciples did not have the faith to do the impossible to get closer to Jesus.  Do we?

Lesson 6: It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who sustains us in the storm. Why did Jesus allow Peter to sink?  Jesus could have allowed Peter to reach Him walking backwards and blindfolded—  there was no magic in the mere direction Peter’s eyes were pointing. But Peter had to learn where the gaze of his soul needed to rest; that his trust needed to rest continually and only in Christ, regardless of the situation.

Lesson 7: Jesus will never let go of our hand.  Jesus could have let Peter drown, or at least go under a few times.  But the grip on Peter’s hand was the reassurance that his doubt did not undo Christ’s care.  I am so thankful for that.  If Christ’s care for me was in any way tied to my doubts I would be at the bottom of the sea.  But God is eternally and unconditionally committed to His children, His elect, and nothing will stop His purposes from being fulfilled.