Chapter 4: Signposts for the Journey. 4, Passages for Our Growth

Part of our spiritual growth is confidence in the assurance of God’s love, favor, forgiveness, and guidance.  Just as a child needs demonstrations of love from a parent, or a lover requires reminders from the beloved, so we need expressions of God’s love. Miracles in our lives can serve, but so can certain scriptures, like these words originally addressed to the Hebrews, which we may now read for God’s assurance:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. (Isa. 43:1b-2)

Here is a wonderful, favorite verse in Luke:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

And these verses are also among my favorites when I need confidence in God’s grace.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? (Matt. 7:9-10).

Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7)

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).

For if we have been united within him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6:5).

I love the story of Peter’s imprisonment in Acts 12:1-17, which I noted above. His friends pray for his well-being, and Peter is miraculously released. He goes to his friends’ house, but they won’t let him in; they say he can’t be him. Apparently the friends didn’t expect their prayers to be answered!  Has that ever happened to you?  Why would we ever think God counts on the adequacy of our prayers and motives? God may answer prayer in surprising ways in spite of the shortfalls of our belief.

As I page through my Bible, I find other favorite scriptures:

For the Lord will not
reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone (Lam. 3:31-33).

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16: also Heb. 5:2).

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind (Phil. 3:12-15a).

I’m often amazed at how many times the scriptures tell us not to be afraid. In Luke 2:10, the angels tell the shepherds, Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of a great joy… In Matthew 28:10, Jesus tells the disciples, Do not be afraid… In Luke 24:38-39, Jesus tells the disciples, Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, see that it is I myself … In John 20:19 and 26, Jesus declares, Peace be with you… Earlier in John, Jesus says, Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27).  I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15:11).  Similarly, the Bible often admonishes us to have peace. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7). “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)…Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).

Bible people themselves fall into sadness and fear, such as Elijah after his successful encounter with the Baal priests (1 Kings 19:4), Peter’s despair (Mark 14:72), and even Paul experienced despair (2 Cor. 1:8). Let’s not forget Job, whose experiences of loss could not be explained by all his friends’ most well-considered and “correct” theological explanations. But the Bible calls us to turn to the divine promises and learn, over and over, how the Lord’s faithfulness is displayed in our personal, small places in the world. God rescues us from sin and death (Rom. 5:6-11); he reconciles us to him and to one another (Eph. 2:11-22); he is gentle to us when we are wayward and call to him, because God in Christ actually understands and sympathizes with human weakness (Heb. 4:14-16)!  He responds to us in love, not with impatience or disapproval (Luke 11:5-7, 18:1-8). The Bible reminds us that, no matter what else is going on in our lives, that love is constant and unending (Matt. 28:20).

Some passages hold perennial appeal, such as the story of the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12); the cry of the father, “Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24); Paul’s great descriptions of the spiritual struggle (Rom. 3:3-5, 7:7-25); the help of the Spirit when we don’t know how to pray (Rom. 8:26); and the assurance that Paul received when he was forced to endure some kind of ongoing problem (2 Cor. 12:9-10).  Such passages are so well known because they’re true to personal experiences and, indeed, describe and define some of our experiences. We hold such passages in our hearts and, as we grow in faith and years, they take on special meaning.

That verse about giving your kid a stone or snake (Matt. 7:9-10) is a passage I’ve turned to again and again. The verse is so funny and absurd: you might paraphrase it into modern idiom, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for ice cream, will give him a steak knife?  Or if the child asks for cereal, will give coffee grounds?” Why, then, do we think God will not help us? Yet we lose trust in God, time after time. We might be startled at our own daily unfaithfulness.

And yet we have to learn faithfulness. I love, for instance, the story of Peter and Jesus in Matthew 14:22-23: What a wonderful story!  Jesus displays his calm and calming power to the disciples. Peter responds in faith but his faith falters, and Jesus is ready to catch him. No matter whether our faith is weak or strong, his help is readily available.

One of my very first sermons was on this text, at the Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro, IL near my hometown. I remember making the point that Jesus never lets us “sink” amid life’s troubles.  I believe what I preached, but I might add some things about what to do when Jesus’ help doesn’t seem forthcoming. A person may have a very great faith and yet feel that no divine aid is forthcoming; life seems to spin into trouble. A sermon, of course, can’t cover all aspects and implications of a text.

This one is another favorite:

for I have learned to be content with whatever I have … I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of being hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil. 4:11-13).

Paul doesn’t say: “God zapped me and I was forever content.” He says he learned contentment.  Although God takes the initiative and supplies the power, we need to position ourselves, so to speak, within his grace as we face our own various life challenges. Even then, contentment may be difficult for some of us psychologically “programmed” as worriers.

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7).

Another “grow with” verse for me is Colossians 3:3, which I discovered as I studied in a cubicle of a campus library.  “Your life is hidden in Christ with God.” What a wonderful promise!  People judge us in all kinds of ways: our ethnicity, our sexuality, our clothes, our monetary worth, and our self-presentation. People judge of us on the basis of these things, but also according to things that have happened in our lives, like our successes and failures. None of these things matter to Christ!  In Christ, we find rest and refuge. The love of Christ provides a center for our lives; in him we find forgiveness of our sins, a purpose for our lives, and power to meet challenges. Christ’s love for us is the most certain, “bankable” thing we will ever know (Rom. 8:37-39).

Among other “grow with” verses, we could include verses that we counted on, like these for me:

The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous [person] availeth much (James 5:16, KJV).

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov. 3:5-6).

This proverb is well-known. But we deepen our understanding of its truth as we rely upon its promise and discover ways that God guides us.

Yet another verse:

Take delight in the Lord,
   
and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4)

This verse recalls for me a favorite Sunday school class that my wife and I attended at our church in Kentucky. Among many other topics, we discussed this verse and concluded: it’s not true.

That is, it’s not true at face value: God does not provide everything you desire, even when you delight in him! But, we concluded, our hearts grow in the Lord as we seek him, and over time, the desires of our hearts come into line with God’s desires for us.

A good set of “connection verses” with this psalm would be Jesus’ teaching about “pruning” (John 15:2).  This is a difficult topic, because I don’t believe God sends us terrible trouble just to teach us lessons or to discipline us (Heb. 12:5-11).[1] We need to be extremely careful how we interpret scripture so that we don’t add sorrow to people’s lives instead of love and healing; reciting a Bible verse as a “slogan” can be tremendously hurtful to people.  However, in the course of living, we do experience times when we must discard old dreams, old situations, and adapt to new circumstance. We look to God for help, whether for ourselves, or for healing words to say to someone else.  I prefer to say: God uses difficult circumstances for good.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called
according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28)

As we grow in God, we may see a confluence of our dreams and desires, our hopes, God’s providence, and God’s direction. But—again—we may not know God’s will and plans. They may never be entirely clear; some things in our lives may always seem painful and inexplicable. All the while, we’re growing in our knowledge of and relationship with God. Later, as we look back upon our lives, we may see how certain difficulties and disappointments became sources of blessing (even though the pain and regret may remain).

One more verse:

O taste and see that the Lord is good;            
       happy are those who take refuge in him (Ps. 34:8)

What does God taste like?  (Chocolate, I hope, or maybe biscuits and gravy.)  Seriously: the verse is a poetic way of saying, “If you experience God, you’ll discover he is good, even palpably wonderful.” You could also say that God is a better refuge than other things (name your own source of short-term consolation). We won’t always feel victorious in our Christian lives; the whole idea of “refuge” is, after all, having a place to go when we’re in distress and trouble. But we discover in our personal circumstances (interpreted through our Bible reading and other ways) how God’s goodness sustains us.

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[1]  Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God. W. Gunther Plaut, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 1390-1391.

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