Devotions

Connecting God’s Word to your Everyday Life

When God Says No

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. -2 Corinthians 12:8-10

As a child, I was taught to pray to God for anything I needed. I prayed for the food I would eat, the challenges of school, and also, with some frequency, for a pony. While I can confidently say that God provided for me, through my parents with food to eat and through my teachers with everything I needed to learn, I never once got a pony. Cocker Spaniels are cute and all, but they are not ponies. What happens when God says no?

Like any child asking their parent for something, we children of God don’t always ask for what is good for us. My children have asked me to eat a whole quart of ice cream in one sitting, to buy the entire Lego aisle, and to wear the same clothes four days in a row without washing, just to give a few examples. To each of these and many other outrageous requests, I have offered a firm “No.”

God says no to plenty of prominent, faithful people in the Bible. Moses asked to enter the Promised Land, and God said no. David begged God to heal his sick son, and the child died. In the verses above, Paul recounted that when he asked God to take away some unknown trouble, God’s answer was no. Paul understood that this “no” from God was for the sake of Christ’s power dwelling more perfectly in Paul’s weakness.

It seems backward, really. How could the heart-felt prayers of such faithful people receive a “no”? How could Paul say that he is strong when he is weak? How, for that matter, can Lutherans say that we are both sinner and saint all at once? How could Jesus say that the first would be last and the last would be first? Like this: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

The answers we get to our prayers are not the answers we expect when we expect God to act according to our ways. Or, to put it another way: God always acts like God. We always act like God’s children. Sometimes, that means we ask for what we don’t need and what might even hurt us. When we do this, God does what any good parent would do: says no. We might not like it. We might pout. We might even throw a temper tantrum. As I say to my children when they turn to such tactics: the answer is still no.

When God says no, I hope you don’t pout too often. Instead, let those “no”s be a reminder to trust that God’s ways and thoughts and plans are different from ours. That God’s ways and thoughts and plans are good, even when we don’t like it. That God’s power in Jesus Christ may show up all the more strongly in your life when God says no.

God, I know that your ways are not the same as mine. Even so, I struggle when I hear you answer “no” to my prayers. Dwell in me with Christ’s power, so that my weaknesses may show your strength and I may trust you more. Amen.

 



Joy in the Morning

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. -Psalm 30:4-5

There’s something about the morning that puts our problems into perspective, isn’t there? The things that seem most dire at midnight become manageable under the light of the morning sunshine. Even when things are so bad that you cry yourself to sleep or wake restless at three in the morning, the fresh light of dawn brings joy.

Like all living things, we humans need sunshine. We need it for our bodies to thrive. We also need it for our spirits. These long summer days are a gift from God, giving us the opportunity to soak in the joy and life that comes with each fresh new morning.

The psalmist who wrote Psalm 30 saw that morning joy, and, more importantly, saw that it is God who should be praised for the joy each morning brings. The new light of the morning was a reminder that joy, like God’s gracious favor, was a gift brought daily to God’s faithful people. Martin Luther, borrowing from his experience as a monk, taught everyday people that they should begin each day by thanking God and then going to work “joyfully.” (Yes, even on Mondays.)

When you wake in the morning, and the sunlight comes through your window, do you give thanks to God? When joy rises with the sun, do you sing God’s praises? Try it. A day that begins with joy sets the tone for all that follows. 

God whose favor lasts a lifetime, I thank you for each new morning. Renew my joy with every sunrise, that I may give you thanks and sing praise to your holy name. Amen.



Rock Bottom

Help, God—I’ve hit rock bottom!

    Lord, hear my cry for help!

Listen hard! Open your ears!

    Listen to my cries for mercy.

 

If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings,

    who would stand a chance?

As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,

    and that’s why you’re worshiped.

 

I pray to God—my life a prayer—

    and wait for what God will say and do.

My life’s on the line before God, my Lord,

    waiting and watching till morning,

    waiting and watching till morning.

 

O Israel, wait and watch for God—

    with God’s arrival comes love,

    with God’s arrival comes generous redemption.

No doubt about it—God’ll redeem Israel,

    buy back Israel from captivity to sin.

-Psalm 130, The Message

 

Rock bottom. The NRSV, the translation we usually use in worship, says “the depths.” Some people call it “the pits.” Anne of Green Gables says it’s the “depths of despair.” I’ve heard it called a “dumpster fire.” Whatever you call it, you know the feeling of being there. When nothing can possibly get worse, when you’re at the end of your rope, when your life begins to feel like it belongs in a blues ballad or at least a sad country song. That’s where Psalm 130 begins.

After all, from the depths, what is more natural than to cry out for help? 12-Step programs and other recovery resources often state that somebody has to hit rock bottom before they start to look for help. It’s not just true for addiction, but for all kinds of trouble: financial, emotional, job, relationships, health. Most of us would rather risk crashing than ask for help. Rock bottom.

Sometimes we end up in the pits through no fault of our own, watching helplessly as everything goes wrong around us. Whatever we might pretend about being in control of our lives, deep down we know that much is beyond our ability to manage.

However we end up in the depths of despair, one thing is sure: we need a way out. A dumpster fire is no place to linger. 

Out of the rock bottom depth, the psalmist calls to God for help. 

And then they wait.

As they wait, they trust. They remind themselves that God will come with love and redemption. That’s what God has done every other time they’ve been in the pits. Why should this time be any different? God will surely rescue them. That’s just what God does. 

That’s not all, though. Having reassured themselves that God will arrive with love for them, the psalmist reassures everybody else in the pit that God is most certainly coming to redeem, no doubt about it.

When you’re in the depths of despair, this psalm is for you. Whatever has brought you to rock bottom, cry out to God and trust that God is coming for you with forgiveness, love, and redemption.

God, when I hit the bottom and life is a dumpster fire, I wait for you. Restore me with your forgiveness, revive me with your love, and redeem me with your mercy. Amen.


Sabbath

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. -Exodus 20:8-11

Something about the month of June always makes me feel ready to take a rest. The school year comes to an end, and student and teachers alike rejoice at the last day of the semester. In Iowa, the planting season comes to an end, and farmers rest while seeds germinate and grow. In the Church, the season of festivals comes to an end, and worshippers settle into the long green “Season After Pentecost,” sometimes called “Ordinary Time.”

As Christians, we have a special relationship with the idea of rest: God calls it Sabbath. God offers Sabbath to the people of God as both gift and command. Out of every seven days, God says, one should be set aside for rest. What’s more, says God, the day of rest isn’t just for the well-off, but for everyone: adults and children, slaves and immigrants. Even the donkey should get a day off!

The idea of Sabbath runs counter to our culture of side hustles and 24-7 availability. Many of us were taught that our value lies in what we accomplish or that hard work is its own reward. God, contrary to our constant work, work, work, shows us the example and gives us the command to rest. Not the kind of rest where you’re just going to fold that load of laundry while you watch a movie, but the kind of rest where you truly do nothing but refresh your spirit. 

The kind of rest you get in a hammock, for instance. Have you ever tried to bring your work with you into a hammock? Trust me, it does not work. At best, the hammock gets crowded and uncomfortable. At worst, that hammock flips and unceremoniously dumps its occupant and all their stuff out on the ground. You cannot multitask in a hammock. You cannot multitask a Sabbath, either. The Sabbath is “holy,” or, in other words, “set apart for something special.” It can’t be multi-tasked AND specially set apart. Sabbath is for rest and restoration.

When did you last take a whole day out of a week to do only things that refresh your spirit? When did you last keep the Sabbath? Maybe June can be a reminder month for you as it is for me, that we all need rest. Maybe you can lay in a hammock, listening to the birds and watching the clouds float past, giving thanks to God for Sabbath.

God of rest, thank you for the gift of Sabbath. Help me to rest when I need it, and to see a rhythm of rest and work as your good and holy plan for human flourishing. Amen.