Several years ago my sons and I spent a few days camping in the Selway–Bitterroot Wilderness in Northern Idaho. It’s grizzly bear habitat, but we carried bear spray, kept our campsites clean, and anticipated no major grizzly encounters.
One evening, in the middle of the night, I heard Randy scramble around trying to get out of his sleeping bag. I grabbed my flashlight and turned it on, expecting to see him in the clutches of an enraged grizzly.
There, sitting upright on its haunches and waving its paws in the air was a field mouse about 4” tall. It had Randy’s cap firmly clenched in its teeth. The little creature had tugged and tugged until he pulled Randy’s cap from his head. As I laughed in relief, the mouse dropped the cap and scampered away. We crawled back into our sleeping bags. I, however, fully adrenalized, couldn’t get back to sleep and began to think about another predator—the devil.
Consider Satan’s temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–14). He countered his enticements with the Scriptures. With each answer, Jesus reminded Himself that God had spoken on this issue and therefore He would not disobey. This caused the devil to flee.
Although Satan wants to devour us, it’s good to remember that he’s a created being like the little rodent. Jesus, “the one who is in [us,] is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
I’ve acquired a number of old clay pots over the years. My favorite was excavated from a site dated during Abraham’s time (circa fifteenth century BC). It’s at least one item in our home that is older than I! It’s not much to look at: stained, cracked, chipped, and in need of a good scrubbing. It’s very fragile. I keep it to remind me that I’m just a man made out of mud. Though fragile and weak, I carry an immeasurably precious treasure—Jesus. “We have this treasure [Jesus] in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Paul continues: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 8–9). Hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. These are the pressures the pot must bear. Not crushed. Not in despair. Not abandoned. Not destroyed. These are the effects of the counteracting strength of Jesus in us.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (v. 10). This is the attitude that characterized Jesus who died to Himself every day. And this is the attitude that can characterize us—a willingness to die to self-effort, trusting solely in the sufficiency of the One who lives in us.
“So that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our mortal body” (v. 10). This is the outcome: the beauty of Jesus made visible in an old clay pot.
There’s a natural spring that rises on the east side of the city of Jerusalem. In ancient times it was the city’s only water supply and was located outside the walls. Thus it was the point of Jerusalem’s greatest vulnerability. The exposed spring meant that the city, otherwise impenetrable, could be forced to surrender if an attacker were to divert or dam the spring.
King Hezekiah addressed this weakness by driving a tunnel through 1,750 feet of solid rock from the spring into the city where it flowed into the “Lower Pool" (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:2–4). But in all of this, Hezekiah "did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:11). Planned what?
God Himself "planned" the city of Jerusalem in such a way that its water supply was unprotected. The spring outside the wall was a constant reminder that the inhabitants of the city must depend solely on Him for their salvation.
Can it be that our deficiencies exist for our good? Indeed, the apostle Paul said that he “gloried” in his limitations, because it was through weakness that the beauty and power of Jesus was seen in him (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). Can we then regard each limitation as a gift that reveals God as our strength?
Folks ask me if I have a five-year plan. How can I plan five years “down the road” on a road I’ve never traveled?
I think back to the 1960s when I was a minister to students at Stanford University. I had been a physical education major in college and had a lot of fun, but I left no record of being a scholar. I felt wholly inadequate in my new position. What was I to do? Most days I wandered around the campus, a blind man groping in the darkness, asking God to show me what to do. One day a student "out of the blue" asked me to lead a Bible study in his fraternity. It was a beginning.
God doesn’t stand at a juncture and point the way: He’s a guide, not a signpost. He walks with us, leading us down paths we never envisioned. All we have to do is walk alongside Him.
The path won’t be easy; there’ll be “rough places" along the way. But God has promised that He will “turn the darkness into light” and “will not forsake” us (Isaiah 42:16). He’ll be with us all the way.
Paul said that God is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). We can scheme and envision, but our Lord’s imagination far transcends our plans. We must then hold them loosely and see what God has in mind.
Years ago, when I was learning to ski, I followed my son Josh down what appeared to be a gentle slope. With my eyes on him I failed to notice he turned down the steepest hill on the mountain, and I found myself careening down the slope, completely out of control. I cratered, of course.
Psalm 141 addresses a similar deceit by which we find ourselves slipping down sin’s slope. Prayer is one of the ways we stay alert to those slopes: “Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil” (141:4) is a plea that echoes the Lord’s prayer almost exactly: “Lead [me] not into temptation, but deliver [me] from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). In His goodness, God hears and answers this prayer.
And then I find in this psalm another agent of grace: a faithful friend. “Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5). Temptations are subtle. We’re not always aware that we’re going wrong. A true friend can be objective. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). It's hard to accept reproof, but if we see the wounding as a “kindness” it can become an anointing that puts us back on the path of obedience.
May we be open to rebuke from a trusted friend and rely on God through prayer.
A young boy came home from church and announced with great delight that the lesson had been about a boy who “loafed and fished all day.” He, of course, was thinking of the little boy who offered his loaves and fish to Jesus.
Jesus had been teaching the crowds all day, and the disciples suggested He send them into the village to buy bread. Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). The disciples were flummoxed for there were more than 5,000 to be fed!
You may know the rest of the story: a boy gave his lunch—five small loaves of bread and two fish—and with it Jesus fed the crowd (vv. 13-21). One school of thought contends that the boy’s generosity simply moved others in the crowd to share their lunches, but Matthew clearly intends us to understand that this was a miracle, and the story appears in all four Gospels.
What can we learn? Family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and others stand around us in various degrees of need. Should we send them away to those who are more capable than we are? Certainly some people’s needs exceed our ability to help them, but not always. Whatever you have—a hug, a kind word, a listening ear, a brief prayer, some wisdom you’ve gathered. Give it to Jesus and see what He can do.
One of our sons, Brian, is a high school basketball coach. One year, as his team was threading its way through the Washington State Basketball Tournament, well-meaning folks around town asked, “Are you going to win it all this year?” Both players and coaches felt the pressure, so Brian adopted a mantra: “Play with joy!”
I thought of the apostle Paul’s last words to the elders of Ephesus: “That I may finish my race with joy” (Acts 20:24 nkjv). His aim was to complete the tasks Jesus had given him. I have made these words my mantra and my prayer: “May I run and finish my race with joy.” Or as Brian says, “May I play with joy!” And by the way, Brian’s team did win the state championship that year.
We all have good reasons to get grouchy: world news, everyday stresses, health problems. Nevertheless God can give us a joy that transcends these conditions if we ask Him. We can have what Jesus called, "My joy" (John 15:11).
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit of Jesus (Galatians 5:22). So I must remember each morning to ask Him to help me: "May I play with joy!” Author Richard Foster said, “To pray is to change. This is a great grace. How good of God to provide a path whereby our lives can be taken over by . . . joy.”
I peeked over the grape-stake fence that encloses our backyard. There, I saw folks running, jogging, walking, shuffling around the track that surrounds the park behind our home. I used to do that when I was stronger, I thought. And a wave of dissatisfaction washed over me.
Later, while reading the Scriptures, I came across Isaiah 55:1, “Come, all you who are thirsty,” and I realized again that dissatisfaction (thirst) is the rule, not the exception in this life. Nothing, not even the good things of life can fully satisfy. If I had strong legs like a Sherpa (mountain-climbing guide), there would still be something else that’s wrong that I’d be unhappy about.
Our culture is always telling us in one way or another that something we do, buy, wear, spray on, roll on, or ride in will give us endless pleasure. But that’s a lie. We can’t get complete satisfaction from anything in the here and now, no matter what we do.
Rather, Isaiah invites us to come again and again to God and the Scriptures to hear what He has to say. And what does He say? His love for David of old is “everlasting” and “faithful” (v. 3). And that goes for you and me as well! We can “Come” to Him.
When our grandson Jay was a child his parents gave him a new T-shirt for his birthday. He put it on right away and proudly wore it all day.
When he appeared the next morning in the shirt, his dad asked him, “Jay, does that shirt make you happy?”
“Not as much as yesterday,” Jay replied.
That’s the problem with material acquisition: Even the good things of life cannot give us the deep, lasting happiness we so ardently desire. Though we may have many possessions, we may still be unhappy.
The world offers happiness through material accumulation: new clothes, a new automobile, an update to our phone or watch. But no material acquisition can make us as happy as it did yesterday. That's because we were made for God and nothing less will do.
One day, when Jesus was fasting and faint with hunger, Satan approached Him and tempted Him to satisfy His hunger by creating bread. Jesus countered by quoting the text above: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God ” (Matthew 4:4).
Jesus did not say that we should not live on bread alone. He’s rather stating a fact: We are spiritual beings and thus we cannot exist on material goods alone.
True satisfaction is found in God and His riches.