The Sacrifice of Praise

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10 ESV)
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10 ESV)


She stood there, her eyes transfixed on the flames that jumped into the air with no sign of relenting. Though they had long since delivered the death blow to the victim, they would not soon give up their prey.  The home she grew up in, the home her mother and family still lived in, was disappearing before her eyes.  Yet the tears she shed and cries of anguish she made could not and would not silence her praise. Through it all, she knew in the middle of pain and tragedy, God would not leave her side. She knew without doubt in the middle of heart-wrenching tragedy and loss, He was worthy of all her praise, no matter the outcome. Standing in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of her devastation, she lifted her hands and her voice and praised the One who is worthy of it all.  No matter what. And it was the most beautiful, inspiring thing to witness.

There are few things guaranteed in life.  We can do everything in our power to stay healthy, put money away in the bank, live our lives fully submitted to God’s will. And yet, there are still no guarantees that this life will be free of trials and hard times. In fact, Jesus told us we will have hard times. (John 16:33).  I think it’s pretty safe to say that every one of us will face a few things that shake us. The loss of a job, a catastrophic illness, the death of our parents, or a fire wiping out the family home. We will go through trials of varying degree, no doubt. But Jesus said as certain we can be of troubles in this world, we can be certain we have one who walks with us through them who has overcome sin and death–he has overcome the world!

After I left my friend that night, I asked myself if my faith was that strong? Sure, I know God is with me in all things. Sure, I know God works out all things for my good. But in the middle of the raw emotion when tragedy first strikes, will my first reaction actually be to praise Him? Or will I have to wait to make sure God came through on the promise first?

Praise is easy when things are, well, easy. We have no problem (at least I hope!) giving God glory and praise when things are going great! Or how about when you’ve come out on the other side of a trial. We can praise God then because He got us through. But how many of us truly stop to give God heartfelt praise and adoration the minute the trial starts? I’m going to be honest with you, it takes me a minute to get there.  But how could things change for me, for us, if we trained ourselves to have that as our reflex reaction? Our natural reaction is fear. What if we asked the Holy Spirit to help us to reprogram that?

I spend a great deal of time in the Psalms during my devotional time. The psalter contains hymns written by the various authors that hit pretty much every human emotion. Joy, dread, fear, anguish, anger. It’s all in there.  But of the 150 psalms, about 2/3rds of them are what’s called psalms of lament. In other words, songs  written to God when the writer was having a pretty tough time.  Many of David’s psalms are his words crying out to God, asking ‘where are You in all of this?’ That’s right. David, the king. David, that man after God’s own heart.

Our friend David wasn’t just handed the keys to the castle. (If you haven’t spent much time reading the richness of the Old Testament, I high encourage it! You can read all about David starting in 1 Samuel 16.) David spent a lot of time on the run, fearing for his life before he got to be king.  After he became king, he had another batch of challenges. David had real reasons to be crying out to God.

The psalms of lament generally follow a pattern, and it’s a pattern we can all learn from to help cultivate our prayer life in difficult times. Of course, the pattern from psalm to psalm may be in different order, or the order may jump back and forth a bit, but the elements are generally consistent.

Let’s look at Psalm 22 in the New International Version as an example.

First, the writer cries out to God in his distress. There is no pretense, no trying to clean up before going to God. Just messy, raw emotion.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, but I find no rest. (verses 1-2)

 

Many bulls surround me;

strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

Roaring lions that tear their prey

open their mouths wide against me.

I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

it has melted within me.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;

you lay me in the dust of death. (verses 12-15)

Second, the writer entreats God for help.  Come, LORD, to the middle of this mess and get me out of it! (Sometimes the request is imprecatory, where the writer asks for God to bring retribution to his enemies.)

But you, Lord, do not be far from me.

You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

Deliver me from the sword,

my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

save me from the horns of the wild oxen. (verses 19-21)

 

Lastly, the writer includes thanksgiving and praise to God.

I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.

You who fear the Lord, praise him!

All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

For he has not despised or scorned. (verses 22-24)

 

These psalms, especially those of David, are like a sneak peak into his journal.  If you look through these psalms of lament you will see real people struggle with real feelings, sometimes asking God “where are you?”  Does that surprise you? Don’t ever feel like you can’t take your raw emotions straight to the throne room of God in prayer. He can handle it. What kind of genuine relationship would you have with your best friend if you couldn’t really be honest with your feelings, always saying what you thought was the ‘right’ thing? That would get old pretty fast. God knows your struggles. He is okay when we say “where are you?!” But even in our doubt and despair, we can always, always rest on God’s promises when it doesn’t feel like He’s there. Because of His promises,  in our struggles and doubts, we can praise Him because of the truth that cannot change. The God that does not change. And that God, our God, is worthy of that praise!

David knew that. Even when his enemies were on his tail and closing in, he knew that. So in the same breath, he could ask where God was and still give him praise.

My friend Maria knows that. It’s why she can stand in front of a surreal scene of fire trucks, news crews and the charred remnants of the home her family has known for close to 50 years and still lift her hands to praise God for His goodness. Even when the good seems hard to see.

I pray we all have a faith so deep that, should the kind of world-shaking trial come, and it will, that in our anguish we instinctively offer God our praise. For He is worthy!

If you feel so led, a GoFundMe page has been set up to raise funds for Maria’s family.

 

How far are you willing to go?

pastor-saeed-abedini

   Pastor Saeed Abedini, released January 16, 2016. Praise the Lord!

This morning, as the technician was at my house installing my new beefed up home security system, I started sobbing and couldn’t hide it. When he asked what was wrong, I said “Nothing! Saeed is free!” And Pastor Saeed’s imprisonment provided an opportunity once again to bring God great glory!  What a day to rejoice!

If you aren’t aware, Pastor Saeed Abedini is an Iranian born, now American citizen, former Muslim now preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He and his wife Naghmeh were responsible for starting over 100 house churches in Iran, however he was arrested for this and changed his efforts to starting an orphanage in Iran. On his last trip he was arrested for no apparent crime and spent the next three-plus years in Iranian prison, subject to abuse, lack of necessary medical care (stemming from the abuse), solitary confinement, and more that I’m sure we will find out in the coming days. Say what you will about Iran and this mish-mash of a deal that’s been agreed to, broken, more negotiations, etc. But today, I praise God because Saeed and three others are free.

So let me ask you, how far are you willing to go for the gospel?  Do you think Pastor Saeed was operating on the fringe and should have known something like that would likely happen and therefore avoided it?  Let’s be honest here, what he did was risky.  But he was dangerous for the cause of Christ, and Christ calls us to be risky.  When was the last time you were even BOLD for Christ?  Not everybody is called to travel to distant lands to be a missionary. Not everybody is called to be a street preacher. Not everybody is called to be a pastor or church planter. But everybody, every last one of us who made a real confession of faith in Christ as our savior and Lord is called to live for him. To die to self and live for HIM and HIS cause. Not to sit meekly in the shadows and hope nobody notices where we go on Sundays.

There are some who would have you believe that being a Christian is all about getting your physical needs met (health, monetary gain) and place far less emphasis on your spiritual needs. Way too many who would have you believe that’s what God wants for you.  Now, no, God is not desiring that we all walk around in sackcloth and ashes living miserable existences. But never once is there are promise that by giving your life to Christ and follow him will you get all your little heart desires. And don’t try and argue Psalm 37 as proof of that or we can meet under the bleachers for a hermeneutical smack down. 🙂 No, what we are told repeatedly is to expect trials and tribulations.  When Paul and Barnabas were traveling around doing the equivalent of church planting, after having met when plenty of pushback themselves for preaching the gospel, we learn in Acts 14:22 the two men spoke to the new converts  and “strengthened the souls of the disciples  and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions.” Now THAT’S a pep talk!!!  I dare say you aren’t going to hear that on TBN anytime soon. But Paul and Barnabas were not saying anything that Jesus hadn’t already said. He told us if the world hates us it’s because it first hated him, and we are not greater than our master. So if the world persecuted him, it will persecute us, too. (John 15:18-20).

So let’s revisit Pastor Saeed for a minute and talk about being bold for the faith. He’s already in prison for his faith, subject to beatings and poor treatment all the way around. By the way, if you weren’t aware, as a Muslim if you renounce your faith you are subject to being put to death. Saeed was threatened with that at one point. So did he keep his mouth shut? Nope.  When an opportunity arose, he shared the love of Christ with those around him.  According to his wife Naghmeh, his heart was so sold out to Christ, it was more a compulsion to share that saving grace with people in dark places. And he was surrounded by lots of people in a very dark place.  One can’t help think of Paul, writing from jail to his beloved church family in Philippi, when he said “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” (Philippians 1:12-13). Paul knew, as I am convinced that the Abedini’s know, that God doesn’t let a opportunity slide by wasted. The take away from Paul’s words and Saeed’s example, is no matter what circumstance you find yourself in, no matter if you planned it all out or it’s a giant life-altering change in course, comfortable and easy or the bleakest, darkest of circumstances-if you are willing to be used for the cause of the kingdom of Christ, you will be used. But not if we cower back in the shadows, wringing our hands and questioning why God is doing this TO you.

But here’s the next part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Think about this when you see stories of those people who are being martyred and jailed and brutally treated for their faith. And I’m not talking about wedding cakes.  Paul’s next line: Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.  I pray that when you hear of these things it gives you courage to go speak the word of God fearlessly.

Because friends, particularly my American friends, we sit in a such a comfortable world of easy Christianity. We go to church where, sadly, for the vast majority of us, we are mere consumers. We put on our Christianity on Sunday morning, go in for a good sermon and a some fellowship (maybe), go home and probably take our Christianity off before we pull in the driveway.  This is not denying yourself and picking up your cross to follow Christ.  This is “having it your way”. We are going to give an account one day, you and I, of what we did with what He gave us.

I challenge you, no matter where you are in your walk with Christ, to think about how far you are willing to go. Pray to God and ask him to show you where he would have you go next. Deny yourself this week in order to follow Christ. How, you say? Here’s an easy one: sleep a little less, pray and study the Bible a little more.

Father God, we thank you today Lord for the deliverance of Pastor Saeed from the physical chains that have held him, and pray continually for your healing work in his body and mind as the chains that may still hold him there will fall at your hand. Lord we pray for your mighty hand in the reuniting and restoration of his family, that your healing work and abundant peace be ever-present through this transition.  Father, I pray that we all seek you and ask that we open our hearts before you and ask you to search them and show us those places we hold back from living 100% sold out for you. You are a good, good Father!  In Jesus great and glorious name!