Letting God Pick Our Battles II

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” yet he also wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 that “to keep me from becoming conceited,” a “thorn was given me in the flesh.”  He writes: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The nature of Paul’s “thorn” has been disputed for centuries, but Galatians 4:13 suggests it was a physical problem, a “bodily ailment” rather than a moral shortcoming.  So, the lesson of the “thorn” is not that God prevented Paul from overcoming some specific sin to keep him humble – He wants Paul (and us) to be satisfied with nothing less than righteousness.

However, one lesson of the “thorn” is that Paul didn’t mean by “I can do all things” that he could do whatever he wanted and succeed.  Instead, the “thorn” is an example of a battle Paul would not win, because this “thorn” had a purpose in bringing Paul closer to God’s grace and power.  In God’s wisdom, Paul was better off with this ailment than without it.

Yesterday’s post said “Picking your battles, rather than trying to fight and win every fight that comes your way, is a good piece of advice.  However, who should pick which battles to fight?”  In the case of the “thorn”, God picked a battle for Paul not to fight, telling him instead to focus on growing in faith.  The thorn had a purpose in Paul’s striving toward righteousness, which was more important than any physical ailment.  Had Paul continued to insist to God that the thorn should be removed, he would still have the thorn, but he would also not grow in his relationship with his Lord.

Sometimes there are battles He wants us to fight in His strength for His glory, and sometimes there are battles He tells us not to fight so we can focus on His grace and power while in this life, in light of His promises to heal our physical ailments in Paradise.

Today’s post closes the same way as yesterdays: “Sometimes life is hard on purpose, so that God alone may be glorified in victory, and also so that we may grow in our faith in His strength.  When we let Him pick our battles, we learn that His righteousness is the only thing that will satisfy us.  Nothing less will do.”

God’s Word Withstands the Fire. Always.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah faced immense opposition, and in Jeremiah 36:20-25 is recorded an interesting story of King Jehoiakim’s attempts to destroy the prophet’s words, and by extension, God’s words.  The king was unable to get his hands on Jeremiah, whose allies helped him to hide, so the king takes a different approach:

“So they went into the court to the king, having put the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the secretary, and they reported all the words to the king.  Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary. And Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king.  It was the ninth month, and the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him.  As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot.  Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments.  Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them.”

This wasn’t an impulsive, knee-jerk reaction to God’s word, but a deliberate, sustained act of rebellion.  This took time, and there’s almost a ceremony to it, as if daring God to stop him.  Many Christians today would be outraged if they witnessed something like this.  People in positions of authority disrespect God regularly, but imagine if the head of your country burned the Bible publicly on TV, and nobody stopped them, or even objected?  Sure, in modern times, people might object on their blog, on social media, or even on smaller TV and radio outlets, but in Jehoiakim’s example, nobody was able to challenge him. He “got away with it.”

This brings up the question of: why does God allow things like this to happen?  I’ll suggest a question in response: Would it be a stronger testimony of God’s sovereignty if He had struck King Jehoiakim dead on the spot, or is it a stronger testimony that Jeremiah’s words exist today all around the world?  If the second option is better, the next question is why do we sometimes feel such outrage and lash out (perhaps on our own blog or Facebook page) at such acts?  Do we trust God to deal with it, or do we worry that Jehoiakim is right – maybe God doesn’t care?

Part of the scroll Jehoiakim burned may have included these words of Jeremiah about the king himself: “With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried, dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem.”[1] And “He shall have none to sit on the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night.[2]  Therefore God knew both that justice would be done to Jehoiakim, and also that his burning of the scroll had only symbolic and temporary effect.  In contrast, God’s justice and God’s word are eternally immutable and effective.  As Isaiah said: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”[3]

There’s also another question for us: if God had chosen in His sovereignty to redeem Jehoiakim, would we be angry like Jonah at the repentance of Nineveh[4], or would we praise God for His profound and measureless grace?  The same grace that brought Jeremiah’s words back from the futile fire pot of King Jehoiakim.  The grace that was purchased by Christ on the cross.

This word of God will stand as well: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:19-21

Do we believe it?


[1] Jeremiah 22:19
[2] Jeremiah 36:30
[3] Isaiah 40:8
[4] See my earlier, short post on Jonah’s anger.

The Lord Cares Even for Your Wilderness

If you are like me, some days feel very eventful and productive, but other days remind me of the saying: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  There are times when we all wonder: Who cares about what I did today?  Did today matter?  Did anyone notice?

When recently reading Psalm 29, verse 8 struck me, which says: “The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.”  Why is this verse here?  Earlier in the Psalm, the voice of the Lord thunders, shatters the tall cedars of Lebanon, and flashes like fire.  Who cares about the wilderness?  It reminded me of the tree falling with nobody around.  Why does it matter?

It matters because the Psalmist (David) wants us to know that God’s power exists even where we can’t see it and in ways we may see as inconsequential.  However, to Him, nothing is inconsequential, and no detail is too small.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:30 that “even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”  If a tree falls in the wilderness, God cares about it even if nobody else does.

Psalm 29 closes with “May the LORD give strength to his people!  May the LORD bless his people with peace!”  His strength and peace are available on good days and bad.  On days we feel motivated and days we don’t.  On eventful days and on days we feel we are in the wilderness with nobody to hear.

Today, God will notice you, and will work in ways that you may only know when you look back on them from eternity.  No tree falls without His knowing about it.

May His strength and peace be with you always.

Out of Exile into Exile

Many of us cannot wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to be over, so that we can return to normal and get back to doing the things we want to do.  Lessons learned, and let’s move on.  About a week ago, I posted about John the Baptist and what we can learn from his unexpected circumstances.  I also quoted Psalm 90:12 – “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” – on another blog about learning from sickness.  As if on cue, I got Covid soon after.  Much of this week I’ve been too uncomfortable to sleep, but also without enough energy, physically or mentally, to do much of anything.  And it would appear I still have more to learn from the pandemic.

What do I mean?  Let’s take a look at the Old Testament life of David, and what he learned about trying to get back to normal.

King David’s Lost Decade
David had been anointed king at about age 16 but did not become king until about age 30.  Having already been anointed[1], David was forced into exile by the reigning king Saul, who tried to kill David multiple times.[2]  After this, David was kept by force from the throne he knew he would inherit for about 10 years!  When David says “wait for the LORD” he knows what he means from hard experience.  While David’s behavior in this time was not perfect, he provided some lessons for waiting on God’s deliverance from trials.

First, our timing to receive God’s promises is not God’s timing, and we must trust that His is better.  Warren Wiersbe notes that “It’s likely that David’s fugitive years are reflected in Psalms 7, 11–13, 16–17, 22, 25, 31, 34–35, 52–54, 56–59, 63–64, 142–143.”  These 22 Psalms are full of testimony of David’s faith that God would sustain him through all trials, that God was in still in control, and that God would always be proven faithful and true.  If God had anointed David king, He would get him there when He decided it was the right time.  Because David wrote these Psalms during his exile, Wiersbe says “God’s people today can find strength and courage in their own times of testing. Our Lord quoted Psalms 22:1 and 31:5 when on the cross.”[3]

Second, our power comes from God, and we must trust that He knows what it should and shouldn’t be used for.  On at least two occasions, David was given an opportunity to seize the kingdom from Saul by violent means.  To end his exile on his own terms and timing.  1 Samuel 24:1-7 and 1 Samuel 26:1-11 show Saul completely at David’s mercy, seemingly by God’s Providence, but David knew that if he struck and killed “the Lord’s anointed” he was betraying the Providence sustaining David during his years on the run.  Since David was also “the Lord’s anointed”, could he glorify God for preserving his own life, yet apply a different standard to Saul?  Would God bless David’s future kingdom if David trusted his own power, instead of relying on God’s power and timing?

David eventually rose to the throne and mourned the death of Saul, who took his own life on the battlefield rather than be captured by the opposing Philistine army.  David united the tribes of Israel under his rule, headquartered in Jerusalem, and led the way for the Temple to be built by his son Solomon.  While David’s grievous sins, including adultery and murder, had many consequences for himself, his family, and the nation, David always came back to his God and knew where his strength came from.

When forced back into exile by his son Absalom[4], David returned to the lessons of his earlier exile.  David always knew that salvation belongs to the Lord alone, but also seemed aware that salvation was not done yet.  He wrote in Psalm 17:15 – “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”  While the idea of a future, eternal life was vague in the Old Testament, David knew someday he would meet God and know Him more fully.  David knew that as long as he was on earth he was still in exile, awaiting the full salvation of the Lord, which would come in His power and in His timing.

The Lost Pandemic Years
The pandemic seems like an exile from normal life – the life we think we should be living and the life we think we can return to living once the pandemic is over.  God has promised heaven, how can this continue?  I will eventually be over Covid, and the pandemic will end.  However, what we call our normal lives are also lives lived in exile, waiting for the salvation of the Lord.  Our normal lives remain interrupted not only by sickness, but also by our sin: our impatience, our frustrated longing for justice, our temptation to take salvation into our own hands, and our inability to love as we would like to be loved.  It would appear I still have more to learn from the pandemic.

When we leave the exile of the pandemic for the exile of our normal lives, let’s keep Driving Toward Morning: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and ball the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:23-25

What is “the Day”?  It is not the day I get over Covid, or the day when the pandemic is no longer disrupting our everyday lives.  It is the Day where not only is every disease defeated, but also the Day we overcome all of our impatience and division and our longing for things to be set right.  It is the Day all of our desires are perfected, and in Him all of our perfect desires are fulfilled.  The Day we are no longer in exile and see the full salvation of the Lord.


[1] 1 Samuel 16:13
[2] 1 Samuel 19:10-12
[3] Wiersbe, Warren.  Be Successful (1 Samuel) (2001).  P. 135.
[4] See related post on Psalm 3, written by David at this time.

When Bad Things Happen to the Greatest Disciples

Did Jesus fail John the Baptist?  John was identified as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”[1] prophesied by Isaiah.  John publicly announced the coming of Jesus, and soon baptized Him, then watched the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and heard the voice of the Father declare Jesus as the Son.[2]  Was testifying publicly about Jesus and His miracles John’s mission in life?  If so, why did John find himself in prison, unable to preach in the open?  As Matthew’s Gospel records, Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee and Perea, had John arrested for criticizing Herod’s immoral relationship with his brother’s wife.[3]  While under arrest, John began to have some doubts about Jesus and sent messengers to Him, saying “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?[4]  To John, his circumstances didn’t make sense and he reached out to Jesus for an explanation.

Matthew, in preparing his gospel message, intentionally placed this question from John to Jesus after a long section about followers of Jesus meeting opposition and persecution in the world. If you have time, read Matthew chapters 10 and 11 now, or keep reading here and I’ll quote key verses and ideas as we go, starting with these:

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” – Matthew 10:24
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” – Matthew 11:11

I think Matthew was making several points, starting with this: living like Jesus does not mean Christians will avoid uncomfortable circumstances, including criticism and/or persecution.  Circumstances are not always a sign we’ve done something right or wrong. In Matthew 10, when Jesus said “a disciple is not above his teacher” the context tells us that what He meant was that His perfect life and obedience led to the cross, and if we are like Him we can’t expect to be treated better than He was.  Still, we may be tempted to think that if we live the right life, if we preach the truth of the gospel perfectly, if we do everything we should, then we will not be like “sheep in the midst of wolves,”[5] but loved and admired by the world.  By moving right to the story of John in the next chapter, and saying “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist,”  Matthew is saying that not even the greatest disciple of Jesus who ever lived was exempt from the warnings of chapter 10, including “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you sin their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” – Matthew 10:17-18

Even the very best lives and preaching meet opposition, perhaps even more opposition from those who have no interest in the kingdom of God.

Second, by placing these stories side-by-side, Matthew shows that John the Baptist is an example for us when we have doubts[6].  In prison, John had doubts, but did not give up on Jesus.  If Jesus was who he said He was, then not only the warnings of chapter 10 apply to John and us, but also the assurances and instructions:

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” – Matthew 10:19
What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” – Matthew 10:27
Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” – Matthew 10:31

John sent disciples to Jesus not to ask for rescue or to complain, but to confirm whether He really was the Messiah.  When we have doubts, we can also seek and find comfort.

Third, there is always more God is doing than we are aware of.  Instead of commenting directly on John’s prison situation to John’s messengers, “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.[7]  In other words, Jesus was doing everything the Messiah should be doing, and even with John sidelined from public ministry, the kingdom of God was advancing spectacularly.  John had the information needed to believe and should not be “offended” by his unexpected circumstances. God remained in control of the situation.

Lastly, the circumstances of our lives may be what inspire others to better follow Christ, although it may be invisible to us.  Therefore, our patience and faithfulness in those times, or even the way we express and deal with doubt, can be a powerful witness.  As “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John saw his audience as those coming out to see Him and be baptized.  From this perspective, being in prison made John feel useless or like a failure to his calling. What had he and/or Jesus done wrong?  But God (see related post on these two words), through Matthew’s Gospel, saw John’s audience as all future generations, who could be encouraged that even the “great” John the Baptist faced criticism, persecution, and even doubt.  John may have thought his purpose was to keep preaching publicly, but instead his example benefits other believers in ways that his freedom couldn’t.

Faith Over Circumstance
Don’t let circumstances determine your faith and willingness to serve Christ.  In Matthew 10, Jesus said political and religious leaders, and even our own families, will resist Christ in us.  Often, they will appear to succeed.  Also, some will tell us that when things aren’t going our way, we need to “have more faith”, “pray harder”, “go to church more”, and convince God to improve our situation.  They argue we need to fix something we’re doing and our circumstances will improve.  But this is not the message of John’s story, and Matthew made sure of that by the way he wrote it.  There is no record of Jesus or Matthew telling John the Baptist why he was suffering and in prison, or that he could do anything about it.  Jesus only asked him to trust.  However, when John was ultimately beheaded[8], he met Jesus face-to face again, but fully glorified, and I believe John understood.  There is always more to our circumstances than we can see or comprehend, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”[9]

If even John the Baptist was not exempt from the warnings of Matthew 10, neither are we.  But also, if John could trust his Lord and Savior to love and provide for him, we can too. Odds are that nobody reading this will face what John the Baptist faced, but his story helps in whatever circumstance God asks us to glorify Him in.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it…And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”” – Matthew 10:38-39, 42


[1] Isaiah 40:3, quoted in Matthew 4:3.
[2] Matthew 3:16-17
[3] Matthew 14:3
[4] Matthew 11:3
[5] Matthew 10:16
[6] Also, I recently posted an example from the life of Jeremiah the prophet.
[7] Matthew 11:4-6
[8] Matthew 14:10
[9] Romans 8:28