Over the summer I did a bible study on Judges and in one of the weeks, I came across something that caught my attention: how we use the seasons of life or life’s events to define the word blessing and where we tend to seek blessings in our lives.
In Judges 15 we find Samson burning down the Philistine’s fields and killing them in hot anger and revenge, an action stemming from his anger issues of the previous chapter. Judah hands him over to the Philistines, but he escapes and kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey jaw. Afterward he is exhausted and rather rudely demands a drink from God. God provides the needed water and the text of verse 19 says, “And when he drank, his spirit returned, and he revived.”
The question on this section in my Bible study asks: “Samson assumes God will continue to bless him, no matter how often he gives in to his weaknesses. How about you? Are you more likely to assume God will bless you despite your disobedience or because of your obedience? Why is neither of these assumptions correct?”
So, my initial answer to that question was that it’s wrong to think either way because we are told to act in obedience to God - nothing more and nothing less. We don’t do what we do to wrangle something out of it for ourselves, it is simply obedience or not. And while this answer is correct, there’s more here.
The word blessing. The word has come up a bit recently with the realization of some long held dreams. Two years ago we bought and renovated a house we had dreamed of and had kinda given up wishing for - yes, we’d say blessed. That same year I was able to start my PhD program, a dream I’d held for almost 20 years at that point - again, blessed. And any of us could go through a number of things we’ve gained and hashtag them blessed.
A trip to Israel and to South Carolina in the summer of 2017 both saw a reoccurrence of panic attacks that I had been delivered from and hadn’t seen for six years. God showed me how my fear had formed a comfort zone around me, it had kept my world small, and it wouldn’t change until He was my comfort zone. You’d think God speaking to you would be a pretty good point at which to turn around and make it all work, but in the months to follow, I hit ultimate lows - not with panic attacks - but just straight up struggling with my thoughts about myself, myself in relation to others, in relation to God, and other general fears.
A few months ago I read in Come Matter Here, by Hannah Brencher, about fear being selfish. If you think about it, fear is self-centered. It turns your focus inward and keeps you captive there. It has kept me worrying about the state of my relationships, questioning my opportunities, and cramping my blessings even as they fall in my lap. Fear as a basis in these ways had been a part of my life for a long time - it’s where my anxieties sprang from - and it has made my ability to grow as a person and in God difficult. But come fall semester of 2017, it was amped up and I couldn’t escape it. I consistently felt like I was drowning in my own head.
The new year, 2018, brought more struggles, and this time not my own and so it was all outside of my control. I had no way to fix what was wrong, yet I was irrevocably involved. Thoughts flowed one after another as I daily struggled to find ways to change and control what was going on around me, looking for assurance and peace and yet working against myself in the same breath. And even as that struggle changed and then bettered, another began and then proceeded to get worse...again out of my control, yet totally affecting me.
|Source: IG Jentezen Franklin|
Things began shifting in March - I can’t say how but something clicked. The struggles that were out of my control continued, but after all this time of fighting myself back and forth, succeeding and failing, but seeking God in every way I could, I began seeing my fear for what it was more clearly and how it was affecting me and those around me. I saw that I needed to trust God with my fears, feelings, and the situations out of my control or I was going to sink myself. I slowly began feeling better - less grasping, less desperation. What I can see in hindsight is a renewing of my mind...and when your mind is renewed you will find yourself transformed. The previous ways in which I lived and functioned had actually begun to change and I started to function more and more in God’s ways. And then in late March, with one step of obedience to God, my entire world opened up.
We volunteered to take in one of my students who found herself suddenly homeless. In the end, she didn’t end up coming to stay with us, but what I found in her absence from our home, was a space had grown in my heart and mind that could only be filled with the sudden action of fierce faith...a big faith ready to be all in and step out for God. By Easter (which was April 1st) this longing led to a random text to a friend, which led to a three hour transparent conversation with a complete stranger upon our first meeting. After that conversation, my new acquaintance reported back to her group and these strangers saw in me the missing piece to their puzzle and after a week in prayer asked me to join them in launching a new ministry. The crazy thing is, my mind was able to see the fit too, without doubt or worry. I’ve typically been good at stepping out when I feel God is telling me too - I’m an extroverted introvert - but it’s my inability to deal with fear’s emotional baggage that comes up in the process that has brought me down once I’ve stepped out. But this was all so coincidentally orchestrated, yet like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, and I suddenly felt so on track, it had to be God.
Which brings me back to this study on Judges...ironically, Judges is a book about sin cycles and Israel’s inability to break from them. Precisely what God had been dealing with in me over the past two years. It’s easy to criticize men like Gideon and Samson until God shows you yourself in them. Thankfully for them and us, God is still faithful. Who knew a study of one of the most violent and depressing books of the Bible would both speed up and confirm the journey God has me on? (See I told you this would come back around.)
Of the examples I’ve given you from my life here, the house and the PhD opportunity look like the best examples of blessings I could share by far. But I beg to differ...and I beg we learn to look at the word blessing in a different light. The question I asked before my story was, “What is the ultimate meaning of the word blessing to God?” To borrow from my friend Jessie during our Bible study, “God blesses first for His glory and then for our good.” I would add that everything God does is first and foremost for His glory. The very creation of us is good only because He is good and He is glorified by it. And then we know He works all things for the good of those who love Him...but why? Because it glorifies Him. But as soon as she had said this, that story of my past two years I just told you, ran through my head. In two years, God amped up a lifetime of living under fear and the false teachings and beliefs it had established in my life and tore it down. Being such an internal and uncontrollable struggle, it has been the hardest refinement yet and it’s not done, but I can say it’s been my biggest blessing. And I can see what Joseph saw in Genesis when he named his second son Ephraim, which means, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:52).
Because what is the biggest blessing we have? Jesus Christ. So what can be more of a blessing than seeing the fruit of the Spirit develop in our lives and becoming more like Him? Everything He uses to discipline us, refine us, change us, and grow us is the ultimate blessing.
Yes, my house is an obvious blessing...but it’s not comparable to a changed heart and altered mind set. It’s not comparable to the new beginnings of a fierce faith. It’s not comparable to the freedom only Christ can give. We need to learn to see blessings as spiritual, not just material. And we need to understand that blessings come in ways we never expect - sometimes through pain, suffering, and trials. I am not sugar coating this - I am not saying there’s something wrong with you if you can’t accept the idea of hardship as blessing easily. It is not easy or fun to grasp, even when you believe it. I’ve learned it the hard way - I’m telling you it can be hard, and I don’t doubt it can be way harder than what I’ve experienced. There were times in the past two years when life felt so particularly hard in my head that knowing God was working didn’t do me much good in the moment - there’s currently times that feel the same - but if you just keep moving forward, they become less, and it will change.
And since we’ve talked about it so much...the remedy to fear? He’s taught me that too...and I could kick myself because it’s really the answer to most everything in life. Love. You might think the opposite of fear is courage or bravery, but it’s not, it’s love. Fear strangles the life from us, but God is love and love brings life. On June 22nd - the day after what I felt was another failure in my personal “war on terror” - with the help of a couple of graceful loved ones, I gave myself grace and got a new tattoo on my upper forearm, which reads “reduce me to love.” Real love focuses outward on God and others. You become smaller/less and God and others become bigger/more. You may recognize it in scripture as John 3:30, “He must become greater; I must become less.” Author Hannah Brencher says, “Gospel-living requires us to get smaller as we go, so that God can be amplified. Smallness is where the real work happens.” Fear does not allow you to love or become smaller because it focuses you on yourself and blows things up in your mind instead.
Not long after that, God revealed the underlying fear of all I had been experiencing. One day in the McDonald’s drive thru, I was questioning myself on why my mind seemed so stuck in one thought pattern and as soon as the revelation came to mind, it made sense, yet in all these years I’d never thought of it before. And yet, I’m telling you straight out, I don’t know how to solve it. But, this is where all I learned in the stretching, growing, and refining comes in...God does know what to do with it. As I’ve heard my Pastor say, “The Lord only reveals what He intends to heal.” And so I hand the revelation back to Him and ask Him to “Reduce me to love.”
Reduce me to love - which Brencher says she took from a woman she heard pray it once - is my reminder of how to fight fear when it tells me I’m both too much and not enough, that I’m unworthy, not needed, or unloved. It reminds me to turn my focus away from myself, to take it to God and then go love on others. We live in a fallen world and we are human, so we aren’t likely to escape fear - not completely - but we can determine to face it and fight. And we can determine to turn around at points of time in the future - a changed person, reflecting our Savior more than the day before - and say, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”