Picture in a Picture Photo

When your plans get canceled 

How do you react when your plans get interrupted or when you don’t get what you were expecting? If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the past many months haven’t worked out the way we planned. Sometimes, things don’t turn out the way we expected. And none more so than for a couple who recently let everyone in on what that happened to them a few years back.  Finlay McAfee and Salma Saade were dating long distance—he in Scotland, she in France. 

So Finley decided to get all romantic and fly in to surprise his girlfriend. He purchased the ticket, flew to Paris, and called.

There was just one problem. Salma had decided to do the exact same thing—and she had flown the same day, to Scotland! In the process of trying to figure out where the other was, they realized they may have actually passed by each other in the Edinburgh airport—heading opposite directions!

Finlay and Salma’s rule ever since then: never surprise the other ever again.

There’s a lot about the past year that didn’t go as you expected, isn’t there? A lot of things seem unfair. And so that’s what the series that wraps up today is about, helping you get through what you’re going through. 

What God is always up to in us

Let’s do a quick recap and then jump into our final theme. The journey of following Jesus can be boiled down to three…

Phases in spiritual growth

  1. Confident faith
  2. Challenged faith
  3. Living faith

The first phase, Confident faith, is typical of when you first find your way back to God. Your faith is fresh and new. There’s a happiness at being connected to God and to others who love him. You’re learning to talk with God and hear his Word, and you feel thankful for God’s many kindnesses toward you.

The final phase, the one God wants to bring us all into, is Living faith. By Living faith, I mean active trust that whatever comes, God will be with you. You believe that whatever happens, God is for you. The big question, then, is how do we get there, to a strong and Living faith?

The answer…is that you have to get through the seasons when your faith is challenged, however long they may be. 

  • You lose a job, and your faith is suddenly challenged. Where is God in this? Is he aware, you wonder? Does he care? 
  • Doubts pop up, and you don’t know where to find satisfying answers.
  • Right now in this drawn-out season, we miss being with one another. That’s a challenge to our faith.
  • Maybe you get disillusioned over Christians who don’t speak or act in ways that match actually following Jesus. That can challenge your faith.

How we respond to challenges is huge

And here’s why the matter of the challenge: it is our response to the challenges that determines whether we experience the Living faith God wants us to walk in and enjoy.

My Dad was shaped by the hardship of going through the Great Depression. As a child, he worked at night and then handed over every bit that he earned, to help the family. One night he arrived home from work and reached for the little pay envelope in his pocket: it was gone. The family immediately got to their knees, held hands, and prayed. 

My Dad stood up and felt a distinct sense of leading. He walked out the front door, across the street at an angle, and in the dark reached straight down into the grass, where his hand grabbed the pay envelope. I heard that story many times through the years. Even last year, at 96 years of age, tears would come to his eyes as he recounted God’s goodness in that challenging season. The challenges defined him and made him a better person.

How about you? Who do you know who, by going through what they went through, became a great example of Living faith, the kind of faith you want to have? If you’re watching this with someone else or as a family, feel free to hit the pause button and swap a story or two of someone you know who, because they went through a season that challenged their faith, they found their way to Living faith, faith that deeply trusts the Lord is with us in it all.

All that to say that this season is one that because of the challenges, has the potential to bring us into a vibrant, mature, living faith. Our guide these three weeks have been God’s people of old, ancient Israel during their challenging time in-between Egypt which they had left behind, and the Promised Land, which was ahead but they had no idea how long the journey would be. 

When you don’t get what you expected

The wilderness was not what they had expected. And so it is with so many today. So much changed in the past year for people around the world. And that surfaces questions like how much longer? Questions like when will we be able to do normal things again? We are nearing a year now of strong disruption. For the ancient Israelites, their in-between time-stretched forty years. That’s like how old I am! Plus a few years, maybe…Thank you for the birthday wishes!

For this final week, let’s jump ahead to the end of their long challenging season. Open your Bible or Bible app to Deuteronomy chapter 34. As you open to Deuteronomy chapter 34, the Israelites are finally about to enter the Promised Land. This is the moment they have prayed for, longed for, talked about, and waited for. We read this:

“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’”

Deuteronomy 34:1-4a

Imagine what this must have been like for Moses. From the top of that mountain—which you can visit after the pandemic—Moses takes in the vastness of the Promised Land, Israel’s homeland that has been waiting for them all those years.

Next week we will actually hear from someone in Israel. His name is Dov Bikas, and Dov means bear. Dov has a heart the size of a bear’s, as he reaches out in the name of Jesus to the most hurting people in Tel-Aviv—just a few hours’ drive to the spot where Moses stood, taking in the view. Dov will also join us on the after-worship fellowship call so that you can interact live with someone in Israel.

Moses is drinking in the view of the land God had long-ago promised his people when God says this:

“‘I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said.”

Deuteronomy 34:b-5

And right about now you say, “What?! After all, this man did to patiently, persistently, faithfully press on for forty years, through challenge after challenge, he doesn’t get to go in?” His is a story of unexpected interruption, of canceled plans.

We don’t like this part of the story. We don’t like when our plans don’t go as we expected. And that alone explains a lot of the clamor of recent times—people’s plans being interrupted, and we don’t like it. So we lash out.

How about you? What are you going through that you didn’t ask for, you don’t want it, but here it is? 

  • My niece Nicole had her wedding planned for October 2020. She got her dress at the Manhattan bridal shop featured in the series Say Yes To The Dress. She was so excited for her big day—and then crushed when they had to postpone it. 
  • Some of you lost a job due to the pandemic. 
  • Some are now starting a new job—something you didn’t expect.
  • We have teachers wrestling with constantly changing school models, where at any point, someone is annoyed or angry.

So much seems so unfair. How about you?

What about life right now doesn’t seem fair?

When you see Moses looking into the Promised Land, but he’s not going to set foot in it, you look at all he went through to get that far, and we wonder why? Why doesn’t he get to experience what he expected? 

Moses’ question forces a hard question for you and me:

  • What if I’m never delivered from what I’m going through? What if I just have to keep moving through it for God knows how long? That’s usually the case for those with disabilities.
  • What if you never receive what you long for and are praying for? I’m joining many others in praying for a friend who has stage 3 cancer. What if she doesn’t recover?
  • What if “getting through what I’m going through” doesn’t have the neat ending we expect? What then? My long-time friend Sandy lost her sight while a college student. For decades, she prayed and hoped for her sight to be restored. Many prayed that for her. She’s blind today. 

These are important questions that we do well to face. We want to know why suffering comes. Sometimes, we get a glimpse:

  • Sometimes we suffer because of what other do. Children who were abused sometimes suffer for the rest of their lives, due to someone else’s evil choices. 
  • Sometimes we suffer as a result of our own poor choices. The ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wilderness wandering was the consequence of their own choices.

But that doesn’t explain everything. Sometimes there are no easy explanations for why. So for the next few minutes, I want to offer some help with that.

What is in your power always

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologistpsychiatristphilosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. In his book Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl describes his experiences of suffering and witnessing others’ suffering in Nazi concentration camps. He went through starvation, beatings, hard labor, and the constant threat of death.

Yet with his keen mind even in the midst of what he was going through, he tried to make sense of it all. And what he realized, the “Aha!” realization that dawned on him and that he became convinced of, is that the suffering people around him proved that everything can be taken from you. But the one thing that no one can take from you without your permission…is your choice about how you will respond to your situation. Here’s how Viktor Frankl puts it:

“Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it…Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” 

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

Here’s help when you can’t make sense of your suffering when you can’t see why you’re going through what you’re going through. In those times, you can give your suffering meaning…by how you choose to respond. Right now and always, what is in your power is the choice of how you will respond to your situation.

Let me give you…

Two great choices when suffering:

  1. I can let suffering transform me.
  2. I can let suffering remind me of the Bigger Picture.

Let’s take those one at a time. First is that I can let suffering transform me.

  • When you choose to exercise, that’s a relatable example of suffering for the purpose of physical transformation, to get in better shape. It is!
  • When you practice guitar until your fingertips hurt, that’s suffering for the purpose of skill transformation. You want to change, and you understand the price of admission to becoming a skilled musician includes some pain. World-class rock guitarist Steve Vai comes from my hometown. Everywhere Steve went while he was in high school, his guitar went with him. When Steve sat down on a couch, out came the guitar to practice. Now he’s considered one of the greatest electric guitar players of this day.
  • People sometimes fast for days at a time in order to gain spiritual clarity, a measure of spiritual transformation.
  • These days, fasting a day or two or a week from news and social media can do wonders to change what you’re thinking about, dwelling on. You’ll likely find yourself less upset, more focused on what you’re responsible for.
  • We’ve all heard the compelling stories of a relative or complete stranger donating a kidney—that’s suffering for the purpose of transformation, someone else’s transformation.
  • When you give to international missions or sponsor a child through Compassion International, that sacrifice brings transformation to someone else. Let me mention Compassion And Mercy Associates or CAMA for short, the relief and development wing of our international partner, the Christian and Missionary Alliance. When you give from your hard-earned salary to CAMA, you bring blessing to refugees, to victims of war and natural disasters, and personal transformation in the name of Jesus to people who are trapped in systemic poverty. We have boots on the ground in the hardest places in the world. Your giving—and giving always has some cost to it—brings transformation to others who so desperately need it. Any time you give through yChurch’s website, that’s one of the options: Compassion And Mercy Associates. If you want to check them out for yourself, go to camaservices.org

So there’s the first choice that’s in your power: you can choose to let suffering transform you. Then here’s the second choice: I can choose to let suffering remind me of the Bigger Picture—which is becoming more like Christ who has saved us and wants to transform us.

From where Moses sat, there’s no way he could see ahead to our day, how his faithfulness while suffering is what paved the way for the Israelites to begin moving into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership. His faithfulness in the midst of suffering paved the way for the New Testament to name him as a hero of the faith, as an example worth following. 

Moses kept the Bigger Picture in mind. He goes down in history as an amazing example of Christlike qualities like faith, like goodness, like truly knowing God, like stunning self-control, like perseverance, like never quitting, like humble godliness, and like patient love for people who would drive just about anyone mad.

That was the Bigger Picture for Moses, and it’s the Bigger Picture for you and me today. In this hard time, God wants to transform us as he did for Moses. The apostle Peter explicitly points this out in his second letter. And it’s important to understand who he was writing to. He was writing to people who were suffering—as some of you are; as some in your family are; as people around the world are. In this long season of stress and loss, here’s the Bigger Picture of what God wants to produce in you, in us. Peter writes:

“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”

2 Peter 1:5-8

This kind of transformation comes from your choice about how you respond to the pressures of these days. We call the generation that stepped up during World War 2 “the greatest generation.” This is our generation’s greatest test. This is our ‘in the wilderness’ choice time. And it’s the greatest opportunity of our lifetime to decide to pursue this, to grow in Christlike character. 

Even if you don’t get everything you want in the next year or in your life, if you will choose to pursue becoming this kind of person, you win! You will bring God glory, and two great things will happen:

  • Those who know you will see Christ in you;
  • And when your journey is done, God himself will commend you.

That friends, is worth living for, giving ourselves to, and pursuing, together. The choice is yours. I pray you’ll join me. Let’s pray.

Lord God, we don’t understand a lot of what happens in life, and the chaos of these times. But we trust you. And from what we’ve seen in the Scriptures these past three weeks, we choose to be more like Moses and less like the unbelieving, constantly griping ancient Israelites. Transform us, we pray, even though the suffering of these days. Make us more like Your Son: 

  • Transform us in trusting you more than stressing; 
  • Transform us in being good rather than rotten; 
  • Transform us in knowing you more than merely knowing the latest jarring headline; 
  • Transform us in persevering instead of bailing; 
  • Transform us into godliness rather than rage; 
  • Transform us in our affection rather than allowing us to grow cold; 
  • and through it all, transform us, we pray, into a people who love well.

Through us, we pray, draw to saving faith those who know us. Enable them to see and sense Christ in us. Thank you for sending your Son when we were lost in the wilderness of our sin. You saved us, brought us out, and are leading us daily even as you led them. Keep us in step with you, Lord, in all we do. And in it all, may you receive the honor, we pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.