Erecting Altars to Bolster Our Obedience

Woman sitting outside staring out to the horizon

Photo by Liam Simpson on Unsplash

My life has been punctuated by a series of, “Are you serious, God?” moments—times when I want to pretend I didn’t hear Him, when I’m convinced He couldn’t possibly have uttered the command I’ve sensed. And there have been times, way too many, when I’ve been tempted to cloak a disobedient heart in excuses and rationalization.

That burning I felt within while reading that passage—that must have been heartburn. That jolt I felt in my spirit when my pastor gave that sermon—the stage lights must have hit me wrong.

But in this instance, God left no room for doubt, confirming His message numerous times through numerous sources, all in the span of a week. So, reluctantly and perhaps with a few tears, I obeyed.

For just over a week, after which time I started praying for guidance once again. Over the same issue God had so clearly advised me on, as if His instructions came with an expiration date.

They hadn’t. Obedience meant remaining fully engaged in the area He’d already shown me, until He told me different. Trusting, regardless of the delay, He would indeed do just that, should my assignment change.

I thought of my reluctant obedience dance with Christ as I was reading about Sarah and Abraham’s journey, recorded in Genesis 12. God gives them both a pretty drastic command—leave everything and everyone you’ve known, your homeland, and go. To a place you’ve never been.”

Abraham obeyed and he and his wife began the long, arduous trek to the Promised Land. Their journey wasn’t quick or easy. They traveled 600 miles to Haran, where they settled for a bit, then continued on another 400 miles to Shechem. It was here that Abraham built his first altar. (Gen. 12:8)

This was a place of intimacy where Abraham met with God and declared his allegiance to Him. When His faith wavered, God’s voice seemed distant, and the fulfillment of His promise delayed, Abraham could look back upon all the altars he’d erected and remember—the moment when God met with him personally. And if his experience was anything like mine have been, the moment Abraham’s heart surrendered,  resultant peace that swept through him. Followed by the confident conviction that had strengthened his weary soul.

That altar and all the others he built following demonstrates God’s attentive care to guide and provide and  Abraham’s commitment to follow.

I’ve learned, if I want to stay strong in Christ and obedient to Him, I need to fashion my own altars—notes tucked in my Bible and journal entries stored in my bookshelves. Concrete and irrefutable reminders of times when God spoke directly to my heart, issuing a call.

Like with the situation I mentioned early in this post. Perhaps if I hadn’t recorded God’s clear commands provided the week before, I could have rationalized them away. Or forgot them entirely. But regardless of what my temperamental heart longed to believe, I knew God had spoken, and I had determined to obey.

Let’s talk about this! Can you relate to the temptation I shared? When have you been tempted to discount or rationalize away God’s guidance? Have you ever wished His instructions came with expiration dates? How do you remain focused on “the call” when life becomes challenging or it feels like His promise has been delayed?

Subscribers receive image of cover for study based on 1 Timothygreat, free content sent directly to their inbox along with a free, 36-lesson study (ebook form) based on truths presented in 1 Timothy (sent separately). (If you signed up and haven’t yet received your free study, please contact me through this website so I can get that to you!) You can sign up HERE.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

I think I’m on an “offend as many people as I can” streak lately. Yesterday On Reflections, I talked about submision in marriage, and today, I’m talking about our tendency to rob God’s glory. Neither of which are very popular topics. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m about to break rule number one in blogging–never go over 1,000 words. So…I’m warning you now. Feel free to check out at any time.

Most of my friends are writers, so I hear a lot about being goal oriented and “pursuing your dream!” But often, it appears the dream overshadows the Dream-giver. It’s easy to get so caught up in the things of God that we forget God all together. Only problem, without God, they’re just things.

Let me illustrate. When you think of Abraham, what comes to mind first? We often hear about how God blessed him and made his offspring into a mighty nation, right? Or what about Joseph? God gave Joseph a dream of grandeur, a dream that was ultimately fulfilled some thirteen (or so) years later. When we retell the story, what do we focus on? The dream, right? How God gave it to Joseph and everyone else wanted to slam on it, but God exalted Joseph anyway.

Only it wasn’t about Joseph, and it wasn’t about Abraham. God raised up Abraham for a purpose–not to bless Abraham, but instead, to bless all the nations through him. Abraham was the father of the Jewish race, and the Jews were the nation God used to reveal Himself to all mankind (and to bring about salvation through Jesus Christ.) When God blessed Abraham, in reality He was blessing us.

Same with Joseph. When we first meet Joseph in Genesis 37, it appears he’s consumed with the dream and how he’s going to rule over his brothers.

Genesis 37:5-11

 5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

 8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

 9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

 10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

After a few hard knocks and some rather painful humbling, he comes to realize it was never about him. It was about how God wanted to save many, including his brothers.

Notice the difference in tone, and who Joseph points to, in this passage:

Genesis 45:5-7

5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

So, although God used one man, named Joseph, to bring about His plan, all the while He was thinking about the masses. Because that’s how God works. (I can’t help but wonder how his brothers felt, once they’d reached the end of the story and realized that God had their well-being in mind the entire time. Ah, if only we could see the bigger picture!)

So how does this related to writing? (Or any other “dream” God has given you.) God doesn’t give us gifts for our own benefit. Nor are they ever intended to bring glory to ourselves. He gives us gifts so that His purpose can be fulfilled. He blesses us so that we will be a blessing. But when our eyes are on ourselves, we get in the way.

The first step, it seems, is to let it go. Hand your gift, whatever it is, over to God, to be used as He sees fit. Whether that means writing a best-selling novel or spending hours crafting a Vacation Bible School lesson for your small, unknown church. It’s His gift, remember? You’re just the vessel.

As I continually work towards intentionally living, I’m going to ask God, daily, to empty me of self, fill me with Him and help me to catch a glimpse of the bigger, eternal picture. I’m going to actively and personally pray Romans 12:1-2

“Dear Lord, do not allow me to conform to the things of this world, but transform me by renewing my mind. Help me to see and understand Your good, pleasing will. Help me to offer my body, my time, my gifts and my mind, to You as a perfect, pleasing sacrifice. This will be my act of worship.”

The world says forge ahead. God says wait on Me and allow Me to live through you, as I want, when I want, because I see the bigger picture, and I’ve written the ending.

Yesterday a fb friend sent me a message with this video in it and I thought I’d share it. After you watch it, spend a moment in prayer, asking God to show you areas or times when you’ve been tempted to seek your own glory instead of acting in humbled obedience. Then, ask Him to help you lay yourself, your gifts, your dreams, your time…whatever, on the alter so that you can be a cleansed and open vessel ready to do His will. Ask Him to enable you to catch a glimpse of His bigger, eternal picture. And remember, when our time on earth is done and we stand before the throne of God, we will be held accountable for not what we accomplished, but how well be obeyed.

(And be patient. Eventually I’ll quit talking about Joseph…I think.)

A Courageous Heart

If I were to gather a group of believers to ask for their favorite Bible stories, I suspect a few would rise to the top: David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den…Abraham and Isaac. We love to hear stories of courageous men and women following God with unhindered obedience. If only we had the courage of David, who, armed with nothing more than a sling, took on a fierce, ginormous warrior. And what does it take to have the courage of Daniel? Or Abraham, a man who raised a knife, ready to sacrifice his long promised son?

And yet, I can’t help but wonder what happened in the “back story.” Was Daniel always courageous, or was this something he learned through experience? The Bible offers a bit of history on David. We know when he was a shepherd, he had to fight off wild animals on occasion. What we don’t know is what he felt during that very first encounter. Was he terrified, crying out to God for aid?

We like to think these Bible heroes are somehow more than human, but the truth is, they likely struggled with the same emotions as you and I: fear, sadness, anger, discontentment. What made them great was not their super-human spirituality, but instead, a superior God who continued to mold, guide, strengthen and transform their hearts.

I love the story of Abraham because it demonstrates a steady progression from fear to faith. I’m tempted to start and end on Mount Moriah, where God tested Abraham’s faith and Abraham came forth as gold, but if I skip over his times of struggle, I miss out on crucial growth steps.

In Genesis 12:1-3, God promised to bless Abraham (called Abram):

1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have God Himself say, “I will bless you.”

And He says it again once Abraham arrives in Canaan.

6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:6-7)

This blessing is a bit more specific. Abraham’s offspring will inherit the land. But there’s one problem–Abraham and Sarah (called Sarai) don’t have any children. Which means, God’s going to have to grant them children in order to make good on His promise.

And yet, a few verses later, once Abraham gets to Egypt, he fears for his life. Faith would say, “God said He would bless me. God promised I would have offspring. Dead men don’t have children, therefore, God will protect Sarah and I in this foreign land.”

But Abraham didn’t say that. Fear took hold instead, and motivated him to take matters into his own hands. Sure, God had promised to bless him and make him into a great nation, but maybe He needed Abraham’s help. So Abraham came up with a plan to “help” God’s plan come to fruition.

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (Genesis 12:11-12)

And what happens when we allow fear to control our actions and take matters into our own hands? We make a mess! Which is exactly what happened here. Because of Abraham’s sin and lack of faith, countless Egyptians suffered.

17 But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. (Genesis 12:17)

Abraham takes Sarah, and a large amount of riches from Egypt, and continues on. In Genesis 15, God promises to bless him again. This time He’s even more specific.

1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

2 But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.(Genesis 15:1-6)

So now, God has spoken to Abraham on three separate occasions, promising to bless him, protect him, and give him a son. And Abraham believes God…at least, during that moment when God speaks. But notice what happens in the very next chapter:

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. (Genesis 16:1-2)

God promised Abraham a son. Abraham’s married to Sarah. Sarah’s not having children, so Abraham decides he needs to help God out…again. He takes Hagar, Sarah’s handmaden, and sleeps with her. The result? Another mess. Tension fills the home, to the point that Abraham sends his own son and Hagar away.

Once again, Abraham’s sin hurts himself and others.

By the time we meet him on Mount Moriah, he and God have quite a history, don’t they? Time and time again, God’s promised to bless Abraham, yet when difficulties arise, fear takes hold and Abraham takes matters into his own hands. Yet each time, his actions create chaos and pain. I’m thinking by the time God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he’s finally learned that God’s ways are indeed better.

So basically, Abraham’s faith grew through experience, by watching God show up again and again, by hearing God’s promises again and again.

The same is true for us. I believe our faith starts once we get to the end of ourselves, when we realize that we are incapable of going it alone. When we’re tired of creating messes.

It is hard to have unshakable faith straight out of the gate, but as we continue to walk with God, He shows us day after day and year after year that He is good, and strong, and wise. Then, when new difficulties arise, we can remember God’s faithfulness and derive courage from our past experiences.

Are you struggling with fear today? God wants to replace your fear with unshakable faith. Spend a moment in His presence, and remember times He’s proven Himself faithful in the past.