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Laurie and I once taught English to a family from the Karen tribe of Burma that had immigrated to the United States. They had lived for thirteen years in a refugee camp in Thailand. When the father was a child, his family had been attacked, and he ran into the jungle for safety. Tragically, he never saw his parents or siblings again. This family’s experience is just one in our world’s long history rife with heartbreaking accounts of people groups that have been uprooted from their native lands, dispersed, or forced into settlement or refugee camps. Time and space will not allow us to adequately recount these tragic events, some of which are occurring at the time of this writing. However, if we investigate Scripture, we will see that God’s people, both individually and nationally, became displaced people more than once.

Moses, exiled from Egypt, considered himself a stranger in a strange land (Exodus 2:21–22).

The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and dispersed because they had egregiously sinned against the Lord by worshiping other gods and setting up for themselves “pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree” (2 Kings 17:5–12).

Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was taken captive to Babylon because “All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the LORD that he had made holy in Jerusalem. The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:14–16).

The Lord allowed the diaspora of Israel and the captivity of Judah because His people had worshiped idols and turned away from Him. They became foreigners in lands not their own. He removed them from their ancestral home because He loved them and desired what was best for them: to love, know, and obey Him.

A Reminder of Uncomfortable Transience: the Feast of Booths

Israel’s celebration of the Feast of Booths is an instructive example of how the Lord reminded His people of their need for an abiding sense of uncomfortable transience. He did not simply think this was a good idea—He commanded it: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:42–43). The people of Israel needed to be retold that there was a time when they had no permanent dwelling place. I believe one of the reasons the Lord established this annual feast was to challenge Israel’s tendency to give in to a self-contentment in what He had given them—the Land of Promise, flowing with milk and honey. After what their forefathers had experienced as slaves in Egypt, living freely as the chosen nation of God was another day in Paradise in comparison. They would be tempted to forget the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 8:11-28).

Christians Are Transients As Well

In the New Testament, God’s people are referred to in Hebrews 11:13 as strangers and exiles: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” The idea that Christians are temporary residents on earth still exists as a stream of thought among Western Christians, but it seems to have been reduced to a trickle. Songs with lyrics like, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through” seem to have been reduced to whispers. Our materialistic, this-world-is-all-there-is culture speaks with a very loud voice. Nevertheless, the impermanent condition for the Lord’s sinful-but-forgiven loved ones has been His heart throughout Scripture.

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The ultimate driver for prophetic utterances in the Church is God’s love for His people. Prophecy provokes and convicts, revealing the secrets of one’s heart (1 Corinthians 14:24-25) but ultimately builds up the believer (1 Corinthians 14:3-5) because the Lord will inevitably fulfill His great and precious promises. An example of this contrast is in Isaiah 48:18–19. Here, the Lord is grieving through the prophet about the upcoming judgment:

“Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.”

However, in the very next chapter, the Lord spoke these delightful words of joy, comfort, and care:

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me’” (Isaiah 49:13–16).

The Lord our God is a God of discomfort. However, He is also the God of love, peace, and unyielding victory. He will bring His repentant people to overwhelming triumph, though the road may be spiny and steep (Romans 8:35-39).

Jesus Will Turn Up the Heat

Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ unsettling prophetic voice in His letter to the Laodiceans. Jesus is clearly dissatisfied with that church’s ministry to Him. When He “takes a drink” from them, it is neither hot nor cold. A hot drink is comforting when the weather is cold, and a cold drink is rejuvenating when the day is hot. However, lukewarm water is rarely preferable to anyone at any time, unless he is dying of thirst. Therefore, Jesus told these believers that He would spit them out of His mouth. Not only that, He was not even in the church. He was standing outside it (Revelation 3:20).

Jesus’ first admonition to remedy their predicament was to buy of Him gold tried with fire. What does that mean? Twenty-four carat gold melts at 1,945 degrees Fahrenheit. To be heated to the temperature of molten gold sounds a bit uncomfortable. However, what does it mean to buy of Him gold tried with fire? The only answer that seems sensible is that Jesus wants His followers to prayerfully tell Him they are willing to be refined in this uncomfortable way so they will be pleasing to Him and thus not be ejected from His mouth. Keep in mind that our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), not a campfire for roasting marshmallows. Inviting His divine conflagration into our lives may include living sacrificially, with the heat of circumstances turned on. Gold is melted in order for its impurities to be removed. We should not force ourselves into a troubling situation, so our only answer is for the Lord to tell us how we can enter into His sacrificial, refining life and remain steadfast through it. Paul told Timothy, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:3–4). How does one do that? There is only one answer, and we will not find it in a book entitled Ten Ways to Live as a Good, Suffering Soldier of Jesus. Setting up a list of laws or, rather, principles, as we like to call them, is misguided. That will only lead to self-satisfied and self-righteous legalism. No, we will find the how-to as we seek Him and read His Word. He is, after all, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Even then, we will need to keep a check on our legalistic tendency. That is why Jesus’ next admonition to the Laodiceans was to buy white garments from Him. He was instructing them to make the foundation of their righteousness certain. That source would not be found in how well they followed His narrow way—it was found only in His righteousness. It would be necessary for them to be humble and poor in spirit, not proud of any sacrificial accomplishment. Jesus’ third admonition was that they should anoint their eyes with eye salve so they might see. Living sacrificially as a soldier and giving only mental assent to our need for His righteousness and the denial of our pride will not be enough for those who seek to follow Him. We fully must see Him, our Savior and our Creator, and His Word clearly, not simply adhere to a religious code of conduct. However, all too often, we read over life-challenging passages without being aware of their import. The truths in Scripture that we ignore or are blind to are available and accessible by His Spirit. We must ask Him to open our eyes.

However, as uncomfortable as our walk with Jesus may be, there is richness here. Remember that Jesus told the Laodiceans, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich…” When Jesus said this, He did not mean that if they would ask to be refined by fire and thereby suffer loss, that there would be a payoff at the end with more earthly wealth. He was talking about spiritual abundance to a church, which by virtue of its material prosperity, thought it was rich when it was actually quite poor. This is the One who said, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33–34). Jesus’ desire is that we possess treasure in the heavens, not store up what could be spiritually dangerous treasure on earth. The wealth that is in heaven is true treasure, true, eternal riches indeed.

Why was Jesus so blunt with these Laodicean believers? He tells them. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). When Jesus finished His admonition, He said, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). Is it important to us that we sit with Jesus on His throne? Regrettably, perhaps not. Because I do not know the reality and fullness of its meaning, I am prone to simply dismiss this truth. It may not be important to me in the least. However, it should be, and it will be, by His disquieting grace. He is the God of our discomfort.

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If the previous scriptural examples are not sufficient to convince us that God’s will is for us to be ill at ease, let’s look at what the Lord, through Paul, told the believers in Corinth. Twice he exhorted them in 1 Corinthians 12 to earnestly desire to prophesy (verses 1 and 39). Why would that make a Christian uncomfortable? Because we know what prophets did in Scripture. In the Old Testament, they were continually poking Israel or Judah in their chests, demanding that they abandon their idols, trust only in the Lord, and return to Him. Prophets were often foretellers of misfortune because of the unrepentant sinfulness of God’s people. We see in the Gospels that Jesus Himself was a prophet, and that aspect of His ministry was similarly set about with thorns. He did not win followers from the religious community when He told the Pharisees that the devil was their father (John 8:44). Jesus did not make Himself popular by informing the Jewish authorities that they were hypocritical leaders who were clean on the outside but filthy on the inside (Matthew 23:25) and that for the sake of their tradition they had made void the Word of God (Matthew 15:1-11). He did not spread sunshine, joy, and promises of prosperity when He declared that Jerusalem and the temple would one day be destroyed (Luke 19:42-44; Matthew 24:1-2). In the Book of Revelation, Jesus reprimanded the church at Ephesus for leaving their first love and commanded that they repent (Revelation 2:4). He alerted the church at Smyrna that they were soon going to suffer, and some would be thrown into prison (Revelation 3:10). He warned the church at Pergamum that He would war with the sword of His mouth against those who held to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans and demanded that they repent (Revelation 2:14-16). He announced to the church at Thyatira that He would cast one of the women in their midst into a sickbed and those committing adultery with her into tribulation, insisting on their repentance. (Revelation 2:20-22). He rebuked the church at Sardis for being spiritually dead and called them to repent (Revelation 3:2). He told the church at Laodicea that although they thought they were rich and prosperous, they were, instead, “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” again charging them to repent (Revelation 3:17).

However, believers were also called to the office of prophet in the New Testament. Agabus prophesied disastrous news about a coming famine (Acts 11:28). He also warned Paul, after binding his own feet and hands with Paul’s belt, that “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (Acts 21:11). Paul foretold misfortune and loss when he warned the centurion, pilot, and ship owner not to sail to Crete (Acts 27:10-26). Paul informed the Galatians that they were deceived, and he wished the Judaizers who were troubling them would emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12). He declared to the Corinthians that they were infants and fleshly for preferring certain Christian personalities over others (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). He also notified them that they were weak and sick because they were not discerning the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 27-32).

Prophets are called by God to make God’s people uncomfortable and repentant, while foretelling the consequences of rebellion. Therefore, when the Lord exhorts us to earnestly desire to prophesy, He is informing us that it is His will for a measure of discomfort to be present in our fellowships, perhaps a very large measure. He wants His bold, disrupting voice to be heard in our midst. Does God like to stir up trouble? Yes, and He has a glorious reason: He loves us. He knows how prone we are to sinful complacency and self-satisfaction. Status quo is our default human setting. It does not take long for His children to think they have this Christian thing figured out, switch on the go-easy spiritual autopilot, and turn our attention to other things. This complacency is the result of our sinful condition, of which our loving God is very aware. It is the reason, as we know, that we need a Savior who died for our sins. Therefore, we continually need to be brought up short so we can repent of our complacency, sin, or ignorance, ask for forgiveness, and move on in maturity.

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Through Amos, a prophet to Israel, the Lord said:

“‘I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord. ‘I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6–8).

If you were an Israelite who was cultivating a drought-ridden field, yet knew of some land down the road on which it had rained, what would you think? Would you wonder if the Lord favored that farmer over you? You had worked as hard as he had, if not harder. Why the other family and not yours? The Lord tells us why He caused His people to experience lack: so they would return to Him. You may think, “These things wouldn’t happen to me. I’m a Christian, and I believe in Jesus and follow Him. I don’t need to return to Him.” Be very careful. Your status as a Christian believer may not be in doubt, but remember that the Lord told His chosen people that He would test them to determine if they loved the Lord their God with all their hearts and with all their souls. Is it possible that you do not love Him as wholly as you should? Of course it is. No human being is able to keep perfectly the first and greatest commandment of the Law: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Your loving Father would rather you suffer discomfort than live a life of pallid complacency, absent of tenacious love. His application of deprivation to your life so you will know Him better is an act of grace and love.

Perhaps you are aware of this admonition from the book of Hebrews, in which the author quoted Proverbs 3:11-12:

“And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:5–8).

These verses tell us that it is a certainty that our heavenly Father will discipline us. In fact, if we are not disciplined, it is an indication that we are not His children.

A doctor, out of necessity, may need to re-break a patient’s leg so that it will heal properly. Is the doctor evil, inattentive, or attempting to make his patient’s life more difficult by inflicting additional pain? No, the physician knows what must be done in order to heal the injury. Although Christians have become God’s children through re-birth, He loves them and wants what is best for their spiritual lives, and that will require what may be considered painful discipline. Are you a son or daughter of God? If you are, welcome to the fellowship of the God of discomfort.

All scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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It is understandable that we want to live stress-free and pleasant lives. If it’s available, we will use air conditioning or electric fans to make us more comfortable when we are sweltering in the heat. Without question, we prefer health over sickness. If possible, we would rather have money in our pockets or the bank versus a lack of funds, a life of poverty, and possible economic devastation. A new car that is less likely to break down on the road is better than an undependable junker held together with duct tape and baling wire. However, even an old car is preferable to long journeys on foot or stifling, crowded buses. We like our cupboards stocked with food rather than shelves that are empty. We would prefer not be beaten and imprisoned for our faith. The downside to this reasonable need for comfort is our tendency to become at ease, and that predisposition may lead to a creeping, sleepy self-satisfaction. If we are not careful, this wellbeing can be deadly to our faith, because we are in danger of no longer being in desperate need of God. There is a reason Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Considering ourselves rich in spirit is a self-satisfied path to dangerous, spiritual poverty. When we adopt the humbling attitude that we are poor in spirit, regardless of how well we are or are not doing, we are admitting that we are dependent upon God for all that is good and necessary in our lives. The Lord has been aware of our deadly tendency to forget Him in our untroubled and secure lives since the beginnings of His people:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.     Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:7–18).

Because the Lord loves us, He will do what He must to keep us from being at ease and inattentive. Therefore, if you are a Christian, it is helpful to know that the Father at times wants you to be uncomfortable, uneasy, and unsure. No, He doesn’t want you to be unsure of your salvation, His grace or love, but He does want you to be uncomfortable enough in your life so that you will turn to Him and learn to trust Him when, in His sovereign wisdom, He considers that necessary for your spiritual good.

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In spite of the misery and grief experienced by God’s people, the Lord is a God of comfort: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).1 Jesus told us that the Lord will comfort those who are grieving from loss: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

However, Jesus also said this:

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49–53).

And this:

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Experiencing tribulation in the world is a promise from Jesus Himself. Thankfully, our experience with tribulation is not the end of the matter. Jesus finished His statement by proclaiming that He had overcome the world. He is our hope, comfort, and ultimate Victor. In addition, we have this deeply joyful pronouncement from the apostle Paul: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18 NKJV). Everyone, including believers in Jesus Christ, will encounter suffering of one kind or another in their brief lives on this planet. However, Christians are encouraged to faithfully believe that all suffering will pale in comparison to the glory that is to come.

The Lord gives both comfort and discomfort? Peace and division? Victory along with tribulation and defeat? Yes. The reality is that the Lord’s peace and comfort become truly meaningful only when peace and comfort are absent. As was noted above, He “comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4, emphasis added). Before peace and comfort arrive, conflict and discomfort break out—which may have been caused by Jesus Himself. For example, when we read the account of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples who were afraid they were going to drown during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, it is clear that Jesus purposefully caused or allowed this event to transpire so He could intervene during their distress (Matthew 14:22-33). Why would He do that?

1Unless noted otherwise, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

 

 

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When Laurie and I lived in India, our job assignment was to mentor national pastors and leaders. One evening, on our way to a Bible study with a small group of believers, I became violently ill and vomited repeatedly inside the church van that was transporting us to the study. I became so weak in just a matter of minutes that I had to be lifted out of the van like a ragdoll, put on a gurney, and taken to the hospital. I had never experienced this level of sickness in my life. On another night, not long after that incident, I awoke in our bed fully dressed. As I looked around, I saw that several of our friends were in the room. They had come to take me to the hospital—again. I had had a seizure in my sleep. I had never had a seizure before. Thankfully, my hospital stay was brief. Shortly after we arrived in India, I began to suffer from allergies that made my nose run like a faucet. That, in conjunction with the pollution of the large city in which we lived, caused me to get asthma. I had never had asthma before. However, this condition eventually necessitated our departure from India. Could the Lord have prevented these illnesses and healed the allergies and the asthma so that we could have continued our ministry there? Yes, indeed. All things are possible for Him (Mark 14:36). Nevertheless, He did not.

The reader may be familiar with more upsetting, even tragic, accounts in his or her own life of diseases that were not cured, premature babies that did not survive, and accidents that could have been averted. Perhaps a business failed. A personal calling to ministry languishes and remains unfulfilled. These situations bring forth questions, cause doubt, and challenge faith. Therefore, a legitimate question can and should be asked: Is it possible that our loving God and Father would ever want His people to suffer discomfort? The biblical answer to this question is not one we would prefer to hear. Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, is bursting with accounts of the discomfited saints of God.

God’s People: A Fellowship of Discomfort

According to evidence throughout Scripture, it is clear that God, according to His gracious will and purpose, permitted or caused His people to experience difficulties. Here are a few notable examples:

After losing almost everything, including his children, Job was reduced to scraping his boils with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:8).

Abraham was compelled to fight a battle in order to rescue his nephew, Lot, and his family (Genesis 14:8-16).

Jacob was tricked by his uncle into working seven more years than was agreed upon so he could marry Rachel, the woman he desired.

Joseph was peddled as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders by his brothers. He was subsequently sold to an official in Pharaoh’s house. Afterward, he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison.

God allowed His people to suffer in bondage as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. He even told Abraham generations earlier that this oppression would come to pass (Genesis 15:13). As powerful and God-glorifying as the accounts of the defeat of Egypt, its gods, and the Exodus are, if you had been born during the four hundred years of captivity, all that you would have known as one of God’s people is slavery. You would have been born a slave, and you would have died a slave.

When the Lord struck Egypt with pestilence, God’s people suffered the first three plagues along with the Egyptians when the Nile turned to blood and when the land was overwhelmed with frogs and gnats (Exodus 7:14-8:22).

After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses was opposed by his own people in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-3), and once they attempted to overthrow him (Numbers 16:1-3). In fact, his own brother Aaron and sister Miriam rose up against him because he had married Zipporah, a woman of whom they did not approve (Numbers 12:1-2).

David was persecuted and relentlessly pursued by King Saul, who wanted to murder him (1 Samuel 18:10-11), even though David was an extremely close friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, and twice demonstrated that he had no desire to kill the anointed ruler. After David became king, his own son, Absalom, dethroned and humiliated him (2 Samuel 15). Absalom was subsequently killed by Joab, in defiance of David’s instructions, which caused the king great grief.

The Psalms are bursting with outcries for the deliverance from the troubles experienced by David and the other psalmists.

Solomon, with all his wisdom, wrote that a man’s “…days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:23).

After preaching repentance to Nineveh, Jonah sat under the shade of a plant to seek respite from the sweltering heat. The Lord sent a worm to sever the life of that small measure of comfort, even though Jonah was suffering so greatly that he wanted to die (Jonah 4:7-8).

Jeremiah was lowered into the muck at the bottom of a well for speaking the word of the Lord (Jeremiah 38:6) and was threatened with death (Jeremiah 18:23).

Jesus told Peter that Satan demanded to sift him like wheat and that He would pray for him, but He gave no promise that He would stop Satan’s activity against him (Luke 22:31-32).

James, one of the three apostles who were closest to Jesus, was beheaded, and Peter was imprisoned, although briefly (Acts 12:1-5).

Paul and Silas were beaten with rods because of their ministry and locked up in jail (Acts 16:22-24). Paul was again incarcerated (2 Timothy 2:8-9) and, tradition tells us, martyred.

Church tradition also tells us that all of Jesus’ disciples, except perhaps John (and Judas, of course), died as martyrs.

John was imprisoned for a time on the Isle of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).

In the troubling passage that follows, the Lord tells His people what will happen after someone called “the beast” appears in the book of Revelation:

“Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:7–10).

When the Lord warns Christians that they will be conquered and in need of endurance and faith, it should cause them to sit up and take notice. Without dispute, this will be a life-threatening and grievous time for the followers of Jesus Christ. Until the end of the Church Age, God will allow His people to be exposed to arduous hardship.

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I know the confounding questions that troop through my head like disoriented soldiers when I consider the truth concerning those whom God chooses. How in the world would God’s blueprint for preferring the lowly and mundane ever work? How would we get anything done? The choices that God makes are so contrary to our church-culture paradigm that we cannot even imagine their implementation. This, however, unnerves me. It frightens me because this is exactly the way the Jews thought at the time of Jesus. They simply could not, by any stretch of the imagination or their knowledge of Scripture, understand that their Messiah would be a despised and weakened sacrificial Lamb. Today, we look back at Scripture and ask, “How could they have missed it? How could they not have considered Isaiah 53? How could they not have put together Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 7:14?” I might also ask in the same way, “How could we have missed 1 Corinthians 1:25-29, concerning those whom God chooses? How could we have not understood the overwhelming testimony of Scripture concerning those whom God selected to do His will? Why did we think that God needed us to be strong and winsome by the world’s standards in order to fulfill His purpose on the earth? How could we have missed the glaring truth that Jesus Himself was considered of little consequence and even despised in the eyes of the Jewish and Roman worlds, as were His disciples?”

Bringing to Nothing the Things That Are

In light of the truth from 1 Corinthians 1:27–29 and the New and Old Testament examples, we should think that claims about our influence, success, and results—“things that are”—which we too often mislabel as “the fruit of the ministry,” is not something that the Lord would especially care for. Perhaps that is far too generous. He does not want it in His presence at all, because His stated intent is “to bring to nothing things that are.” This sovereign activity of God sounds a bit destructive. Or perhaps humiliating. Or both. He ordains this so no one might boast in His presence. He will not be deterred in His purpose. Therefore, should any person or entity that operates with a perception that he, she, or it is “something,” be a bit alarmed in light of this truth? I certainly am. Being “something” is my default response, it seems, concerning how I want to be perceived.

So, fellow Christian brothers and sisters, welcome to the appalling fellowship of the worthless and the weak. We are people who are never to boast about themselves and their success and thus become “significant.” Therefore, if your desire is to understand His will and please Him, you would remain unknown, unpromoted, and unadvertised.

There Are No Undemanding Answers

I don’t know why most church and parachurch organizations diminish over time. I am sure there is a multitude of reasons, but it appears evident that almost every last one of them has. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since He made it clear that His desire is to “bring to nothing things that are so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29). When Christian leaders become significant and use that significance to promote their ministries, does that put them on the list of things that the Lord considers “things that are” that He will “bring to nothing” so “no human being might boast in the presence of God”? I tremble at the thought.

What shall we do? There are no undemanding answers. I have come to realize that following Jesus may be simple, but it is not easy. Therefore, this is where any solutions would begin: with Him and His turning-our-religious-world-upside-down Word. He told us plainly that He was the way, the truth and the life. All that we need to know about how to follow His astonishing ways are in Him and His Word. We should realize the life-upending importance of His uncomfortable truths, be challenged, and humbly bring them to Him. It is wise to ask Him how to walk in His truth, life, and way. He is everything there is, and all that I can offer. This is the right, good, and devoted place to abide in the light of the knowledge of the God we do not know.

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The Lord’s use of insignificance continues in the New Testament. The most outstanding example is the Lord Jesus, the Creator of all things, who came to earth as a completely helpless baby, born to a poor couple in an obscure place called Bethlehem, a small town in a little-known, weak nation that had been conquered yet once again by a very powerful one. Why would the Lord God incarnate be born, grow up, minister, die, rise from the dead, and ascend into the heavens in an obscure part of the world such as Palestine? Why was it His plan that no one outside of the immediate area would even be aware of His existence while He walked the earth?

We could also ask, who were the disciples of Jesus when Jesus called them to follow Him? In our way of thinking, it would seem unwise to choose only twelve (later eleven), very fallible men to establish His Church. What notoriety, status, or importance did any of these individuals possess when they were chosen? Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Matthew was a despised tax collector.

Who was the only person in the Bible about whom Jesus said this? “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). A woman who anointed Jesus for His burial. We do not even know her name.

Who were the first people to whom Jesus revealed Himself after His resurrection? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna. Women whose testimony in that culture was almost worthless.Why would the Lord choose such inferior individuals to be the first to testify about the greatest event in the history of the world?

Paul became an apostle only after he lost all of his Pharisaical positional authority and status. The picture that is drawn for us in Scripture should be clear, and it is probable that Paul was thinking of the individuals in Scripture and drawing from his own knowledge and experience when he penned those Holy-Spirit-inspired words to the Corinthians. Regardless of how we define significance in our cultures, it is biblically evident that the Lord chooses inconsequential individuals living in inauspicious places through whom to accomplish His hard-to-comprehend purposes.

He is the God of insignificance.

However, this should not amaze us. He is the God we do not know.

Has the Lord Been Thinking Clearly?

Is it surprising that God chooses people who are foolish, weak, and despised? It should, because it seems that we require those who are intelligent, strong, and influential. The idea of selecting the weak comes from the mind of God, but these are not the kinds of people whom we would prefer to get our work done, move the vision along, and thereby influence and change the world. These are not the individuals whom the Church would endorse to spread the Gospel and represent Christ. Never. Does the Lord know what He’s doing? Absurd question, clearly, but it needs to be asked in light of the staggering dissonance between His ways and ours. The answer to the question is, of course, yes; because in comparison to what He accomplishes by His incomparable power, everything we do is foolish and weak. He told the disciples plainly that without Him they could do nothing at all (John 15:5). The problem is that we think otherwise. We embrace “leadership material”—strong, attractive, and talented men and women to be our leaders and preachers. The Church thinks that these gifted people, if we train them properly using “leadership principles,” will advance the cause of the Gospel. We want only these kinds of individuals representing us. This makes perfect sense to us. We do not choose losers. After all, who desires to be ridiculed in the eyes of the world? However, our amazing God is not necessarily looking for culturally impressive people in order to accomplish His irrational and powerful purposes. He is not put to shame at all if we are humiliated or derided. After all, He was. The prophets were. Noah, Moses, David, Micaiah, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, and Jesus Himself were all scorned either by their families, the world, or religious leaders. Is this what we seek? Do we truly want to be included in that noble company? I doubt this in the extreme. We want to be cool. Attractive. Culturally clued in and appealingly humorous. We say we want to be like Jesus, but we have no idea how to deal with these words of blessing in the context of leadership:

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22–23).

We want to be enormously influential and liked, but apparently it is not our preference to be blessed or have great reward in heaven.

Instead of displaying how strong and worthy of notice we are, we should reveal how weak and unimportant we are. Instead of proclaiming our strength, we should boast of the things that show our weakness, as Paul did (2 Corinthians 11:30). Instead of contending for significance, we should contend for insignificance. This is the way our God, He who is lowly in heart, chooses to do business. When we read about those whom the Lord chose throughout Scripture, we cannot avoid this inescapable truth. We should line up on the side of the basketball court where all the wimps and losers stand. Talk about counterintuitive. This is clearly not how the world and the Church think about how to “win.” We want people with swagger.

Is it possible that the Lord could make it any easier for us to understand? In spite of a multitude of biblical examples, it just seems too difficult for us to grasp. Even if we do lay hold of this truth, all too often, as soon as He chooses us and performs something wonderful and God-glorifying through us, we too easily shift from being “nothing” to desiring to be “something.” It is just one, little, intoxicating step away.

Warhol was right. Everybody wants to be somebody and experience their fifteen minutes of fame. But that is not what the Lord wants for His people.

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The truth about those whom God chooses is found not only in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. According to all of Scripture, it is evident that the powerful Lord God of the universe chooses people who are, to sum up, worthless in the world’s way of thinking. The Word of God plainly says this, although we shrink back from perceiving those whom God selects this way. Let’s start our study at the beginnings of Israel, chronicled in Genesis. Who was Abraham, for example? Before the Lord called him, he was simply a man whom his father had taken, along with his family, to a place called Haran, a city in Mesopotamia, which was the center for the cult of the moon god, Sin. Had Abram achieved any significance when the Lord called him? No, he was just a man living in a pagan city. Why did God choose him over any other man in Haran? We do not know. Actually, we do, because Paul tells us in First Corinthians 1:27–29: Abram was insignificant, foolish, and weak. Abraham is the prototype for those whom the Lord chooses.

Leah was a woman who was unloved by her husband, Jacob. He rejected her from the beginning. When Jacob had been fooled by his uncle and had marital relations with Leah instead of Rachel, Jacob cast her off, even though they had become one flesh. However, this verse will give us an insight into how God thinks: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Leah bore four sons, one of whom was Judah, the forefather of Jesus.

Who was Joseph when the Lord gave him a dream that changed his life and the lives of everyone in his family; indeed, that so dramatically changed the history of Israel? The second-to-youngest son in a family whose siblings detested him so greatly that they wanted to kill him but instead wholesaled him as a slave to a caravan of traders headed to Egypt.

Who was Moses when the Lord called to him by means of a voice in a burning bush? An inessential shepherd in the wilderness—and a murderer who had fled from his own people.

Who was Gideon before the angel came and sat under the terebinth tree at Ophrah while the mighty man of valor threshed wheat in the winepress? We are not told. He was just a man who was a member of the weakest clan in Manasseh and the least in his father’s house (Judges 6:15), laboring in secret to insure his family’s survival.

What about the other judges? What was it about them that caused the Lord to choose them?

Deborah was a woman and a prophetess, a member of a culturally unimpressive gender class.

Jephthah was the son of a prostitute.

At first glance, Samson seems to be an exception. He was a supernaturally strong man. However, his strength came from that which is not strong at all—his hair, which was a symbol of a Nazarite, one who is set apart before God. When Samson rejected that unique place, he became a man who thought his strength was his own and therefore regressed into someone through whom God could not be glorified. It wasn’t until he was blinded, bound, debilitated, and determined to die that he became weak enough for Israel’s enemies to be substantially destroyed, so that the Lord was glorified, not Samson.

Who was Ruth? A woman from among the Moabites, a pagan people who worshiped the god Chemosh; a widow living on the edge of starvation. She became the wife of Boaz, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the forefather of Jesus.

Who was David when the Lord chose him to be king? The youngest son in the family, a child so inconsequential, so forgotten, that Jesse did not even bother to call him to the house when Samuel visited and summoned all the sons to be gathered. David fits well into the description of those whom God chooses. He was almost non-existent in the eyes of his father.

Who was Esther, who helped deliver God’s people from annihilation? She was an orphan who was picked to become a concubine in the harem of the king of Persia.

Who was Elijah? A Tishbite, a man from an irrelevant village called Tishbe, a place unknown to world history.

Who was Elisha? A farmer.

Who was Daniel? Although he was apparently a member of the royal family, he was also a refugee, a displaced person in a foreign culture.

Who was Jeremiah when the Lord called him to prophesy to Judah? A priest from Anathoth, a city about which almost nothing is known.

Who was Isaiah when the Lord called him to prophesy to Israel? He was the son of Amoz and a nephew of Amaziah, a murdered king of Judah with a mixed record of rulership.

Who was Hosea when the Lord called him to prophesy to Judah? Again, we are not told. He is introduced as Hosea, son of Beeri.

Who was Amos? He tells us in his response to Amaziah the priest: “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” (Amos 7:14).

Who was Malachi? We do not know.

The prophet Zechariah? Berechiah’s son and the grandson of Iddo.

The prophet Joel? He was Pethuel’s son.

Do we need to continue?

Orphans. Widows. Farmers. Forgotten children. Disregarded, poor, and powerless women. People chosen by God because they were unimpressive from birth or diminished in some way so God could be glorified, not them.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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