“I can do all things.” Oh, really?

Children are being taught that they can do whatever they put their minds to, in school, children’s books, and in endlessly nauseating Disney movies. And bookstores are full of self-help books by patronizing gurus telling us, “I did it; so can you.”

It was a relief for me some time back, then, to discover that I can’t do whatever I put my mind to, because God made us humans subject to futility and frustration (Romans 8:20), so that even at our best we amount to nothing more than broken pots (2 Corinthians 4:7).

And the reason God did this to us was to get us to include him in our lives. Why? Because we’ve proved beyond doubt in our human history that we cannot live the life he designed for us on our own. So he continues to let us suffer from war, disease, famine, pollution and a host of other unsolvable problems, to convince us we cannot do whatever we put our minds to. And children soon discover that all their great plans and dreams aren’t guaranteed to always work either, because their resolve weakens under pressure, accidents happen, or people conspire against them – including their own parents.

But once we’ve accepted that we’re limited and life isn’t fair, what do we do then? Well, it’s lift the lid on our broken pot, pop our heads out, and ask God to help us, which he promises to do, and in so many ways that eventually we can say as Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

But Paul didn’t come to that understanding easily. For much of his life he’d depended on the power of his own mind and will, just like children are being taught to do today. But to his horror he also experienced his mind and will conspiring against him to make him do the very opposite of what he wanted to do. It was hugely frustrating. But in his frustration he cried out to God for help and made the most amazing discovery, that to make things happen “the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” 2 Corinthians 4:7.

In other words, it’s a totally false idea that we humans can do whatever we put our minds to, because it’s only GOD who can do that. Only he can do whatever he puts his mind to. But God’s quite willing to share the power of his mind with us, and that’s what a child needs to hear, that yes he can do whatever he puts his mind to, so long as he’s trusting in the power of God’s mind to help him, not just his own.

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How can I trust a weird God?

To many people God is repulsive, because what kind of God kills every firstborn child in Egypt, commands the slaughter of every woman and child in Jericho, and drowns Pharaoh and his army just to prove how powerful he is?

In Pharaoh’s case, however, God fires right back with a question of his own. “Since when,” he asks in Romans 9, “did clay argue with the potter as to what it’s used for? Exquisite vase or humble flowerpot, I have the right to make you into whatever I want. If I designed you to display my anger or my goodness, what’s that to you?”

But what kind of answer is that? I’m just a nobody, am I, without rights or say in what happens to me?

“But you were already a nobody without rights or say,” God replies, same chapter (paraphrased), “because admit it, you were coasting through life totally absorbed in your own petty projects, all of which amounted to a big fat zero and a six foot hole in the ground. Fortunately for you, I’ve always had better things in mind for my beloved humans.”

Well, that’s nice, but how can I convince people God has our best interests in mind when story after story in the Bible makes God seem monstrous and uncaring? It’s like trying to convince your teenage daughter you have her best interests in mind when telling her to be home by 10:00 pm, and she snarls like a cornered cat and stomps off to text her friends about the rejects she has for parents.

But some teenagers don’t do that, do they? They trust their parents even when their parents seem impossibly old-fashioned. Why? Because they accept their parents know more about life than they do – just as billions of galaxies humming away quite nicely above our heads prove God knows a whole lot more about life than we do. And some people, like Abraham, could see that. So, when told by God to kill his son, Abraham didn’t argue or accuse God of being out of his mind; he simply trusted him.

So why don’t we all simply trust him?

Because the lesson from the very beginning of our history is that we’d rather trust in ourselves and in gods of our own making – which is tragic because look at the mess we’re still in as humans. We desperately need God’s help, but we can’t bring ourselves to trust him. Fortunately, God took care of that for us in Jesus, who did trust God and now promises to give us his trust, so when God at times seems weird to us we can trust him too.

In a lifespan that’s so limited what are we supposed to learn?

The question above was stirred by a dream about an old train station being demolished and carted away to the last brick and railroad tie. I woke up thinking that my life too is destined to be demolished and carted away to the last breath and heartbeat.

In a lifespan that’s so limited, then, what are we supposed to learn? Well, we learn that we’re limited. We age. We deteriorate. We’re running on battery power alone and the batteries aren’t rechargeable. And when our batteries run out of juice, that’s it, we too are carted off to be disposed of.

And the reason it’s this way, embarrassingly, is because we chose it. We were the ones who decided we wanted a limited lifespan. God did warn Adam not to eat off a tree that would kill him, but he was easily persuaded to shorten his lifespan by a woman. And she was just as easily persuaded to shorten her lifespan by an obviously lying  serpent. It didn’t take much, therefore, to persuade either of our formative ancestors to treat life so casually. They didn’t seem to care about limiting their lifespan at all. Or maybe it didn’t register that God was serious.

Either way, how daft could we humans be turning down the chance to extend our lifespan for a piece of fruit? And a similar question could be asked today, as to why we say things like, “This is the only life we’ve got so make the most of it” – or – “Life is not a dress rehearsal,” meaning this life is it, you only get one shot at it and there are no second chances.

And we’re satisfied with that? You mean we’re accepting without complaint that this life is all we’ve got – and that’s it? Then we’re just as dumb as Adam. Just like him we’re trading a life that could be extended forever for a brief kick at the can now.

Fortunately for us, Jesus was one human who did not view that kind of thinking as smart or normal, or even mildly acceptable. Instead, he lived the life Adam could have lived, a life of childlike trust in the Father of all humans, believing it was the only way a person could live forever, and the only way that made life worth living forever too.

Jesus, therefore, opened up our imaginations again as to what God made possible for humans from the beginning, that there is a life we can live that has no limited lifespan, and how that life can actually be lived now. That’s what he came to teach us. That, then, is what we’re supposed to learn.

“I wish Jesus would hurry up”

Having grown up with the idea that God has a six thousand year plan between creation and Jesus’ second coming I was really looking forward to getting this life over and done with soon, now that the six thousand years was nearly up. So instead of having to tread water in this mess any longer, with no hope of things improving or Christianity being accepted worldwide, we could get to work clearing up this mess with Christ’s power and authority behind us, and get rid of mad dictators, stop greed and pollution, and make this world a great place for children.

And surely enough time has gone by already to justify ending things soon, because the evidence of history has conclusively proved that we are incapable of solving the problems that are killing us, no matter how well-intentioned we are. So why doesn’t Jesus hurry up and get this lot over and done with? Why hang around allowing more pollution, more poverty, more starvation, more child abuse, more disease, and more of the same old things that will never change in ten, fifty or a thousand years’ time?

Well, the good news is, Jesus hasn’t been hanging around. He’s been actively changing things ever since he was resurrected and given all power and authority over this planet by God, by going right to the heart of the problem, rather than just blowing people’s heads off.

The heart of our problem was made clear in Genesis, that we don’t trust how God does things. Adam and Eve, for instance, didn’t like the idea of taking care of a garden as God’s training program for them. They much preferred having all knowledge all at once. Why take years off their lives messing around with soil, when they had the chance to crank the program into high gear right away, all guns blazing? And surely, isn’t that what God wanted, a bit of initiative on their part, and a willingness to get to work at full bore?

But God works slowly, because he wants to know if we’ll trust him. And it’s the same with Jesus today. He works slowly too, because that way he too finds out who trusts him and is willing to go at his pace, and who wants to “do an Adam and Eve” and get things moving at their own pace instead.

Jesus himself had to go at God’s pace too, accepting and trusting that God knew best in him having to live out a human life first, and fortunately, Jesus is more than willing to live his patient trust in us, because patient trust is our best training for the future.

What God admires most of all

It’s quite obvious in our culture what qualities we admire most. “Our granddaughter is as sharp as a whip, there’s no fooling her,” a proud grandparent says, making it very clear that brainpower and talent are the qualities most to be admired. Or if the child is a boy it’s his spirited “never give up” attitude, his fierce independence, and even his stubbornness that are looked upon as signs of strength. The children most admired are those with beauty and brains, looks and personality, self-confidence and self-assuredness, inner strength and toughness, and a feisty “I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

How interesting, then, that none of those qualities are mentioned as traits that God admired in Abraham. And yet Abraham was the man God chose to be “our father” (Romans 4:1, 16). It was through Abraham that God got the ball rolling as far as the gospel, the lineage of Christ, the existence of Israel, the promise of a new age coming in which all nations will be blessed, and the possibility of our inclusion in those promises right now. All through Abraham.

Those are quite the credentials for one man. You’d think, therefore, that God would be looking for a man like King David, for instance, a man after God’s own heart. And what about Noah, “blameless among the people of his time” (Genesis 7:9), an amazing compliment knowing what Noah was up against. Or what about Job, about whom God said, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). But God didn’t choose David, Noah or Job, and none of their qualities did he seek in Abraham either. And yet Abraham was the first person in history to be called God’s “Friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

Imagine being called God’s Friend. But it didn’t take much on Abraham’s part. All he did was have the simple faith of a child who believes his Dad has the power to do anything (Romans 4:20-21). That’s what Abraham had, a child’s trust. So when God told Abraham to do something he did it. He didn’t question God like Job did, or mutter at God like David did in Psalms. Abraham simply believed God was good to his word, and that was it.

“Understand, then,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:7, “that those who believe are children of Abraham.” Those who share the childlike trust of Abraham also share in all that God promised him. God didn’t complicate things. He made it easy:  “Consider Abraham,” verse 6, because what God admires most in his children is their childlike trust in him.

How can we trust God when we don’t understand him?

God was quick off the mark in making himself hard to understand. He creates a tasty looking fruit and tells Adam and Eve they’ll die if they eat it, but he lets an evil, crafty creature into the garden to entice them into eating it. Then Cain kills his brother but God issues a warning in Genesis 4:15, that if “anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” So an evil man is allowed to live, which in time leads to the entire population becoming so evil that “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain,” Genesis 6:6.

God then makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants to solve the problem of evil, but tells Abraham to kill the only descendant he’s got. And around that same time a “blameless and upright” man who “feared God and shunned evil” called Job had his family and business destroyed by a deal Satan made with God, to which God so strangely agrees. And when God frees Israel from an evil Pharoah it’s only to scare the liver out of them a few days later when they’re jammed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian war chariots are thundering towards them.

And then we find out in Romans 9:17 that God deliberately stirred up this evil Pharaoh and killed him off to spread the word, verse 18, that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” It sounds like God does whatever he wants, including allowing evil free rein, and humans don’t have a choice in the matter. Nor did Esau (verse 13), when God loved Jacob the rascal but hated Esau the victim. Clearly, God doesn’t play by our rules, or rules that make sense to us, which surely makes it difficult for us to trust him.

Oh really? says Paul. But aren’t we rather glad that this entire existence of ours “does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy,” verse 16? In other words, if it wasn’t for God’s mercy we’d be extinct. And God has set up all kinds of scenarios in history to illustrate that fact, that first of all evil is so powerful it would have destroyed us, and secondly, that God has every right to destroy us as well (verse 22). So, hopefully we get the point that everything God does in his dealings with us humans is to “make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy,” verse 23, because without his mercy where would we be? And understanding that we can trust him.