When Evil Prospers – Part 4

Lessons from Job

This is my fourth and final post in this series addressing the topic When Evil Prospers.  In this post we will discuss some of the lessons I have gleaned from the book of Job.

If you have missed the earlier posts on this topic, you can link to the beginning by clicking here.

Bad Things Sometimes Happen to Good People

The book of Job is an amazing story of faith maturing through overwhelming trials.  One of the difficulties we have with this story is the lack of definitive answers.  We instinctively want to know, what did Job do to cause such tremendous catastrophe in his life?

However, we are told at the very beginning of the book:

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1)

And:

The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:8)

I have heard several preachers try to nail down exactly what sin Job committed.  However, their explanations fall short and directly contradict the text.  This is exactly what Job’s friends tried to do… help Job figure out where he sinned, so he could repent.  Job resolutely defended himself and declared he had done no wrong.

In the end, God agreed with Job and rebuked his friends.  So, we must put away any thoughts that Job somehow got what he deserved because of sin.  God said Job was blameless and upright before Him.

I think we find this particularly troubling because the obvious implication is the same thing could happen to any of us.  If Job did nothing wrong yet suffered horribly, what is to keep the same thing from happening to any of us?  In our legalistic mindset, we want to find ways to ensure bad things will not happen to us or our families.

The reality is bad things can and do happen to good people.  Job stands as a testament to the fact that horrible tragedy is not necessarily a sign of sinful lifestyles, nor is it a sign of God’s absence or displeasure.  Job lived a righteous life.  Job loved God.  God loved Job.  Yet, Job suffered catastrophic loss.

Trials Transform Theory into Reality

At the beginning of the book we are told Job was “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.”  This was Job’s reputation and we have no reason to doubt it.  However, in the first chapter, these are only the words of a character witness with nothing solid to hang them on.  Hearing someone is righteous does not carry the same weight as actually seeing them live their life with integrity.

By the end of the book, we are absolutely certain Job was “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.”  We can feel Job’s integrity in our bones, along with his sorrow, pain and numerous questions.

Job’s faith was only theory at the beginning of the story, but through trials it became reality.  Faith must be tested before it is real.

In the beginning of the story, Job believed God was faithful, just, and worthy of worship.  Through the trials, God confirmed all of these things to be true.  In the end, Job did not believe God’s faithfulness because of what he had been told, but because of what he had experienced.

From the beginning of the story to the end, we can see Job’s faith transform.  Initially, Job trusted in his own integrity to ensure no harm would come to his family.  By the end of the story, Job learned to trust God’s goodness and faithfulness despite the harm that had come to himself and his family.  Job learned to be honest with God in his frustration and anguish, and God praised Job’s honesty.

Satan asked to test Job.  God used the test to transform Job’s theoretical faith into reality and to deepen Job’s trust in God.  By the end of the story, Job did not trust God because of the physical blessings in his life.  Rather he learned to trust God regardless of circumstances, because he had come to know God’s character.

God is Always in Control

When God finally responded to Job’s questions, it was with a lengthy list of what God can do.  For a full four chapters, God reminds Job of His power, might, and wisdom.

No matter how horrible things may seem, no matter how confusing our circumstances, God is still all-powerful and is still in control.  Although He may not seek our counsel or tell us His plans, He is still in control, and we can trust Him.

Going back to the first chapter of Job, we read:

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:9-12)

God had a hedge of protection around Job.  Satan could not touch Job without God’s permission.  Yes, bad things sometimes happen to God’s children… but not without God’s permission.  God did not bring calamity upon Job… that was Satan’s work.  However, Satan had to ask God’s permission and follow God’s parameters.

I find this realization simultaneously discomfiting and comforting.  I’m not crazy about the realization that calamity could strike all at once for no apparent reason.  However, it is extremely comforting to know God… who loves me deeply and wants nothing but the best for me… is in complete control and sets bounds on what He allows Satan to do.

Trials Teach Us to Depend on God

In the end, Job made this declaration to God:

“I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes.”

Through his trials, Job gained a fresh perspective on how much he does not know, on how awesome God is, and on how totally reliant we are on God.

Healing Begins with Ministering to Others

When Job was at rock bottom… when he had lost his children, his wealth and his health… when his friends had all accused him of sin he wasn’t guilty of… when God had put Job in his place by reminding him how little he knew of God’s power and might… then God told Job to pray for his friends.  These are the same friends who came to minister to Job in his misery, but wound up lecturing him.  Job was told to pray for them.

The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends, and the Lord increased all that Job had twofold. (Job 42:10)

As Job began to minister to others out of his poverty, he began to find healing himself.  I have found this to be true in my own life.  Healing often begins with ministering to others.

A Higher Purpose

The book of Job opens with a mysterious scene:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:6-8)

The scene described is some sort of heavenly counsel with God presiding over the angels, and Satan shows up.

What is Satan doing in a heavenly counsel?  Why is he allowed to stay?  Why did God call his attention to Job?  Why did God permit Satan to test Job?

No clear answers are provided.  No doubt, one major reason was for Job’s own benefit.  As previously discussed, the trials transformed Job’s faith and deepened Job’s relationship with God.

Yet, there seems to be something more going on here.  The narrator presents this heavenly scene as though it is a common occurrence… as though Satan often enters God’s presence and frequently converses with God about the hearts of humans.

Although the Bible provides no definitive answers, I think it is worth speculating to see what we can glean.

Revelation gives us a little more insight:

And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. (Revelation 12:9-11)

Satan is described as “the accuser of our brethren… who accuses them before our God day and night.”

This sounds like a court room scene… a King’s court where people come for justice and the King dispenses justice in His wisdom.  Satan, the accuser, is there bringing his petitions before God.  Jesus, our advocate is also there:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1)

Note that Satan is our accuser and God is our defender.  That is good news!  Too often, God’s justice is viewed as His raging against our sin.  However, the Bible presents God’s justice as being exercised in our defense against Satan, the accuser.

So, what is Satan accusing us of and why?  Based on the passage in 1 John, Satan is accusing us of sin.  But why should he care if we sin?  Isn’t Satan in the business of tempting us to sin?  Why would our sin be the basis for Satan to file a petition against us?

Besides, as John stated, Jesus, “Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”  So, if our sins have already been dealt with, why is Satan bothering to continually accuse us?  What does he hope to accomplish?

Jesus has already redeemed us from Adam’s covenant with sin and death.  He has already made propitiation for our sins.  He has already cut a new covenant with the Father on our behalf.  All that remains is for each of us to add our yes and amen to the work Jesus has already accomplished, and to walk in that new covenant as children of the living God, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

From Adam to Jesus, Satan had a lawful claim over the souls of mankind, as well as authority over the earth.  Jesus has already defeated Satan and redeemed mankind.  Soon, Jesus will come again to reclaim the earth.

Satan is now playing the only card he has left to play… our free will.

God uses covenant to enrich and bless.  Satan uses covenant to enslave and abuse.  God does not hold us in covenant against our wills.  Satan does.

Satan continually accuses us of sin, before God, to try to make the case that we are rejecting our covenant with God and embracing a covenant with Satan.  Just as he did with Adam and Eve at the beginning, Satan is using our free wills against us to try to entrap us, in order to retain control over our souls as well as over the earth.  For His children, Jesus continually advocates.

So, what is our role in this court?

And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. (Revelation 12:11)

This verse just amazes me!  I know we are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ.  I know our salvation is “by grace, through faith, not of works.”  Yet, this passage adds something.  We get to participate in our own salvation… in Satan’s final defeat.

As that court scene is played out, Satan is defeated not only by the blood of Christ, but also by the word of our testimony and by our faith in action.  We are called to give testimony and our testimony aids in defeating our accuser.

Satan comes before the throne of God with his list of grievances… the rampant evil and wickedness found in his “wandering to and fro upon the earth”… presented as evidence against the human race… proof that our hearts truly belong to him and not to God… proof that we are more his children than God’s… proof that we don’t really want to be in covenant with God at all.

God responds, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.”

In that moment, Job’s faithfulness is God’s evidence presented to counter Satan’s accusations against the human race.  From this perspective, Job’s suffering serves a higher purpose in the final battle against Satan.

Yes, God is the final judge.  However, as a just judge, He considers all the evidence and allows all arguments to be presented.  In the final judgment, all will know God is just.

Could it be that I have, in some small way, been a part of this epoch court battle?  Could it be that God at some point has called me to the witness stand, “Have you considered my servant Joe?”

I hope so!  I hope my testimony has been found worthy of presenting as evidence.  I hope I am a credible witness.  I hope I have played my small part in defeating Satan, our accuser.

No wonder the apostles rejoiced that they had been considered worthy to suffer for Christ!

When Evil Prospers – Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, I shared a little of my personal story and discussed the importance of processing, at a deep emotional level, the reality that we are not alone.  Others who have gone before us have experienced similar struggles, pain, sorrow, horror, grief, and unanswered questions.

In Part 2, we discussed what it means to be God’s image bearers in a fallen world filled with darkness.

In this post, we will discuss how Jesus understands and shares our suffering.

The Suffering of Christ:

The truths shared in the two prior posts are truly wonderful!  Yet, they can still, at times, come across as a bit sterile and cliché.

Yes, it is great knowing God is good… that He loves me… that He never leaves me.  From a philosophical perspective, we can discuss and debate how His goodness combined with His omnipotence still fail to restrain evil and suffering.  We can understand God’s sacred respect for human free will and the consequences of living in a fallen world.  We can understand that somehow God uses all of the experiential garbage of living in this fallen world to bring about His will and purpose in our lives.  We can understand how brokenness is a necessary part of effectively ministering to people in broken circumstances.

Yet, when burdens weigh the heaviest… when our desperate prayers for mercy, justice and relief seem to go unheeded… when evil seems to prosper unchecked… when our anguished souls cry out to God in grief… it can still feel insufficient.  A God who allows His children to suffer deep loss and horrible travesties while promising to work it all out for good in some manner only He understands at some future date only He knows, with no promise of relief in the here and now, can seem cold and distant… maybe even cruel.

Sure, God sees the big picture and sees His plan unfolding across the millennia, but that seems poor comfort for us mere mortals suffering in the here and now of this fallen world.

How can God sit back and watch His children suffer while doling out platitudes and proverbs?  If God is such a good and faithful friend, why does He allow us to suffer so?

No matter how we rationalize the reasons… no matter how we explain the biblical context… in that moment of deepest sorrow and darkest evil it still feels inadequate.  Although we intellectually concede our assent, our raw emotions still cry out this question.

If God is such a good and faithful friend, why does He allow us to hurt so deeply for so long?

I have no answer sufficient for this question.  Yes, I have all the previously discussed answers for the intellect.  Yet, I have no answer sufficient for the raw emotional suffering.

But we do have Jesus!

We have the account of Jesus praying in the garden where he sweated great drops of blood.  He have the anguished cry of Christ pleading, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!

How did the Father respond to the cry of His beloved only begotten son?

He sent angels to minister to Jesus… then sent Jesus to be stripped, whipped, and nailed to a cross to die.

Simple Sketch of Crucifix

Jesus understands our suffering.  Jesus knows what it means to cry out to God for relief and still be left to suffer the deprivations of evil.

Our God has not stood off at a distance objectively watching our suffering while offering empty platitudes of how it is for our own good.  Our God has chosen to join us in our suffering.  He has chosen to suffer with us.  He has chosen to experience the full range of human life in a fallen world.

The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus was made perfect through suffering.

Think about that for a moment.  Our good and perfect God, creator of heaven and earth, was made perfect through suffering.  How can that be?  How can God, who was already perfect, be perfected?

Jesus was already the perfect God.  Through suffering, Jesus became our perfect Savior and our perfect Advocate.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Jesus knows.  Jesus understands.  Jesus has suffered as we suffer.

I may not understand God’s plan, but God does understand my suffering.

Jesus understands my suffering… has experienced it Himself… grieves with me in my loss and bewilderment.  Knowing this, I can trust God’s plan.

This is not the plan of an emotionally distant God with little concern for the pain experienced by mortals.  No, this is the plan of a God who is so deeply personal that He became a mortal Himself, suffered with us and for us, and has sent His Holy Spirit to lead, guide, and comfort us.

Jesus knows God’s plan and Jesus knows our suffering.

Jesus knows!

 

This is the third part in a series on the topic “When Evil Prospers.”  Please join the next post in which I will discuss Lessons from Job.

When Evil Prospers – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I shared a little of my personal story and discussed the importance of processing, at a deep emotional level, the reality that we are not alone.  Others who have gone before us have experienced similar struggles, pain, sorrow, horror, grief, and unanswered questions.

You are not alone!

In this post, we will discuss what it means to live as God’s image bearers in a broken world.

We Live in a Broken World

For me, this is a good starting point in beginning to make some sense out of things.  The Genesis account tells us God created the heavens and the earth.  He created the seas and the dry land.  He separated light from darkness.  He created the marine life, the land animals, and the birds of the air.  Finally, God created mankind in His own image, placing Adam and Eve in authority over all the earth.

God said it was good.

As God completed each step of creation, He declared it to be good.  When God finished creation, He declared all of creation to be good.  Then God rested.

God did not create a world filled with sorrow, pain, and evil.  God created a world that was good.

God did not create mankind filled with wickedness, selfishness, greed, and hatred.  God created man in His own image, both male and female, and they were good.

Then something went horribly wrong.

The serpent entered the garden, spinning his lies, planting seeds of doubt and dissatisfaction.  Adam and Eve fell prey to the serpent’s web of deceit. They betrayed God and entered into covenant with evil.

God had warned Adam, “In the day you eat thereof, you will surely die.”  From that day to this, sin and death have ruled this world.

The sorrow, pain, and evil we each experience in this life are a direct result of living in a fallen world.  This is the fruit “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” of which Adam and Eve partook.  We were created good, in the image of God, in covenant with Him.  We have fallen into covenant with evil, whose image we now also bear.

Why Did God Not Intervene?

Sure, God created a good world filled with good animals, overseen by good people created in His own image.  Yes, Adam rejected God’s goodness and embraced the serpent’s lies.  Yes, we now live in a broken fallen world filled with sinful people… a world in which evil flourishes and godliness seems all too rare.  Yes, our pain, sorrow, grief and loss is a direct result of living in this fallen world.  Evil is a consequence of Adam’s belief in the serpent’s lies… not anything God has wrought or willed.

Yet, we cannot help but wonder.  Knowing God is all-powerful… knowing God is creator of all… knowing God declared His creation to be good… knowing God is good… knowing God loves us deeply… we cannot help but wonder… why does God not intervene?

Why did God not intervene in the garden to prevent Adam and Eve from embracing the serpent’s lies?  Why did God allow the serpent to enter the garden?  Why did God create Adam and Eve with a weakness susceptible to the serpent’s temptation?

On a more personal level, why does God allow evil to flourish today?  Why does God allow His children to suffer at the hands of evil abusers?  Why does God allow judges to make unjust decisions?  Why does God allow pastors to side with abusers against the abused?  Why do wicked people seem to flourish while godly people seem to suffer?  Why does God not intervene?

God does intervene!

In the garden, God warned Adam in advance.  God warned Adam to stay away from evil.  God clearly told Adam the consequences of eating the fruit “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” “for in the day you eat thereof, you will surely die.”

God did intervene, but God also honored Adam’s free will.  God had given Adam authority over all the earth… which meant Adam also had the authority to plunge the whole earth into darkness if he chose to.

Today, God still intervenes.

God has spoken to you.  God has called you to right relationship with Himself.  He has promised to never leave you nor forsake you as you place your trust in Him.

God has also spoken to your abusers.  He has spoken to the judges who have made decisions.

I can say with a high degree of confidence, if you look back at your life and the events surrounding your trials and grief you can see glimpses of God’s intervention… the temporary softening of an otherwise hardened heart… miraculous protection from danger… provision made when it was needed most… strength to do what was needed… wisdom provided to make hard choices.

God has not been silent.  God has been intervening all along.

However, God also honors human free will.  God has answered your prayers to speak to your abuser’s heart… but has not forced the abuser to submit his will to God.

Evil flourishing is not a sign of God’s lack of power nor lack of concern.  Rather, it is evidence of how respectful God is of the free will with which He has gifted each of us.

All Things Work for Good

Pain, sorrow, grief, suffering and temptation are part of the human experience in a fallen world.  For believers and unbelievers alike, for both the wicked and the righteous, these are simply a part of life.

For the believer, though, God provides comforting promises.

First, God promises to be our faithful friend who never leaves nor forsakes us.  God does not promise to spare us the consequences of living in a fallen world.  He does, however, promise to be with us as we traverse those trials.

Second, God promises “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose,” for the fulfillment of His divine will.  For all who believe in Christ, God has preordained a divine destiny to be conformed to the image of Christ… much as Adam was created in the image of God… to reflect His glory… each in our own unique way… as we were created and destined to do.

God uses every experience, every life circumstance, to bring about this purpose in our lives.

No, God does not bring evil into our lives.  No, it is not God’s will for His children to suffer.  However, God uses the evil wrought by wicked people to bring about His good will and divine purpose in each of our lives.

As Joseph said to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God has used for good.

A Light in the Darkness:

The New Testament gospel accounts describe Jesus as The Light of the World and proclaim, “the people living in darkness have seen a great light.”

The ministry of Christ includes being a light in the darkness.  In a fallen world filled with sin and blindness, Jesus is the light.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Christ calls us to the same ministry.  We are called to be a light in the darkness.

Photpgraph of nearly full moon

Reflected Glory!

Being a light in the darkness requires living in darkness while walking in the light of God’s truth.  This means we still experience the darkness.  We still experience the consequences of sin, both our own sin and the sins of others.  We still experience the fruit “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Yes, God could whisk us home to Heaven the instant we ask Him to be our Savior.  He doesn’t do that.  Instead, He commissions us to the ministry of being a light in the darkness… which includes the experience of living in a world filled with darkness.

As we give those painful experiences to God, He uses them to equip us for ministry.  He uses them to draw us into closer relationship with Himself.  He uses them to help us let go of those stale legalistic assumptions of being able to prevent bad things from happening if we just live righteously enough.  He uses them to help us learn to rely completely on Him.  He uses them to help us relate to and empathize with others going through similar experiences.  He uses them to give us wisdom we can share with others as we point others to Christ.

We are called to be God’s image bearers in a world filled with darkness.

 

This is the second post in a series on the topic “When Evil Prospers.”  Please join me for the next post in this series, in which we will discuss how Jesus Christ understands and shares in our suffering.

 

When Evil Prospers

I was raised in church by Christian parents.  I grew up with a strong sense of God’s goodness and love.  In addition to the numerous Bible stories, I also heard personal stories of friends and family testifying to God’s goodness… to His love for us… to his caring concern for our well being… and of Christ’s sacrificial love through which we may have eternal life.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

From early childhood, my faith in God’s loving goodness has been as natural as my faith in water being wet and sunlight being warm.

Yet, during the summer of 2000, I reached a point of faith crisis during which I questioned whether God really loved me.

I have learned my question is not unique.  Many believers reach a point of questioning whether God really loves them, or whether God is really good, or whether God truly exists.

For me, the faith crises occurred as an abusive marriage spiraled toward divorce, following many years of praying and believing God would somehow heal that relationship.  The crush of failure… coupled with the sorrow of relational loss… the pain of ongoing emotional abuse… the firm (though incorrect) belief that divorce was never the best choice… and the apparent lack of response to years of fervent prayers spoken from a heart of deep conviction and faith… led to this dark place of concluding God must not really love me.

For me, the faith crisis was short-lived.  The Holy Spirit ministered to me, enabling me to cling to what truths I could latch onto as He continued to recall numerous scriptures to my mind, as well as personal evidence of God’s loving faithfulness.  Over the next few months and years, God gave me a fresh understanding of what it means to rest in Him and trust His grace… as well as fresh insight on the biblical account of God’s interaction with mankind.

Although my story is personal to me, I want to try to share some of what I have learned in the hope it may help someone else with similar questions.  This is a difficult topic for me to write about.  Although it is rooted in the Biblical account, it has been fleshed out through deeply personal experience.  Even as I try to explain, I am deeply aware my current position has less to do with knowing answers than it does with trusting God with my lack of understanding.

I know enough of the pain and sorrow of this world to understand nothing I say here can ever be enough.  My word and my testimony will never be sufficient for explaining why someone else has had to endure the pain and sorrow they have born.  Any scripture I quote is likely to come across as trite and hollow compared to the experiential devastation of one who has seen evil prosper to the very personal detriment of themselves and their loved ones, as they have clung tenaciously to the hope that God would surely sweep in and somehow rescue them.

Knowing that… I ask you to bear with me as I try to piece this together, prayerfully hoping God will somehow use my words as a catalyst in renewing your hope in Him.

You Are Not Alone

Although this may seem obvious, it bears repeating.  That point of faith crisis feels incredibly lonely and isolated.  Yet, it is quite common.  In fact, I have come to view it as an almost crucial step of maturing in Christ.  As the Holy Spirit guides us through, we learn to let go of our many assumptions about God, allowing Him to lead us closer to His heart… into deeper relationship with Himself.

The Biblical record is filled with stories of people clinging tenaciously to faith in God in the midst of evil circumstances.  Most of the stories work out in such a way we are able to clearly see God’s hand from the beginning.  However, it is important to recognize, in the middle of the crisis, they could not see the hope-filled ending.

I remember, during some of those dark years of an abusive marriage and subsequent divorce, several friends encouraged me to read the Psalms.  However, they advised me to stick with the encouraging psalms and avoid the ones with a darker bent, where the psalmist pled with God for answers as to why evil is allowed to flourish.  They especially advised me to avoid reading the book of Job, because it is just too depressing.

I found, however, that reading Job and similar stories of incredible suffering for no obvious reason and with no end in sight were exactly what I needed.  I needed to feel their suffering… to know others have experienced similar circumstances… to acknowledge with Job, David, Solomon, Naomi and the many other biblical characters that even when life makes absolutely no sense to me, God is still in control and He still loves me.

Job suffered devastating sudden loss, yet continued to trust God’s goodness.  Although Job’s friends implored him to search his heart and repent of whatever sin had led to such devastation, God rebuked the friends and confirmed Job as righteous before Him.  Job was in right relationship with God, God loved Job, and God was in control.  Yet Job suffered horrible losses.

Even more puzzling, the biblical record tells us God, Himself, brought Job to the attention of Satan, removed His protection from around Job, and invited Satan to wreak havoc in Job’s life.  Job was left to wonder why.

For the moment, I don’t want to explore the why of Job’s suffering… we will get to that later.  For now, just soak up and absorb Job’s confusion, pain, sorrow and grief… while continuing to cling to faith in God’s goodness.

You are not alone!

Job is just one of many.  Look at the story of Joseph.  How his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery.  Even as a slave, Joseph continued to serve and trust God.  Yet, his integrity landed him in prison, falsely accused of attempted rape.

Consider Joseph sitting in prison wondering why he was there.  His faithfulness to his father, Jacob, was rewarded by slavery.  His faithfulness to his master, Potiphar, was rewarded by prison.  His service to fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s steward and cook, had been fruitless.

Joseph was eventually freed from prison and placed in authority over all Egypt.  Yet while languishing in prison, Joseph did not know that.

Consider Jacob, Joseph’s father.  There were the many years of competing with his brother Esau for his father’s favor.  There were the years of serving his Uncle Laban and being tricked into marrying the wrong girl.  There was the deep sorrow of his beloved wife, Rachel, dying in childbirth.  Yet all the sorrows of his dysfunctional family and marital losses paled in comparison to the loss of his beloved son, Joseph.

Jacob eventually learned Joseph was still alive and reunited with him.  Yet, we must remember Jacob’s many years of grieving Joseph’s death, certain he would never again see Joseph in this life.

We could go on and on.  In fact, I recommend spending time doing exactly that.  It is important.  We need to understand at a deep emotional level that we are not alone in our pain, sorrow, horror, grief, and unanswered questions.

You are not alone!

This is the first of a multi-part series on the topic of “When Evil Prospers.”  Please join my next post as we discuss what it means to live as God’s image bearers in a broken world.

Riding Off Trail

Sunday morning, I saddled Knockout for an early morning ride before church.  It was a cool morning with a refreshing breeze.  The ride was near perfect.  Knockout was attentive and responsive, throughout.

We checked cows, especially making sure the one-day-old calf is doing fine.  Mama cow got a little defensive at our presence… and Knockout got a little tense at her defensiveness… but everyone responded calmly.

After checking cows, we repaired one section of electric fence that was down, then rode the perimeter checking fences and paying special attention to recent repair spots.

Then we finished up with a woods trail ride winding through the back corner of our property.  Other than the abundance of spider webs this time of year (and the tension induced by a big spider crawling down my neck), the trail ride went smoothly.

Toward the end of the trail ride, I decided to change things up a bit.  We were cutting across the corner of a pasture to the start of another trail when I decided to turn and ride off-trail through the woods.

Knockout responded well.  He never balked or tried to turn aside.  He went where I asked.

However, when I first turned, Knockout slowed.  His steps became choppy and reluctant.  He moved his head side-to-side as he cast around for a trail… a definitive direction to travel.  But there was no trail.  There were paths… multiple paths… with no clear destination.  Knockout didn’t know where we were going.  How could he know?  I wasn’t sure, myself.  The turn off-trail was a last minute whim.

As Knockout searched for a path, I was doing the same thing.  I knew the next few steps and guided Knockout accordingly.  However, I was also looking further out, trying to see where each path led.  Trying to find a way through the woods without getting tangled in vines or brush piles.  I don’t mind asking Knockout to step over a few logs, but prefer avoiding piles of brush.  I don’t mind asking him to go under low branches where I would have to duck, but need to avoid branches too low for me to navigate from the saddle.

After the first couple of steps into the woods, Knockout relaxed, paid close attention to my cues, and carefully went exactly where I asked him to go.

While we were on trails, Knockout pretty well knew where we were headed and how to get there.  He still listened to me and responded, but my cues mostly just confirmed what he already knew to do.  Once we were off trail, he momentarily felt lost.  He had no idea where we were going or how to get there.  He had to rely completely on my prompting, step by step, turn by turn.

That little off-trail excursion was my favorite part of the whole ride.  Off-trail requires each of us to trust the other at a deeper level.  It requires both of us to pay closer attention to each other as well as our surroundings.

I was reminded of this recent post by my niece:

I know God got the wheel, but sometimes I think we off roading.

Reading her post, I chuckled at the familiarity of the feeling expressed.  I have often encountered situations in life where I felt like we had left the path.  Although it is a very uncomfortable feeling, each time God has proven Himself faithful.

Right now, I have a couple of personal situations where I feel pretty lost and unsure.  I’m not sure where I’m supposed to be going, much less how I am supposed to get there.

This morning I prayed:

Lord, please show me.  Show me how to be a godly man in these situations.  Lead me in following your will in each of these situations.  Lord, please guide my steps.  I feel so lost and unsure.  Lord, please help me to relax and trust you.  Help me to hear your voice and respond, each step of the way.

Much like Knockout, I find myself feeling very unsure, searching for the right path.  Yet, also like Knockout, I know I can trust my Master to lead and guide me, step by step.

How about you?  Done any off-roading (literal or metaphorical), lately?

Duke University and Young Life

In recent news, Duke University’s student government voted against giving official recognition to the school’s Young Life chapter due to the organization having a ban on openly LGBT leadership.

This past week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts by my conservative Christian friends denouncing the university’s position, declaring the school is promoting a socialist, progressive, anti-Christian agenda.  There are also numerous posts about this being a violation of constitutional rights and free speech.  Here is a link to the article that has been making the social media rounds:  https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/september/duke-university-young-life-voted-off-campus.html?fbclid=IwAR0NyA_35XMCLRuOpc3S7_J8xrGwhvoNFIZETyH8miF3w9aTr-tVX3GbcN4

So…for starters…let me clarify that I consider myself a conservative Christian.  I am a devout follower of Jesus Christ.  I believe Jesus is the Son of God.  I believe Jesus is both fully deity and fully man.  I believe Jesus is heir to Adam’s covenant with God by which He is rightful ruler over all the earth.  I believe Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected.  I believe through His death, burial and resurrection, Jesus redeemed mankind from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness, while simultaneously cutting a new covenant by which we may become joint-heirs with him through renewed relationship with the Father through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God through which God has revealed His nature to us and has instructed us in how we are to live our lives.  I believe Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God… The Logos… The Word… through whom God has revealed His heart toward us and His will for us.

I understand the position by the Young Life organization.  I understand they are not intending to exclude anyone, but are attempting to stay true to their understanding of God’s word and protect their organization from infiltration by leaders who do not follow the Bible or do not understand the Bible as they understand it.  I support their right to make these decisions for their organization.

I also understand the position by the Duke University student government.  They see the position by Young Life organization to ban LGBT leadership as being unnecessarily exclusive, particularly of a group of people who have historically been the objects of intolerant hate speech and even physical violence at the hands of some claiming to be Christians.

What I do not understand is the lack of understanding by my conservative Christian brothers and sisters.

Duke University’s position is not an attack on Christianity… rather it is a stance against intolerance and bigotry.  There is nothing about the Duke University position to suggest any ties to any particular economic model.  Loving and respecting others is not a progressive socialist agenda… rather it is a following of Christ’s commandment to love one another as He has loved us.

Opponents against the university position point out the inconsistency of the university promoting tolerance and acceptance while simultaneously being intolerant of the Young Life organization for their lack of tolerance of LGBT leadership roles.  Yet they fail to recognize their own hypocrisy in denouncing intolerance against their views when the very thing being excluded is their intolerance of other perspectives.

All this bluster about universities being anti-Christian and opposed to free speech… at least in this case… is exactly that… bluster!  This is an example of two private organizations having differing views and each choosing to take a stand for what they believe is right.  Duke University is a private school, so there is no freedom of speech violation here.

What’s wrong with two private organizations each holding and defending a different perspective?  Not a thing.  Agreement is not mandatory.  However, understanding is beneficial.

Also, this was a student government decision.  The students were the ones who made this decision.  Plus, nobody has forbidden Young Life from continuing to exist and minister as they see fit.  They just don’t have official university recognition as a campus organization.  Yes, this does limit their access to campus activities as an officially recognized organization.  However, it could hardly be called persecution or silencing.

In many ways, the position taken by Duke University’s student government could be seen as being more faithful to Christian precepts of loving others as Christ loves us than the position of Young Life.  Yes, I understand it is a bit more complicated than that.  However, as Christians we should at least be willing and able to respect a differing view by someone who is taking a stand based on a desire to honor and respect others.

Remember, this was a student government decision.  This decision was made by students… young men and women… probably including young Christian men and women.  Based on their moral perspectives, these young men and women decided to take a stand… not a stand against Christianity… rather a stand to support their fellow students… some of whom identify as LGBT.  We have every reason to believe these students made their decision based on a loving attitude toward their fellow students and a desire to show their respect for them.

How has the conservative Christian community responded?  Based on my social media feed, they have responded primarily by denouncing the decision as anti-Christian and assigning labels (socialist, progressive, anti-Christian, anti-free-speech, religious persecution) to those who made the decision.

Would you like to know how best to convince young adults to leave the church?  Sadly, this would be a good start.  Watch them make a difficult decision to take a stand based on love and respect, then condemn their decision, call them names, and declare their position as anti-Christian.

Why is it so hard for us to simply admit we don’t have all the answers?  Why must we insist on over-simplifying complex issues?  What is so hard about admitting that even within the body of Christ we have strongly differing perspectives on how best to demonstrate Christ’s love toward those who identify as LGBT?  Can’t we be honest enough to admit none of us has a full understanding of God’s heart?  Why must we condemn those who see things a little differently… especially when it is very clear that if they err they err on the side of grace and love toward others… which seems to be generally how Jesus was viewed in the Gospel accounts?

The Bible gives us four accounts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, three eyewitness accounts plus a fourth by Luke the Physician, apparently based on interviews of eyewitnesses.  These four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ record numerous sermons, parables, stories and miracles by Jesus.  The four gospel accounts are filled to overflowing with red text in our red-letter Bibles.  Yet, in all those records, Jesus only gave us one directive that He labeled a commandment.  Jesus gave us that solitary commandment as He enacted the New Covenant at the last supper before his crucifixion.  The New Covenant… the New Testament… is sealed with a single commandment… a single covenant vow we are sworn to live out.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

I understand the need take a stand based on how one understands scripture.  I really do!  I wrestle with this myself, on a regular basis.

But when our defense of a particular doctrinal view leads us to condemn and ostracize those who are apparently acting out of a conviction of love toward others… the single commandment by which Christ sealed the New Covenant… the only covenant by which we are redeemed, delivered, sanctified, and promised eternal life… maybe it’s time to reassess our priorities.  At the very least, we should openly admit we don’t have all the answers and other perspectives may have some validity.

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

Your thoughts?

Note: any disrespectful comments or name-calling will be deleted.

Obed’s Inheritance

By Simeon Solomon – Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Public Domain

Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased will not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place; you are witnesses today.” All the people who were in the court, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; and may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem. Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman.”

So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse. The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.  (Ruth 4:10-16)

The previous night, at the threshing floor, Ruth and Boaz conspired together to enact a daring plan to save and restore the family of Elimelech.  Ruth petitioned Boaz to marry her while simultaneously calling on him as kinsman-redeemer to her deceased father-in-law, Elimilech.  Ruth simultaneously appealed to, and expanded, two separate Israelite laws.

It was the role of a kinsman-redeemer to make sure land that had been sold was redeemed so it would remain in the family.  However, the family of Elimilech had ended.  Elimilech had died and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving three childless widows.  No heirs remained for the family of Elimilech.  There was no family for whom the land should be redeemed.  It was an incredibly sad situation, but nothing could be done about it.

The levirate law was a separate law intended to ensure the continuance of a man’s family.  If a married man died leaving no heirs, the deceased’s brother was to marry the widow for the purpose of conceiving an heir to carry on the name of the deceased and inherit his property.  However, the levirate law only applied to brothers, not to more distant relatives.  So the levirate law did not apply to Boaz in this situation.

Moreover, Ruth was barren.  She had previously been married to Mahlon, son of Elimilech and Naomi.  However, Mahlon died, leaving Ruth childless.  There was no reason to believe Ruth could conceive and bear a child, since she had remained barren during the ten years of marriage to Mahlon.

Yet, that night at the threshing floor, Ruth proposed a daring plan to Boaz.  Appealing to Boaz as kinsman-redeemer, she proposed that he marry her for the purpose of bearing and raising an heir to the family of Elimilech.  The next morning, Boaz followed through with Ruth’s plan.  He redeemed the property of Elimilech to be inherited by a son they hoped would be born to Ruth by her marriage to Boaz.  Before the witnesses at the Bethlehem city gates, Boaz declared:

“You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased will not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place; you are witnesses today.”

Ruth and Boaz took a leap of faith by investing themselves in a risky plan with little hope of success.  They set out to save and restore the family of Elimilech… through a not-yet-conceived son to be born of a barren widow.  Everything hinged on the birth of a son to inherit Elimilech’s property and carry on his family name…a hoped for future heir who could redeem the family from the brink of annihilation.

Then God directly intervened.

And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.

God honored their faith.  God honored their sacrificial loving-kindness to Elimilech’s family and to his widow, Naomi.  God enabled Ruth to conceive and bear a son.

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse. The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Obed, the child born to Naomi by her barren widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, conceived by Elimilech’s kinsman, Boaz, saved the family from annihilation!  He was “redeemer” and “restorer of life” to Naomi and to the family of her deceased husband.

And this family line…the lineage of this miracle child, Obed, became the lineage of King David!

Does the story of Obed have a ring of familiarity?  It should.

For it was through this same family lineage…the family of Obed… the family of King David… that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, was born into this world.

Much like his ancestor Obed, Jesus was the hoped-for future heir… future redeemer… future restorer of life.

In the Garden of Eden, God promised a “seed of woman” who would redeem mankind.  Later, God promised Abraham all nations would be blessed through his seed; through his seed God would provide a sacrifice of redemption; and through his seed a new covenant with God would be enacted.

Jesus… Messiah… promised heir… promised redeemer… promised restorer of life… was born of a Virgin.  Much like his ancestor Obed, his conception was through God’s direct intervention in impossible circumstances.

Like Obed, the inheritance of Jesus was not through his biological father, but through his adopted father, Joseph.  Through Joseph, Jesus is heir to the throne of David, heir to Abraham’s inheritance, and heir to Adam’s covenant with God as ruler over all the earth.

The book of Ruth begins with death… the death of Elimilech and his sons… the death of the family of Elimilech.  The book continues as a story of whole-hearted covenant faithfulness… of going above and beyond covenant obligations to bless a covenant partner… of believing God can and will do the miraculous to redeem and restore life.  The book ends with the birth of a miracle baby with an assured inheritance to restore life to a dead family.

The book of Ruth is the gospel message in a nutshell.

The Bible begins with life and creation, but quickly moves to loss and death… death of the family of Adam… cut off from their godly inheritance through a treacherous covenant with sin and death.  The Old Testament continues as a story of God’s whole-hearted covenant faithfulness… of going above and beyond covenant obligations to bless His covenant partners… of promises of a coming Messiah who will redeem, deliver, and restore life to Adam’s heirs.  The New Testament opens with a recitation of the lineage of Jesus Christ… with the birth of a miracle baby with an assured inheritance over all the earth to restore life to all who believe in Him.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ!

[For a more in-depth study of the book of Ruth, I recommend reading The Gospel of Ruth, by Carolyn Custis James]

A Montana Ranching Adventure

While planning our trip to the TX Ranch, in Montana, I experienced difficulty explaining it to other people.  Part of the problem was I had never actually visited the TX Ranch, myself.  My expectations were based on second-hand information through friends and websites.  The bigger problem, though, was in trying to explain the unique experience offered by the TX Ranch.

“Dawson and I are planning a trip to a cattle ranch in Montana, where we will spend a full week working cattle from horseback,” I would say.

This was typically met with a response such as, “Oh, like the movie, City Slickers!”

“Well… sort of…  except hopefully a bit less touristy and a bit more real commercial working cattle ranch.”

“So, like a dude ranch?”

“No, not really.  I mean, yeah, it is a ranch with paying guests.  However, dude ranch usually means sleeping in air-conditioned cabins and going on guided trail rides.  That’s not what this ranch is about.”

So… having just experienced my first visit to the TX Ranch, I will try to describe what it is like.

The TX Ranch is located deep in the Pryor Mountains of southern Montana and northern Wyoming.  I had understood it to be located about a two-hour drive south of Billings.  I did not realize a full hour of that drive is off paved roads, mostly on pasture tracks winding back through the mountain meadows, up and down steep grades, crossing creeks in deep gullies, and stopping every mile or so to open and close gates.

The scenery is stunning.  Each curve and hill reveals yet another scenic panorama of soaring mountains slashed by deep ravines and steep valleys.  The spectacular Pryor Mountain scenery is a continual backdrop to every activity at the ranch.

The camp accommodations are quite rustic.  We slept on cots in tents.  We had no electricity or internet access.  Our only water supply was from a nearby mountain spring with a gravity-fed water line directing water into a plastic tank for our use.  Toilets consisted of outhouses.  Showers were accomplished via camp shower bags, whose temperature depended on the amount of sunshine on a given day.

The kitchen and dining hall are in a log cabin lighted by Coleman lanterns.  Meals are prepared on a gas stove fueled by propane bottles of an appropriate size to haul in the back of a pickup truck.

Overall, the accommodations are what one might expect at a working cow camp… which is exactly what this is.  That should be the first clue as to what the week was like.

We all signed on to spend a week experiencing the life of a historic western cowboy and the TX Ranch did not disappoint.  The owner, Hip, treated us like the latest group of newly hired employees.  Each morning after breakfast and saddling horses, Hip discussed the plans for the day.  Then we would split into smaller groups assigned to different areas and ride out to gather cattle.

The first day, we gathered cattle out near the horse pasture and pushed them to a hilltop where they were easy to hold.  There we roped, ear tagged, castrated, and inoculated the calves.

The second day, we wrangled horses across a 15 mile drive through rugged country to the Deadman Camp in preparation for the following day.

The third day, we were dropped off at Deadman, where we each saddled a fresh horse (because our first horse had been ridden hard for two days in a row).  We then proceeded to gather cows from the Deadman area to drive back to a pasture closer to our camp at Lone Wolf.  That was a long, hard, dusty workday.  We worked 12 hours, with 11 hours in the saddle, gathering cows in mountainous terrain with dense brush filling the draws and creek banks.

On the ride back, we paused at each gate to cut the herd, making sure only TX-owned cattle passed through the gate.  I really enjoyed watching Hip and his daughter Des cut the herd.  They were amazing!  They each sized up at a glance which cows belonged.  Then, with a subtle side-step of their horse to leave an opening while applying light pressure, they would signal three or four cows to abandon the herd and walk away.  A slight shift the other direction and another cow walked off.  It was truly poetry in motion watching the two of them work together to cut out all cattle not belonging to the TX herd.

The fourth day, we made another gather of cattle near Star Hill, including those we brought back from Deadman the previous day.  Then we roped, branded, ear-tagged, castrated, and inoculated the calves.

The fifth day, we gathered cows near the Lone Wolf Camp and nearby pastures and creeks.  We used the Lone Wolf corrals to sort out all the calves, then cut the calves to only those who were not ear tagged.  Then we worked the calves in the corral, which allowed everyone who wanted an opportunity to rope calves from the ground, without the added stress of managing reins and handling a horse while dallying to the saddle horn.

The sixth day was another gather, followed by working the calves, followed by moving the herd north to another pasture.

In six days, I rode four different horses.  Each horse was a solid mount willing to ride up steep hills, down into deep ravines, and through thick brush to flush out cattle.  Each horse worked hard all day, with enough energy to finish out the day pushing, holding or roping cattle.

Some days included a lot of dismounting and remounting to stoop down walking thru the thick brush to flush cows out.  I learned to always position the horse with the off side downhill for easier dismounting and remounting.  All the horses ground-tied fairly well.  My preferred mount, 773, stayed exactly where I dropped his reins, while I ran yelling thru the brush to flush cows. He then stood patiently while I returned to remount and ride off through thick brush to push the cattle into the growing herd.

I learned to ride with split reins… something I previously never felt comfortable doing.  A week of riding with split reins taught me they are no big deal.  Plus, they come in pretty handy for swatting a contrary cow on the rump.

The first day, when Hip asked for volunteers to rope, I volunteered.  As a result, I was part of the roping team for the remainder of the week.  Although I was not very proficient, I did manage to rope about fifteen calves across the week.

Those of you who have been tracking my personal story will recall learning to rope has been a goal of mine for a few years, now… since before cancer surgery took a major nerve in my right shoulder… limiting both strength and motion in that shoulder… as well as loss of muscle memory.  So… bear with me as I do my happy dance for a moment.

I roped calves!!!  Live calves… from horseback!!!   🙂

Dawson also roped… much more proficiently than I did.  In fact, Dawson was pretty much our top roper.  His experience competitively roping in the arena definitely proved useful.  However, he learned roping in the middle of a herd is a lot different from competitive arena roping.

I also gained confidence trotting, loping, and galloping across all sorts of rough terrain.  While gathering cattle, it was easy to forget to worry about my balance or the horse’s response, as both the horse and I focused on getting the job done.

Perhaps the best (and least expected) part of the trip was the people.  Both the TX crew and our fellow guests were wonderful!  Everyone worked hard, joked, teased, laughed, helped, and had a good time.  There is something about spending hours working hard together, backing each other up, followed by relaxing, eating and laughing together, that helps develop a close-knit team.

Thinking back across the week, several humorous moments stand out… mostly having to do with my lack of understanding.

For example, there was the long, hard, dusty day we brought cattle back from Deadman.  We were pushing the cattle along a trail with a poorly maintained barb-wire fence on the right side.  Several cows kept making a run to escape through holes in the fence and I was working hard to keep them going down the trail with the rest of the herd.  Suddenly two cows and a calf made a run for a spot where the fence was lying on the ground.  I pushed my horse into a lope, trying to reach the hole in time to turn them back, but they made it through the fence.  I tried to pursue them, but my horse hesitated at crossing the fence.  When I pushed him, he tentatively started to cross the low wire, then pulled back, momentarily snagging a front shoe on a wire.  By the time I got my horse settled and extracted from the fence wire, the cows were long gone into the brush along the creek.

Frustrated, I glanced toward Hip for direction.  “Why don’t you ride ahead to the next gate and make sure the cows go through the gate?” Hip suggested.

I rode ahead with Des following.  About 100 yards down the trail, we came to an unobstructed gap at a fence corner.  “Is this the gate Hip was talking about?” I asked Des.

“Yeah, just make sure the cows don’t wander off down that trail to the left,” Des responded.

“Do you mean we’re pushing the cows through a gate into the very pasture I’ve been working so hard to keep them out of?”

“Yep!” Des quipped, with a wry grin and a nod.

“Dang!  I was working my butt off keeping them on this side of that fence!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, you were!” laughed Des.

Later that evening, after dinner, I told Hip, “I’m confident I gave you 110% effort all day today.  However, I only had about 40% understanding what I was supposed to be doing.  Which means I was only about 44% effective and about 66% counterproductive.”

“That’s great!” Hip responded, “Joe, if I had a half-dozen riders all 44% effective, we could get a lot done in a day.”

I fell asleep pondering these events.  As I drifted off to sleep, Ray Hunt’s words regarding horsemanship came to mind, “Set it up and let it happen.”  Ray’s approach to horsemanship centered around setting the horse up for success, then letting him figure it out for himself.

As the week progressed, I realized Hip and Des seem to follow this model in pretty much everything they do.  Hip gave us only a bare minimum of verbal direction on what we were to do each day.  Then he left us to figure out the rest through a combination of watching and doing.

The best part of this approach is the freedom allowed each of us to try new things.

When I set out to gather a couple of cows spotted on a mountaintop, nobody called me back.  Nobody told me I would never be able to gather those cows and get them back in the herd on my own.  I was allowed to explore, try, and figure things out for myself.  As a result, I grew confident trying new things and riding rough trails… trusting my horse to go where I asked then get me safely back.

Sometimes it worked out as planned and sometimes it didn’t.  Either way, I had fun trying!

Isn’t that similar to the approach God uses in directing our steps?  He tends to give us a bare minimum of direction, then grant us the freedom to enjoy figuring out the specifics for ourselves.

When God told Abraham to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans and travel to the land of Canaan, He didn’t provide a whole lot of specifics.  Abraham spent the rest of his life wandering around Canaan, trying to figure what he was to do next, while trusting God to fulfill His promises and provide what was needed.  Sometimes Abraham made wise choices and sometimes he didn’t.  Either way, he gained a deeper relationship with God based on a higher level of trust.

When God told Moses to go ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, He did not provide many specifics.  Moses had to act in faith with a bare minimum of understanding of the plan.  Then God provided further direction as needed.  By the end of his life, Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, through 40 years of living in the desert, and had gained a much deeper relationship with God and a greater reliance on God’s trustworthiness.

I see God working in our lives today in much the same manner.  God tends to give us a bare minimum of details in asking us to step out in faith.  Many times the details are left for us to figure out for ourselves.  Sometimes we make wise choices and sometimes we don’t.  Either way, we can trust God to work through our meager faith to work His will and purpose in our lives while drawing us into deeper relationship with Himself.

Listening in Distress

The Morning View from My Front Porch

It is a beautiful mid-July Saturday morning in south Arkansas!  The sun is bright.  The grass is green. The dew is still on the grass. A cool refreshing breeze stirs the leaf-covered tree limbs, and the oppressive heat has not yet set in for the day.

This week has been a series of peaceful early morning rides before work. Knockout and I have ridden out in the cool dawn hours to check cows before the sweltering daily heat sets in…and before I have to leave for work.

Knockout has been super calm and responsive with everything I’ve asked of him.  The cattle have all been calm and sleepily serene.  All has been quiet and peaceful.

This morning was different, though…

This morning, Knockout was reluctant and distracted from the start.   He balked as I led him out of the pasture, so we took a few minutes to regain his attention.

Coming through the pasture gate, Knockout was distracted and spooky. So we spent a few more minutes focusing attention.

Then our dog started barking and Knockout totally spooked sideways at what turned out to be a stray cat hiding in our fence line.

As I groomed, saddled and mounted, Knockout seemed calm. We rode out to check cattle and all was going peacefully until a group of calves spooked and loudly ran up into the middle of the herd. That caused Knockout some concern, but I convinced him to calmly continue walking forward as the calves rushed around and past us.

We checked all the cows in the back pasture, but were missing a few that I saw over in the front pasture. As we headed toward the open gate to the front pasture, something spooked the whole herd and they all started bawling and running toward the front pasture.

With a bawling running herd of cattle on our heels, Knockout was quite nervous, but we walked (on a loose rein) through the gate and down to the nearby creek. As we crossed the creek, cows surged up behind us from both sides, and Knockout bounded up the creek bank just ahead of them.  Safely across the creek, I guided Knockout to the side, where I turned him to stand and watch the cattle file past us, as they slowed to a single-file procession and began grazing.

Once all the cattle were accounted for, we checked fence and repaired a loose wire before returning to the arena, where we walked a couple of barrel patterns on a loose rein before calling it good for the day.

It was a good ride!  🙂

As I unsaddled, I realized how my expectations in a horse have changed.  I used to think the perfect horse was one that would never spook at anything and would remain calm no matter what happened.

Now, I expect a horse to sometimes get disturbed at stuff. What I want is for him to still listen to me even when he’s disturbed.

This morning’s ride was every bit as enjoyable to me as the preceding uneventful rides.  Knockout’s distress at unexpected events was not a setback.  It was just an event to be handled…and he handled it well…listening to me and following my cues.

Isn’t that how our relationship should be with God?

Throughout scripture, angels, prophets, and apostles frequently encourage God’s people to not be afraid.  Jesus, Himself, told us:

For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span? If then you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about other matters? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you? You men of little faith! And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:22-32)

I’ve heard some people label worry and fear as sinful… an obvious lack of faith.  I’ve heard people label as commandments the many scriptural calls to not be afraid.  I have even heard pastors preach against using anxiety medications, saying people just need to trust God and have faith.

I don’t read these passages that way at all!

I see these calls to not be afraid, not as commandments, but rather as encouragement… much as I tell Knockout, “easy boy” when he acts distressed.  I don’t get angry with Knockout for being afraid.  Rather I seek to encourage and comfort him in his fear.

I comfort Knockout in his distress by calmly giving him something to do.  I may ask him to calmly walk forward.  I may ask him to turn and stop.  I may ask him to walk a small circle.

See, what I’m doing is helping Knockout remember to listen to me in the midst of his distress… and as he listens to me and responds to my cues, he becomes less distressed.

I don’t look at Knockout’s fear as a failure on his part.  I look at it as an opportunity for us to work on clear communication and direction during his distress.

I believe the same is true of my relationship with God.  He doesn’t expect me to never be distressed.  He simply wants me to listen to Him and follow His prompts in the midst of my distress.

After all, He is the Master Horseman!

In the Valley

This past year, Knockout and I have checked cows together fairly regularly. Although we are both far from expert, I have begun to think of Knockout as well on his way to becoming a good cow horse. He is calm checking the herd. He has good instincts for how to behave around cows. He absolutely loves working with me to move cows from one pasture to another. He has the breeding, the athleticism, and the instincts needed to become a good cow horse. He just needs a little more experience.

The spring calving season has provided more experience than anticipated, however.

Initially, Knockout was curious and friendly toward the young calves. He would approach to sniff and touch noses. However, when a couple of calves responded by bawling loudly and running to their very protective mother cows, Knockout learned to be a bit more cautious in his approach.

As calving season progressed, I added ear tagging tools to the fencing tools I already carried in my cantle bag. While checking cattle, if we find a new baby calf, I dismount, drop the rein to ground-tie Knockout, retrieve a tag and tools from the cantle bag, and tag the calf. Then I enter the tag number, date, sex, color, etc. in my i-phone spreadsheet, before remounting and continuing.

It’s a pretty good system that lets me enjoy working from horseback while exposing Knockout to more things.

Most of the time, the calf is fairly recently born and I’m able to do all this without much fuss. Once in a while, we find a calf that’s a couple of days old, a lot faster on its feet, and more cautious of humans. When that happens, there may be more fuss and the calf is likely to start bawling. If the calf gets bothered and noisy, so does the mama cow. Knockout responds, accordingly, by also getting pretty bothered.

As the season has progressed, I’ve noticed Knockout becoming more and more evasive of young calves…and downright jittery if a calf starts bawling. In other words, my promising young cow horse has begun developing a fear of noisy calves…not a good thing in a cow horse.

Two weeks ago, this negative trend reached a new valley of concern. I ground-tied Knockout to tag another calf…one I knew was a couple of days old and whose mother was very skittish and protective…but we had a job to do. So, I grabbed the ear tag tools and started toward the calf. The calf stood still until I tried to grab it. Then he bawled loudly, escaped my grasp, and ran straight toward Knockout…followed by his mama cow. Knockout completely panicked, fled the scene, and has acted downright paranoid of calves ever since.

So, the last week or so I have begun intentionally working with Knockout to overcome his fear and learn, once again, to relax walking around the cattle.

One of the ways I have addressed this is by trying to make the cattle herd a place of comfort and rest. For example, a couple of days ago we rode out to check cattle. We approached three cows with their calves and I cued a whoa to look the cows over and check their ear tag numbers off my list. Knockout promptly stopped on cue…but then immediately started moving again. I checked his movement and he responded correctly…then started to move again with more energy. Since he was obviously too tense to feel confident standing still, I went ahead and let him move the direction he wanted to go…then promptly put him into a turn. We spent about two minutes doing vigorous turns and figure-eights before ending with a right spin. I walked Knockout back to the same spot and cued another stop. He stood calmly while I checked the cows and logged them in my spreadsheet. Then we moved to the next group of cows.

This process was repeated several times throughout the ride. Sometimes Knockout would stop and stand calm just fine. However, if a calf bawled, or a bull acted bullish, or a cow approached from his hindquarters, Knockout would get antsy and start moving. So, we would go right back to circles, figure-eights, and spins before returning to the same spot to cue another whoa and stand relaxed.

All this movement is intended to accomplish several things. First it addressed Knockout’s felt need to move while keeping him from fleeing the scene. Second, it gave him a chance to think. While we were calmly circling and spinning, he was able to see the cattle calmly continuing to eat and see they were no real threat. Third, he was learning that moving off without a cue was a whole lot more work than standing calmly like I asked. In other words, standing still in the middle of the cattle herd was a whole lot calmer and more comfortable than moving off.

And this is the fundamental goal…to help Knockout see the cattle herd as a place of comfort rather than a place of fear.

Once we had checked the whole herd, I rode Knockout into the middle of the herd, cued a stop and dismounted. I dropped the rein to ground-tie him and loosened his cinch so he could relax. Then I opened the cantle bag where I retrieved his halter and a zip-lock bag of feed. I haltered Knockout, gave him a handful of feed to nibble, then poured the rest of the feed on the ground for him to eat.

As I was retrieving the halter and grain from the cantle bag, something struck me as very familiar…almost a deja vu moment. The feeling of familiarity nagged at my subconscious as I haltered and fed Knockout. Knockout calmly ate as we watched a storm approaching, and I continued to turn it over in my mind.

Then I realized. I had just reenacted a portion of Psalm 23 with Knockout. By guiding Knockout’s path during his distress, then providing comfort and food in the middle of the scary cattle herd, I was doing the same thing King David described God doing with us.

A while back, I wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 23, from the perspective of a horseman rather than a shepherd. Below is my paraphrase of David’s psalm:

The Lord is My Horseman

The Lord is my Horseman;
I have everything I need.
He provides me with safe, lush, green pastures.
He directs my steps to places with plenty of fresh water.
He restores my sense of peace, safety and comfort.
He leads and directs my steps in the paths of His choice
To accomplish His purpose in my life.

Yes, even if I walk through a dark, narrow, gloomy valley full of dreaded spooks,
I will not be afraid, because You are with me.
Your seat in the saddle and Your grip on the reins comfort me and give me confidence.
You feed me fresh grain and nutritious hay in the middle of scary environments.
You groom me, caring for my coat, mane, tail, and hooves.
My water trough stays full to overflowing.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will live in the pastures of The Lord, forever.

Isn’t God good to us?