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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tested to the Edge of Faith; Tethered to a Short Leash.

I wonder if you've experienced what I'm about to tell you?

Since we moved to Northampton, my faith has undergone frequent and substantial testing. Our task has been no easy road from the git, as I've written about before. When I undergo such testing a pattern of questions comes into view for me:

  • Will you really believe I am sufficient for your lack or what you still need?
  • Will you trust me anyway?
  • Will you follow me anyway? 

Or perhaps the most sobering, and frankly, frightening:

  • Will you follow me no matter what even if you go down in flames or lose everything?
Recently, as I've thought about  what I've trudged through, and still experience in spades, I pictured myself standing near the edge of a well-marked boundary line demarcating how far my faith actually extends. On the other side of the line is a ledge which drops off into an indistinguishable abyss. There's nothing on the other side of the ledge but drop-off into murk and emptiness. As I look at the scene, there's no sense of foreboding. The line merely accurately defines where my faith ends. I'm not able to hold fast to faith because my burden is too heavy, the difficulties are too great and persisting, or I've seen no progress or change for way too much time. So as I stand there, in the picture it appears I've reached my limit and need help to go any further.

I've come to realize since settling into the Pioneer Valley that the boundary line will move as if by some "unseen Hand" and consequently, the edge of my faith extends as if attached to the line. The reality seems I need times to stand and accept  the truth of the faith-boundary line when it appears to there's no way forward, or it feels like the bottom is soon to fall out. During those uncomfortable hesitations I remind God, sometimes vehemently, that we're in deep, and if he doesn't do something, into the abyss we'll surely tumble pell-mell. Those times cause me to really put it on the line with him, acknowledging my sheer, unending dependence on his grace and power to actually get any of this Kingdom stuff done from my side of the table.

I'll bet you've had similar faith wrestlings to the edge. Reality affirms faith untested is faith dormant or flaccid. Faith tested to the very edge is faith on the verge of deepening and extending, or tragically for some, cast off as a cruel joke,  the silly wishful thinking of children who'll soon grow up to "smell the coffee" of the wind of your own making.

It turns out as long as I'm trying to follow Jesus with any integrity or resolve, I'll be brought to the edge of faith repeatedly. You will too.

"For you know that the testing of your faith (not perhaps if your faith might be tested) produces steadfastness." James 1: 3


"So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1: 7


"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes (not if it comes to an unfortunate few) upon you to test you, as though something strange (This is the normal Christian life, dude) were happening to you." 1 Peter 4:12

Faith has to be repeatedly proved and tempered in difficulty at the edge. Through faith tested, we have the chance to learn to withstand adversity with courage and flexibility -- two gifts of priceless worth. Acquiring those character essentials helps us not be easily hamstrung by sometimes unrelenting, even devastating hardship. The tempering of faith takes you and me beyond lip service, platitudes, and psychologically soothing good intentions. Resilience can be trained into us when our thin faith is stretched taut. If knocked to the ground, we find an unexpected capacity to spring back. When faith is drawn into the empty, arid places of life, it's graciously offered the chance to learn persevering, a steely, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other attitude of the surrendered will, or a stubborn waiting with rooted expectation God will bring water and oasis, as he sees fit.

There are treasures of character (a treasure in itself), to be uncovered in life's testing grounds of faith.
 
From 40 years of trying to walk out my faith in the real world of multiple edges, I also understand God chastens and disciplines all of us at critical points in our lives - even if we're not particularly aware we've reached a critical character juncture at the time. I also see the degree of his graceful severity changes depending on how much spiritual darkness or danger we might blunder or bull our way into. He is loving and good to those he loves, does not give us what our sins deserve, is slow and anger and quick to forgive, but he also disciplines his beloved to make each of us fit for eventually bearing the weight of glory.

So sometimes God tethers you and me to a short leash for a period so we can we learn to discern and acquire wisdom -- one of the true headwaters of life to the full. When so tethered, we simply can't wander off no matter how much we strain against the leash. We're stuck to where we have to pay attention.

For example, since mid-summer, and with increasing frequency, I've found myself having to clean up messes I made in relationships with other people, often because of what I've said or neglected to follow through on. In one acutely painful instance, I came unhinged publicly and wounded a dear friend of mine who did nothing to invite my 25-second apoplectic rant. I'd not listened to the subtle cues that something worrisome was building up in me in the preceding days, and because I did not address the dissonance inside, I and my friend paid a high price: me because I neglected what God wanted to face, and he because he just sadly happened to be in my vitriolic line of fire.

The above is an egregious instance of  me not doing some critical, internal character work when the Holy Spirit prompted  . . . and more than once I might add. It seems always a matter of character in my case and has to do, as I said earlier,  with what I say and/or neglect to do. Wounding my friend was the extreme reason why I'm tethered these days. I tend not to breathe fire on people at the drop of a hat. But, I think it also it points to a lack of charity in all my dealings with others. I don't carefully and wisely consider my words or nodding of my head in agreement when I've not weighed the implications of what I'm communicating by them, even when in a simple conversation. I send mixed messages and people get confused, frustrated or hurt by me. God wants more circumspection and prayer from me, not impulsive words even if well-meaning.

Follow-through on things which intimidate or summon anxiety in me is another character flaw God has tethered me to facing. I have a post-graduate degree in procrastination around stuff that spooks me. So these days this leash is uncomfortably short. He's not giving me much latitude. He wants change toward integrity from me. In other words, I have to acknowledge my failure soon after I fail. He wants my "yes" then follow-through;" and my "no" when I disagree or will not do it. He hates when I appear to go along with something I've no real intention of supporting or undertaking. It's a habit he's been checking me quite regularly.

While being tethered to a short-leash restricts for sure, and sometimes uncomfortable, I'm convinced in God's hands it works to free people to integrity and authenticity - an irony of grace. Good things come from it. Godly character does form as we learn to surrender, and live within the limits he's ordained for spiritual formation and training in character.

I'm not sure how long I'll be tethered in the manner I described, that's the Father's privilege, but I do know I need to grow in character regarding these weaknesses. He's being plain with me about how he wants my behavior to change. I need his grace, but my will is engaged.

That's a good start.


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