This is why I, Paul, am in jail for Christ, having taken up for you outsiders, so-called. I take it that you are familiar with the part I was given in God’s plan for including everybody. I got the inside story on this from God himself, as I just wrote to you in brief.
As you read over what I have written to you, you’ll be able to see for yourself into the mystery of Christ. None of our ancestors understood this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets of this new order. The mystery is that people who never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is welcoming and accessible to everyone, across the board.
This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling all the details. When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities.
And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. My task is to bring out into the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God’s is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!
All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. When we trust in him we’re free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go. So don’t let my present trouble on your behalf get you down. Be proud!
My response is to get on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit — not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength — that Christ will live in you as you open the door and let him in. And I ask him that with both feet firmly planted in love, you’ll be able to take in with all the followers of Jesus, the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full tin the fullness of God.
God can do anything, you know — far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.
Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus! Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!
Bend an ear, GOD; answer me. I’m one miserable wretch! Keep me safe — haven’t I lived a good life? Help you servant — I’m depending on you! You’re my God; have mercy on me. I count on you from morning to night. Give your servant a happy life; I put myself in your hands! You’re well-known as good and forgiving, bighearted to all who ask for help. Pay attention, GOD, to my prayer; bend down and listen to my cry for help. Every time I’m in trouble I call on you, confident that you’ll answer.
There’s no one quite like you among the gods, O Lord, and nothing to compare with your works. All the nations you made are on their way, ready to give honor to you, O Lord, ready to put your beauty on display, parading your greatness, and the great things you do — God, you’re the one, there’s no one but you!
Train me, GOD, to walk straight; then I’ll follow your true path. Put me together, one heart and mind; then, undivided, I’ll worship in joyful fear. From the bottom of my heart I thank you, dear Lord; I’ve never kept secret what you’re up to. You’ve always been great toward me — what love! You snatched me from the brink of disaster! God, these bullies have reared their heads! A gang of thugs is after me — and they don’t care a thing about you. But you, O God, are both tender and kind, not easily angered, immense in love, and you never, never quit. So look me in the eye and show kindness, give your servant the strength to go on, save your dear, dear child! Make a show of how you love me so the bullies who hate me will stand there slack-jawed, as you, GOD, gently and powerfully pull me back on my feet.
Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name…Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you, before their eyes…
This is what the sovereign LORD says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns and the ruins will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be cultivated instead of laying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. They will say, ‘This land that was laid waste has become like the Garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the LORD have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.’
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Once again I will yield to Israel’s plea and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as the flocks for offering in Jerusalem during her appointed festivals. So will the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the LORD.
Ezekiel 36:22-23, 33-37
I have always found the verses from Ezekiel 36 to be intriguing, especially verses 24-30 where God promises to put His Spirit within His people, bringing a heart of flesh to replace their heart of stone. Although, in reading it, I never thought a whole lot about why God would perform these things — as far as I was concerned it just sounded really neat, especially if God would do it to some people who really needed it!
I believed that help, especially the spiritual kind was something that needed to begin on the outside, and eventually seep in. I didn’t care so much about the truth or compliance with God’s will as I did my own interests. I believed more in change that would make me feel better about what I could see (in my circumstances and behavior) than anything else. God’s ends used to seem completely mysterious to me, while the means to accomplish them were more devastating than delightful. God seemed to be too bent on ignoring my problems and needs than conforming to the image of a caring God that I worshiped.
Though I was often very aware of my needs, and empty places in my heart and life, dependence on God was largely an option I felt excluded from enjoying. Unless I was a perfect Christian, and unless my life could faultlessly prove that God was good — always making everything just right, I wasn’t sure He could handle the mess He would get with me. I worried that He didn’t really have a good plan for me, He just had a passable plan. He was insisting I live with less because He obviously could not give me more.
I had a hard time thinking of myself as fitting in the general mold of believers. I had handicaps, secrets and faults. I never really relied on God to transcend any of these weaknesses because their presence seemed to prove His own weakness. How could I trust a God who had not been good or mighty enough to prevent my one chance at life from being messed up? Either He was faithful, or He wasn’t.
Instead, I would focus on being completely dependent on myself. I would fix what frightened me, and do something to eliminate all the confusion I hated having to live with. Surely God did not mean for me to be free from those… So, I would be my own hero — I didn’t need God; especially a God who did not really want me.
I have always wanted more to life, though I’ve always been frustrated by the obstacles to getting there. How could I get rid of enough of what I didn’t like to have the perfect life I wanted? From what I heard, God could help me with this, but for some reason He didn’t seem so keen on helping me along. There was so much to do, but where was He when the work needed to be done? God definitely seemed like a slacker, who could never really be true to what His Word espoused of His character. So, I felt very alone, but still confident in what I could achieve if I only put my mind to it.
It’s funny, now when I look back at myself, I really see no evidence that I was getting what I wanted. In fact, though I was working solely for myself, the more I pressed on, the harder it got to believe that I was really doing a good job at keeping myself satisfied and feeling on top. I can thank God now, that I ran out on myself; I got to a point where I could no longer feverishly work for a transformation that just wasn’t happening. I gave up; I came to Jesus exhausted and depressed — having nothing and still hoping for everything.
That to me was the scariest thing — letting God be in control. As far as I knew, that was nothing short of suicide, and I was too determined to live to be acting suicidal. (Well, that’s what I thought. Thank goodness God can change our minds and make us willing to ask for what is actually the best thing for us!)
Then God did something I never would have expected: He started giving me things that I really wanted, and never could have made happen on my own. For the first time in my life I really felt indebted to Him. I had what I did not deserve, had not even asked for, and God must want some kind of return from me. What was I going to do with such an imbalance?
Being someone who largely depended only on what I could manufacture on my own, thinking about having more than I could personally account for made me feel crazy and confused. I rationalized that I should be thankful and believe that was enough, but, I had nothing significant to offer in that respect. I was too busy being upset that God hadn’t let me have the chance to earn His blessings so I could truly feel good about myself. Now I just felt empty. God was good now, as far as I was concerned, but what was I?
Worst of all, despite my guilt, I couldn’t even fake gratitude! And that bothered me. I knew that God knew all the garbage that I was thinking about Him, and He wouldn’t be fooled by a few words of flowery thanksgiving. And that was all that I was good at — sentiment with no substance. How could I fool God by pretending that I believed He was anything of what He claimed to be? I was at a divine impasse: What did God want from me?
Gently He began to make it clear to me what He wanted: Humbling me by letting me see how far I was from what He wanted, and inclining my heart to desire real change. I began to know that God was with me, and that He wanted something for me, as well as from me. He gave me prayer after prayer to pray, and the heart to offer them, as He assured me that He would show me more of Himself soon.
Sooner than I expected, God “moved in”, and began His work of turning my life upside down in a hurry. I woke up one morning not feeling well at all. I had an appointment already schedule for that morning, but it was a struggle to get out of bed and get ready. Usually I am a morning person, abounding with energy, but with no prior indication of illness, I woke up knowing I wasn’t well.
I left the house telling myself as soon as I got home I was going to get back to bed and “sleep for a week”. Well, that turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. When I returned home, I went straight to bed. I felt like I didn’t care about anything other than resting, and being still for a long time. Through the interception of my physical health, I felt secure in the fact that God was acting to restore my spiritual health.
Here I am, all of me, finally…
Those words from David Crowder’s song “Wholly Yours” describe better than I can, the position of my heart at that point. God had done something in my heart to bring me to Him in full submission, even with the aid of physical weakness. I didn’t care what God did with me, so long as He did something; so long as I knew He was there walking me through it, and drawing me closer to Him in the process.
On that road God has given me the singular pleasure of knowing Him. I know that many of us say that in many seasons of our lives, yet there comes a point for each of us when the phrase takes on new meaning. It is not just knowing Him, but needing to know Him; not just understanding more about Him, but having faith in His ability to meet our needs on the most basic level. He becomes life to us, even as the Word becomes the words we can’t articulate and the desires we can’t create.
Please hear my encouragement: There is nowhere that God cannot meet you. He has met me everywhere I’ve been, even in remote places that I couldn’t have imagined I would ever see. God is a Savior who made Himself a friend of sinners, and this continues to be true of Him today. As long as we sin He will be there to save…If you’re willing.