The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

The Trenches of Refinement: Too Upset to Praise

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AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Praising God through the hard times sounds so right, doesn’t it? After all, there’s no joy without gratitude. So if you want to beat those refinement blues, just crank up the worship tunes and start singing your heart out. If you currently find this to be an effective strategy in your life, then you can stop reading this post. But if worship lyrics are putting a sour taste in your mouth and you just can’t gag them out with any kind of sincerity, then this post is for you.

The shocking reality is that there are times in life when God does NOT want you to praise Him. To help you get there, He has many ways of pulling your praise-alluyah plug. Suddenly you find yourself feeling like a major hypocrite when you’re standing in church mouthing a bunch of words to God that you really do not mean. “O, Jesus, how I love You,” the congregation sings while your heart is filled with seething anger. “O God, Your faithfulness to me is amazing,” they sing, but all you can think about is how abandoned you feel. And then there’s our personal favorite: “Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Hm. How many mornings have you woken up in the same miserable mess that you’re in right now? No, joy doesn’t always come in the morning, nor is going to sleep guaranteed to be a blessed relief. Sometimes we just want to chuck the worship songs and join our brother Job on his ash heap of misery.

“When I lie down I think: When will I get up? But the evening drags on endlessly, and I toss and turn until dawn.” (Job 7:4)

“When I say: My bed will comfort me, and my couch will ease my complaint, then You frighten me with dreams, and terrify me with visions, so that I prefer strangling and death rather than this life of mine. I give up! I will not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath.

What is mankind that You make so much of him, that You give him so much attention, that You examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will You never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to You, You who see everything we do? Why have You made me Your target? Have I become a burden to You?” (Job 7:17-20)

If reading through these passages causes a furious “YES!” to well up from the core of your being, then clearly you are not equipped to praise God at this time. Clearly He has boxed you into some dark and bitter corner the same way that He boxed our brother Job in thousands of years ago. God does these things on purpose, you know, and He does them to hardcore Christians. Job was all out dedicated to Yahweh—the only God that he knew. Today you can be all out dedicated to all three of your Creators—Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—yet still end up in a position where you are choking on hate for all three of Them. Naturally Satan wants you to panic that you’ve crossed some point of no return when you finally own just how fed up you are with God and His program. Naturally other Christians are going to slap you with the “rebel” label. This is a very natural and necessary defense on their part. If they believe your claims about sincerely seeking God, then what does that make God? And if God would do this to you, what’s to stop Him from doing it to them? No, Christians who haven’t been where you are cannot afford to concede that this is a valid place to be. They need to believe that you got yourself here through some hardcore rebellion and unconfessed sins that you’re just not owning up to. But of course you know that this isn’t true, and God knows it as well. You’re here because He wants you here, and as long He keeps you here, you’re not going to be able to dredge up any sincere praise.

God has no use for fake. Honesty is what He’s after, and honesty is what He wants from you in every stage of the journey. Hating His guts, thinking He’s a monster, deciding He is cruel—these are all very valid places to be. It’s in these pit holes of pain and anger that we really let God have it with both barrels: hurling accusations at Him and throwing out all the pretty platitudes we clung to before. We join Job in saying that the way God runs His game down here isn’t right or fair. He blesses those who do evil while He kicks His loyal friends in the face. He is an Ogre with unstoppable power who gets off on tormenting those who can’t fight back. No, we aren’t going to love that. We can’t. God has wired us to find such a dark image of Him utterly repulsive. We can’t trust or love a God who we honestly don’t believe is good. Sure, we can obey Him out of fear of being punished, but that certainly is a lousy way to live. We weren’t designed to thrive in a state of cowering fear. For us, everything is anchored on confidence in God’s goodness—our peace, our hope, our sense of purpose in life. Once we lose that, we lose everything, and in certain stages of refinement, confidence in God’s goodness is the thing that He rips away from us.

Now we get to that ten dollar question: WHY?! What is the point in God totally destroying our confidence in Him? Why does He morph into some terrifying Monster? Why does He go into death silence mode and refuse to utter one peep of encouragement to us? As usual, the answer is nonsensical: God destroys our trust in Him in order to make it stronger.

If you have five dollars in your pocket, and all of your friends only have a nickel, you feel pretty rich by comparison. In the same way, when you’re cruising along with God and the warm fuzzies are flowing from Him to you in the form of encouraging words, positive imagery, and random surges of soul joy, you think your bond with Him must be pretty strong. Well, a paper wall that’s painted with a wood grain pattern can look as strong as wood until you go to lean on it. You see, your assessment of your relationship with God and His are very different. What you called solid, He called weak but full of potential. When we have nothing to compare our faith to, we get an exaggerated view of its strength. But God sees things as they actually are, and He just wasn’t content to leave you with that weak flimsy thing that you had before. He wants real strength, not just the illusion of strength. So He brought you here. Well, to be more accurate, He crushed, pounded, and beat on you until you finally admitted you were here: down in the muck where your motivation for praising Him is totally gone.

When we really care about honoring God in life, we fight very hard against His efforts to break us down into snarky haters. This is a good thing—God wants us to fight. It’s important that we put all we have into trying to remain the people that we think He wants us to be. We need to see the limits of our own strength, and we won’t ever get there until we pour ourselves into the fight.

If someone challenges you to a wrestling match and you just walk away without engaging, you can keep telling yourself that you might have won. But if you take them up on their challenge and end up pinned to the floor, well that’s just embarrassing. When God is the One we are wrestling with and we totally lose, it’s more than embarrassing—it’s frightening. Deep inside, we all struggle with understanding this insane notion that God really loves us just as we are. We might claim to understand this with our lips, but somewhere deep in our cores, we think we have to hold onto His love with some degree of good behavior. Don’t think it’s true? Watch how a devoted Christian reacts when Satan convinces them they are guilty of blaspheming God. Why is condemnation such a powerful weapon against those of us who know that we sincerely care about pleasing God? Because deep inside we are all carrying around some raging insecurities about this love thing. How can God really love us when we’re such little yucks? We’re always messing up. We’re so far from perfect. This fear of losing God’s love through bad behavior is so deep and so terrifying that many Christians deal with it by blatantly denying the state of their own depravity. “I’m not so bad,” they tell themselves. “I do a lot of good works. God really needs my help to get His will done on earth.” These games might help us feel calmer on the surface, but they’re really just sidestepping the issue. God does NOT need us, and there’s no reason why our moral depravity shouldn’t make us utterly repulsive to Him. So WHY does God love us? What is it that is keeping Him interested in us? It has to be something we’re doing—this is the the best answer we can come up with, but it’s wrong.

In the process of building an intimate bond with you, there are certain core lies that God simply won’t abide. Letting you think that you are holding this relationship together by your good works, good attitude, perseverance, devotion, or anything else is no good. Such deceptions become like termites chewing away at the wooden support beams in a house. On the outside, the house looks strong, but when a man goes to add on a whole new floor to the house, its rotted support beams just can’t take the extra weight and they collapse. There’s a whole lot that God wants to build on His foundation with you, and that foundation consists of trust. Your trust must get a whole lot stronger than it is, and that means a lot of deceptions need to be untangled from your core beliefs about Him. YOU are not holding this relationship together. He is. Your devotion, your good attitude, and your strength are things which all come from Him. God is the One in control of this whole system, and God wants you with a fierce passion. He made you for Himself, and it is HIS devotion, HIS zeal, HIS power, and HIS wisdom which is going to make this bond between the two of you grow. Satan wants you to believe that spiritual growth is a matter of straining and striving and trying to solve all the mysteries of the faith. No, it is actually a matter of accepting and resting in some pretty mind-blowing truths. God loves you just because He wants to—not because He needs to, and not because you are intrinsically glorious. You aren’t satisfying some need that God has, because God has no needs. You aren’t adding to Him in any way, yet He delights in taking care of you and interacting with you. God loves you with such intensity that your tiny little mind can’t begin to fathom it—and you didn’t do a single thing to earn His love. It was BEFORE you submitted to Him that God took great delight in creating you and pursuing you.

When did you become a Christian? As a child? As an adult? Whenever it was, there was a time when you were not a Christian. Who was invested in your relationship with God during that time? Only Him. You weren’t reciprocating because you didn’t even know how. Maybe you blew Him off the first thousand times He called your name. Yet here you are: a soul who really wants to know God more. This is all because of Him. God came up with you, and He came up with the idea of you and Him experiencing some sweet communion together. This whole thing is God’s idea, God’s invention, and He is the only One who can make it happen.

It is very important to God that you get a firm grip on who is holding this relationship together and who is the most invested in it. That’s why He has brought you here: to grind out of you any notion that it’s on you to keep this thing tacked together. It’s not on you, it’s on Him. If God isn’t faithful to you, there is no Plan B. If God doesn’t fill your heart with love for Him, you will have no love to give Him. EVERYTHING you have is a gift from God. Once you really grasp this, it will massively change the way you interpret the exchanges that go on between your soul and Him. When some surge of love comes over you, instead of thinking, “Wow, I’m so devoted,” you will realize that God is drawing you closer to Him and filling you with desires that will sweeten the bond between the two of you.

If you’re going to thrive in your relationship with God, it’s vital that you become secure about the solid bond that is between you and Him. As long as you panic at the thought of hating God, or at the thought of Him losing interest in you, your understanding of that bond still needs some work. By forcing you into an environment where your worst fears seem to be realized, God puts those fears permanently to rest.

Suppose I tell you that you can step off a cliff and not fall. Suppose I promise that you’ll just walk straight out onto an invisible platform of air molecules instead of plummeting to your death. How long is it going to take you to test my theory? If you have any sense, you’re not going to test my theory. Instead, you’ll write me off as either a lunatic or a liar and continue to keep a safe distance between you and that sheer drop off.

When God tells us that He is the One holding our relationship with Him together, we often react in a similar way. We simply don’t believe Him. When He tells us that ALL of our sins have been atoned for, and that He will never disown us as His children, we can’t help creating a secret list of exceptions. “God will love me as long as I don’t ____.” There are many behaviors and attitudes that we fill into that blank. Now of course God knows all about our secret list and at some point He’s going to go after that thing with His Divine shredder. With God we must learn to believe that the impossible is true: that His love for us is not based on our behavior. We must learn that He does not see us like we see ourselves. We judge ourselves by our behavior and we say that soul devotion must always express itself in certain ways. Snarky hate and a bunch of blasphemous insults being hurled up at Heaven would be a deal breaker for us if we were God, so we figure He’s not going to put up with such things from us. Yet God says He looks on the heart, and that sincere soul devotion does not always come in pretty packages. God says many things that are simply too good to be true, so we don’t believe Him. The way He says things actually work sound as crazy to us as being able to walk off of that cliff without plummeting to our deaths. So we do our darndest to stay away from the edge, and no matter how badly God hurts and disillusions us, we try to rake up some praise-alluyah attitudes. It gets harder and harder, but we keep trying, until the day comes when God picks us up and hurls us over the edge of the cliff by arranging some series of circumstances which we just cannot accept or forgive. Down we plummet into rage and fury, and He swiftly morphs into our worst nightmare: doing whatever He knows it is that we were terrified He might do if we ever crossed that line of no return. Icy silence, sadistic tormenter—whatever it is, God does it, and we hate Him for it.

This period is all about getting your worst fears out onto the table between you and God and taking a hard look at your theory that this bond between you and Him is a destructible thing. God’s going to let you have your way for a while—playing out all of your worst case scenarios and making it look like your fears about Him were founded. But then the day is going to come when He flips everything around and shows you that nothing has changed between you and Him. He will return to the universe, melt the ice, put away the weapons of torment, and restore your ability to sing some honest praises. Then He’ll challenge you with, “Now then, you were so certain that we couldn’t get through all of that in one piece. Yet here we are, stronger than ever. Who is the One holding this relationship together?” By then, you’ll know beyond a doubt that it certainly wasn’t you. It was all God. And if He can take you through that, He can take you through anything.

It isn’t your ability to praise that is protecting your relationship with God. It isn’t your unwavering faithfulness, because there is nothing about you that won’t waver when enough pressure is applied. Your only source of hope in life is God’s voluntary devotion to you. And because God is so good, His devotion to you becomes something you can depend on with your entire soul.

No one can tear down what God wants to stand. No one can stop God from taking you all the way with Him. If you have ever asked Him to have His total way in your life and to give you a closer walk with Him, then that is what you will have. The desire for more of God comes from God, and He never invites us to ask Him for things which He is not willing and able to give us. Look back over your prayers and consider what the extent of your submission to God has been in this life. If you have EVER fully surrendered yourself into God’s hands and asked Him to have His way in your life, then that is what you are going to have.

FURTHER READING:
Angry at God
Faith in Crisis: How to Grow Through the Storm

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