Publication: Pastoral Letter, May 2015
Last year a couple in California were walking property that they had purchased years before. They had walked their dog on the same path many times, but this time they noticed the rusty edge of a container sticking up above the surface and decided to dig it out. That rusty container contained more than ten million dollars’ worth of gold coins in mint condition, dating back to the early 1800s.
How many times had previous owners walked past that same treasure and never noticed the value just beneath the surface?
In 2013, the treasure hunting ship Odyssey found forty-eight tons of silver bullion three miles beneath the surface of the ocean on the shipwrecked SS Gairsoppa, which had sunk during the World War II era. I wonder how many ships sailed on not knowing what was beneath them. Sometimes the treasure is buried deep beneath the surface.
My friend Jim Newsom has written eloquently about finding treasures in dark places. Likewise, our daughter, Charlyn, and her husband, Enrique, have a ministry to children in Costa Rica, “Hidden Treasures.” The children came from dark places but have proven to be real treasures.
Some people find the treasures because they notice, they search, and they find, but others walk or sail on by. This is especially true if the conditions seem unlikely. One cannot live a long life without some regrets, and my own is that I was eager to get some place and failed to notice a treasure that was in an unlikely place.
Isaiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible and it contains numerous messianic texts which point to Jesus. One such passage is found in chapter 11 where we are told that He would not judge by the “seeing of the eye.” He would look past the appearance. The Lord told Samuel not to judge by the outward appearance. When Jesus came, He chose men who were rough in appearance but He found the treasure in them and they changed the world.
Among all the books of the Bible, there is not one more sad or hard to read than the book of Lamentations. It was written during or just after the destruction of Jerusalem. I believe the author was Jeremiah, the “Weeping Prophet.” I will not describe all of the conditions in Jerusalem, but among them was complete sorrow and devastation. The author says of God, “He has covered me with ashes.”
No one would expect to find any treasure in the book of Lamentations. It is simply a terrible look at judgment. It is as though a terrorist group like ISIS has invaded the city. Nevertheless, Lamentations 3:20-26 reveals a great and most valuable treasure. I am so grateful that I did not miss that treasure.
“My soul still remembers and sinks within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:20-26).
Thomas Chisholm was an ordinary man who entered the ministry, but lasted only one year due to poor health. His life was spent in relative obscurity, but he discovered those verses in Lamentations and wrote the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” That hymn has touched the lives of millions. He found the jewel among the ashes.
It is clear that the author of Lamentations does not comprehend the conditions; he is overwhelmed; but he turns his face away from the ashes and looks toward God. In the presence of God, among the ashes, he sees God and trusts in His faithfulness. His hope is restored. Some only see conditions, others see the treasure; some sail on or walk on, others stop and search.
Treasure in the Trials
The apostle Peter addresses the treasures among the trials this way:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith— the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9).
Then Peter goes on to say that the prophets inquired and searched carefully what the Holy Spirit was saying about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. What they said was not for them, but for us. Even the angels, who do not understand what it all means, desire to know and search.
Jesus told the leaders of Israel to search the scriptures because they testified of Him (see John 5:39). Those leaders had memorized much of the words of the prophets but missed the treasure. God is found only by seekers. When we walk the familiar, well-worn path of religion, we are likely to presume that we know it well, but fail to see the treasure that lies below the surface.
When our eyes are only on the conditions, we can lament, but when our eyes are on the Lord, we will rejoice, because even the testing conditions are producing something more precious than gold. Do we have to understand? No, we have to trust and wait quietly on the Lord Who alone knows what He is doing. Waiting allows God to go before us and later reveal His purpose in our lives and in our times.
The book of Job gives us another lesson in the incomprehensible ways of God. Job was a righteous man who was allowed by the Lord to endure harsh testing that proved his faith. In those days, as today, many people believed that suffering was either punishment or lack of faith. Job’s friends accused him of sin though he was righteous. This angered God. Job’s friends had a very surface view of conditions and failed to realize that God’s way was not theirs. Finally, in spite of their criticism, Job prayed for them and that began his recovery. He prospered greatly in the end.
I have written before that it is OK to not understand, but it is not OK to think we know when we do not. That is when we miss the treasures—the jewels that come from the awe of God. Humility of mind is the key to the search. Don’t be too proud to listen, look, and dig below the surface of what appears.
Conditions for Grace
Grace is God’s gift that lifts us beyond our limits. It is His favor upon one who acknowledges his or her need. Too often, we focus on what we do or have done for God rather than what He is doing for us in the midst of circumstance. He is forming something more precious than gold.
Isaiah 61 is one of those passages that refer to Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord would be upon Him and He would bring Good News to the poor, the brokenhearted, and the captives. There are fourteen blessings listed in the first four verses of Isaiah 61. But we often fail to see the conditions into which those blessings come. They come to the poor, brokenhearted, captives, mourners, those in ashes, those who have a spirit of heaviness, or in desolate and ruined cities. In other words, grace comes to those who see their need and search for the treasure of God’s faithfulness.
Jesus refers to Isaiah 61 when He delivers the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:1-12). He states that the blessings come to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled. In Christ, the way up is down. Those who are satisfied fail to find the treasures; those who see themselves in ashes can find it. The ashes are what remains after the fire.
“What is God doing?” I am sure that is the question that the prophets often asked as they viewed the conditions. I am sure Job asked that as well. His friends thought that they knew, though they did not. When the Lord is preparing us to hunger and seek Him, that question comes to mind. What God was doing in Job was to reveal Himself more clearly.
I am often asked that question, “What is God doing?” I am hesitant to answer. Those who predict based upon their knowledge or some past precedent are usually wrong. My answer is, “He is doing a lot of different things.” Because I travel, a lot people assume that I see some consistent pattern of divine activity. I do not. Neither am I sure of all that He is doing. Sometimes I am not even sure of what He is doing in me!
My desire is to hear His voice and do what He says. I guess what I am saying is that I have not “figured God out”. But I do trust His faithfulness. He has always been and always will be. He never changes! So, as the old hymn says, “We will understand it better bye and bye,” if we wait quietly on Him.
I have no simple answers for the martyrdom of many thousands of Christians that is now occurring. I have no simple answers for the apathy and blindness of many leaders. I have no simple answers for suffering. I am not like Job’s friends. But, I will join Job, Jeremiah, and others who saw an occasion to seek God and to wait on Him in deep trust.
I recall my first pastorate, a small church of thirty-five people that could not pay its bills. I worked hard and the Lord was faithful, and the church grew. But in seven years, I had exhausted my strength and discovered my limitations and weakness, and though that was painful, it proved to be a good thing. I was driven to either quit the ministry or discover the strength of God. Gratefully, I received a Baptism with the Holy Spirit and saw a Spirit-given revival. My condition brought me to the treasure. I was given a guide and not only a map.
Is that what the Lord is doing in our nation, our churches, and our personal lives? Is He preparing us for an awakening? I pray so. The treasure remains, but it is below the surface. We must dig, search, and seek. If so, we will find something more precious than gold! As we search the Scriptures, may we not skip the tough parts; they are designed to lead us to the greater riches of His grace. We must not allow the ashes to define our view of God or the future.
P.S. There is still time to register for our May 12-15 CSM Gatlinburg Leadership Conference, “Embracing the Truth with Our Lives”. Author Nik Ripken is our guest speaker and we will also celebrate 60 years of ministry. For more information, please visit our NEW website at csmpublishing.org. Also, please continue to remember us in your prayers and in your giving this month. Visit the website or see the enclosed card to make a financial contribution to support the ongoing work of the ministry around the world.
Scripture Reference: Lamentations 3:20-26; 1 Peter 1:6-9; John 5:39; Matthew 5:1-12; Isaiah 61