Little By Little We Grow: How The Phone Stayed Home

Phone in hands

I don’t know which was the bigger miracle—my question or his answer.

Miracles Never Cease

The first title of this post was “Miracles Never Cease: How The Phone Stayed Home.”

It was an amazing, soaring short story about how a son who so loved his phone willingly agreed to leave it at home for a weekend youth retreat. The climax of the story was the part when the prone to over-control mom—after days and days of praying and pondering and asking her friends to ponder and pray— stunned herself.

How’s that? you wonder.

Believe it or not, it happened when she asked the son in a voice so open and gentle that it surprised her own ears,

So, what would you think of leaving your phone home this weekend?

That open-ended meek question was miracle #1. If you knew the Mom you’d marvel.

But then on the heels of #1 comes miracle #2.

That’d be okay.

That’s it. That’s what the son said without hesitation, protest or reservation. Two miracles right in a row. That would have been the post. It’s what I had written at 10 pm last Sunday night.

A JoyPrO about two amazing Spirit-controlled actions of a mother and son. Tied with a bow. Happily ever after. The end.

Then along came 11 pm.

How One Phone Stayed Home

When in a too-rare flurry of mother-son affection, the mother decided to sneak into the sleeping teen’s room to plant a kiss on his forehead. That was her plan.

So she stole in to where he lay—wide awake with earbuds in and spare phone in hand. And off came the bow.

Did you sneak this phone on the retreat?

Yes, he nodded. I did. But I hardly used it, he added, handing off the hot phone.

But there was more. Two words from this son the mother so hungers for,

I’m sorry.

It was late and he was caught red-handed. But this time, she believed him. Because little by little we grow. And little by little we change.

Because it’s little by little that we drive out the enemies of our soul.

Little By Little

Please stick with me. Because these couple of verses in an obscure chapter of Exodus have a lot to do with snuck phones and with how all Christians grow. With how I learn to ask not force, with how I learn to resist self-pity and give thanks, with how I train myself to get to bed before eleven. Little by little.

Here’s the background. The Israelites were fresh out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. But the Promised land was occupied—by the -ite peoples—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These were strong nations.

But not so strong that the God who’d just split the Red Sea and closed it on Pharaoh’s chariots could have destroyed them all at once.

But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.  Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. (Exodus 23:29-31, NIV)

Little by little I will drive them out. And you will drive them out too.

I Will, You Will

In a message on Exodus 23, Kevin DeYoung explains how those three little verses describe the whole of Christian life, of Christian growth. You drive them out, I drive them out. That is how we grow.

Did you see that? In verse 30, “I will drive them out.” In verse 31, “You will drive them out.” That’s how it is with sanctification, with the process of becoming more like Jesus. We work out our salvation, for God works in us to will and act. God is doing the work. At the same time, he tells us to get to get to work (Philippians 2:12-13).

DeYoung sums up Christian growth this way: Victory comes from God, victory takes work, and victory comes little by little.

God works in you, so you work. Growth happens little by little, change comes from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Degrees. Little by little degrees. The son didn’t take his phone but he snuck another. The mom held her tongue two times, but not the third. By degree. Victory comes little by little, when we work because God is at work.

Perpetual Vigilance, Constant Dependence

Don’t despise the day of small things. I wrote about that with the same phone-sneaking son 6 years ago. Screen time and sneaking have been issues for a decade. And truth be told, overbearing and controlling have been too. And after those two miracles the night before the retreat, I was so hungry for growth. I was hungry for victory and freedom in his life— so hungry I could almost taste victory.

And sometimes God works his power in our lives in an instant. He removes a desire or heals a cancer or creates a life. All of a sudden he does it and completely he does it.

But more often, we see his work little by little. Transformation comes slowly. Today may not feel like a success, but over time we could see growth.

Little by little the Israelites would drive out their enemies. Bit by bit, rather than in an instant, would keep them from getting sluggish and overconfident. And it would keep the wild beasts from multiplying in the unpopulated land.

Thus too in our spiritual warfare, it is no doubt ordained for our highest good that our corruptions should be subdued, not all at once, but by little and little; that our old man should be crucified gradually. This keeps us in an attitude of perpetual vigilance, and reminds of our constant dependence upon God, who alone giveth us the victory. (G. Bush)

And when you think about it, what could be better this side of heaven than to fully rely on God?

Little By Little We Grow

Israel was promised a bountiful land, but we are promised an abundant life (John 10:10). Not easy life, but abundant life.

And as the LORD drove out their enemies and Israel drove out their enemies, so too we are called to fight the good fight of faith and to make every effort to grow. Knowing that while we prepare our horses and make our plans every victory comes from the Lord.

So I was going to end the first post, the happy bow post before I learned about the stolen phone, with Ephesians 3 verse 20. But then I scrapped it. Because that’s a powerful victory verse and we’d had a setback.

But as I think about it, to stay the course and drive out our enemies little by little takes massive power within us, too. And it’s at work in the son and me.

So I think I still will.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,

according to his power that is at work within us

Ephesians 3:20

No Shadow Goodness

There was a strange moon over our house last week.

What I mean is that the dark side and light side got mixed up. There was a weird shadow on right side.  The dark side-  to my non-astronomic mind, anyway,- was the wrong side. I’m sure there was a perfectly sensible reason for that odd lunar light. Something about the northern regions and Third Quarter.

But mostly the shifting  shadows on the moon last week lit up  truths about dark and light and good. Big truths to chew on.

Our Dark Sides

They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. Psalm 14:1b

We’re all shadowy souls, we are. We’re all Two Faced. As much as we wish it weren’t so, we resemble Jerry Seinfeld’s ugly/pretty date.  While we look lovely sometimes, we don’t look good at all in some light.

A unique mix of good, bad and ugly- we all cast shadows. Depending on the lighting- the context and the temptation-  we look ugly. We have our dark sides. Lots of times they’re thee flip sides of our good sides.

Take, for example, those lavish, generous souls. The ones who never come empty-handed and always give those above-and-beyond sort of gifts?  Even those dear souls cast shadows. On the other side you might find self-indulgence or insecurity or gross disorganization. Shadows of the good.

Or take those faithful, self-disciplined types. You know the type-A’s who never forget your birthday and seldom drop the ball? I know some.  They’ve got shadow issues too. Those kind can tend toward impatience and harshness and the self-pity form of pride. Ugly sides.

We all have both sides. I know I do. Even the kindest and most compassionate among us cast shadows.  Some more, some less- because none of us is all good or all bad. We’re all a mix: gray or plaid.

Except One

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  Mark 10:18

Remember that line?  It was a sort of avant-garde reply to man’s straightforward question. The point: No amount of good works will earn you eternal life. Because only One is truly good.

A.W. Pink explains,

There is such an absolute perfection in God’s nature and being that nothing is wanting to it or defective in it, and nothing can be added to it to make it better. ‘He is originally good, good of Himself, which nothing else is; for all creatures are good only by participation and communication from God. He is essentially good; not only good, but goodness itself: the creature’s good is a super-added quality, in God it is His essence. He is infinitely good; the creature’s good is but a drop, but in God there is an infinite ocean or gathering together of good. He is eternally and immutably good, for He cannot be less good than He is; as there can be no addition made to Him, so no subtraction from Him’ (Thomas Manton). God is summum bonum, the highest good. (The Attributes of God, p. 52)

Eternally, unchanging, completely good. He is good and he does good.

The Sum Total

You are good and you do good; teach me your decrees. Psalm 119:68

One of our family’s go-to, old-school prayers is one by Dr. Watts. It begins this way:

ALMIGHTY God the Maker of every thing in Heaven and Earth; the Darkness goes away, and the Day light comes at your Command. You are good and do good always. 

That first line is often on my mind. It anchors me. It’s a refuge for times when men fail me and for times when I realize how I fail them. You are good and do good always is a rock solid truth when darkness veils His lovely face.

God’s goodness might even be seen as the sum total of all God’s attributes. God’s goodness is all of his righteousness and glory and holiness and love is called goodness. God has no dark side. God is always, always, always good.

He is good and he does good and he gives good to his children: No good thing, wrote the Psalmist, does He withhold from those who walk uprightly (84:11).

But it doesn’t always seem that way.

Not Your Indulgent Grandpa

We get confused about God’s goodness and love.

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy… What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.  (C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain)

Is that what we really want?  An indulgent grandfather who lets us do as we please? Is that good?  

Or do we need to need to redefine good

Good To Be Near God

But as for me, it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. Psalm 73:28

If you need to calibrate to real, biblical good, Psalm 73 is worth a study,  (This one is terrific.) In short, Asaph the Psalmist walks us through his seismic reorientation of what is truly good. He helps us redefine “good.” 

Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh explains,

In verse 1, “good” really meant the absence of pain, difficulty, trouble, sorrow, ill health, or poverty. In verse 28, “good” means something far better than physical prosperity: But as for me, the nearness of God is my good…

Nearness to God—intimate fellowship with God—is our highest good. We may say then that whatever interferes with our nearness to God, our fellowship with Him, is actually evil. And whatever draws us into a deeper fellowship with God is actually “good.” When God brings suffering and adversity into our lives, our confidence in His goodness should not be undermined. Instead, we should be reassured of His goodness to us. 

Which means, as Deffinbaugh says, we can’t separate God from good. We can’t have good without God. Or have God without good.  When we get this, David’s words in Psalm 16:2 will finally make sense.

“I say to the Lord you are my Lord and apart from you I have no good.

No Shifting Shadows

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:16-17

We’ve come full circle. Back to the weird moon shadows that first reminded me of this verse. James had just finished a discourse on being steadfast under trial and not letting temptation lead us astray. Including, I think, the temptation to doubt God’s goodness when we face trials of various kinds.

Then verse 16 where he bursts  in with “Don’t be deceived.” That’s transitional. James is saying, Don’t allow yourself to wallow in rebellious self-pity:  understand that God is good. When you feel abandoned and crushed, do not forget God’s goodness.

In so much of life, there is a dark side. In a message on James 1, D.A. Carson notes,

We see that when the light is brightest. It comes in on one side, but that means there is a shadow on the other side. So we look at people’s strengths. We say, “He is such an extrovert. He has such good people skills.  He can relate to others so well. Of course on the other side, he can be a bit bossy.” There’s a dark side to the light side.

Not so with God.

Eyes To See

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 107:1

There is no dark side to God. God is all good. There is no shadow. That is what the text says. Or, like we sing, There is no shadow of turning with Thee.

We are Seinfeld’s Two Faced girlfriend, shifting shadows on the moon. God is not. He is good. As Carson said, He is good-good. He’s good, good, good, good.

God’s goodness is a rock-solid foundation for our shifty-shadow, two face lives. It should shape our view of God and His dealings with us in this life. It is a lens through which to view every moment and event of our lives. Oh for grace to see God’s goodness.

Will you let Sarah Groves sing this blessed truth home?

May God give us eyes to see all that is good.

Oh, how abundant is your goodnesswhich you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you in the sight of the children of mankind! 

Psalm 31:19

Windows In Heaven

Eyes can miss what’s really there and ears can fear what’s not.

Deceived By Our Senses

Sometimes we focus on bad things not really there. Witness: the bogeyman under the bed, the boss who seems like he’s out to get you, the catastrophe ahead if you miss this chance. A loud- and phantom-sound of enemy chariots that could make a mighty army flee. 

And sometimes we miss good things that really are there. Witness: the cloud of friends waiting in the wings to surprise you, the stern boss who’s really got your back, the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. A mountain full of horses with chariots of fire to fight for you.

I had a week last week.

I saw my run through that gauntlet coming. Hard-hitting meetings Monday through Thursday. Book club Monday, visitation Tuesday, AWANA Wednesday and conferences Thursday. Back to back, after-work meetings meant scrambling for boy care, scrounging up dinners, and scrimping on sleep.

Then Friday. Friday was firstborn’s birthday. And boy’s birthday means party at our house. And the thought of that was almost enough to make me feign the flu. And ponder frozen pizza and bake your own cake.

I’m not a panicky person. But a glance at that row-full of margin-less days was enough to take my breath away.

Yes, I needed stamina. But my heart needed strength, too, for the would-be-stay-at-home mom in me to fight the surging self-pity and resentment at having to work long hours away.

I needed endurance and energy, and equally, strength to comprehend, and see. And my week was infinitesimally light and momentary compared to the chronic suffering and and struggle pressing on some of you now.

Compared to an enemy army surrounding, it was a gentle spring breeze.

Enter Elisha 

The prophet Elisha had a high price on his head. So high, in fact, in 2 Kings 6:13-14 we read the king of Syria sent horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city.

So when Elisha’s servant rolled off his mat next morning and strolled out to look around, Behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. So, alarmed, he questioned Elisha, Alas, my master! What shall we do? 

Elisha answered his anxious servant, Don’t be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them. That’s not all, though.

Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17)

God gave his servant strength to see what did not appear to the naked eye. Heavenly armies were in the wings, waiting to do battle with Israel’s enemies. But it took righteous man’s prayer in order for a servant to see.

God lets his servants see what help is really there. And lets his enemies hear what is not.

Sandwiched between Elisha’s praying that his servant see the chariots that were and Israel’s besieging enemy fleeing at the sound of the chariots that were not, Elisha announces that Israel’s famine would end in dramatic fashion:

Thus says the LORD, “Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel.”

The captain of the king is incredulous, faithless, blind and asks,

 If the LORD himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?

The entire Syrian enemy army was besieging Samaria- starving Israel out. The captain saw that. But then God worked his wonders. He messed with the enemies’ senses and made windows in heaven. 

The Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us.” So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. (2 Kings 7:6-7)

But there were no chariots or horses this time. The entire army fled at phantom sounds. And their stockpiles of food, their seahs of barley and wheat, were sold for measly shekels.

Things are not always what they seem. There are truer realities than what senses tell. But sometimes need help to believe.

God could just put a windows in heaven, but he uses another means to help dull our eyes see.

How We See

Each day we get out of bed we can walk by faith in the Son of God or stagger about in the here and now. We can see the thorns and miss the brilliant horizon beyond. We can live overwhelmed with earthly circumstances and focused on overfull schedules.

Or we can pray for eyes to see.

That’s the means God so often uses to open our eyes to see. Elisha did. Paul did too. He prayed for the Ephesians to have spiritual eyes to see God’s love and know rock-bottom reality (Ephesians 1:17-19).

We can pray for ourselves and our friends like Paul prayed for his. We can pray,

  • That we will know the hope to which God has called us (1:18) and know when our hope is false.
  • That we will know the riches of the glorious inheritance God gives in the saints (1:18) and not settle for sinful pleasures now.
  • That we will know the immeasurable greatness of God’s power toward us who believe (1:19) and not fear the enemy. 
  • That we will know the love of God that surpasses knowledge (3:19) and let this love drive bitterness out. 

Paul calls it walking by faith, not by sight. And that’s not a solo job. When the world’s bearing down and hope’s losing ground, we need boots on the ground help seeing. Ed Welch says,

This is when we call out for help from the body of Christ. Spiritual battles should not be fought without the aid of other people who can join us in prayer, encourage us with their presence, and offer apt words of truth. We could ask them to pray for us as Elisha prayed for his servant. When surrounded by an army that was sworn to kill the two men, Elisha prayed that his servant would see by faith. “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see” (2 Kings 6:17). 

We need friends to pray that our spiritual eyes would be wide-open; that we’d have strength to see.

Seeing Opportunity

They knew my week was chock-full and so three dear sisters prayed for me. Texts and mid-week check-ins came to let me know they prayed. Sure enough, my heart was helped and my soul made strong. Self-pity was stifled and energy was enough. As the week went by and deadlines were met and boys were fed, I started seeing opportunity. 

Michael Youssef says the difference between seeing opportunity or impossibility is in the connection. When we’re connected by faith, by prayer, to God’s power, we see opportunity. Dead wires are disconnected, filled with dread. They see impossibility.

But live-wires see opportunity for God to look big in our smallness and to showcase His strength in our weakness. And God likes looking big like that.

God looked extra-big to me last week. He looked big when he let none of my words fall to the ground in intense meeting. Big when He gave me words to encourage friends much more weary that me. Big when a critical report arrived not a second too soon.

But God looked huge Friday night when I finally kicked back in our house-full of guests. And the pizza that night-our third night in five- tasted better than I can ever remember.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe according to the working of his great might…

Ephesians 1:16-19