The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 4

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Communing with God and Escaping Death.

Community requires communing. That may seem obvious to most, but perhaps we need a reminder when it comes to our relationship with God. His existence is so vastly different from ours we may forget that a relationship of intimacy with Him is our life’s chief purpose. Communing with other people means talking and listening to each another, expressing hopes, dreams and core values, and seeking to understand each others’ perspectives. Communing means living life together, walking alongside one another. It’s what families and good friends do.

The author of Hebrews 11 had earlier reminded us of Adam’s son Abel, the first human to experience death. As if to swing the pendulum in the extreme other direction, he now tells us about Enoch, four generations after Abel’s time. “By faith Enoch was taken from this life,” he begins, “so that he did not experience death;” What? Is he sure? As if to explain it another way, the author adds, “he could not be found, because God had taken him away.”

To be sure this is strange. Enoch was what we might term ‘translated’ from his earthly life into eternity without having to experience the usually-essential process of human death. His experience was unprecedented. So what do we know about Enoch and what is God communicating to us about this man’s life that would be useful to people like you and me. Is it a how-to lesson on escaping death?

We have only tidbits of information about Enoch—a few verses in Genesis and a couple verses here in Hebrews. What we know about him is just a condensed, compact synopsis of his life, and that’s a handy thing to have. From it we learn six things about Enoch: he accepted God’s existence, he believed God rewards people who earnestly seek Him, he walked with God, he pleased God, and finally, he did not experience death.

What we are not explicitly told, but can surmise by these six descriptors, is that Enoch lived his life attuned to the voice of God. He had a heart attitude that was open to God, ears perked and piqued to hear anything about God or from God that could be heard by a mere man. He believed God’s promises and obeyed God’s counsel. Consequently he lived his life in such a way that he is described as walking with God. Does that sound like a relationship that would please the heart of God? Does it sound like the kind of life you and I could live?

Well, yes and no. No, it’s not possible for anyone to live a life pleasing to God—at least apart from faith in the work of Jesus. While Enoch live millennia before Jesus’ earthly life, we can safely surmise he believed God’s promise to send a Redeemer some day—a sinless offspring of sinful mankind—one who would crush the head of sin and eventually destroy death itself. Enoch’s predecessor Adam was still living in Enoch’s time, and had preserved the memory of this promise of God for Adam’s progeny.

But it’s not only no; it’s also yes, Enoch shows us that we can live for God and please Him if we will listen to Him and humbly come into a communal life with His Son Jesus. This kind of living relies completely on the life of Jesus living inside us, interpreting the truths of His Word so we can apply them, and ultimately providing eternal life for us after we die.

“…Enoch’s example,” explains Blue Letter Bible’s Don Stewart, “provides hope that believers will achieve an ultimate victory over death.” So in a way, Enoch’s life story is an instructional manual on dodging death and gaining life. Communing daily with God—seeking Him, listening attentively to everything He wants us to know about Himself and about ourselves—is the source of eternal God-present life.

The call of God inspires faith, and faith open hearts to the call of God. “Come near to God,” invites the Apostle James to all who will listen, “and he will come near to you.” Be part of the community.

(Photo Credit: Meghanbustardphotography)

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 3

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Agreeing with God.

Do some hear the call of God better than others? “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did,” the author of Hebrews 11 explains, launching into the list of the first of those named as having heard and responded to the call of God. “By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

We’ve been exploring the theme of God calling to people, and are given Abel as our first personal example. What we know from this verse and from the early chapters of Genesis where the story is originally recorded is that Cain and Abel were the first offspring of Adam and Eve following their expulsion from Eden. They symbolize all of humanity that would follow, blazing the two moral paths from which each of us may choose.

One day, Cain and Abel brought to God each of their respective offerings from the products of their labour. One brought the best of what he had. The other brought some of what he had. Each product was good, but it was obvious to God that the hearts of the two young men were quite different. Abel the younger had listened to God’s call and embraced the opportunity to offer God his best. Cain the elder had hardened his heart to God’s call and refused to respond with much more than lip service. God accepted the one but rejected the other. Cain was incensed by God’s rejection. Giving free reign to his growing anger and jealousy, Cain murdered his brother Abel and defended his action by arguing, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

How could such a seemingly innocent practice as presenting an honorarium to the Creator have such disastrous repercussions? The anecdote condenses for us in one concise account the state of affairs each of our lives mirror. God speaks to each of us—calls to us—in ways that allow us the opportunity to agree with Him or not. It all depends on our willingness to listen. Those who choose by degrees to listen to God’s call, to agree with what He says about the human heart, find faith growing. They believe that He is telling the truth when He says that no one can find peace with Father God except through Jesus. In contrast, those who refuse to listen, who choose to ignore or blatantly reject God’s call on their lives begin a downward spiral of hurting themselves and others. Abel himself still speaks of this great dichotomy of choices.

Those who have been willing to listen to God’s call and agree with Him have looked back over their lives and discovered God’s transforming power and goodness runs parallel to His voice. When God speaks sparks fly. Lives are given wings, darkness is dissolved by light, and death is swallowed up by life. This recollection of humankind’s early history on earth teaches us that when God speaks to us, it is because He has our ultimate good in mind. God’s call is always for the purpose of protecting us from our own tendencies toward selfward and otherward destruction.

What about Abel? Suffering an early and turbulent death hardly seems a fitting reward for one who listened and responded well to God. Where’s the fairness in that? Where was the good God seems to promise? Look again. It’s there in the middle of the Hebrews verse; “By faith,” we’re told, “he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings.” God commends Abel. He makes a judgment call on Abel, taking everything He knows about Abel into account: his heart attitude, his willingness to listen to God, his convictions put into practice even when it cost him dearly. All these aspects describe true faith. As a result, God judges Abel righteous.

This word ‘righteous’ is a key word in God’s economy. In means God has transferred, by the highest standard of justice that characterizes Himself, the guilt of that individual onto Jesus. In exchange, the perfect right-ness of Jesus is transferred to that individual’s account and God sees that person as right with Him. Abel—like his brother Cain—was intrinsically sinful. But Abel chose to listen to God’s call and respond. It was an act of faith, of agreement. And God respects that heart attitude so highly—not only in Abel but also in each of us who make a similar choice—that He offers eternal life to those who have listened to Him.

So we have before us a choice and a fine example in Abel who lives in eternity’s grand glory with His Lord. Softening our hearts to God’s voice is the first call of God. Then listening to and agreeing with what He tells us about Himself through His Word, the Bible, is next. And then obeying what He commands through His Word is the natural by-product that will mark our lives. Do you hear Him calling you?

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 2

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The Call to Be.

          Does God call people? We have said that God is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us is invited. That assumption alone may need to be explored further because for many people, ‘a conversation’ is the last descriptor we would apply to our experience of God. Let’s begin with something simpler then. Can and do people—normal people, people like you and me—hear God calling them?

We’re looking at what the writer to the Hebrews exposes in his eleventh chapter survey of historical characters who heard the call of God and responded. It begins with creation and spans several thousands of years pulling characters from the pages of the Old Testament who not only heard God’s call, but also responded. Why explore these examples of ancients who heard something they attributed to God? Firstly, if the same God who revealed Himself in the past reveals Himself today, you and I don’t want to miss out on the experience that makes earth-living worthwhile. Secondly—as will soon become apparent—those who heard God’s call and responded rightly became fortified by faith—a prerequisite for living beyond this life. And thirdly, hearing and responding to God’s call has an effect on God Himself—a mind-shattering connection we may never before have considered.

“By faith we understand,” begins the historical account, “that the universe was formed at God’s command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

Picture creation if you can as the singular germination of matter. All that we see today—from viruses to invertebrates, from subatomic particles to solar flares, from constellations to coronary arteries—all of it traces its emergence from nothing other than the energy of God’s voice. “Without Him (and before this moment) nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). He called and we fledglings of matter became. He commanded and we obeyed.

This is our historical beginning: God called all matter into existence—into being—and it was. From that first dawn of matter appearing from nothing but the rush of energy released by God’s call, we learn that God created humankind—called and breathed us into existence. It is the grandest and most personal example of Einstein’s formula. “So God created man in his own image,” explains the author of Genesis, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Vast amounts of intrinsic energy sustain our existence for one purpose: to exhibit His likeness. And in some mysterious way we please God by reflecting Him.

What do we make of this? How does this revelation inform the way we think about God’s call and how we ought to respond to it? We do not need to understand Einsteinian formulas to realize that God’s call is powerful; it has the potential to alter things. God’s call has the capacity to release into our lives hope and help, comfort, compassion and God-honouring living. Most of all, God’s call releases His own Spirit into our lives to make us the kind of people He first envisioned us to be. God’s call fortifies His hearers with Himself.

Don’t worry about not hearing that call with ears designed to catch the vibrations and sound waves of other created matter—God is not created matter, and His voice is much more than a collection of sound waves. His call must be heard primarily with the heart—a humble heart—with sympathies willing to shed every ear-numbing layer of pride that plagues our species. We have each heard His call to be—to exist—and obeyed it at our moment of conception. Now we must utilize faith to hear His call and live our lives in ways that exhibit God’s likeness.

And what is the epitome of God’s likeness in human form? Jesus. Jesus is God incarnated into human existence to enable us to visualize what a life perfectly responding to God’s call looks like. More than that, Jesus is God’s plan to rescue us from our foolish selves, to bring us back from the brink of self-destruction, and to give us ears to hear and hearts to respond to Him.

So let’s start with the baby step of faith that accepts that the universe was formed at God’s command—at God’s call. There will be more, but for now let’s begin to ‘hear’ that ancient call and commit our existence to our Great Creator for His good pleasure. Because nothing comes from nothing.

(Photo Credit: http://www.heartlight.org)

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 1

The Conversation.

How often do each of us think about life’s biggest questions, like: “Why is there something instead of nothing?”; “Does life have meaning?”; “Are there such things as right, wrong, and truth?”; and “Does God exist?”?

Folks at Google know how often we think those questions. It seems people use Google to try to find answers to them and Google has collected that data and mapped it—at least for those who live in the United States of America. On that map we can see the questions and terms related to life, morality and religion that each state of the union Googled more than any other in the past year.

Illinoisians predominantly pondered, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Floridians primarily wondered, “What is my purpose in life?” New Hampshirites chiefly inquired, “What happens when you die?” and Alabamans first and foremost asked, “What is love?”

Those are good questions, but googling is a superficial fix. If we want a bigger picture, the fullest, most expansive appreciation and understanding not only of the answers but of why we ask the questions in the first place, we need a higher authority than Google. We need to approach the ultimate authority on such things.

“Do not be scared by the word authority,” advises well-known author C.S. Lewis. “Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority…None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority” (Mere Christianity, p. 62).

An ultimate authority on life would have to be something or Someone who was around long before anything ever occurred here on earth or—let’s go bigger—in the universe itself. Let’s call the Great Being responsible for causing the universe to exist, for being the uncaused Cause, the One who truly knows the answer to our every question, God. And if God is the originator of our amazing but relatively puny minds that utilize language to ask deep existential questions, surely He is capable of answering them. God is the epitome of language. He is able to communicate far more to us than we have imagined—or even liked. It is not a case of René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” but rather “God thinks, therefore I am.”

In fact, God is the initiator of a conversation into which each of us is called. It is from this point that we will spend a little time considering what has come to be known as ‘The call of God.’ The Bible proposes that God calls each and every individual on planet earth—including you and me—and we respond one way or another.

“What!” you exclaim. “I’ve never heard a peep from Him!”

Is that so? Perhaps it’s time to explore it. Let’s take a look at a list of individuals—“ancients” they were called—people free from the clamour of 21st century busy-ness, people who heard and in various ways answered God’s call. Let’s explore their experiences and try to tease out what they heard, what they didn’t hear, how they responded, and how that made a difference to their lives and to the lives of those around them.

Hebrews chapter 11 contains that list. It begins by defining the hearing of God’s call as an expectancy and certainty—a hope. It labels that hearing faith and explains, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” Who commends them? God. What are they commended for? For seeing the invisible and hearing the inaudible; for setting aside the hesitations and skepticisms, the pride and rebellions that blind and deafen us to what God is communicating, to His call on every human life.

So join in the exploration. And if you are bold enough, come with an expectancy and certainty that delights God. Set aside the disappointments that have affected—maybe even soured—your idea of who God is. Ask God to open your ears, and then be open to a new kind of hearing, because we’re going in search of God’s call.

Eye-Blinking Change

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It’s been thirty years since Stephen Covey wrote his paradigm-shifting self-help book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.’ Its popularity exposes the broad consciousness we humans have for personal development. We are built for change. The right kind of change takes us from irrational to thoughtful thinkers, from immature to wise decision-makers, from dependent relationships to independence and finally interdependence within a community. Covey’s concepts have sweeping relevance to living effective lives.

If the full extent and potential of our lives was the eighty-some year span allotted each of us on this earth, those seven habits would be enough. But if the main theme and thread running through the Bible is true, our earthly potential is only the beginning of who we may ultimately become. It’s an alchemy accomplished by the most controversial historical figure ever to have walked this earth. Through His perfectly-lived life, debt-paying death, and death-defying resurrection, Jesus offers something immense to you and me. He gives us the opportunity to be changed into being (somehow) like Him.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this: “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else…God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man…It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

How does this beyond-remarkable transformation occur? It happens like all other lesser changes in our lives—four simple elements that move us from pedestrian creatures to winged Pegasuses: It’s as easy and difficult as to rightly see, think, feel, and do.

Seeing: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2). It’s not our physical eyes we are using here—it’s a deeper vision we need to exercise. Making a priority of informing ourselves of the truth of God’s existence and of His relevance to our lives must be a moment-by-moment event. It means reading His Word with a view to seeing Christ through every genre expressed in the Bible so that we begin to see Him for who He is. And one day, “when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).

Thinking: “(W)hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Jesus epitomizes the best of these values. Aligning the myriad of choices we make each day with Jesus’ commands and exhortations builds a mind that is becoming incrementally more Christlike.

Feeling: “I will give them an undivided heart,” promises God, “and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). Our emotions are designed to follow on the heels of our thinking, giving us impetus to act cohesively with our understanding of things. We see, then we think about what we’ve seen, and then we feel motivated to act. Hearts of stone are disabled emotions, incapable of moving us to the kind of actions God designed us to participate in. One of the ways God changes us is to put into our hearts a joy of praising Him. This leads us to actions we would neither have thought of nor dared to do before.

Doing: “He has showed you, O man (and woman), what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice, mercy, and a humble walk—these are high standards. We fail daily. So we go back to seeing, and from there to thinking, and so on. It’s how change happens, little by little.

But we all know things are never as easy to do as they appear on paper. We’ve all done more than our share of failed seeing, thinking feeling and doing. That’s why we’re given the key to this amazing process in the Apostle Paul’s first century letter to a group of early Christ-followers.

“Therefore, my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12,13).

Who works out this amazing transformation? You do, yes. But God does too. It’s a coalition, a collaboration on a supernatural project, a union of wills. It’s like glue that must have equal parts of catalyst and resin to create a form-setting epoxy—not one or the other, but both. So let’s resolve to be part of this project with God. Let’s see if we don’t eventually—in time for eternity—become eye-blinkingly changed.

Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Conclusion

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Always Perseveres.

Most things on planet earth eventually change. We might even say that change is one of the certainties of the physical world: With time, inanimate objects like craggy mountains erode and cliffs crumble, rivers become cavernous gorges, oceans warm and icebergs melt. For Canadians, even the penny and the paper dollar have gone the way of the dodo bird. Which brings us to the animate world: viruses mutate, species alter their life cycle patterns or become extinct, pop cultures morph, and social norms evolve. Try as we might, we cannot avoid change.

So when we hear the closing line of I Corinthians 13 in its description of love we are brought to an abrupt and surprising halt. “Love,” says the inspired author, “always perseveres.” Never changes? Never dims, dwindles or declines? Is unfailingly, incessantly, and unceasingly constant? Who of us could ever achieve this magnitude of love?

You can.

You and I can with the stipulation of one little caveat: To learn to love with infinite perseverance and constancy we must enlist ourselves in Christ’s School of Love. We won’t find this academy listed in any register of ivy-league schools. We cannot complete it in four years like an undergraduate degree—it extends into eternity. We cannot access it by through a Masters of Divinity programme (could we ever master divinity?). We won’t even be able to find it referenced in the Bible under this name. But if we look closely that’s where we’ll find hints of it.

The curriculum works something like some contemporary education structures which utilize an upward spiral approach to learning: topics are covered in increasing gradations, revisited and reexamined over and over again in more depth, building a broader, higher, more thorough learning than the once-over approach could ever accomplish. It will take a determined student a lifetime and more to master its lessons.

Lesson 1: We are all plagued by our natural bent to fickleness and inconstancy. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, “ bemoans the prophet Isaiah, “each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). The discerning student of love sooner or later comes to recognize that a primeval selfishness within us obstructs our best intentions to love long and well.

Lesson 2: God loves with infinite perseverance. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,” breathes the Apostle John in wonder (I John 3:1). Jesus confirms the sentiment saying of those who accept His love, “…no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

Lesson 3: When God’s Spirit indwells a person, persevering love begins to develop. “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope,” invokes the Apostle Paul, “encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word…May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (II Thessalonians 2:16,17; 3:5).

Lesson 4: The path to persevering love is generally through suffering. “…(W)e know that suffering,” explains Paul, “produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5). John adds, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (I John 3:16-28).

Lesson 5: The end result of persevering love is Life. “Blessed is the man who perseveres…” instructs the Apostle James, “because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Are we students of love? Do we put ourselves under Jesus as His fledgling novices and apprentices? If so, Jesus is delighted to teach us everything He is as an infinitely persevering love-giver. Without doubt, we will fail repeatedly (read ‘daily’, even ‘hourly’) to love as Jesus envisions us loving, and we must return repeatedly to lesson one. But then we will also revisit the heartwarming lesson two, God’s great love for us. This gives us courage to step back into lessons three and four with our eyes set on the glories of lesson five. That is how the process works. It’s about grace and mercy, humility and determination. It’s about the love of God.

Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 14

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Always Hopes.

“Hope,” wrote Victor Hugo, “is the word which God has written on the brow of Every Man.” That is a thought-provoking description of hope. Primarily, it explains hope as a gift from God imprinted upon each of us. Hope offers us clarity to see through the fog of the finite and of the distressing. It pictures hope blazing before us like a headlamp giving us purpose for the paths we take in life. Without hope, we wander in the dark, experiencing all manner of griefs. And without hope, the human spirit withers, disintegrates, and eventually dies.

Hope is a notion the Bible addresses frequently; it conveys the recurring motif of a unique and specific hope: not a groundless, useless or foolish hope, but one of certainty; not hope centred on wishful thinking or on anything arising from this world, but hope centred entirely upon God.

“Do you not know? Have you not heard?” asks the prophet Isaiah, “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31).

Biblical hope is based entirely upon the self-revelation of God—what He has told us about Himself that impacts our existence. This hope is comprised of three things: God’s character, God’s creative works, and God’s vision for His creation.

To explore this hope, we begin by asking, ‘What has God revealed to us about His character that gives us hope?’ Several things. He is the eternal, uncreated, always-existing One, in whom is no caprice or fickleness, so we can rely fully upon Him; He has supreme power to accomplish all that He purposes, so He never makes a mistake; He is good and His acts toward humanity arise from this goodness, so we can trust Him; He is personal—fully accessible to us when we submit to an all-consuming relationship with Him, so we can interact with Him; and He is loving—gracious, compassionate, patient, comforting, strengthening and desiring of each of us to develop our eternal potential, so we can find fulfillment in Him.

Secondly, we must ask, ‘What has God revealed to us about His creative works that gives us hope?’ He created the universe out of nothing by His command—He spoke and it was; all energy and all matter arise from Him and He sustains all His creation by His own power; we humans are the apex of His creative work, designed to reflect such aspects of God that we alone of His creation are said to bear “the image of God” and thus are incredibly valuable to Him. He is in the midst of creating an unimaginable eternity for those who choose to be in relationship with Him.

And thirdly, we must ask, ‘What has God revealed to us about His vision for His creation?’ God created humans to have the gift of free will—we are not programmed robots doing God’s bidding without any choice in the matter. This is a difficult concept for us to understand, but perhaps it is because automatons cannot be in relationship with their Maker, cannot house the dignity that God designed us to contain. While each of us humans have misused our free will and rebelled in some way against Him (which He knew would happen even before making us), God set in motion a solution. He devised a ransoming rescue for humanity’s self-destructive rebellion: the dying and resurrecting Jesus. God’s vision is for a community tied so closely in relationship with Himself (as Father, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit) and with one another that we are to be called the “body of Christ.” And finally, God reveals to us His vision for an eternity in which we are completely unified in Him, accomplishing for Him and through Him glorious tasks as yet untold.

How does this all relate to love? We’ve been exploring the love chapter of I Corinthians 13 and we need to find the connection. How is it that “love always hopes”? It comes back to God (as everything ultimately does). God is love embodied, and God is the source of all hope. We cannot separate hope from love. A full understanding of God’s love for us is all-important—even non-negotiable—to experiencing real life-giving hope. Hoping in God is the only cure for the weariness that comes from disillusionment with this world. God’s promise to lovingly redeem even our worst situations to bring about ultimate good for those who love Him is the hope to which we must cling.

So let’s step into this day with a new reason for certain hope. Let’s be people who exude confidence because we are loved by the One who gives us the assurance that all will be well. So then, it is well, and it is well with our soul.