PART I: GET YOUR BUT IN LINE
We know that God loves us. We know that through Jesus, we are forgiven. We keep our faith in Him. But where we really struggle, is with ourselves. I’m glad I’m forgiven. And I know that I am. But (notice that pernicious little word!) I wish I didn’t sin so much. I wish my life was easier to live. I wish I didn’t worry. I wish I was more compassionate. I wish I wasn’t so lazy.
I know (or at least I think I do) how God wants me to be. So I try to be more like that, but I often fail. After I fail, I say sorry to God. I know that I have forgiveness in Jesus, and that forgiveness is always available. So I get that forgiveness, and then off I go to try again. Sometimes I even try harder. I might even get it together for awhile, but sooner or later I crash and burn again.
Maybe after awhile, I realize I haven’t been very bright. I think, “Ohhh…Jesus has given me the Holy Spirit to help me!” So I get back on the horse, determined to try harder, and succeed this time with the Spirit’s help. And maybe for awhile it goes better. I stop and consciously ask for God’s help to live the life of a Christian. I ask for help when I am tempted. Maybe I also get connected to other Christians, and seek help and support from them. That helps too, because God has given us each for that very purpose.
Now it goes better. But the truth is, it is still a lot of work. And the truth is, though maybe I fail less frequently, I still fail plenty often.
Whole shelves of books have been dedicated to help people like me pull it together. Some of them are quite helpful. Somehow though, I can’t seem to make the improvements permanent or consistent.
Andrew Murray seems to know what I’m going through. He puts it like this:
“The idea they have of grace is this – that their conversion and pardon are God’s work, but that now, in gratitude to God, it is their work to live as Christians, and follow Jesus. There is always the thought of a work to be done, and even though they pray for help, still the work is theirs. They fail continually, and become hopeless; and the despondency only increases the helplessness.” (Abide in Christ)
We tend of think of it like this: ultimate failure, and the power of death and hell, are defeated through Jesus. Now, once we trust in Jesus we can play the game “safely” so to speak. So we can try and fail and try and fail as much as we need to, without being in danger of going to hell.
But does that really sound like “good news?” We are “free” to pursue a cycle of failure? Andrew Murray adds this:
“Dear souls! How little they know that the abiding in Christ is just meant for the weak, and so beautifully suited to their feebleness. It is not the doing of some great thing, and does not demand that we first lead a very holy and devoted life. No, it is simply weakness entrusting itself to a Mighty One to be kept – the unfaithful one casting self on One who is altogether trustworthy and true. Abiding in him [living the Christian life] is not a work that we have to do as the condition for enjoying his salvation, but a consenting to let Him do all for us, and in us, and through us. It is a work he does for us – the fruit and the power of His redeeming love. Our part is simply to yield, to trust and to wait for what He has engaged to perform.” (Abide in Christ).
Now that sounds like good news. Maybe too good. In order to lay hold of this, we need to begin by talking about your but.
Before you can truly grasp everything that Jesus has done for us; before you can take hold of the riches we have in Christ, you need to get your but straightened out.
I am talking, of course, about your B-U-T, not your b-u-t-t. What were you thinking?
We all have buts in life. (All right, insert whatever joke you like here, and then move on). What I mean is, we all say things like this:
Things are going well now, but who knows what will happen in the future?
I know God promises to take care of me, but things aren’t going well right now.
Generally, I have a good marriage, but sometimes he drives me crazy.
I would love to read my bible more, but I just don’t have the time.
I know God has forgiven me, but I still sin, and I don’t always feel forgiven.
There is something I have noticed – we give the most power, the most credibility, to what we put after the but. What we say after the but is what we think is the dominant thing about our reality. The first thing may be some kind of factor, but what we put after the but is more or less the final word on the subject.
What we need to learn, is to put what God says after the but. This is an act of will, but before that even, it is an act of faith. Nothing you hear this weekend will make sense until you agree to put God’s Word after the but.
I want us to look at the life of someone in the Bible who learned to do this. She is one of the least known, least talked-about heroines of faith in the Bible. Her name is Leah. Leah was the daughter of a man named Laban. Her story picks up in Genesis chapter 29. The bible says Leah had “weak eyes.” We don’t really know what this means, but it seems to mean that she was ugly. Right after this it says: “but her sister Rachel was shapely and beautiful.” Notice the but. It was probably one of the dominant “buts” in Leah’s life.
One day their cousin Jacob, whom they had never met, came from a far country. Jacob ended up working for his uncle Laban (Leah’s father). Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Leah’s sister. He told his uncle he would work for seven years as a dowry, and Laban agreed. Only, when the time came, Laban tricked Jacob. Brides in those days were heavily veiled, and the wedding took place at night – and there was no electricity. So Laban gave his older daughter, Leah, in marriage to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t find out until the light of the next morning. Laban offered to let Jacob marry Rachel too, if he worked another seven years. So after Jacob and Leah had been married just one week, a new wedding took place, and Jacob got Rachel at last. Then he had another seven years to work.
Needless to say, they were not one big happy family. We don’t know if Leah loved Jacob, or wanted to marry him. But we do know that Jacob did not love Leah, and had never wanted to marry her. Almost certainly, the reason her father had tricked Jacob in that way was because he thought it was unlikely that he would ever be able to marry her off. In other words, she was so ugly, her father had to trick someone into marrying her. Almost certainly, Leah knew this. She was ugly, not stupid.
Naturally, Jacob favored Rachel. He loved her, not Leah. Leah’s only consolation was that she had children fairly easily, while Rachel went for a long time with none. When Leah’s first son (Reuben) was born, she said, “The Lord has seen my affliction; surely my husband will love me now (Genesis 29:32).” Notice that her focus was on her unhappy situation, and she hopes the fact that she bore him the first child will change it. When her second son (Simeon) came along she said, “The Lord heard I was unloved, and gave me this son also (Genesis 29:33).” Still, her dominant reality is that Jacob doesn’t love her. After her third son was born, she was still focused on her struggles, saying, “at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34).”
Now we know that it takes nine months to make a baby. There was no birth control in those days, but in general, when a woman is breastfeeding, that sometimes helps prevent pregnancy. Back in those days, children were probably breastfed pretty consistently for at least a year. So it reasonable to assume at least two years between each child. When you throw in the fact that Jacob had another wife, and everything that was involved in the family dynamics, it may have been more like three years, or even more between children. So Leah went between six and nine years, while the dominant fact in her life was that her husband did not love her.
But (notice the but) by the time her fourth son arrives, something has changed. There is no evidence that Jacob ever changed his attitude very much toward her. Reasonably, at least eight years might have passed by this point, perhaps a many as twelve or more. Say, a decade; ten long years of realizing her marriage will never be what she dreamed it might be. But listen to what she says when this fourth son, Judah, is born: “This time, I will praise the Lord (29:35).”
Leah is no longer fixated on what she lacks in her life. She isn’t trying to get Jacob to change anymore. Instead, her focus is on the Lord, and his love and favor for her. Her struggle had been with God and with her husband. But when she gave birth to Judah, she has given up the fight – in a positive way. Her troubles have led her to a place where she looks to God to meet her needs, and can receive his love and mercy with joy and thankfulness. I’m sure that Leah still struggled. I think it is only reasonable to assume that emotionally, her situation never changed much. Certainly, the Bible never records that Jacob changed his attitude toward her. But she came to the point where the dominant thing in her life was not her struggle, or her unfilled needs, but rather, God’s awesome love for her.
Genesis 29:31 says that when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. In other words, the Lord was the one who gave Leah these children; and even more, he gave them to her because he saw that her husband did not love her. Now, at first, her response was basically this: “Good! This child will change my situation. This child will make my husband love me.” But think about it. God gave the children to Leah, not as tools to coerce Jacob’s love – the Lord gave Leah children because the Lord loved her. He was showing her that regardless of what Jacob thought of her, He loved her. She was not unloved. At first she missed the point. She was still putting Jacob’s lack of love after the but. Finally however, she got it. When Judah was born, she praised the Lord. She finally saw that these children would not make her loved – they showed her that she was already loved.
Sometimes when we pray, God changes our situation, and makes it better. Sometimes, he leaves us in the same circumstances. When he does that, his desire is that our lives can be so filled with him, that the negative aspects of our situation pale in comparison. When Kari and I first started dating, I was in job situation that I didn’t like, living in a city I didn’t care for, with few real friends nearby. I remember sitting in a meeting at work, filled with joy. I wasn’t joyful because I was in the meeting. I wasn’t joyful because I liked where I was living, or because I was making much money, or that I liked my work. None of those things were true. But I was joyful because I knew that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, Kari loved me.
Now, I don’t mean to be negative, but the kind of joy that came when I first knew that Kari loved me, does not sustain me in the same way eighteen years later. We still love each other. It is still a big thing in my life that Kari loves me. But no human being has the power to fill you with joy consistently for a long period of time. Only God’s love is that strong.
I think that was the kind of place Leah finally reached. Jacob still didn’t love her. He probably never would. But God did, and the fact that God loved her was more important than the fact that her husband did not.
This is the key to “Living after the But.” Remember, whatever you put after “but” is the dominant reality to you. For many years, Leah probably said something like this: “I know God loves me, but my husband does not. I’m just a third wheel.” Finally, after the birth of Judah, she started thinking this way: “I know Jacob never wanted to marry me. He may never love me the way I want him to. But God loves me and cares for me.” The only thing that really changed for Leah is which thing she put after the “But.” However, I think it transformed everything for her.
I suspect that in the next few messages I have to preach, you might hear some things that cause you to think “but….” I want you to remind yourself to put the correct thing after the but.
The apostle Paul said something very important in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
This verse teaches us something important about the nature of reality. Part of reality is seen. That is, we can perceive it with the senses. This part of reality changes. It proceeds through time. It has a beginning and an end. We might call it the “natural realm” or “this world,” Paul says that this part of reality is temporary. That doesn’t mean it is meaningless. In the broad scheme of things, this seen and temporary part of reality is where God works in us and through us for his own glory. What happens in the seen, in the here and now of time, has an effect on where we are in the other part of reality. In this world, we have struggle and change and process and need and growing and sowing and reaping.
The other part of reality is unseen and eternal. It is outside of time. We might call it the eternal realm, or eternity. It is the realm of the uncreated, of ultimate reality, of complete and wholeness where things are settled. This is the ultimate dwelling of God. When God appeared to Moses and Moses asked him his name, God said “I AM.” That is an idea of the eternal realm. There is no time there.
The bible says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). That is is not true in this world, in the temporary part of reality. Jesus is not walking around Palestine today like he was two thousand years ago. When he was thirty he was physically changed from how he looked and acted when he was three. But in the eternal realm, that is true. Jesus existed before the creation of the earth. He exists now. He always will exist. His eternal spirit never has changed, never will change.
Maybe this is obvious, but these verses in 2 Corinthians show us that the eternal realm is greater, more powerful, and more permanent than the temporary realm of this world. We don’t mean that this world doesn’t matter or is an illusion. God made it. God even entered it himself as a human being, bound in time. So it is important. We are just acknowledging that what the bible says is true: the unseen realm is greater than the seen. We are supposed to focus on the unseen more than on the seen.
Both realms co-exist. They interact with each other. The bible teaches that we live in both at the same time – even as Jesus did. But simply for illustration it may help to think of a line between them. Above the line is the eternal, unseen realm. Below the line is the temporary, seen world.
In these terms, we need to put the truths that exist “above the line” – the eternal unchanging truths – after the but.
We deal with things below the line constantly. That’s what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. His outer person (below the line) was being destroyed. But…BUT his inner person (above the line) was being constantly renewed. His affliction is momentary – but the glory is eternal. He focuses therefore on what is unseen and eternal. He puts those things after the but.
Now, I want the Holy Spirit to make this practical for you. What have you been putting after the but? Has your dominant reality been what God says? Or have you given more power and credence to your circumstances, or how you feel, or what your mind tells you logically? Take a moment to think about it. Let the Lord bring to mind what you have reversed right now.
Your dominant reality might be very negative, and very powerful. Leah spent her whole life thinking, “but I’m ugly.” Long years of marriage only added, “and I’m unwanted, and I’ll never get the chance to be with someone who does want me.” That’s powerful stuff. And it was all true. She never was loved by her husband or anyone else in that way.
But…BUT – there was another thing that was true. It was true that she was made in the image of God. It was true that God loved her. It was true that God wanted her. She let God’s love become her dominant reality. She let his word be the final word.
We need to learn to believe that what God says is more real than what we think or feel.
I am not saying that your struggles aren’t real. I am not saying that you aren’t dealing with things that are truly bad, or difficult or wrong. But I am saying that God’s Word is more true, more powerful. It is an act of faith to believe it.