Dreams of Heaven

Cloudwatching Look Up

We avoid pain because…
We are focused on earthly goals and dreams

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians to challenge them to forsake inferior gods and destructive religious practices, and to reorient their lives completely around Jesus Christ, who is everything they need. About halfway through the letter, he issues this clarion call:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2)

Less-than-Great Expectations

Great ExpectationsBut we — especially those of us who practically wade through wealth and comfort in the everyday of life — tend to have a really hard time raising our eyes and hearts and minds to heaven. And when God sends difficult circumstances to get our attention or wake us up or burn away impurity … when He attempts to draw our eyes off the things of this world and onto Himself … then it’s easy to feel mistreated and cry foul. This is precisely because we tend to have our eyes fixed on the disillusion or destruction or disappointment of earthly goals and plans and material goods, rather than on the parting clouds above us. But we can only see the far-greater treasure that their parting reveals if we look up.

spots in your eyesHave you ever looked at a bright light long enough to sear temporary spots on your retinas? Even when you look away or close your eyes, you still see the spots. Well, people do the same thing with their plans for life and dreams for the future. How easy it is to fixate on earthly goals or desires or possessions until our eyes and hearts are seared with their images. The bright spots burned onto them can then obscure what God is actually doing in our lives. So in ignorance of His far superior plans, we turn away feeling like the universe (or God Himself) has somehow done us wrong.

looking-at-phonesBecause our eyes are firmly fixed on what’s in our hands or on our bucket lists or in our wallets or on our neighbors minds (or at least what we think that’s what they’re thinking), we can totally miss what God has set His eyes and mind and heart upon in our lives … which can always be summarized as “being conformed to the image of His Son” … which is better by far.

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29)

To live the life we were made to live, we must fix our eyes on things above … on God’s definitions of success and accomplishment, on God’s goals and dreams, on God’s treasure and reward. If we expect our treasure to come in the form of earthly things or unthreatened comfort or emotional simplicity or some kind of guarantee that God would act in support of our own plans, then we haven’t at all understood the higher calling of God on our lives.

watching-sunrise

But we’re in good company. We see this over and over in the Bible. We could probably choose from dozens of stories to illustrate the point. But God specifically brought to my mind the story of Moses and the Exodus, so I thought we could zoom in on it…

Freedom from Slavery vs Making my Life Harder

Thousands of years ago, God appeared to a man named Abram, and promised that He would make Abram into a great nation. This nation would be, in a unique sense, God’s people and become a blessing to the entire earth. Through very unusual circumstances, which weave their way through the book of Genesis (specifically chapters 9-41), Abram’s great grandson, Joseph, ends up Vice President of the region’s uncontested superpower, Egypt. God has highly blessed Joseph, and directs him to lead the people of Egypt to store up food in preparation for a great famine which God has revealed to Joseph will be coming. The nation dutifully prepares, and when the rest of that part of the world sinks into great hunger and need, Joseph’s family (like many others) seeks refuge in Egypt. There, they find plenty to eat — thanks to God’s work through Joseph. Now called “Israelites,” after the new name God gave to Joseph’s father Jacob, God’s people prosper in Egypt and greatly increase in both numbers and influence under the protection of the king.

And this, by earthly standards, is where the story takes a turn for the worse. We pick it up in the opening pages of the book of Exodus…

Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built … store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor, the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
(Exodus 1:6-14)

Israelite slaves in Egypt

Eventually, through very interesting and dramatic circumstances, God raises up a man named Moses, and sends him to demand that Pharaoh — the most powerful man in the known world — release the Israelite people — now numbering in the millions — to walk out of Egypt with all their stuff, and be free to live with and worship God as they see fit.

Moses: “So, Pharaoh, you know all those slaves who are building your cities and monuments? Well, I want you to let them all go and do the work yourself for a change!”

Pharaoh: {blank, disbelieving stare}

God: {pointing to Moses} I’m with him. Best do what he says.

To put it mildly, Pharaoh rejects Moses’ demands. So, God works terrible and terrifying miracles through Moses, bringing down plagues on the king and his people. But instead of relenting, Pharaoh angrily digs in his heals, and reacts to Moses and his (really God’s) people with attempts at brutal suppression. So, the plagues get worse and worse and the Pharaoh gets more and more angry — round and round — until God has pretty much destroyed Egypt (punishment for their great wickedness). And finally, the king lets God’s people go. And God leads them, again eventually (more interesting drama), to a new homeland which He had promised to Abram centuries before.

Think about the drama which unfolded between Moses’ first round of demands to the king and the end of the story, when the Red Sea finally comes crashing down onto Pharaoh’s army, confirming that the Israelites had truly and completely escaped. There is a definitely escalating pattern in this part of the story. Moses would make his customary demand, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh would refuse. God would drop a plague — from frogs to locusts to blood to boils — onto Egypt. And Pharaoh would both hold his ground against Moses and retaliate against the Israelites.

Here’s an explicit glimpse we get of one round of this escalation early on in the story (read it for yourself in Exodus 5:1-22)…

Pharaoh: Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.

Moses (with his brother Aaron): Bad call. God sent us, and that should sum it up for you. Now, let our people go!

Pharaoh: No way; get back to work!

That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

Slave drivers and overseers: {to millions of slaves who already lived in back-breaking hardship} No straw for you! Thanks to your buddy Moses and your “God”, your life just got even harder! Oh, and why haven’t you met your brick quota yesterday or today, as before!?

Israelite slaves in Egypt

Godly perspective presupposes delayed gratification

Imagine you’re the average slave building Pharaoh a pyramid. From your perspective, some guy came sauntering into the boss’s office and got you in trouble. Yeah, your life is horrible, but at least “the company” provides you with straw to make bricks. That was at least something. Now, thanks to the guy with the big mouth and the staff, you have to go gather the straw AND make the bricks. How does that make you feel? You’re probably pretty ticked off, as the Israelite rank and file surely were.

Why?

Israelites making bricks in EgyptBecause you have no way to know that “my job just got harder” isn’t the end of the story. If all you see are the problems of that day, then the whole straw shortage thing is very bad news. But if you really believe the things God has promised you, you’d be forced to conclude that there is more going on than that. You’d have to say, “I don’t know how, but somehow God is working all this straw gathering and brick making together for my good” (Romans 8:28, paraphrased). Thinking about Moses’ story from the outside, it’s certainly more obvious than it would have been to the Israelites from inside the story. And it’s for sure more clear looking back on this story from history than when we evaluate our own lives in progress. But still, looking back it’s hard to imagine the Israelite slaves saying, “I know God is working all things together for my freedom and the freedom of all my family and friends, but that goal is too far off and abstract. Who wants to think about actual freedom? Ain’t nobody got time for that! What I really want … what would make me happy … is for my taskmasters to dump a pile of straw outside my house in between beatings.”

I know that’s extreme language, and I present it somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but isn’t that pretty much what the Israelites said (see Exodus 5:20-21)? And if we’re honest, isn’t that (in effect) the kinds of things we say as well? “God, I know you said you’re doing everything for my good and conforming me to the image of your Son, but that’s just too far off and abstract. What I really want … what would make me happy … is … something trivial by comparison that I want right now.”

If you could see the universe and human history and your life the way God does, what language would you use to compare the goals on your personal bucket list with the dreams God has on His bucket list for you? Would “no comparison” even come close?

It’s a perspective thing

This brings us back around to where we started — to your perspective and focus. It’s about where you fix your eyes. The average Israelite slave didn’t understand that the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh was necessary. It was evidently required to gain the peoples’ freedom and glorify God and progress God’s redemptive strategy for all mankind. So, yes, there was immediate pain — and not short-term, either. They’d been slaves their entire lives … and now, work had gotten even harder. But who knew that this meager slave was in fact playing a key role in the drama that would stand for all time as the ultimate story of God’s redeeming power, giving hope and exemplifying promise to billions of people all over the world for millennia to come!?

They all knew God’s promise, “I will bless you and make you a blessing… To you and to your descendants, I give this land.” (Genesis 12:1-7). And I know it had been awhile and circumstances were blinding them. I get that sometimes it’s hard to choose to believe. But they still had that choice … to decide whether or not to actually believe what they all knew God had promised, even in the face of suffering and uncertainty. They had to choose to look up — to fix their eyes on God’s promises — or to look at their admittedly very difficult circumstances.

And so do we.

God is a promising God. He’s clearly told us that He is working all things together for our good. He is wise and understands how that works; we do not. He sees where our lives are going; we do not. We must resist the urge to repeatedly demand that He explain Himself. Even when there is pain and sorrow and what feels like inexplicable derailments or insurmountable roadblocks… Instead of shaking your fist at heaven or demanding some short term balm on your circumstances (your very own pile of straw!), let us trust in the Lord with all our hearts, lean not on our own understanding, acknowledge God’s right and competence to do what needs to be done, and joyfully submit to His way. He will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and you will not be put to shame (Psalm 25:3).


“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)

cloudwatching look up


Read more about the goodness of God.

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
This entry was posted in Bible Stories, Real Life, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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