Frustrated with my habit of sliding two steps off the path, and always hiding the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I was not faithfully following you, I finally let tears come and wash away doubt: I knew on my own I could not figure out what walking with you was really about. And that was when you came through. You said that in order to stay the course, I would have to rely on your spiritual force that could take control, now that remorse had opened me up to this cleansing. So since then I’ve walked with you day by day, not letting anything turn me away because you rule, and I’ve chosen to stay attached deeply to you, my true Lord.
Fifty-six years ago – I think it was February or March – I was sitting on a wooden bench in church, in Ferkessédougou, Côte d’Ivoire. My family had recently come back from a home assignment in the U.S.; I had completed the first semester of seventh grade there. Rather than try to adapt back to boarding school in the middle of a semester, we had decided to just be at home the rest of that school year. It became a critical turning point for me, a place where I had to put an ebenezer – a stone of remembrance.
I had been a believer since I was little, one of those kids who grew up knowing from the beginning that Jesus is the Savior, that God loves us. Family devotions had planted the Word in my heart. During the previous year, while attending church in the U.S., I had even declared my faith publicly by being baptized. But through those years I also battled straying, sliding backwards, especially as a “tween.”
Having that downtime at home gave me a moment to really think some things through. Maybe it should not have startled me that as I sat in church, struggling to get my French back in line so that I could follow the message, I began to really check in with the Lord. I was so tired of my back-and-forth walk as a believer. Increased maturity gave me more insight into why I was struggling so: I had not really let the Lord take over as my Boss. Humbled, sad, I admitted it and told him that this time I was giving in and would no longer slip away. I really meant it!
That was the beginning of a consistent lifelong walk, holding onto him and counting on him holding onto me. What made the difference? It was my admission that I did not have it in me to do this alone. That fits with what Jesus said is the foundational step to being a real Kingdom citizen:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:3 NIV)
Being “poor in spirit” means recognizing you are spiritually destitute, and only God’s gracious mercy can relieve this. I had come to that point, throwing myself into his arms for help. His response was amazing.
He gave me hunger to know him, and showed me books on missionary bookshelves that encouraged new growth. He provided dorm parents the next year, for 8th grade, who truly discipled us (Don and Glenn Bigelow). Uncle Don did devotions for us “Bees” (the 7th and 8th graders) using the Phillips New Testament translation. Suddenly the Scriptures were relevant, easy to understand and apply.
I’m not saying I was perfect – far from it! It is just that the journey has continued, with the One in charge grabbing me and correcting my walk when I stumble, healing hurts, and strengthening me by always being with me, always at work.
This year I am participating in a Sermon on the Mount memorization project associated with the mission we served with, WorldVenture. As our guide Peter Persson (another retiree) has shared his research findings regularly, it has pushed me to dig in deeper too.
One thing that several great commentators have made clear is that this first Beatitude provides the starting point for progression to the other character traits that Jesus underlined. Knowing one’s own need to depend on the Master, the Lord, for spiritual growth and strength is where we need to begin. Then as we get to know him better and better, he matures us spiritually and our character develops the way he desires.
We can tell it is what he desires because he characterizes each step as those who are “blessed.” Since this has a rather vague meaning in our modern world, the various word studies show that it means one is happy due to their relationship to God. Here is one dictionary definition that really speaks to me:
In the Old Testament the idea involves more of outward prosperity than in the New Testament, yet it almost universally occurs in connections which emphasize, as its principal element, a sense of God’s approval founded in righteousness which rests ultimately on love to God.
As we have continued reading Renovated, by Jim Wilder and Dallas Willard, in our family devotions, this key aspect of developing a loving attachment to God has made so much sense to us. His love for us reaches out to us, and as we get to know him better and better we love him too, increasingly. As a result we can actually become more like him. His kingdom is near – right here, actually, where he rules. We walk in it, learning to live out its ethics even now.
I find this deeply encouraging. We call out to him, and when he “hears” it means that he answers. He comes to us and pulls us out of our slough of despond, out of our inconsistent efforts to transform ourselves. He makes us “blessed” or “happy” in the spiritual dimension in which we have been longing to thrive, once we have recognized our poverty in that area and our dependence on him. As David said in Psalm 40:
16 May all those who seek you be happy and rejoice in you! May those who love to experience your deliverance say continually,”May the LORD be praised! I am oppressed and needy! May the Lord pay attention to me! You are my helper and my deliverer! O my God, do not delay! (Ps. 40:1 NET)