preparation, Spiritual Growth

Strength for the Journey

“Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.” Isaiah 41:10

Hard work pays off. No one knows that better than those in the pursuit of success, especially high school and college graduates.

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An illustration of how God empowers us: My husband and me on a cruise to Bimini in 2013.

Lately, I have been noticing a lot of sentimental posts and pictures from recent grads on social media. I know that feeling of utter relief and satisfaction. Even though I haven’t been in school for quite some time, I still remember all those hours I spent reading, researching, writing, and discovering formulas for algebraic expressions like it was yesterday.

I thought those days would never end. There were times when I was tempted to quit…and there were times when I did, mentally. In a world where some things are dictated by time—like a four-year degree—it’s hard to escape the pressures of completing each semester with a passing grade. No one wants to arrive late to success and the real world, but in most cases, some people get left behind because they failed a few courses.

That can be discouraging, and this is also something I know full well. I didn’t graduate college with my class. It took me an additional three years to finish because of lack of preparation, concentration, and motivation. I almost gave up because I could not deal with the challenges (math was not my strong suit).

One Sunday morning, I attended church service and heard a guest pastor say, “Just because it’s difficult does not mean it’s impossible.” As simple as that sounded, I thought his declaration was profound. I repeated those words in my head in the latter years of my collegiate journey until it was time for me to cross the stage and receive my degree. I was empowered by them because they confirmed two biblical truths for me: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” and “Nothing is impossible with God” (Philippians 4:13, Luke 1:37).

The former verse was a direct quote from Paul, the apostle who was thanking the Philippians for their generosity. He was also sharing with them how he had been able to survive the worst and best parts of his journey because he knew he would be rewarded for his labor when it was all said and done.

The angel who had just told Mary that her cousin had conceived a son in her old age spoke the latter verse. Mary was still grappling with the idea that she would conceive a son through the Holy Spirit. The angel shared Elizabeth’s pregnancy to assure Mary that God would keep His promise.

Considering that we’re all on a journey, we all need divine encouragement to get us through the hard lessons of faith. Paul did not have a church to fund his missionary trips or a private jet to get him to different parts of the world. He relied on God to meet his physical and spiritual needs. Elizabeth did not have access to expensive fertility treatments to get pregnant right away, but her faith carried her through the ache and the wait.

Therefore, not everything that we desire in this life will come easy. In fact, some of our goals may end up unfulfilled. We need the power of God to endure the grueling process of maturity, but it takes discipline to commit to our spiritual progress or any endeavor in life for that matter.

Just as we graduate when we’ve worked hard and passed all the lessons entailed in our field of study, Scripture states that God will “establish” us after we have “suffered a little while” (or after we have passed life’s tests). As challenging as that sounds, it is refreshing to know that the God who is fully aware of our shortcomings, empowers us to overcome any obstacle.

Whatever challenges you are faced with today as you try to achieve your goals, I pray God gives you strength…and that you readily accept it.

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Know Better, Do Better

“Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.” Proverbs 5:6

Knowledge-is-Power

Reading the Bible can be overwhelming and hard to understand if you approach it literally. In fact, the complexities found in Scripture can be enough to discourage you from reading the Good Book all together.

That’s why it is important to pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance before you read and to attend weekly Bible services where a qualified teacher, like your pastor (you’ll know when you find one) can teach you the word of God. Otherwise, you’ll become vulnerable to false teaching and find yourself engaging in unnecessary religious activities.

A month ago, Pastor Jamie Coots from the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church died after a rattlesnake bit him. He was known for handling serpents during church services and became a reality TV star because of this practice. Even more disturbing, he had been bitten numerous times before – even losing a finger – but refused treatment each time. He usually recovered, but this time, he did not survive.

According to reports, Coots belonged to a small circle of Pentecostal Holiness pastors who take Jesus’ words literally: “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and if they drank any deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all” (Mark 16:18).

They view this passage as a divine commandment, demonstrate it (or a portion of it) during their church services and pass these practices down to their children, who in many cases become their successors.

But there is more to the verse than what some people, like Coots, get out of it.

In the passage (the context in which the verse appears), Jesus gave his disciples a set of instructions and prophesied about the miracles that would take place among the believers.

He said: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16:15-18).

He wanted to assure them that they would be protected from all forms of danger while fulfilling his commission. The ministry of Apostle Paul is a perfect example of Jesus’ prophecy being fulfilled.

After arriving to Malta, an island, Paul built a fire to keep him and his disciples warm. While laying a bundle of sticks on the fire, a serpent came out of the brushwood and bit Paul. But Paul shook the snake off and suffered no ill effects (read Acts 28:3-5).

Paul did not go looking for the snake. The snake attacked him. Even then, he was able to continue preaching the good news, drive out demons and heal the sick. God made sure nothing hindered Paul’s work in ministry.

Perhaps through reading this passage, a lot of snake-handling pastors believe that God will spare their bodies and their lives as he did for Paul. What they fail to realize is that they are testing God’s faithfulness as opposed to allowing God to test their faith.

When Jesus had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, the devil came to tempt him. He dared Jesus to throw himself off the edge of the temple and even used the Word of God to justify his challenge. In other words, he misconstrued the meaning of a particular verse to get Jesus to do what he wanted. He said, “For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’ “ (Matthew 4:6).

But if anyone knew and understood the holy text better than the devil, or anyone else for that matter, it was Jesus. He replied to the devil, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ “ (Matthew 4:7).

What Jesus did was cross-reference two different passages to reveal the depth of the verse that the devil had quoted. He was basically saying, yes, God will send angels to protect me from getting hurt, but God does not want me to intentionally get hurt just so he can prove (to me or anyone) that he will in fact protect me.

The devil certainly had no rebuttal for that!

Looking at Coots’ story, it’s easy to conclude that he was radical or perhaps even crazy. After all, there is nothing wise about handling poisonous snakes before a group of people to prove God’s presence and power.

But we can still learn something from all of this: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). It does not come by seeing, and certainly not from being bit.