This was my moniker in high school choir. Every year at summer camp, our teen choir would compete and of course, we were expected to smile while we sang praises to God. My “smiler” was broken. Truthfully, it was not cool to smile in the choir. When we were having fun, we could smile, laugh, and carry-on throughout the day, but when it came to the choir, the smiles shut down. My youth pastor called me “Coffin Boy” in order to force a smile. This disease followed me through high school into college. As a singer in college, I still struggled with smiling.
Something changed after college in the first few years of ministry. I can’t tell you when exactly, but, after a while, the smile became more natural. Although I can’t claim a certain point in time, I can tell you it was a mixture of two things: God’s Word and God’s work. Nehemiah knew about this 2,500 years ago when he challenged the people, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The people had been busy doing God’s work and they were hearing God’s Word. How do those two things bring joy?
God’s Word transforms our perception. “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Jeremiah gave a personal testimony when he said, “Thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts” (Jeremiah 15:16). In the popular description of the Word of God in Psalm 19, you will read, “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:8). If you are not possessed with an infectious joy, then check your connection to God’s Word. “Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
God’s work transforms our purpose. While others in the world chase after earthly gains, the ones who choose to do God’s work saturate their soul with joy. This is not a perk only available to full-time, vocational ministry. Wherever you are and whatever your occupation may be, when you see your purpose on earth as serving your Lord and bringing honor to His name, you will find joy in what you do. Your skills are being used to bring you closer to the lost. Your experience is awarding you the opportunity to mentor and train others. Your service enables you to resemble the Perfect Servant who “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark 10:45). When you are doing God’s work you are aligning your purpose for life with God’s plan and the harmony brings a sweetness of joy.
Happiness is a roller coaster of ups and downs. Joy is a steady, stable energy not derived from circumstances but from connection with God. If it can revive Coffin Boy, then surely joy can transform anyone.
It’s a gift.
I know I shouldn’t brag, but when it comes to packing the car for a trip or the moving truck for a move, I have enough spatial intelligence to fit the most stuff in the least space. This gift is constantly sharpened by my lovely wife who needs to take one more essential with us, but fitting the most stuff in the least space is an entertaining challenge.
Little spaces are trending. People who claim to be minimalists strip all the accessories of their life away until they are left with only the essentials. Some minimalists are extreme and have even limited their living space to a couple hundred square feet! It is fascinating to explore their little spaces. With all the secret compartments and fold down or pop up elements, they can pack a lot in a small area.
Ezra mentions a little space but he is not downsizing to a studio apartment. He marvels at the little space of grace God has given His people. This little space of grace is not limited. It is extraordinary. God’s grace is more than sufficient, but it is not sloppy. In this little space of grace, you will find a black hole of supply. Paul speaks of God’s grace as “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20). God far exceeds my packing skills when it comes to packing His grace into a little space and making it available to you and to me.
The problem is we tend to live expansively. If you have two months for a project, it will probably take you two months. However, if you were only given ten days, you’d be surprised how you could meet that deadline! If you have two thousand square feet of living space, then you will accumulate stuff to fill the space. When we sin expansively we treat God’s grace contemptuously. As Ezra began teaching the Jews the words from God, they were convicted. The book of Ezra ends oddly with this issue of putting away or divorcing wives. You would need to read much of Israel’s history to understand the dangerous presumption of God’s grace in Ezra 9-10. Read Numbers 25 and you will see what happened when the pagans enticed the Israelites to reject the true God and worship false gods. In fact, their unfaithfulness to God necessitated the Babylonian captivity! Their expansive living—their licentious, grace-gorging style of living—risked the chastening of God, again.
Paul asks, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1)? God forbid! We should not live expansively in sin at the expense of God’s meritorious grace. Believer, you know the price of grace. It cost Jesus humiliation and suffering. “For if we sin wilfully” we have “trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood…an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:26, 29). If you have been living expansively, then read Ezra’s plea for forgiveness and make it your own. Christian, marvel at the little space of grace.
Whether you are digging a trench, felling a tree, cleaning the windows, or pulling the weeds, the saying is very true: “Many hands make light work!” It is much simpler and sometimes more enjoyable when many contribute their efforts for a task.
In our lives, we can experience the many hands of God’s work. Before their captivity in Babylon, Israel had heard the prophets preach for years God’s hand was against them. “His power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him” (Ezra 8:22). Isaiah told the people, “I will turn my hand upon thee, And purely purge away thy dross” (Isaiah 1:25). Such a process would certainly purify God’s people, but there would be the pain of chastening.
As Ezra leads some of the captives out of Babylon, he is very aware of the other hands of God. Six times in chapters seven and eight, Ezra mentions the hand of God aiding them in their mission. The hand of provision (7:6, 9) turned Artexerxes into a philanthropist. He gave generously silver, wheat, wine, oil, and “salt without prescribing how much” (7:22). The hand of provision released the captives with extraordinary treasure. God’s work would not lack God’s supply.
The hand of partnership (7:22; 8:18) provided Ezra with the people he needed to do God’s work. It was by God’s mercy, Ezra realizes, he was blessed to be commissioned to such a purpose. Chief men and men of understanding were co-laborers due to the hand of partnership. God’s work would not lack God’s servants.
The hand of protection (8:22, 31) secured their vulnerable entourage. This caravan of “holy men” and their families, loaded with treasures of Babylon, would have been a prime target for the enemy. Ezra knew God would protect them and exercised his faith in God’s hand of protection. He would safely guide them to Jerusalem. God’s work would not lack God’s security.
Maybe you are faithfully serving the Lord, but it seems you are stuck in the “have-nots” instead of the “haves.” Remember, the Lord’s Prayer which tells us to pray for our daily needs. We do not pray for excess, but Jesus instructed us to pray for the daily provision necessary to do the work God has for us today. Maybe you are faithfully serving the Lord, but it seems you are “going it alone.” Remember, the Lord’s Presence, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). You are never alone, even when it seems no one stands with you but “all forsook” you (2 Timothy 4:16). When God is with you, you have a majority. Maybe you are faithfully serving the Lord, but it seems the Enemy “has your number.” Remember, the Lord’s Promise, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28). The fear of man is a snare. Rest in God’s hand.
When we are devoted to God’s work, He will lend a hand. With His many hands, His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).
Some time ago, The Times posted the following inquiry: “What’s wrong with the world?” A prominent author, G. K. Chesterton, responded to the question with two short words.
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.
After reading the story of Esther, you could reduce it to a simple “moral of the story.” Without trivializing the biblical record, how would you summarize the story? What if the story summarized itself. “Seeking the wealth of his people” (Esther 10:3). Ponder this for a moment. Mordecai was promoted and well-favored because he was “seeking the wealth of his people.” The adversary, Haman, sought personal promotion. He would go home and brag about “A Day in the Life of Haman” to his wife and friends. Before he realized the king wished to honor Mordecai, Haman blindly imagined himself astride the king’s horse parading through the street.
Be careful of what you seek. Paul tells us to seek “every man another’s wealth” (1 Corinthians 10:24). Do you seek opportunities to enrich the lives of others? Is your focus, today, on making someone’s day? The motive for seeking to enrich others is primarily salvation or fellowship. Paul explains, “Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33). Once we remember this world will pass away and there is a place in heaven reserved for those who have received Christ as their Savior, we will find it easier to seek another’s profit.
What you seek boils down to what you love. In the great “Love Chapter,” love is described as that which “seeketh not her own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The world is full of “Hamans” who “mind earthly things” and “seek their own” (Philippians 3:19; 2:21). What is wrong with the world? Humbly admit, “I am.” The world could use another Mordecai who seeks “the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Philippians 2:21).
For what do you seek?
There we sat in the middle of the hot wilderness. Barrel cactuses surrounded us in this foreign land. Civilization was nowhere in sight. Our thirty-plus passenger shuttle bus had coughed its last mile in the desert of Mexico. The “promised land” we called home was so far away. Would we ever make it? It did turn into the trip that never seemed to end, and as a teenager, it was an adventure. Now that I am a pastor, it would have been a terror. How we survived when we only had a sleeve of Oreos, a gallon of water, and a football, I cannot recall. I remember our angry tirade against the barrel cactus that popped our football more than I do the details of our rescue. However, on that missions trip in Mexico, we knew God was watching out for us. I don’t think our tow truck driver’s name was Immanuel, but I do know God was with us because it was more than coincidence the way God rescued us.
It’s when you are in the middle of the desert, secluded from everything, you begin to feel alone. You may feel God has abandoned you. The Jews certainly could have felt God was distant. Esther and her people had lived in captivity for 70 years. Some of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem, but they were struggling to get the colony established. Where was God?
God did not show up personally, through His messengers the angels, nor really through the prophets in Esther’s story, but you sense God’s unseen hand working to deliver His people. Yes, the enemy plotted to erase the Jews from this world, but God was with them. It was more than coincidence the way God works to rescue them.
Can you sense God’s unseen hand in your life? Just the other day, the Lord brought a name to mind. It was someone I have prayed for intermittently for over a year now. As I saw the name, I again prayed God would intervene and encourage this person. Two days later, my phone rings. As I glance at the name of the caller, I nearly gasp in disbelief. It was the very person God brought to mind earlier. It was one of those moments where you can sense God’s unseen hand working.
Your life is not a string of coincidences. It is the carefully calculated plan of God. He never wastes a moment or an experience. Look today for the way God is moving in your life.
I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. (Hebrews 13:5)