Read an ExcerptThe Tender Words of God
By Ann Spangler
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Tender Words
I have never found it easy to believe in God's love for me, except perhaps in the first days and weeks of my conversion. No matter where I turned in those bright days I found evidence of God's gracious care and steady forgiveness. The stern-browed god of my youth had suddenly and unexpectedly receded, and in his place came Jesus, bearing gifts of love and peace. Nearly every prayer in those days was answered, sometimes wondrously. I remember thinking that the problem with many people was that they expected so little from a God who was prepared to give so much.
But years passed and something happened. It wasn't one thing but many. Large things and small things-life ebbing and flowing. It was tests of faith, sometimes passed and sometimes not. It was sins accruing. It was spiritual skirmishes and full-out battles. It was disappointments and difficulties and circumstances beyond comprehending. All these heaped together like a great black mound, casting a shadow over my sense that God still loved me, still cared for me as tenderly as when he had first wooed me and won my heart. Instead of a loved and cherished child of God awash in the sea of God's love, I felt more like a boat whose barnacle-encrusted hull had sat too long in the water. That boat needed to be hoisted out of the salty sea to rest for a time in the sunshine. It needed loving, patient hands to sand through all the layers of sediment down to the bare, smooth boards. It needed fresh protective paint so that it could once again be launched into the shining sea.
But if that was my need, how could I, a rapidly aging single mother of two young children, ever find time to rest and to be restored? My older daughter had recently reminded me that my next birthday was cause for special celebration because on that day my age would exactly match the number of electoral votes possessed by the state of California. If you don't know how many that is, I'm not about to tell you. Suffice it to say they have the most of any state in the union.
Then I had an idea that had little to do with changing my routines but everything to do with changing my focus. It occurred to me after talking with a friend who spoke of a time in her life when she finally became convinced of God's love for her. I expected my friend to reveal something complicated and difficult, some tragedy, perhaps, that God had spared her from. Or maybe she had practiced some hard-fought spiritual discipline that yielded a favorable result. But it was something much simpler. Joan told me that she had merely made a decision-to set aside one month in which to act as though God loved her. Whenever she was tempted to doubt his love, she simply shifted her thoughts and then put the full force of her mind behind believing that God loved her. And that settled it for her-for good.
Joan's confidence in being loved has probably shaped her life in ways that even she does not understand. Recently she saw evidence that it had spilled over into the life of someone close to her when one of her sons during a particularly trying time in his life remarked: "I am so thankful God loves me."
My daughters are ten and twelve, while I am, as they repeatedly point out, rapidly approaching the age of extinction. Maybe that's why I find myself thinking lately about how to provide a secure foundation for them. Perhaps I could buy them each a house, I think. That would at least give them something to fall back on in hard times. But then I remember their college savings accounts, still spare, almost anorexic. I remember also that there are limits to what a parent-to what this parent-can do for her children. But what if I could leave them something better than a fat bank account? Jesus talked about the abundance of his provision when he spoke of the grace God wants to pour into our laps: "a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over." I wanted to know God's love in that lavish, pressed down, shaken together and running over kind of way so that I could love more fiercely and faithfully. I wanted there to be a spillover effect in the lives of my daughters.
So I was doubly motivated, determined to receive the grace I was sure God wanted to give so that I could both enjoy and communicate it. But I doubted that merely trying to retrain my thoughts would be enough. I needed something positive to focus my thoughts. Then I remembered the promise that Scripture makes about itself: "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow" (Hebrews 4:12). I wanted God's penetrating word to cut away my unbelief, to lay bare my need. I wanted to hear the truth from God's own mouth.
Over the years, I have read through the Bible several times, plowing straight through from Genesis to Revelation, not even skipping those endless genealogies. But like many people who tend to be self-critical, I find it easier to absorb the harsher sounding passages in the Bible than those that speak of God's compassion. Somehow, the tender words seem to roll right off me, much like water that beads up and rolls off a well-waxed automobile.
What would happen, I wondered, if I read through Scripture, this time hunting for the words that every human longs to hear-words of mercy, compassion, peace, and love? Yes, I know that every word of God is to be cherished but what if, for a brief time, I focused only on God's most tender words?
Because I am not the same quick study my friend Joan is, I decided to develop a remedial course for myself in which I could reflect morning and evening on the most tender words of God I could find in the Old and New Testament. Once I had gathered these passages, I wanted to sit with them not just for a few days but for three months. I wanted these words to be like guardians at each end of my day, passages I could soak in and call to mind when I was tempted to disbelieve.
The Tender Words of God is the result of this process. While the core of the book is Scripture, each week is introduced with a few words regarding my progress (or regress) on the journey. Though my remarks are brief, they are intended to chronicle my struggles and joys, not because my quest is all that remarkable but precisely because it is so ordinary, expressing the longing we all have to love and to be loved, especially by the One who made us. I hope you will join me on this journey, soaking in these Scriptures morning and evening, listening for God's voice, and experiencing his presence. You may even want to chronicle the story of your own progress by keeping a journal record of the way God communicates his love to you in this time. God has many things for us to do in this life, but I am convinced that you and I will do them better, with far more joy and greater impact, if we do them with a settled confidence in God's love.
Chapter Two God Speaks Words of Compassion
The Hebrew word raham, which means "compassion," is intimately connected to the Hebrew word rehem, which means "womb." Throughout the Scriptures, God reveals a kind of motherly compassion for his people. In one of the Bible's most moving passages, God reveals himself to Moses as "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6).
Jesus, too, displays great compassion for those who are needy. In fact, his compassion moves him to act on behalf of the sick, the blind, the hungry, and those without a shepherd. He even raises a man from the dead after witnessing a mother's sorrow. Compassion is an attribute of God, and it is closely related to mercy or pity. The Greek New Testament words for compassion are eleos and splanchnon.
LETTING THE WORD SHAPE ME
I began my hunt for the tender words of God in a distracted state. I was distressed about a deteriorating situation at one of my children's schools. I was thinking about money I didn't have but thought I needed. I felt anxious about a looming deadline. These and other thoughts paraded across my mind-over and over because I hadn't found a way to lay them to rest.
How could I construct a remedial course on God's love when I felt so scattered, when my energy kept heading in other directions? I imagined myself plowing through a field of tall weeds, searching vainly for golden kernels of grain in the midst of a thicket of distractions. But as I began to read the words of Scripture, I felt myself calming down, focusing, resting in the words themselves:
The Lord longs to be gracious to you. Our God is full of compassion. In all their distress he too was distressed. God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. And the Lord said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you."
I imagined Moses encountering the surprise of his life in the desert-a God shocking not so much for the display of his power but for the degree of his love and the intensity of his desire to be known. I listened as the psalmist likened God to a compassionate father and as Isaiah compared the Lord to a mother whose child feeds contentedly at her breast. But what hit me hardest was a story I had heard before, many times. Jesus told it. It's about a son who takes his father's money and runs with it to forlorn places. He lives wildly until the last penny is gone, and then in desperation he hires himself out to feed pigs. Starving, the prodigal son wishes he could stuff his belly with the same food the pigs are eating.
I imagined the listening crowd, captivated by the woeful tale Jesus was telling. The foolish prodigal seems to be getting what he deserves. What a rotten way to treat your father. Having squandered everything, he becomes impoverished. Even worse, he accepts a job taking care of pigs. To associate so closely and constantly with animals that God declared unclean would be to cross a boundary, alienating yourself from a holy God. The prodigal's downward slide must have seemed entirely fitting.
But Jesus' listeners could not have anticipated the surprise ending. Instead of publicly condemning his son and banishing him from the community as would have been a Jewish father's right, the prodigal's father runs out to meet him when he returns home and then throws a party to celebrate his return.
I thought about who was telling the story-the only human being whose vision of God had never been distorted by sin. Wasn't the Son the best one to tell us what God the Father is like?
I also thought about the prodigal. He was a pleasure seeker. I could relate to him because of my own temptations-too much food, comfortable vacations, dreams of an easy life. But dwelling on such dreams makes your body soft and fat, your soul feeble. As I thought about my own tendencies and failures, I could feel myself sinking into a kind of disgust that seemed to move me further from God. But what about the things I had been reading about his compassion? I refocused on what the Scriptures say about God's attitude toward us. As I did, I began to envision him waiting for me in the midst of my weakness, neither surprised nor repulsed by my sin, but simply waiting for me to come to my senses so he could welcome me home.
As this picture of God came into clearer focus, I wondered how often my distorted thinking about him impedes my progress in the spiritual life. Remember what the prodigal was thinking on his way home: "I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men" (Luke 15:18-19). Ashamed of himself, the son completely misunderstood his father's character. He had no idea what was inside his father's heart. Expecting rejection, he must have been shocked by his father's excited welcome-"bring the best ... bring the fattest ... let's have a feast!" (Luke 15:22-23).
That's what sin does to us. It makes us stupid, especially in relationship to God. We find it impossible to conceive of someone whose responses are so much better than our own. We imagine him merely as a larger, more powerful version of ourselves. So we assign him motives that are beneath him and contrary to his nature.
Come to think of it, by doubting his compassion, I was discounting my own experience as a parent. I had long ago realized that having children takes you straight into the mystery of love. Hadn't I known what it felt like to love a child regardless of her stubborn determination to take the wrong path? How could I forget the joy I felt whenever one of my children admitted she had done something wrong and asked to be forgiven? Why did I think God would be a less generous parent than I was? How could I misconstrue his heart, twist his intentions, be so slow to believe in his kindness? After all, I had been created in his image, not he in mine, so it made sense that any goodness in me was merely a reflection of his greater goodness. I knew that any occasional disappointment in my children didn't threaten the foundation of our relationship. How could it when it was built on my fierce, unconditional love for them? Surely God's love was far stronger and deeper than mine.
As I continued to pray to the God of compassion, I felt my own sense of self-condemnation ebbing. I was able to look at my weaknesses calmly, honestly, and with hope because I knew I was standing in the presence of a Father who loved me. Looking at him made it easier to look at me.
IN THE MORNING
I Long to Be Gracious to You
The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!
O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."
* * *
Lord, you are near even when my heart seems far from you. Open my eyes to your presence. Whether I turn to the left or to the right let me encounter your love.
I Will Reveal Myself to You
Then Moses said [to the Lord], "Now show me your glory."
And the Lord said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion....
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness."
I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
* * *
Lord, let your goodness pass in front of me. Help me to see you for who you are and to live my life according to this vision.
Monday IN THE MORNING
I Will Welcome You Back
When he [the prodigal son] came to his senses, he said, "How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
In all their distress [the Lord] too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
* * *
Father, your son Jesus compared you to a broken-hearted man who was filled with compassion toward his foolhardy child. Thank you for revealing your father heart toward me today.
Excerpted from The Tender Words of God by Ann Spangler
Copyright © 2008 by Ann Spangler. Excerpted by permission.
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