The past few months have been some of the most eventful of my life. When I prepared this topic to speak on at church, I thought I had a few delightful weeks of maternity leave left to relax and rest, but that turned out not to be the case! In the weeks that followed, I was really drawn into the reality of this topic, and it’s now a theme that is very close to my heart.
It started with a dream that my Dad shared at church – in the dream he heard this phrase, “When circumstances deviate from God’s plan, the word is released to challenge and correct the circumstances”. We’re often surrounded by situations that don’t match up with the perfect will of God, and in those moments we have a choice: do we agree with ‘reality’ and settle for what’s in front of us, or do we take hold of the greater ‘truth’ of heaven and demand that ‘reality’ comes into line?
So what are those tough circumstances all about? Isaiah 60:1 says ‘Arise from the depression and prostration in which circumstances have kept you—rise to a new life! Shine, be radiant with the glory of the Lord, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!’ When hard things come at us, over time we become oppressed and kind of flattened. Our eyes are down in the dust and it’s hard to picture things ever being better – we become held in depression and prostration. I love the poetic language in this passage from Isaiah – to me it paints a picture of a world where the colour and joy is stripped away, until the radiant light of God shines in and restores the world to glorious technicolour! But this passage also shows that this isn’t only a miraculous salvation that just happens to us: we have a part in it. It says “arise” – lift up your head! It’s not denying the problem, but it is choosing to focus on the one who has the power to turn the situation around.
For a lot of people, this does feel like denial, or hypocrisy. How am I supposed to praise God in the middle of all of this – wouldn’t it be more authentic to have a good old lament?
Jesus modelled for us in the physical something that we also have access to in the spiritual. Remember the story about the disciples in the boat in the middle of the storm? They’re being tossed and turned by the waves, buffeted by the wind and they genuinely fear for their lives. But Matthew 14:25 tells us that ‘in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went to them, walking on the sea’. He was obviously not subject to the same ‘reality’ the disciples were in the middle of. I was wondering about this one time, and I remembered this description in Revelation 4:6 – ‘in front of the throne there was also what looked like a transparent glassy sea, as if of crystal’. What if Jesus was living from a different ‘reality’ than the disciples? What if he was walking to them on the glassy crystal sea of heaven (or even ice skating towards them?!) – and pulling the truth of heaven into the reality around him, so that the circumstances had to line up with the truth of God?
The amazing thing is that as we choose to worship God in the midst of challenges and troubles, it draws heaven’s solutions into the situation, and they can start to be transformed around us. As I mentioned, when I first started looking at this topic, I was preparing for the arrival of my first baby. Chris and I were busy trying to pick a name, and the one at the top of our list was the name Judah. Taken from the Hebrew word ‘yadah’, which is often translated ‘praise’, it has several other meanings within it, including give thanks, to shoot out the arms, to cast a rock or an arrow, or to declare/confess the name of the Lord, or was a nickname suggesting a little lion cub.
To me, this word is a beautiful illustration of the type of praise modelled by David as he went out to meet Goliath. He shot out his arms, casting the stone from the sling, declaring ‘the battle is the Lord’s’ – and Goliath came crashing down. This type of praise is a powerful act of thanksgiving while face to face with giant problems, but it’s a type of praise that brings victory too.
On the first day of my maternity leave, things started going a little off plan. Quite early, we realised our little boy was on the way. After a difficult birth, our little boy was born by emergency C-section. He was battered and bruised and I was exhausted, but so happy that he had arrived at last and like Leah in the story, I gave thanks to God when my son was placed in my arms, and we knew he would be a Judah. But less than 24 hours after being sent home, we were back in hospital. Judah’s health had deteriorated, and we were to spend another week in hospital with our precious baby receiving urgent treatment to get him back on track.
In the middle of it all, I honestly felt so lost: where was God in this? Things seemed to be going wrong one after thing after another, and I felt like God had forgotten to look after us. But Judah’s very name was a reminder to me to praise in the middle of the questions, the doubt and the worry. We sang over our baby ‘our God is a lion, the lion of Judah, He’s roaring in power and fighting our battles’ and although it cost us to bring that gift of thanksgiving, it was a beautiful moment and I was once again aware of God’s amazing presence with us, and knew He would fight on Judah’s behalf, even when I was powerless to do anything to help him myself.
As we praised, things started to turn around. Judah responded well to the treatment and God provided amazing people who so generously gave their time and expertise, going above and beyond to help us get back on track. What seemed impossible at the time soon started to become a reality: and by our next lot of checks Judah had dramatically gained weight and was thriving. Today, he’s nearly 9 months old and is an adventurous, happy, healthy little boy.
Praise isn’t a magic password that twists God’s arm to make Him do what we want Him to do. We praise God because despite what circumstances seem to be saying, we know He is so good, He is always faithful, He is protecting and helping us, He is an ever-present help in times of trouble, He is loving, gracious and kind, and no matter what happens, He is worthy of our praise. Offering a sacrifice of praise in the midst of trouble says ‘You are God and I am not – even when I don’t understand, I will choose to worship You’. And as we bring that costly offering we begin to see from a higher perspective, lifting our heads from the doubt and the dirt to see God shining His light into our world. Praise is powerful – when the circumstances deviate from the perfect plan of God, we declare the truth of who He is and the Word is released to challenge and to correct the circumstances, bringing the truth of heaven into our world so that it can start to become ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.