Mario’s Odyssey and the Bowser Within (1 Samuel 13)

It’s been a minute since we have had the pleasure of a true open-world Mario game (the last one was actually Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube).  And fortunately for all of us my hands-on time with the new Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch tells me that this game will continue the epic winning streak Nintendo has been riding as of late.  We are all about to run and jump all over another bright and colorful playground as Mario sets his sights on saving his princess one more time from the clutches of the evil Bowser.  Now I know what you may be thinking.  At this point the only people who are kidnapped more often than Princess Peach would be someone related to Liam Neeson in just about any of his movies.  And you would be right.  While we need a reason for Mario to don his hero’s cap in order for the game to begin, the constant in most of these games is Bowser and his penchant for taking the Princess from her castle.

The big difference this time is it seems Bowser has an entirely different strategy beyond mere kidnapping… as we have seen in the videos and gameplay revealed to this point he is planning to MARRY the oft-imprisoned Princess Peach unless Mario and his cap have something to say about it.  Which they do, or else it wouldn’t really be much of a game.  But while jumping and stomping my way through foes both new and familiar I had a thought… do I have more in common with the titular hero of the story or the “Wont take no for an answer” Bowser?  The more I considered this, the more I realized that there is a little more Bowser in me than I care to admit.

Why does Bowser continue to snatch a princess that clearly wants nothing to do with him, considering it never works out for him?  And why would he expect her to marry him?  While it seems absurd on the surface, with some introspection I realize that he is not alone here.  I am, and have BEEN Bowser many times over.  Not so much with the kidnapping of royalty or the forced marriages, that would be weird.  But I definitely will raise my hand as the one with the stubborn desire to repeatedly go down a path that never leads to a positive outcome and actually feel a sense of surprise when it fails yet again.

I would like to say that I spend most of my time seeking God’s will and waiting patiently for Him to guide me into His perfect plan for my life.  I would LIKE to say that.  The unfortunate truth is I have been less than patient with His answers and many times when I see what I want I simply go after it while asking Him to bless my steps.  Someone else had that exact same strategy, and it worked out as well for him as it does for Bowser and I.  In 1 Samuel 13 the cautionary tale of King Saul demonstrates the folly of taking action on what you feel you are entitled to, even if it is something that the Lord has promised.  Saul was in his first year as king and his people were under siege by his lifelong adversaries the Philistines.  Saul got in touch with the prophet of God Samuel to seek God’s blessing on the pending battle, but Samuel did not arrive within the seven days he had communicated.  Saul, in a state of panic and driven by impatience, saw his people scattering and felt his time was running out so he decided to act.  He completed the act of sacrifices and offering that was supposed to be completed by Samuel upon his arrival in a vain attempt to curry God’s favor by a means other than patience and obedience.  And as soon as he finished lighting the fire, who should show up but a very disappointed and angry Samuel.

Isn’t that how it tends to go?  We feel we are running out of time and desperately need an answer, so we take an action that almost immediately reveals itself as premature.  I have made decisions on jobs, relationships, and yes even marriage from this position and I can tell you that the cost of disobedience is quite severe.  Saul found out the hard way as he was cursed to have his tenure as king ended early and his lineage removed from the monarchy in favor of the line of David, his eventual successor.  And while I haven’t got a king’s crown to lose, what I have lost through each of those poor choices as well as those who were the captive princesses during my misadventures has been far more costly than any position of leadership could ever be.

The good news is that the Lord is full of second chances, and even Saul was given multiple opportunities to choose obedience in his future wars with the Amalekites, the Philistines, and even his son-in-law David.  And while he didn’t make good on those decisions either, another Saul in the New Testament showed us exactly what can happen when we take the blinding message from the Lord that we are heading the wrong way and turn our lives around.  The man Saul in the book of Acts was a vile figure of persecution and torment for those who followed Christ, but when he was shown the folly of his ways he took the opportunity to cease his negative progression and chart a new course as the man who would evangelize the known world with the Gospel.  And that is the freedom each of us have, no matter how many times we have chosen to kidnap the princess in the past.  The Lord is not surprised by our mistakes… all of us are inherently broken from the point of conception.  He expected us to make the choices that we do and that’s why he had His Son prepared as a sacrifice to save us before we ever existed in the first place.

The church only exists because of the broken people who make it up and are made complete by the Lord and His forgiveness.  No matter how many Bowserly actions you have taken, every day and every decision is a chance and a choice to wait for His will and allow him to light your path.  What God has promised WILL come to pass as sure as Mario will take a break from plumbing to save his princess one more time.  And if she is in another castle?  Then he will march on to the next castle and keep heading towards the promise.  Waiting for the promises of God to come to pass may be one of the hardest things we do, and the strategy of satan is to convince us that we must take action so he can deny the Lord His victory.  When it seems like it is too late… wait.  When it truly is beyond hope… pray and be still.  And when it seems like your promise is getting away… have faith.  Not a single word He has spoken has fallen to the ground yet.  If we take it before we are meant to have it, it will fall apart quicker than Peach’s forced nuptials with Bowser.  It is when we are standing still on the promises of God that for the first time we actually begin moving forward.

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Shattering the Facade: The Truth Behind Super Mario Bros. 2 (Romans 7:15-25, Romans 8:1-2)

As a self-proclaimed Nintendo fan-boy, it almost hurts to make this admission. I suppose I should have been able to figure it out on my own. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it, but deep down in my heart I knew. Like a mother hen gazing down at her newborn chicks and seeing that one of them is green, reptilian, and carries a mouthful of sharp teeth I likewise felt that something wasn’t quite right about this one. But I wanted to love it, I wanted to call it mine, and this crocodile became a member of the Nintendo family whether it belonged there or not.

   I suppose the first sign should have been when I jumped on an enemy’s head and it had no effect. That didn’t seem very “Mario-ish”. Or the lack of the standard power-ups that littered all of his other adventures. The absence of Bowser and his kin was a red flag. And if that wasn’t enough, the sudden obsession with throwing vegetables, something that never occurred to Mario in his previous or later adventures, just seemed out of place. And now I know why. It’s because the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we all know and love is in fact a LIE.

   Well, maybe a lie is a tad bit harsh. It is not what you think it is, that is for sure. Now for the history lesson. In 1988 Nintendo released the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we are all familiar with to a Western audience who was desperate for a new Mario adventure. But the truth is this was not Super Mario 2 at all. That title was released in the East and determined to be too difficult for a Western audience, so instead a game titled Doki Doki Panic was re-skinned with Mario and his friends and released as the next chapter in Mario’s saga. A simple google search will uncover the truth that the screenshot below reveals:

   The truth is the Super Mario Bros. 2 experience we received was another game entirely, which is why it never really felt quite right when compared to the other games in the series. Nintendo slapped Mario on the cover, replaced the main characters with Luigi, Peach, and Toad and hoped we would never know the difference. And for many of us, we may never have known until the harsh truth was presented to us. And while this was a harmless facade that most people have given very little thought to (and honestly the game is just fine even if it isn’t a TRUE Mario title), this brings me to the thought of the masks that we wear so we can continue providing the output we are counted on delivering without risking disappointment with what actually lies within.

   In my life I battle daily with the facade I have built to show the world versus the reality the exists inside me. I work feverishly to present the right face and demeanor at work, home, and in public so I can continue to provide for my family, meet their needs, and co-exist peacefully in society. But as it is written in Romans 7:15-19:


“15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”

  There is a wealth to unpack in those few short verses, and when you realize that this is none other than the Apostle Paul himself sharing this it becomes even more critical to process this. Suffice to say, even after all of his missionary journeys around the known world preaching the Gospel Paul still found that he struggled each day to stifle the sinful desires that run contrary to the good that he truly desired to do. I don’t know if that speaks to you, but to a broken and frustrated sinner like me it helps knowing that the greatest preacher of all time was able to be honest and admit that he has something inside him that wants to do, say, and think things that he knows he shouldn’t.

   
Now you might be thinking at this point that this is not terribly helpful information. I mean, the whole point of this is to get rid of the mask and live boldly in freedom from sin, right? And it’s hard to do that when you are struggling in areas that nobody expects you to struggle in. Christian “pride” kicks in as we realize how others would judge us if we admit that we are struggling with an addiction, have issues dealing with anger, or have made mistakes that we carry with us deep inside so nobody else will find them.

   

   Fortunately, Paul never brings up a problem without also offering up a solution, typically from his personal experience. And as he goes on in his discourse with the Roman believers…

“21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.

   So what is the answer to the sin problem that plagues us all… sinful and holy, rich and poor, regardless of environment or upbringing? First, we must accept the reality of our situation. We can slap a picture of Mario on the cover of the box all day long, but the game inside is still Doki Doki Panic and anyone can see that now. We are all fighting to do what is right while we are internally driven towards particular weaknesses that threaten to bring us down. These are different for all of us, just as we each have different blood types and genetic data we also have spiritual challenges that operate under the surface that are as unique as our physical DNA. Let’s admit it as boldly as Paul does… I have a war inside me and it wants to win.  

   Now for my choice… I choose to accept that there is no condemnation for me for my past transgressions as well as for the truth of my current struggles because I am making the conscious choice each day to win this war by living according to the will of Christ, not my flesh. I do not have this ability inside me, and if I try to do it myself I am doomed to fail. But when the war for my mind, my heart, my body or my mouth is waged I can make the choice to call on Him for the strength I do not possess and claim victory for that battle. If you are disappointed that belief in Christ did not remove all of your sinful desires, you are not alone. And don’t for a moment believe your conversion was ineffective simply because the war inside you still exists. The war is the PROOF of the Spirit inside you. You would not be battling with sin if you had not chosen Christ. Sin does not battle those it already possesses. The existence of a fight proves the presence of the Spirit of God in your battle.

   Don’t be ashamed of your battle. And don’t photoshop a grinning picture of Mario on yourself as an attempt to convince yourself or others of a “normal” that does not actually exist. Inside me I am Doki Doki Panic all the time. I wish I was Mario… heck, I wouldn’t mind being Toad. But rather than try to look like a Mario title that I am not, I going to stick with my fight to engage with the Birdos and Mousers that dwell inside me. And if you have any leftover vegetables (otherwise known as prayers outside of the Mario realm) that I can throw at them, I’ll be happy to take them off your hands because our friendly neighborhood plumber is off to find his princess in another castle. But you and me and Jesus makes three, and that’s more than enough to beat this level.  

Inconceivable:  Mario Party Shenanigans and The First Time God Lost (Ezekiel 28:11-19)

There are certain consistent laws within the world of gaming that are not written in any tech manual nor are they engraved on stone tablets hidden somewhere in Silicon Valley, but they exist nonetheless.  For example, it is a universal law that all gaming villains must have a burning need to import wooden boxes and explosive barrels and to scatter these liberally wherever they go.  It is an unwritten requirement that any keys for doors should always be placed as far as possible from the lock they open and whenever possible stuck in an incredibly difficult position to reach without risking severe pain or death.  Not sure how the enemies planned on opening that door in the future, but I suppose we all have our idiosyncrasies.

But more than any other gaming trope such as protagonist amnesia, the villain was your best friend, or that your princess is in another castle there is one constant.  One law that cannot be broken.  And that rule is that no matter how skilled you are, and no matter how well you play…. all Mario Party games hate you and will steal all your stars right before the end of the game.

I am a Mario aficionado, and I have faithfully purchased each and every Mario Party console game in the hopes that this time we will achieve balance in the Force.  When played with your family or a group of friends Mario Party is crazy fun, and well worth repeated play.  But if you are that poor, lonely soul who is attempting to play it solo or if you are trying to unlock certain features by playing against the computer AI… you are hopelessly doomed to the curse of having all of your hard work erased by one unlucky roll of the dice.

It never fails… I will set every AI player to the lowest possible difficulty setting (on the intelligence scale something between carpet fiber and taco shell) and proceed to dominate the mini games and collect star after star in my chase for the prize.  And then… it HAPPENS.

Lying before me are LITERALLY twenty safe spaces that I can happily land on and Toad will bring me cookies and milk while Yoshi gives me a deep cranial massage.  All but one numerical combination is completely and utterly safe. But nestled inconspicuously in the middle of all those pleasant, happy, non-controller throwing spaces is the one space I cannot afford to land on… the Bowser space of doom. There is literally only one roll of the dice that will land me on that terrible space, but like a moth drawn to its fatal flame my dice roll has only one number on its mind.

The dice roll of doom commences, my character gleefully marches to his destruction, Bowser stomps me into oblivion and gives me negative stars while lavishing untold riches on all of my competitors, and the cycle of Mario Party robbery perpetuates for another day.  As the rubber band nature of the game insures that once again I snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory, I am left considering how my utter domination in all of the mini games and superior strategy in board movement was obliterated in one moment.  My prowess simply did not prevent me from succumbing to the inevitable… the free will of the computer AI to completely alter my happily ever after into another nightmarish loss.

Over the last several weeks we have reviewed multiple lives across numerous Scriptures and found how the Lord used each of the losses that occurred for each circumstance to serve a particular purpose. As we reach the end of this collection of thoughts on the lives of a few individuals from the “Bible Hall of Fame” throughout the centuries, let’s take a moment and recap what we have uncovered

  • Job lost his children, his finances, and his health so God could REPLACE them and establish who gives and who takes away.
  • David and his men lost their wives, children, and all of their belongings so God could RESTORE them and show His protection.
  • Ruth lost her husband and had to move away from her people and her entire way of life so God could REDEEM her and all of humanity.
  • Jacob lost his son Joseph so God could RESCUE him and his entire family in the future.
  • Abraham lost his dream and offered his son Issac as a sacrifice because the Lord REQUIRED his obedience to enact the blessing.
  • David lost his baby, his reputation, his protective blessing and several sons so God could REPROVE him.
  • Hosea lost the innocence and purity of his marriage so God could teach him and all of us RECONCILIATION.
  • Nehemiah lost his nation and his city so God could show him how to REBUILD.
  • Lazarus lost his life so God can prove He RESURRECTS.
  • Paul lost daily to his thorn in the flesh so God could demonstrate that sometimes He REFUSES, but always with a purpose.
  • John the Baptist lost his freedom and eventually his head so he could learn that God REASSURES.
  • Leah lost the love of her husband so God could REWARD her for her faithfulness.
  • John the Revelator lost everything he called home so God could RESTRAIN him long enough to receive the book of Revelation.

I have found myself reflected in each of these cases of loss at some point or another in my life, and I am enduring some of them right now. But simply relating to each of these lives and the challenges they faced is not the purpose of reviewing these circumstances. It is nice to know that others have felt the same way that we are feeling, and it is very important to learn from their stories so we can overcome these challenges positively and productively in our own lives. But to treat the Bible as a self-help book is to miss the point entirely. It is a GOD-help book, and it exists to guide us in our understanding of Him. So to dig a bit deeper it is time to dive into the final subject on our countdown… the Father Himself.
When I got to the end of this last group of studies, a picture of God as one who has endured loss, suffered pain, and is reaching out for love has emerged.   But to be honest, it almost seems sacrilegious and borderline blasphemous to consider the idea of God losing anything. I mean, He’s God right? The Creator of all things, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Lord. How can He possibly experience loss? The truth is that He was the original member of the Survivor’s Club before mankind ever came on the scene, and He has been getting hit with losses ever since. Not sure what I’m talking about? Time to explore…
In Ezekiel 28:11-19 we find the prophet Ezekiel being directed by God to take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, but it becomes clear very quickly that this is no mere flesh and blood human that is being described here. This Scripture is pointing to the being behind the earthly king, Lucifer himself. Let’s break this down… he is described as the “seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. ” He was in Eden, the garden of God. He is described as being covered with every precious stone and his voice is described as having being “prepared for him on the day he was created”. This was a hand-crafted being of surpassing excellence, the “annointed cherub”.  Bear in mind this entire section of Scripture is defined as a lamentation. In Hebrew this word (qinah) means a dirge, a sad and melancholy song of loss that is used to mourn a death or impending doom. God is instructing Ezekiel to record this bitter melody that comes straight from the broken heart of God. His best and brightest creation, the one He designed flawlessly decided in Isaiah 14:12-14 to raise himself up and lead a rebellion against His loving Creator. And he gave the Lord no choice but to punish him and cast him out of heaven, taking one-third of his fellow angels with him on the way out.
Before Adam took his first breath, God had already lost a third of his created beings and the one he had placed in the most prominent position, the one He called “the son of the morning”. The fall of Lucifer clearly hurt, but this was only the beginning of the pain for our Lord. He created a man and a woman and placed them in a perfect world, and they too rebelled and He lost His previously untarnished relationship with His children. And because of their choices man lost authority over the planet God had given him and gave it directly to Lucifer. The Father then chose one nation to be His own special chosen people, and He lost his fellowship with them more times than I can count. And when He sent His Son down to make peace between God and man, well… He lost Him too because we crucified Him.
God’s story is one of experiencing more tragic losses than one human lifetime can possibly imagine. The losses we experience in this life actually brings us closer to understanding the nature, the character, and the very heartbeat of God more than anything else we experience. The truth is the love story of the Creator and His creation is a story filled with a whole lot of losing. He lost his angels, His first man and woman, His chosen children, His planet…. His Son. And is through our losing that something truly impactful happens: God RELATES to us. The same Jesus who wept over Lazarus, the same Father who wrote a lamentation over the loss of his angels, the same Holy Spirit who is grieved by our actions… He feels ALL of the same feelings that we do. He has been feeling them for all eternity. He understands loneliness, betrayal, heartbreak, separation… all of these and so much more. And when we experience these times in our lives our loving Father can put His arm around you and truly say, “I understand. I have been hurt the same way too”.
Realizing we serve a God who fully relates to us is the most important of all of these lessons to learn. And once we fully grasp that, we can begin to make progress on what the true plan of God is for each of us. He didn’t send His Son to save you from hell, though that is an awesome part of the benefit package. And He didn’t send Him just so He could bring you to heaven, although that’s also part of the deal. He made mankind for a RELATIONSHIP. He sent His Son to restore that relationship by reconciling the sin problem that separated us from a Holy God. Becoming “saved” is kind of like walking into a house. You are simply inside the house now, whereas you were previously outside of the house. But the reason you came in was to have fellowship with those who are inside the house, and becoming saved is just a first step towards creating a day-in, day-out growing relationship with the Lord.
He is seeking that relationship. The losses we experience help us understand Him better and grow closer to Him.  He is available right now, and He is asking us to place our trembling hands into His nail-scarred palms. He has felt your pain. He has cried your tears. He has lost in the same ways and deeper than any of us will ever know. He has been cheated on and betrayed, lied about and lied to, beaten and murdered, hated and mocked…. He understands, and He relates to everything you will ever go through. And now He is reaching out to each and every one of us, all fellow survivors in this Survivor’s Club for Losing, to give your life fully and truly to Him. Not in an abandoning, “Here you go Jesus, see what you can do with this mess” sort of way. But in the way that a husband and a wife give themselves to each other… in an active daily relationship between two hearts that grow together not only when things are good, but in the winning AND the losing.

I pray more than anything else that this helps you reassess the nature of your relationship with your Creator just as it has challenged mine. I have carried a negative view of those things I have lost and allowed myself to think of myself as a “loser” as a result. But now I see much of my pain reflected in a God who is anything but a loser.  I have found that it is not my circumstances that always need to change, but my understanding of what losing really is. And in the eco-system of the Kingdom, it takes LOSING your life to find it. It takes coming in LAST place to truly take first prize.  By the world’s definition, we have all chosen the path of losers and follow a God who not only allows this, but is an active participant in our losses.

Now while I am still personally turning the corner in my thinking on a daily basis, I am finally coming to understand that not only do these all serve a greater purpose, but they help me truly understand my Lord for maybe the first time. He is the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And He wants to grow closer in relationship with me through my tragedies and setbacks. He aspires to be more than my Provider, even though He surely is that. And Savior is certainly in His job description, but that was not why He made me. That’s how He bought me back. He is the lover of my soul, and He longs to be that for you as well. Let your sorrow, your grief, your disappointment and your pain push you into the arms of the One who truly understands. And like those brave souls who blazed the trails before us, we can be proud to wear our Survivor’s Club badge as a true achievement as we join with Him both now and into the age to come.

Prison Break and the Secret Life of Plumbers (Acts 16)

Mario may be the most well-known plumber in the history of the planet, which is ironic since I have never seen him do anything that seems remotely “plumberly”.  But while his labor union may be wondering when he will take on a job that does not see him disappearing into warp pipes and leaving all of the dirty work to them, I am quite glad the games that bear his name are full of exploits that have nothing to do with leaky sinks or overflowing toilets.  In my experiences with the early Mario games on the NES and SNES, I found that these games were populated with something that was unfamiliar to my young mind at the time – hidden secrets within the level that would give you advantages in the game.  I will never forget the first time I jumped up and hit my head on an invisible block, finding it contained an extra life mushroom to help me on my way.  The more I explored, the more I found these hidden blocks, little secrets full of coins or power-ups in each level that were designed to reward my curiosity.

I thought I was the only person on the planet aware of these hidden bonuses

At first, I thought I was the only person on the planet aware of these hidden bonuses.  But then one day, I found a book in a video game store that promised it contained ALL of the secrets in my favorite games.  I was stunned.  Could it be that someone else was aware of not only those hidden coins and lives that I had found, but that there were even more that I had not discovered?  After successfully begging my parents for the book, I took it home and devoured it, going through it page by page and realizing the limited view I had of my favorite games had just opened up to a whole new dimension, and I never looked back.

Strategy guides, walk-throughs, and the online videos you can find nowadays to help you nail a tricky jump or find a secret area are common place, but there was a time where these bits of knowledge were passed around reverently from gamer to gamer like tribal knowledge, written on scraps of paper and placed inside of a book for future reference.  We live in a day and age that has made it possible to have every gaming question answered by a fellow gamer instantly, and while I will always look back on those old days of scribbling the Contra code in my notebook with fond nostalgia, it is quite convenient to have somewhere to turn when I simply cannot figure out where to shoot my second portal.

Absolutely everything you will face in your life has been lived by someone else

And this is the reason we have the Bible, God’s authoritative strategy guide for life.  Absolutely everything you will face in your life has been lived by someone else, and these experiences have been documented for our benefit and placed in a volume that we can reference at any time.  All of the secrets pathways have been explored, the bonus point areas are notated for easy return visits, and the traps that threaten to take you down have been marked to help you avoid the pitfalls of our predecessors.  Even with all of the advances in technology that have occurred, and the “supposed” cultural advances that we enjoy as a modern civilization, the Bible has all of the answers for every problem you will ever face if you just know where to look.  And in this walk-through for the game of life, we find the story of a man of God, a miracle, and a prison guard with a serious “victim mentality”.

You know these people.  The ones that clutter their Facebook with complaints of how hard their life is, always negative and looking for sympathy for problems that are typically of their own doing.  The guy that only calls you when things are bad, taking your previously cheerful mood down to their level.  The girl that encourages you to join her in her misery so you can throw a pity party together.  And in an honest moment, we have to admit that at times we can play the “victim” too.  I know I have been guilty of several “Woe is me” moments, wanting the world to feel sorry for me and share in my suffering while we all listen to Evanescence.  You may not choose to go to Hot Topic to load up on skinny jeans and black nail polish, but make no mistake about it; we have all walked that road in some form or fashion.  And in our current era of human history, the tragedy is that many people choose to end their lives over trivial and solvable circumstances due to this terrible lie, the lie whispered in our ear that the world would be better off without us.  And this is where we find a man in the book of Acts, chapter 16.  Let’s jump there…

He had not abandoned them, no matter how bad things looked right now

In the Biblical book of Acts chapter 16 and verse 23, we find the Apostle Paul and his co-worker Silas falsely accused of creating insurrection, beaten with a whip for crimes they did not commit, and thrown into prison.  These innocent preachers were locked into stocks in the deepest part of the prison, far past the cells for the murderers and thieves, under the strictest of night watches.  Seems a little overkill if you ask me, but with all of the precautions that had been made to keep them imprisoned, it was not enough.  Rather than get on their Twitter accounts and inform their followers of how terrible their day has been and how unfair life can be, they chose to sing.  And this was no tragic blues festival… no, they were faithfully praising their Creator and understood that He had not abandoned them, no matter how bad things looked right now.

As they sang, the Bible records an incredible event.  At midnight God stomped His feet to the music so hard that He caused an earthquake, an earthquake so massive that it shook the entire prison structure, breaking open the locked cell doors and freeing every prisoner in the facility.  Picture this – a maximum security prison full of the people society has deemed unfit for freedom, as its walls suddenly crack open.  Security panels are overridden, alarm klaxons blare over the loudspeakers, and flashing red lights fill the hallways in the chaos after the massive quake.  And in the midst of all of this chaos stands one man, the prison warden.  He has only one job to do really – keep the good people safe by locking the bad people in.  And despite all of the security protocols and carefully programmed electronic locks he has designed to prevent this possibility, forces beyond his ability to control or to understand have just rendered all of those mechanisms moot.

He failed to see the reality of his situation because of his limited view

And here is where we see the sad pattern that I have personally witnessed so many people fall into… with everything going wrong around him the prison guard fails to see that despite all of the confusion and destruction that he is surrounded by, there is nothing to fear.  Unaware that none of the prisoners have taken advantage of their newly found freedom, the jailer chooses to end his life, pulling out a sword to end his existence.  Have you ever known anyone who has faced this?  Or perhaps you have been tempted by this yourself, the desire to inflict pain on your body as a means of dealing with the world around you that right now seems completely hostile and against you.  This is not a new temptation – this existed thousands of years ago, and the Bible records this for us so we can avoid this danger, as well as save others from enduring this pain.  I have talked to many friends who felt that slitting their wrists was the only answer to an insane world, and I have a feeling you know a few of these people as well.  So let’s see what happens next…

Our prison guard has given up, failing to see the reality of his situation because of his limited view and assumption that there was no hope, is about to make a fatal cut when out of the madness rings out the voice of the Apostle Paul, screaming “Don’t harm yourself!!!  We are all still here!”  Such a simple line, but if you or someone you know has ever faced the darkness and felt they could not go on, I am telling you and them right now “Don’t harm yourself!”  No matter how bad you may think it is, behind all of the wreckage and rubble that you see right now in the aftermath of the traumatic earthquake you have just experienced in your life, the plan for your life is still HERE.  God’s will for you is still intact.  You are a perfectly designed vessel, meant to carry His very Spirit with you through each and every day of your life, and He has plans to prosper you and take care of you.  It may look bad right now, and you may not see a way out of your situation.  But I promise you, just as the jailer is about to find out, this was all a plan to benefit you if you will simply realize the extra life mushroom is invisible to you right now, but it is there nonetheless.

The solution may present itself in the midnight hour

The prison guard races to the sound of Paul’s voice, and having found all of the prisoners still in place just as he had been told, he and his whole family give their lives to God.  The entire episode has a happy ending all the way around, as the warden throws a party and cares for the unfair and painful wounds that had been inflicted on Paul and Silas, his entire family is brought together by this incredible circumstance, and the next day Paul and Silas are released to continue their missionary voyage.  Lives were changed forever, and every one of them had a deeper understanding of how truly in control of our lives and circumstances our God is.  It may not always look that way from the outside, but this entire story is recorded for our benefit so we can know that it does not matter how dark and scary our circumstances appear right now, the solution may present itself in the midnight hour.

So if you ever have a doubt about if God sees you and the particular challenges you face, rest assured that He does and He has a plan.  God did not show up and prevent the arrest of Paul and Silas, nor did he protect them from the brutal beating that they had not earned.  There was a deeper and more important plan at work here – there was a prison warden on the razor’s edge, and he and his entire family had a date with destiny.  In your life, every moment of pain and every scary situation you face serves a purpose.  Someone else out there, someone that you may have not even met yet, is depending on you and your success in the trial you are facing right now.  And only by facing this and trusting God for the answer will we be able to take that next step that not only benefits us and God’s plan for our lives, but may save someone else’s life too!

Of Slimes, Goombas, and Dungeon Rats – Why we must level grind (Genesis 37-41, Daniel 1-2)

 

Every video game from the dawn of time has had them – those annoying, simple, basic enemies that seem to exist only to slow down our progress and make the game longer.  Barely strong enough to present any difficulty, and typically dispatched with a simple bop to the head, I find their existence intriguing.  What is their real purpose?  And what were they going to do if I never showed up?  At first glance, they are non-descript and unremarkable, threatening only to the most careless player.  Sufficient numbers of them can cause even experienced gamers some small amount of difficulty, but their predictable patterns of attack and weak defenses always spell their eventual demise.  So why are they there?  Are they the equivalent of video game pocket lint, having no value but for some reason always there, or do they serve a larger and even necessary purpose?

They are the game designer’s way of walking you through the fundamentals of combat…

Across every gaming genre a pattern emerges – from the original Super Mario Bros. to Fallout 4, we begin our adventure with battles that are designed to develop the skills and abilities that we will need later in the game against more difficult foes.  Timing your jump onto the unsuspecting head of a marching goomba in Mario is the first step towards winning your battles with the faster, fiercer opponents you will find in the game’s later levels.  The simple dungeon rats you get your first experience points from in any RPG are the game designer’s way of walking you through the fundamentals of combat, while rewarding you with the necessary skill points you will use to become stronger, faster, and more adept with your weapons.  What at first glance appears to be a waste of your time suddenly finds its meaning – you will not be able to survive the challenges that await you if you can’t successfully conquer your level one opponents’ first.

In our everyday lives, we face a variety of tests, trials, and temptations.  I know I have often treated these annoyances with disdain, informing God that if he would simply get these out of my way I could get SOOOOO much accomplished.  I mean, I would have been so much more productive at work today if my tire hadn’t gone flat.  Or, I would be able to spend quality time with my family tonight if I didn’t have a huge project that is at its deadline.  Even more to the point, I wouldn’t have lost my temper today if that person didn’t cut me off in traffic.  And on and on it goes – these meaningless side quests in our lives, the temporary obstacles that pop-up ever so briefly, and within a month, day, or sometimes even in an hour lose all significance.  But maybe they are not as insignificant as you think…

Maybe they are not as insignificant as you think…

There are two people we can look to that can serve as witnesses to the importance of passing those early tests and defeating the basic enemies that are placed on your path.  Interestingly enough they both walked very similar paths.  Let’s take a look at the parallel lives of Joseph (found in Biblical book of Genesis chapters 37-41) and of Daniel (in the Biblical book of Daniel chapters 1-2).  Both stories start out quite tragically – as young men, both were ripped from their families, removed from all that was familiar, and taken into captivity in a foreign land.  Joseph is sold as a slave by his own family and taken to the country of Egypt, while Daniel is captured by an enemy army and taken as a slave to the enemy empire of Babylon.  Pretty rough start, don’t you think?

Their lives continue to run a similar course, as Joseph is taken to a royal officer’s home as a servant, while Daniel is taken to the royal court of Babylon to begin his service training.  And as a signal to each of them that they are still under the watchful and protective eye of God, they are both granted favor in their situations by the overseers they have been placed in the care of.  It is remarkable that even in our darkest situations; God will shine a light to remind us He is still there, and that there really is a method to the madness we currently inhabit.  Unfortunately, the next test awaits them both, and it is a test of character that will ultimately determine if they are ready to advance to the next level, or if they still need to kick around a few more chickens.  Joseph is faced with the ultimate no-win scenario – what do you do when your boss’s wife is hitting on you?  Joseph takes the high road and rejects her repeated advances, and his act of integrity earns him a trip to prison courtesy of the spurned wife of his boss, who falsely accused him of attempted rape.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…

When in Rome (or in this case Babylon), do as the Romans do, right?

We will leave Joseph in his undeserved prison for a moment and check back in on Daniel.  Daniel, being an Israelite, lived his life according to the rules that God had established for the Israeli people, and many of these rules involved the food and beverages that they were permitted to partake in and what they were to avoid.  The purpose of these dietary rules was to set the people apart from the heathen nations around them, and establish them as unique and special.  It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Daniel to go native in his new surroundings and choose to partake in all of the things that were forbidden to him and his countrymen.  After all, who would have known (or cared)?  When in Rome (or in this case Babylon), do as the Romans do, right?  But Daniel would have known.  And he knew God had never stopped watching him, and was waiting to see if he would be faithful even when it seemed like nobody was looking.

So Daniel declines the food, requesting water and vegetables for himself and his fellow Israeli captives, understanding that this could be considered a grave offense in his new surroundings.  As a slave, he should consider himself lucky to be kept alive and fed at all, much less fed from the king’s very own table!  But he would not allow the fleeting pleasures of the world to define who he was, and chose to stick to what he knew was right.  So here we are, Joseph refusing to give in to the temptation to enjoy a private affair with another man’s wife, and Daniel declining the fine foods of the Babylonians so he could remain faithful to his beliefs.  These trials and temptations seem pretty scary right now, with very dire consequences – but both of these men will be reaping the benefits of their faithful choices soon.  See, everything these men have faced so far are character building,” leveling up” opportunities.  There are greater destinies for each of them to fulfill, but before they can ever get to that place they must prove they will do what is right when it would have been easy to choose what was wrong.

They faced the counterfeit offerings of the devil…

And here their destinies converge once more – two years after Joseph has been placed in prison for a crime he did not commit, the ruler over Egypt had a dream that only Joseph could interpret.  And two years into the reign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was called upon to not only define his king’s dream, but to recite the dream to him without ever having heard it.  Both of these individuals had faced down their fears by staying true to their faith in God even when they had been removed from all that was familiar and placed into the chains of slavery.  And then they faced the counterfeit offerings of the devil to give them acceptance and worldly satisfaction by compromising their values, which they shut down.  And now, finally, it is time to level up!  Joseph interprets the dream of the king of Egypt through divine revelation of God, and his reward was to be named second in charge of the entire kingdom.  What a reversal of fortune, to go from a slave to the second most powerful man on the planet!  And let’s not forget about Daniel – his recounting of the king’s dream and interpretation resulted in his placement as the ruler over the entire province of Babylon, and was promoted to chief over all of the other princes.  From slaves to rulers, achieving the destinies they were created for – and we can have that same experience to if we learn from their examples.

I followed the stories of both of these men’s lives simultaneously so we could see that this is not just an isolated incident in the Bible, but rather a formula that will help us understand why we go through the things we face in life, and point to a resolution beyond our wildest dreams if we can pass the test!  So let’s break this down:

Neither of them could reach their full potential in the safe confines of their living rooms

First, both Joseph and Daniel faced a situation that removed them from their comfort zone and all that they were familiar with. It was uncomfortable, difficult, and separated them from their family and friends.  But this trial served a purpose – If you want to be more than what you are, you must become something you have never been.  Neither of them could reach their full potential in the safe confines of their living rooms.  These were men destined to be global rulers, and the first step in their journey was to be placed in a position where they had to depend on God and God ALONE.  By taking them to a new location and removing the support networks they would typically rely on, they were able to lean completely on God’s direction and trust in his care.  For us, many times this takes the form of a loss in our lives, perhaps of a job, or home, maybe even of a loved one.  Other times it is a forced and unwelcome change that alters your destiny in ways that you cannot understand right now.  No matter what direction the winds of change blow your life in, you can know this for a certainty – God is in control and is actually going to use whatever you are going through to bring you to a better place, as long as you are prepared to follow Him obediently and trust in His plan.

We have no record of Joseph or Daniel complaining, telling God this is unfair, or fighting the changes they were experiencing.  They simply followed the path their Creator had laid out for them, knowing that He designed the level they are currently playing on, and He knows how it ends.  And so it is with us – before we can accomplish the plan God has for us in our lives, we must learn to trust in God fully, not in others or in our own abilities to get us there.

The second consistency we see in the pattern from Joseph and Daniel is that they were both tempted by the devil with an offer that would make them more comfortable in their current surroundings, a counterfeit blessing.  Both of these supposed “captivity with benefits” arrangements would have required our brave heroes to compromise their integrity to enjoy a temporary pleasure.  For Joseph, he was presented with the temptation to have a physical relationship with his boss’s wife, free of any obligations other than sin and the guilt associated with it.  Being the head of the house while the husband was away, it would have been a simple thing for Joseph to indulge in the sin presented to him, and who would have ever known?  And here is where he had to grind through to his next level – every day she would attempt to seduce him, and each day he would refuse and prevent even the possibility from occurring.  And with the hind-sight of seeing the end of the story, it becomes clear why he went through this – his future was to rule over the entire kingdom.  The entire wealth of Egypt would be under his command.  For him to be trusted with all of this, he must first prove himself faithful when nobody else is watching other than God.

The opportunity to level-up by taking a short cut had to be a difficult temptation…

Daniel faced the pressure to go with the flow, and he could have chose to allow his standards of right and wrong to be dictated by the circumstances he found himself in.  The opportunity to level-up by taking a short cut had to be a difficult temptation.  Again, who would have known if Daniel had simply acquiesced to the peer pressure and decided and success in his new country was worth the small price of compromising his moral standards on something as insignificant as food and beverages?  He could even have reasoned to himself that he would be in a better position to help his people if he simply bent his beliefs momentarily.  But you cannot cheat your way to promotion, and Daniel followed his conscience and took the path that would define him throughout his life – serving God regardless of the consequences that he faced.  Once again we see why passing this test mattered, as Daniel would eventually become the most powerful man in the Babylon besides the king himself, receiving direct communication regarding people’s dreams from God himself, and he would have never been able to handle such tremendous responsibility without having the character such a position required.

The temptations presented in our lives are permitted to occur for the very same purpose – you have a destiny that you are meant to fulfill.  There are incredible things God has planned for your life that He wants to promote you into.  But just like in the world of video games, you must learn to defeat sand crabs and dungeon rats before you can face flying dragons and evil kings.  Until Mario can time a jump on the head of a mindlessly pacing mushroom, he will never be a match for Bowser and all of the weapons he has at his disposal.  Until you have learned all that God needs you to know at your current level, you cannot level up into the greater plans He has for you!

You must learn to defeat sand crabs and dungeon rats before you can face flying dragons and evil kings

In the end, both Joseph and Daniel patiently persisted through their challenges, and instead of wallowing in depression about the hand that they had been dealt they chose to prove themselves faithful in their circumstances and allow these trials to serve their ultimate purpose of shaping them into the leaders they were born to be.  Their example provides us with a pattern we can follow… if we are willing to choose to.  No matter how bleak everything looks for you right now, this is merely a proving ground for you to gain the necessary skills to conquer the larger boss fights that await you in your future.  You will choose how long you remain at the level you are at – once you have gained the experience points your current situation requires for level up, you will move up to the incredible things God has planned for you!  So don’t lose hope, stay strong against the urge to complain or give up, and most importantly NEVER settle for the fake solution that the devil will present to you.  God’s way is never easy or fast, and will always be true to the direction of the Bible and your conscience.  But if you faithfully follow Him regardless of the difficulty, you will pass the level and gain the experience you need to move on to the bigger and better things God has in store for you!