TLimS Week 2: Matthew 6
This whole week, I've been thinking about what to write and I wanted to start with how the Lord being my shepherd has helped me in my relationships--for me, this is the most important and significant way that understanding God as my provider has changed my life. As I started to think about what to say, I realized that I have no idea how to put my experience into words! As a result, I decided to start smaller and work my way up to more complex (at least for me) ideas.
So, the most logical and common place to start, is thinking about how God shepherds us by meeting our physical needs (as opposed to meeting our spiritual needs, or emotional/relational needs). I think most Christians are very familiar with this idea. In Psalm 23, following proclaiming that God is our shepherd, it goes on to say "he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides quiet waters." Certainly, these poetic lines are referring to God providing us with rest and peace, but if we think of ourselves as sheep, green pastures and still waters sure do sound tasty :)!
In other words, God provides for our needs. I emphasize the word "needs" because I think this is different from "wants." This week, I want to talk about the "needs" part, and next week, I'll discuss the "wants" part--and again, I am referring to physical needs and wants.
I think in general, this series will be based mostly on sharing my experience with whatever idea I am talking through--not only as a way to share how I encountered God as my provider, but also as a way to learn and understand more about myself and my relationship with God. [I'm an external processor, so this really does help me!]
Although I did not technically "grow up" in church, I started going sometime in elementary school, so by the time I was in college, I was extremely familiar with the stories of Matthew 6. This is where Jesus gives an impromptu sermon while on a mountainside, and he says the famous "do not worry" passage. The gist of which is that Jesus tells the crowd that it doesn't make any sense to worry about what we will eat or drink, or what we will wear. There are actually four reasons in the passage (verses 25, 27, 30, and 32), but in "church culture," the most popularized reason (at least from what I remember) is that if God takes care of the birds and the flowers by feeding them and clothing them, how much more will God take care of us? Aren't we worth more than animals and plants?
I had heard this story and idea so much that I think it completely lost meaning for me. In any case, most of my life, I haven't had to worry about any of this, so the story never felt personal. I'm not proud (or ashamed) to say it, but I was pretty spoiled growing up--anything I wanted, my parents could provide for. Car, college, travel expenses, academics, food, clothes, stuff, everything was paid for. When you have everything you need, the aforementioned passage seems pretty meaningless.
It wasn't until after college when I really started to consider what it meant that God provides for all our physical needs. What did it for me was a combination of a deeper study of Matthew 6 and deciding to marry Elanor. The former was through attending a workshop on money taught by Pastor Peter Fong and leading a small group on the sermon on the mount, while the latter had to do with getting married with "little-to-no" money (the quotes are because we really had more than enough, but the World would have emphatically disagreed).
I won't go into the details of studying the Word and realizing how literal God was being. I will just say that at that point in my life, I don't think I had truly and deeply studied the bible. I mean, I had read the thing twice, but I hadn't really studied it. I think I read it like you would read... historical fiction or like God's memoirs. I mean, I knew a lot of the facts were accurate and I believed it was so, but I didn't take God very seriously. His words were sentimental and sweet, but never to be taken literally. Well, needless to say, I learned that I was wrong--God's words had meaning and when He said He would provide for my needs, He meant it. Period.
Many of you have heard this story (or some version of it), but I'll go ahead and write it out again. When Elanor and I decided to get married, we were pretty much poor. Not like on the street or without any means (I do not want to make light of poverty or exaggerate in any way), but by the world's standards and society's way of looking at it, we were poor. Our yearly income was below the poverty line for a household living in the Bay Area. I had no job, just started graduate school at Berkeley and my maximum guaranteed income for the following year (after getting married) was below $20,000 (around $18,000 before taxes... so around $16,000). This income would come from teaching part time while taking classes. Elanor hadn't yet graduated from college, so she had no job and probably couldn't get a very high paying one. She was supposed to finish her degree at Berkeley (transfer application was in the works, but no guarantee that she'd get in).
You might say, like my mom did, "Why in the heck would you get married without any money???" Well,this is a completely reasonable response. I realized that we were indeed taking a step (or leap) of faith--but I had literally just started learning about money and God taking care of my needs, so I realized that I couldn't on the one hand say, "Yes, God provides for all my needs, always," and also say, "I can't get married because I don't have enough money (aka what I need)." That, my friends, is a contradiction.
Now don't get me wrong, we had some savings and some fail-safe mechanisms [I mean, in theory, I could always have dropped out of Berkeley and looked for a job...], but overall, our attitude was 1) we had to always put our love and marriage first, even before finances [a topic for another day], and 2) we believed wholeheartedly that some way, some how, God would come through--He would provide us with our every need, for our heavenly Father is indeed a good shepherd.
It's funny--when you give your life to God, when you trust Him in faith, God does more than just-barely-provide. Instead, He pours out His blessings and abundance on us. We've truly experienced this (story after story) throughout our marriage, and it all began right from the first year.
Before we were even married, I looked into the possibility of GSIing/teaching (to earn some extra cash) in the spring of my first year of graduate school. At first, the sociology department told me that they don't allow first years to teach. I asked around a bit, and at first, all the professors I knew outside of the sociology department from my undergraduate days had no openings, but at the last moment one professor had something open up and he sent me an email asking if I was still interested! God provided a job for me in the very first semester we were married.
The blessings kept coming! A month or so after we got married, I found out that I received one of the fellowships I applied for! This was not at all expected, as I knew that only about 10% of all applicants get the fellowship. This meant that I not only would have my school fees paid for in full over the next four years, but that I would also receive a $30,000 (before taxes) yearly stipend! That would definitely help.
There's more! While I was hearing lots of good news, Elanor was job searching like crazy to look for anything and everything she could do to help out. She applied to literally everything, from Starbucks to chain department stores, and she even walked down the street to the nearby book store to ask if they had openings. Finally, something came through and she was able to find a job at Lindamood Bell, a tutoring company that she previously worked for over a summer in Palo Alto (they have an office in Berkeley). More income!
It was getting to March, and I started getting a bit worried about Elanor's transfer application. We had zero back-up plan if Elanor did not get accepted into Berkeley--I was really confident before we got married, but as I started to realize we had no alternative plan... Well, as you probably guessed it, Elanor heard back from Berkeley that she was accepted. And not only was she accepted, but she received a Pell Grant which paid for her entire education plus a small stipend to cover books. All of this income we never counted, expected, or really thought would happen when we decided to get married--we just knew that we wanted to take seriously what God says in the bible.
Honestly, there are so many more stories that Elanor and I could share. I mean, our entire 6-month trip to South Africa (SA), God was providing over and over again--places to live, transportation, food, money, and more. We experienced the abundant life, even though we left all our financial security, our home, and our physical stuff to venture out and follow God in SA, but He kept providing. Many times we just didn't know how things would work out (usually where we would live), or even feared that we were living far beyond our means (traveling costs, high gas prices, buying a car while abroad, way higher food prices than we expected, visa costs, rent), but in the end, God kept showing us that He provides for our every need.
Indeed, God is our provider--for real. He means it. If He calls you out to the middle of nowhere to preach His word without a cent to your name, He really means that He will take care of you. Whether it comes in the form of manna from heaven, quails from the sky, unexpected job opportunities, or free government money, He takes care of all our needs. He is our provider... our shepherd, and oh what a wonderful shepherd He is!