Sometimes, Seeing Really is Believing

As I began to read back through 1 Peter this week, I wasn’t particularly expecting to encounter something that would so evidently prompt a renewed mindset in me. Fortunately, what God chooses to reveal to us in a new and fresh way at any given time depends very little on us! The passage that first caught my attention is right at the beginning: chapter 1, verses 3-9.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade–kept in heaven for you…” (1 Peter 1:3-4, NIV)

Living hope is very different from anything we experience or understand in our context here on earth. Most of the things we hope for are statuses we wish to attain, goals we’d like to accomplish, material things we want to possess, or events we’d like to see take place. The living hope Peter talks about here is not only something that we have the privilege of expecting with confidence (rather than crossing our fingers for) but is also much broader than any event or achievement we dare to hope for in our limited scope.

This living hope is an ever-growing desire for the future we are promised by the authority of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. The life we are able to joyfully anticipate is an eternity with our Triune God in an orderly and pure universe. Verse 4 calls it the “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade–kept in heaven for you.” Despite ourselves, we are allowed the distinct and glorious privilege of confidence in this future we could never deserve, all because Christ sacrificed His life that we might be afforded that opportunity. In all honesty, it blows my mind.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1: 8-9, NIV)

While the audience to which Peter was writing could not see Jesus the way Peter meant, and we certainly haven’t had the privilege yet, my faith in God is precisely a result of encounters where I have seen Him. No, I have not yet looked upon His face with my eyes, nor touched His pierced side with trembling hands, but the nature of His creation is such that we almost cannot escape reflections of Him–though we sometimes fail to recognize them.

A pure, unbounded love like His wells in the adoring eyes of children. My parents’ familiar embrace radiates with His deep comfort and forgiveness. I have seen reflections of the Father’s delight in His creation as my roommate experiences American culture for the first time. The kindness and care my sister shows to everyone she encounters mirror His own. My friends demonstrate His desire for closeness and intimacy in their pursuit of relationship and community. And oh, praise God! For I have felt the inexpressible joy that springs from glorious, undeserved redemption. I have left it to my bursting heart to express the joy and praise I cannot communicate with words. I have sung with shaking voice the songs of praise I learned in my childhood.

And, too, I have sobbed helplessly at the atrocity of death, at the unfairness of children left alone in circumstances that seem impossible to overcome. I have trudged through the dark places and never alone. I have desired eternity more than tomorrow. I have sometimes allowed the Spirit to carry me through my despair, interceding for me “with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). Other times, I have fought tooth and nail when prompted to a vulnerability beyond what I felt capable of allowing.

How blessed we are to be able to sing the words, and understand their truth, that “you have been my God through all of it” (Colton Dixon, “Through All of It”). How privileged we are that our God does not grow weary of our failure and impetulance and abandon us. What an honor it is that He Who knows us far better than even we know ourselves reveals Himself to us in just exactly the right ways at the right times. My faith is no monumental demonstration–but I’d be a fool to reject a relationship with Christ when He makes Himself known so freely and abundantly. “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him,” says Peter. No, perhaps not with my eyes, but indeed I love Him because He is sometimes all I can see and, oh, what a beautiful sight!

 

Sometimes, Seeing Really is Believing

One Word for Life Today

I miss blogging. I miss sitting down to reflect on my week and picking out what God’s showing me through overarching themes that seem only to make themselves evident when I intentionally dedicate the time to looking for them. I haven’t posted in a longggg time and it’s even been a while since I last attempted to write a post, and you know what? I have nothing and no one to blame but myself. It would be just like me to pull the classic “I’ve been way too busy” line, and it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, but at the core of this delay has been an upset in my priorities list. How do I know this for sure? Because I was definitely way too busy those weeks when I was doing laundry at 2 am in the basement of my dorm and writing as I waited for the cycle to be over so I’d have the clothes I needed for the next day. And I still found time to seek God then and to let Him show me what He wanted me to see in my life and in my heart.

But what I’ve also found from years of journaling and those initial few short-lived weeks of blogging is that specifically taking time to breathe and reflect can be more refreshing than sleeping an extra hour. Sitting down to pray and read God’s word offers a much-needed release from the day-to-day stress of just plain living in this busy world. And this is how it was intended, even from the very beginning! We use our day of rest to congregate and worship God, to learn more about Him and what that means to us, and to celebrate the relationship He offers us, because He has created us to be refreshed by Him.

I often find myself caught up in a vicious cycle of seeing that things in my life are going well, giving myself credit and feeling confident that I have everything under control, then losing track of something and allowing the pendulum to swing the other way. The result is that I feel lost and broken, incapable and incompetent, and wallow in self-pity and sometimes disgust at myself before realizing that, yes, I’ve done it again. I’ve put my hope, my trust, and my confidence in myself and inevitably failed. We were not created to be alone or reliant on ourselves! God created us with a healthy need for His strength, His comfort, and His guidance. It’s when I refuse His blessings that I land myself in hot water.

When I find myself falling behind and try to recover by staying up later or using any of my other not-so-bright ideas, it keeps me in the endless loop of falling behind, losing energy, and performing even worse than before, and I might be mistaken but I don’t think I’m alone in this. I develop a poor attitude and my family suffers at the hands of my so-called independence. The resulting situation reminds me of a power strip that’s only plugged into itself; it can never be the source of the energy, or the kindness, or the love–it’s only designed to distribute it. So when I try to be the originator of my own strength, I end up just about as useful. All the many things I’ve plugged into suffer because my source of energy is dead. It is for this very reason that God offers Himself to us:

“Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

What, exactly, are we supposed to be learning from Him here? Maybe that the things we always bump to the top of our priority list are not the things we should be chasing after. Maybe that the responsibilities we give ourselves to get involved in everything, to lead in every possible capacity, to join this and give to that, to take classes and work full-time and still spend invest in our families, to make enough money for vacations and look after our parents and in-laws, to keep the house clean and the yard mowed and the refrigerator full and sign the kids up for sports and music lessons and tutoring…maybe not everything we put on our plates is all that important, after all.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33, NIV)

Well, maybe not all of those things will be added to us. But everything we need, with blessings beside, according to the One who created and sustains us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Seems like a pretty safe bet, right? We don’t have to wait until we’re weary, until we’re worn down and just plain tired of always chasing after a to-do list, to bring our concerns to God. My relationship with Him should always be my primary priority; my attitude can’t continue to be that I’ll pursue Him when I finish everything I have to do, because that list never ends! In Psalm 23 verses 1-3 (NIV), David writes of our Father:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing./He makes me lie down in green pastures,/he leads me beside quiet waters,/he refreshes my soul./He guides me along the right paths/for His name’s sake.”

When is the last time you or I felt so at peace, so calm and content, that we felt like we were lying in green pastures or walking along still waters? I, for one, can say that these metaphors don’t come close to describing my day-to-day life. But God offers refreshment through habitual rest and rest in Him. If we allow Him to guide us, He won’t drag us through life trying to throw every possible activity and responsibility into our cart as though we were contestants on Supermarket Sweep. No, He will guide us meaningfully and purposefully through life according to His will. And David, for all He probably felt like getting caught up in as king of Israel, says that with God as his shepherd, he lacked nothing.

Do we trust God enough to give Him our schedules? To trade in our stress for His peace? Do we believe in His promises enough to act on them? I know this will always be a struggle for me. But I also know that the more sure I am of His divine plan for my life (a confidence growing every day), the more I’ll loosen my grip on my calendar and my checklist and allow Him to guide my decisions and my commitments. Because, according to His promise, when I delight in Him, He will give me the desires of my heart–desires aligned with His will and His plan, greater and higher than I could ever imagine (Psalm 37:4).

One Word for Life Today

Hello from the…Inside?

My school was on Spring Break last week, which meant that I got to enjoy the comforts of home and busy myself with activities much different from the daily responsibilities of college life. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to join my mom in working with a local elementary after-school program. One of the things that God has given me a deep love for is working with children, so I jump at almost any chance to invest in them, even if only very briefly. I believe God can work through the most minute interactions, and I’ve seen evidence for this in my own life, so I try to make myself available and willing to be used by God at any time. When my mom gave me the chance to join her at the school, I thought I might rather relax at home, but I’m so glad I got the opportunity to tag along.

Most of the afternoon seemed pretty routine for a program like this: snack, lesson, song, story, song, memory verse practice…pretty ordinary, all-in-all. But God still found a way to speak to me through these average moments. During the lesson, the kids sat in a circle in front of the speaker on the gym floor. The volunteers sat in chairs slightly outside the circle so they could keep an eye on things, but because I was visiting and significantly younger than the other volunteers, I decided to join the group on the floor. Sitting on the edge, I quickly noticed three young girls sitting close enough to hear the teacher but outside the cluster of kids, and I motioned for them to come closer. I wasn’t sure why they were isolating themselves, but my first instinct was to think that they wanted to talk or play instead of paying attention.

How humbling for me to realize the error in my judgment when one of them responded immediately to my beckoning and another soon followed! Not only did they join the circle, but they sat right by my side and smiled shyly up at me before becoming brave enough to loop their arms through mine. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, though, the remaining girl stayed away despite the invitations her friends and I extended for her to join us. I thought it shouldn’t have been too hard for her, as we were on the very edge of the group and not too far from her, but the space between us seemed an insurmountable obstacle for her as she watched us cautiously from a “safe” distance. As I sat trying to help the two younger girls stay focused on the lesson and wishing the last girl would join us so I wouldn’t have to worry about her, I realized that my situation was very similar to one we often put ourselves in as Christians.

We often remain inside the safety of our comfort zones to witness, and God can certainly use us wherever we are, but there are still those who can’t be reached from where we sit in our pews. In order to express the love of God and Jesus’ attitude of inclusion that led Him to extend love to Gentiles and forgiveness to prostitutes, we have to be willing to pack up and go out into the world, just like we were called. There is a time to go out and call in the lost:

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.'” (Luke 14:23, NIV)

but there is also a time to meet them where they are to share God’s love:

“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.'” (Mark 16:15)

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)

To bring the girl who stayed outside the group into fellowship, I perhaps should have first taken it to her. Of course, with two of the three girls, inviting them to join me worked; I’m not at all speaking against inviting people to church or events where they can learn more about God. I do think it’s important, though, to be equipped, prepared, and willing to bring the Gospel ourselves when we have the opportunity. We can’t saddle our pastors with all the responsibility of sharing the Gospel. Colossians 4:5 encourages believers to “conduct [themselves] with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.” And we can’t expect those who are lost to go outside their comfort zones to find out about a God they aren’t even sure exists; it should be so much easier for us to step outside our comfort zones, because we’re secure and confident in our faith and the truth we share. The situations God has prepared for us won’t always be conducive to the distribution of tracts or an invitation to church. Some situations can only be met with a word of prayer or an immediate discussion, otherwise the opportunity will pass.

Still, I’m sure we can all relate to the frustration Paul expresses in Romans 7:15, that

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Some things, like sharing the Gospel on our own, we know we’re supposed to do–we just struggle with putting that knowledge into action. We all have similar struggles, I’m sure. But I want to challenge you (and myself, too) to step outside your comfort zone to share the incredible love God constantly pours into us. Go beyond expectations and share where you wouldn’t normally think to bring such a discussion to the table. People aren’t always waiting “on the outside” with bad attitudes or minds already made up like we sometimes assume; maybe they just haven’t felt welcomed yet but deeply hunger for the chance to scoot into the group, settle in, and learn about a God who wants them to engage in relationship with Him. And sometimes they’re waiting to see evidence that there is a God Who cares deeply about them, specifically, because so far it seems like He doesn’t really care what happens to them, if He’s even real at all. As the body of Christ, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus reaching out to bring love to the hurting and lost. And in our efforts to live like Christ, we must remind ourselves that He came to our world to save us; He didn’t try to take care of everything from where He sat, but He became human so that He could reach, save, understand, and love the lost. Can’t we, following this model, go out into a world, even to unfamiliar places, to share His love?

Hello from the…Inside?

And They Say Men Don’t Ask for Directions…

For some strange reason, when I started my blog, I thought I’d have something different to write about every week. I thought that each week I could catalog what God had been teaching me and doing in my life, and by putting my “lesson learned” into a nice little gift-wrapped package with a bow on top, I’d prove that I’d absorbed that concept and was ready to move on to the next in God’s series of lessons to teach me. But it’s been two weeks since my last post, and God’s still teaching me basically the same concept in deeper and different ways. With that realization comes the understanding that I’m never going to check off all the boxes of learning and “arrive” at the destination in my relationship with God; this whole thing is going to be one big, beautiful, messy, painful, glorious journey that will, quite literally, take a lifetime. Just because I recognize something is a problem doesn’t mean I’ve fixed it; in fact, hardly so. Because I’ve been focused on the finished product for so many of the goals and aspirations in my life, adjusting to this lifelong growth process is going to take a while. Thankfully, God’s faithful to stay by my side even when I’m slow.

I need to get started, so I’m just going to come right out and say it: I am bad at listening to and accepting advice, even when implementing it would cause a marked improvement compared to my current plan. I’m the last to admit I need help or to humble myself enough to ask for guidance, however desperate I may be in a given situation. My general attitude all too often tends to be that I’m independent, responsible, and strong enough to handle whatever life throws at me all on my own. Unfortunately, that perception typically proves to be more false than true.

Exhibit A: Last year as a prospective student at the university I currently attend, I became pretty familiar with the path between the admissions building and the student union. During my college search when I visited campus several times, it was the one place I knew I would always be able to find. I prided myself on knowing that one path so well, even though traversing the rest of the small campus still presented a challenge.

Fast-forward nine months: I’ve made my college choice and followed what I really hoped I had accurately interpreted as God’s call to a different school than the one I’d intended to attend for much of my high school career. It’s my second week on campus and I have to exchange a textbook for one of my courses because they gave me the wrong one by accident; the only catch? The bookstore is located in the student union, and in all my bustling about this direction and that finding everything I need the first week, this is the first mission since I’ve arrived on campus that requires me to locate the student union.

No big deal, I think to myself. If I could find it as a prospective, surely I can find it as an official student. So in all my puffed-up, “college student” confidence, I slide the textbook I’m exchanging into my backpack, tuck my wristlet into the front pocket, grab the notebook I’ll need for the next class, and embark on what I expect to be the first of many short, routine trips. However, once I make it through the library and emerge on the other side of campus, I realize that my plan has one fatal flaw: I only know how to get to the union from the admissions office, and I haven’t been there either since my last visit; in fact, I don’t actually know where either of the buildings are located right now. I should know this! As I glance around trying to get my bearings, I see a campus map on a big poster near our bell tower. I could easily go find my current location on the map, reorient myself to my surroundings, and follow the appropriate sidewalk to my destination of choice. But that would be too much like admitting defeat, and of all the buildings I could need to find, this is the one I shouldn’t need help with.

But I do, and I spend far too long wandering around the other side of our tiny campus wondering where on earth it could be hiding before finally recognizing the unmistakable spaceship-like structure that I know holds the bookstore. As I rush to make the exchange before my next class, I am forced to recognize the foolishness of indulging my stubborn pride–and, months later still, I begin to recognize the same pattern in my walk with Christ.

 

I mess things up on a daily basis; I understand that the term “things” is vague, but it must be if I expect it to cover the broad range of mistakes I make and sins I knowingly commit, from letting one thoughtless comment slip from my mind to my mouth to purposefully and habitually engaging in behavior that distances me from God’s will for my life. It’s not that I don’t know the good I ought to do; it’s all written out pretty clearly in the Bible, including this:

“Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” (James 4:17, NIV)

So, yeah. My sins are direct results of my conscious selection of my choice over the right choice, or maybe my choice to remain inexcusably ignorant to what that right choice might be. When I have such a reliable source of guidance and wisdom, why do I brush it off to the side and rely on my own faulty logic and lame attempts at reason to propel my actions? The root of the problem, I suspect, lies in a deep-seated desire to feel capable and in control. I think we all seek a measure of control in our lives, in different ways and to varying degrees, and this makes sense; we want to know that everything will turn out okay and the time in between now and when “everything turns out” will go as smoothly as possible. The best way we see fit to ensure our ultimate success is to take our paths into our own hands–after all, we trust ourselves more than anyone.

Therein lies the problem. When I choose my logic over God’s direction, I’m asserting my will over His and expressing a greater trust in myself than in the God I profess to trust with my eternity. What a sad state of affairs to find myself in! For He promises nothing less than to continually offer love, forgiveness, and guidance to those engaged in relationship with Him through His Son. He knows far better than I do what I need most in every situation, and I know this not only because of His outright promises in the Bible but also because He has proven Himself faithful time and again when I’ve humbled myself enough to see and follow His guidance. He brought me here in an unexpected twist of something much better than fate, and I am confident beyond belief that this is the place I need to be at this time in my life. So it’s no question of whose choice is better.

It does no good, though, to acknowledge my weaknesses unless I make a conscious effort–not necessarily to change, but rather to allow myself to be changed by Him. I can’t simply get better at following Him or strengthen our relationship by wanting to; in order to truly have a transformed attitude, it’s going to take a lot more power. My responsibility is to desire growth and do what I can to pursue it while asking Him to soften my heart and mold me into more of the person He has created me to be. And when I find myself believing the lies that our culture preaches day after day, lies that tell us that no one will care about me except me, that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, that the most important endeavors and the only ones worthy of my time and attention are the ones that benefit me and bring me more “success,” I have only to look to His Word for this guidance:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–His good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2, NIV)

The context of this verse includes an encouragement to offer our bodies (in essence, our entire lives) as sacrifices to God to be used for His purposes, which we know are for the good of all those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Another instrumental verse in my coming to this understanding of how crucial it is that I return to Him the privilege of decision-making , one that I often mistake for my right, was Isaiah 55:9…

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (NIV)

Here I am, settling for my own will and constructing my own plans in a futile effort to wholly control my life, when God has so much more prepared for me; even if it’s not what I expect, and even though the growth is sometimes going to have to come through challenges and pain, I have a God Who knows what He’s doing, one hundred percent, and is totally okay with me not knowing. But if I’m going to make a shift in perspective and get used to not knowing exactly the plan I’m supposed to be following but instead living from this one guideline, to follow God, I’m going to need a constant reminder. So part of my action plan for this week to help me keep in mind the higher purpose that my life is designed for was to have one of my friends write on my wrist in henna the word “ask.” “Ask” is the key word in another of the promises God has pointed out to me in this process, and having my wrist emblazoned with the word has brought it to mind repeatedly throughout the past week. Here’s the promise we’ve been made:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5, NIV)

When the henna wears off, though, and this post is buried deep in the blog archives, my prayer is that God will continue to remind me of His ultimate sovereignty and help me seek His will for my life above my own. Because while they say men don’t ask for directions, I struggle with it just as much myself (maybe more). I’ll close with a few lines from a hymn that’s been running through my head as I write; I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence.

Take my life and let it be

consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

Take my moments and my days,

let them flow in endless praise….

Take my will and make it Thine,

it shall be no longer mine.

Take my heart, it is Thine own,

it shall be Thy royal throne.

(Take My Life and Let It Be, Francis R. Havergal)

And They Say Men Don’t Ask for Directions…

But God, That’s Not in the Ten-Year Plan!

I can be painfully “Type A” sometimes, and that realization always seems to come crashing in at the most inopportune times. While I naturally like to focus on the positive aspects of a Type A personality–high motivation and ambition, among others–I have to admit that I exhibit the negative characteristics as well. Rules are sometimes a little too important to me, I struggle with patience, and I try to plan everything I possibly can. I feel a little less strange for all my career planning when my friends show me their “secret” Pinterest boards full of wedding ideas or when my grandma repeatedly reminds me where she got every trinket in her house so they won’t get overlooked “when she’s not around anymore.” Still, though, my tendency to create detailed plans and the accompanying strong desire to adhere to them often causes inner conflict between the planner in me and the part of me that understands the importance of being flexible.

During Christmas break, I happily shared with my cousin that I finally felt settled enough to develop a ten-year plan–a bit extreme, I’ll admit, but such is my way. When I explained the same plan to a friend, though, he encouraged me to “stop trying to intricately plan what you’ll do, when you’ll do it and how.” His advice frustrated me at the time because I depend so heavily on planning that I found comfort in having the next ten years mapped out, and his response felt too much like disapproval for my taste. Still, I’ve found it beneficial in the past to take such words of advice into consideration and try to discern whether there is some truth in the guidance I’m being offered; there usually is.

As I’ve explored the motivation behind my need to know what’s coming and be prepared, I’ve begun to see my mindset as the result of a desire to feel like I have everything under control. I don’t like to feel helpless or uncertain, and not knowing what lies ahead stirs up those feelings within me. This seems to be a perspective that a lot of people share, especially students; most of us harbor a fear of not knowing what to expect or how to respond in new situations, or when our plans get unexpectedly and dramatically changed. Sometimes we feel like we’re grappling for a stronghold, stumbling around in the dark for solid ground on which to build our futures, and we hate that feeling of not knowing.

Whenever it seems things aren’t going the way they should or I’m afraid that my desired outcome in a situation won’t ultimately prevail, nervousness, uncertainty, and sometimes fear begin to pervade my thoughts. It is in these moments that I realize how truly powerless I am–but these same moments cause my appreciation to increase for the One Who is in control. God’s word declares time and time again that He has plans for us, and they’re superior to our own:

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, NIV)

 

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

 

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV)

So we can go ahead and make our plans, sure; a little planning ahead is responsible, and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming about the future. But whatever dreams we have for ourselves, we must keep in mind that they are based only on our limited understanding and experience of the world. We don’t know what is possible when we follow God and allow Him to direct our lives, when we make the hard choices because we know that “all things work together for the good of them that love God” (Romans 8:28, KJV). C.S. Lewis articulated this concept particularly well in one of his sermons, asserting, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with…ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory, 28).

So I don’t think it’s wrong for me to dream of raising a happy family in a cute house on a cul-de-sac, as long as I am willing to submit to God’s will in joyful obedience if He calls me to remain single and serve Him in another country, in a little hut with a dirt floor. If I hold on tightly to the plans and hopes I have for myself and refuse to let go, I’m not really surrendering myself to God’s guidance. And it’s no real loss, to exchange our paltry hopes for His limitless plans. God does not have small plans for us, but we have to trust Him enough to follow Him in another direction, believing that His plans are better than we know to hope for. After all, He is “able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine,” and I trust His blessings far more than I trust my plans–I’m just working on turning that conceptual understanding into action (Ephesians 3:20, NIV). The hardest sacrifice is the sacrifice of control.

Even if my biggest (selfish) hopes remain unrealized, I resolve to be content with His plan for me–joyful, even, because the One Who knows me best has a plan mapped out for my life and is continually leading me down the path He’s prepared for me. My prayer is that He would align my desires with His own so that I will live in pursuit of His will. For now, my only long-term, set-in-stone plan is to follow God’s lead and live my life in a way that glorifies Him. Beyond that, I don’t really know what the next five, ten, and twenty years are going to look like–and that’s okay.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30, NASB)

But God, That’s Not in the Ten-Year Plan!

Love Beyond Myself

This week was “Spiritual Renewal” week at my school–our version of a revival, with a guest pastor coming to share messages on a theme during chapel and evening sessions each night. Last semester, I missed the evening sessions because of other commitments, but this semester I had the opportunity to go to the first evening session along with our regularly scheduled chapel sessions and the experience provided a refreshment I definitely needed at this point in my life. Lately I’ve been struggling to exude the joy God gives us and to love those I’m around thoroughly and genuinely. I’ve found myself losing patience more quickly and reverting to spending time alone or with only my closest friends rather than engaging with others I’ve been given the chance to get to know and encourage. My focus in relationships has shifted to what I can gain rather than how God can use me and how I can glorify Him.

When I hit spiritual rough spots like this one, my first response is (unfortunately) usually to focus on my other responsibilities more because I feel guilty about my slipping commitment to pursuing God–but that just opens the door for our relationship to continue to weaken. I began to recognize myself going down this all-too-familiar path last week, so when I got out of my three o’clock class early on Monday I headed to the prayer chapel to spend some time in peace seeking God and asking Him to bring my focus back in line with His and draw my heart closer to His own. Our prayer chapel rooms are kept stocked with Bibles and hymn books, so I spent some time worshiping through reading aloud and singing the hymns I miss so much when I’m away from my home church. I left that afternoon feeling refreshed already; little did I know, God was just warming me up for that night.

The spiritual renewal pastor addressed the preeminence of God throughout his series, including the Monday night message regarding His preeminence over our hearts. He reminded us that we have to surrender our hearts to Him and open them to accept His endless love and influence in our lives in order to deepen our relationships with Him. As he spoke, I began to realize that the reason I’ve been struggling so much lately to actively love others and even Him is because I’ve been trying to do it out of my own heart and my own store of love. I haven’t been returning to God for fulfillment and to be refilled with His love and joy often enough, so I’ve run low–and I can hardly give away a love I don’t have. I have to love beyond myself, out of the abundant love God offers me.

Whenever I find myself drifting from God, I ask Him to break me over my sin so that I can experience the healing only He can provide, and that’s what He did Monday night. My prideful spirit in believing I’d be okay trying to tackle the world all on my own was evident and exposed as I met Him at the altar, and I was humbled before the God I fail to run to again and again. My prayer is that I would open myself to receive God’s love and joy in such an abundance that I can’t help but share it with all those I come into contact with:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45, ESV)

In the few short days since, I’ve begun to recognize that if I’m trying to love people out of my own strength, it will only ever be a superficial love that provides merely surface comfort. When I seek to share God’s love, though, it can be deeply cleansing and healing, and it will be more genuine for me as well. As I see people around me more like God sees them, I’ll develop a more sincere and constant love for them and be able to act on that in a real way that demonstrates a love greater and deeper than any that we humans know outside of God. Wednesday night I had the chance to live out “intentional community” (our school’s favorite term) and build friendships by sharing God’s love as I spent a significant amount of time in valuable and encouraging conversation with two dear friends I needed to catch up with. These encounters offered even more evidence of God’s intricate designs for our lives to provide opportunities to glorify and grow closer to Him; I’m continually amazed by His deep love for us. I share with you now the prayer Paul prayed for the Ephesians, one we must continually pray for one another and ourselves as we seek to glorify God by loving like Him–beyond ourselves:

“I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to Him Who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:16-21, NIV)

Love Beyond Myself

Let Down Your Walls

In my “welcome” post, I specified the intended function of my blog as an outlet through which I can share how I’m growing through the struggles I encounter daily as I seek to pursue God wholeheartedly. The premise of such a claim is that I’ll be vulnerable with you and trust God to make something beautiful out of my otherwise-confusing tangle of life. Now, I suppose, is as good a time as any to share with you how very much I struggle with being vulnerable:

I do not like to be vulnerable with my peers. I’m great at sharing my flaws and failures as a part of my testimony when working with teenage girls, because God has worked mightily through some of my greatest failures and I appreciate every opportunity to share that. When it comes to exposing my present struggles in front of those with whom I daily confront life, though, I tend to resist. I’m all about giving advice or praying with a struggling friend, but I tend to treat such encounters like one-way glass; a friend’s willingness to give me an opportunity to see into her life and know the depths of her heart does not, according to my stubborn mind, warrant reciprocated vulnerability.

On so many levels, I am horrible at expressing humility and letting people in to see my very real, very personal struggles. My selfish, vain spirit wants to construct for the world a glowing facade that highlights my strengths and hides my weaknesses, and I don’t think I’m alone in this tendency. In a community of believers where the most common question aside from “How are you?” is “How can I be praying for you?” I still somehow find it difficult to offer up details about my personal struggles. I usually try to hide any “issues” or disguise them with explanations that, while truthful, may not reach the extent of the situation. And it’s not necessary to share everything with everyone, but going it alone typically doesn’t function well as a coping mechanism or stress management tool. My resistance often proves offensive on several fronts.

When we refuse to share our lives intimately with those around us–not everyone, but a select few who’ve earned our trust and expressed interest in and concern for us–we’re passing up an opportunity to build strong friendships with valuable individuals who see us as valuable too. James 5:16 offers some encouragement with regard to sharing our difficulties with other Christians:

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for each other, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (NIV)

I think often our resistance to be honest with each other about the challenges we’re facing comes from a belief that each person has enough of his own troubles, so we shouldn’t add to anyone else’s. But a burden shared is a burden diminished, and we’re called to serve one another in this way:

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NIV)

When we’re willing to share about what we’re going through, we begin to realize that we’re not all going it alone. As a matter of fact, I’ve come to understand, in true “High School Musical” fashion, that “we’re all in this together.” God created the church to be a community of believers for a reason. We’re not meant to show up on Sunday in our suits and dresses and show everyone the superficial perfection we’ve tried to create. No, life is messy, for all of us, and God gives us the ability to form relationships and encourage one another in ways that express His love for us. God doesn’t only work in us, but He also works through us; we have to be willing to let Him in through our brothers and sisters as much as we seek Him through His Word.

What I’ve been learning slowly but steadily over the course of this school year is that vulnerability promotes intimacy at a level unmatched by any other efforts. How can I claim to be close to someone without having allowed them to know me as the person I really am? No matter how many sleepovers we have, no matter how many meals we share, no matter how many late-night study sessions we suffer through together, no matter how many many complaints we lodge with one another–nothing provides true intimacy like a willingness to be real and honest about our struggles and then pray for and genuinely encourage one another in pursuit of closer relationship with God.

I have many of the same thoughts about sharing my struggles as I do about working out: Why do people do this to themselves? It’s just uncomfortable, and sometimes it hurts. Why would anyone voluntarily subject themselves to these horrors? Yes, it is hard. Yes, it can be awkward and uncomfortable. Yes, sometimes in the middle of it we wish we’d never begun and we want to give up and never do it again. But, just like working out, I have to have the discipline to keep letting people into the mess of my life, because I know that ultimately the pain and the awkwardness will lead to growth. Just like we work out to stretch our muscles so they’ll be stronger, we exercise and deepen our friendships by stretching them out with our honesty and vulnerability. But I can’t do it alone; I would never be able to stick with working out if I didn’t have a workout buddy holding me accountable, and strong friendships can encourage us to stay open and share honestly even when it’s difficult. I’ve found it especially helpful to take on the attitude Paul shares in 2 Corinthians, and I encourage you to do the same. Allow God’s strength and healing power to be showcased as you let Him work in your life:

“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

Let Down Your Walls