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A Gut-Wrenching Compassion

Scripture Reading: Matthew 14:1-14

In the depths of your depression, how do you imagine Jesus?

Do you picture him rolling his eyes, telling you to just snap out of it?

Do you picture him stoic, vacant-eyed, indifferent to the sharpness of your struggle?

At my lowest points, I pictured Him this way. I believed that though He might love me, it was a begrudging love, one annoyed at my incompetence. Although he stuck with me because He had promised to, He regretted his decision because I certainly wasn’t pulling my weight.

Now think about a time you were so upset that you couldn’t eat. The tangled stomach, the inner groan that transformed the joy of nourishment into shivering disgust. 

This is how Jesus feels when he sees you in pain. 

The English word for compassion doesn’t fully communicate His heart. We may know that it literally means “suffering with,” but we rarely use to describe a heart completely entering into another’s grief. 

Christ’s compassion is different. 

Charles Spurgeon* tells us that the Greek word used for Christ’s compassion in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, splagchnizomai, was likely created by one of the writers. He says, “They did not find one in the whole Greek language that suited their purpose, and therefore they had to make one.”

This word comes from the Greek for “bowels,” which were thought to house the emotions. The literal meaning of the word is “to be moved as to one’s bowels,” or, in phrasing that sounds better to our ears, a gut-wrenching compassion. Jesus’ compassion was so visible, so powerful, and so unique that only a new word would do.

When Jesus saw the crowd drowning in weakness and pain and hopelessness, he didn’t heal out of reluctant obligation to a promise he regretted making. He didn’t act so that those He healed would do more for Him. No, His stomach turned and his eyes filled. It wasn’t duty or annoyance that compelled Him to act, but a love He couldn’t suppress. 

When Jesus sees you suffering, it’s as though He were the one in pain.

On the days you can’t get out of bed, His eyes aren’t full of scorn, but tears.

On the days you want to die, He asks the Father to restore your life. 

And in every day, every moment, He is moved with gut-wrenching compassion for this child He loves. 

Prayer: Father, open my eyes to see Jesus as He truly is. For every thought that says you are distant and uncaring, replace it with the image of Jesus weeping with me. You are greatly moved by my suffering, and I praise you for your compassion, a compassion that is vastly different from anything I have ever experienced. 

*Read Spurgeon’s full sermon here!

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If Jesus Is the Bread of Life, Why Am I So Hungry?

I have spent my twenties hungry. 

And I have spent my twenties disappointed. 

I have lived the past decade with knowing I have hope for the future so wild I can’t conceptualize it. 

But I have lived the same decade with a heart that says, “only a man can take away the ache.” 

Twenty-nine, I decided, was the year this would all change. On my birthday, I opened my arms and declared that instead of holding on to the dreams that hadn’t come true, I would say “yes, and” to each unexpected plot point He wrote. My prayer was this: “Show me, Jesus, on the heart level, what it means that you are the bread of life” (John 6:35).

I was weary of the longing I had for a human relationship. I was weary of hoping for something I might never have. I was frustrated that the state of my heart contradicted my belief that Jesus himself was better than any of his gifts. And I was fearful that this longing had crossed the line from desire to idolatry, that maybe it always had. 

“Everything which he sends is needful; nothing can be needful which he withholds,” John Newton said. Or in Tim Keller’s paraphrase, “God only gives us what we would have asked for if we knew what he knows.” 

These words are balm at the moment of hearing. For just a second, the camera pans out from my own small story and I see flashes of his glorious work that are usually dimmed by myopic self-centeredness. Not only do I unclench my fists in surrender, but a solid joy is the answer to my prayer: it points me to the stories of his faithfulness, and with a full stomach, I know that he has always been the bread

But the mundane so easily erodes the revelation. There is a pang when I enter the church alone though I know the families will welcome me with open arms. There is an ache at the online writer’s conference when smiling children join their young mothers on screen. 

My first response to these situations is to scorn myself for my weakness, to endlessly “should”:

            “You shouldn’t feel this way.”

            “You should be past this.”

            “You should be satisfied in Christ.”

But the “shoulding” only pushes me closer to the precipice of despair. The “shoulding” is not working. 

A curious thought has taken shape, one that counters all the “shoulds.” 

What if this disappointment is actually a blessing?

My decade-long quest for human love has utterly disappointed me. Again and again, I have returned from my search empty-handed and more ravenous than before. 

Charles Spurgeon says, “The heart…cries, ‘O that someone loved me, and that I could love someone whose love would fill my nature to the brim.’ Men’s hearts are gluttons after love, yea, like death and the grave they are insatiable. They hunt hither and thither, but are bitterly disappointed; for earth holds not an object worthy of all the love of a human heart.”

“Earth holds not an object worthy of all the love of a human heart.”

On my darkest days, this truth becomes clear. In the moments of greatest want, I know that no person could heal the deepest, most vulnerable parts of my heart. And though it is painful, this might be the blessing. 

Early in my twenties, the ache found its articulation in the words of C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote about the concept of “sehnsucht,” a German word for desire that has a vaster definition than the English one, one that points to our desire for union with our Creator:  

“Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of—something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through…. Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest-if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself-you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”

This “sehnsucht” points to a promised intimacy yet unfulfilled. It is what Randy Alcorn calls “nostalgia for heaven.” But it’s easy to misinterpret what the sehnsucht points to. In each pursuit of human love, I have looked for someone’s sehnsucht to join with my own. True fulfillment would be to have a man squeeze my hand in understanding, look at me with the kindest eyes, and say “I know.” As Shakespeare wrote, it would be the “marriage of true minds.”

You don’t have to look too far though to see that even in the best of marriages, husband and wife don’t always understand each other, even with the best of intentions. Human love is defined by impediments, whatever Shakespeare might say. A husband may seek to love his wife, but he will only ever “[have] an inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which [his wife was] born desiring.” A wife may study her husband with the utmost care but will always fall short of entering the deepest parts of his heart. 

This is all very disappointing.

It’s especially disappointing in a culture whose untiring liturgy is the chant of happily ever after. 

But what if God were to heal our heavenly ache with human love? What if he brought a man into my life and said, “Hope, this man is the bread of life. Now you will never go hungry, and now you will never be thirsty.” Wouldn’t that be the ultimate cruelty? To numb our desire for the real thing with what is only meant to be a faint reflection of it? Wouldn’t it all be a lie?

For years, I’ve questioned why God hasn’t taken away my desire. I would certainly be more efficient for the kingdom, I’ve told him, my Americanness taking center stage. If Jesus is truly the bread, then why doesn’t he take away this hunger, or at least compress it into a zip file so that I can do more for him? 

But I don’t think he’s asking me to do. I think he’s saying, “Hope, now is the time to long. Now is the time for me to refine your understanding of the longing, to wake you up to the pulse of heaven’s citizenship inside you. This hunger, Hope, is part of what it means that I am the bread of life. Because I am the bread, I have prevented any human from completely filling another. Herein lies my kindness.”

There will be more days of longing. There will be more days where I just don’t understand. But I have a hope that will not disappoint (Romans 5:5), and I can trust that with each feeble step forward that I’ll understand a little more that Jesus is the only One who satisfies. 

Yes, I have spent my twenties disappointed. But I have spent my twenties blessed. 

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Illogical Grace

I broke last week. I broke under a burden of my own creation, a weighty mass of human striving and accusations against God’s character, made even heavier by self-contempt for believing the lies instead of what I knew was true. 

But in the life of the Christ-follower, brokenness isn’t the end, but the beginning.

It doesn’t precede destruction, but restoration. And last Saturday, on a day when I pounded my fist in helplessness, shouting that I just couldn’t do it anymore, He began to do something beautiful in my heart. 

Because I couldn’t do it anymore. Not this way. 

I couldn’t live as a follower of Jesus while affirming with my lips but denying with my life two of the things that make Him Him:

He is grace embodied. 

And He sees me. 

He pursued me relentlessly with his grace and intimacy this week, in the words of those who love me, in the books I’ve read, and in the nature I’ve enjoyed. But most precious to me have been His words through Hosea, words of illogical grace.

I saw that I was Gomer, Hosea’s adulterous wife, who had sought satisfaction and provision in the arms of another, not acknowledging that her husband was the one “who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil.”

And here is where the grace is illogical. 

“I will punish her,” the Lord said. “’I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot,’ declares the Lord. THEREFORE[emphasis mine] I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.”

I would circle this “therefore” in red if I saw this in one of my student’s essays. “Inappropriate transition,” I would write. My beloved teacher Mrs. Heath’s voice would prompt me to keep writing: “Whenever you see ‘therefore,’ you need to see what it’s there for!”

And that is the beautiful, paradoxical logic of God’s grace. The “therefore” isn’t there for anything, at least not any of Gomer’s merits. It is simply there for love. 

God’s words become even more breathtaking when you delve into what “the Valley of Achor” represents. Some translations interpret it as “trouble,” but it’s the “why” behind the trouble that points to grace and redemption so beautifully.

The Valley of Achor was named after Achan, who sinned against the Lord and was stoned to death in that very place (Joshua 7:25-26).

The Lord says He would turn the valley where sin led to death to a door of hope. What a striking foreshadowing of the redemption to come in Christ over 700 years later!

Echoing Sara Hagerty, my brokenness has brought me to a place of looking to the Father and saying, “I barely know you.” I barely know Him, His grace, His character, His love, but how I want to. 

He is turning this valley of trouble into a door of hope. And I can’t wait to see what He’ll do next. 

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Sharing Faith and Losing Face

Last year, I gave a number of professional writing workshops to non-native English speakers in New York City. During a break at a workshop in Manhattan, one woman said something that threw me off a bit. 

“You have an inner smile when you teach. Is this your teaching style, or is it just your personality?” 

An inner smile. It was a strange phrase, but I knew what she meant. 

She sensed something different about me.

No, she sensed someone different in me.

She sensed Christ. 

“An inner smile… no one’s ever said that before,” I said. “No, it’s not a special teaching style, it’s just my personality I guess.” 

I immediately knew I’d lost an opportunity. She was open, curious, and clearly respected me. All I had to say, was, “What you sense isn’t from me; it’s from Jesus. If you see anything good in me, it’s from him.” It might have opened up a conversation, or she might have thought I was crazy. I’ll never know.

Here’s another story. I was at a workshop in NYC, this time in Harlem. I decided to walk around on my lunch break, and let me tell you, I. was. out. of. place. To say I stuck out like a sore thumb is a cliché, so I’ll say I stuck out like a redhead with a limp (that’s a story for another day) I walked up to one of the Halal food carts I’d been craving (biryani please!), when a tall black man in his late forties approached me. “Miss, can you spare some change for some food, I’m out of work.” I took a few dollars from my purse, planning to hand them off and be on my way, but I stopped when I looked into desperate, jaundiced eyes. 

“Can I pray for you?” I heard myself say. 

“Yes m’aam,” he said, eyes lighting up. “Are you a Jesus person?” I nodded, smiling. “I could tell you were a Jesus person! My name’s Prince.” Prince then started rambling about God and Jesus and the Lord’s plan. After I prayed for him, he gave me a huge, lingering hug. People around us stared, but I didn’t care a bit. I walked away joyful, peaceful, and full of energy. And in Harlem, certainly not one of the safest places for a redhead with a limp, I hadn’t felt an ounce of fear. 

Long before these experiences, I’ve wrestled with why I so boldly share my faith in some situations and am so reticent in others. It seems that for every time I’ve dared to speak the truth, there’s another time I’ve held back. And since I want to grow so badly, I’ve been trying to find the root of the problem, because I know that to just try to treat the symptoms (just talk about Jesus already!), without identifying what’s up in my heart is just going to keep me walking in circles. 

So, what was the difference between Manhattan Hope and Harlem Hope?

I think a big part of the answer can be summed up in one phrase: losing face

But before I dive into this awesome sociolinguistic concept (Don’t leave! It’ll be worth it!), I want to make it clear that I am talking about sharing faith in an American context where there is virtually no risk. 

I am NOT talking about: 

  1. Strategic missions within a closed country

I completely understand that it is often unwise for missionaries hoping to ignite a church-planting movement to go around on the street talking about Jesus to everyone they meet. In persecuted regions, missionaries often have to build trust and build relationships before they can share the gospel in a way that carries weight to the hearer, poses minimal threat to the local church community, and is likely to spark a church planting movement. What might be simply bold in the US could be foolhardy in certain countries. 

2. A one size fits all approach to evangelism 

I believe that much of the evangelism we are called to is within organic relationships. And as each relationship is different, the way that you express and contextualize your faith might be different. Not every conversation calls for a full gospel presentation. And as apologist Randy Newman says, in this day and age, many people “aren’t even spiritually awake.” They don’t often think in terms of the spiritual, so a question that might have resonated to 80% of Americans in the 50s, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” might not be the best starting point. Rather than leading with that question, seek to first “spiritually wake your friend up” by asking for his thoughts on spiritual things in general. 

What I’m talking about in this article is the heart issue of reluctance to share when you have a green-light opportunity like I did with the “inner smile” lady. It’s a heart issue, but it’s also an issue of culture and language. And man, do I love a good intersection of faith, culture, and language!

Although I couldn’t get a job with my linguistics degree (thanks for the warning, Gordon), what I learned in undergrad continues to connect with the way I live out my faith (so thanks, Gordon, really). My favorite thing to talk about, as my longsuffering roommate can attest, was “Face-Threatening Acts.” I loved talking about FTAs because they seemed to explain a lot of my awkwardness in social interactions and why guys didn’t ask girls out as much as I thought they should. FTAs are: “statements or requests that could make the hearer feel pressured or embarrassed. The seriousness of an FTA is measured by the culturally defined amount of imposition in the request and the social and power distance between the two interlocutors” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 76). 

So basically, an FTA is anything that could be considered a.) impolite or b.) awkward. Another way of putting it is that an FTA is anything that makes you or your listener “lose face.” There are two different types of “face” that we have to lose: negative and positive. “Positive face” refers to “the desire…to be approved of,” and “negative face” refers to “the desire to be unimpeded in one’s actions” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 13).

Brown and Levinson (1987) assert that the way we interact with each other is governed by our attempts to meet the others’ face needs when committing potentially “face-threatening acts” (p. 76). The way we avoid causing others to lose face is through the following “politeness strategies.” 

1.Bald-on No effort to mitigate the FTA, e.g. “Go out with me.”
2.Positive PolitenessInformal and friendly, attends to positive face needs, e.g. “Hey, I think you’re a great person, do you want to go out sometime?”
3.Negative PolitenessAvoids pressuring the hearer, e.g. “If you’re not busy on Friday night, there’s a movie I was wondering if you’d like to see with me.”
4. Off-record A hint, e.g. “I sure wish I had someone to go to the movies with Friday night!”

Brown and Levinson (1987) argue that these politeness strategies are universal, but that different cultures value different face needs in conversation (p. 13). This is where U.S. culture and sharing out faith intersects. In the United States at large, it is taboo to ever threaten someone’s “negative face,” or make them feel as though their freedom has been imposed upon. Americans don’t like to be told what to do. And when they are told what to do, they like the person telling them what to do to pretend that they’re not telling them what to do. That’s why American bosses say, “Could you have this in by Friday?” when in reality, they’re telling you “Finish this by Friday, or else.” Also, in today’s culture, tolerance is lauded as one of the cardinal virtues. If you express an opinion about morality, the culture often labels you as immoral. And as Christians, we’re so steeped in the culture that we fall for the illogical argument that to be an effective witness, we have to act according to the culture’s paradigm of morality in order to share Jesus, whose morality is starkly different from the world’s. So, the first reason that we don’t share our faith is because it has been ingrained in us that we must not make others feel pressured or uncomfortable. 

But honestly, I think that our positive face “needs” are more likely to get in the way of sharing our faith than others’ negative face needs. In the US, we’re big on not imposing our beliefs, but we’re even more into how awesome we are as individuals (maintaining our positive face). A defining characteristic of U.S. culture is an individualism that, on one hand, frees us up to pursue our unique dreams, but on the other hand, puts a laser focus on self and how we appear. At their core, positive face needs have to do with our desire for approval. We want to be liked and approved of by others, and sometimes we justify our cowardice as tolerance, as respect for others’ negative face needs, when in reality, we just don’t want to lose face. 

Putting this all together, sharing our faith in Jesus can be one of the biggest potential face-threatening acts in North American culture because we are threatening both our positive face and others’ negative face to a high degree. We threaten people’s negative face by communicating, “I truly believe that if you need to take action on what I’m saying. It’s actually a matter of life and death.” We threaten our positive face by risking being thought of as crazy, irrational, backwards, stupid, or narrow-minded. And that explains the difference between my two interactions: I didn’t care what Prince thought of me, but I was basking in “inner smile’s” approval, and I didn’t want to lose it.

This isn’t just an American struggle though; it’s a human struggle. John tells us about the leaders who believed in Jesus, “but because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” (John 12: 42b-43). Ouch. From ancient Israel to modern day American, the fear of losing face has been an issue. 

One thing that helps is remembering that Jesus himself was one walking FTA. He was so intent on speaking the truth that others’ negative face needs were irrelevant. It’s how Jesus didn’t attend to his own “positive face needs” though that is most striking, because if anyone deserved approval and admiration, it was him. But when he was accused of blasphemy, he didn’t speak back. He was willing to lose face because his love for us outweighed his desire for approval. 

As Christians, we are called both to be like Christ and to proclaim what he has done. When we sign up to become a Christian, we sign up to committing FTAs! Jesus says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15: 18-20a)

I’ve come up with a question to ask myself the next time I have an “inner smile” conversation, one where all I have to lose is my positive face but I’m still holding back: Whose face?

Whose face are you trying to protect? Your own, Hope? Or the face of Christ, the one you’re representing? 

Whose face is on display? Your own, Hope? Or the face of Christ? 

If I ask these questions, I hope that instead of letting my own “face needs” get in the way, I’ll sacrifice them to share the truth. And I pray that I would grow in desiring the approval of God more than the approval of humans. I know I won’t be perfect, I know I’ll fail, but I also know He’ll help me get up again. So let’s get out there and commit some face threatening acts!

Reference: Brown, P., & Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Saying “Yes, And” To a Life I Didn’t Expect

In improv comedy, there’s a lovely little principle called “yes, and.” When you’re in the middle of a skit, you never question what your co-actor does. If he says, “I hate this Georgia heat,” you don’t say “Seriously, honey? It’s winter and we’re in Maine.” As an actor, you know that the best way to create an engaging story with believable characters is to go along with the reality your co-actor is creating. You say yes to the new reality and you build off of it. So when he complains about the Georgia heat, you don your Southern drawl and tell him you’ll be right back with some sweet tea. To refuse to say “yes, and” breaks the flow of the story and puts the focus on you, the actor, rather than on your character. 

The Office’s Michael Scott is a perfect example of what happens when you don’t follow the “yes, and” principle. In his improv class, he hijacks every scene by yelling, “I have a gun!” Whether a little girl is skipping down the street or a fortune teller is reading his future, the invisible gun comes out. He thinks he’s bringing energy and excitement to the skit, but in reality, his scenes are boring, repetitive, and to top it off, his classmates can’t stand him. 

Michael Scott’s antics might seem to win the gold medal for bad improv, but I’m pretty sure I’m a worse offender than him. In almost every scene that God has started writing in my life, I’ve acted a lot like Michael. But instead of saying “I have a gun!” I say, “Am I finally going to get what I want?”

In junior high school, I wrote obituaries for me and my friends. In bubbly cursive on wide-ruled paper, I inked stories in which our every hope and dream was fulfilled. Dream job. Check. The perfect spouse. Done. That dog you’ve always wanted. You got it. 

Mine read something like this:

“Hope Johnson lived a truly adventurous life. She majored in youth ministry in college and fell in love with an aspiring youth pastor named Jeremy who loved Russia just as much as her. Immediately after college, at age 22, Hope and Jeremy got married and moved to Russia to do mission work. They had three beautiful children on the mission field. After 10 years, they were called back to Hope’s home church in Hampden, Maine, where Jeremy became the senior pastor. And they lived happily ever after.”

You can probably tell by now that a.) I was a strange child, and b.) the obituaries didn’t spring from an obsession with death, but an obsession with life.

Life on my terms, that is. 

From age 13 on, I lifted this story I’d penned up to God again and again, asking him to bring it all to pass. And my dreams were good, I reminded God the closer it got to “crunch time” (i.e. the end of college when there was still no husband in sight). I wanted to do missions and ministry with a godly man, for heaven’s sake! Of course God could get on board with that.

But He didn’t.

I didn’t meet the love of my life in college.

I did go to Russia the year after I graduated, but it was the loneliest year of my life.

I struggled with depression for 3 years after I returned from Russia and wondered if I would ever feel “normal” again. 

Things in my twenties were clearly not going according to that obituary I had written years before. My response: clench my fists and deny reality. Each time a self-imposed milestone passed, I would lift up the story I had written, a story as tired as a crumpled, yellowing piece of wide-ruled paper, and beg God to tell me that the reality I was experiencing was just a dream. 

At the same time, I knew at my core that God himself was truly better than any plans I could imagine, and that he deserved my trust and allegiance regardless of what happened. And I have followed God in this crazy journey full of the unexpected, and let me tell you, He has done amazing things! He’s given me precious friends, brought me to places I’d never imagined, carried me through depression and walked me into joy. He’s orchestrated opportunities for me to speak the truth and grow and change that I never would have had if my plan had worked out. But still, until now, I’ve never quite let go of that “perfect plan” I had outlined for my life. 

This unexpected pandemic and all that has come along with it reflects this battle that I, and so many others I know, fight daily. We all had plans that seemed, good, very good, yet we were pushed into a reality that we hadn’t imagined or planned for. Weddings, postponed. Jobs, lost. Parties, cancelled. 

And it struck me that perhaps I’ve been living a little bit like I’m in quarantine, hunkered down, waiting until everything is over so that my real life can begin. 

A beautiful pattern in Scripture recently leapt out at me. The lives of so many who were intimate with God and saw Him do amazing things in their generation had this common denominator: they had a plan for their lives, God called them to something radically different, and they said “yes, and.” 

Here are just a handful of these amazing stories:

Daniel’s plan: live out his life in his homeland.

God’s call: be taken captive by a pagan nation, learn the language and literature of his captors, face a grisly death (being eaten by lions) for refusing to stop praying to the one true God, see God’s power in a miraculous rescue from that death, and by God’s power, interpret the king’s dream, and prophesy about the coming of Jesus. 

Joseph’s plan: enjoy a life of comfort as his father’s favorite

God’s call: be sold into slavery by his brothers, gain the respect of the pharaoh only to spend years in prison, but ultimately be a huge part of saving not only the nation from famine but the very brothers who had sold him into slavery. 

Noah’s plan: live a godly life with his family in an ungodly world; be a witness to those rebelling against God.

God’s call: be a witness, for sure, but do it by building an ark for and having those around you think you’re crazy.  

Ruth’s plan: live out her life with her foreign husband in her homeland of Moab. 

God’s call: go to a foreign land widowed with her mother and law, work long hours gleaning in the fields to make a living, be united with a kind, godly husband, and ultimately, be part of the line of Christ.  

The list goes on and on: Paul, Esther, Moses, Samuel, David, Jesus’ disciples!

And as this beautiful pattern has come into focus, for the first time in my life, I feel the courage to give that open-hearted “yes and” to God whatever comes. It’s true, each person I listed above experienced more pain and suffering than they would have had their life gone according to their expectations. But the reward was so much greater than the pain: they were swept into the epic story of God’s love and redemption, and they knew Him personally with ever-growing intimacy. I don’t think they would have traded that for anything. And I don’t want to either.

One of the key reasons behind the “yes, and” principle is that if I take over the scene with my own reality, the focus is now on me, the actor, rather than on my character. This metaphor extends to the Christian as well. If I refuse to say “yes, and,” I’m going to obsess over self rather than reflecting Christ. I will spend my days walking in ineffective, repetitive circles when God is offering me the chance to join him in the great adventure of His kingdom work. 

The most beautiful “yes, and” to me in Scripture is that of Mary. I imagine she had a simple, peaceful plan for her life. Marry Joseph, live quietly, and raise lots of children. But when face to face with an angel who told her she was going to bring the Messiah into the world, she said yes, and her life was never the same. She spent day after day in the presence of Jesus, saw him fulfill the prophecies she held so close, watched him brutally murdered but gloriously resurrected. She surrendered the life she had planned willingly, and God gave her meaning and joy and abundance that made those plans pale in comparison. 

So I’m setting that old obituary on fire* as a 29th birthday gift to myself, and if I try to go pawing through the ashes, remind me of how two-dimensional and lifeless it was, of how quickly it burned up, and then remind me that real, vivid, colorful kingdom life is right in front of me. So year 29, here we go… God, you have my “yes, and.” 

I’d love to hear from my readers: What’s your “yes, and” story? What was your plan, how was it changed, and what did God do? 

*Not really, I’m not that dramatic 🙂

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What If Your Fears Come to Pass?

Hope, what if your deepest fears come to pass?

Your deepest fears, the ones that prickle just beneath your skin, the ones that no matter how hard you try to quiet, still pound in time with your heartbeat? 

If your fears come to pass, does it mean that your life will turn from one of hope into one of despair, from one of meaning into one of meaninglessness?

If your fears come to pass, does it mean that you mistepped and God sits there smugly, telling you that you made your bed, now go lie in it?

If your fears come to pass, does it mean that God isn’t good?

That He doesn’t love you? 

You seem to think so.

The fear of the future is the beginning of wisdom. Isn’t that how the verse goes? Because logically, it makes sense. It’s wise to analyze all the possible outcomes before taking a step, right? To be sure that this decision won’t shatter your life, because if you misstep, then God certainly won’t meet you where you messed up. Isn’t that how the verse goes?

The fear of man is the beginning of wisdom. Isn’t that how the proverb goes? Because if you look at the evidence around you, at the novels and poems and Instagram posts, human rejection shatters hearts and minds and lives, but human love heals and validates and means you are precious. Isn’t that how the proverb goes?

Of course, you know you’re dead wrong because you’ve memorized the real verse, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The truth lives in your mind, but the false proverbs with their human logic have snaked their way into your heart.    

I know the way you naturally think, the society you’ve grown up in. It’s an evidence-based, humanistic society, where truth only comes from a testable hypothesis, and citations and sources are demigods. I know you have a million of them, of these citations and sources that tell you fear is the wise and logical response. I know the pain you’ve endured, the rejection you lived, that your natural instinct is to self-protect and run rather than expose yourself to hurt all over again. 

But don’t forget this: a source can be beautifully written yet be completely false. A citation may be perfectly formatted but point back to a boldfaced lie. Evidence may be compelling until you find it’s been falsified.   

I want to tell you a story. 

It’s the story of King Hezekiah and the King of Assyria. 2 Kings 18:5-7 says that “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.”

Read further, and you’ll find that Hezekiah was far from perfect; he was just as broken and prone to sin as you, Hope, but he chose to trust God’s evidence over that of his attackers. 

To be sure, the King of Assyria’s men would’ve gotten an A+ in your English 101 class for their clear, concise argumentation supported by ample evidence.

“This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand. Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria…Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”

The evidence was there: no other nation had been able to withstand the forces of Assyria; their gods hadn’t helped them, so how could Hezekiah’s God?

But Hezekiah could see the hole in the king’s argument because He knew the power and character of the one true God.

And he prayed:

“It is true, O Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by men’s hands. Now, O Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God.” (2 Kings 19: 17-19). 

Hezekiah was able to identify the lie and refuse fear because he had confidence in God’s power. It was true that the Assyrians had defeated other nations. Statistically, they would probably conquer Hezekiah’s people as well. But Hezekiah knew that God is not a God of statistics, but of miracles. 

Hezekiah trusted in the Lord.

And the Lord defeated the Assyrians and saved his people. 

When your heart is fearful, Hope, you only see within the confines of 80 years, you only see the steady aging of a finite frame and the fears that come along with it, of aging, death, of unfulfilled dreams and lost loved ones, of the pain of cancer and broken relationships, of being abandoned or never being enough to be chosen in the first place. 

The fear is a festering bullet wound that you’re only putting a bandaid on when you read a quick verse but continue to live like “the fear of the future is the beginning of wisdom,” like God only helps those who help themselves, and like getting through your 80 years with minimal pain is what you should aspire to.

But, Hope, if you stop looking forward and instead look back, the fear will shrivel, because there are countless stories of God bringing you through the fire not to die, but to be refined, not because He didn’t love you, but to show you just how much he does. Remember the time, not even two years ago, when he walked with you into that greatest fear, the one where you were clutching your life so tightly, you were about to shatter it.

When your greatest fears came to pass, you thought you would crumble. You thought that the evidence of your worthlessness was damning and that the pain would weigh heavy forever. Your eyes were blurred by looking at human evidence, but the whole time he held your hand leading you, refining you, and finally cleansing your gritty eyes so you could see the brilliant colors of truth. 

You just met a woman who faced her greatest fear, betrayal and rejection and the crumbling of her family. As she began to tell the story, you expected bitterness, but instead, her eyes shone with strength. There was pain and there were questions, but there was also a defiant hope. A defiant hope that said God is still good even though her circumstances are not.

Some throw around the phrase “God’s best” as synonymous with getting everything you’ve wanted in this life, with your story being tied up as neatly as a Hallmark movie. A happy marriage, financial security, and healthy kids-this is what we often mean when we pray for “God’s best.” But following this theology, many believers before us didn’t experience “God’s best.”

Job lost seven children in one day.

Jeremiah preached the truth and was rejected.

Noah obeyed God and was ridiculed. 

And as we learn in Hebrews 11, “some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated-the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” 

Hope, what if during these 80 years your questions are not answered, or your dreams fulfilled?

If your goal is the Hallmark movie, then of course you’ll be disappointed, you’ll grow bitter, and you’ll doubt God’s goodness. 

But at your core, you know that’s not what you truly want. You know that to pray for a Hallmark ending is to pray for a shallow, self-centered existence. God has put His Spirit in you and that Spirit cries out for meaning and depth and to live the sacrificial love of the one whose name you bear. 

Jesus’ kingdom call may mean the death of your dreams, but as soon as you open your hands, he’ll fill them with dreams greater than what you’ve imagined. 

And when you unclench your fists and surrender, you’ll realize there’s no need to fear. 

Because Hope, Jesus is faithful and true. Perfect love casts out fear, and He loves you perfectly. You are strong and courageous not because of you, but because His blood beats in your veins, you’ve derived your name from Him and the fearlessness he showed when he went to the cross. Satan showed Him the evidence, how at 33 years young, He would suffer torture and death and  separation from His Father. But Jesus knew that in light of eternity, in light of the joy of uniting the broken people He loved with God, that Satan’s evidence was a mirage. So he chose to face that fear, and he died. 

With 3 days in the grave, the proof piled up even higher, it said that clearly He was not the Savior, but a mere man who had rebelled against the truth and gotten himself killed because of it. Even His closest friends believed the evidence because it was flawless, but the evidence only spanned 3 days, 3 days that dawned into victorious eternity anchored in love. 

Hope, when fear tangles in your chest and anxiety stunts your breath, remember this: God is good and faithful and has always been your loving defender. Fear grows when you forget His faithfulness, but retelling the stories where He showed His perfect love casts out fear. And already, He’s filling you with a courage you didn’t think possible, you’re beginning to see outside the confines of the 80 years on earth, and you’re opening your tightly clenched fists. And one day, when you’ve run your race, you’ll see how each broken thread of your story is woven beautifully into the tapestry of His glory and salvation. You will see the redemption of all the hurt and betrayal and sickness and death, daughter of God, and when you do, it will be breathtaking. 

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