When You’re Struggling to Believe God’s Promises

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Psalm 13:1-2

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Sarah had had it. She was done. The promise of that long-awaited child had been nonsense, a joke, perhaps a figment of Abraham’s imagination.

For far too long, her “how long?” had only been met with silence and the steady aging of a finite frame.

So when the visitor brought it all up again, she laughed.

It was a cynical laugh, as dry and bitter as this childless life she’d been living for ninety years.

What else could she do?

Cynicism was safe, and when she compared it to God’s track record with this teasing of a son, cynicism could at least be trusted to provide what it promised: realistic expectations for this dusty, aching life.

“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

A son. Next year.

Hope jolted her for a split-second before the laugh spoke reality over the cruel fiction.

Who did this visitor think he was to stir things up again?

She couldn’t open her heart to hope one more time. If her hopes were dashed again, she would crumble right into the grave.  

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The older I get, the better I understand Sarah. Following Jesus truly is joy and meaning and life! Yet there is a tension between this eternal life Christ has saved me into and the current life on a dying earth where things are not what He meant them to be. Because although the longer I live the more I see the goodness and love of God, at the same time, my pain has become sharper, my questions bigger, and my desires deeper. There is a vivid history of God’s faithfulness in my life, but too often, instead of retelling that story, I look behind and despair that I haven’t received the things I’ve longed for or fully shed the chronic struggles that keep me small-minded and self-conscious.

There are so many “how longs” that test my faith in God’s goodness and love for me:

“How long, O Lord, will I feel this way?”

“How long, O Lord, will I struggle with this sin?”

“How long, O Lord, will I yearn for what you haven’t given me?”

You say that if your child asks for bread, you won’t give him a rock, so why are my teeth cracked and my mouth full of earthy grit?

And like Sarah, I’ve let the “how longs” scratch at my throat until all that comes out is a dry, cynical laugh.

When the “how longs,” consume me, I question His promises, desperate to understand:

“You say that if your child asks for bread, you won’t give him a rock, so why are my teeth cracked and my mouth full of earthy grit?”

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“If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:1

In the not-yet, with blurry human eyes, His promises may seem untrue.

But the beautiful thing is, the fulfillment of God’s promises is not dependent on our ability to grasp them. God did not take away his promise because Sarah laughed. Not only is he patient with our “how longs” and cynical laughs, but He still plans to fulfill His promises in a way that exceeds what we could imagine.

God not only gave Sarah the son she had longed for, but drew her into a story so much bigger than herself, making her the first woman in the line of Jesus Christ.

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“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Ephesians 3:14-15  

There’s a fascinating parallel between Sarah and followers of Jesus.

Sarah laughed even after God gave her a new name embedded with His promise. Sarai became Sarah because God wanted her name to mean “mother of nations.” But even with her identity heard each time someone spoke her name, she struggled to believe.

As Christ-followers, we’ve been given a new name, a family name, derived from the very name of the One who saved us, but we, like Sarah, still struggle to believe the promises embedded in this new identity. I’m finding that no matter how much evidence I see of God’s goodness, I still question, I still doubt, and I still cry, “how long?”

I want to be a woman who laughs at the future and not at God’s promises.

But in my heart of hearts, I want to be a woman who laughs at the future (Proverbs 31:25!) and not at God’s promises.

So I’m praying that I would believe the promises embedded in my new name more than I believe my human eyes.

That I would read the truth and speak the truth with conviction regardless of how I feel on a given day.

And that I would remember Sarah and take heart, knowing that God’s promises will be fulfilled in a way so much broader, sweeter, and more eternal than the ways I’ve cried for them to be.

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Genesis 18: 1-15 (NIV, emphasis mine)

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

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Genesis 21: 1-2

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.

Unashamed

“Shame is a prison as cruel as the grave/shame is a robber, and he’s come to take my name.” -“Ain’t No Grave,” Bethel Music

I recently had a conversation with a woman who was filled with so much shame that all she could imagine God saying was “I don’t want you here.”

Anger at the lie surged through me, and I prayed over her, confident in God’s Father love whose arms are always open and waiting.

But then shame returned to stalk me these past few weeks, that sly enemy lion, growling that I should be so much further along than I am. Shame’s words:

You’ve been following Christ for years. How can you still struggle with this? You’ve been following Christ for years, yet look at you. 

Shame tells me that this time, God’s patience will surely run out.

God’s word tells me that he has compassion on me, for he knows that I am dust. (Psalm 103: 14)

Shame tells me to censor my prayers, that God is a triage unit, and I should only pour my heart out to him if it’s something that others would agree is significant.

But reading the Psalms shows me that this shame is not from Him. The book of Psalms is a game changer when shame comes knocking. In the Psalms, we see the raw cries of those who felt forgotten and abandoned by God. In their prayers, two themes emerge:

  1. They were unafraid of pouring out the darkest thoughts of their heart to God.
  2. While shouting their afflictions, they kept His promises in view.

Psalm 42 is a beautiful example of these 2 themes. The Psalmist is honest about his state: “My tears have been my food day and night…I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?”, but comes back to the Lord’s goodness: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

For me, a journal is how I follow the pattern of the Psalmists. Writing Scripture focuses my mind in a way that speaking does not, but for you, it might be saying Scripture out loud or singing. Whatever your preference, know that proclaiming the promises of God is a beautiful and powerful act of defiance against Satan’s schemes.

Some great places to start are Psalm 42, Psalm 73, and Romans 8.

Later this week, I’ll be sharing my process of writing, praying, and responding to the Psalms. I hope you’ll join me!

Much love,

Hope

Our Beautiful, Ugly Idols (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about how the Lord has convicted me of romanticizing my sin.  In the same way that the Israelites decorated their idols with gold and silver (Isaiah 40:18-19), I’ve painted sinful thought patterns in so many layers of lies that I’ve actually believed they were beautiful. Odysseus’ approach to the Siren’s song illustrated how I’ve been living: because Odysseus refused to block his ears, he was deceived into thinking that hideous murderers were beauties worth the price of his life.

Along with this conviction, I’ve felt the Lord saying, “This is the start of a new chapter, one of freedom, if you will step into it, daughter.”

But How?

Now the question is, how do I step into it? How do I step into this new, vast freedom so unfamiliar to a woman used to living hunkered down in a prison cell of lies? Continue reading “Our Beautiful, Ugly Idols (Part 2)”

Our Beautiful, Ugly Idols (Part 1)

A story from Greek mythology that has stuck with me is that of the Sirens. The famous warrior Odysseus is making his way home from war when his ship must pass by the Sirens: half-women, half-birds who sing a song that is achingly beautiful, and until then, had led to the death of all who heard it. Whenever sailors followed their melody, their boats were dashed against the rocks. So before encountering the Sirens, Odysseus had his men block their ears with beeswax so they wouldn’t be tempted to succumb to their song. But Odysseus, now he was sure he was better than that. He wanted to hear the beauty of this legendary song, so no beeswax for him. Instead, he had his crew tie him to the mast of the boat and swear not to untie him no matter how much he pleaded.

Of course, when they passed by, Odysseus frantically fought to get free and begged his men to untie him. Fortunately, his crew ignored his cries, and he survived. But what I find interesting is that although both Odysseus and his men survived, they both saw the Sirens completely differently. “To Odysseus, who [was] bewitched by the song, the Sirens look[ed] as beautiful as Helen of Troy. To his crew, made deaf with beeswax, the Sirens seem[ed] like hungry monsters with vicious, crooked claws.” Whereas his crew saw the Sirens for the murderers they truly were, Odysseus saw them as beautiful, even worth giving his life for. Although he survived, instead of passing through peacefully like his men, he writhed through the struggle, pining for something that looked beautiful, but was actually deadly.

The Lord has convicted me this weekend that I’m just like Odysseus. Continue reading “Our Beautiful, Ugly Idols (Part 1)”

On the Lies I’ve Believed and the Truth He’s Giving

“The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus said. “If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

My eyes have been bad for so long, viewing dirt as gold and being blind to the treasure before me. I run after cheap copies of the real thing, then scream at God in desperation when he keeps them out of reach.

I am like the idol-maker Isaiah speaks of in chapter 44 verse 20: “Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

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I’ve been telling myself lies about God for years. He’s good, of course, but he’s not really good to me. He loved me enough to give me eternal life, but not enough to give me what my heart needs on this earth. And suffering, what do I make of suffering, both the general suffering of the world and my own private sorrow, the years of seemingly unanswered prayers and unexpected detours? According to my man-made scale, God has been judged, and found wanting.

I didn’t always question God’s goodness; there was a time when my mind was not disturbed by dark questions, when faith aligned with sight. It was in this time of easy trust, in 2012, that I wrote a poem from the perspective of one who believes in God’s goodness even when suffering doesn’t make sense.

The poem was inspired by a scene in my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in which two very different brothers meet at a pub and wrestle with this question that has been a barrier to faith throughout the centuries.

Ivan, a brilliant intellectual, is tormented by the reality that God allows innocent children to be abused. It’s not that he doesn’t believe God exists, but that he doesn’t want to associate with such a being. In his words, he “returns his ticket” to God. His brother, Alyosha, in training to become a monk, also feels tormented by the tension between God’s character and the suffering of children, but chooses to view Christ not as the problem, but as the solution. And this is the poem I wrote, from the perspective of Alyosha to Ivan:

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This poem has taken on new significance because now, I have been both brothers. When I wrote this poem, I came firmly from Alyosha’s perspective. Over the next 6 years though, although I fought to cling to the truth, the onslaught of severe depression, long periods of loneliness, and hopes deferred tempted me further and further into Ivan’s cynicism.

In 2013, one of my dreams came true- I received a Fulbright grant to teach English in Russia, the country that the Lord had brought me back to time and time again since childhood. The dream soon dissolved into a nightmare, as the isolation was like none I’d ever experienced, and the spiritual darkness of the city was oppressive. For 9 months, I gritted my teeth and held back tears every day, and when I came back to the States, I nearly collapsed. A shell of myself, I had hardly enough energy to get through 2 hours at work, and at night, I was often assaulted with vivid, dark memories of the past year. My mental and physical health were the most fragile that they had ever been, and there were even times, when, driving my little red Chevy, I had the impulse to jerk the wheel to the side and see where a crash would take me.

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Alongside the depression was the ache of an unanswered prayer, the one I’d been praying since I was 13, that the Lord would unite me with a man after His own heart, one whose heart for God’s kingdom beat in rhythm with mine. And like a drumbeat, each passing year pounded a resounding “no.”

And through it all, just like Ivan, my mind began to cannibalize my heart, to attack the very truth of God in me, my DNA as his child. It wasn’t black and white; there were certainly times of praise and trust and hopefulness, but nonetheless, I began to consistently doubt His goodness, and my heart spewed bitterness at him.

This bitterness, I’ve grown to realize, was sprouted from and feeds on my forgetfulness of His faithfulness. Because if I am nakedly honest with myself, He has been so, so faithful to me. But in the throes of depression, in the ache of rejection, I not only fail to remember what he has done, but I dis-member the past, I take it apart, throw away the times he shielded me from evil, paint over the joy he sang in the dark, and slice away the comfort of His presence.

And then, I re-member it into one where He was not faithful- I add my own embellishments before gluing it back into my memory. And even if He was faithful then, then His character has rapidly changed in light of a present reality that I certainly did not ask for.

Bluntly, when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

But remembering his faithfulness is what reveals these thoughts for what they are: lies.

The story of the Israelites is the same as my own: God is strikingly faithful, the people forget, complain, and lose heart, only to be shown his goodness once again. And God hasshown time and time again that he sees me and loves me.

During those 9 months in Russia, he sent me two friends. A girl working at the university who had never met me had a dream one night that I was in trouble and that she needed to help me. The next day, she acted on my behalf and became a light in that dark time. And God made me a light to her-he opened her heart to long talks about God and salvation and the person of Jesus. Another teacher at the university befriended me and was revealed as a kindred spirit, and is still a great friend to this day.

In the midst of severe depression, the Lord surrounded me with my loving, supportive family and used me, in my weakness, to minister to international college students, some of whom who were experiencing the same isolation and loneliness that I had in Russia.

In my years of unwanted singleness, God has been good every time he has said no, as I look back and see that the relationships I so desired at the time were not what was best.

And the more I do that, the more I refuse to dis-member the past, but instead to re-member his faithfulness, to piece it back together in my mind, the more the lies lose their potency; they are revealed as stale words that are no match for the power of the Holy Spirit in this woman consecrated to her Lord.

Life is short; I’m going to blink and be eighty years old and blink again and be before him. And right now, my eyes see things through worldly glasses, and I have only faint ideas of God’s glory. And like Job, I know that when I finally come face to face with Him, I’ll fall on my knees and say “I was so wrong about you, Lord. So, so wrong. Forgive me.”

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He has been renewing my mind and bringing me to a place of open trust, of a vulnerable heart, of a firm belief that He is truly good to me, whatever comes. And as I preach this to myself, I find myself faced with a test. Last month, a wound in my heart that I thought had been healed was violently torn open and revealed as festering beneath the surface. Amidst the shock of it all, I feared that I would spiral back into the depression that He had freed me from.

You see, I believe that Satan wanted to steal my joy. He wanted me to shake my fist at God, to again give advice to the One who created me.But I have a choice now, to go along with Ivan’s airtight human logic, or to believe that although right now, none of this makes sense, Jesus does.

Jesus has come to us, defying the worldly math and logic of suffering, bringing peace and joy and piercing our hearts at the sound of his name.

And in the midst of this battle, the truth is winning. I know that although the suffering does not make sense, that Christ within me is fighting for my mind to be renewed. He is fighting for me to grasp the depths of His love. He is turning what I saw as a spiritual attack into a spiritual surgery, cutting out the festering wound with the sword of His Spirit, the Word of God. He is placing his hand on me and saying, “my dear woman, I long to heal you, and I have, and I will. I banish this wound, I banish these lies in my name. They have no power over you; you are mine. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so you may have life, and have it to the full.”

References

Matthew 6:22-23

Job 42:1-6

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Book 5, “Rebellion.”

John 10:10