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?”

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 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.

I Have Seen the One Who Sees Me

Unclean.

Unclean am I, I am unclean, because of a bleeding that won’t stop, no matter how much I adhere to the doctors’ instructions, more outrageous and extravagant by the day. Weakness does not just fill me; it is me.

I feel cold in the sun.

I want to seek Him, Jehovah, the Lord, the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But I am cut off. Shame and sin are mine, are me. An unrepentant woman. I hear the whispers: “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” I am unclean, unclean am I. I used to have a name before the condemning blood.

When I heard about him from my mother, when she told me about what he did for the blind man that used to beg at the end of our street, all I could think of was how much he sounded like the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But compassion was a word for others; it could never apply to me. For my uncleanness, my sin, they said, had cut me off from the people. Compassion should not be shown to one who willfully persists in iniquity. It might imply that misdeeds were acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah. But with Mother’s story about this Jesus, I saw that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules.

A rebel, a kind rebel.

I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed. For a moment, I was thrilled, but then I felt the question like a slap.

“Who touched me?” 

I should have known better.

His voice wasn’t angry, but I knew it would be as soon as he realized that I, an unclean woman, had touched him. And if he was as powerful as my mother said, he would most certainly realize.

I feared that he would be angry, that I may have tainted his power with my unclean hands. But I was desperate; he was my last chance. My hands went numb and my body began to heave with tears that left me gasping for air. With my last bit of strength, I moved toward him, then fell near his feet, my hands scraped by the gritty ground.

“It was me! Forgive me, it was me.” The tears kept coming, but my face grew numb. I kept my head to the ground, waiting for the blow, or the curse, or the command to leave.

But instead, in a gentle voice, he said “daughter.”

I lifted my head in disbelief, and he looked in my eyes, really looked-not through me or past me as the others do. And when he looked in my eyes, his own filled with tears. And with a lump in his throat and a soft smile, he said, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”

He called me daughter, and he called me free. This compassion, this love, still feels strange and unreal. It’s been so long since I’ve been clean that I have to remind myself that my encounter with him wasn’t just a dream. But as I wake up every day with strength in my body and the memory of his words, I know that it is all true. And now I can proclaim with joy, just as Hagar did when he rescued her, “I have seen the one who sees me.” 

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This fictional account is based on Mark 5: 25-34. Hagar’s words are from Genesis 16:13. Italicized words are direct quotes from Scripture.

The Heart I Want to Have

Prayer has always been a battle for me, an enigmatic pursuit that I often am lazy in pursuing. I confess that I have often avoided prayer simply because articulating my heart before the unseen Creator seemed so elusive and vast. Vague words would waddle around in distracted circles, coming out more like a laundry list of complaints and centerless generalizations:

“God, please help so and so.”

“Lord, thank you for who you are.”

It is not that these types of prayers are somehow wrong; it is not as if God judges based on the articulateness of our words. But I had become lazy in the pursuit of communing with God. Instead of running first to Him with a broken heart or overwhelming anxiety or even blossoming joy, I would first run to my friends, to my family, overwhelming them with problems and dilemmas that were meant for Him to carry. In the center of this “praying” to humans around me festered the core of unbelief. Unbelief in the freeing, peace-bringing power of exposing the heart to the One who created it. And because of this perpetual unbelief, I had become complacent in repeating half-hearted Christianese collocations, and I knew that I needed to rise from this lethargic daze and trade passiveness for activeness. To begin believing that opening up to the Creator and laying all on him would infuse joy and purpose and precise perspective into my life.

But where was I to begin? How was I to break myself from these shallow and vague habitual mutterings? For me, the answer lay in discovering a little red book filled with recorded prayers of Christians throughout the centuries.

I grew up in a very non-liturgical tradition, and although liturgy was never outright condemned, there was always the sense that to repeat or memorize prayers from a book was somehow inauthentic and mechanical, the harbinger of legalism. And for this reason, I think I always felt that I had to “make up my own prayers” in order for them to be genuine.

But as I began to read this little red book filled with prayers, I began to realize how small this view of prayer was. One of the joys of reading for me has always been when the author has articulated something in my heart that I could never put into words. In the same way, I found myself savoring the words of Christians before me because they articulated precisely and powerfully the heart I want to have and the heart I know that God desires for his children to have. The following prayer by Thomas Aquinas has given focus to my prayers and I am so thankful that I can learn from the heart and examples of Christ-followers before me.

“Grant me, I beseech Thee, Almighty and most merciful God, fervently to desire, wisely to search out, and perfectly to fulfill, all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. Order Thou my worldly condition to the glory of Thy name; and, of all Thou requirest me to do, grant me the knowledge, the desire, and the ability, that I may fulfill it as I ought, and may my path to Thee, I pray, be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;

give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; 

give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness that may finally embrace Thee. Amen.”

For Whom the Bell Doesn’t Toll

This piece was published in the spring 2013 issue of the Vox Populi, a publication of Gordon College.

     A brassy peal emanates from the corner of campus, spreading its eerie power in a shockwave throughout Gordon’s domain. For just a second, the campus stops. Chemistry majors look up from their lab work, soccer players on the quad turn their heads, studiers in Jenks lose their place in Our Father Abraham.  Some sigh, some crack a cynical joke, and some shrug their shoulders. Despite our individual reactions, for just a moment, we are united. Gordon is rich with legend, and few Scots haven’t claimed the tales of the car at the bottom of Gull pond or of Teddy Roosevelt’s horse buried under the quad as part of their heritage. The mysterious lore surrounding Gordon’s history certainly plays a role in shaping our identity as students here, but nothing seems to compare to the metal monument that lounges proudly in its gazebo throne, observing passersby under its sway. The cultural icon that has the power to bring us together for better or for worse is that wonderful, terrible old bell*.
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      We see its power in conversations, humming at a constant din throughout the four years, first starting off wistfully, hopefully, then morphing gradually into a senior cynicism or a lifeless joke. The bell makes regular cameos at Gordon Globes, providing a source of comic catharsis for those who find themselves bemoaning the infamous Gordon ratio or the rabid desperation of Gordon girls. The bell is occasionally rung by the reckless non-respecter of its sacred power, but the rest of us know that only under one circumstance may you ring it and leave unscathed.
 
      The bell’s renown reflects the fact that Christian colleges, and Christian culture in general, is infamous for framing marriage as the cardinal goal of life. Our generation is known for pushing back against the pressure to marry young, but still, the cultural constructs of American Christianity loom over Gordon culture, encouraging unhealthy interaction between the sexes. Many people I have talked to are familiar with the awkward apprehensiveness of male-female interactions at Gordon. The vicious cycle goes like this: Christian girls have a reputation for singling guys out as possible husband material; thus, guys fear that too much friendliness on their part could be mistaken as a marriage proposal. Assuming that Gordon men hold this view of them, many women also mete out their friendliness and smiles in controlled doses for fear that they will project a message of desperation. I have seen and experienced the frustrating awkwardness of this cycle again and again, and I have also seen a striking contrast in my two times studying abroad, where I was able to seamlessly befriend members of the opposite sex without fearing that they would think my attentions were a desperate plea for a ring.
 
      Not only is the emphasis on marrying young damaging to relationships now, but it sets us up for disappointment when we actually marry. With the best of intentions, Christian culture spreads the propaganda that marriage is the answer to our problems and the beginning of our lives. As such, marriage is one of the prime idols of single Christians everywhere, an antidote to loneliness and a license for guilt-free sex. And like all idols, it doesn’t deliver what it promises.  The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 60% of couples who marry between the ages of 20 and 25 decide to divorce, 10% more than the national average. This is not to say that there should be a ban on young marriage, but it does illustrate that at least 60% of young people tying the knot discover that marriage is not the cure-all that they had envisioned.
 
      But to be fair, perhaps the lore of the bell is casting a shadow of untruth on the nature of Gordon students. Although perceptions about the opposite sex’s intentions do seem to inhibit cross-gender friendships, the quest for a ring does not define the majority of the students I know. I do not see girls paralyzed by fear that they won’t find “the one” at Gordon. I do not see lazy young men, too indifferent to commit. No, I see men and women pursuing their God-given callings with direction and confidence. I see students investing in lives in the city of Lynn, I see RAs committed to loving their floors, I see blossoming mentorships between faculty and students. In short, I see people invested in deep relationships whether or not they lead to the altar.  
      I admit that when I first heard the legend of the bell, I hoped that one day I would join the ranks of ringers. But now that four years have gone by without anything resembling that type of relationship, I can say with confidence that I have no regrets. Statistics say that for most of us, marriage will eventually come. But regardless of that fact, there is no use in spending four years chasing a fantasy when the opportunity for deep relationships is at its peak. So love the legend of the bell. Laugh, roll your eyes and pass on its magic to the classes to come. Just don’t let it take a toll on your perspective.
 
*The bell on Gordon College’s campus is only to be rung by couples who have just gotten engaged. Lore has it that if you ring it under any other circumstances, you will have 7 years of bad luck, or worse, 7 more years of singleness…