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.

Russia: the Best Boot Camp for People Pleasers

“And who’s going to close the door, ah!?” I cringed at the bus driver’s sharp yell as I realized it was directed at yours truly. Although logically I knew his sarcastic barb had nothing to do with me as a person, my emotional reaction outshouted any sense of logic, and tears of shame came to my eyes. Being a sensitive person has often served me well; I am the thermometer of the mood in the room, intuitively sensing how people are feeling and easily empathizing with those who are struggling. But this trait also has a negative side that is manifested in the familiar paralysis of people pleasing. Because I am so in tune with people’s moods, especially bad ones, for much of my life I have lived in fear, carefully meting out my words and actions all in a preemptive measure against “people being mad at me,” especially authority figures. This fear has been so great it has been a slave driver directing my steps; so many of the “good” things I have done have been products of this prison of fear.  I have avoided people’s anger or disdain by being the student who always does her homework, by going above and beyond at work, by not voicing my opinions or needs in order to maintain a sense of harmony.

There is a precious little cat who sits on the steps outside of my dorm, the kind I would love to sit down with and pet and speak baby talk to. But whenever he sees me coming, he recoils in fear and darts away, anticipating that I will hit or kick him. Every time he dashes away in fear, I feel sad, wishing that he knew that his fear of me had no roots in reality, but were a construction of his imagination. In the same way, although I have managed to create a semblance of safety through carefully manipulating my actions, I too am constantly bracing myself for an attack that likely only exists in the realm of my imagination.

In America, I know how to work the system; I know how to keep myself “safe.” But here, I am expected to play by a list of unwritten rules that I learn along the way. I am destined to make cultural faux pas in public and in the workplace, and there is no way I can even create the guise of pleasing everyone. At first, this knowledge was unnerving, my carefully constructed armor of “doing what is expected of me” useless in a place where expectations are high, yet fluid and vague. At first, the scolding on the street and the rudeness of store workers produced shame in me, taking their words as an attack on my character. But now I am beginning to see that perhaps Russia is the best boot camp for a people pleaser; I have to face my fear of being misunderstood and disliked, challenged to get to the root of the problem instead of throwing a Band-Aid on the wound and letting it fester.

So why has it been so important to me to please people? I am learning that one of the main reasons is because I define myself by others’ opinions of me. If a boss expresses that I’m lazy or disorganized, it means that I am. If a boss thinks I am a hard-working team member, it is gospel truth. This thinking gives an inordinate amount of power to the opinion of someone who only sees my superficial output, and in reality, probably doesn’t care as much as I think he does. Like the saying goes, “when you worry about what people think about you, relax: they are not thinking of you at all.”

My favorite short story by Anton Chekhov tells the tale of a man named Chervyakov who accidentally sneezes on one of his superiors at the opera. After apologizing to the general once, because of the gruff dismissal of his apology, Chervyakov tortures himself, convinced that the  man is angry with him, and throughout the rest of the story repeatedly apologizes. Eventually, the general, sick of the obsequious pestering, does explode in anger. At the general’s outburst, Chervyakov is promptly overcome by stomach pain, goes home, and dies. This is my go-to story whenever I realize that I am taking people’s opinions of me to seriously. While I am creating an elaborate drama in my mind, in reality, it is likely nothing more than a sneeze.

And in mother Russia, I realized something had to change in my thinking, or I would end just like Chervyakov, worrying myself to death because others were not validating my sense of worth. And the lovely process of renewing my visa would be a perfect way to fight my fear head on. Three weeks ago, I traveled to Kazan early in the morning with the head of my department to pass in documents for visa renewal. After a sleepless night and a three hour ride, in an anticlimactic flop, a thin middle-aged woman with short hair and an unsmiling face said that it was too early and that we needed to come back in two weeks. Oh, and there was something wrong written in my contract (which had taken 3 days to put together, with signature after signature!). The head of my department accepted her answer and I followed his lead, thinking that this was just a part of the process, not knowing I had the right to fight.

A few weeks later, I was nervously preparing my paperwork for Kazan attempt #2 when one of the teachers in the department noticed my furrowed brow. “You look sad today. What’s wrong?” I told her what had happened last time, and she quickly and confidently replied, “You should have stayed and told her you wouldn’t leave until she helped you.”

“Really?” I said.

“I think you need to be pushy anywhere if you want to get things done. No one else is going to care about it unless you care about it. You should have explained that you had driven for three hours and you can’t constantly be making these trips. I read your blog and I felt bad because I thought, ‘this poor girl doesn’t know how to stand up for herself.’”

In our conversation, something clicked; I realized that standing up for myself and ruffling others’ feathers was not synonymous with being a terrible person. Being impolite is not a crime, and here, directness is synonymous with strength.  I knew it would not come naturally to me to be pushy or to stand up to this woman, after years of conditioning my speech and actions to elicit the best response from others. What if she yelled at me? What if she scolded me? What if? And then the truth started to poke its way through the prison bars I had lived in for years. Simple, true words. If she thinks I am a stupid American, it doesn’t mean I am stupid. If she acts like I am imposing on her, I don’t need to leave. It’s her job. This time, I went to the office in Kazan by myself. Early Monday morning I marched up steep steps and entered the office of the same disgruntled woman. She looked at me as if I were a fly she wanted to swat away, but I continued as best as I could, introducing myself and saying I was here to renew my visa.

“Documents,” she said languidly. I gave them to her, she scanned them, then said in a suffering, condescending tone, “Of course you did it wrong.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Sit down please,” she growl-sighed, the “please” not fitting her tone. By her demeanor, you would think I had just given her ten hours of work.

“I have a flash drive with me. We can change it right here.” I insisted.

I heard a spark of something closer to humanity when she replied, “Alright, we’ll do that.” She changed the paperwork; I signed it again, and in ten minutes, I was done. As I had expected, she had indeed treated me like a “stupid American” who had stolen hours of her day. But this was a victory for me, because I advocated for myself despite her rudeness, not letting her reaction shape the way I felt about myself. I was a confident young American ready to do what she needed to do to stay in this country. I did not yell, I did not make a scene, but was quietly insistent and did not apologize for my being there.

I have had some hard days here, but experiences like these push me to grow in a way I don’t think I would if I were in America. Here, I am forced out of my comfort zone, forced to examine my fears at their roots and battle them instead of avoiding them. This Russian boot camp is exhausting and stretching and perplexing, but I am convinced that in the end, it will all be worth it.

Destination: Unknown

Ten years ago, I sat huddled inside a bus with dingy drapes, the steady beat of potholes jarring my head as I tried in vain to rest against the cold window. As I shivered and peered out the glass into the darkness of a Russian night, two questions circled, “where on earth am I going, and what have I gotten myself into?” I sat scared and vulnerable, my mind’s projections of my destination making me wish I could turn the bus around. Fettered by the unknown, I had no idea that I would be swept up into an adventure that would radically change the direction of my life, that I would meet people who would leave indelible marks on my heart, and that I would experience God’s faithfulness with a beauty and depth I had never known. No, all I could see that night was darkness.

In the same way, these last four months have felt similar to that dark night as a twelve year old on my way to Russia for the first time. Anxiety loves to feed off the unknown, and these past four months have been a constant tug-of-war between feeding the indefinite to my anxiety or to my God.

In the waiting, the voice of fear has been a constant attacker, tainting the joy that should be bubbling over. Fear loves to make me turn inward and focus on me and my abilities: “What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are? What do you know about teaching? You are inarticulate and will fall flat on your face.” Fear loves to fill my mind with the soundtrack of human approval:  “What if you don’t live up to the university’s expectations? What if everything you do is met with frustration and misunderstanding? What if your students don’t like you?” In short, fear loves to get my mind off God and onto the idols of self and others.

Fear wants to make this adventure smaller; it wants to tame it into something manageable and shaped like me. Fear wants me to lose sight of the vastness of God’s plan and have me settle for something comfortable and controllable. I serve the God who not only created the universe, but redeemed me from my sin, and I don’t want to spit on the sacrifice he made for my freedom by acting as if I were still a slave.

But right now, I feel just as blinded to the vastness of God’s plan as I did when I was on that bus ten years ago. I have two choices in this blindness: fear or faith. When I submit to fear because of my lack of sight, I begin to feel like a shell of myself. Instead of adventurous, I feel apprehensive. Instead of full of life and enthusiasm, I feel bottled, restrained and cold. Instead of joyful, I feel depressed; instead of active, I feel passive. But when I choose confidence in the unseen because of the God whose hand I do see, my anxiety is exchanged for joy, freedom, and perspective.

So in this period of the “night bus,” while my vision is foggy and my mind tempted to fear, I want to walk confidently into the future as Abraham did, who, “by faith…when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)