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. 

Breaking the Silence

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a word. I haven’t felt able to write, the depth and heaviness of all that has been going on in my heart has not easily translated to words; the tools of sounds and letters that usually make meaning have run like sand through my clenched fists as I have grasped for a way to make sense of guttural, overwhelming consciousness. For a month, all I have been able to do is to open my mouth and utter an unintelligible, emotional groan, words seeming irrelevant when the waves I thought should have subsided by now keep slapping me, and I am only able to form the words, “help me Lord, I need you.”

Many language learners go through a “silent period” in the early stages of immersion. It is a time when the learner is so inundated with new sounds and tones and meaning that he acts like a sponge, not producing any language himself. This doesn’t mean he isn’t learning; speech will eventually emerge, but he simply needs to absorb for a while. This month has been its own silent period for me, as I have struggled just to keep my head above water, simply absorbing what God is doing in and through me without being able to make sense of it like I want to.

Although I can’t begin to plumb the depths of the changes taking place inside me, I am beginning to see how God has used this difficult time in my life to make me more like Christ, to mature my perspective, to bring me to a more daring, vulnerable trust in Him. I feel older, and part of me doesn’t like that. I feel that I have aged 5 years in the past three months, having lost the romance and twinkle in my eye that Russia used to light in me. I feel older, and part of me knows that this is good, that I am stepping out of a transient fantasy into concrete, messy, but colorful reality. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I believed that He wanted me here and I still believe that He does. But every morning that I get up, bundle up and plod the wintery way, I realize more and more that I am a different person than I was in September.

Three months ago, I would have told you that freedom is synonymous with wandering, and that roots are synonymous with chains. I would have told you, if I really trusted you, that maybe this running away to Russia wasn’t as brave as it seemed, since I thought that steady was synonymous with stale and lifeless, and boring was synonymous with depression. That life, real, conscious, colorful life was synonymous with running into an adventure that could swallow me into purpose, where each day could be a story, quantifiably exciting, to be snatched and put in a snow globe, waiting to be shaken up and retold.

And maybe it is not that I am growing up and out of something actually, but that layers are being scraped off, eyes are being cleansed of perspectives that I thought were central to who I thought I was, revealing themselves to be superficial ideals that actually distract me from my calling. My favorite part of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when Eustace, who has turned into a dragon by his own fault, has to have Aslan peel off his scales in order for him to become human again. When Edmund asks him what it was like when Aslan changed him back, Eustace replies (in the movie version),

“No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it myself. Then he came towards me. It sort of hurt, but… it was a good pain. You know, like when you pull a thorn from your foot.”

What God is working in me hurts, but it is a good pain. I see Him scraping off layer after layer of frivolous Hope and frivolous hope(yes, I just did that) and replacing it with a gaze closer to Christ’s.

Before I left, I was a girl with her eyes always on the country that she fell in love with, using it as a tool of escapism, believing that it was her mission to be there, that life in the States would mean depression, thinking that in order for life to have meaning, it had to be an exciting novel. And then I lived in a foreign country, really lived in it, not in a bubbled, protective study abroad program. I found out that I don’t like living alone. That what I truly desire more than a career is a family. That I still want to write, write, write! And for the first time, I realized that America is home, that maybe roots are a good thing, and that hectic and adventure and unpredictable are still fun, but that stability is not synonymous with stale.

I’m not afraid of boring anymore. I no longer see roots as synonymous with chains. I’ve become more practical in a good way. Like my hero Anne of Green Gables realized the year she went away, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself.”  I’ve learned that living a life worthy of the Gospel doesn’t necessarily entail drama, but blossoms in the quiet moments, being willing and open to the Holy Spirit and watching Him in awe as he works miracles in the mundane.

I still long for that romance that first drew me to Russia, that summer camp, twelve year old candy-like joy of running through a mile-high forest with new friends, to feel smoky, crisp summer air blow my hair as we tear through the night with a crazy driver, obnoxious pop music igniting our veins.  To have late-night conversations in platzkarts and to find magical swimming holes that are as close to Narnia as we’ll ever be, feeling that we’ve conquered time somehow. And although I am growing up into reality, I know that this romance is as needed and as real as ever, that growing up doesn’t mean losing the song that He put in my heart ten years ago. And in the New Year, He gifted me with a glimpse of what drew me here in the first place, at a time when I thought it was lost forever. As I walked through St. Petersburg at night with a friend I thought I’d never see again, bright lights against the dark blue sky and darker Neva, I felt the years I had gained come off. As we retraced footsteps from a far-away summer and reminisced about where we had been and shared where He had brought us, I walked into light and joy and peace,  given perspective in this time of painful refinement, and hope to press on.

Some treasures from 2 Corinthians that have encouraged me in the past few months:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”

2 Corinthians 1: 8-10

 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

A Drunken Perspective

A throwback to my time in Nizhniy Novgorod three years ago. It’s interesting to reflect on the perspectives I held then and how I have grown…

From the moment I first landed on Slavic soil, everything in Russia had seemed full of novelty. Washing clothes in my dorm’s scummy tub wasn’t gross; it was adventurous. Russian cigarette smoke didn’t make me cough; it spiced the air with culture. Even being forbidden to flush toilet paper was somehow exotic.

100_1190
View from the upper section of Nizhniy Novgorod

So when a drunken man stumbled into our sleeping car on the way to Moscow, I wasn’t surprised that I felt the same childlike excitement. The over-friendly man took a seat across from my friend Kelly and me and scooted close to my messily bearded friends Mitchel and Andrew (for some reason they had made a pact to spend the whole semester without the luxury of a razor.) Andrei, as he introduced himself, was thirtyish, with sandy blonde hair, nondescript eyes and foggy glasses. If this were Boston, I might have felt repulsion, pity, or even fear. But instead, I felt like a little girl at the zoo, sensing her skin prickle at a lion’s roar but knowing that the bars of a cage ensured her safety.  Somehow, I had persuaded myself that this was a different world, a Narnia, where nothing could actually go wrong. Well, at least I could get away with things that I couldn’t in America. I could go on sketchy amusement park rides without my father’s resistance. I could zoom around town in an overstuffed car without wearing a seatbelt. I could strip down without shame in a communal bath house. So I could certainly make friends with a drunken man on a train. I became very friendly.

Sadly though, my friends didn’t share my excitement. At Andrei’s sudden arrival, Mitchel’s blue eyes flashed with an overzealous annoyance. Andrew seemed amused, but only yawningly, perhaps enjoying Mitchel’s discomfort. They clearly didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a drunken man, this was a drunken Russian man! How could they not see that we were in for a treat? Mitchel’s eyes bugged out in frustration, Andrew leaned back in boredom, Kelly took the role of cautious observer, but I was on the edge of my seat. To my delight, after ten minutes of listening to Andrei’s jolly blabber, he was ready to tell us his life story.

“Do you know why I’m going to Moscow?” Andrei’s eyes glinted, confident that he was the charmingest Don Juan this side of Mt.Elbrus. “I’m going to meet my love!” He breathed ecstatically. I leaned in closer.

“Well, you see, I am married.” He paused. “But it doesn’t matter! It’s love!” My eyes went wide in surprise and delight. If I’d looked at my reflection in the dirty, Soviet-era window, I’m sure I would have seen a girl grinning like a child eating birthday cake, the joy in the sugary messiness of the night staining my face. This was not adultery; this was not real. This was just a story, and we were now extras in Andrei’s epic of a tryst. Wasn’t this why I had fallen in love with Russia? Every day was an adventure, filled with intriguing characters that gave me stories that could be told and retold when I was back in boring old America. Encouraged by our silence, Andrei then launched into a poetical diatribe on the meaning of love. I struggled to keep a straight face as I translated his words to my disgruntled friends. At this rate, this story was going to make my top five.

“Drink with me, my friends!” he cheered, clearly planning to take advantage of the train’s food service.

“No,” we declined, motioning refusal with our hands. I tried to explain our refusal, excited to see how well I could communicate in my third grade Russian.

“I usually don’t drink, so I don’t want to risk getting drunk right now.”

He leered at me knowingly. “You’re just afraid to fall in love with us.” I giggled. What he could have meant by his Gollum-like assertion was a mystery, but I gleefully etched it into my mind, adding it to the file that stored the antics of my favorite Russian characters.

“We have to get him out of here!” Mitchel growled.  No, please no! I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

“I’ll have three beers,” Andrei ordered the train attendant.

“Remember, we said we are not going to drink with you!” Mitchel retorted in his Tennessee twang.

“No,” he said, incredulous. “They are all for me!” Andrei explained. Mitchel rolled his eyes. I grinned, adding the quote to Andrei’s budding character résumé. Our enigmatic professor Harley, who had grown up Amish and lived as an expat in Bulgaria for a number of years, came upon our saloon scene. The seventy year old man with his ever-present black beret and love for cats was famous for his unpredictable constancy. It was his paradox of character that made him so intriguing; the more he talked about himself, the less we knew, and it always seemed he was slightly smirking at us with his mysterious old eyes. His reaction to our plight was signature Harley. Mitchel silently begged our professor for help with desperate eyes.  But with a conspiratorial smirk, he started to make conversation with our new friend. After a few minutes, with the mischievous gait of an adolescent boy, he kept on walking through the train, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

The rest of the night played out just as I had hoped, with Andrei resisting Mitchel’s pleas to leave and his tales continuing and the account getting juicier and juicier. Late that night, Andrei finally left our cabin, leaving three green beer bottles and a memory that I can now see was loudly caricatured by my craving for novelty. This character, this piece of entertainment, had bills to pay and work to do and a wife that he had hurt.

And in my ecstatic grabbing at a Russian adventure, I had simplified him into a cartoon character, colorful but flat.

I didn’t see him as a human, but as an extra in my own personal plotline.

I hadn’t thought about Andrei’s poor wife, married to a drunk who was running off with another woman.

And I certainly hadn’t thought that Andrei too, might be a hurting, lonely man.

I wonder what Andrei is doing right now. Maybe he’s sneaking off on another escapade with his secret lover. Maybe he’s late for work, nursing a hangover from too much vodka the night before. But maybe, just maybe, he’s at a bar, telling his friends the story of the stupid but amusing Americans he once met on a train to Moscow.