Heart Remodeling 101

The question that keeps coming back to us is How do we live this out? What does trusting God, and glorifying Him, and realizing He is sufficient for us actually look like in everyday life? And I understand this sneaking suspicion that spiritual truths are not entirely practical. We are not questioning whether they are beautiful and inspiring and worthwhile, but how in the world do they intersect with work projects and arguing about chores and relatives, and the never-ending task of cleaning up the kitchen?

It’s like faith becomes a room we have added onto an already full house, and life is going on at mad pace while we try to get away for some refreshing moments (in there where it all works) before coming back to our messy lives. We even try our best to bring bits of it out with us, to decorate our space. Or maybe we add more rooms on, like doing ministry, and helping our neighbors, and teaching Scripture to our kids, and supporting missions– as if we can make the faith portions of our house large enough to eclipse the everyday stuff. But don’t you keep wondering if that abundant life Jesus offered is possible without getting exhausted? And what if we could instead just bust down some walls and live free in the light? I am beginning to think that these spiritual truths are the most practical of all, and it is our perspectives on life that need remodeling.

I keep hearing the echo of Church-Planter Paul’s simple instructions to the early believers in Philippi: “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.  For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. ” (Philippians 2:12-13) We often take a detour at “work hard”….take a sharp left into self-effort and get lost in feelings of failure and guilt. But the working hard is all about focus and intentionality in life, not about our attaining anything. And Paul’s instruction is meant to be simple and straightforward– just look how he reduces all of life to worship and obedience toward God. This is the one thing we are to do, and even that is not depending on our desire and effort but on His. All that is up to us is to bow our hearts to the rightful King, Jesus. The constant refrain of the Kingdom is His “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

It gives us a different starting place. Instead of starting with my life and trying to apply faith to it, I can start with faith in Who He Is and what He is doing in me and then respond with awe and humility in all the down-to-earth details of everyday life. Regardless of season of life or marital status or where my work takes me, real life begins in my heart and where it is focused. The Wise King wasn’t just composing poetry when he wrote “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23), but speaking truth for our souls. Whether we are looking for a life change, or a heart change, or an attitude change….it isn’t about doing more good things. It is simply seeking the reign of Jesus over all things.

Simple and uncomplicated, but not easy by any means, and at times painful. The life we are building needs to come falling down so that He can build a new one on the foundation of Grace, with Himself in the center. So in faith we agree that His plans are best and true. By faith we throw Self down off the throne again and again, in obedience to King Jesus. In faith we persist in putting into practice what He says. One day at a time– in our work and our marriages and our parenting and our words– even when it runs counter to everything we are used to. By faith we swim against the current of popular opinion, and listen to His perspectives on reality and meaning and satisfaction and beauty, because we feel certain that having Him is better than having anything else in this world. By faith we trust the Creator and Architect who gave us life the first time to give us the abundant new life we long for.

We simply worship and obey… and miracle of miracles, we find that His Spirit is working out in us all that we cannot do for ourselves.

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Out of the overflow of a properly aligned heart, the mouth speaks and the obedience follows.

Christine Hoover

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For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: ‘I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be My people.’

2 Corinthians 6:16

Eyes to See

Originally published September 30, 2015.

My favorite name for God in the Bible is the one the slave girl from Egypt gave Him. When she was used and then rejected in a household of people who should have known better, the Lord Himself came to comfort her, not only meeting her present heartfelt needs, but giving her a glimpse of His own plans to bless and use her, give her “hope and a future.” And so, as a woman who thought she was alone in the desert of this world, Hagar called Him “the God who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13) The name still evokes both the anguish and the wonder of the weak and forgotten, who find that they are near to the heart of the Almighty and ever in His care.

Paul discovered the same thing in his travels, and for a long time I looked at his declaration of contentment like an ideal to reach, a standard of maturity to set up there alongside Someday. Paul wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” (Philippians 4:11-12) I still remember the day I was reading those words, crying out to God for peace in the circumstances I was facing myself, and suddenly realized that Paul meant exactly what he wrote in the most tangible and practical of ways. He was telling his own story of the things he had experienced, and how in each circumstance he had discovered that God was right there with him… that God loved him even in this… that God already had planned to meet his needs of the moment. Over and over again until at this point in his life Paul could say with the utmost confidence that God was enough for him, no matter what, “for I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) God is not some intangible, impersonal Presence out there somewhere. He walks in our desert places to find us where we are; He is bigger than the craziest of circumstances, and loves us with a forever-love. He is “the God who sees me.”

Paul’s faith may have started with an intellectual belief, but it was in applying what he knew to his everyday experiences that his heart and body found God to be utterly faithful and sufficient. It’s like a science experiment that allows you to see with your own eyes how an invisible natural law is working all around you in the world. Paul and Hagar both realized what Eve didn’t understand until it was much too late: when you trust that God is who He says He is and step out on that belief, He shows Himself to be present and powerful in your life. It’s like your faith isn’t for real until you decide to test-drive it on your own life-roads.

I think sometimes we feel like God has to prove His love and faithfulness to us, to earn our trust (which of course is all backwards since it puts us in the center of the universe to decide who is most worthy of our worship). The Wise King put it right way around, and said it’s the only way to walk straight in this world: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek His will in all you do, and He will show you which path to take.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) See, my choice doesn’t affect Who He Is one bit– but it makes all the difference in how I experience life. Just ask Eve how life changed when she acted on her own evaluation of what she and her husband needed, instead of trusting God to be enough for them. Ironically, when she doubted that He saw her as an individual– when she wondered if He was committed to meeting her deepest needs– she also lost sight of the beautiful unique creature she really was (with devastating effects on women’s healthy self-images, ever since).

Let us do better, and step out into this day’s needs believing what we have learned, and willing to prove to ourselves that He is Enough. Then we can say with Hagar, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13)

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If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for He cannot deny who He is.

2 Timothy 2:13

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How things appear to us, and how they actually are, are rarely the same. Sometimes it looks and feels like the Almighty is dealing “very bitterly” with us,when all the while He is doing us and many others more good than we could have imagined. God’s purposes in the lives of His children are always gracious. Always.
If they don’t look like it, don’t trust your perceptions. Trust God’s promises. He is always fulfilling His promises.  

Ann VosKamp

When You Just Need to Stop and Listen

Originally published March 29, 2016.

There was a time in my life when I was afraid of the silence. So I understand when people tell me they need the TV on when they are at home, and how the radio in the bedroom is the only way they can fall asleep. I know what it’s like to turn the music up the whole way in the car and sink into it, lose yourself for awhile. There is no shortage of sound and color and sensory stimulation that we can pour into any hunger.

Maybe we depend on the background noise, to keep us from hearing the thoughts we’d rather not think. Maybe this is why we welcome every pleasant distraction in the world, to avoid the full brunt of our regrets, our disappointments, the big questions of how to make our lives mean something. When in doubt, cover up the unease with noise and more stuff. The problem is, when you pile enough on there to dull the pain, you are liable to cover up the very answers that you so desperately need. I’ve been there, and I know how the fear of stopping to listen can seem bigger than the weight you are carrying around.

Jesus isn’t afraid of our wounds and our baggage. He isn’t deterred by our commotion and clamor. He has already seen it up close, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” as the Prophet Isaiah called Him. He would rather pull us in, touch our dirt-streaked face and bent limbs with His own hands, and speak into our ears Himself–the way He did with the hundreds that came to Him for healing when He walked this earth. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asked the two blind men who were calling out to Him by the roadside. And this is what He asks us, still. “What do you want me to do for you?”

If we are not afraid to be still, to stop and listen, to be honest about our pain and the things that bind us, we will find Him standing right there next to us, ready to begin the work of healing. But it’s up to us to weigh whether it’s worth hanging onto the pain that we know, for fear of the change that we don’t know….up to us to still the noise of our own need and listen for His voice calling. “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us….” (Psalm 46:10-11)

And yes, it is a fearsome prospect to stand in silence with the Lord Almighty. Because like the old hymn says, “the things of this earth will grow strangely dim,” in His presence, and all the masks we wear get stripped away. And we can see who we are “in the light of His glory and grace”…and Who He IsBlessed are you when your sense of need outweighs your fear, and when you have come to the end of yourself so that all you want is Him. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

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Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:25-26

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I’ve tasted the world, seen more than enough
Its promises fleeting;
Of water and wine I emptied the cup
And found myself wanting.
But there is a well that never runs dry:
The water of life, the blood of the vine…
Cause all I know is everything I have means nothing,
Jesus, if You’re not my one thing,
Everything I need right now.
All I need is You right now.

One Thing, Hillsong

The Safest Place

Originally published August 17, 2018.

On days when you are trying to be brave, holding onto faith for dear life, but there’s this frantic whisper in the back of your head that circumstances are more than you can handle right now, and what in the world does a person have to do to catch a break in this tempest, let this truth sink in deep: Jesus is standing beside His Father in Heaven paying attention to everything that concerns you. He is holding you securely in His strong arms, and even before you reach out to Him, He is praying for you.

The writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we understand the richness of our inheritance in Christ, and all the ways He fulfills the promises of God. The Law was God’s gift to Israel as His chosen people; but Jesus is the Father’s precious gift to all who believe– God giving Himself to us forever. The author of the book of Hebrews says it this way: “…He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) 

Rest in this, that you are His own, and He is acting on your behalf. If you make your spirit comfortably at home in this truth, you will find all that you need for this day.

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The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Lamentations 3:25-26

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Jesus lives to endlessly, relentlessly and flawlessly pray for you….Jesus is praying for your holiness because He knows holiness is your ultimate happiness….Jesus is praying that you’ll be brave when you’re about to break, that you’ll turn from what’s tempting, that you’ll stand against what’s strangling, that you’ll escape into Him instead of trying to escape in a thousand unfulfilling ways.

Ann VosKamp

The Fear Factor

Originally published May 9, 2013.

I remember the conversation as if it happened only a little while ago, one of those pivotal moments when your perceptions change everything. It was one of our first adult conversations; he was no longer the professor on a pedestal and was becoming a colleague in ministry, and I felt brave enough to confide in him. “I have been struggling with fear. I think Satan is attacking me with this.” He thought for a minute and said in his gravelly voice, gentle and hesitant despite his many accomplishments: “Well, that is possible. But you know what another word for fear is?”  I waited. “Isn’t fear just another way of saying you don’t trust God?” Everything stopped…and turned… right there over lunch, and my life changed.

How could I say I loved God if I didn’t trust Him to take care of me? How could I believe Him for something as large and someday as eternal life if I could not believe that He was at work right here today in my life? For the first time I realized I could believe a lot of stuff about God with my head and never let it trickle down into my heart, could still wonder down deep if He was good and if He loved me…which made no sense at all. And the girl who was always so cautious and fearful told God she was sorry and wanted to change, though she didn’t know how, echoed the father’s prayer when he brought his son to Jesus: “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

This has been my faith walk ever since, “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge…be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19) And the further I go the more I find that when it comes right down to the bare roots of us, we are all on that path. Because the real question our hearts are figuring out is if we believe that He is Who He says He is. It was the very first question in the Garden and still every new situation is a crossroads of faith: “Can I trust Him in this? Does He love me still? Can I depend on Him to do what is best here?” It’s a growth process, and it’s also a cycle. The more I see Him clearly, the more I trust Him…and the more I trust Him, the more I love Him; and “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.” (1 John 4:18) 

No wonder this faith-journey takes an entire lifetime of experiences and situations. I am a slow learner, it seems, and life has cut deep in more places than I realize, taught my heart all the wrong things. But now when the fear creeps in and tries to take up residence, I know that this is what it feels like to not-trust– and with all my heart I want to be so convinced of His love and goodness that His peace will rule there. It takes purposeful cultivating of faith, and intentional choices to trust in each new situation, and when fear is clawing at me so that it is hard to breathe, it sometimes takes jumping off the cliff into reckless faith regardless of the way I feel. “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”

Someone shared with me recently, “Our whole lives have been this way, one thing after another, and you have to wonder when we will ever get a break? When can we just live and be happy?” I thought of our clean small town in light of the orphanages and the refugee camps and the cancer wards and the slums of the world. I thought how hard it is to trust anywhere, in the face of loss and pain, and told her that maybe there is no such thing as just living happy, and maybe that’s not what life was all about anyway. How you experience life is more about what you see when you look at the world; more about Who you are learning to trust. You can see the hurts and wonder where He is… or see that all is gift and Love standing right there in our midst with blood and tears running down. Maybe life is really about seeing Who God is and knowing we can rely on Him in everything…. “help me overcome my unbelief!”

Amy Carmichael went to India alone as a young woman over a century ago, and spent her life rescuing the children sold into temple prostitution while her own strength slipped away in long illness. She spent many of her later years confined to her bed and used the time to write to her little flock about her relationship with God. Her utter trust is so childlike in its simplicity that you would think it came easily to her, but when you read Amy’s story you see how her trust was forged and pressed in hardship and pain and danger…every situation a crossroads of choice, and she kept saying yes to Him. I am learning to recognize that fear is the opposite of trust, and even if I can’t always change the feelings, I can at least choose to say “Yes, I trust You” and move ahead in spite of them.  “I do believe…”

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The LORD is my light and my salvation–so why should I be afraid? The LORD is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?

Psalm 27:1

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…we trust all that the love of God does; all He gives, and all He does not give; all He says, and all He does not say. To it all we say, by His loving enabling, I trust. Let us be content with our Lord’s will, and tell Him so….The more we understand His love, the more we trust.

Amy Carmichael

Of Small Seeds and Little Lunches

Sometimes I wish I could say it louder, or different, or with more profound words to make it sink in to faltering hearts: Faith heroes and prayer warriors and legacy makers aren’t born that way. They do not inherently possess any piercing clarity of wisdom or rock-solid certainty of vision or even spotless purity of spirit. The heroes are just the ones who persevere, one hard step at a time. The warriors are the people who pour out their hearts to God every day, and labor over the hard things, until they want to see Him more than they want their answers. The legacy makers are those who decide to be faithful in the small things, doing whatever is in front of them with a desire to please the One who called them, and leaving the outcome in His hands.

What makes them great is that they kept pressing on in faith, even when they felt like they had lost their way…even when they felt bogged down in the mundane…even when they could not see any good outcomes from where they were sitting… because you see, there simply is no way to get from here to there except through the ordinary moments of Everyday. And the Church-Planter reminds the early believers, that this is all they need to do, because God is doing all the heavy lifting in this relationship: God will make this happen, for He who calls you is faithful. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

See, the people we look up to and aspire to become are forged in the ordinary ups and downs of gritty everyday life. They are the slow growth of hundreds of small self-denials and choices to stand in the light, and only they know the tears and doubts and sleepless nights along the way. You don’t need to be gifted and strong and capable, or wake up one day with all your issues resolved– you just need to take the next step toward God. And then do it again tomorrow.

Jesus used the story-picture of a mustard seed, and said nothing would be impossible if it were offered up into God’s hands. Then He showed them in living color what He was talking about, when a child held out his food, released it into Jesus’ hands and they all watched it grow into a feast for thousands. And it strikes me how this little boy thought he would go hungry for the day, when he gave up his lunch as a love-gift to the rabbi who was teaching them about God. He had no idea what Jesus intended to do with it, no aspirations of greatness. He just took a small step of serving someone else on a long hot day by the lake, despite his own needs, and ended up in the middle of a miracle.

And in all our ordinary days of needs and disappointments and expectations, that is always what it comes down to– will we choose to do the right thing, walk toward the light, offer up our small seed of faith, choose hope, lean on grace? Again and again, in and out of weeks and through all the seasons and changes of life, until someday we will be able to look back and see how far we have come in our faith-journey and know it was worth it. The Church-Planter Paul assured us it would be more than worth it, as he leaned hard into God’s promises: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18).

And who knows, from the outside looking in, someone else might well be saying Someday I want to be just like her.

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This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me;
This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very Word spoken to me
And I…
I’m desperate for you
And I…
I’m lost without you

Breathe, Marie Barnett

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Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:12-14

Things I Can See

Originally published November 9, 2016.

Whenever we talk about balancing faith and sight, somehow it all gets back to recognizing the fence-lines around my Yard of responsibility. Because here in the Everyday, in the realm of my words, my choices, my actions… I reap what I sow. I know this as a fact of life. But I also recognize that outside the fence there is a whole world of things that I cannot control: other people’s feelings and perspectives, even their behavior…and it doesn’t matter how much I love them or how badly I want to help (fix?) them. I could sow all the best things in their lives, with no guarantee of reaping. Their lives are their own, and it is harmful to everyone involved if I go rooting around in their yards. Boundary lines help keep relationships healthy, and keep us humble, realizing the limits to our own power. So I balance living my best, inside my circle of influence, with holding onto hopes for happy endings for the people and the situations I care about.

And I can have hope, because out there in the unseen world– in God’s wide reality– nothing is impossible, and He “is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” (Ephesians 3:20) His Wind blows everywhere and no fence-lines can stop it.  No wish-dreams we hold onto so tightly can get in the way. He plans from beginning to end for the good of all His creation, and His loving-kindness never fails…it falls like rain on every Yard, because it is all His. The Song-Writer David could not find a single place on this planet where God was not at work: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:9-10) So when we talk about living by faith, we really mean acknowledging how small is our Yard and how big is creation, and Who is its rightful King.

I find that in the balance of understanding my Yard better, there is a different kind of Hope, something more than wishing hard. God’s overarching plans are for sure and certain, like the sun coming up in the morning and the way Winter always melts into Spring, whether or not we can see how it works. We can build our lives on Hope like that. And it is prayer that bridges the gap between the two worlds. “The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and His ears are open to their prayers.” (1 Peter 3:12) Big-brother James goes so far as to say that “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) I have no delusions of power– the older I get, the more clearly I see all the things in this world that are outside my control– but I understand that prayer allows me to participate in the work of an almighty God, to reach beyond the fence-lines of my small Yard. This kind of Hope motivates me to turn fears and concerns into prayers, balances how helpless I feel at times, because the King’s plans are real and good and indestructable. Faith says that all I have to do is take care of my own Yard, and for everything I cannot do, there is Grace and all the Father’s good gifts.

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And far be it from me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea
And through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And through it all, through it all
It is well….
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name

It Is Well, Kristene Dimarco

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So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need.

Matthew 6:31-33

The Power of The Cross

Originally published on June 20, 2015.

On days when the weight of the past is crushing your spirit (and you wonder if you’ll ever grow beyond this ugliness, ever learn to be someone different), the first place to go is back to the Cross. Seems strange to revisit death when all you really want is a new life. But that’s the thing about resurrection power, that it can’t burst out of the grave until something dies. We should know this by now, because God has built it right into the framework of our natural world, the Creator showing Himself in everything He has made: dried up seeds are buried and sprout with new life, every day the sun sets us into night and then rises again so we can begin again, Winter keeps turning into Spring. In the same way, the pain of the cross leads to the resurrection: no shortcuts, no easier route to glory. “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)  It’s my self-preoccupation that needs to die a little more every day, so that the Holy Spirit can re-make me. Jesus’ haunting question persists: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

So there is no use wasting time trying to figure out how to fix yourself, or hiding the gaping holes so that maybe no one will notice…or worse yet, wallowing in regret till it drags you under. Welcome the discomfort as a necessary step of growth and keep following it straight to the Cross, the only real solution in heaven and earth. There are some things you just aren’t strong enough to deal with on your own, and your own messiness is one of them. Better to admit that, sooner rather than later– better to leave the pride behind, so your hands are free to reach for the Grace that flows down from the Beloved’s sacrifice for us.

Because Heaven already planned a solution for human brokenness; there is a Savior, who came to earth because “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22) He knows the grip of fear. He understands the way people can wound, and how difficult it is to trust. He knows the shame of failure, and the darkness we carry around inside, and how it presses the hope from a person’s lungs.  He knows because He already picked it all up and carried it for us, wept for how it holds us captive. He fastened the entire hideous mess to the Cross with the spikes that pierced His own flesh, wrestled it the whole way into the tomb and left it there so it couldn’t bind us any longer. The prophet Isaiah heralded the coming of a Savior “…He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

So take courage, dear heart, on the days when you see clearly how far short you fall. Let humility rush you again to the foot of the Cross and beg forgiveness. Allow Mercy and Grace to heal your battle wounds, wash away your brokenness, and speak peace to your spirit. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

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What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

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All this pain…
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way;
I wonder if my life could really change, at all.
All this earth…
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things…
You make beautiful things out of the dust.

Beautiful Things, Gungor

Hidden Treasures in Hard Times

It is remarkable to me that the man in the Bible with the most healthy perspective on suffering also speaks the most about joy. It’s like Paul had some secret reservoir of joy that carried him through the hardship of being a pioneer messenger of the Cross. Or maybe he discovered joy along the way, because he had learned how to speak truth to himself in suffering. He would probably answer Yes to both ideas. When you read his letters to the early believers, and see how instruction gives way seamlessly to worship and thanks-giving, you catch a glimpse of the inner streams of joy that energized him. And is it any wonder that the bulk of what we call the New Testament comes from this man? It’s like God laid out Paul, his life and experiences and all that wisdom for us, and said “watch and learn, people.”

Lately I have been pondering the way we avoid hardship and pain at all costs. We chase happiness as persistently as our neighbors, even while nodding our heads that this world doesn’t satisfy, and all we really need is Jesus. Wouldn’t you think that people who follow the One called “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) would be a little more comfortable with it themselves? Paul seemed to take hardship as a matter of course– and sure the ancient world was a difficult place to survive, but maybe we rationalize his perspective away too easily as a function of his surroundings, and assume that if he grew up in America he would have more modern expectations for his life. Have we lost some valuable perspectives along the way, in our all-out pursuit of happiness and prosperity?

I know well that the gap between what our heads believe and what our hearts want can spread impossibly wide, and it isn’t until the hard times come that you have to choose which direction to leap. And I have found myself holding on for dear life to the words of Scripture, not so much out of certainty in what I believed, as in the knowledge that if I let go of this faith there was nowhere else to turn…nothing else that rings this true. The father looking for his child’s healing was in the same white-knuckled place when he cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Here is stripped-bare honesty, a man pushed to his limits, and though he does not have the eloquence to say it in theological terms, he is hanging onto the same truth the famous Church-Planter learned. Paul wrote it out this way: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Clearly he had learned some valuable secret in his life-struggles, and although it sounds like an absolutely terrible marketing slogan for a new belief-system, it does ring out with the authority of experience. Here is a man who has learned that when you hang onto the Savior, you have everything you need.

And it is strange but true– when you run out of your own ability and throw yourself upon the mercy of God, suddenly what felt like giving up becomes a solid place to stand. Not the kind of thing you learn while lining up your ducks in neat rows. I wonder, if our lives were all comfortable safety, would we ever even realize the fatal gap between the theology we believe with our heads and the theology we live out in the everyday? And isn’t that discovery, and the opportunity to grow up into what we believe, totally worth it, in the long run? No wonder Paul could write “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:7-8) Considering that the only thing that will last in this world is our life in Christ, that kind of Ah-ha moment can turn suffering into priceless gain.

I remember the exact day I realized that Paul wasn’t just saying all the right things, setting up ideals and principles for people to follow. It was a grasping-onto-straws kind of day, and one of those moments when you read a familiar passage of Scripture and suddenly the light turns on. Paul wrote “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) Somehow it stepped right out of the flat impersonal page and into the mess of everyday life. I do know what it is to cry out for help, to need wisdom, need patience. I also know what it is to have a happy day when everything is running smoothly. The one constant in both situations is the presence of Jesus’ Spirit and His power at work in me. This I know because I have lived it. Paul’s secret to getting through any situation was to live through both good times and terrible times, experience them fully, and find God standing there with him in the middle of it all. And when you can say honestly, because it is tried-and-true, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need” (Psalm 23:1), there is joy.

See, Paul understood that when you are desperate and at the end of yourself, you are in exactly the right place to experience the riches of the Kingdom of God. The same inexorable grace that washes the rags of beggars clean drives nails into the hands of God, and the same persistent mercy that heals the outcast lepers trims away our self-indulgence so that we can fall headlong into the Everlasting Arms. I am slowly, slowly learning how big is the over-arching power of God and how consistent is His attention to detail. How good are His intentions toward me, how seriously He takes them, and how little I understand what He is doing. But what I need to know best is His heart, and that He has already given me, laid bare at the Cross. That I can trust.

A wise man once told me that trust and fear cannot live in the same place. If I want to know the secret of joy in suffering that Paul talked about, then all I need is to release my death-grip on the life I think I need, and accept the childlike life of trust that Jesus died to give me. Let my hands simply open.

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Because I AM is unbelievably with us, we can say even now: I am unbelievably safe.

Ann VosKamp

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Anyone who intends to come with Me has to let Me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Matthew 16:25 (The Message)

The Season of Our (Holy) Discontent

Originally published on May 19, 2017.

You have to know why something isn’t working before you can fix it. And I know for myself at least, that it can take a little while of muddling around in unpleasant circumstances before I realize I need help. When I am hungry, I have no difficulty recognizing the symptoms and finding something to munch. When I get sleepy, and it’s hard to focus at my desk, there is always coffee, and a resolution to go to bed earlier tonight.  Why am I often so clueless then, when it comes to matters of heart and spirit?

Part of the problem is that inner disquiet is cultivated on countless screens and glossy pages, multiplying to the senses that first smooth line of the Enemy. Didn’t Eve fall for the same lie, that what the Creator gave was not enough?…That she was not enough?… And maybe the beautiful things she saw out there offered a better answer? Our discontent serves the Enemy well.

I have found that too many images of beautiful homes and gardens and perfectly put-together outfits can wreak havoc in my spirit. And there are so many experts out there about what a happy family looks like (or acts like, or does together, or eats for dinner)– it can make me wonder how come mine always seems to fall just a bit short. All those voices out there telling us women what will make life more meaningful, more healthy, more successful….just plain More. And before I realize, I am chasing the wind like Wise King Solomon: trying harder for something that will fill this restless longing.

But (as Eve found out a long time ago) trying harder to be Enough on my own never quite adds up. Like Solomon said, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8) And at some point, I wake up to recognize that the turmoil in my life comes from looking in all the wrong places for what ails my soul. It usually takes time for my brain to connect the dots of cause and effect– of choices and consequences– and how one turn led to another until I found myself on a path I never intended, crying out for rescue. Even the most well-intentioned hearts can find themselves in a season of restlessness and confusion. Actually, it’s not the worst place to be.

Ezekiel’s valley full of dry bones were waiting for Spirit-breathed  words to live again, but first the people needed to get to the end of their resources. When they cried out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.” (Ezekiel 37:11) then they were​ ready for God’s miracle of new life. Uncomfortable as it is, dissatisfaction with the way things are can be the catalyst for change. Whatever your longings, there is only One who is large enough, lasting enough, satisfying enough to fill them. Whoever you wish you were, the woman God had in mind when He created you is just the right person to do what He has planned for you. His grace fills up the measure of “not enough” in all of us, so that He calls us “chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Colossians 3:12)

Jesus told the woman coming to draw from the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” (John 4:13-14) But both she and Solomon had to walk down the dusty paths of their own trying, until they realized for themselves that what they were pursuing wasn’t working. The Wise King certainly found good in his discontentment, when he wrote, “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning….” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4) I suspect that each of us has to taste dissatisfaction with this world until we are sick of it, like a hunger pushing us to find the eternal food that truly satisfies. Each of us has to come to the realization that discontentment with this world points us toward the satisfying reality of Eternity to come. And I do find that as I grow and experience this truth over and over again, it is easier to recognize soul hunger for what it is and come running to Jesus,“the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33)

Whether we long to be loved, or to be understood…whether we are looking for purpose, or security, or joy…whether we yearn to overcome evil, or to find justice…whether we ache to be made whole, or to be freed from shame and guilt…the answer is the same. May all our longings drive us into Your arms, O Lord, and may we find our soul’s satisfaction in You.

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“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.” (Lamentations 3:25-27)

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“I’ve tasted the world, seen more than enough–
Its promises fleeting.
Of water and wine I emptied the cup,
And found myself wanting.
But there is a well that never runs dry;
The water of life, the blood of the vine…
‘Cause all I know is
Everything I have means nothing,
Jesus, if You’re not my one thing;
Everything I need right now.
All I need is You right now.”
(One Thing, Hillsong)