We sat in the campus cafeteria and talked about Jesus. I told Cathy about how our sins keep us away from God and why we can’t make our own way back to him. I shared about how Jesus came to save us through his death and resurrection. And when I asked her if she wanted to confess Christ as her Lord and Savior, she said yes.
“Are you sure?”
I was surprised at her eagerness (it was the first time we’d ever met) and I wanted to let her know there would be a cost. It wouldn’t be easy. God said there would be hardships. It would mean obedience to his will. Some say you’d have to be crazy to follow Jesus. She should think more about it.
Yes, she was sure. And, 11 years later, I remember her next words verbatim:
“Because I always knew there was a Lord and that he could save us— I just didn’t know his name.”
I don’t normally talk to inanimate objects, but there’s this one time I got mad at a flower.
During this particular day, I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for a ride and happened to look down. That’s when it did it. Or at least, that’s when I noticed what it was doing. A tiny flower, no taller than 2 inches or so, had bloomed in the little patch of dirt. It was pretty and colorful and it was just standing there, being all flowery, and as far as I could tell, happily so. I, on the other hand, completely drained and empty inside, exploded, yelling in my mind, “Why do you even exist??!”
Here’s the context: though only in my early 20’s, I was burning out in ministry and probably showing signs of depression. For me, life had been boiled down to what I accomplished in ministry and the purpose of life was being fruitful (ministry-wise). I was laboring for the sake of what I understood as eternal (visible conversions, explicit discipleship), seeing other parts of life as superfluous and worldly, and by the end of two years I was running on fumes. Continue reading “We Quickly Fly Away, But…”→
Wow, has it really been over two months since I last posted? It isn’t a bad thing, I guess, as these weeks have flown by and included a road-trip family vacation down south, various summer church activities, and the like (i.e. I don’t really remember much of what fills my days).
Something I have been mulling over these days is how to live out of a correct understanding of my own limits. It’s possible that most other people already know how to do this, but a recurring pattern in my life is that I often push past the point where those who know me well begin to notice I’m fraying a bit at the edges. The reasons I am prone to this are complicated– I’m thinking having to do with personality, culture (Chinese? American? Mix?), modeling, sometimes guilt and other times pride– and it’s tough because I am not as self-aware as I ought to be about this given the way it affects me and those around me. Whatever the reasons, I am increasingly convinced that the understanding, implications, and applications of understanding that we are finite creatures is an important topic to consider in ministry in particular and life in general.
One Biblical Foundation to Consider: God Alone Has No limits
I think one reason that it’s been hard for me to think about the having a healthy understanding of work, limits, and rest is that so much of Scripture seems to talk about how God is able to supersede our limitations and do more than what we’d expect. God often calls us to do hard things and many people in the Bible were called to operate out of their comfort zones. Because of this, I’ve often found myself in Christian circles where saying that something is beyond one’s capacity can be seen as a symptom of a lack of faith in the power of God or, worse, a self-focused rejection of God’s call for us to deny ourselves.
While it is true that God calls us to deny ourselves daily and not live a life driven by comfort and our own human assessments of our capacities, I believe that understanding our own limitations (physically, emotionally, capability, capacity, giftedness) is not antithetical to faith, but a sign of faith in the word and character of God.
We see in the Psalms again and again the contrast the psalmists make between God who is unlimited vs. us, people, as created creatures. Rather than being cause for condemnation, it is fodder for worship. God alone is the one who does not slumber nor sleep and thus though we are weak and needy, he is our help! (Psalm 121) The work of our hands only matters if God establishes it, and rather than live in anxious toil because of this limitation, we rest because God grants sleep to those he loves! (Psalm 127) God cares for us and remembers that we are dust. This isn’t a derogatory statement, but one of love and gentleness– he remembers we are dust and he knowsour frame (how we’re made) and has fatherly compassion on us. (Psalm 103) (Christopher Ash talks about these passages here: How to Maintain Pastoral Zeal While Avoiding Pastoral Burnout.)
A year or so ago as I wrestled with how to deal with brokenness and the fallout of people’s sin in ministry and life in general, reading through Zachary Eswine’s book Sensing Jesuswas one of the best things I could do. The premise of his book is the way that we often operate when trying to serve God and others actually shows our refusal to recognize that we are not God. Rather, we act as if we are omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at the same time) in the big and small things we do. His book is amazing at getting to the heart of much of our striving and is written beautifully too. I highly recommend it!
Why This Matters
These are a few reasons why I am convinced that understanding and responding accordingly to my own creaturely limits is helpful for me, honoring to God, and best for loving others:
1. Knowing my limits helps me better serve those around me.
A few months ago, when talking to Jeff about how I could grow in serving our family, he encouraged me by saying something like, “Well, I think you’re getting to know better when you’re reaching your limits and how to ask for help.” It surprised me that he said that, but I am learning to see this now as an issue of stewardship for the sake of serving others.
It’s easier to talk about stewardship with physical things (e.g. money) because we all see clearly that we have a limited supply of it. Though there are many good causes we can give to and people we can serve, we give of our money towards specific circumstances we believe we are called to. I can act like there is no limit to how much money I have, but I’d eventually have to face the reality of an empty bank account.
It’s tougher with intangibles– energy, giftedness, emotional capacity– but still real nonetheless. There’s no bank statement sent out, but that low-balance text alert does come in the form of depression, sickness, burnout, frustration, anger, deep discouragement, etc. That not only affects me, but those around me who I am called to serve and can no longer serve well. When I recognize my limits, I am able to prioritize a resource that is limited. Though I may want to, I can’t give my best to everyone. That means I need to set priorities with godly wisdom and with the help of those around me for the sake of those that I am called to.
I remember an older missionary giving advice during a talk at a college conference. One thing that stuck out to me was “your body is your horse, take care of it because you can only push it so far.” It stuck out to me because it seemed strange that he would choose to share something so seemingly non-spiritual, at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time. Now I realize the wisdom in that. First of all, God made our bodies and we are called to honor him with them. And secondly, we can’t push them beyond what they ought to handle and still continue to serve others as we are called to.
2. Knowing my limits keeps me from temptation.
Do you ever get to the point where you know you’re thinking crazy and that if you open your mouth, you’re going to say things that you shouldn’t say and wouldn’t say if you were clear headed? A few weeks ago, I had one of those thank-you-Jesus-for-keeping-me-from-saying-what-I-was-thinking-yesterday moments. That was in large part due to my realizing at the time that I was, in fact, thinking crazy because I was physically exhausted and that any “discussion” I started would not be fruitful and would find me saying things that are, in fact, untrue. And it was true that in the morning after a good rest, I was feeling better and relieved, was able to pray “thank you SO MUCH for keeping my mouth shut!”
Being physically, spiritually, or emotionally exhausted is not an excuse for sin. If I sin when I’m tired, I still need to repent and ask for forgiveness from those around me. But, we are embodied souls and the interplay between our souls, minds, and bodies, though mysterious, is real.
This quote in Kevin Deyoung’s Crazy Busy (quoting D.A. Carson) is great:
If you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need. We are whole, complicated beings: our physical existence is tied up to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationship with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep– not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates you get the sleep your body needs. (97)
A few months ago, I was battling feeling an overwhelming amount of annoyance at people which I normally wouldn’t feel. I didn’t want to serve people or in ministry and I kept finding things people did annoying. I was sharing this to ask for prayer and help, and it took three different people at different times suggesting that maybe I needed rest and that I was just really tired to realize that yes, I needed rest and was just really tired.
3. It brings me to humble dependence on other people and deeper appreciation for God’s church.
One summer on missions in Taiwan, I was supposed to lead a Bible study and I felt like I just could not do it. I couldn’t take it on physically–I was exhausted– and I felt so guilty. This ended up being one of the biggest testimonies of God’s work that trip, that because I was unable to lead the study, my teaching assistant, another young man from the local church did so– with better language skills than me (of course), and with the possibility of continuing the relationships long after the team left.
As Christians, we are all part of a body and we can’t say to each other “I don’t need you.” Though we would never say “I don’t need you!” to another person in the church (that’s messed up!), we often do not live in such a way to affirm the opposite, that in fact, Biblically “I do need you.” One way I have seen the work of God through the body of Christ most clearly is when I, having reached the end of my own resources, experience God’s provision not through the increasing of what I can do, but through another who is able to do what I cannot.
4. Knowing my limits helps me to be merciful towards others in understanding they have their own God-given limits too.
I find that I get upset at others for not doing more when I am pushing past my own limit. (Public confession: This happens especially at home.) I compare my own tiredness to others’ and in my mind, they have a right to be tired if they’re doing more than I am (at which point I feel bad that I can’t handle more), but if they aren’t, then there’s no sympathy from me! The more I am pushing myself past the breaking point, the more I expect others to be pushing themselves too. But when I am being faithful to work within my God-given limits, recognizing that God as my Father is compassionate toward me, I can empathize, sympathize, and be understanding towards those who are having a hard time or need rest.
A pastor’s wife shared once at a workshop about how in any given harbor, there are boats of different sizes with different weight limits. If the water level rises beyond a certain point in any one boat, it means that the limit has been exceeded and if it’s floating much higher, than there is still more that can be put onboard. Likewise, we all are made differently with different capacities physically, emotionally, etc. If I can accept that and seek to honor God with that as a boat myself, it helps me to recognize that others also have their own weight limits that may differ from mine.
5. Knowing my limits leads me to deeper worship through the recognition of my own creaturely bounds vs. God who alone is God.
One distinction that has helped me in considering my limitations is recognizing the difference between being a sinner and being a creature (created). I used to think that saying no to an opportunity that could be God-given because of my own assessment of my limits was a lack of faith. It is true that my orienting question for serving others shouldn’t be “will this make me tired?” Serving and loving others means suffering, inconvenience, and tiredness oftentimes. But I believe there is an appropriate place for considering that I am a creature, created to be limited in energy, wisdom, power, and strength. Rather than being led to guilt (“What’s wrong with me?”) or apathy (“Oh well, if I can’t, I can’t”) because of this, I can be thrown into deeper dependence on God and awe at his being God (i.e his divinity).
I am bound by space and time. I can only pray for so many people or care about so many issues. I can only “take” so much on. And as I consider what I am unable to take up, the emotional burdens I can’t carry, the time commitments I can’t make, people I can’t help, causes I can’t participate in– I can come to God in praise and trust that he who has no limits is able to carry all that I am unable to.
How I’m Learning
What I’m not saying is that I’ve figured it all out or that this is the only factor to consider when taking on that extra responsibility or going out of my way to serve another person. I’m learning that I need wisdom, both from God through Scripture and through those who are good examples of this to me. I need to see people who give to God and others sacrificially when it’s hard and inconvenient, and yet have a Biblically sound and practical way to consider their own limitations. I also need those around me who know me well to either give me a kick in the rear (don’t be lazy!) or to let me know, “hey, I think it’s okay for you to say no and I think you need to rest.” I’m learning that there is a difference between a sustainable tiredness that is part in parcel of being a parent with young children and serving in the local church versus a sustained dread-filled exhaustion. The first is to be expected, and we rejoice that we are tired because of God’s blessings! The second is cause to consider whether or not I am living out of Biblical truth.
God’s grace comes in varied forms, and I am learning to consider that the grace I am praying for to sustain me with help through the day may not come in the form of my receiving superhuman strength and abilities (though if necessary, it may!), but the grace of being permitted to say “no, maybe in the future”, to sit down and rest for a few minutes in trust that God will enable me to finish a task later, to ask for help from a willing husband and grandmas (the girls’) and friends. I am learning to embrace the fact that I am in fact, dust– and this was in fact designed for the sake of the glory of him isn’t merely “super-human”, but God.
••• Here are some resources that in the last year or two have been greatly helpful to me and shaped what I’ve shared:
A great practical and engaging talk by a seasoned minister: How to Maintain Pastoral Zeal While Avoiding Pastoral Burnout (YouTube) Here’s the description:
How can burnout be a problem in ministry when Christ Himself encouraged His followers to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Christopher Ash explains that there is a vital difference between living sacrificially for Jesus and pursuing our calling in a way that leads to mental and physical exhaustion. When Christian leaders bear in mind that we are created by God from dust and that all of our endeavors are dependent on Him for success, we are reminded that Gospel ministry is a humbling privilege and enabled to rejoice that we are recipients of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.
Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being by Zackary Eswine (Amazon, WTSbooks)
A week ago, our family went to visit our alma mater with the girls. It was good to see our friends the Colvins & Wens, catch up and see how God is leading them in their lives. Jeff flew a kite on campus with our daughter, and it was crazy thinking that not too long ago, we were among the stressed out students walking by us, thinking about upcoming final papers and exams on the last week of classes.
It’s May, which means that many students are transitioning out of their campus ministries to go back home or to a new city for work. Jeff told me the other day about being in college and having a college graduate visit. He told them that his life just consisted of going to work, coming home, and playing video games. His point in painting this bleak post-college life was to tell them to make the best of what they had now in college because they’ll never get it again. Unfortunately, when I was a student, I heard people say things like that too. I am convinced though that this is not how God desires us to live our lives or “encourage” our college-aged brothers and sisters!
I understand that the post-graduation transition looks different for each person depending on the experience they had in college/ campus ministry and the places they are moving back to. At our church and the church Jeff interned at during seminary, many students commute to school or live nearby. These students are involved in the same churches they will be in after they graduate and the transition is more seamless (though starting to 9-5 job is a not a small change for them either). But for those who studied away from home, like us, or really experienced God at school learning to love, follow, and serve him first in the context of a campus ministry, I have noticed that the transition is often more complicated. I have seen some of my friends really take off spiritually and grow much more after college, and I have seen many others who have struggled.
Having been a college student myself away from home, staffed with a campus ministry, and talked with friends through their post-graduation experiences, I want to offer a few words of encouragement for those stepping into the post-college world in the upcoming months.
1. Prepare yourself to find a good local church, settle in, serve, and give your heart there.
This is the one thing that I have found makes the biggest difference between my friends who have graduated and thrived and who have really struggled with their faith after school. It’s not that the friends who found good churches were more spiritually mature or serious about their faith, but that the Christian life is impossible to live out alone.
While there are extreme cases where Christians may have to go through a time of isolation from other believers (being in an unreached people group, being jailed for the faith, etc.) and God is able to preserve them even in those circumstances, Scripture gives us stern admonitions to not neglect meeting with other believers because we cannot make it apart from them (Heb. 10:24-25). This isn’t because going to church proves our faith, but because we were never meant to make it on our own. Some college graduates mistakenly believe that their faith was never real and their spirituality was only an act of conforming to those around them. They think this because after they graduated, they stopped pursuing God. While there is something to be said about our faith being tested and God humbling us from our prideful view of our own spirituality, I think more often than not, it’s because these Christians believe that having true faith would have meant they would be able to continue to walk with God without being settled into a solid church. In reality, Scripture says that we cannot live the Christian life apart from the local church and the means of grace God has given us through the church. (I’ve written about some of that here for those interested: When You Don’t Feel Like Getting Up For Church)
I encourage all who are moving on from campus life to start looking for a church that is gospel-centered and is solidly committed to preaching the Scriptures, loving God and loving people. Learn a bit about what to look for in a church if you’re not going back to your home church and start praying about it even now. (You can start here: 9 marks of a healthy church). I know it’s easy to get discouraged when looking for a new church, and without people around you it gets easier and easier not to go, so I encourage you to even try to get connected with other Christians you know that are already in your new city before you go. You can also look up churches online for example at the Gospel Coalition Church Directory or Redeemer City-To-City churches.
2. Don’t try to replicate your college experience, but find out what it means to follow and serve God in your new stage of life.
College is a unique time and college ministry is a unique place. Life is different because as a college student, the amount of time you have, your responsibilities, and circumstances will never be replicated again. That’s one of the reason why in many ways, college is a special time many begin to experience God in fellowship with other Christians, serving him by making choices about what they spend their time doing, and sharing their faith with the students they have constant interaction with in the dorms, classrooms, and dining halls.
Life after college is different. There isn’t anything inherent better or worse about it, it’s just different. The responsibilities, opportunities, and day-to-day life routines will change– and that is a good thing because it is a God thing. God is the one who controls your circumstances, and you need to trust that there is no better place to grow to love him and love people than the one he has sovereignly placed you in. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek to change your circumstances (like if you’re in an unhealthy church, or in extreme cases like an abusive relationship, etc.), but that there is no “ideal” life season, job, or situation you need in order to love God, love people, and grow mature in. It will be really hard for you if you think that the only way to keep loving and serving God is by doing what you did when you were in college. Why? Because you won’t be in college anymore. So, as I did when I became a new mom and moved into a new stage of life and as I am still doing now, I encourage those transitioning to pray and ask God what it means to serve and love him now. The heart of what you learned and practiced in college will remain the same– treasuring his word, growing to know him more, loving people around you– but the way it looks will be (and should be) different.
I have found that many who think that serving God at work will look the same as what they did in college end up either feeling guilty about not being able to do the same things and/or not knowing what it means to do their God-given work in a Biblical sense. Some even give up, discouraged, and “settle”. I believe that many Christians struggle because they don’t know how to make sense of the mundane work that makes up most of their days. One recommendation I have is to read up on some resources about God and work that I’ve referenced before on this blog. (There are some at the end of this old post that can get you started: Why Does My Work Matter?)
3. Humbly bring back what you learned from college to the new (or old) churches you’re going back to.
I am so thankful for the work that college ministries do on campus. I was heavily involved in my campus ministry when I was in college and worked at one post-graduation. But I think that one thing that many college students aren’t prepared for is life in their local churches after they have had a really great time of growing and learning in the context of their campuses. This sometimes leads to major discouragement, discontent, frustration, and disillusionment.
This is where finding a good, solid church is so important because it will help you to see what it means to live out the Christian life in a fuller scope than just the college years. I also think that recognizing that serving and loving God will look different for different people in different seasons of life will help many to adjust to going back to churches or entering churches that aren’t filled with college students. At the same time, I believe that those who have experienced God in deeper and new ways at school can still bring back what they learned to the churches at home (or their new churches). This doesn’t mean necessarily starting or leading the same type of ministry that you saw in college, but seeking to see what the vision of the local church and the leaders are, coming on board with that, prayerfully considering and asking the church leaders how you can serve, and using all that you have learned in order to build up the local body of Christ. It is okay to recognize the unique experience you had or even see some of the things that may be lacking or needed in the local church. But rather than using your college experience as a measure to judge other places, see the experiences and lessons you have learned as entrusted to you by God. When you see them as a gift to be stewarded, you can humbly pray for opportunities to serve and use your gifts or perspective in support of your church’s vision, and in time they can be used and leveraged for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.
4. Direct thanks to God for your time in college rather than getting lost in nostalgia.
There isn’t anything wrong with missing friends or fellowship (or free time!) But nostalgia in and of itself often leads to a discontent that ultimately indicates a heart that says “God, you have placed me in a worse place than before. What you have given me now is not best.” In college, I loved taking long walks on our beautiful campus, sometimes hours at a time, praying, thinking, journaling. I remember such sweet moments of communion with the Lord as I prayed to him, sang to him, and reflected on all the things I was learning. Now, with two young girls at home, I can’t just take spontaneous breaks like that anymore. I can be tempted choose to react to these memories with a sense of loss (“Oh, I’ll never get that again. Those were the good old days.”), or dismiss them as not “real life.” But I don’t think either of these reactions is what pleasing to God.
Remembrance is one of the themes of the Bible, particularly remembrance of what God has done. But this remembrance isn’t empty nostalgia, longing for the good old days. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Rather, the remembrance we are called to is one that reflects on the way God has delivered and God has helped us already in a way that strengthens our faith in his promises for the future. This is seen most importantly in our remembrance of the work of Christ on the cross, and in smaller ways, in the specific works of God through our lives. In 1 Samuel 7:2, after God delivered the Israelites from battle, Samuel set up a stone, named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” in order to remember that “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” For me, instead of being sucked into longing for my college days, going to Cornell is sweet when this type of remembrance is in view. I remember who I was before college, how God worked powerfully in me at that time, and I give praise to him. I get to remember places I prayed, what I prayed there, and how he has answered since then. I am reminded of how far he’s brought me since graduation and how he is so good and so faithful to me.
I encourage upcoming college graduates who have experienced God deeply and loved their time at their campus fellowships to rather than look at what a campus ministry was able to do or at the “college life” with longing, to look to and give thanks to God who was the one who worked in your heart during the time there and through the people you knew there.
5.Resist cynicism. Trust him with your regrets, recognizing and clinging to the grace of God.
While there are some people who can’t stop longing for their college days, I know some who can’t look back without being dismissive of their college selves, campus ministry experiences, and anything college-related. I understand. It took a while before I could look back at my freshman self, full of zeal and immaturity, without cringing and just shaking my head. And then, there’s the mistakes I made, sins I committed, and people that I hurt that I feel regret for still, even after 10 years.
Sometimes, I see cynicism form because stepping into the “real world” from the “college bubble” was tough on the faith of some and they stumbled and fell. Sometimes it’s because people had rough experiences in their campus ministries and only after stepping out did they see how it impacted their view of God and the church negatively. I see some who question their faith, God, and Christianity and begin to question of whether or not what they had in college was “real” or even whether it was their “real self.”
There’s much I can say here and each person’s struggle is unique, so just briefly, I want to encourage you to look at the signs of grace in your life and consider that God knew completely what was in your heart and what was going on around you, and see how he was working in you despite yourself and despite imperfect Christians around you. As you go look back at your younger, less mature, more naiive, less sanctified self (which was really you at the time, just all those things–less mature, more naiive, less sanctified), don’t rest your gaze there. Let the grace of God bring you to a place of deeper gratitude, worship, humility, and grace. Gratitude for his blood that covers your sin and his patient perseverance with you in spite of yourself, worship for his immeasurable love and mercy with which he loves you now even though in a few years by the grace of God you will more mature and Christlike than today, and humility and grace towards others who are more immature and young in the faith than you. When you do this, you can be honest– both about the ways you fell and failed and about the ways he truly did work in and even through you by his grace and to his glory.
6.If you don’t end up struggling, praise God! And pray for your friends who are having a hard time.
Some of you already have a strong local church to go home to and a healthy understanding of work, God, church, and life. Praise God for this! I just encourage you to remember and be kind towards your friends who have a harder time transitioning. Instead of saying (or thinking) “what’s wrong with you?” I encourage you to consider that while you are strong, you have a unique opportunity to strengthen the weak. Pray for your friends, particularly those who became Christians in college, to find and settle in good churches. Listen to and lift up those who are struggling, and thank him for his grace toward you in your transition.
7. Lastly, consider the faithfulness of your God and look to the future with joyful hope!
I have always resisted a doomsday portrayal of college graduation. Why? Because it makes it seem like God is the God of the college campus and not of the rest of life! Or that his grace and the gospel which began a good work in you is insufficient to carry you through to the end (as opposed to Phil 1:6.) This is simply not true. In the same way that many of us may not have sought God as we entered into college, but he worked in us miraculously to bring us to himself and into a community of people who love him, it is not our faithfulness to him that will sustain us through the years, but his love and faithfulness to us in Christ.
Your life will change in the coming year, but look to him who has not, does not, and will never change. His grace and the knowledge of his mercy has not been exhausted in your 4 (or 3 or 5) years in college. He saved us so that in the ages to come, he may show to us the immeasurable riches of his grace! (Eph. 2:4-7) That does not end after graduation! He has worked in your life up until now, and he is able to keep you from falling– from the day you walk in cap and gown until the day of his coming. Be encouraged, looking to him who alone does not change, who has been with you up to now and will continue to carry you through to the end.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 ESV)
I love celebrating the Lord’s Supper at our church. It wasn’t always like this, but I look forward to holy communion as one of the highlights of our worship services every month.
As a mom with young children, I try to catch as much of our Sunday worship service as possible, but I normally head out to the nursery with the girls after we finish singing and though we can see and hear the sermon in the nursery (which I’m really thankful for!) I sometimes feel I’ve missed the whole service though I’m right there. A few weeks ago, it was one of those I-missed-all-of-service-again days, but in the few minutes that I got to take part of communion, God ministered to my heart exactly what I needed.
Growing up, the services where we took communion were hardest to sit through as a kid. It made the service feel much longer, even though it was only adding at most another 10-15 minutes. When I got older and started to experience God more, I felt somehow that this part of service should be moving, and for some reason thought that the way to do this was to do a thorough search and confession of my own sin. There were times when I came in with guilt, and so the prompts to confess our sins as not to take part in communion in an unworthy manner were helpful (1 Cor. 11:27-28). But there were times that I didn’t come in with any big hidden sin and so didn’t feel so moved.
No one taught me that I was supposed to do this and maybe it’s just me who has ever thought like that, but basically I didn’t know what I was supposed to be thinking and feeling and how to direct my thoughts and affections during communion. I don’t think that I’m alone in this experience. During praise, we know we’re supposed to be thinking about the lyrics and singing to God. During the sermons, whether or not we succeed, we know we should be listening and hearing from God through the preaching of his Word. But what about the time in service when we take part in communion? Was I right– is it about having a time of individual confession of sins? Or as someone else said she used to think, is it a time for personal prayer and meditation?
God has been growing my experience of the rich blessing this sacrament is intended to be for God’s people and I want to share a bit of how in hopes that you would also be blessed as you partake of it at your church. (The second point has been most helpful to me, so jump to that part if you only have time to skim!)
1. Remembrance of Christ, not focused introspection
One thing that threw me off when I started going to GCC was that though there is a time in our service set aside for corporate and individual repentance and confession of sins, there isn’t much time given after receiving communion for us to sit on our own and pray. You can if you want, but that time isn’t built in. Why not?
I believe as Christians, part of life is regular repentance and for asking the Lord to search our hearts for any ways we are living that displeases him. We are also called to take seriously the warning not to drink judgment upon ourselves when coming to the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and sometimes, we need space and time during communion to confess. But for those who come with genuine faith and repentant hearts, and those who have been walking faithfully with him by his grace, it is a great help to know that communion is not a designated time to dig deep inside our hearts in solemn introspection, but a time to remember and proclaim the death of Christ. When we remember that the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a proclamation of Christ’s death until he comes again, we do think of our own sin and unworthiness, but then are called then to bring and rest our gaze in faith to Jesus who died for us.
The Heidelberg catechism says (this is rich!) in Q&A 79 that through the establishing of the Lord’s Supper:
[Christ] wants to teach us that just as bread and wine nourish the temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life.
But more important, he wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge,
that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance, and that all of his suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and made satisfaction for our sins.
When taking communion, I don’t just have to think solemnly about this week or this month’s sins to be filled with gratitude. So much more is brought to mind when focusing my thoughts on how Christ’s suffering and obedience are mine through faith. Meditating on Christ’s death I know that through his death I have forgiveness of all my past sins (Heb. 10:12-14). I have hope for my future though I will sin again (1 John 2:1-2). Because of his death I can be free from the debt (Col. 2:13-14) of sin. Because he died and I am united with him, my old self has died, and I am no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:5-8)! These things and more we are given the space to remember at the Lord’s Supper, and as we grow in our understanding and experience of the meaning of Christ’s death for us, our time becomes that much richer.
2. For our assurance and strengthening of faith, not drugery and hollow ritual
I love that through the Lord’s Supper, God has given us a very physical means to say, “Yes, I believe. Yes, I trust. Yes, I will not forget.” As we eat and drink, we are saying “Yes, amen, I believe this is true. Jesus, you died for my sins and I am one with you by grace through faith.” But the Lord’s Supper is not only a declaration of faith, but a means of strengthening our faith.
In Sunday School at GCC, we went through a book on the Heidelberg Catechism and this one question has completely changed the way that I have seen this sacrament as a means of God’s grace. I love this!
Q 75. How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?
A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises:
as surely as I see with my eyes
the bread of the Lord broken for me
and the cup shared with me, so surely
his body was offered and broken for me
and his blood poured out for me
on the cross.
Second, as surely as
I receive from the hand of the one who serves,
and taste with my mouth
the bread and cup of the Lord,
given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely
he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life
with his crucified body and poured-out blood.
When I take communion, do I doubt that I am eating bread or drinking the juice/wine served to me? Not really. So, just as sure as I am that I am seeing, eating, and drinking– that’s how sure I can be that his body was broken for me and his blood shed for my sins. Kevin DeYoung explains it like this:
Have you ever come to church feeling dirty for the way you stared at the young woman at the Gap? Have you ever sat through an entire sermon thinking about how you blew up at your kids that morning or how prayerless you’ve been for the past month? Have you ever come to the end of a church service only to think, I’m so distracted. I keep thinking about football? Or, I keep thinking about getting ready for the company we’re having over. I can’t even sit through church right? Have you ever wondered if God can really be for you when you are oblivious to Him so much of the time?? If so, you need this gospel table.
The Lord knows our faith is weak. That’s why He’s given us sacraments to see, taste, and touch. As surely as you can see the bread and cup, so surely does God love you through Christ. As surely as you chew the food and drain the drink, so surely has Christ died for you. Here at the Table, the faith becomes sight. The simple bread and cup give assurance that Christ came for you, Christ died for you, Christ is coming again for you. Whenever we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we not only re-proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again (1 Cor. 11:26), we re-convince ourselves of God’s provision on the cross.
(The Good News We Almost Forgot, p. 137)
The “as surely” has completely changed the way I approach and appreciate the Lord’s Supper each week. This sacrament has been granted to us by Jesus for our encouragement. I have been and am being strengthened in my faith through this tangible, physical practice of receiving and taking communion because of these words: “As surely” and “so, surely.”
3. Fellowship with my family, not just an individual experience
At GCC, we celebrate Holy Communion once a month. After Rev. Chang repeats the account of what happened at the Last Supper, the people in the congregation are invited to walk up to the front and as each person takes a piece of bread, the one serving it reminds him or her “the body of Christ, broken for you” and as the person dips the bread in the grape juice, “the blood of Christ, shed for you.”
In their song Beneath The Cross, Keith and Kristen Getty write/sing:
Beneath the cross of Jesus His family is my own— Once strangers chasing selfish dreams, Now one through grace alone.
I love the act of being able to walk up to the front of the sanctuary with my brothers and sisters for communion. We walk up together, not taking communion as individuals, but one body in Christ (1 Cor. 10:17). I not only remember that we are doing this as a family, but it is because of Christ’s death that we are a family. We smile at each other as we make way for others to step into line in front of us from the pews. We see the person in front of us receive the bread and cup. We moms are ushered to the front of the sanctuary in front of everyone after they’re already done taking communion, being assured it’s ok though we’re pretty embarrassed, because it took us longer than expected to get out of the nursery with the kids (just happened once). It moves me to remember that I am coming to the table with other sinner-saved-saints, others who have and are experiencing the redeeming power of Christ, others who are broken and weak just like me. I am taking communion with people who struggle with sins in ways that they may have shared with me. And we, together, remember that all our sins are washed away because of Christ and we look forward in hopes of his coming where we, together, will be presented before him as a spotless bride because of the death.
Who should come to the Lord’s Table?
Question 81 of the Heidelberg Catechism warns that “Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however,
eat and drink judgment on themselves.” But it also gives this great hope to us in answering “Who should come to the Lord’s table?” It says:
Those who are displeased with themselves
because of their sins,
but who nevertheless trust
that their sins are pardoned
and that their remaining weakness is covered
by the suffering and death of Christ,
and who also desire more and more
to strengthen their faith
and to lead a better life.
Yes, we who are displeased with ourselves in our sins, but trust nevertheless that our sins are pardoned and weaknesses covered by the suffering and death of our Savior who we remember. We who know that we cannot on our own, but desire to, have stronger faith and live more and more unto him. We are invited to come. Thank God for this invitation to feast at his table for the nourishing of our souls.