Taking Heart

Your Achingly Beautiful Perseverance

I’m not sure about the exact numbers, but a good portion (maybe most) of the books I’ve read for leisure in the past few years have been memoir. So many things about the form captivate me. The intersection of storytelling and deep reflection, the invitation to walk the landscape of the memory through well-crafted vignettes, the masterfully-woven themes that slowly emerge. The best ones simultaneously awaken in me a sense of beauty and heartache, no matter how mundane the stories themselves may seem.

Every person carries stories that, if you knew them, would break your heart.

At an airport gate, a young man sits next to me and we make small talk. He tells me why he feels nervous about returning home, about who he’s leaving behind on the East Coast. Friends he’s made and a girl he likes. He begins to tear up. Sorry for dumping this all on you, he says, clearly surprised he said what he did. I tell him that I’m a pastor’s wife and that I’m used to it, people telling me these types of things, before letting him change the subject.

My healthcare provider tells me about what’s going on in her social circles as she works on my back— emergency room visits and disease and suicide. She says it seems like everyone she knows is going through something, and I murmur my agreement as I lie facedown on the table.

During a conversation with a friend, It feels like everyone we know in ministry is getting beaten up. Maybe that’s ministry though. Then a pause. Maybe that’s just life.

This does seem to be the plotline for many these days, hard thing after hard thing. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve noticed another theme slowly and persistently begin to emerge in the lives of dear ones I know.

I hear it in the voice of fellow workers in ministry. They preach, and pray, shepherding flocks through the devastation of a global pandemic and the destructiveness of indwelling sin. They visit the unrepentant, pleading for them to turn to the grace of God. They are tired, but are not giving up hope that God loves his people.

I read it in the words of friends texting for prayer, chronically ill or caring for those who are, facing loss or mourning unfulfilled hopes. We are all praying for healing, for God to grant them the good desires that he withholds without explanation, but these friends also ask for grace to trust Jesus, courage to love others better. They continue to love the weak and hurting, even as they themselves cry out for relief. All I want for one friend is for her suffering to stop, but she is asking me to ask for more— for rest in God’s love and mercy, for joy in his faithfulness, for hope in his promises, and for endurance.

I sense it in the songs sung by the sinner-saints meeting weekly in our small, local church. Battered and broken, we declare the goodness of Jesus, believing God hears and receives us, that he sees and remembers.

I saw it on the other end of that flight with the tearful young man, where over the course of a few days, I caught up with those who knew me when I was fresh out of college. In even the shorter conversations, I got glimpses of what they’ve been rejoicing in and what new or old things continue to be difficult. Many are walking through loss, uncertainty, and trauma— yet still seeking Jesus, still committed to being in his church. And this time, I was the one crying in the airport on the way home, moved by how clearly I witnessed in them the faith described by Peter in the Scriptures. Though they have not seen God, though they don’t see him now, they love him still (1 Peter 1:8).

I am experiencing in real time the perseverance of the saints. And like the best of stories, it is both heartrending and achingly beautiful.

The Apostle Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, and from that character, and then hope. I have been thinking lately about why he’d write hope there— not love or godliness. Or why not just end at “character”? Why make hope the culmination here of what God does in the midst of suffering? I am beginning to see now that God does not just make his people stronger or more righteous through trial. We all know that sometimes difficulties make us stronger, that suffering can produce character even without God in the picture. But for believers in the heat of affliction, something otherworldly emerges: a hope against all hope, a faith that perseveres.

I have never had trouble believing that God raises the dead, but that he keeps his own until the end— the longer I have been a Christian, the harder it’s been to trust. It sobers and humbles me now then, how God is using the trials of those around me to deal with my unbelief. Through the fire, I am seeing the precious genuineness of the faith of God’s children, and I stand silenced. The people of God have always been a persevering people, a people learning to hope against hope. And this hope is miraculous in its very nature.

Christian perseverance, Christian hope, is not a fake-it-til you make it, silver-lining way of dealing with suffering. Neither is it flashy, spiritual triumphalism nor self-reliant grit. It is salvation worked out with blood, sweat, and effort and worked within by the Holy Spirit. It is the tested faith of those who have found safety in the one who has been a refuge for all generations. Its beauty is like that of century-old forts, made of solid stone, enduring battle, the elements, and time. We have tested it and found it to be trustworthy, but it still takes faith to believe it will continue to stand in time to come.

This perseverance says that though I do not yet see God making all things right, he will do so one day. That though I do not feel like what he has ordained for me is good, he who gave his own Son for me will not withhold from me anything truly good. It says that though I am weak, and confused, and uncertain about many things, God remains steadfast in his love and unchanging in his ways. That though things all is not right, he still indeed is good. That what is seen may lead me to despair, but there are realities beyond what I can see that give me reason to hope. Not the least of which is the truth that Christ lived, died, and now lives.

I have felt this hope in the handshake of the strongest of believers. A widow at the end of a receiving line of her husband, a pastor’s, funeral. They’d lived through the cultural revolution. She’d worshipped in the dark with her children, curtains drawn. He’d survived harsh labor. She took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and spoke, her voice gentle and firm, Ganxie Zhu— an expression of praise. And I wondered if she was here ministering to us rather than the other way around.

I have also seen this tenacity in the saints who feel themselves to be the weakest. I think of how sometimes the smallest of plants can be surprisingly hard to uproot. I’ll tug at the tinier weeds in the garden, assuming they’ll come out with no issue, only to have the stems snap where they meet the soil and the roots remain intact. Here is the woman who, in the absence of tidy answers, remains sure of what she hopes for, certain of what she does not see (Hebrews 11:1). The weary servant of God who confesses that while he is pressed, he is not crushed, he is perplexed but not driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). Both have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. God has been faithful to keep his promises, and they know there is more reason than not to continue to trust him now.

And I witness it in the lives of believers all around me now. In the absence of seeing, in suffering, their hope is being forged and proven, because, who hopes for what he already has? (Romans 8:24). Ours is a supernatural faith, and it’s only when it’s against all odds that we know, surely, it must be upheld by a supernatural strength.

We may not all have memoirs in the pipeline, but, oh, what stories we will have to listen to and tell in ages to come. Whether God’s strength working in us means we will one day find ourselves sprinting across the finish line, or whether we feel for sure we will be limping, inching, and clinging onto dear life up to it, we will declare him faithful who has kept us. Through stories of darkness, dangers, grief, and trial. Of faithful endurance, inexplicable peace, and hope that has not put us to shame. By God’s grace, I’ll have a few to share. Dear, persevering saint, you will too.

Taking Heart

Mourning

IMG_4756

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

“Do bad people live on this continent?” my sweet girl asked as she lay in bed. “Yes, bad people live everywhere.” What about here, she wanted to know, in our neighborhood? She was afraid. Was the door locked? What if someone bad tried to come in? She wanted me to give her my word, tell her no one could ever come in and take her away.

“You know, God will always be with you, no matter what happens… Do you want to pray to him that no one will come take you away?” She did, so we prayed, and her little heart was comforted. And my heart started breaking in a new way that night– in the knowledge that though my girl would have believed whatever I said (and though we live in a safe neighborhood) I could not give her the absolute promise of safety she wanted because we live in a fallen world.

The painful reality of living in a broken world punctuates our lives in thousands of ways. Sometimes they are pinpricks to the heart, like realizing how we live in a legitimately scary world as we talk with our fearful child. At other times, this reality is a heavy shadow cast over our days and weeks, with fresh images from the devastation of war or natural disaster. Still other times, our pain is personal, so close and so deep it threatens to crush us completely.

I have wondered at times what it was like for Jesus to walk on this earth. How could he have lived here without being completely overtaken by sadness every moment of every day? He knew the world untouched by sin. He knew the beautiful intention of the Father in creation. And then he lived, breathed, and suffered in the devastation wrought by our rebellion. A witness to broken bodies, hardened hearts, warring nations, hateful unbelief, how could he have been joyful, which he must have been as one filled with the Spirit?

While he walked our soil, Christ declared one feature of Christian blessedness this way: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessedness, mourning, comfort, all three come together in our Savior, a man filled with the Spirit and yet familiar with sorrows. Jesus knew the resurrection that laid ahead and pressed on for the joy set before him. Still, he wept over death and destruction. Though not as one without hope.

Scripture speaks to us in our darkness and gives us many reasons we can grieve with hope. He has purposes we have yet to see and we trust him. In comparison to the glory ahead, our troubles are light and momentary. Still, we grieve. And far from carrying platitudes and quick fixes, we enter into dark places with Christ and weep. We who know how things were supposed to be have the most reason to grieve over and in the world we live in. We know that unlike what others may say, this isn’t how things always have been. We know from the depths of our souls this is not how it was meant to be.

And in these places, dear ones, he is near to us. He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. In the fire of our mourning, he is forging hope that because of his suffering, there is comfort awaiting us– a new day when our hearts will be healed and the world is restored.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,
for the former things have passed away.

We live in this strange in-between as believers in this age. In between Jesus’ two comings, he has resurrected, but we still have not. So we wait for the day he comes and everything sad is going to come untrue. And as we wait, we cling onto the truth that our Savior who is lifted on high is also a man familiar with sorrows, near to us even as we cry for him to come and make things all things right again.

Maranatha, come O Jesus.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Christmas For Every Longing Heart

One of the more difficult parts of the holidays to navigate is the expectation to make happy memories and for things to be cheery. It doesn’t really make sense that a date on the calendar or a few weeks declared the “holiday season” would magically make things wonderfully happy, but for whatever reason we expect or hope for it which deepens the disappointment when things are not merry and bright— when instead of peace, there is strife in our family and hurting relationships. When there are unfulfilled secret hopes in our hearts or we are in the midst of grieving loss. When we’re burnt out from serving and maybe just tired from normal life and don’t feel particularly Christmas-y.

Personally, this year has been one with great joys and deep sorrows, and in light of this I am meditating on two prayers we can pray this Christmas as we face things we struggle to reconcile with the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth:

Jesus, this is why you came.

Jesus, come again soon.

Continue reading “Christmas For Every Longing Heart”

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

I cried reading this this morning

I haven’t cried reading a book for a long time, but as I read this today, I did with gratitude that I, having been redeemed by Christ, am given the grace to live and act in a way that pleases my Heavenly Father. The fact that he would be moved  by my obedience- done in love and with his aid… that is so precious to me.

We can think it’s a mark of spiritual sensitivity to consider everything we do as morally suspect. But this is not the way the Bible thinks about righteousness. More importantly, this kind of spiritual resignation does not tell the truth about God… Our God is not a capricious slave driver. He is not hyper-sensitive and prone to fits of rage on account of slight offenses. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6). “He is not hard to please,” Tozer reminds us, “though he may be hard to satisfy.”

Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our Heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight?”…There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him. (p. 69-70)

–  The Hole in our Holiness- Keven DeYoung,  (bolded mine)

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

A story for those who struggle

The point is, there are stories in the Bible, in history, and in our own lives that do not appear to have happy endings of cheerfulness. These too are not without hope and are designed by God’s sovereign and merciful wisdom for the hope of those who fear they are utterly alone in their misery… The examples of God’s patience in history will not serve their saving and sustaining purposes if we do not tell the stories—like the story of William Cowper. (The Hidden Smile of God, John Piper p 117)


There are times when people share their amazing stories of God’s spectacular display of power in their lives to deliver them from quickly and decisively from their difficulties and struggles- miraculous healings, prayers answered for the desire of their hearts. I hear those stories and praise God, encouraged that he is working and hears his people. But then there are the stories that leave me in tears, awestruck with no words, and wanting to worship. When I hear these I literally feel the weight of glory on my heart and am strengthened in my faith. They are stories of believers who have suffered much and say, “God was and is faithful” and they are stories of those still struggling today and in the midst of the pain desire to say the same.

I do not enjoy seeing others suffer, and I don’t think that knowing that God uses all things in the end for our good makes the experience of suffering less painful. But in the last year or so, I found that when sisters have talked about their struggles in faith and life, some cases in the midst of great inward trials, that even in my feeling their sadness with them, praying for their circumstances to change, something about their perspective would leave me refreshed, encouraged, and worshipful. They didn’t necessarily articulate this, but in what they did say it was evident that in their very real struggles they still desired to seek God and still believed that he was good. Though they prayed for change, their hope was not in what God could do but in God himself. All this even though they didn’t understand why, even though it was hard, even though sometimes they felt like they were barely hanging on. When I heard from them I could see God so clearly at work. Only God can do that in a person. Only God can give, sustain, and refine a faith that is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:7)- that continues to believe God is good when the world would say to curse him.

I believe that the stories (testimonies) we tell and listen to as Christians shape the way we think about suffering and what we believe real faith looks like in trials. If most of the ones we hear are about sudden, miraculous deliverance from trouble and temptation in answers to prayer, that shapes our expectations and hopes a certain way along with the idea of what great faith is. If we only hear stories about how it “ended up okay in the end” but don’t see others acknowledging that it is hard to go through, that will also teach us to respond one way. Or if we only hear of those with mighty faith that never wavered, we can just automatically count ourselves out. I have seen the effects of an incomplete view of the Christian approach toward trials, temptations, and suffering on the lives of those around me shaped by such stories. There are those that walk away because they felt God didn’t pull through when they really believed that he would answer. There are some who live in shame believing that if they loved God enough and had enough faith then they wouldn’t face such great temptations, or inward trials, or have desires for things that God may not grant them. And there there are some, like me, hearing only stories of great perseverance and faith, often feel inspired but also discouraged just because my faith is not so great.
   
That is why personally, the stories that are the most strengthening for my own faith and lead me to worship most often are those that are about don’t look on the outside like they are victorious or end in decisive successes. They are also those that show temptation and trials for as hard as they really are and even to be expected for the Christian and in this life. They show those that aren’t strong in themselves to bear the hurt and pain. They show weakness and suffering accurately and still in them, that God works in a person to keep them calling out to him. In these stories of weak people (they are the ones I can relate to), God ends up being displayed as the only sufficient sustainer of faith. And they are precious to me because I struggle so much to trust God and they remind me that in the final equation, what matters is not freedom from inward temptation and struggles in this life, but the faithfulness of my God to help my weak faith in the sure promise that he is good and that when he returns, he will make all things right.

All this to say, if you’ve never read about the life of William Cowper, I highly recommend John Piper’s short biography of his life here: Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint or here:  The Hidden Smile of God  (book with short bio of Cowper, Bunyan, and Brainerd.) This blogpost has been in my head for a long time because of how much I wanted to recommend his bio and I wanted to articulate why it was so powerful for me to read it. William Cowper wrote one of my favorite hymns and many others- and he struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts (followed through with attempts), and despair throughout his whole life until the very end. The trials and suffering are so real and dark, but in it all there are glimpses of an even deeper hope.