Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Looking Unto Jesus

IMG_4330

If you’ve studied physics (or ever played QBasic Gorillas), you know it only takes a slight difference in launch angle to completely change the trajectory of a moving object. Likewise, in the Christian life, there are many seemingly subtle nuances which actually have massive impact on our worship of God and lives with him.

I enjoyed this devotional from Charles Spurgeon on “Looking Unto Jesus” and am struck by the fact that though there is a world of difference between looking to Jesus and looking to ourselves, sometimes the initial shift feels so slight we don’t realize we’ve turned our gaze inward.

Sometimes, it isn’t until we find ourselves despairing, doubtful and discouraged that we trace back our struggles to trying to find hope in ourselves and our own faith or spirituality. And sometimes, we need to hear someone articulate for us the difference between hoping in Christ and hoping in self to make that connection.

So, here’s an excerpt from the prince of preachers today:

“Looking unto Jesus.” (Heb. 12:2)

It is ever the Holy Spirit’s work to turn our eyes away from self to Jesus; but Satan’s work is just the opposite of this, for he is constantly trying to make us regard ourselves instead of Christ. He insinuates, “Your sins are too great for pardon; you have no faith; you do not repent enough; you will never be able to continue to the end; you have not the joy of his children; you have such a wavering hold of Jesus.” All these are thoughts about self, and we shall never find comfort or assurance by looking within. But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: he tells us that we are nothing, but that “Christ is all in all.” Remember, therefore, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee–it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee–it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument–it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith. We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “looking unto Jesus.” Keep thine eye simply on him; let his death, his sufferings, his merits, his glories, his intercession, be fresh upon thy mind; when thou wakest in the morning look to him; when thou liest down at night look to him. Oh! let not thy hopes or fears come between thee and Jesus; follow hard after him, and he will never fail thee.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

( June 28, Morning by Morning. Tip: Access Charles Spurgeon’s Morning & Evening daily devotional at Biblegateway.)

Yes!

The Christian’s hope is not how much faith he has. It is in Jesus who trustworthy.

It is not in the progress in sanctification she’s making or how she is doing spiritually compared to others. It is in Jesus who sanctifies.

It is not in yesterday’s experiences or our own “decisions for Christ.”  It is in Jesus’ finished work on the cross and his ministry of intercession for us today.

It is not in our promises to “do better next time.” It is in he who finishes the work he began in us.

It is not in our penitence and sorrow over sin, but he who receives and purifies repentant sinners.

It is not in our fruitfulness as branches. It is in the life-sustaining vine.

It is not in our faithfulness as sheep, but the Shepherd’s steadfast care.

Dear Christian, look to Jesus today.

And take heart. Because in the final count, what matters most won’t be how well you did looking to him, but that his gaze was ever upon you.

Church & Ministry, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

We Quickly Fly Away, But…

flower1

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…”

Church & Ministry, Truth & Orthodoxy

I Am Dust

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 knows our 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 Jesus was 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)

Crazy Busy by Kevin Deyoung (Amazon, WTSbooks)

Some Books recommended by Christopher Ash in talk above (I haven’t read these, but may soon!)