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.)
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.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The coming months are ones of transitions for our family as we step into unknowns on two major fronts. The first one involves changes regarding church and with that, Jeff’s ministry responsibilities. The other is our entering into the world of foster care where we are, God-willing, set to finish the licensing process within a few weeks. Anyone following my blog can see that I write about anxiety a lot, so unsurprisingly, “transition” in my life reads: stomach knots, an incessantly mind-reel of worst-case scenarios, and varied refrains of “what are we doing?” (in a panicky tone). But, as God often does in his unmistakable kind and gentle way, he is speaking words of life afresh to my fearful heart.
Last week, I read a post by blogger Tim Challies on journaling with suggestions from John Flavel. The third and last instruction was not to diminish past difficulties compared to new ones:
Whatever is beside us always appears most significant to us. Just as the land seems to shrink as the sailor sails away from it, so those troubling situations can seem to grow smaller as time increases the distance between them and us. By reading the accounts of God’s mercies you will remember that in the past you have faced dangers just as great and fears just as terrifying. For this reason make sure you do not only record the facts, but also your emotional and spiritual experience of them. Write them as if you will need to cling to them in the future.
With that in the back of my mind, somehow sophomore year of college came up as I remembered how for almost two semesters I struggled with despair and probably depression. It surprised me that I could’ve forgotten about those times, or at least that they’d be so far from my mind that it felt like I’d forgotten. I had forgotten what it was like to not be able to imagine things being different. Not wanting to live and having a hard time finding motivation to get up. To live with self-loathing and a constant voice of accusation in my mind, to feel that sin had the final word in my life and longing so much to be freed from my wretchedness, but not understanding what hope-filled sanctification and living out the gospel could look like. And I had forgotten the way that God miraculously pulled me out of that place of darkness. Later, as I reflected in my new moleskine journal (purchased after reading the aforementioned blogpost!), those memories, along with other accounts in my life of God’s power, salvation, and redemption, renewed my heart of trust in God for the times ahead.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were rebuked over and over again for their lack of remembrance. Their lack of faith in God in trial was a reflection of the state of their forgetful souls. They forgot the deliverance of God from Egypt and so lamented that God wanted to starve them in the desert, pining for their former lives as slaves. They panicked and created a god of their own to worship when Moses was taking too long to come down Mt. Sinai. They refused to enter into the land of promise because of the bad report of 10 men. The incredulity of the Israelites is almost unbelievable because this wasn’t just about a random person telling them where to go or what to worship. They had seen with their own eyes God’s deliverance, tasted the salt in the air as they walked through a sea that parted for their feet alone and swallowed up their pursuers. They had carried the gold their former masters gave to them as Pharoah finally had them leave after the last of ten mighty acts of God. They had known the works of God, his salvation– and still they did not trust him.
Properly speaking, the Israelites didn’t really forget, did they? They must have had the memory of the experiences, just somehow it didn’t connect to what they believed and thought about God as they faced their more current, pressing situations. Unbelief took root to twist their interpretation of their past, reflecting hearts that didn’t respond to the knowledge of God’s works with an accurate, rightfully earned trust in his character.
And I am seeing once again that I am prone to do the same. I forget that the dangers I faced in the past were just as great, fears just as terrifying as those that I am encountering at present. I forget all that God has shown me about himself in those times and how that remembrance is what I need to strengthen my trust as I face the future.
So, I recall and recount. How God has delivered me from the emptiness that I often felt as a high-schooler. How he brought me through the subsequent times of doubt and questioning. He heard my cries for deliverance from sins I thought were unconquerable and has set me free from the constant cloud of condemnation I used to live out of. He has healed my heart from lies about myself I’d believed for years and carried me through heartbreak over relationships and ministry. He was with me when I was stuck in a shady casino hotel in Las Vegas after missing a connecting flight to LA– a timid new graduate going to join a ministry in a city where I barely knew anyone. He was with me on the gut-wrenching flight and transition back home after the two years I’d grown to love the people I served deeply.
I think about how the years since then have flown by, packed with decisions that carried no risk-free guarantee, but full of blessings immeasurable both seen and unseen. Two daughters and motherhood have brought more things to be fearful about, but breakthroughs in perspectives of and trust in God. Being newly initiated into ministry in the local church, we have already seen God growing us in hope through times of deep discouragement, molding us through the daily grind of learning to pour out our lives on behalf of others because Christ did the same for us. I have seen him redeem places of shame and guilt in my life by taking those experiences and making them the ones that I can most use to minister to others. And I have rejoiced at truth breaking through to others coming out of the same places I had been in, in awe of how he delights to take and use us not just in spite of but because of our brokenness.
What’s most important about these memories are not that I am promised quick deliverance in the future because of them. No, infinitely more precious than that type of guarantee is what I have come to know of my Savior experientially, how I’ve had glimpses and moments of faith becoming sight. I have seen his salvation, experienced the power at work in me that raised Christ from the dead. I have seen his faithfulness to me to carry me through trial and shape my character in ways that I would never be shaped had I gotten exactly what I wanted when I wanted it. I think about how I’m not who I used to be and how if you told me what it would feel like now, living unto God imperfectly but by grace and with joy, living free from the things that bound my heart, living increasingly out of love and not duty or guilt, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. And, still, there is more of Christ to know, more of his deliverance to come. These remembrances remind me that he is indeed kind, powerful, good, and worth my life. They take away some of the power of fear of the future over me and even– how is this even possible?– stir in me a new joy, an anticipation of what he will do around, through, and in us as we step into the unknown.
Yes, the very definition of faith is that it does not and can’t see everything, at least not right now. But ours is not a faith ungrounded. On the contrary, it is my unbelief and fearful dread that I ought to question more skeptically in light of all that I have come to see and know of God, not taking my own word of doubt as authoritative. The cross has shown me the greatness of his mercy. The empty grave has proven his power over death and sin. And if I incline my heart to, I can recount the ways I have experienced this love and power in countless ways through the years. It was never, and isn’t now, blind faith that God asks for from his people, from me. Rather it is trust in One who I’ve proven, as we sang on our wedding day, over and over. Oh for grace to remember and trust him more!
Note: As I’ve been thinking through these things, I’ve also been reading Ed Welch’s “Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest.” On a Chapter called “The Manna Principle”, he writes about this idea of trust and remembrance, and much of my thoughts as I’ve written may have what he’s written mixed in there, without me knowing exactly where my thoughts were “original” or from the book. So, I want to give credit where it may be due. And also note that I’ve been helped by the book in how it is getting to some of the root of my anxiety and defanging it.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments. Psalm 103:17-18
This is the crowning privilege that God gives to his faithful: though their lives are short and appear almost insignificant, they may still contribute to the future well-being of the people of God by their godly and prayerful parenting and grandparenting. (ESV Study Bible notes on Psalm 103:18)
I thought about writing this post a few weeks ago as I put my older daughter to sleep. As I prayed by her bed, I thought about how privileged she is to be growing up within a a Christian home. Every night before she sleeps, her daddy reads to her from her book of choice (more often than not Dr. Seuss) and then the Bible. Sometimes she “reads” on her own and we hear things like “God’s people”, “Jesus went back to the home” (from, we think, the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection?), and “Abraham and Sarah” as she flips through the pages of her children’s Bible. Our daughters are growing up with the community of believers at GCC and will not ever remember a time in life before going to church. I thought about my own life as a second-generation Christian on my dad’s side and the legacy I have on my mom’s side of a missionary great-grandfather. Christianity in Jeff’s family goes back even farther than mine. I was filled with gratitude for this blessing and then thought of my friends who have not been given this same grace as us, but instead have the grace of being called to God as the first Christians in their families.
In some ways, we are all first-generation Christians. None of us are children of God by virtue of being born into a Christian family, and all of us need to be given new life by the Spirit and grasp hold of his promises by faith. My daughters are not guaranteed standing before God because of us, and we pray often for them to come to know God and for him to grant them new life. Those of us who grew up going to church have a unique set of struggles as church kids, and even those struggles aren’t the same across the board as many who grew up in church-going families weren’t really growing up in joyful, thriving, Christian homes. The family I grew up in is far from perfect and I often share that one reason I am so sure that God is real is that I have seen the gospel work and transform our relationships. All this to say, we all need the gospel and we all need Jesus and to be walking with him as individuals. Still, enough of my friends have been, by God’s grace, called into his family from non-Christian backgrounds for me to know that they face a unique set of trials, discouragements, and burdens.
So…to these dear friends,
I have been thinking of and wanted to encourage those of you who may be discouraged or burdened standing in the place that God has called you in as the first, and maybe as of now, only Christians in your family. In many ways, I do not feel I am in the position to encourage you– I have not been in your place, bearing the same burdens you bear. But at the same time, I feel I am in a unique place to say something, because in faith I believe that there will be future generations in your family to come who are not unlike myself– receiving blessing because of the work of God in generations past. And since it doesn’t really make sense to say that I’m thanking you in advance on their behalf, I would rather say that it isn’t too far off to think that the thankfulness that I am expressing now for you will be of a similar kind as the gratitude they will have in future years for God’s work in your life.
I thank God for your testimony of courage in your life as he gave you strength to walk away from what you knew, sometimes in the face of great opposition, to take hold of the promise that those who come to him will find that what they have left behind pales in comparison to the greatness of knowing him. (Mark 10:29-31) Thank you for sharing your testimonies with me. Thank you for being real about how it’s hard, about how you may fail in your family, but how you continue to hope for him to work in your life and in theirs. I praise God for your faith and perseverance by which I am reminded that he indeed is mighty to save and strong to keep us walking with him.
I know that sometimes, it’s tough or you feel a sense of loss and sadness when you hang out with loving Christian families. It makes sense that you would feel like that, because we live in a broken world and families were created by God in order to display his love and worth. But please know that God didn’t just think of you and your family after everyone else’s. And please, please don’t think it’s because you were less worthy of the gospel– as all of us are equally unworthy and needy. He has had plans for your life since before you were born and had you in mind, in love, choosing you before the foundations of the world to be his own. (Eph. 1:3-6) Don’t forget the way he has shown grace to you and modeled his love to you even through those who did not know him and even before you heard the gospel (Acts 14:17) and know that you were not out of his sight in the years before you knew him. Though those times may have been dark, and he is able to redeem all things– he will not waste even the worst of times.
I am so thankful for your examples of humility in learning to walk in obedience to God and sharing with me how you are continually being shaped and challenged to be conformed to his image. We all need to be continually renewed and changed in our thinking to be more and more like Christ, even those of us who grew up in church. But I understand from your sharing that there is a unique difficulty in having been explicitly taught at home to value and do things that are in direct opposition to the things you now have come to love and value. Don’t lose heart as you work to break certain patterns of thinking that you grew up with before knowing Christ regarding education, family, marriage, children, life, etc. It is a testimony of his Spirit at work in you. You are not only growing in maturity and Christlikeness in a way that pleases the Lord, but will be a blessing for the generations to come. I remember in China, a girl telling me that she believed in God as a child, but once she spoke about it with her mom, was immediately told there was no God. She came to know Jesus in college but shared with me the struggle she has because even though she now believes that God created the world, she has to continually work to fight against the patterns of thought that were drilled into her for the first 18 or so years of her life. I thank God that though there were times of great doubt in my life, believing and knowing God’s presence never felt unnatural to me because of how my parents talked about him to me since I was a child. By his grace, your children will be testing the things you teach and model for them against the word of God as they mature in the faith. They will find things in your parenting inconsistent with the way that God is toward them since he is the only perfect Father and things in your life that require learning and repentance. But they will, because of your obedience to the Lord, find it less difficult than you may be finding it right now to unlearn and relearn and by his grace, as you continue to walk with him, you will be able to say with Paul, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things.” (Phil 4:9a ESV)
Also, don’t lose hope in what he is able to do in your family even now. I have had the privilege not only to see God’s saving work evident moving down the generations, but up one as I clearly remember hearing when my grandmother, and later, grandfather, started going to church. Even within my own family, I have seen God work his redemption in all our relationships and he is still in the process of doing that now. Remember that your task isn’t to be perfect or to be Jesus, but to live out your faith in a way that all may see your progress in the faith. (1 Tim. 4:15-16) He is the one who is perfect and he is the one who does the saving work. Please do not feel like you are being repetitive or burdensome when asking again for prayers for your family members. It is our privilege as your brothers and sisters to pray with you and bear your burdens as our own. Let us pray with you for your family as often as they are on your heart and let us pray for you as you live out the testimony of Christ before them.
A few years ago, when sharing the gospel in Asia, I often was asked whether or not my parents were Christians. When I said yes, the person would often say that it is much easier then for me to believe. At this point, I’d often tell them that my dad was in fact the first believer in his family and that every Christian family has had a first at some point. Someone had to be the first in their family to make that decision to step away from what they knew and take hold of the promises of eternal life and a relationship with God through Christ. Don’t lose heart, dear ones. God has called you to be that “first,” and what he has called you to, there will be grace for. God sees and knows, he has planned this, he has brought you to himself, and he will be with you until the end.
Privileged and thankful to be walking with you,
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with one of my close friends as our daughters played together. As she talked about how her daughter will grow up knowing the gospel in a way that she herself didn’t, and how her daughter will never have the memory of hearing it for the first time, she asked me about my experience of growing up in church. It got me thinking as I reflected on God’s work in my own life and later came across two blog posts, one about not having a dramatic testimony, and one sharing a testimony of a fifth generation Christian.
Here are some thoughts regarding salvation and growing up churched that I’ve had in light of considering myself and now our girls as they grow up in church:
1. Churched-background or not, salvation is about being brought back from the dead.
Being delivered from Satan, sin, and death is anything but average or boring. Having your sins forgiven and being redeemed and made alive is mind-boggling. The idea that anyone’s testimony of blood-bought salvation could be uninteresting or unspectacular is a defamation of the work of Christ…No testimony that involves the Son of God bearing your sins on the cross in order to bring you to God could ever be mundane or boring. (65)
I had the gospel explained to me for the first time I remember when I was around 7 or 8. And though I do have experiences in my life that marked drastic growth in my desire for God and understanding of his gospel, I don’t remember ever not believing in God. When I was younger, I used to wonder if that would mean I wouldn’t ever be passionate about his salvation or as grateful as other people who were more of the “younger son” in the prodigal story. But as I have come to know and continue to grow in knowing God more through the ordinary means of studying and hearing the Scriptures, my sense of awe and gratitude at his saving grace has grown too.
Because I know that I, by nature am a rebel against God, sometimes when I come to understand more deeply how great God is, how sweet his promises are, or how true his word is, I remember that without his intervention in my life to open my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to see any of it– and I am absolutely floored. The outward changes in my life may not seem so dramatic to others, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that without his saving work, I would be blind to his worth and reject his word, and I thank God that by his grace alone I am not and do not.
2. My salvation is much grander in scope than a story about me and my conversion experience.
Michael Horton writes in an article challenging the emphasis on individualistic, one-time, “radical” decisions in thinking about salvation:
So then, to queries concerning our salvation, we ought to reply:
1. When? Before creation, at the cross, in my lifetime, and in the future. Let this replace, “On July 10, 1965, during the eighth verse of ‘Just As I Am,’ when Brother Fred held a revival at our church.”
2. How? By God’s electing grace, redeeming grace, calling, justifying, and sanctifying grace, and by his glorifying grace (Rom.8:29-39). This can take the place of, “By raising my hand, going forward during the altar call, and praying the prayer after Brother Fred.” As John Murray writes, “It is necessary to guard against a wrong use of introspection. It is not by looking within, in the attempt to discover the movements of God’s regenerative grace, that faith is evoked. It is preoccupation with the glories of the Saviour that constrains faith. We do not rest upon that which is done in us, far less upon that which is done by us. Faith does not feed upon the saving experiences that it evokes” (Col.Writ.,vol.2, p.259).
3. Where? In the church, where the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) unite me to Christ and to his people. This is a more biblical response than, “In the privacy of my own heart.”
4. From What? From the guilt and control of our sins in this life, and from the presence of sin in the next. This stands in the place of, “Lack of self-esteem, unhappiness, sickness, etc.”…
5. Why? In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Let this replace, “So I could enjoy the happiness of the victorious Christian life,” or other explanations which have oneself at the center.
My testimony isn’t about a day “I decided to accept Christ.” And it isn’t even about my parents “raising me right” or my church doing a good job. It about the God who is able to bring dead people to life for his glory– of which I am an example. He chose me before I knew him, he worked in me before I could believe, he is continually saving and changing me, and I will be saved on that day when I see him face to face.
3. God is faithful not just to individuals, but to his people.
Michael Horton writes in the same article:
As the apostle Peter assured his audience that the gospel promise was still “for you and for your children,” so too we must challenge any conversionistic evangelism which ignores the covenantal context of conversion.In this way, the anxiety of Christian children about being converted or born again is removed. They are called to deepen their understanding and experience of God and their inheritance with the saints, but they are not to turn inward, searching for that one radical change in their behavior which they brought about one day when they decided to follow Jesus.
And Rachel Jankovic in the blogpost I mentioned at the beginning:
All of us who have faith have it as a gift – and how humbling it is to know that the very fact of your faith, as well as your life, is part of God’s faithfulness to others…My Grandpa Jim gave us all Valentines roses this year, my girls too, and in his very formal but increasingly shaky hand, right before he signed off, he wrote, “You are part of Exodus 20:6, ‘But showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.’”
My faith is a story of faithfulness – the faithfulness of our God. It is a story of God doing what He promised He would do. My life and my faith and my prayers for my children are all part of a beautiful and intricate story of God’s faithfulness to His people.
Today, Jeff asked me what I thought were the 10 most pivotal events of my life. I asked him if I had to answer limited to events that happened within my lifetime. He didn’t let me answer things like God’s choosing us before the foundations of the earth, creation, Christ’s life, death and resurrection, etc. etc., (can you tell I was giving him a hard time?) but allowed for out of those ten events to have happened before my birth. Both his and my first answers went back to when either our parents or great-great- great(?) grandparents first came to know Jesus. God has been faithful to them and we are a testimony of his faithfulness.
4. Boring testimonies are testimonies of his grace in forgiveness of sins as well as in his grace in being kept from sins. God’s grace in keeping us from sin hit me when I first read Augustine’s Confessions. In it, he writes:
Thou hast forgiven me these great and heinous deeds of mine, and hast melted away my sins as they were ice. To Thy grace I ascribe also whatsoever sins I have not committed ; for what might I not have done, who even loved a sin for its own sake? Yea, I confess all to have been forgiven me ; both what evils I committed by my own wilfulness, and what by Thy help I committed not.
The sins I have committed are pardoned because of his mercy and grace. And the sins I have not committed, I was restrained from by his mercy and grace.
How We’re Praying
Jeff and I are praying that even now, God would grant new life to our girls and that it would show in their lives as the fruit of faith in the coming years. We are praying that their testimonies would be a wonderful demonstration of God’s faithfulness to keep his promises to believers in generation past, and of his mercy to grant them new hearts to live in grace– grace to forgive them for and keep them from sin. We are praying that our girls would have a “boring” testimony that they would understand with all their hearts and minds is anything but boring.