Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Truths that have helped in my fight against anxiety

I have written before about my ongoing struggle with anxiety that I have had ever since I was young. Anxiety and worry manifest themselves in my life often in physical symptoms (stomachaches as a child, knots in my stomach, breaking out in itchy hives, pressure on my chest etc.) and are emotionally and mentally taxing. Ultimately though, they are usually rooted in what is going on in my heart on a spiritual and theological level. Anxiety does much not only to reveal my fears, but what I believe about myself, life and God.

Jeff has prayed often for me since before we were married for my anxiety- for the stomachaches, patterns of thought that jump to worst-case scenarios, and inexplicably violent nightmares. And I believe God is answering his prayers and prayers of friends who have come alongside of me and fought for me before the throne of grace. It is a constant battle, but how far I have come is a testimony of the goodness of God.

There have been some truths that have been on the forefront of my mind these last few months that have been helpful in fighting anxiety. Hopefully, they will be a God-graced reminder and help for others like me. Here they are:

1. Most importantly, the argument from the greater to the lesser.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32 ESV)

Much of my anxiety stems from the fact that, like C.S. Lewis wrote, “We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” I wrote about the life-changing truth regarding that fear which God brought home to me two years ago here: The Sign of Jonah.The deep understanding of the love of God demonstrated at the cross for the sake of my redemption at great cost to himself grounds my trust that he will be good to me (even if I don’t feel like it is good) in all the smaller things that make up the rest of my life. This is what I wrote in April of 2011:

During the message, when exhorted to look to the cross, I remembered afresh the Father’s love for me in giving up his Son and Jesus’ love for me in coming to walk this earth, not holding onto his glory but becoming a servant to suffer and die for me. He did all this while I wanted nothing to do with him. He loves me, and I know it not just because the Bible says “God loves you” but because He demonstrated it. The love that he showed, stirs up trust in my heart- I know, like know, through the cross that his affection, intentions, and will toward me are good and loving. He is not just working towards his glory and Christlikeness in my own life, but the way he brings that about is also good and loving because that is who he is. I cannot look to the cross, and then think about God as some cold, distant being who plans my life in a mechanical and “well, it’ll end up good in the end!” way. He loves me at all times, thus I trust that the ends that he plans are not just “good” in some abstract sense, but even the means ordained by him flow out of his eternal, unchanging, everlasting love. That’s why I’m not afraid even though an easy life is not promised to me. That’s why I will trust him even though I know there will be times things don’t make sense in my eyes.

A related illustration that has stuck with me since I heard it a few months ago is one by John Piper that if someone gets you a million dollar present, he is not going to be standing at Walmart trying to decide between $3 and $4 wrapping paper. Christ is ours! Life eternal is ours through the precious blood of Christ! We do not need to think he will be uncaring, unthinking, and harsh about the details of our lives.

2. The argument from the lesser to the greater: Consider the ravens and the lilies!

24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!…27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12, ESV)

A few weeks ago, I was struggling with feeling like the promises of God in Scripture and his help for those in need seemed distant. My life is made up of such small things and the things I am anxious about, though big in my perspective, seem so small compared to the greater suffering, trials, and problems in the world. The promises held out in Scripture felt too huge for me- held out for those in persecution or in grave need because of their great love for God. And so I prayed, and God answered with Luke 12.

There are many truths in this passage that help in fighting anxiety (e.g. 8 reasons here). But the one that the Holy Spirit brought home was this: My life is small, short and fading- God seems in some ways “too big” for the details of my life. But God in his infinite wisdom and love has chosen to clothe flowers and feed sparrows. That means before the beginning of time, he has willed and purposed for each individual blade of grass on my lawn to grow and a means for each bird outside to eat. God is so big, so incomprehensibly powerful, that there is no small thing that escapes his sight and power. And if God has chosen to care for flowers and birds, and he says that I am more important than they, then he will care for me, his child.

3.  Not “what will happen to me”, but “what am I to do right now?”

My mind, if not brought under the rule of God, is constantly creating projections of the future which are almost always comprised of my worst fears. I have the uncanny ability to make a mental jump between Jeff being a bit late coming home and not picking up his cell phone to how I’m going to make a living as a widow. Looking back, these kinds of thought have passed through my head every day for as long as I can tell starting from when I was young being afraid every time my parents were out.  I have lately been asking God to help me rein in my thoughts and the most helpful thing for me has been to change the question that I am asking myself whenever I am anxious.

In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes about a (ficional) demon writing to another newbie demon about how to deal with their “patient” (a person) against the “Enemy” (God). About anxiety, he writes (italics mine):

He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.
Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him-the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.

Nervousness or fear is the body’s response to a situation that demands some kind of response, for example “fight or flight?” It is not necessarily a bad thing and at times, fear brings about a necessary action- like rushing to the sofa because my daughter is about to flip over the edge. In the same way, when we think about things that are potentially worrisome,  God doesn’t call us to just think happy thoughts but respond to them. Sometimes the response will mean taking tangible action, always we are to respond in prayer and thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6-7). But anxiety takes a situation, analyzes it as bad, and just keeps thinking “what will happen to me?” instead of “how am I called to respond right now?” Now, when I start feeling the familiar sense of worry coming on, I try to ask this question so that the alertness and nervousness at the situation are used in the ways that they were ordained to work in bringing me to deeper dependence on God and being an active agent in doing the will of God.

4. I will probably be an “anxious person” my whole life, but this struggle is God’s ordained means to grow my trust in him and be a witness to his grace.

Having my daughter has convinced me of the creativity of God in creating each person uniquely. I see her and I see other children and it’s amazing to see how even now you can see their personalities coming through. Even from when she was a few months old as we got to know her more, we started praying about things she will probably struggle with given her particular make up. My temperament has a lot to do with the particular struggles I have. This is not to be fatalistic, but it gives me comfort to know that, though I pray I will grow in fighting it, I will be prone to anxiety until I see Jesus and that God brings about each struggle for my good and his glory.

I have learned not to see knots in my stomach as a failure on my part, but opportunities to turn to trust in God. When my daughter was a newborn and when I was nursing, the hormones involved caused waves of dread to pass over me unrelated to things I was thinking about or doing. It helped to see each occurrence of this biologically caused dread as a chance to say to God, “I don’t know why this is happening and I don’t like it, but I trust you.” I am coming to see God’s sufficient grace in all this and my being prone to fear and worry as a potential tool in the hands of God as he teaches me to turn to him and trust in his loving kindness and steadfast faithfulness.

God is ever so patient as I fail to trust again and again. He has been faithful to give grace and teach me. And to those who have continually prayed with me through my anxieties, thank you. All I have written here and am still learning is an answer to your prayers.

Truth & Orthodoxy

Contentment’s secret?

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

For a while I have been thinking about this passage and the context of the oft quoted verse “I can do all things through him [God] who strengthens me.” A few months ago, I began to wrestle with Paul’s so-called “secret” to contentment. I wrestled with it because there was a disconnect on two fronts in my mind: 1) how the “I can do all things!” passage is normally used and 2) how the topic of contentment is normally addressed.

When I thought about the way I have heard and I myself have thought about verse 13, I think about athletes or other Christians referring to it in terms of God helping them excel in their work or about people in ministry accomplishing hard things for God. The context for Paul saying that he can do all things through Christ though isn’t about self-empowerment (or even God-empowerment)  when trying to achieve your dreams or even to do great work for God- at least not in the way we think of it. Of course it is true that God is able to do impossible things through people (because he is God!) and is able to bring himself glory by accomplishing spectacular things through feeble people, but that isn’t the context here. Paul isn’t directly talking about feeling discouraged about ministry. he’s talking about contentment.

In the passage, Paul addresses the Philippians about their giving toward his ministry and in it shares to them how he has learned to be content. He refers to the having learned to be content in every situation and the “secret” of facing life whether he has little or much. He isn’t saying that God’s strength will help him change the situation (i.e. he will no longer be in need), but rather that he has learned to be content while being in need- and that secret is that he can do all things through Christ.

Is it just me or does the secret that Paul gives for contentment seem less than relevant or at the least not intuitive? If someone came and talked to me about being discontent in their financial situation or  any other situation (singleness, marriage, church, etc.) and I wanted to encourage them to be content, I wouldn’t immediately think of this verse.  I would think about encouraging them to be grateful and thankful for what they have or warn them against complaining or tell them to trust that God is good and sovereign. The Bible talks about these things in other parts of Scripture and it is so important to have a handle on these truths, so it’s not that I think these things wouldn’t be helpful towards contentment. It’s just that I wouldn’t think to say to this person, “you can do all things through Christ- so even if your circumstances don’t change, you can be content.”

Two things that I have been meditating on as if late in terms of the connection between contentment and doing all things through Christ: The first is that by his power and with the strength that he gives, I am able to be content. His supernatural power is what enables us to be content even when we are in need. Contentment is not a natural state of our sinful hearts- comparison, covetousness, greed, jealousy are. But in the new heart, born of God, contentment is possible through the power of God.

The second thing I have been seeing, and what has been helpful for me lately, is recognizing one of my common responses in circumstances when I feel I am in need. (This isn’t exactly the same as Paul though, who talking about facing real physical needs- like for food!) Still, in my own smaller sets of trials, I find in my thoughts and even in my prayers that I start saying “God, I CANNOT do this.” This “God, I can’t!” isn’t the humble-recognition-of-my-need-for-God kind of prayer, it’s more like the “God, why would you put me in this situation. I cannot stand it and I am not going to make it through this- so change things to be how I feel they should be!” type prayers. Sometimes even though I know all that Scripture says about God’s purposes accomplished through trial and suffering, it’s not that I doubt God’s final goal, but whether or not I’ll make it.  I have been catching myself responding this way to various frustrating and trying circumstances, but by his grace I have felt God slowly changing my heart.

In light of Philippians 4, instead of going into this mode of discontentment, I am learning to trust in God who supplies strength to endure. This passage shows that God’s people are not exempt from trials, suffering, or even being in great need. God can choose to deliver healing and bring revival and completely change everything at once- he has in Scripture and in our lives, and he is good to do so. God can also choose to allow us to- though for a short time only, since the suffering of our whole lives are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory- continue on in the path of trial and suffering. There are plenty of godly people in Scripture who walked this road, and most importantly, our forerunner the Son of God did too. In these trials, God is accomplishing his eternal purposes in the world and in us. And in these trials, he has promised that in Christ, we can persevere.

I can and do still pray for God to provide and for God to change circumstances, people, etc. But when he doesn’t choose (or hasn’t yet chosen) to deliver in the way I am longing for, I am learning to trust that he will provide strength enough for each day. I am hoping to, with his strength, rest content in his promise that in all the circumstances that he allows for my sanctification and his glory, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Church & Ministry

When You Don’t Feel Like Getting Up For Church…

Last week was a long week. There was no one major thing that “got me”, it was just a bunch of smaller things in ministry, family, and day-to-day life that built up to the point where, alone at home with the baby, I sat on the floor of the dining room holding a spoonful of food that she didn’t want to eat, praying “God, I can’t do this.” I think that was Saturday night, so it’s no surprise that when I woke up the next morning feeling tired and with the thought that maybe I should just tell Jeff that I needed to stay in from church that day. I ended up tweeting this before Sunday service:

Some people were concerned (thanks for thinking of me!) But my intention of tweeting that was 1. to be honest and 2. more than that, to hopefully be an encouragement to anyone else who might wake up feeling the same way and happen to check their Twitter/Facebook.

God has been shaping my view of worship and Sabbath the past few years, and by his grace, on Sunday the very fact that I was so drained and needy- the fact that I didn’t want to go to church actually made me look forward to going.

I’ve grown up thinking and hearing different things about Sunday worship and Sabbath.

  • It was routine or about seeing friends. When I was young, it was just a given and part of our week. I generally looked forward to seeing my friends at church although at times it was a bummer that I only had Saturday to sleep in.
  • Sabbath was about not going to work. I heard different rules about Sabbath and not working so that you could show that you trusted God to provide financially even though you didn’t go to your job.
  • Sunday service was about “putting God first”. In college, when it was my choice to go to church, Sunday service was about the discipline of choosing to go worship God instead of sleeping in when no one was there to force me to go.
  • It was about “getting something out of” the sermon. Later, when God continued to grow me, it became about what I could learn from the sermon or hear from God during the message.
  • Going to church on Sunday was about serving. I’ve heard people say “go to church to give not to get something.” At times it felt like I couldn’t breathe spiritually and I still went because it was part of my service to people and commitment.

Not that there is anything wrong about routine, seeing people you love, trusting God with your work, prioritizing, learning something new, or being committed in service but this was way short of the way Sabbath is portrayed in Scripture. It’s no wonder though that with these thoughts about what Sabbath is supposed to be, sometimes when I’d wake up Sunday morning it felt like burdensome duty or even an optional activity (why not listen to a sermon online from a famous pastor?)

In the last two years, God has been growing me in how I see Sabbath and what it means to meet with God’s people for worship. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Sabbath is a mini-rest for pilgrims heading toward our final heavenly rest.

Sabbath in Scripture is not just about not working to reflect how God didn’t work on the seventh day. It is meant to be a reminder and glimpse of what will happen when we finish our work here on earth and enter into the rest of God. The Sabbath is a gift from God meant to point to the final (eschatological) rest in the presence of God that we will have when we finish our course here on earth. (Hebrews 4:4-9)

Right now, as Christians we have the promises and presence of God but still live in the “not-yet.” In our lives and in the world we still experience brokenness, turmoil, and sin. Throughout the week as we are scattered in various places, we experience those things to different degrees. When we meet together, we remember that it’s not always going to be like this. We taste in our worship and fellowship together the joy, peace, comfort, healing, love that will be fully known when Jesus comes again. When we listen to the truth of Scripture with people who love God, it is rest for our souls after being bombarded constantly by different world views, sorting through lies about God and life, fighting our own flesh, etc.

2. Sabbath with God’s people reorients my heart toward Home. We were made to worship God and enjoy him forever. When I worship with God’s people, I get a glimpse of what eternity will be like. I am refreshed and hopeful as my sights are set again on my purpose and destination. When we experience a bit of God’s presence, the sweetness of worshipping him, the life-giving truth in his word, the grace in the gospel- it gives us a taste of our final Home, stirs our longing for the day when we will be with him forever, and we are encouraged to press on. Things that I have been consumed with during the week take their proper place in my thoughts and perspective when we worship our unchanging, eternal, holy God.

3. We come into worship desperate, needy, and bankrupt.  Church service not about “coming to give and not to get.” We come into Sunday having failed as children, sisters, parents, and Christians. Our hope is in the promise of grace held out to us at the cross. We need Jesus. If I feel weary, not good enough, on the brink of giving up, God welcomes me.

Pastor John Piper has a great message about worship and responds to the skewed theology of pastors who say that the problem with their people is that they “get and not to give.”  Our need and thirst for God honors and delights him when we turn to him. Pastor Piper said in his message:

I say to my people “You don’t have anything to bring to this service! You come in here dead! You come in here discouraged!…bankrupt!…empty! And maybe if you’re  empty enough, God might get some glory from you by your craving his fullness. If you come here craving, longing, desiring, knowing this one thing ‘Everything in the world failed to satisfy my soul. I’m going to church this morning because I just might drink from the fountain of living water and have my soul satisfied.'” That’s the kind of people I want to come and that’s the kind of service that will explode with life. It’s thirsty people, it’s hungry people, it’s needy people who come to worship.    (The Heart of Worship– John Piper)

These points are by no means a complete theology of Sabbath, but were part of what motivated my tweet Sunday morning. If I feel weary, not good enough, on the brink of giving up, I need  to Sabbath and God welcomes me.

I never understood the stern warnings against neglecting to meet with the people of God until I started to see that worship with God’s people is so much more than about choosing to be disciplined, being committed, trusting God about finances, or even growing spiritually. It’s an issue of choosing life and absolutely essential for my soulSo while I may not wake up this coming Sunday wide-eyed, perky, and excited, I look forward to joining with other weary and worn travelers before a God who knows our needs and is gracious to command our rest as we journey home.

Truth & Orthodoxy

God’s Forever King

I finished 1 & 2 Kings not too long ago and now I’m making my way through the prophets. I thought I’d share briefly the blessings I am gleaning from these books and was going to write about the kings and prophets in this post, but it looks like I’ll only have room for the first for now. I’ll post reflections on the prophetic books and what I’m learning in future posts!

It has always been difficult for me to read through the historical books in the Bible because I have had an aversion to history in general. When I read anything, I skim over dates and names of people and places. I can read a whole book or watch a movie and not know the name of the main character! This makes it really really hard to study history, which to me, has always felt like an endless list of names, dates and places. It’s also hard because as much as I know it’s important to know history for the present, it often times seems really irrelevant to me. I’ve read through these books of the Bible before, but since each kingship seems so repetitive, it’s really hard to make it through since I don’t even remember their names! Besides gleaning a few principles here and there about how to live (or not to live) the history of Israel and Judah’s Kings never really caught my heart in a deep way until this time around.

This has been my first time making it through these books since studying at WTS and sitting under Jeff’s preaching in Staten Island, and it was so different for me reading this time. First of all, when I expressed my frustration when I started reading about the kings again and feeling like, “I don’t get why I need to know this!” Jeff pointed out to me that sometimes it’s hard for us to relate to the history of Israel because we don’t know what it’s like to live in war or under kings. With that in mind I tried to get myself more in the shoes of the original reader. I also repented of my prideful frustration and kept on thinking about 1 Timothy 3:16, reading in faith that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. Secondly, I read it all in light of Jesus and the Gospel.

As I read through the accounts of the Kings, I found myself longing with the Israelites for the King. I remember I used to read through the rules of the kings, wishing there was someone in there that wouldn’t mess up. (Semi-embarrassing confession: Even before I was married, I kind of was looking for a good boy’s name in the Bible among the kings and so I was looking for a king that started and ended well…for possible yet-to-be children..) As I read a few months ago, I began to see more of the consequences of each king’s life on the people, and how having a good king and reign meant safety and prosperity for the people spiritually and physically. Their lives were tied into the rule of their king- his righteousness, his judgments, his fear (or lack of fear) of God. I started to understand how much of the people’s lives were shaped by  who their king was and the consequences of his sins were often devastating. Yet each king disappointed and even the righteous ones could not usher in complete safety, peace, restoration, and prosperity. I felt in my own heart the longing for the King who would be like David- but even better. In my daughter’s children’s Bible, they call him “God’s Forever King”- the Messiah who would be revealed in the fullness of time to be Jesus Christ.

Through it all, I grew in my love for and hope in King Jesus who has, is, and will be ushering in the Kingdom of God. He is the God-man who descended to the lower regions of the earth (Eph. 4:9), died, rose again, and was lifted up to the highest place above all rule, authority, power and dominion (Eph.1:21). He is the risen, reigning King and will come again to establish the new heavens and new earth. He is the only king who commands and deserves my complete trust and only under his reign do I find rest on every side. In his Kingdom there is justice, restoration, and everlasting peace. His rule is the one we long for and eagerly await. His reign in the lives of his church and children means true peace, prosperity, and restoration even in the midst of the suffering and brokenness we live in until he comes again. Daily I am and for the rest of my life I will be plumbing the depths of the joy it is to be a daughter and servant in his Kingdom. 

Church & Ministry, Taking Heart

Not Going At It Alone

Third year of college, Janice (best friend & apartmentmate) and I had the same class together that we always procrastinated for. The discussion section was in the morning and there’d be assignments due then. We normally finished those assignments and printed them out with just enough time to rush to class, but if we were late even 2 minutes, points would be taken off our section grade. One time, we cut it too close and had way less time than it normally took to get to class (for you Cornellians: 10+ minutes to get from our apt in Collegetown to our classroom on the 2nd floor/back of Kennedy Hall). I remember us trying to rush to class (uphill all the way btw!) and me stopping running just a quarter of the way through (again, for Cornellians, by the time I was the Engineering Quad, I was done. Haha.) I really don’t like running and was/am out of shape. And so [cue dramatic movie music] I stop running and start waving Janice to go ahead, saying “Janice!! Go on! Go on without me!” Janice, being the good friend that she is, was like “No! Come on! Let’s keep going!!” We made it to our section in RECORD time, no joke, and didn’t lose any points! Yay!

Great story, yeah? Haha. I was reminded of it this week because I’ve been reading Hebrews. Two days ago, as I read Hebrews 13 about running with endurance, not being discouraged as God disciplines us, etc., the call to persevere and endure in faith through suffering weighed heavily on me as I read. For some reason, as I read it just felt so…impossible. Of course, I know it’s impossible to heed the call to persevere in faith without Jesus Christ, our great high priest. He is the one that makes following him possible. But, as I read it, it still felt so heavy, almost an impossible burden.

A few hours later, I got a phone call from a sister in Christ who I don’t get to see or interact with often, but is like a kindred spirit to me. She was just driving and thought to call, and as we caught up, I was so encouraged. In her honest sharing, I saw the reality of the struggles and trials she was going through, but at the same time, as she shared, I felt like my soul was being refreshed. It was refreshing not because of her honesty in and of itself, but how in it, I could see her heart’s desire to trust and see God in it all. Not in a forced “yeah, yeah, God is still in control I know…” or “oh, I’m TOTALLY fine and everything is great because it will be okay in the end!” way, but in a way that flowed genuinely and naturally from the heart of a daughter of God- the way that quiet strength and faith shines forth in weakness. As we finished talking and started praying together, the Holy Spirit showed me what I’d been missing as I’d read through Hebrews.

 

I was reading Hebrews as if it was only written to me and as if I were living the Christian life alone. Of course, I know it wasn’t originally and only written for me, but I had forgotten that it was written to a community of believers and that I was also called to live in community. All of a sudden, so many of the exhortations in Hebrews started hitting me at a heart level:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:12-14)

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV)

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:15-16)

It’s so natural for me to read Scripture and think about life or the Christian walk from an individualistic point of view, but I’m so thankful that the reality is, I’m not called to walk alone. I am running this race with my husband, with my family, with other brothers and sisters in Christ. With this thought, the feeling of the burden in following and enduring has lifted up, and I look forward to pressing on and exhorting others to continue on as well. Though still imperfect and in the middle of our own sanctification, we encourage one another to keep looking to Jesus when it feels like it’s impossible to do so on our own. My heart fills with joy at this truth. What a great privilege and what a great calling.