Truth & Orthodoxy

The Common, Hard Things

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“You’re so proud.”

Such were the insightful words of a dear, straightforward friend after I shared about my time in prayer. More specifically, I told her that I had told God, “My heart hurts…a little.” It was pretty big for me to admit out loud, to God and to another person, about my heartache. But she was referring to my attempt to play down what actually had hurt quite a lot. I laughed because she was right, and more than 10 years later, I’m thinking again about what she said.

Ever since I was a kid, I prided myself in not making a big deal out of things my peers did. I probably thought of myself as more mature, saving my sympathy for things I thought were real problems, not boy or friend drama. There were so many people going through worse things, how could my friends or I complain about our lives? I don’t know what it was that made me start comparing people’s difficulties so early on. Certainly pride was a factor, though I think not the whole reason.

Part of comparing people’s suffering had to do with trying to make sense of the world. As a child, I was moved by reports of famine abroad or serious illness closer to home. I didn’t know how to reconcile such terrible suffering with less horribly difficult things, and I didn’t think I should make a big deal out of my relatively easy life. I knew God was involved in our day-to-day, but I couldn’t see him as sympathizing with our daily burdens. Not when there were so many others who suffered more. Not when he himself already had gone through so much for our salvation.

The moment more than 10 years ago when I admitted that my heart was hurting (albeit, toned down with “a little”) signified a breakthrough for me in learning to come to God with suffering that in my mind was insignificant but felt hard nonetheless. As I started to give God just a little leeway into my hurt, he broke through in compassion with words Jesus spoke at the famous feeding of the four thousand.

The story goes like this. After days of ministering to the crowds, healing the lame, blind, crippled, and mute, Jesus approaches his disciples about getting food for the people. The disciples protest the impossibility of this task, and Jesus performs a miracle, feeding four thousand plus with seven baskets of leftovers to spare. I had known this story since I was a child, but for the first time, I noticed Jesus’ motivation for multiplying the bread and fish.

“I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” (Matthew 15:32 ESV)

Jesus, who’d fasted for forty days early in his ministry, was concerned about a crowd who hadn’t eaten for three. He didn’t compare his capacity and trial to theirs. He knew some of them would not be able to handle the journey home, and in his kindness, was unwilling to send them away empty. He didn’t say, “I’m doing important things like healing blindness and sickness, bringing about God’s kingdom. You find food on your own.” He didn’t harshly rebuke them, “I didn’t eat for forty, you should be able to survive three.” He had compassion on them, the Scripture says. In the same way, he has compassion on us.

A few weeks ago, I told a friend how tired and unmotivated I’d been feeling. I wouldn’t have minded the fatigue if my mind were sharper and soul healthier. If I were out of commission physically, at least I could be getting some reading or prayer in. But I was reminded again that try as I may to separate the parts, I am an embodied soul, and my body, mind, and spirit are interconnected in complicated ways. My lack of productivity, both outwardly and inwardly, contributed to low-level guilt. I was also tired and cranky. And I was frustrated that I was being knocked out by something so common— a healthy first-trimester of pregnancy.

Then she spoke words I believed were from God to my heart. “Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not hard.” (Thank God for kind friends who speak truth!)

So I have been thinking again of the gift of approaching God with our common, hard things, and want to share some of what I’ve been learning.

Common, hard things remind us of God’s infinite mercy and power.

If God were finite, he’d need to split his time, attention, and power accordingly between global crises and individual personal requests. The news cycle and “compassion fatigue” reveal our limited human capacity to care, much less act, in response to the suffering we witness in the world. Oftentimes we assume that God is like us, triaging the needs of billions and prioritizing the urgent ones first.

Some people think going to God with the small things in our lives belittles him, making him small in our own eyes. This is true if we only ever go to him with our own wants and needs. But our heavenly Father is big enough to handle both requests for his kingdom to come and for our daily bread. He is powerful enough to shoulder our troubles and the burdens of the rest of the world day in and day out.

I’ve heard people say they don’t pray because there are so many other important problems in the world for God to tend to. I know what that feels like. Often, God provides in small ways that matter to me, and as I’m thanking him, I am embarrassed that he answers my “dumb prayers.” I’ve been trying to stop calling them “dumb” and instead think of them them as “sparrow” requests, granted by God who cares for lowly sparrows and numbers the hairs on my head (Matthew 10:29-31).

Because God is infinitely powerful, no burdens are too heavy for him. Because he is infinitely merciful, none insignificant. He knows our frame, knows when there are things that will leave us too faint to walk home, and is willing and able to provide the bread and fish we need. Learning to come to him with our common, hard things reminds us of the greatness of his compassion and the limitless of his power.

Common, hard things deepen our sympathy for others.

There are trials we all recognize as legitimate suffering— serious illness, death of a loved one, persecution, and the like. But it’s harder to minister to people when they are not as strong as we are, not “getting over” things as quickly as we would, not enduring with attitudes we think they should have. We grow impatient with such sufferers. The problem with having a measuring chart that relativizes our suffering is that it hinders us from ministering to those whose trials are deemed less difficult. Thankfully, Jesus is not like us.

Jesus endured all we face: loneliness, rejection, temptation, pain, loss, tiredness, and more. He knows all of it, from Everest-sized suffering to pebble-in-shoe trials. Yet he doesn’t wait for us to approach him with our problems only to respond, “I endured. Why can’t you?” Rather, because he was tempted in every way as we are, our High Priest mercifully sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).

Likewise, as we learn to admit to God that the common trials in our lives are hard, we no longer see ourself as better than others who suffer. And as we receive comfort from him in our trails, we are able to comfort others with his divine comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Common, hard things humble us so we can receive grace and give him glory.

Marriage and parenting are God-given mirrors, revealing to ourself our true selves. Since becoming a parent, I’ve seen how impatient, unmerciful, unkind, and all-around nasty I can be. But the most humbling thing for me hasn’t been merely seeing how sinful I am. The most humbling thing has been realizing how I’ve pridefully judged others who I thought were impatient, unmerciful, unkind, and all-around nasty. If my trials were uncommon and suffering extreme, I may find a way to excuse myself. But being put through the daily, common grind and temptations others face— and failing. That has been humbling.

The common, hard things in my life have been used by God to surface pride in the ability to resist temptations I thought myself above. I didn’t think I’d be the mom with the kid screaming in the store, caring more about my image than my child. Until first trimester of this pregnancy, I didn’t understand the temptation to distract myself with entertainment on my smartphone. I didn’t think my ability to be reasonable and patient was so rooted in my good health until facing constant fatigued and nausea. And I didn’t think there was so much pride and judgment sinisterly lurking in my heart.

1 Peter 5:5 says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (ESV). It is scary to think about being opposed by God. But the child of God has great comfort in knowing our Father works to humble his children. He disciplines us not just for the sake of putting us in our place, but that he may give us grace: grace in forgiveness, grace in his provision for our needs. And as we receive his grace, he receives all the glory.

When we don’t think we need him in our day-to-day, common, hard things, we miss the gift of his nearness, care, and forgiveness. When I push through ministry, family, friendship, and pregnancy on my own strength, I miss out on a chance to receive the grace of God and display his power being made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I miss out on the opportunity to show those around me that anything good in me comes not from me, but from Christ.

Our infinite God joyfully welcomes not only his strongest saints, but lovingly carries the weakest of his fold. So I’m hoping to learn to come to him more readily with my feeble heart, mind, and body. I am hoping that together we’d receive help to endure things we feel only ought to hurt “a little” and that we’d help others do the same. All so that ultimately we’d be witnesses to the boundless compassion and power our loving Heavenly Father.

Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

A Better Vantage Point

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Jeff and I attended a pastors and spouses retreat this week. All the costs were completely covered– it was a generous gift from God through the retreat center. My parents took care of the kids for a few days, and we had a good time with other couples in ministry. We ate and rested well.

During the retreat, we decided to hike up the mountain on the property. It was the perfect combination of strenuous enough to be interesting and short enough to be survivable (for me). We talked and caught up as we followed the trail one mile up, comparing heart rates on our watches for fun and asking Siri about our elevation every now and again.

At one point, the trail seemed to end abruptly by a small waterfall. The next tree markings were visible only after we climbed up a set of large wet rocks streaming with water from the overflowing fall. Here, it looked as if part of the mountain had been plowed through, and I stopped to wonder aloud at how the massive rocks came to rest the way they did. The Ice Age was Jeff’s guess, and though we weren’t sure about the geology, it wasn’t hard to imagine a glacier moving through the mountain to expose bare rock, leaving huge stones in its wake and paving a miniature gorge for the waterfall and stream.

Soon, we arrived at a small lookout and were taking in the nice, though not exceptional, partial view, when another couple hiking down toward us pointed to a wooden cross 30 yards away marking the actual overlook. We made our way over and as we reached the rock ledge, trees by the trail gave way to a clearing with a stunning, 180 degree panoramic view.

Close to us by our left, about 300 feet below, we saw the retreat center buildings. In the far distance, 20 miles out, mountains filled the horizon. A set of almost indiscernible white lines on the base of one, we identified as a ski resort. A slight break and dip in the ranges toward our 2 o’clock, the Delaware Water Gap. Between us and the mountains, a valley of smaller, rolling hills covered with leafless trees and scattered patches of evergreens. At almost 2000 feet elevation, the view was so far and wide, I was dizzy from disorientation. “We’re not used to seeing this far out,” Jeff said.

The next day, back in our room, we talked and prayed about ministry and heavy things on our hearts. And as we prayed, I thought again of the huge rock formation on our hike and whatever had left it behind. I thought of how there is only One who knows how they came to be not only because he directs all things, but because he was there as witness to its history. And in view of God’s eternity, I was comforted.

I remember being fresh out of college and talking to older people who seemed to throw around years when they spoke. As a student and in your twenties, thinking about next semester is thinking about the future, and waiting one or two years for anything feels unbearable. We wrestled with questions regarding God’s will, which often meant knowing what to do the coming summer or next year, or maybe plans for after graduation. But these elders, who in retrospect were probably not too much older than me now, tossed about decades like semesters. In a few sentences, they’d talk about spending ten years in this country, then seven years in that one, now going on four here. Because of their age, their view of time was different than mine. Their perspective, unsurprisingly, meant when they spoke about the future, they were was less anxious, less urgent, less impatient.

Though I am now old enough to need to recalculate my age every time my daughters ask and I can’t recall off the top of my head how long I’ve been back in Staten Island, I’m still young. Young enough to give into anxiety about the near future, to be utilitarian in my decisions— wanting visible, guaranteed results to think something is worth my time. I get restless in the mundane and give up too easily when prayers are not yet answered. I feel worried when God doesn’t meet me experientially in the few hours I set aside to be in prayer and the Scriptures. I wonder if I’m missing his voice if I don’t hear from him this very instant and I get frazzled over hiccups in plans for family or ministry.

But, God. From the beginning, through the ages, thousands of years from now, he was and is and will be. In my restless, anxious toil, meditating on God’s eternal nature is often the force behind the seismic perspective shift I need.

When longing for swift deliverance, Christians are exhorted to remember that our view of slowness is not his. That though ten years may sound like a hundred to us, to him a thousand are as a day. That his purposes for our suffering go far beyond our years and through unsearchable paths into eternity.

When discouraged about the slowness of his Kingdom’s advancement in ourselves, our families, and our churches, we look to the God of ages past whose view of slowness is not the same as ours.  We remember that, “He has moved like rapids — quickly and vivaciously — and startling to see. But the Spirit also moves like a glacier — subtly and cumulatively — and sometimes so imperceptibly that the believer might be unaware of his work.” It may seem slow from my vantage point, but his movement through history is steady, unimaginably powerful, unstoppable.

God’s eternal view of time directly speaks against my need for fast answers, quick fixes, and instant results. He is not working on my timeline– and his eternity is good news for me. As a parent, my discipline is unkind when I feel the pressure of time and am unsure of the future. I begin to demand immediate perfection from my children, correcting in fear, not faith and love. God though, does not panic at the passing of time, nor does he resort to flustered last ditch efforts in his dealings with me. His eternity means patience with his impatient children.

Sometimes, in his goodness, God gives us glimpses of his good purposes, lookouts if you will over a few years of our lives. At the retreat, Jeff and I were placed in the same room we had been in two summers ago. We’d gone with our church and I was barely surviving. As I surveyed the room this visit, I could still see the set up we had then– the girls on one bed, the pack-and-plays side-by-side for our foster boys, and just enough floor space to walk from the entrance to the bathroom. I remembered not being able to sleep, being anxious about sick kids, and feeling upset toward God about both.

The days felt so long back then, so it surprised me how two years could fly by and find us at the same location but in such a different place. The boys are with another family and we welcomed our now almost 18 month old since then. There have been new beginnings in writing, headway made in homeschooling, lessons learned in life and ministry.

But there is still all I have been slow to learn, prayers God has yet to answer. I see recurring requests and repeated struggles thematically spanning years through the pages of my journals. There are new unknowns my mind fills with threatening futures. We all carry sadnesses yet to be healed, questions yet to be answered. There are long walks through the valleys of the shadow of death still to come.

So we look at our everlasting Rock (Is. 26:4).  One day, we will ascend the heights, having received the eternal weight of glory, to where our deepest sorrows will seem “light and momentary” and the longest seasons of darkness, “a little while” (2 Cor. 4:17, 1 Pet. 1:6).  Until then, we trust our eternal God has a view of our lives so complete, and from there his purposes so spectacular, we would be dizzied by its vastness and beauty if given a peek.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

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

Being In The Waiting & Room For Sorrow

Christianity is often portrayed as unable to withstand the weight of reality, and I understand why some people would feel that way. As a younger person, I had a passion to share with others my conviction that the Bible and the Christian faith can more than take on our intellectual doubts. Having had my fair share of questions, I deeply desired for others to feel free to ask questions without thinking that Christians believe use of the mind is antithetical to faith. I still believe that the church should be a safe place to bring our questions about God, but these days, I am experiencing a deepening of another conviction about Christianity and how it relates to reality. Namely, that not only can the Scriptures withstand our intellectual questioning, but that the vision of God and life laid out in it withstands the full range of human experiences, especially suffering.

There are many wrong ways to think about suffering and trial. We may expect that as Christians, we won’t face difficulties because we are children of God, not realizing that Scripture says he disciplines those he loves and that we are meant to receive difficulty as his discipline for our holiness (Heb. 13). We may think of trials as punishment from him, not knowing that the Scriptures say there is no longer any wrath left for those of us who are in Christ (Rom. 8). We may see suffering as meaningless rather than purposefully given to us from a loving Father for our good (Ja. 1, Rom. 5). Or we may not realize that God may be purposing to comfort others even as we suffer and receive his comfort. (2 Cor. 1) We may miss the richness of God’s purposes accomplished through our difficulty in a myriad of ways, so I am grateful for the way that God has been forming my understanding of suffering through theologically sound preachers, teachers, and books.

Lately though, I am finding that as I’ve grown in the knowledge of these rich truths about God’s purpose in our suffering, I have often failed to grasp the full picture given in Scripture and thus erred in the application of some of these truths in my life. Slowly, I have begun to think that since I know these things, my experiences shouldn’t feel as hard and I tend to try to think of hardships clinically and analytically. There has slipped in the subtle wrong view that an understanding of the joyful and glorious final purpose of God in and through our sorrows means I ought not to so sorrowful, and there is a temptation to push through in my own strength.

God is showing me these days through the Scriptures that oftentimes he doesn’t expect or ask me to respond in the way I may feel I ought to. I am experiencing that as one who is struggling, I find good company in the stories and poetry of Scripture, and that there are deeper measures of comfort in it than I had previously thought.
Continue reading “Being In The Waiting & Room For Sorrow”

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.