With weak prayers and little faith,
with a broken and divided heart,
I draw near to you,
knowing that you, though gentle and kind,
will not suffer sin to persist
in your presence.
I’m not sure God means for us to take advantage of every opportunity presented to us. True, he gives us good gifts and leads us in restful places. I don’t believe he enjoys seeing us suffer. But we know from Scripture that following Jesus means denying ourselves and embracing a more difficult road than we might otherwise walk. Self-denial will require us to say “no” to some things. So how do we know when to say “no”?
In part, discernment is a process of surrender and submission to the Lord. As we present our bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, we choose “not [to] be conformed to this world” but choose instead to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” (Romans 12:1-2). We discern through testing, evaluating our options in light of our renewed understanding. And this process is ongoing. We deny ourselves daily, submit to the Lord daily, seek to be renewed daily, and discern the will of God daily.
I’m no expert in this process. I’m still learning, still practicing, still failing often. But along the way, I’m learning some signs that help me determine when I need to say “no” to something. Below are two that I’ve noticed in my own journey recently.
First, I’ve noticed that when I’m wrestling internally with a decision or am trying to rationalize a decision, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m considering. I draw this in part from Romans 14:23: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If I have doubts about something, I need to be very cautious about pressing forward. In some cases, I need to spend some more time praying and discerning before making the decision. Often, though, I already know I need to say “no,” but I recognize that doing so is a denial of self I don’t want to make. When I’m wrestling with uneasiness about something I want to do, or when I try to justify why the choice isn’t a bad choice to make, I probably need to say “no” and surrender my desires to the Lord.
Second, I’ve noticed that when I’m avoiding accountability or running from the Lord, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m chasing. I draw this in part from James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The restlessness that makes me want to run is a sign I’m not doing something the Lord wants me to do. I’m failing to rest in the Lord, failing to trust the Lord, failing to obey the Lord. The lack of peace I feel in such times is a red flag. Peace with God is a big deal for me. If I feel like I’m off, even in the slightest, I’ve learned to be extremely cautious about moving forward with a decision and to evaluate my heart before the Father.
I’m not always good at discerning the way forward. I second-guess myself often, doubt my decisions, question possibilities. Lately, I’ve felt more distress than peace, and I’m still trying to figure out why that is. But I’m learning to walk, step by step, in greater faith and obedience. I want to be faithful, even when faithfulness means saying “no” to my desires. And to that end, I’m trying to be more sensitive to the Spirit and more attentive to these signs, all for his glory and my good.
Some things are lost never to be recovered.
Some absences are gifts shrouded in grief.
Apart from pain, some truths stay undiscovered.
Some losses point the way to true relief.
But future glory does not make less real
The sufferings we meet from day to day.
Christ does not minimize the pain we feel;
Christ knows it best and shows there is a way
For loss to pave the road to greater gain,
For suffering to serve a holy end.
We mourn in hope, for nothing is in vain
In service to the ever-faithful friend.
Count it all joy no matter what you face.
Feel deep the loss, then rest in perfect grace.
Paul tells the church to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In some circumstances, giving thanks is easy. When things go our way, when we receive unexpected blessings, when our hearts are full, we can find ourselves overflowing with gratitude. We recognize the goodness of God, and we rejoice.
In other circumstances, however, giving thanks is difficult. When things don’t go our way, when we face unexpected losses, when our hearts are breaking, we can find ourselves struggling to give thanks. The goodness of God is more difficult to see, and we grieve.
So how do we “give thanks in all circumstances”? How can we respond to difficulty with gratitude?
We can give thanks in all circumstances because God’s goodness remains constant in spite of our changing circumstances. Job understood this, responding to loss with worship (Job 1:20-21). Grief and mourning may be appropriate at times. They often are in this life. Yet even in the most bitter of trials, we can give thanks because our God reigns over all things. He causes all things to work together for good (Romans 8:28). Nothing we face surprises the Lord. Nothing lies outside of his power to redeem. We can give thanks in all circumstances because he remains steadfast and faithful always.
This Thanksgiving, life may be good. All may be well. In that case, give thanks. But if life is difficult, if all is not well, and if God’s goodness is hard to see, give thanks. Trust him, for he is trustworthy. And he is always good.
C. S. Lewis once wrote of the way stories might be able to convey truth and foster emotion more effectively than commands and imperatives could (see his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” in the book On Stories). He understood the way we often let our guard down when enjoying stories and are thus more open to consider ideas than when they’re presented to us as teachings requiring our affirmation.
We can likely think of good examples of such an approach if we consider our favorite shows from childhood. Sesame Street, The Magic School Bus, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Schoolhouse Rock each demonstrate creative ways to teach kids important information. By attaching a lesson to a song or a game, the creators of these shows managed to make learning fun for students. And the lessons stuck. We likely can still hum certain songs or can recall certain facts picked up from these shows. Of course, we can all likely think of bad examples as well. Sometimes the lesson gets lost in the story. Sometimes the story suffers because the lesson is too strongly introduced. Lewis understood the importance of a healthy mix of the two. Still, Lewis’s point stands: a story may be able to reach you with an idea you might never consider otherwise.
I think this truth is one reason stories are so important. While stories entertain, I’m not convinced that’s their only function. They also introduce us to new ideas, different perspectives, and opposing worldviews. They lead us to question our assumptions, to pursue further understanding, and to grow in knowledge. And these are good things. But we need to consider how we engage stories. Whether you read novels or comic books, watch tv shows or movies, or play tabletop games or video games, you’re engaging in stories at every turn. How are you engaging?
Some may recommend avoiding stories that don’t fit your worldview, but I’m not sure that’s wise. Part of Jesus’s commission to his followers is to go into all the world, to engage all peoples with the gospel message. That’s going to involve interacting with people from a multitude of worldviews, perspectives, assumptions, biases, and ethical frameworks. While we dare not uncritically embrace every differing position we encounter (we dare not uncritically embrace every one of our own assumptions either), neither should we enter the world ignorant. Paul seems to embrace such an approach in his description of becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He doesn’t trade his faith or morality in his pursuit of kingdom work, but neither does he allow his own cultural preferences or comforts to keep him from engaging someone who needs Jesus. He focuses on the most important thing and adjusts to the context of his audience in order to convey better the most important of stories.
I suggest engaging stories with wisdom. Doing so means we’ll want a healthy dose of perspective, seeking out voices that differ from and disagree with our own. But doing so doesn’t mean we’ll accept every message wholesale. Rather, we will listen to stories to learn and to understand. We’ll listen for the hurts and the hopes of the storyteller, for the ideals and the desires of their hearts. And we’ll consider their stories in light of the gospel, looking for where they ring true and where they fall short. As we do, we will not only better understand the world we’re called to reach, but we’ll better know how to lead them to Jesus. We’ll see how Christ offers hope to the hopeless, life to the dead, purpose to the purposeless, comfort for the sorrowful, and rest for the weary. As we hear the stories told around the world, we’ll hear expressions of great need, and we’ll know that our needs are ultimately met in Christ.
As we grow in our relationship with Christ, we can better determine what is of him and what isn’t, allowing us to engage the stories of this world with an ear for the echoes of the greatest story. And as we hear its echoes and whispers in the stories surrounding us, we can find ways to highlight those themes and to point to their source in the story of God. After all, we’re all following more stories these days anyway, right? Whether it’s the newest season of The Mandalorian or an early season of The Office, we’re joining the current of culture as we follow these stories, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So this week, as you watch a show or read a book or listen to a podcast, consider the worldviews, the assumptions, and the arguments being conveyed. Seek to understand the storyteller’s perspective. Consider the stories in light of the story of God. Then pray for opportunities to tell his story.
Hindsight may well make small what now looms large.
Perspective minimizes life,
Fits disparate chapters into stories,
Draws from our griefs new glories.
So do not lose heart in sadder stories.
These too contribute to true life.
By grace, such tests make little faith grow large.
I’m not sure I know how to rest in the Lord.
On Sunday, my friend encouraged me to rest in Christ. He pointed out that I’ve been wearing myself down trying to determine the right thing to do, striving to make sure my actions fall in line with the Lord’s directions for my life. And while actions aren’t bad, he reminded me that I can quickly lose sight of the truth that Christ’s hold on me matters far more than my hold on Christ. To say it differently, the security of my faith rests on Christ’s finished work, not the pending completion of my unfinished tasks.
I don’t do well with this truth, though. I feel like I need to always be moving, always be working, always be pursuing some objective. Even when I rest, I wonder if I’m doing it right, if I’m resting the correct way. I’ve looked for ways to evaluate my ability to be passive, making even times of rest somewhat exhausting.
I’ll confess that this is a difficult problem to fix. The moment I recognize I’m off somewhere, I almost immediately try to discern what I need to do to fix it. But how do you fix the problem of always trying to fix the problem?
I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question. I tend to second-guess myself constantly, drowning in the what ifs and the maybes, making this situation somewhat tricky. But I think Psalm 23 may provide a way forward.
Some friends and I just began a study of Psalm 23. No matter how much time I spend in that chapter, I’m continually struck by the profound simplicity of the words. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). Throughout the Psalm, David expresses faith in the sufficiency of the Lord, recognizing all the ways that God cares for him. As we discussed the first verse the other night, we noted our great need and admitted the ways we fail to provide for ourselves. Apart from a shepherd, we would all be lost. But with a good shepherd, we have all we need. We rely on the Lord for provision, protection, and purpose, and he gives these lovingly.
I’m not good at resting in the Lord, but I serve a God who loves me and cares for me even when I struggle to trust him. So I pray for grace and mercy, I confess my weakness, and I look to Christ and his strength. And I hope in him, knowing that he will sustain me.
Clichés are funny things. On the one hand, I tend to avoid them because they feel too simplistic, too trite. I expect that any cliché I use will be met with eye rolls and exhaustion. On the other hand, clichés do convey truth. As some have pointed out, clichés are quoted for good reason: they often express reality clearly and simply.
So when I consider the cliche, “Home is where the heart is,” I wince a bit, but I find the sentiment rings true, as illustrated by this past week.
Near the beginning of last week, we here in New Orleans began monitoring Hurricane Zeta as she sped toward the city. After a summer full of storms and close calls, we considered Zeta’s size and speed and decided to stay put, expecting more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe. And in large part, that’s what we got. Zeta battered us with wind and rain, knocked out power for much of the area, then left, leaving us a bit disheveled but largely unharmed.
We woke the next morning to clear, cool weather, to a sense of peace where chaos had appeared just hours before. While many on our campus were without power, those with the means to serve shared gifts of coffee and warm food, of power outlets and light. Community came together, thankful for God’s protection and joyful because of his gift of friendship. We enjoyed the day, laughing and eating and simply being together. While many of the buildings we occupied were dark and cold due to power outages, I felt at home even there because of the warmth of community.
People opened their homes throughout the next few days, hosting friends for Halloween parties, offering hot showers and working kitchens for needy families, and providing places of rest in the midst of a stressful season. The Halloween season can often focus on fear, but it became an opportunity for fellowship and safety this year. Though nights were spent in powerless buildings, days were filled with the warmth of friendship.
I’m thankful for the people God’s placed in my life during this season. This year has been filled with hard questions, difficult decisions, troubling circumstances, confusing journeys, and a host of other things that have often caused stress and anxiety. But in a year filled with so much fear, when so much has been shaken, I’m thankful that home endures because community endures.