Out of Character

I once saw a Chick-fil-A employee yell at customers in the drive-through line.

The employee sounded frustrated. It was around lunch time, so Chick-fil-A was busy. Employees were outside taking orders on both lines before the customers merged into one lane to wind around toward the window to pick up their orders. As is the nature of drive-through lines, the traffic was very stop-and-go, so a lot of customers were on their phones while in line, resulting in a number of customers caught off guard when the line started moving.

I heard the employee yell, “Pull forward!” as she motioned for the cars to keep moving, but her overall tone was more peeved than patient. She made a couple of other remarks that further reflected her mood, each one surprising me and, admittedly, somewhat disturbing me. Her comments and tone seemed out of character for a Chick-fil-A employee.

Experience has taught us that Chick-fil-A employees behave differently than employees elsewhere. There’s a calmness to their demeanor, a patience to their interactions, and a genuineness to their service. We know them to be held to a higher standard, and we’ve come to expect that high quality of character when we visit a Chick-fil-A. So when I saw an employee who seemed to act in a way that ran contrary to that standard, the experience struck me as wrong. Things aren’t supposed to be this way, right? Something’s off here.

You can find the same kind of experience when you pay attention to how we as Christians sometimes act online. Christians, those people who are supposed to look like Jesus in the world, the group that is supposed to reflect a different set of values and a different approach to life, sometimes act in ways that seem contrary to the way Christ acted. Rather than reflecting humility, we demonstrate arrogance. Rather than embracing lowliness, we fight for power. Rather than loving the body of believers, we slander and bite and draw dividing lines within the fold. When we consider the standard, however, we should feel the same sense of surprise as we feel when he hear a Chick-fil-A employee shout at customers. We should be a bit disturbed at the dissonance between the character of Christ and the behavior of his people.

And I think the critique should start with oneself. I am often a fearful man, doubtful of my Lord’s goodness and unfaithful to his commandments. I am often an arrogant man, desiring recognition and glory and kicking against anything that might reveal my weakness. I am often a sinful man, choosing self over God and others.

By grace, however, I’m not lost in my sin. The Lord has saved me and remade me, and he enables me to follow him. I fall short, but I find encouragement to keep walking. I fail, but I find mercy for my failures. As I see all the varied ways I fall short of the glory of God, I find fresh ways the Lord meets me with love. And I pray I will be conformed more and more to the character of Christ, that I might better reflect him day by day.


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Sufficient

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

2 Corinthians 12:9

His grace is sufficient. But sufficient doesn’t mean that grace makes weakness and suffering nonexistent.

Consider Paul’s life. He writes verse nine immediately after describing his pleading before the Lord that a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, would be taken from him (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). The account of such pleading follows an extended list of Paul’s many sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:23-33). And the letter in which we find these sections begins with the admission that Paul’s sufferings were once so great that he and those with him “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8-10). God’s grace sustained him, strengthened him, and enabled him to fulfill the work set before him. But Paul’s life was still filled with tremendous suffering.

I’ve written recently about the longing for rest in difficult seasons, for relief from burdens, for peace in the midst of fear. Life hasn’t been easy for some time. But in the midst of an extended, hard season, God’s grace has been sufficient. He’s given strength for the work, provision for the day, and sweet moments of rest in the busyness. He’s consistently proven himself faithful to be strong in my weakness, often in times when my weakness has seemed too great, the season too hard. He remains wise and good.

I’m learning that sometimes grace doesn’t feel sufficient, but it is. God’s grace may not deliver you from the season you’re in, but it may sustain you through it. It may not keep you from suffering, but it may provide what is needed to endure it. You may be tempted to despair; God’s grace can enable you to hope. You may feel downcast and brokenhearted; God’s grace can cause you to rejoice.

I’m grateful for God’s grace. At times, I wish it did more than sustain. I wish I could be stronger than I am. I wish he would heal and deliver in ways that felt more comfortable. But as I learn to rely on the grace of the Lord, I learn to trust him more fully, to follow him more closely, and to rest in him more completely. And I think that growth is more important than my comfort in this season. So I pray for grace to trust him more, to follow him more, and to rest in him more, thankful that he sustains me.


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Longing for Rest

I’m tired.

Life has been busy for some time. That’s nothing new. Between school, jobs, and ministry, my weeks stay pretty full. I enjoy my work, and I’m grateful for the Lord’s provision. I know the busyness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I’ve noticed myself feeling worn lately, looking for a break but not finding one.

But it’s not just busyness that’s been weighing on me. There’s a heaviness to life these days that I can’t quite escape. People I love are walking through great difficulties, times of fierce testing, and prolonged seasons of waiting. Weariness and discouragement affect many of us. We’re working to bear each other’s burdens, but we’re feeling pressed.

And personally, I’ve also been wrestling with more confusion and fear lately than I’m used to. As I’ve tried to discern the Lord’s leading and sought to obey him, I’ve found myself often faltering, often straying, and often feeling more out of step than surefooted. I want to be faithful, but I feel more faithless. I want to be strong, but I feel weak.

What do you do in such times? How do you respond when life seems heavier than normal?

I’m reminded of the words of Jesus:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

A few observations from this passage bring some comfort in this season.

First, rest is found in Jesus. I’m tempted to look to other sources for relief: to entertainment or to escape or to some new experience. But rest isn’t really found anywhere else but in Jesus, in knowing him and joining him in his work.

Second, we’re invited into rest. In spite of our sin, in spite of our doubt, and in spite of our weakness, Jesus loves us and offers us rest. He knows our state, knows our need, and brings relief.

Third, the road does not end here. There is a way forward, a way of good work and learning from the Lord himself. Thus, rest does not necessarily mean we cease to be active, but rather that we learn to follow the lead of the good shepherd (John 10:11). When I’m tempted to believe I’m stuck, that I don’t have anywhere to go, Jesus’s words remind me the path continues on with him.

Though I’m not good at it, I’m trying to learn to rest in Jesus. He is good. He is kind. He is faithful. So we can trust him in our weariness and find rest that satisfies our souls like nothing else.


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Still True

Fear sometimes settles on you like a fog. You feel it all around you, it’s presence chilling and uncomfortable. It obscures your sight, preventing you from seeing the way forward. You know the world around you still exists, that reality is bigger than what you can presently perceive. You know that the fog will eventually lift.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

Or, at least, it doesn’t lift as soon as you’d like. That’s when you start to panic and despair.

It sounds silly, but fear can make you suddenly less certain of what you know to be true. God’s love and his faithfulness, his mercy and his grace, his purposes in discipline and the profit in the testing of our faith—suddenly, these subjects seem strangely foreign. You know the Scriptures. You’ve sung the songs, heard the sermons, read the books. But in the middle of the fog, as fear clouds your ability to think clearly, truth doesn’t appear to come to your mind or heart as quickly or as easily as it once did.

And yet, even when fear feels pervasive and overwhelming, what is true is still true. Though our perceptions may make recognition of truth more difficult, reality has not fundamentally changed. God is still on his throne. The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness still has not overcome it. The Lord’s love remains undiminished, his purposes unhindered. If God really causes all things to work together for good, then he’s still working, even in the fiercest seasons of fear. In spite of how we may feel, he has neither forgotten nor forsaken his children.

It isn’t easy to hold on to truth in the midst of fear. Thankfully, the Lord remains a firm foundation for feeble souls. Fear can reveal our weakness; his power is still made perfect in weakness. So we trust in him though we don’t feel okay, hope in him though things seem hopeless, and keep following him though we don’t know the way. And as we do these things, we will find him faithful, as he has always been and always will be.


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We Cannot Go Back

I’ve caught myself wishing that a season of testing would end so I could go back to normal.

Normal. What exactly is normal?

In this case, it’s a time before I felt pushed, before I encountered the current set of trials, before my faith was put to the test. Normal feels safe and comfortable, or at least it does relative to now.

But I can’t go back there. None of us can. Once we encounter a test of faith, we don’t remain the same. Trials change us. Discipline grows us. And we don’t endure just to go back to how we were; God means us to keep going forward into further maturity (James 1:2-4). The Lord uses tests of faith to form our hearts and minds, sanctifying us that we might know him and love him and trust him more than we now do. And yes, the testing is difficult; that’s to be expected. In times of testing, the Lord often reveals what in us is not of him and removes it, and the removal is often painful. But the removal is necessary if we would follow him.

True, we may fight back against the refinement. We can try to prolong our time in immaturity or obey only halfheartedly. Such hesitancy may make us feel like we’re staying safe, like we’re avoiding the fearful and costly change. But doesn’t such a response change us too? The more I run, the more restless I feel. Once the Lord reveals his direction for me and calls me to move, my refusal doesn’t keep me safe, it simply makes me disobedient. And as he presses upon me to obey, I come to see that whatever I’m holding onto doesn’t ultimately satisfy me, that satisfaction is truly only found in him. His call may terrify me, but his ways are life and peace and truth. All else fades.

So maybe the goal shouldn’t be to go back to normal. Rather, maybe the goal should be to simply be faithful, no matter what comes. This seemed to be the approach of Job, who’s commended by God. Paul also seems to approach life with such a view, choosing faith and contentment in spite of difficulties. Both men found the Lord to be faithful and good, full of love and compassion. If the Lord keeps us put in one place, let us be faithful in the staying. If he calls us to move, let us be faithful in the going. In seasons of peace and seasons of pain, in times of tranquility and times of testing, let faithfulness be our constant response. And may the Lord use whatever we face to grow us in maturity, that he may be honored and that others may be better served.


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I’m not certain, but I think the title and some of the ideas I explore in this post may stem from something C. S. Lewis wrote. I don’t mean to steal anything from him, so I want to state clearly that, while I can’t trace the thoughts directly right now, I seem to recall him dealing with this topic or with something similar to it.

Do We Want Him to Answer?

I recently read C. S. Lewis’s sermon “A Slip of the Tongue.” There, Lewis considers the human tendency to be wary of close proximity with God. While we may desire to know the Lord and to serve him well, we nonetheless approach him with caution, fearful of what he may require of us if we get too close. Lewis recognizes that we would much rather play at religion than embrace it fully, for we know that true religion, while being our only way to know true life, is costly.

I’ve been reading through Job lately, and I think a similar theme is at play in that story. There, Job expresses confusion at his circumstances, and he desires an audience with the Almighty. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him,” Job says, “that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me” (Job 23:3-5). And despite the mistaken diagnoses of Job’s friends, Job maintains his cause. He wants to lay his case before God and receive answers.

Then God answers. The Lord speaks out of a whirlwind not with answers to Job’s concerns but with a series of questions about the details of creation (Job 38:1 and following). After chapters filled with speeches and arguments from Job and his friends, speeches presuming to speak of God’s character and ways in the world, God himself speaks, and all fall silent before him. The men understood their place when God answered.

Do we want God to answer us when we cry to him? Do we want to hear him speak? Do we want to enter his presence? In one sense, I’m not so sure we do. When God speaks, our misconceptions and misunderstandings about him and his ways tend to crumble. And while this is a good thing, it’s uncomfortable. The voice of God humbles and corrects us, revealing our arrogance and error and presumptions. We cannot remain as we are when the Lord speaks. We dare not.

But in another sense, we do want God to speak. Misconceptions and misunderstandings tend to be comfortable, but they’re also unhealthy. They reflect hearts and minds that aren’t as surrendered to the Lord or as conformed to the image of Christ as we might assume. If life and salvation are found in God alone, then we must recognize, as Lewis recognized, that to avoid surrender is to shrink back from life itself. If we would live, we must live on the Lord’s terms and not our own. Therefore, we must learn to know him and love him as he is and not as we wish him to be. He requires our all, and we do well to let him have it.

Lewis highlighted a common hesitancy, and his point is confirmed by the story of Job. Close encounters with the Lord change us in deep and profound ways, and those ways are not necessarily comfortable. But as Peter so insightfully said all those years ago when Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). There is no other Savior, no other King, no other God than the LORD. There is no other life or love or happiness than what he offers. So we seek him while he may be found, knowing that we will tremble and be changed when we find him. But we seek him anyway, for he is worth the effects of the finding.


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Reflections on Work and Rest

This is the second year I’ve taken the month of January off from posting to the blog. For the last few years, I’ve tried to maintain a consistent schedule for posts: a new essay each Monday and a new poem each Friday. This keeps me in the rhythm of writing each week, the deadlines acting as accountability to sit and reflect. I’ve grown much over the years as I’ve taken time away from my other responsibilities each week to simply write about what God seems to be doing in and around me. In this way, writing is a sort of rest, a break from the weekly routine to think and to feel a bit more deeply about the present journey.

But I’ve noticed that an annual break helps to refresh my mind and heart for a new year of writing. At times, the writing that often promises rest becomes a burden, just one more responsibility to complete before the week is over. So I decided to start taking some time off on occasion. I still write during my month off (mostly poetry, rarely prose), but I do so not for a deadline but simply for the joy of writing. I reflect a bit more freely, knowing I have time to polish a piece before the words will be seen (if they ever make a public appearance). I don’t keep a schedule for writing or work too hard to finish anything. I write when I have time and when I feel so inclined, and I don’t worry if I go a few days without putting words on paper. In this way, not writing is a sort of rest.

This approach to writing somewhat parallels my current relationship with work and with rest in general. Each week, I work to manage a number of responsibilities. Each week brings new lessons to prepare, new readings to complete, new assignments to grade. I used to approach every day as an opportunity to get work done, to strive for progress in the tasks set before me. But after a year or two of this approach, I learned the importance of rest, of trusting in the Lord more than I trust in my own abilities. I started taking a day off of school and work, practicing Sabbath rest, and I noticed my life change for the better. I felt more rested and less stressed, and I found I was more productive than I’d been in a life of nonstop effort.

In recent months, however, I’ve noticed my times of rest growing stale. As I’ve reflected, I’ve come to see that I haven’t been resting in the Lord as much as I’ve been simply stopping from effort and turning my mind and heart off for the day. I may have enjoyed spending days off in front of a tv, but I started to recognize that doing so left me feeling still drained. True, I wasn’t working, but I wasn’t really resting in the Lord either; I just wasn’t doing anything.

I’m trying to learn how to rest, and I’m finding that it’s not as simple as merely ceasing from weekly activities. Rather, true rest is found in turning my mind and heart to the one who sustains me, the one whose power is made perfect in weakness. I feel more rested after an afternoon of reading Scripture or books about the Lord than I do after an afternoon of video games or tv shows. I find more peace in a few hours of creative writing and reflection on the Lord’s work than in a few hours of inactivity. I get away and seek the Lord in solitude, finding comfort with him there. I still enjoy entertainment and fellowship and breaks from activity, but I’m learning to make those things peripheral rather than primary on my days of rest. And I’m making these choices not to seek some self-righteous status but because I’m coming to see more and more how much my life and well-being depend on the Lord.

I’m not good at resting yet, but I think I’m growing, and I’m praying for grace to rest well and to work hard, keeping both in their proper place. The Lord is good and faithful, and he’s given me sweet seasons of rest as well as strength sufficient for the work. As I learn to trust him more and more for these things, I pray that I’d be faithful to him in all of it, that he would be pleased.


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Christmas Sadness

Her loved one died a few years ago, and she feels like she’s gotten past the initial waves of grief. But at Christmas, she finds it hard to hold back tears.

His situation isn’t comfortable, but he seems to have accepted that. He understands he can’t force change, and he’s decided to wait for the Lord. But during the holiday season, he struggles a bit more than usual to be okay with the way things are.

They’ve prayed for children, and they long to be parents, but they remain a family of two. They understand the Lord is good. They don’t question that truth. But when the weather starts to change and the lights and decorations begin to go up around the town, they feel the ache grow a little stronger.

Christmas is a source of great joy. From the generosity of friends and family to the warmth of love all around, we have much to rejoice in during the holiday season. We’re reminded of Jesus’s birth, of God’s gift of love for a lost world, and we revel in the hope we have through him. Despite the darkness and despair of the rest of the year, Christmas comes as a deep breath, a welcome rest, a warm reminder that light always endures.

Why, then, can this season also make us sad?

In part, I think it’s because of the perspective this season brings. We see in Christmas a bit of the way things ought to be. Peace on earth and good will among men (Luke 2:14) is glimpsed at Christmas, even in a world that remains far from the King. And when we see more clearly how things ought to be, we see more clearly and feel more deeply the way things are now broken. We feel loss a bit more acutely, longing for the fellowship we can no longer access. We struggle with deferred hopes, the sting of present sorrows sinking a bit deeper into our souls. We know the world is broken, and we grieve.

But the sadness of this season is really more bittersweet, for sorrow doesn’t get the final word. We’re reminded of our loss and grief at Christmas, but we’re reminded too of the way God is making all things new. Because of Jesus, everything has changed. Sorrow turns to joy, suffering turns to growth, loss is turned to gain, and confusion is swallowed up in a greater certainty. Pain and hardship are real, but they exist as parts of a larger story, one which makes sense of them and redeems them. Christmas affirms the darkness of the night and promises a bright and fast-approaching dawn.

It isn’t wrong to mourn when we feel sad this season. The absences we feel are real and meaningful. This broken world is a painful world. But we can also rejoice with a joy that runs far deeper than any despair, a love that runs far deeper than any heartbreak, and a hope that runs far deeper than any sorrow. Christmas reminds us that the sad things are temporary things. We ache now because things are not the way they should be, but we are approaching a day when all will be well. So grieve and rejoice. Feel deeply the loss as well as the love. And look to the one whose birth brought hope for all hurting hearts.


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At the Right Time

Have you ever noticed how important timing is to the Christmas story?

Paul writes that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). At the right time, Jesus entered the story. Caesar’s decree “that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Luke records that, “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (Luke 2:6). Scripture was fulfilled as these events aligned. At the right time and in the right place, Jesus was born.

But timing continued to play a key role in Jesus’s life. Jesus speaks of his hour and his time on multiple occasions (see John 2:4 and John 7:6, for example). He didn’t rush things; he worked according to the time given him. Even his death, according to Paul, occurred “at the right time” (Romans 5:6). Clearly, timing is an important part of the story.

We often focus on the gift of Christmas, and rightly so. At Christmas, we celebrate the entrance of the hero into the action. The Christ appears, the long-awaited Savior who would save his people from their sin. Life and light appear at Christmas like never before, and the darkness hasn’t recovered from the blow. Because of Jesus, we have everlasting hope.

But this year, I’m reminding myself that timing played a role in the story. While I don’t understand all that this truth means, I know it gives us hope when things seem hopeless. God, who knew our greatest need, was neither too early nor too late in providing the solution. God, who saw our helpless state more fully than we ever could, did not send Jesus the moment we fell but instead spoke a promise that was kept over long, hard years of uncertainty, exile, rebellion, blessing, and grace. Through every twist in the narrative, every tragedy and every victory, every loss and every gain, he was working. While I’m sure many before Christ wondered why God seemed to tarry, God sent his Son at the right time.

And we serve the same God. He who met our greatest need continues to provide for his own, and his timing is still best. The waiting is difficult. We can’t see all that the Father sees or know all that he knows, and we grow restless in our ignorance, impatient for provision and for blessing. But our God is good and faithful. He will do what is best in his own time and way, and his timing and way are always best. So we can hope in him this Christmas, for the greatest gift as well as for every good and perfect gift he may give as well, in faith that he will continue to act at the right time.


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When to Say “No”

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.


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