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.
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.
I’ve been reading a book about a haunted house, and I’ve been struck with how simple the recipe has been for creating the setting. So far, the author has simply taken things that are good, sacred, or safe, and he’s inverted them in some way. Mealtimes, normally times of nourishment and fellowship, become settings for chaos and division. Chapels, normally places of peace and holiness, become places of disquiet and depravity. Bedrooms, normally places of rest and safety, become places of fear and danger. In many ways, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, the author turns the natural into the unnatural, and the result is largely unsettling.
You’ve likely seen instances of this in horror stories before. A cross or a crucifix is turned upside down to denote the subversion of faith. A common household tool becomes a menacing weapon. Innocent beginnings can lead to terrifying places as these stories undermine the things we often take for granted. And even if you don’t engage such media, you can’t deny its popularity. Humans seem fascinated with tales of the unnatural.
While I think such fascination can become unhealthy, I believe some good may come from our interest in the unnatural. Consider, for example, the focus of much horror. In seemingly every case, horror turns our attention to the ways things can go wrong in the world. In fact, the most frightening stories are those that reflect reality, highlighting the actual horrors produced by this world. Granted, horror stories often sensationalize the real world inspirations, but the real world inspirations exist. Thus, although horror often deals in extremes and in caricatures, it operates on a deeply unsettling truth: our world is not all love and light. Darkness lies strong across the globe. Evil pervades our existence. Life is marked by the unnatural.
The unnatural aspects of horror, then, can act as reminders that the world is not the way it was created to be. These stories introduce unease into our sense of calm, shattering any illusions that this world is tame or safe. And when we see the darker aspects of the world, we begin to recognize our need for a hope that can overcome the world, a hope that can only be found in Christ.
When horror focuses our attention on the unnatural, we might do well to ask what the natural state of things might be. And the answer to that question may be found nicely in a Christian worldview. We have a story that deals with all of reality and a protagonist who doesn’t shy away from the darkness but instead confronts it and overcomes it. We have the only source of true and lasting hope that the darkness is not ultimate, that the unnatural state need not be permanent. And so we tell the story, the story that makes sense of other stories, even the darker ones. And we hope, even when face to face with the darkest of evils, for we know the one who has already overcome it all.
Yesterday morning, I read a few chapters in 2 Samuel. In chapter 5, David sought the Lord before two different encounters with the Philistines. Each time, God answered and gave direction, though his guidance was different each time. David listened and found victory.
In chapter 6, as the ark of the covenant was brought into the city, David danced before the Lord, worshiping and celebrating. Though his wife criticized him, he defended his actions as being done for the Lord alone regardless of who may have witnessed him. The Lord appeared to justify David here.
In chapter 7, the Lord made magnificent promises to David. David, upon hearing the word of the Lord, responded in humility and reverence. He prayed confidently in light of the promises of God.
Throughout David’s life, we can detect a pattern of reverence and obedience. God was central and primary to David’s life, Lord over all of his ways. David sought the Lord before he went to war, refrained from acting against God’s anointed, and lived with a recognition that God ruled over all things.
Of course, David wasn’t always faithful. We see him tempted to take vengeance when wronged by Nabal (1 Samuel 25), though we see too the faithfulness of the Lord in that story. Later, we see David fall to a host of sins, with devastating consequences (2 Samuel 11-12). Yet in spite of the depth of David’s sins, he consistently returned to the Lord, understanding that, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). Even when he strayed, David eventually returned to a place of surrender.
The stories of David’s sins are instructive in that they illuminate how our own sins often work. If David’s strength was his commitment to keep the Lord central and primary in his own life, his weakness was his tendency to let something else take that central and primary place. So too with us. We err when we place anything else as first in our affections. Leisure, pleasure, comfort—each have their proper place in our lives. When we elevate them above their rightful places, however, shifting our hope from the Giver to his gifts, we move our entire trajectory from the pursuit of the Lord to the pursuit of self.
But David’s heart for the Lord is a worthy example for us. Let us be people who hold the Lord higher than anything else, who keep him as central and primary in our lives. Let us be people who seek him first, love him first, and order our lives around him. Let us be people who see God as God and who respond accordingly.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”
On multiple occasions over the last year or so, I’ve caught myself wondering what God was doing in my life. In part, I’ve wondered this because his recent methods don’t fit my expectations. It’s as if his focus has shifted from particular actions to internal motivations and desires.
In the past, spiritual growth seemed closely tied to my external behavior. Don’t do this, avoid that, make a habit of practicing these things. Such a focus makes tracking progress somewhat simple, because you can clearly see your successes and failures. Trials, in such seasons, seem to affect those external behaviors. As I seek to build a spiritual discipline, I’m tempted by busyness or distraction or circumstance, and I have to respond either by surrendering to the Lord or to my desires. While the pursuit of holiness in outward actions isn’t easy, you can get used to it a bit. Distractions may become more complicated and temptations may increase in strength or in frequency of appearance, but you still appear to have a clear choice between two paths. You grow accustomed to the type of trials you face.
Now, however, the Lord’s focus seems to be on the internal side of life. As healthy habits have formed and external behaviors aren’t as difficult to manage as they once were, it’s as if God has moved below the surface, showing me that my motivations, desires, trusts, and hopes aren’t as grounded in the Lord as I may have once assumed. I may do the right action, but I may do it for the wrong reasons, acting out of selfishness, fear of others, pride, or any number of motivations rather than acting in faith and obedience to God. My desire may be for my own glory rather than for God’s. Trials, then, are not so clear cut. When the focus shifts to my desires and motivations, the situation is a lot more confusing and complicated.
At first, a shift in trials discourages you. You move from a place of confidence to a place of uncertainty. What once felt like known territory suddenly becomes foreign and unfamiliar. But the change is good, as is the work God is doing. When you meet a new variety of trial, an unexpected and unknown test, you’re reminded that you can’t weather such tests in your own strength or wisdom. Rather, you need the Lord, as you always have. Growth and progress only come as a result of submission to him.
In this way, no matter how trials may change throughout your life, they remain constant in their function: to drive you to the Lord. Trials reveal our weaknesses, uncover our insufficiencies, and highlight our need for further sanctification, further surrender, and further help from above. And thankfully, the Lord is faithful in every trial. Indeed, though the variety of trials seems far more vast than we ever anticipated, the grace of God remains sufficient for them all.
I’m beginning to wonder if faithfulness often feels like failure.
Recently, some trusted individuals told me they associate me with faithfulness. While I’m humbled, I don’t feel very faithful; I feel more like a failure. I look at my walk with the Lord and see all the times I waver, all the times I doubt, all the times I second-guess my way and misstep. I see the conviction of the Lord, his discipline in my life. I see all the ways I struggle to submit to his lordship, all the ways I feel disappointed by his plan for my life, all the ways I wish things were different. I feel more faithless than faithful, more fearful than full of faith.
True, I’m thankful. I see the ways he’s blessed me in this season. I can see some of the wisdom in my present location and how he’s enabled me to do what he’s called me to do. I know he’s at work, and I can detect hints and whispers of that work as I pursue faithfulness. I am not abandoned or lost. He knows where I am and knows what he’s doing. I can count it all joy when I meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2-4).
I guess I assumed faithfulness would look more like boldness or strength than timidity or weakness. But both boldness and strength are found not in the individual but in the Lord of the individual. Christ is the source of contentment, the certainty of salvation, the power in weakness. If we stand, we stand in him.
I want to be faithful to him in all things, so I pray for faith to grow, for love to deepen, and for hope to endure. I pray for contentment when I’m disappointed, for wisdom when I’m confused, and for peace when I’m troubled. I’m challenged by the truth that faithfulness is often tied to obedience, and I pray for strength to obey, to walk by faith when I can’t see the way. I pray that I would abide in Christ and would be a witness in this season to his power, mercy, and grace.
In short, I pray often and seek him, confessing my inability and trusting in his sufficiency. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe faithfulness is not defined by having the answers but by following the one who does, not by having the strength in oneself but in obeying the one who is strong, not by being capable oneself but by surrendering to the God who is. Maybe God is glorified more by continued repentance and surrender than by a perfectly executed journey. Maybe faithfulness really does feel like failure sometimes.
Sometimes, for the sake of ourselves and others, we need to be willing to set boundaries.
I’ve overworked myself before and have felt the physical and mental toll it can take. God gave us the Sabbath for a reason, setting aside a specific day of the week to rest from our labors and to trust in God as the ultimate provider. And we see this modeled in Scripture. Jesus took time away from the crowds and from the disciples to pray (Luke 5:16), and he encouraged his disciples to seek rest after a season of service (Mark 6:31). Jethro, Moses’s father in law, provided a plan to keep Moses from burning himself out in service to the people, arguing for a delegation of responsibility in order to better care for both Moses and the people of Israel (Exodus 18). Boundaries on our time, our energy, and our service can be incredibly beneficial as we seek to love the Lord and others well.
But sometimes, for the sake of ourselves and others, we need to be willing to make exceptions to boundaries.
While boundaries work in general to create margin in our lives for rest and intentional focus, specific situations may call for a temporary exception to the rule. Jesus, after healing a man on the Sabbath, asks those who would accuse him of wrongdoing, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5), highlighting a decision surely none of his listeners would question. Elsewhere, after leading his disciples away to rest, Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him and taught them (Mark 6:33-34). In some situations, love warrants action in spite of the boundaries we’ve set.
I’m not sure there’s a clear explanation of how to tell when to enforce a boundary and when to make an exception. I’m not sure life and love are that cut and dry. Sometimes, you get a phone call on a Tuesday night that you feel you need to take, even if it alters your plans and stands as an exception to your boundaries. Other times, you reach out to friends to help you bear your burdens so you can rest. I believe the Lord will direct us as we seek to serve him, and I pray we would be faithful to follow him in either circumstance. He is our strength, both to provide what is needed as we rest and to provide what is needed as we serve.
Life is weird these days. Between a pandemic, multiple hurricanes, school, work, and the south Louisiana heat and humidity, there’s a lot going on. There’s always another responsibility, another danger, another factor to consider as I go throughout the day.
When life is busy, I tend to look for things to cut out. Some decisions are easy. Netflix and Xbox both take a backseat to homework or Bible study. Other decisions are more difficult, however. When is it wise to skip a workout? When should I stay up a bit later or wake up a bit earlier to get my work done? When is it best to take a break from the blog?
While I typically take some time off each year from posting new content to the blog, I try to maintain consistency in my schedule here whenever possible. Even if I don’t get the time I’d like to write and edit, to reread and refine a piece, I try to post consistently, and I wanted to share some of the reasons why today.
I write as an act of self-discipline. Writing helps me think. The act of writing words on paper or of typing words into a word document provides the opportunity to organize my thoughts. Writing serves to clarify ideas and to reveal truth. And while I receive these benefits when I write in my journal, I find that writing for the blog is different. Here, I’m trying to take an idea and trace it out to application, drawing lines from theory to practice. Knowing others will read these words adds a level of accountability I don’t always have in my journal. While I may be more vulnerable there, I feel more responsible here. I see consistency as part of that responsibility, as an aspect of that accountability to the reader.
I write as an act of self-expression. Much of what I write stems from the lessons I’m learning, from the emotions I’m feeling, from the joys and sorrows I’m experiencing. I’ve often thought that you can probably tell what I’m going through by looking closely at what I’m writing in a given season. I try to be vulnerable in my writing, sharing my fears and my hurts through poetry and prose. I don’t give you everything. My journals and notebooks contain more specific reflections and poems. You likely won’t see those. But I want to share, at least in some measure, the work I do, partly because I want you to see me and know me. But I also want to share because I’ve seen God use the things I write to serve others, and I want to be faithful to that form of ministry, which leads me to my third reason for writing.
I write in the hope that you’ll benefit from these words. While I want you to see me and know me, I don’t write simply because I want sympathy (though sometimes I do desire that). Rather, I write in the hope that you’ll see yourself in the words, that perhaps I can articulate on your behalf something hitherto unspoken or unexpressed. The writers who have moved me the most are those who gave voice to my soul when I felt lost and alone. I seem to remember Andrew Peterson getting at this idea in his book Adorning the Dark, and I’ve found the point rings true. As I’ve found myself in his writings and in the writings of others, I’ve been greatly helped, encouraged and challenged to press on through difficulties and to wait and hope in the goodness of God. I pray that my writings might be so used in your life and in the lives of others who happen across my words.
I don’t claim brilliance. I don’t seek fame. I know my faults. But I desire faithfulness and pursue it, often falteringly. And so I write. I write in the hope that I’ll understand a bit better after the writing. I write in the hope that you’ll see and know me a bit better after the reading. I write in the hope that you’ll see yourself in the words and will be moved to know and love God a bit better in the process. And I pray the Lord is pleased in it all.