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.
If your power is made perfect in weakness, then why do I feel only the greatness of my weakness and do not perceive your power here? How long will I feel lost in my lack instead of found in your love? How often will my faith give way to my fear?
Could all this be part of the process of progress?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.