“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.
Confession: I wish you would do my will, For I would rather not surrender all. I would prefer more say in what you call Me to within your kingdom. Only kill Those parts of me with which I wish to part. Pick from the list I curate, then begin To excise only my unwanted sin, But leave the rest lest you disturb my heart.
O weak desire, false freedom, foolish dream. Such service would be fiction, for the throne Would be yours in name only. Lord, remove Me from my central focus and redeem All places where my heart is still like stone. In grace and mercy, pardon and reprove.
I wait for you, often impatiently. Passionate and shortsighted is my soul, Resistant to the truth of your control. My faith wars with my fears consistently. I pray for grace to give up while I grip More tightly to what you require of me, Thinking of faith as eyes widen to see Any way out. A trembling heart and lip Often appear instead of steadfastness, Longing for Egypt in the Promised Land, Reaching for idols as you hold my hand. Spirit, sustain me. Help me see past this. Teach me to rest in your ability And wait in rev’rence and humility.
For roughly a year, I’ve been going to counseling through the counseling center at my school. I entered nervously, uncertain of what to expect but certain that I needed help. I noticed myself becoming more isolated and distant than I could remember being. Social circles were shifting around me, stresses and emotions were stacking up inside me, and I found myself feeling disconnected and lonely and stuck. I knew there was a problem, but I couldn’t seem to fix it. I was surviving, but I wasn’t doing well.
Counseling, in many ways, was exactly the thing I needed. There, I could voice the things that weighed upon me and receive help in processing through it. I could share my fears, my anxieties, and my shame and receive encouragement and perspective. My counselor helped to put names to the things that bothered me, thereby helping me both to identify and to understand the more difficult aspects of my life. Though I’m not sure I could list all the ways God used counseling in my life, a few reflections stand out.
I accept my emotions and am a bit more open about them now. Historically, I’ve not been very good at acknowledging my feelings. I’ll try to approach situations academically if possible, operating as if emotions shouldn’t have a say in my response. But I’m learning such an approach isn’t feasible. God created us with emotions, and life in his world requires that we come to terms with that truth. Sure, learning to accept emotions and feel them isn’t always easy. Facing difficult emotions and dealing with them can be painful. But there’s a freedom that comes with such growth, a fresh perspective on life and how God means us to live it. I’m still learning, but I’m slowly growing to allow emotions their rightful place in my life.
I still struggle with my emotions. Therapy didn’t make life’s difficulties go away. While my counselor did a fantastic job of listening and guiding me toward a healthier mental and emotional state, she didn’t fix my problems. Instead, she reminded me that people never outgrow the growing process. We’ll always be working on something, improving in some area, finding ourselves still lacking in some respect. Growth, both spiritual and mental, is an ongoing process. But while I’m not “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4), I think I’m further along than I was when I started counseling. I’ve achieved some goals, seen measurable success, and have found that the difficulties that often overwhelm me aren’t quite so unique or crushing as they may feel in the moment.
I love the Lord more than I once did. Because I’ve been unsure of my emotional intelligence for so long, I’ve tended to lean into more comfortable ways of loving God. I would think of Jesus’s instruction to love the Lord with the heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), and I would see in that a justification for pressing into academics. If I’m not good at feelings, let me prioritize thoughts. But as I reflect on my time in counseling, I’m starting to see that Jesus’s statement isn’t a list of options. Instead, his is a call to love God wholly, bringing every aspect of the self to him in surrender. Counseling has helped me to do this better. As I’ve faced my fears and my anxieties, I’ve seen areas where my faith is weak, where what I affirm mentally isn’t reflected in how I follow Jesus practically. And as I’ve sought to bring my heart into submission to the Lord, the work has entailed a submission of my body as well as I’ve seen how my physical health influences my mental health. I’ve begun to pursue growth on all fronts, learning to love the Lord not just with my mind but with my heart, strength, and soul as well.
The work isn’t complete. I still wrestle with fear and insecurity, with anxiety and doubt, with disappointment and discouragement. I still feel overwhelmed and stuck sometimes. I’m not sure we ever escape such things this side of glory. But counseling gave me perspective and resources to respond to my emotions, and to all situations, with more faith than fear, more courage than cowardliness, and more hope than hopelessness. I thank God for counseling, and I highly recommend it. Whether you feel crushed by the weight of life or you simply want to better understand yourself and your place in this world, counseling can serve you well. I pray you take the step, and I pray God uses it mightily in your life.
How do you respond (w)hen t(h)e w(i)nd (s)hakes your tem(p)orary dwelling? when the thund(e)r b(r)eaks your sense of calm?
(w)hen t(h)e l(i)ghtning (s)trikes your storehouses? when all around you is (p)urifying floodwat(e)r and fi(r)e life-giving, all-consuming?
What do you do when the Father answers your prayers with a storm and a whisper?
Do you run away? Where else would you go?
There is a response when the w(i)nd sh(a)kes your te(m)porary dwelling. when the thunder (b)reaks your sens(e) of calm.
when the lightning (s)trikes your storehouses. when all around you is purifying floodwa(t)er and f(i)re, (l)ife-giving, a(l)l-consuming.
This poem would not be what it is today without the contributions of Andrew Wilson. He helped with both the structure and the content, improving the rough draft immeasurably and guiding the poem to its final form. I’m incredibly grateful for his feedback.
Fasting seems like a great idea until you feel hungry.
I’ve tried to fast more regularly over the last year or so. Jesus seems to expect it of his followers (Matthew 6:16-18), and I’ve heard many speak of it as a key part of their spiritual journey. And yet, while I’ve always understood fasting to be a spiritual discipline, I’ve tended to see it as lesser in importance than other disciplines. If I don’t devote daily time to Bible reading and prayer, I feel off. If I miss a few days of journaling, I can sometimes detect a shift in my perspective. But fasting? Sometimes fasting doesn’t even cross my mind.
So I followed a buddy’s recommendation and tried to set a time each week to practice this discipline. I placed a reminder on my phone’s calendar so I wouldn’t forget, making a choice to form a habit. And initially, I felt great.
Then I would get hungry. Or I would be invited to grab lunch with someone. Or I’d be given food of some kind. Often, the first challenge to my resolve would result in me eating, in a break of the fast. The plan that seemed so simple in theory became increasingly difficult to fulfill in practice.
Ultimately, this is to be expected. Fasting is a clear denial of the self, a deliberate choice to abstain from food in order to seek the Lord, to lay your requests before him, to abide in Christ. When you fast, you embrace temporary discomfort to press into eternal comfort, experiencing the emptiness of your stomach as you open your hands before the Lord. It’s an act of faith, of hope, and of love. And such acts aren’t always comfortable, nor should we expect them to be. Self-denial, even in small measure, may be deeply felt.
But the discomfort of self-denial teaches us. When I see how quickly I break a fast to be filled with food, I realize how deeply I depend upon what is seen and felt and how little I depend upon him who is not so immediately perceived. My failures in fasting reveal my misplaced priorities. But they also provide opportunities for growth. When I see my weakness, I learn to pray for deeper dependence upon the Lord, deeper faith in his provision, deeper love for him. I learn to seek contentment in Christ rather than in my circumstances. I learn to wait on the Lord rather than seeking the speedy fulfilment of my desires.
I’m still not good at fasting, but I want to develop the habit. I want to see more clearly my dependence on the Lord and better understand his provision. I want to grow in faith and hope and love, denying myself a meal to be more deeply satisfied in the Maker. And I pray the Lord would sanctify me in the process.
I don’t mean to suggest that God might fail to provide for his people, that he may somehow lack the power of sufficiency to be for us all we need. He possesses all power and glory, lacking nothing. Objectively, he is enough for us. I’m asking instead whether I recognize his sufficiency and rest in that truth. And the answer, sadly, is that I often don’t.
I’m reading Deuteronomy, and I found myself challenged by a thought I had when reading through chapter ten. After some description of Israel’s journey, Moses writes,
At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God said to him.
The tribe of Levi was given a special role, a particular ministry. God provided for them too, but he did so in a different way than he provided for the other tribes. He was Levi’s inheritance.
I realized as I read that I would have likely felt a bit discontent with my lot if I was a Levite. Instead of considering what might be meant by “The LORD is his inheritance,” my mind fixated on “Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers.” I focused more on what would be withheld than on what would be given, more on the difference in provision than in the provision itself. I read the words “The LORD is his inheritance” and thought, “Would that be enough for me?”
One great benefit of this year has been the shaking of every shakeable foundation. For so many of us, our sources of comfort have been exposed and lost, some for a time and some forever. What once kept us content and happy can do so no longer. And as we panic at the loss of security, we face afresh the question I returned to in my devotional time: Is the LORD enough for me?
I confess that I don’t trust him like I should. I don’t rest in him like I could. I look more to what he’s withheld or taken than to what he’s given. I cling to fleeting things in the face of the eternal. But he gives more grace, allowing further setbacks, further confusions, further losses. And with each new challenge, I’m given the opportunity to love him, trust him, wait for him, hope in him, rest in him, and live for him. He tests my faith that I might grow, shattering all insufficient idols out of love. I’m tired and I’m torn, but I’m thankful, and I pray that I’ll pass the test, that faithfulness will be my response no matter the trial. He is enough. Let me learn to trust him.