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?
will my faith give way
to my fear?
Could all this be
part of the process
Make me the man that you want me to be
E’en if I do not want to be that man.
Teach me to trust you when I cannot see
The purpose in the details of your plan.
Help me to hope when tempted to despair
At circumstances greater than my strength,
To trust that, in the darkness, you are there
With love beyond all height, depth, width, and length.
Show me myself, and make me truly know
The greatness of my need and of your grace.
Remind me you are with me as I go,
And lead according to your path and pace.
Lord, search me, try me, know me, make me new.
Let all my life be lived in love of you.
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.
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.
The psalmist waited patiently for you
And then bore witness to your care and grace.
Relief followed the waiting like the dew
After a night when darkness hid your face.
Though you are never absent, we may not
Detect you in the time before the dawn.
Your promises—oft doubted, oft forgot—
Prove true, a hope long hidden, never gone.
But patience is required, for though the end
Is certain, yet it does not come too soon.
You use the time we wait to break and mend.
In silence, we learn how to sing in tune.
So hope, though time be now a source of strain.
Our waiting on the Lord is not in vain.
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.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”James 1:2
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.
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.
Life has been strange lately.
Over the last number of months, I’ve met a strange combination of events that have produced a state of tension within my soul. On one hand, I’ve faced more disappointment, disillusionment, and discouragement than I can remember facing before in life. My plans and God’s plans for me did not agree, and I wrestled long and hard (and still do) to discern what faithfulness looks like for me at this time. The season has been uncomfortable, embarrassing, and isolating.
On the other hand, I’ve seen fruit from the steady plodding of previous months and years. I received a Master of Theology, marking roughly the mid point of my pursuit of a PhD. I passed the one-thousand mile mark on an app that keeps track of my running. I’ve finished reading books I set aside months ago. I’ve made progress on some new projects I’m excited about. I’ve been encouraged. The season has brought affirmation, support, and hope.
Seeing both types of experiences in the same season confuses me a bit. One moment, I feel like I can’t do anything right; the next moment, I’m affirmed in the work I’m doing. One day, I feel lost; the next day, I feel content and secure. I feel hopeless and hopeful, lost and found, faithless and faithful. I’m learning to rely on friends while worrying that I annoy them with my needs. I’m learning to boast in my weaknesses while wishing I could grow out of them. I feel a bit like a living paradox.
During this season, some biblical passages have come to life in fresh ways. The tension between suffering and steadfastness, between death and life, at play in 2 Corinthians 4 holds new meaning as I’m stretched by the trials and joys of this time. Hebrews 12 also challenges and comforts me as I see afresh how God is disciplining me, a painful process, to produce the fruit of righteousness, a pleasant result. I’m learning to hope in and rely upon the Lord, thinking often of him as my Shepherd (Psalm 23). I’m learning to long for the Lord, realizing in new ways my need of him (Psalm 63).
As I reflect on this season, I confess that I desire its end. I want to move past this present state, to learn the lesson and be done with the trials. I don’t enjoy living in the tension. But I recognize that lessons are learned through the testing of faith, that sanctification is accomplished through the long seasons of discipline. So I pray for faithfulness, for endurance, for hope that will not put me to shame. I pray for the Lord to accomplish his work in my life and for him to sustain me on the path he’s called me to walk. And I trust that he who began the work will not fail to complete it (Philippians 1:6).
Verbal camouflage: the art of saying enough to blend in but not enough to stand out from any conversation where you don’t know the subject matter well.
I like to think I’m pretty well versed in this type of speech. For example, I know just enough about sports to blend into an average conversation. With my limited arsenal of roughly one to five facts or anecdotes per popular sport, I can sort of follow a conversation, insert a comment when relevant, and make it through the discussion without my ignorance showing too clearly. As a bonus, if I can maintain my cover long enough, I can sometimes pick up an additional bit of info I can use in a later conversation. If all goes well, nobody knows how little I actually understand.
Verbal camouflage works for many subjects: sports, coffee, fashion, politics, music, internet controversies, etc. The practice can work in at least two ways. The first way is the way of humility. Stay silent, listen well, and learn. The goal here isn’t to appear more knowledgeable or to hide our true selves (most of my friends recognize how little I know about most things). Rather, the goal is to learn without distracting from ongoing conversations.
The second way is the way of pride. Here, we try to share what we know in order to look better in the eyes of those around us. We attempt to bluff our way to acceptance, hiding our weakness behind a mask of knowledge. Maybe we’re afraid our ignorance would deny us friends or would keep us from the circles we want to inhabit. Maybe we’re just insecure with our limits. For whatever reason, however, we choose talking over listening, assuming rather than learning. Sadly, we can sometimes get away with it. Sadder still, we sometimes try this approach with God.
I’m learning that we can’t fake things with him, though. I may know the right words to say to convince a friend I’m doing alright. I might be able to fake my way through a conversation about spirituality. But I can’t do such things with God. He knows my heart better than I do. He sees my weakness, my ignorance, my pride, my insecurity. He sees where I’m falling short in my love and my obedience. He sees it all. And while I may be able to hide from others, I can’t hide from him. If I sing about surrender or pray about dependence, he knows whether or not I really mean it.
Thankfully, God gives mercy and grace in great abundance. He reveals my ignorance, my weakness, and my need of him, and he meets me with instruction, strength, and help. He disciplines me for my good, convicting me of sinful ways and leading me in righteous ways. He provides, protects, and keeps his promises. I am weak. He is strong.
I’m trying to be more open before him, more sensitive to his Spirit, more humble in my walk. I’m beginning to learn, slowly, where before I would assume knowledge and speak hastily. I’m beginning to grow, slowly, as I learn to trust him more. I’m beginning to operate with a better understanding of my limits, looking to him for help. I’m not good at any of these things, but, by his grace, I think I’m getting better. And I pray he is pleased with me.