Various Kinds

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”

James 1:2

Trials change.

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.


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On Fasting

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.


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Tension

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).


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Verbal Camouflage

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.


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Healing

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I have watched this wound heal for a week or so.
Day to day, I do not detect
movement of skin,
change of shape,
decrease of pain.
Then one day, I do.
The gap is less wide, the depth less deep.
All around,
dead skin darkens,
new skin appears.
It is not finished. It is still sore.
I wanted the process to be faster.
Nevertheless, the process is working.
Healing is occurring.
He is mending,
slowly
but surely.
Perhaps the same is true of my heart.


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The Test

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Each present heartache seems to be the worst.
Each test of faith feels fiercer than the last.
Unfounded fears lie shattered in the past,
Yet fear still strikes with strength as at the first.
You start to wonder if you might be cursed
To never have the faith of the steadfast.
You long for constancy but e’er contrast
Your faith with fear, fulfillment with more thirst.
Perhaps the moment’s pain does not intrude
Except to prove the possibility
Of suffering to serve a higher end.
The path of faithfulness does not preclude
The faltering and fallibility
But uses these to lead you to a friend.


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Growing

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Refining is taking place.
Desires, not weeds, just not yet in full bloom,
Push through the dry dirt only to be pruned
By the one gardener who never errs.
There is loss, but there is growth,
Strength from the stripping,
Life from death.
The breath I struggle to catch remains his,
Sufficient,
Efficient
For the work, the fruit, he desires.


Photo by Abigail Miller on Unsplash