Unnatural

Horror stories capitalize on the unnatural.

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.


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To pray and not lose heart is no small task

To pray and not lose heart is no small task,
To come before the throne without a mask,
Revealing all your deepest doubts and fears
And failures, then to still step forth and ask

For help and hope. You tremble, feeling tears
As faith, formed over long, uncertain years,
Stands face to face with yet another test
That threatens to undo you. But he hears

The weakness in your voice and offers rest.
He knows your heart is breaking, calls you blessed
And calls for faith again, promising peace
In perseverance, that his way is best.

And so you pray in hope, and you release
Control of circumstances, so to cease
From all burdensome worries and to bask
In grace before the lamb with crimson fleece.


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Faithfulness and Failure

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.


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On Boundaries

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.


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With a Storm

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.

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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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On Self-Denial

While many sayings of Jesus bring great comfort to our souls, some can deeply disturb us. Luke records one such saying.

And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

Luke 9:23-25

Jesus’s words here call to mind similar texts throughout Scripture. Paul calls believers to be living sacrifices, for example, and the author of Hebrews speaks of enduring in the struggle against sin (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 12). But what does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up the cross? What does following Jesus really entail?

I don’t think denying ourselves means we self-flagellate, depriving ourselves needlessly of joys that God gives. The Lord created a world filled with good things, things that fill us with wonder as we partake. Food, drink, fellowship, art, sport, work, travel—we can enjoy all these and more with thanksgiving. “So,” Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). True, we live in a world broken by sin, and we feel in our own bodies the effects of the break. Good things may be twisted, good desires corrupted, good gifts turned to vices. But so long as we do not sin in our partaking, we may partake in worship.

At times, however, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. Sometimes, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of some good thing in order to better serve a fellow Christian (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). At other times, we deny ourselves the pursuit of our own plans in order to submit to the will of the Lord (Proverbs 19:21; James 4:13-17). In these ways, we act out of love for the Lord and for people.

I find myself tending to think of self-denial as singular instances of action rather than as a lifestyle of surrender. In both of the above cases, for example, I can misread the text to pertain only to specific cases, to particular times and places where I have to give up my choice for that of another. But what if self-denial is more of a lifestyle, a settled conviction that the Lord reigns over every desire, every decision, and every direction of my life? How might that change the day to day journey?

Viewing self-denial as a way of life would change how I view persistent desires. The strength and the persistence of a desire may lead me to assume I am justified in pursing the desire’s fulfillment, but such a conclusion does not necessarily follow. Sin finds its root in our desires, growing toward death as we pursue our desire’s fulfillment apart from the Lord’s provision (James 1:13-18). At times, I’ve prayed for some desires to be taken from me, for me to be granted freedom from the struggle. I don’t believe such prayers are wrong. But the Lord may not answer such prayers for relief. Paul, for example, prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, for the harassment he underwent to be withdrawn; but the Lord saw fit to leave the thorn, for his purpose was Paul’s sanctification (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Lord uses the struggle, our ongoing self-denial, for good, even if we can’t see or understand his purpose in the midst of the fight.

Viewing self-denial as a way of life would also change how I view allegiance to Christ. Relatively speaking, I have not had to sacrifice to the same extent as many other Christians. I stand amidst a mighty throng of martyrs and missionaries, of those who chose Christ over family, friends, health, safety, and life itself. Though all Christians bear crosses, some do seem to have a heavier weight, a fiercer struggle. And when the call of Christ requires your all, when devotion to the Lord means a greater denial than you ever realized you could make, you wonder if Christ is worth it. Ultimately, that’s the question we must answer: is Christ worthy of the greatest extent of self-denial? If pressed, will I surrender my deepest desires, my ties to family and friends, and my comforts and securities in this world for the sake of this Jewish teacher? Is he worth it? Jesus claims that he is: “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He even raises a challenge to those of us who doubt: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). More than that, he walked the road before us, suffering on our behalf to save us from slavery to sin and death. His cross was heavier than any he calls us to bear. He can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). But he doesn’t just sympathize with us; he changes us for good (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Admittedly, we could embrace our desires, follow our dreams, and live according to our plans. That option remains on the table. But what do we really gain, especially if we lose ourselves in the process? Furthermore, who has the Lord ever cheated? Who has the Lord ever failed? Who has come to the end of a life of faithful service and concluded, “The Lord was not enough”? If God has promised to provide for our needs as we seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6), then, though we may feel a lack of some good thing, we will have all we truly need. He knows best, and his love and faithfulness have already been sufficiently proven (Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8).

Self-denial, if understood as a way of life, will require far more than we may be comfortable surrendering. And I think that’s part of the point. Jesus didn’t downplay the seriousness of the path of the kingdom because he knew the gain far outweighed the losses. Paul understood this point well, forsaking any earthly gain and rejoicing in any present weakness for the joy of knowing Christ (Philippians 3; 2 Corinthians 12). The twelve disciples faced persecution and death for their allegiance to Christ, and they rejoiced. The people of God are a people of peace, peace that surpasses any counterfeit offered by sin. So we need not fear self-denial for the sake of Christ. We may mourn the losses we experience in this life, but we may bear our crosses with joy. We are the followers of the Son of God, those called from death to life, those made sons and daughters of the King. Let us not fear the loss of this world; we stand to gain our souls.


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Provision

Some hopes are dashed upon the throne of grace,
Are lifted up in pray’r to be denied.
And though it seems the Father hides his face,
We need not fear that he will not provide.
But his provision oft is of a kind
Perceived unkind while in the midst of loss.
What he deems “need” is diff’rently defined.
Sometimes the crown is traded for the cross.
But crosses borne in faith will always form
Our souls as needed, so we need not fret.
His grace suffices for the fiercest storm.
None who trust full in him shall feel regret.
But it is faith—not sight—that shows the way.
God is our shepherd. We need ne’er dismay.


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