“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.
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.
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?”
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.
How can you redeem what I have done? I have sought solace in sin, worshiped idols, chose self over you. True, you are sovereign still, ruler over every realm. But how I rebel, rejecting life, desiring death. I wound myself as well as those I love less than I love myself but more than I love you. I have no excuse, no plea but your pardon, no hope but your help. Salvage me that I might be useful, perhaps even faithful. May it be. Have mercy. Redeem even me.
Sadness is a growing thing. It is watered by frustrated plans, fed by unfulfilled affections, lengthened by loss. Sadness is a subtle thing. Unchecked, it soon can choke life and love and laughter as grief sours and breeds bitterness. Sadness is a frail thing. It breaks open and spills out unexpectedly at the slightest touch. Sadness is a fleeting thing, a fading thing. It is disarmed by a deeper truth, held in perspective by purpose, and will be redeemed at the coming of the one whose love was never lost. He will wipe away every tear.
What good are words, and what will they achieve? For they are small before the might of hate And faulty too: they bend beneath the weight Of generations. Can we e’er relieve The burdens under which our brothers heave, All hoping against hope that soon the wait Will end in rest, in justice, in a state Of peace and love and welcome? Now, we grieve, For hope remains a hope, a thing unseen, Desire unsatisfied, dream unfulfilled. Bring justice, Lord, grant peace, and intervene. Convict and humble us till we are stilled. Let tragedy be not the final scene. Let now the hard soil of our souls be tilled.
A dove is nesting near the stairs in the apartment building where I live.
Doves have long captured my attention. When I was a boy, doves would often nest in a hanging basket in the backyard of our house. From the back door, you could see them clearly, and you could hear them cooing during the day as you moved throughout the house. The doves always seemed so gentle, so peaceful, so patient as we watched them. I’m sure our presence made them nervous, but they remained fixed in spite of our movement.
As I passed the dove the other day, I noticed an egg next to her in the nest, a small sign of new life. At the close of a month filled with murder, mourning, and madness, a month when the world seemed to be coming undone all around us, the sight of this dove and her egg were a relief to my weary heart, a reminder that all is not lost. In a world steeped in death and darkness, new life still springs forth.
The scene reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur” (see the link to the poem below). Hopkins begins his poem with a captivating assertion: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur of God goes largely unnoticed, however. Men do not heed him, do not seem to respect his good creation. The constant plodding of the generations has desensitized us, wearing on our souls as well as on the earth itself. Hopkins recognizes that a world of grandeur has grown almost dreary. It isn’t difficult to understand his point. Our world feels hopelessly lost. We feel hopelessly lost.
But Hopkins finds hope in this world as well. “And for all this,” he writes, “nature is never spent.” No sear, blear, smear, smudge, or smell can kill the freshness of the Lord’s world. Every nightfall is soon followed by a daybreak. The Lord remains at work, bringing life and light to our death and darkness.
Admittedly, the death and the dark seem unconquerable at times. When our news feeds are filled with injustice after injustice, when our homes are invaded by sickness and sorrow, and when our souls are shaken by chaos and storm, we can lose sight of “the dearest freshness deep down things.” But, like the dove, “the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” God has not forsaken his creation. The promise of redemption still stands. “The light shines in the darkness,” John writes, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In spite of all appearances to the contrary, the daybreak will come.