Reflections on Counseling

Last week, I had my last counseling appointment.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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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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Is the LORD Enough for Me?

Is the LORD enough for me?

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.

Deuteronomy 10:8-9

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.


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Redeem

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.

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When and Where He Leads

The Lord’s ways are not always predictable.

In Numbers 9, we read of how the Lord led the people of Israel in the wilderness.

So it was always: the cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped.

Numbers 9:16-17

The plan was fairly simple: when the cloud lifted, the people moved; when the cloud settled, the people camped. The Lord, it seems, clearly set the direction and the schedule for the journey.

But while the plan seemed consistent throughout the journey, the schedule fluctuated. Sometimes the stay was simply overnight, sometimes it was for a few days, and sometimes it lasted for a month or more. Regardless of the length of the stay, however, the people obeyed.

At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp.

Numbers 9:18

Things may not be so different for us today. Although the Lord’s methods may have changed (I don’t know anyone who moves or stays based on the leading of a cloud), the Lord still directs our paths and our timelines. Some follow him to a new city only to be called away after a year or so while others remain for years. Some follow him into ministry positions for brief seasons while others devote decades to the same work. Whether work, relationships, ministries, homes, schools, or any number of things, the seasons these things last aren’t always what we’d expect. His ways truly aren’t our ways. Nonetheless, he knows the way, and his timing is right.

I wonder if Israel ever wanted to stay but were called to go. I wonder if they ever wanted to go but were called to stay. I’m sure we can each relate to such feelings. The Lord doesn’t always lead in ways we find comfortable. We lay our requests before the Lord, but we do not always get our way. Many of our hopes and plans are dashed upon the throne of grace. But the Lord remains good, the guide in the darkness, the provider in the wilderness, the certainty in the uncertain, the true hope for the future. He doesn’t always tell us his plans or reveal his purposes, and, when he does, they don’t always align with our own. Still, he is trustworthy, steadfast, faithful, kind. His love endures, and he remains worthy of our worship.

So follow him. Let us be like Israel here, attentive and obedient to the Lord’s leading. No matter when or where he leads, trust him to know best. And rest in his loving lordship over your life.


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What is Best

God gave Moses specific instructions regarding sacrifices, priests, relationships, rest, and a number of other subjects, and his instructions are recorded in the book of Leviticus. As you read through the book, you begin to realize something: the Lord requires the best, not merely the comfortable or the convenient.

Take sacrifices, for example. Only specific types of animals are accepted, and acceptable animals often must be without blemish and of a certain age. The people couldn’t simply give God the wounded or small of the flock, the weak or the unwanted; they had to give their best. The same goes for the priesthood. The holiness of the role of priest seems to be illustrated in the high standards God set forth for those who could hold such a role. God’s servants couldn’t behave any way they chose; they were to be, in a way, the best of the people, the model of obedience and holiness.

God’s standards haven’t changed. He still requires the best of us. “You therefore must be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He wills our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and he remains “the LORD who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).

Such sanctification is not always convenient or comfortable. Paul chose his words well when he called us to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). We heed the call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23), a worthy yet difficult calling. Discipline and correction factor regularly into the process (Hebrews 12), as does grace for our failures (1 John 2:1-2). He refines us, molds us, and purifies us, and the process is often painful. He requires the fullness of our hearts, minds, and spirits. He requires the best of us.

It’s encouraging, then, to remember that God not only requires the best from us, but he also does what is best for us. He causes all things to work together for good, holding us in his unfailing love (Romans 8). He knows us intimately (Psalm 139), cares for us deeply (1 Peter 5:7), and gives wisdom for the journey (James 1:5-8). He doesn’t merely do what is convenient or comfortable in our lives. Indeed, his work may feel at times like a wound (consider Paul’s wrestling with the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12). But because the Lord is good, we can trust him in all circumstances, all seasons, all stations of life. He will always do what is best. Indeed, he has already done what is best for us by giving us the perfect, spotless lamb to save us, meeting our greatest need and ensuring he will not fail us in our lesser needs (Romans 8, James 1).

So let us offer our best to the Lord, withholding nothing as we learn to love and serve him better. Let us understand that he is worthy of our best, worthy of our very lives. And let us rest in the truth that God loves us and will always do what is best, trusting that “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.

Proverbs 3:5-8

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Sadness is a growing thing

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.

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Pain, Comfort, and Hope

My theology of pain is deepening.

When I consider pain in relation to theology, my mind often runs to James 1:2-4. There, James calls Christians to “count it all joy” when tests of faith arise, for such tests produce steadfastness leading to maturity. Closely related to James’s words there are Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-5, where Paul traces the process from suffering to endurance to character to hope. In short, God works all things for good, even difficult things (Romans 8:28).

Until recently, my understanding of this process has been somewhat simplistic. Pain arises, faith is tested, and we respond, either passing the test and growing in maturity or failing the test and remaining where we are. In theory, the process shouldn’t take too long.

But what do we do when the season doesn’t end? What happens when uncertainty or sadness or pain last longer than anticipated? What might God be doing in extended periods of difficulty?

I don’t claim to hold every answer to such questions. The answers may well vary based on the specifics of each situation. But I think I’m starting to see a piece of God’s purpose for ongoing seasons of difficulty and discomfort. I think God, in part, uses such times to redirect our hopes.

I’ve noticed, for example, that distress drives me to seek comfort somewhere, often in a person or a place or a thing that makes me feel safe. At times, however, God removes such sources of comfort from my life and, in their absence, leaves me with only my pain and with himself. Then, and perhaps only then, I begin to understand the sufficiency of his grace, his provision, his comfort. By removing my earthly securities, he reveals my over-reliance on them, disciplining me as he leads me to rest in him alone. He lovingly tests my faith to show my faith’s weakness. Then he begins to strengthen it. But the process takes time. As James highlights steadfastness, so Paul highlights endurance, both emphasizing the ongoing nature of the lessons.

It isn’t just that God knows what is best and has a better plan for us than any we can conceive, though those statements are true; it’s that God himself is best. When the Lord’s work includes the death of a dream, the loss of a hope, or the absence of a security, his goal isn’t merely to shift our gaze from a good earthly thing to a better earthly thing; his goal is to get us to shift our gaze to himself. He is the best thing, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-17), the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). Our needs and our desires ultimately find their true fulfillment in him. And our hearts may not learn this lesson quickly. So he makes us wait, working through the suffering and the waiting to produce character and hope. “And hope,” Paul writes, “does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

C. S. Lewis wrote of the way the Lord uses pain to show us our weakness as well as to show us the insufficiency of any earthly thing to satisfy us (see his books The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed). Furthermore, because God is good, he will not stop until his work is finished. Though painful, the work will result in healing. Though extended, the suffering will be proven worthwhile. Through the testing of our faith, the Lord makes us more like Christ and draws us closer to himself, doing us a greater good by far than if he simply granted our wishes or met our demands. His is a work of love, deeper and truer than we may presently understand. So hope in him. Trust in him. And find comfort in him.

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!

Psalm 27:14

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Change, Part Three

As we now learn to welcome and embrace,
We recognize that sin still will infect
Our hearts and homes and homelands, and we face
The difficulty, striving to connect
What oft is torn asunder, faith and works,
With faith our present work is not in vain.
We serve the one who neither shuns nor shirks
His sheep, and he will soon remove the stain
Of sin, for he in justice shall return,
And all that now is wrong he will set right.
We wait and hope, our hearts within us burn-
ing for the dawn’s approach, the end of night.
All our division then will be undone,
The broken brought together by the Son.


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Change, Part Two

Let now the hard soil of our souls be tilled,
And let us not resist the needed change.
Let not another be unjustly killed.
Let what is common now become most strange.
Lord, show us our responsibility
And lead us in compassion. Let the cries
For justice not end in futility
But further freedom as our pray’rs arise.
Let us be quick to listen, slow to speak,
And slow to anger with no room for sin.
Let those with power learn to live as meek,
And let this lifelong journey now begin.
Teach us to meet all souls with love and grace
As we now learn to welcome and embrace.


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