I make my pray’r to you. You answer, “No.” And I don’t understand your reasoning. I ask to stay, but you call me to go. ‘Tis daily bread with bitter seasoning. I try to turn my grief into a gift: My heart’s desires become my offering. But I can’t see the rescue in the rift, And sov’reign love feels much like suffering. In seasons such as this, my faith is stretched, A stretching that is needed though it hurts. And through the test, your grace and truth are etched Upon my heart more deeply and convert My ignorance and fear to trust in you, The God of love who’s making all things new.
C. S. Lewis once wrote of the way stories might be able to convey truth and foster emotion more effectively than commands and imperatives could (see his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” in the book On Stories). He understood the way we often let our guard down when enjoying stories and are thus more open to consider ideas than when they’re presented to us as teachings requiring our affirmation.
We can likely think of good examples of such an approach if we consider our favorite shows from childhood. Sesame Street, The Magic School Bus, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Schoolhouse Rock each demonstrate creative ways to teach kids important information. By attaching a lesson to a song or a game, the creators of these shows managed to make learning fun for students. And the lessons stuck. We likely can still hum certain songs or can recall certain facts picked up from these shows. Of course, we can all likely think of bad examples as well. Sometimes the lesson gets lost in the story. Sometimes the story suffers because the lesson is too strongly introduced. Lewis understood the importance of a healthy mix of the two. Still, Lewis’s point stands: a story may be able to reach you with an idea you might never consider otherwise.
I think this truth is one reason stories are so important. While stories entertain, I’m not convinced that’s their only function. They also introduce us to new ideas, different perspectives, and opposing worldviews. They lead us to question our assumptions, to pursue further understanding, and to grow in knowledge. And these are good things. But we need to consider how we engage stories. Whether you read novels or comic books, watch tv shows or movies, or play tabletop games or video games, you’re engaging in stories at every turn. How are you engaging?
Some may recommend avoiding stories that don’t fit your worldview, but I’m not sure that’s wise. Part of Jesus’s commission to his followers is to go into all the world, to engage all peoples with the gospel message. That’s going to involve interacting with people from a multitude of worldviews, perspectives, assumptions, biases, and ethical frameworks. While we dare not uncritically embrace every differing position we encounter (we dare not uncritically embrace every one of our own assumptions either), neither should we enter the world ignorant. Paul seems to embrace such an approach in his description of becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He doesn’t trade his faith or morality in his pursuit of kingdom work, but neither does he allow his own cultural preferences or comforts to keep him from engaging someone who needs Jesus. He focuses on the most important thing and adjusts to the context of his audience in order to convey better the most important of stories.
I suggest engaging stories with wisdom. Doing so means we’ll want a healthy dose of perspective, seeking out voices that differ from and disagree with our own. But doing so doesn’t mean we’ll accept every message wholesale. Rather, we will listen to stories to learn and to understand. We’ll listen for the hurts and the hopes of the storyteller, for the ideals and the desires of their hearts. And we’ll consider their stories in light of the gospel, looking for where they ring true and where they fall short. As we do, we will not only better understand the world we’re called to reach, but we’ll better know how to lead them to Jesus. We’ll see how Christ offers hope to the hopeless, life to the dead, purpose to the purposeless, comfort for the sorrowful, and rest for the weary. As we hear the stories told around the world, we’ll hear expressions of great need, and we’ll know that our needs are ultimately met in Christ.
As we grow in our relationship with Christ, we can better determine what is of him and what isn’t, allowing us to engage the stories of this world with an ear for the echoes of the greatest story. And as we hear its echoes and whispers in the stories surrounding us, we can find ways to highlight those themes and to point to their source in the story of God. After all, we’re all following more stories these days anyway, right? Whether it’s the newest season of The Mandalorian or an early season of The Office, we’re joining the current of culture as we follow these stories, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So this week, as you watch a show or read a book or listen to a podcast, consider the worldviews, the assumptions, and the arguments being conveyed. Seek to understand the storyteller’s perspective. Consider the stories in light of the story of God. Then pray for opportunities to tell his story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever been discontent with your own discontentment?
Many life experiences can bring about discontentment. Maybe it’s your job situation. You can’t seem to find a position that fits, you aren’t being compensated for the extra work you’ve been given, or you were let go in spite of hopes to continue on. Or maybe it’s your relationship status. The relationship in which you invested has come to an end, or maybe the relationship you now have doesn’t fulfill you like you’d hoped. Or maybe it’s your church. You find division where there should be unity, arrogance where there should be humility, distractions where there should be devotion. You can fill in the blank with almost anything. Discontentment isn’t rare.
A strange thing can occur in some cases, however. As time passes, you may find yourself becoming discontent with your own discontentment. You know the Lord is your provider, that he gives peace and joy in abundance. Yet you can’t seem to shake the feelings of discontentment, and you feel ashamed. You feel as if you should be past this, as if your struggle shouldn’t last so long. You feel weak for still feeling so helpless.
True, we shouldn’t grow content with discontentment. A healthy dissatisfaction with the state of mind is right and good. However, we needn’t hold ourselves to unhealthily high standards. I sometimes feel as if I ought to stifle any emotions that have overstayed their welcome, denying or overlooking any feelings that persist beyond a comfortable time frame. But such an approach is unrealistic. We progress at different paces, adjust to new seasons in various ways, and heal more slowly than we’d like sometimes. Because of this, feelings of discontentment may indeed last longer than we think they should, and such extended seasons can humble us.
Thankfully, the solution to discontentment remains the same: the power of Christ. As Paul expressed by his personal testimonies in 2 Corinthians 12 and Philippians 4, the power of Christ enabled him to face any situation with contentment, even extended suffering. In all seasons, Paul understood that the Lord was his shepherd, his provider, his protector. Faith in this truth freed Paul from looking to anything else as a source of contentment.
Finding contentment in Christ doesn’t necessarily mean seasons will pass more quickly. It won’t make life easier. You’ll still be bummed sometimes, still be hurt sometimes, still struggle to feel okay sometimes. And I think that’s part of the point. As we feel deeply the strangeness of this world, we see clearly its inability to be for us all we’d like it to be. The insufficiency of the world reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ. So look to Christ. No matter the circumstance, look up to the Savior. In your weakness, he is strong.