We Cannot Go Back

I’ve caught myself wishing that a season of testing would end so I could go back to normal.

Normal. What exactly is normal?

In this case, it’s a time before I felt pushed, before I encountered the current set of trials, before my faith was put to the test. Normal feels safe and comfortable, or at least it does relative to now.

But I can’t go back there. None of us can. Once we encounter a test of faith, we don’t remain the same. Trials change us. Discipline grows us. And we don’t endure just to go back to how we were; God means us to keep going forward into further maturity (James 1:2-4). The Lord uses tests of faith to form our hearts and minds, sanctifying us that we might know him and love him and trust him more than we now do. And yes, the testing is difficult; that’s to be expected. In times of testing, the Lord often reveals what in us is not of him and removes it, and the removal is often painful. But the removal is necessary if we would follow him.

True, we may fight back against the refinement. We can try to prolong our time in immaturity or obey only halfheartedly. Such hesitancy may make us feel like we’re staying safe, like we’re avoiding the fearful and costly change. But doesn’t such a response change us too? The more I run, the more restless I feel. Once the Lord reveals his direction for me and calls me to move, my refusal doesn’t keep me safe, it simply makes me disobedient. And as he presses upon me to obey, I come to see that whatever I’m holding onto doesn’t ultimately satisfy me, that satisfaction is truly only found in him. His call may terrify me, but his ways are life and peace and truth. All else fades.

So maybe the goal shouldn’t be to go back to normal. Rather, maybe the goal should be to simply be faithful, no matter what comes. This seemed to be the approach of Job, who’s commended by God. Paul also seems to approach life with such a view, choosing faith and contentment in spite of difficulties. Both men found the Lord to be faithful and good, full of love and compassion. If the Lord keeps us put in one place, let us be faithful in the staying. If he calls us to move, let us be faithful in the going. In seasons of peace and seasons of pain, in times of tranquility and times of testing, let faithfulness be our constant response. And may the Lord use whatever we face to grow us in maturity, that he may be honored and that others may be better served.


Photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash

I’m not certain, but I think the title and some of the ideas I explore in this post may stem from something C. S. Lewis wrote. I don’t mean to steal anything from him, so I want to state clearly that, while I can’t trace the thoughts directly right now, I seem to recall him dealing with this topic or with something similar to it.

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.


Photo by Robinson Pross on Unsplash

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).


Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Growing

abigail-miller-RGgMsixrTv8-unsplash

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

Progress

ryan-tauss-3826-unsplash

Some seasons of life bring immense spiritual growth. Your heart burns within you as you learn new things about the Lord, about yourself, and about your place in his kingdom, and you likely will remember the lessons for years afterward. But other seasons of life bring feelings of stagnation and coldness. You desire growth, but you can’t seem to detect any progress in your journey with the Lord. I think I’m currently in the latter season. Continue reading

Transition

Another chapter closes now, and I
Lay down my pen to catch a bit of breath.
I reminisce o’er days that have gone by
And look ahead to days until my death.
Through weeks and months and years, you did unfold
The plan that brought me to this present time,
And though you took things I had hoped to hold,
Your rule has brought about a better rhyme.
I trust you with the days that are ahead;
I still will follow, though I cannot see.
Perfection bore the wages in my stead;
I do not doubt your daily love for me.
This marker on the road lifts up my face,
A testimony to your truth and grace.