You call me to surrender,
to lay down the desires of my heart
I would rather you take them from me,
for then my part would only be
to accept what I cannot change.
To give me a choice—
that is a difficult test.
But let me be found faithful.
Help me to trade treasure
for greater treasure,
the fleeting for the lasting,
to sit through the eclipse
None who wait for you shall be put to shame.
I’m not sure God means for us to take advantage of every opportunity presented to us. True, he gives us good gifts and leads us in restful places. I don’t believe he enjoys seeing us suffer. But we know from Scripture that following Jesus means denying ourselves and embracing a more difficult road than we might otherwise walk. Self-denial will require us to say “no” to some things. So how do we know when to say “no”?
In part, discernment is a process of surrender and submission to the Lord. As we present our bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, we choose “not [to] be conformed to this world” but choose instead to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” (Romans 12:1-2). We discern through testing, evaluating our options in light of our renewed understanding. And this process is ongoing. We deny ourselves daily, submit to the Lord daily, seek to be renewed daily, and discern the will of God daily.
I’m no expert in this process. I’m still learning, still practicing, still failing often. But along the way, I’m learning some signs that help me determine when I need to say “no” to something. Below are two that I’ve noticed in my own journey recently.
First, I’ve noticed that when I’m wrestling internally with a decision or am trying to rationalize a decision, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m considering. I draw this in part from Romans 14:23: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If I have doubts about something, I need to be very cautious about pressing forward. In some cases, I need to spend some more time praying and discerning before making the decision. Often, though, I already know I need to say “no,” but I recognize that doing so is a denial of self I don’t want to make. When I’m wrestling with uneasiness about something I want to do, or when I try to justify why the choice isn’t a bad choice to make, I probably need to say “no” and surrender my desires to the Lord.
Second, I’ve noticed that when I’m avoiding accountability or running from the Lord, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m chasing. I draw this in part from James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The restlessness that makes me want to run is a sign I’m not doing something the Lord wants me to do. I’m failing to rest in the Lord, failing to trust the Lord, failing to obey the Lord. The lack of peace I feel in such times is a red flag. Peace with God is a big deal for me. If I feel like I’m off, even in the slightest, I’ve learned to be extremely cautious about moving forward with a decision and to evaluate my heart before the Father.
I’m not always good at discerning the way forward. I second-guess myself often, doubt my decisions, question possibilities. Lately, I’ve felt more distress than peace, and I’m still trying to figure out why that is. But I’m learning to walk, step by step, in greater faith and obedience. I want to be faithful, even when faithfulness means saying “no” to my desires. And to that end, I’m trying to be more sensitive to the Spirit and more attentive to these signs, all for his glory and my good.
David’s example challenges me.
Yesterday morning, I read a few chapters in 2 Samuel. In chapter 5, David sought the Lord before two different encounters with the Philistines. Each time, God answered and gave direction, though his guidance was different each time. David listened and found victory.
In chapter 6, as the ark of the covenant was brought into the city, David danced before the Lord, worshiping and celebrating. Though his wife criticized him, he defended his actions as being done for the Lord alone regardless of who may have witnessed him. The Lord appeared to justify David here.
In chapter 7, the Lord made magnificent promises to David. David, upon hearing the word of the Lord, responded in humility and reverence. He prayed confidently in light of the promises of God.
Throughout David’s life, we can detect a pattern of reverence and obedience. God was central and primary to David’s life, Lord over all of his ways. David sought the Lord before he went to war, refrained from acting against God’s anointed, and lived with a recognition that God ruled over all things.
Of course, David wasn’t always faithful. We see him tempted to take vengeance when wronged by Nabal (1 Samuel 25), though we see too the faithfulness of the Lord in that story. Later, we see David fall to a host of sins, with devastating consequences (2 Samuel 11-12). Yet in spite of the depth of David’s sins, he consistently returned to the Lord, understanding that, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). Even when he strayed, David eventually returned to a place of surrender.
The stories of David’s sins are instructive in that they illuminate how our own sins often work. If David’s strength was his commitment to keep the Lord central and primary in his own life, his weakness was his tendency to let something else take that central and primary place. So too with us. We err when we place anything else as first in our affections. Leisure, pleasure, comfort—each have their proper place in our lives. When we elevate them above their rightful places, however, shifting our hope from the Giver to his gifts, we move our entire trajectory from the pursuit of the Lord to the pursuit of self.
But David’s heart for the Lord is a worthy example for us. Let us be people who hold the Lord higher than anything else, who keep him as central and primary in our lives. Let us be people who seek him first, love him first, and order our lives around him. Let us be people who see God as God and who respond accordingly.
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.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”James 1:2
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.
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.
Confession: I wish you would do my will,
For I would rather not surrender all.
I would prefer more say in what you call
Me to within your kingdom. Only kill
Those parts of me with which I wish to part.
Pick from the list I curate, then begin
To excise only my unwanted sin,
But leave the rest lest you disturb my heart.
O weak desire, false freedom, foolish dream.
Such service would be fiction, for the throne
Would be yours in name only. Lord, remove
Me from my central focus and redeem
All places where my heart is still like stone.
In grace and mercy, pardon and reprove.