Pretty much all of my life I have wanted other people's approval to a degree that hasn't always led to the best decisions. Wearing acid-washed jeans and curling my bangs sky high in high school come to mind as examples.
This desire hadn't lessened when I moved to Germany as a newlywed. I wanted my husband's family to like me, my neighbors to be glad I had moved next door, and the lady checking me out at the grocery store to think I was a great asset to the community. This might have been setting my sights a little high, but you can't fault me for trying.
I packed my suitcases full of all manner of trendy, American 90s clothing and enthusiastically landed in Düsseldorf where everyone wore black or dark brown. I remember wearing a particularly favorite outfit one fall day when I met my next door neighbor. Proudly sporting a bright, floral Laura Ashley romper (picture a button down one piece with slightly ballooning pants coming in tight above the ankle with a coordinating t-shirt underneath—there was even a matching hat, Lord, have mercy), I answered the doorbell with my husband Leo wearing a wide smile. Our neighbor, Frau Hoffmann, launched into an explanation of something in German, and since I didn't understand a word of it, I figured the best response was to give her the biggest smile I could muster so she would know I was friendly. It turned out that she was explaining to us that her husband had just suffered a massive stroke. My reaction was perhaps not the most appropriate one.
Determined that she would like me, I decided to make her some homemade cookies and bring them over. I knew that her husband had fought in WWII and wasn't really excited that “the Allies” had moved in just when he was ready to enjoy retirement. Not to be deterred by this, I headed over.
I knocked on the door, and heard her call out, “Ein Minute, bitte!” Since I spoke all of NO words in German at this point, I just waited, feeling a little self-conscious, because maybe she had just told me to come back later. But no…I could hear her on the stairs…and then the door opened. There stood her seventy-year-old self, in all her glory, buck naked, holding a little bathmat in front of her. May I stress the word little. It didn't cover much. She insisted that I come in (I could figure out what she wanted by her gestures and truly did not want her to get more expressive with her hands—she was barely holding that little bathmat in place), so I followed her naked, saggy rear end up the stairs to the second floor. She excused herself a moment, put on a robe, and came back to receive the cookies. Since she didn't speak English and I didn't speak German, the whole thing was unbelievably awkward to say the least.
And I learned a lesson. While it isn't good to spend your whole life trying to get people to approve of you, a little bit of concern probably serves one very well. I cared too much what people thought of me, but she didn't care quite enough (in my ever so humble opinion).
The place to be is in between those two extremes. If we desire to be a people pleaser more than anything, then any failure in that regard will be crushing, and criticism will derail us. But if we say we don't care what anyone thinks, we'll inadvertently put a wall around our hearts. We won't be vulnerable. And as a result, we'll miss out on true connection with people that only comes from a place of authentic openness. We need to stay in the middle ground where we aren't being a people pleaser but also aren't so hard as nails or loopy that we just don't care what anyone thinks.
We find some very good guidance about this from St. Paul in Galatians 1:10. I know this verse very well because when I was at a Bible study in college, a random person came up to me and handed me these words. Once you read them you can imagine how fab that made me feel. I'm sure my face went red and I felt totally self-conscious (as in, what did I just do that made this quiet observer see that I needed this reminder). It also opened my eyes to an area of my life that definitely needed a bit of correcting. So here is what was written on that piece of paper:
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
This verse tells us that we have to choose. Either we run after pleasing people, seeking their approval and letting their expectations dictate our behavior, or we run after pleasing God. Simultaneously pleasing all the people in our lives is utterly impossible. We will invariably disappoint someone, no matter how hard we try. By contrast, God promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). He knows our limitations and our weaknesses, and He will never ask us to do something that He doesn't equip us for. He gives grace when we are weary. He gives strength when we feel like giving up.
Freedom is found in living your life for an audience of one. Live it to please God. If at the end of the day you figure He is happy with you, that's all that matters. Because ultimately, what we'll want more than anything will be to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)
I'm praying that the choices we make—from what we wear to who we are—are all pleasing to the One whose opinion truly matters.
And I'm praying that when making those choices disappoints people we care about (and I promise you, at some point, it will), we'll have the maturity to LET IT GO.
With you in that struggle,
This post originally appeared on our blog on February 15, 2015.
I have been doing this thing for years where I spend way too much time looking at myself in the mirror. I lean over the counter and get up real close, taking my face in my hands and stretching my skin back, while calling out to my husband, “Look! See? Look at how much better I look without all of those wrinkles!” He doesn’t quite see me the same way. In fact, he thinks I look creepy with my face pulled back. What does he know anyway?
The aging struggle is real, my friend. And no, you can’t give it up for Lent.
Last week, after an emotionally draining weekend, I found myself staring back at my own reflection while running on the treadmill. Usually, I am good at tearing apart what I see. A face that has gotten way too thin. (Seriously. If it gets any thinner, both eyes will be on one side of my head like a flounder.) Grey hairs sticking straight up out of my scalp. (Why straight up, Lord?) And don’t get me started on the sagging breasts. It’s terrible that I speak this way of myself. It is actually a sin and makes God so sad. I am His beautiful creation. A masterpiece. Even if I look like a flounder.
But this time something different happened. Last week, as I ran and reflected on the arena I was thrown into and how, despite years of the battle, I am still standing, my reflection told me a different story. In fact...that just might be IT in a nutshell.
I didn't see me. I saw A STORY.
A beautiful, fierce, and strong story. A life that despite tragedy and trauma still glorifies God.
Why on earth am I just seeing this now?
The Psalmist begs, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; and give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:37).
Tell me, friend. Do you turn your eyes from looking at vanities?
I have spent years ignoring this verse and focusing on every imperfection instead. Staring at everything that is wrong and failing to be grateful for so much that is right. I have been scrolling through Instagram boxes that are filled with plump faces and toned bodies, longing for my youthful, fuller face. You know, the face I had in my youth that I thought was too full. Can we say never content?
But it was while I was running and thinking about the hard places God has called me to—the hard place I am currently standing in and the uncertainty of a future I have tried to control—that the scales fell from my eyes, and I heard a question being asked of me.
What if the lines on your face that you so badly want to erase are your roadmap to heaven?
The wrinkles of worry and fear that glide across my forehead, the deep crevices of sorrow and despair that circle my mouth, the fine lines that shoot out from my eyes like rays of light: these are not signs of OLD age. These are signs of BOLD age. These tell the story of who I am, and where I have been. These are a warrior's markings, honoring the mountain tops I have rested on, the deep valleys I have completely crumbled in, and every place in between. Like the black ink on a child's bedroom wall that charts his growth, these are my growth chartings. They are quite literally my life lines. And right there on that stupid treadmill, for the first time in my life, I loved them. I was proud of them. And I was honored to wear them.
I got on the treadmill believing I had been beaten down by life and that it showed; that I was worn out by my circumstances and that it showed. But listen up. Suffering has not handed me a worn out life, but gifted me with a life well worn. And sure, I can erase them all. I can get fillers and Botox and a really good moisturizer and wipe away my life. But why? Why would I do that? Why would I take away the visible reminder of what I have endured? Why would I hide the signs of my suffering so well?
When it is my time to go home, I want every nook and cranny of my face to speak for me; to tell the beautiful story of surrender and sacrifice and hope against hope. The story of standing strong in the battle and weathering the storm because of a house built on rock. The beautiful tale of a warrior girl who met Jesus at the foot of the cross and knew there was no safer place to be.
During Lent, I will have the privilege of co-leading live discussions on two Walking with Purpose Bible studies: Fearless and Free (with Kristy Malik) and Harmony (with Sarah Swafford). Over the past two weeks, I have started to pray through the studies and want to share with you what it has been bringing up in my heart.
Before I started, I was giddy at the thought of the prayer time I would get. I could not wait to dive into God’s Word and spend more time with Him than my busy life typically allows. As an eternal optimist, I literally pictured myself walking with the wind of the Holy Spirit next to a stream in a meadow during springtime. My expectations were far beyond reality, as usual. For starters, it’s winter and I don’t live near a meadow, but more importantly, the glories of sainthood are still far off. Only two lessons into each study, my brokenness is rearing its ugly head, and I am trying harder than usual to hide it from God.
It’s not that I’m necessarily embarrassed to let God see my failures. I know that God sees the darkness in my heart, and He loves me anyway. My desire to hide comes from the fact these are still my failures. There is no doubt that God’s goodness and mercy have completely changed my life. My behavior looks different today than it did when I was living away from Him. But it’s the deep-seated stuff, the heart-issue sins, that I can’t seem to overcome completely. How is it that I have been on fire for God for so many years and still struggle with jealousy, gossip, pride, comparison, vanity, and a whole host of other sins? How is it that the freedom and joy that I know is mine through Christ still feels slightly beyond my grasp?
I wonder if you have looked in the mirror lately and found yourself frustrated that you are not further along in your spiritual journey. Have you walked into the confessional ashamed that you are confessing the same sins? Or avoiding the confessional altogether? Are you finding it difficult to understand why you haven’t overcome your vices when you really love Jesus? Take heart, friend. You and I are further along than we think.
You may feel stagnant in your walk with Christ, like you are constantly taking two steps toward God and one step back, but His view of things is different. St. Paul reminds us in Philippians 1:6 that, “He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Even if you can’t see it or feel it, God promises us that He will bring our transformation to completion. This is a promise that we can claim even if some of that transformation is completed in purgatory.
Can we actively make better choices? We can, and we should. Should we take every thought captive to Christ and seek therapy when necessary? Absolutely. Should we put in the work to love God with all our heart, mind, body, and soul at every moment of our lives? You bet. There is no doubt that our personal choices actively move us toward or away from the kind of life God wants us to live, but the deep transformation, eradicating sin at the core of our being, is a work that we cannot accomplish.
John Mark Comer, a Christian author, spoke of this struggle in his own life in a recent interview. He explained that he comes from four generations of hyper-perfectionism and OCD, which manifests in him being a neat freak, controlling, angry, and critical of his wife and kids over a messy house. He then explained that willpower alone isn’t enough to eradicate that sin from his life—it is woven into his body at a cellular level from generations before. He said that he needs deep healing from the Holy Spirit; to be re-habituated through practices that index him toward love, peace, kindness, acceptance; and to rediscover what it’s like to live in a messy world yet be at peace.
While hiding sounds safe and trying harder seems like the natural solution, neither is helpful or effective. There is an easier, more effective way, but it requires humility, admission, submission, and patience.
To begin, we must not only admit our failures to Him, but we must recognize, without shame, that we are powerless to overcome them on our own. After we accept this, we have to submit to God. Most of us don’t like the idea of submitting to anything, but if we don’t, we won’t get anywhere. Submission requires us to overcome our pride, stay faithful, and give Him space to work in our hearts. We do this through prayer, silence, time in Scripture, and repentance. We rid ourselves of the constant distraction and consumption that often gets in the way of God’s work. We also have to leave behind the expectations that we place on ourselves and receive the healing He offers.
In the midst of all this, we must be patient with our progress. As we continue to walk with Him, He will do the work that sets us free. And when He does, we will be able to look back and see some progress. We will see that we are a bit freer, a bit more like Him. We will recognize how He was moving through those moments when we felt like we were getting nowhere. Then we can praise His name and give Him the glory because it was His power that overcame our weakness.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I confided in her my frustration with the sin that I cannot overcome. I told her how desperately I desire to live a life of total freedom in which I don’t let little things get to me, and I annoy the rest of this cynical world with a spirit of unbreakable joy. She responded by telling me that she was beginning to experience that type of freedom in her life. Some of the struggles over which she had no power had started to melt away, and she knew that she had nothing to do with it. She said that when she fears the struggles will return, she hears in prayer that the Lord has taken them away for good. He did the work, and the healing is permanent.
Encouraged by our conversation, I am refusing to hide. I am instead making an offering to God of these struggles that, yes, I still have. What are you doing with yours? Do not try to hide them. Do not try to ignore them or let them be the source of your shame. Give them to the Father; He is not surprised or scandalized that your struggles are still your struggles. He wants your holiness more than you do, and He is more patient than you are with yourself. He is walking beside you, finishing the work that He began.
 John Mark Comer. Interview with James Bryan Smith. Things Above, audio podcast, January 20, 2021. https://apprenticeinstitute.org/2021/01/20/conversation-with-john-mark-comer/.
At any point during the day, there is an alert mechanism that goes off in my brain when my house becomes too quiet for too long. It’s like a “mom radar” notifying me of an imminent disaster, and unfortunately, it’s usually correct. In our house, prolonged silence is usually the prelude to an inevitable sticky/bloody/flooded/broken mess just around the corner.
As the mom of five (virtual or home-schooling) children, age preschool to high school, I crave silence daily. I look forward to the quiet cup of coffee in the morning, the afternoon lull where I can sit down and breathe, or the evenings with my husband when we can relax and chat or watch a movie. These quiet moments are necessary, and I have learned to carve out these times in my day for my own spiritual and emotional well-being (Keeping in Balance was life-changing for me in this area). These times of silence are “golden,” as they say.
But silence is only golden until it’s not.
While creating silence can be a good thing, there are times when it can be harmful. Sometimes we choose to be silent out of fear or anger. Fear and anger can be powerful motivators with devastating effects.
Sometimes we need to say something and we don’t.
That time I could have spoken up in defense of justice or life for those who need an advocate? I silenced a voice in my head that was longing to speak up because I was afraid of what people would think of me. That could have been a moment the Holy Spirit wanted to use me to reach someone’s heart. When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.
Sometimes we need to deal with something and we don’t.
That hurtful memory from my past that I never addressed? I silenced my pain by ignoring it and hoping it would go away. My instinct to bury or sweep it under a rug only delays and magnifies the inevitable pain. As Fr. Richard Rohr says: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
Sometimes we need to hear something from God and we don’t listen.
Those times in my day when I turn to my phone or a glass of wine to escape from the stress of the day? I silence the call from God to place all my worries on him because He cares for me  by being lazy and zoning out. Those are missed opportunities to turn to God and allow His voice to penetrate my heart and mind with truth.
Rest assured, sister, this is not how God has called us to handle these situations. He wants us to live fearless and free as his beloved daughters. Walking with Purpose has an entire Bible study devoted to this truth: Fearless and Free. Through this study, we learn to recognize His voice (and therefore our true identity), wrestle with the lies and truths in our minds by taking every thought captive to Christ, and finally reclaim ground and move forward.
It’s also important to remember that we are not big enough to hinder God’s plans. He writes straight with crooked lines. All. The. Time. So if you’re like me and catch yourself silencing something that you shouldn’t, it’s never too late to open up and let God back in. To begin, we have to start by listening to the right voices. Do you recognize the Father’s voice in your life? His is the one that speaks hope, life, and direction into our lives.
P.S. Mark your calendars to join Mallory Smyth and me for live, weekly Lenten discussions of Fearless and Free 6-Lesson Bible study on Facebook and Instagram (Thursday nights at 8 PM EST / 5 PM PST starting February 18).
 Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “Excerpts From Yevtushenko Statement,” New York Times, Originally published in print on February 8, 1974. https://www.nytimes.com/1974/02/18/archives/excerpts-from-yevtushenko-statement.html.
 Fr. Richard Rohr, “Transforming Pain,” Center for Action and Contemplation, October 17, 2018. https://cac.org/transforming-pain-2018-10-17/.
 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.”
I have been avoiding writing this post for hours. I keep finding excuses to get up and walk away from the keyboard. It’s the combination of feeling like I have nothing to say and yet, so much on my mind. And my heart? Well, it’s just a confused mess. I keep thinking that the Lord is going to show up and help me carefully construct a deep, well-written blog post, backed up by Scripture and inspiring stories. And He did show up. Oh, He showed up alright. But He didn’t clear things up for me. Instead, He challenged me. “Speak from the mess. Preach from the confusion.”
And so here we go.
I have been praying the 54-Day Novena for a loved one. If you’re not familiar with the 54-Day Novena, it is a beautiful devotion that consists of saying the Rosary for 54 days in a row. The first 27 days are said in petition—asking Mary for her prayers for a particular intention. The remaining three novenas, said over the last 27 days, are in thanksgiving—whether or not you received what you brought to prayer. This is my second time praying the 54-Day Novena for the same intention. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of me feels like the first go at it “didn’t work.”
Last Sunday, on day 27 of my novena, I received a call at 2:00 AM. If you’ve ever received a call at 2:00 AM, you know that rarely is it ever good news. And do you want to know what the very first thing was that came to mind? “It is day 27. The asking is over.”
Just a few hours later, I slipped out of my bed, lit a bright fire, and on bended knees, began the second portion of my novena—the thanksgiving. There in the glow of red and orange flames, I thanked God for answering my prayer, despite the fact that the phone call tempted me to believe quite the opposite. And yet, in that moment, this was not difficult to do. I am a firm believer that some things need to get worse before they get better; that the breakdown always precedes the breakthrough. This was just more breaking down. I fully believed that my prayer was being answered. That it had been answered. It just didn’t look like it from where I was sitting. And so I clung onto hope and resisted the doubt, choosing to walk by faith and not by sight.
Only God sees the bigger picture, after all. With my head bowed in humility, I accepted my sliver of the story and continued whispers of thanksgiving.
But today? Today, thanksgiving feels hard. Today feels like nothing is happening. And if something is happening, well, it feels like moving backwards, away from the prayer. And if you know me at all, you know that I actually prefer being in chaos to feeling like nothing is happening. Chaos allows me to feel like I can still control things. But nothing? You know what nothing does? Nothing ushers me into the waiting room, asks me to take a seat, maybe offers me a cup of coffee, and then...it leaves me there. And oh, how I try to fill nothing with something.
I know! I will listen to a podcast!
I know! I’ll get out my essential oils and make rollers to give away!
I know! I’ll make a phone call!
I know! I’ll get myself a bowl of almonds!
I know! I’ll make a pot of coffee!
I literally did all of these things, practically at the same exact time, because hello lack of focus, so nice of you to join me in my state of nothingness. Have a seat and feel free to confuse me even more! But praise be to God, for He truly can work with anything! Today, it was through the voice on the other end of the phone.
“Have you been silent before the Lord?” she asked. And then she continued, “So often I think that I am praying, but what I am actually doing is repeating my worries over and over to the Lord. Telling Him, ‘I don’t want this’ or ‘I can’t do that’...minimizing all that He can do.” (And yes, I grabbed a pen and paper and made her repeat that because it is GOLD.)
Honestly, friends? No. I have not been silent before the Lord. I am praying my novena and reading my Bible, but silence? As in, just sitting? Not speaking? Not asking for something? No. I have not done that. I have been repeating my worries and calling it prayer.
Forgive me, Jesus.
Perhaps the nothingness I feel today is actually God’s invitation into the silence. It is so hard for me to slow down. I am addicted to projects and filling the space, because it gives me the feeling of being in control while taking my mind off what I have zero control over. And when I do this, I so easily forget that my prayer—that one thing that I repeat over and over again, as if the Lord has forgotten...as if He forgets...as if He isn’t on it—is a battle that belongs to the Lord. And no matter how much I keep trying to convince God that He really needs my help with this, He hands me a day of nothingness instead of promoting me to the fourth person in the Trinity. He reminds me of my nothingness. And He invites me to be silent so that He can speak.
Do you have trouble sitting in the silence before the Lord?
Is waiting on the Lord not at the top of your “fun things to do today” list?
Do you prefer chaos to nothingness?
Are you repeating your worries over and over again and calling it prayer?
If you answered yes to any of these, you are not alone. And while I am no expert at waiting in the silence, I do want to share with you what my friend and I have chosen to do in case you’d like to follow along. For the next 30 days, we will be setting aside 20 minutes a day for nothing but silence. Yes. I said 20 minutes. I know...it’s not going to be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. And we have kept the plan super simple.
Will distractions creep in? You bet. That is why I will dump everything out into my guided prayer journal before I begin.
From the time that I sat down to write until now, a steady snowfall has begun. Birds of gray, red, and white are flocking to the feeder, storing up seeds before the storm. And me? Well, I am going to pour another cup of coffee and marvel at the quiet that is literally falling from the sky, blanketing the earth in perfect silence. And it is right here in the nothingness that I will wait; wait and listen for the Lord.
Speak Lord. Your servant, at long last, is listening.
I’ve had many spells of homesickness over the years. Typically, I’d try to soothe myself by looking at houses online in the town where I grew up. I imagined what it would be like to move back to Duluth, Minnesota. Could I relive all the comforting memories? Would my desire to belong finally be satisfied if I could go back to those familiar people and places? Maya Angelou writes, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” This makes sense to me. Maybe you long for roots, too. Considering how often extended families no longer stay close together as jobs and preferences transfer people to different parts of the country, I doubt that I am alone with these feelings.
I felt this homesickness most acutely when I lived in Mexico—in large measure because I was surrounded by the most beautiful display of family traditions that I’d ever seen. Families, by and large, stayed close geographically, with weekly gatherings for comida where multiple generations stopped their activities and devoted the afternoon to each other. I admired it from the outside looking in because my family was far away. At that time, I also felt I was rattling around within the Catholic Church. I was a card-carrying member, but I didn’t feel like I belonged. I had a sense that there was an inner circle, a set of behaviors that I wasn’t clued in on, and a heritage and vocabulary that I wasn’t born with, which meant I was destined to be on the outside. This lasted far longer than anyone would have guessed.
But Jesus met me in the pages of Scripture no matter what country I was in or how disjointed my life felt. I might have felt disconnected from the familiar, but I found safety and steadiness in those timeless, sacred words. These were years when I put my roots down deep into God’s Word. In the pages of the Bible, I encountered a Living God who drew me close.
And yet, I didn’t realize in those years that there was more. God wanted me to experience a spiritual family that stretched across the globe; a shared worship where, no matter where we found ourselves, we all turned our hearts to the Lord and prayed in unison, reading the same words of Scripture. He wanted me to continue to experience His words as “sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103), but to do so nestled in the heart of the Church.
This is the gift that Franciscan University of Steubenville has given me, and it’s a grace that’s been extended to me without me having to move. I still live in Florida, and that vibrant community is in Ohio. But the university has created an online experience that has been absolutely life-changing for me. For years I have wanted to delve deeper in the study of theology, but I couldn’t see how I could possibly find the time. With seven children and now in-laws and grandsons, my life and schedule are full. I work full-time in ministry, write, travel, and speak at conferences. How on earth could this dream of further study be possible? And was it selfish to pursue it? I played around with these thoughts for years until one day I realized that if I had just taken one class at a time, starting when the dream began, I would now be done. My degree would be in hand. And so I applied to the graduate school and began the journey toward my Master's in Theology.
This program was developed for people like me who are pursuing their studies while living full lives at home and in their careers. Is it demanding? Yes. I have to be self-disciplined with my time. But the way the classes are structured has made it possible to keep it all in balance, and the rewards far exceed any sacrifice I am making. I remember taking undergraduate religion classes in college and leaving them feeling more confused than anything. Franciscan offers an entirely different experience. The theological gaps are being filled in for me, explanation and proofs are being given, and my faith is being strengthened. The more I learn, the more my appetite grows for more.
It occurred to me the other day that I no longer had the same ache to belong that I used to struggle with. This surprised me, and I tried to figure out when that changed. I realized it was a gradual change—not something that happened overnight. It was one of the fruits of my study at Franciscan. As I have seen how Scripture is the soul of sacred theology, I’ve also seen how it’s within the heart of the Church that it truly comes to life. The pieces have come together for me. The richness of our faith started to unfold for me as phenomenal professors have made theology understandable. They’ve made sure their students don’t just learn truth, but also grow in love for Christ. My questions are being answered. Doubts are being settled. What I feel in class after class is an overwhelming sense that it’s all true. The ache has been satisfied.
This doesn’t mean I never hop on Zillow and picture myself living in my old stomping ground. But it does mean that I feel grounded and welcomed right where I am. If this can be accomplished in an online experience, I can only imagine the fullness of the experience for students on campus. To give credit where credit is due, I must thank Franciscan University of Steubenville for welcoming me home and making me feel like family.
P.S. I invite you to explore all the online graduate programs offered by Franciscan University of Steubenville. It’s never too late to embark on a new educational journey!
At six o'clock this morning, I rolled out of bed and sleepily made my way to the coffee maker. I poured my coffee, as I do every day, and settled into my favorite chair. It was prayer time—my favorite time of day. As usual, I began to fall back asleep in the middle of my prayer. Instead of dreaming, however, my mind began to mull over a million tiny grievances that others have committed against me. I am not talking about deep-seated anger or long-harbored grudges, but rather, small annoyances that come from the dirty cup left out by my husband or the imperfectly worded text from a friend. It's these offenses that leave me thinking, "Doesn't he know that I like to wake up to a clean kitchen?" Or, "Doesn't she know that a quick phone call would have solved this problem?" By the end of my prayer time, before anyone else in my house is even awake, I am trying to work my way out of a bad mood. So much for holiness. I guess I'll try again tomorrow.
Can you relate? It's not that you are always mad or even seeking to hold an action against someone; it's just that you often think that someone else could have been more considerate or accommodating to your needs. If they had just tweaked their words or actions by the smallest degree, they would have met your expectations, and all would have been well. But they didn't, and now you are going through life experiencing low-grade grumpiness because of all the people who didn't meet your secret expectations and desires perfectly.
Dear sister, if this is you, there is no judgment. It is clearly me, too. We live in a culture that teaches us to be easily offended. Now, please don't misread this. I am not talking about the issues of justice and equity that ignite a passion in us all. That is not what this post is about. I am talking about small offenses. Most of us go from day to day slightly offended by the family member who said the wrong thing, the friend who forgot to call, the coworker that didn't communicate properly, and the rude coffee shop barista.
Why is it that every imperfect interaction has the power to pick and prod at our confidence and flare up our entitlement? Genesis 11 reveals to us the root of this problem. The people of the ancient world came together and said in Genesis 11:4, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered all over the earth." The Lord then saw the city and the tower. He got angry, confused their language, and scattered the people across the earth.
Where did the people go wrong? They came together and said, "Let us make a name for ourselves." In their effort to seek out the greatness of their own names, they turned their gaze away from God and His glory. They bought the lie that humanity is the center of the universe, and it is our glory that should be sought at all costs. They failed to see that it was God who gave them their place in life, and they turned their heads away from Him to focus on themselves. Their desires and expectations became the main focus. Romans 1:25 explains it this way: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator."
Part of our problem is that we have the choice to make God the center of our universe (the truth) or make ourselves the center of the universe (the lie). When we place ourselves in the center, everything and everyone becomes subject to our preferences. When they are not met, it makes sense that we would be offended because we see our own preferences as the most important.
Luckily, in the very next chapter of Genesis, God shows us a better way to live. In Genesis 12, God revealed Himself and His plan to a young man named Abram. God told Abram, "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing" (Genesis 12:2).
Did you catch the difference? In Genesis 11, the people were out to make their own names great. In Genesis 12, God told Abram that He would make his name great. Abram received God's blessing, and he recognized that God is the center of the story, deserving of all the glory. Abram was part of the story, but he wasn’t the center. It is the same with us. We are part of God’s story—not the center of our own.
Who is the center of your universe, the star of your life? Many of us acknowledge God with our lips, but then live as though it is still all about us at the end of the day. It is not. It never was. Every single thing, even our own good, is ultimately about Him and His glory.
There would be a welcomed change in the state of our spirits and tone of our relationships if we moved out of the center and let go of our expectations. We would experience a fresh freedom if we stopped tending to our own greatness and reminded ourselves through unceasing prayer and radical generosity that God’s preference matters most. He will do what He wants with our hearts and our lives if we will only step aside, let go of offense, and join in with the saints and angels, whose unceasing focus is on the One who is worthy of all.
P.S. I loved leading our live discussions through Beholding His Glory and Beholding Your King on social media last summer and fall because both Bible studies focus on God as the center of history. Join Kristy Malik and me on Instagram and Facebook this Lent as we lead a live discussion on the Fearless and Free 6-Lesson Bible study (Thursday nights at 8 PM EST starting February 18). Our focus will be on God as the center of our hearts and how He leads us to healing and wholeness.
What a start to the year. Just when we’d packed away the Christmas decorations and swept away the pine needles, chaos erupted. Some might say things have gotten worse; others would say it’s always been this messy, and we’re just seeing more evidence of what lies below the surface. Regardless of all that I see that is not right, my faith tells me that there is much that is right, and I need to build on that. I don’t know about you, but I need to have a fresh attitude as I journey through January, even if my circumstances haven’t changed much.
This has led me to delve into some reading about the virtue of joy. If you’ve spent much time in a Walking with Purpose Bible study, then you’ve already encountered the truth that joy is not found in a perfect state of affairs. Whatever it is that we think will guarantee happiness is simply the next rung on an ever-expanding ladder. We never get to a place where enough is enough, and those who keep trying to get there end up disappointed and often bitter. But even when we understand this lesson and know that perfect circumstances will never be our reality (they won’t satisfy anyway), we can still find joy to be elusive.
We’re promised in Galatians 5:22 that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, which means it’s a gift given to us—something supernaturally infused into our being. That being said, I think that for many of us it resides deep down in the soul, so deep down that it doesn’t make its way up to our faces. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens described one of his characters as a woman “who called her rigidity religion.” Sadly, there are quite a few examples of this in our day as well, but that would never have been said of Jesus.
Jesus has gone before us and gives an example of how to live joyfully in the midst of unrest and severe hardship. We read in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” We’re encouraged to “consider him” so that we don’t “grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). St. Catherine of Siena’s words, “All the way to heaven is heaven,” suggests that it is possible to follow His example.
What do we do when the way to heaven doesn’t feel very heavenly?
Where does joy come from, and how can we get it to bubble up so it’s our lived experience, rather than a virtue just out of reach?
And does it really matter?
What’s at stake if we lack joy?
In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson wrote about a friend who was a dean in a theological seminary. He would occasionally call a student into his office to share these words:
You have been around here for several months now, and I have had an opportunity to observe you. You get good grades, seem to take your calling to ministry seriously, work hard and have clear goals. But I don’t detect any joy. You don’t seem to have any pleasure in what you are doing. And I wonder if you should not reconsider your calling into ministry. For if a pastor is not in touch with joy, it will be difficult to teach or preach convincingly that the news is good. If you do not convey joy in your demeanor and gestures and speech, you will not be an authentic witness for Jesus Christ. Delight in what God is doing is essential in our work.
St. Teresa of Calcutta said that “joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” Our authentic witness for Christ is on the line. We are what He has chosen to work with, for better or for worse. We are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). So how do we grow in the virtue of joy? I have discovered three things that are currently helping me in this regard.
#1: There is joy in obedience
The equation “joy = obedience” is one I was taught as a young child, and I am so grateful for it. There’s so much that we cannot control, but we can always choose how we respond to our circumstances. While we don’t know what God thinks about every subject, there is a tremendous amount that we do know in terms of how He wants us to react and behave. When we live in such a way that we can end our day knowing we did all we could to obey God, a deep sense of satisfaction results. We remain under the umbrella of God’s eternal protection, and this brings us an abiding joy, uncoupled from our circumstances.
#2: There is joy in managing expectations
One of the biggest barriers to joy is unmet expectations. Things don’t go as we hoped, and discouragement sets in. But what if the expectations were problematic to begin with? I have found that when I’m disappointed, it’s good to examine my expectations by asking myself the following questions:
What expectation did I have that’s not been met?
Was that expectation based on a promise of God that I can find in Scripture?
What should I do to change the expectation?
What can I learn from this that will affect my expectations in the future?
#3: There is joy in Jesus
Jesus is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). He is joy itself. If we really believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist (John 6:51), if we really believe the He is present in the body of believers (Ephesians 1:22-23), if we really believe that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there (Matthew 18:20), then we need to really pause and consider what we are missing if we are not gathering for worship. We need Him. If you haven’t been able to go to Mass since the pandemic began (I know this varies from diocese to diocese), then you are going to feel that absence. He is not absent, but one of the primary ways He infuses us with joy is something that, for many, has been out of reach.
So let’s cling to Jesus in whatever way we can, trusting Him to fulfill His promises. This is the path where joy is found.
Grace and peace,
 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (New York: Heritage, 1939), 198.
 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Dowers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 191.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” Isaiah 42:3
I sat down to write an inspirational reflection on resolutions for the new year. But within five minutes, my seven-year-old's head got slammed by a door (his sister needed PRIVACY), the one-year-old wanted to sit on my lap as I typed, the sixteen-year-old's basketball carpool left without him, and the timer started going off telling me dinner needed to be taken out of the oven. This lovely collection of events made me decide that my New Year's resolution is simply to keep my head above water.
How are you feeling as you head into this new year? Are you tired? Are you in greater need of encouragement than of someone raising the bar and encouraging you to try to reach it? If that's how you're feeling, I want to remind you of the gentleness of the Savior we love and serve. Centuries before Jesus's birth, the prophet Isaiah spoke prophetic words about the Rescuer who was going to come to save us all. “A bruised reed he will not break,” wrote Isaiah, “and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” If your heart feels bruised, if your life feels like a “faintly burning wick,” then this promise is for you.
So many of us have an image of God as one who sets a high standard and gets disappointed and perhaps angry when we don't meet it. Is this really who God is? I don't believe so. God knows our limitations. He is very familiar with our weaknesses. While people in our lives may have unrealistic expectations of us, God sees the whole picture and the degree to which we are trying. And when we're weary, He comes to us with arms of comfort, eyes of understanding, and lips that speak encouragement. When we are weakest, He asks that we rest in His lap and lay our head on His strong shoulder. He doesn't want to see us broken; He came to restore us.
This is the heart of the gospel. God saw the chasm that sin created between us. He knew that no matter how hard we tried, we'd never be able to achieve the perfection required to be in His presence. Instead of telling us to jump higher or try harder, He stooped down, and said, “I'll do for you what you can't do for yourself.” Jesus, who had never sinned, allowed all the sins ever committed to be placed on His shoulders. He paid the price of sin so that we wouldn't have to.
Jesus's sacrifice cleared the way so we could have a personal relationship with God. This is a privilege offered to everyone, but enjoyed by relatively few people. Do you know about Jesus, or do you know Him, personally? I don't ask this question as a rebuke, but rather as an invitation. He's inviting you to draw closer.
Once we know Jesus personally, we never need to be lonely again. We no longer have to worry about being perceived as too emotional when we pour out our hearts. We don't have to worry that our private concerns will be gossiped about if we share them with Him. He is the most intimate, true friend, connecting with us—body, soul, and spirit.
Because of Jesus, we can let go of the “try hard life.” We can rest in His all-sufficiency. We can ask the Holy Spirit to run through us like sap in a tree, nourishing us and doing in and through us what we can't do for ourselves. Now that I think about it, that sounds like the best New Year's resolution of all.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God…be glory…now and forever!” Jude 1:24
Happy New Year!
This post originally appeared on our blog on January 1, 2014.
Nothing highlights my family’s failures and shortcomings like the Christmas season. The picture-perfect greeting cards of families in matching pajamas and those carefully crafted Instagram boxes that look like ads for Anthropologie (some of which are ads for Anthropologie) are fun to look at for about two seconds. Then the doors of comparison swing wide open and envy floods in. My attitude toward my “lived-in, cozy home and blessed family life” takes a fast turn, and suddenly all I can see is the cat vomit on the stairs, the dog pee on the couch, and the empty chair at my dinner table. Throw a dash of 2020 seasoning into the pot of imperfection and you’ve just made yourself a recipe for utter disappointment.
What is it about the Christmas season that can make our families feel more broken, more dysfunctional, more imperfect than any other time of year? What is the perfect family anyway?
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are our model for the family, and, as far as I can tell, they did not have the perfect family or the perfect Christmas. Not by our standards, at least. They had no money. No extended family around to help Mary give birth. No baby shower. No matching pajamas. Mary was a pregnant teenager on a donkey with a husband who failed to make hotel reservations ahead of time. And her baby? He was born into a total mess—and I am not even talking about his line of genealogy (which, by the way, includes prostitutes and murderers)—the literal, laid in a manger with no crib for a bed mess! And don’t even get me started on the smell of the animals she gave birth next to. If I were Mary, I would have looked around at my tiny mess of a family and thought, “Really, God? This is what I get for being obedient?”
It was far from perfect. And yet, it was God’s perfect plan.
This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family. Pay attention to that. The Holy Family; not the Perfect Family. God isn’t looking for perfect families, you know. I doubt He’s even looking at Instagram. What He desires are holy families. What makes a family holy? Families that are obedient in their poverty. Families that surrender to the will and purpose of God. Families that understand suffering is, as Bishop Barron says, “God’s point of entry,” and “it is always in that suffering that we find our mission.”
So let me ask. Did you find your mission in 2020? Because talk about suffering!
I learned something this year, something only a year like 2020 could teach me. The imperfections in my family—the sufferings that a “perfect Instagram life” seem to magnify—are what bring me to the foot of the Cross. The mess I so desperately try to pray away and cover up with matching pajamas is necessary because it is the suffering that offers me the opportunity to stand with our Blessed Mother Mary; to unite my sorrow with hers and our pain to Christ’s. And good grief, I know how that can sound horrible to someone who doesn’t know and love their Heavenly Mother and Father, but for me I’ve got to say that there is no safer, more beautiful, more perfect place to be. In all of my family’s imperfection, I discover the path that God calls me to when I meet Him at the cross. It is not the path that leads to the perfect life I want, but the path that leads to the holy life that I need. Look, 2020 kicked our butts for sure, and I am by no means making light of that. But if all we are looking at is what went wrong, we are going to miss everything that God set right. His lessons are always hidden in the most unusual and often painful details. He wastes nothing. He makes no mistakes. He knows perfectly well what He is doing.
As eager as we all are to hang up 2020 and press on ahead into better times, let us not be fooled into thinking that a new date on the calendar is going to magically change things. I am more than certain that what I suffer from and find imperfect on December 31 will still be what I suffer from and find imperfect on January 1. If the new year is where you are placing your hope right now, might I suggest you spend some pondering time with Mary and dig a little deeper. Because the new year is not what will change us. Holiness is.
And so my prayer for all of us as we approach the new year is this: we quit trying to be the perfect family and make holiness our goal. How? Pray for your family. Pray with your family. Love your family, mess and all. Because the mess is not only why Jesus was born but where He chose to be born. The mess is where we meet Jesus.
Wishing you and your family a very happy, holy, messy and imperfect new year.