Has God ever asked something of you that feels really hard, and you look around and feel a little singled out? Do you see other people who seem to have it easier, and you wonder why He's asking so much of you and seemingly letting them get away with less?
God loves us too much to leave us where we are. He always draws us closer to Himself, and in doing so, gently reveals things that need to go or need to be gained in order for us to make that spiritual journey. This is the process of growing in spiritual maturity. It's an intensely personal process; no two journeys are alike. What God asks of one might not be what He is asking of another, and as a result, obedience can sometimes feel lonely.
But we aren't alone. St. Paul encourages us on the spiritual journey with these words:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1).
Who are the witnesses he's talking about?
Let me start by telling you who I'd like the witnesses to be. I'd like them to be every person in close proximity to me geographically. I'd like them to be every person I brush shoulders with. I'd like them to be every person whose opinion really matters to me. I'd like to be continually surrounded by people who witness to the goodness of my choices. “Way to go!” “The sacrifice is worth it!” “You inspire me!” This is what I want to hear.
But all the people here on earth that we know and love aren't the people St. Paul is referring to. The witnesses of Hebrews 12 are the saints that have gone before us. They fought the good fight, they have finished the race, they have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). They are now in heaven, looking down on us, and cheering us on. They are shouting from heaven, “It's worth it! I know that everything on earth seems all important, but once you get here, every sacrifice will be rewarded and the sufferings will pale in comparison to the joy you've got in store!”
This scripture passage challenges us to embrace our particular race. Not the race your best friend is running. Or the course God set your sister on. It isn't the one your husband is running, either. It's YOUR RACE. It's your particular spiritual journey to heaven, and God has handpicked certain surrenders, certain struggles, certain obstacles that are the exact best means for you to grow more like Him and spend eternity with Him.
Jesus wants us to keep our eyes on Him as we run towards heaven. If we turn our focus to the left or the right, checking out how our race is comparing to someone else's, we're going to trip and fall. And we're going to lose all the joy that is promised when we obey. It's said that obedience equals joy, but when we begrudgingly obey and then compare our hard lot in life to someone else's apparently easy circumstances, that joy will be ever elusive.
In John 21, Jesus had just described Peter's particular race. Jesus shared that Peter was going to be used to shepherd the early church, and that Peter would ultimately be led somewhere he didn't want to go. Then Jesus looked him in the eye and said, “Follow me.”
Did Peter jump up and say, “Yes, Lord! I'm going to fix my eyes on you and run the race you have marked for me?” No. Peter gestured to John and said, “What about him, Lord?”
Jesus didn't satisfy Peter's curiosity by filling him in on what John's race was going to look like. He spoke firmly to Peter and said, “What concern is it of yours? You follow me.”
Run YOUR race. Don't look to the left or the right. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Run YOUR race.
Will there be times you feel lonely? Yes, there will.
Will some of your surrenders be unique? Yes, they will be.
Will some of the people you love most question whether it's necessary for you to be so “sold out”? Will some even think you have taken things way too far? Yes, that will happen.
But remember when Mary Magdalene brought her precious ointment in the alabaster jar, and sacrificed it as she poured it over the feet of Jesus? Judas sneered and mocked at her sacrifice, saying it was unnecessary and worthless. But Jesus looked into her eyes and said, “No. It will be remembered.”
And the same is true of our sacrifices and surrenders. God sees them. He sees them as a sweet offering to Him. It isn't necessary that everyone around you applaud your decisions. Live for an audience of One. Live for the pleasure of the One who made you and who gives you your every breath.
May blessings pour over you as you run -
This blog post originally appeared on the WWP website in October 2014.
As long as I can remember, I've journaled my prayers. This is how I start my time with God each day. Some people consider journaling a form of naval-gazing. I've looked at it differently; it's the way I bring my feelings and emotions to the surface and ask God to heal and order them. I know He wants a relationship with my real self- not some artificial, cleaned up version of me. When He longs to see me walk in freedom, He knows that it's going to involve my heart, not just my behavior.
A good friend of mine shared the questions she was prayerfully journaling each day, and I decided to give them a try. Most of the questions were thought provoking and interesting to pray through. But one stopped me in my tracks, because I didn't know how to answer. The question: “What are you dreaming about right now?” I wracked my brain. What was I hoping for personally? What was I dreaming might be in the future for me? I couldn't think of anything, and that felt really weird and somehow wrong.
It wasn't that I wasn't praying and hoping for anything. But I was cautious when it came to praying big dreams. That didn't feel safe. That felt like I was setting myself up for disappointment. And wasn't it selfish to think about myself? It felt wiser to keep my eyes on reality and stay away from the land of possibilities. I felt too aware of all the things that could go wrong to trust that God might want to do something beyond my wildest imaginings.
This isn't the only area in my life where I've noticed my hope is running on fumes. There are people I have loved and prayed for years, asking God to break through the walls of their disbelief and to draw them to Himself. And nothing has changed. From what I can see, they are just as closed off and disinterested in Him today as they were the day I started praying. And my prayers for them are becoming less frequent. I'm starting to give up because they aren't progressing according to my timetable. I start to wonder why I am bothering. I've started to listen to the lie that things are never going to change.
The truth is, it can be hard to find hope. Some of you know what I'm talking about. You've prayed for something and believed with all your heart that God will come through for you. And then you wait. And all you hear is silence. And all you feel is discouragement. And the promise in John 14:14 (“Ask anything of me in my name, I will do it”) starts to feel like a cruel joke, a bait and switch. So our hearts grow a little bit cynical. We don't want to be naïve. We're smarter than that. We can see the obstacles. We're very good at assessing our reality, and adjusting our expectations accordingly.
There's nothing wrong with seeing things as they truly are, but when we lose the ability to see life through eyes of faith and limitless possibility, our hearts harden against God. Our trust in Him weakens. Bitterness can set in. We may continue to pray, but our prayers become mechanical. Our hearts aren't engaged. We're going through the motions.
So how can we learn it's not hard to find hope again?
The journey back to hope begins with taking a close look at the heart of the Father.
Is our Father's heart for us? Does He love us with the kind of attention that cares about every detail of our lives? Is He only concerned with us as an “end product of holiness” or does He care about our passion and purpose, too? Does He care how we feel in the midst of our struggle, or is He just waiting for us to learn the lessons that come from hard knocks?
Lean in close here and listen, because this is a truth we need to grasp deep… your Father loves to give. He waits to be asked. Perhaps He is whispering to you the words of James 4:2 (NIV), “You do not have because you do not ask God.” He wants you to come to Him like a little child. Think about the way that children ask. They ask for the moon. They don't stop to think about what is possible. And how do most parents respond to those requests? We want to give. We stop to make sure that what is asked for is for their good, and when it is, we want to move heaven and earth to give it.
“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:11)
The journey back to knowing it's not hard to find hope begins with taking a close look at the heart of the Father.
Your Father has already proven that He is for you. He has already proven that He will hold nothing back if it's for your good. You only need to look at the cross to see the proof of His love.
But keep looking. The cross isn't the only place you can see evidence of your Father's heart. Where have you seen evidence of Him taking care of you? What answers to prayer have you experienced today? Open your eyes.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude will help you to keep your eyes on the heart of the Father and His never-ending involvement in your life. It will break the hold of cynicism on your heart. It will open you up to the possibility of hoping again. It will give you the courage to dream. And in doing so, you'll come to know your Father's heart.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
Note: This is part one of a two-part series on turning our hearts to heaven when we feel it is hard to find hope. The second part can be found here.
*This post first appeared on the WWP website in November 2014.
As a mother of strong-willed toddlers, I was instructed to “pick your battles.” Now, as a mother of strong-willed teenagers, I still follow this instruction. Having held a full-time job as “Ultimate Enabler” while working a part-time position in the field of “Keep the Peace and Sweep it Under the Rug,” I usually base my “picking” on what will produce the least painful and uncomfortable response.
The battle I chose not to pick this past summer was the battle of “asking my son to turn off his rap music while driving.” As I was navigating my way through a season of parenting that made the hours I spent at Chuck E Cheese look like a Bermuda vacation, asking my son to turn off what was downright offensive meant risking the ounce of peace I was desperate for. What can I say? I was weary. I had no fight left in me. “I can tune it out and pray the rosary,” I thought. I reasoned that God understood I simply did not have the emotional capacity to fight over something so...trivial. Were the song lyrics written by the devil? I am certain. Was the music good for my son's heart, mind and soul? Not so much. Did approving of such a thing contradict my morals, and all the good I am called to model for my children? You bet. So, you might be wondering, why on earth did I allow it?
Because, sometimes? Sometimes my own moral compass is easier to follow than God's.
I think we all know the difference between good and evil. But wouldn't you agree that at some point, our knowledge of right and wrong will be put to the test? Our culture certainly has its own set of standards, and all too often I convince myself that if I only compromise once in a while it's not such a big deal. Surely there are more extreme evils in the world than this. I figure God must understand.
And I am right.
God does understand.
But understanding is not the same as approving.
And He more than understands...He sees and knows exactly what I am doing.
What am I doing?
Dancing with the gray zone.
I want so badly to take credit for coining this phrase, but the truth is, it is taken from a quote by author Lisa Brenninkmeyer, out of her Bible study, Beholding His Glory. A study I am having difficulty putting down because it is just that good. She writes, “So often we dance with what we consider to be the gray zone. These are the little things that we know aren't particularly good, but we doubt whether we really need to take them seriously.” (1)
I do this, and maybe you do, too. I nominate myself to be my own moral compass because I think I know better. Because I do not believe the consequences matter. My standards are a whole lot easier to live up to than God's standards. And in the moment, it works. I drove miles by my son's side, listening to the catchy song that, ironically, began with the lyric, “I got standards…” and we arrived to our destination with minimal argument and discomfort. So what's the big deal? If it cost us nothing and gained us peace, I ask...who cares?
God, who endured much pain, fear, and discomfort, all in the name of carrying my shame, so that I wouldn't have to.
That's who cares.
And you know what?
Deep down in my core, I care, too.
And the only way I know to fix this; to stop justifying unholiness, to stop sweeping supposedly small things under the rug is to “sit in the presence of the One who knows and loves you deeply, and to allow Him to reveal to you the areas of where compromise is costing you.” (2)
Because we are compromising, it does come with cost, and we need to start trusting in His definition of good and evil, throwing away our own. The only way to arrive at this place of trust is to stop believing the world's perception of who God is and allow God's Word to tell us who He is. We need to marinate ourselves in Scripture and get to know personally and intimately this God who we are assured to never fully understand, but who proves His faithfulness over and over again. We need to stop avoiding fear, pain and the uncomfortable, and embrace every bit of it, just as He did for us. If you find yourself doubting in God's promises; if you believe that your sin can provide a better life for you than God can, if you find yourself dancing with the gray zone, please take this as a gentle and loving, but serious warning, and make this the very moment you turn things around. Make this be the day you evaluate the standards you live by.
I finally told my son that we would no longer be listening to his music in the car; that I, like the rap artist, had standards...God's standards...and he needed to respect them. And I know this will sound silly, but it was a hard thing to do. I was afraid that by my rejecting his music, he would think I was rejecting him. But if there is one thing I can promise you, any decision made out of fear is going to be the wrong decision. I can also promise you that God never asks us to do anything hard on our own. He is with us every single step of the way and He knows we don't always understand the why, but He asks us to trust, anyway. He loves us so deeply. If you ever question this, might I suggest you take a long, hard look at the cross. Those are our sins, our nails, our crown, our tears. Christ took our shame so we won't have to hide. And He never counted the cost. So living by His standards? Not always easy. But always worth it.
And we continue to drive. To the tune of silence, down unmarked roads, dancing out of the gray zone, and back into the light.
Your Sister in Christ,
P.S. In what area of your life do you find it hardest to accept as good what God has called good, and as evil what He has called evil? How often do you stop and listen to the reasons behind God's perspective on it? I highly suggest picking up a copy of Beholding His Glory to delve into these topics. While you are at it, go on and listen to the playlist that goes along with the study - music that is good for your soul and meets God's standards!
1 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Walking With Purpose, Beholding His Glory (2010-2016), p. 24
2 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Walking With Purpose, Beholding His Glory (2010-2016), p. 25