Last week, it was my turn to be on Instagram stories for Walking with Purpose. What do I have to say this week? I thought. I know; I’ll ask our audience if their week isn’t going according to plan because mine certainly isn’t. And then I’ll say something like, “Sister, I’m right there with you.” This was my brilliant idea to be “relatable” until I realized I had posted that exact message only a few weeks earlier. A pattern had emerged.
I am not a planner, but I like plans. And I like it all the more when my days follow the plan. Plans make me feel ordered. They give me peace. They make me feel productive and bolster my self-esteem. When I am acting within a plan, my identity feels strong. I am a good wife and mother. I am a good employee. And gosh, I really love Jesus Christ. The problem is that my life follows the plan only about ten percent of the time.
My life most often unfolds somewhere between the plan and total, utter chaos. The most important things get done but not without a major dose of stress, mess, and repeated promises that things will be different next time. And how does this make me feel? Well, first of all, hot. I’m running around so quickly that I am just hot. But I also feel unglued, out of balance. I feel like a failure, and my identity begins to waver. I would be a good wife and mother if... I would be a better employee if... And I love God, but I keep failing Him.
Are you with me at all? Do you do well when your life goes according to plan but begin to fall apart when you fail or the plan falls apart? The problem with this is that life so rarely goes according to our perfectly laid agendas, so if we submit ourselves to this cycle of happiness, we will find that we rarely experience true joy and contentment. Could many of us be more intentional about how we organize our time? Absolutely. If we did this better, things might be easier, but life is messy on this side of heaven. And so, if we are going to live the abundant life that God offers, we will have to do so even if our best plans and our greatest intentions fail. We need a different perspective.
Two years ago, my husband and I attended a marriage retreat, and I will never forget our teacher’s advice. “Your marriage will fall out of balance,” he said. “There is too much life happening for it not to. The key is not to obsess about always being balanced; it’s to always be balancing.”
Always be balancing. This was such good advice—not just for marriage, but also for how we respond when life doesn’t go according to plan. If the goal is to always live in perfect, holy harmony, we will constantly feel defeated. But if, instead, we recognize that life is a process through which we allow God to sanctify us in every situation, we can take joy in the whole thing—the good and the bad; when things go smoothly and when they don’t. We always have the opportunity to recalibrate, refocus, and reset our eyes on God.
Proverbs 16:9 says, “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
Scripture also tells us that God’s thoughts are above our thoughts and His ways are above our ways. In our broken, finite state, we only see what’s in front of us. We make decisions and plans based on our limited knowledge, and then we assess the outcome with a myopic view of success. Our God is different. He sees all from eternity. He looks at every moment of our lives and sees it from the clearest perspective. He knows how to make us holy and bring Himself glory. And so, instead of giving in to our negative thought spirals, God calls us to continually bring our gaze back to Him. He orders what is disordered. He brings beauty out of tragedy and good out of evil.
And this is exactly what we will celebrate at the end of this week. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, thought they had a good plan when they sinned against God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That plan failed miserably, and the consequences were dire. And how did our Lord respond? By sending His son to live, die, and rise again. In doing so, He tipped the scales from death to life and brought us back into His perfect balance. God’s infinite mercy brought about His perfect plan, Jesus. And now, He draws close to us, using every life circumstance to make us more like Him if we let Him.
So, if you tend to fall apart when your plans do, take heart. If you get discouraged when you fail, be encouraged. Your mood, self-worth, and happiness do not have to depend on the success of your plans. Instead, when things go haywire, let that initial feeling of panic immediately drive you to refocus on Jesus. Redirect your gaze to Him, and He will bring you back into balance.
As a Catholic newbie, I think the biggest mistake I make is trying to figure out God. I sometimes can't help asking myself (and Him) why things happen the way they do.
To be fair to myself, it is human nature to ask, to wonder, to want to learn. Even though my pastor reminds us on Sundays of “the mysteries of faith” (chanted in his delightfully off-key voice), the mystery-solver in me just can't seem to let some things go. And by some things I mean the bad things; especially the bad things that happen to good people.
I've been thinking a lot about Sue, a woman in my parish who has four children, and who has the worst illness I think I've ever heard of. Sue has ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is very rare, affecting fewer than 20,000 people a year. It is a devastating disease in the way that it attacks the body, and there is no cure.
I haven't seen her since she was diagnosed in December. I've been thinking about her a lot recently, though, and wondering if she thinks the way I do. Is she asking God why-why she must suffer so horribly? Sue is Catholic, and I wonder if her faith is being tested or if it's what gets her through it all.
Sometimes I picture myself in Sue's situation, and I test my faith in an imaginary way. If I told you that I could be 100% buoyed by my relationship with Christ and the promise of eternal life while fighting a terminal illness, I'd be lying.
Over the summer, I ran into a friend at a party who gave me a quick update on Sue, which birthed in me an almost manic need to write Sue a letter. I thought constantly about the letter I wanted to write and agonized for weeks about the words I'd choose. Clearly, phrases like “you'll beat this… you're strong... you have the best doctors” wouldn't work at all, and standard get-well-soon sentiments just don't apply when you're fighting a losing battle with ALS.
Could I find the right words in the Bible? I seriously considered googling “Scripture verses for sick people.” Then I decided one night as I lay sleepless, deep in thought about Sue, that Lisa Brenninkmeyer (founder of Walking with Purpose) would have the right words for my letter.
The next morning I turned to the Walking with Purpose Bible study Opening Your Heart (authored by Lisa), and specifically to Lesson 15, which is about the role of suffering in our lives. I expected to be able to pluck Lisa's favorite Bible verse related to suffering right out of Lesson 15, and scrawl it onto a notecard for Sue.
In her wisdom, Lisa writes in the introduction to Lesson 15:
“I don't know about you, but when I am in the vise grip of suffering, I don't really want to hear someone whose life looks a heck of a lot easier than mine quoting Romans 8:28: 'We know that all things work for good for those who love God…'”¹
Fair point. I read on.
“When we encounter suffering, nothing robs us of peace like expectations.”²
We expect to understand God, Lisa says, and when we don't, confusion shreds our faith. We expect God's definition of happiness to be the same as ours, but when things go wrong, we wonder if He cares. And we expect to see evidence of God when we need him, but often, he remains invisible.
Opening Your Heart Lesson 15 is five days of learning, Bible study, and reflection. After taking in this lesson a second time, and clearing my heart and mind of all those expectations, I came out of it with a tremendous sense of peace. And I wrote a card to Sue and put it in the mail.
I should tell you that I didn't find words for Sue in Lesson 15, but I found peace and comfort for my heart, and a clear mind to come up with the right words all on my own.
I told Sue she was an amazing mother, that her four kids were terrific (which they really are), and that I was praying for her.
PS: After I finished writing this blog, a well-known truth from Scripture landed in my email in-box. I find it so comforting and feel compelled to include it here:
It is the Lord who goes before you; He will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
¹ Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (July 2018), 173.
² Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (July 2018), 174.
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
God's been doing some building in my life that has definitely caused me to wonder why He's “knocking my house about” in this way. We're in the midst of our transition from Maryland to Florida, and the number of things that have gone wrong left me sitting in the Hobby Lobby parking lot yesterday, crying my eyes out. Too much change, too much chaos, too many needs, and too little routine have not been a happy combo. For a little while, I told myself that God was teaching me to not let the little things consume me. Then I reminded myself that this is an opportunity to grow in patience. The thought that earthly frustrations help me long for heaven encouraged me for about five minutes, but at least that was something! But when we found out that our attic is full of rodents and there are poisonous snakes in the backyard, I echoed C.S. Lewis' words, “What on earth is God up to?”
Maybe you can relate. Perhaps you are experiencing a season of life when you feel tested and it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under you. Just when you feel you've reached your limit, something else happens that's really overwhelming. There are hardships that we can make sense of, and then there are circumstances that leave us utterly perplexed as to God's plan, and that is a weary, achy place to be.
As much as I don't want to hear it, the truth is, God's plan is bigger and better than my own. His vision for you and me is far greater than the best game plan we can come up with. God is building us into a palace that is fit for a King. The beautiful thing is, He doesn't wait until it's perfect to move inside. He takes up residence when it's still messy and under construction, and starts to do a transforming rebuild from the inside out.
So what should we do in the midst of the pain and discomfort? These are the three tips that are keeping my head above water at the moment.
I know how impossible this sounds in the midst of chaos. But without this time of filling up and connecting with the One who loves us, we are TOAST. We might make it through the day, but we won't do it graciously or with inner peace. Write out what you're feeling in a prayer journal. God cares about your emotions. Then ask Him for whatever is the antidote to those needs. Read a little Scripture. The following verses might be consoling: Psalm 18:2; Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 63:9; Lamentations 3:22-26; Romans 8:18; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-10. I have found the devotional Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman to be a great comfort.
When our circumstances are overwhelming, our need for everyone around us to just behave goes through the roof. The smallest things start to irritate us much more than they normally would and the desire to let frustration out makes blaming others pretty tempting. It's important to remember that everyone's just doing the best they can and that everyone's got their own pain. Within a family, we need to remember that we're all on the same team. Cutting each other slack and giving each other the benefit of the doubt is really important during stressful times.
It's amazing how much better you can feel after a good cry. Sometimes you just need to get alone, have an ugly sobfest, then wash your face and put your make up on again (because walking around splotchy faced will only depress you more). Then look for some little happy thing you can do. It doesn't have to be big, but try to build something into each day that just brings delight.
As my mother told me today, this too shall pass. And each thing we endure does have a purpose, and is being used by God for something good. I'm preaching this to myself, friends. It's a hard pill to swallow when we just want things to get easier, but the truth is, when the palace has been built and we're able to see what God was up to in the midst of our trials, it'll all be worth it.
“For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
2 Corinthians 4:17
Blessings in Christ,