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"...faith that moves mountains."
If only, we think, we had such faith.
Jesus was very gentle with His disciples when they humbly and simply acknowledged their lack of faith in Luke 17:5: "Increase our faith." Jesus' response was encouraging--"If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."
Cryptic as this sounds, it is the same response that Jesus gave to the father of the demon-possessed son in Mark 9:14-29. This father was at his wit's end; exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster the disciples had put him on--getting his hopes up yet again, the bitterness of disappointment, the hopelessness of failure, the pain of seeing his son suffering still. He was hurting. He was confused, broken, and needy. "But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."
He wasn't even asking for healing, now. He did not know how much he could expect--or how much more disappointment he could take.
Like that father, many of us struggle with disillusionment, disappointment, bitterness, pain. Perhaps we feel betrayed by the church or let down by its people. Perhaps it seems foolish to cling to the belief that God is good, and will continue to be good, when our lives seem dark and hopeless. Perhaps we have been hurt deeply. Perhaps we feel like we have to sacrifice our desires and dreams to follow Christ. Perhaps we feel like God has not provided for us, has not blessed us, has ignored our most heartfelt prayers.
The answer is not looking for an explanation in reason, in theology even. Feeling guilty for struggling to trust, for struggling to have faith, yet being unable to emotionally and mentally reconcile what we feel and what we claim to believe. Becoming cynical and bitter, and telling ourselves we were naive to expect anything else. Or shrugging it off in despair as "something only reallyyy spiritually mature people will be able to have."
Jesus challenged the father directly on the root of the problem. Not assuring him He could heal his son, not explaining why His disciples couldn't, or demanding why he couldn't trust more, but probing him to examine his heart. "If you believe, all things are possible for those who believe."
At times like this, there is no shame in coming to Jesus exactly as we are. Confessing our doubts, our wounds, our lack of faith--but most importantly, our desire not to stay this way.
"I believe; help my unbelief!"
And with that--more of a plea for help, a confession, than a declaration of faith as we might expect--Jesus answered him. He healed the boy, with one sentence.
At first, the healing was not obvious. A terrific struggle. A brief moment of stunned tension.
"Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, 'He is dead.'"
Is my son dead? Has God, after all, shown that He cannot be trusted? Has God, after all, struck me with the blow I cannot bear, shown a merciless hand to me at my most vulnerable point?
"But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose."
The dramatic effect of this line reminds me forcefully of that other (famous) verse in the Bible: "Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning." (Psalm 30:5)
It is not "how much" faith we have, as we tend to think. In both cases Jesus' reply subverted what we would expect by reinforcing that it was not how much, but more of are you willing. It was not an equation, a recipe, where x amount of faith was required to produce a reaction; but an attitude of the heart.
Even if it is only as much as a mustard seed. Even if there is a good dose of unbelief struggling mightily with it. Are we willing to bring it all humbly before Him, to show it to Him, to ask Him for his help to supply not just our need but the faith we lack?
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It is no secret that one of my besetting sins throughout my life has been impatience.
I grew up listening to my mom constantly telling me that my personality traits of being independent, organized, and task-oriented also fed my weakness of impatience. When my mind is fixed on finishing a task, clearing my to-do list or squeezing in one last item before I wrap up, everything else takes a back seat, and anything which threatens to get in the way becomes Public Enemy Number One. I get short-tempered and snap easily at those who are too slow for my pace, since I work (and talk--and read--and move, apparently) at a rapid pace.
With a sigh, I wrote patience down on my prayer journal as one of my goals for 2018--and 2019--and here I am, seemingly without any obvious improvement, still working at cultivating this elusive virtue. Why is it I wasn't getting anywhere? I would think I was fine for a stint, then something would happen--some situation would catch me off guard, or some person would just be "too much!!"--and it would happen.
As when dealing with any other habitual sin, it's not a straightforward master-this-level-and-move-on-without-having-to-deal-with-it-again matter, handy as that would be. You think you've overcome this besetting sin, broken this habit; then a few weeks--days--hours--later when you least expect, it hits you. And we get discouraged, when our self-control and discipline eventually prove insufficient.
This was where Walter Henegar's advice from his little booklet on procrastination came in handy.
All along, I had been focusing on the actions themselves--the isolated incidents of impatience. I lost my temper just now; I spoke sharply and dismissed someone who I felt was taking too long; and so on. However, this meant reinforcing a pattern of guilt, of examining myself when it was already too late.
Henegar describes how he too used this approach at first when dealing with his own habitual sin--procrastination. Like me, he quickly got discouraged, tempted to blame external situations for his regular lapses, and struggling with guilt yet without any real sense of hope in breaking out of this cycle. Eventually he realized that the right approach was to examine the sinful attitudes in his heart which were the root of the problem, rather than fire-fighting the manifestations.
Though our respective habitual sins seem polar opposite, I came to the same conclusion as Henegar when I tried examining the root issues at heart of my impatience: pride. Pride in prioritizing my own agenda before people, before opportunities God had put before me. Pride in assuming my methods were better and others inferior if they took up more time. Pride in relying on that sense of achievement and success as my fulfilment and self-identity, rather than what I had in Christ. Pride in being unwilling to accept and trust in God's plan and God's timing for my life, and instead steamrollering my own plan and own timings.
Realizing this transformed the way I prayed about my struggle to be patient. Instead of the well-intentioned but vague Lord help me to be more patient today (which I often forgot by the time I finished praying, and which definitely did not come to mind in time when needed later on in the day!), I found myself praying about the attitudes and priorities in my heart. Lord, help me to love others more than I love the adrenaline rush and sense of gratification I get from clearing my to-do list. Help me not to be blinded by my agenda to Your hand directing me to Your work. Help me to seek Your purpose and Your timing today, rather than mine. Help me to change the sinful attitudes I accept so unthinkingly, and to be transformed heart, soul, mind--and to-do-list!
Instead of a guilt-driven pattern of sin spiraling into despair, this enables a grace-driven, humbled, yet hopeful understanding of our hearts, empowered for true change as we work at overcoming our habitual sins, and more deeply than ever aware of the grace and power of God, and where we stand before Him.
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Sometimes life seems too much to bear.
We want to give up. Hide. Escape. A great weariness fills us--weary of struggling, persevering, labouring on.
I dreaded these times because that weariness itself often made me feel worse about myself. Was this proof that I was a wimp, that I was weak, fragile, and incapable of dealing with life like everyone else seemed to be? Proof that I was a feeble Christian, lacking the peace and assurance that we ought to have in Christ. That my faith was a flimsy thing, wilting at the first breath of trouble. Why was I so easily plunged into despair?
In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul talks about this exact same feeling: "burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life." However, he goes on to identify what this feeling is--the "sentence of death," or sin, in us: "Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us." (verse 9-10)
Times like these remind us that this body--and this earth--are mortal ones. Sickness. Damaged relationships. Failures. Disappointments, in ourselves or others. They make us see the pervasive effects of sin everywhere, and teach us to long for things as they should be; for Heaven.
But more than that, they teach us not to trust in ourselves, not to think that the outcome of our lives depends wholly on ourselves. Which leads to enormous pressure to ensure that every decision is the right one and that no mistakes can be afforded, feeling that failure is always lurking around the corner; a crippling and intimidating mindset to approach life with. Instead, we learn to trust in God, Who in sending Christ delivered us from the ultimate death, and since then ceaselessly, tirelessly, continues to deliver us daily from the power of sin, from the sentence of death that continues to plague us in the old man. Since His power over sin and death was proven once and for all in Christ, we are enabled to hope that this is not a losing battle, as much as it may feel like it at times.
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I'm so frustrated and discouraged with my writing right now.
One rejection after another. Is it the formatting? Is it the enigma of the wrong match, the wrong editor for this specific piece, is the magic fit still out there, one submission away, three more submissions away?
Is it just because those few pieces were poor quality? Should I have rewritten them one more time, changed the ending, tried a new genre/stayed in a familiar one?
Am I just one of those countless nameless wannabes who ten years down the road will be smiling wryly and shaking my head at the naive me who was so convinced that this was "my field"--?
Am I just lazy? There's no concrete definition for "hard enough." You could always work harder. You could always be more disciplined. You could always push yourself further. You could always write more, edit more, polish more. Kafka and Kenneth Graham worked fulltime bank jobs which they hated and then came home and wrote into the wee hours of the morning; I don't even come close to that level of dedication, do I deserve to have expectations then?
Was I, all these years, simply deceiving myself?
Scribbled on my phone notes, just a few months ago, these bleakly honest questions came at a moment when I was struggling with despair--to be more accurate, tired of struggling with discouragement, tired of trying to be hopeful, optimistic, tired of trying hard when there didn't seem to be any success. Tired of trying again, for the third time--for the tenth time.
I think we're all familiar with the cliche of the aspiring writer, sending submissions desperately in hopes of finding that one-in-a-million-editor who will see potential in their work. I myself grew up accepting that these horror stories (that's really how they seemed to come across) as the inevitable reality of being a writer. After all, it seemed like every single famous writer had to be able to boast of ignominious beginnings. How many rejections. How many failures. How many editors turned them down. All the writing help books and advice for writers I read without fail included a section explaining to you that it was absolutely necessary to be turned down a hundred times, and I cheerfully accepted this as a formula almost. Hit one hundred rejection letters and you'd be bound to get accepted, somehow! With this mindset, I thought I was well prepared to take the leap and join the hordes of wistful aspiring writers trying to find takers for their armfuls of manuscripts.
All the same, discouragement was inevitable, and I should have known it. The year is drawing to a close, the year which I had so confidently intended to be the first year I could *really* focus on writing, without school to distract me (hahaha I somehow never thought that work could be distracting too??) and I find myself without any clear indications of progress, no open doors--not even a toehold--no shadow of opportunities. Seemingly, I haven't moved forward since the beginning of this year, despite multiple submissions, new work, and different strategies.
I thought I was mentally prepared for this, but the reality is that discouragement still hits. Hard. An editor sends a rejection email without knowing that it could be the tenth one you've received for that particular piece, or the second one you've gotten within a week. It's hard not to take it as an unequivocal judgment of your worth, and to maintain perspective.
And for a while, I struggled with despair. Panic. I've been thinking of this, dreaming of this, working towards this, heck, building my whole identity on this--for my whole life. Now that it doesn't seem to be working out, what do I do?
I prayed urgently, desperately, pleadingly. Please God, grant me some encouragement. Please give me some sign that yes, this is where I belong, this is what I ought to be doing. Please let me achieve this dream. Please give this to me--please. And in the wretchedness of my hurt dreams, like so many of us when we're conflicted, I questioned His goodness.
A fragment of a sermon I heard recently spoke gently to me, right when restlessness and discouragement threatened to turn into bitterness.
We were all born with desires. Many of them. This isn't necessary a bad thing either, contrary to what some people assume. But what we need to be careful of is when we turn these desires into needs. When we think we can't live without it. When we believe that our happiness and well-being is dependent on achieving it. When we feel that God cannot be good without first granting it to us. Though it varies between individuals and circumstances, the line between desires and needs is one that perhaps we haven't thought of examining more closely.
Are our desires dictating our lives as if they were needs? Uncontrolled or excessive desires lead us to sin, though we may not like to think of it--or to acknowledge to ourselves that that's what it is.
Instead, our real needs should be what we prioritize, what we plan our lives around, what we consider when we think of fulfilment, contentment, happiness. Our real needs--the most significant one of which is our need for God...
...to be continued
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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