image by Marcelo Vaz from Unsplash
This past period, I find myself struggling with discouragement. Learning on the job. Adapting to a new, busier schedule. Working with new people and new challenges. Unfamiliarity, insecurity, a lack of confidence. Not that there's anything earth-shaking about this. It's the standard experience of starting a new job, a new phase in life, in managing new responsibilities while maintaining existing ones. Basically what every young adult faces as they try to be financially independent and navigate the workplace and this whole thing about being grown up, am I right?
I wondered why I was feeling so burnt out and discouraged. I knew I already had it much better than so many of my peers, and knowing that made me feel like a wimp--I couldn't even indulge in a wallow in self-pity, to put it wryly.
Every morning as I went through my devotions I would open my Bible and hope vaguely that my eye would fall on something encouraging, something comforting, something to remind me that I wasn't alone. And most of the time as I flipped through it looking for the book I was currently studying with Search the Scriptures, somehow Psalm 18 would be what I found myself looking at. A specific part of psalm 18, at that--the middle section (...mostly because I happened to have some post-its that covered the beginning and end, anticlimactic as that sounds)
If you too have been struggling with similar feelings of discouragement, inadequacy, and insecurity, do take the time to turn to this psalm.
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.
28 For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
At a time like this, pride and humility become even more relatable. Often we feel anything but proud--we feel painfully, cringingly humbled, forced to face our limitations and inabilities.
Or maybe our stress comes from the unthinking pressure to do it all and do it well. From our reluctance to accept that we can't. From our pressure to impress others, to do as well or better than others. And the pride that underlies all those concerns.
Maybe we need a reminder that this humbling experience is not so much proof that we failed, but windows for God's grace and our growth.
Maybe we need to realize that the root of our stress is pride.
Maybe we need to consider that instead of pursuing efficiency, success, multi-tasking, praise, competency, and a nice steadily growing bank account--there are other things, quieter, subtler things. Mercy. Blamelessness. Purity.
29 For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
30 As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
31 For who is God, except the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?
I remember the first time I saw these lines during this dry season of discouragement. The reckless scale of David's lavish, military-esque imagery took my breath away.
Running face on towards a troop of armed hostile soldiers, alone except for God?
Vaulting over a wall in one of those breathtakingly effortless gravity (and current body state) defying leaps that you see in Chinese wuxia movies? (I'm afraid I honestly came away with the rosy delusion that as long as you trained hard enough, you really could pull those off. I came back to earth when I saw BTS footage revealing the wires and ropes involved, and felt vaguely--no, not betrayed; just more discontented that I wasn't living in the JiangHu*)
*the world as structured by different sects and martial arts communities; the background of most wuxia and xianxia epics
By my God...
Not by trying harder!
Not by being more disciplined with my time!
Not by persevering and gritting my teeth!
Not by sleeping less or doing my best to adapt--
...which are legitimate but often overrated and overused means we resort to in order to try and get more control over our lives.
And it is at this point in life, facing these specific challenges, that I really relate to David's emphasis on courage throughout the Psalms. Courage was a very real and necessary quality for someone with his adrenaline-pumped, political and military high-profile background and context. Fighting for your life, never quite sure when someone might try to poison you or stab you in the back (literally) or which battle would be your last.
Situations most of us can't relate to today. But we need, among many other more obvious things, courage for living. Courage to face uncertain futures. To bear the consequences of our decisions and mistakes. Courage to try and fail, to pursue dreams, to develop and maintain relationships...
I remember, from Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, Amanda telling her chronically shy daughter: "I've got to put courage in you, honey, for living." That phrase sometimes echoes in my head whenever I feel that crippling sense of dread--fear--self-doubt. Courage for living.
32 It is God who arms me with strength,
And makes my way perfect.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of deer,
And sets me on my high places.
34 He teaches my hands to make war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
And there you have it!
How much more clearly could David have phrased it?
I particularly love the imagery here. Every word choice reflects David, the shepherd boy cum warrior cum king, used to the rough, merciless, unpredictable surroundings of nature, the battlefield, the court. And yet every word choice likewise speaks to me. Strength to arm me for what I don't want to face. To make my way, with the grace and sure-footed agility of a deer, through a rocky and uncertain path at a dizzying height. To be gifted the skill and talent my hands lack so conspicuously now, to be enabled to do the impossible--
Elizabeth George Spear wrote a moving book set in Jesus's time about a young blacksmith struggling with faith, bitterness, hatred, and loss. She uses this specific verse and points out how impossible it is to bend a bow of bronze. Remember how much trouble it was to bend Odysseus's bow? That would have been a bow of wood. Basically, David's reckless metaphor of a bronze bow is declaring that God can enable us to do anything. Anything.
35 You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
36 You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.
Help that is both very personal and very applicable. And gentle. Oh, so gentle. I clung to this verse especially. Yes, I need to grow--I need to learn--but deal with me gently, please, Lord. My heart feels like I can't take very much right now.
Again, the imagery of finding your way--not stumbling in the dark, frightened and slipping and bruising yourself; unsure if you're lost or not. A "perfect way," as in verse 32. And I appreciate how it is specified this time: God does not just give us the ability to travel our paths, (as in the previous verses) but also "enlarges" it for us, making it easier for us, so that our feet do not slip.
He enables but He also accommodates. The God behind 1 Corinthians 10:13; the God Who knows us in a deeply personal way, and Who understands our limitations and weaknesses to an extent that is soul-searchingly humbling, and liberating.
image by Ryoji Iwata from Unsplash
I can't handle everything.
To be honest--I'm overwhelmed.
When I look around, other people in the same situation as me seem to be thriving, to be managing everything.
I'm struggling so hard but the results that I get hardly pay off--do I just have to work even harder?
Am I a wimp for feeling like I'm overwhelmed, when I already have it so much better than some people?
Am I dumber than other people? Why do I feel like I'm working so hard, am so stretched already, yet I can't seem to get everything done?
How do they do it?
Why can't I do it?
I don't have answers for these questions either. I often hear them whispered in my head, see them written in the eyes of others when they share about how their week has gone, in the sighs, in the sleep-deprived eyes and the helpless shrug, "well, what to do about it?"
Since I reached the end of my course and started looking towards the future, an attractive vision hovered in my mind's eye. In it, I'm able to manage the different jobs I'm currently working at, learning and honing new skills while I affirm my strengths and what I enjoy. I'm disciplined--I get up early every morning, spend time with God, exercise, and get in a good block of writing before I go out to teach. I diligently work at a running list of writing projects, pursuing my dream to be a published writer while serving actively in church, caring for my family, earning my keep, and developing my own business. I manage to balance all these commitments through the magical formula of hard work, efficiency, and discipline--I am happy, productive, useful, enjoying my work and excelling at it. And of course, eventually, after an impressive amount of hard work and perseverance, that long-awaited acceptance letter comes and everything makes sense...
I close my eyes and see this image get yet more faded, yet more unreal, as it seems further and further away from reality.
Feeling confident, in control, and on top of everything is seldom the means God uses to bring about growth.
The problem is that we tend to equate "excellence" with "glorifying God."
Glorifying God in all we do means it extends to much more than simply "excellence"--a problematic term already once you consider how we understand it. Excellence as defined by ourselves? As defined by our society? As defined by our boss, our co-workers, our peers, our parents, our role models? What exactly is the excellence we're striving at, building our lives around, and why did we decide to settle for this particular definition?
And once we accept it, we end up being sucked into a constant, vicious cycle of comparison, trying frantically to match up to the definitions of success and happiness held up for us, trying to squeeze ourselves into this mould and wondering why it hurts when it--doesn't fit.
Worse--feeling like God isn't helping you by giving you the supernatural time and strength you asked for. Feeling like you're failing Him, for not managing to do it all gracefully and happily, for not managing to be the role model others can point to. Wondering why it's so hard; feeling guilt and resentment and helplessness all mixed together.
Glorifying God often has much more to do with acknowledging our need of Him, our brokenness, our longing for something greater than the hum and buzz and shiny lights of our life here--than with achieving our society's definition of a balanced life, of a successful career, of a functional family. Even though that may seem the most straightforward and logical way of glorifying God to us, with all the best intentions in the world, we serve a God Who has "chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and...the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.." (1 Corinthians 1:27)
When we let His strength be made perfect--not in our strength--but in our weakness.
We glorify Him most in the way we react and respond to what each day brings us. Especially the failures. The struggles. The routine. The tears in the dark, the weariness, the dreariness. Those parts you are the most ashamed of, the parts that the world would least envy and admire, are the most precious to Him. The most significant.
Those are the times when He is the closest, when we are closer to understanding fully just what it means to have Him, because we are closer to realizing how much we need Him.
The next time you feel hopelessly out of control, overwhelmed--consider that feeling confident and in control (desirable as that is) is the direct opposite of learning to put our faith in God, and trusting Him to work out our lives, to provide for us.
How else can we learn, if we do not first realize how inadequate we are?
My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.
2 Corinthians 12:9
image by tim marshall from Unsplash
"He will be their peace."
Peace has been on the top of my mind recently, simply because of the lack of it.
When a friend initiated an app-based Bible study, I didn't hesitate suggesting a study topic. Anxiety. Worry. Fighting for peace. Yes, please.
As the study discussed, those emotions of anxiety and worry--if you break them down--stem from fear and lack of trust. Sure enough, if you consider, the fear we face is basically the fear of what is beyond our control: limitations, external situations, etc.
We're afraid that we can't manage everything.
We're afraid that despite our best attempts, we won't win the love and respect of others.
We're afraid of rejection, of failure, of unfulfilled dreams.
Of pain, without any hope of painkillers.
Of grief that doesn't go away.
Of losing something we can't imagine living without.
And this reflects the self-reliant, self-centered mentality that is so ingrained in us as our instinctive coping mechanism for our life here--full of tragedy just around the corner, of devastated hopes one hair's breadth away, of happiness so fragile that we can only hope hopelessly for it to last. We're terrified of losing control, of being helpless, being uncertain. We rely on our efforts to control our lives but don't dare to acknowledge that it won't, can't, be enough.
Which clearly shows us the link, as Christians, between a lack of faith (in the One who is in control, though we aren't) and a lack of peace.
It's easy to say that we need to "trust God Who is in control"--too easy to spout another vague abstract statement about His sovereignty which only gives us a greater sense of how far off we are from achieving that peace we want so desperately.
And that very naturally leads us to the age-old question: how to increase our faith? Though we pray to God about our problems they still harass and burden us with worry. We echo the heartbroken father in Mark 9:23-25; "I believe; help my unbelief!"
As someone who is struggling with this issue now--present tense!--who is very much treading water at sea, not as someone waving nochalently from the shore, high and dry--I believe we need to realize two things.
Firstly, a deeper understanding of and love for God. Before we can actually apply our abstract knowledge about His attributes, power, sovereignty, etc. We may know and believe that He is powerful, that He's in control, that He holds all things in His hands, (and there, I've almost composed a Christian hit song.) But let's be honest, those are cold comfort when you're lying awake at 2 am trying to sleep while your heart is throbbing uncomfortably, your head is swimming with worry and apprehension for tomorrow, and you wonder drearily if a good cry would help disperse the cloud of anxiety, exhaustion, and fear--but no, you got to sleep, you need your sleep, the last thing you need is to be sleep-deprived...and you lie awake miserably for another two wretched hours before falling into a restless sleep filled with bad dreams of your teeth falling out or being endlessly chased by serial killers. All right, maybe we don't all have the same experiences of being stressed.
The strongest, most absolute trust does not necessarily depend on the ability of the one trusted but rather on the relationship you have with them. I would feel more comfortable trusting my sis than a prime minister--powerful as he might be, however much I believe he's sincere about helping me. Does that make sense? Perhaps not logically, but then when were human emotions logical?
It's a good time to ask yourself what actually is your personal relationship like with this God who is in control.
How much do I actually love and know Him, aside from how much I know about Him?
Secondly, realize our anxiety and worry stem from the nature of our priorities.
It's hard to manage our anxiety and fears when we're convinced the sum total of our happiness and fulfilment depends on them.
We all know the difficult verses like 1 John 2:15; "Do not love the world or anything in the world." Turning from that verse to examine our lives is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things any pastor could do to his congregation.
Which brings up another uncomfortable but related question: what does it mean to be spiritually minded?
We need to strive, as a long-term goal, to define our happiness less and less on how things work out on earth. Not just when dealing with worry and anxiety, but throughout our lives; the sunbathing, beach holiday times as well as the shipwreck survivor dog-paddling in the middle of the ocean. To have a long-sighted view of ultimate happiness that we're moving towards, that we can start to enjoy even now regardless of what happens to us during our time here. To let our understanding of Heaven transform the way we understand life here.
Still dog-paddling in the ocean, taking life ten seconds at a time, but knowing that behind the fog surrounding us lies the shore--however faint it may look now--a solid and dependable shore.
Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash
Reading casually through Micah chapter 4, I absorbed a depiction of peace. Unity. Restoration. Healing, contentment. That most beautiful line--"every man under his vine and fig tree"--brightest of all. What a calming and comforting passage.
It was only when I read Search the Scriptures' prompt that I realized--for the first time--that the same passage was also predicting the fall of Zion and the exile of the people.
Only passingly mentioned in this chapter, the devastation and suffering it entailed would take place before the peace pictured here, and be the context from which God would deliver His people.
And that was sobering. To know that so much war, violence, heartbreak, and despair lay just around the corner, and yet, at the same time, to know that that was not the end--that in God's eyes, that was only the setting for the greater, overarching, lasting deliverance of His people.
Perhaps you are in the midst of experiencing a spiritual or emotional equivalent of the war and exile in this passage.
4 But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever.
You long for the peace, the healing, the restoration, the contentment that Micah depicts. The confidence and comfort of God's presence. The sense of security and quiet contentment, the assurance that comes from knowing we are where we belong, where we are needed. Beyond the reach of fear. Whether external or internal.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
For justice. For deliverance. When what is being used now as weapons and sources of conflict become tools to nurture and cultivate peace, growth, fruitfulness.
6 “In that day,” says the Lord,
“I will assemble the lame,
I will gather the outcast
And those whom I have afflicted;
7 I will make the lame a remnant,
And the outcast a strong nation;
So the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on, even forever.
You long for healing. From the fears and hurts which cripple you. From limitations. From imperfections, both of the flesh and spirit. You long for strength that you can only dream of now, and wholeness that wrings your heart to think about. For community, for friendship, for encouragement; for assurance of God's sovereignty in a frightening and chaotic world.
9 Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in your midst?
Has your counselor perished?
For pangs have seized you like a woman in labor.
And He answers us, directly.
Am I not here?
Am I not in control?
Do you not trust my plans?
Can you trust that the pain you're in now--
--without dismissing any of your suffering, its effects, its scars--
--may be the threshold to something greater?
10 Be in pain, and labor to bring forth,
O daughter of Zion,
Like a woman in birth pangs.
For now you shall go forth from the city,
You shall dwell in the field,
And to Babylon you shall go.
There you shall be delivered;
There the Lord will redeem you
From the hand of your enemies.
Hold on to hope, even as you face pain and suffering and what seems--as it must have seemed to the Israelites, being led out from the ruins of their city, towards exile and slavery and the end of every proud dream or ambition--crushing disappointment and despair.
You can't see it now, but there is peace and joy ahead of you.
Babylon--the heart of the storm, the fiercest depths of your humiliation, the white-hot nucleus of your suffering, the most numbing despair, the trial you dread the most--is where you will see redemption burst forth, more glorious and breathtaking and life-changing than ever for its context.
12 But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord,
Nor do they understand His counsel;
For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor.
We don't. Indeed we cannot understand Him.
His power to transcend even pain.
But we can trust Who He is.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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