image by Behzad Ghaffarian from Unsplash
Recently I've been going through the miracles of Jesus with my Sunday School class, specifically people that Jesus healed.
We discussed leprosy, resurrection from the dead, the lack of love that the judgmental Pharisees showed in their indifference to the radical, wonderful change that Jesus worked in the sufferer's lives, and the parallels between Christ's power to save, not only from physical ailments, but from our spiritual state.
In Mark 9:14-29 we get some quite specific detail on this particular case of demon possession, yet precisely because of that it was a challenging lesson to teach. It was hard to explain, because I didn't have all the answers; how did the demon possession happen? why don't we hear about that many people being demon possessed nowadays? why does foam come out of your mouth during a fit? (I had never thought of that before, and had to google it)
I found the symptoms of the boy, however, were a striking analogy to help us understand how we ourselves are enslaved by the power of sin. If you read the passage, the description sounds frightening; but also familiar. We are powerless to gain control over ourselves, despite our good intentions; sin controls us, the way the boy was unable to control his muscles, which often went rigid so that he could not even stand. Sin drives us relentlessly towards our own destruction, even if we have both our eyes open, even if we know the danger; the same way the boy would fling himself into the fire, into the water, repeatedly endangering himself. And, like how he was unable to hear or speak, sin makes us spiritually dead, unable to respond to or understand spiritual things.
Coming from such a state, the change that takes place when we are saved becomes all the more radical--and seems all the more impossible, even. In the process of our salvation, it definitely seems impossible. I remember how frustrated and despairing I felt then. I wanted so much to believe, yet it wasn't something you could achieve through sheer willpower--another major lesson which until I grasped it held back much of my spiritual growth.
The process of coming to faith is often a conflicted, even anguished one. It's seldom a flip-the-switch, 180 degrees change, in the sense that it doesn't just automatically take place once you first find yourself wanting it. It can be a long, conflicted journey of wanting to believe, struggling to, feeling at once how impossible it is and yet also how much you desire it. And ontop of that, feeling unworthy, unsure, even guilty because why is it so hard? why can't you just 'psycho yourself' into it since you want it that much?
Learning to trust is so difficult as an adult. Which is why they always use children as an example.
And that was exactly the father's situation. He wanted to believe Jesus could heal his son. Oh, he wanted to so badly.
Yet he struggled with so many complex reasons that made it seem impossible. Despair. Great grief and suffering. Hopelessness. Cynicism. Disappointing and disillusioning experiences (think the disciples who brashly thought they could heal the boy) Such that even with Jesus right in front of him, he could only manage a last desperate, despairing appeal: "if You can do anything...have compassion on us."
How many similar such reasons do we struggle with, when it comes to having greater faith? when it comes to trusting what God's will is for us?
But we don't have to wait until we feel our faith is "strong" enough--we don't have to feel like we're not ready, or not worthy, because we're still struggling with doubts. He knows our hearts. The sign of the spirit's work in us is often as simple as that--the desire to trust, to believe, more than we currently do. The desire to overcome that cynicism or doubt or pride or whatever it is that is holding us back. The desire to believe.
The faith that we need can be as simple as coming to Him, doubts and failures and all, in the hope that though we haven't sorted it out yet, though we're a mess of conflicted thoughts and feelings, though we're still struggling, He knows that our desire to believe in Him, to trust Him, is greater. And that not only does He understand, He has compassion. That fulfilling in us what we lack, He will save us.
"I believe; help my unbelief..."
image by Alex from Unsplash
Looking back, when you try to grasp at specific memories, you tend to find yourself lost in a confusing blur of split second images, fragments of a phrase, and the abstract but poignantly tangible memory of emotions.
I was just musing the other day on how life goes by without us really purposefully acknowledging memories. If you asked me to think back and select any one memory that I remember the most clearly, the painful ones are often the ones you are most conscious of. We take so many photos, and we call that "making memories," but we don't often sit down to rewind those happy memories--or do you? To me, we seem to pass through them gleefully like a cloud of confetti and move on in search of more before the pieces hit the ground. Pessimistic as it sounds. I made a point to be more consciously thankful and aware of the golden moments that God gives me in life, to have them polished and accessible in my mind.
Perhaps it's because as you get older, you have so many regrets. You can't help remembering them, because those are the moments you've relived the most often, replayed in your mind, wishing uselessly that you could change what happened. And that's why you know them so well, why they leap to the front whenever you look back.
One of the greatest lessons I learnt as a Christian and as a young adult was being able to let go of guilt.
Let me take a moment to differentiate between guilt and repentance, seeing them as the "worldly sorrow" and "godly sorrow" that the Bible talks about. Repentance and guilt are similar and yet so distinct that it's well we have different terms for them. Both indicate a recognition of a mistake, taking responsibility for it by acknowledging it was your fault, and feeling regret for your actions. However, guilt implies a sense of helplessness, confined to facing the past, to what can't be undone; whereas repentance implies a sense of hope, looking forward to the future with a resolution to learn from what happened.
Learning to understand that all things--even our mistakes--even our sin--happen within the providence of God.
Also that, as children of God, our mistakes do not define us. They did, previously, branding us as sinners; but a new name has been given to us, a new identity.
"...the glory of God shall be your rearguard"--Isaiah 58
I couldn't understand this phrase the first time I read it, but I loved the sound of it. Like poetry, the cadences stuck in my mind. Why, though? How did glory become your rearguard--something which protects, which enables you to move forward confidently, which is full of military connotations and is much closer to struggle and conflict than glory?
Looking back on our pasts, as Christians, the legacy that we have in Christ also includes rescuing us from the guilt and regret that so often makes us fixate on the past, makes us feel our courage for the future fail.
To trust that even our mistakes and sins can be part of God's plan, can be part of the process of our sanctification, since they no longer define who we are. And since even Christ's death--the ultimate proof of man's sin--became the greatest proof of God's mercy and love, became the greatest manifestation of God's glory.
The doctrine of God's sovereignty, the attributes of His wisdom and providence, become truths that have a vital, direct impact on our everyday lives, on our emotions, on the moments when we weep, when we wonder how we can face tomorrow. They are so much more than musty theological jargon and abstract concepts that don't seem relevant to our struggles and experiences.
Trusting that His glory can be manifested even despite our mistakes and failures and outright sins, by His power and providence--that flawed as we are, destructively self-willed as we seemed, we are yet His instruments, and we have never fallen out of His hands, we have not ruined what He was working on.
We can look back. With regret, most likely. Who wouldn't? But without being consumed by guilt. With the knowledge that God's sovereignty transcends man's sin. With the knowledge that our lives can and will be used to manifest His glory, even our weaknesses and shame.
image by Fabienne Filippone from Unsplash
What do you do when God doesn't answer your prayers?
This has been the hardest question for me to answer as a Sunday School teacher to my students, as a Christian to myself. So many times I've looked up from folded hands feeling despair settle on me, after praying earnestly, urgently, desperately for that one thing yet again. Fear tightening your muscles as you hesitantly consider what would happen if God doesn't grant you your prayer. I can't imagine what I would do. I don't know how things could possibly work out. If He doesn't--how can I be happy, how can I be useful or successful? And ultimately--how can God be good?
The fear is crippling. In panic, you thrust the thought away, too terrified to imagine what an alternative would be, to face a future that didn't work out the way we wanted it to. You feel like you can't live, you don't know how to live, without it. Anguish. Terror. Despair. Desperation. How can God not give it to you? Isn't He good? Doesn't He love me?
I've been gripped by this fear several times in my life, over things which seemed like the end of the world, which I prayed fervently for, which I clung to desperately. Please, save my loved one who has rejected You. Heal the cancer. Rescue the broken relationship. Let me go to my dream university; give me like-minded friends to encourage and nurture and inspire me. Let me get the grades I worked so hard for. Make this project or event a success. Like Rachel's "Give me children or I die," we feel like we can't live without it.
And most recently--though not on such an extreme level--help me recover quickly!
I remember sitting on the sofa trying not to burst into tears, feeling anxiety sitting physically on my chest like a bag of rice, quashing the breath and courage out of me. The past few months had been exceptionally stressful, feeling like I was barely managing to stay abreast of everything, and this was one of those moments when it came to a head. Taking one look at my schedule only made it worse, and I mentally wailed, Lord, You HAVE to let me recover by tomorrow, if not today! I've got a wedding this weekend to play at, I'm travelling overseas, church camp is coming up next week and I've got to see to the things I'm in charge of. I've already had to cancel so many of last week's lessons, do I have to cancel this week's as well? How am I going to make it?
Unlike my sis, for example, to whom getting sick can mean a well-earned break, seeing the doctor and getting an MC isn't the magic solution for freelancers. At a period when I'd been praying ceaselessly for better time management, to be more efficient, to have more peace of heart, to improve so I could handle everything without feeling so stretched, the last thing I needed was to get sick, to fall even shorter of my goal. I simply couldn't imagine how I would make it if God didn't answer my prayer, exactly as I had in mind. I couldn't imagine, I didn't want to imagine.
Looking back, I recognize the same desperate, even imperious urgency that I struggled with at past significant points in my life. I felt like my life was over if I didn't get into a university I liked. I felt like I wouldn't be able to cope losing both my sisters at the same time when they went to study overseas. And so on. I stood in front of that one closed door, crying, too terrified to look at any others, convinced that nothing good could possibly be behind them, that the only happy ending lay behind the one in front of me.
And in every of those cases, what happened was that God allowed exactly what I had not dared, could not bring myself to imagine. The alternative that I shrank from in terror came to pass. And in each case, though it was terribly difficult at first, painful even, especially when it came to losing dreams, loved ones--I was forced to realize that the alternative was not quite the end of the world it had seemed.
To accept that the alternative was not the end. To see that His goodness was more creative than I could imagine, even understand. To learn that this is faith, trusting His definition of what is good, even when it doesn't appear anything like your own definition.
I was sharing about this with a sister in church, and being someone who suffers from chronic back pain--the debilitating sort which makes you unable to get up from bed--she knew all about it. In the beginning you're resentful and frustrated and impatient; you can only think about recovering; you chafe restlessly and wonder if you'll recover tomorrow. And the only thing you can pray about is recovery--ASAP! When you think about God, that's the One Big Thing that emerges. Heal me!
But as the pain remains, you slowly learn to focus on the now, to trust and rely on God for helping you through the situation you're currently in, the pain you're currently enduring, to face each challenge as it comes, rather than clamouring desperately for it to end.
Your focus changes. And your trust is shifted, so that it isn't based on whether or not God lets your life turn out the way you think it ought to, but rather based on your knowledge of His person. His wisdom and His love, even if they don't manifest themselves the way you would expect them to.
And His glory. Even in suffering. Even in your pain.
Consider Jesus's prayer that last night in Gethsemane. He was facing the same anguish of soul, the same desperate desire to avoid pain and suffering, the same "answer me or I die!" sort of situation. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death."
Yet in His prayers what emerges just as clearly is His supreme obedience to God's will, His submission and His one-minded devotion to glorifying and serving His Father. His willingness to accept His Father's will, even if His flesh cringed from it.
"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me...Yet not as I will, but as You will."
image by Frances Gunn from Unsplash
Wet sand between my toes, committing ravages on my nail polish. The grumbling roar of the sea and the waves torpid from a recent downpour, dull and heavy like folds of carpet. A buried beer can, dented in half. The lightest drizzle of rain every time the wind changed. Wading into the water, squinting, feeling the sand shifting uneasily under your feet, roiling around your toes and heaving like a living animal. The silence as you stand there, waiting, tense yet calm, keenly alive to the wetness of the water soaking into your clothes, the blurred faces watching you on the shore. The words, sounding strangely distant and hollow with the sea pounding in the background, and the quick gulp of air before you go under, feeling the water gush upwards to meet you...
I had the honour of attending a friend's baptism yesterday.
When I was sitting down writing a note for her, I found myself thinking. What was the one thing I wanted to tell her based on my own experience, all these years since I was first converted, since my own baptism nine years ago?
As a new believer--if my own experience isn't unique--you'd be full of enthusiasm and determination. I'm going to do my best to please God! I feel immature and ignorant about many things but I'm going to improve myself, and grow spiritually at a tremendous rate, put myself on a regime like one of those straining guys working the benchpress in the gymn like his life depends on it. I'm going to go for all the prayer meetings and Bible studies and talks, and show everyone that even though I'm young and inexperienced, I'm going to do everything that I can, I'm going to do everything right, I'm going to do my best.
I think we're so hung up on spiritual growth because we feel our need for it so acutely, at this point of time particularly. We feel so unworthy and unprepared compared to the other more mature Christians we know, we feel that even though we've taken the big step to ask for baptism it truly is just the beginning.
And we go about dealing with this in the only way we're used to, the way we use for everything else in life. Work hard! Make a list of things you need to do in order to get there, and make sure the heck you plough your way down that list like a steamroller. Keep doing it and you're bound to get somewhere someday. Practice makes perfect and all that. And everyone around you encourages that, gives you endless lists of must-read Christian books, theology courses, Bible study plans, Bible study apps, devotional material, talks to attend, and so on.
These are good things. They are indeed tools to help us grow spiritually. But if we attack them with the same formulaic mentality that we have when we attack practice papers, drills, and mock exams, we're misusing them.
As a new believer, you face a dizzying spread of all the things you could do, all the helpful, useful, and most of all reassuringly concrete things which seem to promise direct spiritual growth, like protein powder or a shampoo advertisement or the latest teeth whitening product. Use this consistently for ____ time and see the results!
Looking back at myself, I remember how I pushed myself to accomplish many things with a mentality like this, and proud of my success, lapsed into complacency that belied a lack of real spiritual growth. It was the things which I didn't take pride in, the things which I didn't see as earning me any merit, which most helped me grow spiritually. A Christian book which I read because I felt drawn to the topic, not because it was one of those "must-reads for Christians" on my list. A random talk with a friend. Hearing about someone's conversion. Seeing someone's relationship with Christ. Having someone tell me they had been praying for me for years. Going through several of the greatest hurts and heartaches I'd experienced as yet. Thinking through things which had troubled and disturbed me, despite being afraid to. Finding that the sources I had always relied on for comfort and peace failed me, being forced to rethink what it meant to find those things in God. Realizing more and more what it meant--practically--specifically--personally--to live out faith, to live out in application who God was. The connection between His attributes and my life.
These things were what helped me grow. Understanding Him better, finding new reasons to love Him more, learning to love Him more--learning, because that requires putting away the idols which make this so difficult...
Don't get too caught up in the "do." Our purpose is not proving to God that we're worthy of our salvation. Not giving Him new reasons to love us. Not making ourselves more like the image of the ideal Christian in our mind. We're trying so hard to grow spiritually, but we often fall into the trap of doing things for--about--Him, rather than actually knowing Him. Though "do's" are important and helpful, we need to be careful about the attitude with which we approach them. It's so easy to make them our idol. To focus on doing as many of them as we can, under the mistaken assumption that they give us some sort of merit in God's eyes, or somehow automatically improve our spiritual state.
When we get to heaven, how much of that matters? What is heaven, anyway? Being with God, in perfect unity and reconciliation. Are we, therefore, preparing ourselves for that--in the best, happiest way--? We think we know, but it's so easy to get increasingly narrow-minded, to lose focus...
It's so hard to discern that line, however.
Like someone with their significant other--
you don't take her shopping to make her happy, you do it because you want to see what styles she likes, and what colours she prefers.
You don't watch a soccer match with him because you feel obliged to show some token interest, but because you want to see why he loves it so much.
You do it because you want to know them better, so you can love them better.
Let's take this mentality instead towards all those "do" things.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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