Small Pain, Superior Purpose

Hey friends, it’s been a minute!  I’ve missed this space a lot, but I have been busy transitioning into new routines…does anyone else find September-October to be huge transition months?  There’s school and all the kids’ activities, and for me there is also rediscovering the ebb and flow of life in ministry (I teach the Bible with Bible Study Fellowship, which runs from September thru May). 

I’ve been bummed that my writing goals went out the window recently, but then a wise friend reminded me to give myself grace. 

I’m learning that goals are great, but grace is greater.

I’ve needed grace.  Because on top of all the normal, back-to-life good stuff going on, me and my people have been experiencing some hard stuff too.  It ranges from the irritating to the unbelievable, from simply annoying to true spiritual attack.  At times like these, the natural questions for God are “why would you let this happen?”  And “how much longer, God?”  It’s impossible to see the point of some of this stuff, in the moment.

Well, the other day I lived out a perfect metaphor for what I’m going through.  It was time to give my cat his monthly dose of medicine, which is a liquid I squeeze onto the skin between his shoulder blades.  I do not love this particular chore, because he seems to take it pretty personally.  He always runs away from me, but this time he stopped and looked back, flashing me a look of pure, wounded betrayal.  In that look I saw the question, “how could you do this to me?!” 

It was so heartbreaking!  I always felt the same way when my babies needed shots or blood drawn.  The look of hurt and shock in their little faces always broke my heart and made me wish I could just explain to them that everything I did, or allowed the nurses to do, was for their own good.  I allowed small pain for a superior purpose. 

I don’t know why my family and I are going through some really difficult things lately.  But I am reminded to focus on what I do know: God is good.  He is in control.  He allows small pain for a superior purpose.  He will use these difficult things for my good and His glory.

I love it when you can look back and see why God allowed tough stuff to happen.  I also know that some of it won’t ever make sense to my human mind.  So, I trust Him.  I pray.  I try to respond like a daughter of Christ and sometimes I even succeed.  I remember that in the context of eternity, all my troubles are but light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Most of all, I keep my eyes on Him, looking not with wounded betrayal but with a belief that in all things—even the worst things—He works for the good of those who love Him. 

If you’re going through hard stuff today, you’re not alone.  Our God is a God of powerful goodness and He is right here, already working in the middle of the mess. 

Talk about grace.

Important Enough

Have you ever wondered if you’re “important enough?” Making enough of a difference? Doing enough with your life?

In the fall of 1995 I arrived on the campus of Virginia Tech to study Interior Design, confident that my natural ability and love for beautiful spaces would be enough.  Within one semester I was totally disillusioned.  I hadn’t been expecting how competitive the program felt. I was also surprised by how much of design is business rather than creative work.  But the bigger issue was a nagging question I couldn’t shake.  Was interior design “important enough?”  Or could I make a bigger difference elsewhere?

In retrospect, I think the very question was wrong.  I’ve come to see that every kind of work is important and can make a difference in peoples’ lives.  But at the time, this thought really shook me up.  I responded by changing my major (a couple of times actually), and ultimately going on to grad school and then law school.  Each of these experiences was valuable in its own way, and I wouldn’t change a thing.  But it is a bit ironic that today I’m a highly educated homemaker whose favorite hobby is…wait for it…designing my home. Seeking out beautiful spaces.  Reading design magazines.  Pinning pictures of interiors on Pinterest.  My life-long love for beautiful spaces, starting with dollhouses and continuing through a high school interior design class…well, it hasn’t gone anywhere.  

But for all those years–from the time I changed my major in 1996 up until the last few years–I doubted that my desire to seek out and create beauty carried much importance or could make a difference in God’s kingdom.  It wasn’t “enough.” That’s a burden 25 years in the making, y’all.  I know some of you out there carry similar burdens.  We dismiss our creative abilities, hobbies, and passions as nice but insignificant.  Worse, we apply the same logic to the other callings God makes on our lives.  We even believe the lie that being a full-time homemaker or caretaker isn’t “important enough” work. Or that working part-time isn’t “enough” of a contribution. Or that working full-time isn’t being a “good enough” mom.  

Thank goodness God is patient, even with very slow learners like me.  A few years ago, during a season of prayer for renewed focus and direction for my life, God showed me He can and does use every aspect of human experience in significant and worthy ways.  He taught me that my innate drive to seek out and to create beauty–to see and appreciate and contribute to the miraculous beauty of his world—is worthwhile in His Kingdom.  That’s why today I embrace the “designer” in me by seeking out beauty, sharing beauty, and creating beauty, even in a world that sometimes looks anything but beautiful. I hope doing so honors God and gives Him glory, since everything beautiful points ultimately to Him.

One way God changed my thinking about this was through the story of Bezalel.  Bezalel belonged to the nation of Israel, during the forty years they spent in the desert journeying with God.  At that time, God gave Moses very explicit instructions for building a structure called the tabernacle, created for the crucial purpose of worshiping God.  God specified everything from the size of the tabernacle to the color of its curtains.  He told Moses which rings and lengths of wood should be gold-plated.  He specified what kind of furniture and garments should be made and what they should look like, as well as the actual format of the worship itself. 

But the kicker is this: God also specified who should make these beautiful items.  He named Bezalel, saying, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.”  Exodus 31: 2-5.  

God counted “all kinds of skills,” including those specifically described as creative, right up there with being Spirit-filled, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge. Even more wonderfully, God then called on Bezalel to use those skills for God’s glory.  These weren’t unimportant, just-for-fun hobbies.  Bezalel’s gifts, both his wisdom and his creativity, were essential for fulfilling God’s purpose for him!  

What an encouraging message for the homemaker, the caretaker, the creative, the one who works with her hands.  What an encouragement for those who feel like their jobs aren’t important enough, or not making a difference, or are just distractions from what really matters. Bezalel’s skills–all his various abilities–were important to God and useful in accomplishing His plans.  God knew Bezalel and how to put his gifts to their best use. God even called Bezalel to the work by name. 

Just as God knew Bezalel’s name, God knows my name and creative talents, and can use them for His glory.  He knows your name, too.  He knows every skill, talent, and dream you have because He created them.  Whether your gifts are artistic, educational, hospitable, or intellectual, and whether they take the form of a career, a hobby, or a passion, God designed your gifts for a good reason.  

I believe with Paul that all of us “are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Ephesians 2:10.  And I take these words seriously: “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters.” Colossians 3:23.  It’s not the kind of skill or the kind of job or the number of people you serve that matters; its whether you do it in the service of God.

So, no more self-doubt!  No more believing the lie that your gifts don’t amount to much.  The good works God has for us take many forms.  Instead of wondering whether you’re “important enough,” know that your purpose is to glorify God every day with whatever He’s given you, wherever He has placed you.  It’s all “important enough,” because it all comes from Him. 


Encouragement for the Worn-Out Mommas

This post originally appeared on That Mommy Blog back in 2016. I thought it would be fun to update it (look for the italics!) as we start a new school year.

It blows my mind to tell people my babies are nine and seven years old.  Fifteen and thirteen! Back when they were infants, I would meet people with fourth-graders and think, “I’m glad that’s so far away, I am SO not ready for that!”  Of course, I wasn’t ready then.  But as time has raced on, God has made me prepared.  Parenting has taught me that—believe it or not–you’ll be ready when the time comes!  Even though I’m in a completely different stage of parenting, I often think about those hard early days.  The days when I had multiple babies in diapers and the “body spills” were plentiful.  The days when my back and wrists and hips were all strained with the constant lifting of quickly-growing bodies.  The days when sleeping well was an unattainable dream, and even my dreams featured little cries of “mommy!” that would wake me up in the night.  Those days, momma, are hard.

Why then do older moms like myself so frequently counsel you young mommas to appreciate each moment, to not wish it away, and to watch out or it’ll just fly by?  I guess all those nuggets of wisdom are true.  It does go fast (even faster when you’re looking back at it!). and taking a moment to appreciate it may indeed be helpful.

I want to give you young mommas in the trenches a slightly different word on this.  This season of young children is a precious time, but it is also a difficult, back-breaking, exhausting time.  I am sorry that it has to be so hard for you.  I remember, and I feel your pain.  But the encouragement is this: it is so, so worth it. 

Everything you are doing now: all the bottoms cleaned, all the feedings, all the re-reading the same board book; all the lifting into shopping carts and breaking elbows with heavy car seats, all the sobbing and tantrums and sleep-training: it is all worth it.  Because every single act of love that you pour into them now is building the foundation for who those little people will become. 

You’re in the business of making people.  It’s the hardest and most important work of your life.

Yes, I do miss what my kids were like as babies.  I miss their fat little rolls and baby giggles and the sweet snuggles.  I miss their innocence and even the silliest of the tantrums.  But I also love the people my children are becoming.  Even more true with teenagers. I love that they can brush their own teeth and clean their own rooms (though usually not without a fight).  They still can! And they still don’t love it! I love that they are sensitive to the needs of others, full of imagination and creativity and intellect and love.  I love that they have hearts for God and for others. These are things you don’t see in your babies, but you are nurturing all these things even in the youngest children.

And you are nurturing them in their love for God and desire to seek Him. As you continuously point them to Him, you are building a precious foundation for their faith.

And, after all, it is a season.  However impossible it seems now, you will look up one day and realize with amazement that you have a fourth-grader.  Or an eighth-grader, or even a sophomore in High School. You’ve moved through those trying, early years and you are seeing ever more clearly why you persevered. 

So keep your chin up, Momma!  I’ll see you on the other side.  We can get together and tell all the young moms just how fast it goes.

Let God In

Everywhere I look, I’m noticing a trend and I bet you are too.  Believers are using social media…like it has nothing to do with God.  Believers are managing (or mismanaging) relationships…like they have nothing to do with God.  Believers are making choices in their personal lives…like those choices have nothing to do with God.

I do this myself.  I while back I was hurt by the words and opinions of someone close to me, and I spun for days trying to think of every possible way to respond.  My first reaction was to lash out or cut this person out; it certainly wasn’t to bring this situation to God.

Why do we act like so much of our lives has nothing to do with God? 

If we really trust Jesus with our eternal salvation, why don’t we trust Him with our daily lives? 

There is a better way. 

Jesus is standing at the door of your heart, knocking.  He says, “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”   In Revelation 3:20, the apostle John documented these words of Christ to the church at Laodicea, a church that experienced the salvation of God but then became complacent and lukewarm in their faith.  These believers allowed their comfortable lifestyles to lull them into a kind of spiritual sleepiness.  They may have believed, but they ignore their own need for an ongoing, vibrant relationship with Christ. 

Could the same be said of you and of me?  Are we so comfortable that we forget to let God in?  Do we forget our great need for a relationship with our maker?

Jesus wants to come in, and sit with you, and talk with you like a friend at your kitchen table would.  He wants to enter into all your questions, doubts, anxieties and wounds.  My friend, God already knows you, through and through.  He knows your history, your thoughts, your dreams, and your frustrations.  Because He knows you, He has the answers you need in the “small” stuff as well as the big stuff.  He can guide your words and actions, your thoughts and how you express them.  But to enjoy the tangible benefits of that kind of intimacy, you have to let God in. 

Today, before heading off to work, let Him in.  Invite Him to guide your thinking and decision-making. 

Before hitting “send” or “publish,” let Him in.  Seek His confirmation that your words honor Him and the people He created.

Before giving up on that difficult relative, let Him in.  Evaluate whether God’s grace, humility and unity governs your own behavior. 

Before pursuing a personal goal or making any kind of decision, let Him in.  Ask Him for His direction and then be bold enough to follow it.

Will you let God in today? 

The question is more difficult than it seems, because in our complacency we habitually ignore His knocking.  Not only that, but once we’ve invited Him in, we sometimes don’t like what He says.  He might ask us to swallow our pride, face our own sin, own up to our own mistakes.  When I finally took my situation to God in prayer, He revealed some ways that I had contributed to an unhealthy pattern of communication with this loved one.  I had to own that before I could heal and move forward.  It wasn’t easy.

So yes, it can be hard, but whether we let God in matters deeply, because there’s someone else lurking at your door.  Before Cain murdered his brother, God said to him, “…sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).  Sadly, Cain invited sin in, murdered his brother, and suffered the consequences.  “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence” (Genesis 4:16).  Like Cain, we get to choose who we invite into our homes and our hearts.  And when we leave the Lord out in the cold, we are inviting the devil in. 

It is time to start living as if Jesus is both Eternal Savior and Lord of our daily lives.  It is time we let Him in to every detail.  When we do, we experience an intimacy that leads to His perfect guidance and faithful empowerment in any question, challenge, worry or problem we have.  Even better, His presence within us shines like a light pouring out from the windows and doors of our hearts, inviting others to want more of God for themselves.

All because we let Him in.

Something to think about! Love y’all!

So, You’re Not Jumping for Joy

Have you ever felt guilty for not feeling joyful enough? You’ve received the message, explicitly or implicitly: “if you’re a true Christian you can’t help but be joyful.” After all, joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. And we are implored to “be joyful always.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

We’ve probably all heard about the difference between happiness and joy—”happiness is based on circumstance,” people often say, “while joy comes from the Lord.” I know this is true, and I’ve found comfort in it. But my comfort has sometimes been paired with an abiding unease, a nervousness that maybe my faith is lacking because I’m not constantly (or even usually) jumping for joy.

One reason is that life is tough. Jesus promised it would be, and it is. Yes, the Bible tells us to be joyful always, but we’re also instructed to lament, mourn, and weep when it’s time for those things. Clearly, being joyful doesn’t mean pretending everything’s fine, smiling through clenched teeth. So how can you be joyful, when things are so stinkin’ hard?

In the Bible, joy is most often paired the idea of hope in salvation. I know this because two years ago God prompted me to choose “joy” as my theme of the year. At the time, I was like, “that’s awesome, I’m finally going to learn the secret of being joyful all the time!” So I spent some time meditating on all the Bible verses dealing with joy. Sadly, I did not learn how to jump for joy all day, every day. I learned that joy isn’t an emotion. It isn’t a physical outburst. It isn’t insisting on being happy even when things are stinky. Being filled with joy isn’t even necessarily visible to other people. 

Biblically speaking, joy is the comfort, peace, security and hope we experience God’s presence and salvation. Consider this verse from the prophet Habakkuk:

“Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Habakkuk 3:17-18.

Habakkuk was grappling with the oncoming suffering of his people. If all the crops failed and the animals and people were starved and subjugated, Habakkuk says he is still going to be joyful in God our Savior. If you’ve lost your income, your health is suffering, or you’re grieving, the joy you experience won’t look like dancing in the streets. You won’t be jumping for joy, and that’s okay. You can still possess joy in God’s certain salvation of your soul. This kind of joy might look like smiling through tears, not jumping up and down.

Another reason a believer may not be always jumping for joy is simply that God designed her to be a quieter person. Don’t get me wrong, we are called to be joyful, but not all of us are designed for the kind of high-energy, high-octane, million-watt-smile brand of joy that we might have believed was standard for a sister in Christ. As I learned from this insightful article, introverts serve the church in different ways.  And I believe the expressions of joy of an introverted disciple—quiet, contemplative, intimate expressions of joy—look different from the exuberance we often associate with joy. 

One quick caveat here (and maybe this is just me, so feel free to listen in while I talk to myself for a second): Michelle, being introverted is not an excuse for being negative. You still must guard against negativity in your thinking and your words. Introverted joy might be quieter, but when people lean in, it still sounds like joy.

That said, joy for some of us doesn’t include jumping up and down. For the introvert, joy might take the form of a pleasant and peaceful disposition, an ability to point others to the Lord by listening well, or private moments of worshiping the King of Glory.

Maybe for you, joy looks like turning your face to the sunrise in the middle of a depression that seems unbreakable. Maybe joy looks like getting on your knees in prayer again this morning, even when you haven’t felt like it in months. Joy, in some seasons, is a quiet and profound acknowledgment that no matter how I am feeling, Jesus is Lord, and God’s salvation rests on anyone who comes to Him.  

Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. John 15:9-11, emphasis mine.

As sisters to our fellow believers and humans, maybe it’s time to reset our expectations a little bit when it comes to joy. No more pressure to paste on a smile, or stifle the truth about how I’m really doing, or to act like a cheerleader when you’ve always been more comfortable watching from the bleachers. 

Introverted sisters…sisters going through dark days…rest assured that your joy–complete joy–is truly found in God, and that is in fact why you can be joyful always, expressing that joy in many different ways. It might not look like you expected. You don’t even have to jump.

Where the Weeds Grow

Although I love my next-door neighbor, I needed more than a wimpy strip of grass between her driveway and mine.  So last Fall I hired a landscaper to replace the swath of grass with trees and shrubs.  The first step was to kill the grass, then the guys went to work digging, planting and mulching.  I carefully watered my new landscaping, worried over it when we had a late freeze, and these days enjoy watching the plants grow.  What else is growing?  Crabgrass.  All throughout the area, I have been battling crabgrass.

Search Me O God

Have you ever tried to dig up crabgrass?  There’s a reason why it’s so difficult.  The green, leafy part we see is just the beginning.  Crabgrass grows from a network of strong, deep roots that spread laterally through the ground a couple inches below the surface.  It’s tough to pull out completely, and when you do you see why: it’s all connected.

As I dug and pulled and sweated over the weekend, on my knees doing battle with crabgrass, I couldn’t help but think about sin.  Sin.  The word used to make me cringe, especially as a new believer.  It is a tough concept for people steeped in an “anything goes” culture and who believe that we are all fundamentally good.

As a new Christian, I had to learn what sin is (falling short of perfection) and accept that I am a sinner (because I’m not God, I’m not perfect).

That was sixteen years ago, and how delightful it has been to discover that one of the most beautiful aspects of walking with God is how He continually, gently, and mercifully shows me where I’m sinning and helps to root it out.  What I know now about sin is that admitting it and allowing the Lord to heal it is one of the most amazing ways to directly experience His glory, His mercy, and His blessings.

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

Romans 6:13

God forgave our sins through the justification and salvation of Jesus, but He didn’t then just walk away.  No, God also cares deeply about conforming us to the likeness of Jesus by coming alongside us and transforming us.  As we desire to be more like Jesus, He guides us and helps us.  He pulls sin out by the roots and changes us, if we allow it.  Confronting sin isn’t an exercise in humiliation and judgment, as I probably once thought.  Rather, it is one of the amazing blessings of walking with God.

I’m speaking from experience here, friends.  I struggle with my share of anxiety, resentment and wrong thinking.  As I’ve battled these sins, God has gently lead me back to Him time and again.  Shown me that He is all I need.  That my trust falters when I don’t seek Him first.  That His plan is so much better than mine.  As I have prayed and He has provided, I find myself walking in freedom.  Far from perfect–far from sinless–but ever closer to the One who is.

Unlike me, God doesn’t sweat and swear with the difficulty of getting all the roots out.  He isn’t surprised when we fall short of perfection.  He expects it.  After all, Jesus died so that we could be forgiven of sin and walk with a perfect, sinless God.  Yes, your sin is already forgiven by the power of the cross; now comes the invitation to walk confidently in that forgiveness.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

   test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

   and lead me in the way everlasting.  Psalm 139:23-24

Today, take your sin before Jesus, even that problem that has been especially difficult.  Ask God to not only dig up the obvious, outward evidence of sin, but to reveal and heal the wrong thinking that might have taken hold deep inside you.  Believe me, He is able.


Inspiration for the Messed Up

This article originally appeared on That Mommy Blog on June 22, 2014.

People who know better, do better.”  Have you heard this saying?  It’s from Maya Angelou, who was a sage among us mere mortals, and it was popularized by Oprah.  I think it means that in any given area of life, people won’t do better until they’re educated in that area.  We can forgive ourselves for mistakes we’ve made when we realize we just didn’t know how to act right.

But what happens when we do know better, and we still don’t do better?  I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately, as I struggle with some familiar shortcomings.  I’ll just look up one day and think, “My God, haven’t I already conquered this?!?”  If you are even remotely self-aware, you might begin to notice that when you go astray it’s down a very familiar road.  There are the same stumbling blocks, the same places you’ve been bruised before.  Possibly, you too find yourself walking that dark and dreary road in spite of believing that you’ve already conquered this area of struggle in your life, that God has enabled you to move past this issue or temptation.  For me, I can get so discouraged when I realize that my negative attitude is repeatedly an issue for me.  Maybe for you it’s relational drama, food, anger, or a sexual sin.  What I have noticed is that we don’t all just “do better” even after we struggle, go to God, learn how to behave better, and move on.  Sometimes we find ourselves, against our better judgment, repeating the same old stuff, different day.

I’m not immune from discouragement here, but I do have a few thoughts and I wanted to share them in case you ever find yourself in this scenario.  First, I know God works with us through our issues, even when we repeat them time and time again.  Just as he doesn’t always offer immediate cures for physical illness, he doesn’t always heal our psychological hang-ups after our first bout either.  Sometimes, he is allowing us to continue to grow by showing us there is more work to be done.  Sometimes, he is humbling us and preventing pride from leading to a greater fall.  Sometimes, we haven’t genuinely asked for healing.  Sometimes, he wants us to seek him more, or teach us about a specific type of prayer, or show us any number of truths.  I’m not advocating dwelling on past issues if you are truly over them (if you are, great!  Praise God!)  but I am saying this: you are not alone in repeating yourself.

A second thought here: perhaps, in the places where we struggle most, it isn’t so much about knowing as it is about doing.  Do you struggle with envy?  With attitude? With pride?  Be intentional about asking God to give you contentment, to soften your harsh mindset, to make you humble.  Your shortfalls are guideposts to where your character needs work; use them to direct your prayers for God’s intervention in your life.  Then simply do.  Once you have done better once, it becomes something you can practice and it gets easier over time.  And once you have done better, you can know better because the truth will play out in your own life and give you wisdom.

I’m reading a study right now by Dick Woodward called A Spiritual Compass.  Woodward points out that Jesus himself advised us to first do and then to know.  In John 7:17 Jesus tells us to obey the instructions of the word of God, and then see if by obeying we can tell whether they are true.  That’s shorthand for letting your actions lead you to faith.  Don’t stop trying, because each small victory makes it easier to grasp, deep in your heart where change “sticks,” that the path of righteousness is superior to our chosen path of sin.

Finally, please don’t be discouraged when you try and fail.  I say when, not if.  You are a person, and this is a process.  When I was working as a child advocate I had to learn to meet parents where they are.  I couldn’t meet with a single mom who hadn’t even graduated from high school, who lived in public housing and struggled with addiction, and expect her to be the role model her kids needed.  It was enough to just make sure the kids were safe at home; I couldn’t expect her to have deep insight into why they were acting out or to recognize the importance of curfews or tutor them in algebra.

Similarly, I believe God meets us where we are when we earnestly seek him.  And because we are human (meaning flawed) we may have to earnestly seek him from the same sinful place over and over, broken in self-disgust, humbled by our inability to “do better” this time.  The good news?  He meets us there.  I know, because he has met me here, time and again.  I hope that you can be encouraged to know you’re not alone and no one is perfect: don’t give up!  Seek him, and keep on doing better.