Undone

When I think about the state of the world, I easily come undone.  Same is true when I fall short, sinner that I am, in my words or thoughts or actions. Why does God allow all kinds of suffering and sorrow, mistakes and mess?  And what does it mean to be seeking His glory, and seeking beauty, in a world that often looks anything but glorious or beautiful?  Years ago I wrote about suffering and pain, sharing some of my thoughts about why God allows it. 

Lately I’ve noticed another great source of comfort for me.  It lies in understanding the not-yet-finished aspect of God’s work in this world.  The pain of becoming emotionally undone is soothed by the knowledge that some of God’s work remains literally undone. 

His work of salvation was finished at the cross, but other work remains.  Jesus promised He would come back.  He told us to be busy while we wait for Him, sharing the good news: everyone who comes to Him is restored to God.  God is patient as darkness and sin expand because even as it does, more people are coming home to Him (2 Peter 3:9).  More people are finding the freedom and flourishing that comes from faithful living.  And more people will step into eternity washed clean by God’s forgiveness.  Jesus’s work of salvation is finished in that it has been made freely available to anyone who follows Him, but God’s plan for this earth is still in progress. 

The world’s seemingly endless spiral downward into decay and darkness is punctuated by the beautiful salvation of souls and all the goodness that comes from life with God.  The world might be dark, but light is shining.  Here’s some beauty: against the backdrop of darkness that is always increasing, God works out the exact opposite process in the hearts and lives of those who love Him.  He spirals us out of darkness and into brighter and brighter light, so that we “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15). 

This process of being made to shine like stars (aka sanctification) begins when we’re saved, but it doesn’t end until we are perfected in heaven.  Therefore, it is progressive.  It’s still not done. Wherever we begin, no matter how depraved or respectable we are, God can take us further.  God can make us more and more like Jesus.  Paul said “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 4:18). 

I love the sound of ever-increasing glory.

I hope in a God who is still working in me, and in the world.

I trust Him with the darkness because His light overcomes it. 

I might come undone.  Then I remember: God is un-done too.

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 We Find Peace

Didn’t mean to drop off the planet for the last two weeks!  Between traveling and school starting, it’s been a busy time.  Despite the blazing heat I feel the seasons changing–new routines and schedules as we settle into school and the coming fall (bless it can’t it get here already!?!)

In the midst of this season of transition I’ve also been reminded that this fickle, random, broken world will disappoint us, will knock us around and sometimes bludgeon us nearly to death.  Last week I found myself at the hospital, hugging and praying with an old friend while her little boy suffered in agonizing pain.

Once again, Lord, we cry out: why?

Why is he suffering?  Why is anyone?  We want to understand…but these things can’t be understood. The other day I stumbled across a re-broadcast of a Charles Stanley sermon.  I love him.  He was preaching about suffering, and about why God sometimes puts us through some things.  (Can’t you just hear him saying “Watch this?”)

I love Charles and that man’s got wisdom, but watch this: not all of this hardship is from the Lord. Does God sometimes allow or cause trouble in our lives?  Sure, I believe that.  But I also know that most of the time, he doesn’t need to.  The world does enough of that on its own.

The good news–sometimes the only good news–is that we are never alone in our suffering.  As we cry out, Jesus is right there crying alongside us.  Remember, He’s already suffered under every sin of this fallen world, including those that make no sense.  And remember, in Him alone we find our victory.  In Him alone we find peace.

In painful moments sometimes all I can do is bring my broken heart and hand it over to the one who knows it best.

Today, if you are asking why, look to Jesus.  He may not answer the why but He has already overcome it…and through Him, so can you.
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P.S. These pictures were taken at Graylyn and in the nearby Reynolda Gardens in Winston-Salem, NC.

Pain

walk on the greenwayThis post was originally published on That Mommy Blog on March 31, 2013.

It’s been almost a year since I saw a doctor for fatigue, which led me to a diagnosis of chronic migraines and treatment using Topamax, an anti-seizure medication.  For almost a year I have been tracking my pain on a calendar: red for pain, yellow for fatigue, green for “Hallelujah I actually feel good!”  There have been woefully few greens.  Finally I got tired of the side-effects of Topamax (mostly the inability to focus, which was becoming a true impairment), and I am almost completely weaned off and trying to cope with my migraines without medication.  Lifestyle changes, less stress, that sort of thing.

All this to say, I feel pretty intimate with pain.  I have given it a lot of thought in the last year, read a lot about it, and have been trying to understand it.  Why does God allow pain?  Why do some of us suffer a lot—some every day—and other people seem to just coast through?  Really, it’s the same question people have been asking forever: why is there suffering?  The same question Siddhartha wondered about.  The same question non-Christians ask about God.  Why would a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow suffering and pain?

The main argument here is that God loved us so much that he gave us free will; free will leads to choice; choices lead to pain and suffering.  God’s creation, which could have been perfect had we just left well enough alone, is not perfect because we have exercised free will.  We have chosen to exclude God.  We think we can do better without Him.  We have historically and continually pushed Him away, and He has honored that choice, the same way that He also honors the choice to welcome Him with mercy and grace and forgiveness.  We come to Him freely, and He returns love freely to us.  Without this ability to choose, we wouldn’t have been the beings He longed for.  Because God longed for us to love Him freely, He needed to create free will, and therefore the possibility of pain, suffering and evil.  C.S. Lewis says it this way: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

So all sorts of suffering result from free will, out of which both love of God and love of evil are born.

But what about pain not arising out of free will?  What about my migraines?  Childhood illnesses?  Famine?  What about losing a loved one?  What about a healthy man I know who was suddenly struck down with three life-threatening illnesses at the same time?  I struggle with this question, and some of the “pat” answers have always seemed a little empty to me.  But I was totally floored recently when I read this, and I need to share it with you:

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.  Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”  Rev. 4:11.  We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased.”  The Problem of Pain, 40-41.  (Emphasis mine).

This was a new perspective for me, and while it doesn’t answer the question of why God allows suffering, it gave me a new perspective on suffering itself.  In our culture which celebrates everything “Me,” including documenting every movement on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and in our evangelical culture which celebrates how I love God, how I need him, how I come to him to worship, the idea of me being beside the point is a little…different.  Yes, I believe how I approach God is important.  But to take me out of it a little, and remember that I am also the object of His love…well, that changes everything.

So what does it mean (when I am on Day Six of a crushing migraine and would sooner drive a pickaxe into my forehead than look at this computer) that I was made for God to love me, and not (primarily) vice versa?  It means that my pain is beside the point.  Or rather, it means that I need to continue to worship him, even when in pain. Continue to allow Him to love me, by inviting Him in.  In the face of His magnificent, overwhelming, tender love for me, I find that my suffering truly pales.  I suspect that response is what He’s after.  When we are at our most physically strained, when we are at our most emotionally drained, when we have been beaten down by a world that is fallen and falling around us, the positioning of my soul toward God as it says, “yes, God, you are holy,” that is the fulfillment of His love for us.

I was praying recently, about coming down off of my medication.  Worried about an onslaught of headaches, I asked, “God, please will you cure me?”  God told me no, that I will still sometimes have pain.  But He asked me, in the infinitely patient way He has with my stubborn self, to keep my eyes on Him anyway.  I don’t know how to always do that, but if I try, and manage it even part of the time, I trust that the effort alone will bear enough fruit to nourish me as I suffer.

On Easter, this glorious holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, it’s important to mention that God knows our pain.  He experienced every ounce of it on the cross.  You are not alone, no matter what you suffer, for Christ has already experienced it with you.  In fact, God had to become man in order to experience pain in the first place, and He chose to do so facing the pain not only of whipping and crucifixion but also of every human sin and anguish.  He did it in order to know you, the one He truly loves.  He created you to love you, and then He joined you in your sufferings as well.  He is with you now, loving you and wanting nothing more than your love, freely given, in all circumstances.

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