Featured

When God Seems Silent

In a season full of clamor, many of us wish for half an hour—fifteen-minutes even—of silence. And silence in small doses can be refreshing. But to be granted a desire for absence of noise long term could be terrifying as the 2018 movie A Quiet Place depicts.

The movie presents Lee and Evelyn Abbott seeking to protect their family from creatures that are drawn to sound and will attack anyone they can hunt down with their keen sense of hearing. To stay alive, the Abbotts and their children must remain completely silent. When traveling. When eating. Even when giving birth.

In a world where noise is the default, their lives of almost absolute quiet protect them. Ironically, though, the same eerie silence that protects them also leads to the movie’s suspense. Though the action isn’t continual, the film’s element of fear screams loudly precisely because the characters don’t.

In my illness, I’ve experienced a similar (though less terrifying) response to sound. While no devouring beasts lurk, the pain brought on by the stimulation of noise has intensified as my illness has continued. The rustling of plastic bags. The clanking of dishes. The murmur of normal speech. The hum of a lawnmower. All these natural, daily noises produce pain, and because of that, my life has become silent and still, protected like the Abbotts’s.

That protection comes through noise-reducing headphones and the closing of windows and doors. While I avoid trips into public, I can’t avoid imposing my silence on others’ lives. My parents tiptoe around me. Friends whisper their conversations. I live a quieter life than I could ever have dreamed.

But the silence is more than physical. I also experience the silence of watching others’ dreams fulfilled. Even as I rejoice in good, wonderful answers to prayer for those I love, God’s silence toward me continues.

In that silence when the only word God seems to speak over my life is “no,” it seems as if he’s needlessly withholding, as if he’s not giving abundantly. He’s certainly not responding like I think he should. And as I’ve waited and hoped through a season of God taking and not giving, he’s used the biblical account of Naomi in my life.

The Old Testament book of Ruth in which Naomi’s story unfolds frequently references God, yet he seems almost absent at points. Silent. All of his work accomplished by stealth.

This account takes place during the period of the judges, a dark time when there was no king in Israel. And while God was working in a single family to preserve and prepare the way for the King, the One who would ultimately bring life from death, none of the main characters know that.

Though the book bears Ruth’s name, Naomi is probably its central character. And when we view the account from the perspective of this woman who knows what it means to have God take rather than give, the major themes of emptiness and fullness stand out.

In chapter 1, the theme is emptiness. There we see Naomi in a strange land, having left her own country because of empty bellies brought on by famine. And this chapter recounts further emptiness—the loss of Naomi’s husband, and then, one by one, her two sons. This triple devastation leads her to return to Bethlehem, her hometown. When she arrives with just a daughter-in-law in tow, she states the theme clearly and with great honesty. She says to those eager to see her, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).

Naomi knows God exists. She knows he’s sovereign. But she also knows he’s afflicted her. She acknowledges him and sees the pain he’s brought on her, but she doesn’t yet see his mercy. She doesn’t see the implications of Ruth 1:22—the Lord has brought her home with Ruth standing beside her. This daughter-in-law full of faith will be the key to fullness, to redemption.

And just as Naomi struggles to see what God is doing, she can’t yet hear that he has broken his silence either. She and Ruth have returned at the beginning of barley harvest. But Naomi doesn’t catch the low hum of God’s faithfulness as the scythes move back and forth in the fields being harvested around her. She doesn’t yet hear the song of future hope God is working. She’s oblivious to the fullness ahead.

As the book progresses, though, the murmur of God’s care grows loud enough for even grief-stricken Naomi to hear. In chapter 2, Ruth is gathering grain in the fields behind the harvesters, providing for her mother-in-law’s needs. And this chapter introduces Boaz, the one who will eventually provide for both Naomi and Ruth. As Boaz offers Ruth protection while she gleans in his fields, the author piles up imagery of fullness—references to bread, grain, and wine all build a sense of coming abundance.

And in chapter 3, the imagery’s culmination begins. In response to Ruth’s (to us) unorthodox proposal to Boaz, his answer is in part, “You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law” (Ruth 3:17). And Ruth recounts to Naomi how this good man loaded her down with more grain than she could have gathered on her best day.

By the time chapter 4 ends, no trace of emptiness remains. Boaz marries Ruth, Ruth brings forth a son, and Naomi’s arms are full.

While Naomi is one of the book’s key characters, the greatest character is God. And he has been silently working all along in Naomi’s greatest setbacks. When she loses her husband and sons, God gives her Ruth. When there is no male kinsman left, God gives her Boaz to preserve the family line. When barren Ruth marries Boaz after ten years of childlessness in her first marriage, God gives a child.

And the neighborhood women see the culmination of the story pointing to the fullness of Naomi. Rather than saying that Ruth has born a child, they declare that “a son has been born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17).

But the fullness doesn’t end there. The beautiful redemption of Naomi’s story points forward to David. This son born to Naomi is a direct predecessor of that king. And that king David points forward to Jesus and the hope of the Messiah whose reign will never end. Our hope. Hope for the world.

This story that begins in death ends in life. This account that begins in loss ends in gain. Though God often seems hidden in the book’s pages, he’s been working in the darkest of times when none of the characters could see his hand or hear his voice.

And as my own life grows darker and quieter, when it’s harder to see the rise of light pouring forth through the clouds, I remember Naomi. I’m not like Naomi through whom God was working to preserve the redemptive line in order to save the world. But there’s redemption at work in the middle of my story, too. Like Naomi, I have a God who is working in the hardest of times, in the darkest of times, in the emptiness, and in the silence. For my good.

When I’m honest, though, I have to echo C.S. Lewis who says, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

I’ve lived so much of the past year there. I know the truth. I have a God who is good and who is sovereign and who does what is right. But sometimes there’s a disconnect between what I know to be true and what I feel because of the silence. That disconnect often becomes the truth of what is in my life in this sinful, broken world.

Like Naomi, I have to acknowledge the reality that God has made me empty. Naomi’s comment is really the Psalm 88 way of thinking. She’s still speaking what she knows to be true. Her conclusion about God returning her to Bethlehem empty is still a conclusion of belief. With the darkness around her, she’s not walking away from God. She’s gone back to Bethlehem. Even in the middle of the silence, she’s continued walking toward God.

And there can be much pain involved in this kind of honest trust in God’s sovereign working. As I’m forced to reconcile the disappointments in my life, the emptiness, he wants me to keep walking toward him. He wants me to taste and see that he is good. He wants to fill those empty moments with more of himself, more of who he is. He’s taken away, he’s created an emptiness, to fill me with eternal joy.

Often, when I read an account like Naomi’s where the eternal joy is clear, I wish God would tie the loose ends of my life up so neatly. But while the book of Ruth is just four chapters, it could fill a much longer space because we only see points of the story. God didn’t take a shortcut through Naomi’s grief. And he doesn’t in ours either. But he’s the God who walks with us through our sorrow. The God who climbs down with us into the valley of tears. The God of Romans 4—the God of the impossible who can do the impossible.

Some of the awareness of his presence in the grief comes from choosing to see. Naomi had Ruth next to her and was going home to a land she knew, a place of familiarity. But she couldn’t see as others later did that this daughter-in-law would be “more to [her] than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). I have to choose to see the rays of mercy that God has given in the middle of my dark, whether they come through a family and friends who serve me or in small goodnesses. I have to listen for the rustlings of future grace, to believe that the dawn of rejoicing could lie ahead.

Through the life of Naomi I’ve also seen that it isn’t my job to decipher how the pieces all fit together. My trust in God must come from knowledge of his character, not from always knowing what he is doing. Naomi didn’t know her loss would lead to a Redeemer not just for Israel but for all who turn to him in faith. My comfort comes from knowing that God’s purposes are always bigger than I can see.

Often when I’m in the middle of my story, I only see the pain. But my job is to remain faithful and obedient to the God who knows all mysteries. To have a faith that’s pleasing to him. A faith that trusts even when he hasn’t answered all of life’s questions or removed the silence. When the agonizing “How long, oh Lord?” of the psalmists persists. Because of his character, I can believe that the cavernous, screaming silence is exactly what I need, even if it’s not what I like.

Just as in Naomi’s life, God’s silence doesn’t indicate he doesn’t care or isn’t listening. The silence means that he knows in a way that I don’t. That his failure to respond in the way I desire is better than what I can look for in that moment. I know those words can sound trite—I have to continually wrestle with these truths for myself. But I’m confident that he knows things that I don’t. That his ways are higher than mine because they’re perfect and holy. That he sees the end of my story as clearly as he saw the end of Naomi’s. If that’s the case, I can offer the losses in my life as a sacrifice—a costly sacrifice—knowing that the same God who worked redemption for Naomi is working that redemption in my moments of suffering and has promised me ultimate redemption through Jesus Christ.

By Nicole Flenniken and Tracy Hsieh

 

 

Somewhere I Would Never Have Chosen to Travel

I’ve always identified with Lucy Moderatz of While You Were Sleeping. She so desperately wants a passport that says “Italy” on it that she nearly marries a man she doesn’t love to get it. Though I’ve never considered marrying for a passport stamp, Lucy would have envied the passport I carried in my twenties. It was stamped on every page.

Just months before my thirtieth birthday, I renewed that passport, hoping to travel to teach in China. The plan was to finish a second master’s degree while teaching in the States, pack up for a life overseas, and fill passport pages along the way.

For a few months before that birthday, though, I’d not been physically functioning at capacity. And that milestone day, I had to acknowledge that something was seriously wrong. I wasn’t a napper, but that birthday, I woke from a long nap unable to even move from bed. Until then, I’d been able to push through. But I could no longer ignore the profound weakness I was experiencing.

As I entered that new decade, I couldn’t have imagined the road God had designed for me to travel. Now ten years later, my fortieth birthday this month has caused introspection and has magnified the losses Lyme disease brought throughout my thirties.

Diminished abilities. Lost relationships. Things that have not been. Events that have not transpired.

While friends were spending life’s fullest decade raising children, advancing careers, and even filling passports, God called me to walk a different road. Instead of being a season of fullness, this past decade has been one of lack. And the life God has given—full of pain, doctors’ visits, loneliness, loss of independence, grief—has starkly contrasted the one I expected.

So when a friend asked if I had a current passport, I expected that lack to come crashing in as I pulled out the now expired one. When I looked at the blank pages, the tears did begin to flow. But what I thought would have been tears of grief were definitely tears of gratitude.

Instead of seeing my own unfulfilled plans, I saw God’s faithfulness on each empty page. Ten years of God’s faithfulness. A faithfulness I wouldn’t have known without suffering and loss.

I’ve not added any stamps to my passport this past decade, and God has led me down paths I never intended to walk. But he’s also taught me truths about himself I wouldn’t have learned as effectively any other way. He’s filled the blank pages of my life with so much more than tangible passport stamps.

These truths have been the stamps in the passport of my suffering:

▪ God is sovereign. Nothing that has happened in my life, not even the onset of Lyme disease, is outside his control.
▪ God is faithful. He is always keeping his promises, providing abundantly for my financial needs despite a decade without work.
▪ God is wise. He knows what is right, and he always does it. In wisdom, he has designed even this long-term trial to expose who I really am and let me see him more clearly for who he really is.
▪ God is sympathetic. He sympathizes in my weakness and has brought others alongside to sympathize and walk beside me.
▪ God is gracious. Though he’s taken much away, he’s given me himself. Through the pain and the waiting and the wrestling, he’s taught me that what I’ve lost is not the source of true joy; he is. In himself, he’s restored what he’s taken.
▪ God is merciful. Though sickness has brought out my worst self, my unloveliness has not altered God’s secure, redemptive love of me.
▪ God is present. He’s not distant or disinterested. Even in sleepless nights, he is near.
▪ God is unchangeable. What he has revealed himself to be, he will always be. To me. To all those who are his.

This exchange—experience and adventure traded for a growing understanding of who God is—doesn’t always fill me with joy like it did the day I pulled out my empty passport. Many days, I still feel like God owes me the end of the story where I get my pre-Lyme life back. But when I wrestle with what God has designed, I have to remember some of my favorite words from Psalm 25. In verse 10, David says:

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies
.

If you look at David’s life, though, you’ll see that the Lord’s paths for this man involved darkness. Unexpected twists. Pain. Fearful turns. Suffering. And looking at our own lives, we see how often God asks us to travel roads that include the same, whether those challenges come in the form of Lyme disease or another difficulty.

So how can David say all the paths God leads those who obey him down are steadfast love and faithfulness? Some of those paths are clearly not good in themselves. David can make this outrageous claim only because of the nature and character of his God. Because what God does and how he acts flow from who he is.

The writer of another of the psalms highlights that idea when he says that God is good and does good (119:68). If he is good, then his ways are good, regardless. All of them. None excluded. And if his ways are good, then his answers are good, even when they’re hard. Even when they don’t look like what we planned.

Because David knows God as a covenant-keeping God, he looks back at God’s character and his past actions and says, “God, this is how you’ve always been. This is how you will always be.” God’s consistent nature gives David confidence to say, “All of your paths, Lord, regardless of the outcome, are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

When God sends us down pleasant paths, he’s reminding us of that love and faithfulness. Recently he allowed one of my friends a dream trip overseas after a season of loss—a reminder that sometimes he says “Yes!” And she and the girls she traveled with named themselves the Beauty Chasers as they reveled in his goodness on display in ruined castles and streets lined with stone cottages.

But when God sends us down painful paths, his love is still steadfast. He’s still faithful. And though the roads God’s assigned me have been painful rather than pleasant, these travels have also included beauty.

It’s a beauty that has been costly and demanding—demanding of obedience even when my heart has resisted. It’s a beauty that hasn’t come in the package I wanted it to come in but a beauty that has involved knowing God himself more deeply.

You see, in the middle of this broken and fallen world, God gives the promise of restoration. That’s what he’s always about in our lives. But he doesn’t just restore us from suffering and pain; he also restores us through it.

Though his rescue of me from myself has been more painful than I could have imagined, my pain and suffering haven’t been the absence of God. They’ve been the place of experiencing the presence of God in a rich and a deep way. And that’s where the beauty comes in.

God is rescuing me from my sin and restoring me to the life I long for through Jesus Christ. The roads he’s led me down in that process have not taken me where I expected to go. And I might not end at the destination I would choose. I may not ever be fully healed or have children or resume my career. But I can trust that God has chosen this path in faithfulness and steadfast love.

And he’s doing the same—working restoration even when the path seems to disappear—for all who love and obey him. As we look ahead to our final destination, the heart of biblical hope is the promise that God will make all things beautiful in his time. That we’ll be with him, the source of our joy, forever.

Despite my expired passport, I can watch travel vlogs without a sense of missing out. I may not get to the Serengeti of northern Tanzania. I may never see Rome, the fjords of Norway, or the isles of Greece.

But I’m waiting for a better country, a heavenly one, one where Christ will reign. So I can embrace the beauty along the bitter road of suffering God has assigned these last ten years. And I think that when the journey is done, the glory of Christ will enable me to look back and say, “That was worth it. That was beautiful as it prepared me for this. His paths were steadfast love and faithfulness. All of them.”

But If Not . . .

As literature and film grow more and more dystopian, as the page and the screen declare just how broken our world is, we long more than ever for happy endings.

And in some sense, I’ve felt recently like God is preparing me for my own happy ending. Like he’s setting himself up to be glorified in a big way through my healing. Like he has parted the sea to get me to Arizona for treatment. In fact, the way God has provided financially has been almost fairy tale-esque.

But most happily ever afters follow some conflict.

Since testing at the end of June, I’ve begun treatment. First, it was slow—way slower than I’d hoped. Then when they started me on my full protocol, they drew back almost immediately because of troubles with my red blood cells.

While they’re dealing with those difficulties and have slowly begun a new regimen, I’m facing treatment that will worsen my condition before improving it. In fact, the immediate effects can be quite severe. And while I’m hopeful and anticipating the healing God has in store, I’m also having to choose to trust.

As I face treatment, I remember a story from my childhood. This story is no fairy tale adventure with a guaranteed ending. Instead, God’s using the real, raw account of three Hebrew young men in Daniel 3 to show me something as an adult that I missed as a child. Something that has grown my faith in a significant way.

As I stand at this crossroads of healing or no healing, unsure what the outcome of treatment will be, God is expecting of me a willingness to worship. Here. Now. Already. And that’s what’s happening in Daniel 3 as well.

After the siege of Jerusalem, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had gathered the brightest Hebrew young men to educate in the language, literature, and ways of their captors. Among those chosen were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The account from which they get their fame follows Nebuchadnezzar’s construction of a gigantic statue he expects all of his people—captured and native born—to fall down and worship. Anyone who refuses to bend to the king’s arrogant command is to “be cast into a burning fiery furnace” (3:6).

As expected, everyone bows. Everyone, that is, except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

When the king hears that they’re still standing, his rage burns as hot as the furnace prepared for the insubordinate. He does, however, offer these men who fill important roles in his government one more chance—with the threat of the flame if they refuse.

Their response appears in verses 17 and 18 and is one I want to have written on my heart:

“. . . our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

This response has two parts. First, they acknowledge God’s power. They trust that power because they’ve seen it in the past as God delivered their ancestors from Egypt. They’ve heard how, time and time again, he delivered their forefathers from their enemies despite their sin and rebellion.

But they also believe in God’s power because he’s consistently demonstrated his character to them. He’s been powerful to rescue them before when the king has demanded they eat his food. And he’s also displayed his power in their companion Daniel through dreams and visions.

Even in captivity, God isn’t standing far off from them. He is near, and so they are confident in his ability to rescue them again as he has before.

I find it easy to glory in this aspect of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s response that insists the true God they worship is more powerful than any king or any furnace. But the second part of their response is harder to embrace. They also respond in submission to God’s sovereignty.

The words “But if not . . .” show that they were trusting in the hidden purposes of God in their situation. And these words remind us today that faith isn’t measured by the strength with which we expect a positive outcome. Faith is measured by whether or not God himself is the substance of our conviction.

In other words, biblical faith is not confident in particular outcomes; it’s confident in a sovereign God. Even though their immediate future looked dark, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had confidence because they weren’t rooted in their present circumstances but in the nature of who God is.

Centuries later, Edith Schaeffer would say, “We need to be willing to let God be God.” And these three men demonstrate that kind of willingness here. They don’t claim to know what God is going to do, but they do claim to know who God is. And they’re not merely confident that God is able. They’re also confident that God is good.

Contrary to our expectations as readers, this good God doesn’t spare these men from going into the fire. He lets them feel the full force of the flame. He requires them to stare down their fear. In fact, the king’s fury is so great that he orders the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than it already is and calls for some of his mighty men to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in.

When we face the fire in our own lives, God’s power doesn’t always mean that God will spare us either. But his goodness means that he will always be with us.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may not have felt God’s presence as the flames killed the mighty men who cast them bound into the fire. But they certainly experienced his nearness in the furnace. When Nebuchadnezzar looks into the flames, expecting the immediate conflagration of these three who dared to oppose him, he sees instead four men, walking around, unbound (Daniel 3:25).

Many think the fourth man in the fire is the pre-incarnate Christ. Nebuchadnezzar himself says of the fourth man that his “appearance . . . is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25).

Though Christ did not keep Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the furnace, he found them in it. Similarly, he does not always keep us from suffering, but in his love, the fourth man comes to us in our pain and walks with us in it.

As I look at the weeks of treatment yet ahead, I know I’m walking into a fire. And I don’t know what the outcome will be. But I do know that God will be there to sustain, uphold, and walk with me every step of the way. And I’m learning from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego what biblical faith is. It’s trusting that God knows and will do what is right in his time, according to his infinite wisdom, to accomplish the grand design and purposes of eternity.

As believers today, we have more history on which to base our trust than those three Hebrew men did centuries ago. We trust God because, through his Son, he has shown us how much he loves us. This side of the cross, true biblical faith still rests in a God who doesn’t stand far off. A God who would take on human flesh and die to show us how near he is.

The most important element of the Daniel 3 passage is that there’s a God who delivers his people, and he displayed his largest act of deliverance on the cross. God’s past faithfulness there is all that we need to trust him for every circumstance he brings to our lives. As a result, biblical faith trusts and knows that what God is doing is right—whether it meets our expectations or not—because he gave us Jesus.

As I wait with great hope for healing, my trust has to be in God himself because, through his Son, God has shown how much he loves me. When the pain treatment brings on is too hard to bear, my faith rests in that love.

If he chooses in his power to heal me, to provide the happy ending, I will worship. “But if not,” I will rest in his sovereign purpose, and by his grace, I will worship just the same.

Where Can Hope Be Found?

For years, I’ve resisted the idea of going to a Lyme-specific clinic, not out of denial but because of the great cost. Most Lyme treatment is expensive and often not covered by insurance. So I’ve tried to manage my own treatment, seeing several doctors and synthesizing their advice.

Recently, though, I’ve grown more and more aware that my efforts at management aren’t working. In fact, I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime these past few months as the boundaries of my world have closed in further. Though pain levels kept me largely confined to the house before, I now seldom get out for anything but doctors’ appointments. A good day used to be one when I could get out for a ride to get coffee. Now a good day is one when I can sit up in a chair.

And on bad days, I can’t even handle having another person in the room. When my hair touches my face, it hurts. When my clothes touch my body, it hurts. Any light or noise or movement hurts. And this intensified pain has made even the most basic of tasks harder. Because having someone touch my head causes pain, I get my hair washed about once every two weeks. Having water touch my skin hurts, so I get to bathe about once a month. I now need help even to brush my teeth.

FullSizeRender

These months have contained loss upon loss upon loss. But in this season of compounded loss, God is giving a new direction, a new hope for physical healing.

About a year ago, without telling anyone, I began to pray about the next step in my treatment, realizing what I was doing wasn’t working. Family and friends have noticed my decline, too, though, and without telling me, friends who learned about someone else’s effective treatment for Lyme began praying for God to provide the same treatment for me.

Then one friend shared the name of a clinic. I did some research. My parents grew convinced of the possibilities. Another friend joined in my research and contacted the clinic we saw as the best option. And others who have walked these last months with me (including my doctor) affirmed the choice to seek more comprehensive treatment at Envita Medical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. While I’m still waiting on the Lord to provide funds, I’m walking prayerfully in the direction of this option for care.

But where does my ultimate hope come from? Does it rest in a state-of-the-art clinic staffed by personnel who’ve given their lives to studying and treating this disease? Does it come from success rates and percentages of potential improvement?

While I hope to find help at Envita, real hope is a Person in the form of Jesus Christ.

And in my darkest days, a friend has reminded me of that hope. She’s been recording herself reading portions of the Bible to me. It was a day or two after I came home from a recent hospital experience that she read Isaiah 9:2:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone
.

That night as I listened, all felt lost. I was losing grip on hope. As the questions about what God was doing in my life came, I wondered if Isaiah’s first hearers, sitting in their own darkness waiting for deliverance, were asking the same questions of God. “Will your promises come true? How long, Lord?”

You see, when Isaiah penned these words, the Israelites he was writing to knew darkness well. Their nation was divided. Both Israel and Judah were facing moral, political, social, and spiritual decay. And just a chapter earlier, Isaiah had prophesied the coming Assyrian invasion.

But then, into that blackness, God promises hope. He promises the coming Messiah. And when that Messiah arrived, he would declare himself to be the light of the world (John 8:12). After that Messiah died and rose again, the Apostle Paul would say that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The Israelites facing coming invasion were waiting for political deliverance. They didn’t understand that this Light, this coming King, would outshine the best of their previous kings because he would be divine. They couldn’t comprehend that God would break through with a Messiah whose deliverance would extend far beyond the political realm. A Messiah who would, as Paul said, shine in and deliver them from their sin-filled hearts. Isaiah describes him in verse 6:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

This reminder of who Jesus is reinforced in my mind that hope is found in him. He has shown himself in my darkness as the Wonderful Counselor, counseling my soul back to truth. He’s been the Mighty God, strengthening me when I am weak. He’s an Everlasting Father, carrying me today and promising to care for me forever. He’s the Prince of Peace, bringing deep, abiding peace even when all is not right. He is my light. And he is my hope.

And God has used words read in childhood to underscore that truth to me recently, too. As a child, I couldn’t understand the depths of the darkness Corrie ten Boom experienced, but she was one of my heroes. As she and her sister Betsie endured the horrors of a concentration camp during the Holocaust, they were surrounded by atrocities. They experienced the darkest of darks. And in that darkness, Betsie encouraged Corrie with these words: “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

When this disease has kept me even from remembering Scripture, Betsie ten Boom’s words have played again and again in my mind: “God’s love is . . . deeper still.”

Like Israel and Judah and the ten Boom sisters, I’m waiting for physical deliverance. And I have hope that God will use treatment at Envita to help restore my body. But my ultimate hope rests in God’s keeping of the promises made in Isaiah 9.

Jesus did come. He came so that, one day, everything sin-damaged (including broken bodies) will be restored. So that, one day, everything sad will come untrue. So that, until that day, he will be there to meet me with his love, even in the darkest of pits. Because, he is deeper still.

The Gift of Today

In childhood, we mark time intensely, counting down days until Christmas or minutes until big events . . . like a birthday party or a trip to a friend’s house. Perhaps the only adult equivalent is the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve. But if we’re honest, we’re not really waiting for the hour to strike. We’re waiting for a fresh start. A clean slate. A new beginning.

In my twenties, I grew to appreciate this holiday of new possibilities more each year, anticipating what was in store for the future. As 2017 approached, though, the 365 new days stretching ahead, each containing 1,440 minutes, didn’t excite me. Because of the pain of the past year, all I could see ahead were the moments of pain each coming day would hold.

As I lay in bed with the minutes and hours dragging on, I had to ask myself, “Where’s the beauty in this? Where’s the purpose God is working? Are these moments wasted? Without meaning?” I’ve passed the last eight New Year’s wondering if perhaps the year ahead would be the one in which my circumstances changed. But nothing has changed. Instead, I spend more time in bed. I have more pain.

So in the middle of my questions, I popped in one of my favorite movies. For both my mom and me, The Lord of the Rings has become regular holiday viewing, replacing the fluff of Hallmark’s contrived happy endings. When I came to my mom’s favorite spot—the place she usually pauses the movie and makes application to our lives—an imaginary wizard and a make-believe hobbit encouraged me once again.

As the hobbit Frodo grows to understand the weight of the responsibility he’s carrying, he says to Gandalf, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

And Gandalf, the ever-wise wizard, replies, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Like Frodo, I’ve grown weary under a weight that has become heavier as my journey has gone on. As Tolkien’s tale progresses, Frodo comes to a place where he almost can’t bear the weight of the Ring he carries. And just as he wishes his burden away, I’ve wished away the days of pain, of the intense burden and responsibility that has been given to me.

But Gandalf recognizes a truth that sufferers the world over must embrace. Just as the events of Frodo’s quest were determined by a power greater than himself, so are the events of our lives. We don’t get to write our own stories, but we get to choose how we respond to the narrative. Like the tired hobbit, we get “to decide . . . what to do with the time that is given to us.” And those decisions can give mundane moments purpose.

Illness has grown my understanding that the painful moments nobody sees are some of the most profoundly important. Even those who are well live most of their lives in the little moments that are ordinary, insignificant. And most often, it is in these unremarkable moments that God works to rescue us from ourselves and transform our lives into his likeness. It’s as we embrace those moments—the broken ones, the ones too hard to bear—that God breaks and rebuilds.

I often spend too many of the 1,440 minutes of each day wishing for a future when life’s problems will evaporate. When my pain will disappear. When life will go back to normal. Gandalf’s wisdom reminds me, though, to find God in the present instead of waiting for that burden to be lifted or for my life to improve.

God is, after all, enough in the middle of the hard and not just in the middle of the magnificent. We love to reflect on the latter—his power in parting the Red Sea for his people to walk through in a matter of hours. But he was every bit as present, every bit as sufficient as he walked with them through more than 21 million minutes in the wilderness.

This same God calls me not to look at the future as an escape from the present but to embrace what he’s given me today, even the hard and the grueling. To recognize every moment he gives as a gift, gracious and undeserved.

Yes, God’s preparing an eternal weight of glory that I can’t see. Yes, I’m to live in light of that future grace, looking to the day when I’ll better understand how each excruciating moment was accomplishing a beautiful purpose beyond what I can comprehend. But even in that future focus, he asks me to glorify him through contentment in the present, to honor him through patience in the pain. To serve him by fixing my heart on him instead of on what I don’t have.

And how can I do that? How can you do that? By recognizing that these seemingly wasted moments are purposeful. Not only is God present in the mundane, but he is also working out my life’s purpose, your life’s purpose, in the most painful and insignificant of moments. When we embrace his call to worship when life hurts or purpose seems nonexistent, no moment is wasted.

You see, each day, a cosmic conflict is taking place. In our most trivial of moments, there’s a battle going on. And while the moments may seem inconsequential, the battle is not. While I can’t see that conflict, I have to see each moment as profoundly spiritual.

Think about Job and God and Satan. The Bible never clearly explains just what was going on in heaven when Satan approached God’s throne and asked to tempt Job. When we reach the book’s end, we see how Job has grown, but the narrator doesn’t give us another glimpse into the throne room. We don’t know what was accomplished in heaven through Job’s suffering. But we can be certain that Job’s response of faith magnified his God there as it has here for the many sufferers who have followed him and read the account of his life.

In my battle with pain, I have to recognize that each moment God gives me—even the ones nobody sees—is an opportunity to glorify him like Job did. When I say “Thank you, God” or acknowledge his goodness in moments of pain, I get to magnify his worth.

And here’s a beautiful truth. Our acceptance of God’s mercy in our lives, even when it comes in forms we don’t appreciate, may do more to bring him glory than our outward acts of service. God’s stripped from me most of my opportunities to do even small things for him. But those moments in my bed when I’m fighting for a response of faith through the pain have as much significance as the visible, external service I was able to offer him when I was well.

He’s given me the opportunity today to fight for him by believing in his goodness. And that fight empowered by knowledge of his ultimate goodness displayed on the cross matters. It has significance.

Elisabeth Elliot once said, “This gift for this day. The life of faith is lived one day at a time, and it has to be lived—not always looked forward to as though the ‘real’ living were around the next corner. It is for today we are responsible. God still owns tomorrow.”

When I feel entitled to a different tomorrow, thinking that I deserve my life to be what I want it to be, I overlook the grace that already is. I lose the opportunity to live in the present with gratitude if I’m always looking back to what was or forward to what will be. The God who owns tomorrow asks me to be present in every moment of this day.

And as I watch the sun rise each morning, I know that the earth has completed one more rotation around the sun. That my heart is still beating and cells are still regenerating. That the many moments that make up life demonstrate his mercy. That the passage of each year—celebrated with fireworks and countdowns and dropping balls—marks another twelve whole months of moments in which God has faithfully been working his purposes. That there is great beauty in the gift of today.

Things Lost, Things Gained

This year as the Michigan weather turned cooler and back-to-school pictures popped up on Facebook, I wanted to go out and get my own new box of crayons and fresh pencils. You see, before I was sick, my entire life was built around the school year. From the age of five on, I was either a student or a teacher. And the school year is still how I define time.

This year, for the first time, I’ve really missed it. All of it. Buying school supplies. Greeting eager students on the first day. The excitement of a new year. The idea of a new beginning. The freshness of possibility. The opportunity to mold and shape. The rewards of this crazy, draining, wonderful career.

So the start of this new school year was an almost tangible reminder of loss. Not a day goes by when I’m not confronted with something I’ve lost—teaching, as well as independence, friendships, dreams, and plans.

Some days, the losses seem to pile up one on top of another. Some days, I wonder if those losses will ever stop. Some days, it seems like God takes more than he gives. And many days, like the first day of school, the reminders of loss are more visible than the reminders of gain.

When focusing on losses, though, I neglect to remember that these things God’s asked me to relinquish were, in fact, pure gift. They weren’t mine to begin with. The blessings that God bestowed on my life came from him and, therefore, they belong to him. I did not earn or deserve them.

This perspective is not always the natural response of my heart, but it was of Job’s. This Old Testament believer with the odd name suffered extreme loss—of wealth, of family—all in one day. Despite this devastation, his initial response was worship.

Worship!

Reeling from multiple staggering announcements of financial and family ruin, Job says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

In reflecting on this response, Nancy Guthrie says, “Only a person who understood the greatness of God could have worshiped at such a time.” You see, Job’s worship demonstrated his awareness that God did not owe him anything. He knew that the blessings God had bestowed upon him were gift. And he saw himself as a steward of these gifts, so that when they were taken away, he could respond with heartfelt awe and adoration of the one who had given them in the first place.

But Job’s loss didn’t end at wealth and children. As the biblical account continues, it details the loss of his health and the complete lack of understanding of his wife and his friends. Rather than diminishing, his troubles seemed to multiply. He was beaten down, discouraged, disappointed. Yet he displayed a spirit of submission to God and kept walking toward him in the darkness.

And as Guthrie again says, “Somehow, along the way, Job discovered God in a way he had never known him before.” At the end of the book, Job articulates this new understanding when he says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5; italics mine).

The book basically ends with this confession by Job that he has gained a whole new vision of God. Through suffering, God revealed himself to Job in an intimate way. Although Job knew God before, his previous knowledge did not compare to the understanding he gained through pain. Ironically, his suffering became the avenue to greater confidence in Yahweh. His new knowledge of God surpassed intellect.

Though I have not lost at the level Job did, like him, I have gained through loss. First, God has given me a deeper awareness of himself and increased intimacy with him, gifts I would not have obtained without pain and sorrow. Although I knew God was faithful and trustworthy before, I have now experienced his faithfulness while walking through the hardest of days. And these painful days have changed my relationship with the One who sustains and supports me when the losses continue. In days of pleasure, I was aware of God, but in suffering, God’s presence has been unmistakable. And his presence has served as a reminder that he is working all of this, every inch of my pain, in every way, for my good.

Loss has also forced me to see myself for what I truly am. Before my sickness, I perceived the state of my soul as far better than it actually was. The busyness of normal life allowed me to gloss over the depth of my sin. There is nothing like a good dose of sickness, though, to expose weakness and bring the ugliness of sin to the surface. I have discovered that my sins are far more serious than I realized. And my sickness has brought me, like Job, to the place where I “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). As my view of myself has grown smaller, I have seen God’s grace more clearly. That grace has magnified his mercy and has served as a reminder of the One who has suffered loss far greater than I will ever know.

A related gift of loss is that I have come to the end of myself. This brokenness has exposed how weak I really am. Lyme disease has stripped me of the independence I once clung to. In the inability to control my own circumstances, I am daily forced to recognize my limitation and weaknesses. Once I would have jumped out of bed when I heard my alarm clock, but now I sometimes lie in bed for hours gathering the strength just to get up. Once I would have hopped in the car for an item I needed at the store, and now I wait for a friend who’s able to pick it up for me. This coming to the end of myself has led to deeper pathways of reliance, not just on others but also on God. Every moment of weakness has given me the opportunity to rely on the strength, hope, and peace bought for me by his Son.

Another unexpected gift is that navigating a chronic illness has allowed me to live more fully in the moment. However painful the now is, I’ve come to recognize life itself as a gift. The capacity of my soul to embrace life—the good moments and the bad—has intensified my ability to be alive to the present. As sickness has taught me to see what is truly important, it’s also taught me to be satisfied in the ordinary and the mundane. To perceive the beauty in the hard.

Loss has also produced a weariness within, a deep sense that something is not quite right with life as it is. This weariness has increased an intense longing for wholeness that will be found only in the life to come. It has shifted my focus from the here and now to the eternal. Though that focus is still imperfect, I long more deeply for the day when my God will right every wrong. Loss has magnified the perception that heaven is my true home. That I am just a pilgrim journeying. Instead of despair, this weariness has produced an abiding confidence that one day all things will be made new.

God has allowed me to continue in a season of loss. Loss of things I cherished. Loss of things I loved. But even though I grieve these losses, I would not trade the intimacy I have gained with Christ for the pleasures I once knew. The tangible signs of gain are few, but what I have gained during my sickness far surpasses any loss, far surpasses even the best first day of school.

What About Me?

We all know him—some of us by experience and others through observation. He’s the kid standing on the sideline in the gym as teams are chosen for PE. Standing after the starters are picked. Standing still when the second string is chosen. And, finally, standing alone.

Like the kid waiting to be picked for a team during PE, I’ve been waiting, too.

Though I’ve waited for years, in the last six months or so, I’ve experienced a new wave of grief. Grief that has come from my prayers going unanswered.

During these months, I’ve continued to watch friends have children, buy their dream homes, get desired job promotions, and experience adventures big and small. Many of these good gifts I watched them receive were the very things I had prayed for them.

But as I saw God answer their prayers, I couldn’t help but ask, “What about me? How long until you answer my prayers? Do you only hear me when I pray for someone else?”

In the process of navigating this new wave of grief, I’ve begun to learn to lament. And that’s not something we as American Christians are comfortable doing. In fact, we often think of it as sinful. Yet the Bible is full of people who talk to God in raw and sometimes shockingly honest ways.

Biblical lament acknowledges that the world is a sinful, broken place. It mourns the reality of life in a fallen world. It grieves that things are not how they should be—that bodies break down, people disappoint, and life never entirely delivers on our expectations.

And lament is not sanitary. In fact, it is sometimes quite messy as it complains and cries out to God, knowing he listens and knows our thoughts even before we do.

Lament is talking directly to God, acknowledging pain and deep struggles of the soul. Biblical lament, however, is not grumbling about God. It does not camp out in unbelief or cynicism but engages God with what’s wrong in our world in order to allow him to fill us with comfort and hope.

The process of navigating my sorrow through lament has allowed me to honestly express my pain to God. It’s taught me to acknowledge my grief and allow him to fill me with truth. To reframe my emotions in light of God’s Word and let him bear my sorrows for me. To move forward in honesty and faith in the midst of a bewildering and painful place.

And Psalms has been my instruction manual. This canonical songbook is full of raw poetry with at least one third of the book made up of lament. These poems of sorrow were actually congregational songs that the people of Israel sang together in worship.

While many of the psalms express jubilant praise, the darker hymns allowed this songbook to extend the range of experience and emotion, allowing God’s people to fully express every aspect of their lives. When these songs were sung together corporately, the participants learned more about themselves, about God, and about his redemptive purposes. These psalms re-oriented God’s people to the truth and reminded them that God had not forsaken or abandoned them.

One of my favorite laments is Psalm 13 which begins:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

In these first two verses, David feels abandoned and alone. Though he cries out to God, God appears silent. And the psalmist doesn’t know when or how God will intervene. In fact, God hadn’t seemed to meet the deadline for David’s deliverance.

Yet one of the beautiful truths of David’s lament is that, even when God seems to turn a deaf ear, the psalmist continues to plead and cry out to him. He keeps coming back to the same God because there’s nowhere else he can go.

At first glance, this reality is not that reassuring. But David has a God he can run to, groan to, express his despair to. That relationship is where despair finds its deepest reassurance.

And David’s experience of God’s delay parallels many of ours. Andrew Fuller says, “It is not under the sharpest, but the longest trials, that we are most in danger of fainting.” For those of us bound to time, the hours crawl slowly as we move from moment to moment. And as they do, we can struggle to trust. But the God who inhabits eternity sees all of history in a single moment. His timetable is unlikely to correspond with our own (2 Peter 3:9). And he’s often doing his best work in our longest trials, in the moments when he seems to have forgotten us.

David continues in Psalm 13:

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

Here David is laying out his desire for deliverance before his God. And he supports his petition with arguments, something we seldom think of doing in our prayers. But David is presenting reasons to buttress his requests. As Dale Ralph Davis indicates in his commentary on Psalms, this type of prayer involves reflective thinking. It infuses emotion and reasoning together and goes beneath the layers of emotion to find the truth.

This kind of prayer is important because it indicates that David is not in doubt about his relationship with God. He’s discouraged, but he’s still expecting God’s open ear. While he wants an answer to his immediate problem, what he desires most is God’s favor and the assurance that God is listening and is for him.

He goes on to say:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

After laying his requests out before the Lord, David declares his faith. Here, he turns to what he knows to be true about God. And he applies what he knows to be true to his heart.

He does not look inward here as he has done earlier but fastens himself on God’s character. Focusing on God’s steadfast love helps reshape his emotions and restore his trust. According to Davis, this steadfast love or hesed “is not merely love but loyal love, not merely kindness but dependable kindness, not merely affection but affection that has committed itself.”

Rather than allowing his feelings to overrule, David chooses to trust this kind of committed love from his God. He understands that, although his feelings are real and he needs to acknowledge them to God, his impression that God has forgotten him is false. In fact, as he looks to the past, he sees bountiful evidence of God’s goodness to him.

Some of us may be disappointed, though, that David’s situation has not changed by the end of this psalm. When he reaches the final verse, he’s still living in anticipation of the deliverance he cried out for.

Yet, during this process of lament, he has turned towards God in trust and worship. God has used this process to reshape his heart. While he still longs for salvation from his enemies, he does so with peace and even joy as he rests confidently in God’s steadfast love.

The confusing, painful place God had David in became redemptive as he progressed from an inward focus on his emotions to an outward focus on his God. That progress is the purpose of biblical lament.

And that purpose applies to us as well. As an Israelite, David was immersed in stories of God’s covenant love. He could identify God’s faithfulness because of the Red Sea crossing and the people’s entrance into the promised land.

Though most of us are fairly removed from David’s Jewish experience of God, we too have seen his love. And we’ve seen it in its ultimate manifestation at the cross. This ultimate act of love secures for believers a covenant relationship with David’s God, one that can never be broken.

As I have journeyed with David through the psalms of lament, they have served as a reminder that God has not abandoned me. A reminder that he understands that waiting for him can be hard.

This learning to lament biblically has led me to a deeper place of trust, even when my pain still doesn’t make sense. The act of pouring my heart out to God has changed me and has shown me deep truths about him and his goodness. It has highlighted the beauty in my suffering and has brought me to a place of worship in the middle of loss.

Even when I feel as forgotten as a clumsy third-grade kid on the sideline, I’ve learned that God’s promises are more dependable than my feelings. But I have learned this by communicating my emotions to him, grieving honestly, and returning to what I know to be true about him.

A New Kind of Normal

Though I’ve heard people in transition talk about “finding a new normal,” it wasn’t until I recently watched a friend run out the door for work that I realized I miss “normal.”

This summer marked seven years of sickness. Of endless pain. Of removal from life as it once was. And somewhere in the middle of this journey, my definition of “normal” has changed.

No longer is normal waking up and dashing off to work or driving myself to the grocery store or making plans for dinner out with friends. In fact, that normal is so far in the past I can hardly remember what it was like.

Normal now is constant sickness. It’s time in bed or beside a toilet, doctors’ appointments, endless medicine, and severe pain. Always pain. image

And while facing the constraints of this new normal, I often feel the tension between living in the reality of the now and holding tightly to hope for the future. Accepting the limitations of today and yet looking forward to the prospect of wellness.

You see, while I wholeheartedly believe that Jesus has power to heal—to change my circumstances in an instant—I also believe he is using my sickness to change me in a way that would not be possible without Lyme disease. To bring me closer to him. To cultivate an intimacy with him I would not experience any other way.

So I grapple with the questions: Should I continue to pray for divine intervention and long for things to change, pleading for a return to the old normal? Or should I learn to accept where I am and allow Christ to meet me in my pain?

The answer, I believe, is “yes” to both. So I live with the tension between resting and yet actively seeking in faith.

God requires me to accept where I am. To let him meet me in the darkness of this extraordinary normal. But at the same time, he invites me to ask him for what my heart desires. To trust him that my prayers do make a difference.

And I’m not alone in wrestling with this question about how to pray. Those who suffer any type of loss—a failing marriage, a dead-end career, an ill child—know this tenuous balance in the struggle to navigate circumstances they never wanted to face.

Sometimes, in grace, God removes the challenges. And sometimes, in grace, he allows us to remain in painful situations. When he does, he calls us to allow him to comfort us with his presence but also to have the faith that keeps asking.

This tension between quiet trust and active seeking is similar to another tension in Scripture, one strongly related to our concept of “normal.” That tension is that God so often calls his people to remember, and yet at other times he calls them to forget. In Isaiah 43:18, he commands Israel to:

Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.

In context, this call to forget is startling. The preceding verses focus on God’s past work, even evoking the people’s memory of the crossing of the Red Sea by calling God “the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.”

That experience, more than any other in Israel’s past, marked their unique relationship to God. And when Isaiah issues God’s command to forget, he’s talking to people facing Babylonian captivity. People whose thoughts naturally return to the past glories of the Exodus.

For them as a nation, “normal” had involved watching God step into their experience in miraculous ways. And yet God commands them not to remember this miraculous past because he’s in the process of doing something new.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”

The point isn’t that God’s people should ignore history, forgetting everything God has done. What God’s saying through Isaiah is “Don’t look back in such a way that you can never have any hope for the future.”  God doesn’t want Israel to be so anchored to the past that they won’t expect him to do anything in the present. He’s trying to help his people see that the God of the Exodus is still doing mighty things.

In fact, what he was doing in years of captivity and what he would do in years of silence was completely unexpected. In Isaiah 43, he’s promising his people that they’ll be released from exile through a new exodus.

If they insist on this new exodus looking like the old one, though, they’ll miss out on God’s purposes. They’ll fail to see that the “something new” he’s doing relates to what he’s going to accomplish in redemption, through inauguration of the gospel age. Throughout the book of Isaiah, he’s pointing toward Jesus.

Their salvation—not just from physical oppressors but from the oppression of sin as well—is what God will use to be most glorified. And God’s people are secure through his resolve to be glorified in their salvation because he guarantees that ultimate salvation will be with himself.

As these verses hint that there’s a greater exodus awaiting God’s people, the text challenges their perception of normal. Captivity was their new normal. Exodus was their old normal. But God was telling them that an entirely different normal was ahead.

They were awaiting a Messiah who had not come, a Messiah who would spread the bounds of God’s glory well beyond Israel. But they were looking back at a good normal, expecting God to come through in the big and the glorious. With the drama of a Red Sea parting. They certainly didn’t expect the quiet life and brutal death of an itinerant teacher from Nazareth. And they couldn’t have anticipated the power of the Resurrection.

The whole idea of the passage, though, is that the original exodus didn’t exhaust God’s power but provided a pattern of new exodus-like deliverances. The Jewish exiles weren’t to live in the past but were to look for God to bring them home from Babylon through a new exodus. He would make a way in the wilderness, and the ultimate Way would be their Messiah.

Just as Israel was to shift their focus from the past glories of the Exodus and eagerly anticipate this new thing God was going to do, I’m learning not to yearn for my old normal but to watch for what God has in store for today and the future as well. To be hopeful and expectant, even when he does not provide the immediate deliverance I long for.

Lyme disease has taken much of the autonomy I once enjoyed, but God has been doing a new thing in me, too. He has given me a deeper awareness of himself, a God who daily fills me with his presence. Who comforts me with his love. Who satisfies me on my hardest days.

Recently, a friend sent me various portions of Alice in Wonderland. One brief sentence stood out among the rest and captured the essence of my thoughts. As Alice talks with some of the creatures she meets on her adventure, she explains, “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” Yes, Alice, I couldn’t agree more.

My new normal has changed me profoundly. While I often desire my old normal and desperately pray for healing, if given the choice, I wouldn’t go back to yesterday and miss out on God’s new thing either. For I’ve seen the face of God and have been forever changed.

Here Comes the Sun

imageLittle darling
It’s been a long, cold lonely winter
Little darling
It feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun,
and I say, It’s all right

I grew up listening to this song, and when I think of the Beatles, I think of my mom singing along. She’d grab me by the hands and swing me around the living room. Our “dance” included much stepping on toes and much laughter.

Though those days are distant memory now, the words of the song have taken on great significance to me as an adult. When I listen, I imagine days of healing, days of laughter, a time of warmth, a summer season of life ahead after the “long, cold lonely winter.”

And snatches of summer help me now in this winter season when it’s easy to focus on the hard and forget the good gifts that God gives, the little rays of sunshine that warm the soul and remind me of his presence.

Some of that sunshine comes in the form of friendship. And for the last four winters, a few of the friendships God’s given provides me with literal sun as well. He’s given me friends who live in Hawaii and who share their homes with me. They do so to spare me from the increased physical pain that comes from the harshness of a Michigan winter.

And these friends do more than just open their homes. They have carried me over many of the islands. They push my wheelchair, piggy-back me to the beach, or carry me to the car. On days when I’m too weak for the wheelchair or a piggy-back ride, they’ll often drive me around the island for some sun and scenery.

Though my time in Hawaii is not a typical vacation—my sickness follows me everywhere—the Lord has given a respite from the cold with friends who love and serve me. In many ways, my days are the same as at home. But sometimes I get to sit on the beach, watching the waves and feeling the sand in my toes. It’s these times that I’m reminded just how big God is and how small I am. It opens my heart to the miracle of the present moment – no matter how hard it is.

image

You see, island life is in my blood. For three years, I taught on a tropical island. In giving me Hawaii, not only has God given me the sun, but he’s also once more given me island culture—the sound of the waves on the sand, the relaxed pace of life, the flip flop wearing, the sushi eating. I love it all. These are things that have always caused my heart to sing. Things that have rejuvenated me and made me feel alive.

Though he’s not taken away the winter and replaced it with sun, he’s brought glimpses of the sun along the way. And those glimpses are good gifts because they direct my attention back to God. While he is himself the ultimate good, he demonstrates his goodness in countless daily graces, gifts that call my heart to worship as they point me back to who he is.

The psalmist communicates something of this idea in Psalm 8:3-4 when he says:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yes, God showed his care for us in the big things. He hung the moon, the stars, and the sun that I love so much. But sometimes we’re equally aware that he thinks of us because of the little things—a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a ride in the car to escape the house, a dinner shared with friends. So I revel in these snatches of sunlight that reflect his love, “and I say, It’s all right,” even as I wait for the skies to clear.

 

A Different Kind of Love

December tends to be a frantically busy month as people dash from one Christmas event to the next. For me this year, though, December crept by as the influenza settled in on top of chronic pain. Along with compounded sickness came news that my Lyme disease had regressed, reminding me that the road to healing may be longer yet. As I laid in bed, nearly crippled with nerve and bone pain, I wondered, “How long is this going to last, Lord? My body is so weary; I don’t think I can take much more.”

Over the last few years, I’ve learned not to have high expectations of holidays. Many are like this year’s, and my body never gets a holiday from pain. But as we move farther away from Christmas and toward Valentine’s Day and its focus on love, the truths that carried me through December come into focus.

Today’s Valentine’s Day celebrations seem to have moved beyond the cute cards and conversation hearts of my childhood to focus on a gratification of self, a filling up of the love that is lacking at other times of the year. The kind of love that is typified in a Nicholas Sparks book or a Hallmark movie. The kind of love that seems to focus on getting.

As our culture celebrates this kind of love once again this February 14, the Lord is calling me to celebrate a very different kind of love. A love I sometimes struggle to embrace. A love demonstrated in my suffering, in his withholding.

In the middle of this suffering, the ability to believe God’s promises in the depths of my soul is often not what it should be. Because unremitting pain can alter my perception of reality, I need an anchor that keeps me tethered to the truth of God’s love, so I can persevere through the hard. One of those tethers—a promise that I have repeatedly clung to the last six years—is in the form of a question and is found in Romans 8:32:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

This promise magnifies the real nature of love that can only be seen in the Father’s delivering of his Son to torment, shame, and sin-bearing death on my behalf. He chose not to spare his own Son so that he could spare me.

This verse contains a foundational guarantee of God’s love that is so strong it can never be broken. It argues from the greater to the lesser. From the impossible to the possible. From the hopeless to the certain. Since God did not spare his own Son—the greatest thing, the hardest thing—then he will freely give me all things—the lesser thing, the easy thing.

The logic of this question in Romans 8 is that if God did the most painful thing in the world—giving up his own Son—then it will be easy for him to give me everything I need in Christ.

Because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, God will never withhold anything from me. It is on the cross that the love of God to sinners reached its pinnacle when he showed, for a time, more goodness to me than to his Son.

Therefore, a difficult season of suffering does not mean God has stopped loving me, because the cross signifies God’s unfathomable love. In that one cruel death, God provided life not only for me but for many. One death equaled innumerable lives.

John Flavel, an English pastor in the seventeenth century, said of this passage, “Surely if he would not spare his own Son one stroke, one tear, one groan, one sigh, one circumstance of misery, it can never be imagined that ever he should, after this, deny or withhold from his people, for whose sakes all this was suffered, any mercies, any comforts, any privilege, spiritual or temporal, which is good for them.” Flavel recognized the essence of a love that would sacrifice greatly in order to give freely.

But how many of us, when we read this verse, ask, “But I lack so many good things? I don’t have the ‘all things’ he promises.” The answer lies in Romans 8:28-31. God, in his sovereignty, is working “all things” together for a specific good goal—our complete and final glorification. Every circumstance in our lives is designed to ensure that his eternal plan is brought to completion. He will freely and graciously give us all things—all things, that is, that are needed to promote our growth and satisfaction in him.

Those “all things” don’t turn out to include only the pleasant but involve the unpleasant as well. In other words, his generosity doesn’t mean I get everything my own imperfect heart wants but that I get everything that is good for me. Right now, this promise includes a wheelchair, severe nerve pain, and never ending treatment.

Obviously, my best good today is not instantaneous healing but conformity to the likeness of his Son. He is committed to do everything necessary so that I will find my ultimate satisfaction in him. And he is more committed to that goal than he is to my healing or to anything else in my life.

Because this committed love doesn’t always come packaged like the diamonds or chocolates of Valentine’s Day, living in the light of Romans 8:32 can be a challenge. But this truth allows us to persevere through the hard, the agonizing. There never has been and never will be a circumstance in our lives where the promise of this verse will be inapplicable. Whatever is needed for our sanctification, whatever is needed for our perseverance, whatever is needed for our growth in grace, our good God will give. How could he not since he’s already given us his Son?

This love may mean he says “no” to a request that seems good—a much-needed job, a long-waited for spouse, a reprieve from cancer. Yet God is using every setback, every discouragement, and every bit of pain to work all things for our eternal good. We know this with absolute certainty because he did not spare his own Son.

If we question his sovereignty over our lives, we must look to the cross. If we feel overwhelmed by heartache, we must look to the cross. And if we doubt his goodness and love, we must look to the cross. No Hollywood version of love can compare to the love displayed there.

Tomorrow morning I will wake up and be immediately greeted by a wave of nerve pain accompanied by nausea. This shooting pain will serve as a tangible reminder of the greatest love – love that was displayed through the barbarity of a cross 2,000 years ago. The love of a Father who freely gave and the love of a Son who sacrificially offered. This giving broke the curse of sin, erased the fear of death, and secured the promise of hope. And this sacrificial love—even when it means unrelenting pain for us—is all of grace.