Study the Word (part two): Meet My New Teacher, Sherlock Holmes

This is part two in a series on what I have learned to help me study the Word more effectively. You can read part one here

Growing up at a Christian school, I had a Bible class built into my schedule each year, and many of my teachers were significant influences in my understanding of Scripture and my personal walk with the Lord. Other influences, such as pastors and mentors, have also been a blessing as I have learned how to move my knowledge of Scripture out of the classroom and into real life. And, as of late, Sherlock Holmes has been the newest addition to the list of Bible teachers who have impacted my spiritual life.

I started reading Great Cases of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because I was looking for something fun to read this summer along with some denser books that are on my coffee table. Each case that Sherlock solves is its own short story, so I can easily sit down and read a little bit, then not pick it up again for a week and not be out of the storyline. Plus, I somehow acquired this really pretty copy, and books are especially fun to read when they look and feel classic, like I should be sitting on a picnic blanket alongside the river with a parasol, or perhaps in Belle’s library in Beast’s castle. (I mean, it’s the dream library, am I right?)

This summer, I want to focus on learning how to study the Bible correctly and effectively, both for growth in my personal walk with the Lord as well as growth in how to equip the students I am ministering to. I am watching a short video series from Dallas Theological Seminary and reading a couple different books to help me gain an understanding and appreciation of studying the Bible methodically: Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks, How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor by Mark Yarbrough–and what was my for-fun book is now added to this list as well.

Of all of the different ways people have put together to help you study a Bible passage, Inductive Bible Study is perhaps the most commonly taught. This method teaches observation (what do you see?), interpretation (what does it mean?), and application (how does it work?).

I’m going to be honest, I learned this method in junior high or high school, and it has continually come up in other contexts, but I have always been resistant to it because the first step, observation, feels so tedious.

Observation is simply looking at what the words on paper say, but there are so many factors to consider when you observe. You want to consider the type of writing, the time period of the author, the grammatical significance of the words on their own, and the significance of the sentence in light of the paragraph, in light of the chapter, in light of the book. You should look for comparisons, contrasts, commands, promises, cause and effect statements, conclusive statements, etc. And when this method is taught, you are instructed to write all of this out.

My pride always convinced me that I have excellent reading comprehension–I mean, I scored pretty dang high for that section on the ACT­–so I was probably above spending much time on the observation part. That was just for people who weren’t good readers or who were baby Christians still unfamiliar with the Bible.

But I am learning that, when I skip observation, my ability to correctly interpret and apply the passage is hindered. I am not getting the full depth of the God-breathed words when I decide to just read it once then immediately determine what I think it means.

The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle connection: the more Sherlock stories I read, the more I recognized that Sherlock Holmes follows the same method of observation, interpretation, and application. His ability to make keen observations then interpret what those mean is what has made him famous! It’s the key to solving each mystery.

There are a few (convicting) lessons I have learned from Sherlock Holmes about how to more effectively read and study my Bible.

  1. Don’t go into observation having already determined your supposed application.

It can be easy to open your Bible looking at a specific passage to prove a certain point, but all too often that results in our unconsciously trying to make Scripture say what we want it to say. Observation has to come before interpretation and application in order to correctly understand the Word.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes receives a letter requesting an audience with him, and Watson asks, “What do you imagine that it means?” Holmes responds, “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

There are several ways I think this concept applies to our interpretation of Scripture. Don’t go to the Bible looking for Scripture to prove your own points. Be cautious that you don’t make up an application just to have something to say about a passage. And don’t assume you know what a passage is talking about just because of how you have heard it talked about in the past.

There’s a method and an order to most things in our world, from building a house to cooking a meal to solving a math problem, and reading the Bible is no exception.

  1. Nothing is insignificant.

In “A Case of Identity,” a Miss Mary Sutherland had entered Holmes’s house upset, and after asking her a couple of questions, he allows her to just talk, explaining her background and her family history and her relationship with her stepfather before she even begins to discuss the actual reason she was there. Watson observes: “I had expected to see Sherlock Holmes impatient under this rambling and inconsequential narrative, but, on the contrary, he had listened with the greatest concentration of attention.”

It turns out that these seemingly “inconsequential” details are a key in Holmes being able to understand what motives might have prompted her parents to be the conspirators behind Miss Sutherland’s mysteriously-disappeared fiancé.

When it comes to reading the Bible, there is a lot that is easy to overlook or skip. Genealogies, references to cities we don’t recognize, quotes from other parts of Scripture, metaphors that don’t make sense–these are all commonly skimmed over. In the past, if I was reading something that felt tedious or like background information, I had a habit of continuing to read ahead for the treasure instead of stopping to look for treasure in those verses, doing research to figure out why this would be in the Bible and even in this specific passage.

If every word of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), that includes endless lists of names of who begat whom. That includes the choice to mention a specific city, or closing greetings, or metaphors of animals and plants.

An example to study: the genealogy of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 1 versus Luke 3. Matthew’s record starts at Abraham and works forward in time, while Luke’s starts at Jesus and works backwards in time all the way to Adam. Matthew mentions key women in his, while Luke’s only mentions men. Matthew and Luke both had different purposes in writing their Gospel accounts, and these purposes are made clear in their selection of how to present the genealogy.

  1. Connect the passage you are reading to other parts of the Bible.

Look for commonalities in Scripture–how does it all connect? Though the Bible was written by over 40 different authors on three continents over 2000 years, because those authors were actually writing the words of God, it’s one cohesive book.

The ability to consider other situations is what led Sherlock Holmes to solve “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.” When Holmes amazes his client by stating that he already had a conclusion, he tells him, “I have notes of several similar cases, though none, as I remarked before, which were quite as prompt. My whole examination served to turn my conjecture into a certainty.”

Sherlock Holmes considers other similar cases to aid in his present one; in the same way, consider what you know from other parts of the Word.

The ability to do this just takes practice. The more you read and study the Bible, the easier this becomes. The more I dig in to the different parts of the Bible (especially the Old Testament), the more I can connect various parts of the Bible as one whole book.

I taught through 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles this past semester while at the same time studying Jeremiah on my own. The Kings and Chronicles books provided me with an overview of the history of the divided kingdom, the generations of corrupt kings and disobedient people, and the development of what led God to the decision to punish his people through exile. Reading Jeremiah, I am thus able to understand the circumstances surrounding Jeremiah’s ministry and the examples of injustice he is referring to.

Another great example is the book of Hebrews. This powerful letter gains much more significance and depth when you have an understanding of the Old Testament, specifically the first five books of The Law. Being told that Jesus is your great high priest may not mean much until you know what a high priest was, just as learning that Jesus’ sacrifice once for all would have been an incredible relief to a people who were accustomed to the ongoing sacrificial system.

  1. Everything you need is there in the text, but observation is a learned skill over time.

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes and Watson are trying to solve a mystery concerning an abandoned turkey with a valuable blue gem found inside, and their first major clue is finding the black felt hat alongside the turkey that was dropped. Holmes handed the hat to Watson and asked what he could gather about the owner. “I see nothing,” said I, handing it back to my friend. “On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences.”

You can see everything (although, perhaps, there’s more to see if you know the original languages it was written in), yet you must learn know how to look at it, what questions to ask, and how to connect what you see to what it means.

Howard Hendricks wrote, “What makes one person a better Bible student than another? He can see more. That’s all. The same truth is available to both of them in the text. The only difference between them is what either one can see in a cubic foot of space.”

I am still learning how to slow down and spend time observing before I jump into deciding what a passage means, but my heart has been convicted that it is worth it to analyze and savor each inspired word. The following statement from Living by the Book really convicted me as I considered my perspective towards the Bible:

Too many “readers” are nothing but browsers. They turn pages the way they flip through channels on a TV set, looking for something to catch their interest. The Word doesn’t lend itself to that sort of approach. It requires conscious, concentrated effort. So read portions of the Bible over and over. The more you read them, the more clear they will become.

If you are looking for a good resource to teach you what to look for in observation, Dr. Hendricks’s book that I mentioned above is very thorough, almost to the point of being overwhelming, until you remember that the skill of observation will become more natural the longer you do it. While he is a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes’s own skills came through years of study and continuous involvement in cases that sharpened his abilities even more.

I want to dig in to everything God has revealed to us on the pages of Scripture, and I want to savor each word that he intentionally wrote to help us know him more and more.

Study the Word (part one): It’s More Than a Love Letter

I’m a strong believer in the accessibility of Scripture, that God’s Word can speak to anyone. Because we have the Holy Spirit, Who guides us into truth (John 16), we don’t need fancy commentaries or well-designed devotional books to help us know what the Bible is saying.

I’ve been working on a series of blog posts to share more about what I have personally learned to help me study the Bible. This topic of discussion comes up often with others, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers yet (or ever will), but I want to share some things that have significantly impacted my relationship with the Word and thus my spiritual growth.

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A Bible teacher in high school used to remind us over and over that “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” I am pretty sure it was a fill-in-the-blank question on every single test that semester. He meant that the Bible is self-sustaining. When we don’t understand a passage, we should search Scripture to find other passages that support it and help us digest it more fully.

As someone who loves to learn and study, though, I do appreciate being able to use those sorts of tools to give me a deeper understanding, whether it’s through knowing the historical context or the meaning in the original language or the way it connects to another passage in a different part of the Bible that I never would have recognized on my own. Various Bible studies have encouraged me and helped me learn through what God has taught someone else. The Bible has unending layers, of a sort, and tools help us go deeper and deeper within those layers of learning and interpretation.

But my first step in trying to understanding a passage is not to go to someone else’s words. It’s to spend time digging in to the passage itself, praying that the Lord would reveal truth to my heart.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)

There are a lot of people who don’t feel confident in being able to open the Bible and gain what God has for them. And often, when I talk to those who feel they are in a dry season with God, their explanation is that they try to read the Bible but can’t get anything out of it right now.

I have been there too. But I knew that the Bible was living and active (Hebrews 4:12), so there was no way I could blame the problem on the Word having gone stale; rather, it had to be something to do with me.

As an aside, we do often go through what some refer to as a “desert” season in our spiritual life, and sometimes this is a place where God chooses to leave us in order to strengthen our faith. It’s not always a result of our sin or our attitude. However, what I am talking about is a boredom or an apathy toward the Word because it doesn’t seem to be doing anything in your life, so you give up trying to read it.

Then, through a combination of things I was reading and people I was talking to, I realized that my problem was my perspective when I went in to read the Bible. I was looking for what it told me for my life.

There seems to be a phenomenon, especially within middle school and high school groups, that attempts to convince pre-teens and teens how fun it is to read the Bible. The motive is good – help them desire to get into the Word! But the reason I most often heard growing up is that the Bible is a love letter from God to you, and who doesn’t want to read a love letter??

I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school, and my crushes never liked me back, so I found comfort in the fact that Someone would write me a love letter, and Someone would care for me just as I am. After disappointing Friday nights and dashed Valentines’ Day hopes and lonely high school formals, I would retreat back to my room with my journal and write to Jesus, asking Him to fill that void in my life.

Now this is a tangent, so don’t get lost, but I am not totally bashing this concept. It really helped me grow through singleness to recognize that Jesus was the One Who could fulfill me, and it was only as I accepted this and rested in Him that I was ready to meet Eric. A relationship is made up of two broken people, and as wonderful as my husband is, he’s not perfect, and he doesn’t complete me or satisfy me the way Christ can. And Eric has to live in that place, too, where his ultimate desire is for Christ.

But back to the Bible being a love letter –
Eric writes me love letters from time to time. I married a sappy man who knows how to make me feel loved, albeit a little awkward in a giddy way, by writing pretty words and telling me how much he loves me.

And the thing is, those letters are all about me. About how much he loves me and how beautiful he thinks I am and how much it means to him when I serve him in different ways. He praises me and makes me feel good about myself, makes me feel valued and loved.

And while God does love us, and while He did pay the ultimate sacrifice because He wants us to share in eternity with Him, I’m not sure that the Bible is a love letter to us because the Bible is not about us. And when we are looking for ourselves constantly in Scripture, we will often come up dry and confused, because we can’t find ourselves on every page.

I get why youth pastors and other leaders communicate this to those kids. At that age, you are so self-centered. I know I was! All that mattered was whether or not my friends were inviting me to sleepovers, or how I did on my Algebra test (and if it was the top grade in the class), or what people thought about me. The world ended after high school, so of course every little thing was a life and death matter! And when you tell someone that there is a love letter waiting for them, of course they are going to want to read it, because who doesn’t want to be praised and adored? Kids need to know that the Bible is relevant to their lives, and this is a great analogy to help them dive in.

But that can then set us into a pattern for the rest of our lives as we keep looking for how the Bible serves us and our desire to be affirmed. The Bible is about God, first and foremost. It has implications for our lives, and it talks about how we should live, but all of that is in light of Who God is. And I think if we take the time to recognize Who God is, we will find that we experience the depth of His love even more.

so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:17-21)

We will come away discouraged from reading our Bibles, and especially from studying the parts that are more difficult, if we are only looking for the application–“What does this mean for my life?” I believe that the first thing to look for in Scripture is what it says about God and Who He is. Look for what the passage says about His character and His actions. What is true about God?

For the junior high Bible curriculum I taught this past school year, students learned to look at the Bible as one story with the plot outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption. The Creation and the Fall happen within the first couple of chapters–and the rest of the Bible is God’s process and fulfillment of his promise of redeeming the world, ultimately through His Son, then through His Spirit working through us to share the Gospel with others and to bring Him glory.

He is on every page of Scripture, and as we learn to look for Him in everything we read, we will see how much he loves us, and we will grow more deeply in our knowledge of him, our love for him, and our relationship with him.

To read more in this series, here are the links for the following posts.
Part Two: Meet My New Teacher, Sherlock Holmes.

speaking the truth to your emotions

When given the choice between beach or mountains, I’ve always been a mountains girl­—especially this time of year, when I begin to reflect on my summers spent in Juneau, Alaska with Cru on summer mission projects. The distinct smell of the air, the soft mossy ground beneath my hiking boots, the quiet coolness of the summit, the ways the world begins to make sense to me in the context of the trail and the journey.

However, this morning, I’ve been thinking about the beach. Maybe it’s because friends have been talking about their upcoming trips, or maybe because I just finished the couple of junior high Bible classes I teach and I am eager to simply sit and rest, but the taste of salt and the rocking of the waves have been sounding so appealing lately.

As school ends and my ministry with Cru shifts in light of a summer role, I am (per usual) reflective on the past semester and how the Lord has been at work in my life, and I actually think the beach is a good picture of the ups and downs I’ve experienced the past several months.

Sometimes, we feel like we have a handle on our lives. We are in a good rhythm and are ready to tackle the day-to-day in front of us. We enjoy a season of rest and routine in a really sweet way, like the gentle lapping of the waves against your ankles, burying toes in the sand.

Sooner or later, though life comes at us, the wind and the rain stirring the seas. Huge waves break over our heads, lungs gasping for air and mind searching for which way is up. When things rage out of control, or when a fog sets in concerning decisions and next steps, I personally struggle to figure out exactly how I am feeling about a situation–and whether or not these feelings are the truth.

People typically have one of two responses when it comes to their feelings. Some are ruled by them, admitted feelers who navigate life through their emotional responses. Others are reasoners who seek to overcome their emotions with logic and fact. As an adult, I have recognized myself as falling closer to the reasoning end of the spectrum.

I cried a lot as a child, wrestling with friends hurting my feelings or discouragement in not accomplishing all I wanted (such as making a 91 instead of a 100 on test or losing a basketball game), so I grew up being taught to slow my emotional responses and think rationally about things. While I couldn’t necessarily control emotional responses, I could identify truth in the middle of those emotional responses, and that should keep me from irrational feelings.

However, this took a turn of over-correction, and I began to view my emotions themselves as bad. If they weren’t supposed to control me, if truth was my guide, then my emotions should line up with truth. If I was afraid, I just needed to tell myself to not be afraid, and it should click with my emotional responses so that I wasn’t afraid anymore. Or if I truly believed that God was sovereign, I would not be so devastated in my disappointments.

Yet I found that, as much Scripture as I quoted, or as many times I repeated truth about how I should feel, I never could get rid of what I thought were false feelings. I couldn’t stop feeling sad, even though I was fully trusting in the Lord and in his good plan for my life.

Over the past couple of years, I have begun to understand that there is value in both my emotions and in the truth, and writers wrestling in the Psalms have helped me see how to balance the two.

David never denies that he is upset. He recognizes his despair, then he reminds himself of where his salvation lies.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” –Psalm 42:5-6a

“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me… But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” –Psalm 55:4-5, 16-17

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” –Psalm 56:3-4

Don’t deny that your feelings exist—don’t try to wish them away or think that they should be different than they actually are.

The fact that we experience fear or discouragement or sadness does not necessarily mean that we aren’t trusting God, and I think this was my perspective for a long time. God created everything about us, including our emotions, and throughout Scripture we see people who communicate everything from fear (like David) to confused anger (Job) to grief (Hannah) to doubt (Peter and Thomas). The Lord never chides them for these emotions, but rather, what they do with them. Thomas allowed his doubt to keep him from celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Job’s confusion and anger caused him to justify himself and question God’s care in his life. However, Hannah’s grief brought her to her knees, begging the Lord to hear her request for a child.

So how do we handle our emotions, especially in the difficult seasons of life when we can easily feel overwhelmed?

Instead of allowing my emotions to define my circumstances, I have tried to set a pattern of identifying my emotions and looking to them for information. If I am all of a sudden on the verge of tears, I know I need to stop and reflect on what’s going on in my heart. If I am frustrated at Eric but don’t know why, I need to look at not just what he has done but my own expectations and how I was looking to him to meet my needs.

Then, after recognizing those emotions, I am beginning to speak truth to them in the same way David did, reminding myself that I can rest in the Lord, clinging to Him in the midst of the storm.

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” –Psalm 55:22

As I give validity to my emotions, I am encouraged by how they actually draw me closer to the Lord. I can experience his comfort if I recognize my need to be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:4). I see his ability to calm the storm when I identify that there is a storm that needs to be calmed (Mark 4). I allow him to be the one who meets my needs and desires when I invite him in to my discontentment (Psalm 145:16).

Bethany (Dillon) Barnard recently came out with a new album, and in the song “Awake My Soul and Sing” she declares, “My feelings aren’t the truth / and when it comes in view / worship will arise.” Ultimately, as we speak truth to our emotions, I think our ability to respond with worship during troubled times brings God more glory than if we were simply praising him because all was well.

Through the waves, whether gentle or fierce, may you experience God’s loving hand in your life. He is steady and constant despite the way life ebbs and flows around us.

P.S. For further personal study, read Psalm 77 and explore Asaph’s emotions as well as the ways he reminds himself of God’s character in the middle of his distress.

what the dark develops

Spring weather has been in Arkansas for a while now, as our winter was extremely mild and I’ve been wearing short sleeves since February. However, it’s been in the past few weeks that the world has turned lush and green. Trees branches blow slow motion in the wind, heavy with their leaves, and grass is demanding that it be mowed once a week or it threatens to take over the house.

We’ve also seen a lot of rain. And not just rain, but downpours. Flash flood warnings and constantly muddy dog paws and mulch-washing-away type of rain. And while this means that many days are dark skies and puddle-soaked feet, it has also resulted in that abundance of growth and new life.

The contrast of the water-heavy clouds and the verdant fields has been a poignant spiritual picture as I have considered what it means to live in this broken and beautiful world. God uses those clouds hiding the sun to bring up new life, and he has been reminding my heart that he uses the darker seasons to develop new life in my soul.

There’s always a contrasting shade present in our sunny world, a dark shadow to remind us that sin taints it all. And I believe that, when we recognize the disappointments and unmet desires instead of hiding or trying to “get over” them, we become more aware of our spiritual reality. In this way, infertility has been a sanctifying grace in my life.

Infertility has helped me more fully understand the Christian life, here on this earth and the hope we have for the future.

Romans 8:18-25 dives into a comparison of present sufferings and future glory–or, rather, it says they aren’t even worth being compared. Paul acknowledges the frustration that creation experiences, and even more so ourselves, in the waiting for the coming redemption. The relief from bondage is not something that can be achieved by us; it’s based on the coming of Christ.

As Paul personifies creation as being subjected to futility, commentators Sanday and Headlam note that this description “is appropriately used of the disappointing character of present existence, which nowhere reaches the perfection of which it is capable.” Commentator Everett F. Harrison says that the creation is “being pictured as not willingly enduring the subjection yet having hope for something better, i.e., liberation from its ‘bondage to decay.’”

The fact that we experience grief and loss is an affirmation of this idea that life is not “reaching the perfection of which it is capable.” There’s something in us that seems to say, This just doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t there be something better? With infertility specifically, I see that my body isn’t working the way it was designed to. For friends in the wait for adoption, it doesn’t make sense that something so needed, something good, something that paints such a unique picture of our relationship with God, can be a heart-breaking, difficult, unending process. Any who have experienced miscarriage or infant loss understand that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the way things unfolded.

Suffering affects us all in different ways, none worth comparing with another to see which is worse. Pain is pain, no matter your circumstances, and for each person, it’s an evidence that we live in a fallen world.

In this passage, Paul personifies this suffering, this futility in our world, as a woman in labor, which evokes a depth to the suffering. The beauty of this metaphor is that the pain and the groaning are producing something that will be worth it. The pain is inescapable, but the expectation of what’s coming is the motivation for the woman in labor to not give up–and this then produces hope in the midst of despair.

“For in this hope we were saved. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25)

“As [Paul] sees the dark tunnel of death ahead of him, he is confident that beyond it the road leads on to his destination, though it remains unseen.” –Everett F. Harrison

This passage in Romans connects to Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, which also echoes that the present sufferings are not able to be compared to an “eternal weight of glory.”

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

In regard to this passage, commentator Murray J. Harris states, “Matching the progressive weakening of [Paul’s] physical powers was the daily renewal of his spiritual powers. It was as though the more he expended himself for the gospel’s sake, the greater his spiritual resilience.”

Infertility has brought a new dimension to my relationship with God. The longer I walk through it, the deeper my dependence on God. Intimacy has formed when things are hard, and my need for hope is even more evident when things feel like they are falling apart.

This ongoing struggle has become a “normal” in my life. Some days this means that it’s hard to think about hope, and it seems like it will never end. But other days, it means that I have settled into a rest despite uncertainty, a confidence that this broken world is not all there is. My eyes are more quick to fix on a coming redemption, a hope for a Savior who will make all things right.

Because we have struggled to start a family, I have a deeper understanding of the tension we all live in, of expectation, of the already and the not yet, of God’s presence with us but not in its fullest form. I am continually reminded of my need for God in a situation I can’t control and must trust to his hand. And I am forced to set my hope in him as I wait with patience for the fulfillment not just of my desires, but of the whole world’s groaning.

As Mother’s Day approaches, for those with a similar story, or as you consider any holiday or mark in time that reminds you of your own loss, I pray that you will find rest in his sovereignty and comfort in his presence, even in the midst of suffering–trusting that your suffering is producing a hope toward eternity. May you more deeply understand the spiritual reality we live in as you walk through a beautifully broken world.

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “When Mother’s Day Is Painful,” and I would love for you to share it with anyone you know who might be anticipating next Sunday with a little bit of hesitation or hurt. 

the head and the heart of reading the Bible

I’ve been a Christian for the majority of my life. I was the kid who “prayed the prayer” at six, was baptized at seven, participated in every VBS and summer camp, memorized Scripture through Awanas, and devoured her Bible classes at her Christian school.

I love to learn, so studying the Bible comes somewhat easily for me. If I am not careful, though, the academic side of my faith overshadows the personal relationship. I can spend an hour in the morning drawing conclusions as I connect different passages and recognize God’s consistent character throughout Scripture. I can even conclude what these words should look like lived out in real life, and I can communicate that to someone else. However, when it comes to my heart, there is at times a disconnect. My head might be full, but my heart is in pain, and for some reason, knowing the truth has not always brought healing and joy when I know that it should.

I want to be satisfied in the Lord. I want his Word to be my delight, my refuge, my joy–not simply another textbook that I can quote and discuss. I want the perspective that David has in Psalm 119. And trials have been the unorthodox classroom in which I have learned how to change this academic perspective on the Bible into a personal one.

While there have been many moments I have told God that I wouldn’t have chosen to be where he has me, the past few weeks have perhaps been the most difficult, at least in a long time. Nothing particularly new or devastating––it’s simply the weight of everything catching up with me. Yet as I process through what’s in front of me, I keep coming back Scripture as my only sure footing when all else feels shaky.

There are three things I have specifically learned to help me not just know the truth of the Bible in my head, but absorb it into my life and my circumstances, and I have seen that I need these truths not only when I am walking through a trial, but every day as I open this Book.

  1. The Word sustains you when you read it for yourself, not for teaching it to others.

I typically find myself with this ulterior reading motive when I want to have some truth about my current struggle. If someone asks me how I am doing, I want to be able to say something spiritual and profound. While I will encounter truth as I read the Bible, because every word is God-breathed, I don’t necessarily encounter the truth the Spirit is wanting to speak to me, the truth that he knows I need to hear and understand. I shut the book once I find something, anything, and maybe miss out on something deeper and richer.

Apart from trials, this can also be an ongoing challenge when you work in ministry or lead small groups or mentor younger believers. I certainly experience this working in college ministry. I want to be prepared to pour out as well as to share personal stories of what God is teaching me, but sometimes I get caught up in trying to figure out what I can share, and I miss out on the personal relationship and the prayer as I reduce my reading to some sort of spiritual lesson.

You can’t read the Bible simply for what it will allow you to share with someone else. Your perspective when you sit down to read the Word should begin with asking the Holy Spirit to remove distractions and premeditations so that you can come in with a humble and willing heart to hear what he has to say to you.

  1. The Word satisfies you when you aren’t looking for answers or yourself, but when you are looking for God.

We too often look for what Scripture says about us–who we are, how we should live, what decision we should make (or how we should go about making the decision). We open our Bibles almost selfishly: Okay, God, what do you have to teach me now?

This is easily one of the major reasons people stop reading the Word­­–they say that it doesn’t seem to help. As if its purpose is to give us that perfect quote so that all of life makes sense and we can live happily ever after.

The Bible is about God, from start to finish. When he talks about us, he is talking about the people he created to fulfill his purpose of his glory. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but he is the Creator who made us fearfully and wonderfully.

I have this tendency to go to the Word looking for a quick fix. I want that perfect verse that makes me feel better or takes away all of my doubts. I open my Bible looking for what it has to offer me, and very rarely is there this magical moment where a verse is leaping off the page telling me that everything is going to be alright.

If we approach Scripture just looking to find ourselves and find what it means for our lives, without spending time to first identify who God is, we are never going to be satisfied. Our satisfaction is found in who he is, his constant character, no matter what is going on in our circumstances. If you can recognize what’s true about his character in the pages of the Bible, you can know who he is in the daily moments of your life.

  1. The Word nourishes you when you allow it to occupy more than just that first little bit of your day.

Eugene Petersen talks about how we should “Eat this book. Not merely Read your Bible but Eat this book.” Think on it, absorb it, meditate, memorize, keep bringing it back to your focus. Many of us are prone to just snack on it in the morning and hope it keeps us going throughout the day.

Petersen goes on to write, “Eating a book takes it all in, assimilating it into the tissues of our lives. Readers become what they read. If Holy Scripture is to be something other than mere gossip about God, it must be internalized.”

I need to be memorizing and meditating. We don’t eat one small meal at the beginning of the day and expect it to last us 24 hours. And when we exercise, we actually need to eat more. Trials are like exercising–we need to take in more fuel than usual.

 

Going back to walking through trials–my heart is beginning to agree along with my head that he is enough. He satisfies me. He is my joy.

As I eat this book, I see this more and more. David found satisfaction in God, even in pain or loneliness or confusion. Paul saw God as worth more than all of the hardship and surrender he was facing. Prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea were willing to face continual rejection as they faithfully followed God’s call. Habakkuk found himself rejoicing even when all else in life was uncertain and falling apart.

The process of accepting and absorbing this is ongoing, but my personal prayers are beginning to align with Psalm 119:28, 37, 50: “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” May we find life in God’s words, even when (especially when) our day to day feels like it is draining life from us.

what love looks like for us these days

The first time I said, “I love you,” the words felt foreign on my lips.

Eric had just asked me to marry him while we were standing on the overlook of Yellow Rock Trail at sunset. Candles flickered in Mason jars and my shirt clung to my skin in the sticky July air as I clung to the man putting a ring on my finger.

Even as I said those words, the moment felt surreal. While I had known for several months that I loved Eric, we had decided to wait to say that phrase until we were engaged. Of course, he had come up with other sneaky ways of expressing his affection for me. We must have watched the Princess Bride together (I don’t quite remember), but at some point he started responding to me with the phrase As you wish.

As we started planning a wedding and saying those words more often, it almost felt like some sort of made-up language. I knew that love was more than a strong attraction or a sexual desire. I was pretty sure part of love was the promise to stick by each other no matter what, but for as often as I said it, I didn’t fully grasp what it meant.

After five years of marriage–which has included job losses, single income seasons, support raising, two house purchases, rotten jobs, moving to a new city, and infertility–I now more confidently know what love is.

I might venture to say that even after just the past year, my understanding of love has deepened. We know that love is patient, kind, and unselfish. It is not proud or rude or a competitive scorekeeper. But what does that look like played out in everyday life?

As I looked across the table at Eric last night over dinner, my heart melted. It’s been seven years since we first met, and I still find him so handsome and attractive. However, the sensation under my skin was prompted by more than just his appearance. I had this rare instant of a flooding back of all that we have been through together over the past year. The test results, the interviews, the decision to move, the house selling and house hunting and house buying, the new friends, the doctor appointments, the financial uncertainty, the adjusting to newness–it all combined into this deep exhale in recognition of the life we have made together.

And, in that moment, I knew that our love for each other is stronger than it has ever been, because we now know how to love not just in a mental and emotional state, but as a way of life.

Love is choosing to listen and encourage, even when the complaining words coming out of someone’s mouth are the exact same words they have been saying for the past three weeks–or months.

Love is allowing yourself to be a mess in front of someone else, finding that they, too, are a mess; there’s no pressure to get it together and get over it.

Love is the ability to simply know what someone is thinking in a moment, because you have walked through pain together often enough to know each others’ triggers and hurts and needs.

Love is choosing to ask the questions that you know will be answered with what you don’t want to hear, but asking them anyway because the other person needs to feel known.

Love is holding hands and not phones, making the conscious decision to take a break from the influence of the world and focus on the person in front of you.

Love is being willing to walk away from something you treasure because you treasure that person more than your own personal gain.

Love is recognizing that despite the uncertainty of the future, you are certain about who you want by your side.

I’m not going to lie, the past year has been difficult for Eric and I individually. It has been exhausting for our marriage. But it has also been sweet as we have continued to grow together; trials and challenges have been the glue that cements us together. And as much as my understanding of love has grown in these early years of marriage, I am confident I will know it even more deeply in another five years.

disappointment as an act of love

It was 2004, just a couple of weeks after my sixteenth birthday. I had been playing in a volleyball tournament out of town, and a teammate’s mom was dropping me off at home. We pulled into the driveway and saw my grandpa’s car parked to the side. Grandpa Cecil lived in a rural town a little over an hour away, and he would often stop by unplanned. He drove a couple of different vehicles, but this was the 1985 silvery-blue Ford Thunderbird that was my grandmother’s primary driver before she passed away. I walked in the front door, dropped my gear bag on the floor, and greeted my mom.

“I guess Grandpa Cecil is here?” I asked.
“Actually, he’s not,” Mom replied.
“Then why is his car parked outside?”
“Well, he dropped it off and asked if you would wash it for him.”
A look of confusion came across my face. “Uh… why?”
“He said, after you wash it, it’s your car.”

My parents were both standing there, grinning, holding out the keys to me. And, if I were a respectful, grateful daughter, I would have started jumping up and down excitedly.

But I didn’t. I tried to fake some excitement, though apparently I wasn’t very good at hiding my disappointment, as my parents knew the truth right away.

Just like any other teenager who is about to turn sixteen, I had daydreamed about the type of car I wanted. I researched vehicles online and daily checked the classifieds in the newspaper. I knew we didn’t have a ton of money to spend on a vehicle, and to be honest I don’t think I knew what an appropriate amount of money might be for them to spend. But I was hopeful for a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Honda CR-V, or a Chevy Silverado, even if it were several years older.

So the twenty year old metallic blue granny car in the driveway was not what I expected and not what I wanted. It had over 200,000 miles on it and the A/C didn’t work. I learned how to check my oil level and transmission fluid right away, because both would often leak and need to be filled up weekly. Even if you floored the gas pedal, it took a good 10-Mississippi-seconds to get from 20mph to 40 mph.

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. Our expectations aren’t always met. And if we aren’t careful, disappointment can jade us and break us and cause us to live a life resigned to just getting by.

I’ve struggled to understand what it means to have hope in discouraging circumstances. The job that didn’t work out the way I thought, the loneliness I can’t shake, the health situation that results in more questions than answers.

One definition of hope reads: “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” I always want hope to feel like that thrill in the anticipation leading up to something big: the slow, intense moments just before a first kiss, the silence before a major announcement, the pretty presents wrapped under a Christmas tree. But when I walk through a discouraging season–the times I need hope more than ever­–resulting disappointment changes my perspective, and deciding to hope can feel like allowing someone to beat me in the shins with a baseball bat over and over. Hope can hurt.

I tend to assume I have done something wrong in the area of hope when it results in disappointment. Does disappointment mean my hope was misplaced? I know my hope should be in the Lord, which Romans 5:5 promises will never put us to shame or disappoint us. Then how do I hope that the Lord will work and answer prayer without risking that disappointment, if he chooses to act differently than I am asking him to?

I typically associate a sense of desperation with hope: I am hoping because I want something to change­­. That desperation combined with disappointment then leads to despair, an all-consuming, self-centered, miserable place to land. The fatalistic thoughts of what if this never gets better or I can’t imagine continuing to walk through life this way can distort my view of God and his sovereign hand in my life. And despair is the indicator that my hope is in actually in the gift (new job, pregnancy, friendships, healing, etc.) rather than the Giver.

Hope is hard. I want to see it as “worth it,” but in all honesty it is simpler at times to let go and not get my hopes up.

And in this thinking, my options are either devastation or apathy: I could hope for that change and risk it falling through, or I could stop hoping for things and thus stop trusting the Lord to work at all.

But I don’t want to settle for one of those options. Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” And a few verses later, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” If hope describes God’s character, and if it’s something Paul prayed that the Romans would abound in, then I want it, too!

How can I abound in hope, not worrying about what happens if it falls through? How can I recognize that that even if I am disappointed, God’s love doesn’t change or fail?

Here’s what I have begun to see: perhaps accepting disappointment is the key to understanding hope.

It’s not a lack of God’s love or care for me. Rather, it’s a sign of his care for me. He allows for my disappointment in order to make way for his (better) plans.

With this realization, I am beginning to change the way I hope. I am feeling the depth of my need for God to work, but I am also recognizing the security I have in him, even if the result is disappointment. I am recognizing what it means that he is good with the whole picture in mind, not simply “good in my limited perspective” or “good in relation to my list of wants and wishes.”

While God is a God of hope, he’s not a genie, nor is he Santa Claus. He’s not telling me to hope in him so that I can have my best life now. God is able, and God is loving, but he is also omniscient. He knows what I don’t, so the things I am hoping for may not be for my big-picture good.

I want to know God’s love through disappointment, not equate disappointment with a lack of love.

When my parents gave me that Thunderbird (which I and my friends named Stella), I was disappointed, but I didn’t doubt their love for me. I knew it wasn’t a limitation of their love that kept them from giving me the car I wanted. While it was related to a limitation of finances (they paid my grandpa ten bucks for that car, simply to have an amount to put on the bill of sale), it was, in fact, a demonstration of their love that they didn’t go into debt or spend all of their savings on a vehicle for me. They were providing for the cumulative needs of our family. They had a long-term picture of how long I would drive my first car. They wanted to make me happy, but they were also practical. And, in the end, I got a job the next summer and bought my dad’s 1987 Ford Bronco, a much cooler vehicle in my opinion, and passed Stella on to my sister.

Hope does not disappoint or put us to shame when it’s in the right thing–Christ alone. When our hope is in him, we see him as the one who satisfies our desires. When our hope is in him, we also understand that not all satisfaction will be experienced this side of heaven.

It takes faith to repeatedly believe that God could do “it” (whatever that “it” may be). It takes faith to believe that God even wants to answer my prayer. But if we never allow ourselves to hope in him, we will never experience the joy of dependence on him or the security of entrusting our desires to an all-powerful and always-loving God.

And when I find myself disappointed, I want to bring the disappointment to him, recognizing that I will experience his love in greater ways as I surrender my hopes to his sovereign hand.

“You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” –Psalm 145:16