roots in the storm

Fall, as usual, is beautiful but brief. The colors never last as long as you hope they will, the weather turns colder faster than you expect, and, once the time changes, the sudden darkness at 5:15 makes the days feel shorter than they actually are.

We almost always experience a storm or a bitter cold front mid-November that causes all of the leaves to drop their hold on branches, spilling like confetti across our lawn and patio. The leaves still on branches are shriveled and dried, just waiting for another strong wind to shake them down.

If you didn’t know anything about the cycle of fall–if you didn’t realize that dead leaves do not mean dead trees–you might despair at the quickly-disintegrating foliage. However, because most of us took a third grade science class in which we studied deciduous trees, we know that the trees themselves are not dying; they will make it through the winter, and they will again produce new leaves and fruit come spring. The determining factor for the health of a tree is not its branches, but its roots.

This is true not just for trees, but–on a spiritual level–for people.

How can we handle the storm fronts and the spontaneous freezes that we may encounter? How do we move forward in confidence when all around us seems to be fading, withering, and falling? Is “life” possible when what we are experiencing feels more like “death”?

I think Psalm 119:92 is a key answering those questions: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” A couple of other translations add depth to this statement:

“If your instructions hadn’t sustained me with joy, I would have died in my misery.” (NLT)

“If your revelation hadn’t delighted me so, I would have given up when the hard times came.” (MSG)

If you read the entire chapter of Psalm 119 (it’s a long one, so go slowly and savor it!), the Psalmist seems to be continually praying about and processing the affliction in his life within the context of his mediations on God’s Word. He looks to God’s Word for hope, comfort, security, strength, and life. He even says in verse 71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”

What a bold statement! Most of us would probably prefer to “learn God’s statutes” in a context other than affliction and suffering.

However, as I reflect on the past few years of my own life, I would agree that, if God’s Word had not been my delight, I would not have made it this far. I don’t think my life has necessarily been one of tragedy and heartache, but our unexpected journey through infertility (and the stress of multiple major life transitions going on at the same time) has been the testing grounds for my own faith. There have been many moments when I see the results of the storm around me, the fallen leaves of grief and weariness and loneliness–yet my root system is strong. I say this not because I am exceptionally strong, but because the God who planted me has sustained me through the storms.

I can say with confidence that Scripture (and my relationship with God through his Word) has kept me rooted in the midst of storms of discouragement, disappointment, and despair, and there are three specific ways I have seen this play out.

  1. God’s Word teaches me how to pray about the storm.
    There have been many times where I was caught up in grief and didn’t know what to pray, but looking to examples of lament and promises put words to the depths of my heart. Scripture has also given me a right understanding of both sadness and lament as well as joy and fulfillment. I’ve learned through the examples of Naomi and Job that it is okay to mourn loss, to come to God with frustration and unmet expectations in how he is working. My sadness does not mean I’ve lost hope or I don’t trust God like I profess to. I’ve learned through the Psalms how to acknowledge the reality of fear and trouble and yet remind my soul that my hope and my confidence is ultimately in God. I can see Jesus and Paul both asking God to change their circumstances, and yet surrendering ultimately to God’s plans and not their own.

    As I read Scripture and see how others relate to God in the middle of their own storms, my heart moves toward my relationship with God instead of away from him. I know that I can come to him messy and raw and needy, even frustrated or angry, and he will listen.

    Psalm 77:2-3, 9 – “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints… Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

  2. God’s Word comforts my soul, giving me life and peace in the storm.
    When life feels out of control and the fog of uncertainty refuses to lift, we are reminded in Scripture that nothing is beyond God’s sovereignty. Nothing surprises him or stumps him. Nothing is beyond his ability or understanding. Scripture is a source of comfort and encouragement, even when things feel unresolved and unstable.

    Even if there is resolution in one area of life, the reality is that it’s never final or forever; there’s always going to be something else, so looking to our circumstances to give us peace is never going to provide the security we are desperate for. Our security is only found in Christ and what he has done for us, which changes everything about our future. We have peace because he has made our eternity secure.

    It’s important for me to clarify that this “peace” is not always a feeling, but rather a confidence and security as a result of being rooted in him. There are many times when I don’t feel “at peace,” and yet I know God is with me and God is working. Instead of waiting for the storm to calm in order to know “peace,” he is my peace while the storm rages.

    Isaiah 26:3 – “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”

  3. God’s Word renews my mind, changing my expectations about the storm.
    If we don’t read the entirety of Scripture, we miss out on the breadth of an understanding of who God is and how he works. We need Scripture to tell us what God is like and what he is about, and this then allows us to consider who he is and what he’s about in our lives.

    As I read the Bible and develop an understanding of what’s true, my expectation of how God works shifts. God is not about my happiness but his glory. He never promises “the good life.” He never says that my desires are always right and he will fulfill them in the way I want him to so that I can be happy. In fact, he tells us that our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” He emphasizes that the life of following Christ is a life of suffering, because we are called to be like Christ and suffering is one of the tools he uses to produce that in our lives. Scripture is quick to point out the ways I am thinking wrongly and correct them with truth.

    When my way of thinking changes, no longer am I surprised by encountering hardship. I learn that God uses all things to work for my good and his glory–and this “good” is in light of eternity instead of the present.

    Instead of exploring what I desire and pursing means to gain those desires, Scripture teaches me to align my heart with his. And the more I start to see through this new lens, the more I begin to see that a life centered on God is infinitely more beautiful and satisfying than a life centered on self. My present hardships and discouragements don’t disappear, but they are no longer the center of my world or the barrier to my joy. God becomes the center. And it’s in beholding God’s beauty that I am fully satisfied. He gives me the desires of my heart because, in following him, he becomes my greatest desire.

    2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 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.”

when seasons change but life doesn’t

From my vantage point, the tops of buildings and trees jut up into the cloudy sky. Leaves are still green, but their brightness is beginning to fade, and despite the humidity, I really do think the air is beginning to change.

I’m writing this on the first day of fall. In Arkansas, September 23 still calls for shorts and sandals. There isn’t some overnight magic that produces crisp mornings and colored leaves. But if you set your expectation that early fall in the South isn’t boots weather, you are less likely to be disappointed–and you might be able to observe the ways the world is changing, even if not all at once.

Sometimes, the trouble with the change of the season is that it doesn’t change as rapidly as you hope it will. I can still feel stuck in summer when it’s almost 90 degrees and I am sweating as I walk to the mailbox in the afternoon. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that there is a more drastic temperature change throughout the day. If you look for it, you can see the tint of yellow in the leaves as the sun shines through them just right. You can sense the ways the angle of light is different, and of course you can see that it’s darker in the mornings and in the evenings than it was even a few weeks ago.

There is newness on the way, and I think the anticipation of that newness is part of the beauty of the season–knowing that change is coming, albeit slowly, and experiencing each small part that will one day lead to seeing the whole.

But what do we do when the seasons change but life doesn’t? Because, while the fall is bringing with it the hope of change in my own life, that hasn’t always been the case. There have been seasons of hopelessness, of feeling the world around me change and my life stagnate in one way or another. The change of the season seemed to rub salt into the wound of feeling stuck, like the world was reminding me that things really hadn’t changed.

As I reflected on what’s been helpful for me, and even what I need to remind myself as I cultivate contentment right now, I identified three things to help me appreciate the sameness of the present.

1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

This might come across a little harsh. But, to be honest, this is where most of my own bitterness started. I did feel the stagnation in my own life more during the changing of seasons, and the pain was valid, but any comparison to others pushed me over the edge.

Comparison leads to self-centeredness. When we are consumed with how our lives stack up compared to those around us, we will either be filled with pride or with pity. This is especially true during a time of year when we might be more sensitive to our own sadness. It felt like everyone’s life around me was changing, and I was the only one who was stuck. Or that I was the only one God seemed to be “withholding” from.

The reality is, you don’t know what is going on in others’ lives. Just because they have one thing that you envy doesn’t mean that all the other parts are working like they want it to. God is writing a different story for each of us, calling us as individuals to trust him with whatever he has placed in our hands. There isn’t some standard they have met and you haven’t that is keeping your life from moving forward.

I see this in a simple way in the various stories of Jesus healing blind men. There are three different accounts and three different ways Jesus brings about the same healing. In the first, he simply places his hand  on the eyes of two blind men, and they are immediately able to see. In the second, Jesus spits on his eyes then lays a hand on him; at first, the man’s vision is blurry, and Jesus lays his hands on him a second time, which then allows the man to see fully. And in the third story, Jesus spits on the ground to make mud, anoints the man’s eyes with the mud, and asks him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.

Jesus encounters each of these men in different situations, he relates to them in different ways, he asks of them different things, and in some the process leading to healing takes longer. But Jesus is fully able and fully in control; these men must trust him with their own story.

2. Start seeing the changing season as a gift, not as a thorn.

When I shift my eyes from my own circumstances and look for opportunities for gratitude instead of comparison and complaining, my heart is able to appreciate what’s in front of me.

God is the one who keeps the world turning and the leaves changing. He didn’t create the world then leave it on its own to fend for itself; he is actively involved, and the changing seasons remind me of his hands at work. If he is at work in the world around me, and if he is at work in the lives of others, I have to believe that he is at work in my life, even if I can’t see it right now.

Another aspect of the changing season as a gift is that the newness provides a new context for knowing and experiencing God. Despite the lack of change in my circumstances, the change of the world around me renews me internally, calling me to slow down and savor the moments that are just so classically “fall,” pressing me deeper into awareness of him and a new context in which to navigate what’s weighing me down.

3. Pray for renewal in your own life.

As I am confronted with the change around me, I am drawn to ask God to change what’s in me. I’ve learned that it’s good to expose the painful and the tired places, because that’s what draws awareness to my need and therefore to the only One who can meet that need.

Sometimes, God does respond in the ways I am praying for, bringing change to my circumstances. But sometimes, the change he brings is more internal, working in me to align my heart with his. Instead of frustration, I move toward acceptance and even gratitude–the work of the Lord softening my heart to trust him more.

 

Instead of dwelling on the fact that your life doesn’t seem to be changing, pray for the perspective to see the beauty of the change around you, seeing it as a sweet gift to remind you that life is not stagnant.

And, in the midst of our desire to see change, we can be grateful that our God Himself does not change. He is not like the shifting shadows (James 1:17), and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). His love is steadfast and endures forever (Psalm 136). We can rest in his care when we don’t understand.

hope seen in an empty room

We’ve lived in five homes over the course of our four years of hoping to start a family. I’ve written about these transitions in other places, but as I have considered Infertility Awareness Week this week, the memories of those houses flashed back across my mind.

In each home, I knew which room would be the nursery. The first house, our first home-owner experience, had a Jack-and-Jill bath downstairs that connected our room to the intended nursery. We decided to buy a house partially because it was “time” to move out of our rent house, but also because we knew we wanted to start a family, so we thought it would be house, then a baby shortly after that.

The house we almost-bought in Conway, the one we wanted to buy but instead rented for six weeks, had this incredible front bedroom with a wall of bookshelves and a window seat–it was dreamy, with huge windows and the perfect old-house charm. A little girl lives in that room now, which makes me so happy. I think it might have been wasted on a boy.

The house we did buy in Conway had a front bedroom with sweet afternoon light. Ridley would curl up in the sun while I worked from my desk, looking out the window at the kids playing on the street.

I suppose the one exception to this list is our apartment we lived in for six months when we first moved back to Fayetteville. It was less than 800 square feet with only one bedroom, so we probably would have had a bassinet in the corner (if we hadn’t been able to start immediately looking for houses if we found out we were pregnant).

And in our current house, of the two extra rooms, my favorite is the one at the very back. It’s across the hall from our room, furthest from the living room, and I just get this feeling when I walk in, especially in the mornings.

In each of our houses, I have used the intended nursery as an office. I have my white desk and a couple of bookcases with the office-y books––Bible commentaries, ministry resources, and binders of notes from old studies. In our current house, I was planning a cozy chair in one corner with a soft rug and a convenient blanket, perfect for early morning quiet times.

The reason I started thinking about these rooms and our houses this week, was that in each house I filled that empty room with something else–and with each move, the room became more and more planned out. In our first house, it was pretty bare. I don’t think I even hung anything on the walls; I thought it would be changed pretty quickly once we got pregnant, so I didn’t invest too much thought into it.

But slowly, I accumulated office furniture and developed a Pinterest board with new ideas, and while I would really love a picturesque office one day (with wall-to-wall bookshelves and a rolling ladder, of course), I think part of my planning around this room was to distract me from the reality that the room wasn’t what I actually wanted it to be – a nursery.

A few weeks ago, I got the urge to clear our office room out. We had an adoption we were being considered for that ended up not moving forward for us, but we knew we wanted to take active steps to pursue another adoption opportunity. As much as it hurt to know that this room still wasn’t being filled, I had a day off work and spent the entire afternoon transporting books, files, papers, etc. to a storage room on the other side of our house. Eric came home from work and all that was left was the desk and the bookshelf, which I needed his help moving.

Other than Eric’s clothes in the closet, that room has remained empty.

And as sad as that may sound, it has actually helped me pray with deeper emotion and greater hope. I am not trying to distract myself from the places of disappointment or confusion that are woven into my life. Every time I walk in there to hang up clean clothes, or I catch Ridley sniffing around the corners, I take a deep breath and pray for the child I hope one day sleeps there.

That empty room is a tangible reminder of the ways we are trusting God for something greater than we can obtain on our own.

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Disappointment is common to us all, unfortunately. I don’t think anyone escapes the discouragement of not having something go the way they planned, or the way they expected, or the way they hoped.

But I also think there’s a sense of rest and of peace in identifying those places of disappointment, choosing to not try to cover them up or brush past them. As I recognize them, I can bring them to God in prayer and wrestle with him and with the longings of my heart. In that wrestling process, I believe my need for him becomes even more real, and my longing shifts from simply wanting “something” to wanting him and wanting to see him work in that “something.”

In the book of Lamentations, there’s this beautiful harmony between the reality of grief and a confidence in God’s love. Jeremiah is distraught by the consequences his people are facing as a result of turning away from God. He is grieved by their rejection of God and even their rejection of him and his attempts to direct them toward repentance.

I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope: 

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He’s all I’ve got left.
Lamentations 3:19-24 MSG

Jeremiah doesn’t deny the place of pain. He doesn’t say that the pain doesn’t matter since God is faithful. But he also doesn’t let his despair be the only thing he focuses on. He holds the two together–he will never forget the trouble, but he will also remember God’s loyal love.

Even when God redeems this season, however he chooses to move our story–the pain won’t disappear.

It’s not supposed to.

In fact, it bolsters my heart to hold these both together–the pain of life and the sadness, alongside the goodness of God. Choosing to believe his love in light of what has happened makes my conviction of his love that much more powerful.  I have to be convinced of who God is and why he is worth it to still believe in his love when my circumstances have not reflected that I get what I want from God.

So as I walk past the empty room, as I pray for God’s provision in a son or daughter, as I pray for my friends who are also waiting to be parents–whether they are waiting for a pregnancy or an adoption or even still waiting to get married–I am reminded that the disappointment is not bad. But it’s not where I stay.

His character is the reason I hope.

[Other posts related to IAW and Mother’s Day]

is God’s sovereignty actually good news?

We walked through deep disappointment recently. A hope of what was to come in our future suddenly disappeared, and the result has been this heavy gray fog settling over our thoughts and our hearts.

It’s not the outcome we wanted, not the outcome we prayed for, not the outcome that we expected.

As we processed what this disappointment meant for us in the moment, and what it means moving forward, I found that Eric and I were relating to God’s sovereignty differently.

For me, I was at rest in knowing that God was not surprised by the circumstances; he was not trying to come up with a plan B, and he knew all along what would happen. But I was wrestling with how it can feel like his plans have never been what we have asked him to do. As we have been praying with faith and trusting him for bigger things over the past few months, I have had hope that he would answer us with a “Yes!”–and it seems like all he is saying is “no” or “wait.”

Eric struggled more with blaming God, with thinking God made a mistake–that he somehow overlooked our pleas or wasn’t actually doing what was best.

Now, Eric and I both knew our thoughts were not in line with our theology. But in the moment, those are the places our hearts went to. It’s hard to see God’s hand of goodness when life is not playing out the way you hoped it would.

The question we both began to ponder was, Why is God’s sovereignty good news?

I know enough of God’s sovereignty to trust him – but I also know enough of God’s sovereignty to know that he doesn’t necessarily do what I expect or ask of him.

In fact, it’s usually in circumstances where I face disappointment or unmet expectations or even despair that God’s sovereignty is what I have to cling to in my pain. It’s not typically something I need to remind myself as I rejoice. It’s when I need it to be good news–but also when my heart doesn’t always feel like it’s good.

I think people often use “God’s in control” and “God has a plan” as band-aids, trying to put a spiritual truth into a situation that feels uncertain, in hopes of encouraging the one walking through it. I’ve written elsewhere about how those spiritual band-aids can be hurtful, and how they make it more about a “happy ending” than what God is doing now. This quick response in a moment of pain should bring about a pause for us to more fully consider what we are saying. 

Yes, God’s in control.
Yes, he has a plan.
Yes, I am thankful for those two things. They make all the difference.

But do we use claims of God’s control in attempt to comfort ourselves that he will bring about what we ask for? Do we confidently state this fact then inwardly assume this means he will work things out for a good that we can see and understand, neglecting to remember that his ways are above ours (Isaiah 55:8) and he often uses suffering as the pathway to our developed character and hope (Romans 5:3-5)?

I often don’t realize I have done this, until I find myself once again thrown into confusion and frustration and pain when he doesn’t do what I want.

So as we have navigated this disappointment, and weariness in waiting, I am forced to again ask myself, Am I really surrendered to the fact that God is in control, and that he has a plan? Is that good news to me?

In her series of talks entitled “Suffering is Never for Nothing” (now printed into a book that you need to read!), Elisabeth Elliot said,

“If your faith rests in your idea of how God is supposed to answer your prayers, your idea of heaven here on earth or pie in the sky or whatever, then that kind of faith is very shaky and is bound to be demolished when the storms of life hit it. But if your faith rests on the character of Him who is the eternal I AM, then that kind of faith is rugged and will endure.”

God’s sovereignty doesn’t always result in what we want to happen. And yet, in believing that his character is good, I have to believe that the results are good. My sights may be limited to what’s incomplete–the story’s ending hasn’t played out yet–but, even in the deepest places of disappointment, his sovereign ways are still good, because he is still good. He never changes, despite our ever-changing circumstances.

In light of this reality, knowing that God is in control and we can trust him, I don’t think our response to dashed hopes and unmet expectations has to be fake happiness. We don’t need to paste a smile on our faces and say, “Well, God’s got a plan, and I am okay with this.”

It’s okay to not be okay.

In fact, the ability to approach God when we are not okay is modeled for us throughout Scripture. Psalm 13, Psalm 55, and Psalm 69 have been on repeat in my mornings in the Word. Job expresses confusion and anger toward God. Even Jesus cries out in anguish to his Father.

But in not being okay, my heart is still surrendered to him and hopeful in what he’s doing, in the blurry picture that I trust will come into focus as time continues on.

His sovereignty is my rock when I don’t understand. It’s my foundation and my refuge, as I go to him with my questions and fears and hopes, believing that he hears and he cares.

In moments we are tempted to doubt, or disagree, or despair at what we are facing, God’s sovereignty is good news! We can rest in what he’s doing, even when we don’t understand, and we can trust that he welcomes us to come to him with our honest emotions and our sorrow. And it’s in that place of honesty that I have most authentically encountered him.

why we should still ask, even if God might say no

I’m praying bigger prayers these days.

Over the past few years, my prayer life has felt very repetitive–at least, it’s been repetitive in the “big things,” and especially related to infertility. It’s not that I ever stopped praying for a pregnancy, but I got into a rut from asking regularly for the same thing over and over, and I got discouraged by what has been a continual “no” (or a “no, not yet”). I didn’t stop asking, but it’s like the asking became more of an unconscious habit as opposed to a conscious and persistent and hopeful asking.

And, to be honest, I stopped believing it could actually happen. I stopped allowing myself to picture what it would be like if God said “yes” because I doubted that he was willing to say yes.

Something shifted for me recently, and I don’t quite know what to attribute it to other than God’s grace in changing my heart. My prayers have moved out of the rut and into new faith. And not only am I praying with more faith that God can and God is willing to answer, but I am praying for more specific things, related to infertility as well as other areas of my life. I’m not just praying for the bare minimum, but I am asking God to do more than that.

I often approach God with a beggar mentality, asking for the smallest morsel of bread, not wanting to impose on him by asking for too much. I approach him expecting him to be critical, deciding whether or not I present myself in a way that inclines him to answer, so I try to pray in a way that spiritually justifies what I am asking for. I approach him timidly, as if I might ruin my chances if I am not careful.

As I reread the paragraph I just wrote, I can see wrong-thinking. I know that those aren’t accurate descriptions of God’s posture toward me. I am begging God for one breadcrumb when he has all the bread in the world! And yet, I wasn’t aware until recently that I was relating to God that way.

When our focus is first on our circumstances instead of on God, we tend to unconsciously craft an image of God that makes sense in our circumstances. What I saw when I looked at four years of infertility was a god who was withholding from me, a god who was critical of my pain and my continued grief, a god who might have been present but who was indifferent, lacking compassion, and impatient.

As I have begun praying differently, and as I have been looking to Scripture to know the truth of God’s character instead of being swayed by my circumstances, I’ve identified three ways that praying bigger prayers solidifies the portrait of God and the truth of his character–no matter how he ultimately chooses to answer those prayers.

1. Praying big prayers pushes me to recognize that God is all-powerful. I have to believe that he is able to do what I am asking him to do.

In Matthew 8, a Roman centurion comes to Jesus to ask for healing for his paralyzed servant. This is obviously a big deal because this guy is not a Jew, and is in fact disliked by the Jews because of his rule over them. When Jesus agrees to go to his house and heal his servant, the centurion proclaims that he is not worthy for Jesus to come to his house. Instead, he states that he knows Jesus has authority and doesn’t even have to go to his house; he knows Jesus can just say the word and his servant will be healed.

His view of Jesus’ authority and power is big, and it reflects in his request and his confidence that Jesus will do what he is asking him to do.

In Mark 9, I am struck by Jesus’ encounter with a father whose son has an unclean spirit. The disciples were unable to cast the spirit out of him, so the father approaches Jesus himself. When Jesus begins to talk to the father about his son’s condition, the father says, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus responds, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”

That “if” statement is exactly how I often come to God. “If there’s anything you can do about this…”

How this reflects the unbelief in my heart! Jesus is saying not that all things will happen for the person who believes, but that faith means believing that God can do anything. You will be willing to ask for anything because it’s not out of the realm of possibility that God would choose to act in that way. You won’t ask ‘if it’s possible’–you will pray, ‘it is possible, you are capable’

The father cries out in response, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

God is able to do more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). But are we willing to ask for the big things? Do we really believe that he is able? What do our prayers say about our view of God, that he is incapable or that he is all-powerful?

2. Praying big prayers requires me to have confidence in God’s generosity and goodness.

We often ask of others on the basis of knowing what they are willing and/or able to give. You don’t ask someone for too much if you know he doesn’t have much to give. You don’t ask someone who is stingy for more than you need. You ask cautiously if you don’t know how he will respond. In my prayers, as I asked God for breadcrumbs, I revealed that I didn’t think God was willing to give me more, and I would be lucky if he would give me the bare minimum.

Then, when I thought I didn’t even get “the bare minimum,” I concluded that God either isn’t good or isn’t willing, because how could he deny me even just a little bit?

By praying big prayers, I have to believe that God is not only able, but willing to answer. In Matthew 8, a leper approaches Jesus and says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” The leper has no doubt in God’s ability, and even though he isn’t quite sure of Jesus’ willingness, he is sure enough to still state his request. Jesus’ response confirms the leper’s unspoken question: “I will; be clean.”

In Mark 10, Jesus encounters a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Bart is making a commotion by loudly crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Though the people around him tried to quiet him, Jesus doesn’t ignore him. He stops and asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bart’s request is for his sight, and Jesus heals him based on his faith.

What strikes me about this conversation is that Jesus asked what Bart wanted. Sometimes I feel guilty praying for what I want instead of something more spiritual, like God’s will to be done no matter the implications on my request. Some might consider Bart’s sight a selfish request when he could have asked for so many other things. Jesus could have told him to be content in his blindness, blooming where he was planted. And yet–the way Jesus asked him what he wanted stirs my heart toward understanding Jesus’ generosity.

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)

Changing my prayers on the basis of God’s goodness and generosity doesn’t mean that he will do what I am asking–and that, in turn, doesn’t mean that he isn’t actually good and generous. But as I have been praying with conviction that he is good in his posture toward me, it changes even how I experience his “no.” My heart is more settled in the fact that he is good in all his ways, whether he answers “yes” or “no,” and I am able to trust the bigger picture of what he is doing in my life.

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? (Romans 8:32)

3. Praying big prayers reminds me of my dependence on him to answer those requests. It reaffirms my need for him, and prepares me to give him the glory in what he does because I am praying for things that I cannot feasibly take credit for.

Praying bigger prayers has made me more aware of how much I need God to intervene in my life, both in the big requests and in my day-to-day situations.

In every instance of Jesus healing people and answering their requests in Scripture, we see that the person was desperate, and they saw Jesus as their only answer, and they were affirming that there was nothing in their control to make things happen in their life.

The bleeding woman in Mark 5 has been my example of desperate faith. Scripture tells us that she “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” She had reached the end of herself and anything she could do, and when she heard that Jesus was coming, she dropped everything and went to find him.

Her faith in what Jesus was able to do was so big, and her situation so desperate, that she believes, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” What an amazing statement about her belief in Jesus’ power, that just getting close enough to run her fingers through his fringe will bring about the healing she has been so powerless to do for herself!

The scary thing about praying for big things is knowing that God still might choose to say no. There’s not a secret formula in praying with faith that guarantees we will receive what we ask for. We can’t manipulate God in that way. We can’t see how his plans are going to play out, and at the end of the day the posture of our heart should be surrendered to his will. Praying big prayers puts our heart on the line; it’s riskier.

As I have prayed bigger prayers in our infertility, I’ve had moments of wondering if I should pull back. I’m daydreaming about what would happen if God answered these requests, as I pray and recognize what he is capable of doing. But each month that he chooses to say no, my heart breaks a little, because it’s been a long time since I really believed it was possible to get pregnant.

I believe it’s worth that risk–and as I process what God is doing even if he says no to my big requests, I am falling back on him, learning to see him for who he really is. He is all-powerful, he is good and generous, and he is my only hope–and, as I pray, I am drawn to desire God himself as the ultimate answer to my longings and my prayers.

deck the halls, deck your heart

Decking the halls is one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. We traditionally go the day after Thanksgiving to cut our tree down. We get it home and up in the stand, then take a break because we have usually experienced some thick marital tension build up in the process. (I’m waiting for someone to make an affordable alternative to the tree stands where you slowly screw into all sides of the tree.) Usually I tell Eric to go on a bike ride to release all of the stress that has built up just from trying to get the tree to sit straight, though this year was miraculously the easiest we have ever had it—probably the first year we haven’t argued or encountered some sort of disaster (like the year there was a hole in our tree stand and all the water leaked out for a week before we realized it was more than an unusually thirsty tree…). Later that night, we turn on Christmas music, decorate the tree, then watch a Christmas movie together.

But that’s just the tree decorating. For the next month, I slowly add more and more Christmas into our house. I love scavenging for evergreen branches to make wreaths and garlands. I light candles to enhance the evergreen smell in our home (hello Bath and Body Works’s Fresh Balsam), wrap presents in coordinating papers, string lights throughout the house, and anything else I can think of that will make our space cozy and Christmassy.

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I don’t do it all at once, because that’s part of the fun of December–part of the fun of anticipating the arrival of Christmas. Of course I know that decorations aren’t what Christmas is all about. But I have found that “decking the halls” for Christmas is one step in the direction of “decking my heart” for Christmas.

It’s easy to get caught up in places to go, activities to do, presents to buy, and food to bake during the month of December. And these are all fun things–I would argue, even spiritual things–as we enjoy the gifts of family and community. These sort of things add to the experience of the Christmas season and tune our hearts into the fact that there’s something different about this time of year.

But there is an even deeper way we can prepare our hearts in order to fully engage in the significance of the Advent season. I think of the line in “Joy to the World,” telling us to “let every heart / prepare him room.” It starts with some internal “house cleaning,” first being aware of the things that tend to distract us and draw us away from our longing for Christ. 

It’s been helpful for me each morning to sit quietly in the dark living room lit only by the lights from the tree, breathing deeply in between sips of coffee. I slowly acknowledge the places my heart feels anxious or distracted or tense, confessing these to the Lord and asking him to help me surrender those things to him.

Then throughout my day, I am trying to be aware of the moments when I feel stressed by plans, or perhaps distracted by new things I can put on my Christmas wish list, or obsessions over making something perfect. This continual awareness of my sin tendencies keeps me in a place of confession, because to be honest I am daily encountering the ways that I make the season about myself instead of about Christ. As I do this more and more, I am able to let go of expectations and selfishness, re-centering my heart in the Lord.

It’s not just about clearing things away, though. I’ve found that the second part of “decking my heart” is the anticipation and expectation of his presence. I am motivated to identify and remove my distractions because I believe that God will show up, and in “preparing him room” I find my desire for his presence grows.

You know how, when you are waiting for something, you are suddenly hyper-aware of anything that could indicate that it is coming? I ordered something online the other day, and on its scheduled delivery date, I found myself frequently thinking that I heard the UPS truck drive by, or that there was a thump outside the front door as if a package were being set down.

It’s as I pay attention that I am more likely to catch glimpses of God. Of course he shows himself to the unsuspecting, to those who aren’t looking for him. We can’t narrow down his ways to a pattern or formula. But I also believe that he shows up as we start to change our focus, as we move our eyes toward who he is and as we ask him to show us what he is doing.

And that anticipation, that looking that accompanies longing, is what Advent is all about.

I’m not sure where you are as we enter December, what you are experiencing or saddened by or longing for. I find that those things are all more tender during the holidays. I’m more aware of what’s going on inside me, and while this can mean that I am more quick to cry, I am also more receptive to the comfort of the Lord. Clearing space and paying attention helps me enter into the expectant waiting of the season, and my prayer is that throughout the month my heart would grow closer to his and that I would see him as the object and the fulfillment of all of my longings.

Some personal reflection questions I’ve been considering for myself:

  1. What in your heart’s “house” needs to be cleaned out to prepare him room? What about this next month adds stress or anxiety? What distractions do you find are continually present that prevent you from slowing down to spend time with the Lord? What materialistic tendencies are driving your desires related to Christmas?
  2. What spaces are you creating to look for him during this holiday season? Where can you quiet and still your body and your mind and your heart?
  3. What can you do to cultivate your desire for the Lord and your awareness of this season of Advent, identifying in the wait of Israel for salvation and our wait for the return of Christ? Are there specific passages or books or songs or places that draw your heart more deeply into him?

Previous Advent posts:

tables in the wilderness

It’s a quiet, rainy morning here, and as I sit at our 8’ dining table sipping my coffee and watching the rain, I feel overwhelmed by God’s care in my life.

During the 7 months we lived in our little apartment, I used to dream about sitting at this table. Eric built it for me two years ago as a birthday/anniversary gift. It’s been scuffed up in its various moves, and there are some new cracks in the reclaimed wood surface, but to me those cracks just tell the story of our transitions and God’s provision, first in an apartment and a storage unit and now in a home where our table fits perfectly (something I was concerned about while we were looking for a house).

The image of a table speaks to me of abundance, of provision, of community and of deep conversation. So when I read Psalm 78, my heart clung to the picture the Psalmist presents of a table being “spread in the wilderness.” And as is usual when reading the Old Testament, while my initial reaction is to criticize the Israelites for their inconsistencies and lack of faith, I have to be careful not to criticize them too harshly–I often learn that I am much more like them than I realize.

In the sign of their fathers he performed wonders in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan. He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?” -Psalm 78:12-20

This question “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” has stuck with me.

When it looks like there is no hope, no source of nourishment, can he show up?
Can he provide, even in this place I don’t want to be?
Will he bless, even though I feel a lack?

The Israelites’ need for food was valid. I’m going to guess that there weren’t great hunting opportunities as the Israelites were in the Sinai desert–especially not enough game to feed that many people. However, we find in Exodus that the Israelites were crying out about water and food merely two chapters after the parting of the Red Sea. God had just miraculously parted a huge body of water, allowing them to pass on dry ground, then destroyed their enemies with that same body of water that crashed back together as soon as the last Israelite had stepped away.

Yet even though the Israelites didn’t believe, and even though they came to God from a position of entitlement and God was angry, he provided.

Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven…. And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved… In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe. -Psalm 78:21-24, 29, 32

This could have been such a gift–an incredible moment of seeing God provide–but the Israelites missed it.

Instead of praising God for how he had shown himself strong, they were consumed with their own selves, their fears and discomforts. They lost sight of what God was doing because they were concentrated on their lack. They set expectations of what they wanted instead of trusting what God was doing.

They were frustrated with the wilderness–but how much more beautiful is the picture of tables in the wilderness, if they would have only readjusted their focus!

To help me consider how I might be missing the gift of God’s hand, I have started by processing this question: What do I think God is withholding from me?

In answering thatwhether it’s a baby or guidance for a difficult decision or material things–I have seen that when I don’t get what I want, I doubt God. I doubt his goodness, his care, his willingness to work in my life, and I despair.

But perhaps I am so focused on getting out of the wilderness that I miss the beautiful things the Lord is doing while I am in the wilderness.

The Israelites had seen God provide in miraculous ways; they should have known that he would continue to take care of them. But instead of focusing on truth, on the reality of what God had done up to that point, they only looked at what was missing in front of them.

To help me see the table he has spread in my own experience of the wilderness, I’ve been asking the Lord to cultivate my heart in three areas.

1. Being aware of the attitude of my heart as I come to God with my requests

I don’t think the Israelites’ problem was asking God for food. I think the problem was the attitude with which they approached him: entitled, doubtful, frustrated.

My “why” can be asked out of curiosity or out of criticism. I regularly apologize to others (especially Eric) after saying something in the wrong tone of voice, unaware of the posture of my heart until I spoke that way. 

I believe we can come to God with our raw, honest requests, but our attitude can be accusatory or it can be humble as we seek understanding and answers. I am learning to talk to God not just about what I want, but to also ask God to readjust my perspective when I come to him, knowing my tendency to be frustrated with him because I think he is withholding from me.

2. Recognizing of who God is, regardless of my circumstances

I don’t want my circumstances to define how I view God. Instead, I want the truth of who God is to guide how I interpret my circumstances.

The Israelites’ perspective was on the wrong thing in the wilderness. They were hungry, so they assumed that God couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide. Later, they felt incapable of conquering enemies, so they thought God would abandon them.

I, too, find myself focusing on the wrong things, which leads to a wrong perspective of God. I can look at my lack and presume that God is not faithful, instead of looking to who God is and allowing the truth of his character to define what might feel like a deficiency but can be trusted to his provision.

Some of the things that steal my attention away from God, specifically as I have walked through infertility:
Uncertainty of the future–Will it always be like this?
Confusion on what God could doing–I’ve been on this path a long time. Has he forgotten me?
Entitlement–Isn’t he going to bless me for what I’ve endured?

There’s even a fear of what will change if he does bless us with a pregnancy. This is the space in which I have related to him for so long. How will our relationship be different? And how would that change the plans that Eric and I have made for ourselves?

But I am looking at the wrong thing. When my eyes shift from my circumstances to my Savior, all of those fears and concerns disappear. In light of who God is, my circumstances lose their preeminence. I want to believe that He is the best thing, not the gifts he gives.

“When I don’t see any physical evidence of being treasured, I remember that the best thing that could ever happen to me is being with Jesus.” -Heather Holleman

3. Expecting him to provide in abundance, but trusting the ways that he chooses to provide

God’s unique provision of water from a rock and manna falling from the sky was tangible proof of his care for them , but the Israelites missed out because they wanted something other than what God had deemed as good. They thought God’s goodness would take care of all of their problems, instead of trusting his sufficiency in the moment and thus his ability to provide in the future as well. 

How do I see this supposed lack as a gift? I feel raw, sensitive, weak, weary, and yet–God is providing. His provision looks different, as he has stripped away all of my plans, my desires, my control; my dependence can only be on him in the desert. But I seen him provide friends to confide in, other women to walk with through their own journeys, and a sweet depth in my marriage. I have seen him provide his presence and his comfort in ways I never would have otherwise needed. 

God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good. God’s refusals are always merciful–“severe mercies” at times but mercies all the same. God never denies us our heart’s desire except to give us something better. –Elisabeth Elliot

I am convinced that there is beauty in this season. I want to keep my eyes there instead of on what I think I am missing. I know there is a table of abundance in the wilderness, and it is at that table where God satisfies me with himself.