Category Archives: Blog Archive
The Key of Gratitude, Part 5: a thanksgiving prayer
I invite you to simply pray this prayer today. Pray it throughout the day. In the Psalms, abiding in experiencing, noticing, and delighting in the presence of God is described in myriad ways. Gratitude and thankfulness are clearly keys that unlock the door. (cf, Psalm 100) And, a persistent seeking is highlighted in Psalm 105, “Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His presence continually!”
Continually is an important word. It suggests persistence and regularity. A day set aside for thanksgiving is a wonderful thing and a persistent seeking of God in gratitude is even better! Jesus encourages us to “seek and you will find.” (Matthew 7:7)
Pray this simple prayer throughout the day and keep praying it, or something like it. In Psalm 130:5, we read these words, “I pray to God, my life a prayer, waiting for what He will say and do.” (MSG) Our “lives a prayer” – what a beautiful image … to have a life shaped by prayer. It is simple and yet infinitely deep.
As you feel comparison or complaint or a desire for certainty arise in you, gently set them to the side and return to this prayer.
My Lord and my God, thank You.
I am grafeful because You are good,
Your love never stops, and You
abide with me every moment.
In Your goodness and by Your
grace, may I abide with You
today. Give me eyes to see You in
each moment and ears to hear
Your quiet voice. Amen.
The Key of Gratitude, Part 4: Releasing Certainty
Gratitude calms our hearts. Gratitude says “I have enough and I am at rest.” When we are rest, we are no longer striving … we are quiet in soul … we are able to see all that is around us without demand.
When gratitude seems inaccessible, it is usually because we are on the hunt for more … more than we presently have. As we’ve explored in the previous days, this can show up in comparisons. It is usually a part of complaint. And, it can be present in the desire for certainty. We want to know what is going on. We want to know what is going to happen.
We don’t like doubt or confusion. And … yet, lack of certainty is part of the human condition. While we might not like uncertainty, it is tied to the way God made us in the beginning. In the Garden of Eden, God told the first humans that they had freedom. They could eat the fruit from any tree … except the one called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Genesis 2:16-17) The enemy of God (Genesis 3) approached and suggested that God was holding out on them. He was keeping something from them. They ate, and so started humankind’s quest to grab certainty … to know … to be in control.
The alternative is trust. We were made to live in a trusting relationship with God. The core of our design consists of loving God and saying to Him, “not my will, but Thy will be done.” (Luke 22) Our will is our sense of control and determination. To exercise our will requires having a measure of certainty and knowledge in order to effectively operate in the world. God’s heart for us is that we live in a surrendered kind of way. His desire for us is to release our will and come under His will … His heart, His love, His care.
As we are able to say “not my will, but Thy will be done,” the doubts and uncertainties do not necessarily evaporate but they do not steer the vehicle any longer. Instead, there is a happy surrender, a gratefulness that we can be at rest. Words like surrender can possess a negative connotation, but for those who have surrendered there is a peacefulness that passes all understanding. The striving, the searching, the noise dissipates.
In Matthew 11, Jesus invites us to come to Him, to follow Him and His ways … “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Trying to be certain about everything is not only impossible, it is tiring. There is a way of life and also many ways of religious living that are focused on certainty, but Jesus invites us to trust Him … to follow Him … to watch how He does it. How does He do it? Trust. Surrender. It was Jesus who uttered the words “not my will, by Thy will be done.” It was Jesus who said, “the Son can do nothing of His own accord but only what He sees the Father doing.” What is an “accord?” One’s accord is their will, their sense of what to do, their certainty.
And, the result? A glad surrender … a satisfied, restful trust. It is saying, “I’m not in charge. I don’t know it all and I can rest in my finitude, my limits, my creatureliness.” This does not mean we don’t study or search for wisdom but it means that certainty isn’t my goal. Trust and surrender are the goal.
Do you struggle with a need for certainty? If so, welcome. You are in good company. However, there is more into which we are invited … a life of gratitude that remains after we release certainty as our ambition. And, that gratitude gives us eyes to see the glory of God and His goodness all around.
What will it look like for you to release certainty today? How will you trustfully embrace not knowing?
The Key of Gratitude, Part 3: Releasing Complaint
Gratitude opens our eyes and gives us sight. With a grateful heart, we see what is rather than what is not. Thanksgiving, as an attitude of the heart, is something that cleans the fogginess that can obscure our vision … our ability to see God in us, around us, and in others. But, gratitude can be hard to come by.
One of the heart postures that can create fog is complaint. When things are hard, we often feel complaint arising in our hearts. We can complain about anything when we’re in a complaining mood. A sunny day can be too hot. A beautiful snowfall can “ruin” our plans for travel. A little deeper, perhaps, is that complaint can become a lens through which we look at life. When things don’t happen the way I want them to happen … when things don’t turn out the way I’d expect … when things aren’t fair or just, complaint can be our “go to.” It can be our interpretive lens.
To be sure, there are things that are hard and painful and fearful and unjust. The challenge is that complaint is an interaction with those hard realities of life that is based on me … my perspective, my expectations, my ideas, and my preferences. To drill a little deeper, complaint is usually centered around the perceived loss of my independence … my ability for self-determination.
The solution, however, is not denial or dismissal. It is not acting like hurts and losses are not a big deal. It is not necessarily about “thinking positively.” When things are hard, we have an invitation from God into a kind of prayer called lament. Lament is a prayer that cries out to God with all the emotion and pain that one is feeling: God, how long? Will you abandon me forever? (Ps 13) or My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22) or My enemies surround me (Ps 27).
Whereas complaint focus on me and my loss of independence, lament focus on God and our cries of dependence. God, I need you. I am desperate without you. As the people of Israel moved toward the promised land in the Old Testament scriptures, there were told that it was a land flowing with milk and honey (to put it in New Testament terms: an abundant life). What the people of Israel misunderstood is that both milk and honey were items that were provided by God. Milk was dependent on there being rains that gave the goats plenty of grass to eat so that they would produce lots of milk. Honey was something that would be “found” in trees and places where bees were thriving because of a healthy environment. The land of Palestine was/is a land dependent upon the fickle rains that may or may not come. Milk and honey are symbols of dependence.
As the people of Israel were travelling to this land, they complained about the food God provided each day (the manna). Rather than a grateful heart that came from dependence, they had complaining hearts fueled by entitlement and a sense of what they deserved. A dependent life didn’t feel so good and so they complained. Their complaints were not so much God directed as self-focused. And when complaint was the lens through which they viewed life, they actually told God they wanted to go back into slavery in Egypt because “at least the food tasted better.” (paraphrase from Numbers 11:4-6) Imagine that, thinking that being enslaved was better because the food tasted better. That is what complaint does to us. It colors our perception and spirals our thoughts into darkness.
However, lament, which is invited by God, has a way of transforming us and enlightening our eyes. In Psalm 13, the Psalmist even prays “enlighten my eyes.” It is a prayer of dependence and just a few verses later, it is written, “I have trusted in your steadfast love … I will sing to the Lord.” To be sure, lament is not magic – it doesn’t necessarily offer an instant transformation into seeing sunny skies where clouds are. However, it does transform … sometimes slowly and sometimes more quickly as we take our lives to God in prayer and dependence.
Lament changes us because it enables a shift from independence to dependence which is another one of our “default settings” as humans. We are dependent beings and when we are living dependently, we live freely and lightly. We experience gratitude and grace, and as thanksgiving is on our lips (even through tears and hard times) we see Him. We experience God.
What would it be like for you to release complaint today and instead come to God with a prayer of lament? Lament can be gritty and messy but it is invited by God. He doesn’t ask us to deny the hard things or ignore them but to bring them to Him in dependence and surrender. Whereas complaint centers around being independent, lament deepens our dependence as we place our hope in God.
And, the release and freedom we find in lament leaves us thankful.
The Key of Gratitude, part 1
As we move into thanksgiving week, we may find ourselves not feeling very thankful. It has been quite a year. From the pandemic to racial injustice to job losses to a contentious election, we are likely feeling and experiencing a lot of things and thankfulness is possibly not one of them. We’re tired of hearing the word “unprecedented.” We’re exhausted from relational tension. We’re ready to move on.
“Let’s hurry and get to 2021.” “Put out the Christmas decorations and maybe 2020 will just give up and leave us alone!” The impulse to move on is strong even when we know the truth is that all of our challenges won’t go away with decorations or the turn of the calendar to another year. Two things I know are true:
- The present moment is where we experience love, joy, peace, and patience. We can erroneously believe that love will happen in the future or peace will be present when things change. Or, we desire to return to a time in the past where things weren’t so tough and joy seemed to be abundant. The truth is that all of these things (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness) are the result of paying attention to God now. Jesus encouraged us to abide. To abide is to remain, to stay put. To abide means that we stay where we are … with God. “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for part from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, ESV))
- We can’t dismiss our hurts and frustrations as if they are no big deal. We have to walk through them. In Jeremiah 6:14, we read, “they dress the wounds of my people as though it were not serious, ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (NIV) Richard Rohr has commented, “If you do not transform your pain, you will transmit it.” This is why we may find ourselves overreacting to a situation or looking for something to explain away the pain. How is pain transformed? Foundationally, transformation happens as we refuse to deny or ignore but instead be honest about where we are.
Thanksgiving and gratitude can act as keys that unlock the door of staying in the moment and walking through our wounds and hurts. Psalm 100 encourages us to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise … come into His presence with singing.” A grateful heart gives us eyes to see that God is with us and gives us courage to walk through pain. How? When we express gratitude and thanksgiving, we are reminding ourselves that “the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
When going through difficult seasons, our impulse is often to find relief when what we really want and need is transformation. As we abide, we are transformed. As we look into the face of God, we are changed: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Thomas Merton wrote, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.” The Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 shares: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.” The invitation of God is slow down, stop, and abide with Him as you express gratefulness. When you are experiencing a desire for relief, let that be a reminder that what you really desire is God. There is nothing wrong with wanting relief, but staying with that desire can be a lock on the door of experiencing God’s presence now.
So, let gratitude ground you. Let thanksgiving return you to the present moment. For what can we be grateful? Very simply: that God is good and loving and faithful.
“Life is lived right now, in this moment. That’s an important reminder for all of us, because we tend to think, “If just this would happen, then I would be happy.” When we put a condition on our lives, we miss out on the present moment because we’re waiting for something else to happen.” Br. David Vryhof
Over the next three days, we will look at some of things that can keep us from gratitude: comparison, complaint, and certainty. Today, take a few moments and decide that you will stay where you are … with God. And then, as a desire to get away rises up, simply return to presence … presence to God in gratitude.
Here is a simple way to return to abiding with God … use three words: now, here, this. “Now” – be grounded in the present time (rejoice always). “Here” – be grounded in your present location (pray without ceasing). “This” – be grounded in the present circumstance (give thanks in all circumstances).
Take a Deep Breath
When we are struggling, when we are interacting with difficult things, we are often encouraged to “take a deep breath.” Metaphorically, the idea is to slow down, regroup, and get your bearings. This metaphor has developed because it is genuinely helpful physically to take a deep breath. In fact, often, it is not until we physically slow down and take deep breaths that we can metaphorically take a deep breath and regroup.
Our bodies are made in such a way that when we feel stress, a part of our brain takes over (on some level) in which we are pushed into fight, flight, freeze, or numb. The old wisdom was that we would either engage (fight) or run (flight) but now we know that we can also freeze (just shut down) as well as numb (engage in things that will dull or blunt the feelings we are experiencing). When we breathe in deeply, our bodies calm down and we are able to move out of the pattern of fight, flight, freeze, or numb.
Over the last year, our bodies, minds, and spirits have taken on a lot of stress. I know that is the understatement of the century but I also know that today and coming days will fill us a lot of stress as well. Roughly half of the United States will likely be in a place of despair after the election. The other half may have feelings of elation and/or relief. Whatever the case, the stress will again be palpable and perhaps even more so because relational division is one of the most stressful things we can experience.
So, take a deep breath.
Take a deep breath as you consider what is coming and take a deep breath along the way and in the coming days. When you find yourself experiencing stress, breathe deeply. As a spiritual practice, breathe deeply.
On the physical side of things, many have suggested the 4-7-8 technique. Breathe in through your nose (drawing breath for 4 seconds), hold for 7 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8 seconds. Do this several times and notice your body start to calm.
Next, breathe spiritually.
Let me offer 3 R’s. Remember, Receive, and Rest. Remember that God will never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13). Receive that love as all that you need (Ephesians 3). Rest in His love as you let go of fear and anxiety (Matthew 6). Brother David Vryhof offers, “You need not fear any adversary when you know you are unconditionally and forever loved by God. There is nothing that can separate you from God’s love.”
A Way to Practice
First, engage simply in the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Go through this cycle of breathing until you notice that your body is calm. Second, utilize the following statements as you continue to breathe deeply. On the inhale, say the first part of one of the statements below (I remember, I receive, or I rest) quietly in your heart. On the exhale, repeat the second part of one of the three statements. Note: make sure you continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
- I remember … that You never leave me or forsake me.
- I receive … Your love for me as all that I need.
- I rest … in Your love as I let go of fear and anxiety.
This may sound simple and it is! Don’t let the simplicity fool you. It is profound. You will learn to regulate your bodily response to stress and you will deepen the spiritual connection that affects how you will encounter continued stress.
Lord, may we remember that your love is “as high as the heavens” and your faithfulness “extends to the clouds.” May we receive that love as all that we need. May we rest as we release fear and anxiety. Amen.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
An Examen: Living as an Antiracist Person
For many of us, we are realizing that the statement “I’m not a racist” is not enough. Better is to say “I’m antiracist.” In other words: proactively standing against racism in our hearts and minds, in our interactions with others, and in the way we strive to see our cultural institutions operate. In that spirit, we offer this examen. An examen is a structured prayer in which we are led to prayerfully reflect on our lives by focusing on being present to God and asking God to search our hearts and guide our steps.
*set aside time daily to slowly pray through these questions
1. Remind yourself that you are in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s grace in your life. Give thanks for God’s love for all who have been made in His image.
2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is at work in you as it relates to living as an antiracist person. Review, with God, the call to be active in bringing peace and justice to the world around you.
As you consider the injustice of racism, what does the Spirit seem to be stirring in your spirit? Do I extend the peace of Christ to people of color with my words, deeds, actions and influence? How have I allowed the evil of racism to affect me? Have I “wept with those who weep?”
3. Review your day … Ask God to search your heart and mind to see how embedded thought patterns of bias might have affected you today.
Have I done anything to diminish the image of God in my neighbor, friend, colleague or family members that are persons of color? Did I say hurtful words to someone or about someone because of their race? Have I been silent when I could have spoken peace and truth into a racially biased or explicitly racist situation?
4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God’s heart concerning racial injustice, or further away?
Are my private thoughts uplifting and loving towards all races? Do I recognize people of color as fearfully and wonderfully made? Where do I struggle with this the most? a specific person, people group or environment? Where can I let go of my ego and make more space for racial justice?
Are there ways in which I promoted peace and extended love to people of color?
Take a few moments to repent and ask for forgiveness where it is needed, and then celebrate with God where you see growth and transformation.
5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s heart to extend brotherly and sisterly love.
How can I speak up, show up and affirm people of color in my life? in society? What action can I take tomorrow to nourish the longing for racial justice?
Are there things that need to be undone? Is there someone to whom I need to apologize? Is there someone to whom I need to reach out?
How can I be antiracist in my community of influence as well as help in the work of larger societal change? What ongoing values and actions will I apply towards living a life as an antiracist person?
Examen Written Collaboratively by Vernée Wilkinson and Ted Wueste
Note: I began working on this about two weeks ago with a friend who lives in Boston. This is an examen (prayer exercise) that is designed to do daily. When I asked Vernée about whether we should encourage it as a daily, weekly, or monthly exercise. She responded very quickly that people of color deal with the issues of racism on a daily basis. In solidarity, this is offered as a daily examen. And, if there is a desire to grow in this area, a daily rhythm makes sense spiritually as well. And, clearly, this is not an examen written for people of color but for white people. Thank you, Vernée for initiating this and inviting me to be a part of it. I am already seeing the Lord shift things in me as a result.
If you would like to download a PDF, click on the link below.
Loving God Slowly
Photo Credit: fatboyke (Luc)
Last week, I had the privilege of retreating with a group of leaders from our church. We went to a mountain cabin in the cool pines of Arizona where an afternoon rain caused the temperature to plummet into the 60s. Coming from the desert environs of Phoenix where the summer lows might drop into the high 80s, it was a welcomed change.
As refreshing as the temperatures were, even more refreshing was the time spent in quiet reflection and prayerful listening. During a time of group sharing on the last day of our retreat, one of the leaders made a statement that I am still pondering. He said “I am learning to love God slowly.”
“Love God slowly!” As I heard these words, I immediately sensed that He was on to something and the awkward phrasing caused me to stop and reflect on what was meant. English is my friend’s second language which likely contributed to the unique expression, but he was doing his best to put his experience of God into words.
Several things have occurred to me as I continue to ponder my friend’s words:
- Our command of a particular language can actually be a barrier to experiencing God. There is no way that words can contain God and certainly not our experience of Him. When we depend too heavily upon words to understand the gracious movements of God in our lives, we might just be limiting our understanding and simply settling for old categories or overly simplistic ideas that can no longer describe Him. There are times when we have an experience of love and/or awe and we say, “I don’t know how to put that into words.” Perhaps, there are times when we just need to sit with God and refrain from the attempt all together. Simply sitting in silence can be a reminder than God is bigger than our words and concepts and ideas. Interestingly, it was from a time of quiet, wordless reflection that my friend emerged with the phrase “love God slowly.”
- Then, of course, the very idea of “loving God slowly” is so profound. We can’t love fast. We just can’t. It’s not possible. Speed keeps love from being deep and thorough. Love lingers and savors and enjoys. So, loving God slowly means that we stop and give ample time to listen and notice what is really going on. How much do I miss because I am simply too busy and too hurried to perceive? As a teenager, college student, and young married adult, I moved so fast and missed much in my surroundings. Living in the Phoenix area, I missed that there are mountains all around. The Phoenix Mountains Preserve (right in the middle of the city) is the largest city park in the United States, but I missed its beauty and grandeur. My wife and I moved away for 15 years and upon moving back in my forties, I’ve found myself thinking on more than one occasion, “Were those mountains there when we lived here before?” It is possible for there to be profound, amazing, beautiful realities right before our eyes and not see them. It requires moving slowly. As I learn to love God slowly, it means that I can see and experience His profound presence in my life in deepening ways.
- There are certainly benefits to moving fast but do they outweigh the benefits of moving slowly? Teilhardde Chardin, the noted scientist and Jesuit mystic, said it well: “The physical structure of the universe is love.” If that is true, the going fast keeps me from love and therefore the very nature of the universe. God reveals Himself personally through the Holy Scriptures, through my intuition, and through His creation. I can miss all of this running too fast. The benefits of going fast are not only outweighed by loving slowly, they are obliterated.
- As I considered further the concept of slow love, a verse from 1 Corinthians 13 kept coming to mind: “love is patient.” Of course, patience is most frequently thought of as a response to a negative circumstance. The object of my love is irritating, so I need to be patient. But, could this also speak of a more positive application of love? Love, in its very nature, is slow which leads to waiting through a tough situation but also means that I wait for intimacy to develop. I wait and am slow because the deepest realities of love and life and God won’t just jump out at us. Love is patient also in a very positive sense. In the Song of Solomon, there is a refrain that is threaded through the love song: “do not awaken love until it pleases.” The idea is that we wait for love to develop. Intimacy doesn’t happen in an instance. It is a vast reservoir that must be accessed and explored over time.
- Finally, I thought about how often our concepts and experiences of God are frequently marked by platitudes and borrowed phrases. “God is good … all the time.” While certainly true, that phrase likely doesn’t come from a place of personal intimacy for many who utter it. Intimacy and depth of relationship produce nicknames and “pet phrases” that no one else knows. The words and concepts that emerge from intimacy are likely understood by no one else, or at the very least, they sound strange. I have nicknames and phrases for and with my wife that twenty-five years of marriage have produced. What seemingly awkward phrases do I share with God? What is His name for me? Revelation 2:17 indicates that God’s gives a new name (“a nickname”) that is only known by us as we walk faithfully (“slowly”?) with Him.
Ponder this idea of loving God slowly. What might that mean for you? How can you slowdown in order to walk in step with the very nature of the universe? Reflect upon one way you can love God slowly today.
Prayer: Father God, may I love you slowly. Give me the eyes to see you as I slow down and take notice of you … as I linger at your throne in prayer, not to gain anything but to enjoy what is already ours in relationship. You are so worthy of the best of my time. Thank you for loving me slowly and being patient with the process you’re continuing to graciously unfold in my life. Amen.
Resource: An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling
Go Ahead, Put God in a Box
Several months ago, in a deep conversation with friends over dinner, it was said that “you can’t put God in a box, but he will always come get in our boxes with us.” As I listened and reflected on what was being suggested, I began to make all kinds of connections with the nature of God and how He works in our lives. The statement not only rang true, but I sensed that it was also a really important idea.
It has been said, “You can’t put God in a box.” Of course! We can’t control God or determine how He is going to act. He will not be bound. At the same time, the reality is that our tendency is to do just that … to put God in a box of our own making. The walls of the box are made up of our limited understanding, our preconceived (often unaware to us) ideas, our expectations, and our misunderstandings. No matter how “mature” we believe we are or how schooled we are in theology, we will always have these tendencies. In one sense, we will always put God in a box.
And the beautiful reality is that God will always come and be with us in our boxes. To pretend that we could ever not have a box is a function of pride rather than reality. The only hope we have for the walls of our boxes to come down is experiencing the presence of God right where we are … in the middle of the messiness of expectations and preconceived ideas and limited understandings.
We often come to the erroneous conclusion that until we have the right and correct beliefs about God, we are unable to interact with Him. The reality is God relentlessly pursues us. He is always the initiator and we are the responders in the relationship. He comes to us! God can never be defined or contained by our limited, incomplete thoughts and yet, He will come to us in our lack of knowledge.
We can also think that we have to have our “act together” to be able to interact with God. Margaret Silf, in her Inner Compass, shares:
“God comes to us not where we should have been if we had made all the right choices in life; not where we could have been if we had taken every opportunity that God has offered us; not where we wish we were if we didn’t have to be in the place where we find ourselves; not where we think we are because our minds are out of sync with our hearts; not where other people think we are or think we ought to be when they are attending to their own agendas. God meets us where we really are.”
If we understood everything about God, it quite possible that it would shock us and terrify us and cause us to run for the hills. His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we were to see Him, we would die from being exposed to the depths of His holiness (Exodus 33:20). So, he shows up like a Trojan horse. We think we’re relating to Him on one level but He comes disguised. It’s the disguise we make for Him and He comes to slowly remove the disguise. He doesn’t come this way to deceive us but because He wants to be with us, even if we misunderstand Him for long periods of time. He comes and gently creates the tension required for our growth in knowing and relating to Him.
In Mark 10:35-45, we observe an amazing example of this kind of relating. Two of Jesus’ disciples come to Him with expectations and are shockingly honest about it. They say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” That’s quite a statement but certainly reflective of what is often going on in our hearts. At face value, it’s a prideful request, assuming that the God of the universe will do their will, their bidding. What does Jesus do? He meets them in that place as He responds with “What do you want me to do for you?” He is meeting them in their box. I can imagine that the disciples were thinking, “Yes! Here we go … all of our desires are going to come true!” However, Jesus turns their request upside down by asking them to think deeper about what they were asking. He doesn’t refuse to interact with them or ignore them but meets them in their box and begins to dismantle their preconceived ideas.
He initiates and comes to us even when we think we’re in charge and calling the shots. It’s deeply humbling to think about the humility of God to condescend toward us. When you see it and appreciate the depths of His love, it can lead us into a new way of relating … a way that can progressively knock down our walls and usher us into deeper and deeper intimacy with God.
So, why does He do this? Why doesn’t He wait for us and demand that we have things figured out before He comes to us? Quite simply, He is more concerned about being with us than being right. He desires to know us and love us in the particulars of our lives. He would rather us have something of Him than nothing of Him. And, He longs for more. That’s why He will come and patiently work in our lives. We are in our boxes and God meets us there. He expands the walls or even knocks them down as we experience God on His terms. It’s important to realize that He doesn’t come with expectations and demands, but with desire. When we begin to meet Him at this place, we see that our deepest desire is to do life with Him as well.
So, how do we respond? It begins with acknowledging that we have that tendency to put God in a box, and it moves forward in the following ways:
- Engaging a posture of humility.
If God meets us where we are, then ask the question: “where am I?” Acknowledge that your perspective is limited and that much of life is mystery. Part of putting God in a box is arrogantly thinking that we know and the naïve, yet common, desire to control. We frequently think that if we “know,” we can control. Consider: what am I trying to control? What are things that I want to believe I know but don’t or can’t? Notice places where you feel anxious or angry or tense. And then, “humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7) Anthony deMello suggests:
“The fact is that you are surrounded by God and yet you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about Him. The final barrier to the vision of God is our God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. That’s what the Gospels were saying – that religious people ‘knew,’ so they got rid of Jesus. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable.”
- Enacting the practice of letting go of expectations and preconceived ideas.
Here, we ask the question: “What are the expectations I have that I need to release?” Let me suggest three potential areas. First, we frequently come to God with a consumer mentality. We have a need and God can/should/will meet that need. We get trained to believe that every need should be fulfilled, yet Jesus says “blessed are the poor” (Matthew 5:3). It is our need that awakens us to true desire. When we can sit quietly and let go of “need,” we are in a place to relate to God as our King not simply as a genie who grants wishes. Second, we often come to God with an individualistic mentality. We define and look at life as though we are the center of universe. We can’t seem to help ourselves because it is so ingrained. Yet, we are encouraged over and over again to see “neighbor” as a fundamental part of our identity (“love your neighbor as yourself,” Matt 22). Ask God for His perspective of your neighbor so that you can let go of yours. Third, we come to God with a materialistic mindset. The material things of this world end up defining us and giving us a sense of meaning although we are encouraged that “life is more that food, and the body more than clothing” (Matt 6:25). A way that we can enact the practice of letting go is to sit with God in the nakedness of silence. Sit silently with God for 15-20 minutes (or more) and let go of each thought that enters your mind. Surrender each desire or compulsion to His care. It’s hard to do (at first) but it can become a way of life with God. The walls of our boxes are most often built by our own thoughts and preconceived ideas.
- Enlivening your passion to do life with Him.
Finally, we think through: “who am I, at my core? Why am I alive?” He meets us with desire, a desire to know us and be with us and do life with us. The root underneath every command of Scripture is this desire of His. And, every desire of our hearts is, at its depths, this very same desire: to do life with Him. Remind yourself daily, perhaps moment by moment, that this is who you truly are. You are a longing for God.
Finally, be patient. As A.W. Tozer reminds us: “God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which he must work. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.” With that quietness of spirit, move toward humility, letting go, and just being with Him. As we are with Him in the mystery of His glory and grace, the walls of our boxes fall down and God becomes much bigger and more glorious than we could ever imagine.
Please Don’t Numb Your Pain!
We all experience pain in this life. No one emerges unscathed. We might wish and hope and pray not to experience pain, loss, and suffering, but this is our common lot. Also, common to humanity is the temptation to numb our pain.
Numbing our pain can come in a variety of ways, but it seems to be the normal way of “dealing” in our modern world. We numb with constant busyness. We numb with accumulating and consuming more and more. We numb with relationships and sexuality. We numb with substances. Anything that might seem to “take the pain away” is fair game. Perhaps, the most popular form of numbing is denial or ignoring pain. This might occur by itself or in conjunction with other numbing “strategies.”
Numbing our pain might sound like a great option, a preferable option. However, it comes with significant risk. First and foremost, we can’t shut down just a part of our heart. When we numb the pain, we also numb our ability to feel other things like joy and peace and delight. Second, Larry Crabb, in his book Shattered Dreams, suggests:
“People who learn to deaden their pain never discover their desire for God in all its fullness. They rather live for relief and become addicts to whatever provides it. Think with me about how this works. Inconsolable pain, the kind that drives away every vestige of happiness and renders us incapable of fully enjoying any pleasure, can be handled only by discovering a capacity for a different kind of joy. That is the function of pain, to carry us into the inner recesses of our being that wants God. We need to let soul-pain do its work by experiencing it fully.”
In addition, when we are numb, we can end up engaging in behaviors that are risky and/or sinful because we just want to feel alive. We want to feel something.
So, how do we “deal” with pain without going to numbing strategies? To put it simply, we have to be able to appreciate the importance of grieving and sadness as a normal, needed part of life. The problem is that we often believe that sadness and grief are realities to be avoided at all costs.
Henri Nouwen shares:
“Typically we see such hardship as an obstacle to what we think we should be – healthy, good-looking, free of discomfort. We consider suffering as annoying at best, meaningless at worst. We strive to get rid of our pains in whatever way we can. A part of us prefers the illusion that our losses are not real, that they come only as temporary interruptions. We thereby expend much energy in denial. ‘They should not prevent us from holding on to the real thing,’ we say to ourselves.”
Nouwen hints at something which is at the core of the problem: “what we should be.” When we hold expectations for how life should be, we will always run into disappointment and perhaps even shame. Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with us. If we are grieving and/or sad, we may indeed come to believe that there is something inherently wrong with us.
Brene Brown makes just this point as she suggests that “we’ve lost our capacity to hold pain and discomfort” in our culture. She goes on to say: “There are two affects or emotions that people fear the most. Its shame and grief.” And, it would seem that these two compound one another.
The great reality is that the pathway to pure joy is through the darkness of pain and loss. Because of the deep mystery and complexity of life, we never know exactly why some things happen but we can know that God uses pain to draw us closer to Himself. If we let Him, He can take our pain and redeem it and reshape it. Larry Crabb comments: “Our generation has lost the concept of finding joy in unfulfilled desire. We no longer know what it means to hope. We want what we want now.” The very concept of unfulfilled desired may be anathema in our culture, but it is a wonderful teacher. Half a century ago, C. S. Lewis wrote: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
The redemption and transformation of pain that comes when we know how to grieve can be summed up in the word “joy.” Joy is the deep sense that God is present and involved in our lives. When we numb ourselves to pain, we can lose that sense that God is present in our lives. In some ways, this might sound counter-intuitive. However, as we learn to grieve, we are thrust into a world that is larger than self. We learn to let go of our own perspectives and preferences. We learn to hope in God. We learn to be present for others in their pain and loss.
So, how do we stay with pain and engage in grieving in a way that we are not separating ourselves from what God might be doing? How do we learn to experience sadness in a way that is healthy and helpful to ourselves and others? Let me suggest four things:
- Refuse to “numb out.”
Notice the temptation in yourself. What are the strategies you employ when experiencing pain or loss? Spend a few minutes in introspective prayer. (Psalm 139:23-24)
- Rest in God’s presence.
We might want God to say, “I’ll take away all your pain.” But, He says, “I’ll be with you. I’ll sit with you in it.” We might want a magic bulletin for our pain, but there are no magic bullets. There is Presence. There is a God who says, “I’m am WITH you.” Make yourself aware and attentive to God’s presence. Where is God when you are suffering? He is with you. Make the recognition of His presence your focus. (Hebrews 13:5b)
- Realize you are on a journey.
In Psalm 30:5, we are told that “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” There is hope in the midst of all our pain. We frequently hold our pain like we hold a snapshot, focusing on the seemingly static, unmoving nature of things. Rather, hold your pain by seeing it as a part of movie. Transformation happens when we sit with the pain in hope.
- Relate to others who will sit with you in it.
Frequently, we isolate during pain. Perhaps, it is shame that motivates us. Perhaps, the unwitting comments of others that hurt more than help (e.g., “get over it” or “be brave” or “toughen up”). Surround yourself with trusted friends who are more interested in listening than fixing and/or giving advice.
Be assured: our pain will either be transformed or transmitted. Choosing to grieve and feel sadness can lead to transformation while ignoring our pain and numbing it will invariably lead to transmitting it to others. Henri Nouwen counsels:
“The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. Words such as vulnerability, letting go, surrendering, crying, mourning, and grief are not to be found in the devil’s dictionary. Someone once said to me, ‘Never show you weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.’ This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that society has defined for us.”