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Contentment and joy are rooted in love. When we receive and experience God’s love in the Spirit, joy is part of the package. The fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5 lists nine aspects of the fruit. Rather than describing nine separate pieces of fruit, they are referred to as a singular unit. Love could be described as the overarching description with all the other aspects being specific descriptions of the experience of love. Joy comes immediately after love on the list.
The love of God for His people is clear in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Each book was written by Moses who led the people out of slavery in Egypt. The intention of what was recorded in these books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was to explain how God had made a covenant with the people that He was faithfully keeping. In Genesis 12 and 15, the covenant is described as an unconditional promise. God would be faithful no matter what. Even as the people of Israel failed to live up to their identity as the beloved of God, God made a way for them. While pain and difficult consequences resulted from not trusting Him, He never turned His back. Over and over again, God pursued His people. He was present. He listened to their cries for help. He led them through the wilderness. While many have questioned the presence of the love of God in the Old Testament, His love is overwhelmingly present. Consider these words from Deuteronomy 7 that explain God’s faithfulness to His promise:
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations. (vs. 6-9)
As we have explored previously, the steadfast love of God is the Hebrew word hesed which speaks of His loyal, faithful, pursuing love. He chooses us to be His beloved, His treasure. The reference in verse 9 to “a thousand generations” invokes a phrase from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (vs. 4-6)
While our unfaithfulness may create consequences that last for a few generations, His love extends to a thousand generations. A powerful statement is being made about God’s love … it is more powerful and longer lasting than our lack of faith and trust. God’s hesed beckons us back to Himself over and over again. A significant loss of joy occurs when we dwell upon and even define ourselves by our sin and/or lack of trust. In His love, God leads us to remember that we are His people … this is our identity. We can wallow in the discontentment of our sins and failures, or we can listen to God’s voice which calls us His own … His treasure. His love and His loyalty to us is more significant than we can imagine. His love leads us into joy. No matter where we find ourselves, His love is present and preeminent. Contentment unfolds before our eyes.
Part of what we begin to notice in the desert is that as we return to God’s love as our reference point, we notice God changing and shaping our heart. We notice a freedom and detachment from the conditions of the desert. This is God’s work and His initiative that shapes us as we seek to be present to His love.
The great English mystic of the early 20th century, Evelyn Underhill, observed: “God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.” Receiving God’s love means being able to say: I love my life. There is deep joy and contentment in that. Notice: we are not saying that we love the circumstances around us or what we have and don’t have or what we do and don’t do. We can say that we love “life” because life is not defined by all these external realities but by the love and presence of God. In this space, we are accessing deep joy. We might even be surprised by joy.
When seriously ill and living in a time of pandemic (bubonic plague) and war (100 Years War), Julian of Norwich (14th century) experienced a vision of God in which she heard Him say, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The war started before she was born and ended after she died. The plague affected her village in England three different times. She was transformed by the love of God and experienced deep joy as Christ became her life as evidenced in the statement that “love is our Lord’s meaning.”
“The contemplative vision keeps before us the truth that the deepest longings of our heart were placed there by a loving God, to find their fulfillment only in relationship with God.” Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE
Questions for reflection: are you tempted to define life by the circumstances of life and your interaction with them? How might you grow in being able to say: “I love my life”?
Prayer: Lord, I can see the ways I often define my life by my failures, and yet I desire deeply to grow further into seeing life through my identity as Your beloved. I thank You for the ways that Your surprise me by joy. Amen.
What we behold shapes us. Our ultimate transformation will occur as “we see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2) and this gives us a window into how transformation and shaping happen in the present as well. This concept is found through the canon of Scripture. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22) Proverbs 4 connects the heart with what with view: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life … let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” (v. 23, 25) And, David, in Psalm 101 wrote: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.” And, finally, we are reminded that “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 3:16)
What we behold and put before our eyes is not a minor issue in the Scriptures. It is deeply significant. If we gaze upon things other than God, we will be shaped by the culture around us, others, or even the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves. The wilderness can devastate us if we do not know how to take it all in. Of course, the answer is not to deny or ignore or escape but look at things through a different lens. If we behold without the lens of God’s presence, we begin to look like the desert – dry, desperate, and desolate. As we behold God and view all through the reality of who He is, we begin to see God and see how He is at work in all things. This is certainly easier said than done, and we are challenged to be intentional so that this does not stay in the realm of words and ideas.
Let’s examine two practical ways we can develop and deepen our “beholding.” First, as the people of Israel were travelling in the wilderness, God instructed them to make specific, physical reminders of His presence and commandments for them. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is being addressed. When there are not specific physical reminders, we can find ourselves gazing upon almost anything without any reference to God’s presence with us. Specifically, we find this encouragement in Numbers 15:37-41:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”
In addition, Deuteronomy 6 lists several encouragements to bring the commandment to love God with all your heart into every day, physical realities. God encouraged them to wear the commands and even post them on the gates to their home. He urged them to talk about the command to love when they sit down, lie down, rise up, and walk. The idea is to integrate the reality of who He is into actual, physical rhythms of our lives. What might that look like for you? Pray and ask God. Perhaps, you already have some physical reminders integrated into your life. Are they still helping you? Do you need a refresh? Finally, God says “you shall teach them to your children.” A relational component to our beholding is so important. Are there ways that you are sharing and connecting with others about your life with God … His presence with you and love for you?
Frank Laubach, in the early 20th century, asked this question in Letters by a Modern Mystic: “Can I bring the Lord back into my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind? I choose to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.” The challenge to have reminders and structures addresses a part of what this question is asking.
The second way we develop and deepen our “beholding” is through a contemplative seeing. This is not a physical kind of seeing per se, but a beholding in our spirit. As we develop a contemplative vision of God in our lives, it colors everything we see and behold. Then, our joy is protected as our temptation to move into discontentment wanes. We see this beautifully illustrated in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (vs. 1-2)
Notice the clear desert imagery in these verses: thirst, faintness, barrenness, and weariness. The response? Beholding God. Psalm 27 uses similar imagery: gazing upon the beauty of the Lord and meditating in His temple. (v. 4) This is a call to contemplative prayer. In The Cloud of Unknowing, we read: “Contemplation will change your heart. It will make you so kind and dynamic in loving that when you stop doing it and mingle with the world again, you’ll discover that you love your slanderer as much as your friend.”
The Cloud of Unknowing goes further in describing contemplative prayer: “Unclothe your awareness of analytical thoughts. Keep it empty. Don’t cogitate on yourself or on others whom you know. Let them go… You no longer need to feed your mind by meditating on who you are and who God is. Grace will help you focus on holding yourself steady in the deep center of your soul, where you’ll offer God the simple fact of your existence. Your spiritual affection will be filled to overflowing with love and virtue in God, who grounds you in integrity.”
Questions for reflection: review the two ways that beholding can take hold in our lives. How is the Lord inviting you to behold? What might this look like in your life? Are there things you behold that you might eliminate from your life?
Prayer: Lord, I acknowledge the weariness and desolation of the desert. By Your mercy and grace, may this not lead into discontentment as I look at You, beholding Your power and glory. Amen.
Experiencing contentment and joy in the wilderness may seem to be a bit unrealistic. Is it really possible to say hallelujah in the desert? At the close of the 40 years of wandering, God graciously anticipated this possible response in His words to Israel in the days leading up to their entry into the land of promise.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
The commandment is referred to in the previous verse? Obey the voice of the Lord, keep his commandments, and turn to the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul. Certainly, this also refers to the commandment in chapter six to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might” which is the overarching command of all the Scriptures. In addition, this describes all that we have been exploring in the previous weeks. In these verses, God is saying “you’ve got this. It’s not unrealistic. I’ve been shaping you to live with me in the fullness of joy.” We have a tendency to think that the promised life is far away and somewhere else – not within our grasp. However, the text goes on to say: it is not in heaven or on the other side of the ocean. When we are not present to God right where we are, we may think that the sand is better on the other side of the sea. We may think the grass is greener. All that we need to experience and enjoy life with God is present now. Jesus said something similar in Luke 17:20–21:
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
In Christ, not only is the rule and reign of God not a far-off reality, but a power and dynamic of life at work in us now. In Colossians 3:3-4, we read: “You died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. Whenever Christ, your life, should become manifest, then you also will become manifested with him in glory.” Let these words sink in for a moment. We are hidden in Christ. A life of joy and contentment is not simply a theoretical possibility but something that is already in our possession. We experience it as we release discontentment.
The repentance process occurs as we reflect, release and remember. As you have been reflecting these last few days, how are you seeing discontentment surface in your life? Do you believe you don’t have what you need? Are you tired? Are you overly busy? Are there significant stressors present? Is comparison to others a temptation?
In Hebrews 12:1-2, we are encouraged to lay some things aside in order to stay on the path that is before us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The ultimate expression of wilderness is certainly the cross. Jesus endured the cross. He remained faithful in the midst of questions (can this cup pass from me?), stress (sweating drops of blood), abandonment (His disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray), and pain (the mockery, the beatings, the cross itself). He endured or was faithful to stay on the path because of “the joy that was before him.” This is an example for us because it demonstrates that the reality of joy is something that can undergird us as we seek to release. We release in order to fully experience the joy and it is joy that leads us to release. We release both weights and sin. Weights are burdens, things that encumber our journey. Put simply, sin is independence. As I think, speak, and act autonomously, it is sin. The call to lay it aside is a prompting toward dependence, a humble trusting of God.
What are the weights that are holding you down? What are those things that are leading toward discontentment? When discontent in the desert, the temptation is to take things into our own hands … to act autonomously. Where are you most tempted to autonomy? Pausing here … what do you notice? What is the Lord bringing to your awareness?
What are you being led to release? What sin will you confess? Releasing and confession lead to joy. Psalm 51:12 describes the process: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Psalm 25:10: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” Again, today we come to hallelujah. There is a lightness and a freedom on the journey as we release all but Christ. In joy, we can proclaim that we have Christ, and He is our life. The encouragement in Deuteronomy 30 closes with:
“Choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land.” (vs. 19-20)
Question for reflection: what does “choosing life” look like for you as you consider the movement from discontentment to joy?
Prayer: Lord, in the midst of so many things that could lead to discontentment, I choose You. You are my life. You are my hope. You are my joy. In each element of the wilderness, may I connect with you and abide with you in the midst of it – not denying or ignoring anything – but choosing You as the lens through which I look. Hallelujah. Amen.
In our season of distress, questions can be our downfall, but they can also be what leads us to a joyful acceptance of all that is happening in our lives. With the people of Israel, a recurring question came from their hearts as they experienced the dismantling of the wilderness: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
When things are not going the way we’d prefer or expect, “where is God?” is the question we can find coming from our lips. It can be an accusatory query: “God, You are clearly not involved or You obviously don’t care if You would allow things like this to occur.” These kinds of questions also can come from those around us as well. We find this pattern throughout the Psalms and especially in Psalm 42:
“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (vs. 3)
As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (vs. 10)
Connecting our difficulties to the absence of God can become an automatic response because of the way we may have been formed to think about God and the way that other people talk about Him. The assumption is that God is not involved. Or perhaps even worse, we assume that God has withdrawn from us or is punishing us. It can be subtle or it can be quite direct, but the result is the same: we lose any sense of joy because we are believing and trusting in things that are not accurate. Further, the question can devolve into asking: what did I do wrong that I am being treated like this? Or, what do I have to do to get God back on my “good side?”
“Where is God?” is a great question when it is asked with the assumption that God is involved and we desire to discern His presence. Joy in the difficult season of wilderness is discovered as we view things through the lens of His presence in our lives.
Writer Paula D’Arcy stated it beautifully: “God comes to us disguised as our life.” We don’t “find” God in spite of our circumstances or on the “other side” of our circumstances, but in the midst of where we are. When we look at life through the lens of good things/bad things or through the eyes of others, God becomes hidden in plain sight and joy seems illusive.
What we may have missed or never been taught is that God will graciously and reliably walk us through a process of dismantling and deconstruction at some point in our journey of faith. This deconstruction often hits us in areas that we were sure we had figured out, and without the discernment that God deconstructs so He can reconstruct, we may come to the conclusion that God has abandoned us, that it is just not worth it, or that none of this “God stuff” really works. Or, we may be tempted to think that living a trusting, surrendered life is for other people but not us.
A curious, hard to understand verse in the letter to the Philippians helps tremendously as we consider the possibility of joy and its juxtaposition with suffering. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ … and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (1:27–29) The wording is a bit awkward in its English translation, but the wording in Greek is “This is a clear sign to them of destruction, but to you of salvation.” For many people, our suffering looks like destruction or obliteration, but for a follower of Jesus we can see it as our salvation. Paul is referring to a broader definition of salvation than being saved from hell. The salvation described is being saved from all the things we’ve been exploring in these weeks of Lent … being saved or delivered from expectations, independence, striving, isolation, certainty, idolatry, and the false self.
As we trust that God does these kinds of things in the wilderness, we can smile. We rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3) and count it joy when we encounter trials (James 1:2). We might even say “of course, I’m in a wilderness because God loves me that much!” Indeed, hallelujah is the song of the desert. We take on a perspective that says “I’m in for whatever it takes to experience the deliverance of God.” (note: hallelujah means praise (halle) to (lu) Yahweh (yah))
So, the question “where is God?” is transformed into “where is God in this?” As we move out of discontentment to joy, we expectantly look for the ways that God is with us and how He is at work in us, and as the wilderness does it’s work, we may find ourselves saying, “is there anything more joyful than knowing God is at work in your life?”
“By virtue of Creation, and still more the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Question for reflection: where is God in this? Sit with that question. Listen for the Spirit’s answer.
Prayer: Lord, hallelujah. I rejoice in the wilderness because I know You are at work and You are good. Amen.
A common experience in the wilderness is discontentment. We feel discouraged, downcast, ready to throw in the towel, or even some level of depression. 1 Corinthians 10:10 encourages us “we must not grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the destroyer.” This is an intense admonition to not let our discouragement move into discontentment. Why? What’s the problem with a little grumbling and complaining?
First, Paul cited the example of the Israelites when some of them were destroyed. The reference to a “destroyer” is not completely clear but is most likely a reference to angels who kept that generation from entering the land of promise. The words “destroyed” and “destroyer” demonstrate the seriousness of discontent. The numerous times the people grumbled and complained throughout their wilderness journey makes it clear that this was a consequence after a pattern had been established. God will not force us into the transformation the wilderness can provide, and neither will He magically transform our hearts without our participation and a process.
The challenge is we often desire the magic. We want a formula. We desire to know exactly how the process works so that we can manage it and master it. God, in His gracious fathering love, desires more for us than that. He desires that we learn to be dependent and trusting.
Second, discontentment fosters a way of being in which we are not able to see or receive how God is loving us and leading us. Discontentment also steals our ability to experience joy. Quite simply, it is a miserable state. We lose out on being able to see God’s love and presence because we are looking in the wrong place. A discontented heart has come to believe that happiness and joy is found in acquiring satisfaction rather than experiencing a satisfaction that is already ours in Christ.
The idea that we can acquire satisfaction is at the heart of a culture of discontent that has come to define most of western society. However, as we see in the people of Israel, discontent is not a modern phenomenon but there is an intensity and pervasiveness that has become the water in which we swim. Nothing is ever enough. Suffering is not supposed to happen. Undoubtedly, there is plenty in our world and in each of our lives that can lead toward discontentment. The challenge is that if we have the perspective that adding something or subtracting something from our lives will finally make us happy, we are missing the point. If we are always waiting for that next thing, saying “when I have this or that, then I’ll finally be content,” we will never arrive at that destination. The reality is that if you can’t be happy where you are, you will not be happy anywhere.
Psalm 16:11 provides an emphatic reorientation: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Being present to God … this is where we find joy. With Him is satisfaction and pleasure. The psalmist describes this as the path of life … it is the way. There are times when the path of life runs right through the wilderness, but it can still be a place of joy. This is true, not because we become okay with pain in and of itself or because we deny the pain and trials, but in spite them. Wilderness can become a place of joy because it is no longer the vicissitudes of life that function as our reference point. Now, it is the presence of God and abiding in Him that becomes the lens through which we look at life. This was particularly true for the Apostle Paul as he shared in Philippians 4:11-13 that he had learned the secret to being content: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Again, it was not that he now had superhuman strength to endure all the tough things of life, but the joy of the Lord was strengthening him. Life in God’s presence had become the reference point. That was the secret. This is the path of life.
As we focus this week on the movement from discontentment to joy, we’ll see that joy is not something to gain or acquire but something that we begin to notice and therefore experience in God’s presence. God’s heart for us to depend upon Him and to trust Him is because everything for which we long is a fruit of trust and dependence. Joy is part of the fruit of entrusting ourselves to the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:25 makes clear “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” We “keep in step” as we step by step, or moment by moment, live in an awareness of and attentiveness to His presence. Earlier in this portion of Scripture, we read: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (v. 16) The implication is astounding: joyful people do not sin. When we experience joy in God’s presence, we are seeing Him as we depend upon Him. If we wallow in discontent, we are not seeing Him and we open ourselves to defining life on our own terms and creating our own path.
Questions for reflection: do you believe that joy can be found in the presence of God? Don’t rush too quickly past this question. Consider a specific circumstance in your life: what would it look like to see it through the lens of God’s presence?
Prayer: Lord, I acknowledge that discontentment and grumbling is sometimes where I settle in the midst of difficult things. I desire to live in Your joy and be at rest. Give me eyes to look at life through the lens of Your presence. Amen.
On Sundays, we are invited to pause in order to remember God’s goodness and His work in us on the journey thus far. Take a few moments and reflect on the verse at the end of yesterday’s reading (Isaiah 43:19). The Lord is creating a path and providing water for you in the wilderness. How have you seen this in the last week?
Use the following to engage in a time of examen prayer:
- Begin by quieting your heart before God and simply taking a few deep, slow breaths as you remember that you are in God’s presence.
- Review the week with gratitude. What is the Spirit bringing to your awareness?
- Notice the ways that God has been present to you in the previous week.
- What are you thankful for? What might God want you to see that you didn’t previously notice? Perhaps a place to repent?
- Select a part of your reflection from the week to pray over.
- Pray for the coming week.
Write out a prayer of thanksgiving and celebration as you look back and look forward.
Earlier in the week, we touched on the element of surrender in the movement from certainty to humility. We surrender to love. We surrender to relationship with God. We surrender to being led by the One we call Lord. Certainty and knowing is about holding everything together for ourselves. It is about protecting oneself from vulnerability and not being in control. Humility opens us to a life of listening and being led by our Lord.
Eugene Peterson said it so well: “The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory. Post-Eden Adam and Eves are willing to pay their respects to God, but they don’t want him invading their turf. Most sin, far from being a mere lapse of morals of a weak will, is an energetically and expensively erected defense against God.”
As we explore this invitation to surrender today, let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge that while we may readily give lip service to the idea of surrender, actually living as a surrendered person is another thing. In his classic song Hold Me Jesus, Rich Mullins sang: “Surrender don’t come natural to me. I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than to take what you give that I need. And I beat my head against so many walls and now I’m falling down … falling on my knees.”
As the people of Israel were in the process of entering into the wilderness, God said to them: “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.” (Exodus 15:26) Notice the specific relational language in what God said: diligently listen and give ear. We often separate out obedience as being duty and put it in the context of good morality. God never does that. He invites us to relationship and then further invites us to listen to Him. From there, obedience is a relational response to God. Jacques Ellul made the observation that “Christianity is not moral, it is spiritual.”
Humility is necessary in embracing a listening stance. Humility is acknowledging the reality that no matter how much I “know,” I am still living in a cloud of unknowing. We feel things, perceive things, and have been shaped by things that we may trust, but the invitation of surrender is to humbly listen to the voice of God.
We see the struggle of surrender and bringing obedient response to a relational context in Jesus. As Jesus was facing the cross, He experienced the tension and struggle. “Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) In the previous verses, we hear the specifics of Jesus’ prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (vs. 42)
The way God the Son lived in human flesh is incredibly instructive when it comes to understanding surrender. Philippians 2:5-9 is a primer of sorts as we are invited to “have the mind of Christ” which is described as something already in our possession. His mind or approach to life is something that is ours in Christ. The idea of being a new creation (cf., 2 Corinthians 5:17) describes this well, but just as we may be given a new set of clothes to wear, we also have to make the decision to wear them. Notice in these verses how Jesus wore humility and responsiveness to God the Father:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”
The pattern described is quite compelling. First, Jesus did not consider His life (i.e., being God) as something to utilize to protect Himself. The word “grasped” is a word which means used to one’s advantage. Instead, He emptied Himself. He released His own will, His own perspectives, and decided to be a servant. Remember that even though He is God, He took on human form with all of its vulnerabilities. He could have used His strength, power, and authority to defend and protect but instead He humbled Himself. He took on the approach of listening to and responding to God the Father.
It is easy to go back to what we know rather than wear the new garments of humility we have been given in Christ. Like Peter went back to fishing after the death of Christ (cf. John 21:1-14), we may go back to old patterns, habits, and ways of thinking. Jesus will meet us there just as He met Peter and invited him to remember. Are there ways you are tempted to retreat to what you know? As you do, reflect on what is happening, release, and remember that the Lord is with you, leading you, inviting you to surrender once again. The undoing and unravelling of moving from certainty to humility is a process, and when we notice the unravelling once again, we can smile because we are seeing with increasing clarity the ways of God in the wilderness.
“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.” Isaiah 43:19
Questions for reflection: what does surrender look like for you? How is the Lord shaping your understanding of surrender and inviting you to humbly surrender?
Prayer: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will … all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me. Amen.” Ignatius of Loyola, The Suscipe
To put it simply, releasing is not easy. As move away from the certainty that we have things figured out (even our own lives), humble trust and dependence may feel like it doesn’t quite fit. What has worked and “fit” for so long are our attachments to strategies, things, personas, and even other people that we are now being invited to release. These attachments have seemed to protect us and give us certainty or control. However, in the wilderness, the illusions are now gone, and we begin to see that our attachments have really just protected us from love and deepening trust. Most often, those things to which we’ve been attached are not evil in and of themselves but when we rely upon them to provide in ways that only God can, we begin to see the problem. We may begin to notice the presence of disordered attachments, or disordered loves.
As we enter into releasing, we may begin to notice that what we believed we controlled is actually controlling us. The stripping down and loss is painful, and yet can function in a way that allows us to “detox.” As we encounter strong negative reactions, we are engaging in the work of confronting those disordered attachments and it may like we’re falling apart. In his book Fire Within, Thomas Dubay observed that much spiritual growth is initially discerned as backsliding. We have to be unmade and dismantled. So, in one sense, we are falling apart. This can be both confusing and painful, but the grace in experiencing those afflictive emotions is that they help us understand what needs to be released.
As the people of Israel journeyed through the wilderness, they dealt with all kinds of strong, afflictive emotional responses. To move from what was “certain” each day back in Egypt (as undesirable as living in bondage was) into this life of depending upon God to lead them was stressful. We must be careful not to downplay the difficulty of transformation … of moving from slave to free. They grumbled, they were afraid, they wept, and they were desperate. (Exodus 17, Numbers 11, 13, 14) In Numbers 14:22, God declared: “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice.”
Thomas Keating, in Invitation to Love, wrote: “As we begin the difficult work of confronting our own unconscious motivations, our emotions can be our best allies. The emotions faithfully respond to what our value system is – not what we would like for it to be, or what we think it is. Our emotions are perfect recorders of what is happening inside; hence they are the key to finding out what our emotional programs for happiness really are.”
The phrase “emotional programs for happiness” is a helpful way to understand how our attachments can be disordered. These are things we’ve always believed will make us happy. So, rather than trying to get rid of troubling emotional responses and reactions, we learn to pay attention to them. In prayer, we ask God to give us discernment. Like lights on the dashboard of a car, emotions provide an indication that we need to check under the hood. Very simply, if we find ourselves angry, we can ask in prayer: what is this about? What is this telling me? In Psalm 139, we are encouraged to ask God to search our hearts. In Jeremiah 17, we see that the heart is deep and mysterious and only the Lord can truly discern.
A helpful way to think about emotions is that they were designed to proclaim what we value and protect us from what threatens what we value. Our emotions both speak to us and others. Whatever emotions are being expressed and experienced, discernment is needed to understand what is being valued. If it is joy, what am I valuing? What is my joy saying about what is important? If it is anger, am I angry over things that one should be angry about or things that are about me and getting my own way? What am I trying to protect? Am I seeking to protect good, holy things? Or is my anger protecting my emotional programs for happiness? Indeed, our emotions give us insight into the disordered attachments we need to release.
As we release what needs releasing, we are able to say with the psalmist: “Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.” (Psalm 116:7) Notice that the foundation of returning and rest is God dealing bountifully with us. It is His grace, His love … His attaching to us … which invites our own releasing and attaching more fully to Him. Ignatius of Loyola brilliantly commented: “Detachment comes only if we have a stronger attachment; therefore, our one dominating desire and fundamental choice must be to live in the loving presence and wisdom of Christ, our Savior.”
In the prayer of Psalm 16, we observe this dynamic of releasing attachments and attaching to God. “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’” (vs. 1-2) As we pray “preserve me,” we are asking God to protect us rather than engaging in self-protection. As we pray “I have no good apart from you,” we are proclaiming that He is the one to whom we are attaching ourselves before and above all other things. To pray “you are my Lord” is the deeply humble stance of proclaiming the God is the one we rely upon to lead our hearts. Then, our loves … our attachments … become ordered.
Stop for a moment and notice what is going on in your heart. What will it mean for God to be your Lord? Can you trust Him to lead your heart?
“When humility delivers us from attachment to our own works and our own reputation, we discover that perfect joy is possible only when we have completely forgotten ourselves. And it is only when we pay no more attention to our own deeds and our own reputation and our own excellence that we are at last completely free to serve God in perfection for God’s own sake alone.” Thomas Merton
Questions for reflection: how are you noticing being unmade or dismantled? What are your emotions telling you about what needs to be released?
Prayer: Lord, protect me. I take refuge in you. You are my Lord; I have no good apart from You. Amen.
A subtle occurrence in our journey through life, and certainly in a wilderness season, is attributing all that is wrong or challenging or painful to external circumstances. On the other side of that coin is never acknowledging the hard things of life. These responses to life seek to short-circuit or bypass the deep soul work of the desert. Another example of trying to bypass the wilderness is using Scripture or even prayer to “spiritualize” what is going on and not interact with life as it is. We observe this in statements about God doing miracles. Of course, God can do miracles but perhaps the “miracle” is the medical treatment right in front of us.
This bypassing or short-circuiting can occur in different ways, usually in ways that escape our notice. The invitation is to be open to listen and notice with God … to not bypass the place where we are. This is why spiritual practices like silence and solitude are so important. As we release our patterned responses and simply listen, we open ourselves to God in ways not polluted by bypasses. This is not easy work, and it is why Dallas Willard said, “solitude and silence are the most radical of the spiritual disciplines because they most directly attack the sources of human misery and wrongdoing …until we enter into quietness the world still lays hold of us.” The sources of human misery and wrongdoing? The sources are generally tied up in patterned ways of bypassing reality … whether it is grasping for certainty or not trusting the presence of God. The propensity to either positively spin difficult truth or wallow in difficult truth, rather than be with God in it, hurts us and others again and again.
For the people of Israel, we find a fascinating phrase that God uses with them multiple times in the book of Deuteronomy: “you say in your heart.” (7:17; 8:17; 9:4; 15:9; 18:21; 28:67) God was graciously inviting them to look at their hearts – to notice the ways that patterns of interpreting life were often deeper than their awareness. Because we often focus on what is in our immediate awareness and modifying behaviors, we are not able to address that which is most significantly at work in shaping thoughts and behaviors. We usually want to clean up messes rather than wake up to what has produced them. This requires staying in messy places so that transformation can occur. When our pain and hurts are not transformed, they are transferred. Another way to say it is that what doesn’t get healed gets passed on to others.
We see this reality played out in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures as Jeremiah shared God’s heart for His people: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (6:14, NIV) The picture being painted is one of bypassing: Band-Aids were being used when the wounds were much more serious, and the people said, “It’s no big deal. Everything is fine.” Sometimes things are a big deal. At the end of the canon of Scripture, Jesus spoke to the church in Laodicea and shared that the fruit of simply glossing over things is lukewarmness and lack of passion. (Revelation 3:14-22) He went on to share His heart and said, “I wish that you were either cold or hot.” In that region of the ancient world, both hot and cold water had important uses (cold water for dying textiles and hot water for therapy). In essence, Jesus was expressing the idea that bypassing reality is useless and something that will make you sick (note the “spit you out” is a reference to vomit). To be clear, Jesus was not saying that we make Him sick when we bypass and short-circuit but that the process itself is unhealthy. The specifics of what the church at Laodicea was doing? “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:17)
Are there places in your life where you find yourself tempted to say, “everything is fine”? Are there wounds or hurts in your life in which you tend to brush aside their significance and perhaps cover them with spiritual platitudes? We may find ourselves resistant to the kind of soul work that healing and transformation invite. Carl Jung made the simple observation that: “What you resist, persists.”
A humble trust can unlock the courage needed to stay with the messes, hurts, and confusions. Augustine beautifully described the gift of staying in the wilderness rather than building a bridge to get out: “In my deepest wound I saw your glory, and it dazzled me.”
Question for reflection: in what ways is the Lord inviting you to wake up, take off the Band-Aids, and settling into being with Him in the messes?
Prayer: Lord, I confess to you the ways that I bypass or try to cover over the messes of life. Give me the courage to trust and believe that You are with me, loving me, and shaping me. Help me settle into Your presence and grace – knowing that Your love is my healing and transformation. Amen.
Our exploration this week centers around what has been called “unknowing.” One of the great, classic writings about our life in Christ is titled “The Cloud of Unknowing.” There are things we can know and understand, but our knowing always pales in comparison to what we can’t and don’t know. This leaves us in a place of tension.
We were created with minds and curiosity, and we are also dependent and vulnerable. The tension shaped by knowing and unknowing can really destabilize us. When we experience instability, we usually look for a fix. Most often that fix comes in the form of trying to get rid of the tension through either grasping for things that we can understand or just giving up. The “grasping” occurs as we settle for overly simplistic and/or incomplete theologies and worldviews. The “giving up” takes the form of denial, ignoring, or perhaps numbing.
The great theologian of the early church, Augustine, wrote: “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” In addition, His ways with us – the ways He companions us and loves us – are beyond understanding as well. Again, we may experience that impulse to know, but the infinite, eternal nature of God means that He is up to things that are “too wonderful” to understand. (Psalm 139:6; Job 42:3; Proverbs 30:18) That phrase “too wonderful for me” is repeated several times in the Scriptures and always in the context of what we know or don’t know. It expresses a joyful acceptance that God is God … and we are not.
Ultimately, our stabilizing comes not through our own efforts but our surrender. Jacques Philippe beautifully suggests that: “The situations that really make us grow are precisely those that we do not control.” Recognizing this reality and embracing the need to wait upon God in unknowing is vital. For the people of Israel, their failure to wait was described simply in Numbers 21:4: “the people became impatient on the way.” Waiting on God is a key feature of humility. On the other hand, our impatience reveals an insistence on knowing. Patience, waiting, and unsolved questions are frequent companions in an authentic life of faith:
“Give our Lord the benefit that His hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense, and incomplete.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.” Ranier Maria Rilke
Proverbs 3:5-6 are familiar, often memorized verses, and there is a wealth of counsel that often gets missed early in our journey with Christ: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Notice that we are encouraged to trust in the Lord – not our understanding of the Lord. Quite often, the truth is that we trust our understanding and that can leave us quite wobbly in seasons where our understanding is incomplete or perhaps completely shattered. The encouragement is to trust God … to simply trust Him (not our understanding) … to fall backward into unknowing.
To be honest, this can be a bit of a paradigm shift. And to be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can know or that we should give up study or pursuit of truth. However, our studies and our pursuit of truth are secondary to and in support of our life with God. Much additional pain and consternation in a wilderness season come because we are more focused on understanding (certainty) than humble trust. The stripping of confidence in our understanding is one of the gifts of pain and suffering. What emerges is actually a deeper, more unshakable faith in God if we make that shift.
At its core, the gospel is relational not conceptual. Concepts and propositional truth stand in support of the relational realities of the gospel, and as we move into the place of unknowing, we begin to see that much in life is rooted in “both/and” (rather than “either/or”) that leaves us in a dependent, trusting, humble stance. How are you clinging to your own ideas and understanding? One way to examine this is to consider what trust looks like for you. Are you trusting in a concept or is trust expressed in prayer and crying out to God? Pause here for a moment in reflective prayer. What do you notice? What is the Lord bringing to your awareness?
The response of humble trust is expressed so well in the words of David in Psalm 13. After spending time in lament – asking the question “how long?” over and over – he prays “but I have trusted in your steadfast love.” In other words, I am trusting Your love for me. It can be a temptation to turn descriptions of what God has done in the past into promises for the future. A more honest way of interacting with our experiences as well as the text of Scripture is to realize that God promises, or guarantees, very little. What He clearly promises is: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) There is no comma after this statement with a qualifying or conditional idea. There is no “He loves me if …” Simply, I am loving you and I am with you. Only His love, His presence is promised and that can unfold in myriad and mysterious ways.
David Benner, in Surrender to Love, develops this: “Jesus is the antidote to fear. His love – not believing certain things about Him or trying to do as He commands – is what holds the promise of releasing us from the bondage of inner conflicts, guilt and terror.”
Questions for reflection: how will you make the shift into trusting God rather than your understanding of God? Why is this important?
Prayer: Lord, You are so good and faithful in Your love for me. I need the courage to trust You and not simply lean on my understanding of You. Give me eyes to see Your love so that I can receive it. Thank you for meeting me where I am and leading me to Your heart and Your life. Amen.