Releasing Control

This past week here in the Oregon Willamette Valley, we had a massive ice storm that caused us to lose power for several days. On day 3, I was sitting at home in the cold and feeling very unsettled. I couldn’t predict when the power would be back on. I felt at the mercy of my friends for simple things like charging my phone or having a warm place to sleep. And in that moment, I realized that my biggest frustration wasn’t being without power.

It was being out of control.

I think that in His grace, this past year God has allowed us to more deeply recognize just how out of control we actually are. We have faced a lot of unsettling and unpredictable circumstances including a seemingly unending global pandemic, immense political and racial unrest, and even some more local events here in Oregon including the summer wildfires and the ice storms of this past week. We’ve always been out of control, but this past year has made that even more apparent. We can’t control our relationships, the weather, the economy, our political leaders, and even our body’s susceptibility towards sickness.

I’m recognizing that when I feel out of control, my human inclination is to grasp for control in whatever ways I can. I find myself in the stories of numerous men and woman in the Bible who tried to control their own lives, all with disastrous consequences. For example, instead of trusting God’s promise of a son, Sarah took matters into her own hands and had her husband Abraham sleep with her servant Hagar instead. (Genesis 16:1-4). Rebekah tried to trick Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau and caused immense discord between the two brothers. (Genesis 27). And when he feared getting caught for his sin with Bathsheba, David sought to control the situation by bringing her husband Uriah back from battle to cover up his sin. When this didn’t work, David planned Uriah’s murder (2 Samuel 11).

Personally, I have experienced the havoc that control can wreak in my relationships. I love the way Jon Tyson describes this:

“If a controlling spirit possesses us, we will not love others. We will use them as supporting characters in a story centered on us. We will see them only for the value they have in enhancing our own lives… this dramatic misperception shifts our relationships with others from a foundation of love to one of fear.”

-Jon Tyson, The Burden is Light

As Tyson suggests, when we put so much energy into controlling people and situations, we have less energy to love God and others well. Control makes us self-focused, while surrender turns the focus to God and frees us to love people authentically.

I want to share several ways that God is teaching me to release control in my day to day life.

Identifying Fear: I think that the first step is identifying our deeper fears. I’ve been taking a course in Biblical counseling that addresses the deeper reasons behind our struggles. The text we’re reading suggests that much of our sin is rooted in fear. And fear almost always leads to control. It reads:

“If pride’s primary expression is fear, then we will try to control in order to protect that which we hold dear. Using intimidation to keep people from hurting us, or telling a joke to avoid intimate conversations and vulnerability, or working 75 hours a week so that we don’t lose our job… In these ways we refuse to trust in God alone to protect what truly needs to be protected.”

-John Henderson, Equipped to Counsel

Therefore, when I find myself grasping for control, I try to ask myself: What is the deeper fear? Am I afraid of being vulnerable? Am I fearing abandonment? Am I scared of losing my material possessions and security? Do I fear releasing my independence and autonomy? We need to identify the deeper fear in order to expose why we so desperately crave control.

Looking to the example of Jesus: As I read the Gospels, I am struck by how surrendered Jesus was to His Father’s will. I love John 6:38 which reads:

“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

-John 6:38

It’s clear that Jesus wasn’t tied to His own agenda or plans. He was surrendered to the will of His Father in the context of His day to day life. If His Father told Him to go to a certain village, He did. If His Father told Him to leave, He did. Even Jesus’ willingness to spend the first 30 years of His life in almost total obscurity is a testament to His reliance on the Father’s perfect timing.

And then on the cross we see the greatest example of His surrender. Jesus literally gave up every right He had as God and King and put Himself in the most vulnerable position imaginable, death on a cross. I love His closing prayer, “Father, into your hands, I commit my Spirit”. Even at His final breath, Jesus was surrendered to His Father and completely trusting Him.

Jesus’ example is so powerful and one than we should meditate on until it becomes true in our own lives.

Prayer: Lastly, I think that prayer is one of the most powerful ways that we release control. In his book With Open Hands, Henri Nowen suggests that one of the greatest purposes of prayer is to get to a place where our hands are truly open before God. He writes:

“To pray means to open your hands before God. It means slowly relaxing the tension which squeezes your hands together and accepting your existence with an increasing readiness, not a possession to defend, but as a gift to receive.”

-Henri Nowen, With Open Hands

One practice that has been helpful for me is to journal the things that I’m clinging onto. Then I physically open up my hands as a sign of surrender. In prayer, I am reminded of God’s faithful and consistent love. Only when we are truly secure in his love and goodness, do we have the courage to fully open our hands and let go.

I wanted to close by sharing a song by Rebecca St. James that has been so meaningful to me lately. This is such a beautiful song of surrender and I hope it encourages you!

Keeping a Soft Heart

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new Spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

Ezekiel 11:19

This is one of my favorite Scriptures and one that the Lord has highlighted to me multiple times this year. I’m amazed at how often the Bible warns about the danger of a hardened heart. It’s clear that God cares deeply about the condition of our interior life.

However, the enemy loves to use pain and disappointment to harden us. And I think for many people, 2020 has been year of pain and disappointment. I believe that the enemy wants to use the challenging circumstances of this past year to make us cynical and critical, lonely and isolated, numb to our feelings and emotions, and stuck in bitterness and resentment. The honest truth is that I’ve felt all of these things at some point this past year.

However, God has been teaching me a lot about what it means to stay soft-hearted in the midst of difficult times. I want to share with you several tools He’s been teaching me for keeping a soft heart.

Guarding our hearts: One of my favorite Scriptures is Proverbs 4:23. It reads:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. “

-Proverbs 4:23

Now I don’t think this verse is suggesting that we shut ourselves off from everyone and everything. Rather we must be mindful of what we allow into hearts. The media, news, and content we take in actually does something to us. It shapes the people we become and that’s not something to be taken lightly.

Therefore, when I am watching a Netflix show, reading the news, or even scrolling on Facebook, I try to ask myself the following question: Is this content softening or hardening my heart? Is it drawing me closer to God and His love or am I feeling more disconnected from Him? It’s so easy to become desensitized to violence, impurity, lies, anxiety, and gossip— all of which the media capitalizes on. Therefore, if we want to stay sensitive and soft-hearted, we need to guard our hearts from destructive inputs.

Practicing vulnerability: One of my favorite quotes about vulnerability comes from Brene’ Brown. She writes:

“Staying vulnerable is the risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”

-Brene’ Brown

God has been teaching me a lot about vulnerability the past couple of years. As Brene’ Brown says, vulnerability is a risk. It carries no guarantees and I think that’s what make it so scary. But if we want to experience deep connection with others, we have to be vulnerable. We have to let people in and open our hearts to love and be loved by others.

This means being honest with people about our struggles and weaknesses. It means asking for help when we need it. And it means authentically sharing who we are with the people in our lives. In my opinion, a vulnerable heart is a soft heart.

Prioritizing beauty: I love how John Eldredge describes the softening power of beauty. He writes:

“Beauty is such a gentle grace. Like God, it rarely shouts, rarely intrudes. Rather it woos, soothes, invites… We often sign in the presence of beauty as it begins to minister to us— a good, deep soul sigh.”

-John Eldredge, Get Your Life Back

We all experience God’s beauty in different ways. This past year, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. My heart feels softest and most receptive to God’s love during a walk at the park, on a run at sunset, or out exploring the sights and sounds of a new hiking trail. Music has the same effect on me. It’s nearly impossible to listen to a beautiful song without experiencing music’s softening effect.

Learning from children: This might seems strange, but I think that spending time with children can also soften our hearts. It’s clear in the Gospels that children had a very special place in Jesus’ heart. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus even goes so far as to tells His disciples:

 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

-Matthew 18:3

Why is this? Well I wonder if it’s because children have such soft hearts. As a 3rd grade teacher who spends most of my time with children, I can attest to this! Children are some of the most trusting people I know. They don’t have the same walls and defense mechanisms that adults develop to protect themselves. Therefore, I think we have a lot to learn from children!

Embracing sadness: I think that many Christians feel a need to be joyful all the time and feel guilty for experiencing sadness and discouragement. However, as I read the Bible, I am struck by Godly men and women who embraced their honest feelings before God. Hannah cried in the temple because she was barren and without a son. Elijah expressed his despair to God as he was running from Ahab and Jezebel. Job grieved and mourned his losses. Even Jesus cried over the death of his friend Lazarus and in the garden of Gethsemane. There’s a reason God has given us tears. Sometimes what we really need is a good cry. And I know from personal experience the softening effect that tears can have on our hearts.

Additionally, embracing sadness enables us to fully embrace joy. As Brene’ Brown writes:

“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

-Brene Brown

Part of being human is allowing ourselves to experience the full range of emotions, including the difficult ones.

Confessing our sin: When my heart feels hard, sometimes the culprit is un-confessed sin. I love Psalm 32 which reads:

“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.”

-Psalm 32: 1 and 2.

Bringing our sins into the light softens our hearts. It’s important to regularly confess our sin to the Lord and to others. Confession keeps us sensitive to the Lord and to His gentle correction.

Forgiving others: Our hearts aren’t only hardened by our own sinfulness, but also by sins done to us. I think that bitterness has the greatest potential to harden our hearts. In her book about forgiveness (highly recommend) Lysa Terkeurst writes so beautifully about the importance of forgiveness. She writes:

“Your heart is much too beautiful a place for unhealed pain. And your soul is much too deserving of freedom to stay stuck”.

-Lysa Terkeurst, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget

In my experience, forgiveness is a healing balm for our hearts. It’s not something we muster up. Instead, it comes when we truly receive God’s forgiveness and then allow that same forgiveness to overflow to others. In my experience, forgiveness isn’t just a one-time action. It’s a continual process that gradually heals and restores our hearts.

In closing, I want to invite you to look back on this past year and notice any places in your heart that may have been hardened by 2020. As we step into the new year, I encourage you to invite Jesus into those places and ask Him to soften the soil of your heart.

May we go into 2021 with soft, open hearts able to fully give and receive God’s love.

The Importance of Habits

I’m becoming convinced that our habits are one of the most important things about us. What we do truly does shape who we become. I’ve been especially aware of this reality during this long pandemic season. On the one hand, this season is such an opportunity. I believe that God wants to use this time to develop our character, to deepen our intimacy with Him, to strengthen our relationships with others, and to establish life-giving rhythms and habits in our lives.

However, we must recognize that the enemy also wants to use this time for evil. He wants to isolate us, distract us, and trap us in destructive habits and addictions to numb the discomfort of this season.

I don’t know when this pandemic will end and life will return to some level of normalcy. However, when that times come, we will either be closer to Jesus and His vision for our lives or we may find ourselves isolated, addicted, and caught in destructive habits to numb our pain. Therefore, I believe that mindfulness of our habits is especially critical right now.

The honest truth is that maintaining healthy habits is not my strength. I’m a creative person which means that I tend to only want to do things when I feel inspired or “in the mood”. As a result, my habits are often dictated by my fluctuating emotions and desires. I’ll have great intentions that last for a while and then peter out. Since habits are difficult for me, I’ve been really asking God to develop me in this area. I want to share a few things God has been teaching me about establishing life-giving habits.

Building Habits Based on Identity: In his book Atomic Habits, (highly recommend!) author James Clear challenges an outcome-based approach to habits. He writes:

“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start focusing on who we wish to become.”

-James Clear

When creating habits, James Clear suggests first asking ourselves who we want to become. He suggests focusing on identity statements more than on tangible outcomes. For example, if I create a goal to run 20 miles a week (a tangible outcome), I will quickly become discouraged when I miss that mark and I may decide to abandon running completely. However, if my mission is to become a runner (an identity statement), then I am successful every time I run, even if it’s for just 10 minutes. This motivates me to keep running and go farther the next time. I’ve found that I stick with habits more consistently when I focus on the person I want to become rather than on a specific outcome.

Just starting: I think that the hardest part of developing a habit is simply getting started. However, once we’re started on a habit, it’s difficult to stop. I love how James Clear articulates this idea. He writes:

“Habits are like the entrance ramp to a highway. They lead you down a path, and before you know it, you’re speeding toward the next behavior. It seems easier to continue what you’re already doing than to start doing something different.”

-James Clear

This is true for negative habits. It takes just a second to turn on Netflix, but haven’t we all experienced the vortex of wasted time that usually ensues? However this is also true for positive habits. Putting on my running shoes and driving to the park is always the hardest part of going on a run. But one I’ve started running, I don’t want to stop. Waking up early and reading my Bible feels hard initially, but once I’m spending time with Jesus, I don’t want to leave. It’s been so helpful to realize that the true battle isn’t the habit itself, but rather the first couple minutes of getting started.

Crafting a rule of life: In His book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer describes the power of developing a rule of life.

“What a trellis is to a vine, a rule of life is to abiding. It’s a structure— in this case a schedule and a set of practices — to set up abiding as the central pursuit of your life… If a vine doesn’t have a trellis, it will die. And if your life with Jesus doesn’t have some kind of structure to facilitate health and growth, it will wither away.”

-John Mark Comer

According to John Mark Comer, a rule of life is basically an intentional set of practices and habits that shape the people we become. I created a rule of life this summer and it has been so life-giving for me. I navigate my rule of life imperfectly and struggle to always be consistent, but the cumulative effect on my life has been so good.

I started by writing out daily habits that I wanted to incorporate into my life. Some of these included daily gratitude, limiting my phone use, running, and quiet time with Jesus. Then I wrote out weekly practices that are important to me like community with my small group, ministry at church, intentional time with friends, and taking a weekly Sabbath. Finally, I decided on monthly habits. Several of these include going on a hike, taking one day away with Jesus, and seeing a counselor or mentor.

I think that a healthy rule of life will look different for everyone because God has wired us all so uniquely. The things that are life-giving for me, might not be life-giving for you. Therefore, I think it’s really important to invite God into this process and ask Him to show us who we are becoming and what habits will help get us there.

Taking time to Reflect: One of the most important parts of creating a rule of life is reflecting. I try to take a little bit of time each night, each week, and each month to reflect on my rule of life. I’ll notice how my habits are affecting my feelings, relationships, and closeness to Jesus. When I consistently maintain a life-giving habit, I’ll celebrate the joy and growth that it’s bringing to my life.

Additionally, when I find myself repeatedly breaking good habits or engaging in destructive ones, I need to invite God to examine my heart. The purpose here is not condemnation or to be super hard on myself. Instead, I try to compassionately ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. What’s the deeper reason?

For example, if I find myself spending too much time on social media, I might ask myself: What need is this filling in me? I may recognize a feeling of loneliness or disconnection. Those feelings aren’t inherently bad, I’m just filling them in an unhealthy way. This realization helps to me reach out to tangible people or spend time with Jesus instead.

Or let’s say that I’m eating too much fast food (definitely my weakness!). Instead of feeling bad or guilty I can ask myself: What feelings or emotions am I numbing with food? How does Jesus want to meet me in this place?

Seeking Accountability: This is probably the biggest game changer. We’re not met to walk through life alone. Therefore, accountability is vital, especially in the areas where we struggle. I find that I’m so much more likely to stick with a habit if a friend or family member is doing it with me or at least checking up on me. Although, this requires vulnerability, accountability is so important. And when I find myself in a destructive habit, I need people in my life to speak God’s grace to me and encourage me to move forward in freedom.

I’d love to hear from you. What have been some life-giving habits for you in this season? How do you develop and maintain those habits in your life?

Navigating Loneliness

This is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but I have struggled to articulate my thoughts until recently. I believe that our world is currently going through one of the loneliest seasons in human history and therefore the topic of loneliness is more relevant than ever before. The global pandemic is stripping away many of the social supports that people have depended upon. It’s driving people into isolation and disconnectedness. And whenever I ask people about how they’re doing, loneliness seems to be the strongest emotion that surfaces.

Loneliness is such a universal experience. In his book Together, an incredible book about the power of human connection, author and former US Surgeon General Vivek Murphy describes 3 circles of loneliness. He writes:

“Intimate, or emotional, loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner—someone with whom you share a deep, mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational, or social, loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.”

-Vivek H. Murphy

Murphy’s theory is that if even one of these circles of connection is missing, we feel lonely. This perspective makes so much sense to me. It explains why someone can be happily married, but feel lonely because they don’t have quality friendships. Or someone else can have close friendships, but feel lonely due to a lack of community.

I believe that it’s even possible to be lonely while with other people. In fact, I think that this is the most painful type of loneliness. It’s possible to feel lonely in a crowd, lonely while with friends, and even lonely in a marriage. We are wired for connection— to know and be known. However, since we live in a fallen world, our connection with others is riddled with misunderstandings. We regularly miss each other’s hearts and even our best moments of connection fall short of the perfect intimacy God designed us for.

As a result we’re lonely.

However, I’ve noticed that we often avoid admitting our loneliness. In his book The Restless Heart, Ronald Rolheiser describes this phenomenon.

“Most of us are reluctant to admit our loneliness even to ourselves. All of us tend to have a congenital need to deny that we experience loneliness and that it is, in some way, responsible for many of our feelings, actions, and pursuits… We admit that we are lonely only with feelings of shame and weakness. Also, most of us feel that loneliness is not something that should affect normal, healthy persons.”

-Ronald Rolheiser

We tend to dance around the word “loneliness”, saying that we feel “sad”, “disconnected”, and “confused”. But I think that at the core, many of us feel just plain lonely. However, I think that there’s a social stigma around loneliness that keeps us from admitting this to ourselves and to others.

I believe that naming our loneliness and facing it head on is what limits its power over us. Loneliness can be a destructive force in our lives. But it also can be used by the Lord in beautiful ways if we’ll let Him. I want to share some strategies God has taught me for navigating loneliness when it pops up in my life.

Honesty with God: We never have to pretend with God. He knows our feelings and emotions before we even know them ourselves. When I feel lonely, I will simply tell God, “I feel lonely right now.” And the best part is that Jesus understands. We have a High Priest who understands our weakness. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all the loneliness in the world. When He said, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus experienced the deepest possible loneliness— separation from the Father. He understand loneliness in a way that no one else can.

Refusing distraction and busyness: When I feel lonely, I tend to throw myself into a flurry of activity and distraction. I try to have every weeknight scheduled and I make plans for a busy weekend. However, when I notice myself becoming flurried and frenetic, I need to slow down and ask God several questions: Am I feeling lonely? Did you ask me to do these things? Or am I just avoiding being alone? If I realize that loneliness is the root, I need to take that to Jesus and ask Him to fill my loneliness.

Pursuing intimacy with Jesus: This is by far the most important step. if we don’t look to Jesus first, then we will look to others to fill our emptiness. This puts a pressure on our relationships that they weren’t intended to bear. When I feel alone, the thing my heart needs most is quality time with Jesus. He knows us in a way that no human being can. Psalm 139 beautifully illustrates this truth. It reads:

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.

Psalm 139:1-4

Prioritizing relationships and community: Not only does God bless us with His presence, but He also invites us into the blessing of community. It is a beautiful gift to have tangible people in the flesh to walk beside us in life. When I used to feel lonely, I would isolate myself even more from people. However, this past year, God has been teaching me to reach out. I can spend time with my roommates, I can call a friend or a family member, or I can be intentional with my church community. Loneliness is a reminder that we need one another and aren’t meant to walk through life alone. Our loneliness can propel us into deeper connection with the people in our lives.

Noticing others who are lonely: I believe that the most painful experiences in our lives can be transformed into gifts when we allow God to use them. Seasons of loneliness increase our sensitivity and empathy for others who feel lonely. When I feel lonely, I ask myself, “What can I do to lessen someone else’s loneliness right now?” In times of loneliness, it’s so easy to get lost in ourselves and in self-absorption. However, God invites us to look out and see the people around us, to make them feel noticed and cared about.

God can transform our loneliness into a deeper understanding, compassion, and empathy for others.

And that is a beautiful thing.

The Power of Listening

Covid has slowed down the frenetic pace of so many of our lives. While it can be disorienting to have more time on our hands, it also is an incredible opportunity. During this season, I believe that God is inviting us into deeper intimacy with Him. Our lives are a lot quieter than they used to be and I think that the quiet place is the best place to hear God’s voice.

Learning to hear God’s voice is an exciting adventure. However, just like any valuable relationship, it also requires consistency and intentionality. I want to share with you several things that God has been teaching me about listening to Him. I hope that these principles encourage you if you want to hear Gods’ voice, but are not sure where to start.

Setting aside a time and place: I think that the biggest barrier to hearing God’s voice is that we just don’t take the time to do it. I’ve found it so important to establish some rhythms in my life that create space to hear God’s voice.

For example, each morning I try to spend 10 minutes just being quiet and listening. This isn’t a time to journal my thoughts, prayers, or feelings. Rather it’s a time to leave space for God to speak. Sometimes I’ll hear something very specific. For example, He might prompt me to call or reach out to someone that day. However, other times God simply reminds me of who He is and how much He loves me.

The last couple of months I’ve been experimenting again with taking a weekly Sabbath. This is such a powerful practice for me because it forces me to slow down for one whole day a week and just be. I find that it’s easier to hear God on these days because my soul is less hurried and frenetic. On my Sabbath, I try to take a more extended period of silence. During this time, I will look back on the previous week and notice the ways that God was at work. I will also seek God’s direction about the upcoming week.

This past year, I’ve also taken a couple of weekends away to seek God for a more extended period of time. Although sometimes I find myself avoiding this time alone, I need it so desperately. This is an important time to seek God with the big picture questions in my life. I always find that I feel so much more centered and clear about what He has for me in the upcoming season after these times away.

Letting go of expectations: Often times I come into solitude with specific questions that I want God to answer directly. However, nine times out of ten, God shares with me something completely different. I’ll have a surface level question about a decision I’m trying to make, but He wants to address something deeper in my heart. This is why it’s so important to let go of expectations. God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. He may share with us things that we don’t expect, but that’s part of the adventure of listening to Him.

Surrendering my will to His: This is a hard one for me. I am a deep feeler with strong emotions. Sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish God’ voice from my personal feelings. In His book Walking With God, John Eldredge talks about the necessity of surrendering our will to God’s. He writes:

“Am I willing to hear whatever it is God wants to say? That is absolutely critical. If I can only hear an answer that agrees with what I want to hear, then I am not in a position of surrender to God’s will, and it will be hard for me to hear Him at all. Sometimes I will even say as I’m listening, ‘Lord I will accept whatever you say to me.’ It helps bring my soul to a posture of quiet surrender.”

-John Eldredge

I think that it’s best to initially practice listening to God about simple things that I’m not emotionally invested in like how to spend my day, who I should reach out to, or even silly things like what to have for dinner. Listening to God in these low stake decisions is helpful because it makes me more attentive to His voice without the confusion of my own personal feelings.

If I do realize that I have a strong will about something, I will simply be honest with God about that and ask Him to align my will with His. In times like these I need to focus on His goodness and His character. It’s easier to surrender my will to His when I remember that He has my best interest in mind

Writing down what I hear: About a year ago I started keeping a journal of God’s words to me. I usually record several things God has spoken to me each month. These might be pictures, Scriptures or even simple phrases from the Lord. It’s so encouraging to go back and re-read through this journal during times of discouragement or confusion. Each time, I feel re-aligned with God’s truth and secure in what He’s spoken. I also start to see the broader themes and patterns of what God is teaching me.

Looking for consolations: When I’m trying to discern God’s will in something, I look for a feeling of His peace and presence. In her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton describes this feeling of peace as a consolation. She writes:

“Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self in God.”

-Ruth Haley Barton

When I think I’ve heard God’s voice, I ask the following question: Is this truth or action bringing me closer to Jesus, closer to others, and closer to my true self? In contrast, I know that it’s the voice of the enemy if I feel disconnected from God, isolated from others, and I’m tempted to live out of a false self.

Seeking wise counsel: Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned the value of having wise counsel confirm the things that God is speaking to me. I need people in my life who know me deeply and are familiar with my tendencies and struggles. When I’m trying to discern if I’ve heard God’s voice, these people can be a helpful sounding board.

Even more importantly, I need to check what I’m hearing with Scripture. The following questions are helpful to ask: Does this match the character of God? Does this align with the greater story He is telling in the Bible? It’s so important to spend regular time in the Scripture because this is one of the most powerful ways that God speaks.

Acting in obedience: In her book Radical Gratitude, author Ellen Vaughn recounts the story of Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Many years later, Corrie Ten Boom was speaking at an event when a concentration camp soldier who had helped kill her younger sister approached her and wanted to shake her hand. In the simple act of shaking this man’s hand, God healed Corrie Ten Boom’s bitterness and released deep forgiveness in her heart. In her book, Ellen Vaughn writes:

“When we show even a shred of faith, the smallest action of obedience, He’ll bring us the rest of the way. For Corrie Ten Boom, He didn’t demand that she manufacture an emotion that she could not. He nudged her to do what she could: just lift that arm. He did the rest. Willingness is expressed in obedient action, however small.”

-Ellen Vaughn

This is a challenge for me, but something God’s been really stretching me in the past year. When I’m clear He’s spoken, I try to act as quickly as possible. I call the person He’s laid on my heart, send the text He’s asked me to send, or do the thing He’s asked me to do. If it’s really not possible to act in that moment, I will set an alarm for later in the day or put it on my calendar so that I don’t forget to act. God works so powerfully through our practical action. Additionally I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to hear God’s voice it’s often simply because I haven’t obeyed the last thing He told me to do.

Receiving God’s grace: Something that used to really trouble me was the fear that I would hear God wrong. And the truth is that I have heard Him wrong many times. But that’s ok.

God is so gracious to us, even when we hear wrong. Just like a baby learning to take his first steps, we will sometimes totter and fall as we seek to discern God’s voice. However, as our perfect and loving parent, God picks us up when we get it wrong and encourages us to keep seeking Him. Our human struggle to discern God’s voice is actually a gift. It deepens our intimacy with Him because we have to lean in even closer to hear His voice.

And I think that’s the best place we can be.

The Power of Gratitude

“Live in gratitude: To be a saint is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less… Holiness is gratitude.”

-Ronald Rolheiser

When I read this quote the other day, it challenged me deeply. A heart of gratitude does not come naturally to me. It’s so easy for me to see all that is wrong and broken in the world and in my own life. However, in this season God has been inviting me to focus on all that is good. I think that during this challenging season in the world, gratitude is especially vital. Gratitude is a powerful antidote for discouragement, disappointment, self pity, and any other scheme of the enemy.

I want to share some ways that God has been inviting me into deeper gratitude. I hope that these ideas might be an encouragement to you if you find yourself in a similar place.

Accepting Difficulty: I think that as humans, we tend to approach life with a lot of idealism and expectation. In doing so, we often forget the simple truth that sometimes life is just plain hard. In his famous book “The Road Less Traveled”, M. Scott Peck opens with the following line:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we see it, we transcend it.”

We often approach life expecting it to be heaven on earth. But it just isn’t. We live in a fallen world and all is not as it should be. Pandemics and natural disasters happen. Our bodies get sick and let us down. We experience the pain of broken relationships. Our callings and vocations sometimes lack the fulfillment and tangible results that we desire.

There’s so much freedom in simply accepting this. Moreover, this perspective inspires gratitude. When we stop viewing the good things in life as rights that we’re entitled to, we begin to see good things as they actually are. Unmerited favor. Gracious gifts from a loving Father.

A daily gratitude practice: The past few years I’ve experimented with making gratitude a daily habit. Sometimes gratitude bursts out of our hearts, completely unprompted. But more often I’ve found it to be a discipline that grows through daily practice. Our actions shape the people we become. Just like someone becomes a runner by running each day, we become grateful people by practicing daily gratitude.

For me this means making a list in my journal each night before bed. I title my list “evidences of grace”. Then I write down simple ways that I experienced God’s grace throughout the day. This could be something profound and beautiful like a sunset on my drive home or something simple like a moment of laughter with my students over Zoom. I love this practice because it changes my attitude during the day. As I discover God’s gifts throughout the day, I’ll write them down on a note in my phone so that I’ll remember to add them to my list at night. This centers my heart in a place of deeper gratitude throughout the day.

Regular worship: Recently I was struck by how much of Christian worship music is centered on our human feelings and our problems. While I think that this music definitely has a time and a place, I’ve noticed that sometimes it can put me in a place of self-absorption. Lately God has been challenging me to take some time each day to worship Him with songs of adoration and gratitude. These songs center my heart on God’s character and who He is rather than on myself. This naturally moves my heart to a posture of gratitude rather than entitlement.

The gift of memory: I’m a very future-oriented person and don’t spend a lot of time focusing on memories. However, I’ve been wondering if God might want to use our memories during this season. I was recently listening to a sermon by John Mark Comer where he suggested writing down the ten best moments of your life. He then said to go back to each of those memories in your mind and spend some time intentionally thanking God. I tried this idea and found it to be very joyful. I wonder if during this challenging season in the world, we may need to draw strength from joyful memories from the past.

Allowing loss to inspire gratitude: It seems that basically everyone is experiencing some form of loss right now. The other day my mom shared with me a powerful perspective on loss. When we find ourselves missing something, we can have renewed gratitude for that thing we’ve lost.

For example, as I currently teach my students over Zoom, I feel so much more grateful for the 5 years that I taught them in person. And I know that I will be so much more grateful for that gift when we are back in the classroom again. Additionally, as we all anticipate the holidays looking different this year due to covid, we can be grateful for previous holidays. And I know that we will treasure our relationships with family even more after this season.

Thanking others: This idea is simple, but so powerful. Lately I’ve tried to notice the specific ways that people bless me. And instead of just noticing those blessings, God’s been challenging me to actually say thank you. It’s so easy to take for granted the people we spend time with on a daily basis. We can so easily miss the gift of their support, kindness, and friendship. Lately. I’ve really enjoyed writing old fashioned thank you notes and sending them in the mail. But whatever the means, I think there’s something so powerful in saying thank you to the people we love.

I’d love to hear from you! How has God been teaching you to practice gratitude and find joy during this season? I’m way in process with this one and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Perfect Timing

“My timing is in all things. I am faithful in being, providing, arriving, communicating, and changing things at exactly the right time.”

Blessing Your Spirit, By: Sylvia Gunter and Arthur A. Burk

The honest truth is that lately I’ve struggled to trust God’s timing. I know that God’s timing is best. However, sometimes it’s hard for my soul to believe this, especially when there are so many unknowns in the world right now.

As a 3rd grade teacher about to start the school year online, I want to know if I will be teaching online for just a few months or for the rest of the year. As I pray for several loved ones whom I desperately want to be saved, I wonder how long it will take for God to soften their hearts. As I become more aware of broken areas in my life that need healing, I feel frustrated by the long and often slow process of transformation. As I gain a deeper sense of God’s calling on my life, I want to know the timeline of the ministries He has placed upon my heart. And as I wrestle with several personal desires in my heart that continue to go unmet, I’m not hearing a clear answer from God about if or when those desires will be met.

This truly is a season of trusting and waiting.

The past couple of months, I have spent a lot of time meditating on Psalm 31. Verses 14 and and 15 have been especially highlighted to me:

“But I trust in you, Lord. I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”

It’s such a simple truth, but one that I need to dwell on until I believe it in the core of my being.

My times are in God’s hands.

God’s perspective is so much bigger than ours. He sees the big picture of human history and is orchestrating events to fit His perfect plan. Therefore I have to trust that even when I don’t understand what He’s doing, His timing in the world is perfect.

And I know that the same is true in our daily lives. God cares so much about the people we are becoming and the character He is developing within us. He wants our ultimate good more than our immediate happiness. He knows us intimately and therefore knows the perfect timing of every detail of our lives.

I want to close by sharing a song that has really blessed me in this season. I hope it is an encouragement to you. Some of my favorite lyrics are as follows:

Take courage my heart
Stay steadfast my soul
He’s in the waiting
He’s in the waiting
Hold onto your hope
As your triumph unfolds
He’s never failing
He’s never failing

Take Courage, By: Kristene DiMarco

The Healing Power of Beauty

“Beauty reassures us that goodness is still real in the world, more real than harm, or scarcity, or evil. Beauty reassures us of abundance, especially that God is absolutely abundant in goodness and in life… Beauty is such a gentle grace. Like God, it rarely shouts, rarely intrudes. Rather it woos, soothes, invites; it romances and caresses. We often sigh in the presence of beauty as it begins to minister to us— a good, deep soul-sigh.” -John Eldredge, Get Your Life Back 

When I read this quote, it resonated with me at a deep level. In his book Get Your Life Back (highly recommend!), John Eldredge suggests helpful practices for experiencing God in the midst of a chaotic and frenetic world. One of my favorite chapters was about the healing power of beauty. I have found beauty to be such a healing and powerful force in my own life.

I know from personal experience just how easy it is to lose sight of beauty. The past couple of weeks were an example of this. I felt like my soul just couldn’t catch up with all that was coming my way— constant news updates about the coronavirus, an insanely busy schedule, challenges to navigate at work, and complex situations in my personal life and relationships. I felt so profoundly aware of all that is wrong and broken in the world.

However, a few days ago, God gently reminded me that my soul was craving His beauty.

And I started to notice it again.

I recognized His beauty in the dear faces of my students laughing and playing at recess. I re-discovered His beauty in the dark silhouettes the trees made across the sky as I drove home from work.  I heard it in the beautiful harmonies of one of my favorite songs. And my soul felt back in sync with God and His goodness.

In a culture that seems to value efficiency, productivity, and usefulness above all else, simple beauty is often ignored. However, I think that beauty is actually very important to God. After all, He made a world that is absolutely teeming with beauty for us to enjoy and discover.

I think that appreciating beauty can look different for everyone. Since God has made us all so uniquely, we experience beauty in different ways. Personally, I experience God’s beauty most powerfully through nature, music, great stories, and relationships with others.

Sometimes God reveals His beauty to me in obvious ways— through a sunset at the coast, on a hike through the woods, or through an inspiring book or movie that captures my heart. However, God also reveals His beauty in more subtle ways— through the understanding smile of a friend, in the morning light streaming though my window, or in a simple melody I’ve always loved.

God’s beauty is all around us.

We just need to have eyes to see it and hearts to receive it as evidence of God’s grace and goodness.

Fixation

“What you give your attention to is the person you become. Put another way: the mind is the portal to the soul, and what you fill your mind with will shape the trajectory of your character. In the end, your life is no more than the sum of what you gave your attention to.”

-John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

I tend to fixate on things.

This can show up in positive ways  for me. For example, I love to nerd out about topics of interest and can spend hours researching about anything and everything. I am a learner who loves to understand every facet of a topic.

However, this also can be a challenging part of my personality. When I’m wrestling with anxiety, I tend to fixate on my fears about the future. I analyze everything that could possibly go wrong. I obsess about the problems in my life, including difficult relationships or challenging work situations. When I become absorbed in problems and anxieties, I miss all of the beautiful gifts that are right around me. And the Enemy steals my joy.

At the same time, I think the opposite is also possible. The Enemy can also distort our good and beautiful desires. Sometimes I fixate so intently on the blessings in life— on things like my job, my family, and other meaningful relationships. This can be a problem, especially when I start to view these things as necessary to my happiness, safety, or security. Good desires become ultimate desires. And that’s the definition of idolatry.

As a result, I was deeply impacted when I read the above quote by John Mark Comer.

Our attention is one of the most powerful resources we have. And the things we give our attention to really do define who we become.

Recently I was talking to someone about my tendency to fixate. While they agreed that fixation can be dangerous, they reminded me that it’s always safe to fixate on the Lord. In fact, He’s the answer to all of our other fixations.

When I fixate on the Lord, my anxieties and problems seem to melt away. I gain His big picture perspective and realize how much energy I’m wasting trying to analyze and control my own life.

And when I fixate on Him, I become less attached to the good things in life that I think I need to be happy. I realize that He’s the only thing that will every fully satisfy the deepest needs of my heart.

I’m reminded of Hebrews 12:2 which says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…”

Jesus is the only thing worthy of our fixation. And if it’s true that our fixations shape who we become, I want Jesus to be my heart’s fixation above all others.

Becoming a Person of Love

“Claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others. The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing. It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness.” 

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved 

Henri Nouwen has always been one of my favorite authors and I just love this quote! It is so simple, but true.

The way I view myself profoundly impacts the way I treat others.

When I’m hard on myself, I tend to be hard on others. When I’m self-critical, I find myself leaking an attitude of criticism towards others. And when I focus on my flaws and mistakes, I tend to also notice the faults in others.

However, the opposite is also true. When I claim my own belovedness, I see the belovedness of others. When I know that God delights in me, I more readily delight in the people around me. And when I experience God’s unconditional love, that same kind of love flows out of my heart towards others.

Recently I’ve been struck by how Jesus’ identity was deeply rooted in His Father’s love. When Jesus was baptized,  His Father said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” It is clear that Jesus’ ministry came out of a deep sense of security in His Father’s love. Love was the reason Jesus came to earth and the core motivation behind everything that He did.

Oh, how I want that to be true in my own life!

Lately I’ve tried to intentionally spend time in God’s presence simply letting God love me.

During these times, I’ll ask God to show me what He loves about me. I’ll accept His love even in the areas where I am broken and far from perfect. I’ll meditate on the love He showed for me when He died on the cross. And I’ll picture His love filling the empty places of my heart and overflowing to others.

I’m realizing that knowing about God’s love and actually experiencing it are two very different things.

I want to become a person of love.

And the first step is letting God love me.