Recently, I had a dream where I was hiking through some woods with God. We were hiking towards a place I could not see, and I kept peering through the trees trying to see our goal. Then the dream changed. We were still in the woods, but God was sitting on a log beside a campfire. I was standing off to the side unable to rest because we hadn't arrived yet. Suddenly, I had a vivid sense that God was inviting me to stop waiting impatiently for the journey's end and to enjoy my time with Him. After I awoke, I knew that God was talking to me about trials. We weren't hiking through a sunlit field, but rather a shadowy forest. He was saying that in times of walking through trial, I could take time to enjoy His presence and get to know Him better, or I could stand apart from Him in my impatience for the end of the trial. The only way for me to have joy was to take my focus off the end of the trial and to put it on the God walking with me.
I do find it hard to enjoy the moments when I'm walking through trial. Though I want to maintain an attitude of hopefulness and joy, I find myself tangled up in a battle against hopelessness and complaining that I never seem to win. I thought about James 1:2-4, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (ESV). I have already learned how to look back at testing and see good in it, but that does not help me in the moment. In the moment of trial and testing I lose joy and hope. Romans 15:13 reads "Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (NET). I asked God, "Teach me how to have joy and hope in times of trial."
God chose the evocative image of sitting around a campfire. Recently, while we were spending a week in the bush teaching at our DTI, we sat around a fire with some Maasai believers. We were waiting while water heated for our bucket baths. Alitzah looked at the fire and said, "We should have brought marshmallows." What is more delightful than holding a stick over fire while slowly roasting food? God's image invites me to roast His word in the fire of the Spirit, letting the Word take on new richness of smell that I can savor from the moment I begin to cook to long after I finish eating. And the taste! And the nourishment! A nice German sausage, anyone? Years ago, while we were waiting to go to Kenya the first time, I began reading passages that had the word wait and a name of God. The study greatly strengthened me. Right now, I've decided to put passages that talk about joy or hope or endurance or suffering or comfort on my stick in the Spirit fire, savoring about three or four a night for the next several months.
Anyone who has been to church camp knows that campfire is a time for praise and worship. As we sat around the fire, I gazed up and saw the familiar three star pattern of Orion's belt. Behind me was a newly familiar constellation, the Southern cross. Those stars depicted different pictures to our Maasai friends, but to all of us they declared the glory of God. As we listened, we could hear the familiar sound of crickets and the crackle of the fire. We could also hear the newer sounds of zebras and hyenas not very far away. Sometimes, we would gaze into and poke at the fire. Shalviah squatted nearby, fascinated. The wind blew around us as we wrapped Maasai blankets and sweaters around our shoulders. The wonder of it all called forth song. We sang, "He's a good, good Father" and "I'm no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God." Joshua translated "Holiness, holiness, is what I long for" into Maa, and we sang that. We lifted our hands and danced. Sometimes we silently reflected. God's image invites me into worship. We are called to join the heavenly declaration of God's glory. In Luke 19:40, Jesus tells us, "If [we] keep silent, the very stones will cry out!” (NET) I would often listen to worship music while I worked, but now I am setting aside daily time simply to worship.
Campfires are also times for testimony and remembrance. After a day of studying heavy topics at the DTI, we sat around and swapped stories. Some were funny. One of our Maasai brothers told of a time when he was camping around a fire with other Maasai and visitors. They woke in the night hearing an elephant approaching. Our friend described how he leaped over the fire to get away, accidentally grabbing a bone instead of his sword and how one visitor couldn't get his sleeping bag unzipped and had to flee like a caterpillar. Our friend was a good storyteller, and we could picture it vividly as we laughed. I remember a time I asked God to show me something that makes Him laugh. The next day, I saw a one inch caterpillar on my doorstep, When I approached, it reared up and wove its body back and forth like a cobra. It had two eyespots and something that resembled a forked tongue. A tiny caterpillar pretending to be a deadly serpent made me laugh with God. Proverbs 17:22 tells us "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (ESV). In Genesis 21:6, "Sarah said, 'God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me'" (NET). I want to tell the stories of how God has given me laughter, so God and others can hear and laugh with me.
Some stories were testimonies. We learned how the first pastor of that congregation became a believer. He used to drink a lot. One night, his body began to swell after a lot of drink. Though he hadn't yet heard about Jesus, he cried out to Creator God, and God healed him. Shortly after, the missionaries arrived in his village and told him about Jesus. He gave Jesus his life that day, and he has never returned to alcohol. Campfire time is a time to say to God, "Do you remember that time when I ..., and you ...?" I remember how I used to be terrified whenever anyone was late. What if the rapture had happened, and I was left behind? My youth group had watched the thief in the night movies, and they had terrified me. One day when Alitzah was a baby, Joshua was late, and I felt the familiar fear rise. I remember standing at the sink doing dishes when I felt the presence of God and His assurance, "I haven't left you." That fear has never returned. In Isaiah 43:26, God tells us to put Him in remembrance, but too often, as in the passage, we only remind Him of our complaints. A campfire is different. For those who grew up going to church camp, a campfire calls us to tell stories of hope and joy.
Campfire is also a time for prayer and for thanksgiving for answered prayers. At the DTI, they have a tradition of praying for and blessing one another. Some of our Maasai brothers were struggling with colds, so we prayed for them. They gave thanks to God afterward that they slept better and were enabled to concentrate in class. Isaiah 62:6-7 reads "On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth" (ESV). During the years we lived in the bush, I was overwhelmed with fear. Returning to the bush for this week was like measuring myself on a growth chart and finding myself grown beyond imagining. I overflowed with thanksgiving for what God has done in me, and as I gave thanks, my story encouraged the students to trust in what God is doing in their hearts. I give thanks to God for all those who have prayed into my growth with me, such as our home group members and our prayer supporters, and I praise God that He allows me to pray into the lives of others.
The Bible tells us in the last days we will see visions and dream dreams. When I started having visions and dreams a few years ago, I stopped writing because I wasn't sure how people would respond. Recently, I decided that I will not let fear drive me any longer. I love sharing what I am learning. If you are on this journey with me, may God bless your campfire times! May they bring you joy and strength, and may you find an abundant hope harvest in your heart!
Early in our second term in Kenya, my second daughter, then five years old, began asking daily for a certain doll, and where would I get it? We had returned from our bush trip and finally moved into our new house in a small town, but they were not going to have that doll in any shop. In my heart, I knew the issue was not the doll, but a heart hurt. I prayed and told God I would hunt until I found the doll she wanted unless He satisfied her longing.
I had noticed during our time in America that our oldest daughter, just 21 months older than our secondborn, was the favorite child of one member of our extended family. When I had spoken to our extended family about the problem, they had replied that it was not a problem. They said one family member could favor one child, another could favor another child, etc., and everything would be fine.
There were two problems with this. First, it is not true that favoritism doesn't matter. It hurts, and it isn't Godly. The history of the Israelites has many stories of favoritism, and the results of favoritism were never good. The story of Jacob and Esau even describes a situation of one parent favoring one son and the other parent favoring the other son. The brothers ended up enemies. Perhaps in response to this problem with favoritism, the Old Testament law forbids the Israelites from showing favoritism to the children of one wife over another wife. In the New Testament, favoritism was a problem within the church, and both Peter and Paul, addressing the problem, taught that God, Himself, does not show favoritism.
The second problem with their statement is that it wasn't happening. Nobody was favoring my second daughter. My firstborn is easy to get to know. My second daughter has her treasures in deep mines. Those who take the time to get to know her find a rich treasure. Those who don't take the time find rocky ground. I could see that the favoritism was hurting both our firstborn and our secondborn. The attitudes of both girls towards themselves and others were being shaped by their place in the ranks of favoritism. But I didn't know how to heal that issue, since it was outside my power to change. All I knew to do was continue praying.
In my last blog, I mentioned that I did not have our presents on our third daughter's birthday. That led directly to a decision that began to bring healing to my second daughter. Since I did not have the presents our extended family had sent with us when my thirdborn daughter had her birthday, I decided to have a special day to give the presents from them to all three daughters on the same day. In our family, if multiple people have presents, we open them one at a time, starting with the youngest. My thirdborn opened her present, which I no longer remember. My second born opened her present, a bug sticker book. I was uneasy. When my firstborn opened her present, she found a beautiful giant-sized coloring book with many different pictures, including princesses, ballerinas, and flowers. With the coloring book was her own set of special crayons in a special case. Now, my second daughter, an exploratory learner, did notice bugs much more than her big sister, and the extended family knew this. However, she also noticed flowers and everything else in nature more than our firstborn, and she liked princesses and ballerinas just as much as her sister.
When her big sister opened her present, my secondborn exploded. She began screaming at her sister and hitting her. I jumped in to separate the two, but the evening was over. Anytime she saw her sister, our secondborn flew into her again. When bedtime came, we put our secondborn into our bed, since we couldn't put her in the room she shared with her sister. After all her siblings were settled in bed, I went in to talk with her.
"Why are you angry with your sister?" I asked. She couldn't answer. I wrestled with what to do. Should I ask her whether she felt jealous and thought that her sister was favored over her? If I was wrong, would that plant a new idea in her head? The evidence was very strong that the issue was over favoritism, so I decided to ask. "Yes!" and a flood of tears was my answer. My daughter was finally able to tell me her jealousy and hurt, and I was able to affirm that her experiences were hurtful and wrong.
After we talked for a bit, I moved her back to her bed. When I was tucking her in, seemingly out of nowhere, she said, "Actually, Momma, I don't need that doll. What I really want is more clothes for the dolls I already have. Could you help me make some?" Again, I was amazed at God's goodness and his ability to heal hurts. A few years later, through some surprise visitors who did not know the story, she was given the doll she had wanted. But most amazing of all is that the next time we saw our extended family, they had made progress toward loving all my children more fairly, so God was working there as well.
God's care for my oldest daughter's heart was healing and strengthening, but the roots of my worry about my children's hearts were still there. Just a week later, my heart turned to worry about the heart of my then youngest daughter. It was her birthday, and she was turning three. The problem was that we were in transition.
We had arrived in the country more than a month before our daughter's birthday. Though that should have been enough time to get settled into our new home, our landlord kept delaying. Staying in guest houses in the city was expensive, so we decided to go visit our old home in the bush for a week, though we stopped first at our soon-to-be home to leave the majority of our luggage. It wasn't until we arrived that I realized that we had nothing we needed for the birthday celebration.
My first problem was the cake. All of the cookware we owned was packed, and teammates had obligingly moved them to storage closer to our new home. We had no cake pans, no cookbooks, no stores to which we could run.
I solved that problem as best I could. Though we ordinarily had no phone signal there, I was able to call a teammate for a recipe. I didn't have all the ingredients I needed, but I substituted whatever I had and used the less than ideal pans available. So, I had a cake for her.
Then, there was the issue of presents. We had carefully planned for the birthday by buying presents before we moved, but in the confusion of the delays, I had not thought to bring the present trunk with us. How did I not think to organize better! I was grief-stricken that I could have messed up something so important.
I had to give something so I dug through the trunks I had with me to figure out what I could give. I owned two nice wooden hairbrushes, so I gave her one. I had a hand-me-down sweater from a sister, still a little too big, with a hole in one sleeve. The hole was unnoticeable when rolled up, but I knew. I gave it to her. I don't remember what else. I do remember that she absolutely loved both of those gifts, and I remember her dancing with excitement over them.
We gave her the other presents after we moved into our new house. That didn't take away the pain in my heart at my sense of failure. For the next year and a half, that birthday haunted me, and I told God how much it hurt me. One day, as I was mixing up muffins, my daughter, then four and a half, came to me and announced that it was her birthday in the game she was playing.
I knew that of all my daughters, this one was the one who most longed for me to take part in her play. I knew muffins would bake well in cake pans, so I asked her if she would like me to make a cake. "Oh yes!" she answered. So, I made the muffin cake and iced it.
Then I thought, she'll need presents. I got wrapping paper and wrapped up chocolates and balloons as presents to share with her siblings. Suddenly, I remembered a fairy tale book I'd felt led to buy, even though it wasn't anyone's birthday. I had done the same thing a few years before with three books. I couldn't understand why I was buying them until three children came to visit us, and they matched the books perfectly. This time, I realized this book was for today, and so I wrapped it too.
We all dressed up and had a birthday party! My daughter was thrilled! When her big sisters asked, "Why does she get a real party for her game, with real presents?" I told them the story I have just shared with you and told them God had just healed something. And God had, a brokenness not so much in my daughter but in me. My daughter didn't carry the burden I did. She had outgrown the sweater, but she still had the brush and loved it. I saw it two days ago. It is quite a bit beaten up but still treasured. She is seven now.
As I reflect on an accusation that our children will grow up to be resentful of all the deprivation, we, their parents, have put them through, I recognize that accusation as a fear which has haunted my own heart for many years. I don't think that this issue is exclusive to missionaries, however. It is an issue many parents dread. When a new baby comes, we fear our older children's reactions. When a new job requires us to move, we worry how the children will respond. If we find ourselves parenting in unhealthy ways we never intended, we despair. We remember the wounds we still carry from our own childhood, and so we worry about the wounds our children will suffer.
Lately, however, this fear has been fading from my heart. The more I grow in knowledge and relationship with God, the more experiences I have of His presence and provision and healing, the more this issue fades. 1 John talks about our hearts condemning us, but says that it is in God's presence that we are able to assure our hearts of the truth and bring our hearts into a place of confidence before God. I am amazed as I see this passage coming true in my own life. The voice of accusation in my own heart grows fainter and fainter as I gain confidence through my relationship with God. So, as I reflect on these stories, I want to share them with others, in hopes that they will awaken hope and inspire reflection upon their own stories.
One of these stories is about God meeting my oldest daughter in an area of inequality. One gift I have given to each of my children is a name song, with words of blessing and affirmation unique to them. Sometime after our family had grown to three daughters, I noticed that our oldest daughter's song was much shorter and less rich than that of her two sisters. I began to pray for God to give me more words for her song, but I couldn't seem to match any words to her tune.
I prayed for over a year regarding this. During that time, our son was born, and his song was also richer and fuller than his oldest sister's song. About three months after our son was born, I remember sitting on my daughters' bed singing their songs. I started with the youngest girl and ended with the oldest. As I was singing, I was praying. "Oh God, please give me more words to the song. I want her to have a richer song before she notices that her song is so short. I don't want her to feel hurt and unloved. Oh Father, she is six. She is going to notice soon. Please hurry."
Suddenly, I heard, "Maybe I want her to ask me for it." At that very moment, I finished my oldest daughter's song, and she started to cry, "My song is so short." I felt like I was dreaming. "Did she really notice tonight?" Then I thought, maybe I didn't actually sing her whole song; after all, I was praying at the same time. I sang her song again. She continued to cry and say it was short.
Still feeling as though I were dreaming, I told her what I had been praying and what I had just heard. I told her God wanted her to come to him for her song. We prayed together for the right words of blessing. Over the next few nights, my daughter would tell me, "These words came to mind, but I don't know whether they are from God." We would pray about them and work with them, shaping them to the tune. In two or three nights, we had two more verses.
With two more verses, I was satisfied with the song; however, my daughter wasn't done. She kept praying. Over the next year, she kept telling me she was still praying for more. She prayed until she had one more verse. Now her song is four verses long, and three of them came through her own experiences with God. I had thought her noticing the inequity in the songs would bring hurt and resentment. Instead, it built up her relationship with me and with God, and my relationship with God was strengthened at the same time.
We recently had someone ask us about the many things from which we are depriving our children. He suggested that when they are grown, they will be filled with resentment and anger towards us. Though it was written in a hurtful way, I think it is a true issue, but one we're not good at addressing within the church. Really, it is two issues. One is the issue of deprivation, the other is hurt and resentment. And right now, I am focusing on the first.
As I think about deprivation, I remember a time in college when I was invited somewhere. I didn't respond to the invitation because I was hoping to be invited somewhere else. I don't remember the outcome, I just remember seeing clearly that accepting the first invitation would mean having to turn down any other invitation. And in that way, deprivation is going to happen in my children's life. No matter what choices my husband and I make, those choices are going to eliminate other possibilities. One of the things I have had to learn over the years is what I call hanging up my hat. I have to make a decision fully. I can't keep my hat on my head in case a better option comes along. A few years ago, as I was reading the Bible, I began to notice that the Bible speaks of unbelief and of doubt as two separate things. I had always considered them as synonyms, but I felt God asking me what doubt was. I had never thought about it, but I looked up the greek word and its definition. In the New Testament, to doubt means to sit in the judge's seat listening to both sides of a case. To doubt is not bad in and of itself, but it has a purpose. That purpose is the ruling, the decision. There was a reason God asked me about those words at that time. I was at a point of indecision, of refusing to make a ruling, in a couple of areas of life. I kept asking for more evidence. One of those areas was whether God was really speaking to me. Was I just imagining it all? Was I really talking to myself? Was I insane? I had a picture at that time of me standing in the doorway listening to God urging me to come out and follow Him, but I was afraid to shut the door behind me and follow.
Interestingly, what God was calling me to was a life of less deprivation, of less self-sacrifice. That was scary to me because the Bible talks so much about taking up your cross. How could it be right to let God delight my heart? Should I allow God to make me comfortable? Surely that would negate the taking up of my cross. Yet, I realized that though Christ took up His cross, he also rose. He did not remain on the cross. The Apostle Paul said he had learned to be content in all circumstances, in both need and abundance. I was afraid of abundance, or even comfort. Yet God did not want me to stay forever in a place of deprivation and sacrifice of everything that would give me comfort. I could hear God calling me out of that place of deprivation, and I was scared to follow. I am thankful I did, though. Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything. I learned that there is a time for the cross, for dying to self, but there is also a time for resurrection, for life, and that in abundance. Kenya has become home to me. To be honest with you, I don't miss America. I enjoy many things while I am there, but when I am here, there is so much blessing and so many friendships that I can't miss America. There are hardships here, but there are hardships there as well. And what I've gained from my interactions with my Kenyan friends is invaluable. Those in the marketing or advertising business talk about branding. Branding has to do with the image a company or organization presents to the world. When people from the West see Africa, we tend to think of deprivation. That is a branding issue, and it is a false image, because it isn't a full image. It is as false as picturing America as inner-city life or as an ivy league college or as an ocean playground. Kenya is made up of people, and they are as varied and intelligent and beautiful as people everywhere in the world. Kenya is a place for living, for abundance — especially in relationships.
When I was struggling with whether to believe God, He said something to me. He told me that Christ had completed the work of incarnation. He told me that I don't have to become Maasai to be able to work with the Maasai. I don't have to change my culture to work in Kenya. He told me He had created me, and I was to give myself to others, as I am. I recently taught a Sunday School class for 8-9 year-olds. The lesson was about "You are the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden." The curriculum focused the message on all the things we need to do in order to be the light of the world, but it occurred to me that the passage isn't saying we need to do anything. It just says that is who we are. I started thinking and realized that a light doesn't light itself, and a city doesn't build itself. The message of that passage isn't that we need to do anything; rather, it is that the one who lit us, the one who built us, thinks we are so incredible He doesn't want to hide us but put us on display! Wow! A few years ago, I asked my friend Wamzy, who is an amazing artist, to show me some of the jewelry she makes. She was happy to show me. As she did, she put one on me and asked me what I thought. I was struggling to figure out a way to say it was beautiful but that I couldn't wear it, when another good friend, Nyamatha, said, “No, that's not our Ruth.” She took it off me, putting it on herself instead, and it fit herself beautifully. The Bible talks about Mary treasuring things in her heart; well, that has become one of the most precious treasures in my heart. My friend saw me for who I am, and even though I am different, she valued me without any desire to change me. In fact, she claimed me, with all my differences, as “ours.” That is rare. Even when I am in America, the expectation is that I should change myself and become like those around me. It is a unique and special thing to valued for who you are.
As I nurture my children, I want them to see the incredible beauty of the earth and the people God has created. I want them to focus on the things God wants to display. I point out to them their own and others’ uniquenesses, even though seeing others’ uniquenesses means seeing something you lack. I want them to be able to enjoy the gifts and opportunities others have been given, without regretting that they themselves have been given different gifts and opportunities. Once, when I was asking God’s direction about a decision where I felt tradition would dictate certain things, God replied, “I don’t want all the flowers in my garden to look alike.” Then He told me that He had created me with different desires than others and asked me what I wanted. I was shocked. Frankly, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted. I had spent all my life trying to live up to others’ expectations, and here was God setting me free. To be honest, the freedom was scary. Couldn’t I just stay in the cage, painful and constricting as it was? I told God I would rather Him just tell me what to do. Though I still struggle, I am starting to enjoy the freedom, and that is what I want for my children. I don’t want them live in a cage or even long for a cage, and I’m not saying American life would be a cage. I am saying a deprivation view is a cage, a thought that we have to be like everyone else is a cage. I want them to live the light of the world, the city on a hill that cannot be hidden, the incredible and unique person set on display by our awesome Creator.
(Note: this was posted by Joshua, but it's still Ruth writing)
While we were in the States for our furlough, I noticed something at a church we attended several times. It was something that on the surface seemed customary, expected, fitting. But underneath, that something nagged at me and made me uncomfortable. It made me feel off-balance and weighed down. Every service ended with the minister praying that we would be convicted of our sin.
That sounds so right, something at which you can nod your head. We are sinners. We need God to show us our sin continually, or we would ignore it, continuing in the same sinful direction we’ve always gone. It is the theme for which we expect our pastors to pray and on which we expect them to preach. Here is God’s standard, God’s ideal. Have you arrived yet? If our preachers aren’t preaching on our sinfulness, they have clearly gone soft. They are people pleasers rather than God pleasers. We have become accustomed on Sundays to hearing the ways we aren’t living up to God’s expectations. We expect to have a mirror held before us that will show us our failings and what we can do better this week.
So why did something so right, expected, and customary leave me feeling so uncomfortable, burdened, off-balance? Now for a long time, I had dismissed and ignored any feeling of discomfort. I am a sinner and should feel uncomfortable. If I don’t feel uncomfortable, it is a sign that I am worldly. But then God told me that He didn’t want me just to do the right thing while my heart was longing for the wrong things. He wanted both my heart and my actions to be united in love for Him. He told me to stop ignoring and overriding my heart, but to start examining and understanding what it was communicating. So what made me feel so uncomfortable? I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. All I could see was my failings, and they burdened me. I would work hard on overcoming one sin, but before I even got a good start on overcoming it, it was Sunday again, with a new sin being held before me. The burden of constantly seeing my sin before me was weighing down my head, and leading me into the unbalanced posture of discouragement and shame.
Now, this was what I was feeling. How did my feelings compare with Scripture? The issue troubling me was the constant prayer for conviction of sin, so what does the Bible say about conviction of sin? Jesus, in John 16:7-11, speaks about the coming of the Spirit. He says that when the Spirit comes, he will convict us with regards to three things, and not only one. Sin is the first of the three mentioned, but Jesus does not stop there. He adds righteousness and judgment. For each of the three, Jesus adds a reason the Holy Spirit will convict us in that area. Regarding conviction of sin, Jesus says, because they don’t believe in me. Regarding righteousness, he says, because I go to the Father, and you won’t see me any longer. Regarding judgment, he says because the prince of this world stands condemned already. Now, when I read my Bible, I make notes in the margin, and often those notes are questions. My note for this passage begins, “What does this mean?” because I don’t understand this passage. But then I move on to comment that I rarely hear prayers for God to convict us with regards to righteousness and judgment. I add that we seem to be neglecting these two important works of the Spirit. Clearly, this passage indicates that there is an imbalance, but since the passage follows a logic I don’t really understand, I did not know what the imbalance was.
I continued to pray and meditate on this imbalance. God promises to give wisdom if we ask, so I kept these thoughts in mind. Well, one day, I was very discouraged about an area of living where I continually failed in my expectations. In fact, three times in a row, I had completely blown it. Each time I failed, I became more discouraged. Finally, I prayed in desperation something along these lines, “God you need to help me, I am completely failing, and if you don’t do something quick to help me, I am going to ruin any testimony or witness I might otherwise be able to share.” Then I held up the three pictures I had of my recent repeated failings as proof. Immediately, God brought to mind another picture. This one was of a time when I completely excelled in the same area. The three pictures which had my focus were convincing me that I would never get it right, and my discouragement was growing and my ability to overcome was fading. Yet when God held up his picture of my success, my discouragement drained away. Immediately, new strength filled me. My thoughts took a new turn, “Look, I can do this. I am even able to excel at this.” Is that conviction with regard to righteousness?
At the same time, God did the same thing in another area. I was completely frustrated with the children. They were gathering toys together and putting them under my bed! They had some game going on under my bed. However, what happens after the game? The toys stay there. I told the children, “I don’t want you taking all those toys under my bed, because you will just leave them there.” I was doing something, but a few minutes later, I noticed that the game was continuing. I was about to blow up at the children when my six year old asked me, “Mommy, I can’t find a bag. Can you help me find one?” I paused my frustration to answer her with a question of my own, “Why do you want a bag?” “You said you don’t want us to take the toys and leave them under your bed. I thought if I put them in a bag it would be easier to keep them together and take them out again afterwards.” I had thought they were completely ignoring me. God showed me that the children were understanding the purpose of my ruling and were acting according to my purpose. Jesus was often frustrated with the Jewish leaders, because they were more focused on the letter of the law than on the purpose of the law. I realized the children were actually honoring me with their game and let them play with their toys under my bed. They remembered to take the toys out from under my bed when they finished. Is that conviction with regards righteousness?
I am still meditating on the passage, but these experiences have shown me how helpful it is to see when we are doing well. Philippians 4:8 tells us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We know when we are riding a bike or driving a car that we tend to veer towards the things at which we are looking. Is the same true when we are looking towards sin continually? While we need to glance in the rearview mirror or over our shoulder at times, our focus needs to be the road in front of us which leads us to our goal. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will convict us of more than sin. We need to pray that the Spirit will accomplish all three tasks in us.
Sternness. If I had to guess, I would say that sternness is not usually the number one trait a woman looks for in a man. I would also guess that a man who goes courting with sternness rather than flowers will awaken fear instead of love in the heart of the woman he approaches. Unfortunately, when I thought of Christ, all I saw was sternness. Just as I was afraid of the Father because of His justice, so I was afraid of Christ because of his sternness. I had learned to trust the Father, who casts our sin behind His back, but I was still afraid to approach Christ. I was afraid to have him turn and look at me. I was afraid of hearing his "Go and sin no more." Despite my best efforts, I still find myself sinning, so I thought I knew what kind of look Christ would direct at me.
I was troubled by my lack of love for this lover of mine, my fiancé. I had said yes to his proposal. I mean, really, the alternative wasn't a very bright prospect — marriage or eternal death. Um, let me think. And really, he is quite the hero, dying for me even before I said yes, and then coming to life again. Who else would or could do something like that? However, before I got a chance to meet him in person, he disappeared to get a house ready, and I was left wondering what kind of. What kind of character does he have? Does he know about all my character flaws? How will he react when I continually mess up?
Years ago, in South Africa, a young woman was preparing for marriage. One day, my husband and I were at her fiancé’s house, and she was there, cleaning house, washing curtains, mopping floors. She told me she wanted to see whether she could do the work marriage would require of her. That thought startled me, but I understood it. I didn't really think I could do the work my marriage to Christ would require. I, too, was trying to see whether I would measure up, but I was failing miserably. I dislike sudden change, so the idea that I would go from miserable failure to perfect angel upon my death wasn't very hopeful. Besides, I wasn't dead yet. There was still time for Christ to see how miserably I was failing, and what would he do if he saw it?
My realization that I was not attracted to Jesus sent me to get to know him. I began to read the book of John in depth and to talk with Jesus in prayer, asking him to teach me about himself. Jesus has unique experiences among the Godhead. He is the one who dwelt among us. He lived on earth as a human. I'm trying to live on earth as a human. If anyone can teach me how to do it well, it would be Jesus.
One of the first things I realized as I began to know Jesus was that he never directs his sternness at me. When he speaks sternly it is at something at work within me, but it is not at me. A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend about the passage in Romans 7 that says it is no longer I who sin, but sin which is at work in me. My friend said that the passage didn't make sense to him. How would saying we didn't do it help anything? Saying it is just something at work in us sounds like making excuses. After talking with my friend, I sought God on that passage. God showed me that we, people, tend to keep sin tangled up with our identity. We see sin as part of who we are, part of our nature. We try to keep from acting according to that "nature" but only by repressing it, which doesn't work for long. It always escapes our restraint. When someone addresses the sins in us, we get very defensive, because our identity is tangled with the sin. We see them as attacking us, attacking our nature. When we see sin as part of our nature, we put ourselves in a very weak position for overcoming sin. We hold onto it with one hand, while trying to get rid of it with the other.
Before we can truly be set free from our sin, we must see that our actual nature is the image of God and that sin is a foreign thing at work in us. So, God first teaches us who we are and reveals to us anything that does not belong to our nature, then having separated the two, Christ addresses the sin sternly, commanding it to leave, but he turns the face of his favor to us, to what is truly us. Understanding this has actually helped me to value the sternness of Christ. We are working together to remove a parasite that has attached itself to me and is draining me of my true strength and character. He is also gentle, wise, and discerning. In removing sin, God has a process. First, He establishes His love for us. He stays on this step until we cease to flinch at His approach, until we feel secure enough to climb on His lap. Then, having gained our trust, He begins to reveal to us a true picture of our identity. His Holy Spirit searches our hearts and reveals to us what is truly our character, and what is foreign to our character. Before God begins any process of weeding, He takes the time to strengthen our roots in His love, to build up and nurture that which is truly us. Then as we open our hands and hearts to Him, His Holy Spirit separates the roots of our character from the roots of sin, so that God can uproot sin without uprooting us. Only when God has accomplished all of this does Christ speak sternly to the sin at work within us, while continuing to speak affirmation and encouragement to us.
Lately, I have seen that God has a picture gallery. Our pictures are hanging in that gallery. We, in our efforts not to be vain, try not to look at ourselves too much, but God is inviting us in. He has lights shining on our pictures to bring out the full effect of the painting. He has a bench in front of it. He loves to sit on the bench and gaze at our pictures. He is inviting us to sit with Him as He puts His arm around our shoulders. He wants us to gaze in awe upon His picture of us. He wants us to take time to gaze upon our picture and be amazed at God’s creation.
A friend recently had an experience where she saw that her sense of shame was keeping her from looking up at God. She told me, "I saw myself on the floor, child pose, in front of Christ. It seemed a pose of worship, and of reverence. But then I heard very clearly that I was being immobile. When you are immobile, you cannot move, work, help, or create anything of beauty. I was told to get up!!!" She told me when she got up, there was Jesus with a huge smile, arms outstretched, and He said, "Dance with me!"
God does not want us to hide our eyes in shame. He wants us to lift our eyes and meet His. A few days ago, as I was reading John 21, I read a note that it is a bit tricky to translate the part about Peter being naked and wrapping his outer cloak about himself to dive into the water. I began to wonder why God had included that detail, and began to think about other passages of nakedness. I saw the passage in contrast to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve sinned. Immediately, they knew they were naked and tried to make clothing out of leaves and then hid from God. Their sin and their nakedness drove them from God. Now we have Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times and who is naked. He wraps his outer garment around himself, to cover his nakedness, but he heads toward Jesus as fast as he can. Instead of allowing his sin to drive him to hide from God, he takes his sinfulness to Christ, and Christ allows him to declare his love for Christ three times to bring healing to the part of him which was hurt by his denial of Christ. Then he acknowledges the longing of Peter to demonstrate his love for Christ by enduring suffering for him. That promise to suffer for Christ which Peter made and found himself unable to keep would be honored in the end. Peter would come to be fully himself, completely Christ's. What a beautiful story!
“What do you see?” If you read through the prophets, you find God asking the prophets this question many times. I think it is still an important question today, one we need to ask God. “Father, what do you see? Jesus, what do you see? Holy Spirit, what do you see? What do you see when you look at me?”
I think that for many of us, our own sinfulness fills our vision, and we are pretty sure it fills God's vision also (or would if we dared go into His presence). Like the Israelites, we'd rather not hear His voice or come too near Him, because we think it pretty likely there would be some yelling and hitting if we did. We hope we're not so bad that we would be killed, but our hungry hearts, which long for the love of the Father and Lover and Counselor, are so filled with a sense of shame that we dare not risk entering His presence.
Several years ago, I had an exchange with God regarding the Father's image of us. At the time, I was having one of those 1:00 a.m. experiences when you are exhausted and irritable and still have a lot of work in front of you. I found myself very angry with Joshua about something. I don't even remember what it was. I was trying hard to keep from yelling at him, but my anger was building. Suddenly, I remembered the passage about temptation, where God promises to provide a way out. With desperate hope, I prayed for God to provide the way out so I wouldn't yell at Joshua. Then, I found myself yelling at him anyway.
I was crushed. I had tried as hard as I could. I had asked for help. Yet I had still failed. I turned back to God and prayed again, “Where was the way out? I couldn't find it.” Instantly, I had a picture of God with His back to me. I felt hurt and asked, “Why would you turn your back to me when I needed you?” Immediately, I received two things: an understanding and a worded answer. The understanding was that my Father was choosing not to see something that would tarnish His image of me. God knows who I am, and He knows that it is no longer I who sin, but sin which is at work in me. He chooses to see me as I am, not as I do. The words were “I can't take away your sin yet, because the reason you don't want to sin is that you are afraid of me. I can't take away your sin until you understand my grace.” Both the words and the understanding came with a sense of deep love and tenderness that I can't replicate in writing.
“The reason you don't want to sin is because you are afraid of me.” As soon as He said it, I knew it was true. I was afraid of God's anger. I was afraid of what God might do in His anger. I clearly deserved and needed punishment. How else could I learn to be good? About a year later, God would ask me whether punishment was working, and I had to answer that, no, I was so terrified of punishment that I couldn't move. He then asked why I insisted that He punish me. I thought that was a strange response. However, at this point, I couldn't see that punishment wasn't working, and I couldn't think of any method except punishment to get me to obey.
“I can't take away your sin until you understand my grace.” In my mind, grace meant another chance, specifically, another chance to run the gauntlet. I had to try to get through the tests without falling down, but if I did, I could try again. Unfortunately, each successive attempt found me starting with greater injuries than the time before, so I fell sooner. To be honest, I didn't find grace a very hopeful concept. I knew that a second chance at running the gauntlet shouldn't be the definition of grace, but grace didn't seem very powerful and motivating. I felt pretty sure I could prove that even before the just judge: those times I wasn't punished and did the same thing again, those people who weren't punished and kept doing wrong, those times I let wrongs go and was hurt again by the same people. In my mind, grace needed force and punishment to help it achieve its intended purpose, yet God indicated that my perspective on grace was wrong.
I longed to be perfect and sinless, but God said that couldn't happen until I understood His grace. So I prayed again, “Then, please, teach me your grace!” I also began to meditate on this exchange. The understanding that God cherishes His vision of me as a beautiful image was comforting and life-giving. I had a pretty poor image of myself. His statement about my being afraid of Him led me to confess to Him a few months later that I didn't really love Him but was serving Him out of fear. It was troubling that I wasn't fulfilling the most important command, but was only trying to act as if I were. His statement that He couldn't take away my sin until I understood His grace kept me seeking to understand grace. Nearly four years later, I have come to understand that at least part of what God was trying to teach me is that grace is not removal, grace is supply. Fear has to do with punishment and removes strength from us, but grace has to do with love and gives to us strength, power, and even authority. We need strength to fight the battle, so we must put aside fear, guilt, worry. I have also come to see that what Christ did on the cross was bigger and more powerful than anything I imagined.
We need to know that God chooses not to see the sin at work in us, but has placed it behind His back on Christ's shoulders at the cross. When He looks at us, He does not see failures and sinners, but rather, He sees favored, beloved, pleasing sons and daughters. In John Jesus says that God the Father loves us even as He loves Jesus, not less than, not differently from, but just as. We also need to ask God to give us a true understanding of grace and the immensity of its power and authority and effectiveness.
Now, I need to tell you, shortly after I had this experience, I was sharing with a woman I highly respected, and she told me she didn't think that the experience was from God. I've been reluctant to share this story on the blog for fear of the same thing happening, but this past week, two things happened that have nudged me to share. Firstly, my oldest daughter, Alitzah, drew a two-sided picture based on a conversation she had had with God. On one side of the paper, she drew God smiling down at people enjoying creation; on the other, she drew God with His back to someone sinning. Secondly, I ran across a verse. In Isaiah 38:17, Hezekiah says, "for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back." I felt it was time to share.
Over the years since I began conversing with God, I have had many doubts. Are these conversations real? Is God really talking with me? Am I crazy? One thought which could not take hold was that I was talking with evil spirits. The voice I was hearing was a voice of love, and my heart responded to that love. My love language is communication. A God who both listens and talks with me won my heart.
This past summer, I stopped hearing God. I do not say God stopped speaking, but I stopped hearing. It was devastating. Just as a tree grows in response to light, I had grown amazingly in response to God's love and His giving of Himself to me in communication. Though I wasn't hearing His voice, I had the understanding that God was allowing my fears to grow so I could see them for the lies they were and reject them. I knew I had been holding onto both faith and doubt. I had to make a decision. The picture I had was of a garden with small weeds continuing to steal nutrition from the true vegetables. With God's help, I was plucking up the weeds before they could grow big, but they always snapped off and left the roots behind. God wanted to remove the roots.
A few years back, God asked me what doubt is. I didn't know. Was doubt the same as unbelief? With the help of my husband and BibleWorks software, I hunted for the answer. I learned something interesting. The Greek word for doubt basically means to sit in judgment listening to the evidence on both sides of an argument. It means you haven't decided yet which is true. You're considering. The writer George MacDonald considered doubt an important part of our Spiritual development. Without the process of doubt, we could never reach the truth. Jesus brought doubt with Him. Can the law really save you? You say you keep the law, but if you break it in your heart, you are breaking the law. If you break just one bit of the law you are breaking the whole of the law. Can the law really save you? If no one had doubted and considered Jesus' questions, no one could have come to faith in Him.
Doubt is important to our Spiritual development, but the purpose of doubt must be accomplished. We must make a decision. What do we believe? We cannot keep endlessly listening to arguments. We must make a decision, a firm decision. God told me, we have to shut the door behind us and begin to walk down the path we've chosen. He assured me, even if I made the wrong decision, He could lead me to a turn around place. I thought about how often when driving we have to go the wrong direction for a time in order to get to the right place. God told me to start walking, and He would go with me. So I decided to walk down the path with God and talk with Him. While we walked, He invited me to ask Him any questions and tell Him why I continued to doubt.
We walked and talked together for two years. God more than answered every objection I had for Him. Then He rested His case. It was time for me to make a decision. I had to choose whether I would believe what He said or what I had always understood in the past. I knew what I wanted to chose. God's words and His presence are beautiful. What I couldn't figure out was what to do with the doubt I still had. I tried to wrestle with it and make it go away. It wouldn't go. I agonized. I waited. I accused God of not helping me.
Finally I asked God one more question. What do I do with the doubt? Instantly, I was standing in front of my Grandfather's barn. A vision like this was a new experience for me, but I knew it was God. Um, why am I here? "Climb up into the hayloft." I climbed into the hayloft. It was filled with golden light and hay and haydust. I waited a minute; then um, what do I do here? "Lay down and rest." I lay down. I waited a minute; then um, why am I in the hayloft? I don't get it. Instantly, I was in front of the barn again. I saw the barn -- hayloft above, barn floor below. The hayloft was dusty, but clean. The barn floor was nasty. You really want galoshes/gum boots to walk there. As I looked, I heard, "You stay in the hayloft. I will deal with the barn floor." I realized that I had been mucking about on the barn floor of my doubts. I was trying to rid myself of the filth of my doubts and was only getting more mired. My place is to dwell on my faith and to nurture it by resting in God's light, in His life-giving presence. The only decision I need to make is to continue to listen to and to respond to His voice, to continue to walk in His presence, to focus on what is true rather than on all the doubts the world would throw at me.
Over the years as I have conversed with God, I have many times had others say they longed for that kind of communication with God. I have said that God loves to communicate with His children including them. Several times, I have been asked, But what if you don't believe He communicates with you? I haven't known what to answer. These are people whom I love. I want them to have what I have. I'm a woman. I love community gab sessions. My conversations tend to be heavily spiked with God talk rather than gossip, but that's because gossip is boring and old hand. It may be a new person, but the news is old. The things I'm hearing are NEWS. I love talking them over with others. I have longed to answer their question but haven't known how. The answer is that the question is wrong. Instead of looking at ourselves and at the sin and unbelief at work within us, we need to look at God, the Good Father, who is love. Love communicates. All we can do is think on these things. If we long to communicate with God, then that longing is something we inherited from Him. He promised that His sheep hear His voice. Our longing for Him tells us we are His sheep. Don't be afraid to listen to the voice of love that is already speaking to you.