"You should have ...." Those words have been like a cancer ravaging my heart and mind and soul, and my body. I was dreadfully afraid of getting it wrong, of hearing, "You should have ...." I was afraid of angering or even disappointing God by the things I failed to do, and the list of tasks I felt God wanted me to accomplish daily was oppressive. I also believed that God expected me to meet every need I saw in everyone around me. I lived with a constant sense that my work was unsatisfactory to God. When God said to me that I only think of Him sitting, I tried to think of Him standing and acting. Is it any wonder that the only action I could imagine Him taking was hitting me?
Well, four years ago, we were in Nebraska during our furlough from Kenya. My husband was teaching for one semester at Nebraska Christian College, and I was praying for all of my husband's students. I would read their journal responses to the books they were reading and ask God to lead me in how to pray. While I was praying for one student, at the end of the semester, I found a journal response from mid-semester. In her response, the student had asked to come and talk with us since she was struggling. More than a month later, we had still not responded, because we hadn't even seen it.
I had gotten up very early that morning in order to pray. It was just about dawn, and I had already been up praying for a couple of hours. So now, I was weary, and when I should be feeling that I had accomplished something for God, I was instead dealing with with an intense attack of guilt. I had an anguishing ten minutes listening to the accusations which were pounding at me and berating myself. Then, to my surprise, I heard myself making a bold declaration aloud, "I will not accept this guilt. God could have blinded me for a purpose. I'm going to ask God to judge me. If I am guilty, He will tell me." I am still amazed that I was able to say that at that time. I believe it was the Spirit at work.
I called the student and invited her to dinner. It was the last possible day we could meet before I left. We ended up sharing our stories for about three hours and saw that God was teaching both of us many similar things. We also prayed together. As the student prepared to leave, I asked her, "Did God accomplish what He had for our meeting together tonight?" The very first thing she said was, "It was good you didn't answer when I first wrote to you. I was trying to go to people. God wanted me to go to Him." God had judged me and found me guiltless!
The student went on to explain that because we did not respond, she found herself crying out to God instead, and He answered. God's grace in that situation was amazing. Had I seen her response earlier, I don't think I could have believed that God didn't want me to act. Knowing me, God instead found a way to demonstrate clearly to me that I don't have to answer every need. He loves it when people come to Him themselves. Even Jesus said we don't need Him to talk to the Father for us. Because of my delayed response, when the student and I talked, what I shared was confirmation and encouragement for what she had already learned from God.
That one incident did not remove my struggle with guilt and my fear of hearing, "You should have ...." I would try to ask God before jumping in to answer needs I saw, but doubt kept eating at me. What if I am just making excuses not to help? What if that wasn't a principle to follow, but an exception? What if God is disappointed with my selfishness?
Two years later, I was on a tight schedule. I had three stops to make and two children in tow. In Nairobi, getting one thing done from your list is considered a good achievement for your day. I needed to get all three things done, and before traffic hit. (We rank #4 worldwide in commuter misery.) As I left stop number two to head further into Nairobi for stop number three, I was pushing a cart with my children and my purchases. I passed a woman struggling with her cell phone. Someone was trying to help her, and I passed on by. As soon as I passed her, guilt washed over me, pounding at me. The whole walk to the car accusations assaulted me. As I opened the back door to put my purchases in the car, I heard God speak an idea. I can't remember the exact words, but this was the essence: "I will not attack you afterward for not acting. I will speak to you beforehand if I want you to do something." Peace filled me.
"Mommy, will you play with me?" I hear this frequently. "I'm busy." or "In a minute." My children hear these statements with equal frequency. You see, I tend to think that work is the priority; fun is for when the work is done. There are beds to be made, dishes to wash, laundry to do, ... I have a long list. And of course, just when I think I'm about done, I find that the children, who were left alone too long while I worked, have dumped out all their toys so you can't walk through their room. I sigh and think, "More work."
Right about then, I hear, "You said in a minute. Can you play with me now?" I suggest, "How about I help you clean your room?" While we, make that I, clean their room, complete with lots of prodding, some yelling, and some accusation, I point out that if they would help me more around the house, I would have time to play with them. Though I didn't put it into these words at the time, I was trying to motivate them by guilt. I thought if they just felt bad enough, they would help. It didn't work, of course.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus asked a lot of questions to challenge our wrong thinking about God. One of the questions He asked was whether we parents would give our children a rock when they ask for bread, or a snake when they ask for fish. I think I have, many, many times, but I thought I was supposed to. I thought I was being like my Father.
I knew God has purposes He absolutely wants to accomplish -- the saving of the lost and the care of the needy. I thought He was single-minded in His pursuit of these purposes. I didn't think that He could be bothered about anything else until these purposes are accomplished. I saw Him as a parent who is so busy with work that He doesn't have time for His children.
In my mind, He had been concerned about me when I was "lost." It seemed to me that as soon as I came to Him, no longer needing to be "saved," I basically moved to His blind spot. His single-minded focus was on the lost and the needy. I was no longer lost, and need is relative. I might think I have needs, but not compared to others. I was one of the ninety-nine left in the sheep fold. Only, I wasn't just left there while He went looking for one sheep. He was out looking for many lost sheep, and consequently, He had no time for me, not even time to take me to the pasture.
I felt that the only way to get the Father's attention was to work hard, to help Him. I needed to be blind to need in myself and to focus all my attention on the needs of others. Anything else would be selfish.
I did not understand Isaiah 43:4, "For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life." I didn't understand that He was willing to pause on this work of seeking the lost, this most important task, just to spend time with me. These others, the lost ones, are valuable to God, but not so valuable that He forgets me for them. He will pause in the middle of His work just to spend time with me.
There is a phrase, "There are none so blind as those who will not see." Well, there are none so enslaved as those who think they deserve slavery. I thought I was only fit to be a slave, so I saw the Gospel message as a list of assignments. Jesus said, "if you love me you will keep my commands." I didn't realize that Jesus was telling us to focus on getting to know Him and learning to love Him. I thought He was focusing on behavior. I searched Scripture to discern what behaviors God liked and pushed myself to do them: thankfulness, worship, service, evangelism, prayer, Bible reading, meditation, discipline, accountability, compassion, confession, giving, tithing, .... My duties expanded, and the weight of my shackles had me plodding more and more slowly.
I was troubled because I could see that my good actions were not coming from my heart. They were coming from obligation, not love. Phillis Wheatley, the poet who lived much of her life as a slave, wrote, "In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance." I could see this longing in my heart, but I tried to tell myself I was already free. My heart knew the truth. I was making myself a slave.
Three years ago, my husband and I were reading The Jesus Storybook Bible with the children. Wonderful book! In the chapter called "The Singer," Sally Lloyd Jones said that Jesus had come to teach us a song we were made to sing: "God made us. He loves us. He is very pleased with us." Shortly after we read it, I was talking with one of my daughters. At five years old, her eyes were already haunted with the failure I felt, and it bothered me. I remembered the song, and I told my daughter, "God is pleased with you." She answered in a voice of disbelief, "How can that be true?" Her voice and words were a knife in my heart, but I struggled to answer her, because I didn't believe that God was pleased with me.
(As a side note, at that time, God gave us another name for that daughter – Anastasia, which means resurrection. He also gave me a new verse to sing her about His love for her. It has been wonderful to watch her eyes lose their haunted look as God has been healing me. As I am healed, I am able to be part of God's healing of my children.)
Since them, God has been pouring the thought of His pleasure into my heart. I don't know how many times He has breathed those words into my heart. I do remember clearly the last time I heard them vividly. It was a few months ago. I was walking with a friend whom I dearly love and rarely see. We were taking our children to the park. It was a beautiful spring day. Everything was glorious except one thing, my heart would not rejoice.
I tried to make my heart rejoice. I tried to praise God. I knew when you are discouraged, you are supposed to find something good and praise God for it, yet here I was surrounded by wonder and glory, and my heart would not let me praise. The harder I tried to praise God for the wonder I could clearly see around me, the more my heart revolted. I despaired. My heart just wouldn't cooperate. If I couldn't make myself praise God about things which were wonderful, there was no hope. What would I do in hard times? I was still failing God.
It was at that moment that I heard clearly, "I am pleased with you." There was a smile in that voice. I could hear God's pleasure in His tone, and my pressured heart sank into God's embrace. It wasn't rebellious anymore. It was dancing! I could praise God when it came from my heart, and that was enough! I didn't have to manufacture praise! Since then, though my heart still rebels at times, I have found praise flowing from my heart more and more.
One night in April, four years ago, I stood under a cold, windy Nebraska sky and looked up at the stars. My husband and I were on furlough from a fairly successful two year term in Kenya. We were missionaries in residence at Nebraska Christian College. Our ministry there was also fairly successful. My husband and I were fasting and praying twice a week. We had a prayer ministry with the NCC students. We were committed to "Here I am, God, send me."
That night, I had stood under the stars for over an hour, talking and praying with a student. It was one of the days when I had been fasting. Usually, I would have already broken fast, but I was still at work. After the student left, I stayed outside looking up at the stars, and I asked God, "May I go in and eat some ice cream, or is there more work that you would like me to do?"
I don't know my exact words. All I know is that I wanted to eat something nice, but I had a question in my heart, "What if God has more He wishes I were willing to do? I have been working hard, but there is so much more to be done. If I rest now, will God be disappointed? Will some task be left undone? Will God's plans be thwarted all because I stopped and rested?"
As I stood looking up at the beauty of the stars, God answered, "You think I am a hard man who reaps where I didn't sow. In other words, you think I will demand of you what I haven't already worked in you." The answer seemed rather odd, almost ill-fitting, but I understood that I was free to go break my fast and enjoy some ice cream, so I did.
At the time, I understood that God was saying, "I will work willingness in you before I call you to do something." I had already been pondering the verse, "For it is He who works in you to will and to do, according to His good pleasure." But my questions were still deeply rooted. "What if God is trying to make me be willing, but I'm too bad? Is He disappointed in me? Is He just being patient because He has to be? Is He sighing and taking a deep breath while restraining His fury? When will He finally lose patience with me?"
These questions have caused me to ponder God's answer, trying to understand what it means. But I couldn't find an answer to my questions. Recently, I started looking at the answer in both its context in the moment I asked and in its Biblical story. In the Biblical story, a servant believes his master is a hard man who reaps where he doesn't sow, so when his master entrusts him with money, the servant buries the money and doesn't use it to gain interest. We tend to think of the money as our spiritual gifts and burying the money is our unwillingness and refusal to use the gifts for God's work. But this didn’t fit my context. I was using my spiritual gifts. I was offering to do more work. I was offering to be the servant who comes in from the fields not to rest, but to wait on the table.
So why is He saying I'm the one burying the money because I think He's a hard man who reaps where He doesn't sow? Maybe I've been looking at the passage incorrectly. Maybe this is instead a Mary/Martha passage. Maybe the goal of the parable is not to get me out there, spending my money, using my gifts, doing more. Maybe the goal of the parable is to point out that I need to sit at His feet more, rest with Him, get to know Him. Instead of a slave, who works for Him without ceasing, and who is just breaking even on my profits, He is wanting a child who just climbs onto His lap and gets to know Him as He is. He wants me to come to Him and let every thought of Him being a hard man be swept away by the strength of His love. Stop doing, and start being. "Be still, and know that I am God." "It is God who works in me to will and to do according to His good pleasure." What I am willing to do is what God has for me to do, and it is enough. After all, five loaves and two fish fed five thousand.
Oh, I hope that is what He is saying, because it is beautiful! So far, each time I have tentatively rested from work when I'm tired and can't work without a sense of burden, God has blessed the rest. May I grow confident to rest.