Joy of every longing heart

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Have you noticed how our hearts long for things?

We long for–or crave–certain kinds of food, certain possessions, and so on…but above all, we long for things intangible.

We long for peace. Hope. Satisfaction. Joy. Love.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

From the dawn of humanity, we have longed. Our story is one of yearning for something beyond ourselves.

cs-lewis-quote-desire
(via)

But our sin kept us from being able to experience this hope and peace and fulfillment. We were destined to spend our lives hurting and groaning with unrest. The story of the world would’ve been an unimaginable tragedy.

But God.

God heard our groanings. He felt the relentless pull of our yearning. His love was so great for us that He orchestrated a grand plan of redemption.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

He sent His Son to be our deliverer. Our perfect substitute.

He sent Jesus to die. A baby born to die, He has been called, and rightly so. Sometimes I wonder if and how He knew about that while growing up. How did He, fully human, bear the weight of knowing what His future held? 

The night He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane–He trembled at it all. Yet He proceeded onward to the cross of Calvary, bearing in heart and mind you and me.

I started a tradition last year of writing every single one of my coworkers a Christmas card, designed to share the message of hope and also a personal word of encouragement. The beautiful cards I picked this year contain this message:

His destiny was the cross…

His purpose was love…

His reason was you.

This, my friends, is the message of Christmas. It is not a cute manger scene. It’s not a sugar-sweet fairytale. It’s the sobering beginning of the end. But it’s not dark. Its seriousness does not at all take away from the joy and hope of that night in Bethlehem when the Savior of mankind entered the world as a tiny baby, wrapped in human flesh.

He came to set us free–free from our fears and sins. Free from our shame and guilt. Free from the darkness that surrounds us and would devour us whole.

He came to give us rest. To be our strength, our comfort in troubling times.

He came to be the hope of a world gone without hope for far too long.

He came to deliver us, and to reign in us forever. To be the life-changing leader of our existence.

And in His coming, he became the joy of every longing heart. This, this is the peace He brings to earth. Not the peace of a world at rest, devoid of harm. No, that peace is still to come. But He brought rest to our ever-yearning hearts. He brought us satisfaction and hope in Him. This is the beauty of Christmas. And it’s something I find myself awed over anew each year.

Merry Christmas! May your Christmas this year be a celebration of the Savior who brought us peace.

I cannot do anything

I cannot do anything

Note: This is the first post I ever wrote for this blog, way back around September. But for some reason, every time I stumbled on it in the drafts folder, I felt like it wasn’t the right time to share it. Today, however, I was again reminded of the principle in this post, and so I’m sharing it with you. I hope it will be an encouragement to someone today.

***

It’s been over two years.

From the beginning, I knew I was getting into something huge, something complicated, something that would be difficult.

People always are.

But I also knew it would be worth it.

People always are.

There’s a saying, “The older I get, the more I realize I do not know anything.” And that has already proved to be true in my life. Because over the days and weeks, months and years, I have learned that much of what I thought I knew was actually wrong. It’s a difficult thing to understand people, sometimes. Every time I think I finally understand something, later something else comes to light and I realize I was wrong. I did not understand. And, inevitably, sometimes I wonder if I ever will.

It’s a complicated and messy and confusing and just plain hard thing to love people, sometimes. Especially those with life stories so different from my own.

When people trust me enough to talk about the beyond-surface level of their lives, I consider it a privilege. I try to understand them and where they’re coming from as best as I can. And I try to share truth with them as it relates to their situation. And I pray. I always, always pray. But sometimes…sometimes I feel helpless.

If you care about someone, naturally, you want to be able to make their life better and fix their problems.

But that’s not the way it works.

It took me a long time to learn that. To learn that it’s not my job to fix things, to always have the perfect word of advice, or anything like that. It took until a moment of understanding, a moment where things finally “clicked” and I understood why things were the way they were with someone, and a moment of cold, hard realization–I cannot do anything about this.

I think as humans, our reaction to things that we see as problems is to fix them. To figure out what’s wrong and what happened and how to make things the way we think they should be.  It’s kind of an instinct. And that’s not always bad. In fact, sometimes it’s a very good thing. If someone never wanted to fix problems in life, I would be very worried about them, because they must have a serious case of apathy.

But sometimes, this intense desire to fix things can be just another way we try to control our lives and the lives of those around us. We forget so often that we are not in control, don’t we? We forget that God is in control.

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” – Proverbs 16:9

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” – Colossians 1:17

“Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.” – Psalm 147:5

“The LORD works out everything to its proper end.” – Proverbs 16:4a

We can make all the plans we want. We can desperately brainstorm and try to come up with a solution. But God is the one who knows exactly what’s going on and has a plan for it.

When we come to the realization that we are not in control–that we cannot do anything–we are finally ready to let God work. How did that night go for me? I realized the only thing I could do was pray and continue to love. But then the other thing that hit me was, “that’s all I’ve ever been able to do.”

Nothing had changed about the situation. The only thing that had changed was my understanding of it.

Jesus didn’t command “love your neighbor and.” There was no and. No “love your neighbor and…fix all their problems.” No “love your neighbor and…be sure you always have something to say about their life situation.” No “love your neighbor and…it’s your fault if they don’t become a Christian.”

There simply is no and.

All we are commanded to do is love.

Do you see how freeing this is? It means it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to say. It doesn’t matter if we spend months or a year or two years or ten years or our whole lives loving someone who’s lost only to die without seeing them trust Christ. It doesn’t matter if we can’t see the results, as long as we are faithful to love.

All God asks of us is to love the people around us. We trust Him for the rest.

Loving people is still hard. It’s still confusing and uncertain and painful and patience-trying. But if we remember it’s not about us and what we can do, and leave the rest to God…it’s so much less complicated.

Have you ever had that moment before, where you looked at a situation in your life or someone else’s life and realized you just couldn’t do anything? Take heart, friend. Nothing changed. God is still God, and He is still in control. Trust Him.

What are some of God’s commandments you’ve recently seen in a new light? How do you think realizing we cannot do anything helps us to live freely?

Legalistic grace?

Legalistic grace.jpg

In my last post, I talked about the balance between love and truth. I discussed the danger of going to either extreme, and mentioned hypocrisy as one of the results.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about the contrast between legalism and grace, and everything in between. And after my pastor’s sermon yesterday morning and this wonderful post by a friend of mine, I’ve decided to write out some of what I’ve been thinking through.

It’s clear this is one of those balance issues, because we are in the age of grace, and yet not completely abandoning the law. Paul’s letters clearly instructed churches in changes they needed to make in their lives, and Jesus certainly wasn’t teaching this laid back, do-what-you-feel-like lifestyle. Yet today, hordes of people have leaned so far to the side of grace that they’ve actually forgotten that God’s will for His redeemed people wasn’t that they do whatever they please. This grace we take for granted cost the life of His Son. Sins aren’t “oopsie daisies.” They grieve the One who purchased our freedom with His blood.

Ephesians 2:8-10 states that we are saved by grace, through faith alone. Our works have no part in salvation, specifically so that no one can boast. That much is clear. But verse 10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” We are created to do good works! So apparently, they must come in at some point.

This is where the distinction comes between works that come after salvation and legalism, which says that works earned salvation or were required for it in some way. Grace covers all of our sins–past, present, and future–and enables us to grow in our relationship with God, overflowing in works of righteousness. The salvation comes first, and then out of the resulting relationship with our Redeemer, we obey and serve Him out of love.

Grace doesn’t excuse us from commands–it just means we don’t have to strive to measure up. Christ has fulfilled the law, so we aren’t condemned by it any longer (Romans 8:1). Grace frees us from having to be legalists and slaves to sin, and allows us to dedicate our acts of obedience to God with love, rather than obligation. In John 15:14, Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Numerous times, Paul instructs believers to “put off the old man” and put on the new. Far from being people who take advantage of grace to tout our “liberty,” we should be people who recognize the enormity of what we have been given in Christ and dedicate our lives to loving and serving Him.

Paul also warned the Corinthian church to beware of causing fellow believers to stumble. 1 Corinthians 8:9 says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul discussed some “gray areas” in the day, specifically whether or not the believers could/should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He said that not being a stumbling block was so important that “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” Finally, at the end of this discussion, he said, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). His point was that rather than spending so much energy trying to create a set of rules to follow, we should ask ourselves whether we are glorifying God with this thing.

Here’s the balance: God makes it clear in His Word that salvation isn’t the end of His work in our lives.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” — 1 Peter 1:14-16

We are instructed to be holy, as God is holy. This command is a continual process in our lives from the day we are saved until the day we die.

But the complementing side of the scale is God’s grace poured out upon us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is now no condemnation for us as followers of Christ. It is not God’s desire for us to live in guilt and fear. Yes, He wants us to be more like Him, but He is not disappointed in us. He desires that when we fail, we confess and repent from it, and genuinely try to win next time, through His help. He doesn’t sigh and roll His eyes and say, “I guess I’ll just have to forgive you again…but you’d better not mess up next time.” 1 John 1:9 says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God promises to forgive us, and He doesn’t do it grudgingly.

Finally, here’s a small portion of Romans 8 that explains our relationship with God. The emphasis is mine.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” — Romans 8:12-15

 

We have an obligation to God, but the payment for our sins is on Christ. Any and all imperfections in our lives have already been taken care of. What’s left is for us to grow in our Christlikeness day by day.

Romans 8, the whole chapter, is really the best in-depth explanation of how and why the law and grace work together. What I’ve done here is simply try to explain what this dynamic looks like. I hope it was helpful to you–it was good for me to work through it.

What do you think the balance between the law and grace looks like in practical living?

The paradox of love and truth

preach the gospel at all times small

We’re living in a world today where Christians largely fall to two extremes. The first: those who focus on loving others and accepting them for who they are so much that they lose the holiness and consideration of the truth that, as Christians, they should have. The second: those who focus so much on the truth and keeping themselves separate from the world that they become hypercritical of others and sacrifice their witness of love to a world in desperate need of it.

It’s a paradox–the paradox of love and truth. Neither extreme is correct, or what Christ intended. Both love and holiness are necessary to a Christian.

…One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:35-40

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” – John 17:14-17

Do you see the paradox here? Jesus’ two greatest commandments were to love God and love others. But in His prayer for the disciples on the night He was betrayed, He says the world will hate the disciples because they are not of the world, and asks the Father to sanctify them (make them holy) by truth. Obviously both are pretty important.

But how do we win a world to Christ with truth that sometimes hurts and love that sometimes is scared to say something hard?

First of all, we must realize there’s a balance. Extremes are dangerous, and sadly, we are often too quick to rush headlong into one side of an idea without considering the other. Those who focus completely on love forget that love that omits truth is not love at all, while those who get caught up in preaching the truth constantly can forget that no one will be won to Christ by arguments. We need to have love and truth in our witness to truly be a light to the world. But what does this look like?

A witness characterized by love realizes that Christ loved us while we were sinners. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If we are to love like Christ did, we have to love those around us like He did–sacrificially, realizing that they are sinners in need of a savior, and doing all we can to point them to that savior, even when it’s not easy. Even when it’s “messy.” To do this, we need to spend more time listening than speaking, and show people we truly care. They need to be able to trust us and feel safe with us, and respect us enough to want to listen to what we say.

A witness characterized by truth realizes that the very foundation of trust in Christ is knowing and believing the truth that God is holy and just and we are sinners who have failed to meet the mark (Romans 3:23). During His ministry, Jesus said some pretty controversial things and a lot of people were upset with Him because of that. But that didn’t change the fact that they were true and needed to be said. If we are to share the truth like Christ did, we must be bold and speak out even when the world doesn’t want to hear. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world today that is flat-out wrong, and we must trust God enough to speak up and “say things like they are.”

However, a witness characterized by love and truth realizes that a life well lived is often the best witness of all. A quote I read once that really stuck with me says, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” A witness characterized by love and truth realizes that there are times to speak truth boldly, and times to be quiet. She realizes that actions speak louder than words, and will spend more time modeling the truth by her actions than speaking it with her words, that way when she does speak, her words will carry the weight of matching her actions. She realizes that loving someone means telling them the truth about themselves and God, but doing it in a gentle way, as instructed in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

 

A great failure of the church today that comes as a result of these two extremes is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy destroys the church’s witness to the world faster than anything else. If you preach love and mercy but condemn or mistreat sinners, making no attempt to listen to their stories and understand, the world will scorn you, and rightly so. If you accept everyone “as they are” and say that everyone should do what’s best for them, even though you have said you believe in Jesus (who said He’s the only way to heaven!), they will shake their heads at you and call you spineless or a “milksop.” And rightly so!

In a world where so many are going to the extremes, will you be the one to love people by listening to them, caring about them, serving them, praying for them, and sharing the truth with them? If you would be a good witness, make sure your life lines up with your words, and never forget where you came from. Look at each person as someone made in the image of God, loved enough by Him that He sent Jesus to die for them; as someone with an eternal soul headed for either heaven or hell. And then do your best to show love to them, speaking the truth in gentleness and respect when the time is right.

What do you think the balance between love and truth looks like? When have you had to walk the line in a situation with someone? How do you help yourself see each person as made in the image of God?

Lovesong to a dying world

Lovesong to a dying world full

Shalom: A Hebrew word translated as peace, but with a broader meaning that carries the idea of wholeness, of perfect completeness, “as things were meant to be.”

God, be our rest. In this world of broken shalom, You are the one who is constant. Whole. As things are meant to be.

You placed the longing in our hearts for that completeness that can only be filled by You. It broke Your heart when Adam and Eve chose to doubt and go their own path, and You had to cast them out of the garden, the first blood sacrifices for human sin cloaking their backs.

But even then, You gave the promise of a Redeemer to come. To enter this world of broken shalom and provide the way back to You.

Through the ages, the promise rang. Through death and disobedience. Through grumbling and groaning. Even as Israel fell and the people were carried away into captivity, the prophets proclaimed the message: One was coming who would be the Messiah.

Then the silence. Four hundred years, as the people waited. Some doubted, some disbelieved, but others clung to the stories and the prophecies–threads of hope.

And then, finally, the Messiah was born. His name? Jesus–Savior. Emmanuel…God with us. At last, the miracle. The bridge to restore shalom.

 

Christmas is more than a day to recognize the birth of Jesus. It’s a gateway of hope. Of opportunity contained in the angels’ proclamation of God’s lovesong to a dying world: “Peace–shalom–on earth. For today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.”

Sarah Spradlin wrote a poem once about writers. One line that particularly resonated with me reads, “Writers are a people who will watch quietly as the world, in all its glory and depravity, spins out of control and still believe it’s worth saving.” It reminds me of God looking upon the mess His creations made and still deciding that we were worth saving. That we were worth the price of a Savior.

“Emmanuel…now all is well. God dwells with us.” (See “When She Looks at Jesus” here)

God dwells with us.

 

There’s such a beauty in Christmas when you celebrate more than just a baby in a manger. When you recognize the shattering of the darkness–literal, spiritual, and metaphorical–the host of angels accomplished that night. When you understand the hope, the answer to everything gone before and to come, that was born that night. When you understand the glory and the sacrifice packed into that tiny bundle of humanity, lying in the straw–then, then it becomes beautiful. A story of beauty entering into our brokenness in the form of a baby, that cry of beginning ringing out into the land.

The promise, the hope of Christmas: The cross has created a way.

And that is where the peace comes from–knowing that though this world has troubles, though questions may still echo in our hearts, the greatest ones were answered in the Messiah as He accomplished His redemption. “It is finished!” He cried, and in the light of eternal glory, these troubles are indeed light and momentary (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Meanwhile, the Redeemer left us with a very special job to do. The Creator entrusted us with bearing His message–His lovesong to a dying world. As 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 says, God “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” and has “committed to us the message of reconciliation.” In fact, we are Christ’s ambassadors, “as though God were making his appeal through us.”

There’s such a beauty in Christmas when you celebrate more than just a baby in a manger. When you recognize the shattering of the darkness–literal, spiritual, and metaphorical–the King of kings has chosen to accomplish through us. When you understand the hope, the answer to everything gone before and to come, that was born in us that night through His presence, which was itself the fulfillment of countless promises and prophecies. When you understand the glory and the sacrifice packed into that tiny bundle of humanity, lying in the straw–then, then, it becomes beautiful, and you begin to realize your purpose in this big old thing we call life. It is a story of beauty entering our brokenness–our messy lives and hearts–in the form of a baby, and providing a new beginning (2 Cor. 5:17). Providing a chance to be used as a vessel for His glory (2 Cor. 4:7).

The promise, the hope of Christmas: Broken shalom doesn’t have to stay broken. In Him, we are complete (Col. 2:10), and have the opportunity to let our completeness and fullness of joy spill over into other lives, touching pockets of brokenness and filling them with the light.

Oh Father, use us as restorers of the broken shalom in this world. Fill us with the peace that surpasses understanding (Phil. 4:7), that we may shine like stars in the darkness of this world (Phil. 2:15), overflowing with the radiance of Your love.


 

Here With Us, by Joy Williams