I love hearing testimonies of the saints and often find myself wishing they were a more regular part of corporate worship in churches. Recently I was pretty excited when City Reformed in Pittsburgh asked me to share how God has worked in my life. Hearing people’s stories is always a great encouragement to me, so it was touching to (hopefully) encourage others with my own. I ended up being pretty nervous - it's not easy to be vulnerable about personal experiences in front of a church. But the chance it gave me to really reflect on God’s work in my life, having to process and articulate it, was invaluable. I’ve been doing a lot of that this past year – processing God’s work in my life – so I’ve decided to share some of my processing here on the blog. I’ll start today with the testimony I shared in church.
It might be obvious, but trying to sum up a lifetime of God’s work in my heart is really difficult. As I’ve thought about it over the past few days, though, I think it comes down to two significant things. First, my will. And second, my identity.
I’ve always been a very strong willed person, and while this can really be a great asset in life, it also means that I can often find myself in conflict with others. A lot of my memories from growing up involve fights and debates, not only with my parents, but also with my siblings and friends. Simply put, I don’t naturally like having to submit to a will that I disagree with.
I never really connected this aspect of myself with my spiritual life until I was eighteen, though. I grew up in a believing home and thankfully I had a lot of wise people around me with whom I could discuss my more intellectual questions about the gospel. By the time I finished high school, I remember that most of my big questions about the meaning and reliability of the gospel message had been answered. So instead of struggling with doubt, I came to a point of struggling with the call to submit to Christ.
I distinctly remember lying in my bed one night not too long after turning eighteen and realizing that I had no doubt about the truth of scripture and the truth of the gospel, but for the first time admitting to myself that I hated God. I simply just didn’t like the idea of needing to submit my life and my will to something above me. But admitting this to myself really terrified me. Because I didn’t doubt the reality of God or the truth of scripture, I knew that willfully rejecting God was an honest choice of damnation, and I didn’t really want to be damned.
After arriving at this conundrum that night, I spent one of the longest and most “emo” weeks of my life basically just sitting around on empty park benches trying to puzzle out this battle between my will and what I knew to be true. But if you ever find yourself going through a midnight of the soul like I did, don’t expect any sudden revelations or blinding light moments. It took me a long, slow year of processing to ultimately work through this conflict.
But by the end of that first week, I had arrived at a few conclusions at least. Most importantly, I realized that because God’s will is bigger than mine, he would have to choose to let go of me in order for me to really escape him; but, from what I knew from scripture, it didn’t seem like he would do that. I had a vision that God’s will kept me in his hands. I could shake my fist at him and I was free to express my anger, but I could not just loose myself of his grasp unless he desired to let me do so. My will was beat. I could now start the process of learning about and learning to love the God whose will would always be stronger than my own, and I consider that time my real spiritual rebirth.
The second main work God has done in my life involves my sense of identity. Beginning in my childhood, I have moved nine times across three continents. This may sound exciting, but I have always desired a sense of belonging and home. I think for some people, so much transition is pretty easy; but, for me it has brought about a lot of deep rooted struggles that are often expressed in the dual needs to belong and to prove myself.
These two issues came to a head, though, when I moved to China in my mid twenties to work for a campus ministry and within six months of arriving, I found myself so sick that I couldn't get out of bed for about half of every month. I eventually discovered that I was suffering from asthma, but all I knew for many months was that I had gone from being a successful student and worker in the US to what pretty much felt like failing as a missionary. To make matters worse, I was in a strange country and struggling to build community. My sense of identity was challenged to the core as both my feelings of belonging and my ability to prove myself were taken away from me.
But amazingly, that time was the closest I have ever been to the Lord. Having all of my supports taken away from me forced me to fully lean on Christ for my sense of self. All of the worldly things that usually shape my identity were gone, but I didn’t lose myself because I discovered that as a child of God, my identity is ultimately in him. I could lose everything while far from home and still be ok because I was at home in my identity in Christ.
I tend over analyze most things, but these two ways that God has worked in my life are not simply in my head. They have had serious practical results, namely, that I am a less contentious and less fearful person. That doesn’t mean I do not still struggle with these things, but when I look back to my earlier life, I can see a difference. Learning that there is a will larger and stronger than mine has given me a freedom to repent of my sins and to trust in the provision of God. Learning that my identity is completely in Christ has started to free me of my need to prove myself and of my fear of what people think about me.
Since getting married and moving to Boston, I’ve continued to learn and grow a lot. I’m learning about the holy fear that comes when God answers a prayer you were taught to pray from the time you started speaking. I’m learning that marriage demands more of me and gives more to me than I could ever have imagined. I’m learning that loving the church requires a painful level of humility and a supernatural level of grace. And I’m learning what it means to work hard for something you want and believe in without making it an idol. Ultimately, I’ve been learning about the amazing and sweet abundance of the Lord – that his blessings are unpredictable and incredible, and that he gives far more than I deserve.
And while all of these more recent lessons are good and have been so important, I still find myself needing to learn about finding my identity and home in Christ, surrendering my will to his. These are lessons I expect will continue with me all of my days. As I anticipate how God might keep working in my life along these lines, I find myself contemplating how he wants me to learn to rest in him, letting both of these lessons lead me to greater peace.
Our God is a good God, and I hope this testimony of my own relationship with him encourages you in your own.
So I know in the grand scheme of things I haven't been married that long - only four years. If anything I say here seems totally out of whack to those who have been married longer, please let me know.
Recently I've been thinking about when sex is the worst. And this is what I've come up with: sex is the worst when I want to be worshipped.
My husband and I have a really great sex life. I haven't shared notes with others, but I personally consider ourselves as having a good sex life because a) we like to have sex with each other, and b) we find sex with each other interesting and satisfying. I'm sure there are more clinical definitions of a good sex life out there, but to my mind I'm not sure what more I could really want.
Nine times out of ten sex is great. But I've recently been thinking about those tenth times and wondering what leads to them. Of course there are the obvious factors - one or both of us is tired, or someone ate too much ice cream and is bloated. But even those really obvious factors don't explain why sometimes sex just can fail to be what I know it to be most of the other times. Tiredness and gas produce laughter and mutual sympathy, but sometimes there is something else - something that creates distance and separation.
During those times sex just feels off. It feels like I am looking for something I can't get and as a result, I become petty and demanding. Why can't my husband treat me in a certain way? Why doesn't he do this? If we want to get down to the nitty gritty, it usually looks like me hoping he would start doing things like writing poetry, staring ceaselessly at me, weeping at my very ravishing presence. You get the idea. In short, why won't he fulfill all of my romantic aspirations (that I usually don't give squat about, but matter terribly when I'm in that certain kind of mood)? Surely something is wrong with him.
I went through one these bouts some time ago, and I kept growing more frustrated until one night it struck me - what I wanted was to feel worshipped in sex. I was suffering and making Trey suffer with me because, really at the end of the day, what I wanted was for sex, and everything leading up to it, to make me feel exalted and nothing short of glorified. Which, after all, is the backbone of all romantic thought. Haven't all of our stories told us that this is what sex should do - make you feel like the sole person in the world that matters? That a natural part of sex (especially for women) is the idea that your partner will be consumed by your very ravishing presence? Shouldn't my husband be literally going out of his mind just to be with me?
I can't speak for men, but as I've been thinking over these past few weeks, I find the above to be particularly true for women. Just think about it. Whatever perspective the story might come from - traditional, feminist, something in between - the climax of a romance is usually when the man becomes so hot and bothered by the woman that he can't get her out of his mind. Then they have sex (I'm counting more traditional narratives that end with a wedding). Women love that image, but what is it that they love about it? Is it the sex? No, it's what the sex represents - that the man has fallen at her feet, so distracted by her that the world must wait. Most romances kindle sexual appetite far less than they kindle the desire to be the center, the focus, and the purpose of another person's attention.
And that is a bad recipe for sex.
When I think about the good sex we've had it has never had anything to do with how much Trey is falling at my feet, and everything to do with how much we are giving to each other. In fact, many of those times have been a surprise, coming at times when sex is simply the result of fun companionship or when we are sharing one another's burdens. In short, sex is the best when I am not waiting for Trey to be breathlessly overcome by me.
The wife of the pastor who married us once told me that sex was best when both partners were working to please the other. I agree with her, but I also have had to learn that this statement doesn't necessarily mean a loss of self in sex. Rather I think it has more to do with understanding the self as with and for the other. It simply means that sex is an act of companionship, of mutual play and enjoyment. It is not an act of worship.
In a world influenced by discussion of the male gaze we are attempting to teach men not to view women as objects, but on the flip side, are we teaching women not to view themselves as idols to be put on a pedestal? During a recent trip to NYC, I saw The King and I on Broadway and started rereading Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl. These Victorian and 1950s cultural relics clearly articulate that women are deserving of breathless adoration, but I was surprised when a few days after getting home I introduced Trey to When Harry Met Sally and found the same general idea. These three stories all have very different views on sexual expression; but they all share a common idolization of women, encouraging us to see ourselves as something to be got.
I am actually pretty traditional in my views of men and women. I think it's good for men to value women and to treat them with respect. I like being wooed. But there is a difference between respect and reverence, and that difference can set a woman up for success or failure in the bedroom. Women, we are not made to be revered. Sex really isn't different than anything else in life, and I for one have found that desiring reverence does not work well for me in just about every other area of life. Just like it does in relationships, work, relaxation, etc., if you're anything like me, the desire for reverence, or worship, will most likely kill your sexual appetite, rather than fuel it.
One of my all time favorite quotes is from Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She says, "Here she comes, running, out of prison and off pedestal; chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman." Gilman wrote these words in critique of Victorian ideals, and I find them to be applicable today in my sex life. I don't need Trey to give me a crown or a halo to have great sex. I simply need to run to him as I am - a live woman.