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.
Some weeks ago I came across something on Facebook that deeply saddened me. I realized that a friend's life is rapidly moving in a certain monumental direction, and while her announcement received the praise of hundreds of friends, this decision is something I'm pretty sure will be destructive. In the end only time will tell, but when I saw the announcement, I felt a lot of guilt. I've been out of touch with this woman for more than a year and we were never close to begin with. But there were times when she tried to bring me into her inner circle, and then there were times when I tried to befriend her. But the connections never really happened. It grieves me knowing that even if I started pursuing her now, by the time we could even start approaching the topic at hand in a context of trust, some things would be too late. It would be a very different conversation - how to deal with the results of the decision, rather than whether to go through with the decision.
I've worked in student ministry for the past eight years and I've faced these situations over and over again; but these things aren't relegated just to those who serve professionally. Everyone understands this dilemma - the guilt we inevitably face in attempting to love and serve others. Call it "ministry" or call it "loving your neighbor" or call it just plain old "friendship," but in my experience, the very act of engaging another person in the hopes of being Christ to her all so often leaves behind a hundred doubts. In the attempts at loving another person, how many times have you left thinking, "I should have done that differently," or "If I only I had noticed that." Often, it simply feels like a long series of wake-ups to other people's realities only a few moments, or days, or years too late.
After all of this news broke, I went for a walk with one of my dearest friends and I shared the situation with her. Because she loves people, she also understands this struggle and shared with me some of her own stories about regrets she has for not being there for certain people. We both have so many stories of times and situations that seemed to make sense, but in hind sight, as someone's life is falling apart, we look back and think about all we could have done to help them. Like me, "guilt" was the word she used over and over again to describe how it feels.
For a moment, let's be honest - more than fear or selfishness, I think it is guilt that actually keeps us from loving people as we should. Not guilt in the cosmic sense preachers and psychologists refer to, but specific guilt about specific people that we know we have failed in our attempts to love. It doesn't take long in trying to love people before you realize that you are your biggest obstacle in doing so.
In my attempts to be Christ to others, I have a body count. A long list of women that I tried to serve and whom I have utterly failed. Some of those relationships were from my work with students, some of those are just my personal friendships. Some of them are my family members. In some of the cases the circumstances were so murky and confusing that I am not really sure what happened. In some cases it is blatantly clear that I sinned against a sister. Or that she sinned against me and I simply couldn't handle it. And it is all of these cases, all of these people, that tempt me to disregard my fellow human beings moving forward. I mean, who doesn't think that they want to help and love people? Most people are taught some general idea of the rightness of that desire from an early age. But how in the world are you supposed to continue wanting to do so when it becomes abundantly clear that you often have just as much a chance at becoming their greatest stumbling block as their greatest blessing?
Loving people produces guilt. When we have all tried it and seen ourselves fail, we are left with a vortex of doubt and shame. In myself, I know that I generally trend in one or the other of two directions when that vortex arrives. I either become defensive - it was the other person's fault; no one could have known; the system is to blame. Or I cease to care - there isn't really a problem anyways; no one person can shoulder that many burdens; I need to take care of myself, too, you know. But all of these excuses are just covering up the real problem - I feel terrible that someone I know is suffering either from their own sin or from the brokenness of the world and I didn't do anything, or enough, about it.
For the last couple of years, I dealt with a good bit of burnout in ministry. Some of that was due to being too busy and the time of life. But a lot of it - in hindsight, probably most of it - was due to a really painful relationship. I failed a student miserably about three months before she moved away from Boston. Without a doubt, there was a lot that was her fault. But as equally without a doubt, I let so much pride and stubbornness rule my actions that my face burns with shame thinking about it. She wouldn't talk to me for three months because she was so mad at me and during that time I sank deeper and deeper into self-pity. I gave up on the possibility of me being able to be a blessing. I could list off all sorts of reasons why sometimes things just don't work out, but really, I was just seething with the guilt of a lost opportunity.
During that time, and in the years since, I came to realize more than ever that repentance must be a daily occurrence in the life of anyone trying to love another person. No matter what kind of advice or training is out there for people hoping to serve other people, there is nothing that will keep you going in ministry, whether professional or personal, other than repentance. Unless your heart is being drawn into open confession before the Lord, no amount of devotions, or fellowship, or team building, or strategy development, etc. can take the place of simple and consistent repentance for your failures before God. Otherwise, you'll either go crazy trying to defend yourself or you'll go dead with apathy. We cannot live with guilt - it chokes and kills any impulse within us to love others.
This is what you often don't hear from people ministering to others - from pastors and parents, from social workers and student leaders - that the people we are the most afraid of are ourselves. We try to talk about all of the ways God is at work transforming lives, but we rarely talk about how God is transforming our own lives. We don't openly talk about the times those we serve are so failed by us that they don't speak to us for three months.
But the gospel is real. And it is the only, only thing that can accomplish true ministry. The reason I can love people is not because I am that strong, but because I know that my love doesn't matter in the end. There is a bigger love and a bigger story for all of these people. For whatever crazy reason, God chooses to use small, unloving, broken people to demonstrate that. Maybe it's the only way to demonstrate it. We often talk about Christians demonstrating God's love and we usually mean doing so positively. But maybe the times we fail also demonstrate the love of God by demonstrating his patience and kindness to those he calls his own.
In the end, loving people is only ever going to reveal more of my own brokenness to myself. If that's the case, then I am going to need to learn to repent more. The good news is that through Jesus, that is possible. In him, I am free to repent and without fear. I can look at my friend on Facebook, name the ways I failed her, and freely repent of them. I do not have to hide, I do not have to live in guilt. Only then will I have the courage to love again.
(Artwork: "Two Part," by Patrick Fisher)