April 3, 2019

When You're Dissatisfied and Restless Regarding Your Purpose

I am a "purpose" person and always have been. I remember as a teenager reading about spiritual gifts and the design of the Body recorded in 1 Corinthians 12 and feeling a sense of joy washing over me. If this is true, I thought, this means each person is designed by God for a purpose and, when found in Christ, gifted with supernatural abilities in order to fulfill that purpose! How incredible to consider!

I still find it terribly exciting that every single one of us is vital to the work of God in this world and in his Church. Even more wondrous to me, the Holy Spirit initiates the specific work God has planned for us, empowers us to do it, and then brings fruit from our work. Who are we that God would allow us to cooperate in his kingdom work?
So, yes, I'm a purpose person. I've enjoyed discovering how God has gifted me, and I enjoy helping others know and walk in their gifts.

However, in this passionate pursuit of mine to serve and work according to my gifts, I've continually experienced bouts of dissatisfaction, frustration, uncertainty, and fruitlessness. Even recently I've found myself reconsidering just about everything I thought I knew about myself and my place in God's work. Because the ground underneath me is constantly shifting, and I feel a sense of restlessness, as if I'm trying to grab onto something for stability that keeps moving just out of my reach.

That language sounds familiar, doesn't it? The writer of Ecclesiastes describes our human pursuits carried out in human wisdom as an attempt to grasp vapor in our hands--it's foolish and futile. The writer has come to this conclusion after methodically testing various human pursuits and finding himself, in the end, empty and restless.

He tells us repeatedly that human pursuits carried out in human wisdom lead to our dissatisfaction.

I've lived long enough now that I can see how this is true in the pursuit of wanton sex, money, self-indulgence, and worldly glory. But I struggle to see so clearly when it comes to serving God, to doing what's right and good for him, because I so often want to use my purpose and gifts in ways they weren't made to be used.  

Even godly pursuits carried out in human wisdom lead to our dissatisfaction.

What is human wisdom? This is wisdom birthed from the self--what we can understand, see, create, and devise. This is also wisdom focused on self. Human wisdom always seeks its own reputation, honor, and glory, believing we're completely self-made people. Human wisdom tells us we can figure out what God is doing from beginning to end and that we, in self-agency, can set our own agenda for how we'll use the skills we have.

When we layer our Christian lives and service with human wisdom, we find ourselves grasping for vapor. We won't find satisfaction in our labor, and we'll be endlessly frustrated when we view our lives, limits, and opportunities in light of the lives of others. In our human wisdom, we bristle , believing God withholds good from us personally and is limited in his long-term vision.

So I'm learning to interrogate my dissatisfaction.

The bouts of dissatisfaction I feel are often, if not always, from my attempts at replicating through my own wisdom and efforts what only God can do. Only God can make my service and work purposeful and significant. Only God can give satisfaction and peace. Satisfaction in my service is a gift, not something I can attain or earn.

The writer of Ecclesiastes, after noting his unhappiness and even despair that's resulted from his pursuits through human wisdom, says, "There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy" (Ecc. 2:24-25).

Who can eat? I can.
Who can work? I can.
Who can know joy in these everyday tasks? I can, but only when I do what I do for God, with God, and depending on God. The joy is a gift God gives in my union with him.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "There is nothing better." We can't improve on God's wisdom with our own: we'll only find purpose and satisfaction in our godly pursuits when suiting ourselves is not the end goal.

Our gifts aren't from or for us.
We find life when we live it for God and for the benefit of others.

Friends, Season Four of my By Faith podcast is well underway, and I hope you've had a chance to listen. With the help of my guests, I'm exploring what it means to serve God by faith. Whether you're serving in obscurity, out front in leadership, or through creative gifts, my prayer is that by listening you'll be encouraged to press on. Perhaps you don't know what you spiritual gifts are or how to begin cultivating a gift you think you might have. You'll want to listen to Jared Wilson share how we know our gifts, Christie Purifoy share how she began to see the value of what she calls placemaking, and Melissa Kruger share the unlikely way she started learning to teach the Bible. And don't miss two powerhouses, Lori McDaniel and Russell Moore. They gave helpful insight on leadership and perseverance that's still got me thinking. If you don't want to miss out on this season (or past seasons on friendship and suffering), subscribe to By Faith on on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, or Spotify.

March 27, 2019

Every Hard Day Will Be Beautiful One Day

I was recently reminded of this post I wrote for Desiring God about this time last year. I'm not sure I ever shared it with you, dear reader. I share it with you today, as we wait for Spring to become fully realized, in hopes of encouraging you in whatever lingering winter you're in.

I hadn’t opened the old shoe box in a decade, but lifting the frayed lid, I laughed in delight at the faces of dear friends and family staring back at me. For hours afterward, I sat on my closet floor, poring over stacks of these pictures that held constant vigil for happy college years, newlywed days, long ago ministry events, and first days home with babies.

My heart filled with wonder at being able to see so clearly in the present as I peered into the past. A friendship that began in college through a chance meeting has, in time, grown into one of deep joy and importance. The man who’d become my husband, pictured still very much as a boy, whom I’ve seen grow more and more into who God’s made him to be. The little baby, the object of several lifetimes of my worry, who’s now matured and overcome. Looking at time past, I marveled at how the pictures gave me the gift of sight, and how this sight affirmed the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Even in what I could never have imagined becoming beautiful, God had proven himself good.

You Don't See the Whole Picture Now
But then I turned back to my present moment, the very day I was going through old pictures, and I tried to wrap my mind around that day’s gifts: the already teenager and the almost teenagers, taking up more space in my home and heart, eating their way through life. I tried to squeeze every ounce of thankfulness from my heart regarding my husband and the state of our union, and I ticked through the church we planted, friends, extended family, our health, the opportunities and influence God’s given.

I couldn’t enjoy today's moments like I could the past, because the present was so difficult to see without fear creeping in. What if my beloved is taken from me? What if this boy of mine never learns from his mistakes? What if God asks us to say a gospel goodbye to the church we love? It’s as if my heart wanted to protect itself, belying the deeper question at the core of my fear: What if God isn’t actually at work, bringing all things to the beautiful end he’s promised?

We’re told by our culture, seemingly on repeat to live in the moment, to be present, and I know there is good in this charge, but living in the present and especially grasping what God is doing in the current moment is like looking through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We cannot fully see nor can we comprehend the shape of what God is making and the tools he’s using to bring all things to the beautiful end of redemption. We “cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and on a smaller scale, we can’t grab hold of a present moment with joy unadulterated by sin and darkness. We must not chide ourselves over missing the moments if we can’t grab hold of their fullness as they pass.

There is a better way to live in the present. The old box of pictures helps us understand how.

What We See in Old Pictures
Why are we often more moved by old pictures than new? One reason is that when we look back, those memories are informed by a longer and wider perspective. We're able to view them through the filter of God's goodness, without the fear or uncertainty we might have experienced in the moment.

We see this same phenomenon in Scripture. In the Old Testament, God repetitiously required his people to build altars, recall stories of his acts to their children, and celebrate feasts that marked the miracles he’d done on their behalf. Over and over, he said to them, “Remember.” They were to remember how God made freedom from slavery and provision from lack so they’d trust him in their present darkness.

And then, through the prophets, God’s refrain became, “Look forward.” They were to look forward to a perfect deliverer and forever rescuer, when God would make beauty from their ashes, so that they might trust him with those ashes in their present state.

The Goal for Our Present
We also see this in the New Testament. In the moment of Christ's crucifixion, everything appeared horribly bleak. Now we're able to look back on his death and resurrection and see unparalleled beauty, the kind that fills us with joy. This perspective fuels our hope as we look forward to seeing the promise of his second coming. 

Looking back at the past and forward to the future helps us walk by faith in a promise-keeping God in this present darkness. For many of us, both the past and the present are pockmarked with pain. Our hope in this life is set on God’s ever-present help, and on the reality awaiting us when Jesus sets all things right and all our pain is transformed into glory. Beauty awaits everyone in Christ.

The goal for our present, then, is not grasping the moment as it passes or seeing clearly what God is doing at every turn. The goal for our present moment, though seen dimly for what it is, is faith-- believing that God is with us, helping us, working in us, and hurtling us toward a beautiful end.

What You Can't See Today
God has designed us to comprehend and value the true beauty of his work most significantly over time. As an artist pulls the cover off a portrait in dramatic reveal, as the hiker’s perspective of where she’s traveled comes into view as she steps onto the mountain peak, one day we will see the scope and beauty of our redemption in full.

More importantly, we’ll see God, and in our first awestruck glimpse we’ll see beauty that John, in his Revelation vision, struggled to compare with anything we currently call beautiful. As we take him in, and as we take in a broader horizon of time and God’s work in time, our understanding of his beauty will come into far greater focus.

Perhaps then too we will follow the pattern Scripture gives: looking back with eternal eyes, seeing God’s goodness in every point of history. A heavenly shoebox of joy waiting for our unending discovery. And what will we look forward to in the future? In heaven, the future is one of joy’s eternal increase, every discovery of God’s handiwork a new facet of his beauty.

We do not need to see or understand all that God is doing on our hardest days. We just need to know that God is behind this, and in this, and that he will make it beautiful in time.

February 27, 2019

When You Have Only a Seed of a Dream

Last year was one of the most disorienting I've had since the year we moved to Charlottesville from Texas with the dream in our hearts to plant a church. For ten years, I've carried that dream--nurturing it, acting on it, supporting it, and giving myself away in order to see that dream become a reality. And it has. Our church is a beautiful testament to me of God's faithfulness and goodness.

As all beautiful, living things do, the church has grown and changed over the years, but I haven't always wanted to change along with it. I've never stopped wanting the dream, because I liked who I've been in it,  and I liked forging it into reality alongside my husband.

I've loved these difficult, brutal, sweet years of church planting. But we're not church planting any longer and, in all honesty, I've felt a bit lost for a while now. I've forgotten who I am apart from the dream. I, of course, am still pulsing along in the fabric of who we are as a church, but somewhere along the way, as it often does for church planters and their wives, the reality of the dream became entwined with my identity.

The Lord has graciously and patiently been calling me forward, to a new time and space, while at the same time splitting me from these false identities I've formed for myself. With him, this invitation and splitting is always a call to peace and freedom. But I have hesitated time and again, holding tightly to the glorious days of the past.

Who am I without this dream? 
I am not left without dreams, however. I have a new dream forming inside, one that's incubated for several years now. My heart beats a bit faster when I imagine what could be, and I know the reality of what could be, because I've sampled it already. I sense a growing passion implanted within me by God himself, but along with the passion is a catch in my spirit, a certainty that God is saying, "Not yet." If God wills it so, this dream belongs somewhere in the future. I, however, long to reach out and grab those days and those opportunities from the future and bring them to now.

Who am I without this dream?

I am this person here, that's who I am. I'm here in this place, among these people, with this limited time and these opportunities. I am, in other words, right where God wants me, doing exactly what he wants me to do.

I have not liked this truth much. That is to say, I've resisted and despised the disorientation of it, of seeing one dream completed and the other far off on the horizon. In this in-between, I want to grab on to something solid, something that feels significant, something that feels like a guarantee.

But I'm not promised my dreams. I'm not promised the choice of place and opportunity. I'm promised God. And he is pointing in one direction, over and over and over: do what is in front of you. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's not just that I'm to do what's in front of me. It's as if he is inviting me to enjoy doing what's in front of me. To enjoy the smallness. Enjoy the thinking and learning and growing. Enjoy the everyday acts of faithfulness that seem insignificant. With God, there is just as much fanfare over the small and unseen as the spotlight or the stage, if it is an intentional act of faithfulness done in his honor. He is with me here in this time and space, and because he has me here, I'm in his will.

So what do I do with my dream? I hold it, patiently waiting, for if it is implanted by God, he won't waste the dream or the passion behind it. I also hold it loosely, trusting that if the dream is really mine wrapped up in God language, he will remove it altogether. And I choose to want that if he does.

There is a tension, almost a grief, in the waiting. I feel sometimes as if I'm going backward, as if the best years are behind me or that I missed my chance. Perhaps God has moved on to someone else. Perhaps I get only one beautiful dream becoming a reality, not two.

But I know enough now to know that God doesn't waste anything. The times I've previously been limited by circumstances or graciously held back by God's providence were times of growth, almost like a seed nestled in the soil. I'd have had nothing to say, no gumption to lead in our church if it weren't for those years of smallness. The limits and the obscurity and the lack of opportunities to use my gifts were the very things I needed in order to fulfill the purposes God had for me later.

I know he's doing the same thing in me now.

Who am I without this dream? I am his.

So I nestle myself in the soil, waiting, while he nurtures me.

This post was commissioned by one of my Patreon supporters, who asked me to answer this question: "When God has planted a seed but there is no fruit to be seen yet, how do you wait well?" Thank you, Melissa, for making the "By Faith" podcast possible through your support! If you'd like to join her and others in supporting my work (and discover how you can commission a blog post), find out more here.

February 20, 2019

What To Remember When You Are Weak

There are many days when I feel the weight of my inability to overcome my flesh. Do you as well? It's not a bad thing to know our weakness. In fact, recognizing and acknowledging both our sin and our inability to eradicate our sin is important. This is what the Bible calls being poor in spirit; we're spiritually bankrupt in and of ourselves, and we know it. But what we do at that point of recognition is vital. Do we vow that we'll, by sheer willpower, try harder next time? Do we wallow in self-condemnation? Or do we heed the call of Christ?
The gospel calls us to look outside of ourselves to Christ. When we look to him for our salvation and help by faith, we see how we're spiritually rich. He's taken away our sin, but we often don't consider that he's added to our account as well. In his grace, he's poured into us his righteousness, the inheritance he himself earned, and his Spirit, who helps us love God in return through obedience. 

It's at the point of recognition, when we know our weakness, that we must preach this gospel to ourselves. Here is what I go back to again and again as I fight to remember what exactly this gospel is:

This is the gospel: not that we are right with God because of what we do, but that we are right with God because of what Christ did for us.

The gospel can be twisted so easily, and we have believed the lies of the goodness gospel. It has whispered so convincingly that our salvation was a gift received and the rest of the Christian life is up to us and whatever effort we give it.

But we will be fools no longer; we will not pursue what we already possess. We won’t be debtors, and we will not give our lives over to the fruitless chasing of goodness and image and religious plate-spinning.

No, we will not be obsessed with goodness; we will be obsessed with God. Instead of dictating to him how he should be honored, we will give ourselves to what he says are the most important things: receiving from him each day and letting his love and grace compel us to worship and to love and to serve with joy. Our external actions will mirror and flow from our internal affections.

We believe that God is a singing God, a celebratory God, and that he delights in us. We release our grip on our own agendas, ambitions, and dreams of self-glory so that our hands are free to receive his love. We refuse to stiff-arm the truth of God’s love because we feel unworthy. Christ stands in our place and God loves his Son, therefore God loves us.

We know that the Christian life is impossible on our own merit. We can’t love sacrificially, forgive easily, or obey joyfully without someone leading and helping us. And so we don’t walk in self-sufficiency but rather we depend on the Holy Spirit, our Helper, to lead and empower us. We practice spiritual disciplines as a means of asking for his help and leadership.

We identify with Christ, and our true home is built with the bricks and mortar of grace. Because of his grace, we are free from thinking too much about ourselves and free from thinking too much about the opinions others have of us. We make it our aim to please God alone.

Assured of God’s love, we are compelled by him to love others. We participate boldly in the community of the Beloved, where we sharpen and are sharpened, and we go as Sent Ones to share the love we’ve experienced.

Assured of God’s grace, we give grace to others, with the goal of unity rather than uniformity. We trust God to lead us all, and we know that sometimes he leads us differently on open-handed, secondary issues. Different is quite beautiful, so we use our differing gifts to show off the beauty of Christ and we champion others as they use theirs.

Assured that we possess the greatest treasure, we turn from false hopes that only compound pain and suffering. We fix our eyes on Christ and run hard the race he’s marked out for us. In our trials, we give him our hearts, letting him produce in us character and perseverance and an enduring hope.

In all these things, we live and die and live again, all by Christ. We do not allow ourselves to be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. That makes Christ nothing. We stand firm in grace’s freedom, where Christ is everything.


Friends, what you've just read is a manifesto I wrote to summarize and help readers internalize the message of my book, From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel. Print your own copy of the Grace Manifesto for quick reference as you fight to remember the gospel. You can also read Chapter One of the book for free here.

The best news is that the entire ebook is on sale until February 28 for only $1.59 on Amazon and Christianbook.com and $1.99 on Barnes & Noble! Grab your copy today and let me show you what I've learned about preaching the gospel to myself.

February 13, 2019

Cultivating and Using Your Gifts Takes Risk

At some point, you'll recognize that God has given you eyes to see what others cannot or do not see. Whether in your church or your community, you'll see a need or an opportunity, as well as the hole or the lack, and you'll feel a little nudge inside that perhaps you're the one who God is compelling to meet that need.

That nudge is something to pay close attention to, because it may just be your "for such a time as this." However, recognizing the nudge and actually taking action on it are two different things. Teetering between the thought and the action is great risk and a long list of anxiety-provoking questions.

What if the thought of pursuing this specific calling or taking this certain action isn't from God? 
What if others see me and think I'm prideful, naive, or silly? 
What if nothing comes from it in the end, and I feel like a failure? 
What if my motivations aren't totally pure? 
What if I start and am unable to finish? 
What if it's not the right time?
What if I don't actually have the gifts and skills I thought I did?
We should certainly take our time, prayerfully considering our internal motivations, our capacity in our current season, and whether or not we can follow through on commitments. But we should also consider God and others.

We must first look at God and consider if the greatest hindrance to our service is that we lack faith in his abilities. Most of the time we only consider ourselves. We look at our abilities and determine we don’t have enough. We look at our logistics and can't figure where the resources are going to come from. We look at our circumstances and wonder how we'll get from Point A to Point B. Looking at ourselves doesn’t make us bold, but looking at God and finding our source of confidence in him helps us take risks.

Second, we should look at others, or rather, where God is pointing others out to us. What unmet needs consistently plague you? What do you think everyone should be passionate about? How has God arranged you within your local church and within your local community in order to be a part of his work and his solution? What would he have you do by faith in dependence upon his abilities in order to meet a need?

Perhaps nothing. Perhaps nothing right now. But perhaps something, and this is where we must take a risk. How do we push through the risk of cultivating and using our gifts? 

We discern more clearly what our gifts and callings are by trying what we think he's leading us to do. Only by doing--practicing the use of our gifts--will we begin to see more clearly. For me, trying specific gifts on for size opened up a whole new set of questions and obstacles. But by acting, God had the opportunity to burn away my improper motivations for service, and show me more clearly how he's made me and wants me to serve him.

God gave you the gifts that you have, and so he intends that you use them as an act of worship back to him. In fact, that's how I first began to recognize what God was compelling me to do: I felt as if by serving in a specific way, it was an act of worship before the One who gave me the desire and the skills in the first place.

People may or may not cheer you on as you serve. They may or may not notice. They may or may not wonder, as we fear they do, just who we think we are. However, although we serve for the benefit of others, we're ultimately obeying God's command to use everything we have to bring him honor and to edify the church. God is not pleased only when we're successful or if other people celebrate. He's pleased with the faith it takes to do something for him and believe he will use it as he sees fit. This is perhaps one of the most freeing reasons we risk using our gifts: the results aren't up to us, nor are they requirements for pleasing God. We're the sowers, and God is the grower, and so our focus can simply be acts of service by faith.

New Season of By Faith
When it comes to using your gifts, friends, don't just take my word for it. Join me for a brand new season of By Faith, starting February 19, as we tackle the questions, motivations, and difficulties related to cultivating and using our gifts. I've invited guests such as Russell Moore, Caroline Cobb, Melissa Kruger, Anna Perez, Jared Wilson, and Christie Purifoy onto the show to explore with me what it means to serve by faith.
How are they using their unique gifts and talents in their specific context and season of life? How did they come to know their gifts? What challenges are they facing as they serve? And what are they learning that can help us where we are? These are the questions I hope to answer, with the goal of encouraging, challenging, and equipping you to step out by faith and use your particular gifts for God’s glory.

The season kicks off next Tuesday, February 19, and in celebration I'm doing a giveaway of each of my books on Facebook and Instagram. The Instagram giveaway also includes a $50 Amazon gift card! 🎉 
Enter one or both as many times as you like. Click through to Facebook and Instagram to get all the details and to throw your name in the ring.

Subscribe Today
In past seasons, I've posted on my blog when new episodes released. I'm saving this space for more frequent writing, so I will no longer be announcing new episodes here. Please subscribe today on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, or Spotify so you don't miss out! And of course I share new episodes on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, so come give me a follow. 

Looking forward to launching this new season and sharing these conversations with you!