Head or heart? Faith has room for both

There’s a lot of talk about how faith in God should be a “heart relationship, not a head relationship.”

But let’s be honest for a moment here. Our hearts don’t always do what we want them to do.

What about those days (… weeks, months, years?) when you just “don’t feel God”? Does that mean your faith is useless?

I don’t believe so: here’s why.

Faith is a journey of mountains and valleys

We don’t get to float through on the mountain-top experiences all the time. Sometimes walking in faith means we keep doing the hard work of trusting, even though we don’t have any real feeling of assurance to go on. All we have to go on are past experiences, and the commitment we’ve already made to believe.

Sometimes all we can do is fall back on our head knowledge: pray the Lord’s Prayer, read the Psalms, let the spiritual disciplines we’ve learned carry us through. Pray that in doing so, eventually the joy of that “heart knowledge” will return.

Head and heart

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy to talk about “head vs. heart”. I wonder even if this is a particularly western kind of division to make. Apparently the Hebrew word for heart and mind is in fact the same word (lebh). The same is true in Chinese (xīn 心 ),1 and I would suspect a number of other languages as well. There’s a different kind of cultural understanding at play here, one that sees the heart and the head as working in harmony with one another, rather than as diametrically opposed.

Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to favor faith-with-the-heart over faith-with-the-head. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”1 is his exhortation — the first, most important commandment! — that we know so well.

Jesus seemed to advocate a whole-of-body kind of faith. His was a dirty, messy, hands-on faith that involved putting mud on people’s eyes and spitting on the ground. It involved the messy actions of feeding people, tending to their needs, listening to them, weeping with them. It involved his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength — no one part more or less than the other.

But it wasn’t always about “feeling” the right way. At the pinnacle of Christ’s story, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus has nothing to go on but his head-knowledge of who He is, and of who His Father is. His heart-cry to the Father, on the other hand, is one that breaks our own hearts to hear: “Why have You abandoned me?”

Lean on the ‘head’ until the ‘heart’ catches up

So if believing with your “heart” is something you can’t quite muster up some days, take comfort that you’re not alone in having experienced this. Trust in the remembrance of times past; the things God has done for you. Pare everything back to the foundations of your faith: what unshakeable truths do you know about God? Start from that. Sit with that, and trust God in the midst of the unknowing.

Many times, for me, it’s about going back to the Gospels and re-reading who Jesus is; the kind of person He lived as. When all else seems murky and unsure, I trust that this person, this person who lived and loved in such a revolutionary way, is the revelation of who God is. I trust that his life lived in rebellious love is the only real answer we have in our broken world.

And this head-knowledge carries me through, until my heart can sing out in praise again.

Today you will be with me in paradise

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

Two thieves, suffering the same fate as Jesus — hanging on a cross, experiencing unimaginable pain.

Both men speak to him, but in very different ways.

To the second thief, Jesus speaks in return: offering a promise of hope.

We might have expected Jesus to speak to the first thief, as well; the one who “rails” at him and hurls insults. But there are no words for this first man — no words of hope, but no words of condemnation or judgement, either. Jesus only has silence to offer the first thief, and his own suffering alongside him.

It’s easy for us, I think, to pass our own judgement on this first man. In doing so, we tell ourselves that we’d never speak to Christ like that.

It’s easy to forget the pain this man was in was equal to that of Christ; that he suffered in the same way, that he also hung on a cross.

This man was speaking out of his pain.

Maybe you also know what that’s like. Have you ever railed at God out of a place of pain? Or perhaps not at God directly — perhaps it was at another person. But then, remember Christ says that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”, so when we say hurtful things to one another, even if it’s because we’re in pain ourselves, we’re no different to that first thief on the cross.

And in the same way, when we do this, Jesus doesn’t speak to us harshly in response. He doesn’t give us any words of condemnation and judgement. Instead, He remains silent, and shares in our suffering, waiting for us to finish whatever it is we have to say.

Eventually, we’re done with our railing and our anger. We finally get to that point in our pain where there’s no more hurtful words left to say. We reach a place where the only thing left for us to cry out is, “Jesus — remember me!”

That’s the point when Christ finally speaks. That’s the point when He turns towards us, and He says, “Today — today, you’re with me.”

(Note: This article is adapted from a short message I delivered at my church on Good Friday, as part of a series on Jesus’ seven final sayings on the cross.)

Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.

God is with us — before, beside, and behind (Part 2)

Today we continue our meditation on Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”. We’ll walk through verses 4 to 6, exploring how steeped the Psalmist is in the knowledge of God as comforter and protector, as the Good Shepherd who continually surrounds us with his goodness and mercy.

(For the reflection on verses 1 to 3, see Part 1 of this two-part post.)

Verse 4

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

I wonder if this is the most frequently quoted verse in Psalm 23? We hear it so often, referenced in so many different contexts, quoted in music both religious and secular. (Any 90’s hip-hop fans here?) Artists and authors alike have tried to imagine what this dark and fearful place might look like: the valley of the shadow of death.

Perhaps such a place does feel like a real location to you. For those who have walked the path of grieving for a loved one, or come face to face with mortality themselves, this poetic turn of phrase is wrenched out of the world of metaphor and instead becomes terrifyingly literal. But whatever imagery it conjures in your spirit, we are certainly all familiar with walking through a time of darkness — of fear, grief, confusion; not knowing quite where we’re headed, what dangers are on the way, or when the light will be visible again.

And the poet tells us, fear not. God is with you, whatever you’re walking through right now. The road may be a hard one, and the difficulties may be unavoidable, but the Comforter is right there beside you — he won’t ask you to go anywhere that he won’t go himself. God has walked right through those depths himself and God will not leave you to walk through this valley alone.

Verse 5

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.

God lays a table for us in the wilderness.

Don’t you love this image? A meal, a table laid out for us, in the most unlikely of places — in the midst of enemy territory! Here where we expected no good thing, here where we prepared ourselves to be attacked and beaten down, instead we’re given a feast. Not just the bare-bones necessity of what we need to survive, but an abundance of delight.

This feast, this “running over” of good things — it might not be in the form you expect. It might not be material possessions, or financial security, or career success. It might not be the kinds of things the world would hold up as worth much, even. Maybe it’ll be in the form of treasured friendships, of people coming into your life that you’re able to call family. Or maybe your feast will come in the form of the joy you receive from seeing another person’s life changed and renewed — the kind of lasting joy no one can ever take from you.

“I do not give as the world gives,” Jesus told his disciples once.1 But the kind of gifts that come from Him end up being better than what we expected, and better than what we thought we wanted. Let’s be present in the moment enough to receive these gifts. Let’s quieten our souls enough to recognise them for the blessings that they are.

Verse 6

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

What a promise this is! When you walk through those dark places, feeling as vulnerable as a lone sheep followed by a predator, know this: at your back are the dual blessings of God’s goodness and mercy.

You’re not alone. You’re covered by your Shepherd and your Protector. So go on: let that knowledge inspire you to take those risks you can feel the Spirit calling you towards! Let it give you the strength and the courage to step out in faith; to tread those hard roads of truth and justice and love. While the going may get rough, Goodness and Mercy are right there at your back, every step of the way. And know that when it’s all done and dusted, you have a place with God, safe in His house, for all eternity.

When we operate out of this kind of security and faith in our future, we can have the courage to let love motivate our actions in the here and now. We can live with the kind of freedom and fearlessness that sees the potential for God’s Kingdom to be built, and takes steps to make it happen.

Before, beside, and behind

The Lord is my shepherd. He goes ahead to lead me, walks beside as my comforter, and follows behind me with goodness and mercy. Before, beside, behind; guiding, comforting, protecting. God keeps on surrounding me with His love wherever I go. Nothing — neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation2 — can separate me from the love of God.

Let’s store these words in our hearts, as Psalm 119 says. Let these promises of God’s nearness carry you through this day and beyond.

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What’s your favorite part of Psalm 23?
What helps remind you of God’s nearness?

The Lord is my shepherd (Part 1)

I’ve written a fair bit about the Psalms on this blog. Many of them are are a go-to place for when I feel distant from God, or can’t figure out what to pray. One of the most well-known — in fact, probably the most well-known! — is Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”.

I remember first learning this psalm in music form as a child, and internalising its simple message of God’s love and protection. Having heard it said many times since, it’s one of the few chapters of Scripture I can say from heart, without even thinking about it. I’m sure the same is true for many of you, as well.

But as many times as I may have heard these six verses, I never seem to get tired of hearing them again. There’s something about this poem; this earnest yet uncomplicated prayer. It has a rhythm to it of familiarity and comfort. Its simple language and soothing cadences somehow serve as a balm to our weary souls.

“The Lord Is My Shepherd” is still one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I know.

Will you walk through this Psalm one more time with me? I know you know it well. Let’s meditate on it, and remind ourselves of its simple, heartfelt beauty. Let’s take the time to sink deep into its peaceful imagery, and allow its eternal truths to weave themselves into our being.

Verse 1

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

What does it mean to be God’s “sheep”, and for Him to be our shepherd? The imagery here is of a relationship of utmost trust. There is a call to lay down our fears and our responsibilities; to let go of that constant anxiety of being in control, or at least of believing that we need to be.

With God as our shepherd, we have no need to worry. We are taken care of, as by a loving parent. Rest, now, this verse says. Time to get off the unceasing treadmill of this world’s relentless demands.

Take a breath. The Shepherd’s got you.

Verse 2

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

Sometimes we need to be made to lie down, don’t we? We need someone to take us in hand, and say, it’s time to stop. It’s time to breathe, to slow down, to focus on this present moment and enjoy your surroundings, instead of rehashing the past and fretting about the future.

When was the last time you connected with nature? The other night I took a long walk at sunset. Now, normally when I go for a walk, it’s with my dog, which brings its own set of joys, as any dog-owner will attest! But on these walks, my focus is on my dog, who is the purpose for the walk. This walk the other night, however, was different: it was purposeless, just an aimless wandering.

Somehow that purposelessness changed everything. It meant that I noticed my surroundings more: I noticed the freshness of the air, and the birds making their evening noises. I noticed the stunning beauty of the sunset turning the sky pink and orange.

And I felt God’s presence, more tangibly than I had in a long time. I could sense God there with me, in the cool of the day, walking alongside me and enjoying His beautiful creation with me. Enjoying my enjoyment, and pleased that I was taking the time to experience it.

It’s an inescapable truth that God’s presence is so much more tangible when we allow ourselves to experience His creation. In a world that increasingly works to separate us from nature and all its uncontrollable messiness, sometimes we need to make a deliberate effort to seek it out again.

Verse 3

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

When we make that conscious effort to just be in God’s creation, then God starts working His restoration in us. When we allow ourselves the time and space to be present, to notice our surroundings and let go for a little while of the dual anxieties of what happened and what’s next, then a strange thing starts to happen, as our souls are restored to be in line with God.

Things start to become clearer as a result. Decisions that seemed confusing and murky suddenly gain sharpness and clarity. Where problems in our lives seemed intractable, God’s direction suddenly becomes obvious, and the pathway forward is unambiguous.

It’s a natural instinct for many of us, when faced with stress and tough problems, to double our efforts in tackling them head on, racking our brains for a solution and a way forward. But when it seems like we’re banging our heads against a brick wall, the answer is often to do the opposite.

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Then let Him do the leading, so that you can say along with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

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Read part 2 of this post, walking through verses 4-6.

Who am I? The quest to understand our identity

Have you ever taken a personality quiz of some kind? You know the sort — detailed questionnaires designed by psychologists to help you better understand your own identity. I bet there’s a fair few of you reading this right now who already know your Enneagram number. Or maybe you’ve done a StrengthsFinder test, to try to get some insight into what your ideal career should be. I tried the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a few times myself — it used to frustrate me that I’d get a different category every time I took the test. Whether I’m a T (thinking) or F (feeling) seems to depend largely on my mood at the time. Same with S (sensing) versus N (intuition).

These kinds of tests have their advantages. To better know our strengths and our weaknesses can be very helpful — indeed, any increase in self-awareness is a good thing. In learning more about our strengths, we gain a better understanding of where we can work most effectively. We learn about how we can make the most impact and bring the greatest benefit to ourselves and to those around us. And in understanding our weaknesses, we can ensure we’re on guard against the kind of situations and circumstances that are likely to trip us up in some way, or prevent us from operating at our best.

Boxing ourselves in

But do such tests really categorise who we are? Can we really be reduced to a number, a series of four letters, a dot positioned on a chart of some kind? Surely we’re more complex than that. Surely putting ourselves in a neat little box like that is limiting the fullness of what we’re created to be.

Finding the right category to describe ourselves can be very satisfying. But what if you straddle between two categories, or three, or more? What if none of the categories in the test quite manages to articulate the particular gifts and strengths you bring to the table? Or what if, like me with the Myers-Briggs test, you fit into different categories on different days? (Of course, that’s probably because I’m an Enneagram 9…)

There’s something in all of us, I think, that loves to know what “box” we belong to. We love to have neat ways of sorting ourselves and everyone else into our proper classifications. Perhaps it’s our innate desire to belong to a tribe of some kind; to know who else is like us, and who is different. Perhaps it makes us feel more understood and accepted to know that someone else has come up with a technical-sounding label that defines us in some way.

Let’s be careful, though, that in the process of discovering our box, we don’t end up boxing ourselves in.

Our Ever-Evolving Identities

I was never a very sporty person. During high-school, I’m ashamed to admit, my mother used to write me sick notes to get me out of cross-country running days. As a teenager, and then later on as a young adult, I convinced myself that physical activity just “wasn’t my thing”.

Then, a few years back in my mid-thirties, I decided I needed to improve my fitness. I trained regularly on the treadmill at my local gym, following various interval-training plans to slowly improve my endurance, until eventually I could run 5km without a break. The first time I reached that five kilometer mark, I nearly collapsed in a puddle of sweat and exhaustion, but it felt so good! Not just because I’d achieved something new, but because I’d busted a false belief about my identity.

Sometimes we build up an idea of what constitutes our “identity” that brings with it restrictions and limitations. Sometimes, when we mentally place ourselves in certain boxes, we then let those boxes stop us from trying new things. We let our self-imposed categories convince us that we’re unable to pursue a certain path.

Identity in Christ — what does it mean?

As Christians, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ. “It is no longer I who live,” writes Paul in Galatians 2:20, “but Christ who lives in me.” That’s a pretty radical take on describing who we are! What does this even mean?

Well, one thing that it means, which I want to focus on here, is that we are beloved children of God. Take a look at this passage from 1 John — one of my favourite books in the Bible:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:1-2

God has called us his children. God has called us loved by Him. This is, fundamentally, who we are — this is our deepest, truest identity. That has a far more profound significance than any result on a personality test.

By all means, go ahead and find out if you’re a 4, or an 8, or an INFJ or a ENTP. But in all that self-analysis, always remember that who you are goes beyond any of those boxes. Who you are is a beloved child of God.

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What’s your Enneagram number? Your MBTI personality type? Do you enjoy these kinds of tests, or do you find them limiting? Share your thoughts below.

Self care: an important part of building God’s Kingdom

A little while back, I wrote a short post entitled Tending to my corner of Creation. It talked a bit about our tendency to feel guilty taking time out for self care. It reminded us, though, that we’re a part of God’s creation — “fearfully and wonderfully made”, the Psalmist writes! So it follows that we should place a high value on looking after ourselves well. There’s no need for a guilty conscience where proper self care is concerned.

I’d like to go into a little more depth with some of the ideas I touched on back in that post. But first, let’s look some Scripture.

Elijah’s self care ‘fail’

Do you remember Elijah’s moment of despair — that little tale in 1 Kings 19? Poor Elijah was in fear for his life. He’d been faithful in prophesying God’s word — but for all his efforts, Jezebel was threatening to kill him. At this point in the story, it all seems too much for him. Elijah is tired of running and running, but never getting anywhere! He’s wondering if any of his efforts have even made a difference. He’s wondering what the point of it all is. Elijah has reached a place of desperation, and of bone-deep weariness. Perhaps you can relate.

“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

1 Kings 19:4b-6 (Read 1 Kings 19:1-9)

So what does God do? He doesn’t say, “Get over yourself, Elijah! Stop wallowing and get on with the job.” He doesn’t tell Elijah everything’s going to be fine, or to cheer up, it’s not that bad!

God gives Elijah sleep. God gives Elijah food and drink.

Then, He gives Elijah more sleep, and more food and drink.

Then, and only then, does Elijah decide he is strong enough to face what’s ahead.

Forgetting self care: the dangers of “running on empty”

Things often look better after a good night’s sleep, don’t they? A proper meal helps, too. When we take care of these basic needs in our own lives, we tend to see things with more clarity. We approach situations more rationally. We deal with set-backs with more resilience, and we’re less likely to take things personally.

Sometimes, we become so consumed by a particular task, that we end up neglecting our basic needs. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re doing it. We might still be going through the motions of eating and sleeping — but perhaps the meals are rushed and not as healthy as they should be, and the sleep is low on quality as a result. Like Elijah, we can get caught up in this cycle of running and running, and never stopping, but never really getting anywhere, either. Eventually, we end up running on empty. We become so exhausted that we forget our original motivations for whatever it was we were doing. We collapse in desperation, wondering what the point of it all is.

In today’s fast-paced world, constant busyness can seem like an unavoidable fact of life. Making time to care for one’s self requires intentional focus. It requires setting aside time to plan meals, to schedule quiet time, to get enough exercise and enough rest. That might mean consciously shifting our priorities.

Deferring self care to others

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who picks up the pieces for you when you forget to look after yourself. You know the type of person I’m talking about — maybe a parent, or a spouse, or a close friend. That person in your life who makes sure you eat a vegetable every now and then. They remind you when you’re due for a health check-up. They drag you away from the computer screen at 2am, when you’ve been staring at it for so long you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.

These people are such blessings to have in our lives! But the truth is, we can so often take them for granted. We fail to notice that they’re spending time looking after things that we should be taking care of ourselves.

Now, in saying this, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t accept help when we really need it! If you’re struggling with your health, and you’ve got a supporter out there on your team helping you shoulder the burden, then skip over this section. This is not meant to make you feel guilty!

But sometimes, we place burdens on those close to us, when deep down we know that with wiser prioritising and more self-awareness, we could carry those burdens ourselves. If that’s the case, we need to make some serious changes. Neglecting ourselves so that someone else has to do the hard work instead is beneficial to no one.

“Because you’re worth it”

Ultimately, we bear responsibility for our own self care. We might justify overlooking our wellbeing because we’re too busy serving others. But if serving others comes at the expense of our health, we won’t be any use! We won’t have the physical, emotional, or spiritual fitness to be able to support or serve anyone.

Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Did you see that? God’s handiwork. That’s you! That’s someone worth taking care of. And someone who needs to be taken care of, so that you can do those good works that God has prepared for you to do. Carrying out those works has to start with discipline and faithfulness in our own lives.

God’s Kingdom: bearing each others’ burdens in balance

Once we’ve got the self care thing sorted out, we start to become aware of those areas where we’re pushed to our limits. We start to have a clearer picture of where we might need to rely on our friends and family to help us out.

And on the flip-side, we also become more aware of those areas where we have particular gifts to bring, where we can help carry burdens for others in our community.

This is how Kingdom living is done! This is how God intends for His community to work and live and love together. But none of it can be done well if we don’t get our own house in order first, so we have the strength and the endurance to live out our calling. So that we know, realistically, when we actually do need a hand up from a friend. And we know when we’re sturdy enough to be able to hold that hand out to someone else.

So go ahead. Make that doctor’s appointment; invest in that gym membership. Buy some fresh vegetables. Whatever it is that you know you’ve been neglecting about yourself, it’s time to tackle it. It’s time to look after the you that God made you to be, so you can carry out the good works he’s calling you to do.

Look after the you that God made you to be, so you can do the good works God has called you to do. Click To Tweet

Lent begins this Wednesday March 6th. Traditionally, Christians observe Lent by giving up something, or observing a new spiritual discipline. How might you observe this season of Lent?

Wrestling with God: Daring to wrestle hopefully

The man said, “From now on, your name will no longer be Jacob. You will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won.”

Genesis 32:28 (Read Genesis 32:22-32)

In many Bible translations, the heading of this particular tale in Genesis reads somewhat mystifyingly: “Jacob Wrestles With God.” The text itself sheds little light on such a stunning proposition. A ‘man’, we are told, wrestles with Jacob overnight. Who this man is, and where he comes from, we are not told.

We read that this man is on the verge of losing his wrestling match with Jacob. But incredibly, on realising his impending loss, he is able to simply reach out, touch Jacob’s hip, and dislocate it! It’s clear right away, then, that this mysterious wrestler is not just any normal man.

So, on realising the immense power wielded by this peculiar being, our friend Jacob — always the opportunist! — demands a blessing from him.

In response, he gives Jacob a new name. No longer Jacob, he is now to be called Israel. His reasoning: “Because you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.”

Jacob’s blessing: a new identity

Names have great significance in ancient Hebrew culture. Do you remember the story of how Jacob initially received his name? Fighting with his twin brother in his mother’s womb, he was born grasping onto Esau’s heel. It seems that even in birth, he was desperately trying to assert himself. And so he was christened Jacob, which in Hebrew literally translates as “he grasps the heel”.

Figuratively, though, the word Jacob can be translated as “the deceiver”. And indeed, Jacob comes to live up to this title. He conspires with his mother, firstly to deceive his elder brother, then his father Isaac, fraudulently obtaining the birthright and the blessing that rightfully should belong to Esau.

So it seems Jacob’s character is almost predetermined, by way of his mother Rebekah’s influence. Named a deceiver, raised to be a deceiver — this is his role in the family. This is how his brother, his mother, and his father all view him. This is his very identity, set in stone via prophecy from the time of his birth. Why should he ever change?

But then! Enter this strange man, and this strange wrestling match. As Jon Bloom notes over at Desiring God, wrestling with God alters more than just Jacob’s name. It alters his very identity. No longer a man who grasps for blessings through trickery and lies — the version of faith he inherited from his mother — Jacob has now wrestled honestly for a faith and a relationship with God that belongs to him and him alone.

When God gives us a season of wrestling

Although it is Jacob who asks for the blessing in this story, there is something else that we should notice here. It is God, not Jacob, who initiates the wrestling match. It is God who establishes this encounter.

We might also encounter times when it seems that God has initiated some kind of wrestling match with us. We might rack our brains for what we’ve done to cause the conflict, when there seems to be no obvious reason.

Perhaps you find yourself in a season right now when faith just doesn’t seem to come easily. When the words of Scripture don’t make sense, and your prayers feel like they’re going no higher than the ceiling, and everything seems to contradict what you thought you knew about God.

This can be a hard thing, and often we respond in one of two ways. We might abandon our faith completely, or we might continue on in denial as if nothing has changed.

Neither of these options involve actually engaging with the wrestling match that God has initiated.

Trust the process: hopeful wrestling

Sometimes, we need to fight to figure out what we believe.

We need to spend some time “working out our faith with fear and trembling,” as Paul puts it.

This might involve facing some uncomfortable or challenging truths. It might mean abandoning beliefs about God that we’ve inherited, and never really questioned before. Often, it means taking part in a thorough examination of who we really are. It means sorting out what’s really important to us, and what influences we’re going to let shape us going forward.

That, in turn, might mean we end up hurting some people along the way — people who assumed we’d always agree with them. Or people who just assumed they would always hold a place of influence in our lives. Making those kinds of changes can be incredibly difficult, and may leave us feeling like we’ve been given a metaphorical hip-dislocation. But the fact is, while other people can tell us what to believe, until we do the hard wrestling with God ourselves, we won’t find a faith that really rings true.

So go ahead: wrestle with God. Don’t be afraid of the encounter. Yes, it’s true, you might come out with a limp. But wrestle in hope nonetheless. Trust that there will be a blessing at the end of it, a blessing that sees you taking on a new purpose, and a new identity. A new understanding of who God is, and a new understanding of who you are.

Go ahead: wrestle with God. You might come out with a limp, but trust in the blessing of a new purpose and a new identity. Click To Tweet

What are you wrestling with in your faith right now? Where do you think the wrestling process might be taking you?

Being right: how important is it to you?

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Mark 2:23-24 (Read Mark 2:23-27)

There’s an oft-shared comic by popular webcomic author xkcd, in which someone ignores his partner’s pleas to come to bed, because “Someone is wrong on the internet!”

The popularity of this comic no doubt stems from its relatability. We all know that frustration of hearing someone misrepresent a topic we feel strongly about. We can relate to that driving impulse to correct and inform, when we’re confronted with something that’s wrong, so wrong!!

Sometimes the frustration arises because it’s us who is being misrepresented. Have you ever felt the fury and indignation that comes with being falsely accused of something? The burning desire to set the record straight and vindicate ourselves overpowers anything else.

But other times, we can get all riled up over something that’s got nothing to do with us personally at all. And yet, defending the “rightness” of our ideas can seem as close to the heart as defending our own reputations.

The idol of being right

It’s easy, I think, for our ideas and beliefs about the world to become intertwined with our identity. So when someone challenges what we believe, we take it personally. We see it as a false accusation, as slander, if someone disagrees with us, and we take it upon ourselves to correct them by any means possible, in order to clear our name and restore truth to the universe. Being right, and being seen to be right, becomes not just academic, but of personal importance.

I get the feeling the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a bit like that. They were so infuriated by Jesus and his disciples doing things differently — ignoring the prescribed traditions by not observing Sabbath correctly. Following tradition in the ‘right’ way had become an entrenched part of their identities. But Jesus has a simple, yet brilliant response for them:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees had become so concerned with the principle of observing the Sabbath, that they’d forgotten the very people it was intended to serve and benefit. They were all hung up on being right.

People over principles

It’s easy for us, too, to forget that people are more important than principles. Let’s try to keep this in mind the next time someone disagrees with us. Is the argument worth your relationship with that person? Is it worth making them feel bad about themselves? Do we really know everything we think we do about the situation, and where the other person is coming from?

Sometimes we’re better off just going to bed and getting a good night’s sleep. What seemed like a life-and-death dispute the night before is often revealed for the petty spat that it really is, with the clarity that morning brings.

People are more important than principles. Click To Tweet

Have you ever participated in an argument that seemed more important than it really was?

Have you ever “lost” an argument, for the sake of keeping the peace? 

What does it mean to love as God loves us?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35

What is it to love as God loves? So many of our own experiences of love, whether giving or receiving, are flawed in some way. Flawed in their motivations, or flawed in the execution — both, usually.

So given that God’s love is without flaw, that leaves us to wonder: how, exactly, does God love us? Not in the same way that any other person has ever loved us. And not in the same way that we’ve ever managed to love anyone else.

Some people take this notion of perfect, godly love to mean a gritted-teeth kind of love. “You don’t have to enjoy it,” they say, “you just have to do it!” Love isn’t just about warm-fuzzy feelings, these people admonish us. It’s about doing what’s right, doing what’s best for the other person and putting our own needs last.

Well, there’s truth in the saying that love is a verb; that it only becomes meaningful through action. I’ll agree that it’s not just about feeling nice all the time. Sometimes love hurts, just like all the songwriters say.

But you know what? I don’t think God has to grit his teeth in order to love us. I think God rejoices in us, that He delights in the wonder of his own creation.

And this might be a bit controversial, but you know what else? I think God rejoices in who we are even when we stuff up. I don’t mean to say that he rejoices in our sin. But I do believe that God sees and loves the beauty, the potential, in who he’s created us to be. He sees this and rejoices in it, even through our mistakes and our falling short.

Perhaps, then, real love, loving as God loves us, means to see the beauty in someone’s humanity. Maybe this is how we’re called to love others: to recognise their beauty and potential, just as God does for us. To see and be awed by the image of God residing in them, just as it does in us. Instead of responding and reacting to their faults and shortcomings, to try instead to connect with and draw out the person that God has created them to be.

Lord, help me to love as You love. Help me to see the beauty and the uniqueness that you've placed in each person that I encounter today. Click To Tweet