God is with us — before, beside, and behind

Today we continue our meditation on Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”, walking through verses 4 to 6. We’ll explore how the Psalmist is steeped in the knowledge of God as comforter and protector. God is described 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 for our adversaries to attack us and beat us down. Instead – God gives us 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, 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 — that kind of deep, enduring joy that no one can ever take from you.

“I do not give as the world gives,” Jesus told his disciples once.1 It’s true: the gifts that come from Him end up being better than we expected, and better than what we thought we wanted. Let’s be present enough in the moment to receive these gifts fully. 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. Then, 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, just as Psalm 119 says. Let these promises of God’s nearness carry you through this day and beyond.

The Lord is my shepherd. He goes ahead to lead me, walks beside as my comforter, and follows behind me with goodness and mercy. Click To Tweet

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.”

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. Click To Tweet

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.

Whether you're a 4, an 8, an INFJ or an ENTP, always remember you're a beloved child of God. Click To Tweet

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, furthermore, who needs to be taken care of, so that you can actually do those good works that God has prepared for you. 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 sorted out the self care thing, we start to gain awareness 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 we do Kingdom living! 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: 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, we can translate the word Jacob to mean “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 received 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 and 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. God may well rearrange your bones, but He will not abandon you. Trust that there will be a blessing at the end of the struggle, 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

Pray “according to God’s will” — but what about when your heart’s not in it?

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

1 John 5:14

I read a short prayer posted on social media the other day, which made me pause and think. The prayer said something along these lines: “Lord, help me to pray only according to your will. Stop me from praying for anything that isn’t part of your plan and purpose for my life.”

I’ve probably prayed something similar myself in the past. At the time, I probably felt it to be a good, holy prayer: words that were pleasing to God. Perhaps I might have resorted to this prayer when I felt like I didn’t know what else to pray. At least, I certainly didn’t know what to pray that would be “according to God’s will.”

Sometimes, I might have prayed that way out loud in front of a group of people I didn’t know very well. People who I didn’t particularly feel like spilling my innermost fears and secrets in front of.

Other times, I might have prayed that way when I felt like those innermost fears and secrets were too shameful to bring before God.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar?

Too scared to be real with God

I’ll be honest, though. I don’t think God wants us to limit ourselves like this in the way we talk to Him. I have no doubt that He honors the intention behind these kinds of prayers. But I think when we pray like this, it’s often because we’re too scared to be real with God. And let’s face it, that kind of fear isn’t doing much to further our relationship with Him.

Yes, we’re told to pray according to God’s will. But this verse isn’t intended to leave us terrified of saying what’s really on our hearts. It isn’t meant to be a directive to keep everything inside us bottled up, because we don’t think it’s good enough or righteous enough for God’s ears.

When the prayers aren’t perfect

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Here’s a confession: I don’t think God really minds if our prayers aren’t perfect. I don’t think he minds if we share with Him thoughts and desires that aren’t entirely righteous. In fact, I’m pretty sure God prefers us telling Him about those flawed parts of ourselves than not speaking to him at all!

Part of the outcome of honest, heartfelt prayer — imperfect motives and all — involves God shaping our will and our heart to His. That way, praying according to God’s will becomes a natural outpouring of our own desires.

But the catch is, this process can only happen through us being truthful with God first. Even when our truths seem ugly and unpalatable. Trusting God enough to let Him hear our ‘imperfect prayers’ lets Him begin that process of redemption and regeneration inside us.

So let’s not worry so much about striving for perfection in prayer. Instead, let’s allow God to do the work of perfecting us through prayer — no matter what messy form that prayer might take.

Instead of striving for perfection in prayer, let's allow ourselves to be perfected through prayer — no matter what messy form that prayer might take. Click To Tweet

Have you ever found yourself holding back from honest prayer?
What stops you from being real with God?
What does it mean to you to “pray according to God’s will”?

The kingdom is in our midst

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

In some church circles, people talk a lot about revival. They talk a lot about praying for revival, and how we’ll know when it’s here. Often, in these circles, revival means big, showy, awe-inspiring miracles that can’t be mistaken for anything but supernatural. It means gold dust clouds descending mid-worship service, or people tossing their wheelchairs and dancing around the room.

Look, I’m not here to say that such things can’t happen, or that they aren’t from God. I’m not even saying it’s wrong to hope for them in your own community. But I worry when we get caught up with thinking they’re what represents this notion of revival. I don’t think those overly-conspicuous, plays-well-for-TV kind of miracles are really the kind of signs we should be looking for to indicate God’s presence, or his stamp of approval.

Already in our midst: the ‘unremarkable’ miracles

Instead, how about we focus on those pieces of God’s kingdom that are already happening in our midst? Think about those small, unsung miracles that are bound to happen within any group of people who love God. You know the kind of stories:

  • An elderly lady, too afraid to leave her house for years, finally finds the courage to start attending church again. She starts smiling again, growing in confidence, and thriving with the love and support from her church community.
  • A young man from another country is trying to make a fresh start, but with limited English and no support network, he’s struggling to find work. Someone else at church mentors him and offers him a job, helping him to get on his feet.
  • A single mother with no time to spare is given a fresh lease on life by someone simply offering to look after her children every now and then.

I’m sure you can think of stories like this in your own church. Stories from the “least of these” — stories that might not even sound all that earth-shattering on their own. But this — this is revival! This is the Kingdom of God, happening right here in the midst of us.

Let’s not overlook the little things God is rejoicing over, because we’re waiting for big shiny miracles that will make the evening news headlines. Let’s recognise those simple, small miracles that might seem unremarkable on the surface, but that actually change lives. And let’s celebrate those miracles as they happen, and not dismiss them for their simplicity.

Let's not overlook the little things God is rejoicing over because we're waiting for big shiny miracles that will make the evening news headlines. Click To Tweet

What ‘unremarkable’ miracles have you seen in your own church or community?

The God who sees

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Genesis 16:13 (Read Genesis 16:1-16)

Hagar was a woman who had no real rights to speak of. Abraham’s slave — more than that, his mistress. Doing what she needed to do to survive in that time and place, fulfilling her role as was required of her, but hated and abused by the matriarch of the house as a result. With no one to turn to for protection — there wasn’t exactly a Concubines Union to step in and help! — Hagar did what seemed like the only bearable thing left to do: she ran away.

But God is not yet finished with Hagar’s story. Intercepting her on her path, an angel brings her news that she is pregnant! She has provided Abraham a son and an heir; thus assuring her protection and her worth in this patriarchal society.

As troubling as we may find many aspects of this story, Hagar’s beautiful response to the angel is one that always sticks with me, and it’s a response that I find myself echoing in prayer all the time:

You are the God who sees.

Knowing we are seen

Have you ever felt as though you’re not really being seen? Perhaps as part of your role at work, or perhaps even in a room among family and friends. You’re expected to play a particular part, carry out some task in a particular way, maintain a status quo, relate to the people around you in a certain manner, because “that’s just the way things have always been done!” But maybe you feel unappreciated, unrecognised, unfulfilled. Maybe you feel misjudged or even victimised, and it seems like no one is acknowledging it. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve been reduced to a role that doesn’t quite fit you anymore, that you’re not being acknowledged as a person in all your complexity, with the potential for growth and change.

God sees you.

Let the words of this passage in Genesis speak to you the way they spoke to Hagar. The God of creation sees you, knows you, better even than you know yourself. God sees your potential, the things you long for but don’t dare to voice out loud, and the things that haven’t even entered your mind yet.

Sometimes that’s all we need — to remember that we are seen. That our situations are seen. That whatever injustices we are contending with are seen, and that the very essence of who we are is seen.

God sees you, he knows you, and he loves you. Hold on to that knowledge, and let it carry you through.

God sees you. He sees your situation, the things you long for, the very essence of who you are. Let that carry you through. Click To Tweet

What does it mean to you to be seen?