New Year decluttering… for the soul

It’s January, less than a week into a new year – a new decade, in fact. A time of year traditionally filled with dieting and exercising, wardrobe clear-outs, trips to the op-shop… decluttering and downsizing in every way imaginable.

We all relate to this urge to “start afresh” with each new year, to embark on a decluttering frenzy that lets us shed ourselves of everything unnecessary in our lives. To rid ourselves of all those things we accumulated over the past twelve months, things that we thought would bring us happiness, but which only ended up taking up space and weighing us down (sometimes quite literally, hence the dieting and exercising). So we sign up to programs that promise a better way – a lighter, less encumbered way. We try and Marie Kondo our way into “sparking joy” in our heart, in a way that all those possessions and all that decadent living never quite seemed to achieve.

The man who couldn’t declutter

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear a similar kind of story about a man who had it all, but was searching for something deeper. He came to Jesus and asked him what he could do. He already did all the right things, he said, he’d followed the Ten Commandments ever since he was a boy! But even though this man insists he’s done all that’s required of him, his questioning of Jesus seems to indicate that there’s still some burden weighing him down; some feeling that he’s not quite getting it.

Jesus’ response to him confirms his suspicion – but not in the way he’d hoped:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Mark 10:21-22 (NIV)

Sell everything you have. Wow.

I hate to say it, but I think I would have “gone away sad”, too.

It’s hard to let go of our attachment to the things of this world. Whether it’s too much food or drink, or buying possessions we don’t really need – we’ve become addicts to consumerism, to being able to have what we want, when we want it.

And when the voice of Christ whispers in our ears gently saying – give this away! Come, follow me! – we become sad, and afraid, because letting go of our creature comforts can honestly be very, very scary. Even when we know they are weighing us down; even when we know they are simply taking up space in our lives, or sometimes even harming us.

Letting go of our attachment

Better one handful with tranquillity
    than two handfuls with toil
    and chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:6

Let’s use this opportunity of the New Year for a decluttering of our cupboards, firstly, but also a decluttering that goes right down into our souls.

Let’s give away those belongings we don’t need, yes, but let’s also let go of our attachment to such things.

Instead of making space in our homes only to spend the next twelve months filling it up again with more of the same, let’s make an effort to turn to Christ for that sense of comfort, of fulfilment, of peace and purpose that we’re all searching for so desperately.

Whatever it is that you’ve filled your cupboards and your heart with that’s weighing you down and keeping you from following Jesus, give yourself permission to set it aside. It’s scary, I know… but it will be worth it.

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?

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?

Silence and speaking: a time for both

The wisdom of silence

I like making people laugh. It’s my way of getting to know someone, breaking the ice, or smoothing over an awkward social situation. Sometimes it’s a good thing: it puts people at ease, and lets them know I’m on their side. Sometimes it works really well as a way of starting a friendship, or healing a misunderstanding.

But making people laugh can also be a defense mechanism for me. There are times when I jump too quickly to make a joke — maybe to deflect from my own embarrassment, or to show off to someone who I’m trying a bit too hard to impress. Or sometimes it’s just because I don’t know what else to say. I cringe when I think of all those times I’ve made some clumsy joke, when really I should have just kept my mouth shut and listened.

The writer of Proverbs has much to say on the wisdom of keeping one’s mouth shut. When words are many, he writes in chapter 10, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. And he goes on:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
   and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
   when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

Proverbs 17:27-28

Sometimes I need to remember that it’s not my job to fill every gap in the conversation. Sometimes I need to have the discipline to be silent, to listen, and to learn.

The wisdom of speaking

But this is not true in every situation. There are other times I can recall when I’ve kept silent in a conversation out of fear, and later regretted it. There are countless moments I can think of in my life where I should have spoken up, but didn’t: to defend a person being treated unfairly; to prevent a wrong decision being made; to speak truth to power, when I was scared of how that power might react.

Proverbs acknowledges, too, that in some situations we are called to use our voices! Silence is not always the answer:

Open your mouth for the mute,
  for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
   defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Prov 31:8-9

So it seems Scripture is telling us both things! We should speak, and we should keep silent. Which is right? Perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes sums it up best:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak

Ecclesiastes 3:1,7

There’s a time for silence, and there’s a time for speaking. The challenge is knowing which is which.

If I’m honest with myself, I usually do know whether that still, small, Holy Spirit voice inside me is calling me to speak out, or to keep silent. I just need to slow down and be obedient to that voice, instead of letting my fears and insecurities drive me.

Lord, grant me the wisdom to know when to keep silent, and the discipline to do so. And grant me the wisdom to know when to speak out, and the courage to do so. Click To Tweet