The image of God needs no Instagram filter

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Our complex identities

Who do you define yourself as? When someone first meets you at a party and says, ‘tell me about yourself,’ what’s the first thing you say to them?

Maybe you define yourself by:

  • Your job: are you a teacher, doctor, lawyer, accountant, pastor?
  • Family: are you a daughter, brother, son, mother, father, wife, husband?
  • Your nationality, your religion, or your cultural background?
  • Pets, passions, hobbies, volunteer work, musical preferences, favorite films… maybe there’s even a favourite meal you love to eat, or love to cook, so much that it’s become a part of you, so much that you’d even introduce yourself at a party by mentioning it.

These different roles we play in our lives all combine together to make up who we are, and how we view ourselves. All these things intertwine to help form our purpose, our worth, our callings, even.

Our ‘tidied up’ images: filtered for public consumption

We spend so much of our lives forming and trying to understand our identities, “curating” our identities, even — deciding how we present them to the world. Of course, social media has pushed this concept to the forefront of many people’s lives. We all have our own ‘brand’, now. It’s become a whole art form: we reveal just enough of ourselves to the world to give an image that we think represents some kind of ideal.

Maybe you post a picture on Instagram of that favourite meal you like to cook — but you only show that one time it turned out perfectly. You don’t post the pictures of the burnt ones, or the undercooked ones, or the ones that came out a bit lopsided.

Embracing the beauty of complexity

The truth is, though, those messed-up meals are a part of your identity too. The so-called ‘failures’ you went through were necessary to get to that final product. So this ‘curated identity’ we present to the world doesn’t really reflect the depth of who we are. It doesn’t show all the shades of light and dark, all of the good and bad parts, all of the growth we’ve been through to get to where we are now.

Our identities are often a whole lot more complex than we’d like to admit.

So let’s instead learn to embrace our identities in all of their fullness, in all of their depth. Let’s acknowledge our complexity and our uniqueness. Look at what it says in Psalm 139:

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14

Each one of us has been made in God’s image — we’ve been knitted together, fearfully and wonderfully. Every single human bears a different part of the image of the infinite God. Every single one of us carries our own unique reflection of the wondrous, perfect creativity of our Creator.

That means we can stop worrying about presenting our lives through soft-focus filters with carefully constructed angles and air-brushing. We can stop trying to strip away our complexities and our complications, and allow ourselves to just be ourselves. Because who we are is who we were made to be, and that means there’s a place and a purpose for us, just as we are.

Go out there and show the world the image of God in you.

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.

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.

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”?

A lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105

When I was a kid, there was a computer game called Goldfields that we played in school sometimes. It consisted of a series of educational puzzles and adventures, one of which involved finding your way through a maze in the dark as quickly as possible. You were equipped with a torch, so you could see inside the maze. But the catch was that the torch had low batteries, so you could only see a very short distance ahead. This meant that reaching the end of the maze was a slow and frustrating process. You’d go down each path with no idea where it was leading, or if you might need to turn back.

There are times when following God’s Word feels a lot like fumbling my way through that maze in Goldfields. Like all I’ve been given is a lousy torch with low batteries, when what I really want is a floodlight. Or a map! A map would be nice.

But God hasn’t promised me a roadmap for life. As much as I think I want it, He’s not going to lay out for me precisely all the twists and turns my life is going to take. God’s Word isn’t a floodlight that I can shine all the way down to the end of my journey, enabling me to see every obstacle that exists on the way. Frankly, if that were the case, I’d probably be so discouraged by all those obstacles that I’d give up before I even started.

A lamp to my feet: showing the next step

Instead, what God does promise me is that His Word will be a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. He promises to give me enough wisdom and clarity to see my surroundings clearly, so I can determine the next thing that I need to do.

When you hold a lamp up in the dark, you can just see where you are now, and what the next step is, and all you have to do is take that step. And then you can take the next one, and then the one after that. You don’t have to leap across large chasms of belief and opportunity; you just need to keep taking one single step at a time. That’s how you end up in the place where God has led you; that’s how you end up doing whatever it is that God has designed you for. You go step by step.

Fulfilling God’s plan for our lives is only ever about just taking that next step. Beyond that, he wants us to trust Him, and to stay in relationship with Him.

Imagine how much the world could be changed if we all stopped making excuses, and took the next step.

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A psalm for restless nights

 Answer me when I call to you,
    my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
    have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 4:1

You know those nights where whatever you do, you just can’t get to sleep? We all have them sometimes, don’t we? Tossing and turning, throwing the blanket off you to cool down, pulling it back on because you’re too cold, mind whirling, anxieties weighing in, memories you’d rather forget replaying over and over in your mind…

You know, those nights.

I suspect the author of Psalm 4 was having one of those nights. One where all he wanted was relief from distress. One where his every problem seemed magnified, and nothing seemed to silence his mind.

But notice how this Psalm takes us on a journey. We start out hearing the author’s restlessness and anguish, but it doesn’t end there. Rather than trying to deal with the anxiety on their own, the author cries out in prayer, asking for mercy. He lays it all out before God, searching his heart, confessing that these troubles are beyond what he can deal with on his own.

 Tremble and do not sin;
    when you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent.

Psalm 4:4

We don’t find out if these particular troubles were solved. Taking the time to pray about it may not have changed the situation right away. But it did bring peace to the author. At the close of the Psalm, I will lie down and sleep, he writes — finally, sleep! — for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. There’s such a beautiful sense of calm about that final verse.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

At 3am, when every problem seems insurmountable, and we’re at our least rational, sometimes we forget that God is still there, and still listening. But it’s worth remembering. Let him quieten your spirit on those restless nights.

Psalms: Poetry for the soul

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3 (NIV)

The Psalms have always been a part of the Bible that I find I can to return to again and again. Even during those times when I struggle to focus on Scripture and to let it sink in, the gentle poetry of the Psalms still manages to penetrate whatever anxieties and walls I have in place, and quieten my spirit.

I love the honesty of the Psalms. There’s so much emotional range in this book: from praise and adoration right through to grief, lament, confusion. There are those verses that trumpet the surety of God’s goodness, that resonate with us when we’re full of joy about everything that’s happening in our lives. But there’s also the brutal candour of those Psalms that cry out: Why, God, why? Where are you? in those moments that are not so certain. There’s no shying away from any part of the full experience that is life here on earth.

So I’ve gone back to the beginning of this favourite book of mine, starting at Psalm 1. Blessed am I, it tells me, when I turn away from those who mock and do evil, and instead delight in the law of the Lord.

The Psalms call us back home

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been delighting in the law of the Lord much in recent months. I’ve been in one of those periods I mentioned above, where it’s hard to open the Bible, where the words of Scripture don’t seem to sink in, don’t seem to be alive like they’re supposed to.

But reading this Psalm doesn’t feel like a judgement on my bad habits. Instead, it feels like a welcoming home. This gentle but powerful poetry assures me that no matter where I might have walked, sat, or stood in the past, I am still invited to come and be blessed, and to delight in that which is good.

Reading Psalm 1 is like a welcoming home. It invites us to come and be blessed, and delight in that which is good. Click To Tweet

Tending to my corner of Creation

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14 (NIV)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

It’s that time of year when we make resolutions to better ourselves. Exercise more! Floss regularly! Eat more fresh food! Spend more time in prayer and meditation! But after a few weeks (days?) of good intentions, too often these resolutions fall by the wayside, and old habits come back into play.

Why does this happen so easily? Shouldn’t it be natural to want to spend time on ourselves, improving our health and our habits? And yet it’s often easier to let the focus drift back to other things, other people — more important, higher priority tasks.

Sometimes even a sense of guilt might creep in when we carve aside time for ourselves — whether it’s an hour spent working out at the gym, or spending quiet time with God. It often feels like there’s no room left for quiet time in today’s fast-paced, time-is-money society. And even from a more spiritual point of view, it can feel strangely selfish — I mean, shouldn’t we be spending that time focusing externally, not internally, ministering to others, out in the world helping people?

Perhaps, though, there is something to be said for placing a higher value on our own well-being. My own mind, body, and soul is a part of the greater creation. Looking after myself well is doing God’s work in the place where, indeed, I have the most impact and influence. If I’m going to do any good at all, then right here is the place to start.

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