Stop, look, listen: redeeming each moment

In the last two posts, we’ve been talking about Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to redeem the time. We looked firstly at the challenge of making the most of each kairos moment, and secondly at how the past and the future can distract us from the present.

If we’re going to redeem the time, then the only time we have the power to do that for is the present – by being ready to make the most of each individual moment. By being aware, and noticing those kairos moments.

So when we realise the past or the future are rushing in and overtaking our thoughts, let’s try and get in the habit of slowing down, and being more aware of what’s going on here and now.

Stop, look, listen.

It might sound cheesy, but let’s give it a go.

Stop.

Be present; be observant. Notice what’s going on inside you. Let go of judging your own thoughts and feelings. Just let yourself experience them, and bring them before God. Maybe it’s a positive feeling – gratitude, or joy. If so, acknowledge that feeling! Sit with it and let yourself enjoy it. Give thanks and rejoice with God.

Or it might not be a good feeling. Maybe instead it’s pain, or fear, or anxiety that you’re experiencing. It’s OK – you can be honest, and notice that too. Show it to God. Take the time you need to work through and name each emotion.

When we’re too distracted to stop and be in the present moment, we get in the habit of hiding who we are from God, and from ourselves as well. And as a result, we don’t get to truly know ourselves the way God made us.

Look.

What can you see happening around you? If you’re on your own, then stop and really notice your surroundings – where are you? What’s around you? What can you see, hear, touch, taste, smell? We so often rush through our days just getting from one thing to the next, one place to the next, one appointment to the next, but the journey and the in-between is part of God’s gift to us as well.

Be present and notice your surroundings. Every part of creation is a gift from God, so let’s start to become more attuned to it and able to give thanks for it. The wind blowing, the warmth of the sun shining on our skin. A rainbow lorikeet flying out in front of you. A flower growing on the side of the road. All these gifts given to us in a day, in a single moment.

Listen.

What can you hear going on around you? If you’re in conversation with someone, are you really hearing what they’re saying?

Let’s all learn to stop doing that thing where we spend the whole time the other person is talking thinking about what we’re going to say next, instead of actually listening to them. Notice the person you’re talking to. What’s showing on their face? What are they really saying, what are they really asking for? How can you serve them in that moment – what do you have to give to them?

Or – what do you have to receive from them? It’s not always about trying to be the one who gives, trying to be the one in control. Sometimes God calls us to be vulnerable and receive. Sometimes God brings us into connection with another person so we can learn from them, other times so we can teach them, and other times… so we can just be with one another. But we need to be present and listen to know which is which.

Let’s try and retrain ourselves not to be distracted, but to be people that stop, look, and listen. To be people that are in the habit of noticing what’s happening right here, right now.

This is how we “pray without ceasing.”

So often we’re afraid of being in the present moment – but it’s only in the present moment that God speaks. What is God saying to you right now?

Walking with God one step at a time

What does the Lord require of you?

Micah 6:8 (NKJV)

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (NKJV)

Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. It’s not complicated… and yet it’s everything.

From one perspective, it can seem too big. To spend a lifetime always being just and merciful and humble sounds impossible – none of us are that virtuous all the time. But it’s something we can choose to do in each moment. So forget about it being something you should have done yesterday, or will do tomorrow. We can’t redeem all of eternity. It’s just one action, now, this moment. You can manage that! Don’t worry about what follows. That will just be one action, one moment, too – when you get there. But right now, your presence in this moment is all that matters.

Maybe though that feels too small. Maybe you feel like, “what’s the point?” Is my one little moment of doing justice, or of being merciful, really going to make a difference to the world?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. Do it any way. Because changing the world isn’t the point. Leaving your legacy, impressing people, setting world records – it all sounds great, and it’s tempting to make it all about that, all about how doing one tiny thing now will benefit us and make us look good in the long term – but that isn’t the point.

Redeeming each moment

Responding to God in this moment is the point. If we do that, then the rest may well follow, but let’s leave eternity to God. Our job is just to choose to redeem this moment.

If you give it a go now – if you stop, look, listen – then what does a redemption of this moment look like for you? What does doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God look like right now?

Maybe it’s asking someone to come and have lunch with you. Or maybe it’s taking time out for yourself, observing the Sabbath, making sure you get the rest you need. Maybe God wants you to go to bed early for once! Or spend time with your family. Or get some exercise, or call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or finish that really difficult unpleasant job you’ve been putting off for days on end.

I don’t know what God’s speaking to you in this moment. But God does, and you do. We just have to stop, look, listen. Take a breath. Let ourselves be here, now, however that feels. Let the Spirit guide us in redeeming this moment. And then the next one. And then the one after that.

Then, moment by moment, all our tiny, seemingly insignificant little moments of choosing to be with God add up to become a whole way of life. A life that looks like following Jesus, our very own Redeemer. A life that looks like walking with God one small, humble step at a time.

Be present: finding peace with the past and the future

In the previous post, we looked at the difficulties of being present in the moment, of redeeming the time, as Paul says, and making the most of each kairos moment. When we sit quietly and try to be present with God, so often distractions come flooding in. Sometimes it’s memories from the past that distract us, and sometimes it’s worries about the future.

When the past keeps us from the present

Sometimes we don’t want to be fully present in the moment, because our mind floods us with thoughts of the past. Things we’d rather not think about.

Maybe when you try to sit quietly, ugly emotions like pain and anger come flooding in. Maybe it’s because you’re remembering a time you’ve been hurt by someone else.

Or maybe you start thinking about something you wish you hadn’t done, and instead emotions like shame and regret come creeping in. You remember something you said to someone that you really wish you hadn’t. Humiliating moments replay on a loop in your head.

When we try and sit in the stillness, the things our minds throw at us aren’t always much fun.

I think the psalmist who wrote Psalm 32 had a similar experience of wanting to block out thoughts of the past. It sounds like there was something that weighed heavily on him, and he was resolutely avoiding bringing it to mind. But he acknowledges here how that avoidance made him feel; the anxiety it brings him:

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)

Sometimes we do keep silent, even in our own heads, about the things that are affecting us from the past. Maybe we avoid talking to God because we think we need to get in some kind of ‘right’ frame of mind before praying to him. Maybe we’re angry, at a particular person or situation, or even at God, and we feel we shouldn’t be, so we just don’t say anything at all. Or maybe we feel like all we have to offer God is something that God won’t be happy with. So we just stay silent, like the psalmist. We try and avoid being alone with God until we can “get right in our heart” first. Until we feel like what we have to offer is worthy of him.

Honesty is the best policy

But as I’ve said before, God doesn’t care if our prayers aren’t perfect. God doesn’t mind if we come to him with ‘offensive’ emotions. Shocking though it may sound, I remain a firm believer that God prefers us getting angry at him than not speaking to him at all. The important thing is just to be present with God. Be honest about the ugly stuff that’s going on inside. Even if it means getting angry, or confronting feelings that you’d rather avoid and pretend aren’t there.

Whatever tough thing from the past is affecting you in the present, there’s no way out but through. If we feel ashamed, if we feel regret, we need to let ourselves acknowledge that. Just feel the awkwardness. Let yourself sit in it, name it for what it is. Bring it to God. Then you can move towards repentance, and receiving God’s grace.

And if you feel angry or hurt, don’t shove it down and pretend it’s not there. Acknowledge it. The vulnerability involved in admitting you’ve been hurt or sinned against can be difficult sometimes, but honesty with ourselves and with God about these things is key to moving on, towards forgiveness and freedom.

So when we’re struggling with the past, and with the feelings that it brings about… let’s stop choosing avoidance. Don’t be afraid to sit with those feelings, to name them, to bring them before God, to let yourself feel them. There’s nothing right or wrong about feelings, they’re just feelings. God isn’t going to judge you or turn you away for having them. But the only way to move beyond them, to stop the past keeping you from the present, is not to ignore them, but to be honest with yourself and with God.

Not letting the future overwhelm us in the present

Maybe it’s not the past that’s the problem. Maybe you’re one of those people who, when you sit quietly for a moment, worries about the future come rushing in. What needs to be done today? Tomorrow? Next week? What’s left on the to-do list? Have I even written a to-do list? What time is that appointment again? How on earth will I fit that in along with everything else? What if I fail? Embarrass myself? Forget something important? What if I don’t have enough – time, money, food, ability, people who care – fill in the gap in whatever way fits you best.

And it all piles up, and it all comes rushing in, and it all seems too much. What’s the point of sitting still and doing nothing when there’s all this stuff left to be done? How will it ever all get done?

Jesus had a reminder for us that’s relevant here:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-26, 34 (NIV)

Don’t worry about tomorrow – each day has enough worries of its own. Wise words, often quoted. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” might be how some of you remember it.

It can be easier said than done, though, can’t it?

Leave eternity to God

Look – let’s not mistake Jesus’ words for saying “don’t plan for the future”, as I think some people would like to interpret them. Because saying “don’t be anxious about tomorrow” is not the same thing as saying “don’t be prepared for tomorrow”. Planning and making to-do lists can in fact be helpful tools in stopping us from worrying about the future, because preparing, learning, and doing the best we can now is a concrete thing we can do in the present.

But what it does mean is that we let go of the outcome. We let go of trying to hold eternity in our own hands, of trying to figure out all possible endings ourselves. And we trust that our preparation now will help us be where God wants us to be then. We trust that, as the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and so we trust that whatever small step we’re taking now will set us in the right direction on that journey.

So let’s stop being ruled by regrets over the past, and anxiety over the future, and instead focus on right now. Because what we do have, what God gives us as gift right now and for all eternity, is this present moment.

In the next post I’ll talk about a habit I’m trying to adopt, to help me stay present when I feel the past or the future rushing in to take over my thoughts.

Eternity in the human heart: sitting with the mystery

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

This verse from Ecclesiastes is my favorite verse in the Bible. I remember the first time I read it, feeling stunned at the truth that seemed to ring in my soul at those words.

God has set eternity in the human heart. A longing, a yearning for something greater than this. A sense there is something beyond ourselves.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian family, but still I always had this sense – this odd feeling that there was something bigger, more meaningful, more important out there than what I could perceive around me with my senses. Some purpose behind it all, some intention holding it all together.

Even before I had the language to describe this feeling as God, God had set eternity in my heart.

I think we all have inside us this unexplainable sense of infiniteness. But at the same time, no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever fully comprehend it. We cannot fathom what he has done from beginning to end.

We do try, though, don’t we? It’s so tempting to want to explain eternity, to conquer it, to squeeze it and mold it into our own created paradigms. Sometimes it even works, to some extent, for a little while. Sometimes we come up with an explanation that seems to help, to give us a little glimpse of what it all means. But then it all falls down again, and we realise just how great and vast eternity really is, how infinite God is, how impossible it is for our small, finite minds to grasp any kind of complete understanding of it all.

At some point we have to accept the mystery; to wonder at it; to worship.

Where do I belong? The search for purpose and place

I’ve written a few times in earlier posts about the importance of understanding our identity. Today’s post looks at how that fits into our quest to find our place and purpose in the world. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out not just who we are, but where we belong.

Identity crisis: when we lose sense of where we belong in the world

Sometimes, a thing we might have seen as central to our identity and purpose gets taken away from us.

When I was a young child learning piano, I had a bad habit of carelessly dropping the heavy lid of our upright piano so that it made a loud bang, and all the strings in the piano vibrated and echoed with the impact. After a few too many loud crashes, my dad told me a story about a young girl who was training to be a concert pianist. One day, this unfortunate girl carelessly allowed the piano lid to drop on to her hands — and she lost all her fingers! Her carelessness ended up destroying her bright future.

In retrospect, I’m not so sure this story was entirely true… but at the time, it had the desired effect on me. “What if that happened to me?” I wondered. “What if I lost all my fingers? Would I still be me, if I couldn’t play piano anymore?” Even at that young age, music-lover that I was, I’d learned to associate my passion for playing piano with my identity, and with my sense of purpose in the world.

And this is a fear many of us have, I think. What if tragedy strikes, and we’re no longer ‘useful’ in the things we’ve become valued for? No doubt you can think of examples that would be powerful for you.

  • What if I lose my job, and can’t support my family?
  • What if my marriage breaks up, and I end up on my own?
  • What if my health fails, and I can’t look after myself anymore?

Holding life with a looser hand

Often, things like this happening might cause a kind of ‘crisis of identity’. Not only do we grieve the loss of whatever has gone, but we grieve the death of who we were. We fear our identity has gone, along with the job, relationship, skill, whatever it was. We end up unsure of who we’re supposed to be, and of what we’re supposed to be doing.

I think we all have this awareness that on some level, our lives are very fragile. And all the blessings, the gifts we have are fragile. We’re not in control, not really, even though we like to think we are.

That might leave us feeling uncertain of our ‘place’, our purpose, and our identity. It might make us fearful. It might cause us to cling on to things too tightly — jobs, for instance: making sure no one else knows how to do your job so they can’t replace you. Or relationships: trying to find your meaning and purpose in the other person, to fit them into a particular mold of some ‘ideal’ in your mind which isn’t really them.

When we’re not confident of our identity and our purpose, we take these things in our lives that are meant to be gifts and blessings, and we try and squeeze all the meaning we can out of them.

We try and force them to provide the meaning and the purpose that we’re craving.

But the truth is, as Christians, we don’t need to operate out of that kind of fear. Instead, we can afford to hold the blessings in our life with a looser hand.

Belonging in God’s house

Because, as I’ve written elsewhere, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ (Gal 2:20) and that we are beloved children of God (1 John 3:1).

When we know this, when we remember this deep truth about ourselves, it changes us. It has far-reaching implications for how we live our lives, because it means that no matter what happens to us, we can lean on this sense of belonging.

Jesus describes beautifully to his disciples this knowledge of belonging somewhere:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

Notice how he doesn’t just say that God has “left a place vacant for you”, or that there’s “space for you to fit in God’s house”. He goes much further than that. There’s a room prepared, just for you. And we know the difference, don’t we? Between someone that just ‘makes space’, and someone that goes the extra mile to make sure you belong somewhere. God is doing the latter. God is excited about your uniqueness, your distinct personality that you’re bringing to the Kingdom, and God is making his house ready for that.

A resetting of priorities and purpose

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t pursue passions and gain satisfaction from them. None of this means we won’t have things we love, experiences we learn and grow from, pastimes we find meaning in. Nor does it mean that we can’t look for motivation and fulfilment from our jobs, our marriages, our families, or our hobbies.

But it does mean that we don’t need to be fearful if those things don’t give us that deep purpose we desire. Because the truth is that they’ll never fulfil us completely. They’ll never provide you with that ultimate understanding of who you are, where you belong, and what you’re doing here. Because none of these things are the most fundamental aspect of your being, which is this: You’re a beloved son or daughter of the Most High, and there’s a place prepared for you in God’s house.

You belong — if you’ve never quite felt that before, then know it now. And if you’ve been searching for that feeling of belonging in certain groups, certain labels — maybe even within the church! — then as of now, you can let it go. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing can take away that place He’s prepared for you.

Prayer: Lord, thank you that you call us your children. Thank you that we can rest knowing that you’ve prepared a place for us in Your house. Help us to live in the certainty of these truths: that we belong, and that we’re loved. Help us to live our lives grounded in this knowledge, and willing to love fearlessly and freely, just the way you did.

(Note: This, along with the post Who am I? The quest to understand our identity, is adapted from a sermon I delivered on 12 May 2019.)

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.

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

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.

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?

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”?