Friday, February 27, 2009

Good Disappointment

This is another continuation of the valley series. Oddly enough, this was what I began writing at the first sign of me slipping into a spiritual funk. It’s odd because as I re-read through it, I sound like I’m dealing with things quite well and anticipating the struggle to come in a healthy way. It would have done me well to have headed my own words at certain points along the journey. I have gone through and changed a few things for the sake of clarity and so you don’t think I’ve gone insane, but much remains as it did when I originally typed it. Here we go…

I’m an idealist. I think everyone is to some degree. We all have dreams and our own perceptions of reality. We all have a picture in our hearts and minds of how things ought to be, how life and all the joys and pains are meant to play out and be experienced. If only it were so.

The stale, over-chewed gum currently in my mouth captures this wonderfully. Ideally, it would forever taste as good as it did the moment I put it in my mouth, it would never cease making my breath smell like heaven, and every time my pearly whites were exposed to light, you’d see a sparkle and hear a bell ring. Not so. I feel like I’m chewing on a tire. My breath is unholy, not heavenly. And when light runs across my teeth you can still see the pop-tart residue from breakfast. There’s no bell either, just the gasping sound of disgust. Very disappointing really.

Truth is, life rarely lines itself up with the ideal picture we make for it. And when it doesn’t, we’re faced with unwanted, unexpected disappointment. Broken dreams, misconceptions, confusion, heartache, loss, guilt—life doesn’t work out the way we thought and hoped it would most of the time because if it did, these things wouldn’t exist. But they do exist. It’s our ideal picture of life that doesn’t seem to be real. Instead, we’re left picking up the broken pieces of our dream-world trying to make sense of it all, feeling hopeless and lost, not wanting to dream big again, wanting to give up on the things our souls most long for and treasure—things like love, joy, peace, passion, beauty, and meaning.

Gum just looses its luster after a while.

It’s not a question of whether or not disappointment will come. It’s coming. In some form or another and when we don’t expect or want it to. And the focus is not trying to figure out when. Or even how for that matter. More so, how do you respond to it when it does come? Not knowing how can only prolong the valleys.

I thought I had most of this figured out already—the whole dealing with disappointment thing. You can come out with a simple, church answer and be pretty accurate: “When disappointment comes your way, you should turn to God and trust that He’s in control. He’s sovereign. He has your best interests in mind. He can use disappointment and all the unpleasant emotions that come along with it for good.”

Yes, all very true. But it doesn’t play out so simple when you find yourself in the thick of it. Your faith is put to the test. Sometimes you’re faced with a difficult and confusing situation and you actually do pray from the very beginning—at the first sign of trouble—for God to help you trust Him and navigate you through the fog. You feel like you’ve been faithful and patient and you’re convinced God is going to honor that. You’re constantly on your knees begging God to show you His way and not be blinded by the one you want to create for yourself. You know that ultimately He knows what is best so you cry out for Him to lead you in that direction. You seek the wise, godly advice of friends and family along the way as well. You’re honest as you share your struggles with them and take to heart their counsel. From just about every angle, it seems like you have a handle on things; your ducks are in a row and most people are impressed by how straight they are. Surely, things are going to work out the way you want them to. I’ve made sure of it. God owes it to me to see me through without the disappointment.

So what are you to think when despite your best efforts, you face huge disappointment?

Maybe trusting God still gets you hurt. Maybe it brings on more confusion than you had before the disappointment—at least for a season. Maybe part of the plan is for you to experience the pain and the disappointment to expose the depths of your heart and allow God to go to work on it. Maybe He wants to see how you’ll respond. Maybe this is the only way for you to learn and to grow and arrive at a stronger place spiritually. Maybe brokenness is the only way to wholeness. It's like there's something good to being disappointed every once in awhile.

My dad used this analogy with me once:

You can know everything there is to know about the fundamentals of swimming. You can learn all the different strokes and techniques. You can feel like you’re an expert swimmer and that you have it all together. But your understanding doesn’t really take root until you jump in the water and start swimming, putting what you’ve learned into practice.

Truth is, experience can be a very powerful and useful teacher. In certain areas of life, it’s really the only way to learn. Maybe God simply wants us to jump in, go for an extended swim, and experience new struggles and new disappointments so we know how to approach them the next time come. As I've come to acknowledge time and time again, this is yet another way to remind us we're not in control.

I’ll be honest. I don’t really like that He chooses to work in this manner, dragging me trough the coals in a sense all for the sake of learning. I wish he would just supernaturally learn me. This other way just makes me out to be crazy and people look at me funny.

God is sovereign and faithful far beyond my ability to understand. He is at work in me and around me in ways I’m surely unaware of and unable to appreciate as I should. And although I know this, I still battle against the emotions that war within me at the deepest level when I’m faced with disappointment. Because when I am, I feel as if God has let me down, ignored my cries, and abandoned me when I know he hasn’t. I feel completely empty, stripped of every comfort and source of security—like I’m fighting for joy and losing—yet in the end I know I possess in my very self the most precious, most glorious treasure of all. It gets crazy; I start becoming disappointed with my ability to overcome disappointment. And if I’m not careful, I’ll start the whole process over again, dwelling on my insufficiencies, being overly concerned with my own ability to understand, forgetting the freedom and joy found in letting go of the things I can’t control. Because there is a joy associated with letting someone else manage your dreams when that someone is, you know, all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinitely loving.

Joy, in fact, may be the antidote to our broken dreams—the kind of joy that pulls its strength from faith in Christ, the abundant life-giver.

A good reminder: this world is not our home. It will never be what we desire it to be. It’s a broken place and will let us down time and time again. We will never reach full contentment here because our souls were created to thrive in another. Christ has gone to prepare a place for us—our true home—and I don’t think we’ll be disappointed when we get there. Oh what a glorious day that will be, huh? Until then, we hope and pray that His kingdom come and reign on this earth as much as possible. Yes, especially through the disappointments.

Friday, February 20, 2009


A prayer from the valley:
My faith is weak right now. My heart fails within me. I don’t want to hold on to a false hope or powerless faith. My desire to know You, God, is stronger and more pure than ever. I want You more than anything, but I feel like You continue to fall short on Your promises with me. I see people around me rejoicing and appreciating the things You are doing in their lives and I’m so jealous of them. I know I shouldn’t be. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to them. I simply want to believe and not doubt, but I can’t talk myself into it. I can’t make myself believe though I desire to whole-heartedly. I cannot manufacture peace and joy though I long for it with all my heart and sing about it with tears. I read and hear of a most wonderful love, an abundant life, a priceless treasure—all found in You—and I continually feel like I’m missing it. I remain at Your mercy, God, desperate for You to do a work in me, to make Yourself known, to breathe life into me, to rescue me from the hopelessness I feel. I want to believe, God, help my unbelief…
It all starts with God—everything. He is before all things and through Him all things live, move, and have their being. Every good and perfect thing comes from Him, and no evil is beyond His power to make good. He is infinitely holy. He is just, wise, and loving. He stands alone in His beauty and glory. There is none like Him, and we are nothing like Him. We are fallen and broken, prone to evil and far from righteousness. We are poor, weak, and needy—hopeless when left on our own.

But we’re not alone.

God has made himself known and we need Him. He is our strength, our hope, our reward—the one thing our souls crave the most regardless of whether or not we realize it. We need Him because we need rescuing and He brings that. His salvation is remarkable in that it is free, His grace a gift for us to receive. In fact, He requires nothing of our own power or merit because even at our best we fall incredibly short of His perfection. This is grace and this is radical truth.

The world doesn’t work this way. In the world, It’s all about measuring up to something, performing well to get ahead, striving to secure a future that you’re convinced you deserve because you’ve worked for it and earned it. But God’s love is not earned or ever deserved, and you can’t work for it. It’s just demonstrated for us in Christ on the cross. We try again and again to measure up to it, but we never do—we’re not meant to. The one thing that is asked of us is to believe. Believe that Christ is who He says He is, the very Son of God in flesh, and that the salvation we so desperately need is found in no one else but Him and Him alone. Christ measures up to God’s standard for us. And that’s it. We’re not required to save ourselves, but to believe that we can’t and that someone else—the only who ever could—has. This is faith and it’s what we’re called to have for salvation.

But faith is hard to have when you’re in the valley. Despite knowing the glorious truths mentioned above, you struggle believing it and the Gospel begins to lose it’s power in your life. Doubt sneaks in and the questions begin and are relentless. Here’s what I mean…

What is faith anyways? Is it mine? Do I have to go get or do I already have it? Does God give it to me? And what makes one’s faith more real or more genuine than another’s? Their level of sincerity or devoutness (as if such a thing could be measured)? Because I’ve met some pretty sincere and devout Muslims who would put many Christians to shame. Is it their ability to convincingly articulate what they believe and why they believe it? But then, what are we to conclude if a Buddhist does a better job at articulating and defending his faith more than a certain Christian does? Does this make his faith better or truer?

Maybe if more and more people jump on board with one religion over all the others then that faith is the most reliable? But then again, majority rule doesn’t have the best reputation.

Maybe we could stack up the good deeds of all the religions of the world and determine a winner that way? Whichever religion has done the most good for the world is obviously the one with the greatest amount of faith, right? Hindus do good things. Gandhi was pretty well liked and influential. Many have put their faith into his way of life.

Or maybe we could listen to all the miraculous stories of transformed lives, hear people speak of the great blessings of God, and validate one that way? Surely there’s no greater witness to the work of God than changed lives. But all religions seem to make that claim. How do you really know a changed life when you see one? Salvation is God’s doing, not man’s I know, but knowing that isn’t helping right now.

These questions about faith don’t seem to lead to any answers or clarity, only more questions, and more maybes. Maybe this questioning defeats the purpose of calling it faith then, because faith is not based on what can be seen or understood, but on what is unseen. It’s based on supernatural revelation that transcends our ability to understand. Faith is believing the unbelievable, the inconceivable, and the impossible, and people need help believing it. Because we can’t make sense of everything.

Every living, breathing person on this planet has faith to some degree because we all have things we don’t have answers to, things we just don’t understand—the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist alike. And there’s a point when we all find the ability to trust just enough in the faith we claim to have that we eventually learn to live with uncertainties that plague us. We hold on to the hope our faith brings. What is most perplexing of all is that given the vast numbers of religions and belief systems out there in the world, some, if not most of this hope, must be a false one. They (notice the switch from we) hope in vain, in something artificial and man made. It may allow them to live their lives amidst all the uncertainties, and it may provide some answers, but what’s the use if it’s all a lie?

The questions come again…

What makes my faith any different from theirs? What if I grew up in the Middle East and was raised a Muslim? Would I be at a different place or sitting here with the same unsettledness? Would I simply follow the religion around me? Such thoughts make religion seem like nothing more than a social institution. I can see the reasoning of the atheist even. He would conclude that they (the religions of the world) are all a false hope and that religion is man’s creative way of dealing with life’s unanswered questions and nothing more. They are a crutch to help people get by and mask the emptiness of their souls and help them cope with life’s difficulties. To the atheist, religion doesn’t seem all that different than football. At least it provides people with temporary relief from reality and with something to get excited about.

I want to understand so badly. But these questions just get more and more dangerous and I simply can’t come up with a good explanation for all of them. I realize at this point in my ramblings, I may have left you exhausted and with a feeling of hopelessness. Hang in there.
There is hope. There's a God to know beyond religion.

One thing I am reminded of is a quote by Tozer. He says this: “We don’t understand in order to believe; we believe in order to understand.” And that’s it. Despite all the doubting and questioning, and even though I wish I could makes sense of it all, it goes back to just believing—trusting that the understanding will come in time. He who doubts is like a wave blown and tossed by the wind anyways, and that’s no way to live. We can’t have all the answers and solve all the worlds’ great dilemmas before believing. Faith is believing even when we don’t feel like we can—especially when we don’t feel like we can. There’s a beautiful mystery to believing in order to understand. And as one who has cried out from the valley with little to no faith at times, I’m grateful for the suffering it brought, the many things I’ve learned and continue to learn from being there, and for the reminder that when in comes down to it, I’m not in control of anything. To ever think I am is delusion.

I say again, we’re not required to save ourselves, but to believe that we can’t and that someone else—the only who ever could—has. Jesus Christ. Surely, there is no other truth, no other kind of faith, like this one. It's undeserved favor, unconditional love. It makes you want to believe. It takes religion out of the equation because it's not about you or what you're able to do. That's pretty sweet if you ask me. If you're going to put your faith in anything, put it in a God who loves like this one does.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I’ve been experiencing a valley in my spiritual life the past few months. It’s not something completely new to me; I’ve had them before. I recognize it as part of the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual journey. But this valley has been much deeper than all the others. It really shook me to my core and tested me to the point that I thought I wouldn’t survive it or ever come out of it. Many times, I was ready to throw in the towel and forsake my faith altogether. Though I was praying more earnestly than I ever had before in my life, it only made the silence I felt from God more difficult to make sense of. The doubt that crept in was almost too much to bear. And I’m not completely out of the woods yet either. I’m still working through some of the confusion, pain, and uncertainty associated with the whole experience. But my resolve is as strong as ever. My desire to know God and for Him to be real and at work in my life is unmatched with any other time in my past. And I suspect this to be the reason we have valleys in our lives—to make us stronger as we become so keenly aware of our weakness.

Starting this week, I’m going to begin to look back and read some of the things I wrote during this season. I’ll share some of them on here—as long as I can make sense of them at least. Maybe the honesty in my struggles and rawness of emotion will resonate with some of you and remind you that you’re not alone in the valleys you face. So stay tuned. Round one in the valley series is coming soon.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Big, Small World

The world is a huge place. Sometimes I think we forget that. Often we prefer to recognize those moments in life when the world seems small and manageable. You know, like when strange coincidences bring together the most random of things. Like meeting a complete stranger on the other side of the world and coming to find out you share a common friendship. No way! It seems crazy. It’s those times that lead you to say something to the other person like, “Small world, huh?” And it is small in those moments. That's the power of coincidence.

But in other moments, the world is huge—it can catch you off guard and morph to a size beyond the ability to wrap your mind around. I’m then left trying to figure out why the world keeps changing sizes…or maybe it’s more accurate to say why my mind keeps thinking it’s changing sizes. Because it’s not really. I guess it comes down to your perspective.

Okay, this is when I start to make less and less sense in my attempt to make sense. Join me...

Perspective: your perspective has something to do with how big or small the world appears to be. What influences and changes your perspective then? Moments do; any moment can really. Different moments bring different experiences that challenge and shape the way you view and understand the world. Some moments are more momentous than others to be sure, but each moment carries with it power to influence the way you think. One moment the world seems small; the next it seems huge. And when the moments of your life keep changing drastically in opposite directions, you jump back and forth from the two extremes until you reach the point of mental exhaustion. Maybe individual moments are more significant than we often think given their power to change our perspective on the world.

This is the best way I know to describe my most recent experience. I found myself doing a lot of jumping around the past two weeks while spending time in Turkey observing and interacting with a completely different culture than the one I’m use to. There were a lot of moments that were thrown my way that I was forced to process rather rapidly. My mind went to work.

Everything seemed so different about these people. Obviously, they talked differently. Turns out they spoke in another language. This makes communication challenging I’ve come to find out. The food they ate was different too. And they looked different, they smelled…different, and they interacted with each other different. They were just different altogether. And at the heart of it all was this mysterious religion, mostly foreign to me, that almost all of them followed and claimed to some extent. Every time I would hear one of their calls to prayer, it would send an eerie chill down my spine. It was overwhelming; my mind couldn't take it.

I was bumping shoulders with millions of people who were completely lost in a very dark place. Their eternal destination wasn't looking so hot. Well, you know what I mean. And they really didn’t seem too bothered by it as I observed them. They simply lived their lives, walking the streets, riding the buses, playing in the park, sipping their teas, content in their hopelessness and ignorance. What was I to do about it? I’ve never seen so many lost faces that know nothing of the Gospel. I also wondered if I assumed too much about the people I would typically see back home. They seem pretty content as well. At least in Turkey, it was easier to know who was lost--all of them. The task was too big for me; overwhelming. What was more, this was only one city of hundreds like it around the world.

In these moments, the world seemed so huge.

I continued watch and study these people intently, trying to figure out their way of life. What were their motivations? How big of a role did their religion really play? What made them laugh? What made them angry? Wait, they have ipods? What music did they listen to? And movie theaters? They watch movies? I guess they do. These people were different for sure, but they were also strangely similar. They were human. They felt joy and pain. They had the same basic needs as I did. They enjoyed a good meal. They sought out genuine companionship with each other. And ultimately, they too longed for purpose, significance, acceptance, love, and a God to know intimately and be infinitely loved by.

This is where my mind began to be at ease: the God that I love and serve in Tennessee is just as much God in central Asia, or any other part of the world for that matter. His love is just as strong; His word just as true. He is a sovereign God who loves the whole world and everyt living, breathing person in it. Yeah, this is another overwhelming thought that is too big for me, but it’s one that brings comfort and hope to my many unanswered questions, and it helps me make sense of my moments. I think in a way, life simply comes down to allowing God to be the center of all your moments so that we come to see the world as He does.

God holds everything together when all seems lost and hopeless and too big. God is bigger. He puts definition to huge. His love endures and His purposes prevail. In relation to Him, we all—and by all I mean every human being on the planet—are pretty similar: we’re not big. Despite our cultures and the differences they bring, we all need Him. He created all things and rules over His creation with power and justice and goodness. Though it's all too big for me, God manages it all pretty well.

It’s in these moments, in light of God's grandness, that the world seems pretty small.