The Nature Within

“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15, NLT). I find myself captivated by this verse. I identify with it, and I think that in some way, there has never been a more compelling piece of evidence for the skeptic than the experience of it. If we were able to peer into each other’s minds, we might discover, perhaps comfortingly, that we have all experienced this—often, on a seemingly incessant basis. In the absence of Truth, how could we even begin to explain this phenomenon—this thing that Christians call sin?

Even in knowing, there isn’t much comfort. More likely, there are only intensified feelings of  frustration, self-loathing, and shame. And if we experience those things often enough, we might eventually come to the place where we start to rage, not against the destructive patterns that caused such feelings, but against the feelings, themselves. Sick and tired of trying to squeeze ourselves into a mold that we clearly aren’t meant for, we might ultimately choose to embrace the patterns in our lives that had previously caused so much stress. Unapologetically, we declare that this is who we are, and at once, the striving ceases. We might even be praised for our courage and determination to love ourselves, as waves of calm wash over us.

The problem is that in doing so, we sell ourselves short. We surrender to the distorted version of us that sin created, rather than continuing to reach for the hand of the beautiful God who can remake us all into what we were truly meant to be. This is exactly what Satan wants, and every time we choose it, we play right into his hands.

The verse I quoted was not the end of Paul’s musing on the subject. For, beginning in verse 21 of the same chapter, he writes:

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord… ~Romans 7:21-25, NLT

It’s never going to be easy. It’s war. But if the apostle, Paul, who devoutly led the early Church at the time of this writing, was not exempt from this conflict, then we won’t be, either. It’s normal. And the comforting part about it is that it’s not for us to end. We are absolved of that responsibility. All we have to do is keep reaching for Him, and He is sure to carry us the rest of the way. He loves us, and if there is one fundamental truth that we can never afford to let sin take from our awareness, surely it is this.

 

 

 

 

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Render unto Me

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about milestones. More honestly, though, I’ve been feeling quite accosted by them. Maybe it’s the stress of having turned 30—and of truly realizing for the very first time just how rapidly my life is flying by. I’ve come to a point where I’m beginning to feel a tremendous amount of pressure to attain certain things that didn’t seem so important not long ago. Should my husband and I buy a house soon? Should we have a baby? It used to seem like we had all the time in the world to figure things out, and now suddenly, it’s as though we’re racing the clock. A mortgage will take another 30 years to pay off—meaning that, if we literally bought a house within the next 24 hours, we’d be 60 years old by the time we finally finished paying for it. The typical retirement age is about 65, so we definitely don’t want to still be in debt by the time we get there! Likewise, a baby will take 18 years to raise—meaning that if we had one right this second, we’d be 49 years old by the time he or she graduated from high school. Not to mention, I’ve already heard plenty of things about how risky it can be for a woman to conceive past the age of 35—leaving us less than five years to safely consider this incredibly life-altering choice. Seriously? It was 2012 the last time I blinked!

Everywhere we turn, it seems like we are constantly striving to hit that next milestone and to attain the status that our world demands of us at every crucial fork in the road. Five years ago, it might have been marriage. Five years before that, it might have been a career. And we’ve just kept forging on—always goal-oriented and never truly satisfied with being exactly where we are. It’s just the way life works—but oh, is it ever exhausting! And when I stop to think about it, I understand how futile it is. I realize how much time I’ve spent wishing my life away and focusing so much of my attention on the pursuit of things that can never last. In that moment of truth, everything stops. And the only thing I want is to follow His voice.

Our Savior never troubled Himself with the pursuit of such milestones. Career? He was born into a caste system with His occupation chosen for Him before He could take His first steps. Marriage? Although this has been an issue of some debate, the general consensus seems to be that He never hit that target, either—which means the prospect of having children probably never entered His mind. And I’m fairly certain that He never owned property. He lived with His parents until He was thirty years old and basically spent the rest of His life being homeless. Yet, what a beautiful life it was—the most beautiful life that has ever been and ever will be.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for us to want all those other things. But why should we define the value our lives by whether or not we attain any of them? Why should we consider so essential that which He never experienced? Is it not enough just to live every day as He did—giving ourselves completely to God and being thankful for anything He chooses either to grant or deny us (in His timing, not ours)?

Above all things, He would have us remember that our lives are not our own. On the temple grounds in Jerusalem, He once rebuked our thoughtlessness this way: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25, NLT). In the context of our modern world, I can hear Him saying the exact same thing. No matter what anybody else says about what we should or shouldn’t be doing—about what’s important and what is not—His image is the only one we bear. We belong to Him. So, we shouldn’t consider ourselves at liberty to be led by anything else. We shouldn’t waste another precious moment.

 

 

 

Beautiful One

In my mind, I hold a blurry picture of my Savior’s form. Always before me, it appears as the synthesis of every image I’ve ever known. Every painting. Every cinematic portrayal. Every person who has ever inspired the resounding of His name within my heart. No matter what subtle differences there may be in how we each perceive Him, we tend to imagine the same basic features. Cascading dark hair. Olive skin. A face shining brighter than the first light of morning. We see His youth, and above all else—we see His beauty.

Yet, it occurs to me that, in all of Scripture, there is really only one passage that describes Him physically. It is a prophetic passage written, ironically, a great many years before He was born. It is incredibly poignant, and every time I read it, it makes me wonder all the more. “My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” (Isaiah 53:2-3, NLT)

Reading that will surely leave us with a much different picture in our minds than the one we’ve dreamt of on our own. It has to. And isn’t it just our way? Isn’t it just our way to assume that He must’ve been outwardly beautiful, given the truth of who He was? And wouldn’t it have been just His way to purposely veil Himself within a shroud of ugliness—if only to test our hearts? I think so. It reminds me of a fairytale.

But it’s not an easy idea for us to accept. The poison in our humanity won’t let us accept it. For us to do so, we must be in sync with God—joining ourselves to Him in body, mind, and spirit. For, only then shall we see as He sees. Only then shall we envisage true beauty. His beauty.

Don’t Cling to Me

It might be kind of late for an Easter post, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene as they stand alone by His tomb on that morning is one of those simple passages in Scripture that has always haunted and puzzled me. I’ve never really liked it, and I’ve even found myself wishing that I could rewrite the scene—to make it more tender somehow.

On the surface, it just seems so cold. There she is, already lost in grief at the death of  the Man she loves. And that grief has just been made far worse for her upon her realization that she can no longer have the comfort of even drawing near to His body—because someone has apparently stolen it. Then, as she starts to cry, a stranger appears—invading her privacy and even asking her why she’s crying. That, alone, must have been so awful for her. But then, this stranger finally allows her to see him for who he truly is, and in her love and elation, she runs into His arms! She runs into His arms as He tries to hold her back. “Don’t cling to me,” he harshly admonishes, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17, NLT). And that’s basically all that’s been written to describe the encounter between the two of them. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt. Then, He goes His way and she goes hers—back to tell the others what has just happened.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just me trying desperately to ease the discomfort I’ve always felt upon reading this—but I thought of something recently that I hadn’t considered before. This was probably the last time that Jesus ever felt Mary’s embrace—as a human being—before returning to God. In the Old Testament, we read all the time about how perilous it was for a human being to even see God’s face. But, for thirty-three fleeting years, God, Himself, was a human being. Not only could He come close enough to His creation to let them see Him, but He could actually touch them. Hold them. Kiss them—without causing them to die! For thirty-three years, He was able to be on their level, and to express affection for them in a way that they could understand. And He could feel their affection for Him, too—not just as God, but as man. He could feel their affection as His divinity lay ensconced in flesh and blood.

Mary Magdalene was no exception to this. Chances are, she probably enhanced the experience for Him—because He’d known her so personally throughout His time on earth. So, He awakes from His death, knowing that He cannot stay—that He has to leave His humanity in order for His Spirit to, at last, indwell the ones He loves. Knowing this, He comes upon her as she weeps at the tomb. And maybe the sight of her compels Him to reveal Himself—because He can’t bear to watch her cry. But when she goes to touch Him, He immediately relents. He feels the warmth of her flesh upon His. He feels the caress of her hands as she reaches up to touch His hair, and in that moment, just maybe—He can’t find the will to leave her. He knows He won’t be able to experience this again until He comes for her a second time, so instead of holding on, He pushes her away. He pushes her away because He loves her so much—and because it’s just too hard to say goodbye.

Like I said, I don’t know. I’m sure there are lots of other theories as to why Jesus reacted to Mary’s touch in the way that He did. As I pondered the question in my mind, this is just what came to me—as I felt the tears springing forth from my eyes.

When the Time Comes

The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was about thirty years old when his ministry began, and little else is recorded about those first thirty years. We know some things about the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. We know that he spent a part of his early childhood living in Egypt, due to King Herod’s designs on his life. We know that his parents lost him in Jerusalem for three days when he was twelve, and we also know that he studied and practiced carpentry prior to his baptism. What remains beyond those things is mostly left to our imaginations, and I guess, in a way, that’s kind of nice.

I’ve always liked to imagine his life being simple—unremarkable to those with no wisdom of his true identity. I can picture him growing up with his brothers and sisters, making friends, and maybe even falling in love. I can see him going to school and learning the family trade. I can see him coming of age beautifully amid the joys and sorrows of daily life. But I think the hardest thing for me to imagine is the way in which, at some point, he must’ve begun to realize God’s plan for himself. How hard must it have been for him to discover how different he was from the people around him? How hard must it have been for him to discover who he was —and the reason why he’d been born? Did it happen slowly, across time and experience, or did he have some great, defining moment that led him to the revelation? We don’t know. But we do know that he eventually came of age. We can sense the separation between life as he’d known it and life as it began for him in his thirtieth year—as though everything that had come before were building to it all along.

Maybe we all have a separation like that; maybe not. But if we are willing to yield ourselves to God with each breath we take, how can we help fulfilling his plan? How can we help growing up beautifully?

Walk with Me

This will probably be one of my shorter posts. I have something to share, but for those who will receive it, I’ll spare the personal details and focus on the simple truth. I have often heard the testimonies of other people who speak profusely of the joy they feel in knowing that God guides their steps. God has given me joy throughout my life, but only in these recent days have I finally begun to understand this particular joy. I’ve come to recognize the difference between walking in my own will and walking in His. And this difference might seem pretty basic in a logical sense, but it’s not just about what we can perceive intellectually—it’s about what we can experience.

Regrettably, I’ve chosen to walk within my own will throughout the vast majority of the precious time I’ve been given on this earth. In consequence of that choice, I’ve experienced a lot of strife. I’ve been victimized by fear, I’ve stumbled in frustration and resentment, and I’ve grieved in terrible heartache. I’ve spent so much energy trying to break down the wrong doors and wondering why they won’t just open, when, all the while, He has been waiting for me to take His hand—wanting so much to lead me down the path He cleared for me long ago.

At a certain point, I hope we all become broken enough of our own stubbornness to finally take His hand, because when we do, we will all know what it is to experience miracles. We will see our fear give way to trust, our frustration yield to peace, and our heartache transform into the most wonderful joy—a joy born of love experienced both from and for our beautiful Creator.

We have a God who cares for us, I think, far more than we have the capacity to understand. The desire of His heart is to make us whole—to provide for us and keep us safe so that we’ll never have to know the pain of being without Him. “Look at the lilies and how they grow,” Jesus said. “They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are (Matthew 6:28-29, NLT).”

I have felt the hand of my God as He lovingly adorns me with all that I need for my warmth. In spite of every false security the world has ever seduced me with, that Hand is what I’m thankful for.

Thoughts of Heaven

I had a conversation with a friend recently that prompted me to think about heaven. It occurred to me that if I were to ask a group of people to describe heaven, each person would probably have something unique to say—something personal that might give me an idea of what matters most to him or her. It can be a mystifying thing for us to envision, and unfortunately it can sometimes be used as a means of coercion as well. We may be told that unless we follow a precise set of rules, we’ll be denied entrance into this beautiful place and forced to endure unimaginable terror. This was a part of the elementary view of heaven that I had as a child. Heaven was the place we went to if we were good in this life, and hell was the place we went to if we were bad. As a Christian, more specifically, heaven was the place we went to if we believed the testimony of the gospels, and hell was the place we went to if we didn’t.

With so many different kinds of spirituality in the world—so many ideas that promote goodness outside of Christianity—many of us feel an attraction toward ambiguity about our beliefs. We’d rather agree with any philosophy that endorses peace and kindness than stand behind the tenets of one religion that compels us to look down at other people and declare them condemned. It’s natural for us to feel this way. After all, it’s not our place to condemn anyone.

When I look back upon my life up to this point, I realize that I wasn’t completely brought up to be a Christian. My parents were never very spiritual, and they didn’t make us go to church, but they didn’t discourage it, either. They wanted us to make up our own minds, and I will always respect them for that. Nevertheless, I did eventually decide that I wanted to become a Christian, and the more I came to understand what, exactly, that meant, the more passionately I wanted it. It’s probably most common to think of Christianity as a religion, but to me, it wasn’t a religion at all. It was a relationship. And I was in love. From the moment I first came to know Jesus of Nazareth, I was so completely in love. How could I not desire a relationship with Him? Creator of my life. Lover of my life. Life itself. This is who He is. And if He is all these things, then He must be Heaven, too. That’s the truth my heart came to understand. When I think of heaven, I don’t see a kingdom with pearly gates and angels playing harps on white clouds. I see Him. I see myself wrapped up in Him forever. And when I think of hell, I don’t see a torture chamber made of fire and brimstone. I see myself parted eternally from the One I love. It breaks my heart to think of all the people who don’t understand it this way.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said a prayer for every one of us who would ever believe in Him—every one of us who would ever belong to Him. “I have given them the glory you gave me,” He said, “so that they may be one, as we are— I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one (John 17:22-23, NLT).” That’s what heaven is. Oneness. Intimacy. I knew that in the beginning of my conversion, and I know it now. I pray that I’ll know it always, no matter how the world tries to sway me. I know who He is. I know who I am. And His heaven is the only one I’ll ever want—because no other heaven will ever give me Him.