I thought 2017 was a tough year for me and many of the people I work with but 2018 has already been marked by one report of bad news after another. I have that same sinking, weak, and impotent feeling I had last summer when my Dad died. My knees seem to constantly be in a state of weakness.
Thankfully, God provides messages and resources in my weakness. For my time with God, I like to read the meditations put together by Jan Johnson in her book, Meeting God in Scripture. In part five of the book, the theme is “Facing fears, frustrations, and discouragement.” The first passage that she walks the reader through is Mark 4:35-41, the time when Jesus is taking a nap on a boat while a huge storm erupts and has the Disciples fighting for their lives. Johnson pointed the reader to a Rembrandt painting of this scene.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
I found it so interesting to observe the disciples and all of their different responses (including the one heaving off the side of the boat) and then to ask myself which disciple most resembles the reaction that I would have.
At first glance, I identified with the lone disciple at the back of the boat straining at the rudder, trying to keep the boat on a steady path. He is all strain and little progress. Rembrandt seems to really like the dark and so it is hard to see that there is one disciple who is kneeling before Jesus, perhaps begging for him to do something, or crying out for mercy. Some scholars think this is Rembrandt himself, placing himself in the painting. Where are you in the painting and this scene?
Take a few moments and read the passage and then observe the painting. Which disciple are you in your current situation? What response do you wish you had in light of how the scene plays out? Will you ever be able to just calmly sit next to Jesus during your stormy seasons? How will faith help remove the fear in your life?
We are about to enter the Do Not Be Afraid season. Everywhere you turn in the Christmas story is someone being told to not be afraid. Mary is told to not be afraid, Joseph is told to not be afraid, and then the Shepherds are told to not be afraid.
What was going on that would make them afraid? It was God’s work in their life that had the potential to change everything. These encounters with God’s angels were fearful because everything was about to change. From the way they were now going to look at the world to what they were being asked to do, their lives were never going to be the same.
Why do we fear God’s action in our lives? For one, we have spent many long years shaping our existence and identity. No matter how faulty our reasoning or misguided our behavior has been, we have grown attached to who we are. There is a level of comfort to our identity that we fear changing.
Second, with change comes more responsibility because we have to be accountable to that change. We have to answer to it and about it. That requires conversations with people who may not understand what God has done in our lives. Or we may experience judgement from the hearer that we would rather not have to deal with. Think about the responsibility placed on Mary and Joseph as they accepted the change to their life that was on the way. That was a heavy burden for them, yet, they were told to not be afraid because everything was going to turn out okay.
In this Do Not Be Afraid season, do not shy away from God’s work in your life. In the slogan of our day – lean into it. If you can just be obedient and move forward in Christ’s ways for your life you will experience transformative miracles that will revolutionize who you are and the world you participate in.
Do Not Be Afraid.
One of the basic rules of life is that with age comes more responsibility. I am more aware of this on this particular day because it is my birthday. Just as physical growth brings more responsibility, so does spiritual growth. When I get closer to God I realize more of my own failings and how poor my response to him has been. I am convicted and want to respond in a way that will honor him and his love and mercy towards me. This makes sense and is appropriate right? So why does the added responsibility that comes with spiritual growth make us fearful?
Think about teenagers that you know or have worked with. Maybe even think about your own life as a teenager. Haven’t you noticed that many teenagers refuse to do what they are supposed to because if they start maturing and doing the right thing more will be asked of them? I used to work with inner city youth and remember one student in particular who seemed to want to just stay in one particular immature state because he didn’t seem to want to have to be held accountable for his actions. If this student would have just made small changes he would have realized that doing good wasn’t so bad and that more responsibility also comes with positive aspects such as pride, sense of accomplishment, respect, and fulfillment.
In a sense, we are often like spiritual teenagers, wanting to stay in a state of spiritual immaturity so that no one will expect more from us and God especially will take his requests and requirements someplace else. But just as we can learn to appreciate and love the new identity that we receive as Christ followers, we can learn to appreciate and love the new responsibilities that also come with Christlikeness. Fairly soon, these responsibilities will begin to feel less like duties and more like opportunities to respond to the great love of our Heavenly Father.
My oldest daughter is convinced that she is a “germaphobe”. She is in that pre-teen age range that starts to obsess over identity. All of those labels that are so stereotypical of school start to surface during this time. So, my daughter has chosen “germaphobe” as her identity. I am sure she will graduate to more profound identities but for now she likes to tell people about her need to wash hands and avoid other people’s food germs.
The power of suggestion in these matters is very impactful. I remember in college how often friends jabbed me on how intolerant I was of things and that I was a little grumpy. I have carried a nickname, Sloth, for most of my life that carries a very distinct connotation as to what kind of person I am. Over time, these labels move from conversation starters and ways to draw attention to ourselves to levels of identity that we grow attached to. Into adulthood, I grew attached to my identity as someone who was aloof and standoffish and introverted. But as Christ began shaping me into something that more resembles him, I found myself becoming more outgoing, friendlier, and willing to extend myself. I remember even questioning myself at times as to what I was doing? “I am not supposed to be this outgoing!” “Why am I being so friendly?”
Maybe the aspect of spiritual growth that you fear the most is losing your identity, even if that identity is less than desirable. These attributes that we have carried around for years have a huge hold on us and to lose them, even if they are replaced with more meaningful and productive things, can be fearful. I am glad that God has made me a more loving, generous, and hospitable person and I much prefer this identity to the alternative but in the early stages of this particular change in my life I had to break the attachment I had to my unchanged identity.
Do you fear that people will look at you differently if you become more like Christ? Have you grown too attached to your unchanged self? May God give you a vision for the real you, the you that has been changed to more resemble his son, Jesus Christ.
The second thing that many Christians fear when they become more devoted in their faith is that they will lose the things that bring enjoyment to their life. What people don’t understand is that God knows better than we do what brings us enjoyment. He has our best interests at heart and if we will just trust him, he will provide times and things in our life that are more enjoyable than we could have imagined.
I have a very close group of friends that I have known since I was five years old. We still stay in contact with each other but we are scattered all over the country now. I am not the easiest guy to get to know and relate to; I am a little quirky and possess a strange sense of humor. But these friends share my sensibilities and interests and we can be together only once a year and it feels like we have never been away from each other. Over the last five years or so I can think of several occasions when our times together seemed more like a gift than anything that we could have arranged or organized. To me, it just seemed as if God was providing these times together simply because he knew how much I enjoyed them and how much it meant to all of us to be together. God had organized something that I enjoyed and provided for it in bunches.
Have you trusted God for your enjoyment? Have you told God how much you enjoy certain things and asked him to provide these things in the best way he sees fit? Are you willing to not take matters in to your own hands and work against God, knowing that He has your best interest at heart and wants to give you special gifts of enjoyment? God is a God of good things and he loves to shower these on his people. All we need to do is lay ourselves at his feet and trust that He knows what he is doing. Times will not always be enjoyable but when the good times come they will be so rich and rewarding that you will bemoan the times you tried to manipulate situations on your own.
Image via Wikipedia
I have always been a terrible swimmer. Two years ago, I tried to remedy my poor swimming status by sheer practice. I failed miserably. I seemed to be attacking the water rather than gliding through it. One lap down was a chore that left me out of breath and hurting. I was frustrated and annoyed at myself. Is there anything more frustrating than having a goal and then failing so emphatically?
But this past year, I discovered a swimming method called Total Immersion and I decided that I would give my swimming attempts another try. I rented a DVD and began learning some drills and practicing them. I tried to take the process step by step and gradual with the idea of learning slowly and effectively. Not all of the drills have been easy and my fear of failure surfaces each time I grow frustrated but I have to fight through it and find small success and celebrate improvement. My goal is to become a better swimmer not perform in triathlons. I have started to enjoy my swimming sessions because I am improving and accomplishing something that has been frustrating in the past.
So what does this have to do with Christian Spiritual Formation? The same fear of failure that has dogged my pursuit of better swimming has hampered my spiritual growth. I fear that I will fail to understand a passage of scripture so I don’t even read, or my prayer time will end with me dozing off so I don’t even pray, or that service to others will show how truly selfish I am, so why bother? But here is what I have discovered as I work through my fear – spiritual breakthroughs are just around the corner and it is usually not in the reading of scripture or the praying that I discover them but through the fact that I have been reading scripture and praying.
When I am committed to following after Jesus and learning from him, then my whole day becomes a laboratory for spiritual insight and growth. Prayer builds off of scripture, encounters during the day begin to show a theme, and every moment is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to draw me closer to the truth about Jesus. Spiritual exercises that seemed so mundane and fruitless while I am doing them slowly gain momentum and success as my life progresses and the Holy Spirit reminds me of what I previously discovered during the exercise.
What are you missing by fearing spiritual failure? What could you discover if you pushed past your fear and realized that you don’t have all the answers or even much ability but you have your attention and right now your attention is so focused on others things. Place your attention on becoming like Christ and let your life not be ruled by fear but by slow progress and tiny achievements.
Christians are living in a state of fear which leads to frustration. We know that our lives can be full of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We have seen glimpses of it in our lives and in the people around us but fear keeps us stagnant.
I believe that there are four things that we are most afraid of when it comes to making the effort to grow in our spiritual life.
2. Losing Enjoyable Things
3. Losing our Identity
4. More Responsibility
What we fear doing most is often what we most need to do – Bible reading, silence and solitude, memorizing scripture, eliminating distractions. Our culture is screaming for people who know the word of God, who meditate on scripture day and night, and who are not sucked in by hurry and busyness.
Starting tomorrow, I will focus on one fear a day and discuss how that particular fear is keeping us from making progress in our spiritual life.