How to Have Faith in the Face of Unanswered Questions

There are things about God you and I will never understand.

I’m being reminded of this a lot lately. As I teach through the entire Bible, chapter by chapter, questions arise.

Questions I once asked but now know the answers to… Questions I once asked but never found the answers to… Questions I once asked but was too lazy to go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and never find the answers to… Questions I now ask and am too lazy to go find the answers to… And questions those I’m teaching ask that I’ve never considered…and may or may not know the answers to.

[See the analyticalness in that last paragraph? I have to cover every base, every combination and permutation of options. It’s a sickness, really.]

My natural bent is to feel unsettled when I have questions I can’t answer. I like information. I like all the information. Having it gives me a sense of control–a false sense, by the way–and when I don’t know something, I feel uneasy.

This feeling once drove me to totally deny Christianity and the existence of God. Because Jesus couldn’t be proven in a lab, I would not accept His claim to be God as a possibility.

Do you know what changed my mind about Jesus?

I’ll give you a hint: I never got all my questions about Him answered to my satisfaction. I didn’t finally meet someone who could smush Christianity into my tiny box-of-logic.

What changed my mind about Jesus is 1) I realized I needed God, and 2) the God of the Bible made a lot of sense to me. Notice: the Bible didn’t make total sense to me.

As I began to study the Bible with an open mind, God began teaching me about His character. I discovered more and more who He is and what He is like and, conversely, what He isn’t like.

Over time New Testament scriptures proved true in my own life, enhancing my trust in the Bible’s validity, and, in turn, in the Bible’s descriptions of God as wholly trustworthy and good.

I still had plenty of intellectual hurdles I couldn’t clear in regards to Christianity. And I still do. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the unanswered questions than I used to be. Because the questions I can answer–Will God forgive me? Will He abandon me? Does He love me? Is His Word true?–all confirm His character.

So when someone asks a question like, “When babies die, do they go to heaven?” I can say, “I don’t know–the scriptures don’t expressly speak to that–but I know God is good and just and loving, so I trust Him to do the right thing by those babies.”

And when someone asks, “Why did God even give Adam and Eve the option to disobey Him in the garden? Why even plant that tree? He set them up for failure. Who is kidding who?” I can say, “I don’t know why God allows evil. It may not make sense to us, but I know God is wise and in total control, so I trust Him to use evil for good.”

To put it philosophically, the sensibility of God (that is, the fact that He makes sense), does not depend upon man’s (in)ability to completely make sense of God. There are things about Him that will never make sense to us humans. But He has given us enough glimpses of Himself in the scriptures for us to reasonably believe He does, in fact, make sense in all ways. It is not He who is illogical from time to time but us.

And that thought provides me comfort and peace in the midst of unanswered questions.

Preparation K

As in preparation Kelly. What did you think I meant?

Anywho, it seems God is teaching me about three different things right now in an effort to “prepare” me for something terrifying and difficult that is coming down the pike. I don’t know what that something is, per se, I just sense that it is coming.

So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

God is using the gym to school me in all three areas: stepping into fear, resisting equating my performance with my value as a human being, and disciplining myself to do the work when I don’t particularly feel like it.

These are some big lessons He is teaching me in this little safe, controlled environment called the gym. I feel like He is giving me a space to practice these behaviors because I’m going to need them to be second nature where He is taking me.

It has occurred to me many times in the past that my ministry role models have all gone through their own personal versions of growing in these three areas.

They have all struggled with fear in the past, learned how to handle it, and gone on to teach others how to deal with it in healthy ways. They’ve written books on the subject and shared their stories from the stage. Learning how to interact with fear is a common thread for the most successful people I know.

These people also clearly know who they are and why they are valuable and that their writing a best-selling book or speaking to 10,000 people in no way means they are any more valuable than the next person. Conversely, they know their ill-worded tweet that lands them on the social media crap list doesn’t mean their value has diminished either. They don’t tie their identities to their performances.

And they are all very self-disciplined people. It shows up in their ministries, their teaching, and the everydayness of their lives (for example, every single one exercises religiously). They run giant ministries while writing in-depth Bible studies and books simultaneously while speaking all over the world 40 times every year. Oh, and they are parents and spouses and children who strive to keep their families a priority over their ministries. None of this happens without incredible self-discipline.

So here I am, learning all these same lessons on a much smaller scale, trying not to get too caught up in what the future may hold, but curious nonetheless.

I graduate seminary, the reason for my total neglect of writing on this blog, in December. And I have no plan after that. As in, none.

Some find that nonsensical. Some find that stupid. Some find that odd. I find it to be just another day in the life of being one of God’s kids.

He doesn’t tell us the whole plan. He tells us what the current step is. And that’s usually about it. Seminary and gym lessons are my current steps. So I am focusing on being a diligent student in both classrooms so I don’t miss the spiritual and character development He is attempting to create in me.

And, by His grace, I’ll be prepared for what’s waiting for me in 2018…

How to Reduce Fear and Increase Faith

In Mark 4 Jesus asks His disciples two questions I think He asks you and me pretty regularly, too.

His inquiries are made to the disciples at the end of the story of how He speaks to the wind and the waves in a “furious squall” and they immediately die down.

After calming the storm with just three words, “Quiet! Be still!” Jesus says to His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:39-40).

It struck me that what Jesus is implying is that if they had faith, they wouldn’t have fear. Faith and fear, then, are opposites.

If we find ourselves fearful about something, the best prayer we can pray, it seems, is, “Lord, increase my faith!”

How does God increase our faith?

First John 4:18 reads, “…perfect love drives out fear…” And this description of what love does comes right after John’s defining what love is: God. “God is love,” (1 John 4:16).

So, God is love – perfect love, of course – and perfect love drives out fear. Logic tells me, then, that God drives out fear. But it’s a particular aspect of who He is that removes fear from our hearts: Love.

If you’re still with me, I believe God increases our faith in Him by driving out the fear in our hearts via His making us more and more aware of His perfect love. 

The better we understand His love for us, the calmer we are and the more easily we trust Him, whatever may come.

I think it’s worth noting Jesus’ second question is, “Do you still have no faith?” He didn’t expect the disciples to have perfect faith, just some faith. But, apparently, they didn’t have any at all.

It would make sense to me that fear and faith are inversely proportional: the more we have of one, the less we have of the other.

I was tempted at first to write they cannot coexist, that when we feel or have one, we cannot feel or have the other. But I don’t think that’s true.

We are fallen and will never have perfect or complete faith in God about anything. Our flesh and Satan whisper doubt to us all the time, scaring us. But the more we focus on God’s love, the louder our faith will be and the quieter our fear will get.

The last part of these questions that caught my eye is the word still. “Do you still have no faith?” I can sense Jesus’ exasperation that after all the disciples had seen Him do, all they’d heard Him say, all they’d experienced with Him, they still didn’t believe Jesus knew what He was doing when He told them to set sail that night? They still didn’t believe Jesus would protect them no matter how terrible the storm got or how soundly He slept?

Why didn’t they have faith in their teacher who was obviously divinely anointed?

Because in the moment they forgot everything they knew about Him. They forgot the miracles they’d witnessed Him perform, the healings they’d seen Him do, the wise teachings they’d heard from His mouth, and the hints He’d been dropping that He was the Messiah.

Instead of recalling the truths about Jesus – the things that would have given them faith – the disciples focused on the wind and the waves threatening their lives. They focused on the fear.

We have to train our minds to remember all the ways Jesus has been faithful to us throughout our lives. We have to think about all we’ve been through with Him, how He has blessed us and protected us in the past. Especially in the middle of a fear-inducing storm, we have to focus our thoughts on His impeccable character and unfailing love for us.

To reduce fear and increase faith in our lives, we need to study His perfect love and remember all He has brought us through.  

Dream

It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, and I hadn’t slept yet. I stared at the ceiling, weighing pros and cons of a major pending decision – where to get my master’s degree.

I rehearsed the countless variables and possible outcomes; I recalled the details of the diligent research I’d done; I reflected on the conversations I’d had with many people who had done what I want to do, who had been where I am going, weighing their advice carefully. Between making my own guesses about what would be the most practical and affordable choice, I asked the Lord to reveal His wisdom and will.

Not getting very far, I tried to focus my mind elsewhere, hoping to relax enough to finally fall asleep. I was almost there when a thought was emblazoned in my mind. I came to and wrote it down because I didn’t want to forget it by morning.

Too often I dream too small because I think God is limited by dollar signs. He isn’t. He has a way of providing the funds for me to become all He has created me to be. Dream on.

Huh.

I’m not sure where this thought came from (and I didn’t care for the Aerosmith reference one bit), but I knew immediately it was true of me.

I’ve always dreamt small, aimed low, settled for low-hanging fruit.

I’m not saying I haven’t worked hard – I have, especially in academia. I’m saying I’ve always made my decisions based strictly upon practicality.

“I can’t” is central to my vocabulary, not because I lack ability or drive, but because I limit myself based on what I think is reasonable to assume can be accomplished with the resources I have – time, money, circumstances, experience, level of education, etc.

In this grad school case, I have let my estimations of what would be practical financially for our family limit my decision as to what program I enroll in. In other words, I’ve picked the cheapest, shortest degree possible in my field.

I began to groggily wonder at 2:26 AM if perhaps the Lord was nudging me to rethink my practical approach…

Six-something AM came too quickly, and I knew two things immediately: 1) There would not be enough coffee that day, and 2) I had to make a decision sooner than later or nights of little sleep would continue.

I got the girls off to school and sat down with a cup of coffee and my computer to check the news (which really means to scroll through my Twitter feed).

I follow a guy named Michael Hyatt, a big wig in publishing, platform building, leadership, and the like, and, wouldn’t you know it, he had posted an article with the tag line, “Are you dreaming big enough?” (The actual name of the article is “Don’t Leave God Out of Your Plans“.)

Huh.

I clicked on the short article, which basically says work hard, but don’t forget it is God that chooses whether or not an endeavor will be successful. In and of ourselves, we aren’t enough.

Michael quoted Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”

What struck me about this verse is the Lord has to be behind the building of the small house as well as the protection of the large city. He must be the foundation of all things, no matter their size or perceived importance. He is just as capable of building the house as well as guarding the city, and He must or neither effort will be successful.

I am going to have to rely on Him just as much to provide for the “cheap” degree as I am the “expensive” degrees. Ultimately, if He is not building my education, I am building it in vain. But if He is building my education, there will be no stopping Him. The Lord is not limited by dollar signs.

A little while later I picked up a book I am reading for advent called The Greatest Gift (Voskamp). The scripture for that day was the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Right in the nick of time, God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead, so Abraham named that place The Lord Provides (Genesis 22:1-14).

Huh.

I paused and thought about my early morning musing – God has a way of providing everything we need to become all He has created us to be. Isaac needed that ram. Without that ram, Isaac never would’ve become the ancestor to Christ God created him to be, and Jesus’ lineage would’ve stopped right then… the story would’ve been over. Redemption would’ve become an impossibility. All would’ve been lost. Forever.

I read on.

Voskamp wrote, like only she can, “The Lord sees. And He will see to it. And He will be seen.” The simplicity of the words juxtaposed against the complexity of the thoughts behind the words stopped me. I re-read them. I considered each sentence slowly, absorbing the full weight of the truth she’d encapsulated.

The Lord sees… He sees my situation… He sees yours… He is not blind… He isn’t disinterested… He is paying attention… He is aware… The Lord sees.

And He will see to it… He will take care of your dilemma… He will provide what you need… He will not forget… He will not drop the ball… He will see to it.

And He will be seen… He will be glorified through your situation… Your heart will respond in praise to His faithfulness… Others will see His hand and marvel, too… He will be seen.

Huh.

At this point I acutely (hear the sarcasm) observed the Lord was telling me to dream big and trust Him to provide.

So I committed to the school I felt would help me do that best, enrolled in my first class, and shelled out a lot of money.

And then my husband came home and told me he’d gotten a Christmas bonus for the price of the class minus $50. Sure, we could stand to put that money toward other things, but the timing of the provision of this particular check was not lost on either of us. It was as if the Lord said to me, “Go. I got this.”

I share all this to give Him glory and to encourage you in your situation where you need to be dreaming bigger and trusting Him more. God will provide everything you need to become exactly who He created you to be. 

Self-Sacrifice on My Own Terms

The other day my daughters and I had a conversation that struck me.

My 5 year old, whose favorite Bible story is “Jesus Died on the Cross”, randomly said, “It hurt Jesus to be nailed to the cross.”

“Yes, it did. It hurt very much,” I somberly affirmed.

Then my 7 year old reflected, “I don’t think I would have been able to do that… I mean, I would have wanted to, but I don’t think I could have…”

“Me neither,” I said, identifying with her human frailty.

There was silence for about 3 seconds as we all thought about the crucifixion. I felt so many things… mostly, though, I was floored by my 7 year old’s incredible self-insight and willingness to be so honest about her humanity.

And then the 5 year old, equally pensive and extremely serious, chimed in, “I could have done it if they had just used tape.”

Her sister and I laughed.

I had the mental image of Jesus scotch-taped to the cross. Then I decided duct tape would hold better and adjusted my imagination accordingly… after all, they say duct tape can do anything…

Self-sacrifice on my own terms
image via Mister GC @FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rather than enlighten my sweet 5 year old that even if they had used tape, Jesus still would have died on that cross due to suffocation, I rambled on about the need for blood sacrifice, which was probably an equally over-their-heads path to take…

Later that night, as I recalled our conversation, I estimated my daughter was willing to be taped to the cross because she assumed it wouldn’t hurt. She wasn’t willing to be nailed to the thing because, obviously, that would be painful… She has just enough compassion in her heart that she would have wanted to save people if it were up to her, but, like her older sister, she has her limits. There’s only so far she’d go to save people from hell, and nails through her hands and feet was too far… so she dreamt up a less painful way she could help people…tape.

She was willing to sacrifice herself…on her terms… and the moment I put that thought together in my brain, the Spirit whispered, “Just like you…”

I had to agree. I’m willing to do anything for Jesus…on my own terms. I’m willing to do anything for my family and friends…the way I want to do it. I’m willing to do anything for the lost and for strangers and for anyone anywhere anytime…my way.

Which is fine except for the fact that that’s not how this following Jesus thing works.

We don’t get to dictate the terms of our “being a Christian” to Him, just as He didn’t get to dictate the terms of His life and death to the Father.

God the Father’s plan was to send Christ to earth to ultimately suffer heinously, die in the worst possible way, and rise again. And there were times Jesus didn’t want to participate in the plan! His plea to the Father, for example, to “take this cup from Me,” was a desperate cry to the Father to change the terms (Luke 22:42)!

Jesus was tempted, as we are, to resist the Father’s terms… but He didn’t (Hebrews 4:15). He sacrificed Himself the way the Father told Him to, according to the Father’s will (Luke 22:42).

Our emulating Christ works the same way.

Jesus sets the terms: die to self, take up your cross, follow Him, love others as Christ has loved us, serve others, and go and make disciples. These are the ways we are to sacrifice ourselves. And there will be times we won’t want to! We will be tempted to resist His terms… but we can’t. Because there is no other way to truly be His.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26-27

We don’t get to choose the tape over the nails and still be able to call ourselves Christ-followers. We don’t get to choose to what extent we’re willing to sacrifice; He chooses. We’re all in, or we’re all out. We’re with Him, or we’re not. We have to be willing to sacrifice everything…

I imagine it’s a bit like jumping off a bridge, headfirst in a free fall, waiting to see if the bungee cord around your ankles really will snatch you out of death’s hands. Scary stuff not for the faint of heart. But when you spring back up, away from the ground below – when that bungee cord proves itself strong and true – exhilaration… relief… laughter… freedom… confidence wash over you. And you laugh. And the next time you have to jump, it’s just a little bit easier to do.

No more trying to sacrifice ourselves on our own terms. (It doesn’t work anyway.) Time to sacrifice the way He tells us to. Ask the Lord to help you let go of anything you hold more tightly than His hand. It will be hard. But He will help.

The One Thing We Can’t Lose

My heart fell as I watched this pastor whom I’ve never heard preach, whom I’ve never met personally, whose books I’ve never read, and whose church I’ve never set foot in tearfully apologize to his congregation for, in his own words, choices he has made that were “wrong”.

Yes, his humility struck me. In this day and age, our ministry leaders are quick to offer excuses and self defenses, but not public apologies, and certainly not recorded public apologies for the entire world to watch.

But his humility is not what spoke to me most.

I found myself tearing up when Mark Driscoll teared up during his statement, not because I in any way have an affection for or a connection to him, but because I can identify with the truth represented in his statements about both his failures and the immeasurable grace and forgiveness of Christ.

The truth is we are ALL one choice away from losing our families and our ministries (no matter how small or large), but we can NEVER make a choice that will cost us our Jesus.

I think Mark’s tears were indicative that he gets this at the most personal level possible. I get it, too, and it a) scares me to death that I am FULLY capable of making one choice that could cost me my family and ministry, and b) humbly thankful that I can never make a choice that would ever cost me EVERYTHING – nothing I do will ever make me lose Jesus.

So I am wondering, how do I – how do we – balance this fear that comes from an acute awareness of our own propensity to sin with the promise that Jesus will not leave us (Matthew 28:20)? 

We don’t want to be paralyzed by the fear. Yes, our ability to sin and to sin in extremely destructive ways faster than we can blink should be a reality that is always in the forefronts of our minds. Foolish is the person who believes he would never do ______. We must have a healthy respect for the fallen nature that still roars its ugly head in each one of us every day of our lives.

But we must guard against the temptation to condemn ourselves for having this nature and operating out of it from time to time. I’m NOT saying sin is okay. I’m saying self-condemnation – punishing ourselves mentally or otherwise – over our sin is not okay.

God is the only one in position to condemn us for our sin, and if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, God has decided NOT to condemn you. That’s His choice, as laid out in the well-known verse “…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1). And if God isn’t condemning you, then you shouldn’t be either. (Confess and repent, yes, but condemn, no.)

And why must we not condemn ourselves? Because when we sit around thinking about how much we suck on account of our sinful choices/nature, we are effectively paralyzed. Our focus is no longer on going and making disciples (ya know, our main job on this planet) nor on loving and worshiping the Lord (ya know, the very thing our hearts were created for). The focus is on ourselves.

No, instead of living in the paralysis that can come along with our understanding of our abilities to sin, we must balance ourselves out with the second truth: we can never sin to such a degree nor too many times to cause Jesus to give up on us. That’s grace, folks. We can’t out sin God’s grace. Once we’ve accepted Christ, He’ll never reject us. He is the one thing we can’t lose.

When we’re feeling the weight of our bent to sin and are tempted to kick ourselves, maybe we ought to pray something like this:

“Lord, I know at any given moment I am capable of great sin. Protect me from making choices that dishonor you and hurt me and the people I love. Empower me to never make choices that could cost me my family or the ministry you’ve entrusted to me. And thank You, Lord, that, although there are choices I could make that might cost me everything tangible in this life, there is no choice I could make that could cost me You. Thank you that you will never leave me but are with me always, even until the end of the age. Help me walk in that confidence instead of sit in the self condemnation that comes so easily. Nothing can take me from Your hand – not even my own sinful choices.”

 

 

It’s Clear Above the Clouds

If I had to guess, I’ve flown about 100 times in my life. As a military kid, flying was a way of life. Whether we were moving halfway around the world or traveling to visit extended family members we weren’t privileged to live near, I spent more time at 34,000 feet by the time I was 12 than most people do in their whole lives.

All that to say, I’m familiar with the process.

Yet, every single time I ascend in an airplane, I am filled with wonder. Good wonder, mostly. (I have bad wonder too – how do people taller than 5’6″ and more than 115 lbs use the lavatories, for instance.)

My flights Thursday and Sunday were no different. Like a child on her first flight, I peered out the oval window almost the entire time, waxing philosophical.

During the initial climbs I pondered, as I always do, how it is that the human brain came up with this extreme way to defy gravity. I imagine God was laughing as gleefully as the Wright brothers were when they finally got their contraption off the ground. The joy of creating and the thrill of invention is something God is quite familiar with.

Then, as we passed through the clouds, I thought, as I always do, how mysterious clouds are. They look so soft and fluffy, like cotton stuffing from a child’s teddy bear, yet we physically pass through them as if they are phantoms. I’m not up on the science, so perhaps that’s why it perplexes me that we can see clouds but we can’t feel clouds…

photo (2)

After we passed through the clouds, we were, as it were, above the clouds. We settled in at cruising altitude and sped across the round surface of the earth at over 600 miles per hour, but it felt like we were crawling… another enigma that always comes to mind when I’m flying.

It’s at this point I always think about how close, relatively speaking, I am to space. The clouds beneath me, the light blue sky bleeding imperceptibly into navy blue, I suppose, as a result of the dark, atmospheric blanket hugging our little world – it’s miraculous to me that the average human (astronauts not withstanding) can safely and successfully travel that far off the ground…

photo (1)These are the things that run through my mind on each and every flight I take. But that’s not it. There’s always more. I always have at least one unique revelation when I’m hurtling through the sky in awe.

(For instance, when I was 13 years old, flying alone, peering out the window, I decided the deceptive nature of clouds was a symbol for life – nothing is as it seems, and everything is a disappointing facade. I was delightful back then 🙂 )

Thursday’s flight was no different. With my forehead pressed against the plexiglass (I hope someone cleaned that before I got on the plane), staring straight out at the bluest of sky, I realized something.

It’s always clear above the clouds. 

When planes take off, assuming it isn’t an entirely clear day, they are below the clouds, and their goal is to get above the clouds to make a smooth ride for the passengers. Pilots may disagree with me, (and they certainly would be qualified to do so), but I personally have never been on a flight where we didn’t get above the clouds and discover every single time that it was clear up there.

We pass through the clouds, sometimes being unable to see anything at all and often uncomfortably bumping our way to higher elevation. But once we get up there, it’s clear… always.

And so the spiritual analogy practically writes itself.

There are real clouds in our lives. I spend most of my time living under them, fretting about the storms they potentially hold. Sometimes I climb inside them, disoriented as to which way is up, blindly searching for safe ground to return to. But rarely do I successfully navigate through them to higher, clearer, peaceful sky.

The Lord doesn’t want us to stay beneath the clouds, too afraid to deal with the painful things within us and that life has in store for us. The truth is, we can’t avoid all pain. If we don’t go through the clouds, sometimes the clouds come down to us – all the way down to the ground in a thick haze of fog.

And the Lord doesn’t want us to get stuck in the clouds – to begin to unwrap the parts of ourselves that need His healing, to begin to embrace the painful parts of life that are meant to grow us into Christ’s image – only to get turned around and fearful when confusion sets in. If we scramble back to the “safety” the ground has to offer, those clouds will still be there, looming, waiting for us to gather up the courage to try to deal with them again…

God wants us to persevere, pushing through the clouds, trusting that He is guiding us by our right hands, leading us to clear, peaceful skies above the clouds.  He wants us to trust Him with our hearts, our pain, our scary circumstances, our needs, our wants, our everything – even when we can’t see – and to allow Him to bring us to the place of His peace that surpasses understanding.

It’s not that the clouds aren’t there anymore when you’re flying at 34,000 feet. They are. You just have a different perspective on them. The storms they contain aren’t so threatening when they are below you. And when we are truly trusting God, allowing Him to infuse our hearts with His peace, the broken parts of ourselves and our lives don’t seem quite so consuming anymore.

“For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

Isaiah 41:13