Finding joy | Celebration Sunday

Maybe it’s just my temperament…after all, God made me to be that 3 year old who could skip happily through the house singing my made-up song of “Life is miserable!”…or maybe it’s my oblivious non-attention to detail that keeps me from seeing every imperfection and flaw…or maybe it’s being raised by parents who modeled gratitude rather than whiny complaining…or maybe it’s because so much of my early childhood was idyllic and happy…or maybe it’s because a friend once encouraged me to look for a blessing every day…or maybe it’s because I’ve never grown up enough to completely lose my childish sense of wonder…or maybe it’s because I need joy and beauty so much, almost as much as I need food and water…but it takes a lot — as in a LOT — for me to remain in a constant state of unhappiness for very long.

Yes, it seems contradictory. After all, I am no stranger to grief or sorrow. I am the same person who once penned reams of poetry with lines like, “melancholy has stolen my heart”, and who described myself as a “child of sorrow” in a never ending gloomy rain. I’ve experienced clinical depression so severe that it made me overcome my extreme aversion to antidepressants. Despair has almost killed me. Literally. More than once.

But joy always broke through.

Always.

The darkest of nights has always, eventually, been followed by a morning when joy came. That “eventually” may have taken excruciatingly long. Sometimes it was a somber joy. Sometimes it involved some initial teeth-gritting followed by an amazement that such great sorrow, and such heights and depths of joy, could exist in the same heart and mind in the very same instance.

But maybe it’s not me at all. Because the bottom line is that I can’t praise God for very long — I mean really praise Him rather than mouthing words — without remembering what kind of God He is. I find my perspective changing from “woe is me” to realizing that, even in the most horrific of circumstances, I have reasons for thanksgiving, even if I can’t think of one beyond, “Heaven will be better than this nightmarish horror.”

But then I remember Jesus. And He melts me. And He opens my eyes. Gratitude comes trickling into my spirit as I begin remembering Scripture passages that speak to whatever pain it is that I’m currently suffering. It may not happen quickly enough for me, but gratitude re-orients my thoughts and feelings. Maybe I am just unusually blessed, but it is rare (impossible?) for me to sit in God’s presence for very long without feeling enormously thankful for His extravagant, scandalous grace and generosity towards me.

Eventually more of my feelings follow. There have been valleys in my life, even valleys of the shadow of death. But, as Corrie ten Boom loved to remind us, there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.

Today, incredible as it seems even to me, I thank God for the pits that threatened to consume me, because God’s love won out, every time. Even when I doubted or denied Him, when I wandered or ran away, He never gave up. Besides, for every pit there have been mountaintops — a few times, I have felt joy so overwhelming, so extreme, so powerful, so beyond description, that I thought if it lasted any longer with such intensity, my heart would give out and I would die. Seriously.

Because I choose to be grateful, today I choose joy. Today I choose happiness. Today I reach out with trembling, eager if still somewhat inhibited, weak and puny little hands towards the abundant life God keeps showering on me. How can I walk with Him, talk with Him, and listen to Him without — once in a while — experiencing a joy that spills over into a happiness that at least borders on giddiness?

A dear friend of mine promised me that, when I first recognized my true freedom in Christ, I would feel almost giddy about it. He was right; I still remember the moment it hit me and I wrote him an email that ended with, “Excuse me while I go out and dance in the streets.”

I know, I know. Happiness should not be our goal. It is a fleeting emotion. In many circumstances, it would be completely inappropriate to feel happy. We should be sober-minded, seek holiness, die to self, etc., etc.

But today I choose to celebrate. I probably won’t dance in the streets, because I’m still too shy and inhibited, but I’m not going to pretend that it’s somehow more spiritual to ignore all of God’s present blessings and put on a serious face just because I’m not in Heaven yet.

Little 3 year old me had it right. Life is miserable. Or at least it can be sometimes. But that’s no reason not to sing and dance some of the time — because God is good.

This is an adapted version of a previous post.

I don’t love Jesus enough

During this past Holy Week, as I contemplated the enormity and necessity of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, I was struck again with a painful realization: I do not love Him nearly enough. I don’t love others enough either. This sad truth comes as no surprise to me nor to anyone who knows me. In fact, those who apply love as the litmus test for followers of Jesus — “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, if you love one another” — no doubt could find reason to fear for the state of my soul. All too often, I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.

Even as I admit the sorry state of my pitifully stingy heart, defensiveness rises up in me. But, but, but…! I’m not as bad as some other people! It’s not as if I don’t love Jesus at all! Besides, I used to be much worse — look how much I’ve changed!

It is painful and difficult to admit is that I continually fail at the two greatest commandments we have as Christians: I don’t love God with every fiber of my being, and I don’t love others as much as I love myself. In fact, all too often my life is pretty much all about me, even when I am attempting to be at my most selfless, even when I am attempting to love sacrificially. No one who has met me would ever mistake me for Mother Teresa, and they certainly wouldn’t mistake me for Jesus.

I could trot out excuses. I love to the best of my ability, in my own way. I’m broken. Let me tell you about my past. I’m a trauma survivor. Introverts show love differently. And I do love — after all, I’ve raised six wonderful children and I’ve even been to Thailand twice. 

Someday I will stand before Jesus, and all my excuses and “sinsplaining” will become like ash in my mouth. I will be without excuse.

As Protestants, we all too often want to jump quickly past confession and repentance straight to grace and forgiveness. But the Catholic liturgy contains a penitential prayer that says in part: “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…” I encountered this prayer on Saturday night and felt so overwhelmed by grief and sorrow that I understood why many in the past, when confronted by God’s holiness, felt compelled to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

The gospel does not make sense until we confess our sins and truly repent…and not just via a one time “sinners’ prayer” either. I am becoming increasingly convinced that repentance is an ongoing lifestyle in which we renounce our sinful, selfish ways and acknowledge that, while there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, we are in desperate need of Him daily… hourly… constantly.

It’s not just that I don’t love as I should, it’s that I can’t — hence my overwhelming need for transformation, for more of Jesus, for the constant indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I want to love what He loves and, in order to do that, I need to get to know Him a lot more than I already do. I need the constant presence of Jesus in my life so that, the more time I spend with Him, the more I become like Him. 

The good news is that He rewards those who seek Him…and in His presence is fullness of joy.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

– ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭13:4-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬

May I learn, more and more, to love like Jesus. May my hard heart be continually and forever broken until I can truly love like I should.

Updated to add:

The other good news is that He is truly wonderful beyond words and, the more we know Him, the more He captivates our hearts. That in turn makes all the difference in the world.

  

About the smallness of man’s theology 

Recently I was involved in an online discussion of John Piper and Calvinism. I had especially taken issue with something Piper said to victims of child molestation about the abuse they suffered: “And so you try to say there is no sense in which the sovereign God willed that, you will lose God for the rest of your life.”

My first response to that statement was admittedly made in anger:

God did not will my molestation, my rape, or any other of the evil things I suffered in my life — especially not in the sense John Piper says. Is God sovereign? Yes. Are we puppets on a string? No. Missing from all this is the concept of free will, but the hyper-Calvinists don’t seem to believe in that anyway.

This statement of Piper’s makes me angry. Furious, in fact. Because it is a lie from the pit of hell, and I don’t say that lightly. Thank God that I did not encounter this when I was struggling with the whole question of where God was when horrible things were happening to me or to people I care about.

I have NOT lost God. I am closer to Him now than ever before in my life. That includes during my time spent in the Reformed theological camp. I understand God’s love much better than I ever have. I trust Him much better. It is His love that has brought me a greater degree of healing than I ever thought possible in my wildest hopes and dreams.

My life, especially over the past two years, exposes Piper’s statement as a damnable lie. Don’t believe it. Not for a second.

ACK!! I’m so angry that I better stop before I get to ranting.

The next morning my anger and indignation was gone, and I posted this:

I am alive today because God does intervene in people’s lives, and He graciously and mercifully rescued me out of the dark theological quagmire that people like Piper are trapping people into. The God of the Bible is not as small, mean, petty, and easily defined as they claim. He is, to our puny human minds, simply incomprehensible. There is no answer this side of Heaven to the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

I’m alive today because the real God — the God that Jesus revealed — captured my heart. It turns out He didn’t ordain or will or cause the awful crimes committed against my person, nor did He merely look the other way. He HATED what was done to me, and it was His outrage, His heart for the oppressed, His compassion, His extravagant love, and His wild, scandalous grace that not only saved my life but won my heart.

Calvinism has a ready answer for everything because they believe in a small, easily explained God. I have had to become content with mystery — a lot of mystery — because the God I worship is too immense and great for human comprehension.

He is also a loving Father whose tenderness and intimacy continues to break my heart — in the best of ways. He’s the great, awesome Creator of the universe, full of power and might, powerful beyond all understanding…and He’s my Papa, my Daddy, my Abba.

I can’t wrap my brain around that, but it’s true.

Last night I was furious at Piper. Today I want to weep for Him. If only God would wreck his theology the way He wrecked mine!

Today, my prayer is that you — and each reader of my blog — would encounter the real, living God, in a new and fresh way.