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Introduction: Over the Rainbow

I often try to understand my life from the outside–like peering into my kitchen window while I am cooking dinner for my family. As I watch myself peel potatoes and chop onions I will use for a pot of curry, the same question I have asked since I got married 14 years ago enters my mind yet again: Is this is the life I imagined and prayed for and prepared for and couldn’t wait for as a young girl? This?

I want to say YES. Yes, yes, yes! But honestly? Truthfully? No.

As much as it makes me feel like an ungrateful, entitled, spoiled first-world brat, I have to admit that I am disappointed by the unremarkability of my life. I only matter to a small amount of people, most of whom are in my family and in my church. Life over the rainbow isn’t as impressive and awesome as I had believed. I have not done anything that impresses me. 

My big ego is offended by my small life.

It has taken me 14 years to say out loud: I am going to be forgotten by the world at large. It is not likely that I will do anything worth recording in history books. And for the first time, I am going to be okay with that.

This little writing project–this blog–is an attempt to understand and validate the little voice that urges blessed and redeemed Christians like me to accept an unremarkable existence and enjoy the glorious Gospel every single day of my little life. My plan is to take as many people along with me as I write myself out of the “need” to leave a legacy, make a difference, and impact the world. Are you interested?

Please leave a comment to tell me what resonates with you.

Befriend guilt.

That I am guilty of sin has become a mere theory I believe, empty words I confess, not emotional reality.

I’ve become good at snuffing out feelings of guilt before they flare up. I know exactly when what I’m doing, or saying, or thinking is wrong. I know exactly when I’m judging another person, when I’m coveting, when I’m trying to get away with something. I’ve just learned to accept my sins as part of who I am, of what it means to be human, of what it is to live in a fallen world. I’m seasoned at evading the feelings of guilt that inevitably follow sin. When I sin, I simply mouth a word of repentance (“Sorry, God.”), or I confess, “I’m such a sinner.” (Oh well.) I’ve even said quick prayers of blessing to counteract the sin: “God, bless this person I’ve just judged.” (How noble of me.) And I move on. I move on knowing that I am guilty of sin without actually feeling the weight of that sin.

My sins drive me too quickly to the Savior; I am overprepared to receive His forgiveness. I know the proper thing to do is to allow my sins to crush me, to offend and disgust me in the same way the bloody floor and broken animal flesh must have disgusted the High Priest while making atonement sacrifices for his people. How long those minutes spent in the Holy of Holies must have seemed to him.

It is the act of repentance—the broken spirit, the contrite heart—that pleases God, not the certainty of forgiveness. Christianity is not first and foremost confession of a gracious God; it is confession of personal guilt. Contrary to what we might have expected, guilt does not close the door to grace; it actually opens it.  

The more I think about it, the more I appreciate the Roman Catholic practice of going to confession. There is something powerful about having to talk about your sins—out loud, to a live person, in a place where you could run into people you know. It is healthy to admit your guilt. Being specific about sin is mostly voluntary for Protestants. Protestants are encouraged to be specific about sin, but in private. Public confession of sin is rare, even discouraged for fear that broadcasting your sins might cause others to stumble. The corporate confession recited in public by some congregations, “Father, forgive us for the evil deeds we have done and for the good deeds we have not done” is general enough to avoid personal humiliation. Guilt is inherently humiliating, but most of us will never have to experience that humiliation. (I wonder if regular public confession of sin would change what being a Christian and going to church is all about more efficiently and effectively than so many of our other programs and activities.)

Jesus’ death on the cross was humiliating. The tragedy of the cross is that Jesus’ death was more humiliating for Him than it was for us. Nobody looked up at Jesus hanging there, marred and disfigured beyond human recognition, and thought to himself, “That’s what my sins look like. I should be up there.” All of us see Jesus up on the cross; few of us see ourselves.

What I need to do, if I don’t want to cheapen God’s grace, is get more comfortable with my guilt, even though it is one of the most uncomfortable feelings a human being can experience. Why would anyone actually welcome that nagging itch that settles both at the forefront and in the back of the mind, deep in the gut, on top of the heart, underneath the skin? Guilt makes you scratchy all over, not unlike the hives. You want to take multiple showers. You want to rewind time and make better choices. You’re pinned down by an invisible but real burden.

Only confession—naked, unedited, humiliating confession can clear the conscience. I understand why criminals eventually turn themselves in. They have to. The only other option is suicide.

Marry a sinner.

My husband and I don’t pray together regularly. We don’t belong to a Bible study. We haven’t bothered to make plans for family devotions with our children. We’ve kind-of-sort-of begun catechizing our two-year-old, but don’t really know what we’re doing. It’s still experimental at this point. By all conventional standards of a godly marriage and godly family, we’re not.

The thing is, I was taught to marry a “godly man.” A man who loves God more than himself, and even more than me. A man who abides by the descriptions in 1 Timothy 3 (even if he is not called to be an overseer of the church) and Titus 2—temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.

My husband is a simple guy with simple faith. He works hard, plays with our children, provides for our family, calls his mother, takes out the trash, goes to church, watches ESPN. He can be incredibly impatient, insensitive, and unkind. He curses when he is angry. He is your garden-variety dude.   

On good days, I admire my husband’s ability to take God at His word. I respect his ability to follow Christ without Him having to prove His worth all the time. I covet his theological innocence. But on bad days, I criticize my husband’s faith as simplistic, untested, and unrefined. I decide his theological innocence is really theological naïveté. I convince myself that God expects more from him. I accuse him for not caring enough about spiritual growth. I commit emotional adultery by wishing that I had married somebody more like me. (As egotistical as it sounds, my perfect mate would be, essentially, a male version of me.)

Instead of holding out for a “godly man,” I chose to marry a sinner. He, too, chose to marry a sinner. My hypocrisy is exposed when my husband actually sins—when he fails to exemplify godliness, to model Christ and Christianity for my children, to lead in the area of spiritual formation—I hold his sins against him. I judge him as disobedient, ungodly, and immature. I withhold respect from him. I punish him for sinning, even though I believe Jesus has already paid for his sins. Then, as if holding his sins against him isn’t bad enough, I also manage to hold his faith against him. I argue that if he really loves God, he would put more effort into nurturing our family’s spiritual life. If he really believes that knowledge of Christ is important, he should learn the language of his faith and teach it to our children. If he really is committed to God, that commitment should be always visible, never questionable. (This guilt-tripping manipulation, this sense of entitlement, the “I deserve better” attitude…I really need to stop it.) Though I allow my husband to be a sinner in theory, I reject him when he sins in practice.

I wish I had been taught to marry a sinner. Then I wouldn’t expect my husband to be a “godly man.” I wouldn’t hold him to a standard of godliness that I know exists only in my mind and only in the person of Jesus Christ—not in real guys. I wouldn’t have to work so hard to validate and justify my life.

If I allow myself to face the truth, I must admit that I am not a godly woman. I am not on fire for God, not filled with passion, not “sold out” for Jesus. On a good day, I am maybe 65% sold out, and technically, that’s not enough to be considered sold. God does not ask that I love Him as best I can; He demands that I love Him with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. God is not exaggerating when He says, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God. All have turned away…” (Romans 3:10-12a). I will never be on fire enough, passionate enough, or sold out enough for Jesus.  This is a problem.I need a man who won’t let me minimize this problem and let me get away with thinking that I am ok. Believing that I am a good Christian comes naturally to me; the last thing I need is someone who reinforces this lie. I need someone who will identify with me as a sinner and stand with me under the cross.

But still, it’s so hard to let go of ideals. There are times when I still want to achieve the kind of marriage that I envision in my mind. And this is where it gets murky. When I sit and dissect the situation and contemplate the solution, I have more questions than answers: What is a legitimate amount of godliness to expect of a Christian—man or woman? Just how much human cooperation is involved in the process of sanctification (the process of becoming more like Jesus in order to practice true holiness)?

The Westminster Confession of Faith says that sanctification is “imperfect in this life,” explaining that remnants of our original corruption still remain in every part of us—mind, heart, and body, which causes a continual and irreconcilable war between the flesh and the Spirit. The remnants of corruption may prevail for a time, but through the strength provided by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit does, ultimately, overcome the flesh. (Paraphrased.)

No doubt, I overestimate the progress and underestimate the imperfection of sanctification in marriage. I expect too much too soon.

For everything I still don’t know about Christian marriage, I do know this: Marriage is not a tactic of a strategic plan to accomplish a larger objective of doing great things for God, which includes cultivating a godly family. God is not some Chairman of the Board with goals, benchmarks, quarterly reviews, and annual reports. Treating marriage like a corporation and spouses like business partners strains the friendship and kills the chemistry. Nothing will grow in this kind of environment.

I am probably too simpleminded about it, but I think Christian marriage is the union of two sinners—two people who acknowledge their need for supernatural help and don’t want to face this harsh reality alone. Christian marriage can certainly mean more than this, but it cannot mean less.

For now, I think the strongest bond between a husband and wife is not mutual love for God, which can be erratic or, in my case, embarrassingly lacking. The strongest bond between a husband and wife is mutual need for a Savior. Since it is sin that always divides a marriage, the need for grace is always what unites it.

Ask for stuff.

For the past two years, I’ve been praying for bedroom furniture. That’s right—a bed frame, a dresser, two nightstands, and two good bedside lamps for reading (or at least one, for my side). There are dozens of furniture stores. Plus, there’s Costco. Why not just pick something and be done with it?

You don’t understand. I’ve had vivid visions of myself lying in this plush, feathery, presidential suite-type bed. The frame is soft to the touch, not hard (they’re called upholstered bed frames, in case you didn’t know). I am under a white comforter made of Egyptian cotton, surrounded by embroidered sham pillows. I am lying there reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison or C.S. Lewis, illuminated by a pewter swinging sconce.  A cup of hot peppermint tea is steaming on my cherry wood nightstand. The husband is downstairs watching CSI. There are no dogs barking, no cars honking, no kids crying.

Still, just pick something.

Consider my parents. They’re still using the bedroom set they bought when they got married. Consider my husband’s parents. They’re still using the bedroom set they bought when they got married. Consider thousands of other American couples who are lying in the same bed, using the same dresser, dusting the same nightstands they’ve had for thirty or forty or fifty years.

Buying bedroom furniture is like buying a wedding band. It’s too inconvenient and expensive to replace. You only get one. Forever. So you better pick something you love.

I’m thinking Restoration Hardware. Or Ethan Allen.

Now you understand. We’re talking already-assembled pieces. Real wood. Maybe even monthly payments. Costco’s not going to cut it.

There’s a little voice in the back of my head that keeps saying, Are you kidding me? There are people suffering from terminal illnesses, children dying of hunger, men trying to figure out how not to spill oil in the ocean, orphans in China awaiting adoption, puppies starving in puppy mills… Bedroom furniture?

Uh, yeah.

I also pray about food (what to feed my children three times a day), money (how to have more of it), the broken hose in our backyard (that it won’t ruin my husband’s weekend—because it very well could)… I pray for my friends, my family, my kids, my health, my desires, my life. See the pattern?

Richard Foster gives selfish prayer a nice name: Simple Prayer. “Simple Prayer involves ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father. There is no pretense in Simple Prayer. We do not pretend to be more holy, more pure, or more saintly than we actually are…” (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home)

I used to think that I should outgrow saying ordinary, self-centered prayers and say more “other-centered” prayers. I used to think that only spiritually immature people pray for themselves and their interests over and over and over. Only spiritually immature people ask God for stuff. Spiritually sophisticated people, on the other hand, have learned to rise above their “felt needs.” They ask God to transform them, challenge them, and use them. Sophisticated Christians pray for the concerns that are on God’s mind and heart, not theirs. They spend lots of time praying for the “lost,” which is commendable. Sophisticated Christians don’t ask God for incidentals, for stuff.

But as I grow older, my felt needs are multiplying. I need money more than ever before; life is turning into a giant pile of bills—mortgage, utilities, cell phone, groceries, gasoline, diapers, wedding gifts, birthday presents, school tuition, Happy Meals, crayons, stickers, etc. I also feel the need for a social life more than ever before, particularly with other working moms. Then there’s “me time,” a need I feel particularly strongly about. And to say I need a professional housecleaner is an understatement. If I must go on, I need a sense of purpose that extends beyond being a parent. Let me top off this list with my need for ten tips to build a healthy marriage, seven ways to raise happy kids, and five secrets for staying slim. I am, in essence, a body of felt needs.   

Thus, my prayers are becoming less sophisticated, more self-centered. It’s as though my sanctification is stuck in reverse and I’m immaturing into a kid who believes that the world revolves around her. I rarely pray for the world. I rarely pray for the missionaries in distant lands. I’ve stopping asking God to end world hunger, to help doctors find a cure for cancer, to clean up after tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes. I can’t seem to make it that far down my list of things to pray for. Which is why I never pray for President Obama. He simply isn’t in the top ten.

I suppose this is why I depend on the pastoral prayer at church to cover all the areas of prayer that I miss at home.

“By praying for the needs of the world, the government’s leaders, the church universal, as well as for the needs of a particular church, we learn in our public prayers what we too often neglect in our private prayers: to look beyond ourselves and the interest of our own family.” (Michael Horton, A Better Way)

As physical, weak, sinful people, we are always needy.  That’s why Jesus taught His disciples to ask for daily bread. I like to think of daily bread as more than a baguette, as a category for felt needs. Daily Bread is the catch-all bucket for stuff.

I don’t think God judges our prayers when we say them. I don’t think the word “trivial” exists in God’s mind. God actually helps us to say even our most disgraceful prayers (if such a thing exists) by having Jesus intercede for us. Jesus is my personal prayer editor. I’m sure some of my prayers are completely rewritten by Jesus before they ever reach the Father. His mediation makes the prayers of sinners acceptable to a holy God.

I don’t know how to judge prayer. I don’t know who is good at praying and who isn’t. I don’t know what a “great prayer” sounds like. But I am sure the people who have mastered prayer don’t know it.

Less is more.

After almost twenty years of calling myself a Christian, I expect near-professional status by now. I should be praying for the entire world, giving lots of money to worthy causes, frequenting overseas missions fields, sharing the gospel with my neighbors, confessing my sins daily, reading the Bible regularly, showing up at church every Sunday.

I forget to pray before I eat.

I give too much money to Target. And Starbucks.

I’ve been on only one mission trip (five weeks in China).

I’ve never shared my faith with any of my neighbors (though I have baked Christmas cookies for them).

I am slow to admit my sins (ask the husband), and even slower at confessing them.

I can’t remember the last time I had a real, solid Quiet Time.

I listen to lots of hip hop. (This was not always the case.)

Forget “radical” discipleship and “crazy love”; I can barely manage a nominal Christian life (i.e., repent-believe-repeat).

My sins are ever before me. They seem to compound year after year, like credit card interest. I do not get better as I grow older; I get worse. I can’t adequately express how shocked I am by this. Who knew that marriage, motherhood, mortgage payments, aging parents, and all of life’s demands would bring out not the best in me but the worst?

The bad news: I am not legacy material. Nothing will be named in my memory.

The good news: My progressively dire circumstances are perfect for the Gospel to thrive. The need for a righteousness outside of myself—in Christ—is obvious when I am increasingly ashamed of what I am within.

After twenty years of negative progress, there is no reason for me to think that the next twenty (or sixty) years will be any different. I have every reason to believe that God will only continue to prune everything “good” in me, in order that on the day I die, I might actually and finally believe: I am a sinner.

Fall away.

The daily Christian life is a cycle of coming and going. Leaving and returning. Now I’m here, now I’m not. Now I love God, now I don’t. Now I surrender, now I won’t.

(How does God put up with this?)

Consistency, commitment, conviction. Problem, problem, problem.

I’ve tried regular exercise of the “spiritual disciplines”, as well as accountability groups, retreats, sermons, seminars, self-authored contracts, conferences, CDs, and many, many books purchased at my local Christian bookstore.

Still, good intentions erode, passion fades, will-power expires. (And it’s only 10 a.m.)

And then Christianity feels like an everlasting climb up a descending escalator—tiring, tedious, and unconvincing. Instead of turning up my iPod and putting one foot in front of the other like a “strong Christian”, I let my feet hit the floor. (I guess I’m not a strong Christian.)

And it is here I realize just what kind of God I need. I need the God who possesses more consistency, commitment, and conviction than I do. I need the God who will fall away from heaven and descend to me. I need the God who will keep coming and coming, even though I keep leaving.

Falling away is a daily phenomenon. But so is redemption.

Borrow love.

I’m still trying to figure out if I really love God. I do so little that demonstrates love for God. I mean to talk to Him in prayer, but I do the dishes instead. I mean to read His Word, but I check email instead. I mean to get more involved at church, but haven’t gotten around to it. I barely make it to church on Sundays.

It is possible that I only love (and I use this word very loosely) God because He loves me. It’s an obligatory, reciprocal love, the kind of love celebrities have for their fans. It’s fickle at best, fake at worst.

I always thought that if I searched deep within my heart— deep, deep, deep within—I would unearth true love for God. I could hold it up to God like a nugget of gold and smile, declaring, “See? I knew it was there. I do love you.” Instead, what I find in the depths of my heart is fear of God and need for Him, not exactly love for Him.

Yet I continue to convince myself that I love God. I surround myself with people who love God. I act as if I love God. Philip Yancey says, “For me, the life of faith sometimes consists of acting as if the whole thing is true. It’s much easier to act your way into feelings than to feel your way into actions…” (Reaching for the Invisible God)

The problem is, it’s all an act. I fear that the act will never actualize. But I operate on the assumption that true love for God will be cultivated in me—eventually.

Until then, God continues to love me. He loved me before I ever loved Him, and He loves me when I don’t love Him. The foolishness of the gospel is that it has to be this way. If God’s love was conditional like human love, it wouldn’t compel a life of discipleship. It wouldn’t inspire worship. It would rip out the very heart of Christianity–the scandalous nature of God’s love.

God gives me the love He wants from me. What he demands, He also provides. All my love for God is borrowed from God. If He did not provide me with love for Him, I would have no love of my own to offer Him. That God accepts His own love as mine is sheer grace.

In his book Putting Amazing Back into Grace, Michael Horton says, “[God] loves us because of his own disposition, not because of ours. He can love the unlovely because he is God and he does not need a worthy object; unlike us, he can simply choose to love as he pleases. And if there is anything standing in the way of his love, he is powerful enough to remove the obstacle. The cross, of course, demonstrates the lengths he was willing to go for those he loved.”

I wish I could love God with the same kind of love with which He loves me. Love that is independent of its object. Love that is given and given and given, even if it is never received. Love that does not stand outside of bars, bedrooms, and brothels, but follows you in. Love that isn’t quantified, calculated, or strategized.

Because of the curse of the Fall, I think my love for God will always be somewhat selfish and shallow, motivated partly by fear, partly by guilt, and partly by a sense of duty. My love for God will always be broken.

God is love. Perfect love. I cannot improve on that or add to it. That God himself is love frees Him to save me without having to first be loved by me.

The good news is: Love for God is not what ultimately saves us; the love of God is.

What a relief.