What God Saw When He Saw Me

The following post was written by Emily Baily. In 2011 she graduated from Grace University with a M.A. in Biblical Studies. She describes herself as, “an introspective explorer whose heart is softened every time I have the honor to love, care for and play with my nieces and nephews . . . I hope they never find out that I’m already a grown up.”

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I was recently driving across the back roads of Western Nebraska. It is a desolate, unforgiving and lonely land. The road stretches beyond the horizon, cut off by a sky that seems unreal, as if it was born from the imagination of some strange Artist. And as I drove, I looked at the dried out fields, the lonely, abandoned windmills and the broken down barns and thought, this…this is beauty.

Why am I so drawn to broken things? To things that have been used, destroyed and left to rot. Every abandoned home, dead tree, or even a discarded and forgotten toy fills my heart with such a strange longing; as if I gaze upon these now worthless things and see myself. I look at what the world calls ugly and useless, and am overwhelmed by the beauty.

I have known the depths of a tortured brokenness. I have felt the sting of losing almost everything. My job, my home, my friends, my health, my sense of security and safety…even my hope. I have waded deep into the waters of sorrow and pain, and thought of letting myself be drowned in that ever darkening abyss. I understand what it means to have a crushed and broken spirit.

So why, after such pain and loneliness, do I still love and even long for the broken? When I see a dead tree, I know it is dead. It does not try to hide that fact by borrowing leaves from other trees or trying to brush away the discolored bark now covering its trunk. The tree has accepted its brokenness, and I find that remarkably beautiful.

As my own life fell apart, I tried to pretend everything was okay. I worked hard to pretend that I wasn’t bothered by the losses I was suffering. I hid the truth from those around me and tried to hide it from God. And then I was too tired to pretend. I stood before God; scarred, sad, ashamed and utterly crushed. There was nothing left to give or say; it was me…in pieces. And I know that as God gazed on me, in all of my unfiltered and exposed brokenness, He thought; now this … this is beauty.

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Is Your Soul in a “Desert” Place”?

The hardest part of being in the desert is that there is no way out. You don’t know when it will end. There is no relief in sight.

A desert can be almost anything. It can be a child who has gone astray, a difficult boss, or even your own sin or foolishness. Maybe your married your desert.

God customizes deserts for each of us. Joseph’s desert is being betrayed and forgive in an Egyptian jail. Moses lives in the Midian desert as an outcast for forty years. The Israelites live in the desert for forty years. David runs from Saul in the desert. All of them hold on to the hope of God’s Word yet face the reality of their situations.

The theme of the desert is so strong in Scripture that Jesus reenacts the desert journey at the beginning of his ministry by fasting for forty days in a desert while facing Satan’s temptation. His desert is living with the hope of the resurrection yet facing the reality of his Father’s face turned against him at the cross.

The father turning his face against you is the heart of the desert experience. Life has ended. It no longer has any point. You might not want to commit suicide, but death would be a relief. It is very tempting to survive the desert by taking the bread of bitterness offered by Satan–to maintain a wry, cynical detachment from life, finding a perverse enjoyment in mocking those who still have hope.

God takes every one he loves through a desert. It is his cure for our wandering hearts, restlessly searching for a new Eden. Here’s how it works.

The first thing that happens is that we slowly give up the fight. Our wills are broken by the reality of our circumstances. The things that brought us life gradually die. Our idols die for lack of food.

The still, dry air of the desert brings the sense of helplessness that is so crucial to the spirit of prayer. You come face-to-face with your inability to live, to have joy, to do anything of lasting worth. Life is crushing you.

Suffering burns away the false selves created by cynicism or pride or lust. You stop caring about what people think of you. The desert is God’s best hope for the creation of an authentic self.

Desert life sanctifies you. You have no idea you are changing. You simply notice after you’ve been in the desert awhile that you are different. The things that used to be important no longer matter.

After a while you notice your real thirsts. While in the desert David writes,

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Ps. 63:1).

The desert becomes a window to the heart of God. He finally gets your attention because he’s the only game in town.

You cry out to God so long and so often that a channel begins to open up between you and God. When driving, you turn off the radio just to be with God. At night you drift in and out of prayer when you are sleeping. Without realizing it, you have learned to pray continuously. The clear, fresh water of God’s presence that you discover in the desert becomes a well inside your own heart.

The best gift of the desert is God’s presence. We see this in Psalm 23. In the beginning of the psalm, the Shepherd is in front of me–“he leads me beside still waters” (verse 2); at the end he is behind me–“goodness and love will pursue me” (verse 6, NIV); but in the middle, as I go through “the valley of the shadow of death,” he is next to me–“I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (verse 4). The protective love of the Shepherd gives me the courage to face the interior journey.

When we don’t receive what we pray for or desire, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t working on our behalf. Rather, he is weaving his story. Paul tells us to “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). Thanksgiving helps us to be grace-centered, seeing all of life as a gift. It looks at how God’s past blessings impact our lives. Watchfulness alerts us to the unfolding drama in the present. It looks for God’s present working as it unfolds into future grace.

Watch for the story God is weaving in your life. Don’t leave the desert. Corrie ten Boom’s father often reminded her, “The best is yet to come.”

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, 184-187.

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Confession: The Essence of Soul Care

. . . the essence of soul cure remains the primary need of confession of sin(s). Even Luther, who reacted so strongly to the abuse of confession, affirmed: “If you are too proud to confess your sins, we conclude that you are no Christian.” He urged further “go and confess, and use this means to health.” Protestants have argued that habitual confession loses its poignancy, so what about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper? That too can lose its sacred participation in the Body of Christ. Thus in the future
ministry of soul cure, confession needs stronger reinforcement rather than what is now commonly being practiced.

We recognize in medical practice today that one of the great advances of medicine lies in revealing hidden diseases that are life threatening without the patient ever being aware of their existence. Likewise in the healing that the soul may require, the unveiling of hidden thoughts, and of inordinate desires, is of critical importance. In the spiritual direction of the desert fathers . . . disclosure of the logismoi, or inner thoughts, was central to their pastoral ministry. For when once accepted by insight, confession, and repentance, these “inner thoughts” lose their grip upon the soul, while also deepening more intimate individuation in Christ. But gentleness and humility are essential too, so that we do not expose such repressed and denied vices too abruptly, or without compassion and loving concern for the one making self-discovery, and self-disclosure. But again as the apostle assures us: “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

James Houston, “The Future of Spiritual Formation,”  Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 4:2 (2011), 131–139.

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Is There Such a Thing as “Righteous Anger”?

“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life” (Eph. 4:26-27) (The Message).

“It is expected that you will get angry at the sins of fellow believers, but let your anger toward them be addressed in a timely manner, so that Satan won’t create more problems in your relationships” (Eph. 4:26-27) (Paraphrase).

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior” (Eph. 4:31).

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As Christians we are to . . .

  • “hate what is evil” (Rom. 12:9)
  • “be slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19-20)

What are the implications of these verses regarding anger? Are we to be angry when we are personally offended? Is anger legitimate in response to hurtful kinds of sin done to others (e.g., oppression, child abuse, torture)?

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“In Eph. 4:26 Paul is placing a moral obligation on believers to be angry as the occasion requires . . .  As God himself does not dwell in anger neither should we.”

Daniel B. Wallace, “ORGIZESTHE in Ephesians 4:26,” CTJ 3:372.

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“Anger at your car being stolen, a broken promise, or a child’s rebellion may fall into the realm of [Ephesians] 4:26, while that which is forbidden in [Ephesians] 4:31 is hateful anger that wills harm to another person and damages that relationship. We can also see how legitimate 4:26 anger, when nursed and not combined with a forgiving spirit, quickly becomes the anger of 4:31.”

Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament, 221.

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“Anger, more than the other passions, is wont to trouble and upset the soul. But even anger sometimes renders the soul great benefits. When, in fact, we use it calmly against error or stupidity, to denounce and save, we obtain for the soul additional gentleness, since we are furthering the purposes of justice and divine goodness. Therefore one who makes temperate use of anger out of zeal for truth will no doubt be found better, in the time of judgement, than one who out of inertia was never stirred to anger.”

Diadochus Of Photike, GC, 62

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Fear is ONLY Conquered by Fear

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“It is only the fear of God that has the spiritual power to overwhelm all the horizontal fears that can capture your heart. These relational-situational-location fears are only ever put in their proper place and given their appropriate size by a greater fear–fear of the Lord. Perhaps this is a good portion of what is being said in Proverbs when it declares that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Allowing yourself to be twisted and turned by whatever fear has you at the moment is an unwise, unstable, and unproductive way of living. Living just to alleviate fear never leads to being fear free. It simply makes you more fearful of fear, more fear alert, and ultimately more fearful. It is only when God looms larger than anything you are facing that you can be protected and practically freed from the fear that either paralyzes you or causes you to make foolish decisions. Wise, stable, and fear-free living doesn’t require you to deny what you’re facing, but rather looks at whatever you are facing from the perspective of a gloriously freeing and motivating fear of the One who rules all the things that you would otherwise be afraid of. A functional awe of God really is the key to your heart’s not being ruled by fear.”

Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, 129.

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Mystics and Rationalists: Take Heed!

We are not to deny the supernatural life Christians are given by God and called on to live. But our own human spirit does not have the potency for direct access to God. We do not need to train as contemplative athletes to attain special mystical knowledge. Like every other human endeavor and achievement, mysticism should be viewed with awareness of its ambiguity and its questionable nature. Ironically, those most hostile about it [mysticism] may not think to question their own intellectual prowess! . . . . When we have had a special experience of God that we can only describe as mystical, the test of its validity is our personal response and its benefits to ourselves and to others.

James Houston, Joyful Exiles, 64-65, 66

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Beauty Will Save the World

“The beauty of God calls out  to us, drawing us to God, enabling us to overcome sin and make suffering a means of deepening the heart so as to understand more profoundly the fullness of God’s beauty.”

Andrew Louth, “Beauty Will Save the World,” Theology Today 61 (2004): 75.

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Beware of Fake Meekness

” . . . we must learn to recognize true meekness. Do not be deceived into thinking that a soft-spoken voice indicates a gentle will. Often an iron will lies hidden behind the softest voice. Stubborn inflexibility is in the hidden nature of our character, not in the voice. Some appear outwardly to be more gentle before others, but they are inwardly just as inflexible and obstinate before God. For them there can only be the severity of His dealing until they dare not act presumptuously. God designs external dealings to touch us at the core where our toughened wills hide out. Never shall we be able to raise our stubborn heads in these particular matters. It is irrevocably determined that in these kind of circumstances, we cannot disobey the Lord by insisting upon our willful opinions. It is fear of the Lord’s dealing hand that restrains us. And it is the fear of God that makes us meek. The more we are broken by God’s dealings, the meeker we become. To see true meekness is to behold inner brokenness.

“Let us illustrate: After contacting a certain brother, you may sense that he is truly gifted. But you discover that he is not yet broken. Many are like that—gifted but unbroken. Their unbrokenness can be easily detected. As soon as you meet them, you sense an undertone of inflexibility in them—you can feel their obstinacy. Not so with one who is broken; there is a Spirit-wrought meekness. In whatever point one has been chastened by God, there he dare not boast. He has learned to fear God in this and is transformed into meekness.”

” . . . meekness, born out of the fear of God, is the Holy Spirit’s sign for brokenness. One broken by the Spirit naturally possesses meekness. His contacts with people are no longer marked by that obstinacy, hardness, and sharpness which are the hallmarks of an unbroken man. He has been brought to the place where his attitude is as meek as his voice is gentle. The fear of God in his heart naturally finds expression in his words and manner.”

Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit, 99-100.

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Discovering Lectio Divina

With the rise of interest in spiritual renewal in evangelical circles over the past two decades, there has also arisen, from various quarters, a suspicion of spiritually renewing practices. A criticism sometimes raised is that spiritual formation authors promote a highly subjective, careless approach to the reading of Scripture. No doubt, there are approaches to the Christian spiritual life that are innocently misguided and subtly self-serving. This seems to occur most frequently when: (1) one gives greater authority to personal experience than to Scripture; (2) one disregards the historical context of and important exegetical features of a text, and (3) when one fails to submit their readings to the wisdom of other mature Christians.

It is the judgment of this reviewer that this book sufficiently dispels the fear of mishandling Scripture in personal devotion. The authors have not only succeeded in providing a helpful overview of the ancient practice of “lectio divina” (Latin for “divine reading”), but they also impart a practical wisdom for reading Scripture in a vitally formative way. It is true that the ancient practice of lectio divina is vulnerable to misuse–as any spiritual practice can be. Thankfully, Wilhoit and Howard are able guides in directing readers toward a biblically robust and Spirit-empowered use of lectio. The authors are aware of the importance of careful interpretation, but also note that accurate interpretation of text may in fact obscure, even quench what the Holy Spirit might accomplish with a text. Especially appreciated is the authors’ sensitivity to the role that prior understandings or control beliefs play in reading texts. That said, I believe that a fitting use for this book might be in a hermeneutics class, as a complementary aid to sound exegesis. The study questions and suggestions for each chapter are a helpful feature, and necessary for getting the most out of the book.

A wonderful summary paragraph captures the gist of the practice: “Lectio divina, or devotional reading, engages the human dimension with the Word and the Spirit of God. We bring ourselves to the text: eyes, questions, circumstances, heart–all of us. We watch as we read, noticing how the reading process is shaped by the Spirit. We allow the Scripture to soak into us and reprogram our heart, changing the very concerns and ideas that control our beliefs and feelings. Through this process, our ordinary questions, our cultural biases, our personal fears and our controlling operating systems are placed at the disposal of God’s Spirit through the text. And through the same process, our mind is renewed and our heart is transformed” (58-59).

By way of minor critique, I wished that the authors had explained where Benedict of Nursia (480-547) obtained his understanding of “contemplation.” The metaphysical assumptions undergirding Christian contemplation require, in my mind at least, some brief explanation. Especially is this the case for Christians who may not be aware of how cultural currents have influenced Christian spiritual practices. Contemplative spirituality is too often misunderstood by evangelicals, and, consequently, falsely caricatured. Explaining what contemplation is and isn’t might allay the anxieties of those who are apprehensive about this practice.

I was also expecting a bit more discussion on the communal practice of lectio divina. Lectio can have fruitful results in a communal setting, especially when guided by a spiritually mature and biblically-literate leader (or leaders). For the most part, Wilhoit and Howard focus on how this practice might look as an individual participates in it. In fairness to the authors, they leave considerable room for how the practice can be applied: “We are not purists who think there is one best way to pull this off. You may want to consider the elements of lectio to be ingredients that you can experiment with in order to concoct the best recipe for you and your situation” (139). Along these lines, we must not forget that millennials, Xers, and even baby boomers might be more inclined to listen to Scripture on their smartphones, tablets, and iPods than to read a bound, paper and ink Bible!

Readers will readily observe that the book makes reference to different voices outside the evangelical Christian tradition (e.g. Gregory the Great, Gregory Palamas, Ignatius of Loyola, Madame Guyon, Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, to mention a few). As this reviewer sees it, Wilhoit and Howard, are attempting to discern truth wherever they find it. Their goal is to mine the spiritual wisdom of the church throughout the centuries. Without an integrative frame of mind and an earnest dependency upon the Holy Spirit, readers of this book will likely be bothered by the presence of non-evangelical authors. An integrationist frame of thinking holds true not only in the reading of this book, but for any work on the history and practices of Christian spirituality.

In compact fashion, this book describes how the church in its earliest centuries understood a spiritual approach to reading Scripture. The book also provides practical ways to use lectio divina today. In short, Discovering Lectio Divina is an excellent guidebook for understanding a long-overlooked approach to reading the Word of God.

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The Awful Voice of God’s Thunder

I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunder-storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, if I may so speak, at the first appearance of a thunder-storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural for me to sing, or chant forth my meditations; or to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice.

Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative in Letters and Personal Writings, Vol. 6:794.

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