Don’t Stop Hoping

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When I was in college, I loved taking online classes.  The upfront availability of the lectures and assignments allowed me to race through the material in the first few weeks of each semester, leaving me with one less class to worry about for the majority of the semester.  Admittedly, this may not have been the best strategy for getting a good education, but it speaks to my personality type.

I absolutely love the sense of accomplishment that accompanies checking an item off my to-do list.  Whether the task is important or menial is of little consequence; I just love getting things done.  I’m not much of a procrastinator as the stress of a lingering chore is typically more overwhelming than the task itself.

Just last week, though, I read an article that pinpointed an area where I’ve put off something of incomparable significance.  The author cited a familiar verse: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).  As my eyes scanned the well-known words, I realized I’d misunderstood them for quite some time.  In that moment, the truth was inescapable: I’ve put off hope.

Until a few days ago, I’d always understood Proverbs 13:12 to refer exclusively to our desires and wishes.  In other words, we feel sick on the inside when we don’t get what we long for.  While there may be a degree of truth to that interpretation, it’s certainly incomplete.  Biblically speaking, hope is “the constant expectation that God will be who He claims to be and do what He promises to do” (Dr. Anita Cooper).  With that definition in mind, unfulfilled longings aren’t the primary source of our heart sickness; our refusal to expect God to be true to His character and Word is the main problem.

There is a correlation between our longings and biblical hope.  In fact, many of our longings actually point to our need for God.  But the verse in Proverbs addresses our focus.  Are we viewing life through the lens of what we do or don’t have, or are we obsessing over the faithfulness of our God?  King Solomon’s point is that we can live with unfulfilled longings, but the difficulties are compounded when we lose sight of who God is.

The temptation to defer hope is alluring for many reasons.  For some of us, we put off hope in God because we value a sense of autonomy.  Others of us like to hedge our bets – we don’t want to trust God completely just in case He doesn’t come through.  Still many of us refuse to bank everything on God because we’re afraid of the vulnerability and we dread being let down.

It’s no easy thing when our dreams are delayed, but we are mistaken when we defer hope right along with those dreams.  What we need more than anything when we’re in a season of waiting is legitimate hope – the unshakeable confidence that God will come through on His promises regardless of our circumstances.

The Bible is full of examples of longing.  Abraham and Sarah longed for a child.  The people of Israel yearned for their freedom.  The prophets told of a coming King, and the storyline of the Bible revolves around God’s fulfillment of that promise.  The whole of Scripture, then, is an argument against deferred hope.  In His sovereignty, God sent Jesus at the perfect time, and no one who trusted God to keep His Word did so in vain (Galatians 4:4).

Jesus came once and He’s coming again, and therein lies the ultimate, permanent satisfaction of our longings.  As you and I live between the first and second comings of Jesus, we can do so with tremendous hope.  Our God still watches over His Word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12).  Although some of our longings will go unfulfilled until Jesus returns, we don’t have to live with the heartsickness of deferred hope.  The healthiest way to live is with our eyes on Jesus, our minds fixed on His promises, and our hearts full of confidence in Him.  And at the end of it all, those who hope in Him “will not be disappointed” (Isaiah 49:23).

Living the Dream

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When I was little, my career goal was to build houses.  My rationale was simple – I adored my fourth grade teacher, and her husband was a contractor.  It seems like I should’ve aspired to be a teacher, but for some reason I was intrigued by the stories Mrs. H shared about Mr. H.  Plus, as an upper elementary-aged girl, I may have developed a small, harmless crush on my teacher’s husband.

My dreams have changed since fourth grade and have been morphing ever since.  For a while I wanted to be a P.E. teacher.  I prayerfully considered going into missions full-time.  Occasionally I still bounce around the idea of having a ranch in Texas that would serve as a theological training center for high school and college students.

If you’re like me, your goals aren’t limited to the professional sphere.  Many of us have personal aspirations, expectations for relationships, and dreams of academic achievement.

At a conference last week, a presenter asked a group of enrollment professionals if we’re doing our dream jobs.  His question sparked an internal dialogue that has shifted my mentality significantly.  Although I love my job and am thankful for it, my initial answer to his question was, “No, of course being an admissions counselor isn’t my dream job.  My expectations for this season of life looked much different than my current reality.”

As my wheels kept turning, though, I was reminded of the overarching dream that refocuses and reshapes every other goal I have.  What I want more than anything else is to know, love, and obey God.  My dream is to follow Jesus.  Through that lens, my 40-hour work week looks much different.  What I do on a daily basis is significant primarily because of Who I serve. 

Following Jesus turns our lives upside down in the best possible way.  Every ambition must bow to His provocative question: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).  Jesus doesn’t necessarily demand that we stop pursuing our dreams or caring about the causes that are important to us.  He doesn’t require us to ignore our passions or downplay our goals.  But for the follower of Jesus, the question shifts from, “How can I make sure life goes according to my plan?” to “How can I glorify God and serve His purposes as I walk according to His plan?”  This mindset doesn’t diminish the value of our passions; instead, it reminds us to use them in service of the most important cause of all.

If I were to be asked again if I’m doing my dream job, my answer would be a little different.  No, I didn’t picture myself as an admissions counselor growing up.  Even as recently as a year ago, this particular role wasn’t on my radar.  Yet I’m convinced that God placed me in this distinct role at this exact institution at this specific time with these particular coworkers for a reason.  The awareness that I can and should serve Jesus right where I am totally redefines how I view my current profession.

Because I desperately want to spend my life following Jesus, and since I’m working in the role He provided for me, I guess you could say I truly am living the dream.  And if you’re willing to think about it that way, perhaps you’re living the dream too.

The Emptiness Can Be a Blessing

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Is the glass half empty or half full?  Traditionally, the cliché serves as a test of perspective with optimists focusing on what’s there and pessimists noticing what’s missing.  It wasn’t until recently, though, that I heard a third response.  Someone remarked that either way, the proverbial glass has room for more.

This idea caught my attention because of the obvious correlation to life.  Experience testifies that whether or not things are going well, improvements can always be made.  No one is totally satisfied one hundred percent of the time – many people feel like they could use more time with loved ones or an increase in income or a longer vacation.  As far as relationship with God is concerned, there will always be more to learn about Him and areas for growth in His grace.

What I’ve found, though, is that in difficult seasons – the “half empty” times of life – my need for God is much harder to ignore.  In other words, when life feels emptiest, I’m most aware of my capacity for more.  For me, the physical emptiness of my womb exposes my need for God to sustain and satisfy.  Others may be experiencing emptiness in their relationships, homes, or workplaces.

To be honest, I’m tempted to focus on what’s not in my cup – the baby that isn’t in my arms or the money I wish was in my account or the relationships I don’t have right now.  But if we focus less on what we do or don’t have and more on our need for God, the emptiness starts to feel less like a curse and more like a gift.  C.H. Spurgeon said it well: “The more empty I am, the more room is there for my Master.  The more I lack, the more He will give me.”

Many of the struggles we face aren’t good things in and of themselves; they are evidence of our world’s brokenness. But these broken places – the areas in which our cups are running dry – can actually serve the glorious purpose of driving us toward God in desperation.  Like physical hunger that alerts us of our need for food, so hunger of soul exposes a need only God can meet.  As one of the psalmists put it, “[God] satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (Psalm 107:9).

Whether our souls feel stuffed or starved – or the cup feels half full or half empty – God is the One who enables us to face both seasons with contentment (Philippians 4:11-13).  In fact, during the Israelites’ four-decade journey through the wilderness, God allowed them to go hungry for a time and miraculously provided food.  In both situations – when they hungered and when they were well-fed – His purpose was singular: to remind them that He alone was the source of true sustenance.  In Moses’ words, “He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna…that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

There are unique challenges in every season of life.  When times are tough, we can’t forget that true satisfaction is found in God alone.  Conversely, we must be mindful of our dependence on God even when times are easier, lest we follow in the footsteps of the Israelites: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:6).

Until we get to heaven, life will be marked by degrees of dissatisfaction.  Like weary travelers who are just ready to get home, holy restlessness should characterize our sojourn through this world.  We don’t have to ignore reality – things aren’t as they should be.  But the brokenness, the lack, the longing – they are all invitations to come to God for healing, fullness, and satisfaction.

To reference the cliché once more, because God is who He says He and does what He promises, the believer’s cup is never truly half full or half empty.  With the Lord as our Shepherd, our cups really do overflow (Psalm 23:5).

I Don’t Have Anything to Say

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It’s been a quiet few weeks here on the blog.  Much of the silence can be attributed to a crazy travel schedule, but as I considered writing in my free time, I kept coming to the same dead end: I don’t have anything to say.

Between a mission trip to Honduras, conferences for work, and trying to wrap up year-end activities at church, I didn’t have much mental capacity to spare.  The dust began to settle and ideas came to mind, but then tragedy struck in Orlando, and my words vanished.  I don’t have anything to say.

Writer’s block is real, but I struggle at a much deeper level.  Our world is needy and broken, starving for hope and searching for answers.  Violence runs rampant.  Relationships fail.  Prognoses are grim.  Finances are tight.

In the face of such daunting heartache, it’s no wonder we sometimes feel helpless and insignificant, totally incapable of making a difference around us.  When we focus on our limits and lack, we are often paralyzed from taking any action at all.  If we can’t do everything, maybe we shouldn’t do anything.  At least that’s what the devil wants us to believe.

According to Scripture, though, weakness isn’t an excuse to be passive but is an invitation to actively lean on the strength of God (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  The Bible repeatedly calls us to offer whatever we have to God, trusting Him to use those resources as He sees fit.  Whether it’s our words, finances, time, abilities, or five measly loves and two small fish – one of our best gifts to those around us is what we offer to God for the advancement of His purposes.

Writing to believers during a time of cultural turmoil, the Apostle Peter warned against passivity.  “As each has received a gift,” he wrote, “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

In our homes, churches, workplaces, and communities, we regularly encounter people who have needs – big and small.  While we are right in recognizing our inability to meet others’ ultimate needs, we can’t overlook the reality that God has been gracious enough to entrust us with something to offer.  Maybe it’s words or time.  Perhaps it’s financial resources or material items.  It could be a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.  Maybe it’s the gift of encouragement or hospitality.  What if the very gifts God gave us and the resources He entrusted to us are the means through which He wants to work in the lives of those around us?

I’m learning ministry is less about what I have to give others and more about what I’m willing to give back to God.  As the familiar story of the boy with the loaves and fish demonstrates, God doesn’t need a lot from us to accomplish big things through us.

Just like the young boy couldn’t have fed the hungry multitude on his own, neither do we have the capacity to meet the needs around us in our own strength or by holding on to what God has given us.  The boy had no idea what Jesus would do what his lunch that day, but he was willing to let Him use it.  You see, we don’t have to understand how God might work to believe that He will.  When our focus shifts from what we have to who God is, we’ll often be surprised at how He chooses to multiply the little bit we entrusted to Him.

I don’t know your default response to the needs around you.  Maybe you’re quick to lend a helping hand.  Perhaps you’re so eager to serve that you’ve overwhelmed the hurting.  Others of you are probably cautious, afraid to say the wrong thing or weary of getting too emotionally involved.  Whatever your typical reaction, it’s important to be willing to use what we have for the glory of God and the good of the world – all the while seeking God’s direction for how and when to best minister to those around us.

When I reflect on the life-changing, hope-giving message of the gospel, it turns out I do have something to say and actions to take in response to the needs all around me.  And I think you do too.

Thriving in Difficult Seasons

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“Lord, I want to do more than just tolerate this season of life.”

As the prayer slipped from my lips, God brought to mind a familiar passage in Jeremiah.  I recalled the vivid imagery with which the Lord contrasted the fates of those who trust in people versus those who trust in Him.

“The man who trusts in man,” He explained, “is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.  He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  On the other hand, “the man who trusts in the Lord…is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream” (Jeremiah 17:5-8).

The main point is clear: trusting in anyone or anything other than God causes us to wither away whereas trusting in the Lord nourishes and sustains.

What stood out to me most, though, was the next part of the verse.  The Lord added that the one who trusts in Him is like a tree that “does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (17:8).

In other words, trusting in the Lord allows us to flourish in less-than-ideal conditions.  Notice that those who trust in God are likened to a tree that is fruitful in the midst of heat and drought, an indication that sustained fruitfulness is a reflection of where we are rooted, not necessarily the conditions around us.

Think through your present circumstances and identify those you would consider an inhibition to growth or vitality.  What conditions seem to pose a threat to fruitfulness?  A job?  A relationship?  Delayed dreams?  Is it possible you’ve fallen prey to the notion that what happens around you is more significant than the One who is at work in you?

I’m encouraged to know that every season of life doesn’t have to be my favorite.  Some seasons are harder and heavier than others.  Jess Connolly said it well: “Sometimes the best thing about a season is that it ends.”  Still, we don’t have to shrivel up until it’s over.

Thriving doesn’t mean we ignore life’s difficulties or downplay our struggles.  To thrive means that we acknowledge the conditions around us while trusting God to work in and through us.  By the grace of God, we can flourish in challenging seasons, whether that means getting out of bed in the morning, working hard alongside difficult coworkers, refusing to live in bitterness toward an estranged family member, or continuing to pray for a friend’s salvation.

As I’ve said before, those who place the whole weight of their confidence in God are blessed in experiencing His complete trustworthiness and utter sufficiency in every season.  The key to flourishing, then, isn’t easier circumstances, but expecting God to keep His promises.  Faith in God – believing and acting on His Word – invigorates us even when the conditions around us threaten to sap our vitality.  And when we draw our strength from Him, the heat and drought won’t be enough to keep us from thriving.