Jesus, the Enlarger of Hearts

It sounded like I was walking on Pringles. The tightly-packed snow, sitting above a layer of freezing rain, crunched with every step. Twenty-four hours was too short a time to spend here; in God-terms, the time was just enough.

I woke up in the fishing-hut-converted-spiritual-retreat-cabin with the sound of silence pressing on my ears. Dozens of acres were all solely mine and God’s to enjoy. A stirring in my soul prompted me that it was time to take a walk. We had already established that the time I spent at this place was for the purpose of finding peace in Christ. I was ready to go and do what He would have me do.

18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be eaten by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 
Isaiah 1:18-20

Today held my decision. I’d had quite enough of refusing and rebelling. I had never imagined it would have taken me this long, but oh – no one had told me how satisfying this food could be. All advised, “it will not last, it will not satisfy,” but au contraire, it filled me to the brim. I could gorge all day on the sweetness of its taste. If it made me feel a little sick, so what? That would go away in time, to be left with hunger again that could be beautifully and slavishly satiated. Some call it the cycle of addiction. I call it the cycle of satisfaction. They are, of course, one and the same.

I had made my home in the dumpster, both queen and slave of my own miserable, beautiful kingdom. My stomach longed to be filled with the richest of foods, but the forbidden fruit was realistically getting further and further away. Where once all I had to do was reach up and twist it off from the branch, I would now have to make a deliberate, anxiety-ridden trek to the tree, all the while fueling my bitterness and rage and sorrow to such a degree that I would eventually crash into apathy – and then, at last, I would take what was rightfully mine. I was almost ready to do it, too. Hardened by war, I had become a soldier ready to die.

But true Love will not allow its child to live forever in the refuse of this world, and it will do anything to prevent us from dying for our own personally-crafted gods.

It was thus I entered my spiritual retreat, returning from my war in the garbage dump as queen, slave, and soldier. It didn’t take long before I realized how very much I’d changed. I had wrestled with God and emerged with a terrible limp. I had fought my battles with this so-called handicap and by the grace of God had emerged alive each time – and the scars became my daring exploits of narrow escapes and crippling losses and victorious turning points where the love of God had been my bullet-proof vest all along, that the wounds I would receive would not be fatal, though many parts of me would die.

Walking along the snow-covered path around a lake, I was prompted to stop at various places to surrender different parts of my life: my work, my friendships, my family, my deepest desires . . . I thought it would have been more difficult, to be honest. But it was then that I realized I had already gone through the worst of it. Indeed, I had already died. God had already knelt down on the battlefield and breathed life into me and said, “Go and sin no more.”

All that was left now was to get up from the dust and start walking.

And so, at times crying and at other times laughing, I talked aloud with God, releasing my firm grip on all the people and things I so cherished, everything in which I’d placed my hopes and dreams of fulfillment thus far.

His Kingdom, my kingdom.

Both had always been there. For so long, I could not escape the first, yet I did not want to leave the second, so I scrambled to live in both. No matter how hard I tried, I had found that God would not bow to me and to my disordered loves. Long had I professed that my one goal was to love God and love people well – and long did I try to convince him of this.

I just want to love, I just want to love, damn it, I thought you were Love – just let me love!

Mercifully, perhaps my greatest revelation was brought to life in Till We Have Faces, a myth re-told by C.S. Lewis. Through this story, I finally was able to admit to myself that my greatest desire to love another person holistically was in fact a selfish desire to have someone who is mine, someone who I can comfort and cherish in boundary-less, obsessive infatuation.  I long to be someone’s savior, and to invite them to be mine. But it is not my place to have anyone. It is not my place to claim anyone as wholly mine, no matter how gentle and comforting and seemingly loving are my intentions. There is only one Savior, and it is not me. If I tried to step into a role I was not created for, it would only bring destruction in the end. Crossing the line and taking the forbidden fruit and living a love I have defined as good would only lure myself and the person I claim to love away from true Love, and that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

And so, my surrendering this weekend was really a plea to turn every part of my life from tragedy to triumph. It is only God who can do such things, and far more abundantly than I could ever imagine. I will still struggle with bitterness, envy, anxiety, and a countless number of other things in this journey as well as others. I am confident of this. But I am also confident that “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!” (Psalms 119:32).  My dependence on Him has been solidified only through this great and painful and glorious daily journey of Him enlarging my heart.

As Simon Tugwell puts it,

“The gift which God makes of himself in this life is known chiefly in the increase of our desire for him. And that desire, being love, is infinite, and so stretches our mortal life to its limits. And that stretching is our most earnest joy, but it is also our most earnest suffering in this life. So those who hunger and thirst are, even now, truly blessed; but their blessedness is that of those who mourn.”

Jesus, the Enlarger of Hearts, invites us to come along with Him on the journey. I encourage and entreat you to do the same. Dare to delve deep into your minds and hearts. Question everything. Start from scratch. Be honest. Be enraged. Be mournful. Be hopeful. Be humbled. Be in community.

Be whole-hearted, desire-driven truth-seekers.

The journey will stretch you. It will stretch you further than you think you can bear, but remember, the stretching is to make room for the greatest Love of all.

Oh, to Grace How Great a Debtor

Disclaimer/reminder/hello-I’m-insecure: My blog is meant to show purpose in process – that there is purpose in the seemingly eternal uncomfortable middle part of life journeys in which you and I often find ourselves. Though this post may seem to end very definitively, this is very much a “process” post. I have held a shallow concept of grace for the majority of my life, and I’m just now peeling back more layers of what grace is and what that means for me. I’m struggling with grace. I’m perplexed by it. Even angry with it. I’m not even sure what I wrote in this post is true. But there’s purpose here. There’s purpose in the process. “Process” is God’s favorite way to work.

I confess, I’ve always been a bit mystified by a line in one of the Church’s most popular and beloved hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I’m not referring to “here I raise my Ebenezer,” which by default is reminiscent of a certain “humbug-ish” character. No, it is perhaps a line less questioned and more readily accepted:

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be

Immediately, questions come to my mind. Doesn’t the very concept of living by grace through faith in Jesus indicate that there is no longer any debt to be paid? How can one be indebted to grace, which by nature is freely given? Is this phrase not enslaving us to the moralistic Christianity I so hate yet I’ve bought into time and time again? Why such strong language? “Debtor” and “constrained” do not conjure up images of grace as the glorious freedom I’ve thought it should be. Would it not be more theologically accurate to sing, “oh, to grace how great a beneficiary daily I’m privileged to be”?

And yet . . . perhaps the old song is right, after all (bah, humbug).

If nothing else, the past year and a half of emotional turmoil has given me, perhaps for the first time, a personal experience of the grace of God. Grace has moved me to tears and has caused me to look in awe at the God who chooses to save and love me at my worst. The ever-present barrier from head to heart knowledge has been transcended more times over the past 500 days than the combined 8,000-something previous.

In his book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller delves into the topic with sheer accuracy. To the truth that God accepts us by grace through Jesus’ work regardless of our own actions, a member of Keller’s congregation replies in a way with which I deeply resonate:

      She said, “That is a scary idea! Oh, it’s good scary, but still scary.”

I was intrigued. I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works- then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace — at God’s infinite cost –then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.” She could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her — she was not her own. She was bought with a price.

As someone who has (or rather, chooses anew every day to varying degrees of success) to sacrifice the pursuit of something I most want, I have noticed a certain spirit of entitlement encroaching on my every thought and action. “I’ve given you this, God . . . so give me a reasonable, satisfactory substitute in this particular way – now – or else!” Though I haven’t actually said these words to God, my attitude has essentially been communicating to the Creator of the universe that I deserve something more than what He is currently giving me.

This is not living in grace.

At my counseling appointment a couple days ago after talking about this very issue, I was tasked to define what it is like to live in relationship with God with an attitude of entitlement vs. what it is like to live in relationship with God based on grace.

This is what I came up with . . .

Entitlement = I sacrificed, You owe me
Grace = You sacrificed, ________________

Pathetic, right? Born and raised in the church, and I couldn’t even come up with a definition of grace, the bedrock of my salvation.

I stammered through some half-answers —

“Uhhh – You sacrificed, I owe nothing . . . no, no,no. You sacrificed, no one owes anything anymore . . . wait that’s not right . . . dang it . . . ummm,”

So our work in therapy became an assignment. Frustrated at my theological ineptitude, I started to stress. What did this mean? Was I even a Christian if I didn’t know what grace was? On the way back to work, I thought of two snatches of hymn lyrics: “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe” and “oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”

I don’t find this to be a coincidence. The Holy Spirit was and is ever attune with my present need. Historically, He has stirred my conscience towards songs and stories and His Word to remind me of truth. Faithfully, He did so again.

Grace = You sacrificed, I owe You

What? How can this be? This goes against everything I thought I knew about grace. I thought grace meant “it is finished.” How could there be anything to owe a paid debt?

But grace calls for an active response, not a passive one. Grace is realizing the freedom Christ bought for us includes the ability to sacrifice whatever is necessary to our Good Father, trusting He knows what is best for us and will make all things new in the mystery of His will. As one friend put it, here is our one chance to freely choose to bow before our Savior, before “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Grace gives us the opportunity to choose to love God because He loved us first.

The sacrifice of God was necessary and it was brutal and it was costly. He paid a heavy price so that I could eternally rest in His love. I owe Jesus my life. Somehow the gravity of the situation has not fully hit me.

Western culture is no help. Entitlement is the legacy of the United States of America: “I deserve the American Dream, I deserve the new i-Phone, I deserve to have a choice between crunchy and smooth peanut butter, I deserve marriage, I deserve a job, I deserve a good life.”

How do I, how do we, move from a spirit of entitlement to one of grace?

I can think of only one thing : to have a staring contest with Jesus – to dare to not drop my gaze from His untamable, unshakeable love. For if I’m honest with myself, I am not afraid that my affections towards fighting for what I want will not change.

I am afraid that they will change.

Because when that happens, I will no longer have anything with which to bargain with God to try to get what I want. I will have no more illusion of control.

Like the old hymn affirms, I will truly be constrained by grace.

The Immensely Frustrating Step-by-Step Guide to Filling the Holes in Your Heart

A stunningly wise twenty-year-old friend (living proof of 1 Timothy 4:12) told me recently that in order for God to fill the hole in my heart, I’ve got to stop trying to fill it myself. In all my newly acquired knowledge and vast longings, I am asked to feel the immense gaping hole and allow it to remain unfilled.

The funny thing is, all this time I thought that was exactly what I was doing.  But acknowledging longings and being kind to them is not enough.

If we don’t invite Jesus to fill our holes in His way and His time, we will never see the great and mysterious goodness of Himself and the plans He has for us with which He wants to fill them.

In that vein of thought, I’ve written a guide for myself and my fellow travelers on how to fill the holes in their hearts. It is a fallible, incomplete guide, and often one must go through the steps out-of-order. Sometimes one must be participating in all of the steps at the same time. It is also highly likely that the individual will return to any and all of these steps for each of the holes in his/her heart . . . multiple times.

Overwhelmed yet? Keep reading.

The Immensely Frustrating Step-by-Step Guide to Filling the Holes in Your Heart

Step One: Acknowledge the Hole
Peer down into the terrifying depths of dark vacuity and shudder. If you don’t know the hole is there or if you choose to ignore it, you are living half-alive.

Step Two: Climb Down the Hole
Build a ladder, tie a rope around a tree and rappel down it, or stumble down the perilous footholds as best you can. You don’t know what you’ll find. It could be much deeper than you initially thought. The further you go, the more alone and terrified you might feel. But somewhere within you is a light, however faint, that keeps you from being consumed by the darkness and that illuminates just enough to keep you going.

Step Three: Observe Your Surroundings
As you make your way down this seemingly bottomless pit in your heart, you stop along the way to observe your surroundings. The light within you sometimes illuminates a whole section of the cavernous hole. And here you must live and learn to look with compassion on what you have neglected.

Step Four: Meet with Jesus
When you finally reach the bottom (or what you think is the bottom because let’s be real, the hole is probably always deeper than you realize), you are exhausted. You crane your head back and look up to see how far you’ve gone. How are you going to get back up there? If climbing down was this difficult, how agonizing is it going to be to go back up? Is it even possible?

Its here where you see Jesus most clearly.

Here is John 1:5 incarnate:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Step Five: Return to Top with Jesus
The climb up with Jesus is both draining and invigorating. Sometimes you want Him to carry you the rest of the way. Sometimes you want to push him off and muscle your way back to the top in your own way.

Step Six: Panic
When you finally take that first step out of the hole, you realize you’ve changed. You may be back where you started in a physical sense, but you will never, ever be the same.

Panic sets in. Now that you know so much, you want to know less. At the same time, you want to know so much more. You do what you don’t want to do and don’t do what you want to do and really all you want is to feel ok again. You regret going down the massive hole in the first place. So you attempt to fill the hole on your own.

Again and again and amen.

Jesus stands off to the side. You’ve kind of forgotten about Him. Or you think He’s kinda passive and doesn’t really care about filling your hole except with spiritual crap so you acknowledge Him politely and say, “You can stay here, but I’ve got this, ok?”

Jesus is always happy to stay.

Step Seven: Cue Despair . . . and Jesus
At some point in your desperate efforts, you realize that nothing will ever fill the hole.


Cue despair.

That also happens to be Jesus’ cue.

At this point you are muddied and bruised and battered and probably look half-dead. You’re sitting at the edge of the hole in numb resignation to your fate of unmet longings.

Step Eight: Allow Jesus to Fill the Hole
“Are you finished?” asks Jesus gently. He sits next to you and places a holy hand on your dirty shoulder. You feel the warmth of undying affection and lean into His chest and weep. “Good,” He whispers, kissing the top of your head tenderly. “Now watch what I will do.”

Heavenly Father,
help us to live
with the massive holes
in our hearts
that You may fill them
in the way
and time
that You see fit.