The Beautiful Wishes with a Truth Tree

img_3793“I forgot to show you my story!” my little sister (Big Brothers Big Sisters) shouted from the backseat as we drove to the movie theater for our weekly outing.

“You wrote a story?” I asked, pride swelling. Creativity is one of those things that makes me feel most alive, and seeing this ten-year-old girl get so excited about writing made me ridiculously happy.

“Yeah! But I forgot to bring it.”

“What’s it about?” I asked, intrigued.

“Um, I don’t know, I forget.” Undeterred, I waited for her response. “I forget” is her stock answer to a lot of questions, but if you are patient, she tends to inexplicably “remember”

. . . sure enough . . .

“It’s about a wishing tree,” she said, matter-of-factly.

My grin widened. It sounded like something I would have written at her age. “A wishing tree? That sounds awesome.”

When we returned from the theater, my little sis immediately retrieved her story and gave it to me to read. Her eyes sparkled with anticipation. I read with appropriate enthusiasm.

The story is about a girl named Sharlett and her brother Jeff who discover a wishing tree in their backyard. The tree has only six wishes and each time a wish is made a leaf falls off. When the last leaf falls, the tree dies, and there are no more wishes. Sharlett, Jeff, and her parents quickly go through five of the wishes, but when Sharlett and Jeff realize that there is only one wish left, they try to distract their parents while crafting a plan to keep the last wish on the tree. Despite much deception and trickery from the kids, the mom eventually finds out that the kids moved the tree out of their backyard so that their parents would not use the last wish.

The story ends with a poignant truth:

Mom said, “All the kids come in the house.” She said, “it doesn’t matter if the tree was gone, but tell me the truth.”

Recently, I have discovered what seems to be one of my most precious “wishes” in this life. I have done everything I can to keep my wishing tree alive, including deception and hiding.

“I’m less concerned about what you choose to do, and more interested in what the motives are behind your actions. Help me understand,” said my counselor one evening when I was particularly distressed about what seemed to me to be a strong desire to abandon what God wanted for me and go my own way. Her words disarmed me. Here was someone who simply wanted to understand me. Here was someone who was not panicked or worried about what decision I was going to make. She just wanted my vulnerability.

Maybe a week later, I had decided to tell another couple of friends a little about the difficult counseling journey I have been walking through, so that they would be able to pray for me more specifically. As I drove home that evening, though I knew the war was (and is now, too) far from over, I felt, rather than heard the words seep into my heart and spirit with sudden conviction:

“I’m proud of you.”

I immediately burst into tears right there on the interstate, because I knew I had and have been idolizing something above my God. I have acted in rebellion and have cursed Him. My trust in His goodness continues to be unstable.

And yet, here was the Savior of my soul, to whom no past, present, or future thought, action, word, or emotion of mine is hidden, reassuring me that He was proud of me.

Could it be that our God values us coming to Him in the messy honesty of our brokenness more than He appreciates begrudging obedience? Could it be that I can follow God and be angry with Him at the same time?  Perhaps the Christian life is more about running to God’s grace and love and less about walking in inexplicable contentment than I once believed.

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17

Maybe God is not overly concerned about what we do with our wishing trees. That doesn’t mean that everything is relative. Our actions matter. Our decisions matter. But in the overarching story, our actions will not ultimately hinder His plan of redemption, and God has always been more concerned with the heart than the hypocrite’s righteous deeds.

Maybe God is saying to you and to me:

“It doesn’t matter if the tree was gone, but tell me the truth.” 

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The Shit of Life

I have had a lot of candid conversations recently, profanity included. Those who know me know cursing is not a habit of mine. But sometimes, there are no other words to describe the stuff of life. Consider Aleppo. The slaughter that is happening there deserves the worst profanities known to man. Consider the deepest pains in your own heart. That pain does not deserve censoring. I was so angry at my own personal situation yesterday that I started hitting things . . . and bruised my hand in the process. Yep, at twenty-four years old, I threw a temper tantrum.

And ended it icing my hand with a bag of frozen fruit.

I don’t trust God. He does not seem like a good Father to me, as He chooses suffering to be the primary tool to bring people to Himself and to bring glory to His name. I resent the evils that He allows. I despise the things that don’t make sense.

Why must anyone suffer? Why are there no limits to the intensity of pain people can experience in this life?

My dad recently sent me this profound excerpt from a Phillip Yancey book entitled The Bible Jesus Read (208 – 9):

Job reluctantly concluded that, no, God could not care about him or about other suffering people. “How faint the whisper we hear of him,” sighed Job. The psalmists cried out for some sign that God heard their prayers, some evidence that God had not forsaken them. I know of only one way to answer the question, “does God care?” and for me it has proved decisive: Jesus is the answer.

Jesus never attempted a philosophical answer to the problem of pain, yet he did give an existential answer. Although I cannot learn from him why a particular bad thing occurs, I can learn how God feels about it. Jesus gives God a face, and that face is streaked with tears. Whenever I read straight through the Bible, a huge difference between the Old and New Testaments comes to light. In the Old Testament I can find many expressions of doubt and disappointment. Whole books—Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Job—center on the theme. Almost half of the psalms have a dark, brooding tone about them.

In striking contrast, the New Testament Epistles contain little of this type of anguish. The problem of pain has surely not gone away: James 1, Romans 5 and 8, the entire book of 1 Peter, and much of Revelation deal with the subject in detail. Nevertheless, nowhere do I find the piercing question Does God care? I see nothing resembling the accusation of Psalm 77: “Has God forgotten to be merciful?”

The reason for the change, I believe, is that Jesus answered that question for the witnesses who wrote the Epistles. In Jesus, God presents a face. Anyone who wonders how God feels about the suffering on this groaning planet need only look at that face. James, Peter, and John had followed Jesus long enough for his facial expressions to be permanently etched on their minds. By watching Jesus respond to a hemorrhaging woman, a grieving centurion, a widow’s dead son, an epileptic boy, an old blind man, they learned how God felt about suffering.

How do I want God to respond to my situation? I want Him to give me what I want, because it seems good and right. But all He ever guarantees to give me in my deepest pain . . . is Himself. I find myself asking, again and again . . . is that enough?

My counselor reminded me of the story of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 . . .

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

God did not prevent Stephen from suffering a terrible death.
But God did show up. The result? Inexplicably, Stephen’s mind and heart were transformed into the will of Christ even as he lay bloodied and bruised, the life quickly draining out of him.

I’m not there yet. I honestly don’t see how I would ever get there. But that’s not the point.

The point is . . . God gives Himself as an answer to my suffering not to change my situation, but to suffer with me.

I complain of my own suffering, but God chooses to enter every person’s suffering that asks Him for help. The greatest intensity of pain pierced his body on the cross, and pierces his heart even now. And He chooses it, so we don’t have to suffer alone.

And isn’t that really what I want? What has ever given me the greatest comfort? It has never been well-meaning advice. And while changing the situation certainly seems the most ideal, the sweetest expression of love to me, the one that brings tears to my eyes, is when a person willingly comes down into my valley of grief and sits with me there, holds me there, cries with me there . . . for as long as it takes for me to move forward.

And that is the heart of God.