Recently, a friend of mine called in tears saying her boyfriend had confessed to cheating on her. They had been beginning to discuss marriage after dating for a few years, and she was heart-broken.
But equally upsetting was the internal struggle with what felt like a religious requirement: she is a Christian, so the Christian thing to do is to forgive him.
Though forgiveness might be necessary eventually, she felt the pressure to forgive him immediately because he was honest, he was repentant, he said he wouldn’t do it again, and he still wanted to be with her.
“If he repents, I have to forgive him, right?” It felt like a forgone conclusion. It felt like something she had to do. It felt like a transaction that had to take place if she was truly a godly and loving woman. But she was angry, hurt, and her trust in him had been shattered. What does it look like to navigate this kind of situation with godliness and grace, while also being honest about the pain and broken trust that his actions had caused?
At some point, you’ve probably been advised to forgive and forget. There are a lot of idioms that leak into Christian culture but aren’t actually biblical; forgive and forget is one phrase. There is a shade of truth to it, and likely good intentions, but when it comes to forgiveness, it attempts to reduce a robust and transformative process into a transaction.
Christian counselor Dan Allender says, “Forgiveness is all too often seen as merely an exercise in releasing bad feelings and ignoring past harm, pretending all is well…True forgiveness…is a powerful agent in a process that can transform both the forgiver and the forgiven.”
As Allender points out, we often diminish the work of forgiveness to be about how we feel, but true forgiveness bears all the marks of resurrection hope and power. Christian forgiveness is not about a feeling, it’s about participating in the Triune God who forgives sinners and restores them into right relationship with himself. Christian forgiveness is a scandalous thing, showing grace to the enemy, wiping full slates clean, and demonstrating in action the power of the gospel—that Christ died so that sinners like us could be saved. When we forgive someone else, we show them the power of the gospel in the most tangible way we can.
On one hand, forgiveness might seem straightforward—you just choose to forgive and move forward. But this simplistic understanding of forgiveness condenses a full orchestra of actions and processing into a single line of music.
Real forgiveness requires truth-telling and honesty, rediscovering the humanity of the person who hurt you, navigating reconciliation, reunion, restoration, and repentance. No, forgiveness is no easy task, but we must each learn its rhythms and overtures—not just to protect ourselves from bitterness and resentment, but to follow after Jesus, our forgiving King.
True forgiveness is nothing short of the power of God at work among us. So when we have a small view of forgiveness and how to do it, we miss the power of God at work in our lives when he forgives us, we miss the power of God at work in the person who hurt us, we miss an opportunity to make much of Christ and his good, good news.
There is so much more to forgiveness than forgive and forget; it’s time we recover a more robust—and biblical—understanding of what forgiveness is and how we do it.
I grew up in a small house with a very large backyard, much of which was a meticulously planned and cultivated garden tended by my dad. The garden was such a fixture of my life that I didn’t realize most people didn’t grow up picking raspberries, throwing fallen apples at the big cottonwood tree, harvesting cherries before the birds got to them, and making carrot cake with fresh carrots for my mom’s birthday.
When we were looking to buy a home a little over a year ago, I told our friend and realtor that I wanted room for a garden—maybe chickens—to which he replied, “you’ve been watching that woman, haven’t you?”
While I knew immediately which woman he was referring to, Joanna Gaines wasn’t my inspiration for gardening. I had watched my dad daily participate in the life of our land, the growing of foods, delighting in flowers in bloom, and anticipating the ripening of his prized tomatoes. But even more than that, the desire to cultivate and slowly grow beautiful and new things is what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.
The first place we see Jesus after his resurrection is in a garden. When Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb in John 20:14-15, she turns “around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus…supposing him to be the gardener.”
I always flew past this line in anticipation of his revelation to her and her response to realizing her Lord was alive. I always assumed that she thought he was the gardener because who else would be wandering the area at that time? But perhaps this mistaken identity was no mistake at all. Jesus was the gardener; Jesus is the gardener.
Gardening is a metaphor used throughout the Scripture to illustrate how God interacts with His creation. In Isaiah 5, the gardener destroys the vineyard representing Israel because of their disobedience, but promises that out of the ruins a new shoot will bud, a new life of communion and union with God will grow and will never cease (Is 11).
Jesus describes himself as the vine and us the branches who are dependent upon him for all of life. He also promises to prune the branches that are not bearing fruit, ensuring that each plant in his garden will reach maturity, flourish, and bear the fruit they are intended to bear (Jn 15).
Jesus even refers to his coming death in terms of gardening when he says, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
But even more than a metaphor God uses to describe human relationship and development in Him, the story of God begins with the garden, the place that God chose to make for his people and dwell in their midst, and ends with new creation—a restoration of all things, the Edenic glory and beauty and wonder that we were made for perfectly restored. Our heritage was a garden, but it’s our future too. This is why GK Chesterton says,
“On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of a gardener God walked again in the garden, not in the cool of the evening, but in the dawn.”
Jesus, our Master Gardener, is doing a new thing. He is recreating the torn down vineyard of Isaiah 6; he is rooting and establishing new life so that it might grow and flourish; he is pruning and tending and delighting in new growth. But he also invites us into his work—to take up his work, to garden alongside of Him as those who also cultivate the Kingdom of God.
As you pluck ripe tomatoes and grate zucchinis for bread, remember that you are participating in a much larger work. We are laboring with the Great Gardener, tending to the coming Kingdom of God, and delighting in the beauty of God’s creation as we patiently wait for the fullness of all creation to be restored (Rom 8).
The semester winds down, celebrations, endings, farewells, and fatigue sweep us into the early summer days. June always felt like a surprise. The summer had arrived. But the flash flood of the semester left me cleaned out, leaves and branches in my hair, and trying to reorient myself to where I had landed.
June always felt like a surprise. Surprise! The turning of a season. Surprise! You are another year older. Surprise! You have neglected your spiritual life. Surprise! You don’t actually know how to slow down.
I worked in college ministry for almost 6 years, and the first few summers were unbelievably challenging. I found myself showing up for our annual staff conference feeling apathetic, undisciplined, and certainly unprepared to lead younger women in their faith. But it turned out that I was rarely the only one. Colleagues struggled too, but students also rarely came back to campus exclaiming about their summer filled with rich community, deepened love of the Word or fuller joy in Christ. No, summers were a desolate place through which students, and I, staggered.
As my second summer approached, I found myself dreading the downtime, the lack of rigorous structure, and the relational solitude, but also knowing I couldn’t continue at the sprinter’s pace of the semester. A classic catch-22. I needed rest. I needed solitude. I needed to take a spiritual inventory. But I was afraid of what and who I would find apart from my identity-giving tasks of preparing Bible studies and having discipleship meetings. The cycle of weeknights out teaching on campus, mornings in the office, and ongoing emotional care was taxing. And yet it gave me tangible meaning. Who was I when I wasn’t doing those things? And for my students, who were they when their google calendars were empty, they moved home to mom and dad and felt their student rhythm screech to a halt. Though I said it regularly to them, we were not so different.
It wasn’t until the third summer that I got serious about figuring out why I dragged through the off-season. Sure, there were the obvious snares of my identity being too closely-knit to my work, the challenge of actually slowing the train down (objects in motion tend to say in motion, after all), and struggling to know how to practically use my time with so little structure. But those were only the lid to the box. As I started to pray, think, and ask the Lord about why this should be so tough, He answered by helping me see unhealthy habits that land me with my annual June surprise.
Calvin famously began his Institutes with, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Though this might sound like a welcome dive into self-discovery or the spiritual validation that our Enneagram number really is critical information, Calvin is suggesting that to know God, we must know the depravity and desperate state of our fallen nature. We need to know our sinfulness to know God’s righteousness. But the fast pace of the academic calendar invited me to ignore stillness and solitude thinking I could slow down later. It is all too easy to be too busy to come face to face with the reality of our sinfulness.
Solitude is a faithful friend. It is something Christians must pursue regularly, not just when it is forced on them by a season change. Solitude forced me to watch myself wrestle with sinful patterns that had become so ingrained in my daily rhythm that I stopped questioning them. It was, and is, uncomfortable. It was painful to see myself. And yet, as Calvin reminds us, it is essential for our salvation to see our ugliness so we might see the splendor of Christ, and the staggering gift of grace. The author of Hebrews exhorts us, “to lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” Heb 12:1-2. But how can we run the race God has set for us when we are too busy running our own course? We must be people who actively slow down (stop even) to fix our eyes on Jesus who both created and will complete our faith. When we are still enough to catch a glimpse of the splendor of Christ and our need for him, we find the hope and desire to strip off the extra weight that clings to us.
Postponing emotional pain
Each semester brought emotional bumps. From bearing burdens with another sister to being wounded by them myself, knowing and being known will inevitably cause some pain. When I am hurt or upset or sad, I know I have a tendency to postpone my emotions simply because I have other stuff to do; another meeting to attend, another lesson to prepare– I am the queen of compartmentalizing. But this is not wise. Ignoring emotional pain does not make it go away. It buries it and makes it more difficult to dig up and understand when you finally return to it. It is easy to pretend to be ok, it is hard to allow yourself to feel grief, betrayal, loneliness, or anger.
Rather than letting a few months worth of emotional processing surprise you, commit to creating space to be honest with how you feel, to bring your hurts to the Lord, and to pursue reconciliation quickly. As 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us, God reconciled himself to us so that we would take up the ministry of reconciliation. When we ignore emotional pain, we deny ourselves and our community the gift and practice of reconciliation and choose to harbor anger, resentment, and bitterness. We create a home for disunity. And it will eventually catch up with us. Summers were hard because I found myself trying to unravel a bundle of emotions that seemed indecipherable. I needed to unlearn the habit of compartmentalizing my emotions, and pursue a faith that was presently embodied–a faith that didn’t deny the necessity of communication, honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If we are in Christ, we have infinite hope for reconciliation, but we must choose to show up for it.
A few years ago a friend of mine said to me at a coffee date that she really wanted to be my friend–wanted to see me more, talk about difficult things, deepen our love for one another. Maybe that sounds like a strange proposition–friendship in our culture is often nothing more than surface-level shared interest, but friendship should (and can) be so much more. Our relationship did grow. It flourished actually. In the busyness of life I knew she was someone I could call on, be honest with, and who would show up for me. I think about that conversation a lot. Her intentionality in wanting to pursue friendship with me made me want to be a better friend, made me want to check in with her, follow up on how a hard week had been, pray for her—all trappings of genuine Christian friendship.
One of the most disorienting realities of the summertime was the dramatic fall-off in social and relational connection. Despite what student’s often thought, being in their lives was an incredible blessing to me, not just to them. Hearing about challenges small and large, being in scripture together, talking about theological doubts, laughing about how far they had come–all the makings of friendship wrapped up in a mentoring relationship. What I realized over summer was how much I preached the gospel and the word of God to myself simply by reminding others of who Jesus was. Encouraging them encouraged me. I got to live in the story of the Bible day in and day out. I might be feeling discouraged in my own faith, but I found that caring for others, be interested in their lives, and pointing them to God inevitably deepened my own faith.
I have heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to friendship. But when you enter a few months of being away from your primary community, that is a time to be intentional, tell them you want to know them over the summer, hear how they are doing and deepen your spiritual friendship even in a season of being apart. Talk to a friend, ask them to pray, ask how they are growing in their faith, ask how they are struggling. Let the word of Christ dwell in your friendships richly.
Remember who you are and hold fast
Author Paul Tripp coined the phrase “functional atheist” to describe Christians who find themselves living as if God doesn’t exist when something trivial happens. Especially when I am moving quickly and my schedule is full, minor frustrations can turn into day-ruiners. But why? When I am living a “my kingdom come, and my will be done” lifestyle, my identity is primarily defined by either what I do or how I feel, and not by who God says I am. This is dangerous turf. When the busyness stops, I feel down and unproductive, suddenly I am wondering if God even loves me. If He did, why would he let me feel this way? Another dangerous step. When my identity is driven by my performance and emotions, I naturally start to relate to God based on how I feel or perform.
I need to remember who I am and hold fast to the truth. I love the refrain in Hebrews— let us hold fast to the profession of our faith, for he who promised is faithful (10:23). If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ. You are who He says you are. You are a chosen person, a saint, forgiven, loved, made holy. I once heard a sermon on just the word benediction. It means “a good word.” God speaks a good word over you. But, as I heard almost weekly in college ministry, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel like I am loved or forgiven. What then? We need to actively choose to live in the story of the gospel rather than one that is about me. We might know God loves us, but we need to whisper it to our hearts, we need to massage the love of Christ into our uncertain chests. We need to decenter the story off of us, recenter it on Christ, and choose to agree with what our God says about us.
“These are the good old days” reads a banner in our home. In the midst of chasing toddlers and cooking dinners and cramming in work, the makings of a full life are passing by. Though these days are hectic and often exhausting, I find it unsettling to know that I might look back on these years as some of my favorite. The sobering reality is that time is passing by and nothing is permanent.
I see it most clearly in my kids—I long for certain things to endure, the morning snuggling and the storytelling. I hunger for permanence and so want to cling to something that won’t be a day older tomorrow. And yet I am ever drawn to the new—new experiences, new stages, new opportunities. Each day I am rocked back and forth between my desires for the eternal and an appetite for newness, and often I find neither to be satisfied.
CS Lewis famously said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” The tough reality is that our desires for permanence and newness will never be fully satisfied in our experience on earth. We live as those who are fading day by day, slowly wearing out until death in spite of the small encounters with newness along the way. But God didn’t just give us unmet desires to frustrate us, He made us for both permanence and newness so that he might make himself known to us through them. For the creator God is both eternal and permanent and also ever new, bringing new life and wonder day by day.
An unchanging God
Permanence is foundational to our God’s character. One of his attributes is his immutability, which means that he is unchanging. As Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (13:8). The Psalmist says, They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away. Like a worn-out garment, everything on earth will pass away, but God alone will remain, unfaded, unchanged, forever existing in eternal perfection.
But God also made us to know and enjoy his eternal permanence. Before the fall, humanity was made to participate with God in perfect, eternal, unchanging relationship with the dawning of each new day. Our desire for permanence, therefore, reveals what our lives should have been like—ever resting in the perfect reliability of our God with no threat or fading of life while also experiencing the glory of God in new ways each day as we walked in his midst. My sorrow over things lost and years passed by and my hope for a taste of something new are not merely the evidence of a fickle heart, they are the phantom pains of what we have lost to sin and a reminder of the promise of eternal life.
Our unchanging experience of God
As one who longs for permanence, delights in newness, and yet is daily disappointed by what grows worn and dies, so much of my experience is weariness. It is exhausting to so frequently say goodbye as something ends while holding onto the hope of something new bringing a fresh wave of joy. This place of in between—knowing what we were made for and not fully experiencing it—is wearisome. Fortunately, God’s love for us and our experience of His love does not ride the same emotional rollercoaster. CS Lewis put it concisely when he said, “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”
But while God’s love for us is does not change, our experience of His love does. God’s love is not some assembly line robot, presenting the ones He loves with the same experience of his love every time. God is a craftsman, and His love reflects this part of his nature. He gives attention to each piece of wood, takes it, forms it, loves it into wholeness each day. Sometimes the tradition I am a part of can underplay the deep importance of religious experience. It is not wrong for us to hunger for a new experience of God’s love in the same way that a wife desires for her husband to show her love again today, in a way that befits their needs and lives today. God’s love meets us afresh—in the pain and joy and messes we are living in—and changes us as we experience it. God is the same every day, his love for us is permanent, but it is also endlessly new.
The newness that satisfies
Behold, I am making all things new (Rev 21:5). This is not just a verse describing the new heavens and the new earth, it is also what God is doing today through His people, the Church. Today, we get to participate in the unfailing newness of the Triune God. He is making all things new today. And he begins with us.
From the Father we have the promise, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22-23). There will never be a sunrise that isn’t colored by the Father’s unwavering love for us and his promise to extend new mercy to us as we go to work, raise children, fight with our spouse, sin, struggle, and fail. His mercy will always be new to us.
In Christ, we are raised to walk in “newness of life” with Him as he conquers the grave—our life in Christ is marked by new life (Rom ….). And the Spirit does an ongoing renewing work of our minds, our souls, our spirits, and our bodies. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). In our all-encompassing triune God, we are met with the permanence and the newness that our hearts were made for. In our unchanging and never-ending God, we are given what we need to endure change with grace, hope towards the next provision of his love, and rest knowing that He is with us every step of the way.
This week my whole family fell like dominoes to a stomach bug, one tapping another in a week-long chain of misery. I was the last to go down which meant that I was scrambling between holding three-year olds while they threw up, changing and washing sheets and pajamas, attempting to feed those with an appetite, and trying to hammer out a few pieces of work in the midst of it all.
I love to think of myself as a “do it all” person. I can work from home with no childcare during a pandemic! I can find time to exercise and read and write! I candefinitely attend a new women’s Bible study! I can, I can, I can! I can do it all! But the humbling truth is that I can’t. I cannot do it all; and that’s actually a good thing.
God made humans as limited beings. Where he is transcendent and unending and all-knowing and without beginning or end—limitless—we are not. As embodied people, our flesh literally enrobes us in limits. We cannot be two places at once, we can’t stay up all day and all night, we cannot go without food or water—we inhabit this fleshy thing with all sorts of requirements and needs. And because we have limits, we must daily choose how to use our energy, where to put our time, what to focus our attention on.
GK Chesterton says, “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else.” The decisions we make—our acts of will—are actually acts of self-limitation, a choice that says, I value this very much and am choosing to pour my resources into it. But by choosing one thing, we are inherently not choosing something else.
But Chesterton goes beyond merely saying that we make these self-limiting decisions every day to say that when we desire to do anything, we are desiring limitation. We actually want to be limited, to not do everything and do the one thing that we want or need to. And this reality of choosing to do one thing becomes an act of self-sacrifice, choosing to deny yourself of all other things for the one thing you do choose. When I chose to marry my husband Andrew, I chose to deny every other man on the planet. That is an act of self-limitation, and that limitation is actually something to desire, something good.
Even as I write this, my modern sentiments scream, this is why multi-tasking is so great! We can do more than one thing! Or if I’m just smart enough and have enough hacks, I can do much more in less time, perhaps doubling the number of things I can choose. But the reality remains, that no matter how many wonderful things we do cram into a day or week or year, we will never be able to do it all. Each “yes” means a million “no’s.”
Though God wove human limitations into the fabric of creation before the fall and we know that our limits are good, when God took on human flesh and became a limited person, He showed us how to navigate the temptation to do everything. As one scholar put it, Jesus led a wildly unsuccessful and inefficient healing and teaching ministry. He chose to hang out with a handful of average men, never leveraging to get in more—more healings, miracles, sermons, declarations of divinity. Jesus, as a limited man, walked the same pathways of limitations that we do. Choosing to heal one person meant not being available to millions of others. Choosing to teach one sermon meant not teaching the infinite others he had. Choosing to travel to Jerusalem and its surrounding cities meant not traveling across the world to share the good news of the Kingdom of God.
God became limited. God said “no” to things. God entered into our realm of action and self-sacrifice to show us that it is good! It is good to have limits. And He became like us to show us how to be faithful in our limits. He was faithful to the people who needed his time, to the people he was called to and the people he chose, enjoying the reality that His ministry would be spent with guys like Peter and John, giving them His full attention. He was faithful in His limits; he said “yes” to things and, therefore, said “no,” trusting that He didn’t need to heal every person on earth for the Father to accomplish the purposes He had for Him. And because Jesus did, we can too.
This week I experienced my limits, I couldn’t do it all. I was forced in a unique way to grapple with the fact that my multitasking might seem effective, but in reality is a guise—I am limited. And those limits are for my good, for my enjoyment and benefit, that I might faithfully say “yes” to the things I need to and want to while I trust in my limitless God to tend to the things I cannot.
On Sunday at church I bumped into a friend on my way to grab a coffee and asked, “How are you?!” “I’m fine,” she replied, although I noticed her teary eyes. Then she gave—”Actually no, I’m not good,” and the tears came. I was honored by her honesty, but it stabbed at my heart during the service—how many others are here today just pretending to be ok?
Does anyone know your deepest pain today? Have you told anyone of the ways you are suffering, struggling with sin, discouraged, or apathetic? I would imagine that the answer for many is no. When it comes to pain, our impulse is to pray and suffer in isolation, only revealing our deepest wounds and hopes in the quiet of prayer. We pray for our desires, but it feels too vulnerable to invite anyone else into the longings of our heart.
But the logic of the church opposes this individualism—the church by nature is communal, an interconnected family to which we belong and are known. As believers, we can’t afford to suffer in isolation because the way Christ is most clearly manifested to us today is in His Body—the Church. As members of God’s body, we need to cast off this individualism and reclaim the beauty and power of being known in our church.
Psalm 22 offers a template for crying out to God in the context of community, situating ourselves in the story of God’s faithfulness in the past, and testifying to the congregation when God answers our prayers. As we practice this discipline, we are formed into the people of God—people who participate in the story of God’s salvation and faithfulness today.
Remembering who God is. Psalm 22 presents a suffering Psalmist, feeling abandoned and alone, but fixing his eyes on God’s holiness—His character—and remembering God’s faithfulness to his forefathers.
My god my god why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame (1-5).
As in many of the psalms, we see the invitation to cry out to God with honesty, but as we do so to cling to God’s character and the ways that God has demonstrated His faithfulness to His people before. Though the psalmist feels forsaken and like the Lord will never answer him, he leans upon what He knows God has done before. Each instance of God’s provision that came before this moment has collected in his imagination, testifying to a God who has always been faithful. This is why God sits enthroned on Israel’s praises; as God proves his steadfast, holy, and good character again and again in the lives of His people, we do what we were made to do—glorify Him, enshrouding Him in our right worship. When we find ourselves suffering, we must turn to the story of God’s people before us, but we must also turn to God’s people around us.
Praising God in the congregation.
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you; you who fear the Lord praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel (22-23).
The Psalmist understands the communal nature and responsibility of his current suffering—that when God proves himself faithful, he will testify to God’s work, glorifying Him and participating in the story of God’s people from the beginning. But if we never share our suffering with the congregation, we probably won’t tell them when God answers our prayer. Rejoicing in the Lord’s provision is a community activity in the Psalms, and our participation is not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the entire community.
God doesn’t only answer prayers for us—He answers them for our friend, for the woman sitting next to me at church, for the weary moms and disillusioned dads. God answers our prayer for our own good but also for His glory, He wants us to tell of His power and mercy and faithfulness again and again. This is why the Psalmist says, From you comes my praise in the great congregation...The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord (26). When we share our suffering and God’s provision with the Body, we nourish the afflicted who are crying out, and give hope for those who are seeking Him. God uses our suffering and His faithfulness as an encouragement to others, so when we isolate ourselves in a church, we withhold the power of God in our lives from those around us who need it most.
A beautiful inheritance. Posterity (future generations) shall serve him. It shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it (30-31).
Though a community is blessed when members share their burdens and testify to God’s faithfulness, this practice forms us as spiritual people. As we learn to live in community and again and again see that God is who He says He is, God shapes us into His people—people who are known, who ask for prayer and pray fervently, who remember what God has done, and glorify Him always. In community, we become what Israel was to us—the people who followed God in their context and whose stories we turn to for a reminder of who God is.
As we are formed into people who trust in the Lord in community, we pass on the most valuable gift of our own spiritual formation; we testify both in our words and deeds to the coming generation of who this God is. We become people who proclaim his righteousness to those not yet born. So while we will tell the incredible stories of God’s works to the next generation, the inheritance we bestow on our children and their children is a legacy of seeking God, participating in the body of Christ, and glorifying God in all circumstances. A people formed by these movements will shape the generation following them, creating a beautiful inheritance.
On the cross, Jesus prayed the opening verses of this psalm. He prayed alone, as one left to die in His suffering. He prayed remembering the Father’s perfect faithfulness to His people. On the cross, Jesus cried out, envisioning the future of God’s people, and died alone so that we might participate in His resurrected Body as people who are certain of His faithfulness and equipped to endure suffering together.
During my time leading Bible studies for college students, a phrase I heard more often than any other was, “What this verse means to me is…”
I’ve said it, you probably have, too, but when it comes to reading, studying, and understanding the Word of God, exploring what a verse “means to me” is a flimsy foundation on which to build our faith. We so want to read a verse or chapter, get a sense for the vibe of the passage, and allow it to mean exactly what we would like it to mean, but when we study God’s Word, our goal must always be to discover what the verse means in the context it is written.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart argue in How To Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.” We might want a verse to mean something to us, but if it does not align with the context in which it was written, it cannot and does not mean what we want it to mean. And because the Bible is not primarily a tool for self-discovery, we must be willing to spend time in it as such.
When we come to the Bible, we must begin with comprehension—understanding what is actually being said. We often jump to what a verse “means to me” because we have skipped this essential step. When we leave it out, what the Bible says becomes completely subjective and self-centered, meaning whatever we might want it to mean at that time. It’s easy to read a passage and get an impression or jump on one phrase, but it takes time to read a passage, follow the logic and argument, ask questions about a phrase, and study what the author is actually saying. But do this we must. One of the first things I learned in seminary was that “context is king;” you cannot escape, get around or avoid it—to read the Bible, you must go through the context in which it is written.
Context vs. expectation
Any time we read Scripture, we bring our whole selves—how our day is going, our experiences, our emotions, our hopes for this particular moment in God’s Word—and that’s good. It is good to be self-aware, knowing how we are doing, the expectations we have, and what we might be needing to hear on any given day. But without comprehension, we will likely read into the text what we want to see rather than studying God’s Word for what He wants us to see.
Here’s an example. Philippians 3:14 says, “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” I absolutely made this my verse for high school sports, whispering it to myself, and maybe a teammate, when we were losing by 10 in the fourth quarter, because, you know, Jesus will totally make me win this game. But if we read the chapter to understand what Paul is saying, he says he can do anything in Christ who strengthens him in the context of suffering, not always having what he needed, and depending on others to support him in his lack. I might want this verse to mean that I can do and accomplish anything in Christ, but Paul is saying that because of Jesus, he can face any circumstance, especially adverse ones, with joy, because Jesus is his life.
The good news is that God, through His Holy Spirit, illuminates His Word to us—the Spirit literally opens our minds and hearts to receive what He wants to teach us. Our God is so personal and loving that when we open His word, He promises to meet us, reveal Himself to us, and speak to us. God knows exactly what we need, and if we are willing to listen to what His Word actually says, we might discover that what he has for us is even better than what we were hoping to find.
Skipping comprehension diminishes who God is
Beyond reading ourselves into the text, when we skip comprehension, we never learn the heart of God for us, we opt out of hard words that might challenge us, and ultimately, we never grow in our confidence of what the Bible really says. When we elevate our situation, feelings, or an interpretation apart from the context, the Word of God becomes a story that is bent around what we want to hear, but it will never be able to stand up to the difficulties we will face.
God wants us to know him. So when we skip comprehension we don’t allow God to actually speak to us. He wants to reveal himself to us, to teach us, to meet us in our circumstances and struggles. But if we ignore how he has revealed himself to his people before us, we will never know who he is for us today. We need a Bible that that says “You are not your own but have been bought with a price” because I want to be my own master every day. We need a Bible that speaks words that don’t always align with our culture. We need a Bible that tells us what our sin is. We need a Bible that tells us about the holiness of God. We need a Bible that confronts our own agenda for our lives.
As we approach God’s word today, remember that our experience, emotions, and desires are not the center of the universe, God is. And as we read His Word with expectation, we will find ourselves hearing what we need to hear, being challenged in the ways we need to be challenged, and receiving comfort from a God who loves us so much that He makes Himself known to us.
Kindness seems to be everywhere these days. It’s posted on yard signs and granola bars, t-shirts, and posters for your home. Though kindness is not new, BE KIND! has become a warm greeting in a culture that prides itself on tolerance, acceptance, and affirmation.
A few months ago, Ellen Degeneres fell from her two-decade-long reign as the queen of kindness for apparently, well, being very unkind. Kindness was her motto, encouraging everyone to “Be kind to one another” as the parting message of every episode. But for someone who has made millions selling the idea of kindness, her brand of kindness has proved to be empty after her show was canceled due to reports of the toxic, racist, and abusive work culture she set.
When our national face of kindness proves to be deeply unkind, we have to wonder, does the kindness that our culture celebrates have any value? Or is it lacking, pretending to do and be good while unable to produce any good or loving changes in our world? In a culture that is hungry for kindness but often finding cultural kindness to be empty, we must look to scripture and the author of kindness to teach us what kindness truly is.
True kindness is always rooted in love.
Cultural kindness is more about tolerance, enduring differences without complaining, and being nice than it is about love. It asks us only to be pleasant to those whom we are different from, but it does not call us to love them. When kindness is without love, it can quickly become insincere, something we do because we are supposed to. But kindness without love is not kindness at all, but rather an imitation, a fake that supposes love for another, but is merely an act.
This is the problem with cultural kindness. I can be nice and tolerate someone while hating them at the same time, and this is what we see in the case of Ellen. Her public persona of kindness turned out to be mere niceness. She played at being kind, but in reality, was unkind, and the fruits of her labor were abuse, division, and hurt. Though cultural kindness puts on the facade of love, at best it a bland tolerance of other people, at worst, it is hatred with a smile.
In contrast, biblical kindness, real kindness, is always rooted in the steadfast and self-sacrificing love of God. He is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works (Ps 145:17), He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness towards his people (Neh 9:17), with everlasting kindness, I will have compassion to you (Is 54:8). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word chesed, which means loving-kindness, is used to describe how God relates to his people. It is also this loving-kindness that he desires from his people in response to his own. As he says in Hos 6:6, For I desire steadfast love (kindness), not sacrifices, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings. God makes it clear that niceness—burnt offerings and sacrifices that go through the motions of devotion without love, do not delight him. Rather, he desires earnest love and knowledge of who He is.
Unlike cultural kindness, chesed captures the steadfast and sacrificial love of God who does not abandon a people who are radically different than he is, who anger him, who test and fail him again and again. True kindness, therefore, must be rooted in this kind of covenantal love that endures at all costs. Our kind God does not merely tolerate us. He does not endure us with distaste. He loves us with a fierce kindness that is more committed to our own well-being than we are.
True kindness is not always agreeable.
Godly kindness is rooted in the covenantal love of God who pursues the flourishing of his creation. But real human flourishing comes when humanity lives in accordance with what we were created for: submission to and obedience of our Creator. Because God’s covenantal love always has the aim of changing a sinful people into a holy nation, godly kindness is not always agreeable.
To be kind in our culture means that we rarely disagree. It has been argued that our culture is rapidly losing its ability to disagree with others and maintain friendship. We live in a nation in which outrage trumps listening and understanding, and disagreement means dismissal. When the January 6 attack on the capital occurred, my Facebook page was flooded with statements saying something along the lines of, “If you don’t condemn what happened today, we are no longer friends.” While the condemnation of the events was valid and the comments were intended to declare their disapproval, they demonstrated how culture responds to disagreement: we cancel.
When cultural kindness meets disagreement or injustice, it responds with cancellation. Cancel culture is cultural kindness’s attempt at justice. Though there is goodness in the desire to make right what has gone wrong, kindness without love leads to justice without love. We are content to settle for dismissal because our kindness was never more than niceness; it was never motivated by wanting to know another or be known, never fierce enough to engage in hard conversations, to call something wrong or work towards restoring a broken person.
Not so for the biblical kindness— God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4). Godly kindness confronts in love so that we might be conformed into his image. Because he loves us and wants us to flourish, God’s steadfast loving-kindness will challenge us, tell us when we are wrong, and change us. This is why the Psalmist says let a righteous man rebuke me, it is a kindness (Ps 141:5). It is in kindness when he corrects, rebukes, and convicts us because he loves us enough to see that we might become mature and complete, lacking in nothing (Jas 1:4) and receiving the our inheritance as his children. The people of God should never be marked by mere agreeableness, but rather embrace the kindness that is not content to allow us to stay in sin, that permits suffering so that we might depend on him more, and that speaks the truth in love (Eph 4:15).
Moreover, where cultural kindness leads to cancel-culture “justice”, godly kindness that is rooted in love leads us to restorative justice through truth-telling, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This is the fruit of the kindness of God and what Paul is getting at when he says, behold, the kindness and severity of God (Rom 11:22). He is not interested in niceness, he is interested in bringing many sons to glory, and in his kindness, he will surely do it.
God’s ultimate kindness in Christ.
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Tit 3:4-7).
In his eternal kindness, the Father sent Christ to extend the ultimate kindness: our salvation. But in Christ he also enables us to be transformed into his likeness through the Spirit who produces godly fruit in our lives like kindness (Gal 5:22). This is the calling that is placed on his followers, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, and meekness (Col 3:12). To clothe ourselves in kindness means that we care about knowing another person rather than being superficial. That we care about their well-being, are willing to endure with them when things get tough, to sacrifice for them, and disagree to speak the truth in love for their sake.
In John 8 a woman is caught in adultery. It was a crime deserving death and he community was ready to stone her. But Jesus showed her kindness. He showed her love and mercy thought they could not have been more different. He didn’t reject or condemn her for her choices or beliefs. He knelt beside her and protected her. He reminded the crowd that they too were sinners. But he also didn’t say that her actions didn’t matter. He called her into repentance and obedience when he said, Go and sin no more (8:11).
May we grow in this kind of godly kindness in a world that desperately needs the kindness of our Savior.
An upsetting thing has happened to me since becoming a mother almost three years ago; an awakening of sorts. Where I once went about my days mostly concerned about my own well-being and the health and safety of those closest to me, I now find myself regularly undone when I see or hear of suffering in another’s life.
It started small, crying during Little Women when Meg said she felt alone, tearing up seeing Facebook posts about kids who were sick, trembling at the thought of something happening to my girls; hearing about suffering caused a surge of gut-wrenching compassion that alarmed me.
As a kid, I confusedly watched my own mother cringe at headlines or say something like, “I just can’t watch that,” when we were choosing movies. What I had once attributed to weakness, some foreign power that made my very strong mother very emotional, was now my reality. At first, I marveled at what felt like a newly torn hole, a whirlpool of compassion that drew in anything that came near, but soon realized that this sensation was here to stay, locked firmly in my life scooping up any passing grief with unrestrained emotion.
When it was said in response to the murder of George Floyd, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd cried out for his momma,” I cried as the puzzle pieces snapped into place. Every mother was summoned because every mother has been awakened to a new depth of mercy coursing through her heart. The sad privilege and sin of only caring for oneself dies when a woman becomes a mother, her life and body now permanently put on guard, ready to go into battle for another, ready to hold and hug and listen and be called into action.
The problem of course is that suffering is everywhere. Suffering from the pandemic and racial injustice, suffering for refugees and persecuted Christians, suffering for my family and friends and yours. I find myself overwhelmed by a compassion I did not necessarily choose or cultivate but was rather thrust upon me like my own twin daughters on my chest when they were born at 3 AM. But what I have largely processed as being burden uncovered by motherhood, newfound compassion is not a loss, it is a gain.
Upon entering motherhood we are swept into a greater mission that goes beyond merely caring for and protecting those who are close to us. We become mothers, allies, and protectors of other’s children young and old, of other mothers, of any who might stir compassion in our widened hearts. Though motherhood is not the only vehicle for growing in compassion—Jesus was never a father and yet is our exemplar of mercy—motherhood takes us out of ourselves in a literal way, asking us to care for another no matter how weak or weary we may be. This ability and depth is terrifying, but it is also a gift.
But embracing this change has not been clean or simple. In my fear of this new mercy, I find myself trying to hide or simply look away in a sad effort to feel less. I want to evade the swell of pity and sorrow that rises, desperately trying to unbear this burden or allowing it to drive me away from compassion into worry and anxiety. A fire of mercy had been stoked, but I am only and desperately trying to extinguish it. To feel compassion unrestricted is to feel too much. For many, motherhood may not be the primary place that the Lord chooses to widen your heart in compassion, but if you find yourself undone like me, take heart. We can and must learn to wield and embrace mercy as part of our identity rather than hide from it.
Compassion as discipleship
Compassion is a gift that is designed to reshape our lives and bodies to care not merely for our children whom we love, but for all children of God. It is a gift from a merciful savior who is committed to transforming us into His likeness and His likeness is deeply merciful. He is “the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort who comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction (2 Cor 1:3-4). It is His will for us to care for the widow and the orphan (Jas 1:27), to give generously of ourselves and our time in the exact same way that He did.
Mercy, therefore, becomes one of the most important paths of discipleship that we can tread because it takes us into the heart of Christ and out of our concern solely for ourselves. We must be willing to shake off the temptations to hide from compassion or look away so that we might learn what our God has ordained for us in motherhood: a heart that is rich in mercy and willing to comfort those who suffer.
A fire of mercy had been stoked, but I am only and desperately trying to extinguish it. To feel compassion unrestricted is to feel too much.
A mothering God
Growing in compassion through motherhood is no accident or hormonal adjustment, it is woven into God’s perfect design, written into our hearts before we knew it was there so that we might one day more deeply understand the height and depth and breadth of God’s love and compassion for us. In grief over his lost children, Jesus said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matt 23:37). Merciful Jesus longed to care for his people like a mother hen, drawing His people to Himself to provide for and protect them as a mother does.
But the power of a mother’s mercy is not only found in the tenderness of Christ, we see it in the enduring compassion of the Father when he too expresses his love for his children by saying, Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (Is 49:15). And Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river…and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem (Is 66:12-13). In our Father’s steadfastness, he compares himself to a mother who nurtures her children, carrying them close, feeding and comforting them.
God chooses to talk of the depth of his compassion in terms of motherhood because motherhood is uniquely powerful. In His perfect and inspired Word, our God holds motherhood in such high regard that He expresses His own commitment and devotion to His people in terms of it. If our Father chooses to widen our hearts through motherhood it is so that we more fully understand His—one that longs for His children’s flourishing and would do anything to see make them know His love.
The courage to follow
Growing in mercy will grow us in godliness because Jesus is mercy at His core, breathing and bleeding compassion, bearing the weight of a broken world to the point of death so that we don’t have to hide in fear from it. We must be brave and humble, willing to feel the pain of our brothers and sisters, to bear the burdens of others, to weep with those who weep, and follow merciful Jesus to the end. The Jesus who touched our sores and wiped our tears bore it all not so I could hide from a compassion like His but so that I could receive it myself, coming alongside Him in his work as one willing to face suffering with the hope of knowing that the worst we encounter here will be redeemed to the fullest one day.
Christ the merciful and compassionate showed me mercy so that my heart might break like his, not to protect me from feeling broken. I may fight the swell of compassion because it feels like weakness, but in Christ, our mercy is our greatest strength. He plants compassion in our hearts to rehumanize and reawaken us to His Kingdom coming. The choice we make is not whether to feel, it is whether to hope that the resurrection is true and real and tangible today, putting in its place our suffering as a light and momentary affliction, a signpost that we are not yet home, but we are growing as we walk this path of motherhood.
Before the pandemic, I would anticipate coming home from work, changing into comfy clothes, and resting, knowing that my day was done. Home and rest have always been connected. Until now.
My rhythm of work and rest has been shattered. Although I’m home all day, I find myself exhausted and restless, wanting to find rest but not knowing how. It turns out that home itself is not the source of rest. Home isn’t even a specific place.
In his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K. A. Smith examines all of life through the lens of travelers pursuing a home. The non-Christian travels looking for home—desiring to belong, to find meaning and rest, but being disappointed by every place that promises this home-ness.
The Christian, on the other hand, knows where her home is. Christians know that their home is not a place, a job, a relationship, or money, but their home is in God. The Christian places her hope in someday arriving at her ultimate home in his presence while finding a home for today through union with Christ.
But perhaps more important than knowing where home is, the Christian is able to find rest—rest for her soul in the midst of the journey that will enable her to keep on traveling.