What’s the true litmus test of our faith, the indicator of what we are really like on the inside instead of what we pretend to be?
I found out in a hurry recently.
I walked up to an event recently, and someone I was not expecting to be there was there. And I made something on my face that looked like a grimace. A grimace that I was not expecting to make but that just came out. A grimace that a good friend caught and just got quiet about. A grimace that exposed what I really thought instead of what I tell others I think on a daily basis.
The friend who caught my grimace is more than just a friend – she is a mentor and someone who walks ahead of me in the faith. So in one way it was good that she caught my look, and in another way, it was not so good.
It was not so good because it was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to be caught doing something I never should have done.
But more than being bad, it was good. It was good to caught in behavior that I should have never done. Because then I could be held accountable to change.
My friend and I had a long talk the next morning. We talked long about how hard it is to love this person, a person that has legitimately done wrong and created hurt – hurt feelings and a hurt heart. We talked about how when I see this person, what automatically comes up in my heart is akin to bitter acid, acid that I can choose to act on, like I did with my grimace and refusal to engage with this person for the rest of the evening, or acid that I can choose to douse with the forgiveness and grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness I am commanded to give and grace I am commanded to extend. Not because Jesus is a sadistic master, commanding us to engage in activities that will hurt us, but because He is the kindest of masters, commanding us to engage in activities that will heal us, dissipate the bitterness, and unlock us from the prisons of pain and anger and justifying bad behavior we lock ourselves in sometimes for years, decades, or even whole seasons of our life.
My friend ended our conversation by praying over me, asking for God to do in me what I could never do in myself, and texted me this verse from Hosea the following morning (you know it’s a friend who loves Jesus and is ahead of you in the faith when she sends you a verse from Hosea):
“Sow for yourselves righteousness;
reap steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground,
for it is the time to seek the Lord,
that He may come and rain righteousness upon you.” Hosea 10:12
As I thought on that verse and how it applied to my specific situation, I began to see that I wake up each and every morning with two huge bags of seed slung around my waist: one bag contains seeds of righteousness – seeds of righteousness given to me from the Spirit of God with fruit inside like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. And the other bag contains seeds of unrighteousness available to me through my flesh and demonic forces of evil with fruit inside like bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, outbursts of anger, disputes, factions, idolatry, coveting, immorality, greed, and arrogance. And every day, all day, with every word I speak, with every action I perform, I reach into one of those two bags and sow a handful of seeds.
And most of the time, I find I am sowing seeds unaware. Unaware of what bag I am reaching into, unaware of what kind of seed is leaving my lips or my hands, until someone like my friend…or my husband…or my child…catches me in the act. And the weeds that have grown because of my seed-sowing all of a sudden become evident, and people that I love the most in life walk away hurt. Rebuffed. Saddened. Bruised.
The true litmus test out of which bag of seed we are sowing most consistently is not how we talk to and treat our friends and the people in our lives who like us the most. The true litmus test is how we talk to, meet, greet, and welcome the people in our lives who like us the least. The people who slight us. The friends who hurt us. The enemies who hate us. It is when you see them, cross paths with her, sit down unexpectedly across a table with him, whoever he may be, that will tell you which bag of seed your hand and your heart automatically goes. And it will tell you what kind of field you are going to one day reap.
So stop right now, and think. Think about the last time you saw someone you like the least. Into what bag of seed did your hand automatically go? And is there anything you need to repent of? Any field of weeds you need to pull up through letting the Word of God do its good and deadly work in you? Any acidic bitterness of unforgiveness you need to repent of and release?
By doing so, you will begin, perhaps for the very first time in a long time, to reach into the bag of righteous seed hung around your waist and sow seeds that will yield a field of fruit, a garden of beauty, or an orchard of trees, instead of a field of useless weeds and cursed thorns.
You won’t always feel like reaching into the bag of seed of righteousness. Trust me. I seldom do. But feelings have a tendency to follow faith, faith that when we fling seeds of hope, and grace, and love, despite hurt, or wounded pride, or despair, we will eventually reap…love.
Happy Thanksgiving this week! And happy sowing! Know how thankful I am for each of you who take the time to journey with me each week through all of my imperfections into the fields of God’s covering love and grace.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about needing God to clean up the many messes I make (click here to read), and it seemed to strike a chord in many people from the responses I received through texts, emails, and even in passing.
It was refreshing, really, to know that I wasn’t alone and that other people struggle with making messes and needing God to clean them up as much as I do.
And it was telling. It was telling to the degree that although so many of us live such pretty, spotless lives from the outside looking in, we all feel so messy from the inside looking out.
We live in pretty neighborhoods and drive down pretty streets on our way to work or school. We shop from pretty grocery stores stocked full of pretty foods and sit down at pretty tables laden with pretty linens, pretty dishes, served to pretty people. We buy and wear pretty clothes and have ample margin and leisure time to do pretty things or take pretty vacations with our friends or family.
And I’m not saying that any of this is right or wrong – I’m just making an observation about the circumstances and surroundings of many of our lives on a daily basis.
So here’s my question: why, then, if things around me are always so pretty on the outside, do I not feel more pretty on the inside? Why, then, are there seasons that I wake up every morning keenly aware of the feelings of dread and disgrace from the full-blown messiness within that I know no amount of performance, perfection, or repentance can remedy? A messiness that comes from my responses, reactions, and attempts at managing and hustling through the events of my day, trying to keep them looking “pretty,” while feeling frayed, frazzled, and failing from the inside out?
I think it’s because no matter how hard we try to look “pretty” on the outside, we are keenly aware of the broken, tired, spent, messes we are on the inside, no matter how controlled our outside circumstances might be. Especially this time of year. The time of year that represents the holiday time of year. The time of year when “pretty” is supposed to edge out “messiness” on a perpetual basis and define every gift that you give, every event that you attend, every piece of clothing that you wear, and every card that you send.
About a week ago, on a day that I woke up with a heavy sense of dread and an awareness of my inability to maintain prettiness throughout the day ahead with all that was on my plate, I opened up my Bible to Psalm 119 and read this: “Take away the disgrace I dread, for Your laws are good. How I long for Your precepts! In Your righteousness, preserve my life” (Psalm 119:39-40).
And then I read this in the devotional book by Tim Keller entitled The Songs of Jesus: “Christians know that the old self struggles constantly with a sense of the disgrace it dreads (v. 39), a feeling we aren’t good enough. That is a true intuition! But your moral efforts won’t address it. Only in Christ is the disgrace removed and a whole new identity given (Romans 8:1; Hebrews 10:22). Every day is a battle – will you operate out of your old self or your new self?” (Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus, November 5th).
I cannot describe to you the relief I felt when I read both the psalmist’s admission and Keller’s words. It was a feeling of, “What?! You too?! You too struggle constantly with a sense of dread over the disgrace and failure you know you are on the inside? You mean, this is a human problem, and not a Susannah Baker problem?”
It was a feeling of knowing and deeply realizing I was not alone. My condition was not abnormal. And rather than pushing me into isolation, my sense of dread could push me into community, a community who is longing, just as I am, for dread to be erased and messiness to be cleaned up, no matter how frayed and fragile we feel.
I spent time peering further into the verses, looking for the remedy and the antidote to my disgrace, the medicine to heal my dread. And this is what I found: the Hebrew word for “laws” in verse 39 is mishpat, a word that actually means “justice” or “verdict.” So the literal reading of verse 39 is this: “Take away the disgrace I dread, for Your verdict is good.”
The medicinal power God’s Word applied to my heart that morning, and many mornings since then, is that no matter what I feel, no matter the disgrace I dread, God’s verdict over me is good.
Because according to my track record, I deserve disgrace. According to my long list of failures as a wife who is irritable, sharp-toned, and demanding, as a mom who never has enough patience, or empathy, and has to apologize daily for letting exacting perfection get in the way of presence and peace, as a daughter and sister who still slips into patterns of self-pity and wounded withdrawal, patterns of self-protection left over from junior high days, and as a friend who struggles with remaining present to everyday needs and concerns instead of numbing and proving myself through work, I deserve to feel dread. Dread of the verdict over me that has every right to be – FAILURE. Broken. Sinful. Not enough.
But, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I get grace.
The verdict over me is grace. And because of that grace, I get healing for my wounds of fear and self-protection. Balm for my irritability and ungratefulness. Patience for my impatience. Second chances for my repeated stumblings. And restorative thankfulness and significance as the adopted daughter of God instead of the disgrace I dread.
How do I know this? It’s all wrapped up in the verdict of God found in the Word of God, a Word I have access to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is His Word that heals me and cleans up my messes on a morning-by-morning basis. It is His Word that lifts my face out of the failures I have made, out of the frayedness I feel, and reminds me it is God who gets to have the last say in making me whole, not my messes.
I can choose to listen to the dread. A dread I deserve and a disgrace that every human being shares right along with me. Or I can choose to listen to the Word of God that proclaims, every day, my healing, covers all of my wounds, and fixes all of my failures, making me and those around me better than new.
So the real question is not, “Why do I feel disgrace? So ugly on the inside when everything is pretty on the outside?” The real question is, “To what verdict am I going to listen? To which voice am I going to respond? The voice of dread? The feelings of inherent shame? Or the redefining, grace-giving, mercy delivering, failure-covering voice of God?”
So if you see me this week, at the pretty grocery store, or on a pretty street, or in conversation at a pretty table, let us remind one another: “No matter the mess you and I feel within, God’s verdict over us is grace, our mess ups are covered, and His Word testifies to His faithful, covenantal love no matter what we have done. Be at rest, O my soul.”