Developing Holy Habits, Even When it Hurts

by Susannah Baker

In case you missed it last week, I wrote about cultivating holy habits of grace into the fields of our hearts for this new year.  My wonderful, talented, creative friend Emily Hodges put together this guide to help us in taking some time to cultivate our habits, and I liked it so much, I wanted to share it with you here.  It’s easy to download, print out, and take with you to a quiet space to do some listening, walking, and talking with God:

If you were able to take some time to walk through Isaiah 5:1-4, asking God to show you the areas of your heart that remain uncultivated and untouched by His grace, like me, you may have been surprised by some of the answers you received.

As I listened to His Voice and the voices of those around me who know me and love me, I knew that some of the areas in my life that were in need of some major weed-wacking were areas of stress, anger, and control.  To put it plainly, I have a tendency to major in the minors and nitpick and control the details of my life and those around me when I am stressed, responding in anger when circumstances don’t unfold smoothly or people don’t perform perfectly.  This sign I saw in a store in Brenham, Texas, pretty much sums me up:

And since adding a fourth child to our home and homeschooling my three oldest girls while still working on bonding and attaching to a toddler means I have the capacity to be in a constant state of stress, anxiety, and anger unless I am actively choosing grace on a day in and day out basis.  “Smooth” just isn’t a daily word choice in our vocabulary and “perfection” has never been a possibility.  Yet for some reason, in my natural, sinful habitat, I continue to look for it and demand it first in myself and then in others.

Sometimes I am good at choosing grace (notice I said good, not great), and sometimes I am not so good.  I am downright bad, actually.  And throw in the fact that in February, we are getting ready to move everything out of our house into temporary housing or storage while we undertake a major remodel, while taking a week right before our move to attend a board retreat in Israel that has been on the calendar for months (more to come on that later), I have been doing a pretty poor job on managing my stress.  In fact, last week, I think my internal stress-o-meter was measuring about a 10 on the Richter scale while scheduling and managing Israel dates, moving dates, and make up homeschool dates.

So God did something to get my attention.  On Friday morning, I woke up with swollen lips, eyes, and puffy cheeks, feeling like I had received a numbing shot FOR MY FACE at the dentist’s office.  Not one to be deterred by minor details like a face that looked like Miss Piggy’s from The Muppets, I determined it was hives brought on by my stressful response to the week, so I took some benadryl and carried on in business as usual with my day, exercising, taking the girls to the Museum of Fine Arts to meet my aunt, eat lunch and see an exhibit, all the while feeling worse and worse.

By 3:00, my face was still partially swollen, my lips drooping, and benadryl was not helping anymore.  My husband, Jason called me on the phone and said, “You need to go to Urgent Care.  Now.”  So I did.

And what I discovered is I had developed an abscess in my nasal cavity that had turned into a staph infection, causing all of the swelling around my face.

It took two days of two different doctors, an IV of antibiotics, two rounds of oral antibiotics, and four long needles stuck through my lip and nose to drain the infection to get the swelling down and the infection reduced.

Needless to say, my calendar was quickly cleared, and all of my focus and attention the past few days was placed onto obtaining the steps necessary to get the infection out and the antibiotics in.  My focus went from hosting kid sleep-overs and watching basketball games to battling full-blown infection.

In the meantime, all week, I had preparing to teach in our Sunday School class on II Samuel 12, the classic passage where the prophet Nathan confronts David about his sins of murder and adultery.  I had been carefully examining the elements of confrontation, confession, and repentance, looking at how David appropriated grace, all the while missing the grace that was sorely needed in my own life.  I listened to a sermon on II Samuel 12 by Tim Keller called “The Sinner,” and his words about Nathan struck me, even before my infection reared its ugly head.

Keller says, “God has sent Nathan not to do condemning but to do converting.  God does not send a sword to smite David but a scalpel to take out the tumor.  In other words, God is calling David to repentance…repentance is his only hope now, the only way that is possible for him to put his life back together again.  So what is repentance?  Repentance is killing the habits of your heart that are killing you without killing yourself.

I will tell you something: as Regina, the very kind and talented ENT surgeon who took time out of her Saturday to meet me at her office and stick needles up my lip and nose, said, “I’m a very nice person, but you’re not going to like me very much when I do this to you.  Even if I numb the area, it will still hurt when the needle touches the infection because infections don’t numb well; they hurt.”

As I sat in that chair with my heart racing and my palms sweating, all I could think of was Nathan and David.  And the prayer that rose up from heart and my sweat-soaked shirt was, “Lord, whatever You are trying to tell me, I AM LISTENING.  I don’t ever want to have to repeat this lesson again.”  I was tempted to bolt out of the chair and run out of the office as fast as my legs could carry me, never to return, but what was my alternative?  To let the infection sit in my face, close to my brain, just hoping on a wing and a prayer that it would disappear if left alone?  Not a chance.  My only option was to go under the surgeon’s scalpel and let her get the sickness out.  I had to let her kill the infection in my face so that it lost its potential to kill me.

My friend, the reality is, the staff infection inside my face is less lethal than the sin infection inside my heart.  And the time and rest and energy required to get the physical infection out should be but a small indicator of the time, energy and rest required to allow God to remove the infectious disease of stress, anxiety, worry, fear, anger, and control.  Will it hurt?  Yes.  Will it be a major inconvenience?  Yes.  But what’s my other option?  A slow, infectious death from the wild weeds of sin in my heart?  No thank you.

As I have thought and prayed this weekend, I have come to realize that I have let my view of myself grow bigger than my view of God.  My self dominates and towers in my world as it wrestles to manage, control, and nitpick to perfection circumstances and people around me.  I have relegated God to the corner, minimizing His capabilities, His strength, His all-knowing control, His mercy for my mistakes, His grace for my moments, and His wisdom for my day.  My self has pushed Him out of the way, and full blown infection has ensued.

I spent Sunday morning praying that the eyes of my heart would be enlightened to know and believe the all-sufficient character and power of Jesus.  That He is not sometimes enough.  He is always enough.  For all situations on any sort of day.

My prayer and challenge to you today is to walk with your eyes wide open.  If you ask God to remove the unholy habits of your heart and replace them with His grace, don’t expect Him to show up at your door with a picnic basket in hand.  He comes with a scalpel.  To dig out with urgent attention and care the infections that are killing us, and to send us home with the orders to rest in His care, rest in His word, and take the daily medicine He prescribes of habitual repentance and the receiving of healing grace.

Have you taken the time to ask the Lord to clean out the weeds in your heart this year?  And if so, how has He responded?  Are you listening to His messages and messengers of grace, even if they are causing pain and discomfort?  If you haven’t taken time to get serious about your relationship with God, the state of your soul, and the fields He wants to clear this year, don’t delay any longer. In His Hand is the only place where true healing comes.

For further encouragement this week, connect with me on Facebook.  And to continue working on holy habits of the heart, creating space for God to speak, heal, and move, consider working through the study, Waiting on the Lord, asking God to transform the broken places in your life into the beautiful.