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Faith vs. Fear January 24, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Change, Faith Journey, Fears, Promises, Trust.
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I’ve been listening to some old sermons from the church I used to go to (and still would if it weren’t much to long of a drive). It’s a nice way to start the day with my morning bike commute, and the pastor there is a truly gifted speaker. I haven’t been there in the past three years, so I have plenty of sermons to keep me occupied. The ones I’ve been listening to lately seem to have a very apt theme for my life (and no, I didn’t know what they were about when I downloaded them!) They all seem to be about change, upheaval, stepping out on faith, following God even when it seems crazy, depending on God even in our darkest and most frightening times.

We are now at the 15 week mark from our proposed departure and frankly, I am terrified. I question if this is the right thing to do, if we’re being stupid and reckless. I wonder if I’m being ungrateful by throwing away the good job and health benefits God has provided me with, by leaving all the friends and the support network he’s given us. I fret over how there always seems to be less money than I thought there would be, and worry about how will I ever get a job, or without one, how we will find an apartment with 3 cats and only so-so credit.

In fact, I am currently in a state of panic so acute that it drives out nearly every other thought in my head. It paralyzes me and tries to prevent me from doing nearly everything that I need to do in order to prepare for this transition, including write and look for a job. It’s hard to overcome, but the words I’ve been hearing on my ipod every morning have been a great help to me in combating it.

Three things I’ve learned from my recent sermon-listening that really came home to me in this time of fear and worry:

1) Fear and faith are two sides of the same coin. They both involve believing in things that haven’t happened yet. But fear means you’ve let your mind assume the worst will happen and that God won’t save, while stepping out on faith means that you are believing that God will come through just as he promised. So why do you think the fear option is more likely to come true than the faith option?

2: If you are facing opposition, either mental or physical, then you are probably on the right track. I think about stepping out on faith and I hear whispers telling me I’m being ungrateful, foolish, wasteful. I hear that no one will want to hire me, ever, and that I’m making a huge mistake. I should stay where I am and be grateful for what I have. Don’t rock the boat, make a fuss, or try to chase silly dreams. But I don’t think those whispers are from God.

You see, my fear and uncertainty has forced me to turn to God in a way that never would have happened if I were just continuing on with my life and my soul-crushing job. In fact, I probably would have continued to drift further away from him. The enemy knows this. The last thing he wants is for me to put my life on the line and to turn to God whenever I feel fear and uncertainty. He would much rather have me stay where I am.

3: He will be with me, wherever I go. Scripture records at least 46 references to God, Jesus, his Spirit, or his grace being with his people. I don’t think it matters as much where I go, but rather that I have God with me. He has always provided for me exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it, in such a way that I knew that it was credit to him and not through my own work. And the times when I have been closest to him have been the times when I was closest to the edge.

It’s hard to get past the fear, and even harder not to give credit to the whispers telling me I’ve misjudged everything. But I know in my heart that God is the one leading me. That may not end up looking like what I think it will look like, or even put me where I think I’m headed, but I know he’s leading me and the more fear I feel the closer it will drive me to him.

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Plans and Schemes December 27, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Attitude, Fears, Peace, Worry.
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There’s nothing like spending time with your family to drive home the ways in which you are (and sometimes aren’t) like them. My parents were here for a week over Christmas, which can be stressful for everyone since our apartment was not really designed to accommodate 4 adults, 5 cats, 1 dog, and an over-large Christmas tree. Still, I think we all handled it relatively well. Despite some nerve-getting-on by various parties and a few spirited debates over things such as whether the government is actually hiding aliens from the American people, a pleasant holiday was had by all. I think.

Of course, the things that irritate you the most about your family are often the traits that you yourself have and don’t particularly like. In my case I was unreasonably frustrated with my father’s incessant scheming and planning throughout the whole trip. He was constantly trying to find the best deal, save the most money, make the best plan to get home in the face of various possible weather scenarios, and plan their summer trip for his maximum advantage. Every time some new bit of information about the impending winter storm, the price of butter at a particular store, or the predicated cost of gas in Texas next June he would recalculate all his plans, including multiple contingency plans in case this or that factor changed.

It drove me up. the. wall. Of course, I do exactly the same thing. I am just as obsessive, just as nervous and probably just as irritating when I get it in to my head that I’m going to do something that requires advance preparation. I make endless lists, itineraries, and back-up plans. I get quotes on costs, reviews, and gather vast amounts of data on whatever it is I want to do, whether it’s buy a new toaster, take a vacation, or plan our weekend get-together. Sometimes this a good trait (I’m great at safety preparedness), but often I take it too far and waste more time than Isave by obsessing over what could go wrong or whether I’m getting the best deal or if something better might be out there. When I’m indecisive it’s often because I’m terrified of not making the most out of my time, money, energy by choosing the second-best thing. Of course at some point this wastes time, energy, money on its own and shows a complete lack of trust in God’s provision.

Right now I have a lot to obsess and worry over. In the next 4-5 months my husband and I are planning on quitting our jobs and moving across the country to a strange city where we know virtually no one. We are doing this without any assurance of future employment, income, or health insurance. And all the apartment research, job hunting, moving quotes, and lists of best neighborhoods and hottest careers in the area will not actually prevent this from being an unmitigated disaster.

We are moving because we truly believe that this is where we are being called, where we belong. It will give both of us more opportunities to follow the dreams God has given us, and to live on less money while doing so. But we could very easily fall flat on our faces while attempting it. We could be vastly misinterpreting what God is telling us. Or he may prevent us from moving entirely, showing us a completely different plan for our lives that may involve us staying put. Or he may send us somewhere we never expected.

But if I allow myself to fixate on planning to the extent that it becomes an obsession, then I will not hear his voice if he tells me we’re on the wrong track, or that he has something better for me than I have dreamed for myself. Yes, if we are going to move I do need to make some plans, look for a job, look for an apartment, save up the money. But I also need to accept that the only way it is going to happen is through his grace and provision. And that even though we feel very certain about this, he may still tell us no.


Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.
Proverbs 19:21

This is one of those verses that I’ve probably read (or skimmed past) 100 times and yet never actually saw before. I find it amazingly comforting today. It frees me from that burden of making everything happen, of achieving all my own plans and dreams and schemes. It’s fine that I have things that I want, and that I want to work towards them. But ultimately, God’s plan will be fulfilled whether I go with it or fight it. If God truly want us to pick up our lives and make a new start, then he will provide exactly what we need to do that, just as he has in the past so many times before. But if he has another future for us, all my scheming in that direction won’t get us anywhere. The only thing struggling against his plan for my life will accomplish is to make the journey longer and more painful than it needs to be. My only job is to not hold on so tightly to my own dreams that I cannot hear him whisper his own, far superior dreams to me.

On Consistency and Change July 19, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Faith Journey, Fears, Heart Condition, Lies, Lifescripts, Peace, Struggles.
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Consistency. As evidenced by the fact that this blog has not been updated in more than a month, I am not a terribly consistent person. Oh, I know a lot of people have trouble keeping up blogs. But my inconsistency extends to every area of my life. I seem incapable of being on a regular schedule for more than four days a row of anything. Eating well, exercising, keeping the house clean, going to bed at a certain time, reading the Bible, keeping up with friends, staying on top of work. I can’t even manage to drink my cup of tea every morning.

Trying harder doesn’t work. Resolutions seem to have the opposite effect on me – as soon as I’ve made one my mind instantly starts looking for reasons to break it. I’ve tried schedules, promises, accountability, even just letting go and seeing if things will happen naturally. They don’t, I just waste my time with frivolous things that don’t even entertain much. And on the days when I manage to get it together to actually do things the way I have hoped, something invariably throws a wrench in the process. This morning I managed to haul myself out of bed early, pack a lunch and clothes, put on my workout gear, and hop on the bike to head to work – only to discover a flat front tire. And of course then my mind goes, “Well, I guess I’m not biking this week either.”

I am a self-sabotaging machine. My powers of procrastination and rationalization know no bounds. Not to mention my amazing ability to second-guess myself. Worries about what I should have done in a particular scenario often derail any plans I have to be productive for the rest of the day. My fear of failure often prevents me from trying to do things I want in the first place, and my insecurity takes care of the rest if I do manage to start on something.

I write this not in an attempt to make anyone feel sorry for me, but because I need to be realistic about who I am, and who I have been. I have bought deeply into the lie that if I can just get on a schedule, if I can just complete the to-do list, follow the plan, keep the resolutions, or eat a balanced breakfast then my life will suddenly be okay. If I have the right workout clothes then I will run five miles everyday (never mind that 2 miles is my limit on a good day). If I lose some weight then I will not be depressed and have the energy to look for a better job. If I find a better job I can move away from here and everything will be better and none of my problems will follow me – I’ll be a new person.

And of course these lies are so effective because they are partially true. I will have more energy and feel healthier with exercise, sleep, and a good diet. New Jersey is not a very nice place to live and I probably would feel better elsewhere. Completing the to-do list is pretty satisfying, and losing weight is a total ego boost.

But despite the miraculous power of a good night’s sleep and a balanced breakfast, none of this will truly make me different or better or even fundamentally happier. I will still be the same person with many of the same problems, even if their outward manifestations change or go underground for awhile. And the harder I try to change before my ultimate failure the worse I feel about myself when it inevitably happens. This all combines in a perfect storm to paralyze me in all possible ways. No spiritual growth because I’m too busy striving on my own. None of the personal or household projects I start get completed. I skate by at work due mainly to the facts that there are a lot of people lazier than I am and that I know what my boss likes to to hear. Looking for a new job falls by the wayside. I become ineffective in nearly every way, and even the days where I manage to feel productive, it usually is more of working just to not fall further behind as opposed to any real progress.

Of course I know I cannot change myself. Only God can change me. I would never dare to say that I am in control of my life, that I can save myself from this hole I am in. And yet my actions say differently. My true beliefs are evident in the way I live my life. I strive and plan and hope and try and fail. I give lip-service to God, but I don’t let him into my life in a way that would let him do any actual damage. In fact, outward appearances indicate that I neither trust God with my life nor have any real desire to leave my cozy little rut.

Two things have happened recently that have made me think about this. One is that my growing dissatisfaction with life is reaching a breaking point where I am so desperate for a change that I am willing to try anything, even letting go of my control. And the other is recently witnessing the consequences in a life when too much control is held on to and not enough room is left for God to speak or move. If we don’t give him room to work in our lives, he will make the room himself and that may be much a more difficult way to learn the lesson for all concerned.

So what I can do? I can swear to read 5 chapters of the Bible a day. Buy several Christian books on having a closer relationship with God. Institute a series of rules for myself to keep me from trying to run my life too closely. Set a firm 1 hour quiet time and journal at least 8 pages a night. Of course, that is exactly what I always do. Not only is that counter to what I am trying to accomplish (the idea that I can control my spiritual growth through willpower is laughable), but it won’t work. I’ll do it for a day or two, I’ll have a bad day and decide I don’t feel like it, and then it won’t happen again. And then I’ll feel like a failure again.

I think the real answer has been spoken to me three times this week – once I even said it myself. I have been dealing with some of my issues with being part of the evangelical church and debating whether to get involved in a particular ministry. I told the leader that I need to wait and “be still” for awhile. I said it almost flippantly, as a way to avoid voicing my real concerns. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. A dear friend who knows my struggles asked me if I could put aside all my fears and worries and disagreements with the church and just come and be still in the presence of God. And then the pastor, when addressing the serving teams before the service said, apropos of nothing else in the sermon, that the verse he had for us today was “Be still and know that He is God”. I did an actual double-take when he said that.

I am remarkably bad at being still. Oh, I can laze around with the best of them but I am rarely “still”. Stillness is a frame of mind which I do not possess very often. I read, put on TV or music, talk to a friend online. Anything to distract myself from the thoughts in my own head. If I am praying it is for something specific and I don’t leave any time to listen to the answers or anything else that might be said to me. I am the queen of distraction. Thanks to the internet, my own ADD nature, and a habit of avoidance, I have developed an attention span of approximately 12 seconds at the best of times.

So if there is one thing I need to do, it is that. Just to be still. To be quiet. To pray for the ability to be still and quiet because I cannot even do that on my own. Because I don’t have any more ideas on how to make my life better. I cannot resolve my own questions about the church and my place in it. I cannot figure out on my own what God wants from me. There is not a single thing I can I do to change myself other than to stop all of the trying and be still. And I know I don’t even have the power to do that on my own right now.

Taking the Bible seriously – but not necessarily literally. June 15, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Education, Fears, Grace, Heresy, History, Love, Questions, The Bible, Truth.
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I have issues with the Bible. There, I said it. And not just little issues, but big, fat, hairy issues with warts, which sometimes leave me wondering where I actually fit within Christianity. The Bible is a dangerous book. It has the power to bring people to freedom and wholeness in Christ or to completely drive them away. Literal readings of the Bible have led to everything from labeling the idea that earth is not at the center of the universe and Newton’s basic laws of motion as heresy, to the justification for slavery/racism and the oppression of women, to the horrors of the Crusades and the persecution of the Jews. And while we’ve moved past much of that, the same type of literal interpretation is still used today in many mainstream churches to keep women out of pastoral leadership and to condemn homosexuality. I think there is nothing more perilous than a strict, literal, and un-informed reading of the Bible (in fact, while I’m no gnostic, a small part of me wishes sincerely that no one was allowed near the rest of the Bible until they had read all of the words of Christ and burned them into their hearts).

This kind of thinking is a particular problem when you were raised to believe not just that the Bible is the word of God, but that it is the inerrant, infallible Word of God meant to be taken 100% literally (even the stuff that seems to contradict the other stuff), handed down without change through the centuries and that the words mean the exact same thing to an American living in the 21st century as they did to an Israelite wandering in the desert in 1000 BC or a Greek convert in 70 AD. And of course nothing was ever mistranslated or misunderstood, at least not by us. Maybe by some of those other denominations. And well, okay, previous generations got it wrong about some things. But we have it totally right.

Unfortunately I don’t buy it. Even more unfortunately, since I was raised to believe if you didn’t buy it then you weren’t really a Christian and were probably going to hell, every time I start to think like that I feel really, really uncomfortable. As though if I dare whisper that thought to any Christian that I know I will be, if not summarily cast out of the church, then at least given a stern talking to and not allowed to be left alone with the children.

The problem is the Bible was compiled from many documents and sources, written and copied and re-written by many people, over a span of more than a thousand years. Many of the authors were writing about events which took place centuries before they were born, and were relying on oral histories and other records as their source material. The Bible was then compiled over many more decades (in fact is wasn’t until several hundred years after the birth of Christ that the Bible as a document existed in anything like its present form and Christian denominations today still disagree about which books should be included).

These various documents that make up the book we call the Bible all have different purposes and functions. Some are oral histories passed down from time immemorial (and often bear a striking resemblance to the mythology of other nearby cultures) until they were eventually written down and some are basic histories of the Jewish nation. Some are laws given to a specific people at a specific time and some are over-arching principles for God’s people. There are letters, there is parable, there is prophecy, there is allegory, there is poetry, and there is advice.

And frankly there are things that are just downright disturbing. There is a lot of violence, rape, murder, revenge, theft, and worse – many times not condemned in the way that we would condemn those actions today. Some are even apparently ordered by God (with a seeming complete disregard for any people other than His chosen ones), a God who at times seems frighteningly different than Christ in the gospels or the God in the New Testament that Paul and John write of so tenderly.

And yet we tend to treat the Bible as all the same – all equally factual, equally applicable, equally relevant to everything in our modern world. Even though there is no evidence at all that this is how God meant for the Bible to be read. We pick and choose verses from history and poem, from prophecy and epistle helter-skelter and apply them to our lives and to others, often without regard to even the context of the rest of the chapter, much less the cultural and historical context, the type of book it is found in, or who the words were originally addressing. And yet parts of the Bible are so vastly different from each other it is sometimes hard to believe they could possibly belong in the same volume.

In fact the only thread that seems to truly connect all the disparate elements of the Bible is Christ. Whatever else the purpose, every part of it serves a function to point to Him. The Old Testament recounts the history of the human race as a whole, the origin and history the Jewish nation Christ came from, the stories of the members of His genealogy, the reasons His coming was needed, the ways in which this coming was prefigured, and the relationship of man with God before He came. The Gospels recount His time on Earth, what He said and did. And the rest of the New Testament is our attempt to figure out how we should live in light of his coming and what will happen when He comes again.

Christ is at the center of it. Without Christ the Bible has no purpose and no meaning, and there is no way to make sense of it  without Him. The Bible as a whole may contain the words of God, but Jesus is the Word of God. That is made very clear; He is the Word of God made flesh and made whole. And Jesus says that if we know Him, then we know the Father. Therefore any teaching in the Bible that does not make sense in light of Christ, His actions and his words, is not something we should be following – either it is not meant for us to take as a rule, or it has been mistranslated/misinterpreted, or we do not have the tools to fully understand the original meaning.

But then how to we know what is what? This is where study comes in. Now I am not saying at all that one can’t sit down and read the Bible in English in the present day and get the basic message of God’s love and salvation out of it. I am simply saying that in order to fully grasp the significance and proper meaning of many parts of it, knowledge of the prevailing culture, the history of the people it is addressed to, the original language, and the intent of the writer is vital.

For those just beginning, start with the words, actions, and attitudes of Christ and be aware that anything that seems to contradict these may require further investigation. Because the danger comes when a person reads a verse that may or may not be meant to apply to us after the coming of Christ or may or may not be translated in a way that preserves the original meaning and uses it as a basis for action or legalism while disregarding completely whether this literalistic interpretation makes sense in light of Jesus’ ministry or commands. That has happened all too often in the past and continues to happen today, many times with tragic results.

Many people do not like this idea, they feel that we should be able to crack open our NIVs, read straight through, and understand everything. I get that. The idea that some knowledge is reserved for special people is something that goes against the very fabric of Christianity and has been rejected since its inception. And in fact, the essential Gospel itself is easy to understand, applicable and relevant to anyone, anywhere, at any time. But the Bible as a whole is a deeply complex and varied book. Different parts are directed to different people groups at different times, and thus have different bearings upon us today.

I am also not saying only certain people are privileged to have this knowledge and I certainly don’t think that proficiency in ancient Jewish culture or the Hebrew language is required either for salvation, acceptance, or communion with God. But if you want to understand and properly apply the rest of Bible and the context of Christ’s coming more fully then study is required.

Asserting that you can read an English translation of a document written in a different culture, using several different languages and immediately understand all the implications is like someone from ancient Israel learning English, with no knowledge of American culture or history, and thinking they would be able to understand all the jokes in the Simpsons. They might be able to grasp the basic plot line, but it wouldn’t be funny and probably would end up leading to a lot of very serious misunderstandings.

I am just starting to fully grasp this myself, and truly beginning to study the Bible and its history and context. I am only now really starting to look critically at the interpretations that others have given me over the years and that I, too often, have just accepted without any kind of deep thought or research. When I come to something that doesn’t seem to make sense to me with what I know about the nature of God, I tend to just kind of push it aside and move on,  instead of trying to learn more about why it is there and what it is supposed to mean to me.

For example: although many of the offenses listed for the people of Israel in the book of Leviticus are referred to as “abominations”, we do not consider them to be wrong for us as Christians or things we have to worry about (particularly the ones regarding food and wearing certain clothes). But why? I have been told Leviticus is considered to be a Holiness Code, something which is given to a certain group of people at a certain time and applicable only to them, for the purposes of setting them apart from others around them. Okay, but how do we know this? Abomination sounds pretty bad. Like the worst thing I can think of, will land you in hell kind of bad. We think of that word as interchangeable with words like “sin”, “wickedness”, and “evil”.

But the Hebrew (and later the Greek) word that is translated as “abomination” and used for many of the laws in Leviticus actually is closer to meaning a religious taboo. It is not something that no one ever should do because it is inherently wrong; it is something that these people at this time should not do – culturally unacceptable, in a similar way to a woman wearing trousers in the 18th century. There is another Hebrew word (and a correlating one in Greek) that translates as sin or wickedness which refers to something which is always bad no matter who is doing it when, and this word is consciously not used in this part of the law, although it is used for other things. But reading the Bible without knowing this – well, abomination and sinful and wicked all sound like the same things to me!

Just this little bit of knowledge, of two words of Hebrew and two words of Greek, completely transformed how I understand large sections of the Old Testament that I previously didn’t know what to do with and honestly preferred to avoid. And building on this knowledge with more knowledge of words and culture and history, I will be able to better understand sections of the New Testament that refer to similar things, and thus better understand how I am to live and act, what is important and what is not. Our understanding can only be as good as the words we have to describe it with. If the words aren’t adequate, then the understanding will be lacking.

And of course, if we are really honest then we know that hardly anyone, even the most conservative American Christian, reads the Bible 100% literally. Only a few people cling to the idea that the Earth is physically only 6000 years old. Most realize the laws about religious purity given to the ancient Jews are not needful for us today (although that is made pretty clear in the New Testament anyway). It’s a very fringe belief to preach biblical support for racism or slavery, and only a tiny percentage of Christians would make a fuss about women wearing pants or cutting their hair. We all pick and choose, to some extent are all realists about what Jesus said was important and what is not. But we also all get hung up on issues where we have picked a specific verse which seems to forbid or require something, and then try to apply it to the whole of our lives and everyone else’s without perhaps putting it in proper perspective.

I cannot believe that every bit of the Bible (and which version of the Bible?) was literally dictated word for word by God as something we should follow to the letter, believe literally and absolutely without room for interpretation or change. The authors of the Bible were human. They had prejudices, they had limitations, they were only able to understand things within the limits of their cultural background and only able to express them within the limits of their language. We are no different ourselves. This doesn’t mean God wasn’t able to use them, to allow them to express and record deeper truths than they themselves may have realized. But at the same time we need to remember that they were also writing very human histories and records and prayers and rules for themselves and for the people of the time.

I do believe the Bible as a whole is a holy book and that every part of it is useful for teaching and instruction, and that God has given it to us for a reason. We can learn something from every part of it – the only question is what God wants us to learn as opposed to what we think we are to learn or what we might think other people need to learn. Some people try to use the Bible as all things, the only book anyone ever needs – religious scripture, law, textbook, sex manual, prophetic verse, inspiration, and financial guide. But I believe it is something greater: it is the story of His love affair with the human race and His redemptive plan for all of creation. And while the Bible may have a lot (some brilliantly applicable, maybe some not) to say on those other topics, that story is the only thing that cannot be found in any other book.

I am a scientist. I do not believe in a literal 6-day creation, or the Garden of Eden as described in Genesis, or even that we were literally hand-molded out of dust into the physical image of God. But I love and treasure the creation account in the Bible because it teaches me the greater truth. That God made the world, that He made us, that He made all things and is the Creator-God. That He created the universe and the world with an order to it. That He created us to be like Him and to be one with Him, and that we fell into sin and will never be able to reach a perfect state of union with Him without His grace. And that He loves us enough to continue to relentlessly pursue us across the centuries, despite all the horrible things we’ve done and ways we’ve rejected His love, as a species and individually. This is the story of our creation and salvation plan, however you read the actual timeline.

Science can give me answers about the physical processes involved, the timespan, the laws of nature. But nothing else can give me the core truth of His creation of us and love for us. And that truth is so much more precious to me this way than if I were forced to deny all my God-given senses and intelligence, and all the historical and physical evidence that exists in order to align my brain with the word-for-word account. For me that way lies only fear and resentment, and a small, rigid faith that can be easily broken by the discovery of anything that goes against the most literal of readings.

We should revere the Bible, but we should also work to understand what it is and what it isn’t. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with my point of view on this. If so, I do hope that there are at least a few things we can agree on: That God is Love. That the blood of Jesus offers redemption to us all. That, as Jesus said, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” is the whole of of the law and the prophets and everything else is just details. That the good news of God’s love and Christ’s death and resurrection is equally available and understandable to everyone no matter their education or age or intelligence or background. And that the words, actions, and attitudes of Christ should be our ultimate test of what we should follow and how we should live. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re a liberal scholar or a Biblical literalist, that is all that matters.

On keeping a soft heart June 13, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Fears, Heart Condition, Struggles, Trust.
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Some weeks back at church the speaker talked about not allowing one’s heart to be hardened. Honestly, that is all I remember about the sermon that week because God spoke to me so loudly and forcefully when he said that that I was deafened to anything that came after.

Hardening my heart is something that I struggle with to an incredible degree. Or rather, too often, I don’t struggle with it  – I allow myself to to take the easy way out, to put up the walls, to disengage when things start to get difficult or intense. I often regret this, feeling the wash of emotion and remorse much later when I realize how callous my immediate reaction may have been. Sometimes I am able to remedy this and clarify what I really meant to say or do; often I just feel bad and guilty and this makes me more resistant to allowing myself to be effected in the future.

Not that I am a cold person by nature, or even in most of my daily interactions. I am usually friendly and outgoing. But I grew up with an extremely emotional parent who had a distinct lack of boundaries so I learned to put my own up hard and fast. My sense of humor is sarcastic and teasing. And I’ve felt the injury many times in the past when I put my heart out there for all to see and faced rejection or ridicule.

The Bible mentions various times people’s hearts were hardened and the results are never good. Death, destruction, turning away from God. The author of Hebrews alone begs the readers four times to not harden their hearts to God. When we do this we leave no room for God to work on us, to change us. We have no pity, compassion, or empathy for other people around us. We close ourselves off to grace and to love, which is the currency of God’s relationship with us.

It’s a scary thing if you think about it. God will continue to love us, continue to call us, continue to send us events and people in our lives to soften our hearts and bring us back to Him. But He also gave us free will. He does not force us to love Him. And if we truly, obstinately close ourselves off from Him, He will let us go our own way. Not that He ever abandons us, but we may find that our hearts have becomes so hard that we no longer know how to get back to Him, that we can not even bring ourselves to call out to Him anymore.

That is an extreme case of course, but it helps to remind myself how dangerous it is to just automatically throw up those walls when I am confronted with a painful topic, a negative interaction, or a frightening truth about what God might want from my life. My heart is not dead; I still feel things very deeply. But am an expert at dodging those unpleasant feelings, deflecting them, and skirting subjects I know are likely to make me feel too poignantly. And I’ve noticed over the past few years I do it more and more often. My fear is that one day I will discover that I am incapable of dealing with any of those thoughts and feelings at all anymore.

So what does it mean to keep my heart soft?  I think right now it means heading towards the pain and towards the joy. I am often embarrassed by outward displays of extreme emotion – I don’t like other people to see when I am deeply moved by things. I’m far more comfortable in writing, telling how I feel with words rather than showing it in person. And even then I often underplay the depth of what I am feeling, or, often, trying not too feel too strongly.

When I find myself turning away from something, be it a thought or a feeling or a prayer or an interaction, I need to stop myself and analyze why. Why don’t I want to talk to God about this area in my life that I’m struggling with? Is it because I know I need to change something? Am I avoiding this person because I know we have unresolved issues and I’m afraid we start talking I will find out how much I hurt her? Do I not want to talk about that topic because I know it will force me to think about my faith and my life in a way I’m not comfortable with? Do I not want to listen to that music that I know I love because it fills me with such joy and such longing that I don’t know how to handle or express it, and fear that I will never truly be that happy in this life?

Every time I harden my heart like that, I lose a chance for God to do something in my life. Not that He can’t still ever use me, but when He gives me an open door and I turn and walk the other way something is still lost there. Sometimes I may have another chance, but sometimes that particularly opportunity is lost forever. And each time it gets a little more difficult to keep myself open to the next set of chances. The hardness gets a little more ingrained because, frankly, it’s so much easier than the risk and the pain and the longing.

But the only chance I have is to fight when my heart wants to shut down. To run towards whatever it is that I am avoiding, whatever I think is too difficult or painful or scary and pray for God to help me to keep my heart open even if it is going to be pierced. To feel the empathy with a friend who is going through a hard time so that I can cry with her, to be convicted in my life so I can change the things that are wrong, to feel the joy or the sadness or the longing and let it draw me closer to the heart of Christ, to face the difficult questions even if they move me away from my comfort zone.

It is natural to want to protect ourselves from that which is hurtful. But sometimes the instinct of self-preservation really just prevents us from growing and receiving what is good in the long run. So I will be praying for a soft heart, an open heart. And when the slings and arrows come, as they do, I pray that I will have the courage to trust God to turn them to good, to use them for my betterment and for His glory.