Why it’s okay to struggle with understanding the Bible

Do you ever feel that sometimes you run to a certain verse of the Bible and you just can’t get it?

Perhaps you are at a low point or going through something difficult. When going though hard times, it’s my experience that you often get a whole lot of advice on what to do, but very few examples of modeling that advice. It’s like slapping on a band-aid when surgery needed.

About 10 years ago I went through such an emotional and spiritual dark place and of course, received lots of well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice like: Pray more. Read your Bible more. Go on a trip to relax. You just don’t trust God. (That last one isn’t really advice…)

It’s not wrong to encourage one another to read the Bible and pray. In fact it’s our duty to keep brothers and sisters in Christ accountable to the faith they proclaim. However, because they weren’t willing to walk in the dark with me, none of us got to experience the blessing of a community of faith “mourning with those who mourn.”

This is a verse that was quoted at me a lot: “Don’t worry about anything, instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” Philippians 4:6

I was a young Christian and dutiful to follow the Christian checklist exactly. I glued my eyes to the page. I read this verse with all my might and slowly, so that I would not miss one single word of it. But however hard I tried to read and just get. it. in. my. head, I could not understand it with my heart.

I was reading it in a very limited and inward-seeking way and therefore fruitless way. A step-by-step Ikea instruction manual kind of way.

Don’t worry – Ok I’m concentrating…Check

Pray about everything – Doing that… Check

Tell God what you need – Double Check! He’s been listening to me all day

Then I come to the very end of the passage. “And thank him for all he has done”. This part often remained ignored for me. I reasoned with myself that this one couldn’t be done until my circumstances were different. For some reason I was expecting God to answer my prayer before I was able to thank him for it. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes treats her relationship with God this way. How could I blame anyone for thinking this way? After all this is exactly how the world around us operates. You don’t send a thank you note before you receive a gift, right? Reciprocity.

It turns out that the god I was praying to and the true God in heaven were totally different. The god I had designed in my head was not the one described in the pages of scripture. My small god was a stubborn one who had to be poked and prodded several times before he would even think about turning his attention to me and my problems. He was quite busy enough already. With this type of person you need to negotiate and secure a guarantee.

It was this false belief that in turn, had put a false twist on scripture for me. I may as well have been reading an instruction manual.

Today I am much grown in my spiritual life though not arrived, I read it now through the lens of experience of God goodness. That last verse which I ignored before now stands out to be in heavenly neon yellow ink.

And thank him for all he has done.

What I considered a throw-away line 10 years ago, I now realize is the most important part of that verse and should not be considered separately from the rest of it. 

We are to pray and give our worries over to him with all that he has already done in mind. We are to consider all the worries and weight in the world through the lens of a correct understanding of God’s goodness. Not only for this small verse, but for every single word of the Bible.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Deuteronomy 6:5

This is the wonderful discovery of living Word. Coming across a verse that perplexed me 10 years ago and which now has blossomed into great joy and peace for my heart because I finally get it and it permeates everything.

The bathing suit argument

I had just zipped up a new pair of skinny jeans in the Target dressing room when I heard a familiar conversation. It’s one I’ve had many times with my own mother in a department store dressing room. It went something like this:
Mother: “No, I don’t like it”
Daughter: “What?! Mooom… you said it was cute”
Mother: “Yeah, well now that I see it on, I don’t think it’s appropriate”
Daughter: “But you already SAID I could get it”
Instantly I was back in the dressing room with my own mother, skillfully trying to nudge her in the right direction, as she clearly did not get 90s fashion, what with all its spaghetti straps and brightly colored bare midriff tops.
Mother: “It needs to be more modest”
Daughter: “What does that mean?”
Mother: “Modest means not sexy, not revealing”
I glanced in the mirror at my own “modest” figure and felt that definition left a bit to be desired.
Of course, in colloquial language, modest is almost universally an antonym of sexy, but I see it a little differently. The world would have us believe in one specific definition of sexy. You know the one, Tina Fey summed it up perfectly in her book BossyPants:
Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.
But instead of framing modesty as a list of what it isn’t, I would explain it in terms of what it IS which is so much more inspiring and attractive, especially to a teen whose future will inevitably be shaped by what she believes about beauty and herself. This is how I would explain it to my daughter.
To be Modest is to have dignity and respect for oneself. It means you have confidence in your own value as a unique individual made in the image of God.
But modesty is not just about the things we do, say, or put on our outsides; that’s called Legalism. Legalism is when we put the laws we made up ourselves above the laws God made for us. It means adding-on our ideas to the already-perfect requirements for salvation: repentance and faith in Jesus.

Legalism puts words in God’s mouth and makes outward things higher than the matters of the heart. No tattoos, No piercings, No plunging necklines. Our concerns are so much deeper than what is on the outside.

It’s not wrong to want to look attractive. In and of itself it is out of respect for others that I bathe and put on tasteful clothes and makeup. The danger is when we want to look attractive for the wrong reasons.
To a Christian who has been saved by grace which is undeserved favor, the natural response to the call to modesty comes from a place of gratefulness. We desire to preserve God’s wisdom simply because it pleases him. it’s an attitude of the heart that causes that alignment of priorities from my own…to His.
So once my heart has been changed, I may still desire a tattoo or to wear a certain thing that other believers may oppose. Be very careful not to confuse the general consensus, even of Christians, for God’s opinion. Because more times than not, we get it wrong. We put words in Jesus’s mouth and say he likes black and white only, but not grey. When the truth is, we miss the forest for the trees.
…but modesty also is not an excuse to hide.
It means not having to compensate or fill perceived gaps in the eye of the beholder.
It means you can just be, as you are without shame, without needing to cater or pander.
and that is exactly how God wants us to come to Him.
I’ve said it and I’ll say it a thousand more times, as long as Jesus’s message is trampled underfoot of our culture: There is no work, no “cleaning up”, no possible action you can take to EARN Salvation. It is a free gift, available only to those who realize their need and ask for it with a genuine heart.

Seeking God: Keep a soft heart

Reading: Psalm 95:1-7, Isaiah 40:11

Christ: Remember that I am your place of rest and your shelter of comfort. The cares of the world are stressful and not at all aligned with the original purpose for which you were made. The symptom of a hardened heart appears when you try to make a shelter of safety for yourself. I cannot do my work or you if your heart is hardened against me.

if you would hear his.jpg

Think: “The seed sown on the rock never brought any fruit to perfection” – Matthew Henry. When I lie, cheat, steal, I am hardening my heart against God’s heart for me. I may justify my choice, or ignore it altogether but it is still sin.

Pray: Dear Lord, let us keep the ground of our hearts as fertile soil which grows the seed of faith to perfection in the dew of your grace. Help me to notice the moment my heart refuses to receive your wisdom. Holy Spirit, make clear to me the state of my heart so that I may never miss out on the gentle leading of Jesus.


The invisible friend

largeAt the moment of belief, we are anointed by the Holy Spirit and he comes to live inside of us. Every minute of every day since I first invited Jesus into my heart, he has been here, living, watching, feeling, and cheering for me this whole time. Even when I forget about him, he NEVER forgets about me. He just watches and waits for me to look up again.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? ~1 Cor 3:16

Thankfully, he’s not fickle like me. He doesn’t just try to show up for the problems in life or leave when he feels like it. The Bible says that God doesn’t even sleep. He never abandons us or leaves us. He is always completely faithful. If I ever feel differently, it’s because I’ve stopped paying attention.

When we stop paying attention to the presence of Christ in our lives, we can develop an attitude that we’ve got it under control.  I often find myself in an exhaustive tug-of-war between what God wants me to do and what I want to do. And isn’t that the story of our human nature? We are forever on the fence, weighing the options, like anything besides God could really stand a chance to make us happy.

Here are some things I like to do to constantly stay aware of the Spirit in me:

  • Prayer for me. Simple, uncomplicated: “Lord I can’t, but you can! I give my burden to you”
  • Prayer for you. Talk to God on behalf of someone else.
  • Text some love. Who can use a hug or an encouraging word?
  • Act. What can you do for someone to make their day a little less stressful?
  • Remember joy. What do you have to be joyful about? Think on those things
  • What else can you do?

It’s difficult, but absolutely worth the trouble to keep constantly aware of His presence. And the peace that comes of it? It’s beyond comprehension.


When is God good?

Is God good when I get what I want? Is He still good when I don’t get what I want?

At first glance, I want to say  “All the time”. But wait, is that true for me? Do I actually live my life like God is good, or do I stomp my feet and cry like a petulant child when I don’t get my way? This is a question that takes some soul-searching.

In this season of my life I just can’t seem to get over the very logical fact that I do not have the same life path as others. I have plans for myself that very obviously are not the same God has in mind for me. I know this because if they were, they would have happened already.

I’m struggling to accept it and work on myself and keep up the faith in the mean time, but my selfish childish voice inside can’t understand it. My being is absolutely divided-I want but cannot have.

Habakkuk 2:1-3

2 I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.[a]

The Lord’s Answer

Then the Lord replied:

“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald[b] may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it[c] will certainly come
and will not delay.

The “getting” is good

…or something like that

I scoffed when I saw this on a cheap decorative canvas at Ross. It’s the kind of thing that gets passed over at department stores so long that they have to send it to…Ross. How incredibly cliche, and yet – how incredibly true. If the destination is Heaven with Jesus, then the journey should surely not be taken lightly.

From the time I wake up to the time I lay in bed trying to will myself to sleep, I’ve got my eye on the clock – constantly – timing my arrival “getting there”. It’s always about the “there”, never about the “getting,” and it makes me sad that each day I ask Jesus to “carry” me through the morning, afternoon, and night for the very reason that I don’t want to have to live through it myself.

He always does get me through, but that’s not the point. It’s all well and good to pray for God’s guidance and company in daily life. What I have been doing is wishing my life away, as if it was some boring commercial I could fast-forward through. To be sure, there are tons of times I’d rather not live through, like large gatherings of people, or the 4:15 am alarm. However, that sort of thinking does become a slippery slope for me. I begin to dread having to answer calls at my job, the chores I must do at home, the conversations I must have with people, the period of waiting before my boyfriend proposes already, and the ominous question of “where do you want to be in 5 years?”

I’ve heard preaching about God’s timing and waiting with hope and patience, but still my heart clamors against the bars of time to be free. I haven’t had anything significant to write about and barely any time to myself over the past few weeks. Ok, I just (sort of) lied. The truth is that I’ve got the wrong motivation and my attitude stinks, therefore no writing has occurred. I’m turned in towards myself again, as if the writing was for me, and I’m acting as though God isn’t with me and doesn’t help me. By the grace of God, I don’t have to do all that work by myself. If I had to accomplish everything I thought I had to, with all my own power, then there would be no God, and Jesus needn’t have died on the cross. Thankfully however, He did and I don’t. In fact, God has promised to take care of me and remain on my side:

 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. ~Joshua 1:5

In the Catholic Church the year is organized around something called the liturgical calendar. The year is split up into different seasons that celebrate Christ’s life and resurrection. It’s from the season that mass readings and prayers are chosen, working through the Bible in a 3-year cycle. It’s one of my favorite things about the Catholic church, that on any given day, in any given place in the whole world, everyone is reading and meditating upon the same passages from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Psalms.

The green part is called Ordinary time, but we shouldn’t be deceived by the word. It’s the time between Easter and Christmas, and Christmas and Easter. This “ordinary time” is necessary time. It gives us the time to prepare our hearts and work on ourselves, over and over, year after year. The normal days are the ones that decide how we react in trial or triumph.

God, in our difficulty give us the courage and strength to hold fast to your promises, that even if I forget all you have taught me so far, I never forget that you are wholly trustworthy and good. Help me to cultivate a love and respect for the ordinary and what seem like boring times of my life. Help us all to remember that you purposely chose to give us this day in particular; you did not have to. No matter our situation there is a purpose and a plan for every minute.

If you, dear reader, have an attitude like mine sometimes, please know you are definitely not alone, more than that, remember our feelings are fickle and fleeting. And nothing else in the world can correctly re-route your thoughts like the Holy Spirit. I pray that whatever is on your heart today, you can gather the courage to lay it at the foot of the cross. And might I recommend this sermon? It comforted me, and I hope it does no end of good for you too!

True worship, Part II

O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous,
who sees the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you have I committed my cause. ~Jeremiah 11:12

All praise and glory be to our Father who sees our hearts and our minds, who knows us so thoroughly. In His wisdom he lifted us up when we were still sinners, and brought us closer to Himself, who is the truth and beauty. For all the religious things I’ve done, and all the time spent “serving” you, I pray that through Jesus, you help me always worship and love you with my heart and mind united as one in your cause. Not only for the sake of Bible doctrine, but in everyday living.

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you. ~ Jeremiah 60:5

You looked down on Saul persecuting your followers and saw that in all his zealous piety his heart was aflame for You. You bent down to reveal yourself to him, and when he saw the truth, he dropped everything and went to tell the world about it. God, I was pious too, my heart was in the right place, but I did not truly understand who You were. In your love you also bent down to reveal yourself to me too.

And the man said to me,“Son of man, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your heart upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you. Declare all that you see to the house of Israel.” ~Ezekiel 40:4

True worship

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. ~John 4:23

This quote is from the passage from John where Jesus stops and talks to the Samaritan woman. When she asks him where the correct place is for worship, Jesus responds in an unexpected way: he says that true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.

At that time, Jews were to worship before God in the temple, where the tabernacle was. They were to travel to Jerusalem to make offerings for thanksgiving and sin, as prescribed by the law. When Jesus came to take care of our guilt for good, worship to God was no longer restricted to the temple law.

Some people take this as an argument against the need to go somewhere to worship with others, like church on Sundays or a fellowship group, but that’s not what he’s referring to. Corporate worship should still be very much a part of a believer’s life. Here, Jesus is talking about our attitudes when we worship.

When we worship in spirit, we bow down to our creator with reverence and humility, acknowledging who He is, and who we are because in Him, through Jesus. When we worship in truth, it simply means that there is only one valid way to the Father, and that is through Jesus Christ. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” ~John 14:6. Only true believers can worship God correctly, in spirit AND truth; all other worship, however sincere, is ultimately futile.

That’s a big pill to swallow!

I used to think that God was content to accept my worship offering, as long as I showed up on time to church and stayed awake. Sometimes I’ll be at church, and they’ll play some of my favorite worship songs. I’m in a good mood and feeling the love from my friends. The announcements were short, and today they had a delicious pie with coffee after the service. “Church” in all its outward appearance and experiences, all feels good and right — but how much of that time was I actually focusing on Jesus? And how much of that time was I filling my satisfaction with earthly comforts?

Looking back, I realized that most of my life, my worship (even my most heart-felt, sincere worship) has been in vain. And that’s not just before now, it’s absolutely possible for me to keep on going to worship in vain.

When you worship, friends, how aware are you of what you are doing? My mind tends to wander a lot, so I have resolved to start with a prayer to keep focused. I encourage you to do the same! If you pray to him and ask for help (James 1:5), he will be pleased because he can see your heart’s desire to worship him correctly.  Ask and trust that He will teach you to keep the right spirit, and the truth in mind.

You might even take a second to evaluate yourself. How did you do the last time you were praising God? Was your heart in it? How might you fight the temptations to focus on other things.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. ~1 Corinthians 15:58