God's No is a Yes

When I was single I acutely remember sitting behind a couple in church. His arm around her, her shoulder leaning into him, and I physically ached. I felt so unfelt in my singleness, untouched, and unloved. Of course I knew I was loved, by God and by others, but touch, for me, was where I felt my lack the most. I wasn't alone in this feeling and it led me to write this piece for Christianity Today years ago and has formed in me a desire to think through touch in a more comprehensive way—the basis of the book project I'm working on. Details here

I am conscious of that painful ache often in church once again as it's impossible to avoid the plethora of blessings in the form of babies on Sunday mornings. Fathers standing off to the side with babies in the crook of their arms swaying right to left. Mothers intuitively knowing what their babies need, and yet still so much they're learning. All the folks behind them with smiles that reach their eyes, knowing the common and collective joy of a newborn. I catch Nate's eye every once in a while and know he's thinking it too. The ache. We feel it most when we're captive in a row with our church family: I have to be here. I have to see this. And I still can't have it. 

Last night we met with a couple with whom we're doing premarital counseling and one of the questions we talked through was, "What dreams do you think you'll need to give up in marriage." This morning I'm thinking through all the noes we've gotten from God since we said yes to one another. They are plenty. They sometimes feel never-ending. They all feel unexpected. And they all hurt. 

Life for the Christian who is captive to this earth, and captive to the Church, is going to be a series of noes again and again. This is why the prosperity gospel is so damaging to our souls, lives, and minds. We are ultimately yes people, but our primary yes is to Christ, and that means we live caught in a yes-world to sin for a season while we look like fools for saying no. I could have had touch and plenty of it in my singleness, but saying yes to Jesus meant saying no to my flesh. The problem with saying so many noes to so much in life, is that we can begin to project those noes onto God. We can begin to believe he is a God of noes instead of a generous, always abounding, abundant, and faithful Father. Because we feel the death of our dreams, we can begin to believe he is indifferent to our desires. 

The thing is, though, when I look behind me at the slew of noes God has given me in life, I see how each one led precisely to a better yes. I'm not sugar-coating this either. I'm looking at deep, difficult disappointments like death, divorce, financial strain I didn't think I could survive, depression, sickness, prolonged singleness, doubt, and more—each of these led me to dark places where the light, when it finally came, shone brighter than I could have hoped. 

II Corinthians 1 shows Paul explaining why something he said would happen didn't happen in the order he or the Corinthians expected. He's saying in the face of disappointment: God is not a God of no. He always keeps his promises

One of the great tragedies of mediocre faith and biblical illiteracy is that we can confuse our dreams with God's promises. We can begin to believe that simply because we have a strong desire for something, or a deep longing, or we can't imagine ourselves without it, that God intends it for us. And we can get caught in a loop of perpetual disappointment—not in the failure of a dream to materialize, but in the failure of what we think God has promised to be delivered. 

Paul is saying in this passage that all God's promises have their Yes in himself. But the promise is not the house we want, the spouse we want, the baby we want, the job we want, or the health we want. God is the promise. The seal of the Spirit is the promise. The coming of the Messiah is the promise. The Father's love is the promise. And the answer is always yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. 

Wherever we find ourselves captive—in our job, our home, our marriage, our singleness, the row at church behind the couple who finds comfort in touch or the parents passing their baby-blessing back and forth, we may feel the no of God. He may be saying no to our dreams, but he is not saying no to his promise. He is saying, "Hang on. I'm coming for you. And it won't be long now." 

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How Can I Be More Like You?

I'll never forget the year of my life when I lived with my pastor's family in New York. My whole life was in the throes of some trauma around then and my little attic bedroom at their home was safe and warm. There were predictable rhythms in their home: dinner every night, devotions in the morning, guests constantly, really special holidays (and every excuse to celebrate something or someone), and always, always thoughtful questions. 

My pastor was the first person I heard use the phrase "Be a 'There you are!' person instead of a 'Here I am,'" and the concept, for me, was life-changing. He modeled in his words and actions, and particularly by his questions, what this meant. He has always been about the other. His intention is to disarm, put at peace, draw out, and care for the person in front of him. And one of the ways he does this is by asking thoughtful questions. 

I was painfully shy when I came to live with them, was deeply caught cycles of fear and shame, and struggled to look many adults in the eye, and yet, night after night, we'd be called on to both answer thoughtful questions and ask them. Particularly of our guests. The prompt was, "Lore, do you have anything to ask our guest?" And I'd go into a mad mental scramble trying to think of a question that didn't make me look dumb, when all along, the exercise was mostly to make our guest feel welcomed. Sometimes our questions were rudimentary: Do you like your job? Sometimes they were deep: How did you choose the work you do? Sometimes they ebbed into personal: How do you feel about the work you do? But there were always questions. 

I left that home changed in many ways, but the primary of which—and the value I hold most dearly still today, is a desire practice my "There you are-ness" by asking questions. It's one of the questions I get most often from you, dear readers: How do I become a good question-asker?

It's hard to teach this in writing and is best done around folks who are good question-askers. So the first thing you should do is find someone in your community who seems to always ask questions. They're also probably someone who isn't the life of the party or who shines when the spotlight is on them. They might be a bit of a wall-flower, so you're going to have to chase them down and ask your first question: How can I be more like you in this way?

(Actually, that's a great question to ask everyone. "How can I be more like you in this way?" says to the person to whom you're speaking: I see you and I admire this quality in you. That's a good start.)

The first thing to understand about asking good questions is that answerers can see straight through your genuineness. If you're asking questions because you simply want information, it becomes clear almost immediately. If you're asking questions because you simply want to turn a conversation in the direction you want it to go, that also becomes clear. Both are disingenuous. So the first rule of question asking is that it's not about you. It's about them. It's about their heart, their story, their cares, their joys, and their sorrows. The second rule of question asking is: they direct both the information and the direction of the conversation. Think of it like a stream you step into. You don't know if it's going to widen to a river, an ocean, or amble along forever, you're just going to walk in it as long as it continues.  

The third rule of question asking, especially if you're a follower of Christ, is our questions should be aimed at the heart of the person to whom we're asking. Most people in most contexts are uncomfortable both asking and answering about the heart. We don't like to intrude and we like less to be intruded upon. But for the Christian, "the matters of the heart are the heart of the matter." As I said, you can't control whether they widen the stream or turn the conversation in another direction, but you can control the question you ask when you first get in. 

"How's your heart doing?" is, I think, the easiest way to state your intention (I'm after your heart) and ask a question. People are always taken aback by that question. We're used to being asked about our day or our plans, but our hearts? Ick. Back off. It's a humbling question to ask because the risk of rejection is high for the asker. But the risk of an unchecked heart is greater—and worse—for the one being asked. So risk rejection and ask. 

Here are some other great questions to have in your pocket: 

How did that situation make you feel? 

What did your response to this thing tell you about yourself? God? The other person?

Who told you the lie that XYZ? 

What's your story? 

Are you where you thought you'd be at this point in life? What would you change? Why?

What's hard for you today? What's a joy for you today? 

How can I pray for you? 

There's a prevalent belief out there that we always have to have the answers to the questions we're asking. For example, I'm only asking how your heart is because I already know it's a wicked, dark hole that hardly sees the light of the gospel and I'm going to preach at you until the crack of light gets in. But that's not really helpful, not in the long run. How much better to care for the person in front of you by showing interest in their life, heart, fears, and more, and seeing where the conversation goes. The thing you set out to prove might be the final result, but the journey there will be deeper, better, and more like Jesus along the way. 

Here's another post I did on why and how Jesus asked questions

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How to Sleep In the Middle of a Storm

It occurred to me this morning that there's another side of the "at leasts" among us. There's also the "at mosts." You know the sort: again, you're sharing grief, pain, sorrow, anger, or some other struggle through which you currently walk, and they're there waiting to interject a "But God!" or "Well, at least it's not worse!" They're the eternal optimists or, more likely, the ones who are uncomfortable simply letting someone experience pain, suffering, or the depths of what God wants to bring them into. 

Just as I was guilty this past weekend of casting judgement on a fellow family member at my church, I can be guilty of "But Goding" myself all the time. A friend confessed a few years ago that he was learning how to walk into the depths of what God was doing in his life, instead of just in the shallows. He'd learned to bounce, rebound, robotically respond with the greatness of God, without letting the person across from him, or even himself, feel, process, or experience the deepest parts of their pain.

If we truly believe God isn't wasteful, if we truly believe he is sovereign, then we have to learn to comfort others and ourselves without distilling complex experiences down to a platitude—even if the platitude is true. If our response is quick and automated it says more about us than it does about the pain of the other, or their faith in the God who holds them. It says we're unwilling to really wrestle with our brother or sister and instead just want to get the hard stuff over. It says we're unwilling to really listen to them and just want to get a word in edgewise. It says we think our wisdom is better than God's wisdom in allowing this season to unfold for them. It also betrays our lack of trust in God to hold them, even though there may be darker days ahead. 

When we offer up a mere platitude in the face of someone's suffering or confession of weakness, it says more about our lack of faith than it does about theirs. 

True faith acts on the truth of God's word and sometimes Jesus simply wept, sometimes he asked questions, drawing out the mourner or the one in need of healing, sometimes he just fed them, sometimes he fell asleep in the middle of the storm, sometimes he removed himself from the crowds. It is true that he was proclaiming the good news everywhere he went, but good news does not always come in the form of words. Sometimes it comes in the form of weeping with those who weep, the provision of food on the table, and the sight of one who can rest in stillness, without talking, even in the midst of the storm. 

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The "At Least" Among Us

You and I and everyone we know has been there. We're finally mustering up the strength to be vulnerable and not just transparent. We're putting our fears, emotions, anger out there, hoping to simply be heard. And as we're speaking, we're watching the person across from us, their face changing from the tense desire to sermonize back or jump in when we take a breath. It grows softer, sadder, and somewhat madder. "Well," they say, "at least you don't have to deal with..." And your heart drops. 

I've written before about the danger of saying "at least" to the married or the single, and I suppose whatever struggle it is through which we currently walk, that's where we see the at leasts among us. A single friend said recently, "Well, at least you can try to get pregnant, my eggs are just drying up over here." A father of three said, "Well, at least you don't have other kids keeping you up all night." Someone who's struggled to conceive at all says, "At least you can get pregnant, I can't even do that." A moment of vulnerability for one becomes a competition for another. 

The thing about saying "At least" to someone—particularly someone who's confessing their own anger, fear, grief, or sadness at the circumstances of their life, is it negates their wrestle and it naturally elevates our own. It tiers the very specific means of sanctification and grace God is working in our own lives and separates his people into the haves and the have nots. Having many blessings can offer a form of dominance in the Christian culture, but for some of us, it's a race to see who's suffered the most—that's the real currency in our hearts. 

Yesterday at church while we sung about the sting of death being gone, my voice broke. I couldn't say those words and I wanted to, I wanted to. A few rows ahead of me someone worshipped passionately, both their hands raised, fingertips stretched out, abounding with energy. My heart wrenched and the words, "They've probably never even experienced death closely and here I am, all my life, life marked by death down to my very body." I knew the wickedness of the thought immediately and knew it wasn't true, it was a lie of the enemy trying to arrest me from processing why I struggled to worship the King and instead casting judgement on my family member. The lie felt more real, though, it felt like the most real thing in that moment, far more true than the words our church was singing or their rootedness in Scripture. I wanted to believe my pain was worse than theirs. The invasive weed of "at least" was taking root. 

I have been really struck the past month by the old adage that we're all fighting a hard battle and how I cannot be there for all the people I love because I'm fighting a hard battle too. My battle is not better than, worse than, or even equal to another's. It's simply the thing God has allowed into my life in order to shape, form, and sanctify me into more like him.

Whatever you're facing today, that thing that seems insurmountable, terrible, or just plain unfair? God is at work in that. He's not wasting it and he's not wasting you in middle of it. 

The next time we're listening to someone share what is breaking their heart today, notice the invasive weed of "at least" and pull it out right then, if we can. Ask the Spirit for help, if we can't. He is there to help us do hard things and comfort us when we feel alone. Places where it might be prone to pressing through the soil of our hearts: over coffee, at church, on social media, with other moms or those who want to be moms, with other single friends, when a friend loses something or when they gain something. We don't have to say "at least" to anyone in whatever they're facing because God is never doing the least of anything in our lives. He is always doing the best—even if it feels like the worst. 

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Pitting Cherries and Not Another Podcast

Last Thursday, a week ago, I bought a cherry pitter. Having no reason to suspect that cherries might be on sale this week (but of course they would be, it's nearly August), I find myself more prepared for the laborious task of pitting six pounds of the burgundy orbs.

Friends laugh at me for the lack of gadgets in our home, but if I had to go another season using a cheap paring knife, my fingernail, and a whole afternoon to pit cherries just so we can have cherry pie in January...well, that wasn't going to happen. It's a small tool, not electric, not even the size of a garlic press or a can opener. I've already pitted a pound and it took me a quarter of the time. But it still took time. "Just buy a can of cherry filling," you might say, "or at the very worst, a bag of frozen cherries. There's souls to be saved, work that needs to be done, and you're standing there pitting cherries?"

Yes. Yes I am. 

Nate and I took the long way home from dinner on Tuesday night, through the bit of countryside still mostly untouched by the creeping metroplex of Dallas and Fort Worth. I forget what the subject was exactly, but he lamented the amount of time people have these days. Everything is mechanized and technologized and passive income is all the rage and it leaves so much more time for folks to spend their days reading theology or politics and commenting on every single issue whether they have suffered or worked or lived much at all. Everyone considers themselves an expert because they read about it in a book or a blog or listened to a podcast where people purported to be experts because they read about it in a book or a blog or they, too, are podcast listeners. We are a society of commentators, each one of us abridging, abutting, amending, or simply adding our own two cents to every issue under the sun. 

That's why I've taken so long to buy a cherry pitter. 

I need my hands to be busy with real work—not just mind work. Mind work is good work too, I won't argue that, and technological advances are things of beauty (the attributes of God as creator at work), but when everything exists to make our lives easier, faster, more automated, and less work, well, what else is there to do but commentate? We become merely observers of life and not partakers in it. 

Whenever I feel a tinge of shame creeping in because I eschew Fast and New and Quick and its accompanying accusation that while I stand there pitting cherries for four hours, there's gospel work I could be doing instead, I want to remember that pitting cherries is gospel work. It might not be the kind we raise support for or throw neighborhood parties for or write pamphlets for or send our kids overseas for, but it is still producing in me (and, I'd argue, in those who partake January's cherry pie at our table) something good. It is keeping me away from the commentary, the blurring lines of experts, the pundits, armchair preachers, and seminarians who think because they know how to pronounce Barth and have read the entirety of City of God, they know anything about real life. 

If you hear a note of sadness (or its stinging cousin disgust), it's very real. I am saddened by how much everyone is an expert in their field, but how little they know of real work in real fields. "Stay in your lane," is the most lamentable phrase to enter Christianity. God has made us infinitely complex and we squeeze all of that complexity into one thing and call it a calling. But we need to feel the soil in our fingers and the pop of a cherry being pitted and to learn how to make a proper bed and the frustration of a weed that overtakes our garden and the stinging loss of life and the relief that comes from learning something works not because we read about it but because we tried it and failed miserably—or, glory be, succeeded. We need the whole gamut of work and rest and the exercise of our mind that comes from learning new laborious skills with our hands, and the exercise of our bodies that comes not from getting in a run, but waking early and feeling its limitations, its mutations, and its inability to be perfected. 

I hope my disgust moves along quickly and is replaced by wisdom, but I am weary of the commentary and I hope, I hope, I hope you are too. I hope you turn off, unsubscribe, stop buying books, turn down the volume, and listen instead to the dandelion men, the poets, the sages, the ones who have suffered full lives and have earned the right to commentate on what they have seen and known. I hope you will live an examined life of your own, and not just spend it examining the lives of others.

I hope you'll buy a cherry pitter too, just for the act of slowing, stopping, and feeling the ripe, red flesh in your fingers for a few hours, the juice that pools on your raw pine tabletop. I hope, for a minute, you'll remember you are dust and your thumb will get a cramp and your fingers will be stained and January will feel a long way off. I hope as you crack these red orbs, you're reminded of how a few weeks ago your body was cracked open and blood was shed, and how a few millennia ago your Savior's body was too. I hope you run out of time and don't have enough to spend one blessed moment pontificating on your silly blog about how much time people have these days. If you don't, it's okay. I'm grateful I mostly did. 

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*Just to be clear: you don't have to pit your own cherries: perhaps you're raising little ones, or managing a garden of your own, or engaged in some other act that takes time and doesn't result in much praise or notice or a strong, consistent feeling of accomplishment. This is what I'm talking about. Abstain from the glut of information and commentary on it and just, you know, do something.