Belonging

I stood quietly at the back of the group, watching as over fifty women talked in small groups about 2 Timothy 2. We were at the end of the first day of a conference on leadership, this session focusing on community. Some women were deep in conversation. Others’ eyes darted between the three “mzungu” (white person) standing on the outskirts. I resisted the urge to get squirmish under their gaze, reminding myself that it wasn’t judgment, but curiosity their eyes were communicating. Then almost as quickly as their eyes landed, they’d return to the other women in their discussion group.

What were they saying to each other, I wondered. Deeply wishing I could understand their native Maasai language.

This was my first time to behold the beauty of Africa. The people, culture, landscape, and wildlife had me in constant awe of the creativity and vastness of the Creator. The Maasai people form one of Kenya’s forty two tribes. Throughout the country the Maasai are respected for preserving generations of tradition. They are the warriors, even feared by the lions in some areas. They are the naturalists, respecting creation and living in harmony with it. They are the creatives, experts at making everything from colorful jewelry to sturdy houses made entirely of sticks and termite clay.

Our native friends had told us that “no matter where you were in the world, you know a Maasai when you saw one.” I soon learned why.

As I stood observing the women, it struck me. Not a single one of them was questioning whether or not they belonged. They were not questioning their identity as a Maasai. Every single woman wore similar clothes; their dresses following the same sewing pattern and jewelry using the same beads. They spoke the same language; their native tongue sustaining the decades of oral tradition. They acted the same; from dancing to sitting they mirrored each other’s posture. They looked the part, they spoke the part, they acted the part. There was no questioning if they were a Maasai. In fact, I doubt that question has ever even gone through their mind.

That sort of unquestioned belonging is something I believe all of us long for. The desire is deep in our souls. We don’t have to consciously tell ourselves to crave belonging, it just is there. Hardwired from the very beginning we yearn for the day we do not second guess our place, our role, in society.

As a believer, we do not have to strive.

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

Every ounce of me believes that God desires for His children to be so confident in our belonging in His family that we don’t get entangled with pointless pursuits (2 Tim 2:4). He wants us to fully embrace our place as His royal chosen priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). He has given us the Holy Spirit to help guide our actions and our speech (Phil 2:13; 1 Cor 6:11). Not to mention that He has given us His image (Gen 1:27). We are thoroughly His.

Even though it is sometimes very tempting to question whether or not we “belong,” we have assurance that we are His. And since we are His (and I say this knowing it is so very hard sometimes) we should be so marked by Him that we “look,” speak, and act like Him. Every believer shares in this belonging, regardless of any other factor.

Our belonging is twofold. We belong to God. Once we confess our need for God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death and the hope in the resurrection, our belonging to God is secure. Additionally, just like the Maasai look, speak, and act like Maasai, we as Christians are given the ability to walk in the newness of life and look, speak, and act like Christ.

What if instead of “you’ll know a Maasai when you see one” it was said “you’ll know a Christian when you see one.”

What’s keeping you from living out your belonging?

Strong

We barely finished our introductions before my new friend rattled off her first question. Have you ever been in love? Our little group of four all shared our ideas on love, sex, and relationships. The next question: what would your ideal life look like? Again, we went around and answered. Then the next: why believe in God?

When it was my turn, I shared with them about how my life looked like before I surrendered my life to my Creator: trying and not-surprisingly failing to attain perfection. I told them about how because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection I can be brought back into the presence of Almighty God and all my shortcomings be redeemed through Christ.

This same new friend from above sat and listened, but I could tell there was something fiery on the tip of her tongue. Sure enough, she didn’t let even a second of silence pass after I had finished speaking.

“I think you’re weak because you believe in God.”

I almost laughed. Her words didn’t cut, didn’t hurt…the thought just seemed outrageous to me.

To her, the source of strength comes from within ourselves. When we feel that we are lacking, she believes we should dig deeper and cultivate it from within ourselves. So in her mind I’m not strong enough to gain that strength from within, and therefore I need to believe a “higher power” can intervene on my behalf.

And guess what, she’s right!!! I’m not strong enough on my own. But it took me a looooooong time to admit that.

I want to say that it is just the fact that I am a firstborn that makes me independent, but it’s not. According to my mom, I was always a “free-spirited and strong-willed child.” I operated under the mindset that whatever it is, I can do it. On my own. By myself. Without help. And I’m going to prove something to someone in the process. While this has softened as I entered into adulthood, this manifests in me wanting to be the person who can help everyone else but never wants to be on the receiving end of said help. When asked, “what do you need” I love being able to answer, “nothing, I’m fine.”

Because if I’m fine, I’m not lacking anything.

Turns out I am never really fine.

Turns out I am human.

Being human means being in a constant state of brokenness. Being in a constant state of brokenness without God is like living in a wooden house infested with termites and no exterminator left on earth. The house is going down, it’s only a matter of time.

When God created the world, He deemed it perfect in His sight. As the epitome of holy and perfect, God’s standard for His creation was to bear the same image. We make it two chapters into the Bible before things go south. Real fast. When humans decide to do things on their own, imperfection (sin) enters and overtakes God’s perfect world. On its own the world is still as broken now as it was 3,000+ years ago. Try as we might, solving the brokenness of humanity is not up to us; we will always fall short of God’s perfection.

Enter: Jesus.

Jesus has been, and will be, the only man to ever walk the earth and live a perfect, blameless, and sinless life. When Jesus, God’s one and only son, died on the cross He took on the imperfections of the world making total forgiveness possible. Now, when God looks at me, a Believer of Him, He sees the Perfect Son and not my sin. (And no, I don’t think I will ever fully grasp that!)

I love how the Gospel of Mark jumps right into why Jesus came, sharing how Jesus Himself said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

This means God doesn’t need me to be fine. In fact, He wants me to admit my dire need for Him. He wants me to admit how I can’t fix myself, how I am weak left on my own. I can slap some bandaids on a mortal wound but I’m still dying. He is the Great Physician.

It seems counterintuitive, but the only way we receive healing is by laying our lives down and in total humility declaring our need for God’s saving grace. We admit where we have fallen short, that we are too weak to fix ourselves, and ask God to forgive us.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I don’t know about you, but I have seen PLENTY of times when I cannot do even life in general on my own. My pride doesn’t want to admit it, yet it is so true. But if I wasn’t broken and in need of help, would I actually see my need for a Savior? Probably not.

I will never forget the first time someone shared with me Psalm 73:26. I was at summer camp with my family and one of the super cool college counselors wrote out part of Psalm 73 for me. After some digging, I found that the New King James Version is the closest translation here: “My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” The Hebrew verb used here for “fail” is definitive, meaning it will happen. I can vouch for that, because there are, again, PLENTY of times when my flesh and my heart have failed me. I am not strong on my own. I am not fine.

But Psalm 73 is not the only place we see a need for greater strength. In the book of Psalms alone, there are 45 times* where the Psalmist sings of God’s strength, asks Him for strength, and admits that human strength is not enough. Paul prays that the church in Ephesus would be “strengthened with power through his Spirit” (3:16) and continues to attribute strength to God in many of his other letters. Peter reminds us that as Believers, “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10) Strength cannot come from ourselves because we are not the source.

When the girl told me she thought I was weak for believing in Jesus, the rest of the table squirmed for a few moments due to the directness of her comment. Then her friend across the table jumped in. “I disagree. I think she’s strong for believing in God. I wish I could.”

I simultaneously wanted to high-five this girl as well as weep for her that she thought she couldn’t believe in God. I’ll tell you what I told her: “you can.”

If you’re tired of trying but always failing, never feeling like you’ll measure up, or ready to give up the “I’m fine” act, I encourage you to know the Source of all good things. God is a whole bunch of incredible things like unconditional love, hope, and joy, but do you know Him as your Strength?

“O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.” (Psalm 59:9)
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.” (Psalm 28:7)
“God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1a)

*Psalm 8:2; 10:17; 18:1; 18:32; 18:39; 21:1; 21:13; 22:15; 28:1; 28:7; 28:8; 29:1; 29:11; 31:10; 32:4; 38:10; 46:1; 59:9; 59:16; 59:17; 65:6; 68:35; 71:1; 71:9; 73:1; 73:26; 81:1; 84:5; 86:16; 88:4; 89:17; 89:21; 93:1; 96:6; 96:7; 105:4; 118:14; 119:28; 138:3; 140:7

FreehandTruth_Ps73.26

Reclaim

Normally I wait until the end of the year to explain more of why I chose that particular word for the year and what God has taught me about that word. But this year is different. (It’s actually different for a lot of reasons but more on that in the months to come.) My word for 2019 is “reclaim” and here’s why…

I have been reading Genesis and Exodus in my personal Bible study time and it is no coincidence that we are covering those exact books in one of my seminary classes. I am sooo thankful that the Word of God is alive and active because even though I’ve read these passages before, this time God taught me something else: I have already admitted defeat.

Before we go any further, here’s a brief overview of the beginning of the Israelites who are identified as God’s chosen people. Back in Genesis 12, God tells Abraham that He will give him land (the Promised Land), seed (descendants), and blessing (provision). God blesses Abraham and before long he is incredibly wealthy (Gen 13) and has a son with his wife Sarah (Gen 21). One of Abraham’s grandsons is Jacob (Gen 25), who God later renames as Israel (Gen 32). Israel has twelve sons (Gen 29,30, 35), who were then fruitful and multiplied (Ex 1), thus forming the Twelve Tribes of Israel, aka- the Israelites (Ex 1). While the descendants and provision parts were going well, the Israelites did not have possession of the land. In fact, they are enslaved to the Egyptians (Ex 1). God anoints Moses to petition the Egyptian ruler to let God’s people go (Ex 3), and after the tenth disastrous plague, the Israelites are set free (Ex 12). A year-ish of trekking towards the Promised Land God’s people finally arrive at the border (Num 13). Twelve spies are sent to scout out the land that has already been promised to the Israelites (Num 13); ten return and say “no can do, the current inhabitants are giants” and two say “God has given us this land so let’s do it!” (Num 13). The people side with the majority and accept the defeat, rebelling and complaining against God for not giving them what He had promised. God’s response: I said I was giving it to you but you chose not to believe me; therefore, you will wander in the wilderness for forty years and you’ll know that I am displeased (Num 14).

Yikes.

Thankfully, I believe that God deals differently with us now than He did with His people in the Old Testament. So when I don’t please God He won’t set me in the Sahara and say “good luck, see you in four decades.” But even without the desert wanderings, I can’t help but see the similarities between the Israelites and myself. Just like them, I doubt God.

Both the Israelites and myself were/are not believing Truth about God; that He is good and loving and wants good for me. Instead, we are believing the lies of the enemy. Ephesians 6:12 says that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against Satan. Since the very beginning of time, Satan has been trying to deceive us into believing lies about God (Gen 3). The problem is, just like the Israelites, I sometimes think the promise of God is too good to be true.

We have the complete written Word of God and the redemption of Jesus which means we are not on the pursuit for land, seed, and blessing, but rather for the Kingdom. Jesus says that we should pursue the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). And for me that means I have to uproot the lies that I believe about Him. I need to reclaim the Truth of who God is in my life. He has already given me the promises of who He is, His perfect character, and now it’s up to me to live believing those.

Here are a few of the things I am reclaiming:

  • God is good. (Psalm 145:9)
  • God is for me. (Matthew 7:11)
  • God is love. (1 John 4:7-12)
  • God is perfect. (Psalm 18:30)

I am super not perfect which, for the record, does not mesh with a holy and perfect God. Thankfully, Jesus’ death was payment for my imperfections and brought me into the family of God. Because I am a child of God, I have been given access to know the Father. (Seriously, I have been given that!) When I use my circumstances to determine how I feel about God, I get a really misconstrued view of the Father.

I like the word “reclaim” because it implies action. I have to be active in identifying what lies I am believing to have an accurate view of God. I have to be active in fighting off Satan to remember that God is the good ruler of my life. I can’t just look at what has been promised to me and instead turn around and throw the world’s most pathetic pity-party because it doesn’t look probable that God will come through. No, God is who He says He is.

Below are some verses and passages that God has been using to re-orient my heart towards Him. I’ve found more significance in what these verses say about who God is, rather than what pertains to me. As I study God’s character, I reclaim the “broken” areas of my life because my perspective is realigned.

This year, I’m asking myself what has God promised to me that I have given up on? What parts of His character am I struggling to not only see, but also to trust in? Which circumstances am I allowing to cause doubt about God? And I’m also remembering that even when I fail or give up, God’s character is not dependent on me.


“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:16-17)

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

“[Jesus] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him ehe name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should boy, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:7-11)

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

“For this we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6)

Kind

Every few years God brings me almost to a halt in order to return back to the basics of my faith. In the past it’s been recognizing the hope for Heaven, His faithful presence in my life, or once was realizing the magnitude of my sin and need for a Savior.

This is not me regaining my salvation. It is practicing remembrance. When these seasons begin, I often get uneasy because I fear that my wrestling is offensive to God and that He is disappointed that I am back to something I should have already learned.

This past month has been one of those back-to-basics moments. But this time, instead of putting on a cloak of shame, I chose to walk in Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

I have been working out my salvation by asking the question, “is God kind to me?” I feel almost heretical stringing those words together now, even after God and I have had some extensive conversations about that very topic. It just doesn’t feel right to say such a thing.

Growing up in the church, I’m pretty good at the whole head knowledge thing, but my heart is often slower to catch up. When I first spoke the question that had been rumbling around in the very back of my head I was simultaneously relieved and appalled. Relieved because I felt like the ticking time bomb had been diffused. Appalled because every Sunday school teacher or pastor I’ve sat under would probably ask me if I didn’t hear a word they had said. Of course God is kind!

But to be honest, I wasn’t feeling it. I saw God’s kindness in people’s lives around me, but was having a difficult time seeing it myself. I’d like to think that I tried really hard to see His kindness in my life, but my heart was tired and calloused. So I probably gave up quickly.

Right around this time, I had a seminary assignment where I practiced spiritual disciplines and wrote out prayers everyday for a certain amount of time. This is when I started getting very honest with God. No more of that hiding behind “I know” business. It was time to give Him a piece of my mind. There were definitely a series of “I’m mad at You because ____” and “Why haven’t You _____” and several “I don’t like ____.” Everything centered around why I thought God was disciplining me unjustly. Everything centered around me. 

I think it was good and wise to voice where I was; I needed to hear myself to realize it was all about me. So I started studying about who God is. The Bible talks about God’s character a lot. It says that He is Creator (Gen 1:1), Savior (John 3:16), Holy (Rev 4:8), Love (1 John 4:7-12), and Life (Col 1:17), just to name a few. 

Titus 3:4-7 has been a favorite passage of mine for a long time. I had completely forgotten it uses the phrase “loving kindness” until I did a Bible search for the exact phrase. 

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 

This verse is especially applicable for now for two reasons:
1. It clearly attributes kindness to God.
2. The kindness of God is the gift of Jesus. 

Fair warning: I’m about to nerd out here. 

I wanted to find a good, healthy, Biblical definition of “kindness” so I hopped over to Blue Letter Bible to see how kindness was used in these verses. Y’ALL. I LITERALLY CAN’T.

In Titus 3, Paul used the Greek word “χρηστότης” which comes from the root word of “χρηστός.” Now I do not read ancient Greek, but thanks to the little modern Greek I know some bells went off in my head…because that word for kindness sure did sound a lot like the word for Christ. LOOK AT THIS.

root word of kindness (Titus 3)
χρηστός
khrā-sto’s

Christ (New Testament)
Χριστός
khrē-sto’s

I cannot get over how close those sound. I am choosing to believe that it cannot be a coincidence that Paul, when writing Titus, chose the word for kindness that sounded so similar to that for Christ. 

At the very beginning of me examining whether I believe God is kind to me, I had a dear friend (looking at you Lizzy Cook) who encouraged me to see God’s kindness as the free gift of salvation. I can know and experience the kindness of God by walking out in the freedom and hope and grace and restoration that the Gospel brings. Jesus Christ’s presence is kindness.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I believe God is kind to me. So much kinder than I will ever comprehend.