Comments Off on In the boat with Jesus through the COVID-19 storm
by Sarah Colyn
“As long as we dwell in time, there will never be more of Him available to us than now. Our walk with Him, our acknowledgement of Him with us, within us, while remaining fully sovereign – all this in the now – is what faith apprehends. God is available to us; Jesus is indeed, if we are born again of His Spirit, the living Fountain within.” 
What does it look like to know that God is fully, really with us, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? How do we partake of that living fountain within when things around us are disruptive and disorienting? Through His multi-splendored grace, God provides transforming and redemptive practices. As we engage these practices, I am confident we will not just make it through, but will actually know the joy of God’s creative power at work in us and through us right in COVID-19’s midst.
Practicing the Presence
The relentless news cycle and growing list of changes to our daily activities can crowd our field of vision. Tuning into God’s presence is a moment-by-moment practice, and the tempter will exploit the intensity of these circumstances to pull our hearts away from awareness of Emmanuel. When we forget to stay our imaginations on Him, we slide into a sense that there is less of God available and that we’re on our own to contend with the circumstances of this virus. When we remember, we are kept in perfect peace, a truly supernatural grace! In these days the practice of His presence may be more challenging,
like when an athlete adds heavier weights to their workout routine. A more strenuous workout leads to stronger muscles, so let us take heart. We may fail at times, but failure is part of any worthwhile practice. When we realize we’ve forgotten, that’s our chance to begin again, thanking God for His grace.
This pandemic gives us a fresh reason to endeavor to keep our eyes on the Lord. By focusing on Him, we will remain well connected to the source of all assurance and wisdom. If at any point we shift our gaze from His face to the stormy seas, we can always repent and cry out for rescue. He stands ready to deliver us from preoccupation with the things of this world and restore to us the joy of our salvation. Let’s remember too that He has given His Spirit who lives within us. He will grant the grace we need, from the inside-out. We can partake of Christ’s own peace, courage, hope, and whatever else we need of Him, in every present moment.
Living at the Cross
The shifting landscape caused by this pandemic stirs primitive reactions in all of us. Our reactions vary — some of us are prone to inordinate fear, others to criticism and blame, others to denial, and so on. Although not sinful in themselves, some of our gut reactions arise from the old man rather than the new and can therefore easily lead us to sin. It is good to admit that we still fall under the influence of that old survivalist within, the one who can’t and won’t rest in God’s peace. If we ignore our fallibility, we will be tempted to take our subjective reactions as objective fact. When we stray from humility, we authorize our hostile, paranoid, and judgmental tendencies and will lack charity. We will likely have the greatest difficulty with those whose primitive reactions rub ours the wrong way, and can be quick to see the old man in others while unaware that he’s rising up in us.
This struggle between our old way and Christ’s way is not one we can manage alone. Let’s kneel at the cross regularly, inviting the Spirit to search our hearts. Where He illuminates resentment or villainization of others, we can yield these grievous reactions to our crucified Lord. Where a critical or intolerant spirit is mounting in us, we can ask for grace to see as God sees and receive an infusion of agape love. Where we discern error in others’ choices, we can let this awareness move us into loving and fruitful intercession.
One way God works all things for our good is by using all things to refine us in character. The circumstances created by the pandemic may give us access to areas of woundedness or immaturity that go undetected in more comfortable times. Living at the cross allows us to humbly observe the content of our emotions and thoughts and share them with the Lord in prayer. Bringing our reactions to the cross will not only save us from sin, but will yield healing and growth as we exchange old ways of surviving for new wholeness in Christ.
Partaking of Well-Being
It is God’s desire that every person He’s created have fullness of life. Well-being is His will for us, and we serve His will when we “live loved.” We know that God’s will is not always done in this world, and suffering and deprivation touch every life. So we bear these experiences in hope when we must (more on that later), but we are not to resign ourselves to misery during this pandemic or at any time. We can ask God for inspiration on how to find joy and live creatively amidst whatever limitations the virus brings about.
We can watch our “diet” and feed our imaginations with the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent. I can’t imagine a better time to read great stories to ourselves and our loved ones. If we notice that we’re descending into a dreary and unmotivated mood, we should reach out. Some of the best sustenance comes when we give the very thing we’re needing, whether it’s offering someone our attention, extending a well-washed helping hand, or inviting a friend to a time of play or creativity.
Uncertainty is hard on us humans — we were created for unbroken relationship with an unchanging God. Because worrying thoughts can trouble us most at night, practicing good sleep hygiene is important in these unfamiliar days. I recommend these habits to honor the way God created us for restoring sleep: keep a consistent bedtime and waking schedule; get exercise and sunlight during the day; avoid caffeine, alcohol, or large meals close to bedtime; minimize screen use before bed; make your bedroom cozy (quiet, dark, relaxing, a good temperature, and screen-free); and pray the examen or compline before bed, allowing God to clear your mind and prepare your body and soul for peaceful sleep.
If we’re developing symptoms of depression or anxiety, we should seek support early to help us stay emotionally healthy. Pastors and counselors are continuing to provide care, using technology in circumstances where face-to-face meetings are not advised. Religious posturing that erects a false front of pseudo-strength, -faith, or -joy hurts the poser and all around them. God has taken on our flesh and knows our frailty. He has walked this earth with us and has great compassion for what it’s like to live amidst viruses, economic strain, and communal anxiety. Union with Him protects us from the vice grip of pride and shame, keeping us free to cry for help to Him and to His body whenever we need it.
The prudent person sees the reality of a situation and takes right actions that match reality. Incarnational reality means that we aren’t on our own to acquire virtue but can ask God to grow prudence in us. Prudence has two key components, comprehending and acting, and we can look to God to aid us in both. In terms of comprehending, God will guide so that we see what we need to know about the reality of our circumstances. Yes, we want to be informed, but not obsessed, and so we should seek discernment about which and how much information to consume. TV news channels make a poor companion at times like this and we need to guard against a foolish or anxious fixation on the news.
Prudence also involves readiness to act, obeying the command we understand God to be speaking, to the best we know. Christian obedience requires submission as well as courage. In cooperating with the guidance of those in leadership, or in letting go of activities and liberties for the sake of the common good, we are submitting to God and the reality He has permitted. In times like this, God also calls believers to sacrificial actions so that He can love His world through us. The prudent are free to obey promptly and courageously, confident not in themselves but in the One in whom we live, move, and have our being.
The antidote to anxiety and introspection is to engage with the awesome world God has shared with us. The world, flesh, and devil may conspire to turn us in on ourselves, but there is so much lovely and amazing otherness that is untouched by COVID-19. Social distancing may change how we reach out, but doesn’t cut us off from the beauty and wonder of creation. Dirt and growing things are always good for us, and I foresee many countertop, porch-step and backyard gardens will be sprouting in the weeks ahead. Our fellow human beings are the crown of creation, and we will remain free to enjoy and be amazed by one another throughout this season. Beholding, enjoying, and blessing one another is a gift we can unwrap every day. Dr. Clyde Kilby recommended this resolution for mental health: “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their ‘divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic’ existence.”
In our concern for those suffering around us, many of us have a longing to “do something,” a godly urge to serve, help, and care for others. Union with Christ holds us in a collaborative posture with the Lord, saving us from doing for the sake of doing. We can quiet our activistic impulses, taking time to wait, listen, and invite the God who gave His only, beloved Son to love His world through us. We can be confident He is eager to do so, for any true desire in our hearts surely had its origin in God’s own heart. If we will offer our desires to Him, we can trust that He will open up the path before us. We will be surprised and delighted by how He involves us in His loving initiative. No doubt, many testimonies will emerge through this pandemic of God loving His world through His people, and many more acts of love and service will escape the notice of man but bring much glory to God.
This is a good time to remember the spiritual nature of Christian fellowship. The communion of saints is an awesome reality, always true but especially meaningful during times of physical separation. When any one of us is praying, singing, or reading scriptures, ours is never a lone voice. Our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are worshipping too, not to mention the heavenly host before the very throne of God. These days I am singing a peppy doxology while I wash my hands, and it is so lovely to know that I am joining a song being lifted by so many tongues in so many lands. Union with Christ is a real thing, and our spiritual health benefits when we contemplate our membership in His body.
Remembering that we are part of a whole fabric of relationship can also inspire us in prayer. In these days it is especially important that we pray for civic, healthcare, and Church leaders. We are called to stand in prayer alongside every person who God has placed in a position of leadership. We may never know all of what God accomplishes through our prayers, but we know that prayer is how we bear with one another and participate in God’s faithfulness to His people. Intercessory prayer is a powerful antidote to loneliness because it shifts our attention from ourselves and engages us in real communion with God and those we are lifting to Him in prayer.
Hoping in Heaven
Incarnational reality (the good news that God is with us and within us) is no health-and-wealth gospel. To the contrary, knowing that God is with and within us enables us to hope-fully live amongst, and even suffer through, the worst realities of this fallen world. We see much of God’s goodness here in this life, but we also taste the bitter cup, and we are able to endure because we know the real prize awaits us at the end of the race. Christian hope is truly a supernatural virtue, one we need for ourselves and to have enough to share with others around us.
Let’s remember that we’re on a journey of becoming, and that our God is eager to use all of these circumstances to transform us from glory to glory. We are in the blessed season of Lent, a key time of renewal in the Christian year. In his essay Great Lent: A School Of Repentance, Father Alexander Schmemann notes that we participate in Lent by pursuing a change of life. It seems to me that the situation created by the spread of the virus invites us more deeply into this Lenten pursuit. Here’s how Fr Schmemann describes it:
And, last but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to slow down our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation, meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, social gatherings—all these things, however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something more important to do, and it is impossible to do without a change of life, without some degree of concentration and discipline. Lent is the time when we re-evaluate our life in the light of our faith, and this requires a very real effort and discipline. Christ says that a narrow path leads to the kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible. At first the natural and selfish man in us revolts against these limitations. He wants his usual “easy life” with all its pleasures and relaxations. But once we have tasted of such spiritual effort, once we have made by it one step towards God, the reward is great! We discover a joy that cannot be compared to any other joy. We discover the reality of the spiritual world in us. We begin to understand what St. Paul meant by “the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” God Himself enters our soul: and it is this wonderful coming that constitutes the ultimate end of Lent:
“If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)
Let us make this Lent a real Lent!
I say amen to Fr Schemann’s exhortation. And for us today I would add this, as strange as it may sound: let us make this pandemic a fruitful pandemic. Let us press in to incarnational reality. As long as we live in this world, there will never be more of God available to us than there is right now!
 Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1995), 72.
 Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: A School of Repentance (originally published by Department Of Religious Education Orthodox Church In America, 1970, now public domain, gutenberg.org), 14-15.
Paintings, all via Wikimedia Commons:
Jacopo Tintoretto, 1575, Christ at the Sea of Galilee
Meister der Schule von Nowgorod, 1360, Crucifixion
Rodrigo Fernández, 2015, Jesus multiplies the loaves
Jean-Paul Haag, 1906, Little gardener sniffs flowers
Sergey Vinogradov, 1938, Pilgrims
All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Matthew 28:18–20, KJV
The “all power” is in such contrast to the poverty and humility He knew as the divine Son who “laid aside His glory” and “emptied Himself.” His state of vulnerability never once veered but rather culminated in the cross and His full sacrifice for our sin. And Paul says that we should imitate Christ’s humility, even that our attitude should be as His:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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 2:6–11)
The immensity of who we worship, and who we become—real persons—sons and daughters of God by adoption into Christ, prepares us to look at the divine humbling and the incredible scriptural mandate to imitate it. 
In Jesus we find the ultimate Someone — so solid, so real, unswervingly entrusting Himself to His Father’s love. The gospel stirs our hearts with His dignity and faithfulness, and gives us the amazing news that we’ve been made to become like Him! We seek healing so that we can imitate Christ. His peace can ground us enough that we lay down our self-protections. His healing can integrate the divided heart so that we become servants of God’s will in this world. He gives us His life so that we can share in the glory of humility.
Fairest Lord Jesus, thank you for showing us the way. Thank you for being the Way. Thank you for countering all the power-grabbing, prideful pictures of power with the awesome reality of Your self-giving love. Lord we want to follow You, we want to abide in You, we want to please You, but on our own we cannot. We believe our lives are hid with You in God, but help our unbelief. Set Your unbreakable trust in the Father into our hearts. Cleanse us, heal us, and raise us up that we might know more of the joy of imitating Your humility.
 Leanne Payne, Listening Prayer (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1994), 44. Painting: R. van der Weyden, 1435, Deposition [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. I Corinthians 6:19-20a NIV
All afternoon we cried out to God, and there were terrible moments when I wondered what I would do if God failed to help me, if I would simply have to cry out like this the rest of my life.
Then suddenly my pleading was interrupted by an amazing awareness of Christ in me. From that center where He and I were mysteriously one, I extended forgiveness to my enemy. At that same moment, I was delivered out of the grip of the worst temptation I’d ever known…
…Christ in me was securely linking me to God the Father in all His sovereignty and to all else in highest heaven, above and beyond me. That incarnational link had been the reality through this whole terrible time.
Had I learned to acknowledge and celebrate God’s immanence as well as His sovereignty, I would have prayed more effectively, and from a much quieter, less frantic place. I would have been secure in the knowledge that Christ was closer to me than any human being could ever be; He was with me in this warfare…. 
Advent calls us to meditate on God’s immanence: He is really present and operating within this world and within our beings. It is all too easy to live, work, and even pray as though He’s far away, and so we need this annual pilgrimage to attune our hearts to Emmanuel. The reality that our God is with us, even in the midst of the terrible times, enables us to live this life with supernatural hope and peace.
Lord Jesus, pour out Your Spirit on our Advent worship and spiritual disciplines. Thank You for the now of Your presence; grant us Your mighty, untapped treasures as we wait for the not yet of Your fulfilled kingdom. Use this Advent season to bring us to a more secure union in You, and create an overflow of hope and peace for our families, churches, and communities.
 Leanne Payne, Heaven’s Calling (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2008), 100-101. Photograph: Liesel, Adventskranz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. Colossians 2:8-10
I sadly watched… neognostic spirituality penetrate and destroy the larger part of Catholic and Anglican renewal, together with that within the older Protestant denominations. Now it is flooding into the evangelical world. It is characterized by an absence of true learning — the good of reason that attends wisdom from the Spirit. And it always reconciles good and evil. It assigns innocence to sin and sinful behavior — calling it good.
Many who control church organizations today have fallen into the trap of neognosticism. They are busy not only publishing this new “gospel” to all who will listen, but because they are in authority they are enforcing their views as “politically correct” — a new “law.” They are often heard or read today as “Christian” speakers, teachers, and writers. Such is the final result of our egoistic subjectivism and the loss of the Unseen Real. 
Not every teacher who borrows Christian vocabulary is leading us to Christ. So how do we resist having our minds changed, our consciences captivated by the confusion? Only through Jesus, who still is the way, the truth, and the life. Turns out, “Keep your head on straight” is profound advice. Devotion to Christ gives us His mind and discernment, and keeps us in fellowship with others who are after the same prize. When we stand up straight under our living Head, we can effectively love His Church as He does, pray for her off-track influencers, and seek freedom for our brothers and sisters who’ve been taken captive.
Lord Jesus Christ, You are the head of all rule and authority, and we thank you for taking us into Your body through Your cross. Rule in our minds. Give us discernment that is free from paranoia. Give us love for Your truth that is free from hostility. Show us any teaching we’ve absorbed that lures us away from devotion to You. Have mercy on Your Church Lord, expose the schemes of the Deceiver, and deliver those who are imprisoned and separated from You.
 Leanne Payne, Listening Prayer (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1994), 216-217. Icon: Christ Pantocrator from Church of the Paster Noster [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2 NKJV
When we hear educators or politicians pleading for the restoration of Christian values in the universities or in government, we know their calls are nearly useless because there can be no counteracting trend until the populace itself is converted… Therefore, our hope is not in calling for our systems to be Christian, but in becoming truly Christian ourselves. 
A pro-Christ trend in our nations can never be imposed top-down — it will only come from the inside-out, one believer, one household at a time. Our societies will only remain free by having citizens who are inwardly governed by the loving will of God. We serve society when we withdraw into our gardens of solitude, where we are being steadily transformed into the likeness of Christ. We bring help to this world when we let Him send us out to winsomely appeal to those around us to be converted too. We are members of the most potent grassroots movement this world will ever know: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Lord Jesus, we praise You as the King of history and confess that you are King of our time and of our nations. Forgive us for following the lead of any worldly influence; bring the perfect clarity of Your truth into any confusion. Forgive us for any way we’ve been looking to the government or our civic institutions to rescue us rather than courageously following You. Cleanse our hearts of anxiety, hopelessness, and unbelief, for we do believe You are faithful. Pour out Your Spirit upon us. Unleash Your Kingdom within us and among us. Renew our minds, make our wills one with Yours, and empower us to invite others into this blessed life of transformation in You.
 Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1995), 53 Illustration: Limbourg brothers, 1416, The Apostles Going Forth to Preach from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
The healing of this [separation from one’s self] brings into harmony the intellect and the heart—that is, the cognitive and intuitive capacities and ways of knowing, and these “two minds” are thereby enabled to balance and complete each other. The will, the emotions, the intuitive and imaginative faculties are cleansed and receive the very life of God. With this healing, the self is freed to come into the Presence of the Unseen Real—the Presence of God Himself—where we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). It is in this way that we become persons. True personality is rooted in relationship: first of all in God, the Uncreated, then with everything He has created. 
This vision of human personhood stirs the soul. Our hearts rise, even ache, to be that free, that alive, that whole. To know that God has purposed to bring us into such largeness of being and relationship is awesome. God desires us for Himself, and to give us into relationship with this world that He so loves. This is no cheap splendor, but puts our feet on bedrock reality while our spirits ascend. Something in us knows we are destined for such a weight of glory, and we truly desire to walk the costly but radiant path of becoming.
Thank You, Creator God, for the spark of life that glows within every human being. Come, Holy Spirit and blow the embers of desire to become whole. We believe you can make true persons; help our unbelief. Continue your work within us, integrating, balancing, harmonizing, cleansing, and freeing. Empower our listening and obeying, that we may come into this fullness and help others do the same, today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.
 Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1995), 37.
Woodcut: von Carolsfeld, 1860, Die Bibel in Bildern, Sixth Day [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself
and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;
that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them,
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20
Christ empowered and commanded His followers to heal because He knew that all men, in their exterior relationships and within themselves, are broken and separated. In order to gain wholeness and the opportunity to mature as persons, we must acknowledge and deeply repent of the separations in our lives. The primary separation is between the self and God, out of which issue the separations between the self and other selves, the self and nature, and the self and one’s “deep heart.” 
These separations cause our most private shame and strife, and are behind every societal evil and environmental catastrophe. Praise God, all can be reconciled! We must begin by admitting that we are fractured, and yield to Christ as Lord and Healer. Those who initiate change with hearts yet separated from God will stumble and err, but those who have Another indwelling their hearts become ambassadors for Christ. Maturity comes through successive reconciliations, of coming home again and again into ever-deepening union with God.
Gracious Lord, we thank you for the warm eyes of compassion with which you behold brokenness. Thank you for seeing through our layers of denial, self-seeking, and striving, calling us out of our miserable separations. Thank you for Your steadfast, reconciling presence in every place in this world. We confess that like sheep, we have gone astray, and we ask you to come now and lead us back home. Raise us up in the particular vocations You’ve ordained for each of us, that we might make Your appeal to whomever You send us. We long to see Your reconciling work completed in us, among us, and around us.
 Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1995), 37.
Painting: John Macallan Swan, 1888, The Prodigal Son [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained,
separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins
and then for those of the people,
since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath,
which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest,
one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,
minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.
It is wonderful to meditate on the fact that Christ’s intercession for us did not end with His death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven and the “right hand of the Father.” For He is the ultimate Mediator-Priest, and as such “ever lives to intercede” for us. “Jesus, intercede to the Father for me!” is always my cry when I am most desperate. I often wonder why I waited so long to turn to Him as Intercessor. What an immense privilege we have. What an infinite conduit of mercy opens to us when we remember to invoke Him in His office of divine Mediator. 
Incarnational Reality continually takes us higher and deeper. Our Lord doesn’t leave us; rather He becomes all the more available even as He is lifted to the highest place. Let us practice His presence as our very real and present help. Truly He is perfectly attentive, perfectly faithful, perfectly merciful, the Yes and Amen to every promise of our Father!
Lord Jesus I thank you that you have not only died for me, but also live to intercede for me. Help me to practice Your presence so that I may rely more and more on this truth. Grant my heart to see You rightly, that I might more readily turn to You as my intercessor. You are worthy of my absolute trust, utter confidence, and wholehearted praise, now and forever.
 Leanne Payne, Listening Prayer (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1994), p. 70.
Painting: Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, 1572-1645, The Ascension, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Cor 3:12-18
When Christ strengthens us in the inner man, what is He strengthening? Some of us have, in recent years, preferred to ignore the strictly human side of incarnation: that which thinks, feels, imagines, dreams, symbolizes, remembers, wills, and is the vessel through which the Divine Light is to shine. Just as we feel safe in thinking of Christ in His divinity, but not His humanity, so it is with ourselves. We may even speak rather glibly of Christ’s indwelling us (our divine side), but fear to marvel at how wondrously our inner being is fashioned and constituted to receive and pass on this imposition of divine splendor. 
What a rescue, what a gift! We have been awakened from the zombie-like daze of alienation from our full humanity. It takes faith, yet more than faith, to embrace this truth. It takes greatness of soul, the deepest courage. We Christians are to live confidently because every aspect of our humanness has been interpenetrated by God’s glory. We are to live unselfconsciously and without anxiety as those who are becoming noble, beautiful, and true. We are to live humbly, honestly and freely because all that we are, and all that goes on inside us, is in His loving presence.
Gracious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I thank you that I am in You, and You are in me. I celebrate the reality that You are transforming me and making Your great splendor visible through little me. Thank you for taking the fullness of my real, human being into your incorruptible life. You indwell my sensations and emotions. You indwell my thoughts, imaginations, and dreams. You indwell my memories and the symbols in my heart. You indwell my desires and my will. Grant me gifts of faith and courage to rest in Your promise and stand in Your glory.
Comments Off on The power and responsibility of choice
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.
It is not in heaven, that you should say,
‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’
Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say,
‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’
But the word is very near you.
It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
In cases where the will has long been in captivity, and is not only passive but is for whatever reason undeveloped and withered, we may need to pray for its freedom and strengthening, or even for an outright miracle of restoration. But the will, that most essential faculty of the human soul, the one that chooses self or God, must then actively choose life or death, Heaven or Hell. Then, in the strength and grace of God’s Presence, we do not look up and ask God to strike a death blow at any lusts of the spirit, soul, or body that war against the full ‘putting on’ of Christ. We do it. We then, in the practice of the Presence, ‘put on’ Christ.
Every human being has a will, although in this darkened world this vital organ is too easily broken, bent, and co-opted. Regardless of its condition, our will is the critical frontier where we meet God and confront our responsibility to choose life. We must learn to wield the power we’ve been given, the power of the will. Using this power properly yields great dignity for the one who chooses Christ. Knowing the inescapable and eternally consequential decisions we must make, we have powerful motivation to pray for the strength and right orientation of our wills.
Come, Holy Spirit. Descend into me anew, Divine, Eternal, Masculine Will. Descend into me, radiate through me. Make my weak and insufficient will one with Yours. Thank you Lord for Your literal and actual indwelling, forming my will in union with Yours. Speak your commands to my ear, and will your commands within my heart. Thank you for empowering me with Your heart, Your mind, Your energy, and Your love. I do put You on once again, my Lord and my God. To You be all honor, glory, and praise, now and forever.
 Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1995), p. 95-96.
Painting: Szymon Czechowicz, 1758, Resurrection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
Heavenly Participation: The weaving of a sacramental tapestry by Hans Boersma
In Heavenly Participation, theologian Hans Boersma calls for a “resacramentalized Christian ontology” (20). His aim resonates strongly with Leanne Payne’s work, urging that our whole sense of reality needs to be understood not just as a means of knowing about God, but of knowing His real presence. In part one, Boersma demonstrates how the sacramental understanding of patristic and medieval times was lost to the church through the rise of modernity. He traces the consequences of theological errors, misguided church reforms, and misdirected debates that led to the current, impoverished postmodern mindset. This historical sketch is illuminating, and his work has sharpened my discernment of theological distortions that so readily poison our hearts’ images of God, ourselves, and all reality. I’ll share this insightful quote from part one:
The fragmentation of postmodernity witnesses to the fact that once we lose this Christological foundation, natural realities end up drifting anchorless in the raging waves of history. To put it differently, the loss of the Christological thread undermines the unity of the sacramental tapestry. Culturally, therefore, we are more than ever in need of a philosophical position that allows us to maintain that universals are real, as well as a theological position that argues that they find their reality in the eternal word of God (51).
In part two of Heavenly Participation, Boersma suggests that our theology must once again become Christ-centered in order to recover the knowledge of God with us. Or as he puts it, “A retrieval of the sacramental ontology of the patristic fathers and the Middle Ages requires a focus on Christology in every area of theology” (101). He draws on the mid-twentieth-century Catholic renewal movement of nouvelle théologie in his mission to help evangelical theology recover what we in MPC would call an incarnational worldview. He dedicates chapters to looking at the particular sacramental nature of the Eucharist, Christian tradition, biblical interpretation, truth itself, and theology. There are many beautiful passages I could share, but I’ll choose one that illuminates our understanding of the healing of memories: “Augustine’s concept of time was sacramental: time participatesin the eternity of God’s life, and it is this participation that is able to gather past, present, and future together into one” (126).
I’ll close with gratitude for Dr. Boersma and the true Christian humility that shines through the pages of Heavenly Participation. I believe his work rises to the call that he articulates for our theologians today: Theology is “not there to explain God but to draw us into the very mystery of his life. The modesty that theology needs is the recognition that we cannot rationally comprehend God. Theology is based on mystery and enters into mystery” (26-27). If you are looking for a book that will draw you both thoughtfully and joyfully into the very mystery of God’s life, Heavenly Participationis a most worthwhile read.
Comments Off on Willing to be a new kind of person
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.
For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
The night is far gone; the day is at hand.
So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Romans 13:11-14 ESV
The early Christians understood that our union with Christ in His death and resurrection is what saves us, and water baptism is at once symbolic of this and a means through which the reality is imparted. The catechumen ‘died to’ his old life, was found hidden in Christ, and rose with him to an utterly new life. …
As with baptism, so too it is with healing prayer, which is in reality part of the work of baptism. We go into healing prayer as one kind of person, and we come out another. And in this action, our will is involved; unholy, we put on the new. True enough, in His Presence there is grace to do these things, but we do them. You do them. I do them. 
The fallen world is ever peddling ways to “become your best self now.” Sadly, resolving to be a new person in one’s own strength more often produces despair than goodness. We mustn’t confuse misguided, humanistic self-improvement with the revolution of character that occurs through healing prayer. It is only by putting on Christ that one can realistically resolve to become better, to become new. When we determine to be clothed with Him, it’s not so much that we resolve to be good as that we resolve to be Christ’s. It is awesome to be a human being, endowed with the power to do, and we begin to know the weight of glory when we do this highest of actions, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Gracious Father, thank you for my baptism. Thank you for uniting me with Christ in His death, so that my old life and all that would bind me to death has no claim on me. I bow before you in humble gratitude, casting off the works of darkness. Thank you for hiding my life in Christ, imparting to me His immortality and incorruptibility. Thank you for raising me with Him. I stand before you now, putting on Christ as my robe of righteousness. Indwell me, in-will me, for I choose to be new, I choose to be Yours. I thank you for giving me a will, and I thank you for this glorious mystery of being one with You in Christ.
Comments Off on Returning to the gospel at Christmas
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord,
nor of me his prisoner,
but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,
who saved us and called us to a holy calling,
not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace,
which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
and which now has been manifested
through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus,
who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
2 Timothy 1:8-10
The Christian union with God is Christ in us, uniting us to God the Father and all that is ultimate reality. Read more…
and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.
Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:16b-19, NIV
I am in the ministry today because of the knowledge that within many of us is not only the rebel in need of forgiveness but an abettor as well: a wounded soul that is also an obstacle to faith and in need of being led out of the prison house. Today this freeing of the captives is often referred to as a healing ministry, but even so, it should be understood as merely a vital part of the gospel ministry that has been seriously neglected, if not lost… In the cross of Christ is forgiveness for the rebel and healing for the traumatized and wounded soul as well. I am in the ministry because of the sure knowledge that this healing comes in and with taking our place in Him, the very identification with Christ that is at the heart of baptism and of our ongoing empowerment to live out our lives in that baptismal reality. 
Most of us in this life absorb some serious soul-wounding, and it needs to be tended to. Damage in our souls distorts who we are, restricts our capacity to know God and others, and holds us captive to the worst of what we’ve experienced in this life. Seeking healing for our souls is not primarily about feeling better, but is about getting free so that we can live as vibrant people of faith. The awesome truth is that our ordeals and injuries can be healed – Jesus has already accomplished it on His cross and desires to bring us into the wholeness He won. Let us take our place in Him: our healing place, our whole place, our free place.
Holy God, we thank You that You have indeed conveyed us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of the Son of Your Love. Thank you for Your gaze of mercy that sees not just a willful rebel, but also a wounded son or daughter. Thank you for Your passion to heal those wounds and free our faith. Give us all we need to choose healing, to take our place in You. Fill us with Your Spirit that we may have power to stand in You, rise with You, and collaborate with You fully.
My flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
Psalm 63:1-4 NKJV
Created in the image of God, we arrive in this world with an inborn hunger for the transcendent, even for heaven. Something in us is born knowing. In such a time as this, when
the Western world finds itself in the horrors of a spiritual and moral freefall, many come out of this culture to our conferences trapped in the ugliest of sinful compulsions, having forgotten this inborn holy craving. And it is in the presence of the Holy One, the very coming into sacred space filled with true worship, that these dread bonds begin to break and fall away from them. The true self that yearns for the good, the beautiful, the true, and the noble then begins its heroic journey up and out of the false self, with its layers and layers of sordid behavior, and breaks through into God’s light with His pathway in sight. 
We exist for a single and awesome purpose: to enjoy the Holy One forever. Daily news reports grieve us with the consequences of the loss of knowledge of Him, but let us keep faith that returning to Him is the remedy for every horror. No matter how buried our longing for Him may be, our holy God never calls off the search party, for He wills to pull us from the rubble of generations of neglect and rebellion. We are yet responsible to consent to and participate in His rescue mission. The Father is calling through Jesus His Son to every man, woman, and child: “Come out, come out of the prison house and live!”
Father, we thank You for calling us to such a heroic journey. We praise You for Your holiness that is undiminished by our faithlessness. We thank You for continuing to seek us in Your faithfulness and mercy. Truly You are a loving God, not willing that any should be destroyed. Come Lord Jesus, come Spirit of the Living God, and increase in us knowledge of the Holy. Breathe on us that we might lift true worship to Your throne. Make our homes and churches places where bondage is broken and many are empowered to walk the radiant path, for the glory of Your name.
 Leanne Payne, Leanne Payne Newsletter (Advent 2007), p. 1-2.
Painting: Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1895, Sunrise [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meditation prepared by Sarah Colyn, drawing on the writings and ministry of Leanne Payne.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
– Psalm 27:4-6 ESV
Another lives in me. My spirit is one with His. That is my whole place. All else is raging around me and within me, but I can stand now, confident, and watch as God heals this part of me that is so wounded. 
Ours is an incarnational view of man and reality. Christ is, as F. B. Meyer has said, “the living Fountain rising up in the well of our personality.”He is present now. He, our Healer, has already become flesh, has already accomplished the work of the cross, has already poured out the full gift of His Spirit upon us. As long as we dwell in time, there will never be more of Him available to us then there is now. Our walk with Him, our acknowledgment of Him with us, within us, while remaining fully sovereign – all this in the now – is what faith apprehends. God is available to us; Jesus is indeed, if we are born again of His spirit, the living Fountain within. We practice His presence.
What you call “me,” where you understand yourself to be standing, shapes life tremendously. The erring and hopeless voices of world, flesh, and devil would tell you that you are your wounds, that you are most truly named by the damaged places in your soul. Answer those voices with confidence, testifying that you have received the most valuable privilege that exists: a place of wholeness already established inside your own being. When you stand in this place where you are one with Christ, there is solid ground under your feet and adequate provision for every need right within reach. This is an amazing, invisible reality, and one that your soul needs to ponder, imagine, profess, and own.
PRAYER: Come Holy Spirit, let faith arise in me. Thank You for living in me. Thank You for making my spirit one with Yours, Lord Jesus. Thank you that this Rock I am standing on will never crumble, will never change. Thank you that the fullness of Your healing power reaches me here. Amen.
 Leanne Payne, Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 1991), 71.
 F. B. Meyer, Our Daily Walk (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1951), 169.
 Leanne Payne, Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 1991), 72.
Painting: Ivan Aivazovsky & Ilya Repin, 1877, Pushkin’s Farewell to the sea [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Comments Off on For Talking Beasts: Begin with Silence
For Talking Beasts: Begin with Silence
by Sarah Colyn
In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis tells how Narnia began. At the climax of Aslan’s creative work he makes the talking beasts:
And now, for the first time, the Lion was quite silent. He was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his . . . The pairs which he had touched instantly left their own kind and followed him. At last he stood still and all the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him . . . The chosen beasts who remained were now utterly silent, all with their eyes fixed intently upon the Lion. . . For the first time that day there was complete silence, except for the noise of running water. . .
The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones – the rabbits, moles, and such-like, grew a good deal larger. The very big ones – you noticed it most with the elephants – grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand. The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying:
‘Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.’ (p. 48)
With this article I begin a series of reflections on what it means for us to be ‘talking beasts’ in our world. I pray that the Lord will breathe His long, warm breath through these words that they might be a rich blessing to you.
What does it mean to be a talking beast? Aslan’s words to these chosen ones in Narnia call them to a dignified, soul-stirring great commission: “Awake. Love. Think. Speak.” He is calling them to be creatures with a magnanimity more fundamental and all-encompassing than mere talkativeness. I love Lewis’s imagining of the talking beasts of Narnia. He is pointing to what an awesome responsibility it is to be human, and what a defining quality it is to be able to talk. Our capacity to talk reflects a singularly meaningful facet of the imago dei. By being talking beasts, we participate in the divine Logos, Word become flesh.
Maybe you’ve heard someone described as “quite a talker.” We know instinctively that to awaken, love, think, and speak is not about having a lot to say or being “quite a talker.” To become fully and beautifully human we must indeed learn to talk. But silence is where we must begin our quest to be and become talking beasts.
If we want to speak—truly speak—as awake, loving, thinking creatures, we begin in silence. This is true on every level of reality. Each of our lives begins in the secret silence of the womb; our first vocalization comes months after our first heartbeat. Each word that we speak requires an intake of breath and a moment of thought. Existentially, our doing proceeds from our being. First God created us, formed our beings, and gave us His own ruach, His very breath. As the “All Sons and Daughters” worship song expresses, “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to You only” (Leonard, Ingram and Jordan, 2012). It is as human beings, in-breathed by His being, that we are able to speak.
In Kallistos Ware’s book The Inner Kingdom, he points to silence as the genesis of true speech:
In an age when language has been shamefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause in the midst of our talk, but as one of the primary realities of existence (p. 136).
It is good for us to recognize silence as a primary reality. Silence is not merely an absence of talk but is something in itself. Silence is created, a given in our lives, made by God. We’d do well to consider what silence is and what it does for our talking-ness.
Silence is a blessed given of existence, a real thing that proceeds from God’s own being. Our holy God reveals Himself as I AM, the Existent One. In His being, in His presence, we encounter His existing-ness, and we enter silence as a given reality. In Scripture the prophets call God’s people to attend His presence:
But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.
Be silent in the presence of the Lord God; For the day of the Lord is at hand,
For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for He is aroused from His holy habitation!
(Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13 NKJV)
In these texts we are called to be receptive, for God is coming. He is the Lord, He is on the move, and He has something for us. To silence ourselves is to become dynamically receptive to God, to practice His presence, to quiet ourselves, to hold our peace, to wait and rest. In silence He gathers up the fullness of our beings in His presence. Silence in its truest sense is a substantial and active state of being.
To be clear about silence, I will say a bit about what it is not. We may at times be mute in resignation, acedia, or passivity, and we may also sometimes encounter interpersonal voids, empty spaces where no one is engaging in real dialog. But these non-being absences are not what is meant by this powerful given of silence. Most mothers I know do not permit their children to say “Shut up” to one another. This colloquial phrase that tells another to stop talking has a rough edge to it. To order someone to shut his mouth is indeed a form of violence, although such violence may at times be protective and just. Even when we discipline someone by urging him or her to hush, our aim is to keep the door open for constructive talking. Coming back to speaking is still the goal of such correction. As we’re considering here, silence is a beginning and a centering place for talking beasts. But talking is still our commission, and God gives silence as a gift to aid us in being awake, thoughtful, and loving when we do speak.
To shut a person up is to cause her to stop talking, not as a call into silence, but as a damning up, a closing down, a pivot away from being and toward nothingness. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer says, “Silence does not mean dumbness, as speech does not mean chatter,” and goes on to quote Ernest Hello, “Dumbness is unholy, like a thing only maimed, not cleanly sacrificed” (p. 78). Dumbness is not silence as we’re considering it. We are looking for the silence that is a creative space, a hopeful space, and in this holy silence a person is not shut in, shut up, or shut down, but rather is ushered into the presence of God.
Silence then is a real thing, not merely an absence but an active and living entity. We experience silence as a contrast and complement to speech, as reception is to expression, inhale to exhale. Silence is a given in the rhythms of life as the writer of Ecclesiastes declares: there is “a time to keep silence, And a time to speak” (3:7 KJV). In Life Together Bonhoeffer writes, “Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech” (p. 79). Receptivity to the divine Word, to God Himself with us and within us, occurs in and through silence.
We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us. . . . There is a wonderful power of clarification, purification, and concentration upon the essential thing in being quiet (pp. 79, 80).
Silence precedes speech and in this sense is a gathering-up space. The spiritual womb of silence enabled Mary to treasure in her heart the words of God’s messenger. The very incarnation of God was accomplished in silence, through silence, and the Word became flesh to dwell among us. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is an ancient hymn that evokes the awe-filled quiet that falls upon us at the coming of the Word:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
Silence also comes to us naturally after we speak. When we express something meaningful and true, we go through words into the life of God, and therefore again into silence. In The Soul of Prayer P. T. Forsyth describes how prayer can bring us into a region beyond speech:
Words fail us in prayer oftener than anywhere else; and the Spirit must come in aid of our infirmity, set out our case to God, and give to us an unspoken freedom in prayer, the possession of our central soul, the reality of our inmost personality in organic contact with His. We are taken up from human speech to the region of the divine Word, where Word is deed . . . We discover how poor a use of words it is to work them into argument and pursue their dialectic consequences. There is a deeper movement of speech than that, and a more inward mystery, wherein the Word does not spread out to wisdom, nor broods in dream, but gathers to power and condenses to action. The Word becomes Flesh, Soul, Life, the active conquering kingdom of God (p. 16).
How we need this deeper movement of speech that draws us into the life of God. Christian tradition has used the term recollection to describe our movement toward this unspoken freedom, this possession of the central soul. By actively settling the soul in silence before God, we are granted personal integration. St. Augustine described recollection as a state in which God “brings together what is scattered” within us (Confessions, 10.40). In the holiness of silence we turn ourselves fully over to God’s presence and providence. A quieted soul is the home within, a resting place within an active life. It is in the womb of silence that we come to know the inmost reality of our being in living contact with His being. Leanne describes our true center: “that place of quiet strength and solid being, that center from which we know and see ourselves to be white-robed in the very righteousness of Christ Himself” (Restoring the Christian Soul, p. 26).
The Hebrew root Has, which means “to be silent,” expresses this gathering-up quality, the home within, as in these texts:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
(Psalm 131:2a; Psalm 37:7a; Psalm 62:5a ESV)
This silence is relational and integrating because it is towards Someone. There is an implicit trust in real silence, a hopeful expectation in the only One we wait for, look to, trust in and rely upon. Here we see how the silence of Christian reality differs from the nothingness and dissolving sense of being pursued in Eastern meditation. In the book of Acts we find the word hésuchazó, meaning “to be still, be silent, to lead a quiet life.” In chapter 11, after Peter has given the believers a clear and blessed teaching, we get the sense that teaching has “gone in:” “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God” (Acts 11:18a NKJV, italics mine).
In this becoming silent, reason and conscience are satisfied so that the people are at rest and moved to glorify God. This silence indicates consolation and satisfaction, like a hunger sated, a storm quieted, or even a war zone in which peace has been won. In silence we can hope to encounter ultimate reality where the veil thins between eternity and us, and we know, as Julian of Norwich expressed, that “all manner of things shall be well.” While silence is often consoling, we will also consider later how silence can be disturbing and painful. But whether comforting or provoking, we recognize that God moves in the quiet spaces to heal and mature us.
Silence keeps us grounded
As a given of existence, silence serves us in critically important ways. We’ll turn now to consider silence as a spiritual discipline, a means that God has provided to protect and empower us so that we might become glorious talking beasts. The discipline of silence is a powerful weapon against the threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil. God has provided us with the power to tune out these opposing voices and listen instead to His other, larger, quieter voice.
Silencing the world
Let’s begin by considering how silence can be a shield from the noise of this fallen world. The world today is anything but quiet, and we suffer when silence is stolen from us. The secularism that grips much of the developed world debases and demeans man and woman, deconstructs truth, and fills the airwaves with coarse and cynical chatter. A trip to the shopping mall reveals the wasteland we’re left with when we strip life of meaning and try to fill the emptiness with consumption and distraction. This world is an overwhelming generator of sights and sounds designed only to manipulate our bodily senses. Rather than encountering one another as living people sharing words together that build meaning, we’re inundated with infotainment and mood-altering soundtracks. The world’s noise bounces around in the void and fails to feed us. While our sin nature would keep us busy generating and consuming stimulation, Christ offers all a soul-saving alternative: we can use silence as a strong tower, wielding our authority to turn off the noise and listen instead for His voice. In silence we stop the noise and refuse distraction and stimulation for its own sake.
Dallas Willard describes spiritual disciplines as activities we undertake “to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His kingdom” (Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 158; an excellent read that Leanne strongly recommended). I find it notable that many believers call their daily time of Scripture reading and prayer their “quiet time.” In this set-apart time and place, the voices of the world are literally not allowed to enter—email, social media, television, phone and radio are shut down. The family devotional we use at home includes a moment of stillness with the instruction, “In the silence, ask the Holy Spirit to help you pay attention to God” (Copley and Vander Haagen, Teach Us to Pray, p. 14). Even small moments of silence can shift our posture and outlook, and when we practice these regularly, our capacity to be quiet grows. By intentionally and routinely putting ourselves in a place of quiet, we are strengthening our ability to hear God’s voice and to tune out the inundation of sounds, words, and stimulation of the world. Those who practice the discipline of silence will steadily find themselves quieter inside even in the noisiest circumstances. Leanne writes that we must learn to quiet ourselves in listening prayer, to pause from “Martha work” and exercise our “Mary” capacity to be in the silence of his presence:
The literal translation of Psalm 62:1 is: ”My soul is silence in God alone, my salvation comes from Him.” In this silence we hear Him speak. . . . Within this silence our spiritual ears are attuned to receive the word He may need to speak throughout the noisier, more hectic times of the day (Listening Prayer, p. 151).
By viewing silence as a discipline, we are recognizing it as something we can practice in order to transform our minds into Christlikeness.
Silencing the flesh
The discipline of silence is also strategic in subduing the flesh, our sin nature. Without silence, we readily use our capacity to talk to serve self-serving and self-protective impulses. Silence slows those urges and reminds us of our freedom to choose Christ’s way and trust the Father to guide and defend us. In Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster makes a strong case for silence as an essential discipline in quieting the flesh:
The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. . . . Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification. One of the first fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier (p. 101).
This therapeutic and narcissistic age encourages self-expression to a point of absurdity, urging the flesh to speak continuously. The idea of choosing silence, of resting in quiet and treasuring things in our hearts is suspect, and instead we are encouraged to expose every thought and “vent” our feelings. Agnes Sanford highlights a wise contrast here between the world’s guidance and the deeper wisdom of the Christ-life: “If one desires only to get something off his chest, well and good. But if one desires to develop spiritual powers, let him get something into his chest instead: namely, the love of Christ” (Behold Your God, p. 21). As Henri Nouwen writes in Reaching Out,
There is a false form of honesty that suggests that nothing should remain hidden and that everything should be said, expressed and communicated. . . . Just as words lose their power when they are not born out of silence, so openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be closed (p. 32).
The book of Proverbs emphasizes the wisdom of being able to be closed, to contain ourselves and hold some of our thoughts and feelings for the Lord’s ears only:
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,
but he who restrains his lips is wise.
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
(Proverbs 10:19; 29:11; 17:27 ESV)
Sometimes we use the phrase, “I’m just being real,” to justify the spewing of immature and emotionally reactive words. In doing so we are often deepening the grooves of old sins and injuries rather than finding true comfort and healing. God deeply desires to make us real and has a better way. Silence is a discipline that can check our preoccupation with the injured and immature self. Often it is in quiet with Him that we finally notice how very tired we are of the old complaints and our sick ways of reacting to them. Then we are able to receive from Him the healing word that will open new ways of being and relating.
The discipline of silence reminds us of the value of verbal restraint, what the epistle of St. James calls a bridle on the tongue. Perhaps the most obvious use of silence is in simply staying quiet when what we’re inclined to say would be destructive. Here too the book of Proverbs points to the better way:
Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. (Proverbs 11:12-13 ESV)
Earlier I suggested that silence is the place to begin for talking beasts, and the book of Proverbs upholds silence as a beginning strategy for those who would become wise.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Proverbs 17:28 ESV)
The discipline of silence is a tremendously valuable gift that gives us the upper hand over sinful and unhealed impulses. Silence opens up the opportunity for us to change, to grow, and to leave foolishness behind in exchange for the wisdom of Christ.
Silencing the devil
The discipline of silence can also deliver us from evil and help us stop listening to the words of the devil. The evil one hates all of God’s creative achievements, including the beauty of silence, and relentlessly works to destroy this good. Lewis included this reality in his clever exposure of the works of evil, Screwtape Letters. Letters between a senior demon and his nephew reveal their strategy: “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end” (p. 103).
When we are plagued with accusations, condemnations, and harassing words, listening prayer lets us run into God’s protective presence. By yielding to Him the ugly things we’re hearing, we can enter into holy silence and listen for His voice. In quiet the Holy Spirit will give us His healing word, speaking truth to banish lies and giving words of life that defeat death. A dear friend and prayer partner of mine recently shared how the Holy Spirit has been ministering to her in this regard. When a chorus of accusing inner voices starts clamoring, she sees herself as defendant in a courtroom with Jesus sitting beside as her public defender. As the noisy witnesses for the prosecution voice their words of criticism and condemnation, Jesus invites her to bury her head in His shoulder, or He quietly writes a note to her on His yellow legal pad, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve never lost a case.” What a gift, what a release, to let Him have those hateful words while we rest quietly and press into Him as our defender, advocate, and Lord.
What we must do: choose silence
Clearly we have an essential and unalterable need for quiet, but it is not often readily on offer in our daily lives. The reflective space afforded by silence has disappeared from this world, and our hearts cry out for quiet. So as with any good gift of God that is opposed and obscured by this world, we find that we must exercise that powerful and even godlike capacity we call the will. Dallas Willard gives this fatherly exhortation to choose silence:
God will, generally speaking, not compete for our attention. If we will not withdraw from the things that obsess and exhaust us into solitude and silence, he will usually leave us to our own devices. He calls us to “be still and know.” To the soul disciplined to wait quietly before him, to lavish time upon this practice, he will make himself known in ways that will redirect our every thought, feeling and choice. The body itself will enter a different world of rest and strength (Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation and the Restoration of the Soul, p. 106).
John Gaynor Banks also urges us to choose silence:
Your daily life is too crowded with noise, activity and vibrations for Divine Love to reach and cure your frustrations. . . . Your conscious faculties must reach upwards and inwards. With your volition you must “seek the Lord and be silent towards Him” (Master and Disciple, p. 125).
As Willard and Banks both teach, we must actively choose to make friends with silence through the action of our will, practicing, and spending the time that it takes to increase our capacity for quiet.
Quieting ourselves toward God is the only way to come to know what is really in our own hearts. We cannot be talking beasts unless our words come from a foundation of truth and reality. And we cannot speak words of truth if we are continually running, noisy, and disconnected. Let’s remember that our topic here is how to be talking beasts—to be awake, to think, to love, and to speak. Quiet is not an end in itself, but an essential foundation from which we can speak words of reality and life. Kallistos Ware too urges us to learn to be quiet:
Each must learn to be alone, and so in the stillness of their own heart they will begin to hear the wordless speech of the Spirit, thus discovering the truth about themselves and about God. Then their word to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence (Inner Kingdom, p. 133).
Because we are fallen beasts living in a fallen creation, we don’t readily pursue the gift of silence. It is true that quiet offers a gathering-up place for the soul, but quiet also makes room for us to remember the trouble we are in and feel the pain of conviction. If we’ve been running, wrapping our raw selves in noise, then pausing in silence will disturb us. Nighttime can be especially challenging as fear, guilt, and shame that we’d avoided during the noisy day speak loudly. Some of us avoid silence because of what surfaces when we quiet down. The inner wounds that make silence painful are the very places where we need healing and union with Christ. In Crisis in Masculinity, Leanne shares David’s story, a gifted pastor whose life and ministry were jeopardized by sin generated by his deep inner wounds. When he and Leanne first met, “he could not spend ten quiet minutes alone in prayer. . . . When he was still for even a moment, he ran the danger of hearing the accusing voices of self-hatred within” (p. 52). He needed help so the Lord could get to the root memory. After healing prayer, he shared this: “I literally ran almost day and night for almost forty years, trying to find peace. But it never happened until we prayed and I became somebody. My whole life has changed” (p. 63).
Although quiet is closely linked to solitude, we often need help from one another to find it. Interestingly, the fellowship of believers helps us get alone with the Lord and His quiet. As Leanne writes in Heaven’s Calling:
As Western Christendom continues to decline, I meet people all over the world who are desperately searching for those places of deepest quiet, those permeated with the holy because hallowed by the presence of God. There, coming in out of the clamor of the modern world, we can indeed gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and our prayers as inquiry are quickened. This I found with Fr. Winkler. There was always a quiet in the Sanctuary. One could go in at any time, kneel and feel the hallowedness of all the prayers of the people, all the sacramental blessings over the elements, the anointings for healing and deliverance from oppression and depression, the ever deepening forgiveness of sins. The simplicity and quiet were healing. No noise, no technology apart from lighting and heating, only symbols of the Holy, the sacred, of redemption and resurrection (p. 154).
Faithful believers make places of quiet that bless others. A friend of mine was resting quietly in God’s presence at a chapel service, and a colleague slipped into the pew next to her. As they got up to leave at the conclusion of the service, her colleague turned and said, “Thank you for letting me sit with you. You have such a peace about you, and your quiet really affected me.” Each of us who practices the discipline of silence will be indwelt by God’s own peace, and in turn will carry a contagious quiet to those around us. If we wish to grow in this capacity we need to spend time with others who’ve learned to be quiet, following their lead and drawing on God’s serenity in them.
We help one another practice silence by remaining close enough to lend our support while urging each other to be alone with the Lord. Our God-given need and capacity for quiet isn’t a personality trait that some have and others don’t. We collaborate with the Holy Spirit when we affirm in one another, “Yes, you can rest in God’s presence. Yes, you can wait and listen for His voice.” We interfere with the Lord’s work if we allow anyone to depend on us for solace or calm. As an example, read Lana’s story in chapter four of The Broken Image. Leanne ministered to her by insisting on and leading her into the work of facing what emerged in the quiet and of learning to be in solitude with God.
Silence gives God opportunities to reach the deeper self. He leads us into quiet places in order to mercifully reveal to us what must be known, confessed and healed. At times our encounters with Him are profoundly comforting, and at others He touches on pain or shame for the sake of transforming it. For many of us increasing our contact with quiet requires fortitude. Silence and solitude are closely linked, and our resistance to quiet is often paired with a fear of being alone. But our God is waiting for us in the quiet places, and Henri Nouwen encourages us to enter:
Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent effort into a garden of solitude. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play (Reaching Out, p. 34-35).
I’ll close here with one final assurance, the most hopeful encouragement I know. Our God took on our flesh and knows intimately the threats and fears we face in the quiet. Recall of the time when an angry crowd brought our Lord a woman they’d caught in sin. Amidst all the clamor and strife, waves of quieting power radiated from Jesus as He silently wrote on the ground. Utterly sure of His Father’s love, He hushed the accusers and set the woman free. This is the One who lives in us, who goes before and behind us. We can call on Him to silence the wind and the waves. As we ask, He will impart to us the gift of divine serenity. Come, Lord Jesus, and reveal our unknown beauty, grant to us the restful spirit, gather us up in Your awesome presence and give us Your peace.
We would love to hear your testimony of how the discipline of silence has yielded fruit in your life. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Augustine, St. Confessions. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Trans. Edward B. Pusey. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
Banks, John Gaynor, and Williston Merrick Ford. The Master and the Disciple. Saint Paul, Minn.: Macalester Park Pub., 1954. Print.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York: Harper, 1954. Print.
Forsyth, Peter Taylor. The Soul of Prayer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1949. Print.
Copley, Lora A., and Elizabeth Vander Haagen. Teach Us to Pray: Scripture-centered Family Worship Through the Year. Grand Rapids, Mich.: CICW, an imprint of Calvin College Press, 2016. Print.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008. Print.
Leonard, D., Ingram, J. and Jordan, L. (2012) Great are you Lord. New York: Open Hands Music.
Lewis, C. S. The Magician’s Nephew. New York: HarperTrophy, 1994. Print.
_____. The Screwtape Letters: With Screwtape Proposes a Toast. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975. Print.
Payne, Leanne. Crisis in Masculinity. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1985. Print.
_____. Heaven’s Calling: A Memoir of One Soul’s Steep Ascent. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008. Print.
_____. Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal. Paperback ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999. Print.
_____. Restoring the Christian Soul through Healing Prayer: Overcoming the Three Great Barriers to Personal and Spiritual Completion in Christ. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991. Print.
Sanford, Agnes Mary White. Behold Your God. 4th ed. Saint Paul, Minn.: Macalester Park Pub., 1964. Print.
Ware, Kallistos. The Inner Kingdom. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2001. Print.
Willard, Dallas. “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation and the Restoration of the Soul.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 26.1 (1998): 101-09. Web.
_____. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
Comments Off on Opening Your Hand – The Art of Obedient Surrender
Opening Your Hand – The Art of Obedient Surrender
By Barbara Byers
“It is in learning to persevere through the really tough times that we grow in resolve (the masculine will to choose life and wholeness), in moral and spiritual discipline (the feminine wisdom to choose aright), and in the understanding of our own hearts…. True identity is … in our ability to obey and respond to Someone far greater than ourselves.” “It is when man is obedient, when he wills to unite himself with God, that he finds himself to be one person-a person whose choices are continually changing him from the very center of his being into that perfected person that shall be…. infused by the very power of God” (Crisis in Masculinity, Leanne Payne, p. 93 and p. 81).
At a particularly dark time about 10 years ago I was weeping and praying for my children who were suffering from some painful family circumstances. I imagined I was praying in faith, but truthfully I was just crying out in a self-pitying and very subjective way. My heart was not fully engaged and aware, not resting in a place of trust and hope. Expecting the sweet comfort the Lord so often brings, I wanted Him to commiserate with me. Instead, responding to my real need, He said something that seemed abrupt and even stern at the time, but it was so kind because it was so necessary and objective. God said simply: “Open your hand and give each of your children to Me.” I didn’t much like this injunction, preferring to hold on and have some illusion of control over this pain.
Uncertain of the outcome except that God alone was faithful and could be trusted, I pried open my fingers in an act of submission to His living word, for this is where true life and peace always are, in that choice of will to unite with God in listening obedience. Naming each of my children, I gave each to Him. I didn’t feel immediate comfort; I didn’t hear a promise, just that directive much like the one Abraham received over his son. Abraham had waited decades to receive what was promised, his beautiful Isaac, and then was tested. God told him to take Isaac up to a mountain in Moriah and sacrifice him on an altar. Immediately Abraham set out and had three days of what must have been an agonizing journey. His heart was revealed when he told his son, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8 NAS).
As with Abraham, surrender sometimes thrusts us into suffering, into a place we would much rather not go, but which produces the beautiful fruit of maturity. Sometimes suffering is the necessary tool that enables our surrender. As in Hosea 2, we may be wooed into the wilderness, but in that place of relinquishing, a fruitful future awaits us. God does not suppress or control our will; He invites us to unite our will with His in clear and robust choice. “There is all the difference between a will which is extinguished and one which is surrendered. God does not demand that our wills should be crushed out … He only asks that we should say ‘Yes’ to Him. Pliant to Him …we shall never be right till we let Him take, and break and make us” (F. B. Meyer, The Secret of Guidance, as quoted in Leanne Payne, Listening Prayer, p. 247).
“Not my will but yours” was the cry of Jesus just after the plea: “If you are willing, take this cup away from me” (Lk. 22:42 ISV). If He learned “obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8 KJV), how much more must we? When we finally lay down the demand that we must, simply must, have something our way, then life no longer has to be lived on our terms. We live in the obedience of surrender, and as St. Francis de Sales wrote in Finding God’s Will for You: “In obedience everything is safe.” Then De Sales quoted the psalmist: “‘Lord, You have held my right hand, and You have guided me in Your will, and with much glory You have received me. I have become like a horse in Your presence, and I am always with You'” (Ps. 73:22-24). For just as a well-trained horse is gentled and turns easily under the hand of his master, so also a soul that loves is pliable under God’s will.
Surrender, coming to the place of a vibrant unequivocal “yes” to God, unifies our will with His. We have settled that He is good in all His dimensions and faithful in all His ways; so the directed action of His will enables us to live more fully and freely. Surrender may be hard won in the battle, but knowing that Another is in control grants sweet relief. This is what Oswald Chambers termed “reckless abandon.” We may remain uncertain of the outcome, but we are certain of the love of the One into whose hands we have placed the future. “True abandonment is a simple resting in the love of God. It is like a child lying in its mother’s arms” (Francois Fenelon, Let Go). True abandonment is encapsulated in Psalm 131:1-2 (NIV): “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” What a beautiful image of a child at rest in his gracious mother’s arms.
Mature spirituality, the transformation into the true self, involves letting go. But does anyone really want to surrender, renouncing the right to have things his way? “The more we insist on control and the more we resist the call to hold our lives lightly… the more artificial our existence becomes. Our belief that we should grasp tightly what we need provides one of the great sources of our suffering. But letting go of possessions and plans and people allows us to enter, for all its risks, a life of new, unexpected freedom…. How can we live with greater willingness to let go… not clutching what we have, not trying to reserve a safe place we can rest in, not trying to choreograph our own or others’ lives, but to surrender to the God whom we love and want to follow” (Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing). Indeed, how can we live with that greater willingness to let go, to surrender and unite our will to God’s?
We have to have our hearts softened by grace, and often by suffering, so that we are ready to let go. Operating under our own illusions, we try to clutch at what control we believe we may have. Fear drives us to monitor and manage, and may make us wonder: “If I give this up, can I really trust God to bring good?” We may even fear scarcity. “Will I return empty if I give this up?” A friend of mine, in prayer, had an image from the Lord of this fear. She was holding onto the handle of one door, trying mightily to stretch across to take the handle and open the next door, but couldn’t make the connection. Fear kept her grasping the old door handle, but God wanted her to release the old and in faith step across the space to the next door, believing “she knew not what.” Fear can drive our unwillingness to relinquish, and unbelief undergirds that fear. We may be fearful or stubborn at first response, but if we trust the One who is asking, we can “give up” because we are “giving in to” Him. Words from the old hymn “Rock of Ages” says this well: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.”
So surrender cannot be passive, I must take a faith action – I open my hand, collaborating with the Lord’s instructions. Another word for this is relinquishing. It suggests “not the tearing away of treasures but the willing and graceful sacrifice of them” (Goudge, The Bird in the Tree, p. 242). And when we relinquish, we may feel we relinquish into a darkness of we know not what, but our treasure goes straight into the hands of God. And whatever we won’t relinquish has not been purified, and we will clutch it to ourselves in idolatry. So every part of our soul-conscience, emotions, will, desires, mind, imagination, passions-must be surrendered to Him.
Like Mary we must say: “Be it unto me according to YOUR will, O God.” Paul echoes this prayer in Romans 12:1-2 when he urges us to present ourselves as a living sacrifice in a spiritual service of worship so that we may prove what His will is. How is that possible? He gives us the grace to trust Him! His love is always drawing, always making possible our surrender, always making a way. James 4:6-7 (NAS) exhorts: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit therefore to God.” One day every knee will bow, but what an honor to bow in surrender now! To do so is an act of worship, presenting to the Lord all that we are, trusting all that He is.
Remember Moses with the staff in his hand? In Exodus 4 God asks: “What is that in your hand?” God wasn’t asking for information! God was leading Moses to revelation. God tells him to throw it down. Can you imagine what Moses was thinking? “But, Lord, I’ve used it for decades and this is all I’m good at, and I can’t shepherd without my staff! I must have it, I must!” Don’t you know God knew it was time for that staff to be transformed and the desert years to be over? But it would not happen for Moses or for a nation waiting on him, without the choice of obedient surrender. So he opened his hand and threw it down, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran for his life! Then God told him to pick it up, and it was transformed again, no longer the rod of Moses, now the rod of the miraculous, the rod of the sovereign God.
There is no transformation without surrender, nor real power without surrender. If we don’t open our hands at His invitation, our willfulness makes it harder later…and that closed fist can become a clinched fist we shake at God. Without surrender, we haven’t given God the permission and the place for which He is waiting to work on us, in us, through us, and on our behalf. But we can’t dictate the terms of surrender: the how, what, when, if. It’s all given to Him, and He then takes our small staff, that thing that is the most important and seems most necessary for our well-being, transforms what is offered, and what is given back is infused with His life and power. Mary offered her womb, Peter and Andrew their fishing nets, Moses his staff, Abraham his son, the boy on the hillside his fishes and loaves, the widow her bit of flour and oil, and Jesus His body. All was transformed! All was infused with God’s creative presence.
In Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities Dr. Manette had been falsely imprisoned for 18 years and during that long time had only his cobbler’s bench and tools to keep him occupied. Even after his release he continued cobbling shoes, living at times within the traumatic memory. The patient love of his daughter began to draw him out of that isolation. But in times of stress, he would still slip back and occasionally occupy himself that way at night or even for some days, not knowing what he was doing, not remembering afterward that he had dissociated. In a particularly difficult time, after a terrible shock, he reverted to cobbling for a week. He was asked by one who cared for him if perhaps he would release the activity so that the fear would also go. He replied, “You see, it is such an old companion.”
Fear can be such an old companion. The old ways of thinking, reacting and making decisions can feel so natural. Our old way of coping, our old defenses of holding on because we just can’t see any other way, can seem like true friends. But they’re not; they’re just the familiar that captivated our false selves. And when God calls us to pry our hands open, life awaits. He doesn’t want us to manage, He wants us to surrender. But He really does leave us with the choice and will not make it for us. In Deuteronomy 33 He enjoins and invites us: Choose life!
And as we choose life and release what’s in our hands, our hands are then open to receive; they are clean but empty. It’s a beautiful sight to God when our hands are open and extended to Him in expectation. And He responds: “Abraham, I see you haven’t withheld your only son.” “Jesus, I see that You have chosen to drink the cup; now come sit at My right hand.” “Esther, I see that you will risk death for such a time as this; so I will deliver a nation.” “Mary, I see that you have offered your womb for Me to inhabit; so I will come into the world.” “Child, I accept your loaves and fish; now I will feed thousands and demonstrate My power.” God is now given the freedom, by us, to move as He will. With our open hands, able to fully receive, His will is imparted to us along with the grace to move forward in it. And we mysteriously also find our desires are fulfilled in His will.
Once we have surrendered what we have been clutching, He wants to transform it! In Exodus 14:15, 21, 22 (NAS) the Lord spoke to Moses: “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. [That is, stop praying and go!] As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it…. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land….The sons of Israel went through.” And as for Abraham who didn’t withhold? We see a ram caught in brush, God’s provision for sacrifice. Abraham receives the ram, God receives the sacrifice, and Isaac is free to eventually become a great nation.
At this stage of surrender we need to be “patient and strengthen our hearts” (Jas. 5:8) to trust that the Lord will act on our behalf and not leave us standing empty-handed. This is where our scarcity mentality, our orphan attitude, and our fear are revealed. At this juncture we may need to see what is blocking our journey of faith….perhaps sin, regrets, fears, and disappointments. If we ask the Lord, He will be faithful to show us any hindrances. This time of the “open empty hand” is an interim season, a time of testing. It’s as if God asked Joseph, “Will you serve me faithfully in Potiphar’s house, even in prison? Will you wait with open hands of faith, expectant until the dreams can be fulfilled?” The temptation at this point is to grasp back, to falter, to become disappointed and to close our fists again. Yet we are exhorted to persist, to wait, to trust as those “…who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12 NAS) As Eugene Peterson wrote, this faith and surrender journey is indeed “a long obedience in the same direction.” But if we demand to “… know the entire journey, instead of trusting in God… our road is lengthened and our spiritual affairs get behind. Abandon yourself as absolutely as possible to God and continue to do so until your last breath. He will never desert you” (Francois Fenelon, Let Go).
Faith is a necessary element, but it isn’t just a faith that says, “God please give me what I need.” It is a faith that says, “I trust You and surrender to Your will because I know You are good and I know You do good! I simply trust You and You don’t have to do it my way. You will release the good things to me in appropriate time.” Psalm 145:16-17 (NAS) declares: “You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds.” And again in Ezra 8:22 (NIV) His word joyously proclaims: “The gracious hand of our God is on [over] everyone who looks to him.”
Our hands are now open to receive, but above them are God’s hands, now opening to release! We see this in God’s dealings with Abraham who opened his hand, even to the offering of his only son for whom he had waited a lifetime! And God responded: “Because you have done this thing…. Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22:16-18 NAS). Abraham obeyed and God’s hand was over him to fulfill every promise. Do you see God as good, as giver, as one who delights in giving to you?
We must willingly accept what God brings, how and when He brings it, and relinquish our grasping demands. It is a chilling warning to consider Israel’s fate in Psalm 106:15 (CJB): “He gave them what they wanted but sent meagerness into their souls.” There is a carnal part of us that demands, and refuses God’s way. It results in leanness rather than abundance. But, oh, God intends abundance. And if we surrender, He knows how to keep, enlarge, and transform what we have offered to Him. “When God has begun the work of absolute surrender in you, and when God has accepted your surrender, then God holds Himself bound to care for it and to keep it” (Andrew Murray, Absolute Surrender). God is able to then work His good pleasure in those who have made this choice.
God will never, never fall short of His promises. He will always fulfill His side of what He has promised. As we unlock our hands and truly give God permission to have what’s there, He will see and respond. As we stand with open hands, waiting with anticipation and endurance, then He opens His hands over us to bless and create fruitfulness. So what is that you are holding in your hand? What are you most attached to? He doesn’t want us to manage, He wants us to surrender. In that movement of surrender, from clutched hands to opened, empty hands, to stretched-out hands, God moves. Will you open your hand in trust? Will you now hold your hand open to receive what the Lord gives back, transformed and pure? Will you declare that, even if you have to wait for that good thing, the one who has promised is good and you will experience a robust fruitfulness as He completes that desire?
Once we surrender, there is one more foundational step that we need to take to stay anchored in trust. We need to be actively practicing giving thanks. Gratefulness is an essential partner of surrender, keeping us God-directed and shielding us from our need to return to control. By maintaining gratitude, by thanking Him no matter what comes our way, we are surrendered to His will: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thess. 5:18 NAS). Do you want to know and do His will? Keep thanking Him in everything, keep being filled with the Spirit and praise (Eph. 5:18-20). He is worthy of our praise, of our obedience, and of our surrender as we are infused with joyful expectancy. So let us look to Him with our hands raised in praise, open to all the ways He desires to open His hand and fill us.