From everlasting to everlasting, you are God. Your faithfulness to us in Christ is a safe space of unending love, enduring delight, constant provision, and quiet rest.
And so we bless you for this house and the tangible expression it was of you being home for us.
We worship you for how you saw us here – you saw our joys, our tears, our play, our questions and confusions.
Here you witnessed death of dreams, heated arguments, sweet reconciliation, love made, salvation coming into the hearts of our kids.
Thank you for allowing us here to see you better, even through those moments of blindness where we were not sure you were there, you were teaching us to see what is more real than what is seen with these eyes.
We bless you also for what we did see with our physical eyes:
The view from the balcony to feast our senses
The flocks of sheep and goats that often came to graze in the hill below
The hills of Jerusalem far away in the distance
The wonder of snow on palm trees
We bless you for what we heard in this home:
Hesitant Arabic words and sentences, language victories and mistakes, read aloud books, Adventures in Odyssey, piano playing, and yes fights too – fights that remind us of our need of you, and the surety of your rescue.
We bless you for what we could taste here:
We tasted your provision, even on the winter of the turnip when turnip and parsnip and cauliflower seemed to be all we could eat, even then food never lacked.
We tasted love and welcome as friends gathered around our table, and with food on our laps in our living room.
We tasted your steadfastness in Tuesday taco nights and Friday pizza nights. We tasted abundance on sabbath days of feasting with our favorite desserts, of baking together and having others over to bake with us.
We bless you for the lavender, rosemary and mint we could smell here, for the scent of freshly baked bread. We bless you too for the not so great smells of broken toilets and broken pipes.
We bless you for how our feet ran races on our balcony, and rode scooters and bikes, for how we built forts and did somersaults in made up gymnastic spaces, for Wesley’s first steps.
We bless you for how your hands touched us here – healing raw wounds, soothing anxieties, calming our fears.
We bless you for hugs, playing with hair, fingers interlaced together as we held hands.
We bless you that as seasons came and went, this house was a sweet constant, a place to return to, where we felt safe, where we could cry, where we could rest.
We bless you for seasons of scarcity, where we lacked health, strength, and deep belonging. And how you taught us you are our spacious space, our triune community and dearest friend.
We know it was your unchanging presence that made it so.
And so Lord as we leave this dearly loved house, we entrust ourselves to you, our never changing home. May we know you better because of leaving it, may we worship your steadfastness and trust your constancy. May we rest knowing that in a new space you will show us the same grace and kindness.
We bless you Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all you are to us. As we transition, may we dwell with you in unbroken fellowship through Christ.
One early morning a few months ago, I woke up, and even before I opened my eyes, I felt it. I felt the oppression of perfectionism. And friend, I confused it with God’s voice. I felt paralyzed. It was hard to think about getting out of bed to meet him in his word. All I wanted was to stay in the dark, under the covers. I wanted to stall the beginning of the day; I wanted to be where demands, it seemed, couldn’t touch me.
The Spirit of Christ in me moved me to start talking with my Father as I laid there: “Where are you, Lord?” I know you are everywhere but where are you right now? Please give me eyes to see you.”
Slowly, he answered. With eyes of faith I first saw Christ. I saw that he had been by my side of the bed as I slept. He had been watching me sleep with the same heart bursting with affection that a mom has when she watches her little ones sleep. As I felt my body relax, the full picture came into view. I saw that I had been sleeping in my Father’s arms all night. He had been holding me. And now as I laid anxious in my bed, he was still holding me, soothing me with the beauty of his safety. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Over the past couple years I have been learning about the brain and its hemispheres.** Both sides have completely different functions. The left hemisphere is logical, linear, linguistic and literal. The right hemisphere is able to sense emotions and information from the body, it is non-linear, non-verbal, can put things in context and see the whole picture.
I know this may seem obvious, but we need both hemispheres to function wholly. When one hemisphere takes over, we don’t have integrated responses. We function from a place of disintegration.
I have been learning the importance of parenting with these things in mind. Sometimes when our kids’ nervous system is really dysregulated, we try to calm them using a left brain approach. We start redirecting them with solutions and logical explanations. And yet, logic often doesn’t work until the right brain’s emotional needs are met.
Our right brain won’t connect with the left until it “feels felt”, nurtured, seen with compassion and empathy. Felt safety is a huge component of brain integration. So as a mom, I am learning to connect with my children with the right brain before I redirect with the left. Connecting may just take a moment of getting down to my child’s level, catching my impatient tone and using tender words and touch. But it makes such a difference! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I awoke that morning a few months ago, like every single morning since Christ saved me, as a beloved daughter. And yet, trained by suffering and by my flesh, I initially faced the day as an orphan would.
My Father knew my nervous system was dysregulated. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins, and my heart was racing. I was so scared of failing and displeasing God, I could hardly focus. You may recognize my reaction as a sympathetic nervous system freeze response to a perceived threat.
Even though it has been years since I started taking hold of the gospel as a believer, I still go through seasons when my whole body perceives God like a threat, or as a strict, impersonal, needy task-master. My Father knew what my right brain needed at that moment. Not a rebuke but rather, to feel his comfort and tender gentleness.
He knew I needed to sense his delight. So his Spirit took pictures and images that are all over Scripture to connect with my right brain and soothe me. Only then did I have the strength to get out of bed to meet him in his word.
God is a spirit, but he is so kind that he gives us word pictures that describe him. For example, I love how Psalm 18 reveals a jealous, powerful warrior who comes to rescue the oppressed. Or in Isaiah 66: 13 I am so moved when he says, “I will comfort you there in Jerusalem as a mother comforts her child.” Our God exists outside of our dimensions, and so he comes down to us and speaks to us with pictures that make sense to us, that help us know him and his heart.
So what do you see when you think about God? What is his face like? Is it smiling at you? Does it show delight? Or, do you picture severity and indifference? What happens to your whole body when you stop to picture your Father? Do you tense up? Does your heart race? Or, does your body relax? Do you feel safe?
Paying attention to this really matters. Because our Father pays attention to this. He doesn’t just want to connect with you at a logical level. He doesn’t just want you to remember what is true. He wants you to feel seen by him, to feel “felt” by him. He wants you to know- body and soul – how safe he is through Christ.
If you are struggling to receive the compassion of our Father, if his tenderness seems to be reserved for others but not you, pray. It isn’t just a matter of unbelief on your part. Your whole body – your nervous system included – needs his care and ministry. Ask our Father to help you see him in a way that helps your nervous system to calm down and feel safe with him.
Read the Psalms, look for all the word pictures our God has so kindly given us to help us know him better. Go to the gospels and focus all the ways Christ reveals the Father’s gentle and lowly heart for us. Ask for help- if you need to meet with a trusted, safe friend, a counselor or therapist, do it.
The Spirit knows how much our brain needs to feel nurtured by his care. So ask him to do what he loves to do: to fill you with faith so you can take hold of God’s fatherhood and love. Nothing matters more. Because we can’t really live by faith without knowing and tasting his love for us in Christ Jesus.
**If you want to learn more about this, read The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel.
I read recently in a book by an author I admire and love a sentence that made me stop and think: “Sound theology produces sound thinking and living.” As someone who is a closet theologian, I understand the heart behind a statement like this one.
Yet I have lived in spiritual communities shaped by that kind of statement and I see some dangers in it. It implies that anyone with sound theology has sound thinking and living. The focus can turn into making sure you have sound theology. It all rises and falls together. The logic is “if you have ‘right’ theology you are feeling, thinking and living the way you should.”
And ultimately that is true if we are continually examining our functional beliefs about God and all he is for us in Christ. But often, especially in camps that care a lot about theology, theology becomes an established set of beliefs we hold on to – a confession, a creed, a theological position. Doctrine becomes ultimate and not always re-examined in light of the story line of redemption or in light of what our finite understanding keeps grasping about an infinite God.
I know what it is like to place my confidence in sound theology. It seems to guarantee what I need to live rightly. But I have seen in my life and the life of others that you may hold to a sound theological statement, be very passionate about confessional Christianity and not bear the fruit of sound thinking, feeling or living.
I have seen a lot of unsound living in churches with “sound” theology:
unwillingness to learn from others; sexual abuse cover-up; emotional abuse; family dysfunction enabled because of the pride and arrogance of that community; unrepentance; minimization of the sin of those who have spiritual authority; isolation from other believers that don’t hold to the same sound theology; cynicism and deep suspicion of God; self-righteousness.
I think when our confidence- our faith- is in sound theology, the above is the kind of fruit that you can expect. Confidence in sound theology is not at the root of living by the Spirit. It is a work of the flesh (Philippians 3: 3-4).
Paul’s logic in Galatians 5 is fascinating to me. He explains that the works of the flesh come from living as if our righteousness – or our rightness – comes from anything else than a Person:
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [or a specific theology or denomination] counts for anything but only faith working through love (Galatians 5: 6, paraphrases mine).”
So how do I know if my confidence is in my theology more than in the Son?
I am more excited to talk about theology than about the gospel and specifically about Christ (1 Corinthians 2: 2).
I expend more effort in helping people see a set of doctrines more clearly than I expend in helping them see the Father and all that He is for them in Christ (John 14: 7-9).
I care more about people embracing a set doctrines and thinking rightly than about caring for them as whole people.
I look down on others who don’t hold to the same theology as mine.
The solution for the problems in my life or in the life of others is right theology (more than really knowing the Father through Christ by faith).
I spend more time studying church history and what theologians wrote than studying God’s word (Psalm 1).
I depend more on what theologians wrote about doctrine than on the Holy Spirit.
I allow a theological framework to inform how I read God’s word, instead of critically reading theology in light of what I see in God’s word.
Of course this litmus test isn’t exhaustive. And we all are somewhere on the spectrum. So it is not a matter of “is this me or not?” but asking rather, “where am I on this spectrum?“
So What? Do I Walk Away?
I have noticed that when we see the kind of horrible fruit that I mentioned above, the temptation is to walk away from the theology represented by the people who sinned so deeply. But what is interesting to me is that this kind of fruit happens in every denomination. The insidious life of the flesh can hide in any theology. As long as our confidence is in anything other than Christ, any theological camp has the potential to produce really bad fruit. No exceptions.
Of course, theology matters. Orthodoxy matters. Paul makes that clear (Titus 2: 1). What I believe about the Triune God will bear fruit in my life in the same measure I am grounded in God’s word. But knowledge and doctrine in themselves don’t produce anything in our lives. It is absolutely possible for us to profess God and deny him by our works (Titus 1: 16). That is what is so insightful about Paul’s teaching to Titus – he commands him to teach what goes together with sound doctrine: namely, a life that is sound, whole, that adorns the gospel (Titus 2: 1).
When there is bad fruit in someone’s life the first question is not what is wrong with their theology. It is usually much more nuanced than that. And typically, it begins with very real suffering. So we do well to ask, what suffering is happening (or happened) in their life that they are turning to self-saving coping mechanisms? Then the question becomes, how can I help this brother or sister see the Father better through Christ? In what way can I show them Christ really tangibly?
On the flip side of that, just because someone has a different theology than ours, we can’t assume it isn’t sound nor that there is bad fruit. I live in a context surrounded by believers that don’t necessarily hold to the same theology I do. Our ecclesiology is different, and what we believe about the Holy Spirit and how he works is not the same. We likely have different views on the importance of expository preaching and they may not know what I mean when I say that my church in the US holds to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Our exegetical approach to Scripture differs in some ways. But these friends have taught me much about how to live by the Spirit, and what it looks like to be at home in God. I know my Father better because of them.
This makes me think of Spurgeon who wrote of someone he disagreed doctrinally with,
“Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if I have once known and recognized any man to be my brother in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ constraineth me no more to think of him as a stranger or foreigner, but a fellow citizen with the saints. Let me find a man who loves my Lord Jesus Christ as George Herbert did and I do not ask myself whether I shall love him or not; there is no room for question, for I cannot help myself; unless I can leave off loving Jesus Christ, I cannot cease loving those who love him. . . . I will defy you, if you have any love to Jesus Christ, to pick or choose among His people.”
I know it may seem like just a difference in semantics but I would rewrite the statement I referenced earlier to say, “Faith in the Son produces sound feeling, thinking and living.” It truly is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh – even in its more respectable forms in the church – is no help at all (John 6: 63).
Confidence in the Son frees me to love His people to live without fear and to trust His ability to keep me. By the Spirit’s help, I will always cheerlead sound theology. But more than a set of doctrines, I want to spend my life promoting a Person – the Son – and faith in Him. All I want is to know the Father through the Son more and more, and help others do the same.
Madeleine L’Engle said it so beautifully,
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Seeing Christ more clearly, savoring who he is by faith, and resting in him is what produces sound thinking, sound feeling, sound living. Christ alone is the one that makes us whole.
Almost four years since we arrived, Jordan still doesn’t quite feel like home. Right before we left to come back to the US for the summer, it was finally feeling like it. I could feel roots growing deeper and a sense of hope about living there.
But over the past few weeks since arriving in the US, I have noticed deep sadness every time I think about going back. It isn’t that I want to stay in the US but somehow I have found myself at different times wishing we didn’t have to return. Our first season in Jordan was marked by deep loss and unrelenting stress. It ended in horrific tragedy. I have felt a darkness there that at best, hurts my guts; at worst, it threatens my hope. And while we are no longer in that first season, the memory of it is still raw & fresh. Some of the loss is still there – painfully close.
While places are significant and it matters to learn to love where we live, what is comforting me these days is this- I am returning to a Person more than a place.
Though there is so much beauty in Jordan, it is not its beauty that beckons me back. It is my Savior. The deep love that flows within the Trinity has enveloped me and become my home. The safety of his nearness, the surety of his nurture, the generosity of his tenderness, the intimacy of his friendship & his profound delight – it is all so real, no matter where I am.
All of the Christian life is traveling to God with God. So, hiding in the warmth of the embrace of my Father, I face with Christ the grief about going back, instead of shoving it down in shame. The Spirit whispers, “We’ll hold you as you cry. We’ll be your safe place right here, right now. We are with you for as long as you need – from Eternity to Eternity, in fact.”
No need for tying this up in a beautiful bow. This is glory too- to know it is okay that Jordan (or any other place, really) doesn’t quite feel like home. Because my Savior does.
I often say that union with Christ is saving my life. But I don’t often share how. On this post I finally get to this.
After decades of experiencing religious OCD, anxiety and fear in my relationship with the Lord, I came to a significant turning point. If you remember, when I went through deep postpartum darkness I was really shaken because I thought it had revealed who I really was- a fearful, half crazy woman who had a really weak faith.
But union with Christ gave me a gift that seemed too good to be true. I am afraid this will all sound too heady, too “doctriny” and I will somehow lose you, my reader, especially if you struggle with religious OCD or have experienced spiritual oppression in some form. But, friend, there is nothing more liberating for people in this struggle than to begin to grasp what oneness with Christ really means for us. I say ‘begin to grasp’ because union with Christ is such an astounding mystery that we will never plumb its depths.
Union with Christ refers to the reality that we are joined to Christ in such a way that we are one with Him and He is one with us. When we put our trust in Christ, everything that was ours became his, and everything that was his became ours. Before we put our faith in Christ, we had been in Adam and the life of the flesh defined everything about us. But when we believed, we began a new life in Christ that redefined our whole lives (2 Corinthians 5: 17). Through union with Christ we now share Christ’s holiness, righteousness, sonship and every other spiritual blessing you can think of (Eph. 1).
Union with Christ is the paradigm in which all the New Testament writers lived and wrote and thought about the Christian life. Through it, the believer shares in all that Christ is and all that He does. It is what Paul refers to when, over and over again, he describes the life of the believer as happening in Christ and through him (Eph. 1 and Col. 3:1-4). Our oneness with the Risen Christ explains why when Christ died, we who put our faith in him, also died with him; and why, when he rose, we too rose with him as completely new people (Rom. 6). It is a reality that “extends from eternity to eternity.”
A crucial distinction that union with Christ highlighted for me was that in Christ my very being had changed. I had a completely new nature – Christ’s nature. Up to that point I functionally believed I had been given a new identity but at my very core I still remained the same Aylin somehow. But union with Christ doesn’t just give us a new identity. Christ gives us a completely new being – that looks just like Christ. That was the part that was too to be true.
Paul often addresses churches in light of their new nature. He sees the sin and deficiencies of the churches in the New Testament and yet addresses them as saints, as light, as holy (Eph. 5:1-10). His main framework, even as he challenges them toward holiness, is their new nature. He mainly talks to them as beloved children in Christ, not as sinners.
When I began to understand this reality, it reframed all of life for me. It helped me see that whatever had come out during that time of postpartum darkness wasn’t who I really was. My real, lasting self was already like Christ. I had spent so many years looking in the mirror – deeply introspective, trying to fix myself and never feeling confident of my efforts. I couldn’t enjoy a deep abiding sense of God’s nearness because I was too focused on my efforts to please him…and was never quite sure if I had done enough.
But union with Christ startled me by telling me when I looked at the mirror, Christ looked back. The real lasting me had been created in his image which meant the real me already looked like him! Over time, I realized that my deep introspection was an obsession with the life of my old self, with the flesh that had already been put to death. All that I was in Adam was left at the grave. Anxious, fearful, selfish Aylin died with Christ (Rom. 6:6). A new trusting, courageous Aylin rose with him and the life that she now lives in the flesh she lives only by faith in the Son (Gal. 2:20).
Even when I don’t feel peace, I now differentiate between my experience in the here and now and my lasting reality. When I give in to fearful thoughts, for example, this doesn’t change anything about the new nature Christ has given me. My reality in Christ does not depend on how well I trust my Father. Those fearful thoughts just go to show that the seen/temporal side of me is still catching up with the unseen/lasting side of me. Union with Christ is sharpening my faith eyes so that that which is unseen is far more real to me than anything else.
I can honestly face the ways in which I fall short and fail, and still rest, because in my oneness with Christ, my Father is always for me, in the exact way the Father is always for the Son. I am not as good as my last victory. No, I have something better! By faith, I am as good as Christ’s complete obedience (Romans 15: 14). This isn’t wishful thinking. It is true and has been true since Christ saved me as a young child. I just hadn’t consciously taken hold of it.
As I began to grasp that I am in Christ and that He is in me, I began to see I didn’t just have the power of the gospel at my disposal, but the very life of Christ in me. I had life -LIFE! -not through obeying the law but through Christ. This is why union with Christ is saving my life – because every time I am tempted to give into an anxious or shame-filled spirituality, the Spirit reminds me, “Christ is your life, your only life.”
I have been on this journey for a few years now, learning to breathe in the safety of my Father and to live as one with Jesus. The nearness of my Father is truly my good.
Hidden in Christ, I am tasting a freedom and joy that perfectionism could never give me. I am learning to differentiate its voice from the voice of the Spirit. Perfectionism drives me to obsess over questions like, “have I prayed long enough today? did I meditate on the Word enough? did I say the right thing?” Perfectionism is driven by the functional belief that my safety with God depends on how well I perform. And yet, it fails to deliver that nearness. Perfectionism is actually the voice of the flesh, trying to motivate my old self by shame. It wants me to trust my efforts to get close to a god that is not really my God. But the voice of the Spirit reminds me I don’t have to work so hard to get close to God. It reminds me, “you are safe, the Father is tenderly holding you in his lap, Christ is strong enough for you right now in all the ways you are weak.” I am hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3: 1-4). Always. Even when my enjoyment of my Father is interrupted because of my sin, He remains near.
While I can’t say that the battle with religious OCD is gone or that I never struggle with intrusive, obsessive thoughts regarding standing with my Father or that doubts never come, I can say that the fight looks very different. The Spirit helps me recognize when I am reverting to thinking that my current struggle determines who I am and who I am becoming. In other words, I am learning to differentiate between my struggles and my Spirit-led self. I am retraining my heart to come in faith to my Father as his beloved daughter in whom he is always well pleased. When I start feeling despair over my weaknesses and limitations, the Lord reminds me that ALL of Christ’s resources are mine by faith, and so I truly can do all things through Him who gives me strength (Phil. 3: 14). Christ is a shield around me – I could never be safer than I am in him. He is my glory and the lifter of my head when it hangs down in self-condemnation (Psalm 3).
My obsession now is more and more with Christ himself. Beholding his glory in his word is a consistent place of hope and deepening joy. Whenever I find myself starting to navel gaze, the Spirit gently scoops my face and reminds me to look at the Son. Every single time, I find him willing and able to rescue me.
His perfection is not an oppressive standard but the source of my hope. United to the perfect one, what is true of the risen Christ, is true of me. This place of freedom, my friend, “is the only starting point.”
Soaking in the goodness of the gospel, I started dating my husband. He too had grown up in a similar spiritual community to mine, and he too, through other ways, had been awakened to the gospel in his mid-twenties. Together we rejoiced in all the ways the gospel was changing everything for us.
Still, I experienced a lot of anxiety in our long distance relationship. We got married and I relocated to the US to live with him (I had been in my home country up till that point). We joined a new church, and I brought a lot of the old patterns I had had before, into this church relationship. I pursued being in good relationship with spiritual authority and I think in the stress of transition and change, some of my religious OCD flared up. Intense fear and anxiety dominated a lot of my relationships with leadership. I read a lot about humility and fear of man. In many ways, the entry gate for all my problems at the time, was sin. I was struggling, and I didn’t even consider whether this was the result of suffering and brokenness. Mostly, I only saw my sin. And I did everything to put off the pride that led me to experience so much fear of man. And while it may have been part of the problem, now I see it went deeper.
Among other things, I had a dysfunctional view of spiritual authority, I don’t know that I could name it that way then, but it was functionally true. In some ways, especially related to spiritual authority I very much lived as if my good standing with them depended on me.
At that time, my first daughter was born and intrusive thoughts regarding her safety started to become the norm. At first they were more white noise than anything. I tolerated them and didn’t identify how much they were ruling me. Five months after she was born, many things collided to create a perfect storm: postpartum/breastfeeding hormones, walking with a friend through a terrible tragedy, and an infection and the antibiotics that followed. I began to feel darkness engulfing me and hopelessness was very near.
Intrusive thoughts became loud and persistant. I was terrified of them. If you have ever experienced post-partum darkness you might know what I mean. More than anything, I longed to keep my daughter safe and it seemed like thoughts with ways she might get hurt, (sometimes even me being the cause of her pain) kept coming like a flood. I started to fear I was going crazy. Literally. I feared one day Child Protective Services would come and deem me unfit to care for my daughter and take her away.
At that time, I also started questioning my salvation. I hadn’t struggled with assurance for about 19 years, and yet, here I was at 30 years old, so rattled in my faith. Up to this point I had still had confidence in my ability to live as a believer. But this struggle? Man, it undid me.
I started having panic attacks almost every night right as I was about to fall asleep. I would wake up with my heart racing and have this awful sense of doom. At one point, a well meaning mentor told me she thought I was depressed. And that sent me to a spin of more anxiety and shame. I was ashamed of what I thought was my weak faith.
It all seemed to be revealing who I really was. I despaired of myself.
The Lord sustained me in so many ways during that season through my husband, friends who cared for me and my baby, and meals from sisters in the church. The Word was my lifeline. And while I realized I was too weak to fight – I could hide behind Christ and let him fight for me.
Psalm 3 was a special comfort to me then. He was my shield and the lifter of my head. I would later understand why that resonated so much with me.
Eventually, the storm subsided. One day, I woke up and the panic I had felt almost every day for three months, before I even opened my eyes, was gone. The struggle had lifted.
But I was really shaken. Where could I find strength to live with joy and confidence? What would I do with all that I thought this fight had revealed about who I really was?
I believe that this profound post partum darkness and all it entailed was the gateway for me to experience a life-saving reality that I desperately needed to begin to grasp. It was mine already, I just didn’t know it. My warrior was intent on rescuing me and I was about to discover just how complete and mind-blowing his rescue was.
It has been 15 years since the Lord started me on this journey of knowing his nearness and consistent rescue when fear runs amok, and anxiety attempts to overwhelm.
I really don’t want to downplay the role that therapists and counselors have in helping with mental health disorders like OCD or religious OCD (I have received so much help from them). Medication, too, can be a saving grace because the more entrenched some of these behaviors are (they are often survival techniques), the more enfleshed in the brain they become. My story, though, highlights how much I needed the good news of who my Father is for me in Christ.
I don’t think I realized how spiritually oppressive it was to live on the treadmill of religious OCD (I didn’t even know it had a name!). Perfectionism is an abusive task master. It is painful to be have so many intrusive thoughts and to always wonder how your standing with the Lord is. It is nerve racking to live as if it mostly depends on you. I like how Mike Emlet describes on this talk how, for some people, there is this sense that “you are only as good as your last good deed.”
When we functionally live experiencing God as detached, distant or punitive, we really have no good place to stand. God made our brains to always scan for cues of safety, and in an ironic sad twist, my persistent sense was that God wasn’t emotionally safe for me.
Our Father hates oppression and his heart is for the oppressed. I am so thankful the Spirit groaned deep inside me where I didn’t have words or understanding to fully name my distress and real need (Romans 8: 26). But the Spirit knew. He translated my anguish, and my Father – guys, my Father came to my rescue. He wasn’t angry at me, nor did he shame me for not knowing his heart better or trusting him more. No, my Father was angry at the brokenness of this world. Like a mighty warrior he came for the one he had committed himself to. He fought for me, and surrounded me like a shield. His humility and his gentleness toward my story, toward my brain, and toward my soul have been a balm (Psalm 18:35).
The first thing he did was to introduce me in my mid 20’s to very intentional gospel centered writing. Through it I discovered how much the gospel was good news for me as a Christian. You see, up to that point I didn’t quite know how much I needed the gospel as a believer. I thought the gospel was a truth that new Christians believed and that we passionately shared with others so that they too could be saved. I didn’t know that I never really moved on from the gospel to “deeper things of God.”
I had huge law/gospel confusion – often living as if I was still under the covenant of the law. I knew I would experience blessing when I obeyed but if I displeased my Father, I was really scared of the consequences. As Sinclair Ferguson describes in his book, The Whole Christ, I experienced the law as an abusive husband who is constantly making demands that I can’t meet, and threatening to punish when I failed. I feared the hammer of the law – thinking God himself wielded it.
I still remember the day I realized that constant self condemnation wasn’t a sign of sound spirituality. I had become so used to thinking that the way to draw near to the Lord was to mainly come to him from my identity as a sinner, unworthy, always falling short. It was as if I thought that the only way I could be near to God (as a believer) and accepted by him was if I constantly agreed with him about how weak and sinful I was.
So the first step in my Father’s deliverance was to open my eyes to what the gospel meant for me as a Christian; it truly rocked my world. He awakened me to the gift of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension – and how it changed my life hour by hour, day to day. I was relieved to know the Lord knew that even as a believer I couldn’t live rightly for him and that is why he had given me the gospel as his power for all of life. His love for me in Christ became more real, and a place of consistent rest. I didn’t have to wonder all the time how much I pleased him, because through Christ’s death and resurrection, I had the Father’s delight. There was no more punishment for me to fear from him because Christ had taken it all on the cross.
I started making intentional connections from the gospel to my daily life. I wrestled with questions like, how do Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension make a difference when I struggle with chronic pain and fatigue; or, when I don’t know how to deal with my student’s difficult behavior; or, when I long so much for a husband and it seems like my prayers were going unanswered? The cycle of guilt and condemnation I had been in for most of my life started to break more and more as I rehearsed the gospel day after day, night after night. I started to see the sufficiency of Christ’s rescue for me.
The Lord took my obsession with my performance and slowly, slowly started to retrain me so that my obsession was with Christ’s performance on my behalf.
I had lived as if God’s nearness depended on me. That had brought intense fear and anxiety in my life. Awakened to the gospel, the Spirit of the Lord started to clear my eyes so that my blurry vision could get clearer, and I could see how my Father had been moving toward me all along. His nearness was my good – He was objectively, resoundingly for me (Psalm 56:9). Not because of how good I was or how able to obey, or how much I confessed my sin and weakness…but because of the grace of Christ.
I often say that my story is like the blind man who Jesus cured slowly. This gospel awakening was the first step in my healing journey. I needed something else and my Father, intent in rescuing me, wouldn’t stop there. There was more coming.
In my childhood and teen years I developed a disorder that involves persistent or sticky thoughts about morality and religiosity. It is driven by intense anxiety and fear in our relationship with God and moves us to engage in compulsive behaviors to calm the anxiety. This is called scrupulosity or religious OCD.
It is a suffocating way to live. I would go to sleep every night for years going over my day – thinking through what I had said and done, trying to figure out who I needed to apologize to or what I needed to clarify to family and friends the next day. I didn’t feel safe in relationships with others unless I knew we were okay, and they didn’t think I had failed in some way or sinned against them.
My compulsive behaviors were: evaluating myself at the end of the day, apologizing and clarifying, seeking reassurance, confessing sin and struggle, and spending time in the word and prayer filled with self-deprecation and shame. I would feel anxiety about my anxiety because Christ came to give us an abundant life and somehow I didn’t know how to do that.
I truly enjoyed a lot of what I did in my spiritual community – the Lord had worked a genuine love for his word and for his people. But there was an underlying restlessness and even oppressiveness in the way I experienced my relationship with the Lord. How can you have peace if you are never quite sure if you are pleasing the Lord and your over-scrupulous conscience condemns you constantly? You don’t know how to have peace with God and so somehow spiritual authority becomes a sort of mediator between you and God… if they are happy with you, God must be happy. If they are not, God must not be either. I didn’t realize how often I was living under their conscience, not my own.
Even though I knew God is good and holy, I didn’t truly enjoy safety with him. I was in a constant quest to grow, to be better, to be godly. Some friends would joke that I was a “saint.” Others would call me “pastor Aylin.” I think they thought I was close to God but I don’t think they realized how much anxiety drove my desire to be close to God, and how often, if I was really honest (with myself and others), God felt impersonal.
I often gave in to self righteousness because, functionally, my standing with God and others depended on myself and my ability to be in relationship with them. I felt superior to others because of how much Reformed theology I knew, and for how much I upheld truth and valued sound doctrine. A pastor I respected once told me I was one of the most serious minded young people he knew – I loved that. My confidence came in large part from what spiritual authority and others I respected, thought about me. I was mature, older people trusted me – what more could I want?
I didn’t quite understand, though, at what cost it all came and how I was on a constant treadmill trying to be enough. Shame (“I am not good enough”) and anxiety (“my good standing with God and people depend on me”) were deeply ingrained. They were well worn paths I traveled on the road to what I thought was Christ-likeness.
Our Father hates oppression and his heart is for the oppressed. He heard my cries and the groans of the Spirit within me, and he came to my rescue. In my next post, I will share more about how he has been doing that.
…in knowing all the ways you’ve sinned against your kids & failed in parenting?
…in the sting of the brokenness you feel in motherhood that seems to be affirmed by the lack of appreciation from your kids?
…in the insecurity that comes from remembering childhood hurt & wanting tangible affirmation that you are doing better than your parents?
We long for, and sometimes even demand, special gifts, lavish expressions of love that make us feel seen, and words of affirmation because they help cover guilt over real sin and sense of shame that we are not good enough.
If that is you today, if the sting of fresh tears is in your eyes, can I sit by you & take your hand?
I know maybe you want to pull away. Shame wants us to hide and disconnect. We hide from ourselves, failing to recognize what we truly feel. We disconnect from others: we can’t tell them what we are wrestling through… and functionally, it feels God is shaming us too. So we don’t talk to him either about the shame we feel in motherhood.
So we just shove it all down. And we hope appreciation & gifts will help cover our shame, will soothe our fears, will make us feel that God is close.
But dear fellow mama. Your Father ::is:: close. He sees you fighting off shame in all forms and he is giving you His Son. In Christ, he has covered your shame in ways that appreciation, gifts and lavish expressions from your husband and kids can never ultimately help. Christ died and rose again not only to take away any real guilt but also to deal with our shame. The shame of our sin and the shame of sin committed against us. The shame of failed expectations that we put on ourselves or that others have piled on us.
He is not covering shame in the way we cover something up but it is still there under the covers. He covers our shame by melting away all unworthiness & dishonor, giving us the worth and honor of his Son. Christ is good for us and in us. This is not wishful thinking: Christ has truly made us good and faithful (Romans 15: 14; Ephesians 1:1).
When we feel overwhelmed by our true failures or when we wonder if our family thinks we are good enough mothers, our Father comes close and soothingly reminds us that our accomplishments or failures are not the source of our honor. His Son is.
So whether or not you get that special gift you hoped for, breakfast in bed or a meal out with your family- your shame is already covered, my friend. Breathe in a little deeper. Receive your Father’s lavish generosity and delight. Feel him holding you today, and hear his voice whispering in your ear, “Well done, good and faithful one. I love you, I see you and I know.”
It has been a season where I have been tasting paradox so tangibly. Feeling displaced and yet also rooted more deeply in Christ. Being shaken in my faith just to see how, in Christ, I am always standing in grace. Being really limited by circumstances but also freed up to have margin for the things that matter most. Having my heart so tender yet also discovering the strength of Christ. Grieving for the Church yet tasting its unwavering hope. Feeling lost and confused in one level, and yet so wisely guided by our Shepherd on another.
As I have been living in this dance of loss and gain, joy and sorrow, grief and hope, the Lord has kept my attention on…birds. Yes, friend. On birds! It started last summer, really. I could almost hear him saying, “Pay attention to the birds.”
On every early morning run, and when I watched our kids play in the playground at the park, on 24 glorious hours away by myself, and when I went on walks by the lake, birds kept my attention.
There was one bird, in particular, that made me literally laugh out loud. It loved to stand under a fountain in a man-made lake for hours, getting terribly wet. I would walk past it back and forth during a conference, and no matter what time of day, I would find the bird just sitting there, getting a shower. It felt like a joke between me and God.
And I kept asking him, “What do you want me to see? What are you teaching me?” My mind went to passages like Matthew 6: 26, about how my Heavenly Father cares for the birds, and how that means he is caring for me too. But I think he wanted me to see more.
One day, as I sat outside, and watched how playfully they flew, and as I listened to them sing, I was struck by how birds were just being birds. In all their “birdiness”, they dug for worms, sang, danced in flight, followed their instinct, stayed in flocks, and hunted for food.
They glorified God and made me glad with their beauty and their song (and their love for showers) but they were not really performing for me or anyone else. They were just doing what they were made for.
It made me think about how I live. And how stuck I can get on wanting to be productive. And while productivity is not a bad thing, it is not an end in itself. Our Father doesn’t want us stuck in performance and goal-achieving mode because when setting and achieving goals is what drives us, we easily miss our purpose.
A few months ago a friend asked my husband and I, “what if the chief end of man is to be loved by God as Father? What if that is how we glorify God? Knowing all that God is for us in Christ and enjoying that manner of love?” (1 John 3:1) I think my friend is on to something.
Think about Christ for a minute. He really delighted in doing God’s will (Psalm 40: 8). But where did that delight come from? His Father’s love and delight in him. The gospels record 2 instances where the Father proclaimed his love for the son. Right before Christ begun his ministry, before he had accomplished anything publicly – the father publicly declared his approval, commitment, and love for the Son (Matthew 3:17). And then at the mount of transfiguration, as the disciples watched Jesus with both Moses and Elijah (representing the law and the prophets), the Father affirmed his love for the Son and charged them to listen to his beloved Son (Matthew 17: 5). In the gospel of John, if you listen carefully to Jesus’ words, he repeats often how much the Father loves him – it was the guiding conviction of his life.
Having that deep belief in the Father’s love for him, how did Jesus live? He embraced his humanity and did what his Father gave him all authority to do: walked on dusty roads, ate bread, laughed with his friends, touched the sick, slept on a boat, was hungry, taught his disciples, rebuked the pharisees, carried a heavy cross, cried bloody tears, and finally entrusted his spirit in the Father’s hands. Jesus lived an incredibly earthly, human life because he had a perspective on it that went beyond what human eyes could see. And friend – in his oneness with us – Jesus has given us that same deep belief. It is the Spirit’s ministry to us to feed that conviction – that our Abba Father is for us.
Knowing our Father’s delight in us is what begets our delight in him. And it is that life – the believing, delighting life – that truly glorifies him. It is that belief in his goodness and personal love for us that shows to the world and those in unseen places the beauty of his holiness. It is only that belief that enables us to delight in his purpose for our lives season after season.
So back to the birds. They are so well cared for by God and because of that, they live out their birdiness every day….giving glory to their Creator.
What about you and I, friend? We are of far more value than the birds. We, unlike them, know our Father cares for us. This frees us up to be humans – embodied, limited, deeply flawed and terribly needy in beautifully “gospelly” ways. We are dusty yet tethered to unseen, glorious places because of Christ (Hebrews 6: 19-20).
And so we can live out our “humannes” just like the birds live out their “birdiness” and be confident we are showing the glory of our Father to the world around us. We are spreading his joy in all our human activities – baking bread, playing piano, going on nature walks with our kids, laughing at their jokes, picking up dirty socks, sorting laundry, reading a poem, drinking tea, getting interrupted, gazing at the sunset – when we do it all as beloved children.
So this is my encouragement to you (and to myself) – by faith in Christ, receive your Father’s delight and care. Open your hands to take hold of his unstoppable love for you in Jesus. The love that is holding you fast. He cares for all you are, not just your to-do list.
And then, embraced by Him, embrace your humanity – be creative, limited, needy, funny, ridiculous. Forgive, ask for forgiveness, laugh, mourn, rest, repent, write thank-you cards, say no to some things and yes to others, lament, ponder, sing. Live in the tension of very real loss and very real hope. Do those things that God wired YOU to do and that when you do them, you feel his deep joy welling up inside and overflowing.
By looking at the birds, I think the Lord was teaching me to enjoy being a wildly loved human who lives in Jesus and through him. Tethered to him and to the truer reality he bought for me with his life, death, resurrection, I can face my neediness with full honesty and still dance.