(This is a guest post from my friend and ministry partner, Erik Wolgemuth. Erik and I work together on various projects. Look forward to seeing him on my site from time to time.)
I can be an approval junkie.
Hearing and receiving encouragement and affirmation is fueling. It invigorates and motivates me. I can feel my spirit lift as a result. But when I take this good thing and twist it into an extreme – basing my thoughts and feelings and worth solely on what others think – then the lack of it can be debilitating. When it’s absent, I’m anxious. I wrestle to find peace. I succumb to worry and doubt, and joy is fleeting. This is because a deep identity-based need for recurring, temporal approval is an idol. And, like all idols, they momentarily delight and then always disappoint. Basing my identity on ever-changing opinions and circumstances is rooted in forgetfulness…I need help remembering.
My life is full of tools to help remind me – email apps and labels that alert me to time sensitive follow-up, notepads beside my computer filled with items to tackle throughout the day, apps on my phone that send out notifications, a calendar that creates pop-ups about approaching events, even a ring on my finger with a date that can’t be forgotten inscribed on the inside. As much as I’d like to trust my memory with these things, I know I need reminders. I know that the busyness of life will crowd out what I need to remember with what’s currently pressing and urgent.
If this memory struggle is true for me in the rhythms of everyday life – and, it is – how much more so does it occur in my spiritual life? Where, instead of the stakes being my follow-through with work or the significance of an important event, the focus of my worship is dictated.
But so often instead of acknowledging this struggle, I like to rest on the tenure of my faith. Instead of humbly admitting my weakness and need, my life models the Old Testament nation of wanderers in the wilderness…delivered miraculously and forgetting constantly.
The truth is that, because of Christ, I have the only approval I’ll ever need. It’s lasting, unshakeable, and unchanging. It’s approval based not on what I’ve had the wisdom or diligence to accomplish, but solely on what has been accomplished by another. As Christians, we have an unearned righteousness – it is one perfectly accomplished, received by faith. This is life-altering truth…and I desperately need help remembering it.
So, the Apostle Paul reminds me of the truth that I am “Found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). We are found in this same Christ who received from his Father these words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And being found in him, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15b-17).
This is the truth that needs to be firmly implanted in my heart and mind. When I begin to feel the anxiety and fear that comes from fruitlessly chasing after the approval of man, I need to see these words written on notecards at my desk. I need to memorize them, recalling and hearing them in my head. I need to sit under teaching that preaches this clearly and consistently. And I need the body of Christ to correct and encourage me into this truth.
Can I earn more? Do I need more favor? Does my identity fluctuate hour-to-hour based on my performance? Praise God, the answer to these is, no. Am I approved? Am I loved? Am I delighted in? Am I forgiven – even for my repeated forgetfulness? Praise God, the answer to all these is, yes.
Bio: Erik Wolgemuth has worked for Wolgemuth & Associates as a literary agent since 2005. He lives with his wife Kendal and their three kids outside of Denver, CO. You can follow him on Twitter (@ewolgemuth) or find him writing about being a dad at dadcraft.com.
 Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that Matters
I studied abroad many moons ago and remembered that there were quite a few cultural differences that I experienced. While I noticed those differences at the time, if I’m honest with myself, I mostly just traveled and “had a good time.” This time, however, was a bit different, probably because of age and definitely because of life experiences. This time I paid a greater amount of attention to the burdens of the people around me, to their joys, and to the general differences that make German culture unique. Over the next few posts, I’ll reflect on some of the things I learned and a few insights I think I gained while teaching at the Munich International Community Church women’s retreat. So up first: they rest and they rest well!
One of the topics I emphasize in my new book Enjoy is the idea that Sabbath is a part of enjoying God. We are made for rest and a true Sabbath helps us rest not only physically and/or mentally, but in our Lord and Savior. I won’t give away too much (I sure hope you’ll consider reading it yourself when it releases at the end of this year!) but one of my illustrations involves how much Europeans seem to embrace the idea of Sabbath, at least theoretically. The general European culture, even across countries, seems to have adopted a slower pace, more holidays, and pushed against the tyranny of the urgent. Again, I am not saying that they’ve embraced the biblical view of Sabbath rest, but simply the idea of the importance of resting in general. On the contrary, American culture as a whole, seems to be hurried, scheduled, busy, and lacking rest. I saw this first hand on my recent visit to Germany.
I remember the first time we sat down at a restaurant to eat and the waitress didn’t come back for quite some time once we had completed our meal. I started to wonder if they had forgotten us. I mean, in the USA the server would have long ago placed our check on the table, sometimes before we had even finished our meal. So, what was going on? I asked our hosts and they informed us that meals aren’t hurried. Most people will sit for two or three hours minimum to enjoy their food and time together. As a matter of fact, at each meal that I was at with other Americans in Germany, we’d always see people who were seated when we arrived and were still sitting at their table as we left. That was just from mealtime…and then came Sunday. Everything was shutdown and everyone was outside. I, a lover of all things outdoors, couldn’t believe the amount of bikes, rollerblades, and walking about that I was seeing. And it wasn’t just individuals on their own, everyone seemed to be with family or friends. And everything was shutdown—all of the stores, most of the restaurants. This is the tradition, at least in Munich. When asked about why everything closed, I was told that they take rest very seriously. So seriously in fact that everyone (everyone!) receives six weeks of vacation each year.
I had to guard my heart against envy. I’d love to have our family be able to take six weeks off and still be able to pay bills! I do know that pastors and missionaries do that in the US and abroad, but the average person in America isn’t able to do such a thing. But I once I got over my longing for life where rest is a part of society, I realized that I already have plenty of time to rest, but instead so often fill up my opportunities to rest with other things.
Between events, meetings, work and activities, we are quite the busy bunch in the typical American culture. Add on to that easy accessibility due to the internet (email, Facebook, etc.) and we are also so easily distracted. Finding time for a true Sabbath rest can be difficult, but as one who experienced pieces of it on my trip to Germany and one who is learning to exercise and strengthen this muscle at home, I’m convinced it’s absolutely essential and beneficial to our spiritual health.
Please don’t get me wrong, not taking a break does not mean you are less of a Christian and taking a break doesn’t earn you any favor before the Lord. I do, however, believe it is a wise practice. Even our God rested after he created (Genesis 2:2). If God rested, even though He didn’t need to rest, shouldn’t we as His image bearers and those who desperately need it do so as well? Only our Father never grows tired or weary (Isaiah 40:28).
So, what about you? Have you found that it is difficult to rest? Do you feel like if you don’t keep going then everything will fall apart? What is keeping you from saying no to more obligations, activities, etc?
My prayer for you and me is that this year we’d learn to not only enter into bodily and mental rest, but that we’d experience greater rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
**Please know that I have only travelled through parts of Western Europe and I was just in the Bavarian area of Germany.
Here’s a picture that Steve Henderson, pastor of MICC, took of Neuschwanstein during our visit.
I’ve been thinking about that frequently quoted text in Ecclesiastes summed up by these words: There’s a time for everything (Eccl 3: 1-8). I’ve often quoted pieces of that passage myself: “Now is a time for rejoicing”, “Now is a time for mourning”. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize every day has both mourning and rejoicing. There’s never a time when I’m not doing one or the other, and at some times doing both simultaneously.
Take for instance the recent death of a dear friend. He lived his life well and sacrificially for others. He died with great dignity and respect. At his funeral, there was a strange and perhaps unique feeling of a family reunion mixed with tears. We were celebrating his life, thanking God that he was now with his Savior and also grieving for his wife and kids. It was a mix of rejoicing and sorrows, pain and peace.
This is the tension I feel daily. I look around the world and see great suffering and loss, and so I weep. There’s so much destruction, war, poverty, and desolation. There’s a need on each and every corner. If I allow myself to dwell on the needs of the world, a burden only God can truly bear, I fall into despair quite easily. And then there are the sicknesses and deaths that I have experienced in my own family. We’ve lost family to suicide and there’s something unfinished about that. We will mourn as long as we are on this earth.
And, yet, there’s a daily rejoicing. I wake up and can thank the Lord for allowing the sun to rise. I look at my children, and even on the hard days, know that they are a gift from the Lord. My marriage, though not perfect, is healthy. And there’s a whole host of other good things like church, food, and most importantly God himself. I know God and am known by God—how can I not rejoice?!
It’s a strange thing—this broken world and the constant, simultaneous feeling of mourning and rejoicing. I think, however, there’s something healthy about this tension—at least until Jesus returns. So, to the person who is always mourning, my prayer for you today is that you would find a way to rejoice. Look to God’s Word and see all that He delights in. I pray that the Lord would restore the joy of your salvation, which may be all you have to rejoice in. And for the person who is always rejoicing but isn’t aware of the surrounding needs, I pray you would learn to mourn with those who mourn. Engage with the world and see the needs more and more like our heavenly Father, whose heart breaks at the sin, death, sickness, and injustice that’s so prevalent. Don’t have pity, instead pray and ask the Lord where you might act.
And I pray for those of us who are constantly feeling this tension that we would know the truth of God’s Word and cling to that Truth as we walk in this tension. Let’s not stay in despair and yet let’s never grow tired of weeping with others.
Today, I understand why we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
Independent, ambitious, and adventurous…that’s George Bailey. He was a dreamer with goals—-many goals. But as life goes sometimes, George’s plans would never be fulfilled. Instead of his dream of traveling the world, George got married, inherited a bank with an unconventional business model, stayed in the town where he grew up and met his wife, and began raising his four kids. So, when a mistake threatened his livelihood on top of everything else, George contemplated suicide.
But thankfully for George, an angel saved him by giving him a glimpse of what life would be like if he were not around. It was dismal. The town was practically destroyed, virtually unrecognizable from what it looked like in reality.
We know the ending to this story in It’s a Wonderful Life. George – having been clearly shown the value of living – begs the angel to return to his normal life, gets his wish, and proclaims his steadfast and renewed love for his wife, kids, and the people of Bedford Falls.
Not What We Envisioned
Life doesn’t always turn out the way we envisioned, does it? Our hopes and dreams may never come to pass. Wishes and desires for good things – like children, work, or a spouse – are delayed, perhaps even for a lifetime. Maybe you have been praying for something and God continues to say no, and this hope deferred, like the proverb says, has made your heart sick (Proverbs 13:12).
Unlike the fictional tale It’s a Wonderful Life, we don’t get a glimpse of what could have been. Actually, we don’t even get a hint. And I’m not going to tell you that life is wonderful. It may actually be difficult. But here’s what I do know to be true: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
One day we will see God in glory and know his purposes. We will “get it.” We will understand why children were delayed and why we were never healed. But until then, we see dimly, as if through a thick fog. We walk by faith and not by sight. And though our plans are many, the Lord directs our steps where we do not see (Proverbs 16:9).
New Year’s Day is only a few short months away and you may already be lamenting about this current year that has come and almost gone with what felt like so many unanswered prayers. 2017 may be filled with “no’s.” It may be another year of unanswered prayers, of waiting, of longing. It may be another year of pain and sorrow. But our God is not only holy, majestic, and just, he is “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). He is our near, intimate, involved, loving Father. Because he is our Father, we can continue to ask and pray. Because he is near, because he has given us “the Spirit of his Son,” our hearts can cry, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6)
God our Father is perfectly loving. He is guiding, directing, protecting, and laying down boundary lines for our good and his glory. He is leading us through the joys and the sorrows (Lamentations 3:37-38, 1 Timothy 6:15). These lines aren’t about our present state, but instead about what it will lead to: a beautiful inheritance (Psalm 16:6).
Give and Take
And we know that we can trust God because he showed his infinite love for us when he sent his only Son to Calvary. Unlike us, Jesus wasn’t walking through fog. He knew exactly where he was headed, and he endured it to the end. As a result of this sacrificial death, we know he is love. We can draw near to him in confidence. He beckons us to come, taste, and see that he is good (Psalm 34:6).
So as we’re drawing to the close of the current year and with a new year fast approaching we ask with the assurance that the Lord is good, he is our Father, and he is loving. In the mystery of his providence, the Lord gives and takes away. But with Job we will proclaim, “Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
(A version of this post was originally at The Gospel Coalition)
Did you know October is Spina Bifida awareness month? I imagine that most of you answered, No. I wouldn’t have been aware of this special month either had it not been for some dear friends. Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to get to know a sweet young couple and their daughter, Anne-Marie, who happens to have Spina Bifida, a birth defect that affects the spine.
Today, I am honored and excited to feature my friend, Bethany Sims, on my site as she gives us a glimpse of her, her husband, Hunter, and Anne-Marie’s story and how we might get involved and assist other families affected by Spina Bifida.
As we get started, I imagine there are some people who aren’t familiar with Spina Bifida. Could you fill in the gaps for us?
Sims: Spina Bifida is the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the United States. Spina Bifida happens when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way. Every day, about 8 babies born in the United States have Spina Bifida or a similar birth defect of the brain and spine.
My daughter, Anne-Marie (AM), had the most severe form of Spina Bifida called a Myelomeningocele. It happens when parts of the spinal cord and nerves come through the open part of the spine. 70-90% of children with this condition also have too much fluid on their brains because fluid that protects the brain and spinal cord is unable to drain like it should. Without treatment, a person’s head grows too big and they may have brain damage as a result.
When did you find out your daughter had Spina Bifida?
On January 27, 2015, Hunter and I found out that AM’s brain was shaped differently (the doctor said it looked like a banana) and they referred us to a high-risk pregnancy doctor for better images. Three weeks later, I had the second ultrasound and first heard the term “Spina Bifida.”
When the doctors began to explain the details of Spina Bifida and all of the complications associated with it (ie. paralysis, bowel/bladder issues, multiple surgeries in her future, hydrocephalus, mental and cognitive delays, possible death) I was overwhelmed. I just cried. I didn’t know how to feel. I was heart broken and didn’t understand why this was happening.
You have shared with me previously about some of the amazing things the doctors were able to do with AM when she was in utero. Would you share a little here?
On March 3rd, at 24 weeks, we had fetal surgery to close the opening in AM’s spine. They would go in while I was heavily sedated (as much sedation as a heart transplant patient could take), open me up, take my uterus out and created an incision just large enough for her defect or her lower back to be exposed. Her butt was “delivered” and so now we call March 3rd her “Butt-Day.” They only had 19 minutes to close her spine, put everything back in place and sew up my foot-long scar
AM was born May 17th, at 35 weeks and two days. Unfortunately, the skin they had operated on during the fetal surgery had opened and she was born with a 2”x3” section of exposed muscle and spine. So when she was two days old, she went into surgery to have the space covered.
When she was 8 weeks old, AM was diagnosed with hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and had a fairly new surgery called ETV/CPC. In this procedure, they went into the place where cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) is made and burned part of it to decrease the amount of fluid produced and then they created a hole in the third ventricle to allowed the CSF to flow more naturally and keep it from collecting in her brain. Two days after this surgery, she began to have seizures and has been on medication for them since.
What are some of the Scriptures and truths about God’s character that sustained you during your pregnancy?
It is really hard to pinpoint a certain verse that sustained me during that time. Stories and verses that I had previously read a thousand times suddenly had more meaning. I had never hungered for scripture like I did during that time. And simple truths like, “He would never leave me or forsake me” (Heb 13:5), “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28), or “In this life you will have trouble but take heart I have overcome the world” (John 16:33) would come to my mind as I was sitting alone on bed rest or even while I was being rolled back for surgery.
What does a typical day look like for you now? What are some of the ways that you will need to care for AM throughout her life?
The great thing is, our days are pretty typical. She loves to play and does everything a typical 16 month old would do, but she just has to do things her own way. AM does have to attend physical therapy once a week and an early interventionist visits our home twice a month. We have more doctor visits than typical children, but it is “normal” for AM. We have to catheterize every three hours due to some issues with her bladder and kidney reflux. She takes medications that protect her from infections and help with bladder function. All of these things quickly become routine and we roll with it.
How has the Lord encouraged your faith as you’ve cared for your daughter’s day-to-day needs?
I think the biggest thing I have learned by being AM’s mom is to be grateful for even little things. With every milestone she achieves, a good doctor visit or test result, I cannot help but have a greater appreciation for God’s little mercies.
When AM took her first steps with her walker, I remembered all of the times I had dreamed and prayed to see that moment. So when I saw it with my eyes… I couldn’t help but praise the Lord and be overwhelmed with gratitude for His faithfulness. When you are a parent to a special needs child, you cherish the little blessings so much more and get to see God’s hand on your child time and time again.
What are ways we might get involved or support families once a child has been diagnosed with spina bifida?
This could be different depending on if the family has fetal surgery or not.
If the family has fetal surgery, mothers are required to stay on strict bed rest afterwards. No cleaning. No cooking. No driving. No doing anything but sitting. This is a wonderful opportunity for Christian families to help provide meals, visit, help with household chores, or help care for the other children if needed.
If a family is unable or decides not to have fetal surgery, the mother will carry the child like normal up until the due date. I think it is important for Christian families to let these moms know that they are supporting them through prayer. Fetal surgery moms need the prayer too, but I think when you are carrying a child with special needs and don’t have any outward display of need (like fetal surgery moms) you can often feel like you are walking the scary road alone. By letting these moms and families know that you are praying for and encouraging them through the pregnancy, you are helping to reassure the mother that she can face the challenges that lie ahead.
What are ways we might support families once the child is born?
First, I think it is important to understand what these families will be going through so that you know how to more effectively pray for them. The day a child is born is the day the family begins a Spina Bifida roller coaster. No two Spina Bifida babies are the same and so most parents will be facing a lot of tough decisions – surgeries, how to care for their baby, etc.. Though the child’s birthday is a wonderful and exciting day, it is also coupled with a lot of stress for the parents.
Second, the family will be spending a lot of time in the hospital, meaning sleepless, uncomfortable nights and bad food. Tangible ways to help would be taking care of things outside of the hospital – their home, other kids, dogs, etc.
Finally, even though visiting in the hospital is sweet, in this case, it isn’t always the best. NICUs have very strict rules about visitors and if you go to visit, you might not get to see the baby or, if you do, you might be waking him/her up from much needed sleep.
How might you encourage the faith of a family who has just learned that their child will be born with spina bifida?
I know you are scared. I know this isn’t what you wanted for your child. I know you think that you aren’t strong enough or up for the tasks that are set before you. But I want you to know that you are. You are stronger than you think you are and you will be able to do things you never thought you could ever do. And when you hold your baby in your arms for the first time, you will realize that every moment of pain and fear was worth it. When you look at him or her you won’t see Spina Bifida, you will only see beauty and perfection.
What are a few final thoughts you’d like to share?
There are a lot of misconceptions about Spina Bifida and, unfortunately, even many doctors are giving poor information about it. I believe these misconceptions and poorly informed doctors attribute to the high abortion rate for children with Spina Bifida (64% diagnosed prenatally are aborted). Thanks to modern medicine, Spina Bifida does not look the same way it used to twenty or thirty years ago. With help, children with Spina Bifida can lead full lives. About 90% of babies born with Spina Bifida now live to be adults, about 80% have normal intelligence and about 75% play sports and do other fun activities.
Thank you for this information and for allowing us to get a glimpse of the faithfulness of God in your, Hunter’s and Anne-Marie’s life. May God be continually glorified as you testify of His goodness towards you.
If you would like to learn more about the statistics that Bethany shared or about Spina Bifida, she suggests you visit http://spinabifidaassociation.org/.