Ruts

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I don’t have to wonder how I got where I am.

Because every single day, I wake up with the memories pressing down on me with a pressure that no one else seems to feel.

Each morning, I wake up to scramble in the rut I’ve made, and I hope I can keep myself from looking around and noticing how deep in I am. 

And I keep fighting and fighting to get out of the rut. I pray. I ask for God’s help. I read my Bible and cling to the truth. I am doing everything that I am supposed to do.

And yet, I wake up, and I am still in the rut.

Sometimes I wonder why I keep fighting if I am always going to be a mess.

Have you ever felt like that? That, no matter what you try, you are just floundering in the same mistakes that you made yesterday, and the day before…and the year before?

Have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, that all your fighting has just been spinning your wheels? Maybe progress is not just slow, but nonexistent?

Let me tell you something.

You didn’t dig that rut today. 

As humans, we often respond wrongly to the events of our lives. These responses can become habits, and sinful or unwise habits can dig deep trenches in our souls. Ruts.

We all dig ruts for ourselves from time to time. Instead of training ourselves to right responses, we choose another way. We choose to solve our own problems. And that’s where ruts come from.

But if you belong to Jesus, you are a new creation.

As I wrote several weeks ago in “A New Day,” your status as a child of God means that your sins are erased as soon as you confess them. When you wake up each morning, the mercies are new, unused before, untapped, waiting for you.

But in spite of the available grace, you still wake up in yesterday’s ruts, because habits are engrained in your soul like canyons and climbing out of them is a spiritual marathon.

Some days, you can’t for the life of you see a thing that has changed. The top of the canyon of your choices seems as far away as ever.

And the guilt catches up. “I dug myself into this mess,” you remember. “Maybe nothing has changed at all. I’m still in a rut, after all this time.”

After the guilt comes the despair. If you’re following Jesus with all your heart,  you might wonder what you’re doing wrong. Or, if you’re honestly giving your whole self to Him, you might wonder where He is. Why is it so hard? Why is the climb so long?

These moments can be truly frightening. Your last source of hope–that Jesus can do something with the mess of you–seems to be failing you.

You want to believe. You want to live and climb out of the rut and be free of its walls. But sometimes, you just don’t know if that’s possible. Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s not possible, not for you.

My friend, today’s problem isn’t the rut. The rut is there. It is part of the geology of your soul. You put it there, yes. But have you been forgiven? If you have confessed your sinful failures, that rut cannot keep you from pleasing your Savior today.

The rut is now a temptation, a deeply-trained tendency, a devilish sort of gravity pulling down on your soul.

But He doesn’t remove the rut in a day, nor does He ask for you to climb all the way out of the rut today. He only asks that you keep climbing. 

Habits are not, generally, erased by grace. But in grace, God does reorient our desires so we can make new paths–paths traveling “onward and upward and outward” instead of spiraling downward and inward.

If you look around you and doubt if you are making any headway, stop and think about the new work that our Father promises to complete in all His children:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:6, ESV

I get it. Climbing is hard. Perspective is elusive. Faith is sometimes the only shred of hope that remains.

Hold on.

 

Today, you get to do something hard and hopeful.

Today, you get to keep climbing out of the rut. Every battle you win, every time you choose to make a new, holy habit, every doubt you toss away, every prayer you whisper, every truth that you cling to, gets you closer to the top. It’s a victory. Every time you run for help to the Only One who can save, you are climbing out. It’s a win, a triumph of grace. It’s sanctification.

Whether you can see it or not.

Even stillness and rest propel you closer to the top of the rut. As you put your faith in Christ and His power in you by the Holy Spirit, your striving ceases and your footsteps become surer. Your position as child of the King is not up for grabs, or dependent on your performance.

And really, your climb is not supposed to go according to your plan. Only God knows when you will reach the top. For some of us, it might be tomorrow. Some of us may have to struggle longer. Life is that way. Actually, none of us ever climb out of all our ruts until our lives are over. Running out of sinful habits to unlearn is called glorification, and it doesn’t happen this side of heaven.

But remember, what some people call ruts are what others call valleys…and climbing out just means that you are on your way to the peaks of the mountains.

Climbing, struggling, working, praying, straining to see the top…these things are signs of life. It may be slow, but your rut-climbing looks a lot like scaling the highest of mountains to me.

Don’t lose heart. You are not condemned. You are not failing.

In the power of God, you are reaching heights you’ve never seen before.

“The Lord God is my Strength, my personal bravery, and my invincible army; He makes my feet like hinds’ feet and will make me to walk [not to stand still in terror, but to walk] and make [spiritual] progress upon my high places [of trouble, suffering, or responsibility]!”

 – Habakkuk 3:19, AMPC –

 

 

 

 

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Grace upon Grace

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 “The growth of trees and plants takes place so slowly that it is not easily seen. Daily we notice little change. But, in course of time, we see that a great change has taken place. So it is with grace.”

– John Owen, from The Holy Spirit, p. 108-109 –


My mom and I drove by a ramshackle house a few days ago, with littered yards and patched-together exteriors. Scrap metal of all kinds dotted the yard. Faded flags and neon orange plastic netting decorated clotheslines and posts.

“Do they think that’s attractive?” I wondered. Honestly, it looked like a dump.

On the bedraggled porch sat a little terra cotta pot. This pot held tiny, pitiful green things, supposed to be a flourishing miniature garden…but, like the rest of the place, had never gotten past an attempt at beauty.

And then I caught my breath, realizing that I decorate the same way.

This must be how my efforts at cleaning up my own mess look from the outside. Just like that homeowner trying to make a cultivated, beautiful spot with her sad little plant, I tidy up a little corner inside of me and say, “There! Now I’m all fixed!” Meanwhile, the rest of me may be in shambles–ripped mattress in the front yard, bare engine sitting in the driveway, rusting-away lawnmower gathering weeds around it in the middle of the grass.

Seeing that poor little dwelling reminded me of just how useless it is to try to make myself beautiful or acceptable before God. Our most diligent efforts are like that dried-up little terra cotta planting: dead, lifeless, useless.

 I will never outgrow my need for grace.

This past weekend, I stood singing these words: “And needing more each day Thy grace to know…” (from “We Rest on Thee,” by Edith Cherry)

I realized that, however subtle, the idea had crept inside me that, as I grew in the faith, I would get stronger and need less grace. Somehow, I thought that I’d outgrow it.

“But you, my friends whom I love, are forewarned, and should therefore be very careful not to be carried away by the errors of wicked men and so lose your proper foothold. On the contrary, you should grow in grace and in your knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—to him be glory now and until the dawning of the day of eternity!”

 – 2 Peter 3:17-18, Phillips Version –

I don’t know where I got the notion that grace was merely a good starting place. I guess that is why we are warned to beware the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13).

In reality, grace is the air we breathe as Christians. I can outgrow grace about as easily as I can outgrow my need for air by running faster. Actually, the opposite is true, isn’t it? The faster I run, the more air my body needs. The more mature my faith is, the more grace I need to live it out.

Spiritual growth doesn’t plateau into an easy ride to the finish line. As long as we live, it is an uphill climb, plunging us stronger and deeper into Christ with each step.

It is far too easy to coast as a Christian. Those few words of that song reminded me of my built-in need for God. He is not trying to grow me into an isolated, self-sustaining being. He knows that my best future lies in Him, seeking His glory. As John Piper puts it, “…God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.”

So I can be like that little gardener, trying to coax life into my one attempt at beautifying myself, or I can see the futility of cleaning up my own mess and turn to the One who can actually make ashes into beauty, my only True Satisfaction.

Happily, grace doesn’t get old. Like God’s mercy, grace doesn’t run out, grow stale, or fall short.

Toss out the terra cotta plantings in your life and cling to the grace of the Master Gardener. He alone can breathe life into our dried-out souls and make us grow, grace upon grace, into a well-watered garden that He alone has planted.


“How refreshed I am by your blessings! I have heard the doom of my enemies announced and seen them destroyed. But the godly shall flourish like palm trees and grow tall as the cedars of Lebanon. For they are transplanted into the Lord’s own garden and are under his personal care. Even in old age they will still produce fruit and be vital and green. This honors the Lord and exhibits his faithful care. He is my shelter. There is nothing but goodness in him!”

– Psalm 92:10b-15 (TLB paraphrase) –

Monuments of Mercy

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“You are more sinful than you could dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope.”

– Timothy Keller –


Even when He was angry, God started out with the good news. “I have loved you” (Malachi 1:2).

I often come to passages like this with a preset attitude: “What terrible people those Israelites were! Look at all God did for them, and were they thankful about it? No!”

But in Malachi 1, as God exposes the calloused hearts of His chosen ones, I am afraid that I stand guilty as well. God declares his love, but in the next breath, I too often say, “What love are you talking about? Prove that you love me.” (verse 2).

He sets me apart as one of His dear children, but I wonder if He is really treating me better than those who are not His (verse 3).

I deny my lack of honor, show surprise that He would say I’ve done something wrong (verses 6,7).

Too much, I offer Him my leftovers — leftover energy, leftover love, leftover time. And yet I persist in thinking that I’m doing beautifully spiritually (verse 8).

After all He has done, when I can just look around at any time and see the works of His majesty, I still somehow grow weary of pursuing the One whom my soul loves. Weary of trying to understand. Weary of seeking His ways (verse 13).

All this brings me down, to my knees, in repentance…And He lifts me up.

“There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” – Richard Sibbes

Because — look back at that first pronouncement of His:

“I have loved you.”

Striking, isn’t it, that our God begins with that assurance. Yes, He contrasts it with our doubt of His affection. But first, right as He is about to deliver the thunder, He first gives the rain, “I have loved you.”

Related Post: Four Words

In his commentary on Malachi 1:1-5, Matthew Henry writes:

“The Israelites shall be made the monuments of his mercy, and he will be glorified in their salvation….”

When I read that this morning, I latched on to that one phrase, “monuments of his mercy.” Because that’s what we are.

All His chosen ones are monuments to mercy.

Whatever strange winds may blow on me today, I have this anchor. He loves me. Whatever failures I may fall into yet again, I know this: He loves me. Despite my dishonor, my perpetual amnesia of His grace, my quickly-wearied mind– He loves me still.

Today, I am a monument to His fantastic, immense mercy. He will be glorified in my salvation, no matter how much I blunder and fall. His work is being completed, and His beauty is coming to rest on our heads.

Remember today that you are a monument to His mercy — a visible picture to a watching world. As each day goes by, may our inscriptions become ever clearer:

“To the one who is able to protect [us] from falling,
        and to present [us] blameless and rejoicing before his glorious presence,
to the only God our [S]avior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,
        belong glory, majesty, power, and authority,
            before all time, now and forever. Amen.” 

– Jude 25-26, CEB –

 

 

Travelers, Tent-dwellers, and Troublemakers

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“I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.”

 – Psalms 116:1-2 NIV –


Men of dust, doubt, and deceit. Hardened men — men of blood, accustomed to pagan rites, gory battles, and rampant immorality.

This was the world of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And yet God chose them. Why? Certainly not because of their piety — we’re talking about a group of polygamists, liars, and cowards.

But He still chose them. Out of millions of people, he put his favor on one undeserving man, commissioning a journey that would transform a childless old man into the father of a spiritual nation.

He appeared to them, one by one (Abraham: Genesis 12:7, 17:1, 18:1; Isaac: Genesis 26:24; Jacob: Genesis 32:24). He spoke to them, came to them in dreams, and visited them in visions. He made promises to them.

He put tears of laughter on the face of the century-old Abraham.

He vowed faithfulness to the promised son Isaac.

He wrestled until dawn with the stubborn heel-grabber Jacob.

As I recently finished reading through Genesis, I realized that many people today have it all wrong. Some see the God of the Old Testament as a severe Judge who finally mellows out and becomes more loving by the time the New Testament era arrives. But I found this idea to be the farthest thing from the truth.

In all His majesty, holiness, and justice, the God of the Old Testament is the same unchangeable God as the gracious Deity of later Scripture. His mercy didn’t begin when the calendar switched from B.C. to A.D.

Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven!
    For His mercy endures forever.

– Psalm 136: 26, NKJV, emphasis mine –

You see, I believe that many people have difficulties with the severe punishments for sin recorded in the OT stem because of one common misunderstanding: We do not realize the seriousness of sin.

When we realize that one sin — even the “tiniest” sin we can imagine — is so serious that it incurs death on the sinner, we start to see that no punishment in the OT is less than any one of us deserve.

The wonder is not that God had so many people punished. The wonder is that He chooses to spare any of us (Romans 9:14-24).

We think of ourselves too highly. We see innocence where there is corruption. We see purity where sin has already crept in. We set up a mock trial, usurp the judge’s bench, and think we can pass the sentence to excuse our human frailty.

Who are we to do this?

When we finally see what every last one of us deserves, only then are we ready to see the true character of the God of the Old Testament…and the New.

“Nothing humbles and breaks the heart of a sinner like mercy and love. Souls that converse much with sin and wrath, may be much terrified; but souls that converse much with grace and mercy, will be much humbled.”

– Thomas Brooks –

This is why Genesis was more beautiful to me this time than any other time I have read it.

I don’t claim to understand how deeply my sin grieves my heavenly Father, but I know this: when I read about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I grasp a little bit more of the astounding mercy of God.

Jacob gives me hope. A thieving, lying, cheating polygamist, as stubborn as they come, received grace from the God of his father and grandfather:

“Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”

– Genesis 32:9-12, NKJV, emphasis mine –

These men were not cardboard patriarchs. They had skin that burned, hearts that hungered, and souls that strayed. They were real. They were like us. Yes, these desert dwellers of 4,000 years ago had to answer the same question as we do today: Do we believe God or don’t we?

God, in His great mercy, set His love on them and granted them the grace to believe.

And the desert dwellers became saints of God, believing His promises of a Seed to redeem them all (Genesis 3:15; Galatians 3:16-19).

They didn’t have all the answers. They made a mess of many decisions. They saw God Himself one moment and were scheming up their own solutions to His promises the next.

But He chose them.

And, man by man, He drew each of them close and poured out love on a sand-covered, sin-grimed wanderer. So when I read the Old Testament, I’m not confused by plagues or punishments. I’m astounded that God chose to set His love on a bunch of clueless tent-dwellers and make them His.

It reminds me of what He did for me — a person just as clueless, just as unworthy, and just as much a saint of God — through the sacrifice and triumph of the Promised Son, the Seed of Abraham.


“The high heaven covereth as well tall mountains as small mole hills, and mercy can cover all. The more desperate thy disease, the greater is the glory of thy physician, who hath perfectly cured thee.”

– Abraham Wright –

Sore Afraid

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“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

– Plato –


In the gray dusk, the little girls skipped at my side next to the wall of the empty school building.

“Look at our shadows!” I pointed out my 5’10” shadow, looking disproportionately squat next to the shorter, equally-thick shadows of my small friends.

The nine-year-old giggled. “When Ingrid was little, she was afraid of her shadow.”

I turned and smiled at her seven-year-old sister.

The older sister continued. “She thought it was a monster chasing her.”

I nodded, raising my eyebrows. “That’s understandable.” The girls went on. I hopscotched behind them in the parking lot, trailed by the furiously-hopping three-year-old grunting with the effort of keeping up with the “big kids.”

I smiled to myself. “She was afraid of her shadow,” I mused. “Aren’t we all.”


This sin. This sin that so easily besets me. It crouches, lies in wait for me. And it catches me, pins me down, time after time.

For me, it’s unbelief. For another, anger. Or pride. Or jealously. Or fear. Whatever form it takes, sin sinks in its claws and refuses to let go.

And so, we become like little Ingrid–afraid of our shadows. Terrified of the past that trails us. Frightened that we will never get away from the monster chasing us.

We all are followed by a shadow.

But… I have learned a few things about mine.

1. My shadow is not a reflection of who I am

That squat, distorted blackness that follows me is not me.

Sometimes I sin. In fact, often I sin.

But there is a new, free me. I am a redeemed self: upright, and solid, and joyous and more like a reflection of my Savior than my shadow ever was. 

I am not my past. I am not my sin. I am not my regrets. I am a new girl, all washed and alive and real.

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17 –

2. Only light brings shadows

When knowledge of my sin drags me down, I realize something: only a changed heart sees the darkness of sin.

Until the sun dawns, there is no shadow.

Until Christ dawned upon my soul, I did not know how black my heart was. I could not understand how grievous my unbelief, my pride, and my rebellion were until the darkness fled before His light.

“What came into being
through the Word was life, 
    and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”

– John 1:3-5, CEB –

3. Even the shadows can be redeemed

“Redeemed” means bought back, restored, or put to new purpose.

Jesus does not erase the memory of my sin, but He does repurpose that sin.

You see, the Light controls the shadows. Just like the sun’s position puts my shadow in a new perspective, Christ’s coming to me puts my sins in a new context.

No longer do I stand condemned. Now, even my shadow is part of my story.

Even my winding past is part of the journey that led me to my Savior. Even the lessons learned by heartbreak, or the sting of rebellion’s consequences are tools in my Master’s hands. Hateful though my sins are, my God is greater than my mistakes.

Sin is never a good thing.

But a good Savior can make even the crooked things straight.

Even the darkest past. Even the guiltiest mind. Even the worst sin. Even the rawest hurt.

Dear Ingrid: You do not have to fear your shadow. 

Dear Self: You do not have to fear your past.

Because, “if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, NKJV).

Morning has dawned, and the shadows are nothing to fear.

My shadow is my tutor, teaching me that I have been made new, I have stepped into the light, and nothing will stop my God from turning all to my good and His glory.

If I were in the dark, I could not even see my shadow.

But I am in the Light, and my Jesus leads even my shadow by the hand.


 Thank you Atalie Bale Photography for today’s perfect photo!

Only a Smile

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“Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.”
– Lord Byron –

There is a girl I have dreams about. Daydreams, I guess.

She always smiles–not one of those annoying grins with perpetually wrong timing, but a quiet, radiant upturn to her lips that occasionally breaks forth into a full-blown laugh. Even troubles don’t dent the assured joy that lingers through the tears.

She is the one that makes hearts skip a beat because the day was so long and life is just really hard. And then she smiles and it gets a little brighter.

In my dreams, she is known as “the girl who smiles.”

The future days are full of hope to her, possibilities, more lives to give sunshine.

She is the kind of person who has a song that throbs in her heart and she just opens her mouth and sings out a smile.

It’s catchy. It turns heads. Some people think she’s a bit loony. And some want to know what she knows that makes her so happy.

Cause she’s either naive or there’s really something, Someone, who can fill up like that.

Maybe you didn’t guess. That girl is me. Well, not me exactly. She’s who I wish I could be. She’s the girl I want to be when my feet hit the floor and I walk into a world that really needs a joy boost.

But usually I’m just trying to wrestle down my straying heart.

I still think that girl exists. I still long to live like that.

But how?

It starts with laying down self–not an easy thing, I know. Believe me, I know. It seems like every hour I am battling something that swells up like bitter waves. It’s something I hate. But it’s something that I somehow want to hold on to. This self-focus is strangling. And it’s the most joy draining thing we can do.

The only solution I’ve found: knee time. Of course, I don’t usually get on my knees literally. But as Victor Hugo said,

“Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.”

I have this habit of telling God what I’m feeling, how my desires are twisted into knots. Sometimes, often, I have to confess that I don’t even want a better attitude. Sometimes I’m just tired. And my soul falls to its knees. There is no temptation that we cannot bear with His help–He always gives a way of escape, so that we can bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Prayer is often that escape–but we must take it!

Another joy-drain–a big smile killer–is worry. Anxiety. Stress. Whatever you call it. You and I–we have to quit fooling ourselves that this worry is okay. It’s not–it’s a sign that we’re not believing in God’s adequacy. Can you trust Him? Can you leave everything in His hands, let Him handle it all? Can I leave behind my cares, cast them at His feet, and live in the release? Why do we torment ourselves with things we can’t fix anyway? One author calls God the “Blessed Controller.” Join me in this joy-journey and give over today’s cares. He is able to make you stand.

But there’s more. Unforgiveness. Ouch. Any bitterness you are holding in your heart will just DECIMATE your joy. Your prayers will be like a bubble bouncing off a wall. Your stomach will churn. Give it up. Give it over. Don’t deceive yourself–whatever is making you angry is a big deal to you. But it is nothing compared to what put Jesus on the cross. You and I, with all our sins, did more to Jesus than anyone could ever do to us. Ever. Because He forgave us, I have complete confidence in His ability to also forgive through us. Will we give it up?

The same thing goes for unconfessed sin. Is there something sucking the joy right out of your bones? Sin that lies putrefying inside you will do that. Confess. In the book of 1 John, He promises that he is faithful and just. Because God is just, He has fully accepted Jesus’ payment. This justice means He will always forgive your sin, if you turn from it and turn toward Him. His faithfulness and justice will always be there (1 John 1:9). In my family, we ask each other’s forgiveness ALL the time. I cannot describe sufficiently what a difference this makes in a home! Be quick to apologize–cultivate a soft spirit. The joy will spring up.

Oh, there’s another thing that drives out joy. Unthankfulness.  And its twin, discontent. Do you really believe God is good? Find out just how good, and praise Him for it. Look for little hints of His goodness all around you. Pause and be still. You just breathed. What a gift! Really–it is a magnificent gift. Let yourself be humbled, because He doesn’t owe you anything. In fact, we all deserve death. But there was Grace. And it’s still overflowing. Thank Him for it, this cascading, rippling, abundant, joy-welling grace.

So, those weights being cast away, there is a gift that you can give today.

You can make a life more full. You can make a heart swell with encouragement. You can give someone the courage to go on.

If you will.

If I will.

It begins with a prayer, something from the heart. Here’s mine:

“Oh God, I lay down my life today. Lead me where You want me to go. Interrupt my plans with Your plan. Replace my dreams with Your dreams. Intercept my attitudes with Your Spirit. Fill me, consecrate me, use me. Thank you, because I know my joy is full when I am poured out for You.”

And with the amen, an adventure begins.

Will you take that adventure with me today?

Today, we are on God’s mission.

Today, we are Sunshine Makers, as Mabel Hale called us in her lovely book Beautiful Girlhood.

Let’s shine!

Let’s go make the world wonder why we smile.

It’s only a smile. But it could make all the difference in the world.

“They might not need me; but they might. I’ll let my head be just in sight; a smile as small as mine might be precisely their necessity.”
– Emily Dickinson –

A big thank you to Atalie Bale Photography for the beautiful photo!