Great is Thy Faithfulness

Dennis closed the 2007 Xenos Summer Institute with a teaching called “Cultivating a Tender Heart.” It’s worth listening to (http://www.xenos.org/xsi/resources.htm#2007) and/or reading his paper (http://www.xenos.org/essays/tender_heart.htm) by the same title. It’s been over a year since I’ve done either, but the theme strikes me as increasingly relevant: in ministry we face the paradox of loving people with the hope that God will change them, but we also know they may choose to reject God and us. Even with a disciple it’s possible to invest deeply and sacrificially for years, only to lose them to a person, a job, or a drug. It’s a painful reality and especially tempts seasoned workers to hold something back—namely, their hearts. What does that look like? The leader might give of time, knowledge, prayer, and counsel, but ultimately their efforts lack zeal because they are afraid of being hurt. The less compassion and vulnerability are developed in the friendship, the less will be lost if the person forsakes their walk with God. So the thinking goes. Yet the Bible calls for something quite different:

“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

I periodically (at least once a week) dive into the depths of my melancholy nature and revel in the misery and fear of historic and potential losses. First it was Missy, then Kay, then Jen. Now I fear the same for Yana. And I start naming a handful of people who might be next. I don’t want to care about them, I conclude. It’ll hurt too much later on.

But then I remember how much God has been hurt by humanity. Think of all the times people turned their back on God. There was the Garden of Eden incident for starters. He must have been profoundly grieved, as well as wondering, “What exactly did you think I meant by ‘If you eat of it, you will surely die?’” And He didn’t flood the earth because people were thriving spiritually. Nor did He confuse the languages at Babel because people were building a tower to honor Him. Abraham’s naughty little scheme for baby-making without his decrepit wife wasn’t exactly godly, either, but God still came through on his promise when Abraham repented. Jacob was a complete con artist but he still secured God’s blessing.

Then there’s Moses, a nasty combination of murderer and whiner, but God miraculously led the Israelites out of Egypt with him as their leader. Speaking of Israel and whiners, God’s chosen people always promptly forgot how God provided for them and bowed down to stupid wooden lawn statues instead. God repeatedly mourns their unfaithfulness, comparing them to a wife who committed adultery again and again. But He kept taking them back, picking them up and dusting them off through forgiveness and healing. David was a total macho-man idiot, what with the womanizing and husband-killing, but God used him because he was “a man after God’s own heart.” The list goes on and on, with Israel the star idiot of the Old Testament drama. But God never gave up, reneged on His promises, or withheld His love.

And then I remember how much God has been hurt by me. I’m a star idiot, too. From the sinful state I was born in to my fear and negativity, to the daily sinful thoughts and motives I’m not even aware of, He has plenty of reason to write me off. Yet He pursues me with lovingkindness just as He did with Israel. I didn’t go looking for God. He was looking out for me. He tracked me down and drew me to Himself. It had nothing to do with me or my goodness. There is nothing good about me (Isaiah 64:6), but He wants me anyway.

How heartbreaking God’s hurts must be; how agonizing to endure. And I complain when I lose a disciple or two, whom I didn’t love nearly as well as God loves me. While it’s worth mourning the loss of those friends I can’t let that change how I love the people God’s put in my life right now. I want to cultivate the tender heart He has displayed through Scripture and in my relationship with Him. It’s a heart that continues to love even in the face of betrayal and unfaithfulness. It’s a heart that loves boldly, relentlessly, tenderly, and patiently. It’s a heart that pursues, initiates, chases down the people who so desperately need Christ’s healing love. That’s what it means to “love one another as I have loved You” (John 13:34).

Batter My Heart

Have you ever prayed for brokenness, that painful process that reduces the flesh so the Spirit can shine forth? It’s a scary prayer because you know God will answer it, and it won’t feel good when He does.

I prayed for God to break me of my pride earlier this summer. I prayed I would not become a comfortable Christian. Even as I wrote the words in my prayer journal, I shuddered to think of what the answer might look like. Perhaps I would fail miserably in ministry, lose someone close to me, or be called to missions in a dangerous country. Part of me thought it would be awful if God allowed those things to happen, but at the same time I knew God was wise and loving. I struggled to accept that God is not a God of comfort, but He always knows and wants what’s best for us.

So how did He answer? For now He’s placed me in high school ministry, with a large cell group of some highly damaged girls. This certainly wasn’t the answer I expected, but the breaking has already begun. And despite my best prayer-journal intentions, I wriggled and writhed at the first sign of suffering. I cried through a couple weeks, alternating between acceptance and despair at my situation. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the girls or the ministry. But I felt overwhelmed, inadequate, and under-supported. I was shocked at my own immaturity, which hadn’t surfaced so blatantly when I was comfortable in my previous roles.

God was hammering away at my heart of pride, self-dependence, and fear. I felt awkward and uncomfortable when I stepped outside of the tribe of my old home church. God was answering my prayer, but it felt like He was hanging me out to dry, setting me up for failure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He came in with support and new plan for the girls’ cell group leadership. The work has just begun, both in ministry and in my heart. I’m sure I’ll resist the Surgeon’s healing incisions again, but hopefully I give Him enough room to work.

The process of the “breaking of the outer man for the release of the Spirit,” (Watchman Nee), reminds me of a poem called “Batter my Heart.” It’s by John Donne, the 18th-century metaphysical poet of “no man is an island” fame. I’ve updated the spelling to make it more readable:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne, my poet-hero

The imagery is startling: first Donne’s heart is like a castle door which He asks God to charge with a battering ram so he can be healed. He says if he takes a stand on his own, God should overthrow Him with force in order to make him into the new creature God wants him to be. The means he suggests—breaking, blowing, and burning—all sound painful. Donne compares his heart to a town where he’s unfairly taken control; it rightfully belongs to God. He’s trying to let God rule, but his mind struggles to believe and therefore admit the true King. And yet he knows his thinking is weak, false, and easily held captive.

Donne experiences the human tension of loving God and wanting God’s love, even as he plays the harlot with the devil. He asks God to break his bonds with the devil and make him God’s prisoner instead. Until then, Donne realizes he can’t be free, since humans by nature are not independent beings. The last line is scandalous, but rounds out the metaphysical conceit of being betrothed to the devil: he can never be pure until God has full power over him, penetrating every area of his life.

Of course the Bible has much to say on the topic of how God batters our hearts and “ravishes” us. First, He can show us our sin more clearly, thus leading us to repentance and the new and living way:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there by any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.”
-Psalm 139:23, 24

Sometimes breaking requires more than a glimpse of our sin nature. Hebrews explains that God, like any good father, disciplines in love:

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him,
For those whom the Lord loves He disciples,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.”
-Hebrews 12: 5, 6 quoting Proverbs 3:12

We are encouraged to endure God’s discipline “so that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10b). As Keith taught recently, we cannot gain substance in the Christian life until we’ve grown beyond the “American way” of comfort, rights-thinking, and instant pleasure. Like an Olympic athlete, we cannot hope to win the race Paul speaks of (2 Timothy) without serious training and endurance. Everyone knows “no pain, no gain” is true. The Bible concurs:

“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
-Hebrews 12:11

In our fallen world, suffering is inevitable. The question is not whether we’ll suffer, or even how much, but if we’ll allow God to use it for good in our lives. In the midst of intense, life-threatening persecution, Paul kept perspective on the relative values of temporal comfort versus eternal reward:

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
-2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Paul could rejoice in physical and emotional pain because God was using it to grow his spirit, the inner man. Peter agrees earthly suffering is worthwhile in light of the substance our faith gains now, and the eternal glory of heaven:

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
-1 Peter 1:6, 7

I’m still a sissy when it comes to suffering, but I’ll continue daring to pray for brokenness.