Give Yourself Permission to Grieve

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA

That night a couple of good friends were helping me sort action figures, Legos, and other kid-detritus into bins in my boys’ room. They had come over for dinner together while our husbands were out of town. During the meal, they had asked candidly about how I was doing with our adoption—which is to say, the adoption we painfully decided not to complete.

Truthfully, my heart felt raw, as if it were beating outside of my body. My grief felt so vulnerable, so scraped and skinned and gaping, that privacy was all I could fathom to deal with it. I felt oddly embarrassed that we’d taken steps out of obedience to pursue this, and told people about it—and then, also out of obedience, backed out.

But after my honest admission to my friends, I shrugged, part of my consistent discipline to trust God and choose to be joyful. It was going to be okay, I asserted.

My friend paused, a toy in her hand, and looked me in the eyes. She said something like, “Janel, you need to take the time to mourn this. It’s a little like a miscarriage. You were expecting to have a child and now you’re not.” This was true. I had bought her clothes; we’d visited orphanages. “You need to grieve this, rather than stuffing it somewhere.”

To this day, I am thankful for what she gave me that evening: permission to grieve. It was permission for grieving and hope to not be mutually exclusive—to weep. To allow myself a few moments when I consigned the baby clothes I’d purchased. To be angry and bring my deepest questions to God as David did in his psalms, rather than hiding them behind my back.


Have we become plastic Christians?

Sometimes I wonder if, in the good and righteous and just plain hard choice that is joy, we miss some of the good that comes from grieving. Because grief and joy can be simultaneous. Joy is an unchanging happiness in God; an anchor for the soul in the midst of grief—not instead of it.

At times, I confess I have not fully grieved what is wrong about this world—not mourned with God—because somehow I’ve become convinced that a joyful Christian is not sad, or discouraged, or angry. In all honesty, I think this has stilted my worship. I have been a plasticky sort of Christian. In my haste to not complain or sin out of unbelief, I pretend that hurt or grief or disappointment or anger aren’t even there.

Instead of making a choice to believe God’s goodness in the midst of those—I pretend those aren’t there at all. I jump right to “It’ll be okay” and ignore anything I feel. It is as if I deny God access to all of me.

But the fact is, our emotions are part of the image of God in us. God, too, grieves! When we grieve the brokenness in the world around us, that is God allowing us to glimpse a sliver of what He grieves every day. Blessed are those who mourn.

I once attended the funeral of a young man who had passed away in a freak accident. Now, as Christians, we definitely “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)—and funerals are beautiful testimonies of how Christians die differently; they are incredible demonstrations and opportunities for the Gospel.

But this one, in all honesty, felt hijacked a bit by evangelism; by an agenda. If you came wrestling with the tragic loss of a young man’s life, you might have come away feeling. . . angry.

Compare this with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. Even though Jesus knows the outcome, the triumph—He did not call bad good, did not seize the opening for a sermonette on hope. He took the time to mourn the travesty that has happened, then illuminated what resurrection is all about.

The writers of the Psalms worshipped God with all they had, including their grief. Scholars note that all psalms of lament have similar components. Often the psalmist begins by calling on God, acknowledging this as a prayer, and not simply an internal struggle.

They then lay their complaints before God, honestly bringing to Him the painful circumstances of a fallen world.

After asking God to intervene and right the wrongs, the psalmist typically ends by reaffirming his trust in God’s character and trustworthiness. It is critical for our grief to restate our hope. In remembering God’s goodness despite our grief, we walk by faith, not by sight.


Mourning with joy and gratitude

In your time with God—and even with a close friend—it’s okay to acknowledge what you’ve lost because of your daughter’s learning disorder, or that you were hurt by someone in the Church, or that yes, you wanted that job.

I think of 1 Peter 1:6: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now. . . you may have had to suffer grief”. What does it look like to mourn. . . with joy and gratitude?

I have a friend who eventually lost his wife, the mother of his four children, to Lou Gehrig’s disease. He once recalled to me a profound moment with God. While he was still caring for his wife as her body spiraled downward, he had lain on his bed, overcome by loss.

But God seemed to be pointing him toward thanks. Not able to immediately turn to full-on gratitude, my friend simply started small. He thanked God for the ability to breathe; for the bed he wept on; for the air conditioning. From there, his gratitude snowballed, steering him into praise, and a reminder of God as anchor of the soul: “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, emphasis added).

My friend’s attitude has revolutionized my approach to my bad days; to my pain.

And there, when I step out of my own counsel and check out the divine gifts piling up right and left—suddenly, all these other fruits of the Spirit seem to collide at once in my soul: The unflagging, perpetual, bubbling (and occasional geyser) of joy. A peace I couldn’t articulate if I tried. A faith that sustains and nourishes and bandages as I walk through my most profound valleys. And the gifts keep on coming—when they’re based on something other than my own near-sighted ideas of justice, good, and peace.


Christian joy isn’t some version of Barbie, with the eternal smile that can’t be wiped off: Well, God said to rejoice! Have a cookie. Instead, our joy acknowledges, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). It says, I have deep, abiding happiness in God that surrounds me in hope and peace and belief, even when I can’t see through my own tears.

Here’s to a less plastic Christianity.


This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.

15 Ways to Cultivate Joy in Your Life

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA 

A friend told me recently of a trip he and his wife took to Hawaii several years back. After dropping his wife off at the terminal for the flight home, he was the only person on the rental car shuttle. He recalled the shuttle driver’s words: “I think I need to go on vacation.” My friend laughed when he told me this. Where do you go on vacation when you live in Hawaii?

Having friends who used to live on one of the Hawaiian islands, I know that wherever you live, life is never all blissful. In fact, one side of my house looks over a little cabin serving as a VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) year-round. And God seems to use it to tap me on the shoulder: Just a reminder. You live in a place where a lot of people go on vacation. 

It’s good for me to remember this during points of my life when I’m feeling weary: As I wait to hear back from publishers on my book proposal. As I wait to see if a teenager’s course will correct. As I stumble through days, hoping God will reveal why I am in this country and not in that one, but knowing He doesn’t have to. I think of my friend’s advice from his days caring for his wife as she slipped from his fingers with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): Thankfulness is an off-ramp from suffering.

There is a Harvard study which shows that happiness is closely linked to gratitude. Yet as a mother, a wife, a woman—it’s all too easy for me to lose my gratitude. I often run circles chasing what I want, chasing what isn’t to be, and never finding gratitude. When I am in a slump, I overlook the fact that I live in my own kind of Haiwaii. If the eye is the lamp of the body, it’s possible mine has a dimmer switch.

My mind’s lens zooms past God’s rich generosity—which are scattered like love notes everywhere—and zooms in upon the one letter I wanted which has yet to arrive. Along the way, somewhere I bypassed my gratitude and joy for what I have. Sometimes I even conclude, He loves me not. 

But who knows? Maybe someday I’ll look back and think, That was actually Hawaii, right there. I was living in it. Or at least, a whole lotta parts of Hawaii.

So much of my joy, I know, is training my eyes to see.

Some days I have to really train my eyes to see God’s blessing. On those days, I come back to this list of 15 easy ideas towards happiness, via gratitude. This is my lifeline on days when I’m down. Maybe you’d find them helpful too. Just pick a few—and then go big.


  1. Set a goal of how many people you’d like to thank today. Meet it.
  2. Before you get out of bed, thank God for 10 things. Mean it.
  3. Write a family member a quick card or text, letting them know you’re grateful for them. Get specific.
  4. Sing a song of gratitude as you wander around the house or do your chores. (I mean it.) It’s usually lyrics appropriate to my situation that set me off, such as When you don’t move the mountains/ I’m needing you to move. . . I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in you.
  5. Send one thank-you note to someone who is underappreciated this week. Repeat for three more weeks.
  6. Keep a gratitude journal nearby as you work. Jot down one thing every hour.
  7. When someone praises you, return the praise back to God, without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). Make sure you also thank any other people who pitched in.
  8. Thank God and the cook before you eat.
  9. Find at least one person in your community, your child’s school, or your workplace that is underappreciated, and thank them in person sincerely for their work. Sharing our gratitude openly with each other is like a gift exchange!
  10. When you hit a slump in your emotions or freak out about something, take a quick thankfulness inventory.
  11. Cover a cupboard door, a window, a fridge door, etc. with sticky notes of things you’re thankful for.
  12. Take at least one action point from your thankfulness: I am so thankful to have great kids; I’m going to go snuggle with them. I love where I live; I’m going to open the windows. I am so thankful for good health; I’m going to go on a run. 
  13. Work toward becoming the most grateful version of yourself—not out of an “I’m the best!” attitude but out of humility, understanding that anything we have, we received from God (1 Corinthians 4:7).
  14. Play a quick “thankfulness game” with your family or your friends at the dinner table or in the car: What are you thankful for right now? What’s great about your life?
  15. When someone asks how you’re doing,answer truthfully. Then mention at least one thing you’re genuinely thankful for.


This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.

What If My Personality Does Not Fit My Church?

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA

While I was never one of the cool kids in school, I have a personality that’s easily welcomed in church. I’m bubbly. I’m a married, creative mother (bonus!) with domestic-diva interests and a bleeding heart. I’m high-capacity in my time management and irreverent in the right ways. So my gifts, talents, and temperament can really gain me respect in these circles.

Yet what if I wasn’t?

My husband is a profound introvert, even though he deeply enjoys people and spends much of his job caring for them. While I love to get involved in everything and involve everyone around me, he prefers doing things by himself excellently. My ways of serving in church mean a lot of people know me; but he runs in a much smaller circle. While I’m bubbly, he’s contemplative. While I’m a pleaser, he tends to offer opinions that challenge other’s thoughts, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Too often in church, our personalities are tied to our spirituality, our ability to love, and our obedience. And let’s be honest, churches definitely view gifts and personalities in a hierarchy. I would even wager that we exalt various traits in different denominations.

At the risk of stereotyping—there’s a chance that charismatic churches may welcome more emotional personalities. Intellectuals or conscientious personalities find an easier home in Reformed denominations, while quieter souls are more at home in contemplative circles. If your church is into social justice, strong or vocal or compassionate people may flourish.

But what if you’re at a church where your personality just doesn’t seem to fit? How can we continue to engage with the church and with God when everything seems to be an uphill battle?

Here are a few things that might be helpful to remember:


1. God gave us our personalities

When our personality does not match up with our church’s ideal, too often we assume God is displeased with us as well.

My personality, in females, can be exalted in the church. But what about strong-willed women who don’t couch their words in soothing niceties? Is there a chance those women could get the idea that God Himself finds them only acceptable if they change the core of who they are? Is there a chance we could miss out on their courageous leadership, their unvarnished truth-telling, their decisive resourcefulness, by telling them they should be made in the image of someone else?

God loved us and saved us while we were still sinners, and you can bet He didn’t restore us to be generic non-persons. As Peter Scazzero observes in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, God cares about our personalities:

God intends our deeper, truer self, which he created, to blossom freely as we follow him. God has endowed each of us with certain essential qualities that reflect and express him in a unique way. Part of the sanctification process of the Holy Spirit is to strip away the false construct we have accumulated and enable our true selves to emerge.

If you’ve had some hard church experiences, if you have ever felt misunderstood in your personality—I want to affirm that Christ made you the way you are. You belong. That is not to say that we don’t have flaws and human sin. But it is only in God that we will find true healing, and true expression of our personalities.


2. Always find the flipside of a weakness

I remember sliding to a seat on the floor, head in my hands, when my youngest was no more than 18 months old. I quite clearly recall thinking, I have birthed the Tasmanian Devil. (This was probably after he pulled over a stool, grabbed the drink mix packets on the toaster oven, and sprinkled them around the house like fairy dust.)

But God reminded me, you have no idea the plans I have for him. I might need him strong and inventive so he can cross a jungle to an unreached people group. Or stand up in a courtroom for the unborn. Or corral a bunch of kids in an inner-city classroom. I just needed to allow God to put reins on that strength, not quash it.

One of my mom’s go-to sayings is: “Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.” That person who seems unyielding? God may have given them such a great love for God’s law and for justice. That woman who never volunteers? She is excelling at the work God has given her.

If you haven’t taken a personality assessment, there are many free online from reputable sources. And here’s a challenge: Don’t attempt to engineer your assessment for a personality you think might be more acceptable! Instead, use this as an opportunity to praise God and trust Him for how He formed you in complete wisdom. And allow Him to convict you of ways you can actively work to bring down the pet “idols” specific to your personality and unique cravings.


3. Our personalities should not prevent us from loving others well

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. My husband is fond of saying, “If you can’t ‘get’ how someone can’t just do what you do or just see what you see, that’s a sign it’s a strength for you.”

You might wonder how in the world someone always arrives late, or fails to organize their bathroom—because God has shared His passion for order with you. Or you might be baffled by people’s lack of flexibility, because God has endowed you with His graciousness and appreciation for the breadth of what is right and good. God gave you each strength you have “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

On the flip side, weaknesses are no excuse for loving poorly either. If we struggle to initiate relationships, or aren’t naturally kind, or aren’t well-organized, we harm the people around us when we don’t corral our weaknesses. Instead, we should bring our weaknesses before God, and ask Him to show us ways we can work on or around them for the sake of loving other people better.


4. Care for the personalities on the outskirts

Since every church seems to have its own preference for certain personalities, it makes sense for us to ask, “Is there anyone who might feel uncomfortable in our church? How can we make them welcome?” We should then extend special grace and kindness to these people. This might mean engaging as an equal someone with poor social skills, making more effort to draw them out or help them feel comfortable to open up, and perhaps inviting them to a gathering at your home. It might also mean being understanding when someone who is easily overwhelmed by scheduled activities opts out of events.

As you consider the strengths and weaknesses of your personality, ask yourself, who are the people you need in your life to add balance and help each other reflect a more whole image of God? I, for one, need deep thinkers like my husband. I need his introversion and thoughtfulness to slow me down and temper my impulsivity. I need his depth to bring me beyond appearances.

The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (1 Corinthians 12:21-25)


5. Together, we reflect Him fully

I’m often tempted to rig personality tests and be someone different. I’ve been embarrassed by being an extrovert, by lacking attention to detail, and by feeling rather than thinking. I mean, who wants to be known as an irrational, in-your-face, overenthusiastic fountain of thoughtlessness who can’t match her own socks?

But God flourishes in the fullness of our distinctions, not so we can make much of ourselves, but so we can make much of Him. Remember Ephesians 2:10, where God reminds us that we’re His workmanship, created for good works He prepared beforehand? That word workmanship is the Greek poiema. Yep, it’s just what it looks like: the root for our English word “poem”. A poem expresses one part of its Creator. We need all of these expressions for the world to get a comprehensive picture of him.

It’s a tall order when God says, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7). Rather than conformity and comparison, let us be advocates and cheerleaders (even quiet ones!) for the uniqueness that God has artfully, strategically arranged among us.

Jesus accepted us even when we rejected the ultimate, flawless Personality. May He give you the grace to accept even those who don’t fully value God’s image within you, and to allow His power to be made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

3 Reasons I Welcome Refugees (And 3 Ways You Can, Too)

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA

Did you know nearly one in 100 people worldwide are displaced from their homes?

Refugees have become so much more than an Associated Press photo in my mind and my heart. For three years, I taught students at a refugee center in Uganda. I’ve played sports, shared meals, and exchanged emails and Facebook posts with them, and helped them develop products for their businesses. They’ve also shared their cooking with me, and hung out with my kids. Our kids have even played tag together.

The refugees are among some of the most resilient individuals I’ve ever met. They are courageous strugglers and hard workers.

They have so much to offer.


Why I Welcome Refugees

While my husband’s and my work has taken me away from the center, I still work diligently to welcome refugees into my own life here in America. Here’s why:


1. Refugees give back

I’ll be honest with you: Some of my students had never sat in a classroom prior to their seat at the refugee center. Their nations had been at unrest for too long. If you’re trying to stay alive, you usually aren’t sitting in school.

In Kampala, Uganda, I instructed in stuffy classrooms full of eager adult refugees from eight African nations. Many of these students, as adults, were learning to read for the first time. They were adjusting to a new culture and so many new ways of doing things. At least one of our Western-style bathrooms at the center had a printed poster: Please don’t stand on the seats. They were all learning English, business skills like computing or sewing or baking, and health skills.

And here’s what’s happened: In Kampala, 21 percent of refugees owned a business that employed other people—and 40 percent  of those employees were Ugandan nationals. Experts at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre looked at the situation in Uganda and called it “exceptional.” Though welcoming refugees into a developing nation is different from welcoming them into more developed  nations, experts concluded that when refugees are given the right to work and freedom of movement, “the results are extraordinary, both for the refugees and the host community.”

Not only that, but God has used refugee crises the world over to bring people into a relationship with Himself. Not only have I heard stories of Middle Eastern refugees converting to Christianity, but I have read of a revival in Danish churches caused by Iranian refugees seeking Jesus. These are only a small representation of the beauty God is working worldwide as God blesses not only the refugees—but blesses through the refugees.


2. God loves refugees

I believe the need that is before us, and God’s words about refugees, are too great for me to turn a blind eye. According to the UN in 2014, every 4.1 seconds, someone becomes a refugee or is internally displaced. 41 per cent of refugees are under 18.

If these stats scare you a bit, know that the chances of being killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist are actually one in 3.64 billion. (For perspective, your chances of being killed by a cow are greater; they kill 20 people per year.)

From personal experience, I understand exquisitely that taking in refugees is not always comfortable or safe. This was crystallized for me when refugees from Rwanda stayed with my family. As her toddler ran around without a diaper, as the smell of the liver she was frying filled my kitchen, as we strategized on how to help her find a job, I mulled over Isaiah 58.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice. . . ? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

God must have known exactly what He was asking of us in these questions.

The promises immediately following these two verses were also staggering: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:8-9)

I think these promises mean that not only would God reward us, but He would also change us as we take these burdens as our own. His heart would mold ours as we, like he did for us, welcome those who cannot immediately repay us.



3. Refugees change me

It is true: I am indelibly different. It continues to push my family from a we-give-all-our-old-clothes-to-Goodwill kind of generous, more toward His I-give-until-it-hurts-and-then-I-keep-going kind of generous. The needs are too great, the differences in our circumstances too vast, the faces in my mind too vivid and personal. I can no longer elbow “the poor” to the edges of my mind.

David’s words, when trying to stay a plague on Israel, still haunt my mind: “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). If God is passionate about the poor and their injustice—this God who came to preach good news to the poor, to set prisoners free—can I be content to throw them my old clothes?

So, since I have returned to America, I have determined that the poor should receive a generous slice of my time, my passion, my energy, my budget, even my career. In a land that is prosperous to the point of obesity (and I don’t exclude myself from this)—though I cannot hear the physical voices of refugees—I never want to forget them.

I will advocate for them, tell their stories, and sign petitions. My family will give generously. I will help the poor among me, wherever they are from. I will thank the Middle Eastern woman beside me in Arabic, offering her a kind smile. I will invite the Hispanic immigrant’s son over to play with mine, and I will tell them how thankful I am that they are a part of my community.

Refugees and I have far more in common than I thought. A friend recently reposted R. C. Sproul Jr.’s wise words: “If the lesson you get from Jesus hanging with sinners is you should hang more with sinners, you’re confused on who you are in the story.” And I continue to return to David Platt’s words on adoption—that we adopt not because we are the rescuers, but because we are the rescued.

Jesus took me when I was an alien—not just an alien, an enemy—and made me His daughter. He gave me liberty, skills, purpose, a future, a home. He gave me love. And really that—He—is why I welcome refugees.



How You Can Welcome Refugees

“Um. . . I’m not even sure I know any refugees. So what can I do?”

I’ll echo some of the suggestions from “A Sane Approach to the Refugee Crisis,” an article published in Christianity Today.


1. Intentionally, strategically love on refugees

One friend of mine, out jogging in America, felt a niggling to reach out to a pair of refugee women she ran by every day, whose children also went to her daughter’s school. When she did stop and talk with them, she found that one’s eyes were filled with tears; in light of the climate toward refugees, they were too afraid to walk alone. As the Church, we have a tremendous opportunity to care for these bereft families.

Refugees sometimes need help with the most basic services in our communities, like medical appointments or navigating paperwork; others would love help with English, reading, or job skills. Before we left for Uganda, my husband and 5-year-old distributed Christmas gifts to refugees.

What refugee communities live in your area? (Perhaps your church is already connected!) You’re a Google search away from finding organizations already helping those near you. And if you’re freaked out about the language barrier, remember that kindness can be expressed through simple service; through washing someone’s feet in any form.


2. Donate

A practical way to help is by donating to vetted organizations who provide for refugees’ tangible needs—particularly career training. I’m partial to Refuge and Hope, because I see them helping refugees develop their God-given abilities and talents, empowering them to become vital, well-rounded, thriving members of a community. World Relief is one of the few organizations that have permission to help with resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S. There are many other organizations that are involved in refugee work. Spend some time reading up about these organizations and the work that they do, and support the ones that engage the causes that grab your heart and mind.


3. Pray for them

Perhaps this seems like a no-brainer—but even as I sit and type this, I realize how little I’ve prayed about the current crisis. Prayer is one of the most critical and powerful forms of loving the poor; of taking them and their needs into our hearts, lending our imaginations to their realities, and pleading for God’s intervention on their behalf. Pray that:

  • the Church will richly, sacrificially extend God’s love and protection
  • refugees will be led to Christ
  • refugees will be protected, and for the protection and wisdom of host countries
  • God will show you personally how to respond

I count over 70 references made by the Bible to foreigners and refugees. God identifies Himself as the God of the orphan, the widow, and the alien. I want us, too, as His followers, to be famous for this. Wanna help?

This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.