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When You’re Skeptical of God’s Plan

I consider myself a very thorough decision-maker. I try to think of all possible factors, potential outcomes, and I take a long time to do it (as if more time would result in a better decision). I certainly don’t have a problem with not thinking things through—my problem is that despite all my efforts, I’m actually not very well-equipped to make decisions. I’m not sure any of us are. After all, we can’t anticipate the impact of every decision we make. We can’t predict the future situations we’ll run into, or the best way to prepare for opportunities we don’t know we’ll have.

I faced this reality head on during my third year of university, when I found myself agonizing over a really difficult decision. My pursuit and study of comparative politics had led me to apply for an opportunity to spend a summer interning at my state representative’s office in Washington, D.C. After interviews, applications and essays, and only a few months before the semester ended, I received news that I had been accepted. Not only did my representative’s office offer me a position as a summer intern, but unlike the majority of D.C. internships, mine would be funded, as I had also been awarded a competitive scholarship.

Everything was quickly falling into place for this incredible resume-building and prestigious opportunity. But all the while, I couldn’t shake an unmistakable uneasiness that I felt about taking the internship. In response to the uneasiness, I turned to seriously praying about the decision before I committed to anything.

As I prayed, I found myself considering getting a job near my university and staying local for the summer, instead of spending it 700 miles away in Washington, D.C. But that didn’t make any sense to me. I made a list of pros and cons, and every train of logic concluded with it being an obvious decision to go to D.C. It was a rare chance to work for a state representative, I would gain a ton of experience in my field of study, and it would be a great opportunity to shine Jesus’ light in the political center of the country. I was even planning to move to D.C. after I completed my degree, and this would give me a chance to make valuable connections that might help me find a job after graduation!

Nevertheless, the more I prayed about the decision, the more I felt peace about the choice to stay local, and consequently, I felt increasingly uneasy about taking the internship. I knew what I had to do. So after wrestling with and praying through the decision for weeks, I finally informed the office and scholarship committee that I wouldn’t be taking them up on their offer.

Honestly, I was relieved. But I was still so frustrated that the only explanation I had to offer my inquiring friends and family was, “I prayed about it, and it just didn’t feel right.” Even though a few close Christian friends completely understood my prayerful decision, this seemingly trite response left most people curiously questioning my life decisions.

Five years down the road now, I can see how spending the summer locally allowed me to develop a friendship that later turned into marriage with my best friend. I can also see that, as I continued to submit my plans for comparative politics to God, He totally redirected my aspirations and career. He laid job opportunities in my path that I could not have anticipated or prepared for, and that definitely did not involve politics or moving to Washington, D.C.

We can’t always find explanations or reasons for why God leads us a certain direction. Sometimes it takes half our lifetime before we can understand—sometimes we may never know. But, this rare experience allows me to look back and think, “Ahhhh. I see what You were doing there. I’m glad we went with Your plan and not mine!” I hold tightly to this. I let it remind me that our all-knowing, wonderful, mighty God is not constrained by human logic, and certainly works outside of our understanding.

These moments of clarity help me to avoid leaning on my own understanding and pursuing what the world tells me is a good opportunity, and instead to submit my ways to a God whose thoughts and plans are so much higher than my own (see Proverbs 3:5-6 and Isaiah 55:8-9).

I’m so thankful I didn’t end up in D.C. that summer, because it would have taken me several steps further down the wrong path, away from the beautiful future God had planned both for my marriage, and my career. It’s comforting for me to know that God is worthy of my trust, even when He steers me in an unexpected or confusing direction.

He is the perfect author (Hebrews 12:2), and that means He knows every plot twist, every challenge to come, and every mistake I will make. I can always turn to Him for guidance, trusting Him before myself and before worldly wisdom, to direct and author my life story.

 

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our series on Seeking God in Decision-Making. Read the other articles in the series, “When Things Don’t Make Sense” here and “When You Don’t Hear From God” here!

Jesus Doesn’t Celebrate the 4th of July

When my plane touched down at my port of entry to the United States after four months of studying abroad, I made my way with the crowds to the customs and immigration line. Right away, my eyes fell on the label for a special, dedicated line that read, “US CITIZENS”.

Anticipation and delight swelled up inside of me. I was home! This was my country! There was familiarity here . . . and predictability! I could speak my own language, use my cultural references, and finally be free from working so hard to communicate every moment of every day. Right then, I embraced my identity as a US citizen with enthusiasm, walking with my head held high through the special line, labeled just for me.

In recounting my travel experience, I’ve often joked that this moment was the time I’ve felt most patriotic in my entire life. While my appreciation for my country that day had more to do with the fact that “America” and “home” were synonymous in my mind than any sort of extreme patriotism, it does still cause me to think about what I value about my citizenship, and more importantly, how much I’m valuing it.

I live in a country where sometimes, Christianity and our national identity are so tightly wound, the two seem to conflate. In church, we celebrate military holidays, and we hang American flags. In school, children recite a pledge that declares the US as a “nation under God.” The declaration—the very document that marks our annual 4th of July celebration of independence—mentions God as man’s Creator.

When the line between faith and nation gets too blurry, it’s easy to (intentionally or not), begin to place faith in institutions, principles, or political parties that are imperfect and can distract us from the ultimate kingdom we owe our allegiance to—God’s!

So, as I consider my country and all that it means to me, I’ve found that it’s helpful to constantly check my loyalty—whether it’s to a country, people group, celebrity, sports team, or the like—against two standards that can help us focus our delight and satisfaction where it belongs.

 

1. Thankfulness that leads to humility, not pride

A big part of the 4th of July celebration for me has always been to think of all that is great about being a citizen of the US. I’m thankful that we have freedom of speech to protect the right to voice unpopular opinions. I never want to take for granted the religious liberties I’m afforded, or the heroic sacrifices that have been made by servicemen, women, and their families that allow me to live and work in peace. I owe a deep sense of respect to those who have fought for the freedoms I enjoy.

But as I revel in the blessings that God has poured out, I remind myself that none of them are mine to claim. When we experience blessings, it’s easy to start convincing ourselves that we actually deserve them, and begin to expect more of them. Expecting blessings can make us feel entitled to them when, in reality, we’re not.

So as I think about my country, I want thankfulness to lead me to humility instead of pride, remembering that I don’t earn or deserve any of these blessings. James 1:17 reminds us where good gifts (including blessings) come from:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

I pray that my thankfulness—not just about my country, but in all things—turns my eyes to the One who gives perfect gifts. I will direct my thanks to God because of the great mercy He has given me. Every single good thing that I experience is from God. He is the only one worthy of my heart’s praise.

 

2. Assurance of where our truest allegiance lies

Even in the midst of decking out in red, white, and blue every year and celebrating how far our nation has come, I can’t help but acknowledge that there remain great injustices. Especially in 2019, marriage, sex, and life—which should be held in a sacred light—have been marred and contorted by society’s modern ideals. Centuries of institutionalized racism means that the impact of discrimination based on race is still active, causing all sorts of injustices and undue burdens.

These sobering realities are a stark reminder that my country, and every single human-built entity, is so broken—plagued by the curse of sin in this world. No country, institution, or political party can address our needs and heal our wounds fully—only God can. And this means that my full allegiance and hope should be in God alone. Paul reminds us in Philippians that our true citizenship—the one we should be most focused on—is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). After all, the gospel story is all about how God saved us so that we could be a part of His heavenly kingdom—the kingdom of light and of His Son (Colossians 1:12-13)!

So this 4th of July, as many of us take time off from work, travel to attend parades and celebrate being an American, let us remember our identity in Christ first and foremost. May it keep our national identity from becoming an idol, and inspire us to adopt God’s global-minded concern for loving and serving others. And every day for everyone, may all of our other loyalties fall into their rightful place, paling in comparison and leading us into thankfulness and assurance of our place in God’s global body.

 

Lord, let Christians’ identity as members of Your eternal kingdom drive them to seek Your will in loving and serving their neighbors both near and across the globe, always holding their heavenly citizenship before any other loyalty.

Taylor Swift, Could You Please Calm Down?

Dear Taylor,

Welcome back to pop music’s center stage! In 2019, you’ve burst onto the scene, dropping new music, setting up a new host of Easter egg clues, and letting us all see how carefully you’ve constructed a season of unashamedly using your platform and music to share a message. Some of the Swifties are calling it “TS7”, as we’ve all sensed it’s an era worth marking.

You should know that I’ve been here since the guitar-playing, sundress-wearing and concert hair-flipping days, cheering you on from a distance and eagerly soaking up each new sound and style you’ve shared through your albums. It’s been fun to see how much your music has grown and changed over the years, and I’ve found myself totally willing to let each album carry me into a new place, learning to appreciate a new sound, a new genre, a new Taylor!

So, after having your first single from the new album stuck in my head since its release in late-April, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next track and scouring the Internet for any clues about your upcoming music that I might’ve missed. Just before the weekend, we finally got another peek into your new album through the release of the song “You Need to Calm Down”.

From the lyrical references to the LGBTQ media organization, GLAAD, the line about how “throwing shade” has never made anyone less gay, and the snide comment about people staying up all night to make signs (presumably for protests), it was clear to me right away that this song is a nod to your LGBTQ “friends” (as you call them in the top of the second verse).

But the obviously pro-LGBTQ lyrics didn’t surprise me much. It was the video, dropping three days after the track was released, that really threw me for a loop. After joining the hundreds of thousands who pressed “play” within the first hours after its release, I found myself re-watching it several times, trying to make sure I saw everything right.

The bright, colorful rainbow palette, as well as the wedding ceremony between two men and drag queen competition affirmed what we all were thinking—this song was built to be a pride anthem. But what caught me off guard . . . the thing I had trouble swallowing, was the not-so-subtle jabs at Christians.

 

Screenshot taken from Official Music Video

 

About a minute and a half into the video, I got my first glimpse of the protestors. They’re mostly wearing plaid, the men have long beards, and some are sporting American flag clothing and cowboy hats—perfectly fulfilling the stereotype of an ignorant, unsophisticated hillbilly. Initially, I assumed this was a dig against the heartless and unkind sort of people that I, too, find myself wishing wouldn’t be so vocal.

As I got a closer look though, I saw that the toothless protestors in your video were brandishing signs that read “Homasekualty is a sin” (surely misspelled with intention), “HELL” in fiery flames, and “Adam and Eve NOT Adam and Steve”.

Screenshot taken from Official Music Video

Screenshot taken from Official Music Video

 

The biblical references registered in my mind, and it dawned on me what was happening here—or rather, who was being stereotyped. It was me. My faith. You were characterizing Christians to be hateful and mean, people who should be written off as unintelligent. After an initial wave of the offensive, my next emotion was just sadness as  I realized this video would go viral, reaching tens of millions with a message about Christians that was so misconstrued.

Most of me hopes that this was unintentional, that it was not a deliberate attempt to interweave my faith with a stupid, harsh, and un-loving narrative. But you misspelled words and made references to the dark ages, implying that anyone opposing homosexuality is simple-minded. And maybe you don’t know this, but the worst part is that in doing so, you solidified a stereotype that genuinely loving Christians have to diligently work against every  time we want to engage with anyone about topics as sensitive as this.

I’m a Christian who doesn’t hate gays, but you’ve successfully perpetuated the narrative that there isn’t space for me in today’s culture.

I hope you’ll give me a chance to clarify . . . to invite you into understanding what Christians really are like—or at least who we should be like.

 

It’s not our self-expression you’re tryna mess with.

You might wonder why Christians would care so much about how other people are living their lives—why we don’t keep our offensive “self-expression” to ourselves. It’s because it just isn’t that simple. Because it actually isn’t about me. And it’s not just about you, or your friends. Or what any of us want or think is best. It’s actually about God.

This life isn’t about self-expression. It’s all about living to honor God’s expression of creating us in His own image. And as His image-bearers, when we love Him and conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, we find hope, joy, love, and peace.

 

We’re already trying to restore the peace.

In light of this, I had a particularly difficult time with the line in your song that directs the protestors to take a seat and try to restore the peace.

From the song, it’s obvious that this petition for “peace” is actually a desire for those with opposition to sit down and stop vocalizing it. Christians though, have a different idea of peace. Peace involves wholeness—not just staying silent. True peace is about being complete. And not just as individuals, but as a people, wholly restored to a relationship with our Creator.

I wish that we could both agree to pursue this kind of peace. That you would recognize that when Christians long for peace to be restored, it’s a big-picture, whole-world kind of hope. That it’s hope for the restoration of heaven and earth—for an entire world to be fully free from mourning, crying and pain (Revelation 21:4). This is real peace, real wholeness. And this, is what we long for.

 

It’s not about screaming at all the people we hate.

This was probably the hardest part for me to hear and see. It’s hard because I get it. We’ve probably cringed at the same news stories where people who call themselves Christians yell and shout and spew hateful slurs in protest. There is a lot of pain and offense that is undue, inappropriate, and uncalled for. But this is not what Christianity is supposed to look like.

Christians aren’t out to scream and spew hate towards those who don’t live like we believe God has instructed. Our faith isn’t about attacking the way a certain group of people live. Rather, we want to help all of mankind see how sinful and broken our nature is. How each and every one of us at our core is selfish and sinful. How desperately we need God’s grace so our relationship with Him can be restored and we can begin to understand that our very purpose is to live to honor Him.

I’ll be the first to admit that Christians need to ask God to help us truly love people in the process, because it can get messy. But I hope this letter has come across as loving. I hope you see that I appreciate and respect your work, but that you’ve gotten something wrong in this video. I hope you recognize how you’ve exacerbated an un-true and hurtful narrative about Christians being hateful.

My greatest hope though—for you, your friends, and for all of us—is that we do calm down. That we would put our own thoughts, desires and tendencies in subjection to God’s direction. And instead of living as if we all have our own crowns like you sing, that we’d live in pursuit of the ultimate crown—the crown of eternal life that we are promised if we persevere and love God.

Another School Shooting: How Many More Tuesdays Will I Read About Senseless Killings?

Screenshot taken from The Charlotte Observer

On 30 April 2019, a gunman burst into a lecture hall on University of North Carolina Charlotte’s campus on the last day of classes for the semester. The students were giving final presentations when the gunman started shooting. Two individuals were killed as a result, and one of them died tackling the shooter in an attempt to stop him.

Though the news broke on Tuesday, it was only several days later that I finally opened an article about it. I wasn’t intentionally avoiding it—it’s just that, “Student Killed While Fighting Shooter” didn’t draw my attention like it used to. It wasn’t until I saw several articles about the same topic that I realized something had happened.

As I grappled with the news of this shooting, I found myself perplexed as to how or why I didn’t pay this story any attention until several days after it occurred. If I’m being honest, once I actually registered a headline, my first reaction was, “Really? Another one?!” After a record number of school shooting incidents in 2018 (at least 23), it seemed I was becoming numb to them in 2019.

While I was still trying to process the impact of the violence at UNC Charlotte, it happened again. On Tuesday this week, only seven days after the loss at UNC Charlotte, another shooting took place.

Another school, another shooter, another life mercilessly taken.

This time it was in Colorado, and prefaced by a dark irony that just last month, the school, along with hundreds of others, closed temporarily as the 20th anniversary of a particularly deadly school shooting known as “Columbine” approached. As of today, at least one person is confirmed dead, and several others were shot and injured.

I find myself, yet again, just reeling.

What do I do? What can I say? How can this happen? Why does this happen?

 

I can honor victims and their family in my response

I realize that I have no idea how to answer any of these questions. And that’s exactly why I feel myself becoming more numb to such news. Tragedies are horrible, and it’s easier to turn a blind eye than to engage with them. This is perpetuated by the fact that most of us feel utterly helpless when it comes to responding to tragedies.  Personally, I don’t feel like I can do anything to affect the situation positively, so I tend to give an article a casual read, then turn my mind to other things. However, something about a school shooting happening two Tuesdays in a row convinced me of one thing: I must not become numb.

The minute I stop reading the stories of parents grieving the senseless loss of their sweet child, or listening to the accounts of eyewitnesses, or hearing about how students and teachers are grieving the loss of any semblance of security in their place of study or work, is the minute I start the process of not caring. I need to listen to and read these stories, because I need to acknowledge the reality before me.

The reality is that though school should be a safe place where students can learn and feel protected, it has instead become a place where they’re practicing active shooter drills and listening for loud sounds that may indicate the worst-case scenario they have trained for. In acknowledging this, I pray that God helps me understand how I’m supposed to respond to it.

 

I can re-think how I’m praying

I think part of my response must include prayer. And that can often feel minor, empty, or like it just isn’t enough. But another thing I’ve remembered during these tragic couple weeks is that prayer is one of the most powerful things I can do. Prayer connects me to an all-powerful God who is able to provide peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7), even in desperate situations. I am comforted in knowing that the Lord listens to the cry of the righteous. He is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34: 15-18), and it’s worthwhile to spend time calling on Him. Prayer is vital, but I’ve been challenged to reconsider how I pray about something like a school shooting.

Do I simply pause to muse over it just long enough to offer up a simple prayer asking God to comfort everyone affected, and then move on to checking my email, or responding to a text message?

Or am I taking time to learn about the pain that I need to pray God heals?

Do I let the senselessness of it all inspire a desperate cry to God for restoration and peace that only He can bring?

Because I know that my God is the author of life. In fact, He sent Jesus to the cross so that us sinners could have abundant life in eternity (John 10:10). These violent school shootings are the manifestation of death and injustice in our world today. . . the stark opposite of the life that will define the restored world that God will bring (Revelation 21:1-4). They are senseless, often random, and without an identifiable motive. I have found that turning to prayer when I see death and injustice helps me to set my mind on the promised life in the new heaven and earth.

Understanding that situations like school shootings also break God’s heart and go against His ultimate plan for eternal life shifted my response to such tragedies. Instead of allowing my heart to become numb to these senseless shootings, I decided to take some time out to pray.  As I engage with the pain and grief of those affected by this tragedy, it helps me to pray more often and genuinely. As I take time to hear stories of parents who spent hours not knowing if their children were still alive, it helps me know how to pray for them. Taking time to learn about these tragedies also helps align my heart more decidedly to God’s plan for ultimate restoration and life. That alignment inspires me to pray for the pain, hurt, and violence that I see all around me on a daily basis, whether big or small.

I hope that you will join me in praying for the lives that were lost and forever changed as a result of the recent school shootings in the U.S. I also hope that you are encouraged to engage with the reality of pain and grief that I am certain surrounds you as well. Let the engagement settle your hearts on the life and restoration that God values and plans to bring to this world. And remember that when you feel helpless, prayer is powerful.