Your Greatest Gain
It seemed like a major setback.
My roommates and I had been living in a nice house with a backyard and a two-car garage. It was the biggest (and most expensive) house I had ever lived in. However, our lease was ending and with major life transitions on the horizon, my roommates and I decided it was probably time to move on from our extravagant abode. So, after much purging of all my possessions, I stuffed what I had left into my Mitsubishi and drove across town. I ended up moving back into the exact room I lived in when I first moved to Napa eight years ago.
While I was truly grateful for a place to live, I must admit that it just seemed like a step backwards in my life. Ever been there? When God brings you back to the same place that you started even though you feel like you should be long past that stage of life?
As I stood in that old familiar room with boxes stacked all around, I began to feel like my life was suddenly very small. So, I decided to go out for some fresh air. Just a few hundred yards away from the front door is a small park with a playground and half-mile loop that I had walked many times eight years prior.
My first time around the loop brought thoughts like: Why am I back here? Did I do something wrong? Have I failed? While my feet followed the circle a second time, disappointment set in as a I began to think about the previous season and all my unmet expectations. I wanted to be farther along in my life and career. I wanted more meaningful relationships. On the third loop, I began to invite God into the conversation and express my grief to Him. He was a kind listener.
The fourth and fifth time around the track brought some much needed reflection as I began to think about where I was eight years ago emotionally, relationally, spiritually, and even physically. By the sixth loop, something remarkable happened, I felt how much I had grown from eight years ago. I remembered all that God had delivered me from, the relationships He had blessed me with, the financial miracles He orchestrated, and all the ways I had advanced in both career and calling.
On my seventh circle, I said to the Lord: “I remember how hard it was for me to walk just one of those loops eight years ago. It’s only my first time out this time around and I’ve been walking for miles.” And that’s when the Lord whispered, “Jen, your greatest gain then is your starting point now”.
Eight years ago, I had to work for months to get the grit and the stamina to walk the literal physical path I had just walked. This time around I hit it first try and with no struggle. This new beginning wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was moving with strength and with ease. The version of myself eight years ago would have been shocked! When I feel disappointed about my pace or my progress in life, I remember that I have already come so far in my life – only by God’s grace and His power.
When we are discouraged, we certainly need to acknowledge how we feel. But we also need to remember where we have been and how far we have come
“Your greatest gain then is your starting point now.”
This phrase reminds me that we aren’t on the journey of perfectionism but progress. And perfectionism is the enemy of progress. Even though I felt so far behind in life, I had made so much progress and I needed to go to an old familiar place to feel that.
It’s not about the pace. It’s about making meaningful progress. It’s not about perfection. It’s about enjoying the process. So, today I’m choosing to focus on my progress and enjoy this process as best as I can.
How about you?
What Thomas Can Teach Us
After a few traumatic days and several vigorous years of ministry, the disciples found themselves gathered together “with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders” in John chapter twenty verse nineteen. This is the exact moment when Jesus made his grand appearance to them in his resurrected state. I can’t begin to conceive all that the disciples must have felt taking in their first glimpse of Jesus alive and well. Shock? Relief? Confusion? Well, the scripture makes one of the emotions very clear as it says in verse twenty that “the disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Of course, joy! After undergoing such emotional turmoil at the brutal loss of their Rabbi, Jesus was a sight for sore eyes and sore hearts.
John chapter twenty also intentionally points us to the fact that not all the disciples were there for this Christ sighting.
“24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25
Imagine being the only disciple who didn’t get to see Jesus.
What a splinter to the soul that must have been for Thomas. The moment of joy that the rest of the disciples experienced together has bitterly passed for him. He was left out.
My Sunday school days taught me to know Thomas as “doubting Thomas”. As a child, I often saw him as a sort of villain in this story. However, when I really reflect on what it would have been like for Thomas to be absent for the miraculous appearance of his Rabbi who was murdered just days before, I think the title “doubting Thomas” massively lacks empathy and understanding for the situation. Thomas was grieving. The other disciples had relief that their nightmare was over because they had seen with their own eyes that Jesus was alive! While they may have still had lingering questions, they no longer had reason to grieve at great depths. But Thomas is still deeply wounded at the loss of his Rabbi, and now a second wound is inflicted as he is the only one of his comrades to miss out on the joy of seeing the Risen Savior.
His words in verse twenty-five are not only a harsh resolve of a now conditional faith in his “I will not believe unless” statement, but they are dripping with woundedness and grief. His doubt is steeped in sorrow and rooted in the feeling of rejection. This doubt, that now colors our view of Thomas, is simply his measure of self-defense used to coat his very hurt heart. Sounds like an average human response to pain, doesn’t it?
I, like Thomas, have doubted God because I felt “left out”. I have denied His goodness and put conditions on my faith because of what He has done for others but not for me. Somehow their joy with Jesus translated to my hurt and loss. Like being pricked by a thorn on a rose in full bloom, there is something beautiful about their joy but also so hurtful about my lack. I wish it weren’t this way. Perhaps, it has been this way for you too.
So, what do we do in these moments of blistering bewilderment and human heartache? Let’s return to the story.
"26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” - John 20:26-29
A whole seven days later, Jesus appears to the disciples in much the same way as he had previously. The doors were locked, the disciples were together, and Jesus uses the same “Peace be with you” greeting. However, the notable difference is that Thomas was there for this Christ sighting and the interaction seems tailored for Thomas himself. Jesus, wasting no time, turns towards Thomas and addresses the doubt head on, but not before his greeting of “Peace be with you”. Could it be that Thomas needed to hear the word “peace” in his anguished soul just as much as the disciples did a week prior?
Start with peace.
When we lock the doors of our hearts just as the disciples locked the doors of that room, Jesus still shows up for us and speaks peace to our weary souls.
Peace be with you in your rejection.
Peace be with you in your loss.
Peace be with you when you’re overlooked.
Peace be with you when you’re withholding.
This receiving of peace is difficult in the midst of pain, but it is such a deep need in the human heart. We must receive His relief. We must choose His peace over our own armor.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” – John 14:27
“The Lord is Near! Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation with prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6
Now with the anchor of peace extended, Jesus offers Thomas to examine the very “unless I see” contingencies spelled out the week prior. However, Jesus leaves Thomas with a contingency of His own: “stop doubting and believe”.
It’s important that we recognize how we respond when we are hurt. We are all prone to doubt as our standard defense mechanism. Once we have been pained, doubt is an instinctive response to house our hearts from hurt. The problem is that doubt shields us from the wrong thing. It shields us from the blessing of the Lord but opens us to bitterness, resentment, and hardness of heart. We must find a better way.
We must stop doubting and BELIEVE. However, the only way to get to the belief is not to deny the pain, but to be honest about it. “Stop doubting” doesn’t mean that we simply set it aside and pretend it’s not there. Rather, we must move toward Jesus through the doubt. There is no need to try to sugar coat the distress and disappointments felt. Instead, we move courageously through our doubt and pain and bring every bit of resistance to Jesus with honesty and with vulnerability.
Being honest about the state of heart gives us the launching pad for faith even in the unseen. It opens us to remember who it is before us. Thomas needed to take off the grief goggles and remember who the Lord and God he had followed for year. In fact, his response to Jesus is layered with belief, “my Lord and my God!” A week of doubt couldn’t drown out the years of devotion once he looked in his Master’s eyes again. We must remember who it is that is before us. We have looked at our pain, now we must look again at Jesus himself and remember that He is our Lord and our God. Once you have been honest about the state of your heart, get the pain out of view for a moment. Look at Jesus.
When we look at Jesus, we also shouldn’t be surprised if He invites us to look not at what is seen but what is unseen. Jesus said to Thomas in verse twenty-nine, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Faith in the midst of the unseen is the hallmark of every spiritual hero in Scripture. Just read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews to stir the hunger for an increase of faith in your life. There is blessing in our belief. And the blessing goes two ways. There is blessing for us most certainly, but it also blesses our Lord and God’s heart when we put our trust and hope in Him.
”And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” – Hebrews 11:6
Faith when it doesn’t make sense, but peace will be with you. Believe before you see, but you’ll be built up in the process. This is not an easy prescription for a hurt spirit, but it’s the challenge Jesus put before Thomas and all believers.
Start with peace.
“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
- 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Author’s Extra Note:
Looking for practical ways to increase your faith and be renewed day by day?
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” – Romans 10:17
In this season I have daily read, written, and memorized Scripture because the garden of my heart desperately needs tending to. I need resentment and unforgiveness to be uprooted. I need my doubts to be cut back. Even more, I need my faith to flourish, my confidence to be watered, my character to be pruned and my beauty to blossom.
Disclaimer: This is not at all an easy journey. It is like a detox to the soul, but I am believing someday for a great harvest in the planting of His word in my heart.
ROOM TO BE WRONG
In my elementary days, I remember using and hearing the phrase “first try” quite often. Every kid on the playground found something so impressive about succeeding from the onset. “He hit a home-run first try!” And “She landed that trick first try!” We were all chasing our next “first try” high as mysterious and elusive as that kind of accomplishment could be.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of any real successes in my life that came on the “first try”. I spent four years (and far too much money) on a college degree to become a pastor and a social worker. I spent six years in softball leagues full of weekly practices, tournaments, and endless laps around the bases before I made the Varsity softball team. I practiced countless hours until my fingers went numb to learn to play the guitar. I preached dozens and dozens of sermons before I ever gave a decent teaching from Scripture to my congregation.
Now that I think about it, I don’t think I got anything on the “first try”.
The same is true in my spiritual journey. I didn’t get the disciplines of prayer, forgiveness, fasting, obedience, faith, patience, joy, sabbath, and every other aspect of discipleship to Jesus on the “first try”. It’s taken practice and perseverance. It’s required continued refinement and daily mercies. It reminds me of the process Scripture talks about of going from “glory to glory”.
“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
-2 Corinthians 3:18 (KJV)
I must admit, going from “glory to glory” is messier than I could have ever imagined. Going from “glory to glory” means a lot of trial and error. It means I have to drop the perfectionist mentality in the crafting of my life. But it also means that my life is “gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful” as Eugene Peterson writes in his translation of 2 Corinthians 3:18.
“And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
– 2 Corinthians 3:18 (The Message)
If my life is “gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful”, I need a gentler phrase to hold onto for my adult life than “first try”. And I think I’ve found one. It comes from the NEEDTOBREATHE song entitled “What I’m Here For” and invites my life into the soul-breathing space it’s been craving.
“I just need room to be wrong sometimes.”
Growing up, I didn’t feel the permission to fail or make mistakes. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a church culture that was far too quick in rushing people to the answers. I felt the pressure to get every bit of discipleship to Jesus right on the “first try”. It was suffocating; it was lonely; and it was a lie. It often kept me from trying in the first place. And that kind of environment scraped away my humanity and drained any real need for the divine in my life. We can only really know Jesus when we are who we really are. And who we are is gloriously and imperfectly human.
“I just need room to be wrong sometimes.”
This particular season that I find myself in is wild beyond words. I’m not sure how to explain it to the onlooker in a way that will satiate the need for a neat and tidy summation. But I can tell you one thing: I crave SPACE. The space to be human. The space to feel my disappointments and still offer faith in the midst of them. The space to offend religious people and repent for my own religiosity. The space to be offended and forgive my offenders. The space to wrestle with my disillusionment for how God gives and takes away. The space to worship Him in times of plenty and when I’m running on empty. The space to break out of living merely a dutiful existence and into a life led by holy desire.
I crave the space to fully be on journey with Jesus through every external twist and turn that comes my way and with every internal waywardness that needs uprooting. So, I am giving myself the space to do that. While this season is seemingly not productive or impressive, it is honest, restful, stretching and soul healing.
I’m also finding that as I give myself space, I give more space for Jesus to come and be with me. And you know what I’m finding? He fills every gap my imperfection makes. He is patient and kind even in my combativeness. He is a friend who sticks closer to a brother. And the secret hours with Him are sweeter than any moment I have ever spent on public stages.
“I just need room to be wrong sometimes.”
When I allow myself to have this kind of soul-breathing room, I also end up giving more space for others to be their whole human selves. My opinions decrease. My rushed answers to other people’s strife go silent. And I have left space for Jesus to step into the conversations and into their process. I don’t need to fill their gaps. He’s got that covered too.
So, what about you?
Perhaps you, like me, need a little space today to not be perfect or hit every marker of spiritual success on the first try. Even when others don’t give you that space, let this sink into your soul: you have the room to be wrong sometimes.
You don’t have to be perfect. The pressure is off because Jesus has given you the room to be right where you are. You can trust His character and His kindness. You can trust that He is a Good Shepherd who will lead you into a spacious place of “gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful” in Him.
Lastly, you don’t have to run or hide when you’re imperfect. Keep showing up to Jesus even when the bitterness flares up, the prejudice kicks in, the anxieties rise, the impure thoughts disrupt, and you failed again. Jesus doesn’t give up on you when you aren’t perfect. He sticks with you and gets you where you need to go.
But also keep showing up to the bride and body of Christ even when they don’t understand, when they offend, when they doubt you, when they rush your discipleship, when they miss you entirely. Jesus doesn’t give up on her either when she isn’t perfect.
I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from these last few months and invite you to take a deep breath as you allow these words to create some breathing room in your own soul.
"I run to you, God; I run for dear life.
Don’t let me down!
Take me seriously this time!
Get down on my level and listen,
and please—no procrastination!
Your granite cave a hiding place,
your high cliff nest a place of safety.
You’re my cave to hide in,
my cliff to climb.
Be my safe leader,
be my true mountain guide.
Free me from hidden traps;
I want to hide in you.
I’ve put my life in your hands.
You won’t drop me,
you’ll never let me down.
I hate all this silly religion,
but you, God, I trust.
I’m leaping and singing in the circle of your love;
you saw my pain,
you disarmed my tormentors,
You didn’t leave me in their clutches
but gave me room to breathe."
Psalms 31:1-8 (the Message)
Wonders in the Wilderness
They spoke against God; they said,
Jen is a pastor, podcaster, worship leader, writer, and songwriter living in Napa, California.