Last month I began my ambitious goal to read a book about every US president, starting with a book about my favorite president: Abraham Lincoln.
While reading about Lincoln’s life, I got some really great insight into the behind the scenes of wartime. Since my elementary years, I’ve always known the outcome of the Civil War, but I never really knew the struggle Lincoln experienced on the road to victory. One of the surprising challenges he faced during the first few years of the Civil War were generals who approached war and their enemy cautiously.
Why would a war general be cautious with the enemy? Confidence seems like the better method. However, Lincolns first few rounds of general seemed to have a cowardly approach to war. Off the battlefield, they were very vocal about their confidence to fight and win. But on the battlefield, they consistently ran in the opposite direction of the fight.
The most infamous general for the cowardly “avoid the fight” strategy during the civil war was General McClellan who was, to no one’s surprise, replaced by Lincoln with General Pope.
Pope, like McClellan was cocky. The difference was that Pope backed up his confident and smudge words with action. He fought the enemy. When Pope took over the Army of Virginia from McClellan, he attempted to arouse courage out of a cowardly bunch with this inspiring speech:
"I have come to you from the west where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense…I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy"
- Union General Pope
The truth is, the Army of Virginia kept experiencing defeat even with an aggressive new general. They were just too ingrained in their cautious and cowardly ways. But after I spent chapter upon chapter reading about cowardly generals, the sentiments Pope gave to “seek the adversary and beat him when found” jumped off pages. Something was stirred in me.
I let those words “we have always seen the backs of our enemies” roll around in my head for a few weeks, and a desire began to be wound up in me: I don’t want to run anymore.
Then I began to notice in my devotional reading’s day after day Scriptures like this:
Doesn’t it seem like the Lord is giving me my own Pope-like speech? These scriptures have been like water to the dry grounds of my heart. They are changing something within me.
I’ve ran from far too many battles. I’ve perfected the art of avoiding every enemy of my soul. I’ve worried myself away from the battles that would bring victory in my life. But God is leading me into the fight with words of promise and an invitation to trust .
He is developing a NEW desire in me. I don’t want to run. I want to pursue the victories and blessings in my life. I want a new view: my enemy’s back.
This newfound desire coupled with the words of Scripture are helping my heart pivot from a hesitant spirit towards a “lean in” attitude when it comes to the fight. And I am learning in the art of war that opposition isn’t a stopping point; it’s an opportunity for courage.
Caution will no longer be my approach to challenges. C O N F I D E N C E is my new strategy. And friends, confidence is a practice, not a personality trait. We can practice confidence even when we don’t feel it. It something that needs to grow and develop in us.
So, this is your and my friendly reminder not to hesitate to enter the fight. With God we can “advance against a troop”. We can even “scale a wall”. And with the confidence of Christ, we can embrace a new view: the enemy’s back.
I set out to do something that once seemed terrifying and impossible. Three weeks ago, I ventured off for a few days of solitude. That’s right, complete aloneness. For years I have heard of others life-giving solitude experiences. So, I decided to give it a go myself. I set off for a Sunday and Monday get away at an Air BnB in Northern California.
Throughout the first day, no matter where I was or what I was doing, God was with me. It felt as though He had been waiting for me. I saw Him in the Scriptures while reading before bed. I heard Him speak to me while I was driving up the 5 north and when I was cooking dinner that night. I saw Him in the stars at a local observatory. I felt His presence while I worshiped. He was all around me. There was an ease to His presence. I didn’t have to work for it. I didn’t have to try very hard. I didn’t have to plan. I just had to be shift my attention to God and be S T I L L.
It was incredible to say the least. My whole being experienced rest in His presence; and I was so thankful that I had sacrificed my time, money, and comforts to spend this time with Him. I needed it.
As wonderful and easy as the first day was, the second day couldn’t have gone any more different from the first day.
It was a rough start to the morning. Sleepy, coffee less, and a bit dehydrated, I instantly burned my breakfast bacon setting off the smoke alarm. I then rushed to get ready (because I had woken up a few hours later than I had intended) and zipped off to another day of solitude.
I had it all planned. I was going to drop into a local coffee shop, pick up some much-needed magical espresso, sit in the warm sunlight at a beautiful botanical garden nearby while I read my morning devotions. This should be a slam dunk of a day, right? What I got instead of my flawless plans were bad directions, congested traffic, a car that was out of power steering fluid, and an unpredictably cold morning in shorts. Not to mention, the coffee shop and the botanical gardens weren’t open like the internet said they would be. Darn you, Yelp!
Everything in the first half of the second day was marked by S T R U G G L E. I had to keep pushing through every external obstacle in my way and battle my own nagging mind that was lacking the comfort and confidence I usually have in my routines and fail-safe plans. Every plan had failed, and I was in a town of total unpredictability.
After hours of weary wrestling, I ended up parked in front of a coffee shop I spotted from one of my many detours that morning. As soon as I turned off the engine of my car, my emotions burst through the scene like John Wayne in an old western. I had kept my composure all morning, but a full-fledged panic attack was mounting, and…there she blows!
I couldn’t get out of the car. I was too tired, too frustrated, and too afraid. What happened to the beauty of yesterday? What happened to the ease of God’s presence?
Somehow, I mustered the strength to walk into the coffee shop, and I spent about an hour sipping a double shot espresso regaining my composure. When I reached the bottom of my coffee cup, it was time to restart the day. I hit several more snags on the way to my next stop but set off on hike that followed a beautiful river. However, I started the hike in the wrong direction and had to loop back around setting me about an hour off course. Not to mention, it was BLAZING hot with sweat pouring off of me. Just as I was getting back on course, I could see the beautiful river that lay ahead glistening in the sun and inviting me to come and experience its peace. What a welcomed sight! It had a beauty and wonder like nothing I had quite seen before. I sighed a deep sigh of relief as I saw the majestic river until I rounded the corner to find a massive bridge standing between me and my desired paradise.
I hate bridges. I almost always get a mini panic attack when I drive over them. So, naturally I don’t walk over them. At least, not until this day.
Recounting every struggle that I lived that morning, I was desperate for the peace, beauty, and adventure that lay on the other side of my next obstacle. I took a deep breath and marched on. My knees wobbled a bit and my mind kept screaming “DON’T LOOK DOWN” with each passing step, but before long I was on the other side. Phew!
I began to feel immense pride in overcoming my fear as I hopped over a few river stones and picked a place to rest. As I sat in front of the beauty before me and dipped my feet in the river, I realized sometimes I need to face my fears, push through my panic, and not let obstacles cause me to turn back. Incredible beauty is on the other side of my fears. I need to face them.
The second half of the day went rather normally. I ate dinner, packed up, read some books, and enjoyed a local garden. Just before I went to bed, I wrote about the tension I felt over the course of those two days. Two distinct and utterly different life lessons, embracing stillness and pushing through struggle, yet somehow they share a common thread. The common thread is the beauty and the blessing God has for me. The difference is in how I get there.
Sometimes I need to still myself, sit back and receive the blessing while other times I need to fight my way to the beauty on the other side of the struggle.
The S T R U G G L E is my right hand; the S T I L L N E S S is my left. Somehow, they both work together in my understanding and experience of God. I needed both of these hands to hold the blessing He had for me.
Today you may need to simply still yourself and R E S T. You may need to sink deeply into Psalm 46:10 and be refreshed in knowing that He is God.
Or you may have to muster up for the mountains standing in your way. But as you face those mountains, be confident that “you will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).
Take heart that in both the S T R U G G L E and the S T I L L N E S S God is with you.
In November of 2018, I felt stretched to pray for things that feel vastly out of reach. I specifically felt prompted by the Lord to pray for a new car. Now, if you saw the car I was driving, you would instantly understand why this could become the first go-to prayer.
I had the same beat up two door 1999 silver Honda Civic hatchback for 10 years. That’s right…ten years! Though that car was a little tight and made getting my 5’8 frame in and out of that vehicle a little difficult, I was extremely thankful for that car. Bullet, as my best friend had so lovingly named it, had minimal issues and enabled me to financially get by on ministry jobs for a decade. It was in many ways a little miracle mobile. But I was feeling inspired to ask the Lord for a newer miracle mobile that had things like automatic locks and four doors. You know, crazy things like that.
Sure enough, only a few months into praying for a new car, and I got a phone call. “Jen, I was able to buy a new car and I’m wondering if you’d like my old one…for free?”. The phone call came as quite a shock initially, but after a few moments of speechlessness I looked up to the sky and mouthed a “thank you” to the Lord.
You would think I would have responded to the offer with an exuberant, “Yes! I’ll take it!” while jumping with glee; but I didn’t. My response went something like, “Thank you so much for thinking of me! Can I think about it?”. After specifically praying for a new car for months, the answer should have been an obvious yes. However, I had become comfortable with my old car. It had been so dependable, and I knew everything about it. In fact, Bullet kind of felt like it was a part of me. It was with me in every move and transition of my adult life. Taking the new car meant opening myself up to some unknowns and potential inconsistency along with requiring a willingness to pay more for gas and insurance. Though this new car was “free”, there was a cost. Though it was “free”, it was still risky.
Perhaps it will ease your mind to know that I took the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer two weeks later and got rid of my Honda just before the engine went out. Obviously, the Lord was looking out for me and knew a faulty engine and a mountain of other issues were coming.
But here is what I learned from this experience: the new thing I want in my life and God's promises require something new of me.
God's promises always require us to leave something behind.
It was surprisingly difficult for the Israelites following Moses out of a dark and depressive Egypt to trade up for the shimmering beauty of the Promised Land. Why? Because they were too comfortable with the old way of life. Slavery and oppression were all they knew. War? Fighting? Conquering? Freedom? This couldn't have been more different from their life in Egypt. They weren't willing to leave the old behind and they weren't willing to pay the cost.
Just like my new car, going after God’s promises pays off in the long run, but it costs us more in the day to day.
I often look forward to the future, the promises God has for me, and the opportunities the Lord has in store for me with such hope and fervor. However, I so quickly lose my steam to chase after those dreams all because I see the truth that it will take work and sacrifice to get there. I want it to come easy. I don’t want to pay the higher insurance. Not to mention, I don’t want to live by faith. I like my sight and being able to know everything that will happen.
But I won’t get to the promise without a willingness to let that promise cost me something. I won't get to the "hope" and "future" mentioned in Jeremiah 29 without being willing to let leave the past behind. Thankfully, my Mitsubishi is a daily reminder to keep letting go, keep trusting, and keep letting the promises cost me something.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time
we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
In one of my college classes, one of my professors shot off a statistic mid lecture about how unlikely it is for humans to change in adulthood. It sounded something like…”you are 75% less likely to change after 21 years of age.” He confidently proceeded to say, “in other words who you are now is who you will be in 50 years”. Yikes.
He kept going and it got infinitely more personal as he lifted his left index finger and pointed to me: “So researches are saying that who Jen is now, her cognitive abilities, emotional health, moral compass, all of it will be exactly the same when she’s 71”. Not only was my professor presenting this shocking research article to a young class of dreamers, but he picked ME to be the example of an unchangeable 21-year-old already finished product.
I was boiling under my skin and I could feel the pounding of my heart that murderously screamed within me, “OH NO YOU DIDN’T! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? THERE IS MORE FOR ME TO BECOME..”
Six years later, I would like to say that I have proved him wrong; and I believe I have done just that.
It is very true that research shows once a person hits 18, it is difficult to change certain neurological pathways. I am certainly not arguing against that. However, we don’t have to settle for our instinctive emotions, behaviors, and mental narratives. We don’t have to accept our current state if where we are is outside of the destiny, the promise, or the fullness that God has for us. I believe that as seasons come and go, we should continually be becoming.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. “ 2 Corinthians 3:18
Friend, take a deep breathe and remind yourself today that you are in the midst of your “becoming” season. It is a messy and beautiful season with fullness waiting on the other side. And that fullness is not only the fullness of God and who He is; it is also the fullness of who He made YOU to be. As you come closer to the fullness of God, you also come closer to the fullness of who you are.
Don’t stop reaching for character growth. Don’t use the excuse “this is just who I am”. Don’t stop believing that the best is yet to come! Don’t stop becoming all He has made you to be. If you continue through this “becoming” season, I guarantee you will discover things about yourself you never would have dreamed of.
It’s who you are becoming today that determines who you will be tomorrow.
So, who do you want to be tomorrow? Go become that person today.
Jen is a pastor, worship leader, writer, and songwriter living in Napa, California.