Discernment, Self-Deception, and Redemption

Discernment should be easy but we can make it quite hard. What are the ways that we can be our own worst enemy when we try to discern God’s will for us?

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

C. S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”

“Should I retire?” That is a question I asked myself repeatedly over the last several years and intensely earlier this year before deciding to retire. I was well paid and enjoyed many of my co-workers, but the work was decidedly unrewarding and frustrating. My wife and I had been conservative with our money and had set aside a sufficient nest egg to allow retirement financially. By any natural measure, I could retire, but the question remained, “Should I retire.”

While I was asking myself this question, I was also asking God the same question: Should I retire? I want to tell you that I was as intentional in listening for the Father’s will as I was in listening to financial advisors, but I wasn’t. I would love to let you know that I spent more time praying about my decision than checking (and double-checking) retirement account balances, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t cutting God entirely out of the picture; I really did want my decision to reflect God’s will. And I wanted to retire!

Writing today, five months after I turned in my notice and set aside a lucrative career, I wonder about my discernment process. Was I aligning my choice with God’s will, or was I trying to convince myself that God wanted what I had already settled in my mind? Was I seeking guidance or an accomplice?

Many excellent arguments pointed to retirement, but they resulted from human reasoning, not discernment. I was much more interested in enumerating justifications for the answer I wanted than hearing what the Father would say about it. Our minds and our ability to think and reason are gifts from God. It would be foolish for us not to use them. And it is a capital mistake to confound reasoning about what will be good for us (we think) with discernment. The Apostle Paul did not rely on cleverness and his powers of persuasion; he relied on the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:13)

If discernment is not thinking our way to a conclusion based on what we know about God (for example, that he wants good for me), what is it? Let’s use this definition: “being aware of God’s activity in our daily lives and aware of his desire for us and how he may desire us to act in matters large and small.” That sounds simple. Apparently, it is not: A quick search on amazon.com yields over two thousand Christian titles on “discernment.” That is a lot of thought and writing on something that sounds simple.

Discernment Should Not Be Hard

Hearing God and being aware of his actions and desires in our lives should be easy and natural. Yet, for most of us, the opposite is true. Discernment, which should be a matter of course for those indwelt by the Spirit, can nonetheless be hard for us to put into practice. When I reflect on my retirement “discernment,” I am aware of four necessary things for discernment and can see where I struggled with most of them. Those four things we need are:

  1. Believing that God loves us and desires the best for us
  2. Believing that discernment is possible; that is, we can hear and understand what God may be saying
  3. Being open to hearing an answer that is not what we want to hear
  4. Waiting for clarity

Believing That God Loves Us and Desires The Best For Us

This one should be dead easy for us. It is hard to imagine a Christ follower who believes God does not love us and desires the best for us. However, we trip ourselves up when we confound our idea of what is best for us with God’s. We can set ourselves up to “discern” the answer we have already decided is best.

Our capacity for self-deception is enormous. Physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” We are primed to see, hear, and believe things that align with what we already believe to be true or simply want to be true. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”  We tend to notice, interpret, and remember things in ways that align with our values, beliefs, and desires.

When I did seek the Father’s heart, I operated under the confirmation bias trifecta. I desired the answer “yes.” I wasn’t happy working; God wants the best for me (I easily assume that to mean he wants me to be happy in my work); Therefore, I believed God would want me to retire. Finally, I valued kingdom work and ministry above piling up ever more wealth in my barns (Luke 12:16-21).

Notice the trap here. Everything I desired, believed, and valued is good and right, but that doesn’t mean they should set my course. The problem is that our internal bias can leave us spiritually deaf. I would have been wise to invite trusted others into the discernment process with me, people who are unlikely to share in my confirmation bias. Ecclesiastes 4 speaks to the folly of going it on our own, and Jesus promised to be with us when two or three are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20).

Believing That Discernment Is Possible

 The model of God’s interactions with us, as seen in Eden, is one of regular presence and easy conversation. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve could expect God to walk among them in the garden in the cool of the evening; they had to go out of the way and hide to avoid encountering Him! (Genesis. 3:8)

We duly note that was before the fall. Man was banished from the garden. God no longer walks among us as he did with our first parents. But in Jesus, God became Emanual, God with us. He once again walked among us, and just before his crucifixion, he reassured his followers that we would not be left on our own; through the Holy Spirit, he will continue to be with us:

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. … When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’

John 14:26, 16:13-15 (NLT)

He not only walks with us and talks with us, but he makes his home with us (John 14:23). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God will continue to teach, convict, and encourage us, guiding us into all truth.

Paul took the active presence of the Holy Spirit in and with us as natural and expected:

  • The Spirit of God dwells within us. (Romans 8:11)
  • God reveals truth and wisdom through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 4:10)
  • Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19)
  • The Holy Spirit will help guard the truth entrusted to us. (2 Timothy 1:14)

I find the scriptural witness to be clear. We do not have a God who keeps himself and his desires for us hidden. But the journey from head to heart is perilous. I knew God likely had a lot of interest in my decision to retire. Yet my fickle heart seemed not to believe that he cared much one way or another. My head said, “seek to know the Father’s will;” my heart said, “you are on your own here.”

I have had rich, transcendent, even mystical experiences of God. I know God can be present to us, but I still functioned as if he wouldn’t be present in this instance or as if I already knew his heart, having reasoned my way to that conclusion. Certainly, my desires and biases came into play. I would have been well served to have spent time meditating on the scriptures noted above to help move my head-knowledge about God’s guidance down into my heart.

Being Open To Hearing An Answer That Is Not What We Want To Hear

When we approach discernment as an exercise in confirmation, it is much harder for us to apprehend what the Lord may be saying to us. My mind was pretty well made up; I wanted to retire and knew I could retire. If God was saying, “not now, not yet,” would I have been willing to hear that? Letting go of our desires is quite hard.  Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, begins with the First Principle and Foundation, which concludes with:

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some responsibility.   We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.  For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.

David A. Fleming, S.J.: A Literal Translation & Contemporary Reading of the Spiritual Exercises

The ability to want only what will draw us closer to God or to want only what he wants for us needs to be our table stakes in discernment.  I did not begin times of discernment by affirming my desire to choose what would deepen God’s life within me; I should have. Instead, I started with wanting God to want what I wanted.

Waiting For Clarity

Patience is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22).  It is a fruit that I often lack, especially in discernment. When I want an answer, I want it now. I don’t want to wait. Yet waiting is a crucial component to our discernment that enables the other three. When seeking an answer, I should seek the wisdom of others; that will take time. I must prayerfully remind myself of God’s spirit dwelling within me, offering counsel and wisdom; that will take time.  I need to reset my expectations, asking the Holy Spirit to help me want only what God wants for me; that will take time.

Often, we seek discernment in a time of trial or when we are making a significant decision. As hard as it may be, those are exactly the times we need to slow down, invite others into our discernment, carefully examine our biases, and pray for the grace to trust God above all, especially above our own wisdom.

Redemption

Reflecting on my “discernment,” I can see how I hamstrung the process. What would the answer have been had I approached discernment in a healthier way?  I cannot know.  I do know that most, if not all, of the myriad kingdom activities I had planned and used as justification for my decision have not come to pass. I also know that latent anxiety has come to the fore since my retirement, so I suspect I did not move according to the Father’s heart and timing.

But all is not lost. We serve a redemptive God who will work in and through our missteps and mistakes. He does not leave on our own. I am seeing new ministry opportunities that I would never have expected and much different than I imagined. I hope I am still learning my discernment lessons, and I am trusting that whatever God has in store for me will ultimately draw me closer to him. Will I have the retirement that I could have enjoyed had I truly discerned the Father’s heart? Probably not. But God will use even our mistakes when we turn back to him.


Featured image: by Ana Municio on Unsplash

A note to readers: For quite a while I have restricted my posts to chapters of “In Pops’ Workshop.” There are still more chapters to come, but I am also posting general blog posts (such as this one) as well.

Is Discernment Hard or Easy?

Is it really hard to hear God? Are we even listening?

I have started reading a new book on discernment. I am only a little way into the book, but it raises a question in my mind: “Is discernment easy or hard?” Before we talk about the ease or difficulty of discernment, we should be clear about what we mean by “discernment.” For me, a good operational definition is “being aware of God’s activity in our daily lives and being aware of his desire for us and how he may desire us to act, in matters large and small.”

Discernment shouldn’t be hard. The model of God’s interactions with us, as seen Eden, is one of regular, easy presence and conversation. Genesis tells us that God would walk in the garden in the cool of the evening; Adam and Even had to go out of the way and hide to avoid encountering God! Just before his crucifixion, Jesus reassured his followers that they would not be left alone:

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. … When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. 14 He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’

John 14:26, 16:13-15 (NLT)

Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God will continue to teach, convict, and encourage us, guiding us into all truth.

Hearing God and being aware of his actions and desires in our lives should be easy and natural for us. Yet for most of us, this is not the case. Two factors make discernment much harder than it should be: We don’t really expect that God will be present to us and we fill our minds and environments with so much “noise” and other voices that we effectively drown out God’s voice.

To the first point, even when we can convince ourselves that God can we present to us, we still function as if he won’t show up in my life! We set up a bit of chicken-and-egg problem for ourselves. We don’t expect to hear God, so we aren’t likely to be paying attention and really trying to hear. Not listening, we will not hear, and that reinforces our idea that God will not be present to us. The more we don’t expect, the more we don’t pay attention; the less attentive we are, the less we discern.

Here is a challenge. Set aside time each day to just listen. Begin with prayer, perhaps confessing your doubts that God will “show up” and inviting his presence. Then just be still and listen. This can be enormously hard for many people; start small. Five minutes is a good starting place. Set aside your doubts and spend five minutes being present to God and allowing him to be present to you.

As to the noise and distractions we surround ourselves with: come back in few days for “part 2!”

New Colors or True Colors?

This morning, I watched a news program that took us to Aspen, Colorado, to see the stunning reds and golds of the namesake aspen trees as Summer gives way to Fall and Fall to Winter. I was reminded that trees don’t really change their colors in the fall. The brilliant hues we flock to see are there all along; they are hidden by the chlorophyll green required for photosynthesis. As summer ends, the chlorophyll is drawn back, revealing the reds, oranges, and golds that were there all along.

That can be a way to look at our spiritual growth. We are made in the image of God, bearing his likeness. As the green of a leaf covers and hides the stunning vibrancy of fall colors, the way the world forms our souls, covering the vibrant life with God we are meant to enjoy. Jesus offers us the power to strip off the influences of our upbringing, our culture, and even our inner rebellion so that we become the beautiful creations we were meant to be.

to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24 (ESV)

I know that this illustration, if thought of as a metaphor, breaks down quickly. The tree needs its green leaves to take in the sun’s energy so it can survive. We do not need the world’s influences that camouflage our souls. The changing color of aspen leaves is a harbinger of the tree preparing to become dormant for the winter season; the opposite is true for us: when we allow Christ to restore our true colors, we are healed and can enter a new season of vibrancy.

The power of the image stands: without us intending it or even knowing it, the influences of the fallen world work to mask and cover over the life we are meant to have. As you see fall colors appearing, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “am I living my real life, the life of joy, peace, kindness, humility, and love that I was created to have?” If the answer is no, it may be time to think about what is covering up the splendor already within you as a child of the living God.

Photo by Kadri Vosumae on Pexels.com

Our Times Have Always Been Uncertain

If we seek stability and certainty, we must end in one place: God. God does not change. In Him we have certainty and predictability. If we keep our eyes on Him we can anchor ourselves to an immovable rock in a sea of change, uncertainly, and turmoil.

I began writing this post nearly seven months ago, in early May 2020. The world seemed to be coming apart with Covid-19, deep social and racial divides, and profound economic hardships. Since then, things only seem to be getting worse. Certainly the Covid-19 pandemic is worse. The US election laid bare the persistence of our deep social and political divides.

Back in May I set this aside, telling myself that its time was past. I could not have been more wrong; I had fallen into the trap of thinking that we would soon be back to our normal, predictable lives. The truth is our lives may have had a comfortable routine, but they were never predictable.

This year some new phrases became prominent in our conversations: “unprecedented times, ” “uncertain times,” and “new normal.” Our use of these phrases implies that believe that prior to 2020 our times had precedent and we could be certain of what would come next. When we say “new normal” we are saying we have arrived at some new equilibrium point where we can once again predict what tomorrow will bring. We are fooling ourselves.

Our times have always been unprecedented, uncertain, and different from our perception of normal. Each day we live is different from any other day we have lived; it is absolutely unique and in that way unprecedented. You have never lived a day where you knew with certainty what would happen. I am not just being pedantic and playing games with semantics; I am trying to make an important point. We have lived our lives as is we were in control when that has never been reality.

If we seek stability and certainty, we must end in one place: God. God does not change (see Hebrews 8:13, James 1:17, and Isaiah 40:8 for a few of many examples). In Him we have certainty and predictability. If we keep our eyes on Him we can anchor ourselves to an immovable rock in a sea of change, uncertainly, and turmoil. We sill have to live in our tumultuous world, but we don’t have to be undone by it; we can have an unchanging, loving God who “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love [Him] and are called according to his purpose for them. ” (Romans 8:28, NLT)

Praying the Lord’s Prayer in Our Time of Unrest

How can Jesus’ model for prayer, “The Lord’s Prayer,” be our guide in these times of unrest?

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Matthew 6:9-13, English Standard Version

Monday evening, during my evening prayer time, as I was praying The Lord’s Prayer, my spirit was quickened to the power and importance of applying Jesus’ model for prayer in this particular moment, when we, as a society, are in turmoil in the aftermath of the homicide of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police. The Lord’s Prayer, common to every branch of Christianity can be robbed of its place and power due to our familiarity with it; we know it so well and have said it so many times that we often hurry past it, not allowing it to speak to us, even as we talk to God. I believe it has much to teach us today.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
He is our father, not my father, not their father. God is the father of us all and we are all his children: black, white, brown, or any other color or race; Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and every other faith or no faith at all. We are all children of the one Father. That is a reminder and a lesson we need today.
Father, help to remember that everyone is my brother or sister, that we are all children of the same father.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
What are we asking for when we ask for God’s kingdom to come to us, for his will do be done here on earth? We are asking for a kingdom where the supreme rule is extravagant love: love that is sacrificial, unmerited, and unconditional. When we ask that God’s will be done on earth we are asking that we “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16-17, ESV) We are asking that “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24, ESV) I need to remember that asking for God’s kingdom and that his will be done means that I need to be an agent of that kingdom and divine will; I need to love with God’s love, learn to do good, seek justice and correct oppression.
Father, my actions and attitudes show that I desire my kingdom and that my will be done. Forgive me and renew my heart, mind and soul; align my desires with your will!

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Many of us learned the latter part of this petition as “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” or “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” No matter the formulation, the troubling implication remains: in this prayer we ask God to give us the same measure of forgiveness as we give to others. The debts I owe God are many; I do not love as I should, I desire my will and way, not his, I am too willing to look the other way and let injustice go by unnoticed and unchallenged, especially injustice done to others. I have much to be forgiven. Do I forgive others? An easy test for me is to ask, “am I judging?” If I am judging, then I am setting myself up to forgive only when I think someone merits forgiveness. I certainly do not what the Father to have that same meager level of forgiveness to me!
Father, forgive me for not loving as you love, for not crying out against injustice and correcting oppression; forgive me for desiring my will over yours. And forgive my lack of forgiveness to others; fill my heart with your Holy Spirit, replacing my judgments with your love and forgiveness for others.

Lead us not into temptation
What are my temptations? It is a long list. I am tempted by a spirit of fear; I fear that we have gone too far, that the tears in our social fabric cannot be repaired; I fear for my safety and security. I am tempted by a spirit of apathy, a desire to bury my head in the sand and pretend nothing is happening. I am tempted by a spirit of judgment, judgment of the police, our leaders, the protesters, and the rioters. I am tempted by a rationalizing spirit; I am tempted to convince myself that my fears, my apathy, and my judgments are all reasonable.
Father, show me my temptations for what they are: reactions to my persistent attempts at running my own life. By your spirit, replace my temptations with a desire for your will and your kingdom.

but deliver us from evil.
There seems to be no end of evil in the world today; you can have your pick of villains. Yet as I ponder the words “deliver us from evil,” I can’t help but think about the evil in our own hearts. :I need to be delivered from a heart that would rather judge than love, a heart that fears instead of trusting in God’s power and goodness, a heart that would rather look away and not confront injustice. That is the evil I need to be delivered from today.
Lord, I do want to be delivered from all evil, but especially today, break any power the enemy holds over my heart. Teach me to hear his deceits for what they are. Do not let me become ensnared in webs of judgement, hopelessness, fear, and apathy.


Featured image by Fibonacci Blue at https://flickr.com/photos/44550450@N04/49940390081, licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.


Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: Be Like Sam!

In “The Lord of the Rings”, Sam is a Hobbit of many virtues. His example can teach us to have hope, even in the darkest of times.

This is the third (and, I think, last) in a series post on Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. For a bit more background, see the previous posts, “Don’t Be Like Denethor!” andListen to Gandalf!”

Of all the characters so artfully drawn in The Lord of the Rings, Sam could seem the most unlikely source of inspiration. He is not a lordly ruler like Denethor or a powerful and mysterious wizard like Gandalf. Sam is a simple Hobbit. Even among Hobbits, he is seemingly of little account. Frodo was the brave ring bearer. Pippin and Merry become warriors. Sam begins as a gardener and works his way up to be Frodo’s servant. He is drawn into the epic adventure only because he is conscripted after he is caught eavesdropping on a private conversation.

Yet we are well-advised to attend to Sam’s virtues. He is brave and loyal. He is a steadfast and true friend. Sam does what needs to be done even when it is not what he wants to do, and even when it places him in grave danger. Though seemingly simple, he is drawn to beauty and the numinous. Sam never gives up. He always presses forward. He knows there is good in the world and that it is worth fighting to preserve it.

Sam has one more virtue, which may be the fruit of all the others: Hope. That is what caught my attention as I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings.  A particular passage caught my attention and stuck with me. Sam and Frodo are in the heart of Mordor, Evil’s realm. The landscape is befouled. Enemies surrounded them. They know that there is no path back for them, even if they should succeed in destroying the Ring of Power. While Sam stands watch so that Frodo might sleep, he has this insight:

Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Given where we find ourselves today, with government shut-downs, sheltering in place, economic uncertainty, and ever-mounting numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, it is easy to lose hope. We can forget that our “Shadow” is only a small and passing thing and that there is light and beauty forever beyond the shadow’s reach.

Hope, as we use it here, does not mean “wish,” as in “I hope to see Paris one day” or “I hope you feel better soon.” In Christian thought, hope has a deeper, more solid meaning. It is one of the three Christian virtues, along with Faith and Love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). Our hope looks forward with expectancy, knowing that our Father loves us and that he is in control. Hope combines our desire to be cherished and cared for by God, with faith that it is so. We know that things may not go the way we would like them to, but our Hope is the God who loves us. It is our expectation of Good winning out in the end.

As much as we are able, try to be like Sam. It is easy to see the darkness; any newscast will show us how grim and fraught with danger our time is. But we can allow beauty and love to smite our hearts. Spend time with God not only asking for our safety and security but also asking to see his beauty and to know, deep in our hearts, his love for us. As Sam, looking up from the darkness around him, perceived beauty and hope and thereby found peace, we too, by shifting our gaze away from our darkness and looking instead at God’s goodness, love, and beauty, can find peace for our souls.

Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: Listen to Gandalf!

Denethor, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, can teach us about the danger of isolating ourselves in a time of turmoil.

This is a second in a series post on Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. For a bit more background, see the first post, “Don’t Be Like Denethor!”

If you are a fan of Tolkien’s novel, this second lesson may seem self-evident: Listen to Gandalf! For those who haven’t read “The Lord of the Rings,” or perhaps haven’t read it recently, Gandalf is a Wizard. In Tolkien’s work, that means a bit more than what we think. Gandalf is a wise and powerful being, dispatched to Middle Earth (the setting of the novel) to aid men and other mortals in their fight against Sauron, the embodiment of Evil.

Early in the story, Gandalf is advising Frodo, encouraging him to undertake a perilous and possibly futile mission to combat the growing specter of Evil. Frodo is a hobbit from the Shire, a bucolic backwater that, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, has long been sheltered and protected. As Frodo becomes aware of the growing danger and what may be asked of him, we have this exchange.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (p. 51). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

In our time of global pandemic, it is easy for us to empathize with Frodo. It has been generations since our world has experienced such global upheaval. No one is safe. All countries, regions, and classes of society are in the same boat. We find ourselves, like Frodo, suddenly aware of a grave danger that we struggle to understand and feel ill-prepared to deal with. It is not surprising that we should wish Covid-19 need not have happened in our time.

The words of Gandalf offer some reassurance and a challenge. The reassurance is that our wish is not a sign of weakness. Even Gandalf, ancient, wise, and wielding great power, wishes the same. The challenge is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us. That is a key question: What are we, living in this pandemic, to do with the time given us?

Tolkien’s friend and fellow author C. S. Lewis offered us a helpful answer. In 1948, England, along with most of the world, was gravely concerned with the very real likelihood of being attacked with nuclear weapons. Lewis wrote an essay, “On Living in the Atomic Age,” where he provided an answer to the question of “what shall we do with the time given us?”

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Lewis, C. S.. Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In Lewis’ day, the threat was just that, a threat. We are living with the effects of the pandemic, yet we are also under threat. How long will it last? How bad will the economy get? Will I get it? Will someone I love?

What shall we do with the time given us, a time of pandemic and its social and economic dislocations? We should do “sensible and human things.” We should get along with our lives as best we can while responsibly protecting ourselves and others from contagion. We should love our families, our neighbors, and our communities. We should eat and laugh and pray and offer support. We cannot choose how we feel, but we can choose what we think about and dwell on. Let us not let Covid-19 dominate our minds. Let us focus on being the best husbands, wives, parents, friends, neighbors, and Christians that we can be.

Spiritual Lessons from The Lord of the Rings: Don’t Be Like Denethor!

Denethor, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, can teach us about the danger of isolating ourselves in a time of turmoil.

I am a pretty big fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel, “The Lord of the Rings.” I usually re-read it once a year a so. I had started in on it early this year and as I was finishing the third volume as the Covid-19 pandemic was ramping up. I found myself drawing some fresh wisdom from Tolkien that applies in our current situation. One of those lessons is to not be Denethor.

For those who haven’t read “The Lord of the Rings,” or perhaps haven’t read is recently, here is some background. The central story is a quest of Good against Evil. As in real-life, many characters are mostly good, but have their failings. Such is Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. The once mighty kingdom of Gondor, ruled for many, many years by stewards, is the last hope for the forces of Good. Denethor is a wise, strong and brave leader of men. However, as the peril to the kingdom grew, he dared to use a Palantir, a “seeing stone” that allowed him to see events that were happening far away.

None of this sounds too bad. However, Sauron, the embodiment of Evil and the enemy of Good, also had a Palantir and due to the strength of his will he could use it to limit what Denethor sees and influence how he interpreted what he saw when he dared to use the Palantir. Denethor sees only the massed forces of evil arrayed against him and does not see others who are coming do the aid of Gondor. As the war begins and Sauron’s forces attack Gondor, Denethor believes the cause is hopeless and burns himself alive.

Don’t be like Denethor. What was his mistake? He over estimated his own strength. He wrestled with the enemy and with his own doubts and grief in secret. He thought that he could go it alone and did not avail himself of the council of others who could have helped him see through the enemy’s half truths and deceptions. Instead, he grew more and more despondent and discouraged as he was fed a steady diet of half-truths carefully shaded reality.

How do we avoid this mistake today, especially as we struggle to adjust to ever-shifting realities of life in a pandemic? Unlike Denethor, we must not isolate ourselves. It is natural and normal to have fears and anxiety. However it is madness to think we can walk this out on our own. Our enemy, the ultimate Evil, Satan, is happy to have discouraged and fearful. He is likely encouraging in us feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. He does his best work in the darkness, when we share our fears with others we bring them into the light, where Evil is greatly weakened. Sharing our feelings on social media is not the solution. We must share at the heart level with a friend who we can trust to safeguard our hearts.

We also must share our hearts with Jesus. He is the most compassionate, understanding friend we have. He has suffered far more than most of us will ever have to endure and knows what we were going through. He knows our hearts, our fears, and our hopes and loves us. I invite you to join together with other Christ-followers to share your burdens together in prayer with Jesus.

When we try to “tough it out” and do it on our own and isolate ourselves, when we do not share our hearts with others, and with Jesus, whether due to shame or pride or any other reason, we are falling into Denethor’s mistake. Yes we need to stay physically separated. We do not need to be spiritually and emotionally isolated. Don’t be like Denethor.

One More Question To Ask Ourselves in the Face of Covid-19

As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds and the ground keeps shifting underneath us, it is important to make sure we seek to understand how the Lord can use our gifts and talents to help a hurting world.

Less than a week ago I shared Three Questions to Ask Yourself in the Face of Covid-19. Those thoughts focused on recognizing what God may be inviting us to, what our temptations are, and what we might learn about ourselves. I concluded that post with the admission that I had not been sitting with the Father with those questions.

As I have now taken my own advice and pondered those three questions I learned much about myself. I learned that my temptation in this time is to double down on my attempts to understand and control the situation. Needless to say, that is not fruitful, especially not what we think we know is constantly shifting. My need to know and to understand can be an enormous distraction.

This level of self-awareness is no doubt something the Lord was inviting me to. However, He desires to help me let go of my desire to master the situation, and as that happens, a new question presents itself: How does God want to use us in this time of fear and doubt? What gifts and talents has he given you that he might call you to use in this time. Are given wisdom? Share it. Are you given faith? Lend your faith to those whose faith is wavering. If you have a gift of healing, by all means heal the sick. Do you have a prophetic gift? Use your gift to convey God’s truth to those who need to hear it.

We have an enemy. He wishes us harm. We could debate whether he causes our illnesses, but there is no question that he uses the hard places we find ourselves in. Our enemy desires that we stay focused on ourselves and not ask how we can effectively be Jesus’ body and earth to those who are suffering and lost. He wants us on the sidelines and out of the game.

We have a choice. Do we stay focused inward, being concerned mainly with ourselves, or do we ask: “Lord, how do you want to use me to help a hurting world?”

Three Questions to Ask Yourself in the Face of Covid-19

It is challenging to know what to say in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and our national reaction to it, both rational and panicked. I don’t have any answers or advice you haven’t heard elsewhere, but perhaps the Lord has something to say to you. Here are three questions to ask yourself that may help you see where God is moving in your life in this time.

It is challenging to know what to say in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and our reactions to it, both rational and panicked. I don’t have any answers or advice you haven’t heard elsewhere, but perhaps the Lord has something to say to you today. Here are three questions to ask yourself that may help you see where God is moving in your life in this time.

1: What is God inviting you to?

When we are knocked out of our normal, when our well-laid plans are in tatters, it is good to ask ourselves, “What is God inviting me to?” I do not believe that God has sent the pandemic to us, but I do believe “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28, [NLT]) When we are forced to let loose of our plans and our sense of how are lives should be we can ask Jesus, “What are you inviting me to? How do you want to use this for my good?”

2: What is my temptation?

The other side of the “invitation” coin is temptation. In times like these we are easily tempted to double down on our attempts to be in control of the situation.  We may be tempted to fear and anxiety, greed and self-centeredness, and isolation. Perhaps our greatest danger is that we fall into our temptations without even realizing it. We don’t sit down and say, “I think my best course of action today is to be fearful and greedy,” yet that is often where we find ourselves. By being aware of our temptations we are less likely to fall into them. It is important that we ask God, who knows you best, to show you where are being tempted.

3: What can I learn about myself?

Times of stress can be times of great learning about ourselves. Take the time to reflect on what you are feeling. What activities and attitudes are drawing you closer to God and closer to his invitations to you? What activities and attitudes are leading me to slip unknowingly into our self-destructive temptations? Keeping a journal can be a great way to reflect over time. Pray for God’s assistance in knowing yourself and showing you the paths to being the person you are meant to be.

Ask these questions prayerfully.

I have not been regularly asking myself these questions and have not been praying as I now suggest, but I am starting today. I invite you to join me in pressing into these questions in prayer. Here is how I will be praying.

Father, I am more fearful and anxious than I should be. I lay those fears and anxieties at your cross. Forgive me. Give me the grace to be kind to myself and to others in this time of stress an uncertainty. Give me the grace to see and embrace your invitation to me; to join in the good you will work in this situation. I ask also for the grace to see my temptations and for the strength and wisdom to turn away from them. Give me the grace of self-knowledge and the courage to open myself to the power of Holy Spirit to reform me in the image of Christ, in whose name I pray.

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