In the last few years I have been learning more about myself—what I really enjoy, what excites me, what stimulates my mind, what motivates me, what fuels my soul, what drains me, what discourages me or makes me fearful or reclusive… And do you know what is incredible to me? As I find myself, I am finding God Himself.
“The glory of God is man fully alive.” ~ Saint Irenaeus
For so many years— as a teenager, and then as a college student with newly divorced parents, then as a new wife, and then as a new mom— I was simply in survival mode. I was just trying to get through the challenge I was facing and still be alive and a basic functioning human on the other side of it. And through all those seasons… I forgot to figure out who I really was inside.
I grew up thinking it was selfish and self-absorbed to pay attention to my own heart’s needs or longings. I had been raised to believe that feelings were fickle and not necessarily trustworthy. Our nation’s “right to pursue happiness” always seemed so childish to me, so meaningless. What does happiness have to do with anything anyway? Isn’t it just the selfish and simple-minded who seek endless pleasure?
What I didn’t realize was that there is a difference between selfishly pursuing endless pleasure and “living from the heart Jesus gave you” (The Life Model). Whereas one is birthed out of a place of continual frustration wherein the individual seems to be in some sort of desperate chase to find satisfaction, the other is rooted in contentment. While the first individual is frequently disappointed and aimlessly searching for fulfillment, not really knowing him or herself enough to be able to pinpoint what he or she truly needs or wants, the latter person knows how to recognize his or her needs and knows how to weigh the consequences of their actions and find satisfying ways to expediently fulfill their needs (The Life Model 54).
I remember an acronym my 6th grade Sunday School teacher told me: she said that we Christians should pray with J-O-Y— praising Jesus first, then praying for Others, and finally, praying for Yourself. That always stuck with me as quite logical: first, start out praising God for who He is, then I should be “unselfish” by praying for other people and their needs, and then, finally, I could get to my own needs or wants. That sounded like a good plan to me— that ought to keep me safe from becoming a self-absorbed, spoiled brat, I figured.
So the fact that I never usually got around to the “Yourself” part of the J-O-Y prayer seemed fine by me.
But, as you may already know, there was one major problem with this J-O-Y prayer format: it is not actually in line with the way Jesus Himself taught us to pray. In what is traditionally referred to as The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus begins with praising God for Who He is… but then He actually spends the majority of His time showing us how to pray for ourselves: our daily survival needs, our need for forgiveness for sins, our need to forgive others who’ve wronged or wounded us, our need for deliverance from temptation, and our need for deliverance from “the evil one” himself.
“This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today 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 the evil one.” ~ Matthew 6:9-13
It’s actually kind of self-centered once you get past the “hallowed be your name” part. In fact, it seems to be best suited for needy, desperate people who have struggles and problems and bitter wounds. Certainly not good ole’ fashioned independent survivors like myself.
Jesus also said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). And while it may be true that I was living very “unselfishly” for the first three decades of my life, I was not living very “full” (aka “abundantly”). The truth is, up until about 4 years ago, I was a bone-dry, cracked, empty cup. There was nothing full about me. Any tiny drop of wisdom or nourishment or encouragement I received from God I quickly gave away to someone I thought “needed to hear God’s truth or feel God’s love.” I never stopped to enjoy any of His gifts for myself.
And I was thoroughly exhausted. Yes, I knew the Lord. Yes, I knew He was there for me. Yes, I told my kids all about how amazing and strong and wonderful God was. And yes, I believed what I told them. Deep down, I believed that God was who He said He was: powerful, capable and willing. Yet I never really wanted to admit that I desperately needed His assistance— I didn’t want to be one of his “needy children.” I wanted to be someone God could count on to selflessly serve the world.
Clearly, I had a bit of a superhero complex.
So I kept myself dizzyingly busy, never slowing down long enough to simply “be” or to simply enjoy myself, never waiting around long enough for Him to display His capability in my own life. I’d solve my own problems, thank you very much. Enjoyment seemed frivolous. I was fighting so hard to prove to myself and the rest of the world that I was neither selfish nor lazy nor needy or broken, but the fact is that I was totally out of touch with myself. I had no idea who I really was, why I had been created, how my childhood wounds had affected or altered me, or how my uniqueness revealed some part of the mystery and beauty of God Himself.
And, like I said, I was ridiculously worn out. It took a shoulder surgery and a major Depression (including suicidal ideations) to finally wake me up to the realization that there was something seriously wrong in my life.
All those years I had been praying the J-O-Y way— Jesus, then Others, then never quite getting around to the “Yourself” part— was a problem.
Thank You, Lord, for sweeping in to rescue me during that horrible season of my life.
“Unless the LORD had given me help, I should soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy” (Psalm 94:17-19).
“Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains… Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains” (Psalm 107:10, 13-14).
And thus began my journey of coming back to life.
And, although it went against so much of what I had always believed, God very clearly spoke to me during my dark season and told me to start enjoying myself. As John Eldredge says in his book Wild at Heart, God gave me “permission to live from the heart and not from the list of “should” and “ought to” that has left so many of us tired and bored.”
To be quite accurate, what God told me even before the word “Enjoy” was to “Be selfish.” He distinctly told me to take whatever encouragement and kindness and joy He poured on me… and to not share it with anyone else. Just to keep it for myself. He wanted to fill my cup again. He wanted to heal me. He didn’t want me to keep pouring out whatever He gave me to others— He wanted to fill me up. It wasn’t until later… much, much later… when I was finally full and healthy again, that He began showing me how this supposed “selfishness” I was obediently practicing could actually benefit the world.
“The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” ~Frederick Buechner
Through books like Waking the Dead and One Thousand Gifts and Daring Greatly and The Life Model and even The Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord showed me that having a life overflowing with God’s goodness was not what I had always thought before. It was not an effort-filled, white-knuckled, all-out battle to show other people God’s awesomeness. Rather, it was more of just… being… and receiving God for real… and allowing God room to do what really matters in the hearts of me and those around me. My job was (and still is) to know God. Really and truly. And to allow Him to use me in whatever ways He sees fit. But it’s not the manically exhausting human effort I always thought it was. It is more of a resting in Him. A slowing down and noticing. A true enjoyment of Him and all the many gifts He gives me every day. It’s just me being me and “letting [my] light shine before others, that they may see… and glorify [my] Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). It’s not me giving away all my God-presents, but more like sharing what I’ve seen and experienced with others.
So I’m learning that it’s not MY JOB to save the world. It’s His. My job is to know Him and learn the sound of His voice and to recognize His whispers and nudges.
And here is where I come full circle: I am learning that it is in the very places that bring me the most pleasure… these are the places where I learn the most about God. In these refreshing and joy-bringing moments, my soul connects with God in a way that I never even knew was possible. It is when I let myself simply follow my heart’s longings— I come alive. So, while digging up dirt in a garden with a dorky sun-hat on or getting sweaty building a chicken coop might be a total drag to someone else… to me, it is like drinking sweet, cold water on a hot day. Ahhhh…. refreshing. Or while sitting down to journal out my thoughts and prayers to Jesus might seem as much fun as a root canal to someone else… to me, it is where I feel most exuberant, most clear-minded and hopeful, most “in my element.” I feel like I never want those moments to end. As silly as it might seem, it is in those moments I feel like I am doing what I was created for. And when I am in that “zone,” I am able to recognize parts of God’s character that I never was cognizant of when I was so busy rushing around trying to save the world for Jesus.
“When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” ~ Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire
It took a long time for me to figure out that savoring moments of pleasure was not selfish; it was what God wanted for me, what He intended for me when He made me.
When God first told me “Enjoy” while I was on a hike one day, it didn’t make sense to me— how could me”enjoying myself” (or being happy?) have any eternal value at all?
I was perplexed… until God told me to look at the issue from the perspective of a parent. As soon as I did that, it made more sense to me. To put it plainly, it makes me feel happy beyond words when my kids are truly enjoying themselves. Like when my girls will play Legos for hours on end without complaint or argument— that brings me joy. Or when my son has that crazed look of pure excitement on his face when we chase him around the house and play “Bad Guy” with him acting as Captain America— that brings me joy. Or when Abby takes forever to finish her bowl of ice cream because she just wants to savor each and every bite of deliciousness— that brings me joy. Or when Ellie doesn’t want to wash her riding jacket because it smells like her teacher’s horse Buckshot and she just wants to remember what he smells like because she won’t see him for a whole week until her next lesson— that brings me joy.
It doesn’t matter what it is— if my kids are experiencing true, deep pleasure I, too, am experiencing true, deep pleasure.
And what is our God if not our good and loving Father? He, too, wants me to know what I like and then do what I like and then enjoy what I like.
I remember one hike Jesus and I were on, I distinctly felt Him say to me “Go this way” (off the normal path). I followed His leading to a beautiful, hidden grove of old and crooked oak trees I’d never seen when I was on the paved hiking path. I looked at the scene and, expecting some deep and profound response, I asked God what deep mystery He wanted to reveal to me through this setting. “Nothing,” He said, “Just… isn’t this beautiful?” I smiled and did my best to just enjoy this secretly beautiful scene He had showed me. “Yes. Yes, it is,” I said.
And as I continue to grow up and savor my moments with Him more, my hope is that the world around me will also be blessed and drawn closer to Him.
Still not quite sure how that happens.
But that is a mystery for Him to figure out, not me.
My job is simply to know and follow Him.
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What about you?
How do you best connect with God? At what age did you start really figuring out who you are and how you are wired? Was this something your family of origin helped you process through or has it just been an individual journey?
Please feel free to email me or share your thoughts and experiences to the comment section below.