The Tug-of-War Inside All of Us

There is a inner tug-of-war in all of us, a tension that drives so much of our outer life. Here it is: We long to be known, and at the same time we're terrified of it.  

So many of our patterns of relating and our failures to love can be traced to this tug-of-war. Which side wins? Usually our terror. Hence the lifelong attempts to cover ourselves, only redoubling the power of shame in our lives. We lock up our longing to be known in a dark closet, treating it as we would an abused child, hoping it will go away. But the longing remains and calls out to us, sometimes insistently, sometimes unexpectedly, and so the tug-of-war keeps yanking at us.

Enter Jesus. Take the story of how he dealt with Levi, the tax collector. Here was a man despised as a traitor by his fellow Jews. Tax collectors not only worked for a pagan government, but they also made their living by overcharging the required tax, as much as they could get away with. As a result, they were excommunicated from the synagogue, and their families were held in disgrace. They were so mistrusted that their testimony in court was not considered reliable. Yet Jesus chooses this despised man to be His disciple.

But the story gets even better (Mark 2:14-17). Levi throws a party and invites the only friends he has, other tax collectors and low-life. What do they do? They eat together. Eating in that culture required a certain physical intimacy, as they reclined together on couches. It also implied an emotional one, as hearts were shared over the food. The text in Mark even suggests that Jesus was the real host of the party.

Imagine the impact on Levi and his friends. They had been despised and shamed much of their lives, and now a famous rabbi and teacher wanted to be close to them. Jesus just saw them so differently than they saw themselves, and it began the dismantling of shame. We don’t know what happened to Levi's friends after the party, but we do know what happened to Levi. He was so revolutionized by Jesus that he eventually penned the Gospel of Matthew.

That same revolution can happen to each of us. How does shame get healed in our lives? How do we learn true intimacy? It comes as we allow Jesus to re-image how we feel about ourselves. The binding power of shame is that it ends up defining us, but the truth is that only He knows who we really are. He says that we are His beloved, and He is not ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11).

I have watched Jesus begin to free others into their true selves, but the real reason I can write about this is my own life. It's happening to me. When we allow ourselves to be seen through His eyes, we find shame yielding to glory, and we experience the wonder of being known—and being enjoyed—all at the same time. 

It's the beginning of the end of the tug-of-war.  


The Place We All Need

Big Frog Mountain (back center left) in the fall. 

Big Frog Mountain (back center left) in the fall. 

Recently I took a backpacking trip in the Big Frog Wilderness with my good friend Brian. In all designated wilderness areas, there are no trail blazes (easy to get lost), no bridges across streams (learn to ford them or turn around), and remote enough so that there are no crowds (to preserve the silence, so count on being alone). All of this adds up to some challenges and concerns. I certainly felt some anxiety packing up the night before. Was I up to the challenge? But what happened out there vaporized my anxiety.

On that first night, I felt an unexpected joy in my tent. I sensed God’s quiet presence as I read the Scriptures and prayed, finally being lulled to sleep by the babbling water from a nearby stream.

On the second day, we ascended Big Frog Mountain. On the way up, the vegetation and landscape changed, and we spotted bear scat on the trail. But despite the increasing roar of the wind, there seemed to be a deepening quiet as we approached the summit—no birds, no animals, no humans. Pitching our tents at the top, Brian realized he was getting sick with a cold, so I volunteered to find the water. I had read of a small rocked-in basin that held some seepage down another path. But as I walked, I couldn’t find any sign of it. Anxiety began to trickle through me: What if I couldn't find it? How would we survive up here without water? How far would I have to walk to find help? Those thoughts whirled through my head as I suddenly ran up on the spring. There it was—with plenty of water.

Walking back to the campsite, I experienced a powerful breakthrough. The wilderness areas have mysteriously attracted me for years, almost as if they were calling out to me, but I never understood why. All of a sudden, I understood. It was God who has been calling out to me. He desires me to come there and meet with Him. There He will teach, encourage, and protect me, exactly what I had felt in the tent that first night. I don’t ever have to be anxious out here again, even with all of the challenges and unknowns.

Big Frog Mountain in the winter

Big Frog Mountain in the winter

But I am not unique in this. Each of us needs a place to enjoy God’s presence and feel enjoyed by Him. I have a friend who senses that when he fishes, another as he goes duck hunting, and still another when he swims laps in the pool. For others it may be a walk in the park or playing the guitar or painting in watercolor or simply being quiet on the back porch. Each of us has a unique architecture to our hearts that comes alive with certain surroundings and activities. Here God will meet with us personally, for He wants us to feel His joy. These experiences ground us in the love of Christ, so that we become rooted and established in His love (Eph. 3:17-18). Here we thrive and come alive to all that He has for us, becoming filled with all of His fullness (Eph. 3:19) instead of the empty abyss our hearts have known.

What is that special place for you? Are you going there? And if you have no special place, are you seeking one? This idea is no luxury, but a necessity. Here we will be rejuvenated by the sound of His voice and the aroma of His love, sounds and aromas that will linger long after we return to engage in our daily battles.

When I got back home Big Frog, I found myself planning the next trip to the wilderness.

It's my special place. What's yours?


Lessons From The Wilderness

The Wilderness of Judea

The Wilderness of Judea

I have been backpacking in several different wilderness areas and have learned much from the experience. But here I am speaking about a different kind of wilderness. I believe as we follow Jesus, He will at some point take us into the wilderness, not a physical one, so much as a circumstantial one. It could be a significant loss or a period of terrible uncertainty. It could be a time of spiritual dryness or one of seemingly unbearable suffering. Whatever the wilderness, it is His way of taking us out, away from the props and distractions we have used to manage life, and teaching us to rely on Him alone.  The pattern of the wilderness can be found in so many of the great Biblical stories, from Abraham to Paul, from Moses to Jesus Himself.

The last three years have honestly been such a wilderness for me, but one into which I know I was called. So now I want to offer the three big lessons I’ve learned there.

1. Our true identity is often found in the wilderness. In a world where we are known by our work or by the image we project, it’s so easy to live out of a false identity. But only God knows who we are, and only He can give that to us. For me, my identity seemed incorrigibly bound to being a high school teacher and coach. I couldn’t imagine being someone else. But as I left that three years ago, I realized that it was a false front I had created. To leave it felt frightening and then devastating. And yet in the wilderness, God has repeatedly met me, speaking to me about who I am in His eyes as a beloved son and what I am supposed to do with my life.

2. Something else happens in the wilderness: we don’t realize that God is all we need until He is all we have. To enter the wilderness, we must leave behind all of our God-substitutes—the addictions and petty idols. Leaving behind a secure, paying job and entering the fray of starting a ministry has exposed my inordinate dependence on money. Really, money acted as a substitute father I went to for comfort and security, but the loss of a steady income has opened my heart to the One who is our true Father. With finances still unpredictable, I am learning how trust, for God will provide where He has called—and He has.

3. One other thing also seems to happen in the wilderness: we learn to let God write the story of our lives. With the fall of man, we compulsively attempt to author, direct, and play the lead role in our stories. Frankly, it's always a disaster. And yet the addiction to our self-consumed script writing dies hard. But it can die in the wilderness. Letting God write the story of my life has meant letting go of many dreams and plans. I have had to lay them down and wait for Him to open the doors of ministry. It has been infuriating at times, confusing at others, but ultimately freeing. To let God write the story means that I can now follow as His son without bearing that burden.

The wilderness usually feels like a place of cursing at first. It certainly did for me, as I have weathered both anxiety attacks and depression, but eventually it becomes one of incredible blessing. This has been the experience of the saints down through the ages, and it is the promise of God: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (I Peter 5:10).

You can count on it in your own wilderness.

I know I am.


Whatever You Do, Stay Under the Waterfall

When I was in my mid 20's, I took a group of junior high students on a backpacking trip one summer on the Cumberland Plateau. It was unbearably hot and dry. There was even one moment when dehydration and heat exhaustion became a valid concern. But what I remember most from the trip is what happened when we made it back to the base camp. There was a fast flowing stream nearby that plummeted over a stairstep of rocks covered in moss, creating an inviting place of repose. I remember getting in and lying back in the moss and letting the water run on top of me, over me, and around me—clear, cold water! I have never felt anything quite like it in my life, the utter relief of that waterfall after days of sweat, dust, and grime.

That waterfall has become the key to understanding one of the most puzzling verses in the Bible for me. Here it is: "Just as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love" (John 15:9). Jesus is speaking to His disciples about the life He wants them to live, one of staying in His love. He goes on to explain that we stay there by loving others as we have been loved by Him (vs. 10-12). For the last twenty years, I have struggled to grasp what it really means to stay in His love. What does this look like to feel the love the Father has for the Son and then live there? And why is that so hard to experience?

Why? Because my heart has stayed in so many other places: shame, anger, fear, envy, pride, apathy, deadness. It also has been hooked to so many idols, first being seduced and then imprisoned by them. How am I even to approach this life, one that is central to all followers of Jesus? How was I to feel that love and then offer to others? How are any of us to do this?

The answer was the waterfall.

One day while I was wrestling with this verse again, Jesus brought up the memory of the waterfall, and it all connected. Yes, this is how it works. My job is just to stay under the waterfall and let the water of His love keep flowing over me, in me, and through me. Then as I sit there, I am to offer that water to those around me. The image became not just a defining one, but a healing one. I could go there and sit in the water that never runs dry, the water of His presence and love, available at any moment of any day.

But then something else happened. I began to see myself not just offering water to others, but picturing friends and family sitting under the waterfall with me. They too need to be in that waterfall. Whatever we can offer others with our words, time, or gifts is never enough. It’s just a small cupful. Our job is to offer it and then encourage them to get under the waterfall with us. 

For we are all dry, parched souls—empty and longing. Our hearts are all distracted, deceived, and seduced. We all desperately need that waterfall, the waterfall of His love.

So whatever you do, stay under the waterfall.

How do you start to do this? Just ask Him: “Jesus, how can I remain in your love?” Keep asking until He shows you how. 

Trust me, He will.