I had the joy of studying a biblical theology of personal growth with a few precious women at Bethlehem this spring. Though I have much good to say about it, I’ve hesitated writing a summary of what I’ve learned because I had a wrong assumption that in doing so I had to declare a miraculous overnight change that I’d be accountable for tomorrow. In part, this is true; I am accountable for the glorious truths that I have seen and heard, and faith is dead without works that follow. But if I’ve learned anything from this study, change that lasts isn’t necessarily flashy fireworks, but rather it is an ongoing transformation, measured by degrees as my heart turns toward Christ (2 Cor 3:18). It is my prayer that these changes that God has ignited in my heart will continue long past the initial flash of revelation and that this light of Christ’s transforming grace in me may shine before others and God will be praised in heaven.
As this study was coming to a close, a precious new friend asked me why I originally chose to participate. My initial motivation was that I needed help cutting the ropes of my addiction to social media, which had caused me to be a distracted, sleep-deprived, and discontented mother and wife. Before this study, I already made some big choices to limit my intake of internet like ending my Facebook account and moderating apps that distracted me, but I still had a strong pull to vegging-out in front of my computer or smart phone late into the night or during the day when I could be more productive. The more I thought about it, the more I saw myself as a walking zombie, going about the monotony of my days in a perpetual, numb, stupor. What I falsely assumed was that it was the lure of a screen and not the state of my heart that had caused this slip into sleep mode. Even if I mastered this bad habit, the desire to mentally detach and the resistance to come to Christ would remain. The Lord was after a deeper heart change.
If I look back on the past few years and the scenes of my daily life, I feel like the shades are drawn, like I was living in gray. That’s not to say I was depressed in any sense—I was living my Christian, stay-at-home-mom-of-four, wife-of-a-seminarian days like I ought to have…just asleep. And as you can imagine, one who is sleepwalking is bound to stumble and fall, and stumble I did. I’d like to paint a sunny picture of my mothering but I’m ashamed to say that I was often short-fused, selfish, grumbly-hearted, and worse: I was increasingly getting angry and yelling at my little children. I’d like people to think that I was a Proverbs 31 wife who served her husband and productively put her family’s needs above her own, but when I am asleep I am sinfully ignorant of others. As Spurgeon says, "seasons of grace are lost in little slumbers and life is wasted drip by drip" (or, scroll by scroll). I’m not sure what exactly shook me from my stupor to see the wake of my destructive path, but when I did, I naturally tried to modify my behavior and my actions, which lasted, at best, a few days but more so just a few hours. I didn’t want to be this woman, who appeared to others as an enlightened Christian wife and mother but was mentally absent and spiritually asleep. Sure, I could do the laundry, make a meal, go to church, and change a diaper in my sleep, but not well, and most certainly not in a joy-infused nor God-glorifying manner, which is ultimately what I want.
Have I always been this way? I should hope not. I can look further in the past and see the sun shining, my family smiling, and me thriving. So what is it that lulled me to sleep? It was a heart that was increasingly distracted by even good things, and numbed by the offering of this world for false satisfaction, comfort, and supply for my needs.
More importantly I allowed my “busy mom” excuse to keep my Bible shut, ironically because if I’d rise up early or sit down in the afternoon to read my Bible, I’d fall asleep—if I could get my sluggish soul to even consider Bible time in the first place. My oldest child is 8 with three more children following every two years, and for as long as I’ve been a mother, I’ve struggled to be in the Word for reasons you can naturally assume. And for just as long as I’ve carried babies on my hip, I’ve been dotingly pat on the back and told, “It’s just a season; give yourself some grace.” So I took as much grace as I needed and slept instead of rising up to read, and I napped instead of meditating, and I posted pictures of my cuties instead of praying until eventually I forgot how to walk with the Lord.
Surely as a “good Christian woman,” I’d make effort everyday to get something from the Bread of Life (John 6:35), but it was through the crumbs of devotionals and other people’s words about God’s Word, not the loaf itself. So I’d leave that snack on Scripture still looking for something else to feast my eyes on, and often it was social media and things that would titillate my eyes and mind but be of no help to my very real and present needs. The obvious truth was that I had plenty of time to post, text, and read status updates, but never enough time to update my status with the Lord. Because I forgot the friendship and presence of the Lord, I sought life from virtual relationships with my friends who were instantly present on my smart phone, and because I neglected the wisdom of the Word, I sought the knowledge of trivial news articles and make-me-feel-better-about-myself blog posts.
I learned early on through studying Jeremiah 17:5-10 that I’m made by God to bear fruit, like a tree, and that the situations and circumstances in my life, good and bad, are intended like heat to make me grow. But if I do not have a steady source of water, and roots that go deep into it, the heat of my circumstances will cause me to shrivel and bear thorns, not fruit. In other words, when life happens, good fruit is from good roots and bad fruit from bad roots. My roots were in hard, dry ground of a formal belief in God but a functional faith in lesser things to satisfy me. So when the “heat” of motherhood would rise, I’d escape to my phone or distract myself with compulsive cleaning, or warm up a mug of tea and enter a world away from my own. You can imagine the number of times reality was too much and I’d put my head in the sand. Not only was I not helped, I responded with the opposite of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control because apart from Christ I can do no good thing (Gal 5:22; John 15:5).
What was most eye-opening in my study was that this retreat to things to numb my need is more than foolish, it is idolatry. Worship is whatever I give my heart to, and my heart consists of my mind, will, and emotion—so when I give my mind to trivial things, set my will to escape in it’s many forms, and numb my emotions with distractions, I worship created things rather than my Creator (Rom 1:18). As I identified these idols in my heart, I realized that they are as powerless as God says they are: eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, mouths that cannot speak, and those who trust in them will become like them: zombies (Isa 44:9-20; Ps 115:8). And worse, when I retreat to my false gods, I am believing that my Creator is the one who does not see, or hear, or speak—how backwards! So part of my waking-up was seeing that what I believe about God in the “heat” of life determines what my life produces: will I trust that He is good, all satisfying, the one who sees and speaks and hears and helps and so turn to Him, love and listen to him, pray, and ultimately receive from God? Or will I retreat to my lifeless idols and in turn be withered and lifeless too?
I spent a lot of time recognizing my “functional gods” and realizing how deeply my sin of unbelief and idolatry has affected my life. It’s hard to see how my sinful nature, in hostility to God, denied the very help I need to wife and mother well. Not only that, but I woke to see how the thorns I produced from my heat-scorched retreats from Him had pricked, and poked, and stabbed my family. My circumstances, my sometimes-misbehaving children, and challenges may all be valid sources of heat, but they aren’t the reason I sin; my heart is. And my heart is desperately sick (Jer 17:9).
If I only woke up to realize that my heart was a desert cactus, I would have reason to despair, but God in his kindness doubly opened my eyes to see my spikey tree in light of His nail-pierced tree. Seeing that Christ bore my sins on the cross to reconcile me to God was water to my desert soul, and repentance was in order. For so long in my sleepy stupor I would be sorry for the effect of my sin because it made things unpleasant for me or others, but true sorrow for sin, the offense it is to God and grief over the broken relationship it causes with my Creator is what leads to true repentance. And even as the prodigal was barely over the horizon toward home, Christ receives me and reconciles me to God through the cross. “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20) was my new mantra—written on chalkboards and put on display around my house.
This gospel is good news for past-repented sin…but what about when I find myself picking up my old flesh and going right back to sinning again? My verbal anger toward my children is a glaring thorn that the Lord kept me coming back to through this study, and even with new resolve to do things differently, I still have some really bad days. One day near Easter, my heart was so hard, and I was so frustrated and angry—mostly with myself but taking it out on my kids—when I walked past a sign I had hung in my kitchen: “Jesus said, ‘This is my body…this is my blood which is GIVEN FOR YOU’” (Luke 22:19). Despite my attempts to pray and cool down from my hot anger, I was beyond frustrated, and so I responded to God with the same frustration: “I know Jesus died 2000 years ago, but what does that mean for me RIGHT NOW!? I need more than forgiveness—I am out of control!!” Thankfully it wasn’t long before God in his mercy answered his despondent child, and by his grace it was through our study in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but CHRIST LIVES IN ME.”
In my extended slumber, I forgot that the cross is not only Christ’s life given as a sacrifice for my sin, but is gloriously also Christ’s life given as the Holy Spirit for my empowerment over sin! The cross is a past act that has present ongoing effects because when Christ died, sin was dethroned in my heart, and when Christ rose, Jesus is enthroned! So although sin is still very present, the power of Christ in me gives me new potential to respond HIS way and not my old way. See. All. Of. Romans. Six. It’s. Awesome. Romans 6:4 “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” and verse 10: “For the death he died he died to sin, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” I am NOT a mindless zombie nor stumbling sleep-walker; I am alive and awake and able IN Christ! Verse 14: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace”.
So now, when I am tempted to divert my eyes to my smart phone, or doze off into distraction, the Lord is patiently pressing me to set my eyes on Him instead, knowing that the change and freedom from sin that I so long for is from Him. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18). We become what we behold; looking away from my dead idols to the living Christ is where change happens.
I have reveled in the generosity of God, the goodness of the gospel, and the very present power of Christ in me. I am encouraged that God who began this good work in me will carry it to completion and that change is a community project—not only does God use Christ IN me to make me holy, but also uses Christ AROUND me. And most of all, I am encouraged that as I put off the sinful responses of the past, the thorns will fall, and as I put on Christ and grow in his living water, fruit will begin to blossom and God will be praised for the change in me. Now that I am awake, I pray that he will continue to incline my heart to his statues, open my eyes to behold wonderful things in his word, unite my heart to fear his name, and satisfy my soul for his Name’s sake (Ps 86:11; 90:14; 119:18, 36).