From the Basement

January 27, 2011

“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?”

English departments have begun the arduous process of notifying applicants for graduate work. Stanford and Emory are interviewing, and Northwestern has already sent out acceptances and rejections. None of the programs I applied to have begun notifying yet, to the best of my knowledge, but an interesting few months are upon us.

Last year, I went through January in a state of relative bliss, not thinking about my applications, only to be hit with a truckload of force by my first rejection letter in early February. The resulting anxiety—will I get in? won’t I?—affected me on so deep a physical level that I was throwing up every morning for the month of February. I remember it vividly: wake up, make coffee, check email, work on some homework, and within a half hour to 45 minutes, I would be wretching in the toilet. The feeling was terrible—this focal point in my belly that felt black, that was wound tight with nerves and fear. What if I don’t get in? What does that mean? What if this isn’t God’s will? What if… what if… what if?

It’s that time again: the end of January, where a handful of schools are beating their peers to the punch by sending out acceptances and rejections. The majority of programs will notify mid February through late March, with wait-lists being accepted/rejected even through early May. Like I said, a long process to wait through.

But my perspective is different this year. Last year, I couldn’t imagine not going to graduate school. I was afraid of wasting my life, somehow. A year later, I know that anything we do—even if it’s unexpected, even if it’s not “using” our degree—is certainly not wasted… not wasted when you are seeking the Lord’s direction, however imperfectly, not wasted when you know that he holds the future in his hands.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. —Matthew 6:28-33 (NIV)

My fiancé loves to quote the verse 27 of this chapter, which states, “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (NKJV).

Worrying will not make answers come more quickly. It will not affect an outcome, and it will not even make us feel better. Rather, it makes us feel worse and encourages the vines of self-doubt and pride, anxiety and fear to twine about us, choking out the good that is being nurtured in us.

Scripture tells us precisely what we are to do when faced with this sort of situation. 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast your anxiety on him, for he cares for you” (NKJV).

The sin often referenced in verses dealing with worry, anxiety, and/or fear is unbelief. John Piper articulates in many of his works that unbelief is the root of all sin: not trusting, not believing, not hoping in the promises of the Lord. Look back to the verse in Matthew 6: Jesus does not tell the disciples that they haven’t prayed enough, or haven’t turned to scripture enough, or haven’t worked hard enough, or haven’t done [fill in the blank] enough. No—he reproaches them: “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

You of little faith. This is how Jesus addresses those who worry about whether he will provide, who do not fully trust his promises and live like they trust them.

Because this is the question: are we living like we trust Jesus? It’s one thing to say we trust him, but really—do we? Last February, I would have said with my mouth that I absolutely trusted God with the outcome… whilst my body betrayed the truth of my belief by wretching all my worry and fear into a toilet bowl.

When a situation is so terrible it is difficult to see how good could come of it, it is hard to believe on the promises of Christ. On the flip side, when we want something so badly and are praying for it fervently, casting all our hope on that to do something for us… it can be hard to take a step back, hold out an open palm, and let the Lord take that dream, saying “not now” or perhaps even “no.” But even in these times—especially in these times—we must hold fast; we cannot doubt his promise in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (NKJV).

The first chapter of James offers a step-by-step manual, if you will, to dealing with these situations where we are tempted to worry, whether they are trials wrought by our own sin or by external circumstance, whether the outcome will be immediate or long-awaited.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. —James 1:2-8

We are not only exhorted to be patient, but to ask for wisdom. How often do we ask for wisdom as to how to handle a situation in a godly manner? So often I pray for outcomes when I should be praying for the proper, Christ-like attitude. And we should be praying with faith, with total trust, not doubting the promises of Him who is Faithful and True.

This passage ends, of course, with a rather convicting verse about the double-minded man. Oh, have I been the double-minded woman, doubting that the Lord would provide even as I prayed for provision. Or couching my A prayers with B and C prayers, rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel—“If this doesn’t happen Lord, then please let this happen, and if you see fit to do this but not this then…” You get the drift.

James calls this out for what this is: unbelief. Sin. How dare we approach the father and pray while doubting him—doubting his promises, which are his very nature—in the back of our minds? We have “some nerve,” my grandmother might say.

James’ words are harsh, but the point is made. We are exhorted throughout scripture to believe on his promises, to let them dwell in our hearts so that our transformation may be from the inside-out, our trust in the promises of God a direct correlation to our growth in Christ-likeness. And here’s the thing: we have no reason not to believe. He has told us that his promises are true, and I don’t know about you, but I can look back on my life—even these short 23 years—and see with stunning clarity how “his grace has brought me safe thus far.” And my prayer is that “his grace will lead me home” – and that I will be receptive to that leading.

He is good. He is faithful. He is true. He will never leave us or forsake us. He holds our lives in the palm of his hand. He is Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, and he knows our beginning and our end. There is nothing to fear. He is freedom from fear.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the strength of my life;

Of whom shall I be afraid?

….

Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord!

—Psalm 27:1, 14

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