Dwell in the “I Don’t Know”: how to tolerate unknowns with patience and great hope

“There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth…”

John 16:12-13

I got a letter and a care package from a close friend about a month ago. You’ll laugh at me for this, but sometimes, when I get a really good letter, I highlight it and tape it to my wall. I actually wish I could do this in conversations, too, because every once in a while someone says something, and I know I’m going to need to sit with it. 

Here’s what I highlighted this time:

“I’ve always been the one to skip ahead a few chapters so I could resolve my internal tension. And yet God invites us to stay on the current page with all of its unresolved questions and tension.”

The same week, going through Jen Wilkin’s Bible Study on the book of Hebrews, I wrote down these points from her teaching as she encouraged her readers to take their time with the challenging portions of the text:

– Dwell in the “I don’t know.”
– Feel the difference between what you know and what you hope to know. 
– Slow down. Don’t rush the application. Confusion is part of the learning process.

I started sensing a theme.

In small group at church, the author of our study challenged us to “make big, giant, hairy plans”  because God is able to do more than we can even imagine. A year ago, I would have been right with him. I’ve seen the Lord provide above and beyond and carry us over obstacles in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine. He is so worthy of our unwavering confidence and I want everyone I know to just GO for it, trusting Him with all their might, because nothing is too hard for Him.

But this year has been confusing for me! The pregnancy, the sickness, the exit, the baby’s brain, the delay, the camper crash, the transition…there are a lot of questions there that can put me in knots if I let them. Maybe you have some, too. I know our God is absolutely able to give us strength to carry out big plans. But I also know big plans can come crashing down and it turns out God was doing something else, at least for a time. It leaves me a little at a loss for how to prepare for what’s next.

If God’s going to accomplish whatever it is anyway, is there a way to plan responsibly, but skip the roller coaster of trying to guess what it is?

How do we work with all our hearts toward what He has in store for us – how do we invite it and invest in it and cooperate with it and expect it – without the whiplash and the heartbreak of getting yanked around the next unexpected corner?

We have to stop guessing what’s next and just do right now. We have to stay on the current page. We have to get comfortable in the tension. Because the relief that comes from filling in the answers early is a false peace, and it will keep letting us down.

“…Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Matthew 6:34

“Better to be patient than powerful, better to have self-control than to conquer a city.”
Proverbs 16:32

Patient people don’t rush to resolve things. They’re not in a hurry when they’re working through something with other people, when they’re teaching, or when they’re learning.

“…We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
2 Corinthians 4:8

Patient people can tolerate confusion without losing hope.

Oh Lord,

This is not an easy thing to learn. I would rather teach Bible Studies and do missions work and mentor young people and make presentations and sing worship songs than let it all rest and learn what you have to teach me here. But my impatience will stain all that I do. It will hurt people. It will limit how far I can take people. It will limit how long I can last. In marriage, in parenting, in healthcare, language learning, potty training, grocery shopping, housework…you name it, I am in a rush. 

But when I abide in you, you produce the fruit of patience. 

“I have told you all this so you may have peace in me.”
John 16:33

“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”
John 14:27

The why’s and the what’s next…If you haven’t given me the answers – they are not what would have given me peace. I don’t need them and other people don’t need them either. Humble my heart to say “I don’t know and I’m content with that.” You have not chosen to reveal it yet. And you are withholding nothing good. (Psalm 84:11)

“For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works…”
Hebrews 4:10

My work does not yet come out of rest. My heart is not yet quieted by your peace. I sit with the tension and I ache day in and day out as I move through my tasks, confronted over and over again with “I don’t know yet. I don’t get it. I’m frustrated. I see my impatience: glaring me in the face, springing to the surface, pleading for resolution.”

But the tension and the confusion serve a purpose. They are part of the learning process. They show up in the areas where God is about to produce growth. They are the highlighter that marks out where I am still striving.

“…Letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.” 
Romans 8:6

Yielding, not striving, produces peace and life. The flesh demands answers, explanations, and an itinerary. The Spirit says “trust me.” And trust breeds patience.

“For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”
James 1:3-4

Lord, reassure me that when difficulty tests my trust, it’s training, not punishment; and I am building valuable endurance. Teach me to sit patiently in what I do not yet know, because you have given me a sufficient guide who WILL lead me into all truth. Remind me not to rush the application, but to step back and appreciate the gaps in my understanding as places where you can enter in.

“In Him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Colossians 2:3

So show me where I have a gap. Quiet my heart with your peace when I’m tempted to panic over what I do not know. Build in me a maturity and humility that tolerates the unknowns with patience and great hope. May I feel the tension and be able to wait, because I know you are producing growth. May I learn and learn and learn from you, my humble and gentle teacher.

Make Room For Mustard Seeds: on small priorities that aren’t actually so small

“How shall I describe the kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

It’s easy, in our planting, to forget that small seeds become what fills the garden.

James 3 explains that peace-makers sow seeds of peace with their words. Galatians 6 warns that we will always harvest what we plant and cautions us to select our seeds carefully. 2 Corinthians 9 encourages us to give generously with the visual of harvesting what we plant.

With our words, with our thoughts, with our time, and with our resources, we are always planting seeds. Peace or conflict, life or decay, scarcity or abundance; what we plant will grow.

As we choose, the small seeds can easily be overlooked for something that appears much more impressive or urgent, even by the most careful planter. We can end up with the sparse coverage of a fast-fading tulip whose bulb looked so promising, or we can make space in our lives to plant the small seeds God draws to our attention and watch him cultivate a plant that fills and shades the garden.

The work God calls important, the way he calls me to use my time and go about my life, the things he values: they don’t clamor for my attention. They don’t promise to indulge my ambition or my desire for instant gratification. There is only a gentle prodding to make the time, to surrender the plan, to take the step; even when it seems like a costly, illogical, or ill-timed move. A quiet call to obedience. A small seed.

But what it produces in my life is so much bigger than the many things I tend to chase after.

Lord,

Teach me to ignore the approved garden plan of men and make room for mustard seeds.

For you are faithful with what I entrust to you, and small steps of obedience carry enormous potential.  

Press On: on patience with the pace

“I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.”

Philippians 3:12

During our orientation, we have been speaking much of how important flexibility is on the mission field. It’s been killing me a little bit because if I’m honest with myself, I am not a flexible being. I am high strung. I’m a planner. I like to know what I can expect. I do not know how to roll with the punches. And so I feel like I will fail. I feel afraid of moving overseas because I look at how I’m coping here and now, and I know it will fall far short of what is required over there. I start to stress over whether I’m a horrible fit for this ministry and maybe they should find someone else.

 Much of this transition has been a series of facing up to how I fall short. Attitudes, struggles, and bents that are not Christ-like, discouragement over how slow and invisible the growth and progress seem to be, anxiety as I notice how others seem to be taking in stride what constitutes a major upheaval in my life. Man, is it messy when I look in the mirror.

But I have been sitting with these words from Philippians and considering the choice of the phrase “press on.”

The word press holds the idea of moving forward against resistance.

“All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better. We also pray that you will be strengthened with all His glorious power so that you will have all the endurance and patience you need…”

Colossians 1:10-11

This walk with the Lord, this learning to know Him better and better and growing to be like him; it’s an uphill battle, it takes endurance, it is pressing against resistance.

And patience allows for a slower pace because it acknowledges the resistance I am facing.

And so I need the strength that Christ offers to be patient with myself, to continue taking up hope and pressing on when I’m starting to feel like a hopeless case.

In her book, Beholding and Becoming, Ruth Chou Simons says this:

“God is more interested in how we keep running than how fast and flawlessly we get to our destination. He calls perseverance the outcome of a faith in progress and tells us how to keep on keeping on with diligence and hope, even when we don’t see or feel progress in the now…Beholding how Christ endured the cross helps us set our gaze on His provision and not our performance along the course…”

How I need the reminder that God asks me to keep going, even if it’s not going smoothly. I can set my eyes on his provision and he is pleased if I just take the next step, however clumsy, trusting in that. He is not wishing I would get it together faster.

When I decided to follow after Christ, I signed up for a mud run. Obstacle after obstacle, stumbling upon stumbling, but pressing forward, even if that progress sometimes happens at a crawl.

And so, may I learn to take up his strength to be patient with myself and with my journey, because this does not look like I expected it to. I am in pain over how slow and invisible the progress is. But I can surrender my pace and my progress to him. I can decide that he knows what he’s doing and be patient with where I am, internally and externally, because I know he is taking me somewhere good, and I have confidence he can get me there.

I can be light-hearted, even as I see areas that desperately need growth, even as I struggle on repeat, even when it seems like I will never figure out how to handle things better, because I know what he is capable of. He will not abandon a slow pupil, because he is a skilled teacher.

Patience is a resolve not to worry about the timing, that flows from confidence in what the outcome will be. So I will take my inflexible tendencies, my weaknesses and issues and struggles, and lay them at his feet. I will be patient, and I will take up great hope.

If I rest my gaze on what he is able to do in me, I will find that seeing my issues loud and clear does not have to prompt worry in my heart.

Great hope says this: I do not know how to do this yet, but Christ is my teacher, so I can learn. I do not feel prepared for what’s ahead, but he is prepared to carry me through it. I am not able, but he is always able. He does not ask me to be fast; he asks me to be faithful. And when I stumble, he does not yell: That’s it! You’re through!

He comes alongside my brokenness and whispers: “I’m here. Keep going.”