“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 NIV
“Mom, let’s arm wrestle!”
The boys find great joy in this game. Over the last few years, these children of mine have eclipsed me in height and weight and shoe size and, without a doubt, arm strength. And yet, they still like to challenge me, just to see, can I really beat mom? Every single time they laugh and act surprised and egg me on, “Mom, try!” as I fight with all my strength and laugh back and assure them “I am trying!”.
It’s not even a competition; they win every time.
I want it to be this way. I want them to grow and work hard and build their muscles for health and enjoyment and good use. I want them to be strong.
But, even more than physical strength, I want them to be strong in character. Strong in convictions, in knowing truth from lie. Strong in self-control and firm in who they are. And I want them to be courageous; courageous to act and lead and make wise choices. Courageous to admit when they mess up and brave to try again. I want this for them, and I want it for me and you, too. Because, my goodness, fear, and discouragement just keep coming at us day after day, don’t they?! We could all use strength and courage.
The bad news is, the strength and courage required to combat fear and discouragement are not achievable on our own. We can give it our best effort, and perhaps succeed for a time, but it’s always a temporary fix. No matter how much we train or try, we’ll fall short.
But there’s great news, too. It’s not up to us. We will receive exactly what we need as a result of this: God is with us, wherever we go.
We chose this verse for our firstborn, Ethan (whose name means ‘strong’) when he was just a baby. And with each consecutive son, we chose it for them. It is the prayer of my heart for each of my boys:
Be strong, my child, when you look fear in the face. Be courageous, my son, when you feel inadequate, knocked-down, and discouraged. For the Lord is good and powerful and full of grace and HE IS WITH YOU. He will never leave you alone or forget about you and you can never get beyond his reach. He is for you. He makes you strong. He makes you courageous. Always remember this.
These words are for my boys and also me and you and every other son and daughter of God. This truth is for all of us, wherever we go.
These three words have come to mean a lot to me this year. I put them on my letterboard and look at it every day as a reminder because I am so prone to forget. If left to my own devices, I make everything about me. I self-promote and self-protect and hold myself back and use comparison to figure out where I stand. Please, someone, tell me I’m valuable. Please, anyone, make me feel like I am enough.
But these three words change that. For me and for you and for everyone.
The final words declared from high upon the cross made it known; there is nothing left to do and no one else to be to figure out our worth. It is finished.
In Pastor Timothy Keller’s book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness he writes this:
“In Christianity, the moment we believe, God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own and adopts us into His family. In other words, God can say to us just as He once said to Christ, ‘ You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
You see, the verdict is in. And now I perform on the basis of the verdict. Because he loves me and accepts me, I do not have to do things just to build up my resume. I do not have to do things to make me look good. I can do things for the joy of doing them. I can help people to help people – not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness.”
He goes on:
“Jesus faced the trial that should be ours so that we do not have to face any more trials. So I simply need to ask God to accept me because of what the Lord Jesus has done. Then, the only person whose opinion counts looks at me and He finds me more valuable than all the jewels in the earth.”
So every day, I look at the letterboard and remember that what Jesus did on this day 2000 years ago is all that matters. These three words change everything.
May you be encouraged today and always by these unforgettable words.
It is finished.
Three things happened back-to-back that changed the trajectory of my bible-reading life (and my whole life, actually).
It first started with a post I wrote last year about morning devotional books I liked. I am not a morning person and yet I saw the value in starting the day with truth, so I did what I’ve always done and chose a morning devotion to start the day. There is nothing wrong with this, per se. Quick readings with scripture and truth and application have their place. And for us busy moms (especially you moms of littles where it feels like you never have a minute to yourself!) those devotional resources are priceless. But then a reader left a comment that made me pause. She said something along the lines of “is this really all we’re willing to give Jesus? All we have is just an obligatory 5 minutes to read and then just move on with our day?“. It could have come off as critical and I could have responded defensively. But instead, it totally convicted me. She was right. Is a quick get-it-done reading all I was willing to give? And was it working to grow me deeper into the knowledge and trust in who God is and who I am and how then I should live in this world?
Another thing happened around the same time: I felt the Lord asking me to quiet the noise. There are endless resources for amazing teaching and inspiration and I was consuming a lot of it. My desire to grow and learn was at an all time high and I was responding by drinking it all in. These things, again, are SO good. Podcasts and books and instagram and blog posts with testimonies of how God has worked and what He is like are invaluable. But I felt like I was just hearing second hand about who God is and what He does and not experiencing it for myself.
I longed to know what He wanted to say to ME!
The third moment happened in passing on a Sunday at church. I was chatting with a friend and she told me about something she had read that morning in the book of Nehemiah. I commented, “hmm I’ve never studied Nehemiah.” And her reply caught me off guard: “oh, I’m not studying, I’m just reading.” I realized then and there that my approach to the Bible was off. I saw it as something to study, to dig through, to come to academically and in a group. It was for smarter theologians or well-practiced readers who understood original Greek and Hebrew and ancient culture. I was consuming teaching ON the bible, craving knowledge about God, seeking out wise teachers – all good things – but it was like a watered-down, second-hand kind of experience with God and He was asking me to quiet all that noise to just be with Him.
At the same time as all of this was going on, my spiritual director suggested a new way of understanding who Jesus is through daily reading through the gospels.
She introduced me to Project 89.
The practice was developed by an organization for church leaders called Centered. My spiritual director’s husband leads the team and we have good friends who work with them so it felt like a trustworthy place to start.
Here’s the premise of Project 89:
Each day, you read one chapter of a gospel, starting with Matthew, then moving through Mark, Luke and John. There are 89 chapters total (hence the Project 89 title).
The best part, though, is that you do not just read. You also journal in a guided way.
This is the journal I used and it is now one of my most beloved possessions.
Here’s how it works:
With a blank notebook (at least 90 pages, lined, unlined, spiral bound, stitched, whatever you like), create a table of contents with the chapter, date and room for a title you will give the chapter after reading it.
So at the very beginning, you’ll have a running list of all the chapters for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It took me four pages in my notebook.
Once you complete a reading, you’ll add in the title and date.
Here’s how my title pages look:
I didn’t give my pages numbers, but you could if it helps you keep better track.
You’ll notice a few asterisks next to particular chapters. Those were my own little way to mark particular days when I felt like the Lord spoke special things to me.
On each day of reading, you’ll title a new page with the chapter and date. Then read and take notes and journal as you feel led.
At the end of the reading and journaling, give the day a title. It could be a concept that sticks out from a verse or a plot line or what the Lord taught you.
Here are a few sample pages of my daily notes as an example:
Some days were less journal-y than others. Sometimes the chapter didn’t totally connect, and honestly, sometimes I was less engaged and just rushed through.
But as long as my heart and mind were present and I invited the Holy Spirit into the practice, He was so faithful to speak and show and bring up questions and offer answers.
I started Project 89 on June 1, 2018 and finished on January 3, 2019.
In theory, it would only take 89 days, but it took me 7 months. And honestly, I feel totally okay with it. In fact, I am so sad it is over. It became a way for me to slow down, to speak to God, to hear from God, to get to know His character, to find myself in parables and recognize my inability to measure up and Jesus’ incredible, upside-down ways that set us free.
As I look back through the journal, I can see so clearly the messages I needed to hear directly from God.
I needed to know His character – that He is good, kind, compassionate, responsive. I needed to be honest about my shortcomings – that as much as I try not to, I still get very tangled up in the worries of the world. I needed to spend time with Him and prioritize this practice in my busy life. I needed to remember His promises. I needed to slow down and talk to Him and listen.
Because just as I had so hoped, He did have things to say to me.
At the end of it all, I can honestly say that this one spiritual practice has transformed my life.
I have done a lot of work over the past year to grow and heal and understand my identity in Christ. There has been incredible freedom and healing which I’m more than excited to share as the time comes. But at the center of it all, I deeply believe that spending time in the Gospels in this very intentional way has been the biggest difference-maker.
If this is something you’d like to do, may I share a few things that I think are imperative:
Find a quiet place
I’m not great at getting up way ahead of the kids, so instead I found a crack of time in between sending my middle schooler off to school and starting the morning routine with the elementary kids. I crawled back in to bed in my quiet bedroom with my journal and bible app to do the daily practice.
Some days I would bring my journal along with me and do the reading in my car if I had some time before barre class or as I was waiting during a kid’s sports practice.
The essential part – at least for me – was being alone, without noisy distractions or interruptions.
Begin with an open, mindful posture
This sounds sort of woo-woo, but stick with me.
It’s super tempting to just run through the motions and treat it like an item on your checklist. Sure, you’ll get something out of it, but what if there’s more?!
Begin each time by getting quiet and still, close you eyes, open your hands and exhale.
When I meet with my spiritual director, we begin each session like this. We sit in silence with our eyes closed and hands open for a minute to let the pressures and to-do list roll into the background and be present and open in the moment.
We also light a candle to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit during our monthly meetings. I didn’t add the candle portion to my daily reading, but you certainly could if it helps you get into the mental and spiritual place where you will be most open.
Acknowledge the presence of Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is with us always, so I don’t know how I feel about saying we need to invite him in, but acknowledging His presence is vital.
My prayer each time I began might sound something like this:
Holy Spirit, you are here. I am here. I am thankful for this time to be with you. Quiet my heart, open my eyes and ears. Show me through the Word what you want me to know. Show me what you want me to do. Show me who you are and what that means about who I am.
Read in a translation that is not super familiar to you
I love my NIV study bible. But for this practice, I read each day in The Passion Translation version. IT WAS INCREDIBLY IMPACTFUL.
Even though the stories might be familiar, reading them in a version that is not your regular go-to makes you read the words and not just skim over them. It puts new words and maybe slightly different perspective that makes you stop and think and pay attention and reflect on familiar scriptures in new ways.
I read using the BibleGateway app on my phone. I started each day with The Passion Translation and then would switch to the Amplified version (another favorite) or The Message or The New Living for added clarity and perspective. I love reading the same story in different translations to help me understand and comprehend better.
Write down whatever makes you pause
If I read a line in the chapter and it caught my attention for whatever reason, I wrote it down. Sometimes I would elaborate with added thoughts or questions, sometimes I would stop and look it up in a different version, sometimes I just continued on.
The point of journaling is to mark down what is speaking to your soul and interact with it. You might ask for deeper understanding. You might see a thread running through where the same things keep popping up. Now that I’m done, I love having this journal to go back through and see the repeating themes.
The journaling and titling each chapter acts as a way for you to think and comprehend instead of just reading but not really letting the words sink in.
Like I said up there, I didn’t finish in 89 days. But I didn’t quit or feel defeated when I missed a few days. The longer I stuck with it, the more I craved it. I anticipated meeting with God and growing in my faith.
It really is a relationship, you know? The more time you spend together, the deeper and purer it becomes. And when you skip being together, the more you miss it.
Well, there it is. The single most impactful spiritual practice I’ve ever done.
I’m so sad it’s done. I know that’s weird because I could just start again. But it’s just this sweet, special one-time thing that I know can’t be replicated and I hold it so dear. I am so grateful for the ways it has grown my faith and trust in God.
I pray, more than anything, whether you do this Project 89 practice or any other scripture reading, that you will more fully understand who God is, who you are and what that means as you walk out your daily life.
I’m on the journey with you, friend, and so thankful that we have a loving, good God who promises this:
“Move your heart closer and closer to God, and he will come even closer to you.” James 4:8 TPT
Our oldest son is just the nicest kid – he is smart and friendly, witty and creative. He’s responsible and caring (and as sloppy as they come, but I try to overlook that part). He’s a leader in his class and has lots of friends. And he has a bully who’s been bugging him all year.
It’s admittedly not the worse bully case of all – but it is hurtful all the same. We’ve talked about it and offered suggestions for the past few months, but last Friday, my 10 year old came home with teary-eyes because this mean boy just won’t leave him alone. We talked it through and have a few positive next steps, so we’ll get the issue taken care of, I’m sure. As much as I want to step in and protect my baby, I know situations like this will build his character, teach him compassion, show him what it means to pray for his enemies. He will be better because of moments like these.
But I can’t stop thinking about this one thing, this one reality that I’ve known was there all along, but it hasn’t been an in-your-face part of my children’s’ lives until now:
the world will try over and over to tell them who they are
Sometimes it will be good, like when they win an award or score a goal or get promoted. Their friends/teammates/colleagues will offer praise and give respect and it will feel great. They will feel confident and proud and think they are pretty awesome.
Other times, it will be terrible. When they don’t get chosen or are left out or made fun of or passed over for the promotion and their friends/teammates/colleagues will laugh or ignore or say hurtful things and it will sting. Over and over and over, these inadequacies, negative comments, hurtful words will work their way into their hearts and soon enough, they will begin to believe them.
I don’t like this. Either one, really – feeling awesome because of what we’ve done or feeling awful because of what we haven’t. We base our identity on our successes or failures and that just leaves us scrambling, striving, doing all we can to be good and avoid mistakes and try desperately to prove our value to the world.
It’s so my story. Probably yours, too. Maybe all of humanity, even.
We look to the world to tell us who we are and the world doesn’t even have the right to voice its opinion in the first place.
I’m still learning the lesson. I care way, way too much about what others think of me. I always have. I’ve been reminded over and over again that basing my value on the world’s opinion of me will never satisfy, and I’m getting closer to believing it, but I still haven’t quite grasped it.
My oldest son’s bully experience has deepened my desire for our kids to have a solid understanding and confidence in who they are – in who God says they are – so that they won’t get caught up in the people-pleasing-accolade-chasing-fearful-perfectionism that so easily entangles. I want them to go through life having people either wildly approve and accept them or hurtfully make fun of and ridicule them and not waver from their belief in what Jesus thinks of them.
I want my kids to twirl, really. Not just Audrey, but the boys too (maybe it’s not the right word for them, but see the original post and the follow up and hopefully you’ll get the point). To be who God made them to be, thanking Him when they are successful, accepting His unending grace when they fail. And knowing this:
“The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you; He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17
So many beautiful promises in one little passage.
God is with me. He saves me. He delights in me. He loves me. He rejoices over me
God is with you. He saves you. He delights in you. He loves you. He rejoices over you.
This is the verse we chose for our daughter, but I pray it for my boys as well.
So when a bully tells my son that he’s not good enough, it will hurt. It should hurt. But he will know, deep in his soul, that because of Jesus, he is enough. He is chosen and adored and that is enough.
Note: Written in 2014, but just as applicable today
I listened to a teaching on the book of Jonah this morning. Turns out, the story is not about the whale.
It’s about Jonah – and you! and me! – running from what God has for us because it doesn’t quite line up with our own version of “the good life”. We run for our lives thinking we know better, that our plans are the best only to discover that by not obeying and aligning ourselves with what God is asking us to do, we’re actually running away from true, abundant life.
It feels so backwards, doesn’t it? So upside down. But also, so incredibly freeing. I don’t have to worry! I don’t have to self-protect or self-promote! I am free to be me and step towards the things of God and the plans he has for my life even though is not all clear because He is loving and kind and generous with his abundance. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to trust and obey – I am pretty stubborn and think my ideas of the good life are quite good. I guess that’s what Jesus meant when he said the way to to find life is to deny ourselves and follow him.
I’m in. However terrifying it might be.
So the whale part of the Jonah story is cool and all, but the very best part is God’s extravagant mercy and grace to rescue us from ourselves.