In the past year or so, a number of authors have urged believers to take a fresh look at the “vocabulary” of our faith. One writer, for example, emphasized that even theologically rich words of faith can lose their impact when, through overfamiliarity and overuse, we lose touch with the depths of the gospel and our need for God. When that happens, he suggested, we may need to relearn the language of faith “from scratch,” letting go of our assumptions until we can see the good news for the first time.
The invitation to learn to “speak God from scratch” reminds me of Paul, who devoted his life to “become all things to all people . . . for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:22–23). He never assumed he knew best how to communicate what Jesus had done. Instead, he relied on constant prayer and pleaded for fellow believers to pray for him as well—to help him find “the right words” (Ephesians 6:19 nlt) to share the good news.
The apostle also knew the need for each believer in Christ to remain humble and receptive each day to their need for deeper roots in His love (3:16–17). For it’s only as we deepen our roots in God’s love, each day becoming more aware of our dependence on His grace, that we can begin to find the right words to share the incredible news of what He’s done for us.
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” This sentence, pronounced by Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is the reason I will never forget that novel and its impact on me. Because after reading that one sentence, I firmly decided I would never like Mr. Darcy.
But I was wrong. Like Austen’s character Elizabeth Bennet, I had the humbling experience of slowly—and quite reluctantly—changing my mind. Like her, I’d been unwilling to get to know Darcy’s character as a whole; I preferred to hang onto my reaction to one of his worst moments. After finishing the novel, I wondered who I’d made that same mistake with in the real world. What friendships had I missed because I wouldn’t let go of a snap judgment?
At the heart of faith in Jesus is the experience of being seen, loved, and embraced by our Savior—at our worst (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:19). It’s the wonder of realizing we can surrender our old, false selves for who we truly are in Christ (Ephesians 4:23–24). And it’s the joy of understanding that we are no longer alone but part of a family, a “body” of those learning to walk the “way of love”—real, unconditional love (5:2).
When we remember what Christ has done for us (v. 2), how can we not long to see others the way He sees us?
There are times, late at night in North America’s harsh Sonoran Desert, where one can hear a faint, high-pitched howl. But you probably wouldn’t suspect the source of the sound—the small yet mighty grasshopper mouse, howling at the moon to establish its territory.
This unique rodent (dubbed the “werewolf mouse”) is also carnivorous. In fact, it preys on creatures few would dare mess with, such as the scorpion. But the werewolf mouse is uniquely equipped for that particular battle. It not only has a resistance to scorpion venom, but can even convert the toxins into a painkiller!
There’s something inspiring about the way this resilient little mouse seems custom-made to survive and even thrive in its harsh environment. As Paul explains in Ephesians 2:10, that kind of marvelous craftsmanship characterizes God's designs for His people as well. Each of us is “God’s handiwork” in Jesus, uniquely equipped to contribute to His kingdom.
That means that however God has gifted you, you have much to offer. As you embrace with confidence who He’s made you to be, you’ll be a living witness to the hope and joy of life in Him.
So as you face whatever feels most menacing in your own life, take courage. You may feel small, but through the gifting and empowerment of the Spirit, God can use you to do mighty things.
In our moments of greatest failure, it can be easy to believe it’s too late for us, that we’ve lost our chance at a life of purpose and worth. That’s how Elias, a former inmate at a maximum-security prison in New York, described feeling as a prisoner. “I had broken . . . promises, the promise of my own future, the promise of what I could be.”
It was Bard College’s “Prison Initiative” college degree program that began to transform Elias’ life. While in the program, Elias participated in a debate team, which in 2015 debated a team from Harvard—and won. For Elias, being “part of the team . . . [was] a way of proving that these promises weren’t completely lost.”
A similar transformation happens in our hearts when we begin to understand that the good news of God’s love in Jesus is good news for us too. It’s not too late, we begin to realize with wonder. God still has a future for me.
And it’s a future that can neither be earned nor forfeited, dependent only on God’s extravagant grace and power (2 Peter 1:3). A future where we’re set free from the despair in the world and in our hearts into one filled with His “glory and goodness” (v. 3). A future secure in Christ’s unimaginable promises (v. 4)—of a future transformed into the “freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
In 1994, when South Africa made the transition from government by apartheid (imposed racial segregation) to a democracy, it faced the difficult question of how to address the crimes committed under apartheid. The country’s leaders couldn't ignore the past, but merely imposing harsh punishments on the guilty risked deepening the country's wounds. As Desmond Tutu, the first black Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, explained in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, "We could very well have had justice, retributive justice, and had a South Africa lying in ashes."
Through establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the new democracy chose the difficult path of pursuing truth, justice, and mercy. Those guilty of crimes were offered a path to restoration—if they were willing to confess their crimes and seek to make restitution. Only by courageously facing the truth could the country begin to find healing.
In a way, South Africa's dilemma mirrors the struggle we all face. We're called to pursue both justice and mercy (Micah 6:8), but mercy is often misunderstood to be a lack of accountability, while pursuing justice can become distorted into pursuing revenge.
Our only path forward is a love that not only hates what's evil (Romans 12:9) but also longs for the transformation and good of our "neighbor" (13:10). Through the power of Christ's Spirit, we can learn what it means to have a future of overcoming evil with good (12:21).
Fifteenth-century monk Thomas à Kempis, in the beloved classic The Imitation of Christ, offers a perspective on temptation that might be a bit surprising. Instead of focusing on the pain and difficulties temptation can lead to, he writes, “[temptations] are useful because they can make us humble, they can cleanse us, and they can teach us.” Kempis explains, “The key to victory is true humility and patience; in them we overcome the enemy.”
Humility and patience. How different my walk with Christ would be if that were how I naturally responded to temptation! More often, I react with shame, frustration, and impatient attempts to get rid of the struggle.
But, as we learn from James 1, the temptations and trials we face don’t have to be without purpose or merely a threat we endure. Although giving in to temptation can bring heartbreak and devastation (vv. 13–15), when we turn to God, with humble hearts seeking His wisdom and grace, we find He “gives generously to all without finding fault” (v. 5). Through His power in us, our trials and struggles to resist sin build perseverance, “so that [we] may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 4).
As we trust in Jesus, there’s no reason to live in fear. As God’s dearly loved children, we can find peace as we rest in His loving arms even as we face temptation.
As I shared with my counselor my roller-coaster of emotions after a stress-filled week, she listened thoughtfully, then invited me to look out the window at the trees, lush with autumnal oranges and golds, the branches swaying in the wind.
Pointing out that the trunks weren’t moving at all in the wind, my counselor explained, “We’re a bit like that. When life is blowing at us from every direction, of course our emotions will go up and down and all around. But sometimes we live as if we only have ‘branches.’ Our goal is to help you find your own ‘trunk.’ That way, even when life is pulling from all sides, you won’t be living in your ‘branches.’ You’ll still be secure and stable.”
It’s an image that’s stuck with me; and it’s similar to the image Paul offered new believers in Ephesians. Reminding them of God’s incredible gift—a new life of tremendous purpose and value (Ephesians 2:6–10), Paul shared his longing that they’d become deeply “rooted and established” in Christ’s love (3:17), no longer “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (4:14).
On our own, it’s easy to feel insecure and fragile, pummeled by our fears and insecurities. But as we grow in our true identity in Christ (vv. 22–24), we can experience deep peace with God and each other (v. 3), nourished and sustained by Christ’s power and beauty (vv. 15–16).
Sometimes I suspect my cat Heathcliff suffers from a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out). When I come home with groceries, Heathcliff rushes over to inspect the contents. When I’m chopping vegetables, he stands up on his back paws peering at the produce and begging me to share. But when I actually give Heathcliff whatever’s caught his fancy, he quickly loses interest, walking away with an air of bored resentment.
But it’d be hypocritical for me to be hard on my little buddy. In comical caricature, he reflects a bit of my own insatiable hunger for more, my assumption that “now” is never enough.
According to Paul, contentment isn’t natural—it’s learned (Philippians 4:11). On our own, we desperately pursue whatever we think will satisfy, moving on to the next thing the minute we realize it won’t. Other times, our discontent takes the form of anxiously shielding ourselves from any and all suspected threats.
Ironically, sometimes it takes experiencing what we’d feared the most to stumble into real joy. Having experienced much of the worst life has to offer, Paul could testify firsthand to “the secret” of true contentment (vv. 11–12)—the mysterious reality that as we lift up to God our longings for wholeness, we experience unexplainable peace (vv. 6–7), carried ever deeper into the depths of Christ’s power, beauty, and grace.
Legend has it that at the edges of medieval maps, marking the boundaries of the world the maps’ creators knew at the time, there’d be inscribed the words “Here be dragons”—often alongside vivid illustrations of the terrifying beasts supposedly lurking there.
There’s not much evidence medieval cartographers actually wrote these words, but I like to think they could have. Maybe because “here be dragons” sounds like something I might’ve written at the time—a grim warning that even if I didn’t know exactly what would happen if I ventured into the great unknown, it likely wouldn’t be good!
But there’s one glaring problem with my preferred policy of self-protection and risk-aversion: it’s the opposite of the courage to which I’m called as a follower of Christ (2 Timothy 1:7).
One might even say I’m misguided about what’s really dangerous. As Paul explained, in a broken world, bravely following Christ will sometimes be painful (v. 8). But as those brought from death to life and entrusted with the Spirit’s life flowing in and through us (vv. 9–10,14), how could we not?
When God gives us a gift this staggering, to fearfully shrink back would be the real tragedy—far worse than anything we might face when we follow Jesus’s leading into uncharted territory (vv. 6–8, 12). He can be trusted with our hearts and our future (v. 12).