background noise

I have gradually become a rather avid podcast listener. In the aftermath of losing most of my interest in reading as a hobby (for which I blame Mrs. Kruse, and college classes in general), and in my ever-increasing sensitivity to emotional distress in all aspects of life which makes most television pretty unbearable to watch, podcasts have become an enjoyable compromise. They are varying degrees of educational, which satisfies my learner’s brain, and the stories they often contain are much more real-life (and therefore, less unbearably distressing or dramatic) than what TV shows and movies can offer. I like that the pace is slow, the discussion is overwhelmingly “normal,” and I can work with my hands and eyes while my ears take in the information.

But, like all media, they can be annoyingly diagnostic of my current emotional wellbeing.

More than once in the last week (we won’t talk about how much more than once) I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen while the Bluetooth speaker blared on endlessly, strangers’ voices continuing a conversation I had lost track of twenty minutes ago, brain split between the complexities of formatting a manuscript in Adobe InDesign and that annoying subconscious awareness that I was purposely trying to drown myself out.

There’s a dual theme to my favorite podcasts: Conversation and consistency. I listen to shows in which the same two or three people co-host every episode in a loosely-structured conversational format. I hardly care what they’re talking about; yes, I listen to shows that reflect my own interests, like the Bible, health, self-improvement, or non-inflammatory news and political commentary. But in the past week alone I’ve listened to a show about “Wisdom Gained in Our 30s” (I’m 25), home decor (which is fine, but I don’t really care about it), and a discussion on postpartum recovery (despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby and am not pregnant), just to name a few. Sure, there’s an element of these shows that feeds my curiosity and hunger to learn about how other people live and what they care about, but overall these topics are not exactly what I’d consider reflective of my current interests or place in life. What I need is the conversation, the stimulation, the taste of being part of something.

When I start to binge on such shows, I know that my brain is trying to communicate something to me which I’d rather not hear.

Like Hey. You’re lonely.

Gah, I hate being lonely. I hate the feeling of needing people. I hate the fact that I can’t healthfully subsist in isolation and that part of my call as a disciple of Jesus is to be just one working part of His whole, diverse body. And I hate it when my attempts at pseudo-community fail to take the ache away.

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Ironically, I know that in this, I’m not alone. Authenticity is a buzzword in our world, and people keep trying to share their “imperfections” on Instagram in aspiration for vulnerability and relationship, but somehow it seems we’re all more isolated than ever before - maybe because only some imperfections are socially acceptable enough for public consumption, and if your only evident vulnerability is the short temper you wrote about in a caption online, what does that say about my dissolving relationships or secret addiction or desperate depression?

Some of the most bonding real-life conversations I’ve had recently have been based on the admission that I am lonely, and you are lonely, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. The trouble is that this seems to be where the conversation always ends, and then we return to our faithful Friendship Substitutes. For me it’s podcasts, but for you it could be TV, books, food, drink, social media, busy work, or any of a number of other options. Those things place no demands on us, and they make us feel better for awhile, but even in the healthiest usage they don’t solve the problem.

So how is this problem solved? Once we’ve bonded over our mutual loneliness, where do we go from there?

I can’t say I know a definitive step-by-step strategy, but my instincts say we need to move toward each other. We need to cut ties with our Friendship Substitutes long enough to get hungry for the real thing, and then move toward each other - offline, in real life, where I can see your face and hear your voice and touch your hand. The world is becoming more virtual and less real all the time, but our bodies and brains are designed for what is real. Our hormones and chemicals respond to what is real. Bonding happens in the real world.

A trendy hashtag does not a community make.

Last weekend I took a self-defense class at my church. I’ve been attending services there for seven months, but had hardly met anyone at all yet. I didn’t want to go to the class because I would be alone in a room full of strangers, but I went anyway.

And they were real.

All it took was for someone to say hello and start the conversation, to make eye contact and smile, and to start practicing hand-to-hand self defense with me, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lonely anymore. And more than that, I rediscovered a healthy appetite to be with real people in a real setting doing real things.

But here’s the rub, at least for me: once we’ve moved toward one another physically, we’ll need to start moving closer emotionally. We need those few, lovely people that we’re not only in bodily proximity with, but that are near to our souls. The people who know us for who we are - good, bad, or unimaginably terrible. They’re the ones who love us exactly the same no matter how much good, bad, or unimaginably terrible we bring with us, and who - by being the light that we desperately need shed on our inner worlds - will help to enact and reveal God’s work in us.

I’m not good at this. In fact, the real reason I often have to be dragged toward any kind of real-life social situation kicking and screaming is because I really, really don’t want to move toward others emotionally. In the aftermath of a formative friendship in which my trust and vulnerability was often exploited, I am happy to pretend, for as long as I can get away with it, that I don’t have any needs at all. But in this I’m not just isolating myself; I’m involuntarily isolating those around me who do have needs, and need to know they’re not the only ones.

I think it’s time to turn off the background noise and reach toward real-life relationships with real-life people. The kind that won’t just numb out the loneliness void, but fill it up and make it whole. The internet is a marvelous thing, but as much as it connects us, it will never be able to bond us.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

biblical vocabulary: joy

“Count it all joy…”

“Rejoice in the Lord always…”

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

We look for it everywhere. We feel guilty when we don’t have enough of it. We wonder why it’s so difficult to come by. But do we know what it is?

What is this thing called “joy”? More importantly, what is it according to the Bible?

Remember, our goal is to approach the Bible not with our preconditioned perspective, but with heart and mind open to see what God Himself put there. Our own filters are usually built on whatever foundation other flawed human beings helped to lay for us, and they don’t always allow the whole truth to come through.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the word “faith.” If you haven’t read it, go back and read it now, because faith is joy’s parent - we’ll never achieve the latter without a solid standing in the former.

What is joy?

The top three dictionary definitions for joy are as follows:

  1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son’s success.

  2. a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy.

  3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety.

Unfortunately, these definitions miss the mark of the Biblical understanding of joy by a rather wide margin, and when we bring them to our study of the Bible, we enter into the dangerous territory of thinking one’s “quality” as a disciple of Jesus can in some way be measured by one’s ability to be happy, look on the bright side, and walk into church with a smiling face every week. It’s not long before that attitude turns followers into fakers.

So, as always, we turn to the Bible for the truth. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of verses regarding joy in the Bible, but here are a few helpful ones:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:2-4

Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
Philippians 4:4

If the whole concept of joy really were wrapped up in those three dictionary.com definitions above, not a single one of these passages could be true. Maybe they never would have been written at all.

There’s no room for “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying” in the kind of trials that test our faith, or in the long road to the Cross. Most of us, in our right minds, grieve and weep and agonize when we are suffering - and Jesus did the same. If even Jesus couldn’t “rejoice always,” according to the dictionary definition, how could Paul possibly command us to do so?

That’s why we need a new and biblical definition of joy if we ever hope to interpret the Bible correctly.

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Joy is a choice.

Once we have put on God’s perspective (faith), He opens our eyes to the choice before us: We can let our emotions rule us, or we can let the truth rule our emotions. This isn’t simply about being a happier person or doing gratitude meditations; it is the resolute assurance that God knows and cares about what I’m going through, and has the power to overcome it. It is the choice - the resolve - to believe that God is who He says He is: utterly sovereign and utterly good.

This has been a very hard year for me and my family. There’s been a lot of grief and suffering that has rocked my world and forced me to reckon with how I really understand faith and joy - even how I really view God’s character. Do I really believe that if I jump, He’ll catch me? That He sees my pain and cares about it and reigns over it? Do I really believe that He loves me as much as I love myself?

Notice, again, that joy is not a feeling - contrary to our English dictionary. Biblically, you don’t need to be happy to have joy. In fact, you can be angry or brokenhearted, and still have joy. Your joy isn’t in your feelings or your circumstances, but “in the Lord.”

The Bible is full of beautiful laments that capture the essence of true joy. I recommend the book of Job, Jeremiah’s Lamentations, and Habakkuk in particular. These three men, plus David in the Psalms, may be the most joyful writers in Scripture, even though their words often sound the saddest. They suffered, but they knew that God knew, and God cared. They were not afraid to walk into church without a smile on their face, or into the throneroom without a song of thanksgiving; in fact, they fearlessly entered His Presence carrying their heart’s deepest woes, trusting that He would receive them and love them anyway.

That is joy.

Though He slay me,
I will hope in Him.
Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him.
This also will be my salvation,
For a godless man may not come before His presence.
Job 13:15-16

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.
Surely my soul remembers
And is bowed down within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
Lamentations 3:19-25

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places.
Habakkuk 3:17-19

Rejoice in the Lord always - not as a faker, but as a follower. Not because you feel it, but because you choose it. Not because it’s all good, but because He is.

this is God's will

God has been working in me.

It's always interesting to watch Him, because so often, His shaping touch is so gentle that I don't even feel it until I notice its tangible effects on my life months or years later. He works slowly, deliberately, never hurried or pushy, and why not? He has all the time in the world. I am learning, the longer I watch Him, that the aggressive, domineering, hurry-up-or-you'll-regret-it messages I sometimes hear in my heart and mind are never from Him - they are just my Enemy's strategy to distract me from the loving and teaching voice of my Father.

Today I noticed that my prayers have changed in the last year, maybe two. It was such a gradual shift that it didn't occur to me that anything was happening at the time, but now I can see it: Where I once asked for miracles, I've begun to ask for the revelation of God's character. Where I once asked for changed circumstances, I've begun to ask for changed hearts. Where I once asked God to step in and do blatant divine work in my life (and others'), I've begun to ask Him to lead His children to be His hands and feet toward one another.

I've asked God to miraculously heal the pain and suffering of a family member (well, let's face it... more than one family member), and I don't think that's wrong - but the beauty I have found in "Thy will be done" is that He often wills to do far deeper and greater work than simple healing of a physical problem. He shows us who He is - and there is no greater miracle than that.

The gloriously inefficient plan

But He doesn't necessarily show us who He is the way that I have often expected or desired, either. Looking back, I see that I wanted Him to sweep in in a grand vision, in an incredible event that no one could possibly doubt was an act of God - that would force us to turn our hearts toward Him more. But He has very rarely done so. Instead, He seems to prefer to work small... gentle... slow. He seems to prefer inefficiency. He seems to prefer to involve us, not to force us.

And I am coming to see that His favorite inefficiency is to reveal Himself chiefly in the small, Spirit-led voices and actions of His children. He shows us who He is in the unconditional love, the bottomless forgiveness, the open-hearted welcome of people who are just like us, people who are broken, but have been saved by the blood of Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit.

So instead of asking Him to put on a huge show of power to remind me of His worthiness, His faithfulness, or His love, I have begun to ask Him to send someone - one of His small, saved people - who can gently, slowly, inefficiently live out His character before me in the humblest of ways. I am learning that He wants to do His deepest work through us, the Church. He wants me to hear His voice from the mouths of His children and see His love through their sacrificial actions and invite His grace into my life in the form of these genuine and difficult relationships.

And He wants me to do the same for them.

We, the Church of Christ, are intended to be His will. His voice. His hands. His arms. His feet. His heart.

The call to imitate Christ has never been more vital.

Now is not the time to wait for miracles to rain down from heaven. If God chooses to do that, then hallelujah, but here is the truth: we are the miracle. The God of all Creation has spared no expense to purchase a relationship with us, and to offer Himself fully to every living soul. That is a miracle. Every day that we walk with Christ as the active manifestation of His love, His grace, His power, His mercy, His unity, and His forgiveness for others is a miracle - and it's the miracle that will save the world, that will bring life to those who are dying in darkness.

God isn't showy or controlling or in a rush. He's not even all that efficient at times. But He is working - and He wants to work in me, and in you, and through us all. Broken and hurting people in our sanctuaries and our world are praying for a vision of what God's heart really looks like. What if we - the Church, the body of Christ - are the answer to that prayer? Am I ready to step in and live it? Are you?

This is your calling and mine - God wants to do His deepest work in us and through us. His Church is called to be His love to the world.

The hard, healing work

This is hard work. The hardest work. It means that instead of burying our brokenness, we re-open the old wounds to the community of Christ - to be healed and, equally importantly, to provide an opportunity for His Church to practice its lofty call. It means that instead of pretending we're all okay, we build relationships based on the assumption that we are all not okay - and that no matter what your pet sin or your coping mechanism or your personal trauma, I've got my own pet sin or coping mechanism or personal trauma that really isn't much different, except maybe by name.

It means I am not just climbing to get myself to the top, but I'm choosing to throw my weight into these burdens in perfect sync with those who are climbing beside me, so that together we can lift up those who are too wounded to make the trek on their own.

And it's risky, because without exception, all of our deepest wounds came from other people to begin with - often the people closest to us. It seems counter-intuitive that we'd need to look for healing in the same position of vulnerability that hurt us, or that we'd ever trust someone other than ourselves to pull us up the treacherous mountainside to victory. But this is the plan.

The gloriously inefficient and hazardously optimistic plan.

Disorders. Addictions. Emptiness. Trauma. Sin. Pain. Abandonment. Disease. Not a single one of us is not suffering somehow from the wounds of a broken world. But until we stop pretending otherwise, until we stop hiding from each other - which can only mean we are hiding from the healing hand of God - the destructive cycle will go on.

God has been working in me. Slowly, gently, He has been clearing my vision to see what my true vocation as a servant of Christ is. It's not to preach the Gospel to a certain number of people or to write a particular book or to revolutionize the way we learn Scripture. Even if any of these things did happen, my real, bottom-line vocation would still be exactly the same as yours: To imitate Christ, who lived unapologetically real, fearlessly vulnerable, and inexhaustibly loving.

He laid His life down for His friends - not just literally, but also daily, entering into other people's muck and empathizing with their pain and loving them all the way to healing. And all this He did fearlessly, freely, even at the risk of unimaginable betrayal.

Now He has passed the baton to me. To you. To His Church.

This is God's will. We are God's plan.

Will we obey?