A steep section of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Walking buddies

When I went to England last summer, I got to walk along Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman fortification that separated the “civilized south” from the “barbarian north.” The section that we walked is called Steel Rigg, and it’s a beautiful trail that winds up and down through the green windswept highlands. Maybe some people think it’s barren, but I think it’s beautiful. And steep. It was ridiculously steep in some places, and I’m not the most graceful or coordinated person. The photograph I picked today shows a particularly treacherous bit. I snapped the picture while the three people ahead of us were trying to get up the side of the hill, just for perspective. You probably have to enlarge the photo to see them (yes, that man is wearing a camouflage poncho….Americans).

I’m not a really active person. I’m trying to be. I’m working on being more active, walking more and taking the stairs and such, but a three or four mile hike up and down wet stone steps with crazy wind isn’t something I do every day. So I was a little nervous about it. And, plus, since I have a clumsy streak, I was absolutely sure I was going to trip on one of the ancient stone steps and tumble down a hillside. But I was determined that I was going to finish this. And I did.

Granted, I had my best friend along with me, reminding me to take it slow and walking beside me in spite of my snail’s pace. And we had a guide with us who knew where he was going. And my brother was along, who’s just a calming influence on me anyway. Without the three of them, there’s no way I would have braved Hadrian’s Wall.

A steep section of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

A steep section of Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verse is Isaiah 41:10.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

New years are hard work. They’re sort of like starting from scratch, except you go into them carrying all your excess baggage from the previous year. There are only so many resolutions you can make (only so many resolutions you can keep), and most of the time you find yourself giving in toward the end of the second week anyway.

I’d love to believe that a new year means you can start over again, but turning a calendar page doesn’t give you the power to start a new life. It just means you have to press forward in spite of all the junk you didn’t finish last year. Let’s just be real here. Can you honestly say you’ve done everything you had planned to do in 2013? How about in 2012 or 2011 or 2010? You get the point. I still have projects I started in 1994 that I’m trying to get done (maybe that’s just me).

And that’s discouraging. Personally I have so many awesome things I want to do, so many things I want to accomplish, but life keeps getting in the way, and it’s frustrating beyond measure. And when I sit down with my calendar to figure out how to fit everything I want to do into this set of 365 days, I begin to see how impossible it is, and it makes me want to give up, especially when I meet resistance from every angle.

Then, I run into a verse like Isaiah 41:10 that reminds me not to be afraid or discouraged. Whether it’s the start of a new year or not, life is full of uncertainties, and if you focus on them, you’ll depress yourself. Not knowing is always depressing, I think. And that’s why it’s important to focus on what we do know. As Christ followers, we know that God is with us. We know that He’s promised never to leave us, and we know that He’s working everything in our lives out for good, in spite of how crummy our circumstances may look right now.

It’s like walking along Hadrian’s Wall. It’s hard work, living life. Sometimes you have to watch your feet instead of the scenery because you aren’t sure if your next step is going to be solid enough to transfer your weight from one stone to another, but you can’t stop moving. I mean, you can. But what good will that do you? You can give up and stop moving forward, and then you’ll be stranded out in the middle of Northern England until someone brings a helicopter to come pick you up.

Like Hadrian’s Wall, life has ups and downs, harsh inclines and steep drops, damp stone steps and uncertain footing, and it can be tempting to give up and stand still. That’s why it’s important to have somebody walking with you, someone who moves at your pace, someone who knows where they’re going, someone to catch you when you fall.

Everyone is facing something today. Financial challenges. Work challenges. Health challenges. Family challenges. There’s a challenge for every person–sometimes more than one, usually more than two or three. But as Christ followers, we’re not facing those challenges alone. We just have to remember that. God has told us not to be afraid and not to be discouraged. He will give us the strength we need to keep moving forward. He is always victorious, and He’s offering that help to us today. We just have to take it.

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Why I shouldn’t be discouraged

There’s a lot to be afraid of in life. I’m sure if you tried, you could make an exhaustive list of all the possibilities without too much effort. There is so much that we face on a daily basis that we could be afraid of if we choose. I’m sorry to say many times I choose fear when it comes to certain situations, especially like talking to people I don’t know. And maybe this is just me, but once I give in to fear, discouragement follows soon after–because I know better. I know that fear is a choice. I know that fear is not from God, but there are times when I choose it anyway.

The Bible amazes me because so often it has already made connections between emotions that we don’t think about.

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

The view from behind a cannon in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Today’s verse is Isaiah 41:10.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

If you asked another person why they shouldn’t be afraid, I’m pretty positive the answer would come back as a list of reasons, depending on the situation. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of a break-in? You have a security system. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of a hail storm? You have car insurance. Why shouldn’t you be afraid of the dentist? And so on and so forth. So when God chooses to give reasons for why we shouldn’t be afraid or discouraged in this verse, it’s interesting to note His reasons.

Don’t be afraid because God is with you.

Don’t be discouraged because I am your God.

Are those sufficient reasons to turn from fear and discouragement? Obviously, God thinks so, or He wouldn’t have said it. These are His words via the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel, offering comfort and help.

The fear part I get. We shouldn’t be afraid because God is with us. If God’s with us, who can be against us? If God is with us, nothing can harm us that He hasn’t allowed, and even if something does harm us, He’ll be there throughout. He won’t leave us. I can grasp that on a rational level, although the emotional level is a little more difficult. Once fear gets its claws in you, it’s hard to break loose of its hold.

We don’t need to fear the unknown. We don’t need to fear what we don’t know. We don’t need to fear period. God is with us. He’s got it handled. He knows what’s He’s doing.

Okay. So what about discouragement? Don’t be discouraged because God is our God. What? What sense does that make? Is that even an answer to the question?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but God doesn’t always answer our questions in a way that we expect. Half the time, He’ll answer with a question. And the rest of the time He’ll answer the question we don’t even know we’re asking. He knows our hearts, and He knows what we need to hear, especially when we don’t know. But He’s always right. And He always says what we need. So what does this mean?

Why shouldn’t I be discouraged? I am your God.

Think about that statement for a moment. I am your God. What does that mean to you? To me, it means that I have access to a power greater than myself. It means that God has got everything figured out and He’s willing to let me in on it. It means that God has chosen me, not that I chose Him. I have, but He chose me first to be a part of His big plan.

For me, discouragement comes when I’ve failed or when I’ve given in to something I know I shouldn’t have done. For me, discouragement is a response to my inadequacy. And when I think about it that way, it suddenly makes sense.

I shouldn’t discouraged because God chose me in spite of my failures and inadequacies. My shortcomings are no surprise to Him. He knows all about them. I shouldn’t be trying to get through life on my own anyway. Remember? God is with me? That means He’s with me in the good times as well as the bad times.

When discouragement rears its ugly head, I need to remember that my life isn’t about me. It’s not about my failures or my successes. It’s about God and what God is doing and what He wants to do. I’m a part of His plan because He put me there–right where He wants me–and nothing is going to happen that He didn’t already know about. Nothing is going to catch Him off guard. And when I fail–and I will–I don’t need to give in to discouragement because He’s my God and He never leaves people behind.

Discouragement is as much a choice as fear is. True, I think it’s more of a response to giving into fear, but both of them are choices. And God has equipped us to face both down. So if you’re facing a tough situation today or if you’re just feeling blue, don’t give in. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged.

God is with you. He’s your God. He wants to help.

Choose to let Him.

So much bread and not enough butter

Life overwhelms me sometimes. It shouldn’t, but I let it anyway. I know better but some days I just can’t prevent it. There are so many things to accomplish. I have so much to do and not enough time in the day, and even if I had more hours in a day I couldn’t finish things to my satisfaction. There are too many duties, too many responsibilities, too many events, too many projects to keep track of, and things always slip through the cracks until the day after I needed to remember them.

On days when I let all that stuff get to me, I feel tired. Worn out. Stretched thin. “Like butter scraped over too much bread,” as Bilbo Baggins said in describing himself in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. I don’t feel like I can continue. And then I start feeling afraid that I’m going to fail. And if I had to nail down the greatest fear in my life it would be letting people down.

And then the Lord sends along a random Bible verse like Isaiah 41:10.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
      Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
   I will strengthen you and help you.
      I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

Amazing how 33 English words can change your perspective on life almost immediately, isn’t it?

Don’t fear. We shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Not of the future. Not of the past. Not even of today. We shouldn’t fear people or situations or circumstances. Why? Because God has already seen them. He knew the troubles that were coming our way, and He’s already prepared us to meet them. Maybe we don’t know that He’s prepared us, but He has. So there’s no reason to fear because not only do we have everything we need to survive, He is constantly by our side. There’s no chance we can fail if we keep holding on to Him.

Don’t be discouraged. That’s a tough one sometimes. Feeling discouraged is easy for me. People discourage me. Work discourages me. My lack of progress discourages me. I tell myself that if I was actually a good writer I would be published novelist by now. But we’re not supposed to be discouraged. We’re not supposed to feel broken down and worn out because God is our God. We don’t serve a religion or a religious leader. We don’t serve a distant god somewhere out in the cosmos who created us and left us to fend for ourselves. We don’t serve ourselves. We serve God, and He always knows what’s best. And He always does what’s best for His children. And if we keep holding on to Him, trusting Him, not relying on our own understanding of why things happen or why things don’t happen, He will make the road we’re walking on straight so we’ll have no doubt which way to go.

This verse says He strengthens us. That He helps us. That He holds us up with His victorious right hand. . . . It would be enough that God holds us up with His right hand (not to put down any lefties out there, of course, because lefties rock . . . I should blog sometime about Ehud, the left-handed judge . . .  he was a rock star) but it’s not just His right hand. It’s His victorious right hand.

Think about that. I mean, really think about that. God gives us His strength. He helps us. He supports us as we walk through life a day at a time.

If that isn’t reason enough to feel encouraged this morning, I don’t know what is. We’re supposed to press on through the day no matter what obstacles might arise in our path, recognizing that God’s strength is sufficient for us and that when it feels like it isn’t, that’s just our own brokenness telling us lies. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like listening to lies.

So today I am bound and determined to pay attention only to what I know is true: There’s nothing to fear. There’s no reason to be discouraged. God has given me His strength and is helping me get through this day. And when my old destructive self decides to butt in and tell me differently, I’m not going to listen.

And I guess, from a certain point of view, any amount of butter on a slice of bread improves the taste. And scraping it thin is probably healthier for you anyway. =)