Worshiping with Empty Arms (Pt. 4)

This is the final part of a series on my experience with childlessness which I first shared on Precious Adornment two years ago. You can read Part 1 HERE.

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Philippians 4:11

If I would attempt to count my blessings and name them one by one (as the old song instructs), I am confident I’d quickly discover the impossibility of such a task. God has truly showered me with gifts, all of them undeserved, and many of them unexpected. James 1:17 reminds us of the source of such gifts: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” Many times, I’ve recognized the unexpected gifts God has given for what they are—good and perfect. But there have also been times when, for the life of me, I couldn’t see anything good about what God had provided.

Take my years of singleness, for instance. I was almost 27 by the time I got married. Looking back, those years of waiting don’t seem that long, but at the time, I watched the years pass with a growing dread that I was destined for spinsterhood. Singleness, they said, was a gift, but I often wished I could head to customer service for a quick and convenient exchange. Now as a happily married woman, I can reflect on my single years and thank the Lord for each and every one. I wouldn’t trade the work He did in my heart during that time for any other gift. Sometimes we just need God to adjust our perspective before we can see how perfect His gifts truly are.

Nearly 4 ½ years ago [over 6 years now], God gave me another unexpected gift. Once again, it took me quite some time to recognize the goodness of His choice, but He has brought me to the place where I can honestly thank and praise Him for His wisdom. Childlessness was not the gift I asked for, but God knew it was exactly the gift I needed. In recent posts, I’ve explained how the Lord has used the past few years of childlessness to teach me important lessons on submission and surrender. Today, I want to close out this series with two more lessons I’ve learned in the classroom of childlessness.

Lesson Three: Self Denial—There’s no party in a pity party.

In my last post, I mentioned that trials provide us with new opportunities to see the true contents of our hearts. Although I hate to sully the pristine image of me that you may carry in your mind, I must tell you that when I don’t get what I want, I am capable of departing from my usual saintly behavior. :) That’s putting it mildly, to say the least. Suffering provides a tremendous temptation to turn our attention inward and become entirely self-focused. The “Me Monster” that tends to stay somewhat satisfied during the good times can become a raging beast when it’s deprived of something it really wants.

For a time, my monster would turn nearly every situation into a chance to howl and whine, “Look at me! Look at me!” When a friend would call with the good news that she was expecting a baby, the monster would ignore the Bible’s command to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and focus instead on how I didn’t have a baby. When a counselee at the pregnancy care center where I volunteer would tell me she didn’t want the baby she was carrying, the Me Monster would question God’s wisdom in bestowing fertility upon the ungrateful. And when other people would meddle and unwittingly allow their own Me Monsters to rub salt in the fresh wounds of my grieving heart, the monster would roar inside like an angry she-bear that I had to struggle to keep quiet.

Ah, yes, the years of infertility provided me with ample opportunity to realize how truly wrapped up in myself I had become. I love a good party, and a pity party took place in my heart almost 24/7. The problem with a pity party, as you probably know, is that it isn’t much of a party at all. As comedian Mark Lowry used to say, “There are only two people who come to a pity party—you and Satan.” Yuck. Party with Satan? I’d rather not, thank you.

Throughout this nasty battle with my selfish self, God was overwhelmingly gracious as always, comforting me during times of genuine sorrow and convicting me of sinful behavior. He helped me to go through the process described in Ephesians 4:20-24 of putting off the old self with all of its sinful desires and cravings, being renewed in the spirit of my mind, and putting on the new self in the likeness of God. Basically what that means is that in order to overcome my sinful responses to my God-ordained trials, I had to stop the sinful behavior (self-pity, anger, bitterness, complaining, etc.), learn to think rightly (God accomplished this through prayer and His Word), and start behaving in ways pleasing to Him (showing gratefulness, reaching out to others, being patient, etc.). This process of sanctification took time as God slowly peeled back one layer after another from my stinky, onion-like heart, revealing patterns of sin in my life that I had previously failed to notice or confront. Although the Me Monster still rears her ugly head on occasion, I’m grateful to say that at least in regard to the issue of childlessness, the Lord has worked wonders in taming the angry beast.

Lesson Four: Satisfaction—All He has given is all that I need.

While driving home the other day, I saw a horse that had wiggled its head through an opening in the fence so he could munch on some grass located on the other side. I laughed out loud as I thought how silly it was that he thought the salad bar on the outside of his corral would be superior to the acres of greens available on the inside of his pen. I went on to think about how much we as humans are like that horse. We’re always looking for the next big thing, aren’t we? When we’re teenagers, we can’t wait for college. Once in college, we can’t wait to get out. After graduation, we can’t wait to get married, and once married, we soon set our hearts on starting a family. It’s all too easy to focus so much on what we want next that we fail to enjoy what God has already given.

The Lord has not yet given me the next big thing, but He has given me the best thing—more of Himself.

On a Focus on the Family program, I heard Pastor Ken Hutcherson, who has battled cancer for eight years, make this astounding statement, “Every pain that I felt has been a blessing from the Lord.” Referencing Romans 8:28-29, he expressed his belief that “There is no bad circumstance in a Christian’s life.” Although he acknowledged we may experience great pain in our lives, he clarified his point, “If anything is going to mold me like Jesus, how can it be bad?”

Even though I’ve never experienced anything like the suffering that Pastor Hutcherson has endured, I think I understand what he means. If I had the chance to go back 4 ½ years and change my life’s events so that instead of experiencing childlessness I could have started a family on my own timetable, I honestly wouldn’t do it. If life had gone according to my plans, I could have continued to believe I was content in God alone, when in reality, I was only “content” because He had given me all that I wanted.

Through this trial, God has torn down false idols in my heart, molded me to look just a little bit more like Christ, and caused me to love Him more. I’ll admit my story wouldn’t make for a good Christian movie script—I haven’t yet experienced what is often thought of as the “happy ending,” but I am happy and even more. I am content. The gift was unexpected, but it is good, and I praise the Lord for what He has done.

Photo: Kym McLeod

Worshiping with Empty Arms (Pt. 3)

This is the third part of a series on my experience with childlessness which I first shared on Precious Adornment two years ago. You can read Part 1 HERE.

“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good.”

Psalm 107:1

Have you ever loved something so much that you couldn’t imagine living without it? When I was young, the two dearest possessions in the world to me were my cockatiel, Poppy, and my Siberian husky, Brady. Even though they belonged to everyone in the family, I treasured them as though they were mine alone. As a child, I had learned that Christians should surrender everything to the Lord and live with the understanding that all they “owned” actually belonged to Him. Since I loved the Lord, I wanted to give Him everything, but I had some reservations. In my immature thinking, I was afraid that if I gave all I had to the Lord, He would take my beloved pets away from me as some sort of test of my faithfulness to Him, kind of like Abraham and Isaac, I suppose. Although I understood that God was in control, I clearly did not trust His goodness, and as a result, I thought I’d better keep my treasured animals to myself.

Sounds pretty funny, right? The sad part is that over twenty years later I sometimes find my thinking hasn’t changed all that much. Even though I’m all grown up now and have come a long way in my walk with Christ, I still struggle with the same problem that troubled me as a young girl—I know that God is sovereign, but I sometimes doubt He is truly good. And if I fail to trust that God is truly good, then how can I trust Him with my most treasured plans or possessions?

Lesson Two: Surrender—God is good…all the time

Nancy Leigh Demoss says, “Total surrender to Christ as Lord simply means submitting every detail and dimension of our lives to His sovereign, loving rule.” In my struggle with childlessness, submitting to God’s sovereignty wasn’t enough; I also needed to rest in His infinite love and goodness. We simply can’t surrender our lives to the Lord if we aren’t fully convinced of His goodness at all times.

God is good—the words flow easily…as long as He gives me everything I want. Can you relate? God provides a job, heals a relationship, sends good news from the doctor, or saves a family member, and “Isn’t God good?” His goodness seems so obvious that praise is the natural response. But when a child is sick, a husband is cold and distant, the bills pile up, the pregnancy test is negative, friends turn their backs, or pain and loneliness remain constant companions, is God still good? When God gives, it’s so easy to praise His name, but when He takes away, our response rarely sounds like Job’s (Job 1:21).

Although they never feel like it, times of suffering are a gift. They provide us with opportunities to learn more about our heart than we ever would otherwise. If God had protected me from the pain of infertility, I could have gone for years without a clue that I actually doubted His goodness. I had come to equate God’s goodness with His willingness to fulfill my wishes. When He didn’t cause my “good” plans to materialize, it wasn’t my own perspective on life that I questioned—it was His. Surrender became a battle because I didn’t have the faith to believe that God’s plans will always be infinitely better than my expectations.

Like rebellious children, we often fail to trust that God as our loving, Heavenly Father knows what is best for us. Psalm 84:11 says, “The LORD gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” If we’re walking uprightly and the Lord still withholds something we desire, then the Scripture makes it clear that what we are asking for is not the best thing for us at that time. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” made this insightful comment regarding God’s goodness toward His children, “He chooses for his people better than they could choose for themselves. If they are in heaviness, there is a need-be for it, and he withholds nothing from them but what, upon the whole, it is better they should be without.”

There are many times in life when God’s ways will make no sense to us. In those moments, we can react like spoiled children by doubting His goodness, or we can respond in childlike faith by determining to trust that His ways are far better than our own (Isaiah 55:9). He is a good Father who promises to give good gifts to His children. Our wildest dreams can’t compare to the greatness of the plans God has for us. As we learn to surrender our every dream, desire, and possession into His loving hands, I believe that we, like Isaiah, will one day be able to look back on our lives and respond in wholehearted praise, “You did awesome things which we did not expect” (Isaiah 64:3).

 

Read Part Four HERE.

Worshiping with Empty Arms (Pt. 2)

This is the second part of a series on my experience with childlessness which I first shared on Precious Adornment two years ago. You can read Part 1 HERE.

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“Many plans are in a man’s heart,
but the counsel of the LORD will stand.”

Proverbs 19:21

A few years back somebody somewhere put something in the water, and my friends started having babies. The trend began slowly; first one friend, then another, then another, until it seemed that everyone was having a baby!

Except for me, that is.

There was never anything in my water. I wanted there to be. I hoped and prayed there would be, but apparently all I had was plain old drinking water. For a girl who had spent the majority of her life planning, reading, and thinking about the kind of mother she would one day become, this was not good news. In fact, as time went on, this delay of motherhood became very bad news indeed. But even though I was slow to catch on, God had a purpose for my struggle with infertility, a grand and glorious purpose to show me more of Himself and to conform me more closely to the image of His Son.

The lessons He taught me are not unique to my situation; they’re lessons every Christian needs to learn. And that is why I write. Perhaps you can’t identify with the pain of infertility, but you can probably identify with the pain of a desire denied, whether it be a desire for marriage, physical healing, the love of another person, peace within your family, success in your job, or any other number of issues. As I share the lessons God has taught me through my four year [six years now] experience with infertility, my hope is that He would use my writing to speak to your heart and encourage you in your own walk
with Christ.

Lesson One: Submission—God is God; I am not.

God is in control. It’s a saying we as Christians love to use, but don’t necessarily love to live. Let me explain—we usually love the fact that God is in control right up until the point when He begins orchestrating the events of our lives differently than we would ourselves. Before my experience with infertility began, if you had asked me who was in control of my life, I could have told you without question that God was in control. What I wouldn’t have realized at that time was that my notion of God’s sovereignty was somewhat foggy, and as a result I was not yet living in joyful submission to His control.

After we married, Joseph and I didn’t wait long before deciding we were ready to open our hearts to the blessing of children; it was about nine months. During those first few months of our married life, I lived under the false assumption that I was controlling whether or not conception would take place. So when we decided we were ready to be parents, I was a bit surprised when things didn’t progress in exactly the way I had imagined. Although I knew God was the Author of human life and that life is a gift from His hands, I lived as though I were actually the one in control. My focus was on me, what I wanted, what I was ready for, and how I wanted my life to progress, but thankfully God loved me enough to deliver me from the delusion that I had any real control over the events of my life.

With every passing month, God gently knocked on my thick skull to remind me who was really in charge. It’s sad to say that during that first year, my response to God’s instruction in this area was less than ideal and turned into what I described previously as an adult temper tantrum. Although I was still praying and attempting to respond in obedience to God’s will, a fierce battle took place as the idols of my heart reared their ugly heads. There were months of depression, loneliness, and near hopelessness as I attempted to deal with the life that I had never planned on living. Plan A was to be a mom; I had never even considered coming up with a Plan B.

A few months into this trial, it just so happened (yeah, right!) that I signed up for an in-depth Bible study on the book of Genesis. In the lives of Sarah, Leah, and Rachel, I saw multiple sinful responses to the trial of infertility—anger, doubt, bitterness, manipulation, strife, and hopelessness. Barrenness, it seems, has always brought out the worst in people. As these women resorted to all sorts of trickery and silly schemes to get what they wanted, they failed to realize the truth that God was now graciously teaching me through their lives—He opens and closes the womb, not us. Over and over again I saw this clear statement of God’s sovereignty repeated in the book of Genesis, and slowly, very slowly, God began to tear down the idols that I had allowed to take His place in my heart.

Martin Luther said, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” During the months or years that I continued my adult temper tantrum, my mouth may have professed God as being all that I needed, but my attitudes and actions revealed a heart that believed I needed more. I had stopped looking to God as my Refuge and Strength and had turned instead to worship lesser gods like children, motherhood, and family life. Although I didn’t know God’s future plans for me, His present plans were clear—He had closed my womb. To continue fighting against this part of God’s will for me was to fight against God Himself.

So, finally, somewhere along the way (I’m not even sure when), God brought me to a place of contented submission to His will, and I praise Him for it. One of my favorite songs by Wayne Watson has a line that says, “The hardest prayer to pray is slow to come—Oh, Lord, not mine, but Your will be done.” He’s right. This prayer is slow to come, and although it’s the hardest, it’s also the best.

 

Read Part Three HERE.

Worshiping with Empty Arms (Pt. 1)

It’s been two years since I first shared the story of how God has used the trial of childlessness as a refining fire in my life. Since many of you have begun reading Precious Adornment in the last few months, I thought I would post the series again in the hopes that God will use it to encourage someone else who may be struggling with the pain of a dream delayed. We must never doubt that He will make everything beautiful in His time.

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“I am the LORD your God…
You shall have no other gods before Me.”

Exodus 20:2-3

What is it about Wal-Mart that drives children to insanity? From my experience, it would seem that stomping feet, flailing arms, and shouting voices are nearly as common in Wally World as are the everyday low prices.

I once observed a little squirt no more than 3 years old draw the attention of all he passed with a prolonged combination of wailing, sobbing, and screeching. As his helpless father attempted to soothe his son by saying, “Sssshhhhh…you’re ok,” the child responded between angry sobs, “I-am-not-OK!” On a separate occasion, I couldn’t help but stare in shock as an enraged ankle-biter, maybe 4 years old, shrieked and repeatedly delivered open-handed slaps to the backside of his seemingly unfazed mother.

Temper tantrums. They are not pretty sights to see. These outbursts usually have one thing in common—an unmet desire. After all, it is not actually Wal-Mart that is responsible for the production of temper tantrums. It’s just that this wonderland of toys and sugary snacks provides the ideal environment to awaken the greedy monster residing within the heart of every child. A shopping trip progresses smoothly until a tyke develops a sudden desire for something he believes he must have in order to be happy. When the parent denies the fulfillment of that desire, the monster within roars to life, demanding that his needs be met OR ELSE all around will suffer the consequences.

The unfortunate truth is that children are not the sole proprietors of temper tantrum territory. Adults have them too, but our tantrums usually look quite a bit different than those of a two-year old. I should know—I’ve had some doozies in my day. One of my adult tempter tantrums stands out rather prominently in my mind. It lasted for months…maybe a year…uh…year and a half? I wanted something, even believed that I deserved it, and when God said no, it truly felt as though my world were crumbling around me. Although God reminded me that His grace would be sufficient and assured me He would supply all my needs, I turned a deaf ear to His comforting voice and in my heart raised my own instead: “I am not OK!”

In a sermon on idols in the Christian life, I recently heard Mark Driscoll teach, “An idol is a good thing that becomes a god thing, and that’s a bad thing.” This was true in my case. What I wanted was a good thing; the Bible even says so, “Children are a gift of the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). It wasn’t what I wanted that was the problem; it was how much I wanted it. My good thing had become a “god thing” in my life, and believe me when I say, that was a very bad thing. In my heart, I echoed the words of barren Rachel in Genesis, “Give me children, or else I die!” (Genesis 30:1)

I hope you don’t mind my being so transparent in this post. It has taken me over a year to bring myself to actually type out the thoughts that God has placed on my heart regarding my struggle with childlessness. I certainly don’t want this blog to function as an arena for airing my dirty laundry, but I truly believe that the Lord might take the testimony of what He has done in my heart and use it to encourage your own. I want to tell you how the Lord has glorified Himself by preventing me from worshiping a false god—the god of motherhood. In my next post, I will share with you how the Lord brought me to a place where I could truly and joyfully worship Him, a place where I worship with empty arms.

Read Part Two HERE.