What does it mean to ‘ABIDE’ through Chaos, Sickness, and Struggle?
I just finished one of the most intense 10 week stretches that I have had in years. We had our annual retreat with an unusually high number of people who had experienced life-altering traumas, twins in their super intense exams, back to back visitors, my oldest experiencing re-entry home with three of her college friends along for the ride for a month, multiple organizational crises requiring a ridiculous amount of spiritual warfare, a child with a dislocated knee, and multiple teammates in crisis.
Then, toward the end we celebrated our 25th anniversary on a cruise. I slept for 16 hours that first day, and it took another four days just for the adrenaline to drain from my body.
I’ve lived some crazy stretches over the years in life and ministry. Seasons connected to life stage, lack of boundaries, major losses, and transition. But this is just a season where my normal full life was overrun with multiple additional crises coming from multiple directions. Such is life.
The good news is that I felt myself walking this season differently than seasons past. My heart felt STEADY. I didn’t feel thrown off balance by each added burden. Nor did I get sucked into some of the common reactions that happen under stress: fear, victimhood, discouragement, or complaining.
I often work with people who are beating themselves up about how they are walking through a transition. Mostly they have unrealistic expectations about what it means to “abide in Christ.” The Biblical term “to abide” can means: to accept or bear (someone or something bad, unpleasant, etc.); to stay or live somewhere; to remain or continue.
Simply restated, the invitation to ABIDE means:
to bear up well no matter what is unfolding around me,
to stay connected to my heart and the heart of God,
and to remain rooted in the truths that are given to me in Scripture.
So what does ABIDING look like in real life??
You can ABIDE even when your circumstances are crazy. Jesus lived with an extraordinary amount of activity going on around him: an exhausting travel itinerary, persistent crowds pressing in, desperate people with heart-breaking needs, and relentless opponents hell-bent on his destruction. Yet all that time He was “abiding” in the Father. Abiding happens independent of what is happening around us.
You can ABIDE even when your body is not well. One of the most aggravating things about having an auto-immune disease is the unpredictability of how my own body will hold up. I’ve had to learn that staying centered in God can happen whether I feel great or horrible. As my friend Dora will often remind me, “Your body may be weak, Amy, but your spirit is not. Live from your spirit!”
This past month as I felt called into intense spiritual warfare, I was not operating from a place of physical strength. I’ve been exhausted. I have felt physically compromised. I have had intermittent brain fog. When I would hear the familiar lies internally saying, “you are too weak for this kind of battle,” I would remind myself that my strength came from my spirit, not my body. That’s not to say that I didn’t have to make a few adjustments to schedule, but the bulk of the pressure was from things I had been called to carry, exacerbated by factors outside my control. I simply had to trust and ABIDE from a place of physical weakness.
You can ABIDE even when your emotions are all over the map. It’s a radical concept to think even in times of complete emotional upheaval, our baseline connection to God’s Spirit can remain strong and steady. We can abide independent of our emotions. We can abide in the midst of emotions like anxiety, fear, or depression. Abiding is not a feeling; it is an orientation of our face towards God despite our feelings.
I remember after a particular dark season in my life, I heard the Lord say, “Well done, Amy.” I literally laughed out loud. I had been fearful, frustrated, and disappointed in God. I was full of faith some days, and barely moving forward others. Apparently what mattered to God was not the wild emotional swings but how I kept coming back to Him in the desperation and pain. We can CHOOSE to abide no matter what our emotions are, and this disposition of trust will over time bring the healing we need, so we won’t feel like we are always warring against our emotions.
You can ABIDE even when things are not perfect. Somewhere I think I learned that “abiding” meant that I would be living a balanced and organized life, my relationships would all be flourishing, I wouldn’t make mistakes in ministry, and that my home would run like a well-oiled machine.
Recently someone I am mentoring was standing in my kitchen telling me that God told her He was going to give her a ‘well-ordered house’ just like mine. In that moment I opened my baking drawer as she was talking to realize the drawer had disintegrated (again) into a dump drawer: half spilled bags of flour, honey sticking on the bottom of the drawer, a zillion scattered measuring cups, and who knows else what lurking in there. As we stared at the mess, I laughed and said, “Well, God must have a pretty loose definition of ‘well-ordered house’!
Here’s the reality: I can abide when my house is trashed. I can abide when my spouse or kids are making bad choices. I can abide when I’m in financial crisis. I can abide when I’m horribly behind on my to do list. I can abide when when I’m suffering consequences of my own bad choices. I can abide in the midst of conflict. I can abide through the messy stages when I’m learning new patterns of relating to others. I can abide even when everyone else around me is not.
Abiding in Christ does not mean you are perfect; the more deeply you abide in Him, the more you will be aware of your lack of perfection and weakness. In fact, we could argue that if you are NOT aware of your brokenness and your desperate need for Jesus, you probably aren’t abiding at all!
Instead of being defeated by my need, weakness, and failings, I acknowledge them to God in humility and trust, asking for His Spirit to empower me to live into a new way of being. You may have to make a choice every five minutes to realign with His Spirit– but that’s still abiding. Eventually, things begin to shift internally, and God’s Spirit begins to forge new pathways internally. It won’t always be a struggle– abiding does become easier over time as we learn to battle the lies that keep us from living in the truths about who we are and who God is.
You can ABIDE even when you are struggling with pain, questions, or doubt. For most of us, the Christian walk will always include seasons of struggle and questioning. As Madeline L’Engle says so eloquently:
Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God and not in God Himself.
God is not afraid of our questions, anger, frustration, or doubt. Throughout Scripture we see dynamic people of faith wrestling through their fears and questions WITH God– from Job to Moses to Mary, the mother of Jesus. We can abide and honor God through our struggle.
I’m thoroughly convinced that abiding is not reserved for the most mature in Christ. Tender shoots newly grafted into the Vine need to abide just like the fruit-bearing branches. Abiding means that we are filtering all the complexities of our internal and external world THROUGH the life-giving power given to us as we surrender to God’s Spirit. As we mature, that power is released in greater measures, and we bear fruit, abundant fruit that will last.
May this bring you hope today to orient your face today once again towards heaven despite your emotions, your body, your broken thinking, or the circumstances pressing in. Steady your heart… abiding is possible!
So I say to my soul,
“Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be disturbed.
For I know my God will break through for me.”
Then I’ll have plenty of reasons to praise him all over again.
Yes, living before his face is my saving grace!
Psalm 42:11 (the Passion)