Journey of Joy: Week Four — Booking Rooms and Transportation

One fine April afternoon, my husband and I started dreaming about a romantic getaway while making an eight hour drive to Texas. I’d seen one of the airlines had their $99 ticket promotion going, so I read off the cities included. Charleston piqued our interest enough that I pulled out our calendar, found some dates later that summer and booked two flights. Right there, in the car. We’d never done anything so spontaneous before, ever. 

Exhilarated, we started talking about where to stay, quickly realizing we knew little about this city. So, I did what every 21st century travel-planner does, I downloaded the Airbnb app. It didn’t take long till I had a pretty clear picture of what I wanted — a room in an old home filled with charm and antiquities near the historic district. My husband was all in, so I narrowed our search.

Found one. Read the reviews. Booked it.

That’s when panic set it. What had we done? We had no other details worked out, yet we just paid hundreds of dollars for flights and a room we’d never seen. Who’d watch the kids? What would we eat? How would we get around town? I could feel my doubts turning to fear, so I shifted into planner mode.

I searched online, ordered a free guide book, and printed maps of the area. The more I read, the more confident I felt. By the time we got on our flight, I had a working plan and a list of places to see. 

We had so much fun we went back a year later!

Journey of Joy

How does this translate for our journey? Quite well, actually. We’re in trip-planning mode, so let’s first take a look at what we already know:

We know we desire joy — so we have our general direction.
We know where we are emotionally, mentally, and spiritually — so we have our current location.
We know that charting a course requires trusting God — yet there is much we can still do in our planning and preparation.

For instance, transportation. Just as my husband and I booked our flight ahead of time, we can determine the modes of moving toward joy now. We need to lock in on a vehicle that will get us going in the direction God points us.

And, lodgings. Just as booking that room assured us we’d have a place to store our stuff and lay our heads each night, we need to find places and ways to rest on this spiritual journey. We need to know where to go when we need a place that offers security and solitude when the going gets rough.

Let’s do our research and see what these might be.

The Guide Book

Just as any guide book we’d use to plan a trip, we can turn to The Bible for information and direction. I’ve already done a little exploring ahead of time, and here’s what I learned about where to stay and how to get around town: 

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.

Psalm 90:1, NIV

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.

Psalm 91:9-11, NIV

As for God, his way is perfect:
    The Lord’s word is flawless;
    he shields all who take refuge in him.

Psalm 18:30, NIV

We don’t need a hotel room for this adventure because God is our dwelling. In Him we find refuge and safety. And did you notice the reference to His Word? The Psalmist put his trust in God’s Word, as well as His ability to be his shelter, and so can we. Let’s keep searching:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.

Hebrews 4:9-11, NIV

So, God is not only our place of security and shelter, but our rest. God is where we’ll find truest rest, but we must choose to enter into it. 

Scripture shows us how God can even be our mode of transportation:

Moses said to the fearful Israelites upon reaching the Promised Land, “The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”

Deuteronomy 1:30-31, NIV

God carries us.

Wherever we need to go, however the Spirit may lead, we are assured that God goes before us. He is our place to stay and the way to get there. 

Personal Travels

The whole point of this week’s chapter in our journey is to encourage you to open the biggest, handiest, most trustworthy tool in your travel toolchest — the Bible. Its truths reveal a universal wisdom that transcends time. What was true about God and human nature thousands of years ago is true today. 

Yet, I suspect all of these verses could feel like platitudes. Maybe you even doubt their veracity. Or wonder how I could believe them. So — I’ll give you an example: 

2020. It made for an epic year. And plenty of people faced harder things than I. Yet 2020 held a major move for me — an upheaval that upended me physically, spiritually, and emotionally. 

When we got the call to move with my husband’s job in June, we felt unprepared, unsure, and unready, but in the middle of a pandemic, we tried to find gratitude that my husband had a job!

Our everyday reality, however, existed in facts like our house of 20 years wasn’t ready to sell. We needed to clean out closets and cabinets, paint rooms, and get someone to fix broken doors. And, leaving my position at our church seemed poorly timed — leadership was in a huge transition and I had projects to finish. 

Our youngest had just graduated from high school, our second-born had just finished college, and our eldest was between jobs — so none of them had set plans or places to land. My parents were already in the middle of a move. And we were headed to a major metropolitan area whose size intimidated me — how to find a home in a haystack?

Moving to-do lists constantly changed. When it came down to it, we were packing to move to three different locations — two to Dallas, one to Pennsylvania, and two across town. 

I was exhausted yet sleep eluded me. 
I was constantly doing yet there was always more to do. 
I was trying to live by faith yet anxiety simmered just beneath the surface. Always.

One night after hitting the wall emotionally and physically, I laid in bed and cried out to God. I confessed I’d shifted to auto-pilot mode, leaving Him behind. I sensed Him telling me I needed a rest. My mind said no-way, there’s too much to do. But my spirit resonated, knowing I needed His kind of rest. 

So the next day, I rested. I didn’t let myself do anything to prepare for the move. Instead, I pulled out my Bible and journal and asked Him to lead the charge.

From that moment on, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d pray Psalm 23 or Philippians 4:4-6. Their words promised me that God was my shepherd. That He’d lead me, sustain me, and provide all I needed. Their words reminded me that I could give God all my anxious thoughts and His peace could prevail. 

I let those words pour over me and anchor me in a season I felt dry and aimless. 

When waves of overwhelm threatened to overtake me, I recited Isaiah 41:10, comforted to remember God helped me and held me, that I had nothing to fear.

When panic pulled me under as deadlines approached, I breathed in the words of 2 Timothy 1:7 — God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear but of POWER and LOVE and SELF-CONTROL.

When the winds battered because the movers backed out, I remembered Psalm 37:7 — to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.

These verses weren’t just words for me. They became my lifeline in a season that swamped me to the point of drowning. With them, I could breathe. Sleep. Wait. Trust. 

I can look back on those insane ten weeks and marvel. I made it! I could list for you all the ways God carried me. And how He provided, protected, and became my rest. But I think you get the idea. God’s Word was my Guide Book for navigating that stormy season. It can be yours too.

It Really Is All About Trust

Photo by Laura on Unsplash

None of the verses I had relied on would’ve done me any good if I hadn’t believed them, if I hadn’t trusted the One who gave them to me.

I had to willingly step back and give the Way-Maker room to make a way, then follow where He led. I had to surrender all the planning and preparing to the One who knew the best plans and was the most prepared. 

Our Journey of Joy is no different. We’re on a spiritual sojourn, seeking to find the place where true joy can be ours. And, when we’re tempted to take things in our own hands to plan parties and pool bashes and picnics in an attempt to elicit feelings of happiness, we have to remember those are circumstantial and ephemeral. And, while those are fun, they are not the true joy we seek.

So, I want to challenge you this week to do your research. Fill your journal with Scriptures that speak truths you need on hand for this journey or for whatever you’re facing. Google makes it really easy. Just type in “verse about ___,” and you’ll get several. Biblegateway.com is also a great tool for looking up keywords or particular verses. I have a lot of fun reading passages in various versions (check out their “parallel” button to look at multiple translations at once).

Then take it further. Save those verses to your phone — a tool for this journey if there ever was one. We always have it on hand, so let’s make good use of it. In a notes app, copy and paste from a digital source the verses you want. And name the page you save it to…ready yourselves…”Memory Verses.” 

Yup, that’s the next step — put those verses to memory because then you will ALWAYS have them on hand. When your thoughts spiral, your heart panics, or you are just plain tempted to take the reins again, you pull out that Sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6) and fight back. All the truths of the Word will conquer all the lies and deceit and old habits that come up.

I’m telling you — with faith and trust and a lot of prayer — this works. One day at a time. One step at a time, using God’s Word as a means for moving forward works!

Joy Made Complete

We’re looking to Jesus for today’s Word on joy. As Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for His death, He told them their grief would turn to joy (John 16:20) then explained that because of their faith in Him, whatever they’d ask for in His name, God would give it to them — and their joy would be complete (John 16:24).

Friends, Jesus’ words hold true today. When we go through our lives trusting God for all our needs, not only do we worry less but we start to desire what God desires for us. And that’s when our joy is made complete. This feels like a significant piece to our joy jigsaw. Pretty sure we should be asking what it looks like to have our joy made complete.

Obviously, this Journey of Joy is not complete. However, while we do have much to learn, we are well on our way to finding true joy. Next week we’ll feel the full weight of what it means to wait!

So awed by God’s Word, Shelley

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is precondo-ca-tziilpu0cvi-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash
  • If you saw my post, “Introducing: The Joyful Life,” you have heard my news — I’ve become an affiliate with The Joyful Life, which means I can point you to their blogs, books and other items in their shop anytime I think they’ll enhance your Journey of Joy! Their whole ministry vision is JOY, so how perfect is this affiliation? I encourage you to check The Joyful Life* out.
  • Take time to do the Bible research for this week’s journaling work. And don’t forget to put some in your phone and start memorizing them!
  • Share your experiences and revelations by commenting below. I’ve heard from a few of you personally, so I’m grateful to hear this journey is meeting you in meaningful ways. It sure is me! Be brave and share with our crew — you never know when your experiences will speak to someone else.
  • “Egg hunt” fun: Did you find this week’s travel word?
    • Last week’s travel word was numinous, English for an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted.
  • Our Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify has multiple songs on it that thematically follow our theme. I’d love to hear what songs/lyrics resonate with you!

*This is an affiliate link, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.

Journey of Joy: Week Three — Charting the Course

During my second excursion to the Holy Land, most of our group sat bunched together toward the front of the bus, but I chose to sit in the back with a few of my fellow travelers, the ones who wanted to compare notes, count steps, and study maps between stops. We had so much fun!

Because we were part of an organized tour group, our itinerary had been set ahead of time. Our course was charted before we’d even stepped foot in the country. But, our curious clan in the back of the bus gained much insight and understanding by plotting out our sight-seeing list onto our paper maps. It helped us see our location, and it informed our context to the bigger picture. 

Today, we want to chart our course for this Journey of Joy we’re traveling. Even though our adventures are spiritual in nature, we can still map out where we’re going. But. We’ll discover that our trip will take lots of trust — because there’s no typed-up, predetermined itinerary for this trip.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Much like I trusted my tour guide in Israel to lead us well and keep us safe, we will need to put our full faith in the Tour Guide — God Himself. He offers us a road map to help us plot our next steps, so dust off that Bible and grab your colored pencils. You’ll want them within reach. 

Knowing God

If we’re going to trust God, we’re going to need to know Him. Really well. 

In his book Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith, says “to trust someone is to believe that he or she has your best interest in mind, that the person will protect you from harm and is reliable” (57). If we feel God can’t be trusted, we may not know Him well. In fact, we may have what Smith calls a “false narrative” about God — something we believe about God’s character that isn’t actually true. 

False narratives can arise out of what we were taught or from our personal experiences. Both can wrongly inform us about who God is. The way to finding out God’s true character is to look to Jesus — through His life, words, and actions — because that’s where the true character of God is revealed.

Jesus trusted God at every turn, never deviating from the plan, consistently looking to God for wisdom and direction. Even His prayers revealed this trust. From the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) to His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36), we see trust as the foundation of all Jesus believed about His Father — even when He faced betrayal, torture, and death. In other words, when we look to Jesus, we get a clearer picture of God’s trustworthiness, and that can lead to establishing our own trust in God. 

If we’re going to build a faith anchored in the truth that God can be trusted even when our life circumstances stink, “we need to develop the clear sense that God is out for our good” (67). And the way to do this? Become aware of God’s blessings. 

Smith emphasizes, “the more we are able to see just how many blessings we have been given…the more we will be able to see that God is out for our good. And when that happens, our trust level increases” (69).

Let’s do some trust building!

Counting Our Blessings

In your journal, write “Blessings” as the heading of your next blank page. Then leave a few pages so you have room to list more later. For some, this exercise will come naturally because, somewhere along the way, trust in God has been built. For others, listing blessings might feel silly or senseless — maybe because you’re so overwhelmed with life or perhaps because your relationship with God lacks trust. However you feel about this journaling activity, try to adopt the Nike slogan, and just do it! Trust me. (wink, wink)

James Bryan Smith suggests starting small and coming up with ten things God has blessed you with. Your list could include particular people, music, or books; elements of nature, types of food, or certain smells; spiritual blessings or even miracles. Honestly, there’s no limit to what you could deem as a blessing. Throughout the week add to your list, paying attention for blessings as you go through your days.

Then at the end of the week, answer these questions:

  1. How would you describe this exercise? Difficult? Easy? Awakening? (etc…) Why?
  2. What did you learn about God or yourself through listing blessings?
  3. What made it on your list that surprised you? Why do you think that is?

(taken from Good and Beautiful God, 73)

The Way of Trust

We need to trust God so we can keep moving forward on this Journey of Joy, but even more importantly we need to trust God every single day because life is hard. As cliche as that sounds, I’m discovering the truth of it. But instead of staying knocked down by the blows of life, I want more than anything for us to trust God’s goodness and plans and purposes — even when we don’t understand or see a way — so that we can rise up and keep moving.

I love how Brennan Manning talks about this kind of trust in his book, Ruthless Trust:

“The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God…in the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.” 

pages 12-13

Friends, God has signaled a movement, and we are the pilgrims leaving behind everything we’ve thought secure in order to grasp the fuller, more abundant life Jesus has promised, including joy (John 10:10).

Yet, just as Manning so eloquently said, there’s not a clearly delineated path forward when we live our lives by faith and with trust. So then, fellow pilgrims, how do we chart our course?

Our friend, Emily P Freeman, has a suggestion! In the chapter, “Arrows,” from her book The Next Right Thing, she gives us imagery to cling to as we look for a way to map this journey we’re on:

“God often gives a faint vision of things before they ever come to be. It’s not a full form, more of a shadow, not focused or clear. It doesn’t come with steps or money or sure things, but it does come with hope. And hope is what keeps you going in the fog. Instead of those black-and-white answers we tend to love so much, what if we began to look for arrows instead?”

page 53, Kindle version

Arrows point toward a direction. They don’t tell us how many steps to take, just which way to go. For now. 

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

This pilgrimage we’re on — it’s full of arrows. We’ll need to stay steady in our practices of prayer, Scripture study, and counting blessings so that we’ll see the arrows and have faith enough to follow them.

Is your tummy doing a few somersaults? Mine too! This numinous feeling means we’re on to something here. I imagine that most of us prefer knowing where we’re headed — steps defined, future goals determined. But a life of faith in God rarely works that way. Instead, He promises to be with us as we set out in the direction our arrows point.

We are going to be like Abraham when God asked him to pack up and leave family and home to just go (Genesis 12:1-3). God gave him a direction, an arrow, but no destination or time frame or itinerary. And, faithfully, Abraham went. And, so shall we!

Arrow Hunting

In case your mind wonders about these enigmatic arrows, let’s pull out our Guide Books to see what God has to say about finding our way.

“Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.”

Psalm 119:105, NLT

First and foremost, God promises that His Word will be a light for our path — it will guide our feet. In my experience, the light His Word sheds is more like a dim flashlight that gives just enough light to reveal the next step. Just enough. Not more. Like an arrow.

 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
   do not depend on your own understanding.
 Seek his will in all you do,
    and he will show you which path to take.”

Proverbs 3:5-6, NLT

Proverbs echoes the idea of trusting God and takes it a step further — don’t depend on your own understanding of things. Probably because our understanding is so stinking limited! Instead, we’re to look to God, just as Jesus did, then He’ll point us to the path. Like an arrow.

“There are two paths before you; you may take only one path. One doorway is narrow. And one door is wide. Go through the narrow door. For the wide door leads to a wide path, and the wide path is broad; the wide, broad path is easy, and the wide, broad, easy path has many, many people on it; but the wide, broad, easy, crowded path leads to death. Now then that narrow door leads to a narrow road that in turn leads to life. It is hard to find that road. Not many people manage it.”

Matthew 7:13-14, VOICE

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of narrow doors and paths as being the way of the faithful, the way to life. It’s narrow. Few find it, much less take it. Nothing specific to go on as far as how to find it. Just direction. Like an arrow.

So far, all our arrows point to trusting God, listening to His Word, and following His paths. 

Charting this course will look less like a pirate’s map with an X-marks-the-spot but more like using Captain Jack Sparrow’s compass, which never points north but to the heart’s desire.

We desire joy. Even more, we desire Jesus. So, friends, we’re going to keep moving forward by trusting our good, good Father — despite how we feel or how our circumstances look — and follow the arrows He gives us. And, as we go, we’ll count our blessings so that our trust stays firm and our faith grows stronger.

Understanding and Context

Just as my paper map of Israel, with its plotted points and highlighted routes, gave me greater understanding of my experiences and better context of all the locations we visited, our journals will serve a similar purpose.

  • Our lists of blessings will remind us of our God, who is good and faithful and trustworthy.
  • Our notes will capture our experiences throughout the journey so we can remember all our encounters and epiphanies.
  • Our jottings will become plottings, revealing direction as we read and reread them. They’ll expose deeper meanings than we first glimpsed, pointing us — like an arrow — to our next step of the journey.

So, along with your Guide Book, keep your journal handy. The two hold the key toward charting a course to what we desire most.

If you’re feeling like we’ve done nothing to chart our course today, I know how you feel. Our map is a bit blank — well, except for that You Are Here dot. Remember, our course is not predetermined. But. We do have a Tour Guide who will point the way. And, we’ll faithfully follow the arrows as they appear.

Here’s a parting word for you today to send you into your week with hope and truth, taken directly from our Guide Book:

But let all those rejoice who put their trust in You. Let them ever shout for joy, because You defend them. Let those also who love Your name be joyful in You.

Psalm 5:11, NKJV 

This verse hints at a deep truth — there’s joy to be had on this journey! As we put our trust in God, our joy will rise above the muck and mire of life. As we see the ways God blesses and defends us, our trust and joy will grow. And, somewhere along the way, our love of God will stretch and expand, and our hearts will rejoice!

Count your blessings and look for the arrows, my friends! Next week, we’re booking our lodgings and modes of transportation!

So amazed by all God’s blessings, Shelley

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is precondo-ca-tziilpu0cvi-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash
  • If you saw my post, “Introducing: The Joyful Life,” you have heard my news — I’ve become an affiliate with The Joyful Life, which means I can point you to their blogs, books and other items in their shop anytime I think they’ll enhance your Journey of Joy! Their whole ministry vision is JOY, so how perfect is this affiliation? I encourage you to check The Joyful Life* out.
  • Take time to process this week’s journaling prompts within the post.
  • Share your experiences and revelations by commenting below.
  • Did you remember our “egg hunt?” Did you find this week’s travel word?
    • Last week’s travel word was depaysement, a French word for the disorientation felt in a foreign country or culture, like a fish out of water.
  • I mentioned several books in today’s post. They’re all WONDERFUL. You can learn more or purchase them here:
  • Our Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify has multiple songs on it that thematically follow our theme. I’d love to hear what songs/lyrics resonate with you!

*This is an affiliate link, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.

Introducing: The Joyful Life

Part of my journey in becoming a writer has been to research how other writers’ websites look, what they post on social media, and where they submit their writings for publication. In all my searching, I discovered The Joyful Life.

Not only is their website beautiful, but their heart to come alongside Christian women to inspire and equip them for holy, joy-filled living grabbed my attention. I can see their intentionality in everything they do — their photography is top-notch, their blog posts are well-written, and they communicate well on their site and in their emails. Curious, I bought one of their magazines to see what it was like.

This is the front cover of their newest magazine release for Spring 2021. The theme is CREATE.

What I received blew me away! It’s more like a magazine-sized book — the paper is thick, matte, and full of color and design. The articles vary from stories to recipes and fun DIYs to articles soaked in Scripture and personal experiences.

This gives you a peek at what the inside of the magazine looks like.

Joyful Life offers two devotional books in their shop, as well as Bible studies, Scripture cards, and various ways to purchase their magazine, which publishes quarterly, so I am super excited to announce that Joyful Life and I are now affiliates! We have a similar vision for our ministries — that of offering quality, thought-provoking resources for women who seek to grow in their faith. Now we can support each other in our mutual missions!

This is Joyful Life’s second volume of devotionals.

And, while I’m doing an entire series on JOY, I thought it couldn’t be a more perfect time to let you know about this. I invite you to check out their website. Today, I downloaded the digital version of their Bible study called Count It All Joy. I’m excited to see how it might add to my own Journey of Joy!

I really am honored to have this connection with Joyful Life! They have a lot to offer us as we seek to grow deeper in our walk with Jesus.

See you Sunday for our next step on our Journey of Joy!

Shelley

Journey of Joy: Week Two — Where You Are Now

The first time I met a GPS, she spoke with great authority, clearly calling out directions as our group from Oklahoma navigated the highways of Atlanta. Despite being amazed at her ability to know where we were at any given moment, I had to work hard to overcome my skepticism every time she paused to recalculate. We had hit construction, and our exit was closed. Our sweet-sounding skipper was stumped. Admittedly this GPS was an early model, so her ability to find new paths was limited. Her attempts at rerouting us meant u-turns back to the exit that remained closed. We finally broke out the paper maps and found our way. 

Photo by Samuel Foster on Unsplash

Life can feel a lot the same. We think we know the roads we need to follow. We might even have some notion of which exits we should take and which turns to make. But then life shifts unexpectedly, and our route is forced to change. 

But there’s no way to make the adjustments or find our way if we don’t first know where we are. Like the GPS, we need to be aware of our position so we can chart our course.

This Journey of Joy we’re on — it’s no different. We’ve identified we desire joy. But how do we get there? It starts with knowing our current location. 

You Are Here

Picture yourself standing in a crowded mall — I know, think waaaay back to when you got to be in crowds. You want to know how to get to a particular store, so you seek out the mall map and scroll the surface for the “you are here” dot. Find the store. Map out your path, and draw an invisible line from where you are to where you want to be.

You want joy. As you scan the map, you can see it in the distance, but where are you?

Emotionally. What feelings dominate you these days? Sadness, indifference, boredom, exhaustion, overwhelm, confusion, grief, shame, anger, resentment, frustration? 

Mentally. What toxic thoughts influence you most? Self-doubts, fears, worries, anxieties, regrets, cynicism, self-importance, unworthiness, complacency?

Spiritually. Where are you in your relationship with Jesus? Hot or cold? Near or far? Negligent or intentional? Engaged or avoiding? Growing or stagnant? Lost or on track?  

Becoming aware of where we are emotionally, mentally, and spiritually helps us identify our starting position. It’s important that we don’t judge ourselves. This is a process of identification only — just know where. you. are. 

We also want to avoid comparing ourselves with others. No one else will be exactly where we are, and trying to compare ourselves only invites harsher negative self-talk and worse feelings. 

The writer of Hebrews encourages us in this process:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.

Hebrews 12:1 NLT

First, this verse tells us, in its own way: You are here. You’re on this journey, in the race of living the Christian life. Then, it encourages us to see that believers have gone before us — people who know the way. In fact, many surround us even now, cheering for us in this race. None of us are alone. 

On this Journey of Joy, we travel together. And as we progress on the path laid out before us, we’ll become aware of others who’ve gone before us and made a way. We’ll look to them and to each other for direction and encouragement.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Next, the verse tells us to take off everything that will slow us down and trip us up. Implied in this imperative is an assumption — that we know what those are. In order to run with endurance, or perseverance, we need to identify what slows us down and trips us up.  It’s part of knowing where we are. Sin and spiritual dryness can trip us up. So can negative feelings and thoughts. 

Looking Inward

Figuring out where we are requires us to look within ourselves with vulnerability, humility, and honesty. Last year I went through this very process as I wrestled with roadblocks in my journey of becoming a writer. I discovered feelings and toxic thoughts at the root of my problems.

One particular obstacle was insecurity. My stomach knotted up anytime I’d dare to share my dream with someone. To the point that I wouldn’t tell anyone. Instead, I’d quietly write away on my blog, naively hoping people would just find it. 

I finally sat down with God to unpack that insecurity and discovered at the heart of it was a fear of what people would say about my writing, about me. I feared the trollers and the naysayers who spew their viciousness on social media. I worried about how people would respond to my writing. After some soul work, I understood that behind my fear was a desire for people’s approval. The truth to combat this fear — I write for God’s approval.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this fear-front, and I’m getting braver in my invitations. But there came the day when a new blog series was launching. I’d been so excited about this series, yet all I could feel that day was dread. All those fearful questions bogged me down — what if no one likes it? What if all that work is for nothing? What if I’m not really cut out to be a writer?

All those insecurities — they robbed my joy. Those fears took the joy out of what I love doing most. 

But I wasn’t helpless. Once I saw what fear was doing, I stripped off the lies and recited the truths. I cut away my lack of faith and threw off the fear. I put my eyes on Jesus and got back in the race.

And so can you.

Fears and Insecurities

Where are you? What steals your joy? Pause long enough to journal about your current location — emotionally, mentally, and spiritually — so that you are clear where you’re beginning this Journey of Joy. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What adjectives best describe how you’re feeling in this season?
  • What toxic thoughts do you struggle with most? Why?
  • Where are you spiritually? Where would you like to be?
  • What fears entangle you as you set out to find joy?
  • What insecurities threaten to trip you up?

It’s an extremely liberating experience when we can name our fears and leave them behind. It’s most freeing to be able to identify our insecurities so that we can overcome them with God’s truths. 

In my own journey of rooting out my fears and insecurities, I journaled a lot. One night in particular I picked up a guided journal instead of my usual blank one, and the author asked me to focus on the word freedom until something concrete, like an image, formed in my mind.

I admit I didn’t have great expectations for what would “appear.” But I sincerely wanted to hear from God, so I asked Him to show me an image for freedom. After a bit, a most specific, old fashioned key came to mind. At first I had no idea what to think of that, but I dutifully picked up the journal and let my thoughts flow freely. What emerged was remarkable. It absolutely led me to understand my underlying insecurities associated with writing.

Photo by kyle larivee on Unsplash

How about you? Give it a try. Close your eyes and ask God to give you an image that would mean freedom to you. Allow yourself to relax, still your thoughts, and be open to what He has for you. Assume nothing. If your mind has a hard time settling, keep asking, “What is freedom?” or saying, “Jesus, show me.” Then journal about your experience, allowing your words to come spontaneously, without care for spelling or grammar or punctuation. And without judgment. 

Freedom to Move Forward

Identifying where we are as we begin our journey will free us to run this race unentangled. We’ll discover a freedom to be more honest with ourselves, with God, and with those who run with us. We’ll uncover fears that have dictated our steps our whole lives, whether we realize it or not. And we’ll find in God and His Word all the truths and power we need to keep moving forward in our pursuit of joy.

“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty.” 

Jeremiah 15:16

Jeremiah may not have literally ingested Scripture, but he did allow its words to be digested deep within his being. As God’s Word fed his soul, Jeremiah discovered them to be his joy and delight. And for no other reason than he was God’s son.

You are God’s most beloved daughter. No matter where you are on life’s path, you are still His. And He is yours. No matter how overwhelmed you feel, God is the great Overcomer, and He promises to help you to conquer all you fear and face (Romans 8:37). No matter your insecurities, sins, or anything else that threatens your forward progress, Jesus is there — ready to set you free (Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:1)!

Bearings

We’re getting our bearings so that next week we can map out our travels. The last thing we want to do is launch out on this journey only to be so disoriented that we can’t find our way to joy. That kind of depaysement can be avoided if we’ll take the time now to make sure we know where we’re starting from. So, don’t stop here.  Pray. Read Scripture. And do the journal work.

Then share in the comments with our travel group some of your discoveries. You don’t have to give all the gory details — but let us know the snare that traps you most. Naming it will empower you in overcoming it. 

I’ve been getting my own bearings for this trip, and I’m seeing that my obstacles to finding joy are rooted nearly subconsciously in my fears (do you see a theme in my life?). Specifically, I am discovering that I often try to shield myself from feelings I think will overtake me — like sadness. I’ll avoid situations, conversations, people, and even books and movies if I think they will cause me to lose control of my sad emotions (control — another theme in my life). 

As I self-preserve this way, I may avoid feeling sad — at least for a while — but I also miss out on feeling joy. Looking back, I can see I’ve been this way my whole life. I chose not to go to my grandma’s funeral when I was in the eighth grade because I was afraid of how it would make me feel. I was careful not to get too close to my students those early years of teaching out of fear I’d be too sad when they moved on. I’ve been known to hide in a quiet room to avoid all the sad goodbyes in the bigger crowd.

It’s a pattern. One that I haven’t often been aware of. But now I am. 

So, I know where I am — if I want joy, I’m going to have overcome fear and risk sadness. But with Jesus and His truth, with my friends and your encouragement, I can stay the path. 

You can, too.

Turn on that GPS and find where you are. 

So glad to get my bearings, Shelley

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is precondo-ca-tziilpu0cvi-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash
  • Grab a few travel buddies for our journey — invite others to join us! You can share on social media, copy and paste the link in a direct message to someone, or ask them to check out shelleyjohnson.me.
  • Take time to process this week’s journaling prompts within the post.
    • If you’d like a new journal, I found one on Amazon that fits our travel theme!*
  • Share your experiences and revelations by commenting below.
  • Did you remember our “egg hunt?” Did you find this week’s travel word?
    • Last week’s travel word was fernweh — A German word capturing the feeling of “farsickness,” which is akin to homesickness, only for places you want to travel to.
  • Our Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify has multiple songs on it that thematically follow our theme. I’d love to hear what songs/lyrics resonate with you! I added song this week!

*This is an affiliate link, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.

Possible

First He prayed, “Everything is possible for you.” A word of faith. Of truth.

Then He prayed, “Take this cup from me.” His honest, heart-felt cry. The pain, the suffering bubbling-up out of His humanity.

“Yet not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14: 34, 36). A choice to follow God wherever He leads. A desire to do His Father’s will. A deferment to God’s wisdom, God’s way because He trusts God is good.

When Jesus prayed these words the night of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the man who knew no sin acquiesced to the suffering strain of our sin. The anticipation of such suffering brought Him great sorrow — to the point of death. But still He chose God’s will over His own.

Jesus knew that God could prevent the cross.

Everything is possible with You.

But He chose the way of the cross. For us. For you and for me. Why? For the joy our salvation would bring Him.

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

We can live as Jesus did, no matter what we face or feel or fear, trusting the heart of the Father, who is good and wise and perfect. We can lay down our will for His, knowing that with God everything is possible.

Journey of Joy: Week One — Desire

Is it possible to be homesick for somewhere you’ve never been? I mean, literally, that couldn’t happen. You can’t miss home if you’ve never been there, right? 

And yet, if we take the term “homesick” less literally just to mean that deeper longing for a place, then I think we can deeply desire to be somewhere we’ve never actually been.

Like Italy. I’ve never been there, but I want to be there so badly that sometimes it almost feels like a homesickness of sorts. 

Like heaven. I’m figuring out that the reason life on earth often feels foreign, not-quite-right, or just not home is because deep, deep in my being is a knowing of my true home — heaven.  

  • Every time I bump up against injustice, I long for the perfect justice of heaven where everyone is treated fairly and right.
  • Every time I watch someone suffering with cancer or COVID, I can’t wait for disease-free heaven — a place where there is no more suffering, no more death.
  • Every time I see someone starving or without a home, I deeply desire heaven where Jesus has gone to make rooms in His house for all of us.
  • Every time I feel lonely, sad, or afraid, I long for heaven where I can be in God’s presence always. Never alone. Never afraid. Ever again.

This fernweh festers in my soul. This longing for my heaven home — it’s not the kind of fester that creates an infected boil on my skin or ulcer in my stomach. It’s more of a whisper of desire that winds its way through my heart and soul in moments of earthly discontent — those moments when I feel the truth that this is not how God desired for us to live

Travel Takes Us Places

A similar feeling of longing for somewhere or something better often motivates us to book a vacation or plan a pilgrimage. I’m pretty sure every trip I’ve ever planned started with a want-to — I want to sneak off with my hubby for some us time. I want to get away with the girls for a week at the beach. I want to escape with the family, making memories and gooey s’mores.

So, as we pause at the precipice of this ponderous journey, it occurs to me that we should make sure our want-to is there. We need to double check our desires before flying out on this foray because travel takes us places. It moves us into a new location to experience fresh perspectives, tastes, smells, and feelings. So, we need to be sure that we know what we want. 

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Desiring Joy

We’ve already said we want to be part of this Journey of Joy.

We’ve even tried our best to define that joy — an emotion that wells up within the depths of our souls that is not dependent on our circumstances or our ability to choose it. The kind of joy that happens by a move of the Spirit, by witnessing the work Jesus is doing in and around us. 

Yet, is joy the true desire of our hearts? How can we know?

Maybe the bigger question to ask is what is the true desire of our hearts?

These are deep, soul-searching questions  that require us to spend some time in solitude and stillness so we can explore our depths and listen for God’s voice. 

In your journal this week, take some time with God to peel back the layers of your desire for joy. Pray, read Scripture, then put pen to paper to see what the Spirit shows you. Here are some questions you could ponder and prod for insight:

  1. Why do I seek joy?
  2. What do I hope to feel when I find joy?
  3. What will I do with joy when I find it?
  4. How will I know when I find it?
  5. What is the deep desire of my heart?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They’re meant to be open-ended and thought-provoking — springboards of sorts that will launch you into self-discovery and understanding. 

My Own Digging and Delving

I’ve been reading a lot of Emily P Freeman lately. Her words have been challenging me to dig deeper within myself to explore emotions so I can enter into what God has for me more fully. When I landed on the chapter, “Desire,” in her book A Million Little Ways*, this stopped me in my tracks:

“True desire doesn’t search for escape or fame or adoration. True desire is born out of death, of knowing I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. His desire was that all people might live. And the fulfillment of his desire was only realized through his death.”

page 53 (ebook)

True desire is born out of death.

When I first read those words, I realized I needed to check my motives. Why do I desire joy? Is it merely for my own sense of happiness, contentment, or comfort? Am I willing to do this life the way Jesus did and trust the Father in all situations, allowing God to be my joy? Can I trust that the joy God offers is actually the true joy my deepest parts long for?

As I continue to process these questions, I see a theme of TRUST rising to the surface. It would appear that somewhere in my want-to for this Journey of Joy is a desire for control. I want to define my journey. I want to name my joy. I want to dictate my outcomes. When, really, I simply need to trust that God knows better than I do what’s at the heart of this journey. I need to trust God, period. 

While on earth Jesus modeled this kind of trust, and He showed us what our true desires can look like. Jesus’ greatest desire was for all people to live. And that could only happen by way of the cross. Why would my desire require anything less than death if His did

Think about that for a minute. Allow that idea to roll around your mind and settle in your soul.

Emily’s revelations still take my breath and show me I have some dying to do, namely dying to self. If I’m going to write for God’s glory and the good of others, it can’t be about me. If I’m going to influence the people in my life for God’s kingdom, it can’t be about me. If I’m going to find my true desire or even true joy, it can’t just be about me.

Photo by Preslie Hirsch on Unsplash

Finding joy will bring me, well, joy. Yes. So, in a sense it is about me. But I’m recognizing that any true desire that bubbles up from my truest self won’t be selfishly motivated. Joy may give me the spark I need to keep writing, to keep loving, to keep moving forward. But that joy can be shared. Given for others for their good. Passed on like a flame of hope to brighten the future.  

The writer of Hebrews lays all of this out for us:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:2-3 NIV

We can look to Jesus’ prayers the night of His arrest to know He dreaded the suffering and shame that lay before Him (Matthew 26:36-39). Yet, Jesus could see beyond the sorrows that were crushing Him to the joy that was coming. The joy of knowing His death would save people from sin and death helped Him step into great suffering with courage. 

He didn’t feel happy or comfortable or even content as He was betrayed, beaten, brutalized, and buried. But joy was there. And it kept Him going.

Joy can do the same for us.

Our Want-To

We stand on the edge of this extraordinary expedition, grappling with the reality that “anything we do on earth that brings true joy or delight or fulfillment was made possible by death, by Love’s sacrifice on a cross” (Freeman, 54). And we surrender to its truth.

We release our death-grip on life’s circumstances, on the people we love most, on our worries and hopes and fears. As our fingers loosen, we allow the seed of our lives to fall to the earth and find itself in the depths of Jesus — that place where we die to self and find new life in Him.

We step forward full of faith that Jesus accompanies us on this excursion. He will continue to buff and shine our hearts’ desires till they glow with His image, reflecting His light into our souls and into the view of others. 

We long for the true joy Jesus shows us through His life and death. The true joy the Bible promises can be ours in Him. The true joy that is emotion, but is more than feelings. The true joy that sustains and empowers and gives us hope. 

Joy, we desire you! But even more, we desire Jesus. And it is in Him we will find our true joy.

Friends, we have found our want-to! 

We’re ready for the next step on this journey because we know what we want. We also know that as we allow this trip to take us to new places, we’ll continually uncover emotions we didn’t know existed, discover dreams we’ve abandoned, and encounter an abundant array of adventures that will unlock within us new desires that will lead us onward in this life full of passion and purpose. And joy.

Let’s pray, incorporating an idea from Pete Greig in his book, God on Mute* (p.263).

Lord Jesus, we come to You today with all our desires — good, bad, selfish, and holy — and we lay them at your feet. Help us to want to seek your presence each day in the coming week so that we may enter into that holy space and just be with You. As we spend more time with You, I pray that we’ll get to know You more deeply and trust You more consistently. Continue to peel back the layers of what we think we want so we can get to root of our motives and the depths of our true desires. In the end, may we desire You above all else. Lord, we tend to hold things too tightly, but right now we imagine holding in our clinched left hand our greatest desire, and in our right hand we hold tightly our deepest dread. Just as Jesus prayed that night of His arrest, we pray believing that everything is possible for You, and we open our left hand, giving You our deepest desire. Then we pray that Your will be done, Lord, not ours, and we open our right hand hand, naming our deepest dread and choosing to relinquish control over it. Thank You for being our peace, our hope, and our joy. Amen.

So honored to have you on this journey with me , Shelley

Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash
  • Grab a few travel buddies for our journey — invite others to join us! You can share on social media, copy and paste the link in a direct message to someone, or ask them to check out shelleyjohnson.me.
    • If you haven’t yet, subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a post! 
  • Take time to process this week’s journaling prompt — peel back the layers of your desire for joy to uncover why you seek joy, what you hope to do with it when you find it, or how you expect to feel when you find it. Or, what do you discover is your deepest desire?
    • Here are some Scriptures that could help in your explorations:
      • Psalm 37:1-6
      • Mark 4:18-20
      • 2 Corinthians 5:17
      • Proverbs 10:28
      • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
  • If you’d like a new journal, I found one on Amazon that fits our theme!*
  • Share your experiences and revelations by commenting below. As I dove into my motives for this journey, I discovered a desire for control. By confronting that head-on, I’m better able to let go of selfish desires and make room for God’s. How about you?
  • Did you remember our “egg hunt.” Did you find this week’s travel word?
    • Last week’s travel word was wanderlust — A German word describing a deep desire for travel.
  • Our Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify has multiple songs on it that thematically follow our theme. I’d love to hear what songs/lyrics resonate with you!
    • If you like it, you can “follow” the playlist so it shows up in your Spotify library.

Emily P Freeman’s book A Million Little Ways* and Pete Greig’s book God on Mute* are books I’ve recently read and highly recommend. You can click each book’s title to read more about them on Amazon.

*These are affiliate links, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.

Journey of Joy: The Proposal

Stuck. If there’s one word that captures how most of the world has felt for the last year, it’s stuck. First, the long months of complete lock-down in which we found ourselves isolated and separated like no generation ever. Weddings canceled. Funeral postponed. Graduations delayed. Churches closed. Schools moved home. Offices shut tight. Entertainment halted. 

The trapped feelings flooded anew when COVID spiked in the fall. Closures and social distancing ramped up, and we groaned under its restrictive weight. Holiday plans changed. Travel crawled. For a season that was meant to bring good tidings and joy, Christmas threatened to topple the scale toward desolation and despondency. 

But. As I watched from my couch and listened from my laptop, I witnessed the human spirit dig-in and dive deep, unwilling to surrender to this unseen enemy. I observed gift-giving with greater goodness and intention. I heard carol-laded praises for the King in the manger rising above the darkness. I noticed glittering globes on rooftops heralding to all who would look upon them to remember the season of hope. 

I saw the world cling, desperately and defiantly, to joy.

In my own little corner of the world, an unassuming gift of an ornament adorned with the simple, stamped letters JOY awoke in me an awareness of how little joy I possessed. As for so many, 2020 had become about survival. And in that pursuit, I’d become a little emptier. A little hollower. Asleep. Numb. Stuck.

A text to a friend one early January morning opened a door to joy. In a moment of honesty and humility, we each admitted to having given in to insipid and tasteless lives that had long forgotten to savor our Savior. Our pact to pursue joy pushed us forward into the New Year with purpose. One I’ve begun to call the Journey of Joy.

I call it a journey because I recognize in my 50+ years on this earth that there’s no “arriving” at something so beautiful as joy and staying there. Seeking joy for my life will be a movement, a wandering, an intentional search through valleys and highways. 

I’m leaning into the analogy heavily for this series because of its fluidity marked with purposefulness, its meanderings as well as its mountaintop moments, its obstacles and delays and unexpected revelations. 

And, after the year we’ve had — aren’t we ready to TRAVEL?

The Proposal

Our wanderlust increases with every passing month — all the set-backs and disappointments, all the challenges of living in the muck of being stuck, all the looks of longing out the window toward the horizon that seems further away than ever before — and we know, we KNOW that we need to move forward. We need to gain ground or whither where we’re planted. We need to find a way to JOY or get swallowed up by boredom and mediocrity.

Realizing that I’m not alone in this desire for joy, I want to invite you along as a fellow globetrotter. I propose that we set out together as explorers on a mission of discovery. We’ll plot our course and set out over the next several weeks to traverse lands that have been uncharted or abandoned to all sorts of counterfeits of true joy.

This Journey of Joy will require us to meet weekly — a commitment to the cause, a pledge to plot this course together. Literally, we can chat via comments on this blog as explorations become revelations, as disappointments turn us toward discoveries, as we find ourselves being changed from within. 

We’ll use the ultimate guidebook, the one written by the Author and Perfecter of our Faith. In its pages we’ll discover the ways of wisdom and paths that purvey purpose. So, have your Bible handy. I’d recommend bringing along a journal, as well. Documenting our discoveries will go a long way in anchoring us in the truths we uncover.

And, we’ll launch this expedition with more than good intentions. We step out in faith that we’ll stick to the path no matter what crosses it and trust our Tour Guide to keep pointing the way. We band together with the expectation of finding the illusive JOY. 

JOY

It occurs to me that before we grab our passports and carry-ons, we ought to make sure we’re all on the same page about what joy is, and what it is not. If we’re to have success on this journey of ours, we need to be clear what it is we seek.

Before we move forward in our defining, let’s be clear. We don’t have to be depressed to need or want joy. Before my New Year revelation, I wouldn’t have said I was sad. Not even unhappy. Maybe it was more of missing a spark, that sense of aliveness that comes only with true joy. I’m sure we could draw a spectrum from despair to full joy, making our marks along the line — and we’d be scattered across its entirety. But we can all desire joy.

Joy is not circumstantial. We’re not setting out to find a giggle or smile or twinkle in the eye. Might some of those be side-benefits of finding true joy? Sure! But what we seek is much deeper than what our life’s circumstances produce. 

So, what is true, Christian joy?

I’ve read a lot of definitions. Sure, it’s a deep gladness. But what does that mean, exactly? And how do we find it? 

Some say joy is a choice. But I’m pretty sure joy is an emotion, something we feel, and most of my emotions (okay, all of them) come unbidden. Tears spring to my eyes when one of my sons walks through the door because I’m so happy to have him home. Anger rears its head when I’m treated unfairly. Sorrow sweeps over me when I see someone I love hurting. I don’t stop and choose those feelings any more than I can choose to feel joy.

Taking time to consider its opposite helps me identify a little more substance to this tiny, three-letter emotion. Tim Keller says that the opposite of joy is not sorrow but despair and hopelessness. One thought — feelings are rarely solitary. How many times have we felt anger and heartbreak? Or disappointment and hope? I can think of times where I had joy in the midst of sadness. Somehow they can occupy similar space in our souls. 

But not despair. When we get to the place where despair has led us to hopelessness, it’s hard to feel anything else. We’ll dig a little into this idea in our travels toward joy, but for our purpose of offering definition, it helps to know the antonym of joy.

Probably my favorite definition of Christian joy comes from John Piper. (His blog post that unpacks this definition is worth a read): 

“Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.” 

So, we can say joy is an emotion that wells up in the depths of our souls. We can’t choose it or cause it to appear because it’s a gift, a fruit of the Spirit. And, we find joy within ourselves in those moments when the Spirit opens our eyes and hearts to the living work of Jesus through Scripture and the world around us.

Our Commissioning

Just jot that definition down in your journal. While you’re at it, write down anything else that stirred in you as you read this proposal. What questions do you have? What confused you? What hadn’t you thought of before? Then go pack. 

But, before you run off, allow me to commission us for our Journey of Joy. 

Lord Jesus, we thank You for the awakening happening within our hearts in this moment as we consider embarking on this quest for your joy — a joy that You offer to us freely. A joy that we can seek and find. I pray that You will continue to move in us, keeping alive in us this longing for more of You, for your true joy, so that we’ll not let go of this hope we’ve discovered today. Lord, wake us up to all You have for us. Prepare our hearts and minds for this journey we’re embarking on, giving us all the tools and truths we’ll need to keep moving forward on the path You lay out for us. Fan the flames of our hope so that we’ll pursue You and your joy everyday.

Lord, we pray over one another now this blessing:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

It’s in Your name we pray, Amen.

Okay — maybe write that verse down, too. I think it’ll be our go-to power verse for this trip. God will be our hope. And as we trust Him, our peace and joy will overflow by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I hope you’re in! I hope you’re saying yes to this Journey of Joy!

So excited to travel with you, Shelley

Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash
  • Traveling is always more fun with friends, so be sure to pass this Proposal along, inviting others to join us! You can share on social media, copy and paste the link in a direct message to someone, or just tell them to check out shelleyjohnson.me. 
  • Sharing with one another will spur us to keep moving forward. And as we speak aloud (in writing) our thoughts, experiences, challenges, and success, we encourage others in their journeys. We also get to experience the JOY of celebrating the successes! So — please, comment below!
  • Packing List:
    • A journal. Journaling really will be a valuable practice in our travels because it gives us space to document and explore the deeper things. If you’d like a new journal, I found one on Amazon that fits our theme!* 
    • A Bible. Scripture will be a regular part of our experiences here. I’ll share from the Word as I find nuggets of wisdom and hope, and I invite you to do the same. 
  • Looking for Fun — we want our journey to be full of discovery and FUN! Stories that make us laugh. Sights that make us giggle. People who amaze us. Words that inspire us. 
    • One element of fun I’ll lace into each post every week is an “egg hunt.” I’ll weave a travel word that captures the heart of each week’s theme. Have fun hunting! (Did you find today’s?)
    • Playlist — and of course we have to have music! I’ve created a Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify that I’ll share here each week. If you like it, you can “follow” the playlist so it shows up in your Spotify library. I’ve tried to order the songs to reflect our journey. I hope there are songs and lyrics that inspire and encourage you along your travels.

HERE WE GO!

*This is an affiliate link, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — What It All Means

I saw a meme this week of a harried-looking guy hollering, “I’m getting pretty tired of living through historical events!” I needed some humor at the time I saw it because I was feeling it — that depth of, when is this gonna end? Lord, when will You answer our prayers and bring healing to our bodies and land? 

Then I heard my words — cries of lament. Ah. I recognize them. I now see them for what they are and embrace them for what they do. Laments give us voice to the depths of thoughts and feelings that are too often wordless, unspoken, hardly recognizable. Yet they’re so needed. For too long I’ve hidden from harder, darker feelings for fear of them taking over or revealing something like shame. Now, I’m learning to go to God with them, pouring them out like an offering at His feet, trusting that He’ll take them and remake them into something better — like a lump of clay that the Potter makes into a useful vessel.

Out of the release from lament flows praise. Somehow the miracle of letting truth rise up and out makes room for freedom and gratitude. Honesty gets us to a place of raw humility that quickly finds its place of rest in the arms of thankfulness. Something new is pouring forth — a fountain of phrases that splash into my thoughts and spatters onto my heart then sprays from my mouth to the heavens. Praise. Thanks. Holy wonder for all He is and all He does.

And, just like that I realize these last few months spent in the Psalms have anchored me to the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. The Psalmists have given me words — holy utterances that usher me into God’s presence. Words that help me remember who God is, that remind me of his faithfulness, that point me toward a future that has a hope. 

The Psalms have embodied so much of what I’ve felt and thought over the course of the last year — through a long season of lockdown when the threat of a deadly virus was new and scary, through months of adjusting to social distancing and living life without people close-by, into a big move and a new season of life where unfamiliar feelings and fears still creep up consistently, through an insane political landscape that ripples and reverberates, into the weeks of finally having the dreaded COVID and all the unknowns my weak lungs held, and then through the cold, dark days of a deep freeze that seemed to have no end. 

But I had words. Words that pointed me to a past where God was true to His word, faithful to His promises. Words that echoed my heart’s cries and made space for them to percolate and permeate so that I could give them up, free from their grips. Words that painted a picture full of light and color, warmth and life because of the Spirit’s power and presence. Words full of goodness for a soul that needed to be grounded there.

Psalm 84 reminds us to seek God — even when it feels like He’s hiding. There are reminders all around us that He is present even when it doesn’t seem to be true. The Psalmist reflects on the sparrows — and how if God is sure to take care of such a tiny creature, He’ll take care of us. I giggled this week as I watched the little warblers flit and flutter around our porch, gobbling up every morsel my husband put out for them. And they became my reminder — God cares. God sees. God is always there, walking through every bit of life no matter how cold or lifeless it appears. We can seek God and find Him.

Photo by Erik Karits on Pexels.com

Psalm 25 gives us space for our words to ebb and flow, back and forth as we wrestle with life’s challenges alongside our faith. Like the game Red Light, Green Light, we can keep our eyes on the One with the power — the One who can safely tell us when to run full throttle ahead and when to stop to rest, regroup, and refocus. God guides. He teaches. He shows us the ways to go. We just need to look to Him.

Psalm 73 allows us some room to rant. With permission to speak freely, our words of disappointment, discouragement, and disillusionment with injustices tumble out of our mouths, splattering all within earshot. The honesty purges. Then we stop the reverberating recitations of wrongs when we come into God’s dwelling place. We pause. We pray. We pivot toward faith, away from despair because we remember that He. Is. Just. 

Psalm 143 pulls us into the penitential plane. We lower our gazes and seek God’s forgiveness for our failures, our sin. We realize the depth of need to relinquish our desire for control. Releasing the grip we squeeze so tightly, we discover with some relief that in letting go we land in the holy hands that hold us close, offering us strength, covering, forgiveness.  We bow low in repentance for all the times we’ve tried to tag God. Now we reverently reach for Him in faith and hope.

Psalm 139 sheds light on our need to be near God. He is the Light, after all. The One who sheds light on our dark places, casting away shadows, revealing our need for the cleansing power that only light can bring. We’re reminded that no matter where we go or how we try to hide, God always sees us, always knows us, always loves us. We discover that it’s in His presence, where we are known and He is made known, that love perfects us, transforming us into Christ’s likeness a little more everyday. It’s a bold prayer to ask God to search us and know us, but what we discover is that He already does — rather it’s often we who need a little discovery of self so that we’ll accept all He has for us.

Psalm 23 rounds out our season of Games and Goodness with a little Follow the Leader — our Good Shepherd proves to be one worthy of following. The magic of the shepherd metaphor captures all the ways our God cares for us, going before us in His provision and protection. His tender care is offered. We must only choose to follow, which insists we trust. If we hunker into our stubborn ways, we’ll miss the Way. If we choose paths that look promising but lead to destruction, we’ve missed the better path — even when it looks like death but actually leads to life. Trust. It’s our daily choice to follow our Shepherd in trust.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

Something tells me that despite all we’ve faced in the past year, there will be more yet. So, how do we march forward in full faith rather than retreat in defeat? By claiming the faith of the Psalms as our very own. 

This claiming takes resilience, persistence, perseverance. It takes us choosing God’s ways, trusting in His goodness and faithfulness. It even requires us to get honest with ourselves, allowing ourselves to draw close to our Father who waits with open arms — arms full of forgiveness, love, and tender, tender mercy. The Psalms reflect how hard life can be, but even more so, they give us a vision for what could be — freedom and hope in the middle of a life immersed in the grace of God. For He is able. Always present. Fully for us.

Ready to choose life with God, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. I can’t believe our game-playing has come to an end already. Thanks for joining in and taking part! I pray it’s been a blessing.
  2. The fun isn’t over. Next up — a Journey of Joy. Let’s travel!
  3. Invite friends to join us! My website is getting a much needed update, so watch for all the new to come. It’s much easier to point people to this site — shelleyjohnson.me!!
  4. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  5. Here’s our Playing Psalms playlist — one last time. Remember, you can follow it so that it shows up in your Spotify Library anytime. I’ll have a new playlist for our next series. 

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Follow the Leader

While I may not have been a big fan of games like “Red Rover” in my growing up years, there was one game I loved: “Follow the Leader.” Being at the head of a line of friends who trailed behind me required no physical strength, no particular stratagem, nor any specific skill — except maybe creativity to keep those being led entertained and challenged.

It was quite the thing to have people willingly do whatever I did — spin in circles, hop on one foot, or run around a tree. Oh the power! 

As much as I loved the role of Leader in the game, I also enjoyed being led. It was fun to see where each Leader would take us and what silly antics they’d have us do. 

There is One, however, who never relegates his authority: God. He is always the Leader. It is our choice, however, to follow the Leader. Or not.

Today, we’re headed out to the hilly pastures to follow the Shepherd Leader. 

The Lord Is My Shepherd 

In its short, six verses, Psalm 23 reveals much about God’s character, but most of us today don’t know enough about shepherds and sheep to grasp the perfection of David’s metaphor:

1 The Lord is my shepherd…

Psalm 23:1a

Because David grew up as a shepherd, he would have known the role and duties of a shepherd intimately. But why compare the Creator of the universe with this lowly profession?

For starters, Shepherds are very good leaders. Well, let’s qualify that. Good shepherds are good leaders. The kind sheep will follow.

Good shepherds are consumed with their flocks’ safety and health, going to extremes to preserve and protect them — extremes like sleeping among them to keep predators at bay, inspecting each sheep everyday for injury and harmful pests, and walking with them for miles to find fresh fields for their grazing. To be blunt, shepherds do anything necessary for their flocks’ good.

Like a good shepherd, God stays close to us.  

  • He offers His Holy Spirit to protect and lead us (see 2 Thessalonians 3:3, John 6:13). 
  • He teaches us how to fight our enemy (see Ephesians 6:10-17).
  • He surrounds us with angels to fight for us (see 2 Kings 6:16-17 or Matthew 26:53). 

God as our shepherd means he cares. He’s there for us. And He will go to great lengths to protect us and provide for us, hence David’s ending of the first verse:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Psalm 23:1 NIV (emphasis mine)

At its core, “I lack nothing” is a statement of faith —  kind of like saying, “I have God. What else could I need?” But, another way of looking at it could be we are so content in God’s care that we don’t crave anything else (Keller, 29).

What it doesn’t mean — we won’t ever lack. 

We all know that some days we lack money. Other days we lack friends. And the list goes on. Jesus, our self-proclaimed Good Shepherd (John 10:11), warns us that there will be lack, or trouble (see John 16:33). But we can take heart because He’ll be with us (see Matthew 28:20) — even in our lack.

The Game: Meadows and Streams — David invites us to follow our Shepherd Leader. Let’s follow Him and see why lying down is a good thing!

2  He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

Psalm 23:2 NIV
Photo by Ambitious Creative Co. – Rick Barrett on Unsplash

A fun fact I learned reading about sheep in Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23, is that things have to be just right before sheep will lie down — four specific things, in fact. For sheep to be “at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom of fear, tension, aggravations, and hunger” (42). Guess how much of that the sheep can control? None. Only the shepherd makes it possible for sheep to feel at peace and full enough to actually rest. 

It is well-known among the good shepherds of our world that once sheep are fed, the very best way to help them feel safe and content is for the shepherd to be present with them. 

I type that and my pulse accelerates. Guess what I can’t do if I’m anxious? Sleep. And if my stomach is growling endlessly or my reflux is attacking full-throttle, getting some solid shut-eye just ain’t happening. Then there’s the buzzing gnat or the argument I had with my husband replaying in my head — these, too, prevent me from getting the rest I need. Just. Like. Sheep.

And, just like sheep, I’ve learned that the only way I can let go of the angst or lay down the anger is to go to God. Even more recently, I have discovered the source of my truest rest — soul rest — only comes from entering God’s presence. 

Sleepless nights are the worst, but when I intentionally look for God — call on His name, read His Word — I find Him. Finding myself in His presence feels a lot like laying down on the cool green grasses of a beautiful meadow.

Maybe the only thing better would be sitting by a quiet stream. 

As we’ll see so many times in this little “follow the leader” exercise, it’s the shepherd, not the sheep, who finds the fresh, healthy water for his thirsty sheep. He literally leads his sheep to water. And they drink. 

Spiritually, we people are a thirsty flock. The only problem is that if we don’t look to our Shepherd, we’ll try to satisfy our thirst with any dirty pool of water that presents itself (Keller, 59). 

Like sheep, it’s our nature to think we can slake our thirst on our own. Too often, though, we settle for the tempting offers around us — those stagnant, infested puddles. The better option — look for the Shepherd and follow Him to water that truly quenches. 

Lest we doubt, Matthew 5:6 captures Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Jesus goes so far as to invite all who thirst to come to Him for living water (John 7:37-38). Thirsty?

The Game: Souls and Paths — Sometimes we lose our way, but following our Leader can help! 

3  he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:3 NIV

Words matter. The word “refresh” here makes me think of a spa or a cool drink of lemonade on a hot day. And, I suppose those aren’t bad comparisons. They just fall short. The New King James Version uses the word “restores,” and that packs a little more punch — to restore something is to make it new.

The Hebrew meaning actually hints at the idea of bringing back. God, our Shepherd, brings back our souls.

From doubt.
From despair.
From discouragement.
From death.

I don’t know if you know this, but sheep get lost. A lot. Like the kind of lost that just makes you scratch your head and wonder… 

Any time I’ve gotten lost, great relief washed over me when someone came looking for me, to offer direction. Our Shepherd knows we can get spiritually lost, and He wants us to know that He came as our Deliverer — to save us from all threats, even from ourselves. Whatever causes us to lose our way, however far off the path we go, God can find us, and He’ll always come for us. 

Just as our Shepherd will bring us back, He’ll also lead us well. He’ll keep us on the right, or good, paths.

So, sheep. Not only do they get lost, but they also have a deeply-rooted tendency to be creatures of habit — to the point that their paths become ruts and pastures become wastelands  (Keller, 83). Sheep need to be led on all the right paths if they’re to flourish.

We might say that sheep are stubborn. And, sometimes, not very smart.

What do we say of ourselves, then, when we see a startlingly similar pattern in our own behaviors? How often do we want to go our own direction or do it our way, stubbornly refusing any direction or leading from our Shepherd? How often are we like Paul who laments that he wants to do what is right but then doesn’t do it (Romans 7:15)?

The good news is that, like sheep, we have a Shepherd willing and waiting to lead us. On the right paths. The paths that are for our good. All we have to do is follow.

The Game: Valleys, Rods, and Staffs — We’ve chosen to follow our Leader, but then doubt creeps in when the path gets rough. Will we continue to trust and follow?

4 Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Psalm 3:4 NIV

In Israel, the best fields are up on the high, lush plateaus of the mountainous wilderness, which works out great in the summers, but the snow makes it less than ideal in the winters. That means the flock is always on the move — from home to mountain then back home. 

To get to those mountaintops, the shepherd has to lead his flock on paths through valleys. Valleys following streambeds that keep the sheep watered but can flood in sudden storms. Valleys that offer shelter — and rockslides. Valleys that provide nourishment — and predators. 

Photo by Thomas Jarrand on Unsplash

These valleys can be dark. Difficult. Dangerous. But the shepherd never leaves the sheep. He always, always goes with them. In fact, he will never lead the sheep where he hasn’t already scouted ahead to know the best paths.

So, when we read about “fearing no evil” in our dark valleys of life, it’s not written flippantly or even figuratively. Our Good Shepherd goes with us. Through every single thing we face, we are never alone. Not ever.

The sheep follow their shepherd, trusting his plan and his provision.

We have the choice as we walk through life: take our own paths or trust our Leader. David wants us to see that even when the passages are dark and dangerous and filled with death, we can put faith in our Shepherd — He sees the big picture, knows what lies ahead, and is always with us. We can trust Him. 

To emphasize the point, David praises God that His rod and staff comfort us.

Rod. Staff. Not the most iconic of American culture. But knowing what they are and how they’re used will help us understand how they can bring us comfort.

A shepherd’s rod best compares to a wooden club that he has learned how to use with deft and skill for defense and discipline. Descriptions of shepherds heaving rods at prowling wolves sound humanly impossible; they’re so quick, accurate, and deadly. The rod also gets thrown at wayward sheep — not to harm them but to prevent them from eating poisonous plants or from going off the path. The rod sends them scurrying to safety (Keller, 115).

If the rod protects and directs, we could look at God’s Word as His rod (Keller, 114). Like the shepherd’s wooden club, Scripture is an extension of God’s very being used for our benefit. 

Think back to a Christmas play with shepherds, and more than likely at least one shepherd held a staff — the long pole with the crook at the end. A shepherd’s staff — the very symbol of a shepherd — is an object of compassion used to gently lift a newborn lamb to return it to its mother, to direct sheep with a firm but gentle pressure, and to rescue sheep stuck in briars and brambles (Keller, 120-124).

In much the same way, our Good Shepherd uses His Holy Spirit to draw us closer to Himself, to whisper words of direction and wisdom in our ears, and to come after us when we’ve gotten ourselves all tangled up in sin. His staff, like that of the shepherd, is Comfort. 

When we find ourselves in the dark valleys of life, we can rely on the Word of God to give direction and the Spirit of God to offer comfort. And, we don’t have to fear because our Shepherd is near.

The Game: A Table and Some Oil — the paths we take as we follow our Leader eventually take us to the mountaintop, but even in that beautiful place we’ll encounter issues.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

Psalm 23:5 NIV

I mentioned that I find great peace and comfort reciting Psalm 23 when I can’t sleep or feel anxious, but I have the hardest time remembering this particular verse. After much thought, I think it’s because I just haven’t understood it. I feel like we’ve gone from herding sheep to dining at the palace. 

Some say that the word “table” refers to those plateau mountains! In many cultures they’re called mesas, meaning table, and these sought after “tablelands” are exactly where shepherds take their sheep to pasture each summer (Keller 125). I can imagine, as a hungry sheep, stepping up onto a plateau after all the valley walking to see the “table before me.” What a gift! What gratitude!

Photo by Sebin Thomas on Unsplash

A good shepherd will go ahead of the flock to prepare this table by pulling the weeds that would kill, always keeping a protective eye out for any beasts out to get his precious flock. The enemies lurk. The shepherd protects.

As we follow our Good Shepherd, we’ll see that He goes before us to prepare all we need. He’ll also be faithful to point out the enemy and the pitfalls our enemy sets for us. We can delight in coming to the table of the Lord, and He will delight in seeing us follow His paths and flourish in His fields. 

But even at the full table, among the enemies, are the pests. 

Buzzing bugs and itchy infections can be the death of sheep, so the shepherd takes extra care to cover his sheep’s heads with oil — a natural healing balm for diseases and deterrent for annoying flies. Just as the flies can literally drive sheep mad, causing them to harm themselves, our minds can be taken captive by all sorts of worldly ideas and deceptions. And the only deliverance comes as an anointing of our minds. 

God’s anointing of our minds, our bodies, our lives holds promise and hope. As His oil flows over us and through us, gratitude and reverence overflow, splashing on all who are near. 

The Game: Dwelling Forever — following our Leader has proven to be rich and blessed, and our praises flood the heavens.

6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Psalm 23:6 NIV

That overflow carries us to the final verse of this Psalm, to a place of resting in the truth that no matter what life brings, our Shepherd’s goodness and love will always be with us — today and even as we look forward to eternity with Him. 

In case we’re tempted to think that’s the last of it, we need to remember as followers of the Good Shepherd that it’s not just about us — it’s about us taking what we’ve been given and sharing it freely among the other sheep of the world. All that comfort and protection, goodness and love — we can lay them out as an invitation to follow the Leader. 

God’s love always presents us with choices — will we choose to believe Him? Will we choose to trust Him? Will we choose to praise Him? Will we choose to follow Him? Love never forces itself on others, so much like the game Follow the Leader, we have the option to be led or to keep trying to forge our own paths in life. The imagery of the Good Shepherd helps us grasp the depth of God’s love and the good, good hands we’re in when we do, at last, follow the Leader.

What will you choose?

Ready to be led, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read more about this amazing metaphor of God as shepherd, I recommend the book I cited in this post, W. Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.
  2. We’ll do a wrap-up of our Playing Psalms series next week, then we’ll be off on a journey — of joy!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. Music is a gift that keeps on giving, so come back to the playlist anytime for the peace and direction the songs offer. You can “follow” the playlist so that it shows up in your library.

Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Flashlight Tag

I stepped out onto the dark, back porch to silence. 

Expecting a huge group of loud, pre-teen boys, I found the opposite. So, I listened for any sign that my boys and their friends were still somewhere in our yard. The moonlight was perfect for playing their favorite game — Flashlight Tag. 

My eyes straining, I finally saw it. A lone beam of light in the distance. Someone looking for friends hidden in the shadows. Then I heard it — squeals and screams as someone was spotted. They’d been tagged.

Satisfied, I headed back indoors. Play on!

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The Light

We have a lot of words to describe 2020. Lonely. Disappointing. Frustrating. Maddening. Dark.  And now that we’re well into 2021, and it feels a lot the same, we realize that what we had hoped to leave behind continues to follow us.

We’ve waited. Complained. Argued. Fought. Hidden. Ignored. Belittled. Whined. Teased. Prayed. And still the pandemic wages on. The economy struggles. The tensions rise. 

In all this darkness, we’d love to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We want something or someone to put our hope in. Perhaps some of us are discovering that there’s really only One in whom to place our hope. Only One who offers light, who is the Light.

Last week we used the game of Tag to demonstrate how not to pray. We’re not meant to tag God constantly, treating Him like a genie in a bottle who grants our every wish. So, today, we’ll play with the Psalms and use Flashlight Tag as a picture of what prayer can be. 

Here it is in a nutshell: we’re all in the dark, and God is the one with the flashlight. Too often we think of prayer as a way to overcome stresses in life, and it does help with that, but prayer is also about getting in God’s presence where He can shine His light IN us — healing us, making us whole, growing us in our faith — so that His light can then shine THROUGH us to the rest of the world. 

The Psalms

We’ve seen through this series how well the authors of these poems of praise and lament capture all of our frustrations and hopes. They give words to what we feel. They point us to a path that leads us forward — the only real path that directs us in God’s ways. 

Many of the Psalms use the imagery of light and dark brilliantly to convey the difficult emotions and ideas of life, as well as lofty spiritual truths. Their words create for us the contrast of the way of fools versus the way of the wise. Their word pictures become a place to hang our hope. 

And, Psalms also help us visualize God — the One who is always present, who can see everything, who knows all. Our finite minds struggle to grasp the enormity of our God, yet we must try. So as we read through Psalm 139 today, let us have eyes to see God more clearly and to notice the use of the light and dark imagery. May its words light our way so we can enter God’s presence and pray.

Psalm 139:1-6 (NLT)

[NOTE: I’m posting Psalm 139 in the New Living Translation today because sometimes when we read Scripture in a familiar version, it’s too easy to jump to quick conclusions. We can miss hidden treasures because our minds think they already know. It happens to all of us, so enjoy and be challenged by a different translation!]

1 O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
    You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too great for me to understand!

This passage paints a vivid picture to show all the ways God knows everything about us. In religious vernacular, we’d say He’s omniscient. The Creator knows His creation. How do you feel as you read through the list of ways He knows you? 

For some, God may sound like George Orwell’s Big Brother, spying on us for his own benefit and ends. 

But, for those of us who have been getting to know God, we begin to grasp just how deep and wide His love for us is. Through the lens of love, we see God’s “knowing” as comforting — just as David, the author of this Psalm, says in verse 6, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” 

As we attempt to correlate this truth about God’s omniscience to prayer, we might wonder the point of praying at all if He already knows everything about us. Just like a good parent, God wants us to come to Him to share all we delight in and struggle with — even if He’s already aware — because He knows how good it is for us to speak these deep truths about ourselves to Him. He becomes our safe place — the keeper of our hearts and carer of our souls — as we reveal to Him all we are. The bonds between us strengthen. Our trust in Him grows.

Psalm 139:7-12

7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
8 If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave, you are there.
9 If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you.

In parallel fashion, this passage reveals something of God’s nature — He is always near. He’s omnipresent. It’s one thing for our minds to grasp that God knows everything. It’s quite another to fathom that He can be everywhere, for all time, all at once. And, in case you try to work that out in your mind, just know our finite minds really can’t. 

God is unlimited by time or space. Unlimited. That means God is always present. It’s fun reading David’s poetic descriptions of just how high or low we could try to go, and God would still be there.

In verses 11-12 we see the light and dark imagery, illustrating that God can never be limited or covered by darkness. Ever. 

I read once a description of what happens if we sit in a dark room and open the door to light. Little by little, as we crack open the door wider and wider, the light overtakes the darkness. But the reverse is not true. We don’t sit in a room full of light, crack open the door to darkness, and watch darkness overtake the room.

Photo by Joe Dudeck on Unsplash

How cool is that to think about?

That’s a small, limited view of God as light, but it helps us visualize how in His creation, darkness cannot hide the light. Light always overcomes darkness.  God. Is. Light. It’s why when the new earth and the new heaven are established (Revelation 21), no sun or moon is needed because “the glory of God gives it light” (verse 23). 

Entering God’s presence is stepping into light. Only His light-giving presence brings us the peace and joy our hearts long for — the kind that reign in us despite the storms that rage around us. 

Psalm 139:13-16

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.

In this passage, David moves into a place of understanding God that combines His omniscience and omnipresence — the location of our creation. The Creator made each of us, and because He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, He really, really, really knows us. He knew us in the womb and saw us even before we were conceived. His presence and knowledge have no boundaries. Not that of a womb nor that of pre-life. 

For David, this is a marvelous wonder. Like him, we can be assured that God knows us so well that we can go to Him with everything in our hearts and minds, and none of it will surprise Him. Ironically, in my experience, sometimes as I open up to Him, I am surprised at what flows from me — as if a door unlatched and all those thoughts and feelings finally released. This is part of what makes prayer so powerful.

This passage can also help us to see ourselves as God’s children — each of us made wonderfully complex. Our identity is rooted in our Creator, our Father. Even when we don’t like what we see in the mirror or resent the physical imperfections of our bodies, we can trust that God loves us and claims us as His own. Always.

Psalm 139:17-18

17 How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
    They cannot be numbered!
18 I can’t even count them;
    they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
    you are still with me!

These two verses capture David’s response to all that he has discovered about God, and he sounds pretty blown away by Him. If we think about King David, a man who wholly loved God, he was also a man who made major mistakes, including two biggies — adultery and murder. But when he went to God, confessed his sins and sought forgiveness, he was made whole by this God who knew him intimately. In other words, God knew exactly who and what He was forgiving, and He did it anyway. 

David’s response can be ours because God sees us, our true selves, and loves us anyway. There is nothing we have done or could do that would end that love He has for us. His love is unconditional. We don’t earn it. We can’t lose it. God will always be there. Always.

Psalm 139:19-22

19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
    Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
    your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
    Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
    for your enemies are my enemies.

Just when you thought we’d escaped the lament, here it is. 😉

We’re witnessing David’s stream of thought, and though this passage may seem out of place in this Psalm, it captures what he’s thinking in the context of God’s omniscience and omnipresence. I thought Charles Spurgeon made the connection well, “As we delight to have the holy God always near us, so would we eagerly desire to have wicked men removed as far as possible from us.“

As Christians we often struggle with the Bible’s use of the word “hate.” Jesus, after all, teaches us to love our enemies, so how do we make sense of David’s hatred here? I’ll defer to Dr. Spurgeon once again, 

“To hate a man for his own sake, or for any evil done to us, would be wrong; but to hate a man because he is the foe of all goodness and the enemy of all righteousness, is nothing more nor less than an obligation. The more we love God the more indignant shall we grow with those who refuse him their affection.“

Charles Spurgeon

Dr. Spurgeon points out that David could also be setting himself apart from those who blaspheme God, which leads us to our final passage.

Psalm 139:23-24

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Contextually, David is carrying out his assertion that he hates anyone who hates God. And, to prove it, he invites God to search him to see if it isn’t true. Interesting way to read these last verses, isn’t it? 

Poetically, these verses create a beautiful frame with the opening verses where David invites God to search him. This device reminds us of where we began — that when we enter God’s presence, when we sit down to have a heart-to-heart with Him, we’re inviting Him into our dark, inner places. 

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

Spiritually, when we go to God, we acknowledge His omnipresence. We seek to access his omniscience, and we invite Him to search us out — why? To show us what needs reproof, repair, and redirection. The Holy Spirit reminds us that in Him, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). So, as He convicts, instructs and encourages us, we can engage with Him in the process of transformation, of becoming more like Christ. And we can trust that the path God puts us on will be for our good (Jeremiah 29:11), as well as for the good of others (Philippians 2:1-4) and God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4:15).

Pray with Me

Father God, we’re like David — pretty blown away by how big You are. You are everywhere all the time. You see everything and everyone. You know us, each and every one of us, intimately, personally, fully. And You love us. We invite You to search us, revealing to us those dark corners of our hearts that need Your light. Shine bright in us, Jesus, so that we can bring all our brokenness, all our mistakes, all our thoughts and feelings into Your light — to be cleansed and made pure, to be redeemed and made whole, to be transformed and made righteous.

Lord, we thank You that You are always near — that all we have to do is look to You for love, acceptance, healing, peace, wholeness, and help. Your Word promises that when we seek You, we’ll find You — what a comfort and encouragement that is. Draw us to you. Envelope us in your strong arms that strengthen and protect us, offering us assurance that You are present. As we become more and more like Jesus, we ask that Your light would shine through us, reflecting the love and acceptance that You’ve given us to those around us. 

It’s in Your most holy name we pray, Amen.

A Game and the Moon

There will be days, seasons, and years when we feel like we are sitting in total, utter darkness. In those times, let’s go to God’s Word, like to Psalm 139, to remember that God, in His omniscience and omnipresence, is there for us, ready to come alongside us. He is the great flashlight, and He is seeking us out — not to tag us but to shine light into our dark places with a heart to make us whole. Because we have God, we have the light! It gives life. It offers hope. And, it’s with that flashlight we can run toward those in the dark — with His light. 

Chris Tomlin, Brett Young, and Cassadee Pope have written a song, “Be the Moon,” that illustrates perfectly how this exchange works — God giving us His light then us reflecting it back to others for God. It’s catchy and fun and oh, so true. I’ve added it to our Playing Psalms playlist. I hope you like it!

Ready to be the moon, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 23.
  2. Invite friends to come play with us!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. If you’ve been listening to the playlist, you’ll notice “Be the Moon” is now tucked in between the Psalm 139 and Psalm 23 songs. So fun!