“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
~Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986
As a woman of color navigating all the ways this past year has brought my racial pain and trauma to the surface, there are words I need to hear from the people in my life:
“I see you.”
“I’m here for you.”
“I’ve got your back.”
For those of you who are leaders, I need to hear the same from the leadership of the organizations and institutions I’m part of:
“We see you.”
“We’re here for you.”
“We’ve got your back.”
Why is this so important? Because, as Elie Wiesel states, “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” For me personally, when the people in my life or the organizations I’m part of offer silence in response to racial pain, what I hear is NOT compassion or empathy. What I hear is:
They do not see me.
They are not here for me.
They do not have my back.
My journal is a place where I feel freedom to express all the things I’m too timid or scared to say out loud. Over the past year, I’ve written in my journal, “I wish they would try. But in order to try, they’d first have to care. And I don’t know anymore if I believe they care.”
So if you care, please don’t believe the lie that silence is the best option. At the least, it can be hurtful (or even feel like betrayal) to those who are hurting. At most, it can embolden those who have deep racism in their hearts and desire to harm racial minorities. Say something!
I know that some of you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve wanted to say something to my friends (or the people I lead) who’ve been hurting during this season, but I haven’t been able to find the words.” I get that. It can be scary to want to say something but to also be afraid of saying the wrong thing. If coming up with the “right” words has felt like an overwhelming and impossible task for you, or if you read the three sentences I shared earlier and thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t know how!”—you’re welcome to use them! It doesn’t have to be word-for-word exactly what I wrote. There are so many ways you can express these messages! The important thing is to express them and mean them!
Let’s take a closer look at these three sentences:
“I see you.”
This is the bare minimum. This shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, unfortunately, I know that for some, it is. If you love someone, these words should be easy. The other two sentences are dependent on this one. “I see you” can sound like:
“I see your pain. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
“I see the image of God in you.”
“I see your uniqueness. I see your beautiful personality, your giftings, what you bring into a room, the ways you make me better.”
Note: In addition to silence, there are many ways to convey, “I don’t see you.” Some of those ways include arguing instead of listening, gaslighting, defensiveness or making it about yourself when people are sharing their stories of pain with you.
“I’m here for you.”
This one takes a little bit of time, effort, and compassion. This looks like sitting with someone’s pain—even if it’s uncomfortable. “I’m here for you” can sound like:
“If you need to cry or vent, I’m here.“
“Can I give you a hug?”…when it’s safe to do so.
“Can I bring you coffee or a meal?”
“I’ve got your back.”
This one takes some courage. You might get some pushback from those who haven’t taken the time to examine their negative racial biases. But know this: The dignity and worth of BIPOC are worth it! In addition to using your voice to speak up, “I’ve got your back” can sound like:
“I want to be your ally.”
“I want to grow in this area so I can do better.”
“I want to protect you. I will come to your defense if someone tries to harm you.” (These words need to be backed up by action if the opportunity arises!)
“Can I sit with you at church?” Or, “Can I come with you when you go to [insert place where they may need an ally to help them feel safe]?”
“I want to give action to my words. I don’t just want to say things need to be better; I want to do concrete things to help bring change.”
“We need your voice! I’m going to amplify your voice any way I can!”
If you’re in a position of leadership: “How can we do better?” and “How can we come alongside you?”
One more thing: If you can’t mean these words, please don’t say them. I don’t mean that as a slam. It takes repentance and work over time to be able to say each of these things. It’s also a progression: You can’t have someone’s back when you’ve never been (or aren’t at least willing to be) there for them. And you can’t be there for them if you don’t see them (which includes seeing their pain). So if these are words you’ve never said to someone experiencing racial pain or trauma, start by prayerfully examining yourself and asking God, “Since words are the overflow of the heart, what in my heart (and mind) needs to change so I can say these words?” If you can say, “I can see you,” but you don’t think you can honestly say, “I’m here for you,” or “I’ve got your back,” bring that to God and be honest about why you feel that way. And then let God shine a light on everything in your heart that wants to hide. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it? Yes!
What follows is something I wrote many months ago when America was reeling and grappling with questions about race. I’ve been unsure of whether or not I wanted to share these words. They’re not exactly “on brand” for my blog. And as time continued to pass, I thought maybe I was trying to talk about something people have moved on from. But then a friend experienced something. Something I’ve experienced and wrote about in these paragraphs. I allowed more time to pass. And in that time, the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community has suffered: the continuation of Anti-Asian rhetoric, AAPI being attacked (even killed) in the street,the Atlanta massacre…
Many people are tired of talking about race, but the conversation isn’t over. It can’t be. There are still questions to ask, issues to discuss, and stories to share.
I’m done hiding.
During this season, I’ve been taking a hard look at ways I’ve chosen to “assimilate” into White culture (or rather, hide my Filipino-ness).
Being Asian American in predominantly White spaces is tricky. I rarely experience explicit hatred—that doesn’t mean it has never happened—but there are things that lie under the surface. The often asked “Where are you really from?” and “Did your husband meet you on the mission field?” remind me that for many, I’m forever a foreigner. I was born here. This is my home, but I don’t really belong.
And then there’s the issue of what’s safe for me to talk about. I learned early that to talk about my heritage is taboo. Friends could talk freely about the culture of whatever European country their ancestors hailed from, but conversations about my Filipino heritage were unwelcome. This unwelcoming would manifest in a few ways: being made fun of, being told to “go back to my country,” or someone quickly changing the topic. (Note: As for someone quickly changing the topic, this was never something someone would do only once. They never allowed me to speak openly about my heritage even when they spoke openly of theirs).
And then there’s the perceived language barrier. The key word: “perceived.” I speak fluent English with good grammar and a Midwest accent. Yet people still ask me, “Do you understand English?” It’s difficult to prove my intellect to someone who struggles to believe I understand the language I’m speaking fluently. In a similar way, there’s also an assumption that I’m ignorant of American history and culture. As for culture, I get that things were different in my house as both my parents are immigrants. But outside of my house, everything in my life was as “American” as my White counterparts. In fact, because I had to go back and forth between the Filipino culture inside my home and the American culture outside my home, I grew up with a greater awareness of cultural elements many people take for granted and don’t notice.
I was talking about this to a friend recently. She’s Chinese—born and raised in China—and moved to the US as a grad student. When she heard my experiences, she said, “I’m glad I’m not an Asian American! That sounds really hard!” To have to hide an integral part of who I am…Yes, it’s hard.
Over the years, I’ve been extra careful to not assume someone was treating me a certain way just because of my race. It gets hard when I’m in a store and a worker follows me around—one store clerk yelled at me while I looked at skirts. Or the many times when I’m in a women’s boutique and none of the workers will give me service of any kind unless my white husband says to them, “Can one of you please help my wife?” I try to ignore this stuff, smile, and move on.
I’ve come home crying after walking in our neighborhood multiple times because White people often slow down or stop their vehicles beside me to stare at me. It’s usually White men in big trucks—I know this is something some White women in my city have experienced. But I’ve also experienced this from White women in nice cars. Maybe this is happening for a reason other than my Asianness, but it’s happening during a time when Anti-Asian hate crimes are heightened and I don’t feel safe outside of my home. I now bring pepper spray with me on neighborhood walks.
Within church spaces—note the plural; this isn’t just something that has happened at one church or one kind of gathering—people often refuse to talk with me, give me dirty looks, or back away from me when I talk with them. But then they’ll completely change—they’ll perk up, smile, and suddenly become chatty—if my husband or another White person comes and stands beside me and speaks highly of me.
I’ve experienced more. And I’ve experienced worse.
Over the years, I found ways to adapt. I assimilated. Or rather, I hid my Filipino-ness. I dropped Filipino mannerisms. I ate with my hands far less than I used to. I avoided the sun to ensure my skin stayed as light as possible (and I used papaya soap to try to lighten it even more). I did whatever I could to blend into predominantly White surroundings. And because of this, there have been some people who have forgotten I’m not White. Someone actually told me once, “When I see you, I don’t see an Asian; I just see a White girl.” Don’t get me started on all the ways that statement is so so SO wrong. And that’s the thing: I’m NOT White. I’m 100% Filipina—this is my ethnicity. So if you can’t see my Filipina-ness, you don’t see me. At the same time, I’m also 100% American—this is my nationality. So if you look at me and only see ways I’m other, you don’t see me either.
Our ethnic heritages aren’t things that are discarded at the foot of the cross. Revelation 7:9 says,
“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
~Revelation 7:9, CSB
So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I’m just going to let this journey take me where it will. Here’s what I do know: I bear the image of God and I’m not going to be a part of tearing down the imago Dei in me anymore.
“No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person. If you don’t value your cultural identity, you are not valuing a vital aspect of the image of God within you. If you don’t value the cultural identity of another person, you are not valuing the image of God within him or her.”
I’m not saying all White people are bad. (I don’t believe that. Not even a little.)
I’m not saying there aren’t negative racial biases in ethnic minority communities.
What I AM saying:
Racism exists. Most ethnic minorities have wounds from instances when we’ve been treated differently as our White counterparts. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And because of that…
The stories of ethnic minorities need to be heard.
Every single person is a bearer of the image of God. And our uniqueness—including the uniqueness of our ethnic heritages—is a beautiful expression of the image of God. So our differences are to be celebrated, not hidden or erased.
There is hope AND there’s a lot of work to be done! So let’s get to work!
The following is a message I shared in a Drury University chapel service this week. This semester, the theme many of the speakers are exploring is “One Another.” And for anyone reading this who has taken a homiletics class (or four), yes, I realize this message isn’t “balanced” in that it’s extremely heavy on application. On the other end of the spectrum, I hate that I ended up with three points! (I typically go for a more story-like structure that takes you from point A to point B.) Moral of the story: Say the thing God wants you to say through whatever structure communicates it best!
There’s a phrase we often use when we talk about what being a Christian is: “personal relationship with Jesus.” But what does that really mean?
It means we can know Jesus—not just know about Jesus, but we can know Him—personally. We don’t need someone to mediate for us. He’s not distant. He is the God who is with us. One of Jesus’ last words to the disciples before He ascended to Heaven is, “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of the age.” He’s not just with us in an ethereal sense; we have the freedom to approach Him and talk to Him whenever we want. The idea that we can have a personal relationship with God is a distinctive of Christianity.
The problem with the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus,” is that we live in an individualist and consumerist culture. And it becomes easy for us to look at our personal relationship with Jesus with me-centered eyes.
Being a follower of Jesus is bigger than “me and Jesus.” Being a follower of Jesus means being part of something bigger than ourselves.
So here are a couple questions I’d like you to consider: Do people know you have a personal relationship with Jesus? And if they do, how do they know?
Because you told them you’re a Christian?
Because you post Christian things on social media?
Because you go to church or pray before you eat a meal?
Or because when they think of you, they think of someone who loves well?
In John 13:34-35, Jesus said:
I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
In Matthew 22: 35-40, Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments:
…an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Isn’t it interesting that these two commands that all of God’s other commands depend on are both relational and social?
In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus went so far as to say:
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Later, in Galatians 5:22, Paul described the fruit of the Spirit—one fruit with nine qualities. And what’s the first quality of the fruit of the Spirit? Love.
What marks us as Christians isn’t our piety, how often we go to church, or even our spiritual disciplines. Those things are important and have their place, but they’re not what marks us as Christians. The mark of being a follower of Jesus is love.
And as followers of Jesus, love is the thing out of which everything we do flows.
So I want to spend the rest of this time exploring this question: What does loving one another look like?
This isn’t going to be exhaustive, but I hope to give you a glimpse of what loving one another can look like and to challenge you to love others more deeply.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
The Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe the Church and one of them is the concept of family. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to open with the words, “Our Father.” He could have taught them to say, “My Father,” but a personal relationship with God isn’t just, “Me and God.” Like I said earlier, having a personal relationship with God means that we can know God personally, but it means more than that. It means that we are members of God’s family.
This past month, my husband and I were in Alabama to mourn the loss of my father-in-law. Because Alabama is farther along in the vaccine rollout, we were able to hold a service that people were actually able to attend. And it was beautiful to see what kind of people came.
There were people who lived locally whom my mother-in-law hadn’t seen in decades—people who had worked with my father-in-law at the first company he worked at after college. They showed their love just by being there.
And then there was one of my husband’s cousins. To give you some context, my father-in-law was one of twelve, so my husband has a LOT of cousins! We’ve been married for almost 18 years and I still can’t keep them all straight. In fact, there are cousins I haven’t even met yet! Of the cousins my husband actually has a relationship with, there were a number of them we expected to see because they live in the area. But there were a couple that came that were a complete surprise because they had to travel (in a pandemic!) to be there. As we spoke with one of them, he told us what compelled him to make the trip to be there: “These are the cousins I know.” I met this same cousin when Daniel and I got married. He had to travel a far distance to come to that, too. So he has both celebrated with us and mourned with us.
Loving one another means seeing people where they’re at and choosing to be with them, rejoicing with them when they rejoice and mourning with them when they mourn. Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
Loving one another looks like living for something bigger than ourselves.
How do we do that? Through our choices.
The choices we make aren’t just about us. There’s no, “I’m making this choice for me.” Our choices impact those around us.
Are there choices we make that don’t matter? Sure! A few weeks ago I bought a purse and had to choose whether I wanted the brown one or the black one. Neither one of those choices make a difference in how well I love.
Now I will say, there was another purse I’d been eyeing for months—stay with me here—but it was way out of my budget. So if I would have bought that other purse, it would have meant less money in the bank. The purse I ended up buying was almost exactly the same as the one I was eyeing except it was a different color and it was 75% off, so I could make it work within our budget. And why does it matter that I made a choice to work within our budget? Because I’ve been wanting to live more generously. And staying within our budget gives us more room to be generous and to love others better.
A completely unspiritual choice can open up possibilities for spiritual things!
Our choices—even some that we think don’t really matter—impact those around us.
Last Friday, I got my second vaccine shot. As I was getting it, I started tearing up and said to the nurse, “I’m getting emotional!” And she said, “That’s understandable! You’ve never lived through anything like this before.” And then she said something that made me tear up even more: “Just think about the difference you’re making!”
As we’ve navigated the pandemic over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of opinions about wearing masks, whether or not we should get the vaccine, and a gajillion other things. I’m not here to make a partisan argument. Science is important. The Constitution is important. And it’s okay if we have convictions about those things. It’s okay for science or the Constitution to be a reason why you advocate for something. But as Christians, the thing that should be our primary, core motivation, the motivation that trumps all others, the thing that most compels our actions…is love.
You see, if we advocate for science but without love, or if we advocate for the Constitution but without love, we can cause a lot of destruction.
If you study history, it doesn’t take long to see ways that both science and the Constitution have produced some bad fruit and have been used (and at times, manipulated) to justify some awful things, from slavery to the use of atomic bombs.
But when our core motivation is love:
instead of destruction, we create;
instead of despair, we bring hope;
and in a world that is broken, we bring healing.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence. It looks like living for something bigger than ourselves. And…
Loving one another looks like allowing God to transform us when it’s hard to love.
Our world is divided. And one of the things that has broken my heart over the past year is to see all the ways that the Church is divided, too.
There’s so much fear, anger, and hate. And I’m gonna to be honest: as a woman of color, it has been a struggle to love. People I disagree with who aren’t Christian? I can love them—easy. But Christians who post racist or misogynistic things on social media, people who marginalize me within Christian spaces and force me to defend the dignity and worth of myself and others who look like me, people for whom I think, “They’re Christians! They should know better and do better!” Not easy.
I don’t know who you struggle to love, but know that your struggle doesn’t make you a bad Christian—it makes you human. Opening our hearts to love people also means opening our hearts to be hurt by people. And unfortunately, some people do a lot of damage and never repent, never try to be better, never try to fix what they broke, never even say sorry.
So what do we do about people who are hard to love? We can’t will ourselves to love better! We can’t love our enemies or the people who’ve hurt us without God’s help.
Start by bringing your honest, unfiltered feelings to God. Don’t hold anything back from Him. If you want to learn how to do that, the Psalms are a great place to start. There’s no human emotion that isn’t expressed somewhere in the pages of the Psalms. God gave space for celebration, joy, and hopefulness. But He also gave space for lament, sadness, discouragement, depression, anger. And if God gave space for those emotions in the Bible, we can know that God gives space for those emotions in us as well. Our emotions—even the dark ones we try to hide from other people—are safe with God. Sometimes we think, “I don’t want to have this emotion, so I’m going to ignore it and pretend it’s not there.” But there’s a better way. You don’t have to hide those things from God.
When you give God access to those parts of yourself, you also give space for Him to heal and transform you—not with a neat and tidy bandaid, but with true healing. And when we experience God’s healing and transformation, we can truly love.
So what does this look like? We can pray, “God, I really wish this person or these people would [insert all the dark stuff you don’t want to wish on them but deep down you really do].” And feel safe in the knowledge that God won’t be surprised by any of those thoughts or feelings because He already knows you have them! It’s not about telling God so He can see them. It’s about telling God so you can give Him access to every single part of your heart. And when you’ve laid it all before God, ask Him to do His work in and through those painful thoughts and emotions.
As you pray for people who are hard to love, you might need to start by praying for God to help you to be able to pray for them!
And then over time, you can try praying for God to change their heart—for them to see the harm they’ve caused and to come to a place of repentance. And maybe one day, you can even come to a place where you can pray for their well-being and flourishing wherever they are.
And even if they never change, you want God to have access to heal and transform the part of your heart that was hurt by them—not to excuse what they’ve done, but so the hurt they caused doesn’t hold you back from being able to love others and to also be able to receive love from others.
Because love is our purpose and calling as followers of Jesus. It’s even our birthright as children of God because we’re not just meant to give it but to also receive it.
Let’s love one another with empathy and presence.
Let’s love one another by living for something bigger than ourselves.
And let’s even allow God to transform us when it’s hard to love.
I wrote these words and shared many of them on social media before the Atlanta massacre on March 16, 2021. I considered waiting until a later time to share them on my blog. But one thing the recent tragedy has brought to light is how the limited representation of Asian Americans combined with the weaponizing of terms such as “Kung Flu” and the fetishizing of Asian women has done tremendous harm and has even put lives in danger. I hope that by sharing stories like these, maybe we can start to cultivate change.
Story No. 1:
I went to an art supplies store to look for a certain set of markers that included nine skin tone colors. No luck. The closest thing I found was a six-piece set of skin tone colors—the darkest color a medium brown and none of them were even close to matching mine. I gave up and left the store with a single, green marker for coloring pictures of leaves.
When I got home, I did a search on the internet and found Crayola’s Colors of the World collection—24 beautiful shades ranging from porcelain to deep browns. As I added the marker and colored pencil sets to my Amazon cart, I found myself getting emotional. Memories of drawing self portraits in art class and awkwardly staring at the peach and brown crayons, decades of trying to lighten my skin and avoiding letting my skin tan, years of feeling ugly because “beautiful” photos didn’t include women who had any features that looked like mine. I confronted it all with my Amazon cart. (“Medium deep golden” is the color of me!)
Story No. 2:
When I heard about Raya and the Last Dragon for the first time—the movie with the first Southeast Asian Disney princess—I cried. Full-on, intense, happy tears. I turn 40 this year and I’ve waited my entire life for this! I wish I could tell little, seven-year-old me (or even 25-year old me) that one day my dream would come true. A strong Disney princess who has brown skin and a nose like mine, eats congee, and even has some Filipino martial arts moves—what a time to be alive!
I’m the daughter of Filipino immigrants and most of my closest friends growing up were also the children of Filipino immigrants. They were like cousins and their parents became surrogate titos and titas. I grew up feeling very connected to my Filipino heritage. Now I live hundreds of miles from home in one of the whitest cities in America where I have one Filipina friend. We got to watch Raya together while eating halo-halo.
Bonus: I think getting to watch her four-year-old daughter get into the movie moved me as much as the movie did! Watching this little girl gaze at Raya gave me hope. She’s growing up in a very different world than the one I grew up in, a world where “beautiful” includes her and she’s empowered to be strong.
(And in case you’re wondering, Raya and the Last Dragon was wonderful and lived up to the hype!)
I’ll leave you with a couple thoughts to consider:
Representation matters because people matter. Every single person is created in the image of God. Our ethnicities are a part of the way we reflect the Imago Dei. To diminish anyone’s ethnicity is to diminish the Imago Dei in them.
Representation for people of color doesn’t mean removing representation of White people. There is space for all of us! The attitude that White people lose if people of color get a seat/voice is scarcity mentality and is antithetical to the Gospel and the Kingdom.
The name of this marker is “medium deep golden” and it’s the color of me!
Each year I pray for God to give me a word. A word to internalize, grow into, and live out. A word that can bring me focus as I navigate the challenges the year will bring. What was the word God gave me for 2020? Prophesy.
Seriously, God? It seemed too weird. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I saw a lot of false prophets and predictions. (Anyone remember all the prophesies about how the world would end and Jesus would come back at Y2K?) Even though I believe some prophets and prophecies are real and biblical, I’ve seen enough falsehood, abuses of Scripture, and weirdness to have a skeptical view of people who proclaim themselves to be prophets or to have “a word from the Lord.” And let’s not forget the fact that the Bible has some harsh words for false prophets!
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a message in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet must die.’ You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a message the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”
Suffice it to say, when I sensed God speaking the word “prophesy” to me, I said, “Thanks, God, but no thanks! Can you give me a different word? One that isn’t so weird or scary?”
God didn’t answer this last request. He didn’t need to; He knew what I would need. More than that, He knew how this year would unfold and that the people in my sphere of influence would need a prophetic voice. So He continued to whisper the same word in my heart again and again. And He pointed me to a passage of Scripture that felt like fire every time I came across it. Sermons, books, wherever I looked—it felt like I couldn’t get away from it!
“Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For the person who speaks in a tongue is not speaking to people but to God, since no one understands him; he speaks mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the person who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The person who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish all of you spoke in tongues, but even more that you prophesied. The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be built up.”
“Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
In my resisting, God was relentless. (That’s one of the ways I know I’m not just making stuff up and God’s really speaking to me.) I came to a point where I couldn’t shake His voice—I didn’t want to—and I gave in. My giving in to God was part reluctance, but bigger part expectation that God knew what He was doing and had something in store.
Prophesy. Not “prophet.” Not “prophecy.” The word He gave me was a verb, an action word. And shortly after I gave in to God, March 2020 happened. The world was reeling from a global pandemic and America went into lockdown. And in the following months, America began to reel even more as racial injustice was recorded for all to see and people cried out in the streets. All of this and so much more in a crazy election year. And in the midst of everything, God didn’t want me to be a passive observer; He wanted me to do something.
You may be thinking, “If God gave you the word “prophesy” for the year of 2020, shouldn’t you have seen everything coming?” When you read the prophetic books in the Bible, you find that even though part of their message included predicting future events, the bulk of their messages consisted of critique and hope.
Did I see the crazy before it all happened? Not quite. But at every turn this year, I’ve felt ready. Not just ready to go through each challenge with a peace and purpose, but also ready to care for and appropriately speak into the lives of the people God has called me to love and lead.
“The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are instructed
to know how to sustain the weary with a word.
He awakens me each morning;
he awakens my ear to listen like those being instructed.”
In June of this year (the month when racial injustice was brought into the light and couldn’t be ignored any longer), I was reading the book of Jeremiah. That was a difficult month for me. I was heartbroken and angry about all of the injustice. I felt disillusioned as a large number of Christians (including leaders) said things that completely contradicted what I was reading in the Bible. And then I’d see other Christians who had the courage to speak up, only to get torn down by their Christian brothers and sisters. And each day as I continued to wade through the long book of Jeremiah, I found myself feeling more disillusioned—not by God, but by people who violated His word in His name. And all I could do was lament.
Looking through the lens of the word “prophesy”—along with diligent study of what the Bible has to say and taking the time to hear God’s voice on the matter—has given me a unique perspective of this year. At times, it has allowed me to see with expectation (even excitement) during times when many have felt anxious and afraid. At other times, it has caused me to have caution when some have declared, “Everything’s looking up now!” And when there has been a rise of people declaring to have had prophecies or dreams of what is to come, I’m finding it easier to discern when it’s time to listen, when something needs to be put on a shelf for later, or when something needs to be corrected or discarded. Most importantly, in the midst of a difficult year, it has helped me to hold the tension of both lament and hope.
What follows are passages from the Bible that talk about prophets and prophesying. This isn’t exhaustive by any means. These are simply some of the passages that have stuck out to me this year as I’ve explored what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) to prophesy.
The entire book of Jeremiah is a great starting point. It’s like a narrative textbook on what it means to be a prophet. There’s way too much gold in this book to put in a single blog post, so I’ll just share some highlights.
The life of the prophet isn’t easy. These words from God to Jeremiah give insight into one of the challenges that comes with being a prophet:
“When you speak all these things to them, they will not listen to you. When you call to them, they will not answer you. Therefore, declare to them…”
The words God gave Jeremiah to preach weren’t easy for people to digest. (He foretold of invasion and exile and preached a message of repentance from idolatry, oppression, and injustice.) On the other hand, Judah’s leaders were saying things that seemed more optimistic or faith-filled. But the words of these leaders didn’t come from God and weren’t rooted in the truth.
And notice what God said about people who were falsely “prophesying” in Jeremiah’s day:
“This is what the Lord of Armies says: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They are deluding you. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the Lord’s mouth. They keep on saying to those who despise me, “The Lord has spoken: You will have peace.” They have said to everyone who follows the stubbornness of his heart, “No harm will come to you.”
Moving beyond the book of Jeremiah…For all those who think they have a prophecy from God because, like Michael Scott, they declared it:
“Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus warned his followers about false prophets and told them how they could recognize them:
“Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.“
You’ll recognize them by their fruit. There are a lot of places in the Bible that talk about fruit. The most famous of these passages is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. When it comes to prophets, pay attention to the fruit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Earlier I quoted 1 Corinthians 14:1 where Paul wrote, “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” God gives some people the gift of prophecy to build up the Church. But we shouldn’t be naive and listen to everyone who claims to be a prophet with a “word from the Lord.” So what should we do when someone has a message?
“Don’t stifle the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies, but test all things. Hold on to what is good.“
Test all things—every prophecy—and take note: Does this line up with the heart of Scripture? What kind of fruit do I observe? If it includes a prediction, did it come true? And when you test all things, hold on to what is good. Speaking of holding on to what is good, as Paul writes to Timothy, a young minister he mentored, he gave a glimpse of the good that prophecies hold:
“Timothy, my son, I am giving you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies previously made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the good fight…”
If you feel like God is asking you to prophesy, first pray for God to give you discernment so you can know the difference between His voice and your own. (Double check to make sure that word that’s burning in your heart actually came from Him.) And then, if you still feel God has given you a prophetic word to share, courageously obey His voice. And as you prophesy, trust God to deal with the hearts of others while paying attention to the fruit that flows from your own.
There are SO MANY Bible study tools available. And among them are a lot of great resources as well as a lot of…um…not so great ones. So if you don’t know what you’re looking for (or maybe even if you do), navigating the sea of accessible Bible study tools can be overwhelming. So I thought I’d let you see some of my go-tos. Please note that even though I tried to keep this list short and simple, it can still seem like a lot if you’re just getting started. So after getting a Bible, if you want to start with just one thing, skip to the very end!
My Go-To Bibles:
First things first. The most important tool when you’re studying the Bible is…a Bible.
She Reads Truth Bible – There are a lot of Bibles in my home in a vast array of translations, languages, and editions. But when I’m sitting down to spend time with Jesus, this is the first one I grab. It has helpful resources in it (devotionals, charts, timelines, etc.) but not so much that I get bogged down in overthinking mode. In other words, it has a clean design and doesn’t look like a textbook. It also has wide margins, so it’s a great journaling Bible. (Random fun fact: one of the devotional writers is Jill McDaniel. Who’s Jill McDaniel? She goes to my church and she’s my friend. Also, she’s awesome.)
He Reads Truth Bible – I love my SRT Bible so much that I bought my husband the HRT Bible when it came out. Unlike the SRT Bible, the HRT Bible doesn’t have any devotionals in it. BUT, it does contain more resources (charts and such) that they developed after making the She Reads Truth Bible. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for me to borrow my husband’s Bible.
ESV Study Bible – This is pretty much the gold standard of study Bibles! It’s what I go to when I want to get into the nitty gritty. Its pages contain a wealth of diagrams, charts, notes, and a whole lot more. (Something to keep in consideration is that many of the notes in this study Bible are written from a more Reformed perspective. If that’s a turnoff for you, I list another great study Bible below.)
Bible.com – This is a free digital Bible website and app. I mostly use this when I’m on the go or when I’m looking up passages in multiple versions. (I also link to Bible.com whenever I quote passages in my blog. 😉 ) The She Reads Truth app and He Reads Truth app are also great digital Bible options.
Since words—especially words in the Bible—don’t always mean what we think they mean, here are a couple websites where you can click/tap on a word in a passage and find out what it means: NetBible.org and BibleWebApp.com.
Bible Background Resources:
Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – I didn’t list this under the “My Go-To Bibles” category because I only have this Bible in Kindle format, so I mostly use it for the articles. If you don’t already have a study Bible, I highly recommend this one! (I link the NIV below, but it also comes in NKJV and NRSV.)
To be honest, I don’t use the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible as much because the following two books are my go-to for historical and cultural background deep dives.
John Walton and Craig Keener, the writers for the notes in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, are the same people who wrote these commentaries. When I read these commentaries, I often find myself exclaiming out loud, “What?! This passage makes so much more sense now!”
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
A note about commentaries for Biblical studies and ministerial students: I use a lot more commentaries than what I list here. I’m not going to list any of them here, because the point of this post is to give people who are beginning to study the Bible a starting point. Which commentaries are best? It depends on which book of the Bible you’re studying and what you’re looking for in a commentary. So when you’re picking commentaries, do your research and use more than one source when you can (libraries can help!).
I love BibleProject so much that I got their ginormous coffee table book that has all the diagrams and summaries from the videos for each book of the Bible.
Honestly, I could spend hours just sitting and watching BibleProject videos. They have so much to explore! But when it comes to my regular Bible study, what do I do with these BibleProject resources? Before I begin reading a book of the Bible, I like to watch the corresponding video that “outlines its structure and design and how it fits into the entire biblical story.” And then I like to keep the coffee table book open close by so that if I feel like I’ve lost where I am in the larger story—especially when I’m reading a particularly lengthy book—I can glance up and get my bearings.
Okay, so I told you some of my go-tos. What are some of yours?
As I share my stories, people tell me theirs. And they tell me how my story made them feel seen, or gave them hope in the midst of something hard, or even inspired them to pray a courageous prayer…”because I know you went through this.” My favorite is when someone tells me how a story I shared however many years ago is helping them through something they’re going through now.
Stories are like seeds. When they’re told, they’re buried in minds and hearts. And one day—maybe even years later—they bear fruit.
I’m 38 years old. I’ve been married for 17 years. And I have no children. This is not the story I would’ve chosen for myself, but it’s the one I’m living. And though it’s not an easy story to live, I love it. After all, who wants to read a story where the characters are always happy and never experience anything hard? Give me the stories with adventure, surprises, and conflict, the ones that end with the characters completely transformed.
So here I am in my wonderful, messy story. And as I type these words, I’m sitting on my couch with a heating pad on my belly as I recover from a total hysterectomy.
A number of years ago, a dear friend of mine (who’s only a few years older than me) walked the road of infertility, multiple surgeries, and then ultimately a hysterectomy. She chose to be open about her struggles and anguish. She poured out her heart in the beautiful, dissonant words she typed on social media. I don’t think she had any idea what kind of seed she was planting in my heart as I silently read her posts. Neither of us knew I would live her words several years later. The difference for me is I had less to discover on my own. Her wrestling emboldened my battle. And her hope in God became kindling for mine.
When it was my turn to get a hysterectomy, I knew it was a good thing, that my life would still be abundant and beautiful. I knew because I saw her go through this. And in the moments when I felt afraid or discouraged, her story gave me courage. After my surgery, I texted her, “I remember when you walked this road. Knowing you went through this made it less scary for me!”
The surgery is over, but I’m suddenly in another chapter. My surgery thrust me into menopause, no transition to ease me into it. And I find I’m completely clueless. I grappled with questions about my womanhood when I came to grips with my barrenness, and now I’m asking questions about my womanhood again as I take my first steps in the sea of menopause. I don’t know how to swim in these waters.
Menopause is one of those things in our culture we don’t discuss beyond a few jokes here and there. And because of that, I grew up believing menopause was something to be dreaded, something that carried all sorts of horribleness and no possible good. I don’t quite know what the truth is about menopause or how to discover it. Generations of women have walked this path before me, yet I feel like I’m clearing the path for myself all alone.
The areas we choose to make taboo are the areas where we rob the next generation from flourishing. I wish I could have entered this new phase of life armed with the stories of women who have gone before me. I can’t change what was. But I can change things for those who will come after me.
So here’s my challenge to all of us:
Whatever our stories are, it’s time to bring them to the light. And let’s create a culture that cherishes these stories and celebrates their telling, no matter how mundane or painful or joyous. Let’s plant these seeds so those who come after us can eat of their fruit and flourish!
***Some words of caution about sharing your story that I added later:
While I believe we could powerfully impact the generations that come after us by giving space to tell stories about things that were once taboo, I’m not advocating we share every detail about everything. We need wisdom and care with the stories we share.
I consider whether or not a story is one I’m willing to be vulnerable about. Being vulnerable means opening ourselves to the possibility of being hurt. So when I’m considering whether or not I’m willing to share something, I ask myself, Can I handle someone saying something mean or insensitive about this right now? I don’t believe we should open up everything in our lives to that, especially areas where we’re still in the process of healing.
When a story involves other people, I consider whether or not a story is completely mine to tell. There are stories I’ll never blog about because even though I feel comfortable sharing my part of the story, it’s not my place to decide when other people will be vulnerable with their part.
One last thing: some stories can be shared openly and publicly. But there are some stories that should be reserved for spaces where we feel safe, whether that’s a small group or a one-on-one conversation with someone we trust.
I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn me forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah
(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)
These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song. These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.
God, where are You?
Can You hear me?
Have You forgotten me?
Did You stop loving me?
Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?
Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search…
Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all you work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)
When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.
Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
(Psalm 77:19, ESV)
In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
(Psalm 77:19, ESV)
Your road led through the sea,
your pathway through the mighty waters—
a pathway no one knew was there!
(Psalm 77:19, NLT)
“Yet your footprints were unseen.”
“A pathway no one knew was there.”
Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.
So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.
Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.
Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,
when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,
help me to diligently seek You.
And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,