Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What to Expect When You're a New Believer

            What can we expect after our conversion?  After saying that prayer to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior?  What is the Christian journey like?     
            I was thinking about my post “Starting Your Own Relationship with Jesus Christ” and about how saying a prayer to accept Jesus’ offer of grace, forgiveness, and salvation is just the beginning.  But then what?  What comes after that?  Are there any help, tips, or cautions that we can pass on to new believers, something to help them in their walk with the Lord?
            As I look back over 30-ish years of being a Christian, I’m reflecting on parts of the journey that I didn’t know to expect, that I wasn’t warned about or didn’t know were normal.  And I’d like to pass on some of these “faith lessons” to new (or old) believers who might be wondering, “What is the Christian life really like?  What might be in store for me now that I have accepted Jesus as Lord?” 
            Of course, it looks different for everyone.  And this is all from my experience, so you may not relate to some of this.  But at least tuck it into the back of your mind, in case you need it someday.  My hope is to help prepare new Christians for what lies ahead, to pass on some helpful advice, and to help encourage them when times are tough, letting them know that it’s not abnormal and that many of us go through it.
            The thing is, this Christian walk is not always clean and positive and uplifting, like we think it should be.  It can be very discouraging and difficult and messy at times.  And while I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s new, exciting, fresh faith, I do want you to prepare you for what’s ahead.  Someday, this information might be useful.  (And I expand more on all this advice in February 2015.) 
            So in no particular order, here is what to expect when you are a new believer:

1.  You may be on an emotional high at first. 
            This is normal.  In the beginning, there is a sense of excitement and enthusiasm for all things Christian.  Enjoy this time.  Enjoy seeing God for the first time through eyes of faith.  Get in touch with His love and His goodness and His grace.  Let it fill your heart, heal old wounds, build you up inside, and change your life and outlook. 
            But just know that it is normal for this enthusiasm to wane over time.  You will come down off of that high, land back on earth, and realize that life still goes on as normal.  (You’ll just be seeing it with new eyes!  And that never gets old!)  But this does not mean that you love God any less or that He loves you any less.  Nor does it mean you are losing faith or that God is letting you down or that you are failing in your Christian walk in any way.  You are just entering the next step of maturity in the Christian faith, learning to live your faith in real life.  And it is a journey full of ups and downs, mountaintops and valleys, pain and joy.  Your emotions and enthusiasm will fluctuate and waiver, but God never does.

2.    Remember not to squash other people during this time of enthusiasm.
            When you first let God’s love and healing and forgiveness into your heart, it is easy to want others to experience it, too.  To want to force it on them.  Plus, you feel honored to have found the Truth, and you will want others to see it, too.  And so you might be tempted to “beat people over the head with the Bible.”  But this always backfires.    
            You have to be careful to balance the truth with love and respect for the other person.  If you try to force your beliefs on others or if you stop treating them as people as start treating them as “the lost” and as “targets for conversion,” you will push them away.  Jesus was always about gently drawing people to Him, not forcibly pulling them or rubbing their noses in His Truth. 
            Expect for the Pharisees and those who were “spiritually wise” in their own eyes!  His harshest words of condemnation were for them.  And He pulled no punches when it came to confronting them with the truth.  So do not become a Pharisee – a legalistic, high-and-mighty, hoity-toity, “I am smarter than you and know just what you need” Christian.  Let your love and the way you graciously live out your newfound faith draw others to Him as they see something different and desirable about you.

3.  Dovetailing from that: Remember that it’s “truth and love,” not “truth or love.”
            If we overemphasize truth and underemphasize love, we will be judgmental, legalistic, uncompassionate Christians who just want to tell everyone else how to live.  And we will make it all about following the rules and changing your behavior, instead of following Christ and changing your heart. 
            But if we overemphasize love and underemphasize truth, we won’t stand up for God’s biblical truth or tell people the hard things because we won’t want to make them feel bad or guilty.  We will “tickle the ears” of people, telling them what they want to hear.  And consequently, we will share responsibility for them drifting further and further from God and His Truth.  Remember, we are accountable to God for what we do with His Truth.  It isn’t easy to stand up for truth, but there might be a time when we have to.  For the sake of other people’s souls and lives and for the moral climate of our churches and country.
            The way to balance this “truth and love” is to . . .
            - abide in the Word regularly so that you know the truth.
            - live it out peacefully and graciously in your own life so that people can see something different about you.
            - share God’s truth confidently, firmly, and gently when an opportunity or invitation to do so arrives, but with respect for other people’s right to agree or disagree.  Even God allows people to make up their own mind, to decide if they want to agree with Him or disagree.  He shares the truth, gently calls to us, and wants us to agree with Him, but He doesn’t force us to.   And if we choose not to, He allows us the consequences that go with our choice to rebel.
            It’s not your responsibility to force the Truth on people.  Just live it in your own life while loving others and taking opportunities to respectfully share it (and taking a firm but gentle stand when necessary).  And this will hopefully draw others to Christ, as they see more and more of Him through you.

4.  It is critical to abide in the Word regularly. 
             “How can a young man keep his way pure?  By living according to your word.  I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.  I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”  (Psalm 119:9-11)
            This is how you grow and mature in the faith.  But you will not grow if your Bible only comes out on rare occasions.  If you are not in the Word regularly, you will be drifting.  And you won’t even know it.  
            But do not just read the Bible to check it off your daily “To Do” list.  Read it to find God in the pages.  To draw near to the heart of God.  To become more like Christ.  To get His help and wisdom for life.  And to learn more about who He really is and who you really are.  Read especially to find the balance between God’s love and God’s holiness/justness.  Read it to know what you really believe and why you really believe it, so that you have answers and can take a confident stand when it comes to your faith.  Read it with your heart, not just with your mind.  God is in those pages, waiting to meet you and help you on your walk through life.
            And don’t just read it.  Mull it over all day.  Meditate on it.  Post verses around your house.  Let it dwell in your heart, change your outlook and your life, make you more like Christ, make you more in love with God, and inspire you each day. 
            I have been reading it for 30 years, and I still find new things to love and learn every time I open it.  If you treat it and value it the way you should, it will become so precious to you.  Your most treasured, powerful possession.   
            And remember that the Word is one of the pieces of spiritual armor.  (More on that later.)  Use it like it is.  When negative thoughts attack you, use Scripture to battle it.  When temptations strike, use Scripture to fend them off.  When you want to doubt God’s goodness and love, use Scripture to remind yourself of who God really is.  When you want to give in to guilt and self-condemnation, immerse yourself in verses about God’s forgiveness and grace.  Use the Word like the sword that it is (Eph. 6:18), to defend yourself against the flaming arrows of the enemy.
            Reading God’s Word is not a chore or an obligation.  (Yes, it may be difficult to understand at first, but it gets more familiar and easier to understand the more you read.)  It is a chance to connect with the love  and Truth of the God of the universe who wants to have a real, authentic, vibrant relationship with each of us.  Don’t treat it as just an old book.  It is God’s heart poured out to us on paper!   
            And when the “new faith excitement” has waned and the hard times and trials come, it will help keep you on-track.  It will be like a life-preserver.  It will be what you cling to, to keep your head above water and your spirit from crumbling.  It is during those times that you will need those verses that you have hidden in your heart and committed to memory.  So immerse yourself in the Word during the easier, good times so that the Truth is already there when the hard times hit.
            And no excuses!  There is always time for the Word.  If you have time to update your Facebook page and watch TV and talk on the phone, you are not so busy that you cannot spend some time in the Word every day.  No excuses!  You are only fooling yourself - not God – when you say, “I know I should read the Bible more but . . .”  There is no “but”! 
            And find a church that faithfully teaches the Word of God and that does not add to it or subtract from it or alter it to please people.  It doesn’t matter how nice the people are . . . if they alter the Word and treat clear teachings as “negotiable,” get out of there fast.  And find a church that upholds the Word of God for what it is: God-breathed!  Once you start tampering with Scripture and changing it to fit what you want it to say, anything goes.
             “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  (2 Timothy 3: 16-17)    
             “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”  (2 Timothy 4: 3-4)
             “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  (2 Timothy 2: 15)    

5.  Do not hold unbelievers to Christian standards.
            Unbelievers are not Christians.  And so we cannot hold them to the same standards that we hold Christians to.  What I mean by this is that it’s one thing to tell a Christian what they can do or not do (biblically), but we do not have the right to force unbelievers to agree with us and to force them to live their life the way a Christian is called to do.  They are not Christians . . . yet!
            We should not be passing judgment on unbelievers, wagging our fingers at them, saying, “No, no, no, you shouldn’t be doing this!  You shouldn’t be doing that!” 
            “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.”  (1 Cor. 5:12-13)
            That will only repel them.  And when we do this, we are focusing on their outside and not on their inside.  We are more concerned about their behavior than their heart.  We are scolding them and challenging them to clean up the outside . . . before the Holy Spirit has even gotten a hold of the inside.  And this is backwards.
            “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”  (Matthew 23:25-26)
            Their heart is more important than if they smoke or cuss or listen to music they “shouldn’t” be listening to.  And we need to be more about reaching their heart (and listening to what’s on their heart) than about forcing them to adopt the way we live.  You might never be able to get them to change their ways no matter how much you love them and share the Good News with them, but you will definitely lose them from the very beginning if you make it more about their behavior than their heart.
            The Holy Spirit’s job is to convict them, to change their heart.  Our job is to reflect Christ to them, to draw them to Him.  And when they have recognized their need (with the Holy Spirit’s help) to change their life and their behavior, then we can come alongside them and help them grow in Christ.   

6.  Even with other Christians, we still need to be careful how we challenge them.
            Everyone is on their own journey with the Lord, at their own point in the journey and their own pace.  And we cannot judge them for not being at the same point we are or for not learning the same things we have learned or for struggling with something we don’t struggle with or that we have successfully gone through. 
            Yes, we need to gently point out areas of sin and we need to help each other grow in our spiritual life and to mature in the faith.  But we need to do this in love, with a genuine desire to help them.  And passing judgment on them or criticizing them or scolding them for not being “Christian enough” will only backfire.
            And we need to always remember to look at ourselves.  We need to be more concerned with cleaning up our shortcomings and our areas of weakness than we are with cleaning up other people.  If we do this, we will inspire others by our example instead of just by our critical words.  

7.  Don’t make mountains out of molehills!
            There are many biblical truths that we cannot negotiate on.  And as you read your Bible regularly, you will learn more and more about which issues these are.  Jesus’ sacrificial death being the only way to heaven.  That He was God and man.  That we are to care for the poor, needy, orphans, and widows.  That salvation, forgiveness, and grace are free gifts that God has made available to us, that we can never earn but can only accept.  That we need to forgive others and seek forgiveness for our sins.  That extra-marital affairs, lying, cheating, stealing, and such are wrong.  Etc.!   
            But then there are many other issues which are not so black-and-white.  And when it comes to these, we cannot let  disagreements about them become divisive and cause us to fight against each other.  We cannot turn these molehills into mountains, these “less significant” issues into major ones, these “less clear” ones into strict “black-and-white.”  This should never be the case . . . because it will only cause problems in the body of Christ.
            While we can firmly decide where we stand on those “less clear” issues and while we might have real reasons for what we believe about them, we cannot expect every other believer to share our views.  And we cannot let these kinds of issues turn our church into an “us against them” kind of thing.  They are not the enemy just because they don’t share our views on these less-clear teachings of Scripture.  We need to have a spirit of grace about this and know which issues are significant, black-and-white ones and which aren’t.

8.  And we should not let our position on these “less clear” issues trip up others. 
            As an example, let’s look at drinking alcohol.  Let’s say that you believe it is okay to have a drink every now and then, but your friend believes it is wrong.  This is not a clear issue in the Bible.  It says to not get drunk but it doesn’t say to not drink.  Even Jesus provided alcohol at a wedding for His first public miracle of turning water into wine.  Yet we all know the dangers of drinking, so there is good reason to stay away from it.  So there is some support for your position and for your friend’s position. 
            We have to figure out - between ourselves and God  - where we stand on these kinds of things.  We are accountable to God for the convictions He gives us about these “less clear” issues.  And we need to let others be accountable to Him for their decisions, too. 
            Yet our different positions should not cause division, with one of us acting superior, more holy, and more godly than the other.  We can agree to disagree, to tolerate those kinds of differences, living respectfully alongside others who don’t share our beliefs on this.
            But the person who drinks has to be careful to not trip up another believer who gets distressed about Christians drinking or whose faith is shaken when someone tries to convince them that it’s okay.  If they do not feel it is okay for them to drink, we would not be acting in love to throw them into confusion by telling them they are wrong or by making them overly concerned that we are “in sin” when we drink.  If we let our views on these “gray areas” trip up another person’s faith then we are not acting in love.  And we are out of line.  So you may have to keep those kinds of “liberties and freedoms” to yourself if it will hurt the faith of another believer.
            Romans 14:5-23:  (a few verses taken out for space)
     “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike.  Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.  He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. . . . You, then, why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you look down on your brother?  For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. . . . So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. 
     Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.  Instead make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.  . . . But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.  If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.  Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. . . . For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. . . .
     Therefore let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. . . . It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.
     So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.  Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.  But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”     

            Whenever you are in doubt or tempted to judge or tempted to challenge someone who is distressed about your position, err on the side of compassion and grace and keeping your mouth shut.  But if God does put it on your heart to confront someone on their position about an issue, do it in love and gentleness and always full of grace.  It’s not your job to change them, just to confront them, if God so leads you to do it. 

9.  It’s not about “winning the argument” with another believer or an unbeliever. 
            We tend to think that we know best and that we have to beat others in a battle of wits, in a debate over biblical things.  But it’s not about winning or showing off how smart or godly we are.  (This will make us repulsive to people.)  It’s about helping each other, about coming alongside another person and lovingly putting our arm around their shoulder and helping them on their journey through life or on their long, hard, confusing journey of faith.   
            We need to be there for each other, not fight against each other.  We are all on the same team.  With other believers, we are all on Christ’s team and wanting to do our best to share His love, truth. grace, forgiveness, and healing with others.  And with non-believers, we are all on the same level ground at the foot of the cross.  We are all fallen, sinful humans who do not deserve and cannot earn God’s love, grace, or forgiveness. 
            But that’s okay . . . because we don’t have to deserve or earn it.  It is a free gift that He offers to all of us, if only we would accept it in humility and thankfulness.  But those of us who do accept it are no better or more loved than those who don’t.  And we need to be loving others with the same love that God has for us.  We need to be letting them know of the free gifts He has made available for all of us.  We need to be for them, not against them.  For we are standing right there next to each other at the foot of the cross!  And Jesus died for their sins, out of His incredible love for them, just like He did for us!

10.  Speaking of love . . . No masks!
            You cannot make God love you any more than He already does.  And nothing you do can make Him love you any less.  So you do not need to hide all the bad parts of yourself and put on some “good Christian” mask.  You don’t need to polish yourself up to make Him love you more or care more about you. 
            He doesn’t want your “good Christian performance.”  He wants your heart.  He wants a genuine relationship with you.  He wants to heal the broken parts.  But this cannot happen if we lock them deep into our hearts so that no one – not even God – can touch them. 
            If you want an authentic, genuine relationship with Him, you need to be authentic and genuine with Him.  You need to come before Him humbly and take off the mask and present your real self to Him.  He can handle the honesty, the ugly and broken and faulty parts of you.
            But what He does not want is distance between your heart and His.  Jesus died to bridge the gap between us and Him so that there would be no distance, so that we could freely and humbly enter into His throne-room and fall into His arms and let His love complete us. 
            Hiding the bad parts won’t make Him love you more because He loves you as much as He ever could . . . as you are . . . right now.  It will only bring distance and heartache!  So get rid of the mask and get real with Him.  It is too exhausting and discouraging to keep that mask on anyway!  And we were never meant to wear it! 

11.  The Christian life is not a competition!
            Our job is to do our best to follow after God, to grow more and more like Jesus, to draw nearer and nearer to Him, and to reflect Him to others.  And we cannot compare our progress to other Christians or compare their progress to ours.  It’s not about what jobs or positions God gave someone else, what gifts He gave them, or how well they are doing on their journey with the Lord.  It’s about what He gave you and if you are being faithful to do your best with it for His glory. 
            There is no faster way to sour a Christian than to compare your spiritual progress and gifts to another person.  Just focus on you and on your walk with God and on doing your best for His glory, no matter where you are, what your job is. or what gifts He gave you.  God notices and appreciates whenever you are faithfully following Him and seeking to bring Him glory, no matter how small your role or job.  And He will reward it in eternity.  When we stand before Him, we are accountable for our lives only, not for someone else’s.    

12.  Never put yourself or anyone else up on a pedestal!
            We are all human.  We will all be weak at some point.  We will all fail at some point and let other people down.  None of us has a right to look down on anyone.  Only God sits high enough to do that.  We are all in need of understanding, compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love! 
            So never think that anyone is incapable of falling.  Never hold another person up so high in your mind – as some great, godly, superhuman hope for the common man – that you are crushed when they fall and are unable to extend grace to them.  Many people have had their faith crushed when some “spiritual giant” fell.  Never make anyone into a “spiritual giant” in your eyes.  Do not put that burden on another person.  They are human, too, and will fail at some point.  Give them grace when they fail, not the blame for crushing your faith.   
            And do not think that you are above anyone else either.  You are sure to fail at some point, be weak and in need, and to let others down occasionally, too.  You will have to say sorry at times, fix something you broke, right a wrong.  You will still sin and give in to temptation.  The only difference now is that it will bother you.  (And your goal is to grow in righteousness and to sin less and less as you mature in the faith.   The more you follow after Christ and seek His righteousness, the less enticing sin will be.  And remember, garbage in, garbage out.  If you fill your mind and heart with garbage, don’t be surprised if you end up sitting in the dump that you have made out of your life.  Protect your mind and seek righteousness, not garbage!) 
            We are all human and we will all fall.  Have grace for others if you want others to have grace for you.  And have some grace for yourself, too.  You need help and encouragement and forgiveness and grace and mercy just like the next person.  It’s what makes us human!  And it’s okay to be human, as long as we pick ourselves up after we fall and keep following after the Lord!
            Remember that this life is not one big battle.  It is many small, daily ones, one right after the next.  With many chances to make it right with others.  And with a chance to make it right with God every time you fall.  So when you do, ask for forgiveness, pick yourself back up again, reconnect with God’s love, healing, grace, and mercy, and keep moving forward.  Eyes on Christ.  One step at a time.

13.  Be on the lookout not only for pedestals but for “righteous cliques” and bandwagons, too. 
            Throughout your walk, there will be times when a flashy bandwagon full of confident, wise-sounding Christians rolls past you, spouting off (in a self-righteous, “Pharisee” kind of way) about spiritual things, about other people’s sins, and about how “good Christians” should live.  Yet they will lack compassion and humility and be all about rules and about putting themselves above others, about pointing fingers and making judgmental proclamations.
            And you will be tempted to jump on board because they seem so impressive and righteous.  You will think that they must know what they are talking about because they sound so confident.  Plus, deep down inside, you will want to be on the finger-pointer’s side and not the one being pointed at.  You will want to side with the spiritual bullies and not the ones being bullied.  You will want to sound righteous, too, like you are one of them.
            Be careful about this.  It is all-too-easy to start mimicking each other, making proclamations against others, gossiping about others “out of godly concern,” and to forget that you are talking about real people with real feelings and real struggles who need real compassion.  And it’s all-too-easy to forget that you are one of them – one of those real people with real struggles and real sins, too.  (And from my experience, things that we say about others and criticize them for have a way of coming back around to us.  And eventually, you will find yourself in their shoes.  It might be God's way of humbling us.  So watch what you say about others and always think, That could be me someday!)
            So whenever you notice other believers starting to jump on the judgmental, condemning bandwagon, pause and notice what’s going on and listen to what God is speaking to your heart before you jump on, too.  Is what they are saying godly and in line with Scripture?  Is it loving and compassionate?  Is it humble?  Is it constructive, for the good of others, and to build them up?  Is it necessary?    
            You may have to be the one that pulls them back down to reality and humility and compassion by refusing to jump on board. 
            So when the clique is pointing fingers and shaking their heads in smug judgmental-ism at “those sinners,” don’t be afraid to say something like, “Yeah, I see what you mean, but I can totally understand what they are going through because I have struggled with that, too.”  Or "Instead of talking about them, let's pray for them."  (And then pray with compassion and without judgmental smugness.)  This will generally bring the judgmental train to a screeching halt and – if they are not too prideful – they will  be convicted and change their tune. 
            “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”  (Ephesians 4:29) 
            “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:3-4)
            And if you are the one who has been pointing fingers and someone else has called you on it, don’t get defensive.  Just apologize and admit your mistake.  Nothing good comes out of digging a deeper hole just because you are embarrassed or afraid to admit that you were wrong and someone else was right. 
            We will all have to do this at some point – admit we were wrong.  And it’s not as hard as we make it out to be.  Seven short, simple words:  “I was wrong and I am sorry.”  Learn them!  Practice them until they roll off your tongue easily and stop getting stuck in your throat.  They will come in handy because there will be many times that you will have to use them.  And we will all have to use them many times, which is why we should all be compassionate and understanding when it’s someone else’s turn to say them.

14.  Be warned:  Your biggest falls will come after your greatest spiritual highs!
            When we reach a mountaintop experience and have some great, spiritual high, we are most vulnerable to falling . . . precisely because we do not think that we are vulnerable to falling.  After all, we tell ourselves, I am so close to God right now that I could never do that!  And we let our guard down.  And we fall hard.  (This happens a lot with kids who grew up in the church and who thought they would never behave like “the rest of them out there in the world.”  They just never thought they were capable of it.) 
            Always maintain your spiritual armor, be on guard against temptations that Satan dangles before you, and be aware of your areas of weakness and when you are most vulnerable.  Pride, self-confidence, and the feeling of invincibility always lead to a fall. 
            But also be warned about the other side of the coin:  We are also vulnerable when we are at our lowest and going through long, spiritual droughts.  Because we are exhausted, discouraged, and have lost the will to fight.  At these times, it is too easy to give in to temptation.  And we need to be especially diligent about staying on the straight and narrow. 
            We need to cling to what we know is right and true, to obey even when we don’t feel like it, to draw near to God and resist the devil, and we need to particularly draw nearer to God’s love through His Word and His creation and other godly people.  Do not give in to despair and further ruin your life.  It will only make it worse and so much harder to recuperate from. 

15.  You will eventually have to face your deepest wounds, fears, and doubts.
            Christians have wounds, fears, and doubts, too.  It is normal.  Turning to Christ does not necessarily automatically take these away.  But the difference is that God will help us work through them and turn them into something good. 
            We might think that we can simply ignore some of the deepest wounds, fears, and doubts.  But eventually we will have to face them.  So don’t be surprised if old wounds that you thought were buried and gone come to the surface. 
            And when they do, you will have a decision to make: be honest about them and invite God to help heal them or ignore them and stuff them down even more. 
            If we stuff them down, there will be a wall in our heart that keeps God’s love and healing out.  But if we are willing to walk through the pain with God, He will help heal it.  Yes, it will hurt for a time.  Possibly greatly.  But if you stick it out, you will find that His love and truth heal it in a way that stuffing it never could.  
            Working through wounds, fears, and doubts is a process, a journey in itself, as God peels back another layer of fear or doubt and as He brings up more “heart wounds” that need healing.  But He will walk with you through the pain as He works on replacing your wounds, doubts, and fears with His truth, love, and healing.  If you will let Him.  If you will let Him into those deep, dark parts of your heart and hand over the broken, hurting pieces to Him.  He can be trusted!  He will gently and lovingly put your heart back together again.  (Trust is also a journey in itself for many of us.  And it takes time.  So be patient with yourself as you learn to trust Him more!) 
            And remember that when God heals you of some deepest wound, He will most likely use you to help others in their journey to healing.  He will make something good out of the bad.  Trust Him in this!

16.  You will also have to face your assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations.
            When things go wrong or God does not do what you thought He should do or you are in a long, spiritual “desert” where He seems like He’s not listening to you, you will come face-to-face with expectations, assumptions, and misconceptions that you have of God, faith, life, others, and yourself.  Much of the time, our discontentment or discouragement comes from these misconceptions, expectations, or assumptions.   
            Do not just get discouraged that life isn’t matching up to what you thought it should be.  Examine the assumptions and expectations that you have of yourself, others, and God to see which are fair and biblical and which aren’t.  And take the time to replace your misconceptions with biblical truth. 
            The problem is that when our expectations are not met, we get discouraged and we lose faith in God and in ourselves.  And our faith crumbles.  But it’s not God that is the problem; it’s our faulty view of Him.  Draw nearer to Him in His Word to learn more about who He really is and how He really sees us and relates to us.  The more you are aware of and admit to your faulty views and seek to replace them with godly truths, the more stable and solid and unshakable your faith will become. 
            [But, and I hate to say this, it usually takes a lot of pain and heartache to get to that point.  It’s pretty much what this whole blog is about.  Hang in there!  Choose to cling to Him and to the truth that you find in the Word, and ask Him to help you see things the way He does.  And eventually, your faith will be stronger for it.
            And praise Him, even in the pain.  Count your blessings, especially during the times you don’t feel like it, and praise Him.  Praising Him in not an act of the emotions; it is an act of the will.  And we praise Him not just because we “feel like it,” but because of who He is, because He deserves it.  And a heart that praises Him is more protected from the enemy.  Giving in to despair and grumbling only makes us more vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy!  It is like rolling out a “welcome mat” to demons.  But praising Him repels them.   
            Trust me, I have gone through many painful “deserts” and trials when I felt like God wasn’t there and didn’t care.  And I have had to learn to cling to Him, to praise Him anyway, even when my heart was broken and my faith was faltering.  But He has always proven Himself in the end.  And looking back now, I think those “deserts” and trials are the greatest catalysts for soul-searching and faith-building.  But they do hurt!  And they do take time!  So be patient with yourself and cling to Him.]
            So just be aware that this is part of the process, particularly when things get hard.  Trials bring these things to the surface.   
17.  God will upset your “nice, little, comfortable life.”
            The more you grow in the faith, the more you will be rocked by other people’s pain and by injustices, the more compassion you will have for the hurting and weak and needy, and the less comfortable you will be with building up treasures on earth when people around you are in so much need.  You will become more concerned with other people’s souls.  You will seek righteousness more and you will feel more and more convicted when you stray from it.  This is the painful process of being molded to be more like Christ . . . of learning to put His Kingdom, righteousness, and priorities first . . . of learning to build treasures in heaven instead of treasures on earth . . . of dying to self and living for Him.  Your heart will begin to ache for the things that make His heart ache.  And this ache is good.  Let it move you to do His work on earth!  Let God upset your “nice, little, comfortable life.”

18.  God will strip you!
            Eventually, you will wrestle with yourself and with God over things that you hold onto that He wants you to let go of.  This is a painful process, as He strips you down of self-sufficiency, pride, self-confidence, assumptions, misconceptions, materialism, hidden sins, wayward priorities, unreasonable expectations, selfishness, self-promotion, self-protection, wayward dreams, idols of the heart, walls around your heart, self-punishment, negative views of self, pat answers, judgmental-ism, the ways you try to manipulate Him, the boxes that you try to keep Him in, etc.  And etc.! 
            This is a process that will happen over your whole life.  It will come in waves, when God knows you are ready to tackle a new one.  Do not run from it.  If you do, you risk “spiritual stagnation.”  Do not try to skip these steps to maturity just because the fire gets too hot.  God walks with you through these “refining fires.”  And there is a purpose for the pain. 
            And you will notice that you have reached one when you are faced with this decision: Hold onto you or let go of you and grab onto God.  Do not be afraid of this process.  It leads to so much growth that you’ll eventually be able to say that it was worth it, even if it hurt for a time.  These trials will become some of the sweetest moments of your journey when you look back on them.  Bittersweet at times, but sweet nonetheless.  Just take life a step at time, as God leads.  And He will help you grow up in the faith and in Him! 
19.  One of the hardest things to be stripped of is self-sufficiency!
            Many of us have been hurt in the past.  Or else we have been taught to take care of ourselves and to need no one.  Or we feel like we have to prove our worth to others and to God, to earn our way.  And so we try to live in self-sufficiency, to keep tight control over everything, to operate out of our own wisdom, to make plans for all the possible things the future might throw at us, and to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. 
            But this does not work with God.  And someday, we will have to face the truth that we are not in control and that we can’t do it on our own and that we need Someone to help us.  We will have to face the truth about ourselves that we are weak and that we need to fall on God. 
            For me, for so long, I wouldn’t fall on Him until I fully exhausted my own wisdom and strength and ability to care for myself.  I wouldn’t fall on Him until I couldn’t stand anymore.  I didn’t realize that I should fall on Him in helplessness.  I thought it made me “less Christian.”  Less pleasing to Him.  And then, when I did fall down before Him in helplessness, neediness, and dependency, I would feel terrible about myself.  A failure who couldn’t please God and who couldn’t handle life on my own. 
            But you know what? 
            When we fall on Him in helplessness, He doesn’t say, “Failure!”  He says, “Finally!”
            I think some of the silence we sense from Him during the hard times is because we are still trying to live life in our own power and wisdom.  We are failing to call on Him, to really need Him.  So He lets us do it.  He lets us struggle with our own humanity and frailty.  He lets us fight against ourselves until we get so exhausted that we stop fighting and we cry out to Him and we humbly fall on Him.  And then, He steps in and scoops us up and makes His healing, comforting, capable Presence known. 
            Don’t do what I did.  Don’t fight against needing Him.  Don’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.  It isn’t yours to carry anyway.  He wants us to need Him desperately.  He wants us to rely on Him.  It doesn’t mean that you are a pathetic, weak, failure.  It means you are a humbled child of God who knows where your help comes from.  So get off of His throne and fall at His feet.  Because when you fall at His feet, you fall into His arms.

20.  Remember that there is a spiritual battle going on around us all the time.
            “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  (1 Peter 5:8) 
            “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”  (Ephesians 6:13)
            And according to Ephesians 6:10-18, our spiritual armor includes: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, a readiness to share the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit - which is the Word of God - and prayer.
            But how many of us live like Satan and his demons are myths?  How many are busy fighting earthly battles against flesh-and-blood people instead of fighting the real enemy with the spiritual weapons that are available to us: truth, righteousness, gospel sharing, faith, assurance of salvation, God’s Word, prayer, and (I would add) Jesus’ name and the Holy Spirit that is in us.
             “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’“  (Luke 10:17)
            “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome [evil spirits], because the one who is in you [the Holy Spirit] is greater than the one who is in the world.”  (1 John 4:4) 
            There is a spiritual battle going on around us all the time, and yet we act like this world is all there is.  And we fail to engage in the spiritual battle for souls and God’s Kingdom, spending our energy instead on building up our lives and enjoying the pleasures this world offers.  And we grow lazy, lukewarm, self-serving, and comfortable.
            We are failing to truly understand the incredible responsibility and need for seeking righteousness, for actively pursuing Him daily in His Word, for praying for His Will to get done, for doing our part in making it happen, and for walking with Him moment by moment in humble dependency. 
            I’ve been there myself.
            But a five-month stretch of demonic harassment (in the post, “Supernatural Stuff and the Armor of God” - click on the “Iron Sharpens Iron” label to find it.) opened my eyes to the spiritual battle that rages around us, to the reality of the invisible world working alongside this one, and to the very real need for us to get off of our lazy, lukewarm, self-serving, comfortable, Christian butts and get on our knees in prayer and get into the Word and pursue Him, His Kingdom, and His righteousness with all we’ve got.  That is how we are a part of getting His Will done!  That is how we impact the world for His glory and fight against evil!
            We need to begin identifying spiritual battles if we are going to have any chance to successfully fight them.  Because spiritual battles can’t be fought with earthly weapons.  And Satan is always doing whatever he can to get us off-track.  He will mess with our emotions, our families, our security.  He will use our fears and doubts and pride and self-views against us.  He will attack when we are feeling good and strong.  He will attack when we are feeling bad and weak.  He will tempt us to dabble in sin, to doubt God’s love and forgiveness, and to stir up trouble with others.  He will tempt us to pick up burdens that are not ours to carry, to feel like we have to earn our value with God, and to turn our back on Him when things don’t go our way.  He will entice us over and over again to climb up on God’s throne and run our own lives.  (So much damage gets done this way.)  And he does not play fair or by any rules. 
            He’s always looking for a weak spot, for an opportunity to get a foothold into our lives and our hearts.  He examines our lives more than we do.  He knows our weak points better than we do.  And he dangles a variety of hooks in front of us and waits to see which one we bite on to.
            And there are many more of them (demons) than of ourselves.  And the only way we can have a chance to live victoriously and to fend off the attacks is to remain in the Lord daily and keep our spiritual armor on and recognize spiritual battles when they show up. 
            But we need also need to caution ourselves against being overly interested in demons.  There is not a demon behind every bush or every little thing that goes wrong.  We need to maintain a healthy balance and awareness of them, without being overly interested in them or afraid of them. 
            Remember, it is the One who is in us that is greater than the one who is in the world. 
            But if we are not living in Him – aligned with Him, abiding in Him, obedient to Him, living righteously and confessing sins, praying and growing closer to Him through the Word – then we are vulnerable to the attacks and deceptions of the evil one.  So we need to be alert, but we need to be more interested in Christ than in demons.  We need to abide in Him and in prayer and in His Word. 
            I know that I would not be living with such a daily awareness of this if I had not gone through five months of clearly demonic harassment.  Five scary months that I am so incredibly thankful I went through.  Because I now live with this daily awareness of the reality of Satan and his evil ones, of how we give them invitations and open doors, and of my desperate need to abide daily in the Lord and to seek righteousness.  (Yet I am not overly-interested in demons.  I know they are there and that it’s just a part of life that needs to be dealt with, with spiritual weapons.)  Those five months were some of the most faith-changing months of my life.  I could only hope that every believer would eventually have such a humbling, eye-opening experience like that.  (And yet I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.) 
            But since you might not ever face that kind of clearly demonic harassment, I am sharing my experience, in the hopes that it opens your eyes to the spiritual battle that is going on around us all the time and that it encourages you to put on your armor and pick up your spiritual weapons.  We do not have to fight these battles in our own strength and wisdom.  God’s power is available to us, if only we remember to access it (by abiding in Him) and to use it. 
            How aware are you that you are always being watched?  That Satan is real and active and always looking for any invitation you give him?  Waiting for an opportunity to attack your faith, your trust in God, your integrity?  Whispering lies about you and about God in your spiritual ears?  Stirring up trouble between yourself and others?  Dangling a million hooks in front of you, hoping you will bite onto just one and give him an opening into your life?  Do you live with this awareness?  With a deep, desperate, daily need for the Lord?  Or are your eyes only on what you can see? 
            Do not take this lightly.  The enemy is watching us.  Always watching us and doing what he can to mess with us.  And so we need to be abiding in the Lord.  Always abiding, always in the battle, and always maintaining our armor.  Every earthly battle is a spiritual battle in disguise.  And if we fail to keep this in mind, we neglect our spiritual armor, we fight the wrong enemies in the wrong battle, and we are doomed from the start!

21.  Don’t just wish or worry.  Pray! 
            God does not force us to seek His help, guidance, and input.  He allows us to try to handle things in our own wisdom.  And when we do, we oftentimes make a mess of our situation.  But He is willing to step in and guide.  He is just waiting for us to ask Him, to invite Him into our situation. 
            Do not just daydream, hope, wish, or worry.  Put your thoughts into words and pray them over to God, giving Him the right to answer as He will and to direct your path.  Pray about your hopes and dreams and concerns in the faith that He can do what you are asking Him to do, but also in the willingness to have faith in Him even if He doesn’t.  (And search Scripture for guidance and wisdom.)
            God will answer our prayers, just not always in our time and in our way and with the answer we want.  And oftentimes He moves a lot slower than we want Him to.  But this does not mean that He is not listening or not involved.  There is always a reason for the wait.  And there is a lot to learn in the wait.  Do not try to bypass God’s timing and way.  Learn to wait on Him.
            This will help you learn to trust Him more, as you see Him work things out in His timing.  And this will strengthen your faith.  But you have to be patient and willing for Him to direct your path.  And you have to be willing to go where He leads and obey when He calls you to do something.
            Part of prayer is learning to be still before Him and to listen.  He speaks – through His Word, through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and nudges, and through your circumstances.  But we need to listen, to quiet ourselves before Him enough to hear that “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit and to inhale all the wisdom and guidance that He gives us through His Word. 
            And when He has made an answer clear to you, it is your responsibility to obey and take the next step in faith.
            I think sometimes His silence and “absence” is simply because He knows we are resistant to what He wants us to do.  So He doesn’t waste His breath on us until we are ready to listen and willing to obey.
            And when it comes to praying about a decision I have to make, I try to remember to pray that God would close any door that He doesn’t want me to go through.  And I have learned that He does.  If we are willing to follow His leading.
            And remember this important point: Prayer is not about fancy words or saying the “right thing.”  It doesn’t have to be eloquent or impressive.  It just has to be real. 

22.  As I just said, if God is making you wait, there is a reason.
            As I reflect back on my spiritual journey so far, I have to say that the most growth seemed to happen during the times of God’s deafening silence, the long waits.  These usually started with me praying about some request.  And then, when the answer wasn’t coming and I couldn’t even feel His presence anymore, I would end up desperate, pleading to just have any sense that He was even there, that He cared and was listening, and that He hadn’t abandoned me.  What started out as a request for something I wanted or “needed” became a search for knowing that God really cared about me.  God’s silence forced me to move from wanting my request to just wanting Him. 
            It’s ironic to me that the greatest levels of spiritual growth come out of the times when I struggle the most with doubts and fears about Him and myself and my faith.  And the greatest growth I experience in my understanding of prayer comes when I feel like I am totally failing at it.  But it takes time.  It takes commitment to walk through the pain and silence and doubt with God, instead of bailing on Him because He is “too slow” or too silent. 
            I think that there are at least five reasons why God remains silent for stretches of time: 
            1.  It’s a time of discipline - a time when He has “withdrawn” to give us a little jolt that helps us open our eyes to our sins and the effect that they have caused.  This is to help us adjust our course as we walk with Him, and we should be deliberate about righting any wrongs and asking forgiveness as soon as we can.   
            2.  It’s a time of being turned over to the hardness of our hearts - because we have resisted Him and have neglected to listen to and obey the convictions and nudges of the Holy Spirit.  Or maybe we have outright rebelled or turned our back on Him.  First, He tries to get our attention and help us get back on track.  But if we persist, He has no other choice than to let us walk down the path of rebellion.  This kind of silence is to be feared and taken very seriously.  It is dangerous territory and can reap severe consequences. 
            3.  It’s a time of pruning and growth - when He knows that we are ready and willing to pursue Him and His righteousness more deliberately, when we have reached out for Him more earnestly than ever before.  And yet, somehow, it seems like He has withdrawn.  But this silence should not be feared.  He is there with you, encouraging you toward godly growth and character, like a parent who keeps taking steps back when their child is learning to walk to them.  Allow this time to draw you closer to Him, in prayer and through His Word. 
            4.  It’s a time to teach us to be content with God’s right to say “no” or “wait.” 
            5.  And sometimes it’s just because He’s working on the answer to our prayers and it’s not ready yet.  And so He has nothing more to say than “Find your comfort and strength in Me, and hang in there.  I’m working on it.” 
            When you find yourself in an extended time of waiting, of God’s silence and you are getting confused and don’t know what to do, consider what the time of waiting may be about.  Is it for discipline?  Is it because you are in rebellion?  Is it that He is working on the answer or challenging you to give Him the right to say “no”?  Or is it because God is asking you to climb higher and dig deeper in your walk with Him?
            Quite honestly, our tendency is to fear this time, to feel abandoned, and to feel like it will never end.  And so we desperately try to fight our way out of His silence, or to fill it with busyness and “God-pleasing” activities in hopes that we can earn His answer or attention. 
            Resist the urge to lead the way out.  And follow instead!  Our job is not to concern ourselves with His job, with how He is leading or what in the world He is doing.  Our job is to obey, to praise, and to glorify Him today – whether He gives or takes away, whether we have a big job or small one, whether He is silent or active.  Our job is to be responsible for the tasks that He puts into our path today, and to let Him have the rest.  To let Him have tomorrow, let Him have the right to guide our path.  Ultimately, it’s about letting Him be God.  And this is crucial in learning to be content! 

23.  You will face persecution and criticism for being a Christian!
            The very fact that we choose to live differently than other people will make us stand out.  And since we are choosing to not live as the world lives, it will make them feel like we do not approve of their lives and choices.  This will make them want to lash out at us, criticize us, mock us, and discredit us in any way they can. 
            Not everyone will do this, but just look at the way the media portrays Christians and those with a strong sense of right and wrong.  The very fact that we say there is “right and wrong” will make us unpopular in this day and age of moral relativity. 
            You may have to make difficult and uncomfortable stands.  (If everybody loves you all the time, you may be doing something wrong.)  But always do this in quiet confidence, gentle strength, and graciousness towards the other person.  They are not the enemy, even if they have chosen to launch attacks on us.  They are God’s dearly loved creation and we want to draw them to Him, not push them away farther.  So if they engage you in a conversation about your faith, be gentle and loving but stand by your convictions and the truth. 
            But do not make yourself a target.  Some people do not really want to hear what you have to say or to have a mature conversation about your beliefs.  They just want to launch an attack on anything you say and set you up to be torn apart.  And when they ask you questions, they wait for your answers with foaming mouths, like hungry hyenas waiting to tear apart an animal that leaves its hiding spot.  Do not engage in these kinds of blatant set-ups.  They do not want to talk.  They just want to attack.  Do not make yourself a target.  Simply tell them, “When you want to really talk about this, I’ll be happy to share what I believe and think.” 
            And speaking of persecution, resist the urge to call every little slight by someone “persecution.”  Keep in mind that Christians in other countries are being crucified, burned alive, and beheaded.  And we cry “foul” when Starbucks makes their Christmas cups less Christmasy.  Not everything is an attack on you.  Not everything is worth being called “persecution,” even if it’s uncomfortable.  Sometimes, it’s just the natural result of living among people with a lot of different values, beliefs, and outlooks.  (And sometimes it’s because we brought it on ourselves by breaking a rule, egging someone on, or acting out in such a way that someone has to say something about how we are living our faith.  Do not define self-induced criticisms or scoldings as “persecution.”  That’s just not cool!)  So once again, be gracious!  And do not turn people into enemies who are not enemies.

24.  Likewise, pick your battles!
            Society will do many things that we don’t like.  We need to pick our battles.  We need to figure out what is worth standing up for, what is worth standing up against, and what is worth fighting for.  Pray for wisdom to know which battles are worth engaging in and which you should just stay out of. 
            And remember that it is not our job to defend God.  Yes, we need to live for Him, to stand up for His truth and His values and for the things that matter to Him.  We need to push back against the unjust ways that society tries to silence Christians and make Christianity illegal.  We need to be His hands here on earth and to care about the things that He cares about.  But we do not need to get offended that people reject Him and His ways. 
            We need to live for His glory and His honor in our own lives, but we do not need to defend His glory and honor by fighting against people who reject Him.  Yes, there are issues we need to take a stand for and fight for, but we don't need to be living out a constant battle against everyone who is opposed to God or who does something He doesn't like.  They are not the enemy.  They are people He dearly loves and wants to reach. 
            And He will do a great job of defending Himself in the end.  Other people are accountable to Him – not to us - for the way they respond to Him.  So we need to be more concerned with the way we live before the Lord than we are with the way others are living before Him or if they offend Him.  He is the judge!  And He is still on the throne!        

25.  Know what God’s Will is!
            To boil it down, God's Will is that we humbly and transparently walk with Him in this life, that we abide in Him through His Word and prayer, that we grow to be more Christ-like daily, that we get in touch more with His love and grace, that we reflect His love and grace and forgiveness to others, that we obey Him as He leads, and that we take each day as it comes and faithfully do our best with whatever job or blessings He gives us, working at it with all of our heart and for His glory.  And as long as we are doing this, we will be on the path He wants us on.  We will be right in the middle of His Will for us.
            The problem is that we think knowing His Will means knowing the future or what the next 10 steps are or what decision He wants us to make.  And while there is a time for knowing what the next step is, I think His Will is mostly about how He wants us to live each day, not some secret path He wants us to take or decision He wants us to make.  And as long as we are abiding in Him daily and being faithful with today’s job, He will make the next step clear and our path will be straightened out.  As we humbly walk with Him! 
            Do not seek His plans.  Seek Him!  And His plans will become clear when the time is right!
            And do not make the Christian journey about more rules or traditions to follow or more restrictions to put on yourself.  The Christian journey is about getting to know Him better, about letting Him more and more into your heart and life, and about living in the freedom, joy, and peace that His love and grace makes possible.  As you do this, you will grow to be more like Him and your faith will grow stronger and you will become the person that He wants you to be.  Do not complicate it!  
            “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”  (James 4:8)

Do you have any tips, cautions, warnings, or advice to pass on to a new believer?  Is there anything you think a new Christian should be aware of?  Something you wish you had been aware of when you were a new Christian?