Keeper of Our Lists

Keeper of Our Lists

The same deposit that God gave to Paul has been given to all His children, regardless of the measure of our belief, persuasion and trust.  He has “set His seal on us.” In our humanity, I believe that we’ll have periods of doubt, regret, unbelief – but God does not share in those.  He is fully confident that He will keep His promise to keep us until we will see Him in all His fullness (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Chronic disease. Depression. Cancer. Self-harm. Anger.  Shallow relationships. Destructive patterns of thinking. It saddens me to write these cares as a list, but they are swirling around my little world right now.  I almost hesitate to list them collectively, as if The List as a whole may somehow diminish the significance of any one of them.  One is enough on its own.

But somehow, by listing them all together, it’s what I need to retreat into a protective cleft hewn from this mountain of hard things and force me to stop and look for perspective.  Reflection and perspective are tricky disciplines.  I can be guilty of “scanning His work in vain” through “blind unbelief” as the hymn writer poetically tells me.[1]  Yet, God-centered self-examination is to soften the soul, not harden it. So I trust God to place me on soft ground for His namesake as I do this hard work.

As I sit in that cleft, I am drawn to Paul’s last words to his dear Timothy.  Paul was in prison, awaiting his execution.  He had been arrested and sentenced to die because of his faith in and preaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.  That jail cell was his cleft of perspective.  His List included:  loneliness, abandonment, betrayal, and extreme physical suffering, not to mention the mental suffering of waiting for death at the hands of a capricious, viciously evil emperor.  Surely, it was an intense season of reflection and perspective.

However, as I read Paul’s words to Timothy, it is clear that Paul saw more than a desolate cell in the haze of his suffering. In his final days of reflection and perspective, he was confident, immovable, assured in Christ.  Paul, whose inspired parting words still send sound waves through the ages, declared to Timothy, “I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded, that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed to Him against that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).

I wonder: What was it about Paul that enabled him to be so confident as he reflected on The List of his life? As a woman, I think of the verse in Proverbs 31:25 which says, “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the days to come.” How then, can I learn to view my List with strength and dignity, with the confidence of a Paul?  How do I cultivate confidence during my mid-life, when my list of sorrows seem to only get heavier?

He Knew Whom to Believe

Paul’s confidence is not in what he believed, but in whom he believed.  His doctrine, apologetics, and Christian worldview – the “whats” of his belief – were not his Savior, but the very real, incarnate, ever present Almighty God.  He says, “I know whom I have believed.”  Looking only to “the what” leaves me bereft as I ponder: Why cancer? Why chronic, debilitating disease? Why depression? Being able to articulate the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and man’s sin puts borders around the pain, but it doesn’t sit with you in the crevice and console the heart as does the familiarity of Jesus’ presence.  Only Jesus’ presence truly satisfies.  Paul drew his confidence from the very real, ever faithful, intimate presence of his living Savior he had come to know through suffering side by side with Him through the Lists of his life.  He says this,

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:8-10).

He knew Jesus as his Lord, not just as The Lord. He knew Jesus was faithful to him.  He knew Jesus was true to him.  His List was a proving ground for knowing his Savior. My heart resonates with Paul’s: I want to know Him and be found in Him, not lost in the bewilderment of my List.  For me, growing in Christ in my mid-life means pushing through the informing “what” to look for Him, the Incarnate Whom I am to know.

Cultivating an intimate relationship with the Living Savior is a whole other discipline which is foreign and just a bit foolish in this material world.  It requires an “other worldly” adjustment. The adjustment takes my relationship with Jesus beyond my intellect and imagination and sits me with Him in quiet expectation that He will meet with me and be near to my soul. This adjustment requires me to tune my spirit to Him in a child-like faith, respond to Him in honest prayer, and listen for His still small voice.  It is indeed a strange and uncomfortable posture for someone who looks for the tangible and rational.  But, God is a Spirit, and true worshippers must worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24).  So, as strange as this discipline may seem, this spiritual tuning is central to knowing the Lord and we should not be ashamed of it and we should encourage it, as long as it is grounded and guided by God’s revealed word.

How do we tune our spirit to His as we lay in our beds, unable to sleep because of our Lists?  We do what Jesus did:  We go to our heavenly Father in prayer.  We tune our hearts to believe in the character of our God and how His character is sufficient for each care.  Is it sin or sickness?  He is the Great Physician (Mark 2:17). Is it depression? He has borne our griefs (Isaiah 53:4).  Is it loneliness?  He is the God who sees us (Genesis 16:13).  Is it a wayward loved one?  He leaves the ninety-nine (Luke 15:3-7). Is it fear of death? He leads us through the valley of its shadow (Psalm 23).  In all these things, we counsel ourselves to put our faith in God (Psalm 42:5).  This is what it means to “preach the gospel to yourself every day.”[2] Belief opens the door of the soul and welcomes us into the entryway of intimacy with, not just knowledge of, our Savior.

He Was Persuaded

When my husband and I took our marriage vows 29 years ago, I gave a reason for my willingness to marry and submit to him: I was persuaded he loved me. Over the course of our friendship, dating, and engagement, he had proven his love and commitment, so much so that I was willing to commit my life to him until my death.  I was persuaded that whatever was to be in our future, he would be true to his vow, not to me, but to the Lord. I could trust and submit to that kind of man.

Paul’s confidence came from being persuaded that Jesus was trustworthy for his eternal future.  It’s truly an amazing turn around for a man who believed that cultivating his own self-righteousness was his path to heaven. Paul, a violent Christian hater, transferred his trust from himself to trust entirely in Jesus’ goodness imputed to him, purchased for him by His death on the cross.  That’s a big step for someone who studied the holiness of God and understood the severity of being wrong about where to put one’s eternal trust.  He was persuaded that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was sufficient for him, and knew his own was not. How does one become persuaded to trust Jesus completely?  How did Paul get there?

Humbling and bewildering as it seems, being persuaded doesn’t start with a desire to be persuaded. It starts in eternity, in the heart of God, for His own glory and purposes, not from anything lovely or attractive in any one of us. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). God set His affections on Paul just as He has set His affections on me. How can this be?  I honestly don’t know.  It’s beyond my scope.  But I know that God persuaded me in my college days to put aside my arrogance, to put aside my striving for a goodness that would shake off my shame, to put aside the empty satisfaction of sin, and take up His name and be known as His.  This is His work in me, apart from me. The faith I have is a faith given to me, it is not the product of any formula for living or thinking.  I’m so very grateful that the trustworthiness of His eternal promises is dependent on Him, not my perfection of being fully persuaded in this earthly life.

But, just like in courtship, persuasion grows. Persuasion in belief grows by seeking out God in His word and getting to know Him there.  Recently, I spent many months studying the letter to the Hebrews. Throughout my study, I kept coming back to the question, “How is this text relevant to me, a modern Christian? How do animal sacrifices, the Hebrew temple, or the high priest Melchezedek matter to my List?” I realized that in similar ways, the ancient saints had the same question, “How does God’s 4,000 year old covenant promise of a coming Messiah affect our practical life when all we see is struggle, persecution, captivity, and domination?” The writer of Hebrews gives this answer: We live by faith not by sight. Even as modern Christians, we need to see God’s promises and must welcome them from afar (Hebrews 11:13). Our “afar” is two directional – we look ahead, yes, but we also look back.  Part of our sanctification is being persuaded that our life of faith is connected to a larger whole, a spiritual movement that we cannot see with our eyes, that started way before us, and one that we have been invited to join by our Savior.

Paul’s trust came from seeing, through God’s word, the sweeping epic of God’s revealed story.  Paul was able to grasp the big picture because he was an ardent student of God’s word. He was persuaded through the testimony of the law and the prophets, through the history of God’s dealings with men, and through the life of Jesus which testified to God’s faithfulness to His promises.  His confidence could not have come through casual study that cherry-picked favorite, feel-good verses found in 5 minute, pre-written devotionals, but by meditation on the whole counsel of God over a lifetime.  He saw God’s word wholly, historically, and systematically.  As modern Christians, we grow in the same way: reading, studying, meditating, applying God’s word until we see the big picture.  We grow strong roots when we draw our sustenance from the deep, underground rivers of living water mined out of God’s word instead of thinking a sustaining sustenance comes from nearby surface puddles left over from light, spring rains.

How can we grow to be persuaded that God is trustworthy to transfer everything we hold dear to Him?  It almost seems as if trusting Jesus for our eternal state is easier than trusting Him for our temporal cares. That is a challenging thought.  Jesus has taken care of the “big thing” but we’re still holding on to the rest.  If we can trust Him for the big thing, why not the cares of our Lists?[3]  Perhaps they’ve become too dear to us.  Perhaps we’ve forgotten our heavenly home.  It’s an indication we’ve lost connection with the whole of what God is doing.

Paul encourages me to reflect on God’s larger purposes and trust God’s constant historical presence and faithfulness.  A way I can grow to trust Him for my List is to look beyond it and take comfort in the truth that my List is not what God is all about. Yes, He is present here, He cares about the affairs of men. He cares deeply about my personal List.  But He is also about so much more. The Hebrews admitted that “they were aliens and strangers on the earth.”  Growing in confidence comes from seeking what He has revealed through the whole counsel of His word, and to discover His heart for His people globally, historically, systematically.  His heart is here with us, yes, but He is lifting our eyes to trust Him that there is a greater country afar.  What we see on our List only lingers; we are to look up and long for that better country just as the ancients did (Hebrews 11:16).

He Entrusted

There was a time in my youth when I challenged myself, “Live with no regrets!”  I had a fearlessness (more like hubris) that if I brought my very best to whatever I set my mind and hand to, I could avoid sadness and feelings of guilt I saw in many older women. I was determined to not be a sad old lady!  How foolish of me. The idea that we can live with no regrets distorts the reality of sin and our need for a Savior who has come to redeem them. Those “sad old ladies” were closer to understanding the gospel in their reflections than I did in my gumption.

Paul, in his last days, gives us no indication that he became a sad, old man, defeated and cynical.  As he reflected on his List – the unseen sacrifices, the costly investments, the physical sufferings, broken relationships, the unrealized expectations and unanswered prayers– he entrusted them to Jesus in escrow until He made all things new. He acknowledged those earthly realities, but because he knew they were safe with Jesus, he could press on “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…all of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (Philippians 3:13,15). He demonstrated this by spending his final days encouraging, equipping, and admonishing Timothy to “fan into the flame the gift of God which is in you” and to not fear or be ashamed of what lay ahead.

And, yet, here I am, writing these words to try to make sense of The List and at the same time longing for maturity.  As I look at my List, I ask myself dangerous questions like, “What could I have done differently?  Did I truly “do my best” in my most important roles of wife and mother?  Did I love well?  Did I invest wisely in the right things?”  The empty encouragement I often give myself is, “Girl, give yourself grace. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”  But that is not the counsel of the Scriptures.

The counsel of the Scriptures is to confess and repent; believe and trust.  Many women seek and offer easy solace in pithy self-statements, but what a soul needs is an assurance in the beautiful, bloody beams of the cross of Christ.  We confess our regrets and unbelief in God’s goodness because Jesus died to redeem our regrets and unbelief. We confess and repent of our sinfulness because He died to forgive us of our sinfulness.  Jesus condescended to us so we would know how far His love would go. He rose from the dead to prove He is able to do all that He promised.  Our Lists are the representations of why He came.  Therefore, a mature view of our Lists is to humbly accept them and to see them not as representations of regrets or broken pieces that can weigh us down by sadness, but as reminders to cling to Him.  Paul encourages us to embrace our Lists: “For where I am weak, He is strong, for God’s power is made manifest in weakness.  So, I will boast in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10).”  As a Christian woman, I am to regard my List as a symbol of why He came and a rallying point for me to trust and rest in Him.

But, I can’t mistake or confuse the conclusion here:  Paul’s ability to ultimately trust God with his List did not come from his strength of his belief or the power of a supreme intellect able to understand deep theological arguments, or simply from thinking clearly on days that are hard and overwhelming.  His ability to trust God was because of God’s promise:

“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.  He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). 

The same deposit that God gave to Paul has been given to all His children, regardless of the measure of our belief, persuasion and trust.  He has “set His seal on us.” In our humanity, I believe that we’ll have periods of doubt, regret, unbelief – but God does not share in those.  He is fully confident that He will keep His promise to keep us until we will see Him in all His fullness (1 Corinthians 13:12).   And, if God is fully assured in His own trustworthiness towards us, we can entrust Him with our Lists.  This is what His stewardship of our Lists looks like: King David pens this beautiful lyric: “You number and record my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle—are they not in Your book?” (Psalm 56:8).  He catches, records, and keeps them all. Our heavenly Father is the ultimate steward of our Lists.

I honestly don’t know if I will ever be mature enough on this side of heaven to embrace my List with joy.  But I can aim for contentment. I can aim to be more fully persuaded that God has a plan for it. I can aim to more fully entrust my List into the rugged, pierced hands of Jesus.  I can aim to be more confident in His promise that He will keep in a bottle all that I’ve entrusted to Him – my heart, my prayers, my loved ones, my hopes and dreams, my tears, my cares – until that day when He welcomes me home and I see Him face-to-face, and He wipes every tear from my eyes.

Sharon Smith Leaman is a member of New Life in Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fredericksburg, Va.

[1] Cowper, William. God Moves in a Mysterious Way. 1774.

[2] Bridges, Jerry. The Discipline of Grace : God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs, Colo., Navpress, 2006.

[3] I give credit for this statement to Rev. Douglas Kittredge, my pastor and mentor for 35 years.  He was the founding pastor of New Life in Christ Church, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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