Recently I asked an acquaintance about the meaning of the word inscribed on her license plate. Mary explained that “Watutu” was not Swahili, as I had guessed, but what her young son had said when he was trying to learn how to say, “I love you.” Then she mentioned an uncomfortable encounter she once had regarding her personalized license plate. One day someone she didn’t know accosted her in a parking lot and began reaming her out, taking the word Watutu for a slur. Mary was taken off guard by the woman’s anger, since the word had no other meaning than what her son had accorded it. Perhaps that angry woman had just been itching for a fight.
Shortly after our conversation I was standing in the customer service line at the local grocery store. In front of me was an elderly woman carrying a package of Van de Kamp’s frozen fish. When she got to the counter, she pulled out the receipt for her groceries and pointed to the letters “vdk.” “I want to return this because it has vodka in it,” she informed the clerk. The startled clerk looked at the receipt and then pointed out that “vdk” did not stand for vodka but rather for the brand. After the woman left, I couldn’t help speculating. She must have been horrified to think that the store had been hawking vodka-injected fish. Or worse yet, perhaps she’d been buying Van de Kamp’s fish for many years, unknowingly imbibing the whole time.
The two incidents reminded me that in our world misunderstandings abound. Sometimes they spice things up by adding a little hilarity, as in the case of the frozen fish, but at other times they subtract from the peace, as in the case of the license plate. Perhaps we would all experience more peace if we were to make a habit of giving others the benefit of the doubt, remembering that Watutu simply means, “I love you.”
Until recently, scientists believed that injuries to the brain could not be healed. If you had a stroke, for instance, the common practice was to offer rehabilitative services only on a short-term basis because long-term therapies were thought to offer little hope. Now all that has changed. Research has shown that the brain is not static but plastic, meaning that with the right kind of exercise and stimulation, it has the ability to change and heal itself.
Based on these findings about the brain, a rehabilitation program has been developed that offers great promise for people with brain injuries or learning deficits. In this type of therapy, patients complete a series of finely honed exercises designed to stimulate specific areas of their brains. These exercises are designed to strengthen areas of weakness in their brains. Day after day, by faithfully challenging weaker areas of the brain, the patients form new neural pathways until eventually many of them are able to gain cognitive function. Though the program can be tedious, it’s hard to argue with its remarkable results.
Perhaps we need a spiritual version of this kind of brain therapy—one that can help our spirits grow stronger as we seek to follow the Lord. Come to think of it, perhaps we already have something like that. It’s called obedience. I have to admit that obedience has never been my favorite word. It’s sometimes tedious and often difficult. In many cases I’d much rather do what I want to do instead of what God wants me to do. Obedience challenges me spiritually to become the person God wants me to be. The more I obey, the stronger and more spiritually mature I will become because obedience creates pathways in my soul for God to work.
Like our brains, our spirits are capable of incredible growth and healing. If we want God’s shalom to characterize our lives, we have to be willing to obey him.
Several years ago I took the train from Grand Rapids to Chicago to enjoy a day of shopping. A trip that would have taken three hours by car stretched into a five-and-a-half-hour journey. Mile after agonizing mile, we crawled along, watching cars whiz past on the highway. I felt disappointed, knowing that my time in Chicago would be cut short.
Like the slow train to Chicago, the guilt train has its share of passengers. At times we may find ourselves stuck on that train, afraid we will never get off. When that happens, we can remember that guilt is supposed to be a symptom of something wrong inside. Its function is to alert us to the presence of sin so we can take that sin to God and receive his forgiveness. But sometimes we wallow in the guilt, perhaps because we think we need to punish ourselves before God will take us back.
As Philip Yancey points out, “Guilt is not a state to cultivate or a mood you slip into for a few days. It should have directional movement, first pointing backward to the sin and then pointing forward to change. A person who feels no guilt can never find healing. Yet neither can a person who wallows in guilt. The sense of guilt only serves its designed purpose as a symptom if it presses us toward a cure.”(1)
Feeling guilty all the time? Ask yourself what’s behind those feelings. If you find that you are always feeling guilty about behavior that’s not sinful, confide in a mature Christian friend or counselor who may be able to help you break the habit. If you have done something wrong, ask God’s forgiveness and make steps toward changing. Whatever you do, remember that a ride on the guilt train isn’t supposed to take that long. Make a decision now to get off at the first possible stop.
(1) Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 147.
Streams in the Desert is a classic devotional, still going strong after more than eighty years. Perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity is that each day speaks words of encouragement to people who are distressed or suffering. Take this entry, for example, which addresses the topic of seemingly unanswered prayers. “Often it is simply the answer to our prayers that cause many of the difficulties in the Christian life. . . . We pray to the Lord, as His apostles did, saying, ‘Increase our faith!’ (Luke 17:5). Then our money seems to take wings and fly away; our children become critically ill; an employee becomes careless, slow, and wasteful; or some other new trial comes upon us, requiring more faith than we have ever before experienced.”(1)
It’s enough to make a person stop praying! When I wrote a book entitled The Peace God Promises, I should have known better. As I told friends afterward, I wrote the book in what became the least peaceful season of my life. One after the other, the crises kept mounting. Pleading for God’s help, I couldn’t help wondering whether he was pulling some kind of celestial joke on me.
If I could have set the tone for those months of “promised peace,” I would have been sitting on a beach somewhere enjoying perfect serenity. But in that setting, would I have had to wrestle so hard with the promises of peace that God has made to his people? Would I have been so keenly aware of my own need as I sat down to write every day? If God’s promises are real, if his truths are robust, then surely they should help me in my time of need. In fact, they did, though perhaps not always as soon as I wanted them to nor exactly how I had expected them to.
In the months that have followed, God’s peace has become more tangible to me than ever, though I can’t trace exactly how this happened. That’s why I would urge you not to give up, even if you have been seeking God’s peace and finding only turmoil. It may be God is answering your prayers in the only way that will yield more peace in your life in the years ahead.
(1) L. B. Cowman, Streams in the Desert (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 192.