All of my growing-up years, I wanted to be counted as a Christian. I wanted to be a “real” one, and belong to the visible gathering of Christians I saw at church every Sunday in an official way. People passed the communion plates around me while I stared wistfully, craning my neck around to watch everyone eat and drink the sacred elements. I’d watch baptisms with rapt attention and yearn to be plunged under the water and tell my own story of astonishing change. Christians seemed so close to God, as if they possessed hidden knowledge or a profound godliness that I had yet to attain. I prayed that I would experience it in a loud and undeniable way.
I think God did a quiet work of saving faith in my heart at an early age, although I don’t remember a specific moment. This doesn’t make mine—or anyone else’s— salvation less wonderful or gracious. But it was always a nebulous thing for me; what a Christian actually was, and how I’d know for sure when I became one. I was certain it would be a crystal clear, transformative moment. Any time I was overcome by emotion or spent time in long private prayers, I thought maybe that was it. I’d wait and see if the good, worshipful feelings would linger, assuring me of my desired transformation, but I’d always just feel like the same person as before.
God’s kindness—his tenderness with my mixed-up understanding and my self-reliant tries—brought me to the bright, free place where I understood the pieces I’d been missing. It was in my mid-teen years, a completely normal time in life to struggle and feel overwhelmed. Personally, I felt like I was fighting a losing war with sin, specifically with intrusive thoughts. I didn’t have the name for this back then, so they only felt like more sin; obsessing over things like my appearance, social interactions, and so much more. I prayed constantly and still felt stuck—doing and thinking the same things I was sure kept the favor of God far away from me.
And then the oxygen: the perspective from a pastor’s imperfect sermon, that God carried straight to my suffocating heart. He said the presence of a battle means that the Spirit is in us, waging war with sin. It’s when war is absent that we should be concerned. But if we’re feeling the heat of a fight, then there must certainly have been a change. We must have redeemed hearts turned soft that want to do good, but have the reality of sin still working in our bodies. The result feels like war.
This is a strange place to find relief, but it’s a place we can find deep assurance. The very presence of that inner turmoil, that straining for certainty from God while bearing wounds from battle, is our mark of belonging. We have been “rescued… from the domain of darkness and transferred… into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” (Colossians 1:13 CSB) Darkness and light cannot dwell together, and we’ll be feeling and seeing the evidence of the war between them (within and without us) until our final redemption, when Christ banishes all darkness to the outer regions, and dwells with his people as their eternal sun.
This comfort also helps us to arrive at places of victory as we journey on in our Christian lives. Once we come to see the goodness of the Lord to us, and our safe place under the robes of his perfect righteousness and love, we’re filled with courage and resolve. We who have been forgiven much love much, and we find the freedom and delight that obedience holds out for us. As we trust our Father more, we want to keep his words nearer. And as his words grow deep roots in the ready soil of our hearts, we are more eager to pull out the weeds of sin and better prepared to meet temptation with the arresting truth. When we fall back into sins old or new, the character of God and his fresh grace for us are right there, close by and plentiful.
For those of us who have struggled with intrusive thoughts, whether as a result of a diagnosed disorder or not, this is another fiery battleground. We bear the marks of the fall in our bodies, and our minds are no exception. For some more than others, it can become a confusing, cyclical, helpless place to find oneself. When I was in the heat of striving for answers, and seeing no deliverance from mental cycles and quiet sins, I heard another word of soothing balm that met me at just the right time.
It was an evening at home, and my parents had invited a young couple from church over for dinner. My father and the young husband started sharing things with each other at the table about their struggles with spiritually dark or blasphemous thoughts. The advice they had both been given was simply to stop it. Just stop thinking horrible things—as if it were that easy! Maybe the person advising them didn’t react with such an insensitive tone, but as a teenager I immediately saw that this answer sorely lacked the healing medicine of wisdom that these men were seeking. My father spoke of a part in the classic allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian is walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This part had brought clarity to him in his own valleys. I had never heard this part before, at least not in the way I heard it that night at the table:
“I took notice that now poor Christian was so confounded, that he did not know his own voice; and thus I perceived it. Just when he was come over against the mouth of the burning pit, one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stepped up softly to him, and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than anything that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before; yet, if he could have helped it, he would not have done it; but he had not the discretion either to stop his ears, or to know from whence these blasphemies came.”
Satan pounces on our weak places. He can trick us into thinking that the unspeakable thoughts flying through our heads have come from our true selves, that we must be devilish and vile if such a thing would even take shape in our mind. But we who have access to the Holy Spirit and the armor of the Lord do not need to take thoughts into the safety of our hearts. We have what we need to reject the lies whispered by the evil one for what they are, to believe that they cannot spoil the spotless robes of Christ’s righteousness in which we are dressed, and to instead grab a hold of the beautiful truth and light that makes the darkness cower.
As God took my striving, restless spirit in his hands and spoke these deep assurances to me through his ministers and his word, I saw change. There had been change happening in me for quite some time and I was changing still. The peace of God filled my heart as I was cradled in the comfort of his mercy to me, and I was finally able to speak to myself and to others that I was his beloved child.
And so it can be for you, for your loved ones for whom you spend many tearful prayers, or for anyone who is straining their heart hoping for change. God is an able and willing God. It brings him deep joy to save us, change us, and make us more like himself. We can take him at his word.
Photo Credit: @akmillerrr
Katherine is the wife of Seth and a homeschooling mother of two little ones. You can often find her reading a book, playing or teaching the piano, or baking another dessert. Her favorite teas are spicy and her favorite things are thrifted.