Monday, July 08, 2013

Growth by subtraction

Since we moved, I've been working hard at building.

I've been building a functioning living space for us in our home, a new community of friends, a new routine, a new circuit of stores, restaurants, dry cleaners....building a new life for my kids and my family.

I guess it's human nature to see growth as dependent upon our building. We see growth as upward only. Brick upon brick.

Even in my faith, I start to see growth as simply a process of adding. Character AND serving AND ministry AND godly motherhood and so on are all bricks I keep layering to build an elaborate structure that maybe impresses God a little bit. Maybe I believe that.

I mean, I don't believe that, in my mind. I know that nothing I can do - good or bad - can ever cause Him to love me any more or any less that He already does and always has. I know that's what the Bible says. But in my effort to serve Him and respond to His love in obedience, I can get ahead of myself. I can let the high school overachiever in me loose and try hard to assemble this impressive building. I may even start to believe I am the one holding it together, with my mortar of trying.

God thinks it cute, I guess, like I think my son's latest Lego creation is. Almost daily, my 8 year old constructs something of which he is very proud: a fragile structure with childish engineering that usually crumbles within minutes. It's adorable. And I pretty much do the same thing to God.

But lately I'm realizing I have it all backwards.

(God's ways are usually like that: completely counter-intuitive, counter-culture, wholly counter to my human logic.)

The best kind of growth happens by His disassembling. By His breaking, pruning, cutting off. It's growth by subtraction.

How He comes up with these ideas, I do not know. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. But if Jesus is our ultimate example, we can see it is true. Jesus, of course, didn't need to "grow" but God needed to break Him since He was going to be punished in our stead.

There are a handful of ideas in the Bible that have regularly haunted me. Notions like when Jesus says, "If you want to follow me, take up your cross." "Lay down your life." "To live is Christ and to die is gain." There is a motif of suffering for the believer in the gospel of Jesus. If you really read it - really take it seriously - we cannot get away from the fact that within the process of growth, suffering and death are essentials. And Jesus modeled it. Fun times.

Growth by subtraction. Stuff in me needs to be killed. Lots of stuff.

I've always cringed when I've heard others say, "I want to marry someone that doesn't want me to change." And "I'm not going to change for anyone." Which is the same as saying, "Take it or leave it, I am who I am." Like Popeye. These statements could not be more against what the Bible says our attitude should be. I should eagerly want to change! If my husband doesn't think I need some serious changing, then either there is something horribly wrong with his judgment (like a starry-eyed cartoon character that swoons, "You're just purrrrrrfect!"), or He just doesn't know me at all. (Neither are true; I assure you, my husband is well aware of how much I need to grow.)

I desperately want to be more Christ-like, and feel I'm still so far off. It will take a lifetime for me to inch towards sincere, consistent godliness. There is nothing in my heart I want to cling to so tightly that God cannot have, if He asks for it. (Well, there probably are things that I just don't know about yet.)

Whereas growth by addition, me stacking a bunch of great things into my life, leads to pride, growth by subtraction leads to humility. It is humbling to suffer, to let go, to surrender my heart yet again into the hands of the Author of this story.

It's humbling to bow my head in prayer and say nothing. To allow Him to give and to take away, without complaint. To trust that He knows what He's doing, and that His plans are good, when they really don't seem good at all.

The bottom line is that Jesus loves me too much to let me stay the way I am. And growth by subtraction is anywhere from uncomfortable to straight painful.

I know this is an abstract post. But I'm hoping you're following me. I think you know what I mean. Oswald Chambers can put into words the essence of truth so well. Of being pruned by God, He writes, "It is better to enter into life maimed and lovely in God's sight than to be lovely in man's sight and lame in God's."

It's so tempting to try to look lovely for the world. I'm sure I do it more than I realize. Who really says, "Hooray, God! Start breaking me down and making me suffer so I can get rid of all these sinful attitudes, worldly desires, selfish thoughts, and fleshly habits!" No one. We all fight growth through suffering. We all try to keep it together; we frantically manicure our pride.

Look at the value we put on these statements: She really has it all together. She seems good at everything. She has such a huge ministry. I can't believe she can handle all that so well! She looks amazing in every picture. Her kids always look so cute. She has incredible taste and such a beautiful home. She and her husband seem to have the best marriage.

Now think about these phrases: I am such a mess. I can't handle my kids. I am hurting. No one really sees me. If only they knew what I looked like on the inside. I'm broken. I'm needy. I'm not sure how God can solve all these problems. I sure can't.

Which set of phrases do you strive for? Me too. Which set of phrases do you actually relate with most? Me too. In this world, being humble and messy is very unpopular. In God's world, it's exactly where He wants us to live.

The older I get, the more I notice that I have not yet come close to attaining the posture of Jesus towards suffering. I'm not in the same zip code as He is when it comes to humility. I say, "Not my will, Lord, but yours," but then sometimes I really prefer my will.

I want to be more like Jesus, I do. And at the same time, I'm afraid of the cost. Because I've read the Bible, and the cost is my life: all my ideas, all my wishes, all my rights, and all of the still-wrong beliefs I hold so dear.

But all He asks for is my surrender right now, just in this moment, in my immediate issues. He doesn't require I grow up into perfect in one day. He is patient and kind to me.

And that kindness is all I need to say "Okay, Lord. I'm yours.

{If you have a quiet moment, think about how you may be suffering in this season. Is God trying to work in that place? What can you perhaps surrender? Where can you say, "Okay, Lord. I'm yours."}



  1. Wow, this truly spoke to my heart! Thanks Leslie:)

  2. Such words of wisdom Leslie. Love you.

  3. Straight to my heart. I'm so grateful for your discernment and wish I had you speaking into me every day. This is so good. Xoxo

  4. Perfect! The suffering bit is never fun, but necessary. Perseverance builds character but is also painful. I'm constantly reminding myself to live with eternity in mind, not this fallen world. And that Oswald chambers quote?! Ouch.
    Love you!

  5. So good Leslie. Straight to my heart. Your O. Chambers quote reminded me of a quote by Bob Goff, "I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I'm afraid of succeeding at things that don't matter." Thanks for being so real.

  6. You put words to my heart today friend. Growth by subtraction is the exact thing that is happening in our lives right now-and though it's different, it's good. Real good.

  7. as always this is so spot on. believe it or not i really got a lot of comfort out of thinking that God looks at my attempts and thinks 'ohh that's cute'. I still sometimes fall back into thinking of God as focusing on all the ways I don't meet His standard. That simple reminder of how He really, truly loves me was so good for my soul.

  8. My first time to comment :) This post was for me, thank you SO much for sharing your heart...wonderful, wise words. God Bless!