By Grace Alone

The real life struggles of a Christian mom

A Wake-up Call March 14, 2010

Last week, I had the privilege of hearing a very powerful testimony.  “J” and “E” were visiting my church from the mission field in Turkey.  E is a native of Turkey who is working with J, an American, to reach both Turks and Kurds living in Turkey.  Here’s what I’m sure will be an inadequate synopsis of E’s story:

E grew up in an influential family in Istanbul.  At the age of 12, he felt empty and started searching for truth in the holy books of major world religions.  He started with the Koran.  He then read the Old Testament and the New Testament separately, since he had been taught that Jews believed the Old Testament alone, and Christians believed only the New Testament.  He also explored Buddhism, but none if it seemed right.  Finally, he saw a book titled “The Holy Bible” at a bookstore.  The woman working at the bookstore explained to him that Christians believe the Old and New Testaments together.  So he read them again, this time taking note of all the connections between the two, the prophecies made in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New.  At the age of 14, E put his faith in the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus Christ.  At that point in his life, E had never met another Christian.

E was forced to make difficult choices and suffer for his faith.  He was kicked out of his parents’ house as a teenager because of his faith.  He has been imprisoned for telling others about Christ.  E and J are now ministering to the Kurds, a highly discriminated-against group in Turkey.  For awhile, it was illegal to write, speak or listen to anything in the Kurdish language, Kurmanji.  J and E are trying to provide a way for Kurdish Christians to worship in their own language.  They have held one worship service so far, in the storage room of a church whose pastor was willing to let them meet there.  There is no guarantee that they will continue to be able to meet in that storage room.  It is unusual and unexpected for them to receive any help from the Turks in this endeavor.

After E shared his testimony, he had some tough words for us as we sat comfortably in our pews.  He said the church in America is sleeping and needs to wake up.  He said he doesn’t want to have to send his grandchildren over here to evangelize our grandchildren someday.  And he is absolutely right.

In America, we have the awesome privilege of worshipping in our own language, at our choice of a church, and without fear.  We don’t have to watch the door anxiously, waiting for soldiers or the police to appear.  We have beautiful buildings that are kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  We have facilities for Sunday school classes, youth group meetings, basketball games and yoga classes.  We have extensive children’s ministries, music ministries, Vacation Bible Schools, youth programs, college ministries, and on and on.  And yet the church in America is shrinking every day.  Children who are raised in the church are leaving in droves.

Thinking about E’s words, I am more firmly convinced that the American church at large has put its faith in all the wrong things.  We are trusting in our buildings and our programs.  There is nothing wrong with these things.  They can be used for good.  But that is not where our faith should lie, because on their own, they are powerless to change lives.  The power lies in the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.  E did not grow up in Sunday school.  No one outlined spiritual laws for him or loved him to Jesus.  Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these things.  But E’s testimony shows where the true power lies:  in the Gospel of Christ, given to us in the Word of God and made clear to us by the Holy Spirit.

I spend a lot of time worrying about who my kids spend time with now and who they might choose to spend time with when I’m no longer in control of their every waking minute.  I want them at Sunday school, children’s church, Bible study, and Christian schools and preschools.  And E’s testimony didn’t change my mind about that.  But it did remind me that these things are simply tools.  Without God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, these things are powerless to change my children’s hearts.  My own Christian pursuits are also powerless unless I am digging into God’s Word and living by the Spirit.

What are you trusting in:  for yourself, your church, your kids?  Are you attending a church that preaches the Gospel of Christ?  Is His Word preached, or is it an accessory in the worship service?  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  Romans 1:16.


The 10 Commandments and Christmas December 15, 2008

A few weeks ago, we studied the 10 Commandments in BSF.  Since I have been a Christian for a long time, I am pretty familiar with the 10 Commandments.  I have also studied Jesus’ explanation of some of the commandments in Matthew 5, which points out that these commandments are not just about our external behavior, but also about our heart attitudes.  But this time around, I was even more convicted about different ways in which I break the 10 Commandments, and how meditating on the 10 Commandments at this time of year emphasizes the importance of the work Christ came to do for me.

I would challenge anyone to convince me that they have kept the 10 Commandments.  I’ve certainly broken all of them:  I have put other people and things before God, I have failed to worship God rightly, I have misused His name, I have failed to keep the Sabbath day holy, I have definitely dishonored my father and mother (hello, adolescence!–and beyond), I have hated others, lusted, taken what does not belong to me, lied, and coveted.  Even if you set aside Jesus’ discussion of some of these commandments and take them all purely at face value (e.g., believing that if you have not murdered someone or bowed down to a golden idol, you have not broken those 2 commandments), you have admit–that 10th commandment about not coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor has got you, doesn’t it?

I have heard some Christians say that the 10 Commandments do not apply to us.  They are from the Old Testament, the old covenant–now we are under grace, not under the law.  I disagree.  Jesus said, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  And so if God requires us to keep the 10 Commandments, and if we all have to admit we haven’t done it, then we have a problem.

However, God, in His goodness and grace, not only gives us His law, but He is the one to remedy the situation when we fail to keep it.  God became man and dwelt among us, not only to teach us and heal us, but to live the perfect life that we could not live.  We cannot keep these commandments; Jesus Christ kept them perfectly, and He bore the punishment for our law-breaking on our behalf.  This truth gives us just one more reason to rejoice this Christmas!  Christ came to die for us, and He also came to live for us, to keep the law perfectly for us.

I think this is also an important point to teach our children.  When they sin, we can remind them of the One who was without sin.  Jesus obeyed His parents perfectly.  Jesus did not sin in His anger.  (I wish the Bible told us that Jesus ate his peas, it would really help me out!)  His perfection qualified Him to pay the penalty for our children’s disobedience, and it is important for them to understand that.  The baby Jesus was born to die for them, and also to live for them.  Their obedience should not be motivated by Santa’s list or by an elf on the shelf (no offense to those of you with elves on your shelves), but by gratitude to God for what He has done for us in Christ Jesus.  O come let us adore Him!


Whose clothes are you wearing? March 29, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marissa Henley @ 12:48 pm
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In last week’s BSF lesson, we read Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast. In this parable, Jesus is comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. The king (God) invites many to this royal event, but they are too busy with other concerns to attend, and even kill the servants who came with the invitation. The king then invites others who fill the banquet hall. Then one man shows up without the proper wedding garment and is thrown into the outer darkness.

If you read this passage without the larger context of the rest of Scripture, it may sound as though God invites people to the wedding, and if you can’t manage to get the right clothes on, you will be cast out. However, our lesson pointed us to other relevant passages of Scripture:

Isaiah 64:6

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

Isaiah 61:10

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.

The first verse tells us that our best deeds are only like a polluted garment, or as the NIV says, like filthy rags. But the second verse shows us how we get the proper wedding garment–from God Himself, who clothes us with the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness.

How do we get this garment of salvation from God? How can filthy rags be exchanged for a robe of righteousness? 1 Peter 2:24 tells us “He [Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” And Philippians 3:8b-9 says, “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.”

Christ wore our filthy rags on the cross. And God takes Christ’s robe of righteousness and puts it on us. My own fanciest wedding garment cannot get me into the kingdom of heaven. God requires a robe of righteousness, and He supplies it in Christ. If you are in Christ, when God looks at you, He does not see your own record of good deeds and bad. He sees Christ’s perfection, Christ’s righteousness.

So the question is: Whose clothes are you wearing? It is a question I am asking myself and that I need to be asking my kids as they grow in faith. Are we living as though we have been given a garment of salvation, living in obedience out of gratitude to God? Or do we think we can keep wearing our own clothes, working as hard as we can to keep them clean and hoping it will be good enough? I think this distinction is crucial to my kids’ understanding of the Gospel. I’d love to hear thoughts from anyone on how to make sure our kids understand this important truth.

From one of my favorite hymns, “How Much I Owe,” words by Robert Murray McCheyne:

When I stand before the throne, dressed in beauty not my own,

when I see Thee as Thou art, love Thee with unsinning heart,

then, Lord shall I fully know, not ’til then how much I owe.

Chosen not for good in me, wakened up from wrath to flee,

hidden in the Savior’s side, by the Spirit sanctified,

then, Lord shall I full know, not ’til then how much I owe.


Smelling like crap June 25, 2007

Filed under: spiritual growth — Marissa Henley @ 1:18 am
Tags: , , ,

I have a friend, Sarah, who recently adopted her son from Ethiopia. That sentence makes it sound like such a simple thing, but it was far from simple. Sarah and her husband spent two years trying to adopt a son–hitting dead ends at every turn and having to start over countless times. As the long, difficult months turned into years, they kept pursuing their son. Finally, last month, they brought him home. And he has diarrhea. The crazy diarrhea that most of us would only encounter in our worst nightmares. The covered-in-poop needing-a-bath-at-2-a.m. variety that I think should earn Sarah the Mom’s Medal of Honor.

Sarah said something to me last week that I loved. (And don’t worry, friends, I’ll always get your permission before quoting you by name on my blog.) Of course, Sarah is thrilled to have her son with her and loves him immensely in spite of their poop-filled nights. And she said that this experience with her son is a great illustration of the love that God our Father has for us. We smell like crap to Him, and He still pursues us and loves us as His children.

It might seem a little shocking that Sarah thinks we smell like crap to God. (Or smelled like crap, if we are in Christ.) But this passage from Romans backs up her statement:

Romans 8:6-11 (emphasis mine):

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

I’ve never noticed before how in this passage, it seems that Paul has to ease us into the truth of our relationship to God before Christ. We don’t want to hear this, do we? But we can get used to the idea that we were weak without Christ. Although we were weak, Christ died for us. But then Paul says we were a little worse than that–we were sinners. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Then Paul hits us with this: we were enemies of God. Enemies?!? What could I have possibly done to be called an enemy of God? And yet, while we were enemies of God, Christ died for us.

If the only thing separating me from God was a little gossip and a dash of impatience with my children, maybe I could work that out on my own–somehow making myself righteous in God’s sight. But if I’m an enemy of God, how do I start to fix that? I can’t. It can only be done by the blood of Christ shed for me, reconciling me to God.

How does this apply to my struggles as a mom? Although it’s been awhile since we’ve had diarrhea around here, I often feel disgusted by my kids’ selfishness, exasperated by their disobedience, and exhausted by their constant neediness. However, I am called to love them as God has loved me. That is, I am called to love them when there is nothing about them that is lovely. I am called to love them sacrificially and lavish grace on them even though they have done nothing to deserve it.

How amazing that God would pursue me, reconcile me to Himself through the death of His own Son, and adopt me as His daughter when all I have to bring to the table is my status as an enemy of God who smells like crap.


Failure June 18, 2007

Filed under: parenting,spiritual growth — Marissa Henley @ 12:28 am
Tags: , , , ,

(A side note–these first few entries might seem like nice, neat little packages of ideas more than real struggles–that’s because there are a few issues I’ve been grappling with for about 6 months that I want to write about. After I’m done with those, I have no idea what will come to mind, so there might be some more unanswered questions.)

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a dear friend one day. She’ll remain nameless unless she’d like to comment and admit speaking this awesome truth to me. (If she even remembers!) I was telling her how every time Christopher throws a tantrum, it makes me so upset, because I feel like a failure as a mom. Honestly, I was expecting some reassuring words. Instead, she said that I am a failure as a mom. Ouch. (I promise she’s a lot nicer than she sounds at the moment.)

She went on to remind me of the truth of the Gospel, and what I took from the conversation is this: I am a failure as a mom, because I am a sinner. I fail my kids and my husband every day. But Christ lived the life that I couldn’t live, and because His perfect record has been given to me, I don’t have to run from the fact that I am a failure, try to cover it up, ignore it, etc. This may sound strange, but it was such a freeing conversation for me. Because for most of my life, I have been going to great lengths to avoid being a failure, and even greater lengths to keep anyone else from seeing any failures that may occur. Instead, I should be admitting my failures to myself and others, letting those failures point to my need for Christ and increase my reliance upon His grace.

How does this play out in my every day life? Well, most of the time, it doesn’t. I still have the natural tendency to shy away from failure whenever possible. There are rare occasions, which I wish were more frequent, when I can use my failures to point myself and my sons to my need for Christ. For example, one day Christopher was losing it for absolutely no reason, and it really set me off. I yelled at him to go to his room, so both of us could calm down. A few minutes later, I went up to talk to him and found him sitting in his room, crying. When I opened the door, he looked up and said, “Mommy, do you forgive me?” I tell you, I felt like the most worthless piece-of-crap mom in the world. I held Christopher in my lap and repeated the words I have told him several times already: “Christopher, I forgive you, and I need you to forgive me. I was wrong to yell at you, and I’m sorry. I can’t be a good Mommy to you all by myself. I need Jesus to help me be a good Mommy. I wasn’t letting Jesus help me just now, and I’m sorry.” I can only pray that God will use my failures for the good of my kids, to point them to their own need for Christ for their salvation and their growing in Christ-likeness.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10: But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.


By Grace Alone June 15, 2007

Filed under: spiritual growth — Marissa Henley @ 3:16 am
Tags: , ,

Maybe I should explain the title of my blog. I’ve been a Christian for a long time, and it is fairly easy for me to understand that I am incapable of securing salvation for myself–I know I need Jesus to take care of that part. I know that someday when I die, I’ll stand before God with only Jesus’ perfect record and not my own imperfect one. But I have often thought that it is up to me to take care of all the stuff between now and then.

(A slightly theological side note here . . . ) The difference is between two terms, justification and sanctification. Justification is our legal standing with God–if our faith is in Christ, we have been declared righteous by God because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sin. Nothing can alter that legal standing–it is a one-time declaration, done for eternity. Sanctification is the process of our growing in Christ-likeness. We won’t ever be done while we’re on this earth, but we are to be growing in our relationship with Christ and becoming more like Him.

So I get that my justification is accomplished by God, by grace alone . . . but I forget that my sanctification is also accomplished by God, through the Holy Spirit, by grace alone. Not that I can just sit back and let God transform me into a perfect being, but it isn’t up to me to muster up all the strength I have and try really hard to be just like Jesus. The title of this blog is my reminder to myself that any good in me, any growth that occurs, any successes in parenting–they are all by the grace of God.

Why is so important to remind myself of this? Because otherwise, I would either become prideful or depressed. Prideful when things are going well, because I think it’s because I’m so smart, or so good or such a great mom. I was so prideful as a young adult, because in general, I was successful at what I did as a student and then in the workplace, and I thought it was all a result of my great efforts. Things are a little different now that I’m a mom–I often feel that I’m not doing the right things or not seeing the results I want in my kids, and I feel depressed about being a failure. Isn’t that always how it is when we compare ourselves to others or to the standards we have for ourselves? Pride or despair.

And most days, I’m definitely feeling one of those two. The only way for me to avoid it is to remember that my successes and failures of the day are an expression of God’s love for me. Successes given to me by Him to encourage me, failures to challenge and sanctify me. Because God isn’t concerned about my happiness, the ease of my life, or how I look in the eyes of others. It isn’t about me becoming the Supermom of Superchildren. His concern is for my sanctification by His grace, for His glory. And it might take enduring a thousand tantrums for God to teach me the fruits of the Spirit that are so lacking in my life right now–joy, patience, gentleness, and self-control just to name a few! (See Galatians 5.)

I am like the Galatians from biblical times, who had been saved by faith but were trying to live the Christian life by rule-following and human effort. Here’s what Paul wrote to them–I wish this truth could be more ingrained in my heart and my life than it is right now!

Galatians 2:20-21, 3:2-3: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh*?

*or in the NIV translation, “are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”