the value of the hidden work of love

“How do you do it all?” It’s a question I often hear in response to the oh-so-complex question of, “What do you do?” When I reply that I’m a mom to 4-year-old twins, pastor’s wife, part-time counselor at our church, and writing a book – it does sound quite “impressive” (or overwhelming). I often reply tongue-in-cheek – “Not very well!” – to the aforesaid question. Most people don’t believe me. Except for those closest to me.

Seth, my husband, sees the dishes and laundry piling up alongside my frustration to try to do it all. My daughters experience the always-weary mama who too often opts for screen time so that I can finish a writing project or just get a nap. (They’ve almost completely dropped their afternoon nap.) My parents and in-laws and siblings and siblings-in-law and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins don’t get as much “Heather time” as I wish I could give them. Life right now feels like a delicate balancing act that I can’t do too well.

loving lifeAnd, true, I need to learn to prioritize (and identify “posteriorities” as DeYoung describes in Crazy Busy). Yet I also need to learn to embrace the hidden work of love that is my life with a family of young kids. To see this as a grounding point of my life rather than a distraction from work/writing/etc. Enter the so-good and so-convicting words of Paul Miller in A Loving Life

We usually recoil from the cost of love, thinking it is an alien substance, but it is the essence of love. … True glory is almost always hidden – when you are enduring quietly with no cheering crowd. … We experience a strange and powerful presence of God during those moments of hidden love. When you hang in there on the journey of love, when you endure and don’t take the exits of distance and cynicism, God shows up.

The parts of my life that are public are quite frankly, the easiest parts of life right now. Sure, it takes time and thought and work to prepare a talk for women, or to write the next chapter of my book, or to teach Sunday school, but I always get affirmation in these public areas of service. Motherhood and marriage? Not so. If I am loving my daughters and husband well, there is not an adoring crowd to let me know. If I’m not loving them well, I can hide this from others or gloss over my failures as “hard days/weeks/stages.” For me, it is this hidden work of loving family that shows me where I most desperately need the grace of a Savior and the endurance of the Spirit. 

Miller talks about this in his own life, capturing it in this sentence that aptly describes the past few weeks after a great deal of public ministry:  “God was giving me a hidden work of love to balance out the public ministry of teaching.” He talks about this in the life of Ruth, saying that in relation to Naomi, she “cheerfully pursued the bondage of love.”

It is so counter-cultural and counter-self-actualization to love like this. Which is why I cannot love like this without Jesus’ life at work in me. As Jesus’ love takes deeper root in my heart, there will be more joy in the hidden work of love – which will have the happy effect of enriching the public ministries of love, too. I end with this description:

…if I love only when I feel like it, then I’ve really not understood love. … Love like this strips us of self-will and purifies our motivations. It is surprisingly liberating because we’re not trapped by either our feelings or the other person’s response. When neither preserving the relationship nor our feelings is central, we’re free to offer the other person a rich tapestry of love.

on being brave by playing tennis

“I am just not athletic.”

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. It’s quite simple, really: I grew up as the only daughter with two younger brothers, and any sport we attempted, they were always better at than me. Always as in, exponentially so. My response? Being the perfectionist that I am, I decided to focus on my areas of success, namely reading books and chatting with friends and getting good grades at school. My parents wanted me to be well-rounded, so they forced encouraged me to take tennis lessons from the time I was around 10-years-old. It’s the only sport that I have actually practiced with any sort of consistency throughout my life. Until about 15 years ago, that is, when I began working and then went to grad school and now with young kids, I’m lucky if I’m able to fit in a weekly yoga class. [sidebar: I’ve decided that for a workout to be motivating, it has to be intrinsically fun, social, or relaxing. Yoga and Zumba classes are ideal.]

tennisNeedless to say, I’m a bit rusty on any tennis skills I had acquired. Yet I also still own a tennis racket, and I’ve assumed it’s like riding a bike. You can pick it back up any old time, right? So when two friends invited me to practice with them this week, I jumped at the opportunity. That was yesterday. And it was hard. It was hard to lob balls over the fence into the neighboring courts time after time. It was hard to whiff more than a couple good serves. It was hard to feel so out of practice when it was something I used to do decently. It was hard to be doing so in public. With friends. ! To feel out of my element. It was hard to feel achy at the end of playing because my weak ankle began rebelling.

But “we can do hard things,” says Glennon Melton (of Momastery and Carry On, Warrior fame). And in fact, anything worth doing will be hard at some point. Hard as in it will require effort, and you’ll want to quit, and you’ll have to overcome your natural resistance to anything more difficult than picking up the remote control or browsing Facebook on your smartphone.

My friend who invited me to play tennis knows this about me, and she sent me an email today saying, “Thanks for being brave!” It meant the world, and it made me wonder whether we should be doing this more for each other. To affirm your bravery for showing up when it feels easier to “call in sick” (on your job, or motherhood, or life in general, or the marriage, or the church small group). You showed up, didn’t you? And so let’s affirm that in one another.

For the truth is that there is no other way to love one another than by practicing to love (which will inherently be messy and imperfect). And we should be quick to affirm even the smallest movements of others towards love (as they turn away from self-obsession, self-pity, self-promotion, etc.). If you want practical help on how, two books are my favorites: “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” by Tim Keller [my review here] and “Love Walked Among Us” by Paul Miller.

What about you? What have you done lately that was brave for you, though perhaps not recognized as such by the world at large? I’d love to hear from you!

freedom in Christ looks like love

After an incredible sermon yesterday on the topic of freedom in Christ and love and limits and knowing the limits of your story and the compulsion of Christ’s love for me, I was reminded of this piece I wrote a couple months ago that I have not yet shared here. So – here you go! And I will return to provide a link to yesterday’s sermon by my pastor once it’s uploaded.


When thinking about freedom in Christ, there is no better topic. Who doesn’t want to live free, with wild abandon and throwing caution and reserve to the wind? I think of my 4-year-old daughters running gleefully up and down the beach or dancing in our living room. There is a conspicuous absence of shame that is envious to us “grown-ups” who obsess too much about our appearance and what’s appropriate. Freedom in Christ is our inheritance and our identity as ones redeemed through faith, and yet so often I do not live free but fettered.

I am fettered to your opinions of me, and so I hesitate before speaking truth in love.

I am fettered to freedom of self ,and so I become enslaved to “me time” and my pursuits.

I am fettered to my idols, and so I give time, energy, and attention to the latest fashion or the next material possession on my list.

I am fettered to my rights, and so I refuse to forgive you for how you’ve wronged me.

I am fettered to fear and cannot move beyond what feels comfortable or manageable to me.

I am fettered to pleasure, and so I use you to get what I want (companionship, adulation, social position).

the-broken-chain1What will set me free? And how can I know when I am free? The words of our freedom proclamation in Galatians 5:1 come to mind:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

How many yokes of slavery are you lugging behind you today? Do you realize you have been set free (past tense)? All Christ asks of you is to stay in your freedom.

How can you stand firm in your freedom? Does it mean that you stop attending church, or serving, or spending time with people who drain you? It seems for me that to stay free requires that I remember what I am free to do. Which is to love. The church of Galatia must have been thinking the same thing, for Paul writes just a few verses later in 5:13

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Paul knows that too often we who try to pursue freedom can quickly become indulgent. I’ve said it myself – “I’m free not to commit to that ministry/those difficult people/that task, so I am going to say no.” There is certainly a place for setting limits – and I’ve had to learn not to be fettered to pleasing people (and leaders in my church) by saying “yes” to more than I could handle. Yet too often, I think of freedom as freedom to do what I want to do.

Quite the opposite of what freedom in Christ offers. His is a freedom to love. A freedom to “walk by the Spirit” and “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This is a freedom that looks like the fruit of the Spirit being produced in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 2:23). To stand firm in my freedom in Christ is to stand firm in the truth that sin is dead to me in the cross, and the life that I live is lived by faith in my risen Savior – his righteousness that frees me to say “no” to the flesh and “yes” to Christ. Freedom in Christ is “faith working through love” as Paul describes in verse 6 of Galatians 5. If you want to know how free you are, ask yourself how loving you are. When I am set free from slavery to myself and the idols I make out of relationships and possessions, I am set free to love with abandon and delight – with no strings attached. Freedom in Christ looks like freedom to love as we have been loved.

Wisdom looks like love

Last weekend, I had the privilege of addressing a group of women at Grace Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia, on the vast topic of “wisdom.” I’ve written a bit about that here, and I’m including a few more thoughts on the idea that transformed the way I’ve studied wisdom these past months. Oh, that it would change the way I LIVE out wisdom, too!


Since Jesus himself is the wisdom of God, looking at his life provides the definition of what wisdom looks like. At every turn, we see love. Jesus sought out the tax collector who was too short to see him and invited himself over to his home; he healed the woman who had been bleeding for years and took away her shame; he forgave the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned; he had compassion on the crowds and miraculously fed them; he loved us to the very extent of love – giving his own life on our behalf, becoming obedient to death itself so that we might live and be restored to God. Jesus was God incarnate, and since God is love, we could say that Jesus is love incarnate. So wisdom and love are inextricably connected. Love is the outflow of true wisdom that comes from God, flowing out of a heart depending on Jesus.

This really gets me. I can live in my head so much as a woman who loves words – reading them and writing them and pondering ideas. My profession as a counselor calls me to discuss wisdom and love outside of the actual situation where one is being challenged to love wisely, and so I can too often stop at the false conclusion that wise insight equals heart change. If you spent a week with me, you would see the gap between what I teach, how I counsel others, and the way I apply wisdom to my own relationships. Too often after giving marriage counsel to a couple in conflict, I come home and do the very things I warned the couple against. I interrupt before listening; get angry too quickly at petty differences; sulk and say “fine” when I’m really anything but; hold onto grudges instead of forgive. Same with parenting. I can explain to a friend that being calm will bring calm to her kids, but the minute my own kids get in the way of what I want (an uninterrupted shower? a peaceful Target trip? quiet in the mornings?), I erupt in anger and yell at them impatiently.

I’ve written a blog series entitled, “Confessions of an angry mom,” about how to bring anger under the control of the Holy Spirit through the power of the gospel of Jesus. And it has helped many others. But I still need these words for myself. I will never outgrow my need for wisdom. For I will always be drawn away from wise love by my foolish, selfish desires. Sin dwelling within me – the old self that died with Christ. And so preaching the good news about “Christ in me, the hope of glory” is essential to practicing wise love daily, being transformed by the One who is Wisdom rather than building up myself through my intellectual understanding of wisdom or analytical relational insights.

for the beauty of Romans 8 (and Valentine’s love)

In my church’s women’s Bible study, we have been studying Romans this year. And we have finally arrived at my most favorite of chapters: Romans 8. This morning as I was doing today’s study, I was struck again by the security of LOVE expressed, explained, proclaimed in this chapter. A fitting reflection for Valentine’s week … which is about love, however you feel about that.


I remember as a daughter feeling so loved by my dad on Valentine’s day because he’d bring home a special treat (usually a box of chocolates, or a stuffed animal) along with my mini-bouquet of flowers and a card. In elementary school, it’s fun to give and exchange dime-store cards. Then middle school hits, and all of a sudden this doesn’t feel like enough. I didn’t want my dad to bring me flowers; I wanted the boy I had a crush on to notice me. My friends’ cards were sweet … but …. just not quite enough. High school intensified these feelings. In college I tried to evade the longing by celebrating friends, having fancy dinners with roommates, pretending we didn’t care that we weren’t romantically pursued. Then, finally, I met the man I was to marry and he romanced me properly on our first Valentine’s together – dinner out at a fancy Italian restaurant in Center City Philadelphia, roses, a Hallmark card … my life was complete.

Or was it? Isn’t it true that in many ways, my life was already complete by being privileged to know the security of my Dad’s love for me since I was a girl? And going  even further, isn’t it true that my life was the most complete it could be from the time I became God’s daughter, forever secure in Christ?  I think as I reflect on Romans 8 this morning, I draw a similar analogy to Valentine’s Day memories. I was always securely loved, but I wavered in my feelings attached to this love as the years ebbed and flowed. In various seasons, I desired a different expression of this love. And that’s part of how we’re created. There is a desire for romantic love – for married love – and at it’s best, it’s meant to reflect God’s love in the deepest human way possible. Which means that even if you feel brokenhearted, jilted, betrayed, disappointed, or lonely during this annual reminder of what you don’t have in the way of romance, you can take refuge in the ultimate love that romance is (at best) a fleeting reflection of. You, too, can enjoy the real thing. Not that it eases the pain or disappointment – don’t hear me saying that what you feel isn’t real. It is incredibly real, and God wants you to come to him with all of it. Not to receive a candy-coated “my love is better!” sort of flippant response, but to receive the comfort your heart needs – a comfort that leaves room for your pain and validates it. A love that comes with its own set of promises, too.

Romans 8 for those who take refuge in Christ by faith is a cascade of promises for us. Not only do we belong – adopted into God’s own family – but we have hope for present day suffering. Hope that sustains us when faced again with the stubbornness of my own selfishness or the brokenness of this world where humans are trafficked, children are abused, marriages fall apart. Hope makes us go on, and hope makes us groan for more.

And not only do we have hope, but we have the promises that no one can be against us; that the only one left to condemn us [Christ] is actually pleading our case continually as he intercedes for us; that nothing and no one can ever, ever, ever, EVER separate us from the love of Christ. But don’t take my word from it. Read it here for yourself in Romans 8:37-39 – and be comforted, wherever you find yourself today, that there IS a lover who will never leave you, betray you, give up on you … no matter what. This is better than the best, sweetest, poetic Hallmark card. Read it … believe it … savor it!

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.