In my early twenties, I was a newlywed, fresh-faced and full of hope. Matt and I were well traveled. We had seen almost every Baptist encampment in Texas thanks to his itinerant preaching career. (Don’t be jealous.) While there were countless gifts in that season, what marked that time of my life more than anything else was the pain of a dream deferred.
I had a burning desire and dream to lead worship and write songs for worship. I was surrounded by gifted men and women doing such, but by God’s grace and design, I enjoyed the ministry only in small doses. I felt stifled. I felt inadequate. There was work to be done on my heart, and the Lord knew it. I just struggled to see it.
I wrote the letter below to the woman I was, with the hope that it might be an encouragement to someone who is wrestling with a dream deferred. You aren’t alone. As I wrote this, I found myself encouraged as well. There are still places I desire to see God work, still dreams I would love to see fulfilled. Writing was a needed reminder that he is working even if it isn’t evident to us, and that he is the dream better than any other dream he puts in our hearts.
I know it feels like you will always be frustrated — like God has somehow forgotten you or is acting only as your own personal cosmic killjoy. While you’re hitting barrier after barrier pursuing your heart’s dreams and desires, it seems like everyone around you is living their best life now. You are tired of wrestling. You just want something to break your way.
But there’s something I want to tell you that you probably don’t want to hear right now. I promise, though, that you will be so glad if you hang on to these words in the years ahead.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)
Broken Dreams, Delayed Desires
Yes, this “trial” is nothing compared to what others who worship Jesus are facing. You aren’t being persecuted for your faith; you aren’t destitute. Although you are living in the foreign wilderness of West Texas, you aren’t an exile or refugee. Nonetheless, this trial fits among the “various kinds,” and thus has the potential to do a tremendous work on your heart, if you will let it.
On one level, it doesn’t feel like your faith is being tested. You still believe God is able to do anything; he’s just choosing not to do the things you want him to do for you. It feels like punishment. It feels unfair and confusing. You didn’t ask for these desires, but here they are. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about them. So what are you to do with them? In your mind, you assume there are two choices: either he gives you what you want the way you want it, or he takes the desires away.
Beloved, there is so much more.
Here’s what he’s doing. He is burning away the fluff. He is pulling out every false prop on which you’ve built your trust. He is frustrating your plans so that you turn your eyes from those around you and the lack you find inside you to see and love him for who he is and not merely what he can do for you. There is no more vital work than that. He loves you too much to give you what you want too soon. I know that’s easy for me to say when I know how this will all play out — when I know that you will be relieved that you didn’t get what you thought you wanted in the way you wanted it. The pressing and breaking of steadfastness doing its work is worth it.
Portraits of Steadfastness
So what does steadfastness look like?
It looks like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (Genesis 32:24–32). He didn’t run away. He endured. He grappled with God even when it gave him a limp. He held on for dear life — for a blessing. He didn’t give up, and neither did God.
Steadfastness looks like Job. He suffered horribly. He cried out desperately. He even lamented the day of his birth (Job 3:3). He questioned the Lord’s ways and was confronted with the terrifying beauty of God’s holiness. But he didn’t turn away. He was humbled in God’s presence. He laid his hand on his mouth and opened his ears to what God had to say. He rightly saw his scrawny, limited self in light of the magnificence of God. He repented. He prayed for his friends who just didn’t get what he was going through. God rebuked them, but he didn’t rebuke Job in the same way. He corrected and challenged him and eventually blessed him.
Steadfastness looks like Hannah. All she wanted was a baby, but all she had was the love of her husband. She wept. She didn’t eat. Her heart was broken into pieces (1 Samuel 1:6–7). But she still went, year by year, with her husband to worship and sacrifice to the Lord in Shiloh. She poured her heart out to the Lord in her distress and through bitter tears. She didn’t hold back. She came honestly, though reverently, knowing that the Lord was the only one who could do something about her pain. And the Lord heard her prayer. He opened her womb and gave her a son that she gave back to him in return (1 Samuel 1:19–20).
Perfect and Complete
Do you remember when Jesus told his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12)? The same is true of me to you; some things you learn only by growing older. But I will say this: Steadfastness looks like you falling forward into God’s grace — wrestling hard, crying out, and bringing the broken pieces of your heart to the Lord. It’s you looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, who was perfectly steadfast through the most excruciating trial (Hebrews 12:2). He endured. He cried out. He became broken on your behalf so that his steadfastness could be your steadfastness.
So when you’re in the midst of the hard work of steadfastness, remember that it won’t be pretty. And although you are being made “perfect and complete,” it’s not going to look perfect or feel complete. But who you are becoming is better than anything you now imagine — better than any desire or dream fulfilled before its time. You are becoming slowly but surely like Jesus.
Be patient with yourself. You will need to read this letter again. And again and again. The process of becoming more steadfast won’t stop until you see your true heart’s desire face to face.