20. Now That We’ve Seen the Worst: In All Things God Works for the Good

We’ve been working on this little cottage for nine years.

And in those nine years, we have learned a lot about old houses, our limitations, and God.

No longer under any illusions, we know that the wiring has been haphazard, the upkeep was minimal, and it was built in fits and starts without much planning. (This is not to cast aspersions on previous owners and builders—they were our grandfathers and great-uncles; they were our fathers and mothers, and we loved them.)

We thought we were prepared for what we were going to see when we took out the kitchen cabinets. We were wrong. Way wrong. We were not prepared. We were both so appalled that I took only one small picture, and that was after we cleaned the floor of grungy insulation, mouse nests, hickory nuts, dead bugs, a mummified mouse, an inch of mouse droppings, and mouse chewed electric wires. There was no photo taken because, quite frankly, I don’t want to remember it.

IMG_1366

But that wasn’t the worst. When we took out the second old cabinet along the outside wall of the kitchen, there was a hole. A giant hole where there was no floor; under the cabinet were three small pieces of plywood—each piece about eight inches wide by twelve inches long—just sitting on the joists. Not nailed down. Of course, when the cabinet was pulled out those boards dropped into the crawl space below. Just in case you missed this—there was not a nailed-down floor under the cabinet.

We spent five minutes staring aghast at the ground below; we spent three minutes wondering if Gus the groundhog would poke his nose into the kitchen; and we spent eighteen minutes scurrying around fixing it temporarily, so we could sleep that night. While I guarded the kitchen from Gus, raccoons, snakes, skunks, or any other critters that could possibly make their way up that hole, the contractor husband found enough boards to cover the floor temporarily, while we tried to figure out what was next. 

We are not wimps here; we’ve seen holes in walls and floors before…but what is astounding is that these cabinets were installed in the seventies by a Professional Cabinet Company. What kind of Professional Cabinet Company would leave holes in the floors and walls and shrug and say, “Oh just leave it, the cabinets will hide it anyway.”

At one point, early in the new kitchen planning, we tossed around the idea of leaving the kitchen cabinets and just painting them. The internet was filled with articles on how to paint your kitchen cabinets white and update your kitchen. Thankfully we rejected that idea, after examining the poor quality of those junk-board seventies cabinets. Just imagine if we had done that and not found the terrible holes in the walls and the floor. We would have had bugs and critters in the kitchen forever; in fact, Clara had always complained of mice in her bread drawer, and now we know why!

The new (redeemed) kitchen during canning season…


When we’ve seen the worst—maybe it is our own sin; maybe it is the sin of someone who is very close to us: a spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend, a pastor; or, maybe we’ve been sinned against—we all know that crushing anguish of Why God? 

The scenarios are horribly ugly—much worse than mouse droppings and bug detritus and holes in the floor—but those are apt analogies. When we are in the midst of them, it is bleak: we forget to pray, or when we try to pray, no words come. Our favorite Bible passages don’t bring pleasure. God, whom we know in our head loves us and will never forsake us, seems absent from our hearts, and we certainly feel forsaken. How long, Lord? is the cry at the core of our being; but that same core of our being is the place where God’s spirit uniquely resides, whether we feel it or not. God does not say However bad it gets you will always feel my presence. In our bad times we often feel abandoned and forgotten, as if God is far away. Yes, it’s true, he is far away, but he is also right next to us, whether we feel it or not. We know this is true, because it is one of his promises: “…I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  (Joshua 1:5) Yes, it bears repeating–our feelings are not always reliable.

No one is exempt from suffering, no matter what form it takes, great or small, weeks or years. Jesus told us, “In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33)  This eighty-year-old cottage has seen it all—betrayal, tragedy, death, abandonment, dishonesty, smashed dreams—and so has God. He is not surprised at anyone’s sins or messy lives or detritus. He went to the cross for the debris, the rubble, of our lives. And there is nothing that we can do that will surprise Him, because He knew us before we were born; (Read Psalm 139) he knew (or knows) our past, present, and future sins; and he knows how it will all turn out. He loves us still.

And not only does He love you and me, but “…in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) The words to the praise song come to mind:  How marvelous! How wonderful! Is my Savior’s love for me.⁠1 

In my NIV Study Bible, that verse—Romans 8:28—is the first verse in the section called More Than Conquerors, and it tells us that no trouble will ever separate us from Christ’s love. Not hardship. Not persecution. Not danger. Not even a sword. No, Paul tells us, all those sufferings are part of life and they have always been part of life, and those troubles actually bring us closer to Christ.

Sometimes we can be so overcome by our own suffering, our own terrible circumstances, that we forget who he made us to be—His light, His truth, His love to a dark and suffering world. ⁠2 

He takes our messes, our sufferings and turns them around to reflect His likeness. Later, in 2 Corinthians 4:17 Paul calls them “light and momentary troubles.” And what are they doing for us? “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

When we are in the middle of them they seem dark and endless; if only we can allow Him to nail our sufferings to the cross and not wallow in them; if only we could see and remember that they are light and momentary in consideration of eternity.  Please, God, take our if-onlys and make them so. You have promised to repay us for the years the locusts have eaten. (Joel 2:25)

This gives me so much hope, for I have a lot of years that were eaten by locusts. I have a lot of detritus hidden behind the walls. And perhaps I have not yet seen the worst…. But I will not fear, for those sins and sufferings and debris of my life have been nailed to the cross of Jesus through His grace and mercy. When Satan reminds you of the rubbish in your life, sing out in power “…my sin, not in part, but the whole, has been nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, oh my soul.⁠3


For further study, read 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Only one question this time:

  • What darkness in your life have you kept to yourself? Write about it now and allow it to be nailed to the cross.

1 Hutchinson, Gabriel Charles, My Savior’s Love, c1905.

2 John Dorean sermon

3 Spafford, Horatio G., It Is Well with My Soul, c1873

10. Paint It White: The Covering of our Sins Has Been Accomplished

FOR EVERY HOUSE IS BUILT BY SOMEONE, BUT THE BUILDER OF ALL THINGS IS GOD. — HEBREWS 3:4

Has anyone noticed pictures of mudrooms lately? They are white with clean shelving, unmuddied boots, and a few jackets hanging neatly on pegs. So unlike what a true mudroom in a country house looks like. I wasted many hours looking at photographs of mudrooms. Mudrooms in magazines. Mudrooms in real houses. Mudrooms in Decorator houses. (I’ve lived in thirteen different houses in my life, and I had never lived in one with a mudroom.) But one thing was clear from the beginning—I didn’t want the mudroom to be white.

We collected things in a hodge-podge fashion: terracotta tiles for the floor and a new entry door from a Habitat for Humanity ReStore; small French doors to open into the kitchen from Construction Junction; a wood stove for the corner that was in the basement of the city house. I repurposed the top part to an old desk and painted it green to coordinate with the kitchen, and it is now a combined shelving unit and coat rack for one wall. We have done this mudroom one wall at a time, at about the speed of one wall per year. Including the floor. Including the ceiling. What was once the three-year plan turned into five years. But now that it is finished, yes, the walls and the ceiling are painted a creamy white–just like the other rooms in the cottage—and just like the white mudrooms that I originally rejected. 

Have you wondered about this white trend of living? Kitchens are white, bathrooms are white, living rooms are white, mudrooms are white. I’m guilty. All the walls in the cottage (except for a couple of accent walls) are creamy white. It just speaks to me of how we try to whitewash everything for the world—from the concrete nouns of our houses, cars, and things, to the common every day sins of our lives…

The contractor husband was my first boyfriend. In 4th grade I was invited to his 10th birthday party, except he failed to inform me it was a birthday party. (The first of many miscommunications…) I thought we were just going roller skating. I was fearful because I’d never roller skated before, but I went because I liked him! Rita, his sweetheart of an older sister, took care of me that afternoon and taught me to roller skate—held my hand as we went round and round, helped me up when I fell, and encouraged me the whole time. Then we went back to his house and the kids put their birthday presents at his feet! I was mortified that I didn’t have one for him. I must have cried because his mom, Clara, put money in an envelope and gave it to him and signed my name. Their whole family took care of me that afternoon! Six years later we were boyfriend and girlfriend again—for two plus years in high school. We broke up in college, married others, had children, lived our lives, and saw each other once every five years or so at high school reunions. Thirty years later, we met again…and now are happily married, redoing a cottage, and painting it white. 

A happy ending, yes, but there was divorce and sorrow in between. No matter, we like to paint our pictures with the happy endings, the fun trappngs, and sweep the other stuff under the rug. There are no unhappy photos on Facebook. Got an ex-husband? Block him. Don’t like what someone says? Defriend them. Our public lives are white; what color are our private lives?

Here is an unpopular truth that we all must hear and know: All suffering is caused by sin. Please note what I did not say: I did not say that God sends suffering. But He allows it, doesn’t He? And I also did not say that your suffering is a direct result of your sin. It certainly could be; but it could also be the direct result of someone else’s sin, and for some reason, perhaps a reason that you will never know, God is allowing it to affect you. And you can block God, or defriend Him for awhile, but can I just tell you from experience? It doesn’t work well for the long term.

Here in the twenty-first century western world, we don’t talk about sin very often. It’s pretty much out-of-fashion. While reading Yours Jack, by C.S. Lewis the other night, I came across Lewis’s writing on the seven deadly sins:

 “I was thinking of the old classification of the seven deadly sins: They are Gula (Gluttony), Luxuria (Unchastity), Accidia (Indolence), Ira (Anger), Superbia (Pride), Invidia (Envy), Avaritia (Avarice). Accidia, which is sometimes called Tristitia (despondence) is the kind of indolence which comes from indifference to the good…⁠1

That letter was written in 1930. Today, ninety some years later, many of these deadly sins are just a regular part of modern life. Gluttony is now called being a Foodie. In most circles one would be laughed (or scorned) out of the circle if one referred to their sexual proclivities as sin. Indolence is simply depression or despondence, which Janet Porter called the “new trendy illness” in a 2010 article in the Daily Mail.⁠2 Envy is capitalized upon by every television advertisement and just considered part of life. Avarice or greed is covered over by calling it financial planning or retirement strategies. Pride is simply caring for yourself, isn’t it? Being yourself, doing right by yourself, having confidence in yourself, taking selfies of your self, self, self. The only one of the seven that still gets a bad rap is anger, and these days even anger seems to be prevalent and OK. Just start reading comments on social media posts….

The main drawback to denying the sin in our lives is that in order to need a savior, we must acknowledge our neediness. If we are doing fine, we won’t need Jesus; it’s hard to repent when there is no problem. We have painted everything white. From kitchen cabinets, to mudrooms, to bedroom carpets, we have whitewashed our sins by incorporating them into regular life and making them normal behavior. And we are all fine, thank you very much.

In that same letter, Lewis speaks of besetting sin. What he means is that each one of us has a tendency toward one of those seven sins—our main character flaw. I can’t speak for you, but at different times in my life, each one of them has been a besetting sin. Yes, I own them. Many, many sins. But God is gracious and merciful to all us sinners who ask for His mercy. My bible is full of verses meant for us sinners to hear: 

For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” — Hebrews 8:12

“There is no one righteous, not one….” — Romans 3:10

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” — Romans 3:23

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the worst.” — 1 Timothy 1:15

“…He will never leave you, nor forsake you.” — Deuteronomy 31:6

“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” — Romans 4:7

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” — Romans 8:1

There is no need for us to whitewash our lives, our mistakes, our sins—for Christ has already done it for us. His white paint, or bleach, was His own red blood. I’ve often mused on the words, cleansed by His blood. Those two words are such a stark contrast —cleansed and blood. I think the juxtaposition of those words is meant to be strikingly severe, so that we will never take the sacrifice of Jesus, of God, lightly. Blood covering us? No, it’s not so appealing, especially someone else’s blood; it only works if it represents something so amazing, so glorious, that we can hardly comprehend it—only then would we ever submit to such a crackpot idea.

That’s part of the gospel’s magnificence—it is so shocking, so unbelievable. Really, if someone wanted to make up a religion, who would ever have come up with such a preposterous, miraculous, staggering scheme? Only God. The apostle Paul tells us this in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.

And again in a later chapter, he writes in 1 Corinthians 3:18-19:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight…

Yes, by the world’s standards blood cannot cleanse; happiness is all important, so do what feels good; if you are suffering, it must be someone else’s fault; and listening to (or believing) some ancient prophet and His followers’ writings is indeed, foolishness.

But in a sermon two weeks ago, I was reminded of some other words of C.S. Lewis: liar, lunatic, or Lord. He is one of the three, and we have to choose—no whitewashing, or wishy-washing. Jesus Christ is either what He claims—the son of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, or He is crazy and deserved to die on that cross, or He is lying about being the Lord of the Universe, and at the very least deserves the ignominy that He is receiving in the world today. Here is the official quote from Lewis:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”⁠3

I’m writing this on the Saturday that is sandwiched between Good Friday and Easter, so the Cross of Jesus Christ is definitely on my mind. Last week in church we sang “My name is graven on His hands, my name is written on His heart…⁠4 It is a beautiful worship song and it reminds me of one of my favorite verses in Isaiah, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

And I picture that hand of Christ outstretched on the cross, that wounded hand dripping blood, forming my name on His palm. I have fallen at His feet and called Him My Lord and My God. And His blood is allowing me, a sinner, to come before God. Cleansed by His blood, indeed.


For further study, read Romans 8.

Questions for thought:

  • Picture Jesus on the cross, His arms stretched wide, saying “I love you this much.” Write a love letter to Jesus.
  • Lesslie Newbegin talked about bending the majesty of Christ into our own likenesses rather than making His greatness the focus of our lives. How do you see that happening in the church? In your own life?
  • Romans 8 is filled with familiar cherished verses that are worthy of memorizing. Which is your favorite and why?
  • Verse 26 says the Spirit intercedes for us, and verse 34 says the Christ also intercedes for us. So not only did Christ die on the cross for us then, but He is still interceding for us now–to allow us to come before God. This realization should surely make us “more than conquerors”. Is your God too small?
  • Name your favorite hymn or praise song that sings the gospel story of Christ so much it brings you to tears almost every time…

1 Lewis. C.S. Yours Jack, p. 11.

2 Porter, Janet Street. accessed at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1278510/Depression-Its-just-new-trendy-illness.html

3 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan, Rev. ed., 1960, c1952, p. 41.

4 Cook, Vikki and Charitie Lees Bancroft. “Before the Throne of God Above.” Published by Sovereign Grace Worship.

4. The Sanding Queen: Taking off Layers of Gunk

We have officially started working on the kitchen. As in taking out walls (that was another chapter); but for the past few weekends, I’ve been sanding. Not just smoothing rough edges, but taking off 4 coats of paint and the original varnish of kitchen cabinets. Oh, did we dither (that’s another chapter too) about kitchen cabinets! They are so expensive, and I want white. The white cabinets that one can purchase at the big box stores are not wood: laminate, thermafoil, melamine, lacquer, acrylic–they have all sorts of fancy names and initials for what is really just plastic or junkboard. I’m a purist; I like real; I like old; I like authentic, and I wanted wood cabinets. The unfinished cabinets at Home Depot and Lowe’s are oak. It seemed a shame to buy oak cabinets and paint them white, so we haunted the Habitat for Humanity Restores and Construction Junction. It took several visits in all places–and we found some other cool stuff in the meantime–but one day we came upon Really. Ugly. Cabinets. They were so ugly, we almost passed them right by.

Looks like a square robot from The Flintstones to me…

But when we stopped and figured it out, they were almost a perfect fit for the sizes of cabinets that we needed. Straight out of the early fifties–made from sandable birch plywood all through, they weren’t quite the doors I wanted, but for $225 they will work. Since we saved so much money on cabinets, the plan now is to buy really expensive countertops!

So now I am the sanding queen. You know the song. Unfortunately the only words I know are the sanding queen, da da da da da, she’s the sanding queen, da da da da da da the sanding queen. I didn’t even know it was an Abba song until I saw Mamma Mia! with Meryl Streep. (In my defense, it probably came out in the late seventies, early eighties when I was busy with babies.)

My cabinet shop was on the back porch until this past weekend when the temperatures soared into the nineties, so I moved into the air conditioned comfort of the living room and contractor husband hooked up the sanders to a vacuum. It’s a complicated system of hoses and extension cords and duct tape, and they all get entangled with each other, but the dust is cut way down, and I can sometimes take off my mask.

Sanding is boring. The arm gets tired. The sander is loud. The vacuum is louder. The back starts to hurt. The mind wanders. There’s plenty of time for thinking, for praying, for counting blessings, for wondering, for comparing sanding to real life. Cleaning off layers of grime, old paint, and junk to expose the beautiful wood beneath. That’s what trying to live a holy life is like, isn’t it? Always we’re scraping off the gunk that the world leaves on us. Some of it’s been there for years–applied incorrectly, but still it sticks until we really try to scrape it off. And, oh boy, is it hard to get out of the corners! I’m thinking of the book I read last year called Somewhere More Holy by Tony Woodlief. It is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read; he talks about home being where the sacred and the mundane meet when we search for God in the small everyday things–like sanding, like cleaning, like taking something ugly and reclaiming it. Next weekend I’m going to be sanding again. And the week after. And the week after. I’m sure I’ll tire of it. I just have to keep remembering what the finished product will be. Beautiful. Free of gunk. As good as I can make it.

The trouble with all metaphors is that they break down at some point. And here is where this breaks down: In a faithful life of belief, we don’t do the sanding or cleaning or scraping off of gunk ourselves. God does it. And it’s sometimes painful, repetitive, boring…I’m reminded of how many times I don’t learn the same lesson. That gunk of the world is still stuck in my corners, and God must be just about at His wit’s end with me. Really, Carol? How many times have I tried to teach you that? And our best response is the same as blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-48) and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

But the best news is that Jesus will never give up on us no matter how many times we forget, or screw up, or just get tired. Even when we are not faithful, he is. Jesus was faithful when he went to the Cross for us; he was faithful when he taught the disciples the same lesson over and over; he is patient even when we are not. His love for us was and is deeply personal and indescribable, and we could never in an eternity pay him back. In return, we owe him honor and praise and obedience–not to earn his favor, but  to be thankful for his patience and faithfulness to us sinners.

The really hard question here is how do we become more holy? And of course, that question is fraught with paradoxes: We can’t try to become more holy to save ourselves; and we can’t pat ourselves on the back for the things we finally manage to get right; and we shouldn’t try to be holy just for holiness’ sake. So how do we clarify that desire to be holy to please the God who died so we could take on His righteousness? Obedience and conduct and love,  1 Peter tells us in verses 14 and 22 of chapter 1. Don’t be conformed to the world and your passions. (Paul tells us almost the same thing in Romans 12:2) Holiness is to be set apart–to be like Jesus, loving as He loved. Peter uses familial language here–invoking the love of God our Father– and calling us to be obedient to Him as we would to our parents; not to earn His favor, but to reflect Him, and love Him, and be thankful to Him for His mercy.

The same cabinet as above, sanded clean and repainted…

Every day we must give up our own will, our ambitions, our possessions, our pride–and confess our sins–so Christ will heal us anew. Only he can peel off the layers of dirt and sin to expose who we are really designed to be underneath. Everyone knows that if you don’t get all that old paint, varnish, and gunk off before you repaint, the job will be botched and the piece ruined. Are we willing to undergo the pain of the peeling and burnishing of our souls to be ultimately refined and made holy by God? Jesus went to the Cross for us, are we brave and courageous enough to be reclaimed by Christ?


For Further Study, Read 1 Peter 1:13-25

Questions to think about:

  • The other common metaphor for God cleansing our sins is peeling an onion. When each layer is peeled off, there is another layer of sin. And tears. Like sanding off layers of paint and varnish to expose the beautiful wood underneath, sanding off the layers of sin involves patience and sometimes feeling as if you can’t breathe. It also involves fresh coats of varnish or paint to protect that clean precious wood. What steps can we take for protection against our most common sins?
  • Verse 15 in 1 Peter reads, “…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct….” Sometimes, many times, I just feel as if holiness is something that totally eludes me and that I am making no progress toward a holy life. Is there a cure for this? Surely, I am not the only one who feels this way; what do you do?
  • Here’s a paperwork assignment: Read the 1 Peter section of Chapter 1 above (entitled Be Holy) and write down all the concrete ways he gives us to help us in becoming holy. The section of Ephesians 4 & 5 — Living as Children of Light or Instructions for Christian Living–also gives us concrete ways of life to adopt for holiness. Check those out again, too.
  • Another thought — my go-to remembrance verse is in this section too: “…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18-19).