The group was going around the table sharing updates. Although we were new to the team and new to the country, the team had welcomed us warmly, and I felt comfortable giving a quick update on how I was doing. At least I was comfortable until the moment I burst into tears. I choked out the words that would come to symbolize my struggle: “I have...(sniffle) a college...degree (gulp)...and I can't...even...buy cheeeese!”
Nineteen years and two international moves later, I can laugh at the frustration and impotence I felt not knowing the language of the country where I was living. Within a few years I had enough language to buy all sorts of cheese, to make national friends, and to help lead training events.
It would be easy to look at those early days and identify my language skills as my limiting factor. Easy. But incomplete. Language is a tool, so speaking the language of those with whom I want to communicate is helpful. But more significant than the tools or skills we have at our disposal, is the disposition of our hearts. My limiting factor was, and continues to be, not my tongue but my heart. As we seek to reach the nations for Christ, we need to guard our hearts above all else, for they are the wellspring of life (Prov. 4:23).
I have found I suffer from three heart maladies: a shrinking heart, a hard heart, a wandering heart.
Shrinking hearts are caused by fear. When fear dominates my heart, I'm more likely to hide in safe spaces and take fewer risks. I confine my serving to my comfort zone—programs in my church, activities with other homeschoolers, conversations with people of my ethnicity or nationality—instead of finding ways to serve the lost souls in my community. I allow the number of unknowns (How will this work? What will come next? What if...?) to shut down my courage and creativity, and instead I stick with what I know. I don't dream big dreams. I trust in my own strength and skill. I focus on experience instead of eternity.
Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:8), so I've learned to use the symptom of fear to my advantage. Instead of feeling disappointed in myself for being fearful, I allow fear to be a signpost, pointing me to places in my heart that need to experience more of God's perfect love. The cure for my shrinking heart comes when I explore those fearful places with the Lord and allow him to apply the truth to lies I may be believing. Or touch wounds that are still tender. Or compare his character to my list of what ifs. Regardless of what I need, he has the cure that strengthens and expands my shrinking heart.
My hardness of heart comes from a loss of hope. When my disappointments and failures begin to pile up, hope can become elusive; when I lose hope of seeing God's Kingdom break in and change my reality, my heart gets hard. The scary part of having a hard heart is that I quickly become part of the problem. I blame those in need for squandering opportunities. I question motives and assume malicious intent in the most innocent of conversations or requests. I become greedy instead of generous, hoarding my time, my resources, and my molasses (although I do share the cookies I make with the molasses...does that count?).
The beginning of the fifth chapter of Romans does a great job recalibrating the hope of my heart. Instead of hoping in what I want, I'm reminded of the hope I already have in Christ. Instead of hoping in particular responses to what I do, I'm reminded to put my hope in what Jesus has already done. As my heart is softened by hope, I begin to actively bless those around me. I become a part of seeing his Kingdom come and his will done in my neighborhood as it is in heaven.
A wandering heart, and the idolatry that causes it, comes easily to me. A sure sign of a wandering heart is when I start sharing an idea or plan more than I share who Christ is. Any number of things can supplant the Triune God on the throne of my life. I've made idols of my children (they're pretty great), my parenting choices (they're not so great), pastors, programs, methodologies, outcomes. My heart is easily drawn to the next shortcut or shiny thing, and I wander from the path of God's love into working hard in the flesh to produce spiritual results.
Worship is the best antidote for a wandering heart. I need regular rhythms of worship that remind my heart of the incomprehensible magnitude of who he is. Sometimes music is the vehicle for my worship, but not always. I've found worship stirs when I go for a run or even when I'm walking through the city doing errands. Noticing my surroundings—whether the natural beauty of a park, the visceral response to a great meal, or the spiritual significance of being with other Jesus-followers—leads me to marvel at God's presence and his goodness. Even when what I'm noticing isn't so lovely—the ground strewn with the evidence of last night's debauchery, a parent striking a crying child, my own weariness—I remember that God is bringing all things under the dominion of Christ. His reign is now and not yet. And I worship.
My current situation doesn't have the same kind of linguistic happy ending I experienced in our first overseas site. Seven years into our new assignment I can order food (including cheese!) and exchange pleasantries, but real conversation is still a struggle. I wish that wasn’t the case. However, without minimizing the importance of language learning, I remember that keeping my heart healthy is the real priority. True Kingdom engagement will come from my heart—and love communicates in any language.
What About You?
I encourage you to check the health of your heart. Be honest about your fears, disappointments, and idols. Pull those painful issues into the light of his presence and pause. Choose not to judge yourself. Before you assume you know what God will say, choose to let him speak for himself. Receive what he’s offering. The beauty of this moment is he knows exactly what you need for yourself and for your context, and he will give those good things to you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jody Hovda and her husband Paul have served with Novo since 1999, first in Venezuela and then Novi Sad, Serbia. Jody serves as the general director of Novo’s Ethne Collective, and is driven by a passion to see leaders make a significant Kingdom impact by living out their calling and vision. Jody and Paul have three children.