African monkey traps and our giving God

By Shawn Allen (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
In my spiritual director training, one of the facilitators shared a question that she often asks herself when she finds herself reacting to a situation, “In the midst of that situation, what must I have been assuming God is like?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself too, since it helps me get below what I think I believe about God to see what beliefs really shape the way I live.

I found myself asking that question this week when I felt afraid of stepping into something new. “Why the fear? What must I be assuming God is like?” And I discovered that though my head knows that God is the ultimate Generous Giver, some part of my heart deep down believes that God is not a Giver at all but a Taker, demanding constant hard work, perfection, service even if it kills me—demanding my whole life.

It was an uncomfortable surprise. Thinking about it now, though, it’s not all that surprising. Isn’t this just another form of the lie that has been woven into our DNA since the garden, that God is not good and can’t be trusted, that he is holding back from us the best? Isn’t this still the core of the daily struggle to trust, even for those of us who are His, who have tasted and seen again and again that the Lord is good?

This lie woven into our DNA is why we’re told over and over to remember that God is good, and given reminders to help us do so.

It’s why I need to intentionally savor each moment as a gift from the One who loves me, and look back at the end of each day asking God to help me notice where he was in the day.

And it’s why I need to remember the larger story and stay consciously aware that the lie of the serpent that sings quietly in the background is precisely that: a lie.

Often an image helps my heart see truth, and the picture of the African monkey trap helps me understand how my heart can so easily mistake such a generous Giver for a Taker.

The African monkey trap was “a large gourd with holes carved out on the sides just large enough for an orange or a monkey’s hand to pass through. No elaborate system of nets and concealed pits was needed, because once a monkey put its hand into the gourd and grasped the orange, it could not remove its hand without releasing the orange. Based on a ‘monkey mind’ mentality, which always deemed it necessary to hold on tenaciously to the orange, the trap never failed. Even when the hunter, club in hand, stood threateningly near, the monkey would think that it was stuck, never realizing that all it had to do to escape was drop the orange and run away.” (Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au, The Discerning Heart, p.136)

God does ask me to let go of everything. But he does it not, in the end, to take from me, but to give to me. He asks me to let go of a single orange in order to free me into a forever life filled not just with trees hanging with oranges but with the One who creates it all. His taking is always in the service of his giving. It’s my monkey mind which keeps me focused on the orange I’m being asked to drop and prevents me from seeing the full life God is wanting to release me into.

And in the moment I understand that I’ve been seeing God as a Taker, my eyes fill with tears because I also see this: He knew what my heart has believed about him, and he hasn’t criticized or condemned but just kept gently loving, teaching my heart to trust. It’s one more bit of proof for this slow-to-learn heart of mine, that God is a generous, gentle, gracious God, a God who can be trusted to love this heart of mine, in all its doubts and fears and longings and loves, and to love it well.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:24-5)

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Freely God’s


Am I giving myself to others for the sake of God, or am I giving myself to God for the sake of others? I’m only just recognizing the difference in those terms, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

I didn’t go home for Christmas this year. Every time I considered it, it felt too tight and pressured, and after a busy term I was so hungry for time alone with God. God gave many special gifts, including a few times with other people, loving and being loved in practical ways, but perhaps the biggest gift came when I realized that for the first time in three months, I felt like myself, and then, a few days later, realized that I could have equally well described what I meant by “I felt like myself” in a different way: “I felt freely God’s.” That is exactly where I want to live all the time—as God’s, fully and freely—and I was getting to taste what it felt like! And in that moment when “being myself” equated to “being freely His,” the question (which has been a huge struggle for me all my life) of whether it is selfish to make the choices that let me be me disappeared. What is less selfish than doing what enables me to be freely God’s?

It was soon after that that I began, slowly, to see the difference between giving myself to others for the sake of God and giving myself to God for the sake of others.

When I give myself to others first, even if I think I’m doing so for God’s sake, I put others on the throne. I surrender my God-given stewardship over my own life to the wishes of others. Or I put myself on the throne. I decide who to give to, and when and how. When I give myself first to others, I’m either clinging to control, or I’m inappropriately surrendering control to others, or both.

But when I give myself to God for the sake of others, the One who knows and loves me best (and knows and loves others best) gets to guide. He who is gracious and generous and infinitely creative in his solutions may ask me to help meet the need of one person while asking me to trust his goodness enough not to have to be the one to help with something else. When I give myself first to God, I’m surrendering to the only One who can rightly handle that control. I’m surrendering to love. This is the way of trust. And of freedom and peace and the burden that is light.

Jesus lived this second way, giving himself to his Father for our sake: “I’m consecrating myself”—setting myself apart for God—”for their sakes . . .” (John 17:19) His eyes were always on his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19; 8:28), his will neither his own, nor surrendered to us, but surrendered to his Father (Luke 22:42, John 5:30; 6:38).

I’ve tried to live the first because I thought it was the way of love, the way to please God. It turned out that I can’t love that way. I too quickly slip into fatigue, and from there into resentment and crankiness.

I’m just starting to learn how to live the second. It’s a daily challenge, and a bit messy. (One poor person got three emails from me as I was trying to get the courage to step out of a commitment: 1) I need to leave. 2) No, wait, am I hearing right? Maybe I should keep praying about it. 3) Umm. . . yes, God has added several more layers of confirmation to the already high pile. I really do need to leave.) It makes me wonder: Was I really living the first way only because I thought it was the way of love? Or was I living it because I felt insecure without the affirmation of others?

It’s a challenge to switch my gaze from the faces of others to the face of Jesus, but it’s also freedom and joy and true, unshakeable security. However hard the switch may be, and however long it takes, I know I don’t want to go back.

What (many of us) grown-ups have forgotten


I sit with the friend who most intentionally helps me listen for God’s voice in my life and confess that lately I’ve been coming up against the hard truth that every single thing I’d like to be able to think about myself is not true, not the way I’d like it to be. I’d like to think of myself as disciplined, but the chocolate in the kitchen drawer could tell another story. I’d like to describe myself as gentle, but then I hear the harsh voice in my head berating me again.

She listens and questions and shares how she’s been back in the story of the little boy’s lunch again and has been realizing, That little boy probably had no idea that what he was offering was utterly inadequate. He’d simply overheard the adults asking if anyone had any food. “Here, you can have mine,” he’d said.

I picture Jesus smiling at him as he accepts from the boy’s hands the five little rolls of bread, a bit crumbly and squished, and the two small fish that have been sitting all day in the hot sun. Jesus smiles at the boy and winks, the two of them sharing a secret. The little boy smiles and winks back. He doesn’t yet know the whole secret and he might not be able to put into words the part that he does know, but somewhere deep down his heart knows the truth that the worried grown-ups have forgotten: Placed in the hands of Jesus, what I have to offer is enough for whatever Jesus wants to do with it. 

Babies hold out soggy cheerios in their newly-mastered pincer grip and toddlers extend dandelion bouquets in chubby fists with full confidence that their offering will bring delight. Only grown-ups are ashamed of their gifts.

Little children seem to know something else we adults have forgotten: It’s not really about the gift at all. It’s about the relationship. The children are offering their love, their trust, themselves, to someone who loves them. What could be not to love about that?

Jesus isn’t critiquing our soggy cheerios; he’s savoring our love and our trust.

Here, you can have me, I say to Jesus, watching him smile and open his arms to receive the gift. I can’t keep myself from smiling back.

And so during August I’m setting aside (as best I can) the part of me that thinks I always have to do more to make my gift acceptable. I’m stepping back from blogging and other writing so I can be fully present to Jesus and family and friends, giving myself rather than what I produce and polish. And while some critical adult voice in my head says, “I can’t believe you’re going to write that,” the little girl part of me that is smiling at Jesus smiling at me shrugs and takes Jesus’ hand and skips off, borrowing my parting words from Lynn Ungar’s poem, “Camas Lilies”:

                                         “. . . Gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back

when I’m through with blooming.”  

Jesus’ favorite Christmas gift


God gave His Son many gifts that first Christmas. There was brand new vernix-creased skin with tiny toenails and none-like-them fingerprints, baby limbs to stretch and carry him through his years of adventure. There were arms to cradle him, milk to fill his tiny belly, and out in the dark, unseen by his baby eyes, angels sang over him and a special star took its place to mark his identity.

But Jesus’ favorite gift was one that he was still talking about three decades later – still giving thanks for it, delighting in it, praying for his Father to protect it. It was a gift that He would grow into and one that would grow with him, a once-in-a-lifetime present which delighted him so deeply that he would shape his whole life around protecting it, loving it, guaranteeing that it would be his forever.

It was a gift that the Father loved with his whole heart too – loved as much as He loved His Son. No small gift, this. No half-hearted giver here.

The Father gave what He loved most, next to his Son.

The Son received it with delight, with His whole self, setting His entire being apart to become one with it, to enjoy and give Himself to this gift that was given to Him.

That favorite gift?

It was you.

(John 17)

Ten reasons you can dare to put your heart out there

DSCN4380It’s got to be one of the hardest parts of writing.

You know what I mean. You can handle the nuts and bolts of the job. The nouns and the verbs and the punctuation – maybe you’ve still got some learning to do, but it’s no biggie. The hard part is baring your heart, extending your trembling hand to place your words, those shreds of your own pain and hope, into someone else’s hands, not knowing whether they’ll treasure or trash them.

It’s like the rest of life.

It’s easy to make a casserole. It’s hard to show up with it on the doorstep of the woman who just lost her husband.

It’s easy to put your resume together. It’s hard to apply for your dream job.

It’s easy enough to help others. It’s a million times harder to ask someone else to help you.

Putting your heart out there: most of us find it hard because most of us, at some level, fear rejection. But there’s no real living without letting others into the deep places where pain and joy and God and our true selves reside. And there’s no real ministry either. See Jesus strip down and wrap a towel around his waist to wash feet; listen to him bare his heart to his Father as he prayed for his disciples in their hearing; watch him hang near-naked on the cross. Christ-like serving requires exposure.

So when my opening heart and extending hands are trembling at the risk, I’m learning to remember these:

  1. God’s got the door. Who has called you to what you’re doing? If He has called you and still wants you there, what can get in His way? “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” (Revelation 3:7-8)
  2.  Your idea of failure isn’t the same as God’s. He got me on this the other day. I was thinking about something in terms of “failing again” and I felt Him say something like, “Again? Is that how you see your time in Afghanistan and your loss of career  – as failure?” God defines success as love and obedience rather than a particular outcome. Success and rejection are not opposites; consider Calvary.
  3. Those giving and those receiving (whether words or a meal) are all equal before God; all small, all temporary, all loved. The person receiving may have more experience and more knowledge. Good. She can help me grow. But her word is only her word, transient and limited, and I need to receive it as whispered by the blade of grass standing alongside me in the field where we’re planted. “I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mortal men, the sons of men, who are but grass, that you forget the LORD your Marker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth. . .?” (Is. 51:12-13)
  4. You aren’t rejected. He speaks to each of us what He spoke to Israel: “ . . . you are my servant; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.” (Is 41:9) He has called us, and he’s committed to taking us by the hand and not letting go. (Oh, do take time to soak in Is 41:8-20 – or even memorize it.)
  5. You’re being equipped. You don’t think you have what it takes? Maybe you don’t – yet. No worries. God’s on it.  “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Heb 13:20-21; cf. 2 Cor 3:5; Phil 1:6)
  6. You get to choose. What someone says about you tells you more about them than about you. You are not obligated to accept every verdict offered.
  7. You do have to step out . . . . In Bunyan’s words, “. . . [a person’s] gifts are not his own, but the church’s; and . . . by them he is made a servant to the church, and. . . he must give at last an account of his stewardship unto the Lord Jesus; and to give a good account, will be a blessed thing!” (John Bunyan, Grace Abounding, p. 75; c.f. 1 Cor 6:19-20)
  8.  . . . but you’re not asked to carry a boulder.  A couple of weeks ago I was struggling with a decision. God gave a picture in which I was trying to lift three huge boulders, one at a time. The first was the past I was leaving behind, the second was the decision itself as I tried to weigh it all and choose well, and the third was the new thing I was taking on. On the other side of each boulder was God, eager to lift the weight from me, but I was resisting without knowing I was resisting Him. His message was clear. “I’m not lifting from you one boulder only to replace it with another. I want your arms free to be around my neck.” Life is a dance of increasing intimacy, not a weight-lifting contest.
  9. You’re stepping out in response to your Lover’s voice calling you out of hiding. Keep listening to Him: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely.” (Song of Songs 2:14)
  10. You are a most holy place, your body a holy of holies where God dwells (1 Cor. 6:19). What you offer when you bare your heart is far more than yourself. Who knows what might happen if you offer yourself, letting the curtain be torn and allowing others into that holy place of God’s dwelling?


A little bonus for the language lovers among you:

There are two Greek words in the New Tesatment for “temple”: naos and hieron. Hieron includes the temple courts; naos speaks more specifically of the temple itself: the holy place where the priests carried out the sacrifices, and the holy of holies where God dwelt and into which the high priest alone could enter once a year. (This solves the question in Matthew 23:35. How could Zechariah could be murdered “between the temple and the altar”? Wasn’t the altar in the temple? The bronze altar was in the courtyard of the temple, part of the hieron, not in the naos, the inner sanctum mentioned in this verse.)

“Do you not know that your body is a naos of the Holy Spirit? . . .”  (1 Corinthians 6:19)

(Sources: Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament; Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains)