when the mystery becomes my home

“Expectations are our subtle attempts to control God and manipulate mystery.” Fil Anderson

I spent last weekend at The Cove in Asheville, serving the Renovaré community alongside Fil Anderson and Nathan Foster. I came away with a lot more than I offered, and these 11 words Fil said on our first night together have been rolling around in my mind ever since.
the Cove

Don’t ask me to interpret them for you because I can’t. Maybe that’s the point?

What I can do, though, is share a few loosely connected thoughts I’ve been having which, for a writer, can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because when thoughts connect, it means there is something worth exploring; terrifying because when those thoughts are only loosely connected, you know the exploring will take more work.

But blog posts aren’t necessarily for completed ideas, so I offer you my partial ones this morning.


I’ve been reading in Matthew 11, not the lovely verses at the end we love so much – Come to me, all you who are weary. Rather I’ve been reading the beginning, the part where a jailed John the Baptist questions Jesus, sending a message through his disciples: Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?

I tear up every time I read his question.

It doesn’t seem to me that John the Baptist is angry or suspicious here. As I read it, it just seems like he is feeling tired, lonely, and small.

How Jesus responds to John’s question feels important to me.

He doesn’t get angry or become defensive. He doesn’t reprimand him here for lack of faith. Instead, he simply tells the disciples to listen, look, and then tell John what they observe – blind people see, lame people walk, deaf people hear, sick people are made well. As John’s disciples walk away to report back, Jesus turns to the crowd and begins to talk about John.

Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist.


Reading Jesus say that about his friend, John, makes me cry.


At dinner last night, our youngest reads a riddle with the world journey in it. I ask him if he knows what it means and he says no.

His older sister speaks up, ready with a definition. “It means to go on a journey.”

I challenge her to define the word without actually using the word in the definition. She has a hard time coming up with a different answer.

Going to Jesus when you doubt Jesus seems kind of like using a word in its own definition. Why would you ask someone you doubt to confirm the thing you doubt? Shouldn’t you go to a different source?

Are you the Expected One or shall we look for someone else? If John didn’t think Jesus was the one they had been waiting for, it doesn’t seem to me he would go to Jesus to confirm it.

But he does.


This morning when I came downstairs, I walked through the living room where my John sat on his corner of the sofa, blanket on legs, bible on lap. It’s the same every morning.

I smiled at him on my way to the kitchen, came back to the living room and sat down next to him, only half awake.

“I have an image of where we are right now. Want to hear it?”

Of course I do.

He began to describe how he feels like we are looking over the shoulder of  a painter, watching him work. We know the artist has in mind a fuller picture, but all we see is a vague vision.

We see the canvas is a rectangle, we see the strokes are light, we see there are blues and greens rather than reds. But we see only in part.

Ever since John left his job, we have had a vague vision of what is to come. And when I say vague, I mean first-layer-of-paint-on-a-canvas vague. I mean puzzle-pieces-without-the-picture-on-the-box vague. I mean vague vague.


As I make space to settle in to what is most true, as I reject all sense of urgency, as I remember who I am and who Christ is in me, vague is becoming okay with me. My own expectations of what I need to know in order to believe are changing. The vague vision is beginning to feel like home, not in a comfortable or predicatble way. Maybe not even in a familiar way. More in a where else would we go? kind of way.

I don’t know any other way to say it – I am more at peace with what I don’t know than I have ever been before.

I feel most fully myself when I walk together with John into the mystery, when I release my tight hold on the way I think things should be and instead embrace Christ as I know him to be in this moment.


  1. says

    This is wonderful, Emily! My family too is in an expectant, nervous, vague-canvas season of life with so many things in flux I can’t keep them all in mind at once. Perhaps I’m not supposed to. I don’t know how it will look or when it will be finished, but I do know that when the painting comes into focus for me, it will almost have to look completely different than it did yesterday. How common the human experience is! Thank you for your words and encouragement. I’ll move through the day thinking of that artist and the unseen masterpiece He is creating in my life.

  2. says

    This is beautiful, Emily. And I think this is faith in its truest definition: that when the mystery is overwhelming and we’re not sure where to turn, we remember the foundation on which we stand and turn questioning but trusting eyes to Jesus.

    • Suzanna says

      I feel the same way. Beautiful and made me think about that portion of the Bible about John the Baptist in an entirely new way.

  3. says

    I appreciate this so much, Emily. Thanks for reminding me I have permission to not have it all figured out, and even to share my heart in its not-figured-out-ness.

    This post reminds me of something I’ve read in your book–about poets embracing mystery, living within it. I love how I learn to know His heart when I let go of my desperate need to figure it all out.

    And I so love how you continually help me connect more with my truest self, and with Him inside me.

  4. says

    Love this. About the mystery? Join the club. You speak, think, live, breathe, metaphor, as I do. It’s the only way I have found to embrace the mystery and give it the deep respect it deserves.

  5. Ellen says

    Hi Emily~ Your conversation with John this morning reminded me of this old poem that I’ve carried in my wallet for years. You’ve probably seen it before, but it may be new to some of your readers. I’m fairly certain I first read it as a teenager when I read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom because it was a favorite of hers:

    My life is but a weaving
    Between my God and me.
    I cannot choose the colors
    He weaveth steadily.
    Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
    And I in foolish pride
    Forget He sees the upper
    And I the underside.
    Not ’til the loom is silent
    And the shuttles cease to fly
    Will God unroll the canvas
    And reveal the reason why.
    The dark threads are as needful
    In the weaver’s skillful hand
    As the threads of gold and silver
    In the pattern He has planned
    He knows, He loves, He cares;
    Nothing this truth can dim.
    He gives the very best to those
    Who leave the choice to Him.
    Benjamin Malachi Franklin

  6. says

    This is perfectly beautiful Emily. I begin to think, in my own small way, that this is the bend in the road the Father longs for all of us to choose to take – this journey of surrender and trust and mystery.
    For me, it took a bit of doing. When I didn’t make the choice myself after so many, many years of knowing Him – He simply pushed (I was going to write – nudged – but it was so much more than that) me in that direction. He used the circumstances of my life to put me in a place where it was either release everything and everyone into His hands or walk away.
    Walk away – to what I thought. For us there is nowhere else to go. He is our answer and our mystery all in one. He is our hope. The other way leads only to emptiness and despair.
    Thank you so much for this.

  7. says

    I am deeply grateful for you, Emily–for your work, for your ministry, for your faith, for your gifts–but mostly I’m just grateful for you. Thank you.

    In the words of good old Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

    You have believed and have come to know the same, haven’t you?

  8. says

    thanking God today for your sweet words…they give clarity to my thoughts and help me to articulate my own faith so much better. I am comfortable with vague now as well! In fact, comfortable like climbing up into a buttery soft old leather chair and content to watch the world go on around me…No need to control, manipulate,wrestle with thoughts of uncertainty. He is enough and I love to watch His plan unfold!

  9. says

    I love reading mysteries or watching shows or movies that are mysteries because the suspense is riveting and within a couple of hundred pages or maybe 90 minutes, the mystery is usually solved. We see what we didn’t know or what we’d perhaps suspicioned.

    But living a mystery is hard. It’s not tidy. It can be unnervingly uncertain. I love it in theory and I fight against it in practice. I long to enter in to the mystery and simply rest.

    I love Fil’s words and I love your connections here. Thank you for sharing pieces of your story with us.

  10. Sarah M. says

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I needed this today. I’ve read it twice now, and I just wanted to share my gratitude.

  11. says

    Wow, thank you for letting the Holy Spirit speak through your writing. A friend sent me this today through an email, and it is exactly what I needed to hear right now during my scary transition out of college. How great of a God we serve that is holding our hands and guiding us even when we are walking through a foggy cloud.

  12. Lindsay says

    I love the image of putting a puzzle together without the picture on the box. It brings faith into a better perspective. We KNOW it’s going to be beautiful, but putting it all together takes time. Thank you!

  13. Sarah Ellen says

    Emily, your phrase about feeling most fully alive when you walk beside your husband into the journey of the future… Beautiful. This is what it means (in part) to be one flesh. To be more fully ourselves, together. Bless you for standing by your man. God is honored in that. I pray a covering of God’s protection from the Enemy over your marriage today.

  14. says

    I keep saying we are in a boat on an unsettled sea with no oars…but we have a Mighty Fine Captain…

    Vague. Do I understand that word. :)

    I love Jesus’ reply to John, He knew he just needed reassurance “Yes, I am still in control.”

    I need that from time to time and for him to overlook my doubt as if it never happened. <3

  15. says

    I love your post. I just wrote about John in my blog as I am an (in)courage Bible study leader. I saw the same thing. Being in prison, not knowing what is really going on, I think he just wants to know is it worth it?

    After years of trying to figure out what God’s plan is for my life (and even demanding it be done my way a few times) I decided what I did wasn’t as important as finding Him again. So I began rediscovering Jesus. Oh what a sweet journey that has been. It doesn’t matter now what I do, as long as I am with Him. The closer I’ve grown to God, the more a peace I am with the mystery. I know there is a plan and I see the outer images of it, but it wouldn’t be worth the journey if He isn’t in the middle of it. So I am content to sit still and watch the images take shape as He see fit.

    Love the quote too. Thanks for the post!

  16. says

    I barely know how to respond, except to say, “I am with you.”

    Last week I read a snippet somewhere online about how the Christian life can be “hard.” And all I could think was, “where else would I go?”

    I love this. I am amazed that the God of the universe can impress upon you some loosely connected thoughts and so many of us can read them and nod in agreement. I do not understand His way, but it is mesmerizing; and I just want to take it in.

    Thank you, Emily!

  17. says

    Thank you for sharing how you and your husband are embracing the mystery in this part of your journey with God and each other.

    Your words made think of this line from the poem, “Patient Trust” by Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”

    De Chardin’s poem ends appropriately with these lines:
    “Give our Lord the benefit of believing
    that his hand is leading you.
    And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
    in suspense and incomplete.”

    You inspire me with how you are living this out :)

  18. says

    Oh, the mystery of not knowing. I am in that place where God is asking for a deep trust, of letting go, and releasing my desire to know how this will all work out. I too, am learning to be at peace with it, but it can be so hard. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Kip says


    Just finished your book Million Little Ways…most encouraging thing I’ve read this year. Thanks.

    I’ve passed it on to everyone in my household/sphere.

    “Expectations are our subtle attempts to control God and manipulate mystery.” Fil Anderson

    I would need to see the context for Fil’s quote…not incline to question intent without having been there for the back story and unpacking…

    However, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” and “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul”…both of these seem to speak of expectation…not that can be disappointed, but that never disappoints…”Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us”…”You will keep him in perfect peace, Whose mind is stayed on You, Because he trusts in You.”…word for mind there is “imagination”…which has always seemed tied to a “holy” expectation.

    We are poems. We will make art. That would seem to imply a certain amount of anticipation and expectation? Enthusiasm? In our Good Papa, the Lover of our souls, the one who always shows up and shows off and rescues…”Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us”…the mystery as you and Corrie Ten Boon and the others here seem to refer to is maybe regarding just how or when He shows up or shows off or rescues…but not His Goodness, His Love, or His Loving Intent over all of us in all things.

    It would seem that faith and hope have an element of expectancy…not like the world or the enemy or our flesh define expectancy…but a stand on your tip toes and peer into the Life that He has for each of us every moment of ever day…

    Glad to share the mystery, the expectancy, the company, and the conversation along the Way.

  20. says

    I loved your thoughts on John the Baptist. Yes, I’ve been wrestling with the same. I’ve even been trying to change my paradigm some on hope this weekend, yet somehow still believe and trust, and I’m finding it is next to impossible. I’m so tired of being hurt and disappointed that I want to remove the part of me, hope, that has led to disappointment. But to believe and trust means there is always hope, and I am thankful for I know that is right. Someone gave me Gene Edward’s book ” The Prisoner in the Third Cell” to read during this season……a historical fictional book about this John the Baptist account that can be read in one sitting I wanted to throw it across the room at the time, but it is truth that must be swallowed if we are to declare God sovereign…….and He most definitely is. Blessings as you continue to walk in mystery. God will be good……because He is.

  21. says

    Hi there – I never reply but today I have to. Just today at lunch I was praying that God would give me His wisdom and His discernment as I sit in my particular very “vague” place and I was asking God is this my choice to sit here or is the amazing sense of comfort and peace you’ve given me in the waiting truly from You. See I begin to doubt if I’m waiting for something that was never meant to be or am I truly waiting on Him. My flesh is “desperately wicked” and selfish and so today I begged Him to show me that sitting here is where He wants me. Then you wrote what my heart couldn’t quite say “The vague vision is beginning to feel like home, not in a comfortable or predictable way. Maybe not even in a familiar way. More in a where else would we go? kind of way.” This is truly where I am – comfortable at home and not wanting to go anywhere else.

    Thank you Emily for being used by God to make me heart sing right now!!!! :)

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