When God Says “Wait…”


waitingWe’ve all been in a situation, most of us a number of times, where we’re waiting for God to answer a particular prayer or deliver us from a difficult situation. Perhaps you find yourself in such a place right now.
         I have to admit that I have a really hard time waiting – even if it’s waiting on the Lord. I’m very much an action taker by nature and I like to get answers as quickly as possible, including answers to my prayers. I’ve found, however, that God often doesn’t give me a definite answer right away and that He tends to operate on a timetable that’s very different from mine. He is most certainly not in a hurry like I am.
         As I have matured in my faith, I have come to understand that what I perceive as the most pressing needs in my life are not always the most important needs in God’s eyes – this, because He sees the bigger picture that I myself don’t see. What may look like an urgent need to me may, in fact, only be a secondary issue to the Lord of heaven and earth who is able to make out the beginning, middle, and end of everything that is happening and is going to happen in my life.
         You or I may pray for our sick child to get well, or for the restoration of a broken marriage, or for help to get out of debt, or a number of other good things… God, on the other hand, although He very much cares about all these needs, may be even more concerned about using our circumstances to teach us patience, contentment, trust, love, and wisdom.
         If our desires are godly and otherwise in accordance with His will, we can be certain that God will meet them at the right time and in the right way, because “no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). However, God will sometimes choose to keep us in “the waiting room” for a season because He wants to accomplish something even bigger in our lives than what we are asking Him for: He wants to use our painful, frustrating, or confusing circumstances to teach us valuable lessons about ourselves and His character.
         What, then, should our attitude be while we wait on God? How should we approach Him while waiting for relief – or should we approach Him at all? And what can we expect from Him?
         For answers to these questions, let’s look to the fascinating account of Acts, chapter 16. Here we read that Paul and Silas were put in jail on false accusations after casting a spirit of divination out of a slave-girl – and they weren’t merely placed in a temporary holding cell; they were thrown into the inner prison where their feet were secured in stocks (v. 24)! That it would take big-time divine intervention to get them out of there is pretty clear!
         And divine intervention is exactly what happened next: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose” (vv. 25-26).
         These two short verses are jam-packed with valuable insights that you and I can apply to our own lives. Firstly, notice Paul’s and Silas’ attitude. They weren’t murmuring, complaining, crying bitter tears, or arguing with God. Certainly, if the two men had had a poor attitude, they could easily have justified it to themselves and each other. I mean, here they are out and about proclaiming the Gospel, doing God’s will, and delivering a poor slave-girl from a demon, and next thing they know they get dragged in front of the authorities and thrown in jail! What had they done to deserve such treatment? Where was God? Had He suddenly left them?
         How many of us, if in a similar situation, wouldn’t have either shaken our fist at God or hung our head in despair? But Paul and Silas did neither. Instead, while waiting for God’s deliverance, they prayed and worshiped! And, as they demonstrated trust in God this way, they were no doubt a powerful testimony to the other prisoners who were listening in on their prayers and praises (see v. 25).
         Then, while Paul and Silas were praising the Lord, “about midnight”, God came to their rescue. This is the second thing we should notice – that the deliverance came “about midnight”. In our modern day vernacular we frequently use the phrase “at the midnight hour”, meaning that something happens in the nick of time. Interestingly, as we search the Scriptures, we find that God often chooses to wait until the last minute to provide a solution to our problems. In fact, flip back just a few pages, to Acts 12:5-7, and you’ll read about how Peter, too, was in prison, and that while he was incarcerated and the church was praying for his release, an angel miraculously delivered him. His rescue, we’re told, took place on the very night Herod was about to bring him forward!
         Many of us have also experienced in our own lives that God will frequently wait until our circumstances look impossible before He’ll come to our rescue. Why is this? Well, it’s one of the ways that God builds trust and patience in us and really stretches our faith muscle. The longer the wait, the more of an opportunity we have to seek Him, pray to Him, learn about Him, and worship Him. If God always came through for us as soon as we presented Him with a petition, that wouldn’t give us much of a chance to grow spiritually, would it?
         The third thing we should notice is that God’s deliverance of Paul and Silas happened in a way that was absolutely extraordinary. Going back to Acts 16:26, we read that, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.” It was a full-fledged miracle: what happened was so supernatural that it couldn’t be explained in any other way than that it was the hand of God at work.
         The Lord, it seems, often chooses to put His glory on display this way. Certainly, He works through natural means as well; by sovereignty orchestrating all the “ordinary” little events in our lives in such a manner that our prayers are answered and His will comes to pass…  But He can just as well do something unexpected and remarkable as something that can be easily explained. He did after all create the universe out of nothing and raise Jesus Christ from the dead – is anything too difficult for our heavenly Father?
         So, to sum it all up, when life appears to be on hold and we’re waiting on God to give us answers, let’s remember the inspiring example of Paul and Silas. Like these two devout followers of Christ, let’s refrain from complaining or growing impatient, and instead try to look at our circumstances through the eyes of the One who sees the bigger picture. Let’s continue to sing His praises while we wait, because even in seasons of waiting God is working in our hearts – perhaps especially then. And what He wants to teach us during those seasons are important life lessons that are going to benefit us long-term.
         When, like Paul and Silas, there’s nothing we can do to change our predicament and all we can do is wait for God to act on our behalf, we need to make sure we have the right attitude while waiting. This is our responsibility! God, when He comes to our rescue, wants to find us waiting with an attitude of joy, trust, and faith.
         Also, let’s not forget that even if our situation looks “impossible”, with God, all things are always possible. We always have reason to be hopeful, and so we should continue to pray with expectancy, not allowing a delayed answer to dismay us. God can, at any time – even at the midnight hour – send a proverbial earthquake to shake the ground and make closed doors fly open. Therefore, we must not lose heart but should continue to press in in prayer for as long as it takes, until we get a definite yes or no.
         And friends – as with Paul and Silas – while we wait for deliverance, may our testimony before the watching world be pleasing to our Lord… May the world look at us and marvel at our inexplicable joy in the midst of our trials… May we keep our faces lifted toward heaven in praise and worship, knowing that God is always “working all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28)!
         Remember, God is good; God is wise; God is powerful…and God is for us!


All The Toys For The Ultimate Vacation

19_150612192149_1_litFor a period of time, I rented a room from a retired Thai couple that also lived on the property. To keep oil from splattering everywhere when the wife did her deep-fried Eastern cooking, the wall next to the stove had been meticulously plastered with pages from a cruise magazine. Since we shared the kitchen, any time I was preparing food my eyes would be drawn to the colorful images showing carefree couples on pristine beaches and luxury cruise ships roaming the seas.
          “All the toys for the ultimate vacation,” read one of the headlines. The article featured a photo of a family playing watersports in an exotic location, far away from the daily grind and hustle.  
          As I stood there cooking, I’d often ponder the lifestyle depicted in the articles. I’d think about how our flesh desires relaxation and recreation; how we want life to be comfortable and convenient. In fact, the more comfort and convenience we have, the more freedom we believe we’ll be able to experience.
          It makes sense that unbelievers would think this way. But as Christians we walk to the beat of a different drum. While there’s nothing wrong about wanting to enjoy the blessings God has given us, we must be wise about how we spend our time and money. Our life is no longer to be characterized by the pursuit of pleasure the way it was before we knew the Lord, but by love and service. And freedom, the Bible teaches, isn’t found in comfort and convenience, but in sacrifice.  
          As followers of Jesus, we’re called to live lives of self-denial. As Christ put it, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
          Jesus is saying here that when we give up our own self-serving desires and instead seek to live for Him, we find true life. We discover the purpose for which we were created; what it means to live the abundant life He came to give us (John 10:10). This is the great paradox of the Christian faith: gaining is found through losing.
          To follow Christ we have to abandon our old way of thinking and completely change our course. We must put our hand to the plow and not look back (Luke 9:62). We must be prepared to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel. If we aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices, Jesus said, we cannot be His disciple (14:26). Not that we shouldn’t be – we cannot be.
          The concepts of “denying yourself”, “picking up your cross”, and “dying to self” are found throughout the pages of the New Testament. They describe the truest essence of what it means to serve the Lord, and they stand in stark contrast to what the world says about how to be happy. The world tells us that life is enriched primarily through pleasurable experiences. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that joy, fulfillment, and purpose are found in the process of being molded more and more into the likeness of the Son of God. And Christ, as we know, lived a life of perfect selflessness.
          The process of spiritual growth is hard. It often involves inconvenience, discomfort, delayed gratification, and even pain. It takes dedication and commitment every single day. It involves walking in continuous self-awareness, praying and thinking things through, patiently waiting on God, and surrendering our will to His. Simply put, it means being willing to do the difficult inner work required to grow in holiness.
          It also means that, like Jesus, we seek to set aside our self-serving desires and put God’s Kingdom first; that we’re more concerned about doing the right thing than about looking good. It means that, above all, we seek to honor our Lord.  
          In terms of lifestyle, living out Christ’s principles of self-denial strongly indicates that we don’t live beyond our means. We don’t rack up credit card debt by purchasing things we can’t afford just so we can keep up with the Joneses.
          Even if we have the money, there will be times when we choose not to give in to our heart’s desires. We don’t necessarily buy the latest phone on the market just because we can (when our current one is just fine), or fill our closet with new clothes or shoes when we already have more than we need.
          It’s good to practice small acts of self-denial like these because it helps us to not become self-indulgent. It helps free up our mind to focus on spiritual realities. It keeps us from becoming possessed by our possessions; from cluttering our life with things that distract us in our service of God.  
          Money is one thing; how we choose to invest our time also speaks volumes about the state of our heart. If we spend more time pursuing the perfect physique than we do holiness, something is clearly off with our priorities. The same can be said if watching TV or planning our next getaway or shopping for new furniture is a bigger part of our life than serving at church or reading God’s Word or evangelizing the lost.
          Unfortunately, many of us have gotten things backward. As far as our externals, we always want more – more stuff and more experiences – but when it comes to spiritual things, we settle for so little. Very often, what drives us (yes, even us Christians) is not a pursuit of holiness but a pursuit of worldly goals. And, sadly, in the process of striving after the things of the world, we miss out on a lot of great work that God wants to do in us and through us.
          Is what we are living for worth Christ dying for? This is the question we should be regularly asking ourselves. And only when we can answer in the affirmative, can we be said to be fully yielded to the Holy Spirit. Only then are we truly picking up our cross. And, mind you, the Lord requires nothing less of us. As one pastor put it, “Jesus never called for a superficial makeover but a total takeover.”
          May God help us be less conformed to our culture. May He help us better embrace the essence of the Christian life and make a difference with the short time we have left. Following Jesus is about sacrifice, not ease or self-indulgence. It’s about living not for immediate gratification, but with an eternal perspective. It’s about giving up and laying down. It’s about storing up treasures in heaven, where they’ll last forever (Matthew 6:19-20).
          It’s not about the toys or the vacations. In fact, probably nothing is farther from the Christian’s calling than that. Because it’s not about us, you see. It’s not about what we can get out of life. It’s about Jesus. May we always keep Him where He belongs: at the center of all our desires and pursuits.

Thoughts On Trials, Tests, And Temptations

GodKnowsYourNeedGod’s purpose with our trials, in stark contrast to that of the devil, is to make us better. Whereas Satan’s goal is to use our difficulties to destroy us, our heavenly Father wants to use them to purify us. Whether God is honored or dishonored in our trials, then, is determined by our response to our challenges. We can work with God or we can resist the work He is wanting to accomplish in us.
          As an example of what this may look like in practical terms, say you have been wronged by a fellow believer. You have confronted your brother about the matter but he is not repentant, and all you are left with is pain and disappointment. If this situation creates ongoing resentment and bitterness in your heart; if it causes you to try to get back at the person who hurt you; to get angry at God; or to lose hope altogether, then the trial has become something that’s producing sin in your life.
          You can, however, choose to respond the way that the Bible tells you to: you can forgive your brother (Matthew 18:21-22), continue to pray for him (Luke 6:28), leave it up to God to see that justice is done (Romans 12:19), and believe and hope that Christian love will win in the end (1 Corinthians 13:7). If you do, your trial – the same trial – will become something that strengthens your faith in God and His ability to defend you; something that builds you up and draws you closer to the Lord.
          To surrender resentment and hurt to God can be a grueling hard process for sure, especially when you find yourself in a situation where you’re not at fault and you’re reaping what someone else has sowed. It’s hard because what you’re experiencing isn’t fair. God is a God of justice and order, and since we’re created in His image, it’s only natural that we’re going to feel angry when sinned against. Keep in mind that Jesus Himself was angry and grieved at unrighteousness (Mark 3:5).
          What’s interesting to note is that the Bible says to, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26 ESV). In other words, anger in and of itself isn’t wrong; what Scripture warns against is prolonged resentment.
          It’s when we hold on to anger that we give the devil an opportunity (verse 27). We give him an opportunity to make our hearts hard toward God and to sow increasingly more dissension between us and the person who wronged us. When things aren’t brought out into the light and dealt with; when forgiveness doesn’t take place and reconciliation doesn’t happen, that’s when the enemy comes and exploits the situation. And when he does, friendships, marriages, families, and churches are easily destroyed as a result. No wonder God says to guard against the root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15)!
          It’s important to remember that our offender is not our real enemy. Our real enemy is the devil and his cohorts. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Again, it’s our response to our difficulties – and regardless of the nature of our trial – that is going to determine whether that trial becomes a temptation which hurts us or a test which ultimately refines us. As long as we respond correctly, even a painful experience set in motion by Satan to harm us can become a blessing when it helps us grow spiritually.
          Of course, the key to making the best possible decisions in life is to walk in continuous obedience to God’s Word. Obedience is a beautiful thing. When you live obediently, you can have peace in any struggle. The peace may not come right away, but eventually it will. As the Bible promises, “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3).
          Those that seek to live according to God’s precepts, putting their trust in Him and truly desiring to respond correctly to life’s trials, will be able to experience a sense of inner tranquility. They can know that they’re safe and secure in the Lord’s hands and that He will use their hardship for good. Simply put, when you walk in obedience, God is on your side!
          What’s more, the Lord will always supply us with the wisdom we need to handle our challenges. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5 ESV).
          Truly, all we need to do is ask; ask the Lord to give us discernment and to understand the lessons He wants us to teach us through our difficulties.
          God has not left us alone. We don’t have to figure things out on our own. We have the guidance of the Word and of the Holy Spirit, and we can turn to mature, godly Christians for advice. We have everything we need to ensure that our trial becomes a test in which God is glorified rather than a temptation in which He is dishonored. It’s up to you and me to do the right thing.

The above article is a chapter from my upcoming book, “Life More Abundantly: Trading Your Good For God’s Best.”




The Rocks And The Sand

14310414_10210852153643535_7421805148393610230_oI have noticed that God has a very creative way of making spiritual truths come to life for His children. It is as if He wants to make sure you get what He is teaching you in His Word, and so He will place you in situations where you get the opportunity to live biblical principles.
          This is exactly what I experienced recently when I had an unexpected divine appointment on the beach with a young Christian man named Peter. I was prepping for a talk I was doing later in the week at a Christian women’s conference and had driven out to Santa Monica for a very specific purpose. In my talk I was going to do a demonstration for which I needed two rocks and a lot of sand, and the beach, of course, was the place to find these items.
          Here is how the demonstration works: I hold an empty glass jar up in front of my audience and explain that the jar represents the days of our lives; what each of us has room for. Next, I get a bucket filled with sand and slowly pour all the sand into the jar. I tell my onlookers that the sand represents all those pressing little things that we have to tend to on a regular basis. Such as cooking dinner, getting a haircut, paying bills, returning emails, driving our kids to activities, scheduling doctor’s appointments, shopping, exercising, and on and on. It is an endless list, as we all know.
          I then try to force the two rocks into the jar. It can’t be done. There is not enough room left as the jar is filled to the brim with sand. “As you can see,” I tell my audience, “if we start with all the little things – if we first fill our jar with sand – the big rocks of life aren’t going to fit.”
          I continue, “And what are the big rocks of life? Well, there are only two according to Jesus. There are two critical things that we are called to do in life, namely to love God and love people. These, Jesus says in Matthew 22:37-40, are the most important commandments.”
          Next, I pour the sand back into the bucket so that the jar is once again empty. Then I start over. But this time I use a different strategy, beginning with the rocks. I place the two rocks at the very bottom of the jar and ask this question: “But what happens if you put the big rocks first – the two most important things in life, namely to love God and people – and then add the sand; all the rest of your tasks and activities?”
          The audience watches with anticipation as I slowly pour the sand back into the jar. And, would you believe it, every little grain of sand now fits perfectly, filling in all the cracks between and around the rocks! I screw the lid on the jar and conclude: “The lesson here is pretty simple. When we put God first, everything else falls into place. In the words of Christ Himself, in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
          So, this was the demonstration I was prepping for. This was the reason I had gone to the beach the day that the Lord decided to put Peter on my path. (I originally found the analogy in an article where it was used to talk about prioritizing in general. I liked it so much that I decided to apply it specifically to the spiritual aspects of life and use it in my talks.)
          After filling my glass jar with sand and finding two nice rocks on the beach that I figured would do the trick, I decided to enjoy the sun for a few minutes before returning home.
          I was lying down on my towel with my eyes closed. A little while later when I opened them again, I noticed that a stranger (Peter) had come and sat down close by. He kept glancing over at the jar, an intrigued look on his face. Finally, he asked with a grin, “Sand? Do you collect sand as a souvenir?”
          I laughed and said I was going to use the jar, sand, and rocks for a presentation. I explained what the different things represented and that it was an illustration about putting God and people first. Peter’s face lit up. “You’re a Christian?” he asked. I said I was, and he excitedly responded that he was, too.
          We continued to chat, and within minutes we were completely comfortable with each other. (You know how it is when you meet another believer: you immediately have a connection point and no lack of things to talk about!)
          As it turned out, Peter was going through some trials. And I got the opportunity to encourage him with my testimony about how the Lord had worked in my life through my struggles, leading me out of the secular business world and into Christian speaking. Peter kept exclaiming, “Wow! Wow!” It appeared that my testimony really struck a chord with him.
          The two of us had a wonderful, long conversation about the goodness of God, and we even joined hands and prayed for each other before leaving the beach. It was as if we had known each other for years.
          Peter then offered to carry the glass jar for me all the way to my car, which I was extremely thankful for since it was so heavy I could barely lift it. It was my first time giving this particular demonstration at a conference, and I had no idea the jar was going to be that heavy once I filled it with sand! As I was lying there on the beach, before Peter came and sat down, I had been wondering how in the world I was going to get the jar back to my car. And then the Lord sent me a helper!
          But perhaps the most amazing thing of all was that God brought my sand-in-jar analogy to life right before my eyes. Just think about it: This was for a presentation about seeking God’s Kingdom before all. And as I myself put this principle into practice, everything else fell into place.
          Without even realizing it, I did precisely what the demonstration taught. I put the two “rocks” first. I focused on loving God by proclaiming His goodness and loving a fellow human being (Peter) by taking the time to encourage him. As a result I got my practical needs met when Peter offered to carry the jar to my car! (I also got a pretty cool story to share with my audience when I performed my jar demonstration at the conference later that week).
          Only God can make stuff like that happen. Only He can pull everything so beautifully together. And what it does is prove to me that the Bible is not like any other book. His Word is not just letters on a page. It is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). And when you put biblical truths into action, God moves and life works the way it is supposed to.

Are You Borrowing Tomorrow’s Trouble?

stop-worrying-2When in the midst of a trial, it is easy to make the mistake of borrowing trouble. Really all we should be thinking about is dealing with what is right in front of us today.
          However, prone as we are to worry, we often find ourselves living in the future. Because we can’t see a solution to our problems yet, we automatically assume that they are going to continue on indefinitely.
          When we try to carry many days worth of trouble this way, we naturally become overwhelmed. And the reason we become overwhelmed is that God never meant for us to live this way. He didn’t create our spirits with strength sufficient to carry the load of future problems. He meant for us to live one day at a time. In fact, Jesus very specifically said to “not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
          Deal with tomorrow when the day comes, He said. Not now. Don’t try to carry the burden of challenges that belong to future days, weeks, months, or years. Don’t fret about something that hasn’t happened yet. Not only is it exhausting; it is pointless.
          It is pointless because you just don’t know what solutions God is going to provide for you between now and then. By the time tomorrow rolls around, you could very well have some new insights, information, or resources at your disposal that will make everything much more tolerable. Or God could even have put an end to your problems by that time. You just don’t know.
          The Lord sustains us. He provides for us. He takes care of His children, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. We don’t need to worry about the future because God is already there.
          This was the principle the LORD sought to teach the Israelites during their years of wandering in the wilderness. After He had supernaturally supplied them with manna to eat, He had Moses instruct the people to not leave any of it for the next day (Exodus 16:19). They were only to gather enough manna for that particular day, not for the week or the month – not even for the next couple of days.
          The Israelites, however, worried that provision from God might not come again tomorrow. And so they disobeyed His instructions and saved some of the manna in case the LORD didn’t provide for them the next day. But what happened when the next day came? All the delicious, white wafers they had kept had gone bad and were full of maggots (verse 20)! It was God’s way of showing them what happens when you refuse to trust Him and try to do things your own way.
          Just as with Israelites in the Old Testament, God wants you and me to live in a state of dependency on Him. He wants us to remember that His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23), and so we don’t need to worry about the next day. God’s provision for today – be it physical, emotional, or spiritual – is meant for today only. Tomorrow His mercies will be new and fresh and invigorating again, and He will once again meet our needs.
          Have you ever considered that Jesus Himself, when He prayed (Luke 11:3), asked His Father for daily bread, not for a week’s or month’s supply of it? And when He did, He set the example for us of what it means to lean on our heavenly Father for everything we need on a daily basis.
          Admittedly, this kind of dependent living can feel very foreign to us today in the affluent western world. We shop for food and household items in large quantities and stock and store in our basements and garages in order to always have what we need at our fingertips.
          But the truth is that there is no real security in anything that we possess in this life. Everything we have worked for could be ripped away from us in a second (Luke 12:20). And if it is, and it leaves us with angst and fear in our hearts, that is a telltale sign that we were trusting in our resources and not in the Lord.
          Now, the Bible isn’t saying that we shouldn’t plan ahead. This is clear from countless passages in God’s Word that promote wise, prudent living. What it is saying is that in the midst of all our planning we must still rely on God. We must lean more on Him than we do on our own plans.
          We need to recognize that ultimately our plans will come to fruition only if it is in the Lord’s will (James 4:15). Also, because God is in complete control of every little detail of our life, even when things don’t turn out the way we intended them to, we can rest in His ability to work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).
          Again, the Lord wants us to live one day at a time. If we attempt to go about our lives any other way, we will fill our minds with worries and miss out on blessings that God has for us in the here and now.
          Because how can we enjoy a beautiful sunset, rich fellowship with other Christians, an unexpected, divinely ordained opportunity to share the Gospel, or spontaneous play with a carefree child if our mind is preoccupied with anxious thoughts? If we are living in the past or the future, we can’t possibly be fully present in the moment.
          Of course, the reality is that we don’t even know if we will be around tomorrow. None of us is guaranteed another day of life. Which is why it is so critical to make the very most out of today.
          Rather than worrying so much about what may or may not happen tomorrow, we must eat up the manna of the day – the grace that God gives us for right now. And if He does bless us with another day, we can know that His provision for that day will be fresh once again.

The above article is a chapter from my upcoming book, “Life More Abundantly: Trading Your Good For God’s Best.”

Beware The Mirror

Woman Looking at ReflectionGod has given us wonderful, powerful minds to think and reason with, and as long as we inform our minds properly, we will have discernment. “If you continue in My word,” said Jesus, “then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).  
          Our Lord was talking about spiritual freedom here, and He was saying that discipleship is more than intellectual assent. If we are a child of God, we won’t only have head knowledge, we are also going to live out what we know to be true: we are going to obey it.
          It is possible to know the truth and not obey it, but you can’t obey the truth without first having intellectual assent. Because you obviously won’t know what it is you are supposed to obey if you don’t first have the head knowledge! This is why we need to be diligent in studying God’s Word. It is how we become familiar with the truth intellectually. But studying it is only the beginning.
          We often speak of Bible reading as if, in itself, it is some great virtue. But there is no value in simply “reading” or “studying” the Bible unless we actually do something with the information we take in. It is only when we implement (i.e. “obey”) the things we have learned intellectually that the truth will begin to change us. That’s when the transformation happens that Jesus spoke of: the truth makes us free.
          God’s truth isn’t very complicated. It doesn’t take long for us to grasp it with our minds; what takes time and effort is internalizing it and applying it. This is the hard part of the Christian life. And perhaps this is why we are often not as deliberate about it as we should be.
          We have our fifteen minutes of Bible reading in the morning and listen to a sermon in the car on our commute home from work and tell ourselves we have been “spending time with God.” We may even have a list of Bible verses memorized. But how often do we give serious thought to what we read and hear? How often do we contemplate the practical meaning of the biblical principles we learn about?
          Studying the Bible, listening to pastors preach, and knowing Scripture by memory is pointless if the application is missing. “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:23-24).
          Unless we act promptly after hearing or reading Scripture, we are likely to forget what God’s Word showed us we need to work on. And isn’t this, in fact, what happens a lot of the time? We get distracted before we get a chance to implement the truth in our lives and end up just like the man James talks about in these verses. We become like the man who looks in the mirror but walks away and does nothing to improve upon what he sees.
          Having stressed how not to live the Christian life, James then shows us what the fruitful Christian walk looks like in contrast: “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).
          Note that nowhere in this passage (verses 23-25) does James say to simply “do”. Rather, he uses the word doer. To be a doer is to be someone who takes action consistently; your entire personality is characterized by the application of God’s truth. And the “liberty” James mentions in the last verse is the same liberty which Christ spoke of when He said that the truth would set us free. God’s law is a law of liberty because by obeying it we are liberated, more and more, from sin’s destructive presence in our lives. This is why, as James also points out, the person who obeys what he knows “will be blessed in what he does.”
          I can testify from my personal experience that this is true. Seeing Bible reading as another item on my to-do list, I used to study God’s Word much like I would any other book. Following a reading plan, I would be able to get through the Bible in a year, and in the process, I would learn and relearn many basic facts about Old and New Testament characters, places, narratives, even principles for Christian living. I was accumulating a lot of intellectual knowledge, but looking back I can see that it wasn’t doing a lot to help me grow spiritually.
          Today, I study God’s Word in a very different way. I read it much more slowly; in fact, there are days where I only go over a few verses. And then – instead of immediately rushing to another passage – I allow what I have read to simmer around in my brain for the rest of the day.
          I stay away from rigorous reading plans. Unlike before, I spend considerable time reflecting on and praying about what I read, and God is always faithful to give me opportunities to apply His Word to my life. Often, these opportunities come in the form of tests where the Holy Spirit powerfully brings to my mind something I have recently read in Scripture and then shows me how to implement it.
          I have learned to slow down; to savor and absorb God’s truth like a tasty, nourishing meal rather than gobble it down like cheap fast-food. And because I have become deliberate this way about acting on what God is showing me, it has made a huge difference in my life. My walk with the Lord is so much deeper and more intimate now since making the change. Using James’ terminology, I’m blessed in what I do.
          Again, head knowledge is critical because you need to know what to do in order to do it. Head knowledge is a prerequisite to obedience. Still, by itself, it is not adequate to change you. You must apply what you read to your life. That’s when the transformation happens. That’s when you are set free. That’s when the blessings come. 

Tough Love (Dealing With Difficult People)

heart-_Consequences. We all know what it’s like to have to face the consequences of our poor choices. It’s the sowing and reaping principle explained in Galatians 6:7-8, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” It’s how God has made the universe to operate: every action comes with ramification.
          Although the consequences we experience aren’t always pleasant, they are a result of God’s mercy nevertheless. Often, this is how God gets our attention, directing us away from sin and toward righteousness, and teaching us important lessons we simply wouldn’t learn any other way.
          Can you just imagine a world where actions didn’t have consequences? Where we didn’t experience regret as a result of hurting someone, fear of missing out because we refused to step outside our comfort zone, or a lack of peace as a result of giving into temptation? If we didn’t have to deal with these negative consequences, how would we ever have an incentive to change? Why would we ever make an effort to set things right in our relationships, or take risks, or seek to grow in holiness and purity?
          We should be thankful for the painful effects that naturally result from our poor decision making! If they didn’t exist, we would be in big trouble. They are designed by our loving Father who is committed to teaching us a better way.
          “The Bible reveals this consistent pattern,” write doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book How People Grow. “God would try to help the Israelites, talk to them, and give them resources and promises in the hope that they would turn to him. When they did not, he would send prophets with severe warnings. If this confrontation did the trick, things would be better. But sometimes the Israelites would not listen to the prophets, and then it was time for consequences. To discipline Israel, God would send a flood or a plague or, often, an army from a neighboring country. He used many methods to persuade them to see the reality of their ways and its consequences.”
          Having to deal with the consequences of our own actions is one thing. Allowing others to experience the ramifications of their actions, that’s a different story. This is where we as Christians – because we so desperately want to be “nice” to people – often mess up.
          In our efforts to be “helpful”, we rescue others from problematic situations when the person should be learning how to help themselves. Feeling sorry for a fellow brother or sister and thinking it’s “unchristian” not to step in, we unwittingly set others up for failure. We don’t give them a chance to face their fears and insecurities or to grow in dependence on God. And as the individual is kept from facing the logical consequences of their actions, they are allowed to continue along a debilitating path. In psychology, this is called enabling.
          At the outset, helping people is a good thing. There are, however, times when what we think is helpful to someone is not helpful at all – not in the long term. Thinking we are doing a good thing, we are actually robbing a fellow Christian of the opportunity to learn valuable lessons – lessons that could, in fact, help eliminate their issues altogether.
          This is where we need to be careful. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for someone is to allow them to learn from their mistakes as they are forced to face the harsh realities that they have brought upon themselves. Yes, even if it hurts them. Even if it ends up causing them frustration, setbacks, and additional challenges. Even if they end up suffering losses as a result, be it financial or otherwise.
          Again, this is how God deals with us. He purposely places us in situations where we are forced to come face-to-face with our flaws and our fears. He doesn’t bail us out. He exercises tough love. And He does it because He cares about our future, not merely our present circumstances.
          Because God wants to mold us into men and women of great character, He gives us opportunities to learn the difficult, sometimes painful, lessons He knows we desperately need in order to mature. It is always done in love and for the purpose of making us more like Jesus.
          So, then, rather than shielding people from the consequences of their sin, let’s seek to love them with the kind of “big picture”, forward-looking love with which God loves us. No, it’s not always going to be easy. It’s going to take wisdom and courage on our part, as well as trust: trust that when we step back, stop interfering, and leave the difficult person to themselves, God will still be there for them to teach them His ways. By the way, God knows exactly how to deal with the individual and He will do a much better job at it than you or I ever could. He does not need our help!


When Pride Comes Disguised As Humility

Humility “Humility comes easy to me,” she said. “In fact, sometimes I think I’m too humble.” It was our weekly women’s Bible study, and the topic for discussion was unity. We were looking at Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Our group leader had posed the question of whether any of us struggled with humility, and she was going around the table, letting each woman share her experience. Yes, humility is extremely hard, one lady said. I have a difficult time being humble in my relationship with my husband, confessed another. I find it hard to admit to my children that I was wrong, said a third.
          Each lady’s situation was different, but we all had this in common: When in an argument with someone, or when confronted with personal sin, our natural response wasn’t to zip the lip, allow the other person to give us a piece of their mind, and happily acquiesce. We were a lot more likely to defend ourselves, talk back, and feel offended at the criticism – even if well-deserved. We agreed that trying to emulate Jesus, who was silent before His accusers, was very much a challenge.
          Then the turn came to the woman seated directly across from me. Unlike the rest of us, she said humility wasn’t hard for her at all, and she went on to give some examples from her daily life of how she often found herself being “too humble”.
          The room had gotten so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop. I don’t know what the other ladies were thinking, but our group leader seemed impressed. She excitedly thanked the young woman for sharing about her victory over pride, giving the rest of us hope that we, too, could win the struggle.
          I felt a bit uneasy. Was it really that simple? If you make the statement that you are humble, does that not nullify your claim to humility? Is it not, in fact, proud to declare that you are humble?
          Another thing: Whenever we feel that we have arrived in our Christian walk, isn’t this in reality because we fail to see ourselves the way God sees us? Isn’t it an indication that we need to venture much farther into the Holy of Holiest to get a better perception of God’s glory? The closer we draw to God, letting the brilliant light of His holiness shine upon us, the more clearly we are going to see our own sins for what they are. In the light of His splendor, all our good works – including our perceived humility – look like filthy rags. The more we focus on His fullness, the more we are going to recognize how much we are truly lacking.  
          As I listened to my sister talk, I felt a sudden urge to point out to her the fallacy of her statement (could it have been my pride?;-) but that would have meant embarrassing her in front of the the group. So I said nothing. Later, however, I thought about how pride often disguises itself as humility, and how, at those times when we feel resourceful and self-sufficient, we do well to heed the warning of 1 Corinthians 10:12, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
          Satan loves to attack the unsuspecting Christian, the person who isn’t trusting fully in God and has failed to put on his spiritual armor. It’s when we think we’re being a “victorious Christian” that we’re the most prone to stumble. Those are also the times when God, in His loving discipline, often sees it fit to bring a test into our lives to show us what we’re really made of; that perhaps we aren’t quite as kind, patient, forgiving – or, yes, humble – as we would like to believe.
          I don’t know this sister’s heart. I don’t know how long she’s been a believer or how mature she is in her faith. I do think, however, that when a professing Christian claims to have won the battle with pride, it is cause for some concern. Because isn’t it true that if you truly belong to Christ, and you’re growing in your relationship with Him, you’re only going to become increasingly aware of your own sin? 
          Humility, the way I see it, is a little different than the other virtues and disciplines we pursue. You may say that by the grace of God you’ve conquered your fears or your lust issues, learned to forgive, or made radical improvement in the area of self-discipline. That’s fine. I take no issue with that. When it comes to humility, on the other hand, it seems to me that the moment you think you’ve got it, you’ve actually lost it…

God Is Speaking – But Are You Listening? (It Starts With Gratitude)

When was the last time you heard from God in a fresh way? Do you seek Him throughout the day, longing to hear from Him, and do you feel like He is giving you clear direction? Or has your relationship with Him become stale, your Bible reading unexciting, and your prayer life rather dry?
           If your walk with God isn’t vibrant and you’ve stopped sensing His presence, maybe it’s because you’ve stopped listening to Him (or maybe you never really started listening in the first place). “But I read my Bible,” you say. “He speaks to us through His Word, doesn’t He?” Absolutely. In fact, it’s the primary way in which He speaks to us. But it’s still very possible to read the Scriptures and not experience the depth of what God desires to communicate to us.
           Don’t despair – there are ways to hear God better. But first, let me explain what I mean when I say we can miss God’s voice… And let me share with you some changes I made in my own personal life which have completely transformed the way I relate to my Heavenly Father. These changes took my relationship with Him from lukewarm to a place where I literally can’t wait to spend time with Him each day. Having been a believer for over 20 years, I think I understand for the first time what it means to be truly in love with Jesus! And it’s all because I finally started hearing His voice. Mind you, it’s not that He was quiet before – God was speaking all along – it was me that wasn’t listening.
           Before, what I used to do, was that I’d dutifully say a short prayer and do my Bible reading in the morning – not so much because I longed to hear from God but more as a way of clearing my conscience. When prayer and a quick time in the Word were off my mental check list, I felt, I suppose, like I was being a good Christian. Naturally, I didn’t experience much spiritual growth during that time, and I felt as if God was very distant.
           But over a period of weeks and months, as I was going through some trials in my personal life and became desperate for direction, God showed me a new way of seeking Him. Most importantly, He showed me how to listen. He showed me how to come before Him in Spirit-filled prayer, with a humble heart, not asking for anything, not rushing before His throne with a long list of requests, wants, and perceived needs, but with wide open ears, just ready to listen… Listen to whatever He wanted to say to me.
           My living room sofa at night, about an hour or so before bedtime, became my private little sanctuary. It became the sacred time and place where I’d seek God every day. (I still do!) And oh how I look forward to this time with Him! It is just so incredibly sweet, so filled with peace and joy… I dim the lights, lie down, close my eyes, and quietly enter His presence. I always start by thanking Him. I look back on my day and thank God for every little blessing, anything I can think of, big or small… The more I count my blessings, the more of them I discover, and sometimes I don’t even get beyond giving thanks as I fall asleep with a smile on my face, relishing in the goodness of my Savior.
           Even if I fall asleep like this, I’ve done something very important: I’ve taken a posture of humility before my Father and opened myself to receive instruction from Him. And His instruction may come at any time during the day or night. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, hearing God speak loudly to me in my conscience. Other times, when I get up the next morning after spending an extended period of time in prayer the night before, some spiritual truth will all of a sudden hit me… It’s not for me to say when or where God is to speak to me, but speak He does!
           But, again, it always starts – at least for me – with thanksgiving. You see, when I come before Him with a heart filled with gratitude, what I do is I acknowledge who I am in relation to Him – merely a creature; an undeserving sinner. He, on the other hand, is beautiful, gracious, faithful, just, loving, and holy – the all-knowing, all-good, all-wise Creator of heaven and earth. Everything He does is good, and although I deserve nothing, He has given me so, so much. By humbling myself this way, agreeing to see myself the way He sees me, I open myself up to receive instruction from Him – because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
           If I come with pride in my heart, I’m never going to recognize my spiritual need. I’m not going to be receptive to God’s guidance, correction, or rebuke. If I approach Him with an attitude of humility, on the other hand, I’ll be teachable. And if I’m teachable, He’ll speak to me, and when He does, I won’t reject His voice.
           Of course, God does not speak in a random, confusing, or mystical manner. Nothing He ever says to our hearts through the Holy Spirit will contradict what He has said in the Bible. Our minds need to be properly informed by His infallible Word if we are to know whether it’s really God who is prompting us. That being said, when you are in the Word, the Word will be in you… You’ll know the truth instinctively when facing various situations in life, and you’ll often find yourself mind-blown at how God will speak to you at the most unexpected times – often as clearly as if He were standing right next to you.
           More on that later…

The Danger of Distractions (A Parable)

There was a mountainous coastline that was known to be very dangerous. Many large ships were wrecked on the rocks due to frequent violent storms. So the king of the land had a lighthouse built to warn the ships away from the coast, and he placed people there to work at the lighthouse to keep it in good repair. Amazingly, many ships were saved by that simple, non-impressive looking little lighthouse.
           As the lighthouse was maintained, the keepers decided to make some improvements. They added a kitchen so they would have hot meals and a furnace so the place would be warm. But as the years went by, some other, less fortunate, changes were made. News got out how the little lighthouse had helped save a great number of ships from crashing onto the rocks, and as a result, more and more visitors came to see the place for themselves. Many of these visitors were so impressed with what they saw that they wanted to work there, if only the working conditions were not so harsh. So, to cater to their wishes, the lighthouse keepers enlarged the facilities and installed wall-to-wall carpets. They also added brand new, comfy leather recliners, central air conditioning, a fitness club, a fancy big-screen TV, and a number of other features.
           Increasingly more people came to see the new and improved facilities. Now, of course, there are only so many jobs to go around at a lighthouse, so the keepers wondered what to do with all the other visitors. That’s when they came up with the idea of a lighthouse theme park! So, over a period of time, many rides and other attractions were built, several restaurants and a shopping mall were added, even an 18-hole golf course and a state-of-the-art country club.
           All the amenities were perfectly maintained and always got a fresh coat of paint every year, but the light itself had burned out a long time ago, and the ships were wrecked on the rocks regularly, just as before. The worst thing was that the lighthouse keepers weren’t even noticing anymore… They had become so focused on building, expanding, and improving things that they had become completely distracted from their chief mission – namely to save others from crashing and drowning.
           This little parable, which I heard years ago and has attempted to retell here as best I recall it, perfectly illustrates the danger of distractions. Satan, of course, loves it when we take our eyes off of Christ, and one of the ways he makes that happen is by giving our eyes something else to focus on. He has been studying human conduct for thousands of years and knows how to distract us away from God’s will. I’m convinced that when it comes to ministry, his goal is to divert our attention away from our primary mission and on to secondary, much less effective, man-made goals and methods. The result is that an alarming number of churches today have become “seeker friendly”, attempting to bring people to the house of God through clever gimmicks rather than through the faithful preaching of the Word. In the process, sermons have become watered down and the Christian message has become compromised.
           The commission Jesus gave the Church is very simple: Go out into all the world and proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what He has commanded. Our task is merely to take the good news of the Gospel into the world, not to labor to try to increase church attendance. All we should be focusing on is the simple commission that the Lord gave us. When we do, we can trust that God will do His part and add to our numbers as He sees fit. Amen?