Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Fiction: A Tale of Two Missionaries

Friday Fiction

This week's "Friday Fiction" is being hosted over at "Patterings." So after you read my entry, drop by Patterings for the links to the other postings.

This is something I wrote back in 2006 (I can't believe it was that long ago!) It had originally been intended for the "Missionary" weekly challenge at FaithWriters, but I didn't get it edited down to the required size in order to submit it. So I posted it in the FaithWriters Critique Circle instead.

A Tale of Two Missionaries

The cursor blinks at me from my computer screen. The fluorescent light over my desk flickers. Down the hall I hear the fax machine spitting out yet another piece of paper for someone to file. Somewhere a phone jangles. Cars honk and sirens wail from twenty-two stories below me.

I wonder what it all means.

What’s the point of being stuck here? I come here to work and slave away for eight hours. Then I go home and work there too, or else I goof off. It doesn’t really matter what I do, does it? It’s all just going to repeat again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Then when it’s all over I’ll die. I’ll turn to dust, and so will everyone else who knows me, and then no one will care that I ever existed.

Maybe none of this means anything at all, so why bother? Might as well just eat, drink, and be merry, right?

Man, why am I thinking such depressing thoughts? Shake it off, woman! What will the boss think if he catches me wasting my time like this? Focus!

The blinking cursor tracks my progress along the page. It has to keep backing up as I correct typos.

It’s so hard to concentrate when you know nothing matters.

Uh-oh, that religious lady from accounting is coming down the hall. Everybody calls her the Missionary, and the funny thing is, she seems to think it’s a compliment. I know it’s her because she’s whistling one of her stupid Jesus songs. If she wants to be a missionary, why can’t she go off to some jungle somewhere and leave us alone?

Whew, she passed by.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t have anything against Jesus, but his followers are another story. Some of ‘em are okay, but a lot are just plain loony. And how do they get off calling themselves Jesus’ followers? Most of the time they don’t act one bit like him.

The Missionary is coming back. Sheesh, did she have to stop here now?

I try to look polite. “Yes?”

“Hi, how are you?”

(As if she really cares!) I’m fine, thanks. I’m busy right now. No time to chat, but maybe later, okay?”

I know exactly what she’s going to say when she leaves. Here it comes…

“Remember, Jesus loves you!”

Does she have to put on that ridiculous chirpy voice when she says that? If Jesus loves me, and she’s Jesus’ follower, how come I don’t feel like she cares? I know she only sees me as somebody to convert so she can get brownie points with God.

I have to get back to work. If this nonsense is what it takes to put food on the table, I’d better do it. I may only be headed for a coffin, but I don’t want to starve until I get there.

Good, that’s finally done and printed out. I’d better bring it to the boss or it’ll get buried under my next “to-do” pile.

Funny, the boss is a Christian too, but he’s not obnoxious about it. He really cares about people.

I walk in and place the papers on the boss’s desk. “Here’s the paperwork you wanted. I’m off to lunch.”

“So am I.”

Before I know it we’re walking down the hall together.

“You know,” I begin, “there’s something I’ve always wondered. How come you and the Missionary act so different? Aren’t you the same religion?” (I hope that didn’t come out wrong!)

The boss smiles. We arrive at one of the lunch room tables and he gestures to a seat. Of course he’s picked a table right next to other folks. He’s careful about not seeming too chummy with any of the women.

His wife’s a lucky lady.

Good thing the Missionary isn’t here.

The boss still hasn’t said anything, so I just shrug. “I guess it was a dumb question.”

“No, not at all! Actually, I’m glad when people ask me about my faith.” He takes a bite of his sandwich. “I can’t speak for the way anyone else acts, but I don’t mind talking about what I believe.”

“Well, leaving actions out of it, I guess your beliefs are kind of a mystery to me, too.” I take a swig of my calcium-enriched water. “I mean, no offense, but it just doesn’t make sense. The Missionary says that God is perfect and good, but then she says he killed an innocent person so that sinners could be forgiven. How can that be good? Any judge who ever did that would be thrown off the bench.”

The boss just nods.

I get bolder. “And she says that you don’t have to be good to go to Heaven. It’s like you guys can get away with anything because you believe a certain thing. The Missionary even said that ‘it’s all in who you know,’ like God is some kind of mob boss. Those who are ‘in’ can do whatever they please, and those who are ‘out’ get destroyed, and the ‘in’ people are just as bad as the ‘out’ ones. That’s not the way the Missionary puts it, but it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? And the whole crazy thing about Jesus dying on a cross doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. What does that have to do with me?”

The boss finishes off one sandwich half and picks up the other one. “I absolutely agree with you.”

I blink hard a couple of times. That’s not the answer I expected.

The boss smiles a little. I think he knows he surprised me.

I realize that our part of the lunchroom has gotten very quiet. Out of the corner of my eye I can see people watching us. I dig into my sandwich again and leave the conversation in the boss’s hands.

He wipes his mouth with a napkin and sits back in his chair. “I’m afraid that a lot of people have that view of Christianity, and with good reason. It’s what a lot of churches teach. But it’s not what the Bible teaches.”

“Then where do they get that stuff?” I ask.

“Sometimes I think Christians don’t even realize how they’re presenting their case. They don’t really listen to themselves and realize how it sounds, how unjust the God they’re describing would really be. They may have a more accurate understanding, but what they’re communicating is quite different. It would horrify them if they knew how people take their words. I know, because that’s how I used to explain things, until someone let me hear my own words back from their point of view. I had to do some serious re-thinking, believe me.”

He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers together. “In other cases the people may know exactly what they’re teaching, but that’s okay with them because it’s what they actually believe. It’s a tragic misunderstanding of what the Bible is all about.”

You could have heard a toothpick drop right about now.

“You want to know what the Bible really teaches?” he asks.

I nod and lean back in my chair. This could take a while.

“The Bible tells us that we are all born into slavery. Our chains are sin, and our master is the enemy of our souls, commonly called the Devil.”

I raise my eyebrows at him. Does he really believe in the Devil?

“Yes, there’s a Devil,” he says to my skeptical brows. “He doesn’t have horns or pitchforks or red long johns, but he’s a real spiritual being.”

“Okay, maybe. Go on.” I guess I might be willing to buy into that a little bit, at least for the sake of argument.

“This slavery has been passed down from generation to generation since the first human beings. It’s a spiritual problem, and it needs a spiritual solution. You can’t buy your way to spiritual freedom with gold or silver. The currency here is life itself.”

That sounds as depressing as my earlier thoughts in my office. Maybe even worse.

“We’re in a real mess,” the boss continues, “because the only way we could redeem our own sinful souls would be to give a life in exchange, and frankly, we don’t have the kind of life it takes. A sinful life can’t foot the whole bill. The price is too high.”

This is getting kind-of creepy, so I go on the offensive. “I see where this is heading. Jesus died to pay for our sins, right?” It still doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s got to be his point.

“Nope.” The boss smiles again at my confusion. “If someone pays for something, it’s because he wants to own that thing. God doesn’t want to own our sin. He wants to own us. He paid for us with the currency of a perfect life, one that had the power to handle the sins of the whole world and still come back to life when he was through.”

This is a lot to wade through. I probably look as clueless as I feel.

“Jesus died to purchase us back for our rightful master, God. If he had bought us just to ‘turn us loose’ as you said, then we would continue sinning and become slaves to sin all over again. But he didn’t do that. He bought us so we could belong to Him, and that’s the best fate that our souls could ever have.”

“Okay…and being good doesn’t have anything to do with it?”

The boss sat forward in his seat. “Humans have only two possible masters…God and Satan. We can’t be our own masters, because our natural sinfulness would put us right back in Satan’s clutches in a heartbeat. We’re born as slaves to the Devil, but God is willing to buy us back to himself. He’s already paid the price, but he only wants willing subjects. Are you someone who wants to be bought by God, to belong to him?”

I feel like he’s putting me on the spot, and I really don’t like that. I hear chairs scraping and people murmuring as they get up to leave, but some are still staying to listen.

The boss isn’t through. “If you want to sin freely, you won’t choose God as your master. You have the right to refuse his offer to purchase you, but the consequences are grave. And he’s not interested in cutting any kind of deal that simply pays for your sins and gets you off the hook to live as you please. People who think they have that kind of bargain are in for a shock. He wants people. He wants you. You are what he paid for. If you belong to him, he’ll work on your heart so that sin will become less and less appealing to you. You don’t belong to him by being good, but if you belong to him, he’ll make you better and better.”

“So you’re better than everybody else, is that it?” someone calls from the next table.

“I don’t claim to better than anyone else,” the boss replies. “The only human being I have a right to compare myself with is the ‘old me,’ the person I was before I belonged to Christ. I know I’m better than he was, but only because of God. I can’t take any credit for it.”

He glances at his watch and stands up. “I have to get back.” Then he looks directly at me, as if none of the others even exist.

“The question is, which master do you want to belong to?” Then he smiles just a little and heads back out the way we came in.

After a few moments I get up too. I have plenty of work waiting for me in my office.

The cursor on my computer still blinks at me. My fluorescent light still flashes. Phones and faxes still do their things. Traffic still rushes below.

It’s still hard to concentrate, but this time it isn’t because of what doesn’t matter. It’s because of what does.

Which master do I want?
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The World Says I Need Self-Esteem (Part 2)

(Part 2 of a Series)
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

If I don't want to be a slave to inappropriate shame, should self-esteem be my focus?

Should self anything be my focus? Not if I want to avoid pride. You see, "low self-esteem" is really just pride expressing itself differently. Pride says, "I'm fantastic." Low self-esteem says, "I'm not fantastic, and I resent that fact more than anything in the world, because I OUGHT TO BE!" Both points of view put Self on center stage as the rightful heir of honor and esteem. One view is pride gratified by homage, and the other is pride disappointed by lack of homage. But both are pride.

So what am I left with?

First, instead of seeking to gain self-esteem, I should be seeking to lose the fear of man (specifically, the fear of what humans think of me). The Bible has a lot to say about that.

The fear of man brings a snare, But whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe. (Pro 29:25)

The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? (Psa 118:6)

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! (Jesus, in Luke 12:5)

And perhaps one of the most remarkable examples is Isa. 51:12
"I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you should be afraid Of a man who will die, And of the son of a man who will be made like grass? (Isa 51:12)

"Who do you think you are to be afraid?" God says. If God Himself has told us to trust Him, has told us not to fear anyone or anything but Himself, then to refuse to trust is rebellion against God. And rebellion is nothing but pride with a clenched fist.

(It's important to point out that there is a normal physiological fear reaction that is instantaneous, tied in with our basic God-given survival instinct. It's what we feel when a snarling dog leaps at us. That's not what's at issue here. The kind of fear we're dealing with here is crippling fear, fear that makes up its mind not to step out in obedient faith because it refuses to trust God. Such fear looks at its circumstances, then at God, and says, "No, God, you don't have a grasp of this situation. You don't have the power to get me through it. Your ways aren't right, so I'm choosing mine." It's not hard to see the pride in that, is it?)

How do we lose the fear of man?

Please understand that I'm counseling myself here. Fear of man is a huge problem in my life. Always has been. But by the grace of God, I trust that it will not always be.

First, we need to recognize that the fear of man is insulting to God and idolatrous. It is putting humanity on one side of a scale, and putting God on the other side, and imagining that humanity's combined mass makes a lightweight out of the Almighty. "God, I know You have power over my life, but just look at them! They've got more power over me than You do. Their opinion of me matters more than Yours." We bow before the ones we fear most, turning our backs on the only One we really should fear. It's idolatry. Let's call it what it is, so we can start to hate it as we should.

Some of us don't take distrust of God seriously, because it seems like a minor failing, something that affects our own emotional state, but has no relevance to God himself. What an absurd idea that is! How do we feel when people refuse to trust us? How would we feel if we were perfect, and people still refused to trust us? No one ever deserved trust more than God, and distrusting him is a crime of treasonous proportions.

Let's not kid ourselves. Failure to trust may feel passive, a simple "sin of omission." But whenever we "passively" ignore or refuse God, we are actively choosing something or someone else instead of Him. There is no middle ground. "He who is not with me is against me," Jesus said (Matt. 12:30). When we choose not to trust God, we insult His omnipotence (almighty power), His omniscience (perfect knowledge and understanding), and His perfect goodness. We dethrone Him in our hearts, and we put mere humanity in His place. No wonder He says, "Who are you that you should be afraid of a man who will die?" He's the Eternal God, the Creator of the Ends of the Earth!

Join me in bowing before this Holy God, repenting of our self-absorption and idolatry. Let's ask His help to dethrone all flesh in our hearts, so that neither we ourselves nor any other human can reign there.

In Part 3 we'll conclude.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

(Photo from Stock.xchng by iofoto.)

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The World Says I Need Self-Esteem...

(Part 1 of a Series)
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I just had a rather ordinary (for me) embarrassing memory from almost 15 years ago came back to haunt me. It wasn't anything major. I had tried a recipe at a church supper, and it didn't turn out well at all. But the memory just now popped up, and I felt some of the shame of it all over again.

Now, if you know the difference between embarrassment and shame, you'll remind me that I shouldn't feel shame at all about something like that. Shame is the feeling of painful awareness of sin (whether you call it by that name or not). For non-moral failures, I might understandably feel embarrassed, but I don't deserve to feel shame.

I do feel it, though. I feel it whenever anyone says anything negative about me or my efforts (especially my writing). I feel it even when the criticism is constructive, unless its offered very gently and obliquely. It's still hard for me to separate failure (or poor performance) in a task from failure as a whole person.

At this point, the world would be telling me that I need more self-esteem. But is that what God says I need?

For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends
(2Co 10:18).

That verse tells me that it doesn't matter what I think of myself. It matters what the Lord thinks of me. Want a few more? Just listen to the "healthy self-esteem" in these verses...and what God thinks about it.

So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked
(Jesus, in Rev 3:16-17).

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
(Jesus, in Luke 18:10-14)

For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin
(Ps. 36:2 NIV)

In other words, we can have tons of "high self-esteem," and have ourselves completely, tragically fooled.

"But wait!" you may protest. "You can't mean to tell me that God would ever want us to feel ashamed!"

Don't take my word for it. What does God say?

Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No! They were not at all ashamed; nor did they know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time I punish them, they shall be cast down," says the LORD.
(Jer 6:15)

"But what about in the Psalms?" you point out. "David says, 'Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed.'" (Ps. 25:3) True, he says similar things throughout the Psalms. But read the whole verse here.

Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed;
Let those be ashamed who deal treacherously without cause. (Psa 25:3)

David never says that people who are embracing sin should go shame-free. He says quite the opposite. There is such a thing as godly shame, and as the verse in Jeremiah tells us above, it's a dreadful thing to fail to be ashamed when we ought to be.

If we pursue self-esteem, we run the very grave risk of glossing over our own sin, failing to see where we need to repent, and being numbered among the proud whom God resists (James 4:6).

So then, what? Should I continue to feel the kind of shame that plagues me when I see my own shortcomings? Absolutely not! But what am I to do about it, if not pursuing self-esteem?

I think this is a good place to stop. Take some time to think and pray about what has been said already. I promise, I'll come back with the two steps that I believe I need to follow to finally be free of inappropriate shame in a way that will delight my Heavenly Father. But if ending this way leaves you feeling uncomfortable or upset, I beg of you to search the Scriptures for what they actually say about this subject, ignoring the smooth talk of modern-day flatterers in whitewashed tombstone pulpits. It is far better to feel godly shame and experience the true repentance that follows, than to attempt to face judgment day with swaggering bravado that will melt before Him like a moth in a volcano.

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted (2Co 7:10)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

(Photo from Stock.xchng by Vivre)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Whose Priorities? (Another Way It's Not About Us)

(If you're here because of a link from "At The Well" for 10/27/08, don't worry, you're in the right place!)

Mother in the mirrorImage by crunklygill via Flickr I heard myself inwardly praying just now, "Lord, please give me wisdom in my priorities."

"Whose priorities?" He asked.

Oh. Yeah. Right.

Lord, I need wisdom in Your priorities, don't I? I could be incredibly wise about my own priorities and be a complete fool with Yours.

You know, when we remember that everything revolves around God, it can simplify a lot of things.

Should we or shouldn't we bow our heads and close our eyes and thank God for our food at the restaurant? We can ask ourselves what impact we do or don't think that will have on other patrons. We can ask ourselves whether or not we'll look foolish. Some people will come down on one side of that argument, and some on another.

Or we could ask ourselves what God deserves.

That simplifies everything, doesn't it?

Should I finish my housework, or should I work on my blog? that's not as simple. Both can be done to the glory of God. If I just ask the Lord to give me wisdom regarding my priorities, I might not hear the still, small voice. I might not really be listening for it, because I'll be too busy thinking about my own desires and weighing them in my own scales.

But if I ask Him to give me wisdom about His priorities, I know exactly what will happen (because it has happened). Which does God command women to do? Which of those things would my husband rather I did? Which would benefit my family more? It's really very easy, when I consult His priorities instead of my own (which tend to be far too strongly influenced by my personal preferences).

Lord, help us to remember to look at our choices and ask:

What have You commanded or taught us?
What do You deserve from us?
What would bless You?
What would glorify You?

And then please increase our love for You, so that Your commandments will be a joy to us, and we won't insult You by thinking of them as burdens (1John 5:3).

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

One Way It's Not About Me (Or You)

There are lots of ways that it's not about us.

The world doesn't like that fact. The flesh hates it. The Devil rebels against it.

It must be a good thing.

One of the ways that "it's not about me" hit me tonight as I sat down for my devotions. I knew I hadn't had it all together today, and the enemy was trying very hard to discourage me. I wanted to approach devotions hard-heartedly, with all my defenses up against feelings of failure.

But it's not about me.

It's about Him.

God, the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. One God in three Persons. That's who it's about.

He is the one who has held me thus far. He holds me now. He will hold me forever.

Yes, I must repent of known sin and turn more fully to Him, endeavoring by His grace to "go and sin no more." But that's really all the attention I should give myself.

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) said,
"Faith is the least self-regarding of the virtues. It is by its very nature scarcely conscious of its own existence. Like the eye which sees everything in front of it and never sees itself, faith is occupied with the Object upon which it rests and pays no attention to itself at all. While we are looking at God we do not see ourselves--blessed riddance. The man who has struggled to purify himself and has had nothing but repeated failures will experience real relief when he stops tinkering with his soul and looks away to the perfect One. While he looks at Christ the very things he has so long been trying to do will be getting done within him. It will be God working in him to will and to do."

I messed up today. Of course I messed up today! I'm going to mess up every day. I'm human.

On one hand, I must not take this lightly. Sin is deadly serious business (see the blog entry for July 29, 08 called, "How Seriously Does Heaven Take Our Sin?") Sin cost our Lord the agony of Calvary and more. It costs humans their eternal souls if not dealt with at the Cross. It must be hated and repented of wholeheartedly.

But if my sin and failure become the main focus of my life, I'm playing right into Satan's hand. And it's not mainly for the reasons you might think. It's not mostly because I'll get discouraged if I focus on sin, though of course that's true. It's not because it will damage my self-esteem (something I shouldn't be seeking anyway).

It is because:

  1. Anything that holds our spiritual focus more than God becomes an idol...even our sin. We may not think of it as an idol, but it is. Strong's Concordance defines the Hebrew word for worship this way: "prostrate (especially reflexively in homage to royalty or God): - bow (self) down, crouch, fall down (flat), humbly beseech, do (make) obeisance, do reverence, make to stoop, worship." The Greek word for worship carries the same connotations. (It makes you wonder about what passes for "worship" in many churches these days, but that's going to have to wait for another day.) Who or what do we worship as an idol? It's anyone or anything besides God before whom we fall flat, overcome or overwhelmed. It is anyone or anything which we believe holds the power to determine our destiny. Our sin deserves no such obeisance from us. Only God does.
  2. Anything that takes our focus away from God keeps us from enjoying Him. We cannot pursue obedience to the greatest commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength," if all that fills our vision is ourselves and our sin. We cannot enjoy all of His glorious attributes, or encourage others to glorify Him, if He is eclipsed by evil in our eyes. We cannot know His peace, His joy, His hope, or His comfort if all we know is self, self, self.
It's not about us. Thank God, it's not about us!

So how should I approach my devotions tonight? As one who is neither surprised nor discouraged by my own sinfulness. After all, it is only pride that is surprised by failure. Humility is not. And it's only pride that is discouraged by failure. Chambers says, "Discouragement is disillusioned self-love." He is so right!

How should I approach my devotions tonight?
  • As one who has eaten only scantily today, and who is starving for more of what is good.
  • As one who trusts the Giver implicitly, and does not look to herself to decide what her fate will be.
  • As one who loves the Father and has no desire to waste her affections on anything less.
I'm so sad, so lonely, and so hungry whenever I think it's all about me! But when I remember Who everything really revolves around, then I'm ready to let my soul delight itself in abundance (Isa. 55:2).

Please click here if you would like to read a poem that I wrote about the emptiness of a self-focused life, and may God bless you with more of Himself!

(Photo by Betsy Markman, 4/96)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Do You Love Me?

Some days are a battleground of dueling loves.

My love for writing, and all things writing-related, often wins out. Unfortunately, the love I feel is often the selfish kind. I want to write because of the pleasure it gives
me, the feedback it earns for me, etc.

After one such day recently, when I finally got to the pile of dishes that had been waiting for hours, I could almost hear the Lord asking me the same question He asked Peter.

"Do you love me?"

I was already feeling a bit exasperated with myself for spending so much time on writing, so the question really hit home. So did the words of a wonderful devotional by George H. Morrison (1866-1928). It was based on 1 John 3:20, which says,
"For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things."

Morrison says, "It has been thought by many, and I believe with truth, that there is a beautiful reminiscence here—a reminiscence of that scene beside the Sea of Galilee. 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.' Three times over Simon had denied; three times over was the question put. Who can doubt that on that summer morning, faced by the Lord whom he had treated so, Simon Peter had a condemning heart. Only a week before the Lord had looked on him, and he had gone out into the night and wept. He had promised to play the hero in the crisis, and he had proved the veriest of cowards. And now, with all these memories of betrayal crying out to condemn him in his heart—'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?' What was there that Simon could appeal to? His word? His word had broken like a straw. His past—when only a few days before he had been false and recreant to the Master? But Peter cast himself in his despair upon the perfect knowledge of his Lord—'Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee.' John was present when these words were uttered, and words like these can never be forgotten. They haunt the memory and deepen in significance and live again when the hour of teaching comes. And I for one believe that that sweet hour was vividly present to the mind of John when he gave the Church the comfort of our text. When our heart condemns us we are like Simon Peter, and like Peter we have naught to plead. But when our heart condemns us, we can still turn to God who is greater than our hearts and knoweth all things—knoweth what no one else could ever know, judging us by our failures and betrayals, that we still love Him, and still desire His presence, and still want to follow and to serve."

I found myself answering the Lord as Peter did, with a sigh of one who wishes she had a better answer.

"Lord, you know that I love You."

My life is not devoid of evidence of my love for God, but it tends to be lopsided in its expression. Practical expressions, the kind that involves rolling up sleeves and working up a sweat, tend to be obvious in their absence. And on that particular day, I wished I had filled my day with such work...
done in love. It would have done my heart good to have seen such things, so that I might "assure my heart before Him" (1John 3:18-19)

And I heard Jesus' answer.

"Feed My sheep."

The apostle John also said, "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?" (1Jn 4:20)

Love for God and love for our fellow man are tied up so intricately together!

Oh Lord, please increase my love for You, and for others. May I love them as You love You also love me...unselfishly, unstintingly, unendingly. May I write to bless others, not myself. And may I get up from my writing to bless others, too. Teach me what it means to feed your sheep.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by Hislightrq)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday Fiction: The Miraculous Bond

Friday Fiction!

First allow me to explain what this post is about.

Some of my fellow writers have started what they call "Friday Fiction." Each Friday they use their blog for posting some of their own fictional writings, and they post links at a host site so that everyone can read each other's entries. I decided it would be fun to put one of my already-written pieces into the pot. This week it's being hosted at An Open Book, so head on over there after reading my entry, and you'll find links to others.

I originally wrote this for the FaithWriters Writing Challenge, and the given topic was, "Cousin."
The Miraculous Bond

I'm so afraid.

What have I done?

Mary walked the dirt pathway purely by memory. She saw nothing in front of her, heard none of the light-hearted chatter of her friends. Her water pitcher rubbed against her shoulder, but she paid no more attention to it than to the dust in her sandals.

"What are you thinking about?"

Abigail's teasing tone pulled Mary from her thoughts, but she was spared the need to answer. Deborah was always happy to fill a moment's silence with her own ideas.

"I know what Mary's thinking about. She's engaged, after all."

Abigail shook her head. "He's too old. I hope my father betroths me to someone closer to my own age."

"Abigail, that's a terrible thing to say," Deborah chided.

Mary let them go on with their chatter. It seemed so trivial compared to the conversation she'd had a few hours ago.

How could I have agreed with him?

She thought endlessly of the visitor, the man who had turned her simple Galilean life upside down and shaken it like Mary would have shaken dirt from a clay pot. The memory made the hair stand up on her arms.

How could I NOT have agreed with him?

Her toe caught on a rock, and she stumbled.

"Careful!" Deborah teased. "All your thoughts of Joseph might make you fall on your face."

Joseph! Mary's mouth went dry. Will he ever believe me? How could he? I'm not even sure I believe it myself!

Abigail and Deborah giggled about something.

They're my best friends, but... Mary cast a discerning eye on the two prattlers. They can't help me with this.

They arrived at the well, and Mary hung back to let the other two fill their pitchers first.

And what about the other thing that the visitor told me? A miracle for Zacharias and cousin Elizabeth? At their age? I bet they can't believe it!

Someone else moved away from the well, so Mary joined her two friends in drawing up water.

But of course they do believe it, because it is now the sixth month for her. It can't be denied.

The side of the well pressed against her belly.

Has the miracle already begun in me? How long before I won't be able to deny it?

She hoisted the brimming pitcher onto her shoulder and turned to walk back toward home.

"Look at her," Abigail protested. "Here we stood, waiting for her to finish drawing, and the moment she's done she heads off without a word!"

"I'm sorry." Mary blushed. "I just have a lot to think about."

Deborah and Abigail seemed to catch Mary's mood for a moment, but they couldn't stay serious for long. Soon they'd lost themselves in minutiae, leaving Mary alone to wonder if Yahweh had already spoken His Son into her womb.

Oh, Angel, why didn't you announce it to all of Israel? Then they would believe that this child is from God! But now everyone will think I'm a common harlot. Even Joseph. Even mother and father. Even Elizabeth and Zacharias...

Mary stopped. No...not Elizabeth and Zacharias! They have a miraculous conception, just like I do! They will believe me!

The thought made Mary's lonely heart yearn within her. Her pace quickened, and before she knew it she was running as fast as she could with a heavy pot on her shoulder. Abigail and Deborah called after her, but she ignored them.

Elizabeth will understand!

She burst into her house, sloshing a little water onto the floor in her haste.

Mother looked up from her kneading and scowled. "Be careful with the water!"

"Yes, Mother. I'm sorry." Mary set the pitcher down gently.

I can't bear to think how upset she'll be when she realizes that my monthly impurity has ceased, and my belly starts to grow...

"Oh, Mother, please...may I ask a great favor?"

"What is it?" Mother wiped her brow with the back of her flour-covered hand before resuming her kneading.

Mary's heart quivered. "May I go to Judah?"

"What?" Mother straightened up and looked at Mary as if she'd spoken in a barbarian tongue. "Whatever for?"

Mary's insides tied themselves in a knot. She stood still for a moment, unable to find the breath to speak.

Mother just stared at her.

"Please, Mother..." Mary paused to gather her courage.

"I want to visit my cousin."

Click here to see all of my "Friday Fiction" entries!

Feeling His Grip

I have written a bit in previous entries about times of great hardship in my life, and how God has been turning them for good. Perhaps this would be a good place to add a link to a bit of free verse that I wrote to express the pain of those times. You can find it here if you're interested. I've been told that it is very painful to read, and I wrote it some 6 years after the worst of it was already over. I don't think I could have found the words when I was in the midst of it all. Nor would I have had the time or freedom to write back then. I'm so grateful to be able to write now!

God brought at least two great blessings from that time. One (covered in an earlier entry) was allowing me to see my sin more clearly. The second was making me feel His grip on me.

Without that divine grip I would be lost, because I wasn't holding on to Him. I couldn't.

John Piper explains in this sermon :

"Hebrews 3:14 [says] we have become [note the tense of the verb!] partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance [well-grounded assurance, not false assurance] firm until the end. (NASB).
Note carefully: it does not say that you will become a partaker of Christ if you persevere. It says you HAVE become a partaker if you persevere. The point is that persevering does not earn your participation in Christ; it verifies your participation in Christ. Perseverance is not a payment for getting into Christ. It is a proof that you are in Christ." (Emphasis added.)

If we belong to Christ, it's not because we were strong enough to hold onto Him. It's because He's strong enough to hold onto us. I know this is true, because it's exactly what happened in my life.

I was SO ANGRY with God! I wanted to reject Him as much as I felt He had rejected me. I felt like an animal in a very small cage, surrounded by tormentors who poked electric prods through the bars and sent jolts of agony through me at every moment. I had no reserves to draw on anymore. I was spent, drained, hopeless, under seige, seething with fury...and trying to mother three small children in diapers, two of whom had special needs. I lived in a new town where I had no support network at all. And my husband's new employer, who had hired him with the promise of "very little travel," had immediately changed his job description and started sending him out of the country for weeks at a time.

I never got more than a few hours of sleep in every twenty-four. Just a few, snatched in between marathon sessions of holding my screaming son.

I pleaded with God endlessly, but there was no relief. I didn't reach out to any of the strangers around me, or to any organizations, because I didn't know how to trust anyone. I didn't feel like I had a right to burden anyone, either.

God could have done something. He should have done something, shouldn't He? I couldn't imagine any good reason for it all, and I couldn't take it. I just couldn't bear it.

But I had no choice. And so I said those awful things to Him, and decided I would never waste my time speaking to Him again, since He couldn't be bothered to answer me. I wanted to tell Him to get out of my life and leave me alone...but I couldn't. When I tried, my heart would break.

I could feel His Spirit holding me. He gave me no comfort at that point. He gave me no insight, no noticeable growth, no relief of any kind. But He held me fast. That much I could feel. And sometimes I was even able to thank God for that. Sometimes.

Don't tell me that my faith was stronger than I thought. Don't tell me that God put all of this on me because He knew I could handle it. Don't tell me that He must have had confidence in me. Don't you dare.

He held me. Period. I felt Him, and I felt my own utter destitution. My life depended on His grip, because mine was long since gone. It was all of Him, and none of me.

What an unspeakable gift!

He held me. He held me! Through it all, even when I tried to push Him away, He held me. Yes, He held me in a painful situation instead of taking me out of it, but that was for my good, and that is a different point.

When I think back to that time, I don't think of God as cruel, heartless, or unjust. I think of Him as loyal, utterly committed, gracious, and trustworthy.

He held me! And if He found it in His heart to hold me through all of that, then He'll never let me go. That's far greater comfort than anything you could tell me about my own supposed strength or merit.

I'm safe in His hands because of who He is.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by andreyutzu)(Blurring effects added)

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Getting a Glimpse of My Sin

For the sake of the overall point to be made, please bear with a little bit of autobiographical information.

I grew up in a solid, Bible preaching church. I was fed meat from an early age, and I will be forever grateful for that. I got Biblical meat at home, too, in times of talking with my mother, and that's an incredible blessing as well. I got a head full of the Word, and was the kid in Sunday School who always raised her hand with the right answer. I believed the stuff I said when I gave those answers, too.

But without going into gory detail, much was amiss behind the scenes. Reality didn't jive with appearances. I'm not talking about the occasional, normal failings of well-intentioned folks. I'm talking about things far worse than that, all swept under a rug of absolute, blanket denial. I learned, early and well, to believe polar opposites and not even see the dissonance. I learned that pretending was far better than reality, because reality was too painful to be borne. I grew up as something far worse than a hypocrite. I grew up as a hypocrite who was unaware of the truths that I so skillfully suppressed. I lied first and foremost to myself, and that's the most dangerous hypocrisy of all.

And the worst lie that I told myself was that I was a good Christian.

After all, it was easy to believe what others told me about myself, especially when I kept myself so isolated that people only interacted with me as a student or a church member. I knew how to play those roles as a "good Christian." But friends? I had few, and fewer as the years went by. I didn't want any more than I had. People hurt you, you know. I felt safer alone.

But somehow I did finally catch one man's eye at church, and I did end up married, and I did start having children. I did all of those things in the selfish belief that they (husband and kids) would all revolve around me. Finally I would have the place of centrality that I so richly deserved. Of course, I didn't say it to myself in those words. I had it all cloaked in religious trappings in my mind. But it really all boiled down to the desire to make myself safe and happy in a world that I controlled, where no one would hurt me again, and where I would get the esteem I longed for.

And I couldn't see any of the games I was playing or any of the inconsistencies between my priorities and my stated beliefs.

Blind, blind, blind. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

And then came the horrors. Life spinning so far out of control, and filled with so much emotional and situational agony that death seemed far preferable. I never for a moment considered suicide, but I prayed that God would take my life. In fact, I accused Him of sadism because He refused to take my life. I accused Him of taking pleasure in torturing me. I shudder to think of the things I said to the Holy God in that time. But I only said them because I wholeheartedly believed them.

Yesterday I said that I could think of at least two tremendous blessings that had come out of those painful years. And the first one is this:

He showed me my capacity to hate Him.

He began stripping away all religious pretensions, at least in my own eyes (though probably not yet in how I related to others). What has followed has been the slow, painful, shocking process of discovering what I really believed, and what I didn't. Not just what I believed about certain dusty doctrines, but what I believed about the Living God.

Yes, I love doctrine, and I don't mean to discount its importance. But we all know that doctrine in the head without relationship in the heart is dead. Or at least, we all should know that. No one is as orthodox as Satan. He knows the facts about God far better than we ever will on this earth. And he is LOST!

Remember, I had (and to some extent doubtless still have) an incredible capacity to whole-heartedly believe contradictions, and that included believing that God is love and God is a sadist. When you can do both of those things without blinking an eye at the dissonance, you need radical surgery.

God is a radical surgeon. He is Truth with a capital T. Did you ever notice all of the sharp points in a capital T? They cut. Truth (in the inner person) is what has been transforming those once dusty doctrines into living cornerstones of faith. But I couldn't learn to truly believe until I realized (the hard way) how dead my "belief" was.

It troubles me to see how modern Western Christianity often deals with people who are in such a stripping-down process. So often we want to rush to people and reassure them that they love God (when they don't). We want to tell them that they're too hard on themselves when they speak of the failure of their faith. We want to patch up their facades and restore the veneer that Christ has been sanding away. Or, on the opposite extreme, we fear them because they are open about the doubts we also have, but which we prefer not to face. So we distance ourselves and preach at them about what our own heads believe, preferring not to look at what's really in our own hearts.

Folks, we need to see our sin. Until we see it, we can't repent of it. And I don't mean each of our individual sins. We could never remember all of those. But I do mean the core Sin, which is animosity toward God and the desire to usurp His place of authority and esteem. Until we repent of that and begin to see Him as supremely beautiful and worthy of our trust and praise, what kind of faith will we have? (Some are graced with that kind of faith without having to go through such struggles. If that's you, praise God!)

I'm still very much in the early stages of learning what it means to believe in my heart, not just my head. I still struggle with the idea that reality has to be faced, even if it hurts. I've got a long way to go.

But I would far rather be here than in the situation I wanted to create for myself 20 years ago, the one where I reigned supreme over my own private little world.

His reign is far better.

Next: The second great blessing which came from that time.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by brokenarts)

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Hope and Rest

So the evening and the morning were the sixth day. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. (Gen. 1:31, 2:2)

Spurgeon observes from the Creation account: "Not first the light, and after that the dark; but first the dark, and after that the light." God saw that each night would end in daylight, and that the end of all the nights and all the days would be the eternal day in which there can be no darkness at all. This is what St. John saw: 'There shall be no night there, for the Lord God giveth them light"' (Rev_22:5).

What a beautiful picture this is of Christian hope!

In the theater, a play ends with the final fall of the curtain. But in the instructive imagery of Genesis Chapter 1, the Creation Play ends with news of a rising, and that which rises is far more than a curtain. It is nothing less that the sun itself, rejoicing to pour out its light onto a lovely Sabbath of rest. Rest, after all, isn't really possible without hope, and that's why God speaks of the sun rising into the Sabbath.

What does this mean to me on a frustrating Monday like the one I've just had? What does it mean to you?

For thus says the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: "In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength." (Isa 30:15)

Resting is part of our salvation. We often talk of "resting in the finished work of Christ" for our salvation, but is there more to it than that?

Henry Drummond says, "Rest is not some holy feeling that comes upon us in church. It is a state of calm rising from a heart deeply and firmly established in God."

Boy, do we need that kind of rest!

Some people are easily touched by platitudes. A happy little saying can brighten their day quite easily. But many of us need more substance, especially when the problems of life have enough substance to overwhelm us!

What is the substance of our hope, our rest?

Eph. 2:14 tells us, "For He Himself is our peace." Sounds pretty substantive to me.

On a hectic day I don't get much comfort from the promise of a future peace that might not arrive until I die at 90 years old. If life continues to be as difficult during the second half as it was during the first (assuming I have a full lifetime ahead of me), then that future peace is too far ahead to do more than torment me, like a video of a flowing fountain would torment a parched man in the desert. I most definitely believe in that future peace, but I need peace and rest NOW.

I suppose if my faith were deeper I could get more comfort from that promise, and I congratulate those of you who have reached that point in your walk. I'm not there.

But there's really good news for folks like me. There's peace to be had now. I know because I've caught just glimpses, felt just touches, picked up the scent of it at times. But forgive me. I'm using the wrong pronoun. I shouldn't say, "It." I should say "Him."

He Himself is our peace.

Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." (John 14:27) But we make a mistake if we picture Him with a package of peace in His hand, reaching out to give it to us. Yes, He gives us His peace, but He also IS our peace. He gives us Himself, and in Him we find all that we need...not just later, in Eternity, but in this life.

David said, "I would have lost heart, unless I had believed That I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living." (Psa 27:13)

It's been a few years since I felt the kind of hopeless desperation that made me long for death, but I haven't forgotten it. That's not the sort of thing a person can forget. A message like the one I'm now writing would probably have made me furious if I'd read it then. If you're in such a desperate place, I can empathize.

When I was in that kind of relentless agony, I very nearly gave up on God. The only reason I didn't completely walk away from Him was because I couldn't. I was one of His sheep, and I could feel His grip on me even when I couldn't hold on to Him anymore.

And as angry and hopeless as I felt, I was so grateful for that iron hand holding me fast.

Looking back, I can see at least two tremendous blessings which came out of that time. I can attest to the fact that with God we may go through darkness first, but as Micah reminds us, "He will bring me forth to the light; I will see His righteousness." (Mic 7:9)

He will bring us forth to the light...even you, oh desperately hurting child of God.

He will.

(Next: What blessings came out of those terrible times I spoke of?)

(Photo taken by Betsy Markman in Colorado Springs, CO)

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

How Does God Bless Us?

In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider:
Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other. (Ecc 7:14)

How does God bless us?

Is it in the pleasures that He gives?


Is it in the suffering that He gives?


Suffering has potential blessings in it, but it can be wasted. The Bible promises in Romans 8:28 that all things work together for good, and lots of people who don't even read the Bible know that part of the verse. But somehow they tend to miss what the rest of the verse says. "For all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." The promise has conditions and limitations. And that means that, for some people, the suffering is wasted.

What are some examples of people wasting their sufferings? In Isaiah there are many instances of the Lord sending judgment on His people for turning away from Him and pursuing evil. He wants them to repent, but they will not. God continues to send His judgment because, "The people do not turn to Him who strikes them, nor do they seek the LORD of hosts."

"But wait," you protest. "That's only natural! Who goes toward someone who strikes them?" Think about children, though, who have undergone wise, loving (but unpleasant) parental discipline in an attempt to turn them from evil. Some children rebel against that discipline, but some recognize the love and wisdom behind it, and they repent. God's people can respond in the same way. "Come, and let us return to the LORD; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight." (Hos 6:1-2)

Pleasure has potential blessings in it, but it can be wasted, too. Jesus said, "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt 5:45). He also said, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Mar 8:36) So God sends the blessing of sunshine and rain on everyone, but for some it is really a waste. There is no eternal profit for the one whose soul is lost. Solomon said, "Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun." (Ecc 2:10-11)

So how is it that some will benefit, and some will not? The key lies in Romans 8:28 that was quoted above. It's far beyond the scope of this little blog to address the great issues of election and predestination that are stated in the phrase, "Who are called." But the previous phrase is one that lets us scratch its surface a little today. It says, "For those who love God."

Why is loving God so vital? It is for one simple yet profound reason. The only eternal benefit we receive from God's blessings is God Himself. The one who loves God will receive pleasure from His hand and will rejoice, not only in the pleasure itself, but in the wonderful God who gave it. He will receive suffering from His hand and will grieve and mourn, and yet will be able to rejoice in the end because of the wonderful God who gave it and made it work for good. God offers Himself in His gifts. Some will snatch the gifts and ignore the Giver. Or, if the gift came wrapped in a package of suffering, they will fight against it and shake their fists at the giver. But the person who loves Him will receive Him, first for salvation, and then for more and more intimacy through both the pleasures and pains of life.

And none of those will be wasted on him.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by TheSaint)

The World in My Hand?

Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
(Ps. 37:4)

Hucksters in the pulpit love verses like this one. Snake-oil sermonizers preach out of their own greedy hearts into their followers'
greedy ears, and the message goes down smooth as honey.

"Trust in the Lord, and you've got the whole world in your hands! All the money you want, if only you believe! All the success! All the prestige! All the health! All the ease and comfort!"

Is that what this verse means?

What do you delight in?

If you delight in football, what will the desires of your heart be? Probably a certain team, televised games, star athletes, and associated gear.

If you delight in horses, what will the desires of your heart be? Beautiful animals with flowing manes, afternoons of riding, the smell of saddles.

If you delight in food, what will the desires of your heart be? Lasagna, chocolate, steak, or whatever most pleases your palate.

If you delight in the Lord, what will the desires of your heart be?

It is a simple fact that we value tools only because we value what they can accomplish for us. We value saws and nails because they build houses, we value surgical implements because they restore health, we love money because it buys necessities and luxuries. It is a strange person indeed who collects money just for the smell of it, and the feel of it in his hands; living like a pauper while greenbacks paper his walls. We recognize that the tool is secondary in value. What it accomplishes for us is primary.

And yet there are many in this world who think they worship God, when in fact they see Him only as a tool for getting them what they really value most; temporal pleasures, health, money, and the like. They worship those pleasures, not God. God is just a means to a higher end.

Today's "Health and Wealth Gospel" teaches that faith will enable you to satisfy your love for money. But the Bible says that the love of money will cause you to wander from your faith:

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." (1Tim. 6:10)

Money is not evil, but the love of it is. And money, because of the power that it bestows, is far too easy to love. No wonder the Scripture warns us, "If riches increase, do not set your heart on them" (Ps. 62:10), and "Keep your heart with all diligence" (Pr. 4:23). It matters what we love!

"And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)

"Jesus said to him, 'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' This is the first and great commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)

And what of health, or success, or fame, or a happy home life? Do we love God more than these?

Do we really?

How do we know if we truly delight in the Lord?

The apostle Paul preaches a lot of messages that would (sadly) sound very foreign in many modern churches, and would doubtless offend many deep-pocketed parishioners. But if we want to know what it means to delight in the Lord, he's a great one to study.

He says:

"Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ...that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death" (Php 3:8,10)

"I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." (Php 4:11-13)

We can know that we truly delight in the Lord if we can trust and love Him and rejoice in Him even through tears of grief and loss. We know that we delight in Him if we think of Him more than we think of money or temporal pleasures.

No one can do this naturally. It has to come through His Spirit in us. But the greatest news awaits those who love the Lord like this. He will give them the desires of their heart!

He will give them Himself.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by ugaldew)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

It's STILL a Faith Problem

Why do I so often fall for Satan's lies, when they're so blatantly obvious,
and they've proven themselves treacherous over and over again?

Yesterday I mentioned some areas of weakness, and I'll review them here.
  • I have faith that I can do myself more good by withdrawing than by loving, even though God tells me the opposite (and I know from experience and common sense that He's right!)
  • I have faith that I am better off focusing on everything the Lord tells me not to focus on (though once again, I really know He's right)
  • I have the kind of perverse faith that says my own assessment of my life situation is accurate (i.e. it's hopeless), even though God tells me to hope in Him (Ditto. He's right, and I know it).
Why is it that I can see the error of my ways when I write it down like that, but it's so hard to see it in real life? I think it's because of a deeper faith problem, a false belief that gives power to many other errors. The flesh wrongly believes, "I'm better off with pain and pleasure of my own making, under my own control, and in my own timing, than I am with pain and pleasure of God's making, under His control, and in His timing."

Life hurts. God calls on me to love, and I know in my heart that He's right to do so. But I don't know how long life's pain will continue while I take the risk of loving. I do know that I can stop the pain temporarily if I withdraw into self-indulgent escapism, even if it makes things worse in the long run. Why do I choose that? Because it feels like power. I choose to bring my relief in my way in my time. The fact that He's right doesn't matter, and the consequences are of little importance to me, if what I care about most is a sense of self-determination.

Trust, on the other hand, feels like helplessness. I forego the relief that I could have chosen for myself. I continue on in the pain of reality, with no idea when I will feel any kind of relief, or whether I can stand to wait that long for it. Why would I choose that? There's only one reason why I would. It's called faith. It's the belief that God's pleasures are worth waiting for, that God's plans are better than mine, that God's wisdom is higher than mine, and that His love will sustain me through it all. It is trust in Him, first and foremost, as evidenced by trust in His sovereign control, and His timing for my pain and pleasure.

Only the Spirit of God working a miracle of change in our hearts can make us see that self-determination is suicide. Only He can open our eyes to the fact that what feels like the power of choosing our own way is in reality helpless enslavement to sin and destruction. Only He can show us the truth; that God's way and His timing are perfect, and that if we could only see as He sees, we would choose with Him every time.

Oh Lord, grant me more of such faith!

I read recently that more and more funerals are featuring secular songs rather than religious ones, and two of the most popular choices listed were: "I Did it My Way," and "Highway to Hell." I hate to say it, but those two songs are one and the same. Different words, different styles, different tunes, same outcome.

Invictus? There is no such thing. Those who are not conquered by the love of God, who are not won by His goodness, will instead be conquered by His justice and deserved wrath. There are no victors in Hell. Not even Satan, for he will be bound there in eternal suffering just like the rest. And yet, even knowing that, I can hear quotes from that famous poem (Invictus) and feel admiration for the pride in it. Oh foolish humanity! Oh my foolish heart!

"The humble He guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies." (Ps. 25:9-10)

"The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant." (Ps. 25:14)

"Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments." (Ps. 112:1)

"God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (Jas. 4:6)

"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble." (Mal. 4:1)

"The backslider in heart will be filled with his own ways, but a good man will be satisfied from above." (Pr. 14:14)

Which do I believe is better, to be filled with my own ways, or to be satisfied from above? I regret to say that for most of my life, I've preferred the former. My knee-jerk reaction is still the former. But I've tasted just enough of the latter to make me want more.

I am staking my soul on the faithfulness of my Savior to whet my appetite for Heavenly satisfaction, to wean me off of the lesser delights of sin and worldly pleasures. He longs to do so. Can you hear Him pleading?

"Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance." (Isa. 55:2)

"Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." (Ps. 37:4)

"Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life." (John 4:14)

"Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely." (Rev. 22:17)

"Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!" (Php 4:4)

Lord, increase our faith!

(Photo taken by Betsy Markman in Breckenridge, Colorado)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

It's a Faith Problem

I'm determined not to make this a "me-centered" blog. Nobody on this earth will benefit from any focus on me. But I hope you'll forgive me if I try to find God-centeredness from the vantage point of where I am now, because I've been caught in a morass of self-centeredness for a couple of days. I want to take the Biblical truths that speak to my situation (with a lot of thanks to John Piper for helping me see them) and use them to fight the good fight of faith.

I could try blaming my spiritual lapse on physical circumstances. There were definitely hormones at work, and I wasn't feeling well in other ways, too. But that's no excuse. Everybody has those problems sometimes, and people don't always succumb to self-absorption in the midst of them. Jesus had to deal with adolescent male hormones, and it doesn't get any worse than that! He didn't sin.

I could try blaming it on family circumstances. "The kids did this. The house is like that." Nope. That won't work either. Jesus deals with His rebellious children 24/7, and has done so from day one of fallen human history. He doesn't sin. Besides, what kind of cowardly adult puts the responsibility of her own actions on the shoulders of little kids? How many times have I told the kids not to blame others for what they choose to do?

I could try blaming it on the circumstances of my own upbringing. Yeah, right. Like I haven't had decades to work through all of that.

All of those sorts of things may contribute to a spiritual fall, but they don't excuse such falls.

Life hurts. It does. It's hard, and it's hard to hope sometimes. So it's easy to justify a little self-indulgence, isn't it? It's easy to say, "I deserve this little escape."

Oh, the deceptiveness of sin!

It's easy to see the self-centeredness in the focus on what "I deserve," especially when we decide we deserve better than what we're getting. But that's not the biggest problem with the "I deserve this sin" point of view.

"I deserve this sin" is one of the worst insults we can give to God.

Think about that word, "deserve." It goes hand-in-hand with a value judgment. Advertisers know this. "Don't you deserve to treat yourself to our product?" That's not just an appeal to pride. It's also the value judgment that "our product" is the best.

When I want to indulge myself, do I head for the Brussels Sprouts or the chocolate? Easy choice! I go for what I like best!

Why is it that, when we want to indulge ourselves, we turn to sin? Is it not because, deep down inside, we still believe that sin is best?

It's a faith problem.

Jesus said, "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19, emphasis mine)

We are condemned for loving darkness rather than light. That's a faith problem. And faith in God is so much more than believing a list of facts about God.

When I choose sin over God, I am saying that God is inferior to that sin. I am loving darkness rather than light. I am trusting my own desires for myself, instead of trusting in God's commands for my good; trusting that I know better than God does what's best for me. What kind of "faith in God" is that?

If such faith is the norm for us, if we know that we do not love God, and do not believe that His ways are best, then we need to examine ourselves as to whether we're in the faith (2Co. 13:5). There's a good chance that we are not.

But what about those of us who are amazed to be able to say that we are saved? We know that Jesus Christ is in us (2 Co. 13:5) because His Spirit is in us, bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). We are growing more and more convinced, through the working of His Spirit within us, that God is far superior to the pleasures of sin, and that He is more worthy of our trust that we ourselves are. In other words, we have the kind of faith that comes as a gift from His Spirit and through which, by grace, He saves us (Eph 2:8-9). But we are still plagued with weakness, which shows itself in a nagging desire to indulge in sin, in times of believing that sin will be better than trustful obedience "just this once." We aren't lost, but the enemy of our souls still has strongholds in our lives.

We still have a faith problem. So what do we do with that?

What do I do when I know I've been indulging in self-centeredness again (despite having just written a very heartfelt entry about God-centeredness just a few days ago)? What do I do with the discouragement that I feel right now, when I just want to throw in the towel and say, "Forget it, I give up" (despite having written a very heartfelt entry about encouragement a couple of days ago)?

How do do we fight the good fight of faith?

First of all, it's not a matter of strengthening our faith, per se. It's a matter of re-orienting it. We have very strong the wrong things. I'll mention some of the places where I struggle, and I'll bet you can relate to at least some of them.
  • I have faith that I can do myself more good by withdrawing than by loving, even though God tells me the opposite.
  • I have faith that I am better off focusing on everything the Lord tells me not to focus on.
  • I have the kind of perverse faith that says my own assessment of my life situation is accurate (i.e. it's hopeless), even though God tells me to hope in Him.

I can sit back now and look at those things and see God's truth from Satan's lie very easily. So why do I fall for those lies so often?

More on that tomorrow.

For tonight, it's enough to say that I need to come before God and admit that my faith has been in the wrong things, and that I have insulted Him by preferring the passing pleasures of sin. I need to ask His forgiveness, and then receive that forgiveness with thanksgiving. And then I need to trust the Lord by "waiting for Him in the way of His judgments," until He sees fit to bring the sun out again.

He always does.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by LilGoldWmn)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Faithful Affliction

I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me. (Ps. 119:75)

This has to be one of the most faith-filled verses in the Bible.

Many are the preachers who have developed an allergy to verses like this one. How likely are they to make millions of bucks preaching on such verses? No, they would far rather preach the worship of Self, teaching that we are the center of the universe, and God Himself revolves around us! "Have faith," they say, "and God will make sure you never so much as stub your toe." God becomes, in this way of thinking, a pandering servant who exists to spoil you rotten, a flatterer who buffs up your self-image with every word, a tool for you to use to get what really matters far more than God Himself (money, comfort, fame, sex, you name it). Funny, that sort of god is indistinguishable from Satan, isn't he?

"You've done right, LORD. You have afflicted me in faithfulness."

"You've done right, LORD. In faithfulness You are allowing my back to hurt like there's a hot poker stabbing me."

"You've done right, LORD. In faithfulness You have afflicted my son so that he screams all day and all night."

"You've done right, LORD. In faithfulness You have moved me far from everyone I know at the same time that You've torn my life to shreds."

"You've done right, LORD. In faithfulness You have given me a heart attack."

"You've done right, LORD. In faithfulness You have taken my uncle's life in a motorcycle accident."

The LORD did all those things to me and my loved ones, and more. And He did them all in faithfulness. I couldn't always see it at the time. But from where I stand now, I can tell you with absolute confidence that the LORD makes no mistakes. Is that because I've become so wise? No, I'm afraid not. I will never understand (on this earth) all the reasons for everything that you and I suffer on this earth. But God...

But God...

God Himself is sweet to me, beyond words. He has shown enough of His character, enough of His love, enough of His peace, enough of His joy, for me to trust Him with all that I don't understand. And that's the God I worship, the God I want to worship. I have no interest in a milquetoast god who is no greater than I, who has no higher purpose than turning me into a spoiled brat. Spare me any god who waters down truth for fear of offending. Away with any gods who tolerate sin. My God "scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:6), and I'm sinful enough to have felt that scourge plenty of times. I know I'll feel it many times more, too. No, I don't enjoy it. "Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12:11)

I love and trust Him, and I love and trust His plans for me.

He deserves no less.

"Come, and let us return to the Lord, for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight." (Hos. 6:1-2)

That's a gorgeous Old Testament prophecy, talking about how Christ's resurrection would be our resurrection too, if we belong to Him. The thing about God's "tearing" is that He only tears us for our good. And His healing leaves us better than new.

I'm learning now to trust His touch
To crave the fire's embrace

For though my past with sin was etched,

His mercies did erase.

Each time His purging cleanses deeper

I'm not sure that I'll survive.
Yet the strength in growing weaker

Keeps my hungry soul alive.

The Refiner's fire

Has now become my sole desire.

Purged, and cleansed, and purified

That the Lord be glorified.

He is consuming my soul

Refining me, making me whole.

No matter what I may lose,

I choose the Refiner's fire.

(That song is sung by Steve Green. I apologize that I don't have more information to give you on that right now).

No, Christianity isn't a religion for masochists. As I said, there's no pleasure in the fire. But if there were no fire, this God would be less than He is...less holy, less pure, less perfect. And there is so much pleasure to be found in His holiness and purity and perfection, that I wouldn't have Him any other way.

He Himself is worth it all.

(Photo from Stock.xchng by ziptrivia)
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