Choices and More Choices

“Chicken, beef or vegetarian?”

The text was from the planners for an upcoming banquet. My meal choice was needed and I quickly shot back my answer. I was hungry.

Ahh, wouldn’t it be nice if all decisions in life were that easy?

They’re not. Most the time I hate being pushed into issuing a verdict. I often try to put off coming to a conclusion as long as possible because I naturally doubt my initial conviction. Yet it seems there’s always some kind of decision I’m being asked to make—financially, vocationally, relationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, medically, nutritionally, etc., etc. Some feel easy, some seem irrelevant, while others overwhelm me as completely impossible. And I must remember that procrastination and even not choosing at all are all choices. I can’t get away from them!

Following Jesus is the choice I want to focus on. It’s actually a decision made up of many choices: daily, hourly and even minute by minute. They determine what I believe, think and do, as well as how I react, love, hate, give, trust others, and distract myself, all in light of truly being a follower of Jesus.  And sooner or later an outcome chases after each one—outcomes, that for better or worse, I must own.

Consequences

Joshua said it several thousand years ago, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). He was fed up with the people of his country waffling on important issues like who their god was going to be. I find, however, that I so dread the thought of being stuck with the results of a bad choice (I don’t have all the information after all) that I look for ways to avoid committing at an intersection in life. Saying ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to one or more others. What if a better option comes along? Can’t I just hold off and sit here for a while, no obligations? Of course I can; that’s a choice. And it will eventually produce some kind of consequence.

As a result, it’s easy to just let life happen, which is releasing others to make choices for me. That then becomes my choice with its own set of consequences. I’m sure that some who were listening to Joshua were thinking, if not saying out loud, “But what if a better god comes along?” Hmm. And how did that work out for them?

They’re Ours to Own

The irony of making decisions is that while we want, and even fight for, the right to make our own choices—resisting the commands of those “Joshuas” who want to control us—we also struggle with it. There are many times we would rather someone just tell us what to do. Choosing can be hard and confusing work. It’s nice to have someone who’s figured it out give us the answer. And if in the end their judgment was wrong then it wasn’t our fault. Right?

Unfortunately, for that way of thinking, an irrefutable law stalks us: everything about our choices belong to us. We choose, whether we realize it or not, how we respond to everything that is thrown at us, even the things we didn’t choose: our DNA, our upbringing and all those crazy, painful outside circumstances or abuses. Though it feels like we don’t have a choice, we still must decide our response, our attitude and our actions. What we do with all that is given or thrust upon us is ours! And as much, if not more, these choices are what make us who we are, for good or for ill.

 A lot of Choices to Examine

I want to use this blogging space going forward to talk about what it means to move through every day as a follower of Jesus, depending on His grace but recognizing all the choices before us. There’s actually many to look at because walking with Jesus involves our entire life—every part. And like so many other choices, not committing or half committing our lives to Him (is it possible to half-commit to my wife?) has an eternal consequence.

So, take Joshua’s challenge and choose. Some choices will be as simple as deciding between chicken or beef. Others will force you to search more deeply, determining WHO you’re going to serve each day. And your options are quite limited on that last one. For, as the Bible communicates and one of our American cultural prophets, Bob Dylan, has said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The choice is yours.

Reflections

  • What are some of the choices I regularly make that I rarely if ever think about?
  • In what ways do my everyday choices reflect my level of commitment to following Jesus?
  • What is the most powerful influencer of my choices? Circumstances? Feelings? Values?

Choosing to Not Point My Finger

The note was addressed to the leadership of our ministry, but for some reason it was put in my box to deal with. A few weeks earlier our facility had been used as a wedding venue. Several of our ministry staff volunteered to help with the logistics of the celebration. A couple hundred people had sat through the ceremony and then stood in a reception line before sitting down for a meal. Part of the line went up a short flight of stairs. The note was from someone who attended the wedding and observed an elderly man struggle to get up the five steps. The writer was deeply concerned that no one assisted the man. The punch line of the message was, “How can you call yourselves a Christian mission organization when not one of your staff helped him? I will certainly never support your ministry when you won’t even serve the needy in your own building.”

My first impulse was anger. How can this person blame us for something that dozens of others stood and passively watched? Our staff were in the kitchen helping prepare the meal; they weren’t even there. And where was the note-writer in all this? Why didn’t she provide the needed assistance? But then after a few minutes of stewing, I felt the pang of the allegation. Why didn’t one of us help? How did we not notice this need? Were there others who thought badly about us? How could we show people that we really are good?

What’s under the surface?

Sure, there are situations where charges of wrongdoing are appropriate and need to be made. When we see injustice, almost everyone desires it to be made right. People should be held accountable for hurtful behavior so that changes can be instituted and wrongs corrected. But behind many informal indictments of wrong doing there is more going on. Accusers want to see someone suffer for the hurt that’s been inflicted. The urge for payback is strong when a person has been offended or unjustly treated (read post on Anger). And then there are times when accusers are projecting their own sense of guilt or shame onto another (which is what I believe was happening with the note-writer). Finding someone to blame for the wrong around us or our own failings seems as natural as breathing. However, accusations thrown at others easily morph into full-fledged judgments and plots for vengeance.

But, with what are we aligning ourselves when we become finger pointers?

Jesus said, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37 NLT). There is a “boomerang” spirit that is loosed when I begin to damn others for their sins and failings. I can’t escape being negatively affected as much, if not more, than the person I’m condemning. When I zero-in on another person’s fault, bad behavior or transgression, be it legitimate or merely something I’m imagining, I end up rehearsing the offense over and over in my thoughts. It easily plants itself and grows. The Bible calls it a root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). The deeper this shoot goes down into my soul the more evil the other person appears and the more righteous my position feels. With the bitterness comes a blindness that distorts the way I see other parts of reality.

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Choosing Joy

I like to feel good. It’s a basic urge within me to chase happiness wherever I think it can be found. My country’s Declaration of Independence affirms the pursuit of it to be an inalienable right. When I imagine myself in a happy state, I see a hammock swaying between two Ponderosa pine trees overlooking a secluded mountain lake as the sun gently warms my face. There’s a good book lying open on my chest and a bowl of ice cream in one hand. Of course to complete the scene, I just inherited a million dollars, and everyone likes me. Oh, and people in the world have stopped fighting each other.

This may not be your picture of happiness, but it’s the first one that comes to my mind. The problem, however, is that there are too many circumstantial pieces outside my control. I may find the actual setting in some mountainous region, but it could also be raining that day. I might then discover the hammock has a rip in it; the book is boring; the ice cream is freezer-burnt; an email concerning an overdrawn checking account is in my inbox, and someone has left an angry rant on one of my blog posts. And what chance is there of everybody in the world showing kindness to each other? Ugh.

Happiness can be so elusive.

Is There Another Way?

In the Bible, happiness is often associated with blessings. I feel so blessed when circumstances line up with my ideals and personal comfort. I like God’s blessings of provision and favor. It’s not too hard then to have a good attitude, say a few more kind words to those around me and feel like a good Christian. But what do I do when I don’t see or feel the blessings? Sometimes life just looks and feels bad, and all the factors for happiness seem outside my control.

The Bible also speaks of something called joy. For most my life, I collapsed these two words together, happiness and joy, into one meaning: being in control and feeling good. Yet, I am now perceiving some important distinctions.

I recently spent several weeks on a tropical island with a ministry outreach team. While for many the words “tropical island” conjure scenes of ideal vacations and images of “the good life”, I struggled with feeling miserable. The heat and humidity were like nothing I experience in Minnesota. There was no air conditioning, and frequent power outages made fans unpredictable. Add in mosquitos, sleeping on wooden floors, long walks to pungent outhouses in the dark, and you can get a sense of how my happiness buttons were not being pushed. I needed something outside my circumstances.

Then one afternoon a young man shared stories of growing up without a father. In the blazing sun, my clothing drenched in sweat, I listened. At first it was a struggle to concentrate on his words, but then a tear rolled down one cheek. I saw the deep part of his soul he was baring and how much God wanted to communicate His love to this man.

A whisper that I knew was the Holy Spirit sounded in my ear, “This is where you’ll find your strength.” As I continued to listen and interact with my new friend, something happened. A refreshment welled up and spread throughout my body. My skin remained hot and sweaty, and body odor permeated the air, but it now seemed far away. I longed for him to know the Heavenly Father’s acceptance, love and destiny for his life. Joy bubbled up and changed everything for me, giving new energy to love this man.

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Choosing to Care About What God Thinks

Voices. They ring in my ears and shout in my mind. I don’t seem to be able to rid myself of their pressure. They want to be my guide, to instruct me in what I ought to do. They cajole, threaten, rationalize, alarm, accuse and soothe me at different moments. Often the easiest thing to do is submit to their demands. Is this my version of going crazy? Or is it an internal obstacle course that every human navigates? When I stop to honestly examine what’s going on, I find the common thread of these cries to be distress and anxieties about what others think of me. They’re powerful. And they expect to be obeyed.

The closest explanation I find in the Bible labels what I’m experiencing as the “fear of man.” This sensitivity to others’ opinions and voices works to keep me on a certain path. Where this road leads, I have no idea. I just know that it feels intolerable to stray from it. Only later, sometimes much later, I realize it has taken me to places I didn’t want to go. I then see that I was listening to the wrong thing.

“Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe” (Proverbs 29:25).

The Bible reveals that there is a trap laid for me, and I must be alert. If my ultimate concern when making decisions is appeasing the voices of people (be they inside or outside my head) I will eventually be caught in something that keeps me from going where I truly need to and want to be. And it will be exceedingly difficult to get out of it. How to avoid such a snare? Trust the Lord and not the smooth-sounding or coarse-accusing voices ringing in my ears.

Fear of Man vs. Fear of the Lord

The idea of “fearing man” does not necessarily mean being afraid of people (or the male gender in particular). I understand it to be more about holding certain people’s opinions in high regard, to the point of letting them be the final say in what I do or don’t do. Who are those who have this kind of power in my life?

They’re the ones with whom I have the most social capital invested. They can also be the ones that intimidate me the most. They know how to push my shame buttons or even inflame my anger. They can be the non-specific, disembodied group always looking over my shoulder, quick to shake their heads in disapproval. They ridicule choices I make or opinions I hold but soothingly nod approval when I submit. To disregard their voice (or at least the voice I believe is theirs) feels disorienting, scary, intolerable. I usually have many rational-sounding reasons for why it makes sense to fall in line. Another way of saying it: the “fear of man” is the worship of people’s approval, be they a real or imaginary group or a judgmental individual in my face.

The Bible also speaks of a concept called the “fear of the Lord.” This does not necessarily equal feeling afraid or intimidated by God. But similar to the “fear of man,” it means to hold God’s opinion highest in respect above all other real or imagined opinions. It means to be most concerned about how He will respond to any decision I make or activity I involve myself with. Thus the “fear of the Lord” is the opposite of the “fear of man.” Choosing to cultivate this mindset and heart attitude of honoring God is the way we avoid the trap. “Fearing” Him in this way is how we express our trust in the Lord.

The Single Concern of Joseph

While there are many illustrations of “fearing God” in the Bible, I want to highlight one. In Genesis 39:1-18 we’re told that after being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph was purchased by a wealthy Egyptian named Potiphar and made chief administrator of his household. We’re also told that Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph one day. He responded by simply running away. But she kept hold of his cloak and then used it as evidence that there had been an attempted rape. As a slave, there was no due process, and Joseph was thrown in prison. While most people know how the story takes a miraculous turn in the end, exalting him from prisoner to second in command of the entire country, it’s Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife I focus on here.

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Choosing A Soft Heart

“I love you with all my heart.” I’ve heard this phrase a few times in my life, and it always brings a smile to my face. It’s a stereotypical expression that usually comes from someone trying to express deep feelings but hasn’t come up with a more creative way to say it. Yet as long as it comes from the heart, we’re usually okay with this quaint expression. But what does it mean? Why love from the heart?

Most people I know, relate a person’s heart (not to be confused with the physiological blood-pumping organ) to their emotional response. In other words, to love someone with all your heart means to feel your love for that person deeply. Interestingly, that’s not the biblical understanding of the heart. A Bible professor once told me that the ancient Hebrews associated deep feelings not with the heart but with the bowels. Try that on your significant other: I love you with all my bowels. There’s a reason that hasn’t caught on. The biblical perception of the heart has less to do with feelings and more to do with choices—the will. Biblically speaking, the heart is understood to be the executive center that oversees the whole person. My heart directs the path I take and all my responses to outside circumstances.

The Executive Center of My Being

So, it is in my heart where I determine how I engage with the world. My actions, attitudes and words all flow from the mysterious workings of this place inside me. Of course, the Bible has a lot to say about the heart. We’re told that we are to guard it because it determines the course of our life (Proverbs 4:23). We learn that it’s capable of being deceived and extremely wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). But we’re also informed that it can be pure and sincere (Matthew 5:8; Colossians 3:22). In addition, Jesus said we’re to love God with all of it (Mark 12:30). Whatever direction one’s heart goes, it takes the rest of the person along. It’s no wonder that in seeking an intimate relationship with each of us, it is the heart that Jesus asks to be given to Him. For when He has my heart, He has me.

And that’s the trick. Our hearts don’t naturally want to be given completely to someone else, especially to a divine Lord. To the heart that doesn’t recognize who Jesus is, such a request appears as an invitation to captivity and slavery. But for the one who sees Him as the rightful Lord and source of all life, to submit control to Him is peace and the beginning of true freedom.

A Stony Heart Toward God?

But so often our hearts resist Him. We harden our will against God and His ways. Every heart has this ability to harden or soften its attitude and response toward another person. The condition of my heart is determined by the beliefs I entertain about others. Do I see them as good or bad, for me or against me, trustworthy or unreliable? It’s the same with how I perceive and what I believe about God. And with Him, I can also harden my heart by simply ignoring Him. This is especially true when He shows me something He wants me to do or respond to and I simply say, “no” or convince myself that that wasn’t God communicating to me. When I do this, it’s like I’m spraying my heart with a protective coating of concrete that dulls my ability to sense His prompts or hear His voice.

The most famous hard heart in the Bible is Pharaoh. The story is told in the Book of Exodus, chapters 7-14, how this Egyptian king resisted letting the Israelites, whom he had enslaved, leave. But where it gets confusing is that many times it’s worded that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and that’s why the man refused to respond to all the miracles he witnessed.

Some people interpret this to mean that God overrode Pharaoh’s will. It seems more likely to me, however considering the rest of scripture, that God, who searches and knows every heart (Jeremiah 17:10) merely saw which direction the king’s will was already bent and let him go the direction his heart was leading him. Often when people are already resistant, added pressure only pushes them  harder into their obstinate position. The pride of Pharaoh was such that he would not submit his “executive center” to anyone, no matter how many miracles he saw. His heart hardened more with each time God confronted it with a supernatural display.

Hardness of heart is a condition that even followers of Jesus must be concerned about. It’s a soft heart that God is looking for in His followers. When our hearts are tender, they sense what God is wanting from them. We may not like it at the moment and it may be inconvenient, but soft hearts respond to God’s stirrings. Crusty layers of hardness develop as we decide we don’t want to submit to Him on specific issues. It may be through overt defiance or a more subtle passive negligence of just not paying attention. Either way, hardness and callouses of insensitivity grow thicker as choices to resist or ignore become more automatic. And it’s later that we wonder why we can’t feel the love of God anymore or hear His voice like we used to. Hearts grow hard, they don’t transform into stone overnight.

What’s the Condition of My Heart?

I first have to recognize the signs of a hard heart. Once I see where I’m susceptible, I can address my condition by asking God for help. It is amazing how willing He is to lead us in the softening process if we will only humbly ask. While there’s probably many indicators, I can think of three obvious ones.

1) A hard heart is insensitive to the pain of others. Lack of sensitivity, especially to those who are unlike me, is a common symptom of a heart growing crusty. God in His holiness is very unlike me. I and many like me have hardened ourselves to what He desires. With our whole nation being confronted with racism right now, have we asked God how He feels about where we’re at? Our insensitivity to the hardships or injustice others are facing often is indicative of our insensitivity to God. God has feelings, and they may be different than ours. Have we asked Him to show us what they are? He has much He desires to reveal to us regarding many matters, if we’ll open our hearts.

2) A hard heart cannot be penetrated with new ideas or perspectives. The inability to consider what’s outside my own context, be it political, religious or philosophical is a bright red flag of warning that stony callouses may be growing. It’s not that I have to accept everyone else’s view point as right or good, but can I humbly listen without accusations or defensiveness? God’s perspective often challenges me if I’ll just stop and ask Him what He wants me to see. The problem is I often think I already know what His perspective is, or I just don’t care.

3) A hard heart cannot adjust or flex to embrace something that feels strange or unknown. Sometimes this has to do with fear of change. But often for me it is due to my hatred of discomfort and mental dissonance. Walking with God is not comfortable. He challenges me a lot as a good Father should. I have had to adjust many personal opinions, habits and beliefs over the years in light of His Word. If Jesus’ followers cannot flex and change as the Word of God directs us, we will eventually be broken in our brittleness. Only soft hearts can be reshaped without being crushed.

Ultimately, it’s a soft heart that can learn to love. And you can ask God for one. It is His will for all of us to be able to sincerely say to each other and especially to Him, “I love you with all my heart.”

Response:

  • What’s the condition of my heart right now?
  • What are areas of my life where it’s easy to ignore or never ask what God’s desires are?
  • Where can I be insensitive to other people’s pain?
  • Under what circumstances is it difficult for me to consider other perspectives? Why?
  • Where am I inflexible? Is this good? What needs to change so that my heart can be reshaped into what it needs to be?
  • Jesus, what do you want to show me about my heart?

Choosing Lament

Police brutality. Looted stores. Outrage. Burning buildings. I sat horrified in my California home in front of the television back in 1992 as I followed the unfolding story. Four Los Angeles police officers had been acquitted of using excessive force and beating Rodney King, an African American. The incident had been caught on video tape, and the whole world saw that the officers had gone far past what was necessary. Yet there were no convictions. This injustice confirmed what many minority groups already knew: they couldn’t trust the police to protect them, and the judicial system had failed. I watched, at the time, uncomfortable and unsure how to respond. I just wanted the whole thing to be done so I could feel okay.

Fast-forward 28 years.

The viral video of George Floyd pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck shocked me. Hearing Mr. Floyd cry out for air and be completely ignored by all the officers present appalled me to the point of disbelief. But then when I realized that Mr. Floyd was killed because he supposedly used a counterfeit twenty dollar bill? The logic center in my brain blew a circuit. There was no rational explanation. And my insides tied themselves into a knot.

What’s to be done?

I’m praying for justice to yet be accomplished. Can our legal system pull it off? Many doubt it, but I’m cautiously hopeful. Yet even if all guilty parties are convicted and given the strongest sentences allowable, what then? Change is desperately needed, of course, to see that something like this and other similar incidents don’t  happen again. Change to any laws that would protect this kind of behavior, change in unacceptable police procedures, change in people’s attitudes. And it’s the last one that is the most elusive and yet the most necessary.

When I examine my own attitude, I’m ashamed. The discomfort over what I watched in 1992 was similar to what I’ve felt these past few days in my present city of Minneapolis. Injustice and then violent outrage. I want it to be over: just do whatever is needed to get through this and close it. I know in my head that there is no quick or simple way out of the pit of racial animosity our country smolders in. But that’s what I find myself looking for: arrest, convict and put away these perpetrators. And then everyone can feel better. Right?

Yet deep down I know that’s not the way it works, and the hoped-for convictions guarantee no larger shifts in people’s attitudes. Something else needs to happen within me and a lot of others before meaningful change can come. I personally need to allow something to happen within that I closed off back in 1992. I need to let myself grieve—grieve for a man’s life snuffed out too early; grieve with a family that has experienced a traumatic loss; grieve with the African American community as they deal with yet one more reminder that they are not safe in their own neighborhoods; grieve for my nation that is still weighed down with the burden of racism. Where do I begin?

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Choosing to See

When I realized what was next to me, I flattened myself against the side of the house in shock. I kept telling myself that this couldn’t be real. Things like this don’t happen here.

My cousin and I had started a window-washing service as our summer job between college semesters. We figured we could make easy money with our pails and squeegees catering to the affluent Los Angeles suburbs. I didn’t mind the washing part. But knocking on doors and soliciting potential customers stretched my non-salesman personality.

A particular experience remains my reason for making that the last summer of door-to-door sales for me. In a very nice Southern California neighborhood, a woman invited me to walk around the outside of her house to calculate an estimate. The area surrounding the back patio was cluttered with assorted items, but my focus was on counting windows. I navigated clay pots, garden tools, patio furniture and other debris scattered through the yard. At one point I glanced down at my feet that were almost touching an inflatable pool toy. The life-size “toy” alligator opened its eyes and turned its head toward me.

Positive that my heart stopped beating, I dropped my clipboard and pressed my back against the wall, unable to make a noise. Looking up for help, I saw another long reptilian figure moving across the grass toward me. The scream that finally found its way to my throat was cut short when the woman of the house popped her head out of the patio sliding-glass door and said, “I forgot to tell you about my pets.” Oh really!?

In the end, we got the job. But when it came time to wash the windows, I did the inside and let my cousin brave the outside. We were college students, afterall, and couldn’t pass up the money.

Blind

Why do we sometimes not see what is right in front of us? The surface answer is that we’re not paying attention. But in many cases, especially for myself, it has to do with not seeing what I’m not expecting—like seven-foot alligators in the LA suburbs. The adage, “I’ll believe it when I see it” is only true part of the time. For many it’s just as true to say, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Beliefs and sight are closely tied together. Which one comes first is hard to say for sure.

In Matthew 6:22-23 Jesus made a curious statement about our eyes and what they take in: “Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!” (NLT). What are “healthy” and “unhealthy” eyes? I understand Jesus to be talking about a condition in which someone is blind to what’s really in front of him. The danger for this person is that he believes he’s seeing everything as it truly is. But the “light” (or information) he thinks he has is really nothing more than “darkness.” People get lost as well as hurt themselves and others when they walk around in the dark without some kind of light. Another word for this condition is deception.

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Choosing to Say “I Do” Everyday

This Friday, my wife and I will celebrate 38 years of marriage. We were both 20 when we said, “I do,” having first met when we were freshmen in high school. Many times I’ve been asked two questions: 1) how did we know that we had found the right person to marry (afterall, we were so young), and 2) what has been the “key” to staying married?

There are no simple answers, and this journey of walking out a marriage covenant hasn’t always been smooth. Much of what I think now about relationships has solidified through hindsight and many years of reflection. But I’m confident of this, if I had to do it over again, I would still choose Christine.

I Pledge Myself to . . .

Commitment isn’t an enjoyable word for most of us. Present-day American society operates from the understanding that the more options one has in any area of life, the better: television channels, smart phone apps, salsa brands and even dog food, to name a few (read post Choices and More Choices). Commitment, on the other hand, implies narrowing one’s focus, energy or affection down to a single point and saying “no” to the rest.

The average person today asks, “Why would I limit myself and choose before knowing ALL my options?” Such a response exposes a common fear: what if I commit and then something better comes along? The potential of getting stuck with a “second-rate” alternative (no matter how good it is) creates anxiety for many. We dread the possibility of future frustration, with restrictions on getting what we really want. It has become a virtue to always keep our options open as we search for the “perfect” scenario, or person. Thus we have become a generation of relational dabblers, rarely experiencing the mysterious fruit that comes from binding ourselves to another, long term through whatever may come.

I have learned that commitment, whether it be in marriage, friendship, ministry or work, unlocks doors of opportunity and satisfaction that the open-option approach keeps sealed shut. True commitment changes the way we think about and see others as well as ourselves. When chosen, it exposes and can squeeze out narcissistic tendencies as well as establish a platform for true giving. And in the end, its fruit delivers something more solid and lasting than a life-time of playing the field. If my hope for happiness centers on finding the ideal partner who will meet all my needs and desires, I will never fully commit to anyone in my heart. Afterall, the person of my dreams might be just another date (or marriage) away.

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Choosing the Pathway Out

There was a screeching sound of metal scraping on cement, and the bus suddenly stopped. I looked at my fellow YWAMer, my stomach in a knot, and silently mouthed the words, “Oh no.”

I was driving an old rehabilitated school bus into the Miami airport to pick up a YWAM outreach team that had just returned from two months in Haiti. Paying more attention to my friend’s story-telling than the road in front of me, I failed to see the “low clearance” signs. The sickening sound of the vehicle’s roof wedging into the concrete overpass was immediately followed by the shrill screams of a cursing parking attendant. Running to my window, he asked how an idiot like myself ever got a driver’s license. And without giving me a chance to reply, his diatribe continued, ending with a list of pronouncements: I would be ticketed. The air would be let out of all the tires to unwedge the bus. And a truck would be called to tow and impound my vehicle.

In the moment, what he said made sense. I stared, stunned, speechless and feeling the stupidity he was vocalizing over me. Other careless driving mistakes flooded my memory.  But this time, there were 20 exhausted students along with several children waiting for me at that moment to be picked up and driven back to East Texas. I was guilty as accused, and others were going to suffer because of it. I could feel invisible cords tightening around me. I deserved this. And I saw no way out.

Bondage

Trapped? Stuck? Despairing? So many of us are overwhelmed with hopelessness at various moments in life. These dark emotions either jump on us all at once with shock and confusion or slowly build a case against us that feels so true it cannot be challenged or denied. And though we hate it, something inside says, “amen.” It feels true and even just. It fits an old internal narrative we’ve heard as long as we can remember: “There’s something wrong with you!”

Condemnation is the source of so many desperate moments in the life of a Jesus follower. It’s that resonating feeling that agrees with voices spoken by others, voices in my own head or a combination of both. These accusations often begin with, “You always. . .” or “You will never. . .” They attack my identity, question my worth and confirm every guilty act I’ve ever committed. Grace is never part of their vocabulary. They seek to bind my past to me so tightly that I cannot imagine ever separating from it. And to top it all off, I quickly and ever-so-naturally agree. This then becomes the blueprint for my future because it’s just who I am.

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Choosing to Not Stir God’s Jealousy

Scenario 1: An ugly thing. A man claims the sole right to his girlfriend’s attention and affection. He gets heated when she laughs with a coworker or appears to be sharing something personal with an acquaintance. He looks as if he wants to hurt someone when the FedEx delivery guy lingers a little too long at her desk. Observers shake their heads, wondering how someone can be so dense and immature. Doesn’t he know she doesn’t belong to him? Afterall, that’s not how love is supposed to work.

Or does it?

Scenario 2: A heart-breaking thing. A woman stares at her wedding ring with tears smeared across her cheeks. She replays in her mind that day when he vowed to give himself completely to her and no other for as long as they both would live. But there’s more than enough evidence now to the contrary: numerous late nights at work, passcode changed on his phone. And then there are the multiple sightings she’s been told of—dinner with her. The theater with her. Strolls in the park with her. In a surge of anger mixed with pain, she removes the ring and hurls it against the wall. Doesn’t he know that he belongs to his wife, not her? That’s how marriage is supposed to work.

Is it?  

Broken Covenant

Jealousy is unpleasant and rightfully condemned in relationships—that is, unless there have been binding vows exchanged. Somehow, marriage commitment changes matters. What starts out as mutual attraction morphs into two people in love. The lovers then commit in matrimony to reserve their affection, intimacy and bodies for each other, uniting their lives in an exclusive intimacy. So, how is one supposed to feel if his partner violates this covenant?

Suppose a friend observes my wife spending “extra” time with the FedEx delivery man as he drops off packages. It starts with him lingering longer than necessary at her work to chat. Then he begins leaving little gifts on her desk, including a vase of red roses, that she seems to thoroughly enjoy. Finally, my friend happens to see them together at a coffee shop, holding hands. The friend solemnly approaches me and shares all that’s been observed. What would he think if I responded with, “Yeah, I know. But I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything. Besides, she’s old enough to make her own decisions. No big deal.”

I imagine this friend, and anyone else who heard my reaction, would question how much I love my wife. They might also begin to understand, in light of my indifference, why she finds the FedEx man attractive. On the other hand, what would be an appropriate reaction as a husband? Distress? Tears? Anger? My response to unfaithfulness reveals how much I value the relationship in the first place. Jealousy is fitting when what has been pledged to me is given to someone else. And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

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Choosing to Wear the Right Protection

It’s known as PPE: personal protection equipment. And from everything I’ve read, for our health-care workers combating COVID-19, there is a shortage of it. If you’re not familiar with what PPE looks like, Google it. The full outfit, when put on, is quite intimidating, and from what I’ve been told, not very comfortable. Yet it saves lives. Many of the deaths from the Coronavirus in the hardest-hit regions of the world have been among medical personnel who did not have the proper gear. The right protective covering can make all the difference, especially when battling an unseen enemy.

There are other invisible dangers in this world besides parasitic microbes. Yes, a pandemic is scary when you’re not sure where or how you might be infected. But what about the infestation of “spiritual viruses” that have eternal consequences for every person in the world? They threaten us daily and leave many broken, confused and completely lost. Lies that are believed. Shame and guilt that never leave. Doubts. Fears. Loneliness. A defeated heart. Pride.

The Apostle Paul laid out God’s provision for our protection against such insidious infections in Ephesians 6:10-18. This passage envisions our struggle against unseen forces as a battle. Our survival, well-being and victory depend on our making use of armor that protects us from a hidden enemy intent on our destruction, or at least our ineffectiveness. The PPE that Paul outlines follows what was ancient-Roman battle gear. But the imagery is still applicable for Jesus followers today who are aware that spiritual sickness and brokenness is just as bad as, if not worse than, physical infirmity.

What is God’s Personal Protection Equipment for us?

The Belt of Truth (Ephesians 6:14a)

A lot of us Jesus followers still carry debilitating burdens. Much of the baggage is rooted in the disinformation we believe about ourselves, the world around us and the nature and character of God. The power of a lie is that it feels true. And when we rely primarily on what feels right within to determine what is real, we are in danger of believing the wrong thing about so many life issues. Our lives easily end up stuck in places we never intended or wanted to be.

My baseline for reality must be grounded in something outside myself. Just as the other pieces of a Roman soldier’s armor connected into his belt, truth for a Jesus follower is what binds the rest of God’s PPE together. If I am believing false stuff, particularly about my identity and who God is, nothing in my faith walk is secure. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the one who must define truth for me—what He says, what He does, what He reveals—regardless what I feel. Am I cinching the truth of Jesus more tightly around me? It holds everything else up afterall.

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