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 Maturity

It’s a momentous week for me. I have a birthday coming up, and it’s not just any ol’ number. I’m about to cross what I have always considered the threshold of old age. I’ve been asking myself for awhile if I have found any advantages in getting older, besides cheaper meals at Perkin’s Restaurant. 

I remember my grandfather saying to me multiple times when I was a boy, “Jeff, don’t ever grow old.” This bit of advice was given as he groaned and struggled to get himself out of a chair. Even as a child, I wondered what the options were. Did I have a choice? Aging didn’t and still doesn’t seem to get much positive press. Using the word “old” has become a guaranteed way to insult those with lines around their eyes or gray trimming their temples. Unless you’re a bottle of wine, it’s typically the last thing you want to be called.

“Mature” is now a nice euphemism that doesn’t sound so harsh. But this can be a bit confusing. To be a mature adult can mean a lot of different things. I recently ran across a list of five aspects of maturity:

  • Physical: age, size, hand-eye coordination
  • Emotional: patience, kindness, ability to manage anger
  • Ethical: development of morals, ability to be empathetic
  • Intellectual: school smarts, on-target learning for one’s age
  • Social: ability to develop friendships, to share, and to cooperate

So, if I’m called a mature man (using the euphemistic term for aging), does that mean I have developed fully in most or all of these five ways? I think almost everyone would agree that the answer is a resounding NO. A long life does not necessarily equal full development of any of these aspects except for maybe the physical part. According to a saying I heard years ago, “Youth is fleeting, but immaturity can last a lifetime.”

Growing Old with Jesus

My greatest concern now is to grow old while becoming a mature follower of Jesus. And if that does not automatically happen simply by aging, what do I need to do to pursue maturity?

I could write out a list of biblical references that reflect what a mature follower of Jesus should look like. Actually, I’m sure someone else has already done that, so you might try Googling it. What comes to my mind is something that is counterintuitive, and we don’t usually think of when discussing Christian growth.

More and more I am convinced that a mature Jesus follower becomes more like a child. Jesus said it this way, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 NIV). 

A mandate for entering God’s kingdom? Sounds pretty important. But how?

I’m confident that there are things children do that Jesus was not calling us to emulate, like throwing tantrums when we don’t get what we want, or refusing to share a favorite toy. Yet there are qualities that children display that we adults struggle greatly with. Here are the top three childlike characteristics that Jesus might have had in mind when He made the above statement to His disciples.

  • Forgiving: Young children can get angry and upset, but you won’t see them holding grudges for days, months, or years. They let go of an offense quickly and thus live free of bitterness and resentment.
  • Embracing: A child, typically, is ready to accept the presence of others not according to their appearance, age, education, ethnicity, political leanings, or social affiliations but simply because they are people who appear to need a friend or companion. What a rare quality these days.
  • Trusting: This I believe is the foundation of childlikeness and very likely what Jesus had in mind. Every child is born an expert in how to trust. Infants must completely rely on others for everything they need to survive. They learn to not trust as they grow older, get hurt, and feel betrayed. They then conclude that in order to be in control and stay safe they must hold on to offenses and reject those different than themselves. Difficulty with trusting people is often linked with difficulty in trusting God. Young children seem to do both with ease.

Focused on True Maturity

If I am to be God’s child and a citizen of His Kingdom for all eternity, there are qualities I must possess for the long haul. Jesus said I need to learn them from a toddler, not from a trained theologian, a pastor, or even a very smart person. If I expect that growing old and accumulating experience will naturally give me what I need to navigate eternity, I’m likely heading in the wrong direction.

The longer I live, the more opportunities I have to take on offenses. It is commonly understood even in the medical community that accumulated unforgiveness is unhealthy for my body. And psychologists tell me that it will corrode my mental health. I need to be more like a child and learn to release my offenses so that I can grow old with grace.

The angry, bigoted, crotchety old man who has isolated himself from everything and everybody who doesn’t agree with him is a classic stereotype. But it is a real danger for anyone who spends enough time walking this earth. I need to be more like a child, embracing those who are different, forgiving and even loving those who have hurt me, and affirming the value of those I believe to be wrong. It’s possible to grow old and be at peace, enjoying diverse and healthy relationships.

There is no more fundamental element to following Jesus than trust. Trusting Him. I have to let go of my own sophisticated understanding, rely on what He has done to redeem me, and rest in hope for the future He has promised. And as I become more childlike, I find it easier to surrender every aspect of my life — past, present, and future — to God. It then becomes more natural to trust the people He has brought into my life. Children are the stars here. I want to develop the maturity to trust like a child does.

Always More to Learn

I will soon be staring at six decades worth of candles. It’s a good time to evaluate what’s been shaping me and where I’m heading. Whereas the surrounding culture tells me that ease and self-centered living are now what mature people are expected to focus on, I hear Jesus saying something different: “Become more like a child, Jeff. Forgive, embrace, trust and become a truly mature son of your Heavenly Father.”

To be truly mature will be my prayer as I blow out all those flaming sticks of wax.

Response

  • What have I assumed are the marks of maturity in my life? Do they align with what God says?
  • How does my understanding of maturity mesh with becoming more childlike?
  • What do I need to learn from a child? What offenses am I justifying? What group of people am I rejecting? What are my trust issues?
  • Jesus, how do you want to lead me to be more like a child and truly mature?                            

Choosing a Better Path

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.

An Exchange

A Jesus follower, however, is called to a different narrative. Romans 8:1 clearly lays out the reason: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Stop and meditate on what this single verse is conveying. Every word the condemning voices speak no longer applies to one who is embracing and being embraced by Jesus. How can that be?

It’s the miracle of redemption, one of the mysterious but amazing results of Jesus’ death on the cross. As I surrender all my garbage to Him, He takes it on Himself and then wraps me in His righteousness. It’s an uneven exchange, but it’s how God has chosen to give His grace. By faith I am now “in Christ Jesus.” His purity is mine; His future is mine; His identity is mine. I therefore now have the authority to ignore, rebuke and separate myself from condemning voices because what they say no longer applies to me. That’s the new storyline I have been given to live by.

But, you may ask, what if some of those “voices” are actually God correcting or convicting me of my bad stuff? What if I end up ignoring or rebuking God?

The Bible does say that one of the works of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of sin (John 16:8). He is the one who shows us which of our attitudes and behaviors are unfitting for those He calls son or daughter. So, it becomes important for a Jesus follower to distinguish between conviction and condemnation. Neither feel pleasant. But one leads straight out into freedom and cleansing while the other circles back into bondage and deeper despair. Our spiritual health depends on knowing the difference.

Which is Which?

A condemning voice will never give me a pathway out. If it points me in a direction at all, it will be backwards, downwards, enticing me to marinate myself in my failures, my sin, my worthlessness. Ultimately it leaves me in the same dark place.

Conviction of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, provides a clear and unswerving way up and out of sin, though we often don’t like it and therefore resist it. Repentance (read post Choosing to Really Change) is God’s gift for those who truly desire to experience freedom from the weight of behavior that offends Him. It is also what releases God’s forgiveness in our lives. The price for walking this path—and for some it’s a deal-breaker—is humility. Humble repentance combined with trust in God’s goodness is the doorway to freedom from guilt. Responding to the conviction of the Holy Spirit is the key that releases this grace into our lives.

Imagine with me a scenario that could easily take place in my home. As I leave the house one morning, my wife calls out that it’s garbage day and that I need to pull the bin to the street. Before I catch myself, I yell back unkind words expressing the sentiment that I’m not a child that needs to be reminded. I then get in my car to go teach a class on the power of God’s love to change lives. And while I’m driving, I hear a voice. It says, “Jeff, you are a terrible husband. How many times now have you spoken harshly to your wife? Why does she even put up with you? She surely hates her life with you. You’re never going to get this right, so why even try? And you think you can effectively tell others about God’s love? Ha!” Thus, the voice of condemnation leads me deeper into myself and the cords tighten. It feels miserable but true. It seems right to make my home in this mire.

Another scenario might go like this: after getting into the car, a different voice speaks. “Jeff, you just treated you wife very badly. She’s much more valuable than your words expressed. What you said is not fitting for one of God’s sons. Turn around, go back and apologize.” The Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin here addresses my actions and attitude rather than beating on my identity. In fact, my true identity is called upon to redirect my behavior— “act like the child of God that you are!” This path is clear, straight and leads to greater freedom. But I need to disregard the other one.

In the end, we must learn to rebuke condemnation and ignore the voices that carry it. Though not easy, it is the path that will lead us into the fullness of our salvation.

Grace

As I silently cried out to God at the Miami airport, bending down to let the air out of the first tire, a police car pulled up. I cringed inside, ready for the next leg of my punishment. The officer politely offered to stop traffic behind me so that I could back the bus out. He then pointed out an alternative road I could take to get to the terminal. He smiled sympathetically and then got into his car. A few minutes later, I was loading the vehicle with all the people I had come to get. What had just happened?

The voices had been all bluster. Yet I was so close to giving myself to them. Thank God for providing a different way.

God’s path for a follower of Jesus is never paved with condemnation. It always affirms us as His children as it leads us into His arms and away from our garbage. We just have to decide to take it and reject anything that leads somewhere else.

Response:

  • In what ways do I feel trapped or stuck? What might be the old narrative that God is wanting to confront in my life?
  • How can I distinguish condemning voices in my life from the conviction of the Holy Spirit? What do I hear that attacks my identity and what do I hear that confronts my poor behavior?
  • What does God’s grace mean to me? How do I walk in it?
  • What does it mean for me to be “in Christ Jesus”? How does my behavior fit or detract from my identity as a son or daughter of God?
  • Jesus, what do you want to show me about the place I have in God’s family?

(Edited and reposted from May 11, 2020)

Choosing to Choose

Someone once pulled me aside after a class I taught and said something close to the following: “I can’t believe that God is loving. He put people in the Garden along with a tree He told them not to touch, saying it would lead to their death. He set them up to fall. How can He be good?”

I don’t remember my immediate response, but I’ve since pondered that final question quite a bit. Why would God deliberately place a deadly forbidden object within the easy reach of those He claimed to love? No responsible parent today would keep an open box of poison in their home within reach of their small child and simply say, “Don’t touch it, or you will die.” Child Protection Services would have good reason to investigate.

In all my reflections, I have always chosen to start with the premise that God is good. That’s what the Bible states over and over, and it seems fair to study a Bible story within the context of the Bible as a whole. So, I ask myself, how does this tree-leading-to-death scenario in Eden fit into God’s loving character? As Creator, couldn’t He have put such a tree beyond human reach, or better yet not have made it at all? What was His purpose, and how could it possibly be good?

Genesis chapter 2 tells us that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was accessible yet forbidden. But there was another tree in the Garden with no restrictions on it—The Tree of Life. It seems that God wanted them to eat the fruit of this second tree. It would ensure they always had His divine life within them. Instead in a crazy twist, they chose the forbidden fruit that promised death. Wouldn’t it have been better if God had not given them a choice at all?

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Choosing Things Above

I first smoked a cigar in college. Somehow I had managed to avoid all tobacco before that. When I joined several other film students in a project to tell a story set during a poker game, we decided our set needed to be filled with smoke. Of course there were other ways to produce that image without actually smoking multiple cigars. But in our youthful wisdom, lighting up and puffing on multiple stogies was obviously the best way. Unfortunately for me, I sought no outside guidance on whether this was a good idea nor regarding how to go about smoking my first few wads of rolled tobacco leaves. By the end of filming, I was not feeling well. I also couldn’t recall why I had been so eager to puff on these things. And in case you’re wondering, the film turned out to be an embarrassment. We put more thought into filling our room with smoke than the actual story we were trying to tell.

I look back and still wonder why I was so excited to light up that first time. The best answer I can come up with is that I wasn’t in touch with my real desires. Though I had refrained from tobacco throughout my high school years, the image of a real man sitting in a high-backed chair casually blowing smoke rings massaged a deep longing. Descriptors like “mature,” “confident,” “respectable,” “cool” pressed into my mind. The film class provided an opportunity to become that image. Or, so I thought. The occasion, in reality, gave me none of what I anticipated. In fact, at the end of the day, I felt like an impotent child who couldn’t handle any adult stuff. I was nothing close to the coveted image of a suave and urbane man. The experience left enough of a negative impression that I never touched tobacco again. My core longings had not been addressed at all.

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Choosing to Not Be Like Jonah

My father was a boy during World War 2. He often heard of atrocities that America’s enemies, the Japanese and the Germans, were committing. According to the stories, those foreigners were the villainous aggressors, and they were seeking to come to our country to do the same things. In his child’s imagination, the images of these people resembled monsters. They were evil incarnate.

Then came the day he learned that his own grandparents and mother were Germans. The mental dissonance was overwhelming. How could his gentle, caring mom be one of the enemy? Of course, she wasn’t. And thus my dad had his first lesson on one of the problems that come with judging whole groups of people with simplistic labels.

What are God’s thoughts on canceling people because of their reputation, behavior, or beliefs?

A Prophet’s Struggles

We get a good idea of God’s perspective in the Old Testament book of Jonah. God told this prophet to go to Nineveh and announce that unless the people of that city repented of their evil ways, it was going to be destroyed. Jonah however, refused. He got on a ship sailing the opposite direction, seeking to get as far from Nineveh as possible. A horrendous storm came up, and to keep the rest of the passengers and sailors from perishing, Jonah had them throw himself overboard. He was aware that his disobedience was the cause of the storm. What happened next is the most familiar part of his story.

A giant fish swallowed him. And we are told that he survived in its belly for three days while he went through an uncomfortable repentance process. He was then spit onto dry ground and given a second chance to do what God had instructed.

I have tended to view Jonah as a jerk. The story narrator tells us that the prophet didn’t want to preach to the people of Nineveh because he was concerned they would actually respond to his message. That’s not the usual fear of a preacher.

“I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).

And because he was familiar with these character qualities of God, he rightly predicted how the Almighty would respond if the people of Nineveh responded to his message. God is merciful and prefers to forgive than destroy. So, how could this prophet of God know all this and yet be so heartless toward Nineveh?

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Choosing a New Father Image

“I believe in God, but I don’t feel close to Him,” a young woman told me after a class one day. She went on to say how she wanted a better relationship with God, but thinking of Him as a father meant nothing to her— although she sometimes was angry with Him. She had felt close to God when she was a small child, but she could not imagine Him being there for her now when she really needed Him. Most of her prayers felt as if they hit the ceiling and dropped to the ground unheard. After a bit more conversation, she mentioned that her dad had died of a heart attack when she was eight.

Her dad was gone, and she felt that Heavenly Father had disappeared too. Was there a connection? Does the relationship (or lack of one) with our earthly dads influence how we think of or feel about God?

I think so.

A Unique Relationship

I have learned from experience that this is a touchy subject. Talking about God as Father stirs emotions. People have told me that they suddenly feel angry with me for bringing up the topic. Others sob uncontrollably. Still others go strangely numb, feeling nothing at all. Of all the topics I have taught in discipleship courses, the Fatherheart of God has consistently produced the most varied and strong reactions. The cultural background or ethnicity of the listeners has not seemed to matter. Why is this so?

Every human has parents. The power of a mother and father (present or not) in shaping the sense of being and life trajectory of a person is undeniable. While the role of a mother, among many other things, helps determine the foundation of whether someone feels lovable, nurtured and secure, fathers—more than any other role—possess the ability to shape identity and purpose (for good or for ill). Children carry the family name of their dads and longingly look to a father to show them who they really are, their personal value and why they’re in this particular family and even on this earth. To have a dad’s undivided attention, patient input, guidance and adoration is every kid’s dream.

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Choosing Love from a Father

I vividly remember the moment I became a dad. My daughter was a tiny thing, just over five pounds. Holding her, I couldn’t comprehend the strange feelings pulsing inside me. As I looked into her little face, I thought, “I don’t even know you, yet I’m sure I would die for you.”

That was my introduction to the emotions of being a father. I was surprised with the overwhelming affection I felt for this naked, helpless, yet demanding creature. It wasn’t long before another thought rocked my reality. If I, an imperfect human and dad, can feel this strongly about my child, then what does my Heavenly Father feel toward me? The thought brought tears. Can I be loved with such strong affection by a holy, all-powerful God? And just as I was getting lost in these reflections, something warm ran down my arm. My precious little girl had peed on me. But did that change how I felt about her? Not in the slightest!

The Unmoved Mover?

I enjoy theology. For me, it’s thinking about God, what He’s like, what His motivations and desires are and how we humans can possibly connect with Him. Unfortunately, some theological thought can lead people away from a relationship with God as they wander down paths that tarnish His character or drill into only one aspect of the infinite spectrum of His qualities. Thinkers of the past, like Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, have been referenced to make a case for God as a being who does not experience emotion. It’s called the doctrine of Divine Impassibility. The basic (extremely simplified) idea is that God doesn’t change (which I agree with). Emotions are so changeable (which I also agree with). Therefore, God doesn’t experience emotions (not sure I agree with that part).

The logic makes some sense, but there are some additional matters that need to be considered. While human emotions can have us happy one moment and depressed the next as we respond to circumstances or brain chemicals, God is different. Everything about Him is stable and righteous. Nevertheless, the Bible presents the Almighty at various times as delighted, grieved, joyful, regretful, angry and tender. It’s always in the context, however, of His righteous character interacting with the imperfect, unrighteous ones He loves—never merely out-of-control, knee-jerk impulses. His goodness and holiness are constant throughout the scriptures. We could say that His emotions do not control Him, but at various times they highlight what He values. Overall, it appears to me that God has feelings and that He is rightly moved by them.

A Father’s Heart

The New Testament carries a strong theme of God as our Father. Does that mean He has the feelings of a dad toward His kids? I think so.

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Choosing Straight Paths

I was on a 10-day camping trip in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It was part of my university’s leadership training. We were divided into teams one day with each group receiving a topographical map and a compass. After being shown a spot on the map we were to go, each team was released every 15 minutes to find their way. We would get our next meal when we arrived, and there was a prize awaiting the team with the best time.

An assertive personality immediately took charge in my group, claiming he had used a compass several times when he was a kid. He led us in a straight line across the terrain, northeast, toward our objective. We used the map to roughly calculate how close we were getting, but the compass kept us going in the right direction. We were making great time and congratulating each other that we were going to get the best food and might be setting a record for this exercise.

Then our leader suddenly stopped. To our shock and dismay, we came out of the woods and found ourselves on the edge of a high cliff, a sheer drop off of several hundred feet. Below, we could see where the teams that had left before us were now gathering. But there was no way to descend to them. Oh, how I wanted to be down there at that moment but couldn’t. We had to back track, go around a mountain, and ended up being the last group to arrive, humbly getting the last scraps of lunch. We were then shown how the topographical map held the clues that the path we were on wasn’t going to work. If only we had paid attention to all those tight lines that indicated a steep drop off straight ahead. But we were trusting in our limited knowledge of maps and compasses, not realizing till it was too late how little we really knew.

My Own Understanding

One of the early scripture passages I memorized as a child was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”

What is it that we are looking for when we seek out a path? Typically, we choose trails or roads according to where we believe they will take us. I know of no one who deliberately gets on a highway that goes in the opposite direction of the end goal. How many of us have gotten lost while confident and even certain that we’re taking the right way? We often get lost by reading, researching, or listening to directions wrongly, or following bad directions that we assume are good. That inner compass isn’t always as accurate as we feel it to be.

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Choosing Not to Hurt God’s Heart

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. He should know she does not belong to him. Afterall, that’s not how love is supposed to work.

Or is 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. He should know that he belongs to his wife, not her. That’s how marriage is supposed to work.

Is it really?  

Broken Covenant

Jealousy is unpleasant and rightfully condemned in relationships—that is, unless there have been binding vows exchanged. Somehow, a marriage commitment changes things. 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 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 much. 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 Fear God

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?

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