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 Real Worship

Some stories in the Bible have struck me as unfair, and at times I have found myself sympathizing with the “bad guy.” Take for example the parable of the three servants who received money from their master to invest while he was gone (Matthew 25:14-30). I can relate to the last servant who was given only one bag of money, compared to the other servants, with one receiving two and the other five. Of course he felt less important than the other two as well as unmotivated, feeling he could never be equal with them. And then the master treated the single-bag servant so harshly. In another version of the story, the master took the one bag of silver from the chastised servant and gave it to the one who already had 10 (Luke 19:11-27)! Unfair! Unfair!

I have, however, come to appreciate the lessons from this parable (like the consequences of comparing myself with others). Yet I’m still uncomfortable with how my natural sense of fairness is rarely affirmed in the Bible. It seems that God is more often interested in what goes on inside a person (the part others can’t see) than what is judged as right or wrong from outside observation. He sees and seeks to deal with a person at a heart level.

For No Apparent Reason

Another one that has bothered me over the years is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). The two brothers each brought gifts to the LORD as part of their worship. Cain was a farmer, and so he presented a sampling of his crops to God. Abel was a shepherd who brought a lamb. Makes sense so far. But then God responded by accepting Abel’s offering and rejecting Cain’s. Cain was angry and depressed about it. There’s no further explanation. No explicit commandment that was disobeyed. Cain became so ticked off at his younger brother that he killed him, the first murder. And while of course Cain’s response was evil, some have suggested that God provoked him. Why would God arbitrarily welcome one gift and accept another, especially when both were apparently brought as an act of worship? I have been tempted again to cry “unfair!”

I have determined that my starting point in digging deeper into questions like these must always be that God is good. I therefore presume there is more to the story than I’m seeing as an outside observer. Understanding what is going on here, however, is important because it is the first place in the Bible where worship (bringing gifts to God) is presented. And right from the beginning we’re being shown that there is worship that God accepts and there is worship that He does not accept. Knowing the difference and how God sees this could be important for a follower of Jesus.

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Choosing Effective Protection

Masks. How effective are they? The debate continues. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic various coverings have been introduced in the attempt to protect against spreading the dreaded virus. Face shields. N95 masks. Full-body hazmat suits. The latter two fall under the category generally known as PPE: personal protection equipment. The full outfit, worn mainly by frontline medical workers, is quite intimidating when put on, and from what I’ve been told, not very comfortable. Yet it provides people with a greater sense of security, and along the way has likely saved some lives. But, what is the best way for average people to protect themselves? The answer hinges on what an individual sees as the real danger. Depending on the threat, the right protective covering can make all the difference. And it is especially true when battling an unseen enemy.

There are other invisible dangers in this world besides parasitic microbes. Yes, a pandemic is scary when we’re not sure where or how we might be infected. But what about the infestation of “spiritual viruses” that have eternal consequences? Do we as Jesus followers take them as seriously as we do nefarious microorganisms? These non-material adversaries also threaten us daily but assault the soul. They leave people broken, confused and completely lost: lies that are believed; shame and guilt that never leave; doubts; pride; fears; loneliness; despair. We have a spiritual enemy that spreads all this and more.

The Apostle Paul laid out God’s provision for our protection against such insidious infections and attacks 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 are 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 Jesus followers still carry debilitating burdens. Much of the baggage is rooted in the disinformation we believe about ourselves, the world around us, and particularly the nature and character of God. The power of a lie is that it feels true, and we then organize our lives around it. And when we rely primarily on what feels right within to determine what is real without, 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 were supported by and 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 at any given moment. Am I cinching the truth of Jesus more tightly around me? It holds everything else up afterall.

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Choosing to Take Temptation Seriously

No matter how hard I try, why are some things so difficult to resist? Overeating? Harsh responses to those who correct me? Anxiety about the future? I know how I should respond, what I’m supposed to do, and what I ought to feel. But that rarely gives me what I need to actually do it and never provides what is necessary to truly feel it. No matter what they say, will power alone does not have what it takes to change me and keep me strong against all the types of temptation that push on me.

A 15th Century German-Dutch follower of Jesus named Thomas á Kempis wrote, “The beginning of all evil temptations is a mind not firmly fixed on its purpose…”* I have pondered what this means for quite a while now, and I think brother Thomas has something to teach us. The understanding of my purpose is rooted in the understanding of my identity. Who and what I believe myself to be forms the foundation for all that I do and why I do it. But to make it a bit more complex, it’s not just what I believe about my purpose and identity that is key. The essential point is that these beliefs are what motivate me and they, in turn, shape me. I act according to who and what I interpret myself to be. My identity informs all that I do. How I view myself and my purpose then becomes that which determines how I make all my life decisions.

What’s the Connection?

So, what might be the relationship between temptation and what I believe about myself and my purpose? I have come  to see that that which I most identify with makes up the integral part of the blueprint of the desires and feelings I submit to as well as those I resist. If I see myself fundamentally as someone suffering because of my environment and other people’s choices over which I have no control, I will find it difficult to resist the temptation to see myself as a victim. And I will more easily submit to resentment and bitterness, feeling stuck, like I have no other choice.

If, however, I understand myself primarily as one who is loved and valued, I can see more options when I make decisions. My purpose can more easily come into focus by believing there are those who believe in me. What I root my identity in and draw my sense of purpose from contribute greatly to whether or not I am emotionally stable. Purpose and identity are shaped by these mindsets that have captured my allegiance.

The Key to Resisting

Temptation then, particularly what brother Thomas calls “evil temptations,” gets a head start within the mind that is not fixed on its true purpose. And he is speaking here, of course, of the purpose that flows out of what God says about an individual who has embraced His Son, Jesus.

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Choosing Gentleness

My desire as a boy was to be strong. I was verbally and physically picked on in elementary school. The longing to demonstrate my strength led to a few fights and endless daydreaming of what that day would feel like when I could show the bullies what I had inside me. And there were also the models of “manliness” I was exposed to. Athletic coaches were the most influential. They taught me that to get ahead in sports and in the world, I needed to push harder, and do whatever necessary to be better than the person in front of me. Success would come to those who could overpower the next guy. My cumulative adolescent understanding was that strength was proportional to aggression and determination to subdue anyone who stood in my way. But my feelings of weakness always seemed to be the most powerful things within me. And as a result, I never could sustain any personal campaign of viewing myself as a conqueror.

And then there was Jesus. I prayed to surrender my life to Him when I was a boy. But as I read the Bible stories, I couldn’t escape the feeling that He, as my model, was just as weak as me. Pretty disheartening for a kid trying to figure out the secret of vanquishing abusers and proving to everyone, especially myself, that I wasn’t weak. Jesus, afterall, let Himself be bullied and  eventually gave Himself up to be killed on a cross. What hope was there for me?

Quiet Strength

I was several years into adulthood before a new perspective began to take shape in my mind. I noticed in certain people what I came to refer to as “quiet strength.” They didn’t flash muscles or aggressive attitudes. But there was an unmistakable solidness in their convictions, purpose, and courage. There were even the ones who were so secure in their inner firmness that they could prefer and let others get ahead of them without coming across as weak and inferior. How could that be?

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Choosing What I Love

The word ‘love’ in English is quite pliable. I can say that I love my wife and I love pizza, and most people will not accuse me of reducing my spouse to a mere piece of pepperoni nor seeking to marry an Italian meal. The word can refer to a need (a plant “loves” water) or enthusiasm for a particular thing or activity (my son “loves” the Vikings). It can also describe a profoundly tender affection for another (I love my children). In addition, it can reference almost every positive feeling between the two extremes. This flexibility, however, can sometimes lull us into not thinking about what we mean when we use the word. For a follower of Jesus, care in what we say we love and particularly in what we actually do love has important theological, and eternal, implications.

When I talk about the concept of love with others, I like to point out that it is much more than a feeling. It’s a choice. Most people agree in theory but then get a bit uncomfortable when we examine how we actually apply the term. When we use phrases like “falling in love,” or “falling out of love” there’s no getting around the idea that we’re talking about an emotion that can be there one moment and gone another. Such usage leaves the impression that we are helpless victims to this thing we call love. So much of today’s relationships, romantic and otherwise, are centered on what we feel about a person at any given moment, which is in constant flux. And that stirs some deep insecurity in relationships, not to mention the cynicism associated with the word love.

A More Durable Understanding

The biblical presentation of love, however, talks about something more reliable than good and affectionate feelings. How else should we interpret Jesus’ command to “love one another” (John 15:12)? He tells His followers to do it, no qualifications or exceptions. Most people realize that feelings cannot be commanded to come or go. Instead, feelings tend to follow our choices and what we focus our attention on. The love Jesus is talking about, therefore, is something we choose to do. It’s a matter of obeying Him.

A definition I find helpful for this understanding of love is choosing to give the highest good to another. It’s what God does for us and what he tells us to do for others. Sometimes the words that carry the meaning of love the best are I still choose you.

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Choosing Intimacy

Most of my life growing up, I often felt misunderstood. I tried to relate to those around me by being who I thought they wanted me to be. But it felt like few, if any, ever saw the real me and said, “I like that person.” That took its toll, and I easily withdrew within myself. I became, at best, a private person. I longed for a friend that would accept me for who I was, yet neither did I ever allow the real me, with all my fears, insecurities, and sin to be seen. I built protective walls of shyness to keep the anticipated pain of rejection manageable and as far away as possible. But something within always ached for a connection with another that would provide a reason to open the door of my heart and truly be seen and known.

As a teen, I realized the name of the quality I hungered for was intimacy. Marriage, I then presumed, would satisfy this yearning. A sexual relationship, afterall, is the epitome of closeness and connection. And though it initially seemed to do the trick, I eventually came to an unexpected realization: a person can be married, sleep in the same bed with someone and still feel lonely and disconnected at times.

A Universal Desire

I, like so many, have longed for intimacy in my relationships but have found it elusive. There are moments when it seems to be within my grasp, conversations or activities with a friend or with my wife where the bond feels almost other-worldly. It’s as if we can see into each other’s soul. Yet it doesn’t last, fading with distance and time. I want to believe, however, that those moments are glimpses of what can be mine continuously, forever. But how?

And then there’s my relationship with God.

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Choosing the Long Way

There’s something gratifying about finding a way to make a long journey shorter. I look to my GPS for help these days. But even as a kid, shortcuts were always appreciated. When I was 12, my friends showed me a quicker way to the store where we could buy candy. It happened to go through a stranger’s backyard and across his patio. I used it many times until an angry man stuck his head out a window and yelled at me, threatening to call the cops. Shortcuts may get me where I want to be sooner, but they can create unforeseen problems as well. Seeking the quicker and easier way can become a mindset and habit that infects all my decision making.

The temptation to reach goals faster, cut corners or bypass steps in a process shows up in a multitude of situations. Businesses consider it by offering lower-quality products. Builders face it when trying to increase their profit margin. Students have to make a choice when they discover a way to cheat on a test and get the ‘A’ with no studying. I fall into it when I’m assembling IKEA furniture and don’t want to take time to read the instructions. Shortcuts offer a more direct path to an objective and the feeling that I have escaped unnecessary suffering or drudgery. But at what hidden cost?

The Easier Path

Jesus was offered a shortcut. It was His third temptation in the desert (for thoughts on the first and second, read Choosing to Not Take the Bait and Choosing to Not Test God). We’re told in Matthew 4:8-11 that the devil took Him to a high mountain where they saw all the kingdoms of the world and said he would give them to Jesus if He would only kneel before Satan. Of course Jesus resisted and told the devil to leave, reminding him that the scriptures instruct us to worship and serve God only. While it’s no surprise that He didn’t give in to Satan, I have wondered what was so attractive about the Evil One’s offer. What could possibly tempt Jesus to bow down to the devil?

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Choosing Peace

I once read an article by an atheist describing the serenity he felt as he overlooked a beautiful valley while drinking a cup of coffee. The point he was trying to make was that Christians do not have a monopoly on peace. He was irritated with the claim that religion is somehow necessary for a person to have a sense of tranquility. His way of refuting this was to recount the many times he had experienced an internal quiet and harmony with others without any acknowledgement of the divine. His conclusion was that a belief in God is not necessary to feel peacefully calm. And after reading all that he had to say, I had to agree with him. But is there more to it than what he was experiencing?

Jesus followers often talk about the peace that comes over us after surrendering our lives to Him. It’s often part of what we felt was missing in our lives. And it makes sense. Afterall, Jesus the Messiah is called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6); one of the fruits of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22): and peacemakers will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9). But what exactly is this quality that is promised all throughout the Bible?

Shalom

The biblical Hebrew word is still used by many modern Israelis as a greeting. Its general sense is that of holistic goodness. The Old Testament presents shalom as a multidimensional quality that includes physical, psychological, social, and spiritual wellbeing. God’s shalom thus adds up to an overall sense of inner security for the person who experiences it, which imparts many benefits. One example is stated in Psalm 4:8. “In peace [shalom] I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (ESV). Biblical peace appears to be something that is not created by the individual but comes from God. It also appears that trusting Him is what activates His shalom in our lives.

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Choosing to Open the Door

In the movies it always looked so easy and nonconsequential. As a kid, I watched shows where chairs got busted over heads in barroom fights with the recipient merely staggering a few paces before flinging his opponent through a wooden railing. And then there were the scenes where a medium-built man with a single blow from his leg kicked a front door wide open. And he never walked with a limp afterwards or stopped to rub the jolted knee or hip joint. Power. It all seemed impressively real until the day I picked up a chair in anger to throw at my brother. Besides being too heavy (fortunately) to lift high enough to toss, I was instantly sobered up with the realization that if the chair did break apart on his head, it would likely kill him.  I didn’t even have to experiment with kicking a door to realize that it would take someone with a lot more strength than me to pop a solid oak barrier off its hinges with one swing of the leg.

And yet there is someone with “door-busting” abilities that we should all take notice of.

Jesus began His earthly ministry kicking down obstacles that were raised against Him and His purposes. He ordered demonic interference to be silent and flee. He commanded stormy waters to be calm, unfruitful trees to wither, diseases to leave human bodies, and corpses to come back to life. Nobody had ever displayed such power over nature, physical ailments, spiritual darkness, and death. Nothing seemed to be able to stand in His way. He was truly the archetype man of the movies I pictured as a kid who could not be stopped, no matter what was thrown at Him, no matter the barrier in front of Him. Nothing resisted His will . . . except for one thing.

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Choosing to Recognize My Own Sin

I remember the first time I stole something. I was six or seven years old, and I walked out of a store with a candy bar in my pocket. When I didn’t get caught and nothing bad happened, I was surprised. As a child I then decided it wasn’t really wrong to take something from someone when you wanted it more than they did. A few years later, however, when my bike was stolen I changed my mind. There was something messed up about the world when people could actually steal from me.

I was on to something. Every philosophy and religion recognize there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. Most, however, disagree on what the fundamental problem is. What exactly is the root of human dysfunction? It’s all around us. Even a child can see there’s something wrong with the way things work.

The word “sin” carries varying definitions and innuendo depending on who uses it. To some, it might mean socially unacceptable behavior, while to others it could be nothing more than a mistake or a weakness. Still others see it as a silly or overly-restrictive, outdated concept that shouldn’t be taken seriously; after all, we have evolved beyond the need for such primitive explanations of the human situation. And then there are those who only see the wrong doing in others, never in themselves.

There is a growing group of people who choose to see sin as having nothing to do with morality but rather understand it to describe an ontological problem: physicality is what’s wrong with the world. If we could find a way to shed our corporeal entanglements and escape to a more pure spiritual state of being, then we would experience “salvation”. Sin or evil, in this way of thinking, is nothing more than being stuck in a material world. 

But, how do these varying perspectives account for a world that so easily justifies stealing candy bars and bicycles and much, much worse?

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