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 Put My Hope in Something Worthy

The governor of Minnesota recently announced that the number of COVID-19 cases will most likely peak in our state at the end of June. Some are forecasting that it could take 18 months to get through this. And then when I add in the economic gloom for who-knows-how-long, as well as news that some people I know have contracted the virus, I feel depression knocking at my door. This isn’t going to be a sprint, and I can’t see how it’s going to end.

“Hope” is a nice word for such a time we’re in now. But how does that word play out in this season of the coronavirus? How do we find real hope when most the news coming at us feels dark with no reliable light at the end of the tunnel?

What Does It Actually Mean?

An online dictionary defines hope as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” While this is how most people generally think of hope, I have a problem with this definition. It reduces hope to a mere feeling. And if I’ve learned anything about feelings, it’s that they’re unreliable and rarely stick around. For such a time as this, I need something that works apart from my emotions and that I can rely on regardless what I’m feeling as I scan the news.

I prefer to understand hope as the belief that there is good in the future. Beliefs can be felt at times, but they aren’t dependent on feelings. To believe that there is something ahead that can give me a kind of goodness that will make my present pain and confusion melt away gives me strength to endure today. Hope is more than wishing for something to be true. It’s the confidence that the way things are now is not the way they’re going to remain.

Not Everything is Worthy

My definition, however, requires hope to be rooted in something that can deliver the goods. Sometimes hope is put in things that do not have the capacity to produce what I am truly desiring. “I hope I can make more money and finally find peace.” Or “I hope I can find a ‘significant other’ and finally feel secure.” And even, “I hope a certain person gets elected as president so I can finally feel good that my country’s problems are going to improve.” None of these, though they involve significant issues that impact my life, are worthy of my hope. They can’t deliver the bottom line of what my heart is longing for. Unfortunately, many of us have built our lives on false hopes. We believe that if this particular thing will change or can be added, then I will be able to have a better life. Yet, even if on the surface we get what we want, sooner or later it always seems to feel empty again.

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Choosing to Do My Part

I was recently asked, “Why are people who are being prayed for still getting sick and even dying?” With the COVID-19 pandemic hammering people’s sense of control of their lives, many are giving prayer a try. But what if it doesn’t work? What if I still become ill or a person I care for dies? For some, this global health crisis is putting God and prayer on trial. “If asking for the ‘Big Guy’s’ help doesn’t change anything, then I’ll just have to depend on my own abilities to protect myself and my family. And I’ll know not to count on Him.”

Unanswered prayer has been a challenge for believers for as long as there has been prayers prayed. For many, the lack of hoped-for results from their prayers indicates either God doesn’t exist, He doesn’t really care, or He just doesn’t have the ability to change anything about their problems. In many people’s minds unanswered prayer equals God is irrelevant. Yet, I believe there are other ways to understand how prayer works and what goes on in the spiritual realm.

We’re told that effective prayer requires faith (Matthew 21:22, James 5:15). We’re also told that in the spiritual realm, faith is a shield that extinguishes the fiery darts of the devil (Ephesians 6:16). Thus, I understand that faith-filled prayers can form a shield or wall that provides covering and protection in times of distress and danger. But here’s the important part: prayer is not meant to be merely an individualistic endeavor. In other words, I should not view my personal faith-filled prayer as the only thing that’s covering me. A community of shields being lifted creates a larger canopy over myself, my family, my community, my nation and the world. Our prayers are meant to intertwine and form something bigger than what I alone can produce.

Defensive Measures

In ancient warfare, soldiers typically overlapped or interlocked their shields to form a protective wall in battle. From the Greek hoplite and Roman legionary to the soldiers of Medieval armies, forming shield walls was standard practice when engaging an enemy. An individual was dependent on the overlapping shields of his fellow fighters to protect his vulnerable blind side. He in turn shielded the exposed side of the soldier next to him. I imagine such a covering could have been one of the things the Apostle Paul had in mind as he described the full armor of God in Ephesians 6.

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Choosing To Not Test God

“He will order His angels to protect you.” These words from Psalm 91 are a great comfort for many people right now. It says in verse 6, “Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday” (NLT). What a reminder that COVID-19 is not outside God’s jurisdiction. And the  promises here are meant to stir up our confidence in our Heavenly Father’s love and power today in the same way this Psalm encouraged the original hearers nearly 3,000 years ago.

But interestingly enough, this Psalm has also been used as a tool of temptation. We’re told in Matthew 4 that when Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan quoted scripture at Him. It was the second of three temptations (read post, Choosing to Not Take the Bait). The devil took Jesus to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple and dared Him to take a leap. “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone’ ” (Matthew 4:6 NLT).Sounds reasonable to me as a way to prove He’s the Son of God. But Jesus did not give in to Satan’s use of this Psalm. He responded: “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the LORD your God’ ” (Matthew 4:7 NLT).

Testing God?

What is that supposed to mean? I personally have never felt the slightest temptation to throw myself off any tall edifice to see if an angel would catch me. Curious? Maybe. Temptation? Definitely not. So, how am I to relate this incident to my own life? Is it testing God when I stupidly get myself into a dangerous situation and expect Him to snap His fingers and get me out?

No. I think there’s much more to it.

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Choosing to Love, John 3:16 Style

I first wrote the words “I love you” in a note to a girl whenI was in the 5th grade. It felt good. And the feeling was evenbetter when I received a note back with the same words. A core belief tookshape in me. From that point on, I understood love as something that was meantto make me feel good. Of course, my 5th-grade love affair didn’tlast long (I was too shy to actually talk to her). But the impression that loveis defined by how another person makes me feel, stuck.

And then I encountered God.

Believing in His unconditional love felt good too. But He askedme to love others in the same way—even those I don’t like. How was thatpossible? If I didn’t have “the feeling,” how was I to love them?

Later in life, I remember reading through the book ofIsaiah, grimacing over the descriptions of God’s loathing of sin and what ithas done to His creation. Where was His love in all this? No good feelingshere. It felt as though divine frustration was ready to destroy everything! Butthen the words of John 3:16 pushed into my mind. And I was struck with theawareness that even with God’s hatred of evil He longs to find ways to expressHis love and affection for those He has created. The familiar Bible verse declaresGod’s love to be an action, not a feeling! It shows how far His love is willingto go to deal with the sin problem.

But how does this change how I love?

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Choosing to Not Take the Bait

In every house I’ve lived, sooner or later, we have to deal with pests. We’ve battled everything from snakes to bats, all looking to make a home with us. But of course, the most common little pest has been the mouse. Unfortunately for him, but thankfully for us, its downfall is always its palate. I can drop a tidbit of something savory onto a trap and be guaranteed to seduce and eliminate any rodent within sniffing distance. What dumb little critters they are that let the growling in their stomachs obliterate their ability to discern their impending destruction.

But stupidity moves up the predatory chain as well. Depending on what my mind, emotions or body is craving, I easily ignore or minimize the potential consequences of my choices. It’s called temptation. And its allure defies my rational thought and spiritual values. My feelings don’t actually catch up with what’s truly at stake until I taste the bait and experience the pain of the sprung trap. And even then, if I don’t always learn my lesson.

In case you’re not sure where temptation leads, the Bible is clear: “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15 NLT). Yikes! It’s the starting point of a very nasty ending and nothing to mess around with—if I’ll take it to heart. For a Jesus follower, it’s vital to recognize what tempts me to disobey God and wisely install defenses against such deadly enticements. 

Fight It!

Jesus urged His followers to take radical preventative steps, saying we should identify the sources of our temptations and sin and gouge them out or slice them off (Matthew 5:29-30). He metaphorically speaks of our eyes and our hands as being the causes, but of course we all know that our physical body parts are not where temptations begin. They take root somewhere deep within, among our insecurities and fears and they only use our body parts to accomplish their purpose—our destruction. Jesus says don’t coddle any of it. Find their points of supply and their triggers and cut them off.

To make matters even more difficult, we have a spiritual enemy who uses temptation quite skillfully to accomplish his goals. Satan is also known as the Tempter. He has observed our habits and weaknesses enough to know exactly where each of us are vulnerable. His suggestions and urgings always promise relief, comfort and a way out of difficult situations but at the cost of compromising or breaking covenant and fellowship with God. We are instructed to resist him (read post on Choosing to Be a Fighter). But how?

Jesus, Our Example

Temptation is so common for all people, it’s considered part of the human condition. The Bible tells us that although Jesus was God in human flesh, He was still tempted in every way. And yet He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). This is good news! It tells us that just because we experience temptation does not necessarily mean we have sinned (read post on “the Problem”). It most certainly means each of us are human. But Jesus provides guidance for how a human who is committed to honor and love God is to respond when tempted.

The Bible tells us that the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). After not eating for 40 days, Satan said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” What’s so bad about that? What was the real temptation here? I don’t think we’re being told that it’s wrong to eat when we’re hungry. Jesus’ response, however, gives a clue. His comeback is, “No, the scriptures say, ‘people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” He was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 from the Old Testament.

Jesus recognized what Satan was trying to do. It was His submission to the Spirit of God that had led Him into the wilderness and into a time of fasting. The enemy, on the other hand, was enticing Jesus to draw His strength, energy and purpose from physical stuff He could control rather than from relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Jesus was offered immediate relief and satisfaction in His physical body along with personal assurance that He was the powerful Son of God by performing a simple trick. Instead, Jesus chose the longer route to comfort and relief by reminding Satan and Himself where His true, long-term strength came from—obedience to and fellowship with the Father.

What does this mean for us?

Temptations of the flesh can be so alluring. They urge us to prioritize the fulfillment of our mental, emotional and physical desires and needs over what God has already told us (read post on Gluttony). The pathway to satisfaction looks so clear in the moment of temptation. Yes, I will have to minimize or completely ignore some of the things God has spoken to me, but surely He too wants me to find relief in this situation. God will understand.

Such temptations exalt our personal feelings and perspective as the final judge of what’s good for us, above the word of God already given. Jesus cut right to the heart of it: my nourishment for life comes from what God says to me, he proclaimed with His actions. We must meditate on and nourish our souls with what He shows us here so we can be ready when Satan or even our own desires seek to ensnare us.

The trap can be baited with the promise of comfort, security, excitement, enriched ego or feeling more alive. And it may take the form of food, entertainment, porn, self-pity, approval from others, workaholism or any other indulgence that offers relief and satisfaction apart from God’s word. But the end is always the same. We accept the enticement, and sooner or later the triple hammer of guilt,  shame and confusion pin us to the ground.

But fleshly temptations need not always defeat a follower of Jesus. It depends on how badly you want to overcome them. If you’re ready to cut off the sources of temptation or invite a new level of accountability into your life, things can change. Temptation does not have to automatically equal defeat. You don’t have to take the bait. Jesus wants to show you how.

In the next two posts, we’ll look at what we can learn from the other two temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness.

Response:

  • To which temptations of the flesh am I most vulnerable? Stimulation of my body? Stimulation of my emotions? Or, stimulation of my mind? Where do I end up when I give in to them?
  • Jesus quoted scripture when He was tempted. How prepared am I to fight temptation the way He did? What do I need to do to better arm myself?
  • Who can I let into my life that can provide accountability for how I respond to fleshly temptations?
  • How much do I really believe God to be my source of comfort and satisfaction? What can I do to begin to get these needs met from Him?
  • Jesus, how do you want to meet the deep desires of my heart?

Choosing to Be a Fighter

Though I could be quiet and reserved as a child, I wasn’t passive. I got into quite a few fights—the kind that involved punching, slapping, kicking and bloody noses. Before you form a mental picture of me as a delinquent or hooligan, I can honestly say all the incidents were me against a bully and usually on behalf of another, typically smaller, person. I even hit a girl one time (not all bullies are males). And I didn’t always come out on the winning side.

I now look back and like to think of myself more as a resister. I didn’t, and I still don’t, like to see people get pushed around by oppressors and tormentors.

The Bible tells us to resist the devil and he will flee from us (James 4:7). Whether you think about having an invisible enemy who bullies you or not, the scriptures have a lot to say about such a being. And we are instructed in more than one place to resist, stand against and wrestle the spiritual forces that are harassing, confusing and oppressing us. The Bible does not call us to be passive when it comes to spiritual opposition. It does, however, instruct us to know who our enemy is and who it is not. We are not to wrestle “flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). How often I forget that people are not the ones I’m fighting, but my struggle is against evil spirits of the unseen world that seek to twist and destroy my world. Through Jesus I have been given the authority to stand against all that is thrown at me (Ephesians 6:11, Colossians 2:14-15).

But I have to continually remind myself that I must choose the attitude of a fighter. This does not mean I am belligerent and testy with anyone, for no person or group of people are my real enemies. But it means I am alert and never surprised when I experience opposition, conflict, strife, contention, animosity, disputes, hostility, hassles—you get the idea.

Though clashes may come through other people or even my own thoughts, it is the invisible enemy behind others’ behavior and attitudes or the voices in my head that I must learn to resist. As a follower of Jesus, I can expect attacks and challenges in specific areas of my life because the enemy knows well the strategic points that my life and purpose in Jesus rest upon. If he can intimidate me to back down in these crucial areas of my life, he wins. By identifying them and readying my mind and heart for battle, I can have the advantage of not being caught off guard when forces of darkness strike.

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Choosing to REALLY Change

I’m growing—particularly around my gut.

As I get older, I find myself fantasizing about coming up with a plan to return to my 18-year-old body, back when I felt no need to think about what or how much I ate. And it was more pleasant to look at, too. Of course, that has remained merely a dream. For me to get back even to what I weighed when I was a high-school student would take some major changes in my habits and lifestyle and perhaps my DNA. The problem is, I would like the fruit of the change, but I don’t want to—at least not badly enough—make the necessary changes.

This dilemma stretches into my spiritual life as well. The more I learn about the behaviors and attitudes that draw me away from God (see posts on the 7 Deadly Sins: Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth), the more I like the idea of being rid of them. Afterall, life for a Jesus follower—or anyone, for that matter—is better without habitual sin (read my post on the “problem”). But, how to begin to make those changes? That’s a trick, if I truly want to learn it, that can be applied to every part of my life.

Changing Our Minds

It’s actually not a trick. It’s described in the Bible with a mundane word that is not in fashion too much today. Repent. It literally means to “think again,” or “to change the way one thinks.” It’s sprinkled all throughout the scriptures. And it’s usually associated with the process of dealing with sin in a person’s, or group of people’s, life (Ezekiel 18:30; Acts 2:37-38). Jesus used this word when He began His ministry. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). What was He intending the listeners to do? Well . . . to change their thinking patterns, particularly their ideas about the Kingdom of God and what His expectations were for them.

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Choosing to Admit I Can’t See

I have worked with some people over the years with serious pride issues. Surely you know the type I’m talking about. They see and hear only what they want and leave room for little to no outside input into their work, their projects, their relationships or their lives. They’re blind to everything outside themselves.

I remember one of my very first jobs working as a government employee. My immediate manager was tasked with training me to take over her job before she retired—that was the position I had applied for and what I was hired to do. The problem was, however, that she personally felt (I found out later) that I was being given this position at too young of an age. Afterall, she had had to work her way up over the years through the ranks having started as a janitor. I was a punk kid fresh out of college. So she stalled. I was given meaningless tasks for months but never trained to do any of her job. Many a night I fumed at home over this woman’s arrogance that she thought her personal assessment of me and the situation trumped what I had been hired to do. She was blind to my needs, my abilities, my ambitions and not least of all, our supervisor’s instructions. And I was being abused in the process. But of course, she thought she knew better. So I quit.

Ouch!

After recalling this little piece of my history, I’m reminded (uncomfortably so) that people who are walking in pride typically are very sensitive to and angered by the pride they see in others. They rarely, however, see it in themselves. That doesn’t reflect well on me.

Pride has traditionally been recognized to sit enthroned at the top of the Seven Deadly Sins.* Just as countless other sins have been understood to flow from the Seven (pride, lust, sloth, gluttony, greed, envy and anger), the other six have been recognized to flow from pride. It’s the headwaters, the source. Every sin humans commit is tainted with pride. It’s even been called the “original” sin. But of course, most of us, including myself, don’t see pride as our issue. It’s those other people that need to learn some humility. Right?

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Choosing to Separate Lust from My Identity

Jesus said it quite bluntly: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV). And for the past 2,000 years it has been listed as one of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins.*

Lust.

What is it exactly? And is it as bad as its membership in the infamous club of seven vices suggests?

The most basic meaning of the word “lust” is desire, an overpowering longing. It’s something that stews inside me before any kind of outward behavior is displayed. It’s a feeling that is so strong that it often convinces me it’s completely natural and an integral part of who I am. It gets mixed up with my identity and therefore sometimes is justified and defended as simply the way God made me and therefore something I can’t help. I therefore feel justified in exploring it and at times celebrating it.

But, as Jesus implies and many passages in the Bible show, it is a doorway-sin that takes me away from how God designed me to live. It also disrupts how I relate to God and others. And it all starts with the interplay of my mind and emotions. My thoughts and feelings work together to create a world within in which my desires and their fulfillment is king. Lust is a sin because it seeks to dethrone Jesus from the center of my heart.

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Choosing to Live in Two Realms

A few days ago, I returned from a three-week outreach trip in a tropical island nation. I witnessed God at work in some very exciting ways, opportunities to pray with individuals, physical healings and transformed communities. It all filled me with renewed hope that He is very active in the world and His kingdom is here and expanding!

But, being just south of the equator, I also sweated more than I ever have in my life. In addition, I slept on some very hard floors. The combination of heat, high humidity, body odor that comes with such conditions as well as unmaintained outhouses and bathing in rivers smothered my Minnesota-trained senses. There were many less-than spiritual experiences. Without air conditioner, electric fan, running water or a soft mattress I found myself constantly focusing on my physical discomfort. It screamed at me for attention! And it took great effort to stay tuned-in to what God was doing and saying.

Oh how easy it is to dwell on surface-level feelings and perspectives as opposed to the eternal, non-perishable qualities of life. God was touching people’s lives around me, and I was day-dreaming about Coca Cola and ice cubes.

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