“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.
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.
“I just want to feel good.” This is the mantra I’ve heard from many people over the years who are trying to figure out their existence. Confusion, discomfort, boredom. They’re looking for something that makes life feel better—worth living, that takes away the discomfort or at least distracts from it.
Yes, I can somewhat relate. I put food into my body that isn’t healthy—even when I’m not hungry. I watch stupid movies or series that I forget (or wish I could) as soon as they’re over. I randomly scroll through the internet looking for articles or sites that merely pique my curiosity but have no real substance. I hungrily check my social media posts to see how many “likes” they got. I thirst for affirming interaction with those who will agree with my thoughts and views. And I yearn to discover a trendy cause that I can get passionate about. I even take ibuprofen more often than I should.
I too want to feel alive, happy, active, filled, pain-free, and stimulated. That’s what the voices around me say is the essence of life, afterall.
What is it, really?
There’s this word we don’t use much anymore. Gluttony. It’s another one of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins.* I have simply understood it to mean overeating—which at times has confused me as to why stuffing my body with food is listed as one of the Big Seven. Overeating may contribute to obesity and heart disease, but calling it a cardinal sin with deep spiritual ramifications? That doesn’t make much sense to me.
Yet like all sin, there’s usually more to it than what my cultural environment has allowed me to absorb.
A definition for gluttony that probes beyond merely “eating and drinking excessively” could be “an unrestrained pursuit of pleasurable sensations.” Or, “good feelings as my guide and reason for living.”
Another way of thinking about it is to ask myself what are the sensations I’m trying to avoid? Hunger? Thirst? An unstimulated body, mind or imagination? The feeling that there’s no meaning in what I’m doing or in my life at all for that matter. All these create an uncomfortable emptiness. Gluttony pushes me to overindulge, in almost anything, in pursuit of that elusive state of “feeling good”—filling myself with other feelings in order to overwhelm those I don’t like.
So, what is your preferred pill for the aches and hollowness of your body and soul?Read More
My stomach muscles tightened as I sat in the YWAM class and admitted to myself that I hated those kids. Before we joined Youth With A Mission (YWAM), I had taught English to middle schoolers at a California inner-city school. My first three years were plagued by 13-and-14-year-old monsters determined to make them my last. Carefully crafted lesson plans were daily sabotaged with rudeness, crudeness, and immature antics that targeted my insecurities. I didn’t know how to handle it, and the anger and stress within reached new heights. So, when the YWAM teacher asked who I had not yet forgiven, guess who popped into my mind? Ugh! Do I really need to forgive them? It’s in the past. I’m a nice guy. I don’t hate anybody. . . Do I?
What Is It Exactly?
Even “nice” people hold on to offenses and keep them for a lifetime. Acts of betrayal, abuse, violence all the way down to disappointments and unmet expectations feel as if they’re wrapped in Velcro. Actually, it’s not that they stick to us but that we grip them so tightly. It’s as if we think we can strangle the hurt if we just hold on long enough. Bad news: IT DOESN’T WORK! The longer I cling to any level of offense, the more it becomes a part of me, even seeping into my identity as it plants its poison. And the long-term results are not pretty.
To forgive, simply put, is to let go. I don’t release my offense against others necessarily for their benefit. It’s so I can be free. For me to be able to hear God clearly (read Choosing to Hear God on His Terms), love others and experience God’s forgiveness for all the stuff I’ve done, I must choose to let go!Read More
As far back as I can remember, I have largely interpreted life, my value, and my impressions of those around me through the words I hear. What I have taken in through my ears has lodged deep into my soul. Countless words have cut like a knife, leaving me struggling for air, while many others have wrapped around me like a warm blanket on a wintry day, imparting strength to keep going. And still others, for better or worse, have quietly shaped my perceptions and understanding of the world. Some carry the breath of life. Others work to strangle or crush it. They’re more than just physical sound waves pounding on my eardrums. They carry something invisible and other-worldly with a potency that can rearrange a person’s insides for good or for bad.
Their force, I believe, is rooted in their origin. The Bible tells us that the Almighty Creator brought into physical existence that which was in His mind by speaking. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). In that same chapter, we’re also told that God created man and woman in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). While bearing His image holds many theological implications, one of them seems to be that we possess abilities patterned, to a lesser degree, after our Creator. Humans can take something they have imagined in their minds and bring it into existence through creative labor. Every invention (like the lightbulb), every work of craftsmanship (like a mahogany table), and every organizational system (like government agencies) started at one time as an idea in someone’s head. Like the One who made us, we all are creators at some level . . . for good or for bad.
What are we calling into being?
Words are the most basic creative element we possess. They start as ideas in our heads, or even in our spirits, and as we choose to speak or write them, they can transform into forces that impact everyone around us. I was taught a phrase when I was young that I now believe to be completely untrue: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” It would be nice if words with ill intent would just bounce off like rain on an umbrella. But typically, they don’t. There have been moments in my life when I would have much rather endured a physical injury than bear the cutting trauma of being ridiculed, accused, discounted, or belittled by what someone said. The pain a person’s tongue inflicts can leave a soul battered and feeling as if it’s dying.Read More
The Sahara can be a lonely and disheartening place. I’ve been to this seemingly endless North African sandbox several times. Its beauty, overshadowed by the harshness and potential for disaster, was often not seen till after I returned home and reviewed my photos. On one trip, I hunkered down in a house with my team, riding out a sandstorm in which the air remained a foggy dark brown with little visibility for almost three weeks. During another, I nearly froze under the stars in my sleeping bag in the sand, anxious about getting trampled by a group of nearby camels. But the most disheartening experience was running out of gas along a barren stretch of road, miles from any village. We never saw another car. Our vehicle had a second fuel reservoir, but the mechanism used to switch the intake between the two tanks wasn’t working. In the end, I had to suck on a siphoning tube to manually move gasoline from the full one to the empty one. What a relief when the car finally started again.
And yet occasionally I have had the eyes to see some profoundly beautiful things in this grim and desolate place. Green spots can suddenly appear while driving through the sea of brown rock and sand. An oasis is an exquisite sight in the desert. Jesus followers who somehow persevere in the midst of threats and persecution can unexpectedly show up at your door. What a humbling experience to interact with a believer who truly understands the cost of following our Lord. And, in my mind, the symbol that best represents hope in this seemingly lifeless and uninhabitable land is the date palm. It thrives in desolately arid regions and produces some of the sweetest fruit I’ve ever tasted. We gorged ourselves on this desert candy while camping beside a cool pool of water in an oasis. It was a very exotic experience.
Life in the Wilderness
Sometimes, followers of Jesus feel as if we have been led into a desert with no oasis in sight. It’s difficult to imagine beauty or opportunities for nourishment in harsh, dry and dusty places. The goal is usually just to find a way to get through as quickly and as painlessly as possible. And yet many followers of Jesus talk of the “dry seasons” of their faith. They wonder where God has gone, what’s up with not being able to hear His voice like they could in the past, and why serving Him feels so much harder than it use to. Desert experiences are not fun. What kind of good can they possibly provide?Read More
A college philosophy class many years ago pushed me to think about what the word “good” means. I used the word all the time. In fact, everyone around me used it continuously to describe things they liked or approved of. But what did we mean by it? And, did the way we use it do the word justice? Other than coming up with other words or phrases that described what we meant such as “nice,” “high quality,” “moral,” “virtuous,” “acceptable behavior,” I don’t remember arriving at a satisfying definition. And the professor didn’t really help much. His smile gave the impression that he never intended us to find closure on the topic. Frustrating. But, it was just a class assignment and one of many hoops to jump through to get my degree. In the end, I took a “B” and forgot about it, like most all my general-ed classes.
Years later, as I pondered the biblical passage that lists the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), the old question came back. What is goodness? We’re told that it is evidence that the Holy Spirit is dwelling within. So, how do I determine if it’s there, or not? Is our human understanding of goodness the same as God’s? And if not, what makes something or someone good in His eyes?
I still don’t feel qualified to answer that question. The older I get, I see that I know less than I thought I did back in my college days. All I can do is share some of the thoughts I have accrued over the years. But even though I’m hesitant to provide a definitive explanation of “goodness”, I know with certainty that I desire the Spirit of God to make a home in me. So, I want to at least get a little closer to recognizing what such an indwelling might look like. Can the Holy Spirit make me truly good?Read More
I am known in my family as the one who doesn’t enjoy games, particularly the ones that involve boards, cards, or video controllers. Few of them have ever really held my interest. My mind typically wanders and I end up not getting the concept. Ultimately I don’t do well (translated: I lose). It’s rarely fun, and so I usually make excuses for not playing (like, needing to read a book, or something).
Another reason for not liking them is that I’ve had the rules of games changed on me, right in the middle of playing. I remember my brother doing this more than once when we were kids. He was the gamer who would teach me something new, and then right as I thought I had it figured out and was close to winning, he would inform me of a rule he had failed to mention before. It usually benefited him, of course. For a guy who struggled to comprehend how to play in the first place, this was beyond frustrating, even infuriating. I remember throwing my cards at him at least once, yelling not-very-nice things possibly a couple times, and maybe even knocking the whole board onto the floor. Who, after all, has the right to change the rules?!
The Great Reset
Well, God does. As the Creator of all existence and the Great Engineer of everything that is, He intimately knows this “game” we call life. And He did change the rules on that first Easter morning. Satan, the enemy of all humanity, had been playing his version for a long time, counting on the permanence of death and decay always being the end. There was nothing for humans beyond that dark veil. When a person died, all sense of purpose, delight, and relationship was over. And the forces of evil always held that ultimate card, ready to flaunt it in our faces anytime humans tried to create their own hope.
But then Jesus came along. He stretched the rules of human limitations His entire earthly life by healing blind eyes, cleansing diseased skin, calling breath back into lungs that had stopped functioning, and giving hope that there was even more to come. This Son of Man was getting out of control, so the enemy of humanity finally played his trump card. He killed the One who was showing humans a new way to live. And according to the old rule book, that should have been the end.Read More
It was the first week of my summer vacation after finishing the 3rd grade. There was an unexpected knock on our front door. The teacher who had started the school year and then disappeared in the spring on maternity leave stood there. In her arms was her newborn child that she had brought to show me. As a nine-year-old boy, I had no appreciation for how far she had driven, nor the inconveniences of taking an infant out in public. I also had little interest in looking at a baby. Yet I can still remember her smile as she sat in our living room and invited me to take a closer look at her treasure. I don’t know how many other students she visited, but the feeling of importance I felt was beyond my capacity to express at the time. She honored me that day, and my little-boy’s heart could feel it. This thoughtful and tender act left such a deep impression that it is one of the few things I can now recall from that year of my life. Kindness is powerful.
I’m certain that I have experienced many more acts of kindness than I can remember. And I believe they have all been part of shaping me into who I am. However, I have also heard this tender quality referred to as something much less meaningful and impactful. Some see it as nice but not necessary for a relationship, kind of like garnish on a dinner plate or a cherry on top of ice cream. It makes things a bit more pleasant, but it’s not the main dish. Afterall, it is often the first thing to be discarded when a relationship comes under stress.
For others, to be kind is to show weakness. Therefore, to sit in the relational power seat, kindness is either twisted or disregarded. Many thus view outward expressions of kindness as little more than manipulative tools. They find themselves using “kindness” to get what they need or want. And they perceive questionable motives behind the thoughtful and generous acts of others.Read More
All through my early years I saw myself as a humble man. The fallacy of that image was exposed the day I was informed that the one-on-one, who I understood would be my “mentor” in the YWAM training program was a single, 19-year-old kid. I was a married, 32-year-old father of three. I could feel the walls going up inside. It was clear to me that there was nothing of value I could possibly gain from this arrangement. God had obviously stepped out of this one. And that was the attitude of my heart for quite awhile after that.
Receiving the Words of Jesus
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31 NIV). I have always appreciated learning. I study the Bible and have sought to educate myself on all its contexts. The words of Jesus are the foundation of the Christian faith, so of course I want to comply with what He says. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ: agree with the teachings of Jesus. Right?
Jesus’ words above sound great until an uncomfortable reality pushes in. He wants to drill deeper than mere intellectual acceptance. He often seeks to plant His teachings in my heart through instruments and circumstances I don’t like—painful events or people who seem unfit for imparting wisdom. I resist. This forces me to then ask the question, am I truly teachable? Can I absorb God’s truth for my life regardless the vessel through which it is delivered?
To Be a True Learner
For a long time, I understood “learning” to be the accumulation of information. The more facts I could memorize or clever processes I could emulate, then the wiser, more stable and effective I would be in life. But the amassing of data and life experiences alone does not make an effective disciple of Jesus. Holding to His teachings requires a truly humble heart ready to always ask a simple question: “Jesus, what are you wanting to teach me?” Whether I’m in the middle of great pleasure, pain, confusion or despair, the ability to ask this question and wait for and interact with His response is a very powerful indicator of whether or not I am truly a disciple of Jesus.
Thus, a disciple is a learner, and a disciple of Jesus is one who is committed to interact with Him as the number one method of learning. To be a growing disciple I have to recognize His commitment to never let a single circumstance in my life be wasted. He may not cause everything to happen, but in His sovereignty He certainly desires to use everything to teach me His ways. I just choose to receive it and respond in a way that keeps my heart open to Him.Read More
I always saw myself as a patient person. That was until my first year of teaching remedial English to 8th graders in a California inner-city school. My carefully composed lesson plans were sabotaged daily by 13 and 14 year olds who derived perverse pleasure from watching my frustration grow. I would come home each afternoon exhausted and dreading the next day. A couple years later, after I had transitioned out of teaching public school and into working with Youth With A Mission, God had to deal with my heart. He revealed to me that I was holding onto hatred for some of those kids. And to be truly free of the torment I still carried, I had to forgive each of them by name and pray blessings on them. It was not a fun process, but it was necessary. And out of it I grew to understand more of how God wants His Holy Spirit to work in my life. I am to take on more of His characteristics.
We are told in Galatians 5:22-23 that there are certain God-given qualities called the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. I have talked about love* and Joy** in past posts and will soon post one on peace. But the quality that I have been pondering lately is that of patience. An older name for it is long-suffering, which always sends uncomfortable chills down my spine when I say it. Is it really necessary?
We don’t produce it
The first thing that comes to my mind is that patience is a FRUIT of the Spirit. One of the definitions of fruit is “result” or “effect.” Thus patience, along with the other qualities on the list, is evidence that the Holy Spirit is living and active in me. The other thing that comes to mind is that fruit must be cultivated to grow; it does not suddenly appear fully ripened and ready for harvest without a caretaker making sure the plant or tree is properly nourished and dangerous pests are eradicated. In other words, once the proper seeds have been planted and the environment suitably prepared, the fruit will naturally come . . . eventually.
I often hear people (especially Americans) talk of their need for more patience. Most of us intuitively desire the valuable attributes of being able to wait, endure, and stick with something when results do not appear as quickly as we prefer. However, I have been warned of praying the “dangerous” prayer of, “Lord make me more patient.” Afterall, there’s nothing magical, mysterious, or instantaneous about growing patience. Difficult and delayed circumstances are always necessary for this particular fruit to take shape. And God seems to value this quality to such a degree that He is ready to answer this prayer with plenty of opportunities.
But I don’t want to wait
So, what exactly is this characteristic that the Holy Spirit wants to produce in all of God’s children? I think the term “long-suffering,” as uncomfortable as it sounds, describes it most succinctly. Many of us have developed an aversion to any kind of discomfort or misery to the point that we believe it should never be God’s will for our lives. And waiting for something good to come when all around us pain, sickness, grief, and evil are pressing in can be an agonizing hardship. Yet the Bible communicates quite consistently that waiting on the Lord has powerful benefits.
“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30-31, ESV).
The word “wait” throughout most of the Bible can also be translated into English as “hope.” The scriptures instruct us that our waiting should always be with the expectancy of good to come. Waiting without hope quickly becomes despair, which makes our spirits sick and can turn deadly. Godly patience is thus an attribute that guides us to put our hope in something not of this world, something that is bigger and outside ourselves—namely, God, His promises for the future, and His unshakable love. It is rooted in the understanding and belief that the way things are right now is not the way they are going to remain. A patient person’s spirit is given the ability by the Holy Spirit to see beyond the immediate agitation or suffering and to choose to dwell in the hope of what cannot yet be seen with the physical eye.
We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit
Such patience is something only the Holy Spirit can produce. But our active cultivation of this fruit is required. First, we have to surrender to the Holy Spirit. If we are constantly resisting what He wants to do in our lives, little will be able to grow in such hard soil. In addition, we must let our sight be turned toward the future and how God has promised to shape it. We naturally want everything fulfilled now. He, however, has bigger things in mind that involve all of eternity. One of our ongoing weaknesses in dealing with people and circumstances is that our thinking is so short-term.
As I look back at my experiences as a first-year teacher, I can now see that my lack of patience with those kids was a spiritual issue. I failed to invite the Holy Spirit in to show me the destiny that their Creator had in mind for each of them. Thus I was incapable of responding according to how God saw them, as those for whom He sent His Son to die. Instead, I saw and heard only what was immediately in front of me and how it negatively affected my personal wellbeing at the moment. I had no interest in suffering long with those students who very likely were suffering through their own issues and circumstances of which I remained mostly clueless. God, of course, knew each one intimately and would have been happy to open my eyes to see if I would have invited Him to do so. Patience might have come a little more naturally then.
It shows who God is
For a follower of Jesus, growing patience is not optional nor a luxury. It’s a vital part of navigating this confusing world and keeping our eyes on what is truly important and lasting. God anticipates its active presence in our lives because it is also necessary for representing Him well. He, afterall, is the most long-suffering being in all the universe, putting up with humans because of His great love and amazing plans He wants us to experience. He’s not expecting us to do it perfectly. But He is waiting for us to let the soil of our hearts to be plowed so the seeds can put down roots. And at the same time, He desires us to invite Him to show us the future that He wants us to put our hope in, for ourselves and for all those around us.
It’s important for Him, and so He waits.
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. 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.
After recalling this little piece of my history, I’m reminded (uncomfortably so) that people who walk 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 Big Seven (pride, lust, sloth, gluttony, greed, envy and anger), these 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?Read More