Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Prayer and Needs

It feels like it should be 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. It is only 12:40. I got up this morning and went to early morning prayer at the church with several friends from my small group. So I was out of the house at about 6:15, which is highly unusual for me. After prayer, we went to Starbucks for coffee, then to Sam's Club. I was home by 11:00 and it seemed like I'd had a full day already.

I really enjoyed being a part of the morning prayers. This group meets every morning at 6:30, 365 days a year. Not everyone comes every single day, but some do. This was my first time, but definitely not my last.

I've always wanted to go, but I was intimidated. At my church, people don't hesitate to pray out loud, spontaneously, anywhere and any time at all. If you ask someone to pray for you, most will respond, "Let's pray right now." They are experienced pray-ers.

I remember one day, while I was volunteering in the office, getting a phone call that my nephew had been in a serious car accident and had been life-flighted to Vanderbilt. I didn't know if he would make it and I was so shaken up. I told my friends in the office what had happened and that I needed to go to the hospital to be with my family. They immediately formed a circle and began to pray for my nephew, for me and my family. One after another, each one prayed individually as we all held hands. I was the only one who remained silent. I felt the Holy Spirit in their prayers, but I was too timid to pray out loud with anybody listening to me. I didn't grow up praying this way. And as extroverted as I am, this terrible shyness and timidity comes over me at the thought of praying audibly in the presence of others. I suddenly become an introvert.

Two of my small group friends, who have started going, assured me that I didn't have to say anything if I came and I would not be called on to offer a prayer. So I committed to going this morning. I found it to be a wonderful way to start the day. And it occurred to me that participating in this group might be a great way to overcome my timidity. I know it was no coincidence that God was prompting all three of us to start going to morning prayer group at the same time and it kept coming up in our small group.

I have always "wished" I was more of a prayer warrior. I struggle to pray as much as I should, even though my thoughts are almost continually on God. I rarely go an hour without my thoughts being on God and spiritual things. I listen to books and sermons and worship music in my car. I read every chance I get. My friends are all Christians and we share regularly about the different ways God is speaking to us. But my prayers are mostly spontaneous little prayers throughout the day. I'm undisciplined and sporadic. I'm not content with my growth in this area. I want to be a mature Christian and that will never happen without prayer. I know that I will never "wish" myself into being a prayer warrior.

I remember the first time I was asked to participate in a women's study at the church and be a small group leader when we broke into discussion groups. The thought terrified me, but I did not want to say no. To those who asked me, I know I must have seemed like a natural because I'm such a communicator and so open. I had been in other small group studies and did plenty of talking, sharing and crying.

I have no problem participating and sharing my heart. But I wasn't eager to be responsible for "leading" anything and I knew one of the things I would be expected to do was lead us in prayer. That was so hard for me. I would be so very nervous every single time. But I knew that the only way I could grow in God was to allow Him to challenge and stretch me beyond my comfort zone. I felt so inadequate, but I made myself respond to this opportunity. As a result of that first study, I have gained close friends; several of us have remained a bonded small group ever since. And I believe that first study was in 2005. But I still get nervous when I pray out loud, even though these women are now my close friends and no longer strangers as they were on that first night.

Our church is very large and one of my initial concerns was how I would ever feel connected and be able to form close relationships in a church that size. But being anonymous and unconnected just wasn't an option for me. So I looked for ways to connect and get involved. The first thing I did was volunteer to work in the office. The first year I worked twice a week. When my first grandson came along, I cut back to one. But I don't see myself ever resigning from my Monday post. I don't work outside the home and earn an income, but I have an abundance of discretionary time. And I consider Mondays to be a tithe of that blessing -- my way of telling God that I'm thankful. Whenever a joke is made in the office about my pay grade (zero), I always respond that God has paid me far ahead of my service. And one of the ways He has blessed me is through and with the friends He's added to my life.

I know far more people at church today than I ever dreamed I would. It is a big church with a small community feel. I don't even think of how many people go there now. But I love how I am continually forming new and lasting friendships within that community. God is so good. I grew up in a church where everyone knew me from birth and I considered it my family. I didn't think I would ever be able to find that in another church. But God had so many surprises for me. He is far bigger than my wildest imagination.

This is turning into one of my rambling posts, it seems. I was going to share more from the book I just finished, "When People are Big and God is Small." I guess I will save those comments for another post, since this one has already become long.

I think about how blessed I am every day. But while listening to some of the prayer requests this morning, I felt overwhelmed by God's mercy and His abundant blessings on my life. I'll just never understand why I have been so blessed or why God would love me as He does. I just want to be someone through whom God's blessings can flow to others. I know for certain that God does not bless any of us so that we can kick back and enjoy. He wants us to be His instruments and to look for opportunities to bless others. He wants us to focus on what He's given us and not what He has withheld.

My friends and I were talking about this over coffee this morning. One of the newer friends God has brought into my life is so very much like me, I'm discovering. We are both relationship oriented and emotional "pursuers." We were sharing about our lives this morning and the similarities were quite striking. I told her how God has been impressing upon me not to seek validation from other people (as I always have) and not to pursue certain relationships anymore. There have been certain relationships I have longed for throughout my life which just never seemed to be what I longed for them to be (close). I am the misfit in my biological family and I have always felt like something was wrong with me, that I was somehow unacceptable or unlovable -- too much trouble. It may be all in my head, but you know what they say about perception and reality. It's very real to me. It's been a lifelong emotional struggle. I'm realizing, more and more, my problem is that I need people too much. And when we desperately need people, we are not free to love them unselfishly. We're too busy wanting them to meet our needs. We're too busy making them idols in our lives.

Very recently, however, this has been changing for me. I am learning to look to God more and to people less. Oh, have no doubt, I am in my infancy here. I could burst into tears tomorrow if I hear about a negative comment. But the last time I felt that sting of being misunderstood, I recovered much more quickly. Quite by accident, I discovered the book "When People are Big and God is Small" and began reading it. Even before I got the book, though, I could hear the Holy Spirit speaking to my heart, saying, "You don't need to be validated by that person. Let go. Focus on ME and what I am doing in your life, the people I have added to your life, your blessings. Do not grieve. Be thankful."

I heard a sermon once about how we humans commit the sin of making good things into ultimate things. We turn desires into needs. In doing so, we make good, God-given things, including people, into idols. I have done that. But I'm learning to stop and evaluate what I'm feeling. If I desperately need someone's approval or validation, I'm making them too big.

In ""When People are Big and God is Small," David Welch writes, "When feelings become more important than faith, people will become more important, and God will become less important."

I don't think any of us would ever consciously make our feelings more important than our faith. But we do so every day when we allow our focus to be on people, and people's opinions of us, instead of on God. When tempted to fall into that trap of needing people too much, we must simply say to ourselves:

"What does it really matter if I don't have the acceptance of other people? Through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, I have the acceptance of God!"

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The never-ending struggle!

It's taken almost a year, but I finally did it. I just got on the scale and discovered that I'm right back where I started last September. Normally, I weigh every morning. Lately, I have avoided the scale because I can feel in my clothes that it will just be bad news. Avoidance is never a good strategy in life.

For some reason, it seems like I gain weight in the summer rather than the winter - which is the opposite of most people. I also tend to eat more and gain weight under stress. Last summer, as well as this one, brought intense emotion and some stressful events for me to deal with. As I get older, I notice that I tend to want to withdraw and also eat more at such times. There have been days when I have just wanted to eat nothing but the "bad carbs." And I have lacked the motivation or discipline to "just say no" to myself. I think I am also fighting the dreaded mid-life weight gain. I'm going to have to get serious again...and soon.

My favorite snack has become Staci's Pita Chips. And if I start eating them, forget it. I'll eat half the bag. When I eliminated sugar, white bread, rice, potatoes and bad fats, and focused on eating more protein and vegetables, the pounds just fell off. And I remember thinking how easy it was. My cravings for bad carbs went away quickly - just like the (South Beach) book said they would. I wouldn't even touch a piece of bread at my favorite restaurants because my motivation was so high. While "in the zone," I remember thinking it would not be hard to eat that way consistently, long term. But over time, I splurged more and more (first on the weekends and then whenever I felt like it). And I have finally put the weight back on. I'm five pounds over what I consider my acceptable weight. I'm nine pounds over the lowest number I saw on the scale (my ideal weight) while following the low glycemic way of eating.

I know what works and I have to get motivated again. I just feel so much better when I'm 130 or less. Five pounds makes a huge difference in how I feel physically. But motivation this week and next is not going to be easy. I'm serving lasagna to my small group tonight. We're going to a restaurant opening with friends tomorrow night in Nashville. I'm meeting an old friend for lunch at one of my favorite Italian restaurants on Thursday. My mother-in-law will be here Friday. And I'm leaving Saturday morning for a week in Destin. Food is always a big part of vacation for me. One of my tasks today is to make lasagna to freeze and take with us. The two meals we have pre-planned (to eat in the condo) are lasagna and tacos. Mmmm, health food. : )

Oh well, I didn't put it on in a week and I can't get rid of it that fast, either. I think seeing the numbers 135 on the scale this morning will help me not to snack on the bad stuff today, even if I am in the kitchen a lot. Hopefully I can just do portion control the next couple of weeks and then try to get strict again. I think the reason I always seem to lose weight in the fall is because I hate the thought of going into the holidays with excess weight. It's all psychological for me.

I'm having one of my favorite kind of days today. I am a homebody and I so enjoy days when I don't have to be anywhere, so I can have a leisurely morning, catch up on laundry, change my sheets, work out early in the day, water my flowers, cook, read and putter around the house. I'll be making three pans of lasagna today. One for the trip, one for my small group tonight and one for a neighbor I plan to surprise later in the day. (Hope she's not trying to eat healthy.)

Weight is such a never-ending battle. Sometimes I think that when I have officially grown old (by everyone's standards), I will just eat whatever I want and not worry about my weight. It sounds great for a moment, but then I think, "Naaaah." As I get older, my health will become even more precious. And I want be a young, fun, energetic grandma who can do things with my boys! Not to mention, if I do happen to be struck by disease, I know that an otherwise overall healthy patient is much easier to treat successfully. I find myself thinking about these things as I face the half-century mark next year!

I also find myself thinking about what kind of old lady I will be. So many times I think/pray, "Lord, please let me be sweet and low-maintenance when I'm old; consumed with you and concerned for others rather than consumed with myself." But I know that if I want to be like that when I'm old, I have to first be like that before I get old. You may have noticed, as I have, that whatever kind of person we are, our traits (good and bad) just seem to become more pronounced as we get older. So I'm trying to get a jump on being sweet and low-maintenance in the good old here and now. Preoccupation with self is just another one of those never-ending struggles.

Well, the treadmill is screaming my name! And I do mean screaming! : ) Have a great day!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

More from "Respectable Sins"

In our small group, we are reading three chapters a week of "Respectable Sins: Confronting the sins we tolerate." I just finished chapters 13, 14 and 15. These chapters speak to our lack of self-control, our impatience and irritability, and our anger. I think I will condense my comments on all three into one post this week, beginning with this paragraph from chapter 14:

Now, let me remind you, as I do in almost all the chapters, that this is a book about our "respectable" sins, the sins we tolerate in our lives while we condemn the more flagrant sins of society around us. May we be as severe with ourselves over our own subtle sins as we are with the vile sins we condemn in others. May we not be like the self-righteous Pharisee in the temple who prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men" but may we continually have the humble attitude of the tax collector who said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." (Luke 18:11-13).

In chapter 13, Bridges defines self-control and illustrates how our own self-control is different from Biblical self-control, which is not a product of our own natural will-power but a fruit of the Spirit. Biblical self-control, he writes, "covers every area of life and requires an unceasing conflict with the passions of the flesh that wage war against our souls (see 1 Peter 2:11). This self-control is dependent on the influence and enablement of the Holy Spirit. It requires continual exposure of our mind to the words of God and continual prayer for the Holy Spirit to give us both the desire and power to exercise self-control..."

Bridges focuses on three areas where many Christians commonly fail to exercise self-control. These are 1) eating and drinking, 2) temper, and 3) personal finances. He gave some additional examples to these three, such as spending inordinate amounts of time at a computer or in front of the television, impulse buying, hobbies, sports, etc.

Clearly, we can all recognize some area of our life where we lack the spiritual fruit of self-control. I am certainly prone to spending too much time on the computer, impulse buying, and eating too much simply for the pleasure I derive from food. Just because I spend enough time working out to burn off some of the outward evidence of my lack of self-control doesn't mean I'm not guilty of over-indulging. It simply means that I have developed self-discipline in an alternate area to compensate for my lack of self-discipline in controlling what I eat. But Biblical self-control is not selective. I seldom think about this as a spiritual issue. It seems small in comparison to other more serious sins; but as Bridges points out in this chapter, a lack of self-control often leads to other sins in our lives.

I was really touched by the example Bridges gave in chapter 14 on the subject of impatience and irritability. He told of a pastor friend of his who was visiting the home of a greatly respected and loved couple in his church. He wrote that this couple had consistently invested their lives in others. The husband, at this time, had terminal cancer and died shortly thereafter. During this visit, the pastor asked the couple how they were doing spiritually. With tears in her eyes, the wife responded this way:

"We're doing well as far as the cancer is concerned. But what I can't handle is our sin. After all these years, and especially in this situation, you would think we wouldn't still hurt and wound each other, but we do. And this is what I can't handle. I can handle the cancer, but I can't handle my sinful flesh."

I'm sure this tenderhearted woman was thinking of impatient words and irritability. Stress in our lives often provides the occasion for these kinds of sins and a lowered threshold for emotional responses. I know that when my own mother was dying of cancer, it didn't always bring out the best in us, as a family or as individuals. You would think such an occasion would draw all family members closer. That's what I thought. And it should. But we often, instead, get caught up in our own pain and, as a result, our responses to others reflect our selfishness.

Bridges defines impatience as "a strong sense of annoyance at the (usually) unintentional faults and failures of others" and that this impatience "is often expressed verbally in a way that tends to humiliate the person (or persons) who is the object of the impatience." He explains that impatience and irritability are closely related and elaborates further that while "impatience is a strong sense of annoyance or exasperation, irritability, as I define it, describes the frequency of impatience, or the ease with which a person can become impatient over the slightest provocation. The person who easily and frequently becomes impatient is an irritable person..." He writes that we may also be the type of person who doesn't respond verbally at all, but inwardly we seethe and resent the person who has vented his or her impatience on us. This is also a sinful response.

The subject of anger is a huge and complex issue, beyond the purpose of the book. So Bridges chooses to focus on that aspect of anger that we unconsciously treat as "acceptable" sin. He first deals with "righteous anger" and explains how to determine if our anger is indeed righteous. "First, righteous anger arises from an accurate perception of true evil--that is, as a violation of God's moral law. It focuses on God and His will, not on me and my will. Second, righteous anger is always self-controlled. It never causes one to lose his temper or retaliate in some vengeful way."

Bridges also explains that in facing up to our anger, "we need to realize that no one else causes us to be angry. Someone else's words or actions may become the occasion of our anger, but the cause lies deep within us--usually our pride, or selfishness, or desire to control...We may become angry because someone has mistreated us in some way...Why? It's likely because our reputation or our character has been questioned. Again the cause is our pride."

So much of our anger, as well as our impatience and irritability, lies in our expectations of others. When people fail to meet our expectations (as they always will), we are impatient, irritable and sometimes even angry. "In all of these instances," writes Bridges, "the cause of the anger is selfishness..."

Bridges suggests what our response should be to situations of unjust treatment resulting in an occasion for anger. He poses several questions we should ask ourselves, while acknowledging that in the emotional heat of the moment, "we are not going to go through a checklist of questions...But in the after moments of a difficult episode, we can choose to continue to hold on to our anger, or we can reflect on such questions...and allow the Holy Spirit to dissolve our anger." Recognizing that we all get angry from time to time, whether we internalize or externalize it: "The issue is how we handle it."

Here are the questions he suggests we ask of ourselves: "How would God have me respond in this situation? How can I best glorify God by my response? Do I believe that this difficult situation or this unjust treatment is under the sovereign control of God and that in His infinite wisdom and goodness He is using these difficult circumstances to conform me more to the likeness of Christ? (see Romans 8:28; Hebrews 12:4-11)."

Bridges reminds his readers of the words of Paul:

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Bridges ends this chapter by addressing the issue of our anger toward God and writes,

What are we to say to people who are desperately hurting and feel that God has let them down or is even against them? Is it okay to be angry toward God? Most pop psychology would answer yes. "Just vent your feelings toward God." I've even read the statement, "It's okay to be angry at God. He's a big boy. He can handle it." In my judgment, that is sheer blasphemy.

Let me make a statement loud and clear. It is never okay to be angry at God. Anger is a moral judgment, and in the case of God, it accuses Him of wrongdoing. It accuses God of sinning against us by neglecting us or in some way treating us unfairly. It also is often a response to our thinking that God owes us a better deal in life than we are getting. As a result, we put God in the dock of our own courtroom. I think of a man who, as his mother was dying of cancer, said, "After all she's done for God, this is the thanks she gets." Never mind that Jesus suffered untold agony to pay for her sins..."

Bridges points out with this example how we so quickly look past Jesus' sacrifice for us, how He purchased and ransomed us through the shedding of His blood and secured for us an eternity with Him, instead focusing on how God also owes us "a better life on this earth."

The only way to deal with our temptation to be angry at God is through "a well-grounded trust in the sovereignty, wisdom, and love of God." And we must "bring our confusion and perplexity to God in a humble, trusting way" always remembering that our God is a forgiving God and even our anger toward Him, which is sin, "was paid for by Christ in His death on the cross."

I'm glad Bridges addressed this issue because I have heard people say it's okay to be angry at God and I haven't always spoken up, but I disagreed within my own heart. I could not have articulated my viewpoint as eloquently as Bridges did. But his words were powerful. Anger toward God is a moral judgment of God.

I have never thought I had a right to be angry with God. I have asked Him why something couldn't be different or how I found myself in certain circumstances (when I did not feel I deserved them). But I have never felt entitled to answers or that God owed me anything at all. I have been given so much more than I could ever deserve. And that would be still be true if my physical life ended tomorrow. I have heard people say, in frustration, "Well, if this is what I get for serving God all these years" and my skin crawls. I don't ever want to be so presumptuous toward God as to feel He owes me something better than He has provided.

I can understand how people who have suffered great injustice, especially at the hands of spiritual leaders, might be tempted to question God or wonder why He did not protect them. I don't know how angry I might be if I had suffered certain abuses. But I am still convicted that we must not direct our anger at God in these situations. He is the One who will right every wrong. Jesus loved us so much that He chose to leave His glory in heaven with the Father to come to this earth, suffer and die for us. He knows what it's like to live in this flesh and suffer the rejection and injustice of humanity. He did that so that He could intercede for us. He already had the glory of heaven. He suffered everything that we could be forgiven and share in His glory and Sonship. How can I not try to glorify Him in my own suffering? When I feel rejected by someone, I try to remind myself that Jesus knows a much greater rejection; the rejection of His own creation.

Sometimes I have a hard time ending a post. This is one of those times when I could just keep writing and writing.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fear, Perfect Love and Thankfulness

My mom used to say, "The more a baby sleeps, the more a baby sleeps." I thought about that this morning because it could be said of me right now, "The more Shari reads, the more Shari reads." I have also found, through experience, that "The more one thinks about God, the more one thinks about God."

I have been reading so many books lately, including my Bible of course. And yesterday I even started listening to "Pilgrim's Progress" in my car on audio CD. I pulled into my garage yesterday, still listening, and sat in the car for several minutes because I didn't want to interrupt my listening. I was listening to the mistake Christian had made by turning away from the cross and going to the house of Legality. The book had my complete attention.

In our small group Tuesday night, we talked about how God seems to be calling each of us, in similar ways and at the same time, to a deeper dedication and to more focus on Him. It was really exciting to me to hear that others in my group were experiencing this same tugging on their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Our church has early morning prayer at 6:30 am, 365 days a year, for anyone and everyone who wants to come. I have thought many times that this is something I should participate in one day. But to get to the church by 6:30 would be quite challenging for me. One of the girls in our small group has been going frequently to early morning prayer lately and was telling us what a difference it has made in her life. A couple of us shared that God had been putting early morning prayer on our hearts recently and that we were intending to go, also.

While I couldn't seem to sleep past 5:00 in recent months, I started to think that maybe God was intending to make it less of a challenge for me. Then, suddenly, I have started sleeping until 6:00. And I have needed the sleep. But I have also made up my mind that, with God's help, I'm going to make it to early morning prayer very soon even if I have to set the alarm and go with my "real" morning face. : )

I have to say that since having a couple of months straight where I was not sleeping, and was awake for the day between 4:00 and 5:00 (occasionally 2:30 am), I've been waking up so thankful for good sleep. I had no idea how much I needed sleep until I wasn't sleeping. Before I had any sleep issues, I didn't really think to be thankful for good rest. But after having trouble sleeping, I'm so thankful now when I sleep well.

There are so many things we take for granted. I never appreciated my shoulder and how well it worked until after I had frozen shoulder and tendonitis of the rotator cuff for almost a whole year. I didn't appreciate all the ways my neck and upper back helped to move my body until (years ago) all my internalized stress located in this part of my body and I was not only in constant pain but could not move my neck. I had no idea my neck played any role in helping me get in or out of a car until my neck muscles were in distress. When I could move normally again, I was so thankful for the ease of movement when all my muscles were working in harmony and doing their job. Many of the times when internalized stress has manifested itself in my physical body, I can look back and recognize that fear and anxiety were the root cause of my suffering.

There are so many aspects of my life today that I appreciate more fully because I have had seasons of suffering. Whether it's physical or emotional or both, I have found that joy is often birthed through suffering. And through every experience, God is teaching me how to trust Him more fully. The greater the suffering, the greater my joy in deliverance.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that God has been speaking to me about and helping me with my fear of man (or people). I struggle so much with the fear of rejection. I fear rejection to the point that I anticipate it (when maybe it wasn't even intended). I just want to be loved and accepted. I want to be assured I am loved. And I have a tendency to plead for assurance in roundabout ways. My husband has many pet names for me. One he frequently calls me is, "My little affirmation seeker." And I recognize that I am constantly seeking affirmation from other people in my life. I don't need to be praised, but I do seem to need affirmation and validation from others. However, I know that God wants my validation to come only from Him. And so I am trying to shed this part of my personality through faith in the Gospel. God has been helping me with this a lot lately. And one of the ways He has helped me is through the book He allowed me to discover, "When People are Big and God is Small."

I have been reading different books in the New Testament out of sequence. I read all the gospels early in the year. I read Acts and listened to it a couple of times on CD in the car. I love to read Romans, Galatians and Ephesians repeatedly and have also listened to those while driving. More recently, I have read Paul's letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy. And I've found that the message of each book seems to lodge more in my heart if I read the same books more than once before going on to another.

I woke up this morning with the thought in my head that I needed to read 1 John. And when I did, I instantly knew why the Holy Spirit was prompting me to read this book. 1 John 4:18 ties right in to what God was showing me about fear and selfless (perfect) love yesterday. I ended yesterday's post with the verse from Proverbs. And I began my day today with 1 John.

1 John 5:5 has been one of my favorite passages the last few years because John is telling us that we overcome the world by faith in Christ and that everyone who is born of God (through faith in His Son) overcomes the world. This passage has comforted my heart and eased my lifelong fear of "not making it." God gives us the assurance through His Living Word that He has begun the work and He will complete it. He is the Author and the Finisher of our faith.

I hope this will encourage you as it has encouraged me this morning. God is so good.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
-1 John 4:18

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
-1 John 5:1-5

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fear of the Lord (Quotes from "When People are Big and God is Small)

In "When People are Big and God is Small" Welch emphasizes two ways of overcoming the fear of man throughout the book. First, we need to grow in the fear of the Lord. Second, we must need people less and love them more. In other words, we must grow in selfless love.

The fear of the Lord he is suggesting is not the terror-fear that causes us to want to hide from God. It is the "reverent submission that leads to obedience, and it is interchangeable with 'worship,' 'rely on,' 'trust' and 'hope in.' Like terror, it includes a knowledge of our sinfulness and God's moral purity, and it includes a clear-eyed knowledge of God's justice and his anger against sin. But this worship-fear also knows God's great forgiveness, mercy and love. It knows that because of God's eternal plan, Jesus humbled himself by dying on a cross to redeem his enemies from slavery and death. It knows that, in our relationship with God, he always says 'I love you' first. This knowledge draws us closer to God rather than causing us to flee. It causes us to submit gladly to his lordship and delight in obedience. This kind of robust fear is the pinnacle of our response to God."

Welch also writes about God's holiness, that "God is exalted above his people. He lives in a high and lofty place (Isa. 57:15). His judgment and mercy are above us, they are ultimately incomprehensible." And then "to make the holiness of God even more awesome, the transcendent God has come close to us."

"...our God is also the Immanent One who has revealed himself and become like us...He is near us. He will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He is so close he calls us 'friends' (John 15:14). He is so close, the Scripture talks about Christ in you. Given his nature, this is virtually impossible for us to grasp. But, by God's grace, we can grow in knowing his holiness, and this knowledge will both expel the people-idols from our lives and leave us less prone to being consumed with ourselves."

"Scripture speaks of unimaginable love alongside holy anger. God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love, but he also does not leave the guilty unpunished; 'he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation' (Ex. 34:6, 7). Therefore, we cannot rightly say, 'My God is not a God of judgment and anger; my God is a God of love.' Such thinking makes it almost impossible to grow in the fear of the Lord. It suggests that sin only saddens God rather than offends him. Both justice and love are expressions of his holiness, and we must know both to learn the fear of the Lord. If we look only at God's love, we will not need him, and there will be no urgency in the message of the cross. If we focus narrowly on God's justice, we will want to avoid him, and we will live in terror-fear, always feeling guilty and waiting for punishment."

Welch then goes on to elaborate on the beauty of God's creation and emphasize all of creation as God's servant, created to do his will. "With all the created beauty around us, beauty that certainly exceeds our own in many ways, God chose people to be the crown of his creation."

Welch explains that he has two basic responses to this truth. "Neither of them really pumps up my self-esteem. First, I am simply amazed. I am filled with questions...Certainly I am grateful, but it is hard to believe that God would place us over his creation.

My second response is that I am humbled. Both the Grand Canyon and the oceans are a good bit more beautiful than I am. This, instead of bolstering self-esteem, ruins it. I am not living beautifully. My heart is too often compromised with concerns about my glory rather than God's. The hurt from this humbling, however, is exactly what I need. It feels a lot better than any temporary puffing up of my ego."

Welch writes much more about the fear of the Lord being the remedy for the fear of people. A verse from Proverbs and the following statement spoke directly to my heart.

"If you have ever walked among giant redwoods, you will never be overwhelmed by the size of a dogwood tree. Or if you have been through a hurricane, a spring rain is nothing to fear. If you have been in the presence of the almighty God, everything that once controlled you suddenly has less power."

Those who fear the Lord will fear nothing else.
(Prov. 19:23)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More of my rambling thoughts...

I didn't know what to call this post. It's not focused on one certain book or book chapter. But it connects with a lot of what I wrote in my last post.

I went to church this weekend fully expecting my pastor to touch on the same theme (self-love) that I wrote about in my last post. And he did. I remember, not long ago, when it seemed like everything I was reading and listening to was drawing my attention to Esther. Then my pastor talked about Esther that same weekend. So I was not surprised when my pastor called our attention to the following passage Sunday night:

2 Timothy 3:1-5
1But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

He went on to talk about the age we live in and the growing apostacy that we must beware of. He talked about how we live in a time when even Christians want to de-emphasize Christ's crucifixion and what He accomplished for us through His death on the cross, while focusing primarily, instead, on the life He lived and the principles He taught about living in this world. He talked about the increase in those who would deny Christ's divinity, making Him a good man and example, but not our God and Savior. And as he has many times, he linked 2 Tim 3:5 with I Cor 1:18.

1 Corinthians 1:18

18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I will never forget the first time I heard my present pastor use these two scriptures together on this subject. Those two passages hit me between the eyes and I realized, sitting in church that day, that I had been guilty of believing a message that denied the power of the cross. In the church I grew up in, I was not taught that the cross was the power of God. I was taught that Jesus had done HIS part and now I had to do MINE; not that Jesus' blood had accomplished my salvation. His blood had only given me "a chance" to have eternal life and provided forgiveness for my "past sins." But at no time did I ever hear that Jesus had accomplished or secured my eternal salvation if I had made Him Lord of my life and put my faith in Him, His death and resurrection. I had to do it for myself (with His help) with my own perfect, sinless life.

"Have nothing to do with them" is serious instruction. I now believe with all my heart that we are to have nothing to do with any message that does not keep the cross at the center of the Gospel. It doesn't mean we don't love people. But we must be vigilant in proclaiming the truth of salvation through Christ alone. Just as I believe God wanted me to repent for and renounce what I once believed that was false, I know He does not want me to embrace any current or future message/movement that promotes another central focus other than Christ crucified.

Our pastor also talked about suffering this weekend and how to recognize what we've set our hearts on. One of the ways we can recognize what our heart is set on is the way in which we respond to suffering. We can so easily fool ourselves into believing that our hearts are set on things above, while the central focus of our lives remains our own self-interests. And we are often completely blind to this. He posed the question, "How much do you long for Christ's return?" He followed this question by asking, "Do you think the Christians in Darfur are longing for Christ's return and for His Kingdom to come in its fullness?"

I have to admit that for most of my life I only felt fear and dread when I thought about Jesus returning. My longing was non-existent. But today I do long for the day when He comes back for His people. I know He will be coming for me and not to destroy me. I am growing daily in my anticipation of His return.

I'm so thankful for the transformation God has brought to my heart and my life through the revelation and the power of the cross. I want nothing to do with any message that makes people bigger and God smaller. I want nothing to do with a message that suggests faith in myself. And I want nothing to do with a message that focuses on how God will enhance my life here (on earth) if I'll choose Him. I know there are blessings and rewards for honoring God. I'm thankful for His blessings. But I don't want Him to serve me. I want to serve Him. And I want to serve God to have God; not just to have His benefits. If I choose Him to get the blessings, I will probably not choose Him when I have to suffer.

I'm so thankful to know with certainty that God has already done everything for me. Nothing He could ever do could demonstrate His love for me more convincingly than what He has already done through Christ.

I finished the book "When People are Big and God is Small." There were so many things I wanted to share, but I couldn't stop reading. So I will have to go back and give some highlights. I needed to read this book and I look forward to rereading portions of it and sharing them on my blog.

I'm doing an online group read (Challies Dot Com) for the first time right now. The current book is "Religious Affections" by Jonathan Edwards. It's funny how I felt about reading the writings of Puritans in Early American Literature and what I'm getting out of reading this now. One's perspective and filters have everything to do with blocking or receiving information.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Self-Love and Self-Focus

As I've mentioned before, so often I will find myself being confronted with the same spiritual theme through different books I'm reading and other sources (like a sermon or my John Stott Daily Thought subscription) right at the same time. It feels like God is focusing my attention on something He is trying to impress upon me. And I am always amazed at how this happens again and again. It's one of the reasons I enjoy reading more than one book at a time. Again and again, I just "happen" to hear the same message coming to me from every direction. Some people might consider it coincidence, but it is very encouraging to me. For I believe with all my heart that God is leading me and speaking to me every time this happens. Sometimes this leads to painful self-revelation and subsequent discomfort. But we cannot grow and mature in the love of God and stay comfortable at the same time. So I'm learning to embrace the discomfort.

I am so thankful that God loves me enough to expose my heart to me on a daily basis. Seeing myself as I am, in all my sin and selfishness, makes me even more grateful for His love and mercy in my life. Seeing myself as "good" leads to a perception of worthiness, which I never want to embrace. He alone is worthy.

In "Respectable Sins" I have just read Chapter 12: Selfishness. I have also been reading "When People are Big and God is Small." I read several chapters yesterday and, in this book, the author repeatedly touches on our culture's preoccupation with self-esteem as the solution to all our problems and sheds biblical light on why this is not in line with the gospel. I read just yesterday about the false notion that the Bible is telling us to love ourselves through the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And then, this morning, I was amazed when I opened my email and read today's Daily Thought:

'... our neighbours as ourselves ...'

It is sometimes claimed that the command to love our neighbours as ourselves is implicitly a requirement to love ourselves as well as our neighbours. But this is not so. One can say this with assurance, partly because Jesus spoke of the first and second commandment, without mentioning a third; partly because *agape* is selfless love which cannot be turned in on the self, and partly because according to Scripture self-love is the essence of sin. Instead, we are to affirm all of ourselves which stems from the creation, while denying all of ourselves which stems from the fall. What the second commandment requires is that we love our neighbours as much as we do in fact (sinners as we are) love ourselves.
--From "The Message of Romans" (The Bible Speaks Today series: Leicester: IVP, 1994), p. 350.

Edward Welch, in "When People are Big and God is Small," says it this way:
Consider Nathaniel Branden's comments from 'Honoring the Self,' a book praised in Melody Beattie's best seller, 'Codependent No More.'

"To honor the self is to be in love with our own life, in love with our possibilities for growth and for the experiencing of joy, in love with the process of discovery and exploring our distinctively human potentialities. Thus we can begin to see that to honor the self is to practice selfishness in the highest, noblest, and the least understood sense of the word. And this, I shall argue, requires enormous independence, courage, and integrity."

These words would not have been written prior to the 1800s. Or, if they had been, they would have been condemned as the words of a heretic. Today, they are the words of the person on the street. They are a foundational cultural assumption: we are good people who must love ourselves in order to be healthy.

"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:19) is considered the biblical proof text (for those who need one). When interpreted through cultural spectacles, this verse means that we must love ourselves in order to love other people. But in reality the passage doesn't even suggest such an interpretation. Jesus spoke these words to a rich young man who clearly loved himself and his possessions too much. There is only one command in the passage, and it is "love your neighbor." Nobody, including the writers of Scripture, could have dreamed that this passage taught self-love. It took some cultural changes to reinterpret it and turn our eyes inward.

The Bible assumes that we have more than enough self-concern. We dress ourselves. We get depressed when things don't go our way. We can be consumed with what someone thinks about us. But cultural assumptions have blinded us. We no longer see the smog we live in. So pastors of many growing churches preach almost weekly about healthy self-esteem, as if it were taught on every page of Scripture. Too many Christians never see that self-love comes out of a culture that prizes the individual over the community and then reads that basic principle into the pages of Scripture. The Bible, however, rightly understood, asks the question, "Why are you so concerned about yourself?" Furthermore, it indicates that our culture's proposed cure -- increased self-love -- is actually the disease. If we fail to recognize the reality and depth of our sin problem, God will become less important, and people will become more important.

In "Respectable Sins," Jerry Bridges writes about selfishness with our interests, our time, our money and in the trait of inconsiderateness:

In 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Paul provides a list of really ugly sins that will be characteristic of the "last days" -- that is, our present age. Included in this list is "lovers of self." Lover of self is a good description of a selfish person. This person is first of all self-centered. At its extreme, the self-centered person cares little for the interests, needs, or desires of others. He is interested only in himself...

The greatest example of unselfishness is the Lord Jesus Christ, who though He was rich, for our sake became poor so that by His poverty we might become rich (see 2 Corinthians 8:9). And Paul urges us to cultivate the same frame of mind (see Philippians 2:5). Apart from Christ, one of the most notable examples of both selfishness and unselfishness occurred during the time of the bubonic plague that reached Euroope in 1348 and was responsible for the deaths of 30 to 40 percent of Europe's population. The plague spread so quickly that when one member of a family was infected, often the whole family died. Because of that, sometimes the entire rest of the family would quickly get out, leaving the sick one to die alone. Many priests cared for the sick and dying, and as a result, they too died. Other priests refused to help. It was said at that time that the best of the priests died and the worst of them lived.

Living unselfishly will likely not cost us our lives, but it will cost. It will cost time and money. It will cost becoming interested in the interests, concerns, and needs of others. And it will cost in learning to be considerate of the emotions and feelings of others...I said early in the chapter that selfishness is easy to see in someone else but so difficult to recognize in ourselves...Ask the Holy Spirit to show you evidences of selfishness in your own life, and let Him use your family members as His agents.

Another manifestation of our self-focus is the elevation of our personal feelings and emotions. Welch writes that "Even in worship services, the goal for many is that people feel something."

This exaltation of feelings has changed the way we think. For example, I just heard a sermon that offered a new, romanticized purpose for prayer. "The purpose of prayer," began the preacher, "is an awareness of the presence of God." I gleaned helpful applications from the sermon, but his lead statement was wrong. The awareness of God's presence is not the purpose of prayer. The preacher was appealing to experience junkies who wanted an emotional boost out of worship, sermons, and prayer.

There was a time in my own life when I would "practice the presence of God"; then, when I felt his presence, I would pray. All went well until the day I didn't feel his presence. I waited for hours, filled with tears, but I never felt The Presence. I tried to pray but I felt that both I and my prayers were in a hermetically sealed room. The Presence finally came the next day when I was asking for counsel from a good friend. His comment was simply this: "Why didn't you just pray by faith?" He taught me one of the most important lessons of prayer; that prayer depended on God and his promises, not my own quixotic emotions.

Keep looking around. You can find the exaltation of feelings everywhere. For example, you can find it in the way we have revised our idea of shame. Shame was originally viewed as the result of a problem between God and ourselves. Now it is reduced to whatever prevents us from feeling good about ourselves...Is it possible that our feelings are often more important to us than faith? Too often, if our faith is weak, we don't see it as a serious problem. It is only when our feelings are distressing that we decide to ask others for help and prayer.

Throughout the history of the church, emotions were always viewed with suspicion because they could vacillate so wildly. Now they are praised. Too often they are the standards by which we make judgments.

When feelings become more important than faith, people will become more important, and God will become less important.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Freedom

"True freedom is not freedom from all responsibility to God and man in order to live for myself, but the exact opposite. True freedom is freedom from myself and from the cramping tyranny of my own self-centredness, in order to live in love for God and others. Only in such self-giving love is an authentically free and human existence to be found."

--From 'Obeying Christ in a Changing World' (John Stott - Daily Thought)

"...I have spoken with hundreds of people who end up at this same place: they are fairly sure that God loves them, but they also want or need love from other people -- or at least they need something from other people. As a result, they are in bondage, controlled by others and feeling empty. They are controlled by whoever or whatever they believe can give them what they think they need.

It is true: what or who you need will control you."

--From 'When People are Big and God is Small' (Edward T. Welch)

My two new books arrived yesterday. Even though I'm already in the process of reading several other books, I couldn't resisit starting "When People are Big and God is Small" this morning. Now, this is the kind of book that I would call a page-turner. It speaks to my life in such a powerful way. I can already tell this is a book I will read again and again. I read 56 pages in one sitting and only stopped because I had to.

You may not think this is a book for you. You may not consider yourself a people-pleaser, someone affected by peer-pressure, codependent on others, or needing people to think well of you. But, Welch so accurately writes, "Aggressively asserting that you don't need anyone is just as much evidence of the fear of man as the more timid examples...Fear of man is such a part of our human fabric that we should check for a pulse if someone denies having it."

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I live in fear of people not loving me (rejection) on just about a daily basis. This book lays out the biblical response to my condition. The world tells us the answer to this problem is to love ourselves more and to raise our self-esteem. Sometimes even Christian authors take on this approach. But the Bible tells us something completely different. Welch writes:

  • To really understand the roots of the fear of man, we must begin to ask the right questions. For example, instead of "How can I feel better about myself and not be controlled by what people think? a better question is "Why am I so concerned about self-esteem? or "Why do I have to have someone -- even Jesus -- think that I am great?" These are topics we will look at from many angles throughout this book, but included in the answer is the fact that we need a way to think LESS OFTEN about ourselves. We'll talk about why -- and how.
  • The most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord. God must be bigger to you than people are. This antidote takes years to grasp; in fact, it will take all of our lives. But my hope is that the process can be accelerated and nurtured through what we will study in this book.
  • Regarding other people, our problem is that we NEED them (for ourselves) more than we LOVE them (for the glory of God). The task God sets for us is to need them LESS and love them MORE. Instead of looking for ways to manipulate others, we will ask God what our duty is toward them. This perspective does not come naturally to any of us, and many of us need to look at this truth from several angles before we can see it. But the conviction of this book is that this truth is another of Scripture's divine paradoxes -- the path of service is the road to freedom.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Small Group

I work at Stein Mart today, so I don't have a lot of time this morning to read and elaborate on my blog. But I did have some quick thoughts of my own I wanted to share. (If you read my blog, you know that "quick" is a pretty relative term for me...lol).

I am so thankful for my small group. If you guys are reading this, you just have no idea how much I appreciate all of you. You have all become such dear, cherished friends to me. I know you worry that I will feel stressed about having to cook or prepare because I've had so much going on lately. But I so look forward to your company.

As anyone close to me knows, I have really been having a tough time lately. Just different factors and things going on in my life that have been challenging emotionally. I'm an emotional person to begin with. I feel everything so deeply and often wish I did not have this "gift." The good side to being a sensitive, feeling person is that I think I'm usually sensitive to the feelings of others. I genuinely care for other people's feelings. And I am a walking, pulsing, bleeding heart of compassion. But the down side to being a sensitive, feeling person is that I'm more easily wounded and I feel things more intensely than the average person, I guess. I over-analyze everything I say and do. I scrutinize myself for mistakes and the wrong choice of words. I beat myself up for not saying things perfectly or for over-reacting to emotional triggers. And I tend to anticipate (maybe even imagine) being rejected (or dismissed) by others because of circumstances in my past that have created a lasting wound. Lately, I feel like such a cry-baby. It's not my tendency to just feel good about myself at all times. I'm pretty hard on myself when I feel like I've messed up or felt sorry for myself a bit too much. Sometimes I just want to shake myself out of the things I allow to take over my thoughts.

Anyway, I am not writing this to belabor all of my issues (of which I have many!). I just wanted to express how invaluable it is to have a small group that you spend time with regularly and can pour your heart out to without any fear of judgment. My small group comes over every Tuesday evening. We're reading "Respectable Sins" right now and sometimes we even get around to discussing the book. But a lot of times, we're just there for each other and we talk about whatever we need to talk about on any given week. Last night we talked a lot about Israel because Karen just got back from there with the church group. I can't wait to go and wish we could leave tomorrow. Except then I wouldn't be able to look forward to it a little longer. (I have always enjoyed the anticipation of something I'm looking forward to.)

Last night I started to share about anxiety and some things I felt like God had said to me about putting my hope and trust in Him and not in any specific outcomes. Fear of the unknown is one of the hardest things we have to deal with. It's so easy to project ourselves into all kinds of "worst case scenarios," many of which will never actually happen the way our minds project. So you mentally live out situations that you may never have to even experience. It's a way of trying to control things we can't control. Even though I'm fully aware I have no control, I feel like I'm trying to prepare myself for different things that might be hard to handle. But it's really just worry and fear taking control of ME. And every time I do that, I'm not trusting God.

Sharing my fears with my friends last night was so therapeutic for me. I felt so much better after having that time together. Although I woke up at 4:00 AM and couldn't go back to sleep for over an hour, I had no anxiety. I just laid there and thanked God for all my blessings and all the miraculous things He has already done in my life.

I feel good this morning. I feel like I've had an injection of calm. And it is such a welcome feeling.

I'm so thankful for every single person God has placed in my life. I have to say that I have never felt so loved and valued as I have in the last few years. And it seems that my circle of loving friends continues to grow and deepen. That is one of the richest blessings in life that God can give to us. I thought last night as we were all sitting around my kitchen table; these friends will be standing right beside me through anything I have to go through. I know I can depend on them when I need them, as I hope they know I will always be there for them. That is such a gift. I know I will never be alone because God is always with me. But one of the ways He is with me is through my closest friends and my extended church family.

I just feel so thankful this morning. And I wanted to express these thoughts. I told my friends last night how much I appreciate them. But words can't express what I feel inside. I am so blessed.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hypocrisy

I have been reading three books and my Bible today. I'm reading Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges with my small group. I've been reading Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson. And this morning, after reading from those two books and my Bible, I started to read Lord, Only You Can Change Me by Kay Arthur. It's a devotional study on growing in character from the Beatitudes.

I enjoy reading more than one book at a time. And while I am getting a lot out of Carson's book, I have to read it in small doses because it's really over my head in a lot of places. I have a stack of books I am looking forward to reading and it's hard to read just one at a time. I have to stop reading soon and get on the treadmill because we have church at 5:00. But all I have wanted to do today is read.

I read something in Kay Arthur's book that I may have heard before; but if I have, I had forgotten it. And I thought it was interesting enough to share.

Hypocrite was the word used for a stage actor. In Greek and Roman theater, actors customarily wore large masks to indicate a particular mood or emotion. No matter how the actor himself might feel, the mask was what everyone saw. A hypocrite, then, is an actor, or one who habitually wears a mask.

From your reading of Matthew 23, why do you think Jesus used the term hypocrites to describe the scribes and Pharisees? What were they doing that prompted Him to say what He did?

...What about masks? Do you behave one way at church and another way at home or in your business? Does your attitude toward your mate or your children change when you get out of the car in the church parking lot? Do you slip on a smiling-face mask over an angry scowl? Do you pull on an I-really-care-about-you mask when you talk to people, while underneath you really don't care at all?

Do you see what I'm saying? It was the religious ones whom Jesus called hypocrites. They were the ones who claimed to know God -- not the prostitutes, drunks, thieves, liars, and adulterers.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, "For I say unto you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."

To understand the meaning of that statement, we have to understand the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day. And it also helps to understand the origin of the word hypocrite.

As I was reading this, I thought about how important appearances can be to all of us in various ways. I'm not someone who can pull off the role of actress with any real effectiveness. But we all care to some degree how we are perceived by others. And I tend to feel self-conscious and embarassed at times about my inability to conceal whatever I'm feeling.

I remember an occasion, a long time ago, when I was going through a very painful and humiliating situation, and I could not control my tears during a church service. An important person in my life at the time leaned over and asked me why I couldn't be a good little actress. I knew I was embarassing this person by drawing attention to myself and my situation. This person loved me very much and never would have deliberately hurt me. But this person was wanting me to act. I'm thankful acting did not come naturally to me then. And I'm thankful that it doesn't now. (Even if I do wish, at times, that my heart didn't have to be on display at any given moment.)

I'm not saying who this person was because my intent is not to reflect on the person who said this. But appearances were too important. And my acting would not have been a godly trait or a fruit of the spirit. I mention this because I see how easily we can send messages to others that go against scripture without ever recognizing that is what we're doing and even with the best intentions. Anything we do to create a facade or a false image is hypocrisy and it is ungodly behavior.

Lest you think I am only going to address the hypocrisy I am not prone to, let me just add that the form of hypocrisy I am prone to fall into is expecting something from others that I don't demand of myself. I hate double standards and I try not to be guilty of having them. I remember not being able to enforce certain rules upon my son, like making his bed every morning, if I didn't keep the rule myself. Examples like that are glaring. But it's so easy to focus on a failure in someone else when it results in hurting me, then turn around and fail in the same area without ever recognizing my own double standard of expectations.

There are two ways we can fail to recognize our double standards. The first is that we honestly cannot see ourselves and need God to show us so we can confess and repent. The second is that we choose not to confront our double standards because it's easier to live in denial. I know I am guilty of the first. With all my heart I do not want to be guilty of the second and hope I never will be. So I try to embrace the wounds of a friend when my faults are pointed out to me. Sometimes this is a process and embracing any kind of wound is not my first response. But I really do try to honestly see myself to the best of my ability, and then ask God to make my "eyesight" clearer (gently, if possible).

If you are reading this and you are someone I have disappointed or held to a higher standard than I have held myself to, please forgive me. And if there is something specific you are holding against me that I have never asked forgiveness for, please communicate that to me.

I want to live for God's glory more than anything else I live for. That's why I'm reading a book called Lord, Only You Can Change Me. I feel so powerless at times to change certain parts of my personality. But I know there is power in the cross. I know God can change me if I really want to be changed. And I really do want to be changed. I want to be transformed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chapter 11: Pride

Here are some quotes and thoughts on the subject of pride...

"One of the problems with pride is that we can see it in others but not in ourselves."

"I venture that of all the subtle sins we will address in the book, the pride of moral superiority may be the most common, second only to the sin of ungodliness. But though it is so prevalent among us, it is difficult to recognize because we all practice it to some degree."

Bridges explores four specific areas of pride in this chapter: moral self-righteousness, pride of correct doctrine, pride of achievement, and an independent spirit.

He uses the pride of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable as an example of moral self-righteousness and then explores why it's so easy for us to fall into this same attitude today, since society as a whole is openly committing or condoning such flagrant sins.

Because we don't commit those sins, we tend to feel morally superior and look with a certain amount of disdain or contempt on those who do. It's not that those sins I've mentioned are not serious sins that are tearing apart the moral fabric of our society. Indeed, they are serious, and I respect those Christian leaders of our day who raise a prophetic moral voice against them. But the sin we ourselves fall into is the sin of moral self-righteousness and a resultant spirit of contempt toward those who practice those sins. In fact, Jesus told the parable about the Pharisee "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt" (Luke 18:9).

So, how do we guard against this sin of self-righteousness?

First, by seeking an attitude of humility based on the truth that "there but for the grace of God go I." Though that statement has become something of a trite expression, it is indeed true for all of us. If we are morally upright, and especially if we are believers who seek to live morally upright lives, it is only because the grace of God has prevailed in us. No one is naturally morally upright. Rather, we all have to say with David, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5, NIV). Rather than feeling morally superior to those who practice flagrant sins we condemn, we ought to feel deeply grateful that God by His grace has kept us from, or perhaps rescued us from, such a lifestyle.

Another way Bridges suggests we can avoid the pride of moral superiority is by identifying ourselves before God with the sinful society we live in. He uses Ezra as an example of this humility. Ezra was a godly man who lived an exemplary life. "Yet on occasion when he became aware of some of the deep sin among the people, he identified himself with their sin, even though he himself was not guilty." Reference Ezra 9:6, where Ezra prays, "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens."

Note how [Ezra] included himself in his confession of guilt: "our iniquities" and "our guilt." As we in our day see the increasing moral degradation of our society, we need to adopt the attitude of Ezra. As we do so, it will tend to keep us from self-righteous pride.

I remember hearing so many comments about God's judgment when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. And I also remember hearing my pastor address the subject from a completely different angle -- the same perspective Bridges is advocating here. My pastor talked about how we are no less deserving of God's judgment here in Middle Tennessee than anywhere else. By making statements about God's judgment coming to others, we exhibit an attitude of moral superiority and exhibit the pride of self-righteousness. As I read this chapter, I also reflected on a Tim Keller sermon where he said that if you pray for God's judgment to come tomorrow morning, "better not make any plans for 12:01." No kidding. There are certain comments that stand out in my mind and will be with me for the rest of my life. That was one I know I will never forget. If we want to be recipients of God's mercy, we must desire His mercy for others.

It's so important to always keep in the front of our minds how deserving WE are of God's wrath and judgment. It is only by God's grace and mercy that we have any good in us at all. I believe this 100% about myself. I am so flawed. I make so many mistakes and wrong choices. I'm full of hypocrisy. I over-react. I'm unmotivated (my euphemism for laziness). I'm sensitive and easily wounded. I'm co-dependent. In other words, plain and simple, I'm a mess!!! I need a Savior!!! I need grace!!!

I don't think of myself as a prideful person. But I realize there is much within me that I don't see as clearly and easily as others do. And I certainly don't see everything hidden in my heart the way God does. I have prayed many times for God to reveal the hidden motives and selfish agendas of my own heart. At the same time, I pray that He will do it gently and not show me more than I can handle at any one time. He has answered both prayers so many times.

I was telling a friend very recently how vulnerable I have been feeling lately. Normally, I am very comfortable with vulnerability. But recently I have been feeling like I want to withdraw from any situation that hurts or invites potential for pain. I'm not sure what is causing this. Maybe a little less vulnerability on my part could be using wisdom in some cases. But I don't want to become a person whose priority is self-protection. I want to resist that impulse. I want to be able to face my shortcomings and not try to self-preserve by retreating and withdrawing from people or situations that might expose me to pain. In reading this chapter, I am wondering if pride is not an element of this recent strugggle. I really want to be humble enough to face the truth about myself, no matter how bad it hurts.

Bridges concludes by urging his readers to pray over this chapter, asking God to bring to mind "any tendencies of pride in these areas and then confessing them as sin."

As you do so, remember God's promise in Isaiah 66:2. "This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

For El Torito Salad Lovers...

This is really shifting gears from my recent posts, but I just finished making a batch of this salad dressing and it's so good, I just thought I would share it with my California friends who remember El Torito's Mexican Caesar Salad. You can find this recipe on the Internet very easily, but I thought I would add a few comments and share it on my blog. It's really easy and tastes SO good (if you like Cilantro).

I use my Magic Bullet Blender attachment. It works great. Roasting Anaheim green chiles has gotten easier for me the longer I've done it. I also roast them to make homemade chile rellenos. Lay them on a cookie sheet lined with foil. Put them in the broiler and watch them closely. If you have a convection oven, even better because they won't burn quite as fast. You want the skin to pop and turn brown (not black). Turn them over and let them brown on each side. When you take them out of the oven, quickly wrap them in paper towels (all together) and just set them aside for five or ten minutes. They will steam and the skin will come apart from the flesh. When they have cooled to the touch, hold them under running water and gently peel the skin, then open them up and remove all the seeds and any stringy filaments inside. They are now ready to process. This recipe calls for two Anaheim Chiles. I use three or four. I LIKE FLAVOR. I also use Parmesan Cheese and it's delicious. No need to run all over town looking for Mexican Cheese.

I can only find the pre-made tortilla strips at Kroger. I get roasted and salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) at Publix. I used to buy them at Food Lion and roast them in the oven myself. But since finding them roasted at Publix, I have been able to skip that step. I also use garlic cloves from a jar (in olive oil) rather than peel a fresh one. The recipe calls for two small bunches of cilantro. I use fairly large bunches -- the size that comes in the grocery store. (Some are larger than others but I always use every bit.)

Cilantro Pepita Dressing

2 medium Anaheim chiles, roasted, peeled and seeded
1/3 cup roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
12 ounces salad oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
5 tablespoons grated Cotija cheese (or Grated Parmesan)
2 small bunches cilantro, stemmed
1 1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup water

Salad:
Corn Tortilla Strips
Romaine lettuce, rinsed and spun dry
1/3 cup finely grated Cotija cheese (or Grated Parmemsan)
Roasted red bell pepper, peeled and cut into julienne strips (optional)
1/2 cup pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds)

Directions:
Place all dressing ingredients except cilantro, mayonnaise and water in a blender or food processor. Blend approximately 10 seconds, and then add cilantro little by little until blended smooth. Depending on size of blender, it may be necessary to do in batches. Place mayonnaise and water in a large stainless steel or glass bowl, and mix with a wire whip until smooth. Add the blended ingredients to the mayonnaise mixture, and mix thoroughly. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate. Will keep for three days. Yields 1 quart.

To assemble salad:
Cut corn tortillas into matchstick-size strips. Heat oil in sauté pan; fry tortilla strips until crisp. Remove with slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Set aside. (OR-what I do-buy pre-made tortilla strips at Kroger in the produce/deli section. *Garden Fresh Gourmet, Salted, Kettle Style Tortilla Strips in an orange and green bag.)

Tear romaine into bite-size pieces. Place greens on salad plates and ladle approximately 2 ounces of cilantro pepita dressing on each salad. Sprinkle each dish with Cotija/Parmesan cheese and tortilla strips. Arrange four red pepper strips like spokes on the top of each salad, and garnish with whole pepitas. (You can also toss in a large bowl to coat the lettuce more evenly and serve already dressed as you would a traditional Caesar.)

Note: Cotija cheese is a hard cheese, similar to Parmesan. It is available at some grocery stores and most Mexican markets.

**This salad is identical to (or even better than) the real thing from California. The process will take you a little longer the first time you try it, but once you get the hang of it, it goes faster. It also lasts longer than 3 days, in my opinion. If you make the dressing ahead (the morning of or the night before) you can throw the salad together really quick with a hot Mexican dish and really impress your friends. Everyone I have served it to loves it, except John. (He's a true-blue thousand island guy.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Comfort and Conflict

We are still in Evansville, enjoying a leisurely morning in our hotel room. In a little while, we will pack up the car, go see John's mom once more and then head home. It's been such a relaxing weekend. We left Friday morning and stopped in Madisonville, KY so we could see Jeff, Lu and the girls (John's younger brother). They own and run a country club there, so they couldn't get away for the family barbeque Friday evening. They had all kinds of activities going on at the club, including a fireworks show that night. We had lunch and visited. Then we hopped in golf carts and headed out onto the course so John and Jeff could play a few holes. Ashleigh, Jeff's oldest daughter, joined us for the last few. She is an amazing golfer. But, of course, her dad is a pro and her mom is also a gifted golfer. I so wish I had even a smidgen of athletic ability! But I don't, so I just ride around in the cart and enjoy the company.

We had such a good time that we stayed too long and wound up being a little late to Harris and Connie's. We had burgers, potato salad, broccoli salad and baked beans. I brought dessert; carrot cake cupcakes with cream cheese frosting on the side. As we were sitting at the table finishing dinner and about to dig into the carrot cake, Harris said, "First of all, I always look forward to being with you because I like you. But also, I know that whenever you're around, I'm going to be eating really well!" LOL.

Yesterday we just relaxed. We spent the morning watching a movie in our hotel room. John always goes down and gets our coffee plus whatever else I want from the breakfast bar. Yesterday he made a waffle for me and brought it to the room. (I love being taken care of and do not take it for granted EVER.) We finally made it down to the work out room to exercise. And by the time we got to John's mom's house, it was close to 2:00. The three of us went to see a movie, then hung out at her house until we finally went to dinner around 7:30 or 8:00. We ate too much popcorn and we just weren't hungry. Think about what a blessing it is to have to wait to eat dinner because you're not hungry.

On the drive up Friday, we listened to a CD of a Sunday night service we'd missed recently. We had a guest speaker that night. The man was born a Muslim in Egypt and he had converted to Christianity as a young man in law school. While studying law, he became aware of how Christians were persecuted in his country and he had a close friend he had grown up with who was a Christian. They had never discussed their religions. It was the one and only thing they did not have in common, so they just avoided the topic. But this new awareness caused him to bring up the subject with his friend. He said that he realized the only reason for this kind of persecution was fear. It made him wonder why Christianity was such a threat and so feared that simply faith in Christ would make you a target for so much hatred. He asked his friend about Christianity and his friend gave him the Bible. He started reading it and one year later, he converted to Christianity. He then became a target of the persecution that had first aroused his curiosity.

This man's testimony is incredible. He told the story of how he was arrested and taken to a horrible prison where they keep no record of your "visit." There is a special basement section where torture is carried out. He spent seven or eight days in that basement being severely tortured because his captors wanted the names of all the other Christian leaders in his organization. He would not give them any names except the one leader, Jesus Christ. He spent months in a hospital following this ordeal, recovering from his injuries. The story of how he survived and escaped the country with the help of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, the United Nations and Amnesty International is amazing. He said that he is one of a rare few who have lived to tell their story. And there are not many countries in the world where he could even share his testimony. He said that if he dared to share his testimony publicly in France or Great Britain, he would be arrested for hate speech. I was amazed to hear that.

After several days of torture and his continued refusal to give information, he was told that the next morning he would be put in a room with dogs that had been trained to attack and eat flesh. He said they would always describe the next day's torture so you could think about it and be mentally tormented the whole night prior. He said he prayed that God would not let him live to see the next morning. But he knew that what he was experiencing was only a small fraction of what Jesus had suffered for him, just a little taste of the cup that only Jesus could ever fully drink. He prepared himself for what was to come next. I cannot even imagine being able to withstand this kind of mental and physical agony.

The next morning, they brought three large attack dogs into his cell and locked the door behind them. He had heard the dogs coming all the way down the hall. He had backed himself into a corner and covered his face with his arms in anticipation of what was about to happen. And then the dogs just laid down on the floor beside him. The guards were dumbfounded and frustrated. So they took that pack of dogs out and sent for another set of dogs. These dogs came in and did the very same thing, except one came up and licked his face. There could be no doubt that God was with him in his suffering.

I wish I could tell you that this was the end of his experience. But the next day his increased torture resulted in his hospitalization (for months). He passed out from what they did to him and woke up in a hospital. But God kept him alive to tell his story and he now lives in Canada.

After he finished his presentation, our pastor spoke about the church around the world. He talked about "the church in conflict" and "the church in comfort." We in America are the church in comfort. We should be praying for the church in conflict, around the world, every day.

I don't know why I have been so blessed to be born in this country and to enjoy the freedom and comfort I do. But I realized as I listened to this man that no matter how thankful I am for these blessings, I do take them for granted. The things that trouble my mind and cause me anxiety are so small and insignificant compared to the consequences that Christians all over the world face simply for believing in Jesus Christ as Savior. And I believe that the day is coming when we will be more and more restricted even in this country. Even today some prominent Christian authors and speakers already refuse to say openly that Jesus is the only way to God for fear of being viewed as "intolerant." I hope and pray that I will never deny the words of Jesus, his own claims, to protect my comfort and ensure my acceptance with others.

As I enjoyed my weekend of relaxation and comfort, I thought about this Egyptian Christian so many times. I'm so thankful he lived to tell his story. I'm so thankful I got to hear his testimony. We really do need to pray for the church in conflict and the persecuted church throughout the world. We cannot comprehend their suffering. To think that I would neglect to pray for them daily makes me feel ashamed. If it's hard for us to even think about this kind of suffering, can we even imagine living through it? I cannot fathom living under this kind of constant physical threat, let alone actually enduring it.

If you would like to hear this man's testimony, I can get a copy for you or lend you mine. Email me. I just checked our website and didn't see it, but I know the CD is available in the office and resource center.

I wanted to share this because of the contrast between the weekend I have just been blessed to enjoy and the suffering of someone in another part of the world at this very moment. As I sit here typing on my laptop in the comfort of a hotel room, no threats of any kind looming over me or causing me fear, there are so many in great distress. I know that God does not want me to feel guilty that I have been blessed. That accomplishes nothing. But I must constantly remember how blessed I am to be able to openly profess and worship Jesus in safety and comfort, to sleep in a warm bed every night, to have whatever kind of food I desire to eat on a daily basis. And I must pray for those who are not enjoying these blessings. I believe those Christians will be first in the Kingdom and people like me will be last. I have suffered nothing for my faith. And so I look forward to witnessing their reward in heaven. I so admire the faith of those who have suffered much rather than deny our Lord.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Discontentment and Unthankfulness

In chapters nine and ten, Bridges writes about the sins of discontentment and unthankfulness. Chapter eight focused on anxiety, worry and frustration. I am a lot more prone to anxiety, worry and frustration. At this point in my life, I am so content and so thankful on a daily basis. But there have been times in my life when I certainly wasn't as happy as I am now. During those times, I have always had an inner coping mechanism of finding ways to be content and focusing on my blessings. Even in the times when I was tempted to be discontented with my circumstances, the root of my problem was usually fear and anxiety. But I know I have been guilty of discontentment.

I don't know what your discontentment lies in. The greatest discontentment I can pinpoint as a thread that has run continuously throughout my life has been in the area of relationships. I have always longed for ideal relationships; relationships that are deep and not superficial, relationships of mutual respect and understanding. There have been significant relationships in my life that I have probably even made into idols at times because the lack of ideal relationship I wanted and couldn't make happen became the focus of all my attention and emotion. (Co-dependent is the word you're searching for.)

In God's mercy, He has helped me to outgrow some of those desperate needs. The needs are still felt, but not so desperately anymore. I have learned to be content with less than ideal relationships and even, in some cases, no relationships. I have realized that nobody but God will ever truly understand me. (I don't even understand myself much of the time.) I have come to a place of acceptance and rest in God's sovereignty. I remember one time when I was deeply grieving the loss of certain relationships and I heard an inner voice say, "I have given you new relationships to replace the ones you've lost. Let them go." I can't say I never felt sad about the lost relationships again, but I knew God had told me not to keep desperately grasping for them. If He intends those relationships to one day be restored, they will be. And if He doesn't intend that, I must accept His will and be content.

Bridges describes discontentment as arising "from ongoing and unchanging circumstances that we can do nothing about." But he adds a paragraph addressing legitimate discontentment that I want to include in this post. I think it's important.

...I want to acknowledge that there is a place for legitimate discontentment. All of us should, to some degree, be discontent with our spiritual growth. If we are not, we will stop growing. There is also what we might call a prophetic discontentment with injustice and other evils...that is coupled with a desire to see positive change.

We should never be content with injustice. I believe with all my heart it is sin to choose blissful ignorance, apathy and indifference when it comes to our response to the suffering of others. It is so natural to be discontented with fairly trivial, unchanging circumstances in our own lives while, at the same time, being indifferent toward injustices and evils committed against someone else. We tend to live in our own little worlds so much of the time; myself included. But it's wrong and it's sin. And when we recognize we are guilty of this, we need to repent and change.

Bridges writes, "The purpose of this book is to help us face the presence of many of these subtle sins in our lives and to recognize the fact that, to a large degree, they have become acceptable to us. We tolerate them in our lives with hardly a second thought. That makes them more dangerous because, in addition to the basic sin itself, they can open the door of our hearts to greater sin..."

In chapter ten (Unthankfulness), Bridges begins by telling the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, only one of them returning to give thanks (See Luke 17:11-19)...

We read this story and we think, "How could those nine men be so ungrateful as to not even turn back and say a word of thanks to Jesus? And yet far too many of us are guilty of the same sin of unthankfulness.

Spiritually, our condition was once far worse than the physical disease of leprosy. We were not diseased; we were spiritually dead. We were slaves to the world, to Satan, and to the passions of our own sinful nature. We were by nature objects of God's wrath. But God, in His great mercy and love, reached out to us and gave us spiritual life (see Ephesians 2:1-5). He forgave us our sins through the death of His Son and covered us with the spotless righteousness of Jesus Himself.

Christ's giving us spiritual life is a far greater miracle, and its benefits are infinitely greater than healing from leprosy. Yet how often do we give thanks for our salvation? Have you stopped today to give thanks to God for delivering you from the domain of darkness and transforming you to the kingdom of His Son? And if you have given thanks, was it in a mere nominal way, much like some people give thanks at a meal, or was it an expression of heartfelt gratitude for what God has done for you in Christ?

Bridges goes on to explore the different aspects of, and occasions for, our thankfulness to God. Giving thanks to God is not just a good thing to do, it is the moral will of God. "Failure to give Him the thanks due Him is sin." And even "...in situations that do not turn out the way we hoped, we are to give God thanks that He will use the situation in some way to develop our Christian character. We don't need to speculate as to how He might use it, for His ways are often mysterious and beyond our understanding. So by faith in the promise of God in Romans 8:28-29, we obey the command of 1 Thesselonians 5:18 to give thanks in the circumstances."

Bridges cites Romans 1:18-32 where Paul describes "the downward moral spiral of pagan humanity of that day, as God gave them up more and more to the wicked inclinations of their evil hearts...[and] their ever-increasing wickedness actually began with their ungodliness (failure to honor God as God) and their unthankfulness to Him."

...Failure to honor God or give thanks to Him is obviously characteristic of present-day culture. And so is the increasing decadence of our age. In fact, the description of moral depravity (see Romans 1:24-32) could be applied to our age with hardly a change of words...There is no question that the increasing moral decadence around us is appalling and scary. We often wonder how bad it will get. But the next time we judge these people we need to ask ourselves if we have in some way contributed to their downward spiral into moral corruption through our own failure, along with theirs, to honor God and give Him thanks.

I rarely ever begin a prayer without thanking God for a long list of my blessings resulting from His mercy and faithfulness in my life. I am continually amazed and thankful in my heart for my salvation and His forgiveness. I'm thankful for God's provision; spiritual, physical and emotional. I'm thankful for deliverance from oppression and spiritual bondage. I'm thankful for my freedom in Christ. My deliverance and freedom came at such great cost to Jesus.

Tomorrow is the fourth of July. We should be thankful for our natural freedom and the blessing of living in this country. They are also gifts from God. But we shouldn't ever have a bigger lump in our throats singing "I'm proud to be an American" than when we sing "Amazing Grace." Being a part of the Kingdom of God is a blessing that far surpasses any other, including the blessing of living in the USA. We should always identify ourselves, first and foremost, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. And we must always remember that we are ambassadors for His Kingdom.

I will be celebrating the fourth with the Howertons this weekend. They are another of God's rich blessings in my life. From the moment I met them, they each so warmly welcomed me as one of "the gang" and showed me so much love, acceptance and appreciation. I felt instantly valued in John's family. And I know what a blessing this is from God. John is one of five siblings. Through John, God has blessed me with a loving extended (natural) family I enjoy tremendously -- and the best mother-in-law a girl could ever hope for. Also through John, God has blessed me with a loving spiritual family at WOC and many close friendships I never imagined I would have.

John and I have been together five years now and sometimes I still can't believe the ways God has transformed and abundantly blessed my life. I am thankful. God did not have to bless me. I don't deserve His blessings. I am so unworthy. And I will never be able to understand why He loves me. But I know he does. He has demonstrated His love for me in so many ways. I haven't always been this content, but I'm thankful for all the times my life wasn't so great. I am more thankful because I haven't always known this peace. And I mean that spiritually as well as naturally.

Have a great holiday. Be content. Be thankful. Love, enjoy and appreciate your family. I know I will.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited: Suffering and Loss

I often read more than one book at the same time, switching back and forth between them. "Christ and Culture Revisited" (D.A. Carson) is not an easy read. It's challenging. But there's a lot of valuable insight in it if you can maintain focus.

A friend and I were recently discussing why God allows certain tragedies in life; specifically, the suffering of children. I, for some strange reason, have never had a major struggle when it comes to searching for answers from God as to why He allows bad things to happen. I have always just accepted that God does not intend for me to understand everything about life here on earth. The main thing is for me to trust Him in all circumstances, knowing He is just, merciful and loving and that He will use every situation for my good and His glory -- whether I can see it in the present moment or not. If I had all the answers, where would faith and trust come into the picture?

I have confidence that one day (not in this life necessarily) everything about this life will make perfect sense. And that is enough for me. I remember feeling that way when I lost my mom very prematurely. I didn't want to lose her and I didn't think she "deserved" to die so young. She was a good person. It made no sense why God would take her so young when she could have continued to be a blessing in so many people's lives. But I didn't question God. I believed that He could have lengthened her life if He had chosen to, and for some reason, He did not. But I knew there was a reason. It was not His will for her to live beyond the age of 49. I knew He wanted me to simply trust Him and not search for answers as to why the outcome could not have been different.

I have not lost a child or suffered through health issues with my child. But my husband lost his 18 year old daughter just after we became engaged. And she had health challenges (severe asthma) her entire childhood. During many of those years, he was a single parent trying to do it all by himself. I've walked through the experience of losing Brittany with him. I know there's nothing harder to accept. But I have watched him accept God's will, from the moment he lost her, and rest in his faith that if God had intended her to be here one more day, she would be here. Brittany's days were ordained by God before even one of them came to be. John believes this. And there is comfort in knowing that, for any child of God, there is a divine purpose in everything -- including our suffering. God intends everything for our good and for His glory. When I'm struggling with future uncertainty, I always remind myself of that. Some way, somehow, God will be glorified in everything -- including all our present suffering.

I have been reading in "Respectable Sins" about anxiety, frustration and discontentment with our circumstances. I'll save some of those comments for another post. But what all of these share in common is that they are each a result of our lack of trust in God and God's plan for our lives. In the chapter from "Christ and Culture Revisited," I have been reading about sin and the fall. And there are just so many parallels! As I read a passage from "Christ and Culture..." I thought about the recent conversation regarding why God allows little children to have cancer or other life-threatening conditions. Carson was addressing the pervasiveness of sin and its effects on all of life in this passage, not just suffering. But these words spoke to my heart and I hope they will encourage yours. First, the bad news. Then, the good news that "the fall does not have the last word."

...Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflecting on the fact that this is GOD'S world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash in shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we were made in God's image and shows itself to be mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.

...Sin is so warping that it corrodes every facet of our being, our wills and affections, our view of others and thus our relationships, our bodies and our minds. Sinners incur guilt, yet they need more than forgiveness and reconciliation to God (though never less), since the results of sin are so pervasive: they also need regeneration and transformation.

Yet the fall does not have the last word. Already in Genesis 3, there are signs of hope. God himself pursues the rebels; God himself promises them offspring that will one day crush the serpent's head; God himself clothes them to hide their nakedness. It comes as enormous relief to discover that this God is not only the jealous God who punishes "the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation" of those who hate him (for sin, as we have seen, has massive social ramifications), but he is also the God who shows "love to a thousand generations of those who love [him] and keep [his] commandments" (Exodus 20:6). Similarly, it comes as an enormous relief to recognize that, however odious and sweeping sin is, whether in personal idolatry or in its outworking in the barbarities of a Pol Pot or an Auschwitz, God intervenes to restrain evil, to display his "common grace" to and through all, so that glimpses of glory and goodness disclose themselves even in the midst of the wretchedness of rebellion. God still sends his sun and rain on the just and the unjust; he still guides the surgeon's hand and gives strength to the person who picks up the garbage; the sunset still takes our breath away, while a baby's smile steals our hearts. Acts of kindness and self-sacrifice surface among every race and class of human beings, not because we are simple mixtures of good and evil, but because even in the midst of our deep rebellion God restrains us and displays his glory and goodness.

In "Respectable Sins," Bridges shares part of a poem by Amy Carmichael entitled "In Acceptance Lieth Peace." The speaker in the poem is suffering and seeking peace through forgetting, restless endeavor, aloofness, and even through submission to the inevitable. Finally, the suffering speaker finds relief in these words:

He said, "I will accept the breaking sorrow
Which God to-morrow
Will to His son explain."
Then did the turmoil deep within him cease,
Not vain the word; not vain:
For in Acceptance lieth peace.

My constant prayer is, "Father, I trust You. Help me to trust You more. Help me to trust You FULLY." I know God will answer this prayer, even if He does not choose every outcome for me that I would choose. Through every trial, I am learning how to trust Him in deeper ways.

Jerry Bridges, the author of "Respectable Sins," shares about challenges in his life and learning to accept God's will. He writes, "Acceptance means that you accept your circumstances from God, trusting that He unerringly knows what is best for you and that in His love, He purposes only that which is best. Having then reached a state of acceptance, you can ask God to let you use your difficult circumstances to glorify Him. In this way you have moved from the attitude of a victim to an attitude of stewardship. You begin to ask, "God, how can I use my...(whatever the difficult circumstance may be) to serve You and glorify You?"

After the death of his first wife, he writes that a friend sent him a card with the following anonymous quote:

Lord, I am willing to --
Receive what you give,
Lack what you withhold,
Relinquish what you take.