The ‘if-only’ weed – Toxic to my soul

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John Owen is nailing me!  For someone whom I’ve never met and who died 335 years ago, it’s uncanny how well this man knows my heart.

His book on how to kill your sin, Mortification of Sin in Believers, is my current weekend reading before I open my Bible.

Look at what I read yesterday, paraphrased for me:

Do I lack strength and power?  Do I lack comfort and peace? (Owen then writes parenthetically that these 4 qualities are the only ‘lacks’ worth mentioning).  If so, then their lack has been brought on through NOT mortifying my sins. Giving in to any sin (what he calls ‘exercising’ or practicing that sin) precipitates the following:

  • My soul is weakened and deprived of strength and vigor
  • My soul is darkened and deprived of comfort and peace

So what does Owen recommend?

First, he explains how we strengthen the power of sin.  Whatever we set our affections on, whatever we cherish or love we THINK about. And what we invest our thoughts in grows in power to rule us.

Owen quite unnervingly calls those affections not set on God LUSTS.  (And he is not talking just about wrong sexual desires.)  We created beings were made by God to love Him first and foremost. And if we cannot say in all sincerity to God, “You alone are my portion, my treasure,” then whatever takes God’s rightful place as first in our hearts is a lust.  No surprise that feeding and investing my thoughts, fears, desires, and hopes in this cherished but dangerous affection has a deleterious effect on my soul.

Owen describes the condition of directing our beloved and best thoughts elsewhere as ‘a drinking up the spirit and all the vigor of one’s soul’.  The result?  A dark cloud barrier between me and God, blocking all the beams of love and favor from God to me, an adopted daughter.

When I read that yesterday, I realized that one of my pet sins, a ‘péché mignon’ as the French call it, is the ‘if-only’ game. This is where I imagine a better circumstance than the one I’m ‘stuck’ in.  This is sin. And yes, it displeases God, as does all sin.  In essence, when I wish for a different scenario than the one God has given me, I am declaring:  Where you have placed me, the boundary lines you have set for me, the details of my life are NOT good, Father!  If only they were other, I would be happier or more at peace or more content.

What presumption and what a slap in the face of the all-wise and all-good God.

This is sin! This is lust and John Owen says I need to be killing it every day.  That is, if I want the vigor and comfort that are mine by rights as an adopted child of God, whom Jesus rescued and transplanted through his life and death.

These lusts grow stronger the more I fantasize about them.  My thoughts do carry energy; they are fertilizer, ‘Miracle-Gro’ to whatever I direct them.

So what are we to do practically?  How do we kill lust?

Mike and I are going through a very difficult trial.  Like a lot of suffering, we don’t understand it and in this case, don’t know yet what to do.  In our God-centered moments we think and pray like King Jehosophat when he and his people faced the imminent attack of a horde of Edomites: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12

But more than I like to admit I invest time in feeding the ‘if-only’ lust.  So as I read John Owen yesterday the Holy Spirit showed me how readily I elevate ‘fixing this situation or eliminating this suffering’ to the number one place in my life, above God.  The desire for a life without this ‘whatever’ can dominate my prayers and thoughts.

‘But isn’t that natural?’ you might say.  Yes! but just because it is natural doesn’t make it less of a sin.  As believers, we are commanded to walk or live by the Spirit, not by the flesh.

I am finding that a good remedy for this wrong thinking is our Lord’s Prayer.  After all, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He gave them this content and model.

So when I shift my thoughts UP to what really matters eternally – Praying for God to be honored and worshipped by everyone, for His will to be done everywhere and for His kingdom to come NOW those small, self-centered fantasies of peace and good I have indulged pale.  Next, as I pray through the Lord’s Prayer, I am retrained to ask for what I need this day – basic necessities, forgiveness, and protection.  Does God, my Father, NOT care about the suffering and trials He has sent and what we are to do?

Yes, He does! He commands me to trust Him and to hand them over.  He is using them for my ultimate good and will resolve them when and how He deems best.  For now, I am to get back to His priorities – Loving Him and my neighbors.

This is the weeding, the killing of sin that John Owen describes as a believer’s duty.  And not just duty, but the way to enjoy God’s favor, His strength, comfort and peace that He WANTS me to experience.

Thank you, Father, for inspiring and using these Puritans to instruct not just their contemporary flocks but generations of believers who have followed.

New potting soil for our marriage

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potting soil  With Valentine’s Day approaching I’ve been thinking about our marriage.  When Mike and I exchanged vows in church, although churchgoers, we ‘lived and moved and had our being’ in contemporary American 20th-century culture. If you had asked us the very strange-sounding question:  “What is your marriage grounded in?” we would have answered with a blank stare of incomprehension.

Had you gently probed with a further query like, “What is the basis for those wedding vows you just spoke?” I know I would have said, “Love!”  Having gotten to know Mike over 9 months, I knew simply that I wanted to be with him permanently.  Marriage made sense, for that reason.  Plus, as Army officers, we couldn’t be guaranteed joint assignments unless we were married.

But as any wedded couple can attest, living with another sinful person is very hard, whether Christian or not.  We experienced the same stress common to husbands and wives.  And at one point, year 20, separation looked like a real possibility.  Why?  Because our marriage was firmly planted in the soil of contemporary American culture where ‘what makes me happy’ is normative.  Worldly colleagues at school counseled me to ‘move on’ if my needs were not being met.

But the Divine Gardner gently repotted us into different soil, through other friends who spoke God’s truth into us.  Gradually their counsel plus sermons centered on teaching on the Biblical God, books on Christian marriage plus our participation in Bible Study Fellowship changed our individual-centered worldview for a God-centered mindset.  This steady feeding gradually weakened the lies we had accepted as true.  That ‘Mike and Maria’ died.  A new ‘Mike and Maria’ continues to grow stronger as God fertilizes and prunes us.

The dirt made all the difference.

Over time we came to understand the true purpose of marriage.  Not at all what I would have expected, certainly not the way I was brought up.  Certainly not what best selling movies and books describe.

Paul describes marriage like this, in his letter to the Ephesians. He writes:

  •  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)

Mike and I are still learning that marriage is NOT about our own ‘happily ever after’, but about covenant keeping and reflecting  (very imperfectly most of the time) the marriage of Jesus and the Church.

As Tim Keller, a pastor in NYC writes: “If we want to be happy in marriage we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy, not happy. Happiness is a byproduct.”

Mike and I now realize that becoming holy takes a lifetime! Being married IS sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, often ordinary.  But a ‘happy ordinary’ is SO much better now than it was the first 20 years of our relationship.

Just as Jesus will never abandon his commitment and pledge to love his bride, the Church, so too we must not abrogate the earthly union with our spouse that our Father has blessed.

Have ‘fights’ and ‘frustrations’ disappeared?  No, but they are less frequent and not as emotionally charged as they used to be when ‘getting what I want’ was each of our goals.  Mike and I still struggle, but we are learning to love one another sacrificially.  For me, this means keeping my mouth shut instead of letting loose with a sarcastic or unloving response.  A new practice of putting myself in his shoes to understand his perspective feels more right.  I now take very seriously the Father’s charge to me as Mike’s wife – to pray for him and his growth in holiness.  I know that is what will make Mike happiest and me most fulfilled as his wife.

As Peter says in his 1st letter:  ABOVE ALL, love one another deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4: 8)

 

Why pray? The power of love, hospitals and gifts.

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1 Peter 4:7-10 (NIV)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 

Are you stuck in a trying situation or have a problem for which there seems to be no imaginable solution?  Life is full of problems. No surprise for Jesus promised such tribulation, in case you thought something was amiss and there shouldn’t be all this pain.  (But He also encouraged us to cheer up because of what He would do on our behalf.- see John 16:33)

I like to commit Scripture to memory.  So I’ve been living with the Apostle Peter as I’ve made my way slowly through his first letter to scattered believers.  Memorizing the book, verse by verse, since January 2017, has provided me with rich meditation.

Recently a new insight in the above passage struck me.  ‘The end of all things is near.”  The straightforward plain reading of the text seems to be that Jesus will be back sooner than we think.  However, from our perspective (and if you think about the recipients of the letter 2 millennia earlier) the end is taking A LONG time in arriving!

Last week as I rehearsed what I ‘have’ inside of me from chapter 4, I saw something different in the above verses.  I thought about my friend Pat.  This pen-pal friend is in her late 60s and suffers from late-onset depression.  She was 60 before this darkness descended.  Meds appear to work for a while and then stop and her doctor tries out something else that might provide relief.   My new insight was this: what if God means, ‘the end of this particular trial that dominates her life right now’ is near?

If that’s the case and since God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, what can I, Maria, do to hasten Pat’s imminent relief from this disease?  Peter provides a prescription.  I’m to:

  • Be clear minded, or as another translation renders it sober up, that is ‘get a grip’ about what is important in the eternal scheme of things (and it’s not 75 % of what I churn about!)  Why?  So I can pray.  I’m to pray for my suffering sister.  We Christians are to corral and curate our thought life so we can pray for others.  Why?  Because God uses our prayers to bring an end to our brothers’ and sisters’ pains and trials.
  • Next, I’m to love this friend, that is to do what I can to make her life easier.  God gives us imaginations so we can put ourselves in someone else’s situation and understand what we would like in terms of relief and assistance.  Pat lives in Texas and I live in North Carolina.  So besides praying, I can keep in touch through mail, phone calls and texts.
  • Then what about the hospitality Peter mentions?  I love knowing that reaching out to those in need is also the origin of our centers for medical care – hospitals.  We are to be mini-hospitals to fellow members of God’s family.
  • Finally, we are to know that God specifically wired us and gifted us with the means to serve one another according to needs we find around us.  I have a friend who knits.  She works to hasten the trials of others by praying over shawls that she creates with love and care.  God did not endow me with that beautiful skill.

So you see, dear friends, God involves us in the very shortening of others’ trials.  But we have to get OUT of ourselves.  The call to pray, love, and provide healing service to those in need is a HIGH CALLING!

If you wonder what is the purpose of your life this day, then look no further.  God has equipped you and me to participate in a God-honoring and life-affirming way.  To Him be all the glory and to us be much joy.

How God changes people

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For 9 years I struggled with bulimia; 6 years before I married Mike, followed by 3 more years.  A favorite activity of ours as young lieutenants stationed in Germany was to explore the German countryside by means of a nearby ‘Volksmarch’.  These organized 3-4 hour walks through villages and wooded beauty gave us time to talk.  I would ask Mike each week while we traipsed, “What am I going to do?  How can I manage or handle this scourge of bulimia!!?”   Poor guy!  My supportive and loving husband probably felt frustrated as he offered his comfort and solutions time and time again.

In my mind, it was all up to me to find a solution AND the motivation to implement it.  The problem was, I couldn’t trust myself to follow through, no matter how sincere my intentions were.

We were new Christians and I prayed my heart out, week in and week out.  But God didn’t give me a way to free myself from this addiction to food.  Instead, he removed the burden himself, in a creative way.  I got pregnant.

With that dramatic change in circumstances, I had a new, compelling interest and desire.   Caring for this baby growing inside of me replaced the desire to binge and purge.  Up until now, I hadn’t felt enough self-love to take care of my body. But now, for the sake of this new life growing inside of me, I WANTED to nurture myself with good foods and healthy practices.

The 7 1/2 conscious months of carrying another human being turned out to be what I needed to break the binge and purge cycle.  God be praised!

God CAN and DOES change people and we know that.  If you are a Christian, there was a time when you weren’t. Maybe you can’t remember that period if you have loved Jesus from an early age.  But many of us do recall feeling either indifferent or luke-warm about God.  And then something happened.  All of a sudden we were interested in reading our Bibles.  The things of God drew us in.  We might have attributed that newfound growing fascination as something we did. But we would be incorrect. Dead men don’t make decisions!

Paul writes to the believers in Colosse: When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. (Col 2:13)

That means that any interest, any LOVE for Jesus comes from outside of us.  As Paul so bluntly argues in his letter to the Romans – ……God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:5b)

Mike, too, has experienced this ‘from the outside to the inside change of heart’ regarding cars.  After those couple of years stationed in Germany, the land of VERY fast and powerful automobiles, Mike returned stateside with a growing, almost insatiable love for cars.  About 15 years ago Mike started noticing the decreasing pull of all things automotive.  During the span of 37+ years of marriage, we have bought, owned and sold 28 cars, not counting motorcycles.

But God!  Yes, God removed the interest, the mania, the seemingly insatiable desire for new wheels.  Mike didn’t set out to change.  In fact, he didn’t think he needed to change.  God has been working on Mike’s heart and shifting his values.

When we married at 22 (we’re now 60), we were not even believers.  Over the years, what has emerged as our favorite time of the day is something we would never have imagined in the first 25 years together.  The dinner-prep time, those 90 minutes when we’re in the kitchen fixing dinner and tomorrow’s breakfasts and lunches, we talk and listen to music.  Before we sit down to dine, we each get out our notebooks where we’ve observed and written down what we noticed in the day’s Scripture reading.  Inevitably Mike will have picked up something that passed me by and vice versa.  This in-depth exchange deepens our love and appreciation for God’s holiness and his Word. In our twenties and thirties, talking about God held no place in our daily exchanges.  God has planted and cultivated this now-cherished habit.

Last year I witnessed two other new desires that ‘came up out of nowhere’. (I’ve written previously about ‘dining with my school colleagues’ and ‘wanting to continue teaching and working on my craft of helping students with Second Language Acquisition’). What I love about God is how he surprises and delights me.   Maybe that’s what my family should etch on my tombstone, “Surprised by God!”

Recently, God did it again.  The change caught me unaware.  But this time, I connected it to a pattern.  (Why had no one comforted me with the FACT that change IS possible in God’s kingdom and that it is not all up to us!?)

Here’s what happened.  As I described above God rescued me from bulimia in my mid-twenties. Although the binge-purge pattern no longer ran my life, my obsession with eating and how I looked and felt about my body still plagued me.  The scales have been a powerful idol for decades.  Gradually God has weaned me mostly away from them.  But I still don’t trust myself to stick to any resolutions.

But God!  Yes, he has changed my desire.  Visiting with Shay and Graham over Christmas prompted an unexpected change.  They have been following a plant-based way of eating for 2 years.  Whereas I have always enjoyed the occasional vegetarian meal I considered it extreme to avoid all meat and dairy.  I like meat and dairy.  But watching the documentary Forks over Knives changed me.  I happened to ask Shay a question about the smoothie she was preparing.  It was Christmas Eve and we had a block of time before heading to church.  She asked me if I wanted to see for myself what caused them to switch.  I did and I was convinced.  Plant-based eating IS healthier and CAN minimize one’s risk for disease.  For me, it was a ‘no-brainer’.

And with that, I switched.  Mike, a very good-hearted, generous and supportive husband, agreed to drop his morning yogurt and share a smoothie with me. My lunches, breakfasts, and snacks are plant-based. And I agreed to prepare an ‘every-other-night’ entré of meat.    After all, Graham and Shay have adopted a ‘reasonable’ 80 %-of-the-time- vegan lifestyle.  This allows for eating what is served them by friends, or the occasional desire to sample something not plant-based.

A few weeks into this way of life, I recognized that I no longer care what the scale says.  What I value is eating healthy.  Surprise!  When we drove down to Tampa for Christmas, this new world of plant-based cooking was not on the radar.

So here is the principle.  Don’t angst about a change you can’t seem to make for the better.  Give it to God to bring about:

  • in his perfect way
  • in his perfect timing
  • to his glory and your blessing

Psalm 37:4  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

PS:  I think the desires the Psalmist had in mind are not what WE think we want, but rather what God wants for us as his beloved children!

 

 

Why we can trust God!

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Romans 8:32 – Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? (NLT)

I read some GREAT news this morning!  And this GREAT news is the means to provide you and me and all believers with the reason why we can trust and rely on God’s promises written in the Bible.  If we have ANY love for the Biblical Jesus (that is NOT a Jesus we have made up to fit our pleasure and needs but as the Bible presents Him), then we have been born from above.  For without the Holy Spirit in us, we can’t see anything attractive in Jesus.

And once we know that we have been born from above, then we are entitled to:

  • the rest and relief that come from being sure…
  • that we belong to God…
  • and have a place in His forever Family…
  • with Jesus as our big brother and protector…
  • and the Supernatural Divine, Holy Spirit as our counselor, comforter, and explainer of God’s Word.

Now here comes what was new to me and very reassuring, clarifying WHY I can trust God to come through on His promises, as recorded in the Bible.

John Piper, in a book about justification as the apostle Paul lays it out in Romans 9, declares that God’s unconditional election of us IS the foundation of the fulfillment of His promises.

All of a sudden, I SAW why I can trust Him when He promises protection and guidance and provision.  It’s the argument from the greater to the lesser.  If He has already chosen me, then, of course, He WILL provide!

2 Cor 1:20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him, the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (NIV)

Do we receive all of them now, in our current state?  No.  But we DO receive ‘a daily allowance ‘of what our good Father knows is necessary for us to live here and now before our Big Brother returns in glory for us.

So dear brothers and sisters in Christ.  Don’t fear.  NONE of what God promises now and later is too good to be true.  Au contraire, our future life with God, our inheritance is far better than we can even imagine!

 

 

Functional Pauper

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Joshua 5:12: The manna ceased on the day after they had eaten some of the produce of the land, so that the sons of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate some of the yield of the land of Canaan during that year.

The point of this verse is that God provided food each and every day, even AND MOST ESPECIALLY during the transition from a wandering tribe to a settling-down people.

If God so sustained the complaining, idolatrous, disbelieving Hebrews, will He not all the more provide for me, for whom He has already died?

You would think that I would understand the logic of this example.  I do, but I still don’t trust God.  Not really.

I’m a FIVE on the Enneagram.  I’ve written before how helpful I find this way of understanding oneself.  As a FIVE, I see life and live from out of the lens of scarcity; I hoard time above all.  I also hold tight to money.

God has recently convicted me of what this hoarding represents – the sin of UNBELIEF!  Operating out of insufficient resources is my day-to-day norm.  Whether at school (I don’t think I have enough time to get all this planning done) or in the evenings with the dinner prep (preparing whole foods takes time, and YES, I realize it’s a choice I make) or even on Sunday afternoons, the time I catch up with church committee work and a phone call to a friend or family member. Bottom line, I never feel/believe/trust God that He will provide enough time to get done all that I think is necessary.

Before you think I might simply need some lessons in time management, I want you to know that I have LEARNED to be content with the tasks that don’t get completed. I somehow am able to trust God’s plan for my day regarding what gets done.  The problem is this:  I can’t cast off that feeling of pressure.  I catch myself rushing, attempting to speed up my pace in order to shorten the overall time it takes for each task.  And I don’t LIKE that.

I know rushing is wrong.  I can FEEL it. I hate it. Yet, like Paul, I do the things I don’t want to do.  Even though I know the truth.  And just why can’t I LIVE what I believe? Why do I find it so hard to trust Jesus’ assurance that ‘If one knows the truth, it will set one free’? (John 8:32)

This unbelief spreads tangled roots that smooth the path for deceitful lying. Saturday, I found myself in dialogue with God, planning and carrying out something that would require deception on my part.  I returned a product to a grocery store that I had not purchased there, but one they carried. To make it even more shameful, it was a product I had ordered from Amazon. They had shipped the wrong product and refunded me the $5.76 and said I didn’t need to return the incorrect items.  Somehow I believed that gaining an EXTRA $5.76 would make a difference in my life.  I knew it was wrong.  And I did it anyway.  The self-justifying litany continued OUT of the store, money in hand, all the way to the car.  But then came the Lord’s Supper, yesterday, in church.  As I was contemplating Jesus dying for my sins, He kindly shone the spotlight on yesterday’s ‘LITTLE’ episode so I could confess it and come clean.

Not to drop the matter before He was sure I had internalized the lesson, this morning, Jesus returned to the subject by whispering in my mind’s ear: “You could have donated those two bags of dried black-eyed peas that you didn’t want.”  One of my ‘justifying’ excuses for my deceit had been, “What am I going to do with these legumes I don’t like and that I didn’t order?”

Mike left me an encouraging word this morning on our frig whiteboard.   He had remembered my discouragement last night about my lingering scarcity mindset.  He reminded me to pick a promise from God and then count on Him to fulfill it.

Sure enough, God brought just the appropriate Word during my quiet time: Psalm 23:1

  • The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall lack NOTHING.

What comfort!  What power!  The truth is this; I’m sure you can follow the logic:

  •       If God created all time and matter
  •       and If He has adopted me into His forever family
  •      Then, He will provide for me

He will provide THE precise quantity of time and money that HE knows is best, not what I think.

I’ll let Ken Boa have the last word.  I read in his latest Reflections something that is apparent but which I had never considered.  Quoting 1 Cor 6:19b-20a You were bought with a price; you are not your own, Boa wrote, “God has invested a lot in you already!

What a reassuring fact!  It follows from God’s investment of Jesus, the most valuable person in Eternity, that He is going to take GOOD care of me.

God help me to relax and just be a little lamb moving about and lying down at your direction.

My New Year’s Resolution in 2018

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Moses said, “Please show me your glory. – Exodus 33:18

We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:2b

Verses like the above have always startled me and caused me to think that some Christians must be VERY different from me.  I don’t even understand what that hope looks like.  Just what is it about God’s glory that others find compelling?

This theme of God’s glory as being something to be VERY happy about has birthed a growing desire to understand just what this glory is.

What tipped this quest into the ‘gotta know NOW’ category was a recent Pastor John Piper’s meditation on glory. John Piper writes about God’s glory.

Reading that, I knew that the only New Year’s resolution I wanted to set for myself was to keep my eyes open as I journey through the Bible again this year, searching for all the mentions of God’s glory.  I mean to write them down in order to grow my understanding and (I hope!) appreciation of this gift our Father holds out to His adopted sons and daughters.

And if I need a compelling example of someone else on the hunt for this kind of intimacy with God, the apostle Paul comes to mind. Beyond question, this former Pharisee had re-oriented his life toward KNOWING God’s glory.  Just read how he encouraged believers in Philippi  (chapter 3, verse 14):

  • I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  

Just what did this formidable evangelist long for that he willfully embraced hardship to hold out this prize to many?  Nothing else but seeing God face to face and experiencing His essence as much as possible.

So what is God’s glory?  In one sentence, I would say that God’s glory is the visible, physical manifestation of His holiness.  It would be akin to describing patriotism as the love of country made manifest in military service, citizen action, political representation, etc.  We can apprehend something of God’s holiness through this observable and usually physical and emotionally OVERWHELMING experience of His glory.  Beyond that, I cannot say.

What am I hoping for?  That my love for the Triune God will warm up and that I’ll long for Him more, so that I can say with all sincerity, “Come Lord Jesus”.

 

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