Don’t fear failure – it’s a gateway to God’s power

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2 Cor 12:9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.

“We have to train them…to be obedient”, remarked Wes & Anne at different times during our recent weekend visit to meet newborn Abigail.  No, they were not disciplining their four-week old third child.  Five-year old Noah’s tone and two-year old Elizabeth’s deliberate defiance were the presenting circumstances.

“What do you expect from children – it’s up to us to train them!” rhetorically repeated each of these two young parents during the 3 days we spent with them.  Our son then added, “Didn’t you do the same, Mom, with us?”

I had to admit that I failed at Discipline 101 with my sons.  I was a working mom and when I picked them up from daycare or reunited with them after school, I just wanted to enjoy them. I also justified my weakness by reasoning that I was too drained to fight any battles of the will.  So I let a lot of tone and behavior pass.  My husband, when he would catch it, would parent properly.  But I was around the boys more, so they ‘suffered’ from my parenting failures.  Wes, the younger son, showcased his rebellion more blatantly than his older brother who craved approval and strove to be outwardly compliant.  By the time Wes was in second grade, it looked like he was on track to developing into a juvenile delinquent!  Or so I feared.

As these memories zipped back into my conscious mind,  I shared with my daughter-in-law how I wish I could have a ‘do-over’ and parent according to God’s principles, like they were doing.

Her wise reply pointed me back to God:  “But look how both your boys turned out!”  And she is right.  By God’s grace each has grown into a responsible, God-loving man who supports his family and loves his wife and children.  Each is guiding and reinforcing in his little ones the valuable habit of submitting to parental authority, a first step toward the life-giving pattern of obedience toward God.

Pridefully, what I think I wanted was to KNOW that I had parented well, that the ‘good kids’ that I got were a result of MY efforts.

But, if I’m honest, MORE comforting is the fact that when I DO fail, He is there to fix my mistakes and carry out His plan.  It’s never up to me or to you.  Yes, we have responsibilities and we are not to shirk them.  But our failures do not have the last word.

And that is GOOD NEWS!

 

 

 

Perfection and futility

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clay pot  “There I go again!”  as hammering self-condemnation reprised.  I had just done what I didn’t want to do, overeat.  Nothing really sinful in that per se, except that overeating is a gateway to my sin of self-centered, interior moping. More familiar than any other melody is my original adaptation of the human ‘Ode to my Pitiful Self’.

But thanks be to God and Bible-centered preaching and writing! Pastor and teacher John Piper rescues imperfect sheep prone to turn inward by proclaiming a recurring life-giving message of: “Don’t waste your disappointments, trials, suffering, failures,……”

God must have thought it was time to break my bent towards control and perfection with this sovereignly ordained ‘trip-up’.  So what galls me the most?  What sends me into despair each time I let myself down and overeat? Certainly not His condemnation, but MY disappointment with myself.

Here’s the rub:  Why am I even surprised that I can’t do what I want to do?

Like Paul, I wail: I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. Romans 7:15

“Stupid!,” this home-grown expectation or gateway toward self-chastisement. A recent podcast drove that home.  The speaker had been in therapy for a broken marriage and started to heal when she made the connection between her:

  1. Assumption that I CAN be perfect (do what I want to do)
  2. Anxiety over the burden of trying to be perfect
  3. Bondage to control in order to gain perfection

I suddenly saw the futility when I realized that we were never meant to strive for perfection.  In fact, God has intentionally designed us the opposite!  The human model comes with abundant limitations.  We see them as flaws; He ordains them as gateways for God’s glory and grace to show.

...we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. 2 Cor 4:7b

Breakable clay is the term for earthenware. In Paul’s time, vessels, plates, jars, cups were made of a clay mixture containing oyster shell pieces. God has purposefully made us out of crumbly stuff.  The Almighty Father and Creator made us delicate and fragile so that we would depend and rest on Him to do all that He calls us to do.  He didn’t aim to populate His kingdom with self-sufficient, sturdily consistent perfect little beings.

That is good news, brothers and sisters.  Let it go, all those expectations of how you want to act.  Yes, we are called to be imitators of Jesus, to be holy because God is holy.  But He knows we are going to blow it, multiple times a day.  Why are we the last to accept that?

Holy Spirit, remind me straight away when I miss the self-assigned mark I naïvely think will make me feel good about myself.  Grow me a new song,

a melody of music“Here I go again, a perfectly designed child of my Father who just sent me a love note that says, ‘Maria, come to me with your mess; don’t be surprised, you just need to give it a rest and flop down and swim in my grace and love!‘”

 

 

Stockpiled grace to rescue us

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For we walk by faith, not by sight – 2 Cor 5:7

The Martian

Mike and I just finished watching Matt Damon in the movie The Martian.  We both thoroughly enjoyed the humor and the human drama that unified world wide all human beings for a few moments.

One of the God-moments that I spotted in the film involved the Matt Damon character finding a vehicle sent up by NASA years before. I don’t know if the scene was planned to point to God or just that ‘the eyes of my heart’ have been opened to see ALL truth as God’s truth.

The stranded astronaut, unable to contact anyone with equipment at his base station, sets out to explore on foot.  When his space boot scrapes something hard in the sand, he digs like crazy and discovers the Pathfinder, a device sent up by NASA in 1997.  With it, he begins the time-intensive and convoluted process of establishing a way to communicate with those back home.

What struck me immediately was how very God-like this discovery was – a perfect example of what I call, God’s stockpiled grace, planned since before the creation of the universe and pre-positioned for just the right moment in the midst of a TRIAL.

What a blessing that Pathfinder turned out to be!  That fictional provision is akin to the grace we Christians receive from God when we walk by faith.  God commands us to FEAR NOT in tough and desperate situations, but to count on His promised future grace. He has already planned and positioned what we need.  All the resources for life and godliness await us for WHEN we need them.  We usually don’t see them ahead of time, which is WHY God calls us to walk by faith and not by sight.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godly living through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 2 Peter 1:3

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:19

We ordinary mortals who belong to Jesus are not the only ones who have to trust in God’s promised provision for the future (next minute, next hour or next year).  Jesus Himself exercised this kind of dependence.  I was struck by this fact the other day in Sunday school.  We were reading the Luke passage where Jesus is praying to His Father as He wrestled with the lonely path that lay before Him.

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.  And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.               Luke 22:41-44

An angel appeared and strengthened Him!  Isn’t that amazing? God sent just the right help at the right moment WHEN His Son needed it.  Jesus received grace JUST as He entered into anguish.

So here’s some Gospel logic – if the Father provided perfectly for Jesus to accomplish the atoning sacrifice that would later be applied to us, His chosen children, don’t you think we can trust this SAME Father to provide what WE need in the moment of our need?  Just like Jesus didn’t see the angel and feel the empowerment until he showed up, neither will we SEE or FEEL the future provision.

Jesus has demonstrated living by faith in God’s future grace.  That encourages me to trust God to venture out and do the same, through the Holy Spirit’s enabling.

 

What do you brag about?

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Some women my age trot out pictures of their grandkids or others of their prized pooches.  Then there are those who boast about the good deals they secured on Black Friday or their completion of a holiday decorating schema for home and yard.

But Paul exhorts us to boast in our weaknesses.

  • “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Cor 12:9

I’d like to offer a case for broadening the term ‘weakness’ to mean any limitation or need that one cannot personally overcome or fulfill. Part of maturity is a coming to terms with the fact that, EVEN THOUGH THIS IS AMERICA, one CANNOT do anything one sets his or her mind to.

Adult to skinny child:  What are you going to be when you grow up, little boy?

skinny boy

 

Child: I’m going to be an NFL linebacker!

Linebacker

Dishonest Adult:  Good for you, little boy! You can achieve anything you set your mind to.

So how does getting real with our limitations apply to us, no matter our age?  And can that little boy truly grow up to be an NFL linebacker?

My husband and I have longings and unmet desires that we admit to one another once in a while.  They tend to be activities or situations we think would meet some deep needs of personal fulfillment.   One of those longings popped up last night. Mike was playing some hauntingly beautiful, classical choral music as part of his Christmas play list.  When Emma Kirkby, the British soprano, began her ‘Who may abide the day of His coming?’ solo, tears from that deep place in Mike’s soul welled up. He has sung that exact piece (it’s also written for baritone) with some fine choral groups.  God has given him both a voice for and love of good music. But by our moving to Western North Carolina to a gorgeous spot in the Smoky Mountains in the ‘boonies’ we have cut ourselves off from that kind of music, both by geography and our choice to join a Bible-teaching church.

The conversation then turned to a time we had lived in England for 18 months.  During the one Christmas season we celebrated, we had season tickets to a series of classical concerts in one of the Oxford college chapels. The acoustics of that ancient holy space and the men and boys’ choir were ethereal and soul-satisfying.

That remembrance of time past led me to think of the few times, now so long ago, when we lived in Europe.  And my yearnings for another occasion such as those, to plug into the life and community of a different culture and (if in France or Germany) to speak the local language flooded my heart.

Both intense feelings of longing are real AND they do not mean we are unhappy living here.  The desires are part of who God made us.  Mike is gifted musically and I’m gifted with a curiosity for different people and love of languages.

Yet….in our present circumstances, I don’t see how either can or could be fulfilled.

But here’s the more significant point.  We humans see XYZ as possible remedies or solutions or ways to meet a godly desire.  But God is the Infinite, Eternal One who created ALL there is, including us.  And as Isaiah reminds us:

  • “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. Isaiah 55:8

So, let me remind both my heart and Mike’s heart: “Hearts, listen up! Don’t despair.  Yes, God has given you these gifts, desires, interests and longings.  And He WILL meet those yearnings. It probably won’t be in a way you can even picture.  But longings don’t go unfulfilled.  The satisfaction might come in this life or in the next, but it will come. Trust the one who says:

  • No good thing do I withhold from the one who walks blameless, in my path. (paraphrase of Psalm 84:11)”

So I will practice contentment like David models for us:

  • But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. Psalm 131: 2

Returning to my initial question about what you boast in, I started by proposing that these ‘current limitations’ or ‘needs’ are included in Paul’s description of ‘weaknesses’.  Could it be that God actually BLOCKS our way to fulfilling some of these desires ourselves?  Might He also use these unmet needs to teach us to be dependent on Him? And what about God employing them….

….also as a means for pointing the cynically jaded, bored, and despairing world to marvel at such a God as ours who does “EXCEEDINGLY ABUNDANTLY more than we can ask or imagine.” Ephesians 3:20?

I do believe God will satisfy those yearnings or He will replace them with something better.  Our challenge as God’s children is to show the world who our God is and why He is enough.  It is by our BOASTING in our inability to meet our own needs along with our reliance on the God who CAN be enough when we are weak and insufficient, that we show the unbelieving world the one and only path to abundant life. Be assured, the Christian is no fool. He trusts in the God who promises that ‘in His presence is fullness of joy and pleasures evermore’.  

Are you willing to be the arena for the tired world to see how wonder-filled our God is?

 

 

 

 

Does God need anything?

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Yes, He does. He needs our weakness!

Checkbook of Grace

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me2 Cor 12:9

What an amazing and imbalanced swap!  We give God our weaknesses and in exchange, He provides His unlimited power and strength.

In Paul’s case, God did not remove the illness or disease (that ambiguous thorn in his side), but gave Paul endurance not only to bear it but to rejoice in it.

I’ve been thinking about 3 things – ‘boasting in weakness’ as Paul puts it, God’s provisions and my needs.  John Piper writes in his book Faith in Future Grace that most of God’s word to us is in the form of promises.  It’s like God hands his redeemed kids an unlimited checkbook called Grace.   If grace is the set of all of God’s gifts to us, then within that purse or checking account or cupboard (whatever metaphor you prefer) are coins/checks/containers of different resources.

God's Grace Venn Diagram  You probably can’t read the small titles, but I think you’ll get the idea.  The big circle is all the grace available to us; the points are names of the forms of provision like:

  • mercy
  • strength
  • forgiveness
  • peace
  • financial resources
  • time
  • healing
  • patience
  • understanding
  • faith
  • rescue

The promises become precious to you and me only when we are desperate and bank our all on them, moving out of the paralysis of fear into the open space called ‘trusting God to do what He says’.  Hence the checkbook.  Some of us carry a checkbook around in a pocket or purse and when we need something and don’t have the money in hand, we write a check and count on both the merchant accepting it in lieu of cash and our bank honoring it.

It’d be stupid to continue to be needy all the while carrying a valid checkbook!  But that is how we act with God’s word.

Okay – so here is where this gets real for me.  What is my # 1 weakness?  It’s the continual fear that I won’t have ENOUGH TIME to do what I need to do for school and home AND……have some time left over for me to do what Maria wants.  Daily and hourly I face and fight that fear.  So God, in His kind design to wean me off my fear and grow my default mechanism to trust Him continually, SEEMS to give me more stuff to do than I can SEE time available to me.

I’m a slow learner.  But I’m getting better.  My thoughts are lining up more times than not (80%) with God’s word. My heart, however, still drags its feet.

To help both you and me, here are some encouraging words.  Take them as reasons to believe that these promises ARE indeed meant to be used.  The first one states the fact that we actually POSSESS these promises if we are indeed Children of God:

  • (Paul lists several promises and ends a chapter quoting a promise from the Old Testament in 2 Sam 7:14 ) “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (Paul then reasons…) Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends…... 2 Cor 6:18 – 7:1a   

  • But my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus – Phil 4:19
  • For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength – Phil 4:13
  • I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.  Open wide your mouth and I will fill it – Psalm 81:1

There are hundreds and hundreds of promises that will stun you if you will accept them as truthful words from a reliable source.

But how can we really know that God will come through and the check not bounce? I’ll leave you with two realities that reassure me:

  1. All I have to do is look back over my past (recent and long ago) and see the many ways He has come through when I both relied on Him and doubted Him. (call that “mercy and kindness added to provision”).
  2. The definition of God is composed of His attributes.  So when you consider just ONE characteristic –  ‘faithfulness to His word’, if anyone could top God then that person would be God.  The very definition of ‘God’ means that no thing or no one tops Him in  ANY and ALL of these qualities.  So we can reason and relax that when it comes to doing what He pronounces He will do, then He WILL do it!

So tell me, which promise of God is most precious to you?  What is your # 1 ‘go-to’ pronouncement of provision in this season of your life?  I’m composing my own ABC list of promises that I can have at my disposal and I’d love to be reminded of other treasures in the Bible.

Should a Christian have a bucket list?

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bucket list

2 Cor 2: 8-9 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”

Bucket lists – those impressive lists that both trumpet to the world what we deem important (Can’t die until I have done X, Y, Z) as well as showcase our time, money and wherewithal to make IT happen.

I mention this because a gal at church attributed her several-week absence to checking another item off her bucket list, a cruise to Alaska.

I didn’t think much about this until I read a comment that reminded me of the mind boggling, spectacular splendor that awaits believers in heaven.

What are we Christians doing, acting like the ‘pagans’ for whom this one life on earth is as good as it is going to get? If this is as close to heaven that non-believers will ever come, then maybe THEY have reason to pursue these recreational dreams. After all, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is woven into the American fabric.

But as Christians, the very idea of a bucket list of

  • exotic places to visit or
  • exploits to accomplish or
  • adventures to taste

as a guide for what we do in retirement (or even earlier!) doesn’t line up theologically with God’s call on our lives.

Not that God is against His children taking joy in His good gifts, such as natural beauty, or trips with family and friends, or even His distribution of interest, talent and grit to hone skills. No, God is NOT a killjoy. It’s just that ALL THAT and MORE is promised believers for later.

For now, God has set us on Earth to reflect HIS glory (not ours) through our day-to-day lives. In our ordinary work and communities, we are to showcase the magnificence and worth of God primarily in two ways:

  • by treasuring and loving Him and
  • by serving and loving our neighbor

…..NOT in our own natural strength, but in humble dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit. As flawed men and women, we are bent inward. It takes SUPER-natural strength to focus outside ourselves, whether we look up at God or horizontally at our fellow human beings.

So a bucket list is inherently self-centering. Let’s be real – we’re talking about a list of what I want to do. This is so 21st century-ish, so indicative of a Western culture awash with money and leisure. If you’re wondering where the idea of a ‘before I die’ set, chosen from the catalog of possible dreams, slate.com attributes the initial usage to:

“the book Unfair & Unbalanced: The Lunatic Magniloquence of Henry E. Panky, by Patrick M. Carlisle. That work includes the sentences, “So, anyway, a Great Man, in his querulous twilight years, who doesn’t want to go gently into that blacky black night. He wants to cut loose, dance on the razor’s edge, pry the lid off his bucket list!”  Quote taken from this site

Don’t worry, dear brothers and sisters. We HAVE an eternal REAL ‘bucket’ filled with fascinating and splendid activities and pleasures to enjoy all guaranteed to each of us who is in union with Christ.

I’m reminded of that famous C.S. Lewis quote contrasting mud pies with a seaside holiday from his essay, The Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I’ll leave you with 2 further resources:

  1. the poem below
  2. a Christian pastor’s version of a bucket list.

A portion of John Piper’s poem, “Justified for Evermore,” found in his book, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God, rev. ed. (Multnomah, 2012), 379-82. (Taken from this website – Blog post by Justin Taylor

And as I knelt beside the brook
To drink eternal life, I took
A glance across the golden grass,
And saw my dog, old Blackie, fast
As she could come. She leaped the stream –
Almost-and what a happy gleam
Was in her eye. I knelt to drink,
And knew that I was on the brink
Of endless joy. And everywhere
I turned and saw a wonder there.
A big man running on the lawn:
That’s old John Younge with both legs on.
The blind can see a bird on wing,
The dumb can lift their voice to sing.
The diabetic eats at will,
The coronary runs uphill.

The lame can walk, the deaf can hear,
The cancer-ridden bone is clear.
Arthritic joints are lithe and free,
And every pain has ceased to be.
And every sorrow deep within,
And every trace of lingering sin
Is gone. And all that’s left is joy,
And endless ages to employ
The mind and heart, and understand,
And love the sovereign Lord who planned
That it should take eternity
To lavish all his grace on me.

A Christian version of a bucket list

God’s individual curriculum plan for your life

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Hebrews 12:10b  ….God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.

2 Cor 1:8-9  For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

Does it surprise you to consider that God has designed both specific pain and specific pleasure for your holiness?

The verses above clearly indicate purpose with lead-in phrases like:

  • in order that…..
  • that was to make us…….

In a previous blog I reflected on the truth that God’s will for our lives is our holiness, our sanctification (same word in Greek).

And if we accept that God is sovereign over every molecule in the universe, then Romans 8:28 brings both truths together. God not only CAN work the bad and the good for our benefit, He designs all things to increase our capacity for holiness and Christlikeness (these two are one and the same).

Two brothers in Christ I know are struggling with different issues that trouble them deeply.  As I’ve been praying for them and specifically reflecting on the pot-holed and often painful path God has proscribed for me, I am beginning to feel some liberation that I want to pass on to these men and to others.

From numerous examples in the Bible we can ascribe afflictions like cancer or a car accident or anti-Christian persecution at work to God’s directing hand:

Isaiah 45:7I form light and create darkness,
    I make well-being and create calamity,
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

In fact, if you don’t subscribe to the idea that God controls these events, you’re left with a powerless God who just sympathizes with you, but can’t direct/stop/influence the universe. That’s Deism, not a god worth worshipping or one in which to rest and seek refuge.

What has been a hurdle for me to get over is the idea that God might have ON PURPOSE designed me with and allowed to develop in me certain:

  • sin patterns
  • unhealthy tendencies
  • wrong ideas
  • harmful dependencies

I’m not saying that God is evil, wrong or even unloving for doing this.  But if He is sovereign, then He created you and me with these flaws for His good purpose. Since His goal for each of His children is holiness, it follows that you and I would receive a tailor-made plan, designed in love by this perfect Father for His perfect ends.

IEP

My main sin struggle has been with food/body image/weight as idols. I’m 58 and that issue blossomed when I was 16.  I have suffered years of pain. Yet, I am beginning to see that over these years God has been using my disgusting eating/vomiting/compulsive exercise patterns and embarrassing self-absorption to wean me off of myself and on to Him for everything.

I could also describe my runner-up sin, that of a clutching need for ‘enough time for Maria’, but I’ll spare you. Just know that God is getting lots of mileage out of THAT particular design feature.

The very GOOD …….NEWS (new to me) is that the bad stuff I’ve done and still do is part of God’s ‘individual education program for Maria’.  And you have such a life-long plan, too, if you are one of God’s born-again children!

So what’s uplifting or encouraging about that?  Glad you asked!

I was out on an overnight experience with the 8th grade class this week.  We ate camp food.  The oatmeal tasted REALLY good!  So I ate 2 big bowls at breakfast (plus some fruit, an egg….)

As soon as I did and felt FULL, my default ‘beat-up on Maria/self-absorption shtick’ kicked into high gear.

But THIS time, I talked about IT to myself and said:

  • What’s done is done.  And God knew, allowed and even ordained this.  He is sovereign over each sin/lapse/mistake.  It’s part of His plan for me. Sure I have to deal with the consequences, but ‘good’ is being worked IN me right now.  As I repent and rest in His wisdom, I’m growing in holiness.
  • and even more important (Listen up, my two brothers in Christ!!!) we don’t have to be grim and beat ourselves up. These painful days are ordained for a beautiful end.  You might protest like I have, ‘But I thought I was better than this!….I hate my sin and the fact that I’m letting myself and others down when I wrap myself up in X’!

Believe me, I understand.  But where did our idea that we would NOT be dirty or a slave to something or able to control our behaviors come from? Why are we surprised at our junk?  I think it’s a line straight from Hell:

Satan:  How can you be a real Christian if you are doing THAT!!!!

Before I call it quits on this post, I want to go back to my declaration that God has designed our pleasures, too, for growth in holiness. Paul mentions that he has LEARNED how to be content in Phil 4:12 – I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Having what we want, enjoying prosperity can be burdens, too.  We have to gain God’s perspective on success, material well-being and happiness.  Just think of the suffering that befalls lottery winners!  I’m not saying that all the beautiful and pleasing circumstances or gifts are meant as trials.  Just beware that the good stuff can lead to sin, too!

How’s THAT for something to chew on!

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