What God commands – impossible!

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May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors. 1 Kings 8:58 (NIV)

I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.  Psalm 119:112 (ESV)

I argued ALL day long!  Conversing with God throughout the hours, using Gospel logic. And at the end of the day, I was exhausted and still miserable and STUCK!

What was the matter?  Nothing more than not being happy with a number on a scale.

You’d say that my battle with the idol of the scales and an arbitrary weight I have self-assigned is IRRATIONAL.  And you’re right.  But I can’t seem to respond to unbiased logic.

The two-day battle took place on a Monday and a Wednesday (the one-day reprieve provided some emotional rest).

What made things worse was seeing that appealing to God’s promises and statements of Biblical fact did not appear to help.  In times of suffering, my go-to verses are these verses that I have personalized:

  • No good thing do you withhold, Lord, because I belong to you. – Ps 84:11
  • I know you do ALL things well, Jesus. Mark 7:37

Between affirming those truths, I tried to OBEY him.  Repeatedly I cast THIS care onto Him.  (1 Peter 5:7) But when no emotional or spiritual relief came, I concluded ‘it hadn’t worked’ and told my Father again, “Look, I’m casting this on you.  Help me!  I’m trying to do what you ask!”

I finally told my husband what I was struggling with, sheepish and ashamed, because we’ve been married 37 years. He has listened to me many a night pour out the same grief and pain.

Besides sharing a powerful insight that maybe this ‘thorn’ is a permanent gift from God, meant to drive me even closer to him, he offered this advice:

Maria, you can’t even begin to do what God commands, such as handing this issue over to him.  He has to help you even with this!  In fact YOUR acknowledged helplessness and powerlessness is what God wants from you, not your obedience.  He knows you are incapable of obeying.

Further tender counseling on his part revealed that I have a ways to go to think rightly about this burden.  Mike pointed out that I’ve been living and functioning as though eating and my body-care were something I could manage or control.  I realize this is a lie, an illusion that I have WANTED to believe. What betrays me is how often my prayers have been:

  • God, Father, just show me HOW to eat and WHAT to eat so I can be done with this.  I’m sick of focusing on me.  I want to be free of thinking about me.

A young friend shared recently how her days are REALLY hard and painful. She’s a young wife with a baby.  Continually she cries out to God for help.  But he doesn’t seem to respond.

Her experience and mine find company in the Psalms.  Some of those dark, hope-less accounts of David and Heman, one of his musicians, don’t end with cheer and relief from God.  Read Psalm 88, all of it.  Here are just two verses:

13  But I, O LORD, cry to you;

in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14  O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?

Why do you hide your face from me?

What I’m concluding is that God DOES care.  And if He isn’t answering me in the way I expect him too, it’s because he’s still up to something good in my life.  The story is not over yet.  I just thought that BY NOW, I’d have put THIS struggle to bed.

One byproduct of this misery is this:  I find that I am far more compassionate with some of the ongoing patterns of sin and pain other struggle with, especially the kind we bring on ourselves!

But I’m tired.

What about you? Do you feel saddled, still, with the ‘same ole, same ole’ sin?  What has helped you?

 

The ball and chain of craving results

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How do you measure your day, your work, your life?  If you’re American, chances are you think only about measurable results.

What’s wrong with that?  Why would you do something if you didn’t desire a specific outcome?

This is the month when New Year’s resolutions are grasped with intensity and then discarded with quiet disappointment. Yet hope seems to re-sprout with each new beginning, whether that of a school year, a budget cycle, calendar year or sports season.

Recently I have discarded my lifelong focus on outcomes.  I had become a slave to working for a specific result.

As a professional French teacher, I long to see students achieve skill AND enjoyment in the language.  Nothing inherently wrong with that.  Except my approach has been to hand over far too much power to my students to grant me the ‘success’ or even the ‘peace’ that I crave.

Yes, ‘crave’.  In fact, I now see a pattern that has emerged in my life. As I approach the end of my 6th decade, I find it easier to see themes and responses to life that I, by my actions, have crafted, either consciously or subconsciously.  Finally, I’m gaining the courage to give myself permission to STOP.

Is anyone else like me, in measuring their day by how well people react?  You might be a kindred sister or brother if you are a doer/performer like a musician, stand-up comedian, speech-giver, writer, film maker or even a skill coach.  Or maybe you’re one of the moms at home who teach their own children and are anxious to see growth.  Or among evangelists sharing the Gospel and discipling new Christian believers.

Despair and insecurity probably haunt more people than I realize.  Will it ever end, this never feeling like we measure up?  And I’m not talking about meeting OTHER people’s standards or expectations;I’m talking about the SELF-imposed high bars?  Let’s be real and call them what they are – prison sentences!

Recently, a ray of real hope broke through this burden I pick up every day illuminating a path of escape to a more fragrant and lighter world.

My daughter-in-law, who battles the home-school version of  ‘you’re not enough’, shared a verbal picture of what another mom explained as her daily task with her children. It was SO simple and SO doable.  Boiled down, the advice is this:

  • Each day, your job is to spread an age-appropriate feast before your children of that, which is true, beautiful and good.  In such a way that they can TASTE and SEE that the Lord is GOOD. (from Psalm 34:8)

Period.  That’s it.  She is not responsible for the OUTPUT, just for the INPUT.

Light-bulb explosion.  Isn’t that also my job as a language teacher?  to provide compelling and interesting and appropriate comprehensible input to my French students?

I am NOT responsible for their output.  That is an impossible assignment.  I can’t control them.  But I CAN control what I feed them.

And is this not also applicable to missionaries, both foreign and domestic, wherever God has assigned them (and us)?  We’ve all heard stories of years of labor before even one convert results.  The heart-warming account below is just one of many such examples. Missionary who thought he had failed.

What really convinced me of the sin of prideful expectations for Maria was a quote from CRU’s last print magazine, dated Sep/Oct 2016.  To wit: “We focus excessively on our output, because we want to be judged according to our effort, not our ability to remain dependent on someone else’s finished work.”

I am seeing this new insight transform my responsibilities.  I neither DO nor CAN control results. But I AM accountable in all my relationships for what I do and say and perform per the strength that God gives.

This lessened burden seems almost too good to be true, but I am proceeding as though it is and trusting our God to keep guiding me in all truth.  To Him be the glory for to Him belongs the power.

What are you holding on to?

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cell-phone

“Go ahead, cancel it!” I decided, after hesitating somewhat.

On the phone with Verizon, I took the plunge and dropped the insurance on my iPhone.

My husband once read to me from a book on risk assessment how the mind works counter-intuitively.  Because our cars come with airbags and we buckle safety belts before releasing the brake, we take more risks as drivers.  If a knife were imbedded in our steering wheel with its sharp point aimed at our chests, we would drive more cautiously.

So it is with owning a cell phone without insurance.  Wherever I am or go, my eyes swivel, or my hand reaches for my pocket.  I make every effort to keep track of that trusty companion.

Hebrews 10:23  Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.

If my iPhone, which is designed to become obsolete and wear out, calls forth such intentional care and surveillance on my part, what about my blood-bought faith and inheritance from God?

  • Does how I cling to Jesus provide even a bit of evidence to the world about what I really value?
  • Am I AS vigilantly committed to protecting my faith as I am to protecting that electronic device?
  • How does my love for Jesus and desire to live daily in union with Him translate into behavior?
  • Do I strive to stay alert to catch His signals and please Him?
  • Am I as quick to turn to the Bible to search for His promises when I have a problem, as I am to Google a solution for a sticky situation involving my cell phone?

Sometimes it’s the questions that motivate me more than my certainty about something.

The sin beneath the sin or ‘Don’t waste your sin!’

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I never saw it until this week.  It turns out that I’m like the thief who is sorry only that he was caught, not that he did anything wrong.

This realization of my hard, unrepentant heart came about through reading Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid

Extravagant Grace Book Cover

I had purchased it 14 months ago at a conference and finally got around to reading it.  I don’t think I would have been ready for God’s message to me any early.  (an example of His perfect timing!)

One of the central premises of the book is that God ‘s goal for us is to keep coming to a deeper humility and greater dependence on Him.  That two-prong goal actually describes spiritual maturity, according to Barbara.  In order to foster or ‘force us’ into a life-long posture of humble dependence (guess we wouldn’t gravitate toward it on our own!), God tends to leave one or two struggles with sin IN our lives.

I find that to be both encouraging AND discouraging:

  •  Encouraging, in that at least I now know that every other disciple of Christ is struggling, even if they appear to be rock-solid in their faith.
  •  Discouraging, for I recognize that I’m probably going to be fighting these faith-battles regarding my body and food the rest of my life!

At one point toward the end of her book, Barbara talks about feeling comforted knowing that Jesus both feasted and fasted perfectly on her behalf.  She has been a life-long fellow food-aholic.  I found myself sputtering when I read those words.  As I struggled to articulate my objection, God allowed me to pinpoint the problem.  In fact I wrote the author a letter asking her, “What can you write me, give me to HELP deal with this objection?”

Maria’s objection:

  • When I overeat, I don’t really care that it’s a sin….against God
  • I just care that I’m stuck with the consequences
  • Knowing that I’ve overeaten, I immediately withdraw INTO myself as I berate, regret, flail around for a fix to this problem
  • Consumed JUST with me, I could care less about anyone around me; I retreat into my interior world and my demeanor is just plain hard toward others

Apparently putting into words just what is my sticking point was what I needed to do, for since composing that email to the author God has been working to help me to see the REAL problem.

epiphany

Here’s the result of my ‘Eureka!’

  • Overeating is not the sin
  • Overeating is something that happens occasionally
  • The sin window of temptation actually begins at the moment my stomach registers an overload and asks, “Maria – Why did you fill me this full???”
  • It’s at this point that I can choose a reaction along the lines of “Oh well, the food tasted really good and I guess I did eat more than I should.  I’ll eat less at the next meal.  Thank you, Father, for this feedback from my body that prefers balance.”  OR……
  • I can start the familiar pattern of recriminations and churning around how to ‘make up for/put right/regain leanness/compensate for/undo what I’ve just done’
  • I can start to rail against reality and say, “It should not be! I thought I was better than this, more controlled.  How could I have let myself overeat like that? I know how much to eat; so how did that quantity of food slip past the guards unnoticed!  Now look at what I’m going to have to do!!! – deny myself food pleasure in the immediate future to undo this damage.”

It’s self-pity. It’s pathetic.  It’s all about me.  And THAT is the sin!  All along I’ve thought that the overeating was the sin.  I’m just beginning to glimpse that what’s beneath the behavior that bothers me is the sin of self-righteousness and self-absorption.  That’s the SIN BENEATH THE SIN. Because it reveals that I care MOST about my body and Jesus comes 2nd or 3rd or……

One application and one sign of hope:

First the application:

  • I realize that the next temptation to sin will start the moment I have already overeaten. And I can be sure that there WILL BE a next time.  I’m a typical human who is easily swayed.  I’m not a programmed machine.

The hope:

  • There are still plenty of spiritual growth opportunities that God intends to nurture from this fertile pastureland of food control and self-image

Today in Sunday School, Mike was teaching on a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.  His closing words gave me pause.  He summed up the lesson with this thought:

“Thank goodness for the messed-up Corinthians!  Because of their sin, we have these rich letters from Paul!”

So maybe my sin is not just for my benefit.  Maybe the assurance that “God works ALL things for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28) means ALSO that God is causing my sin to serve not just me, but other Christians as well.  At least I can thank Him for not wasting my sin!

Is God sovereign even over my own sin?

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If you ask me to share my favorite attribute of God, I would respond without hesitation: His Sovereignty over every detail of life. As pastor and Bible teacher RC Sproul explains:

  • “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”

As this fact about God has sunk root in my consciousness, I have grown less impatient when delays happen during the day, whether in traffic or in lines at the store. I’ve been able to create a possible scenario like: ‘Maybe God is preventing me from being involved in an accident’.

That kind of application is easy.  But what happened the other day shifted my mind to ponder other areas within God’s sovereign reach.

During this particular ‘occasion’ my pride intersected with my sin.

First my area of boasting:  “I’m the kind of gal who stays within bounds of food choices so that my body feels (and looks) lean”

Next my fall: But the FOOD looked SO good that I served myself a larger-than-I-should portion.  And like Eve in the garden, I took and ate.

Finally my sin: (not that my pride was not sin) “Yikes, now I feel uncomfortably full.  Oh, no!  I HATE this feeling- and it’s my fault.  How could I have done that!  I can’t stop obsessing about this feeling of fullness.  Why didn’t I stick with a smaller portion?” Self…self…self…self………down into me, away from Mike, away from happy thoughts about God that lift the burden of ME off my shoulders.

When it was time, to bed I headed:

  • to tossing and turning
  • to restless sleep interrupted with thoughts of ME
  • to the next morning with a soulful, self-absorbed greeting of God
  • to my walk, while listening to a John Piper sermon
  • to light and freedom from God, via a new thought!

hope light

Could it be that God is sovereign over even my own sin?  That this ‘lapse’ is part of His plan for growing me to depend more and more joyfully and comprehensively on Him for everything?

I had never even considered that His sovereignty extended to MY own sin. I wavered and the thought began to mist away.

But reason, in the form of a syllogism, rushed in to defend and grow this tiny flicker of hope:

Either God is sovereign over everything or He has no control over human and natural events

God IS sovereign over everything

Therefore, He has control over every human and natural event

What follows is mere corollary:

  • My sin/mistake/bad thing/poor judgment/lapse/evil/hurtful word/thoughtless or deliberate cruel action/ugly thought is part of the ‘everything’ that God has planned or ordained to unroll according to His purposes.
  • If I don’t FRET when traffic interrupts my plans, then I shouldn’t FRET when I act in ways I don’t like
  • Caveat – this does not mean that when I do bad stuff, it’s NOT bad stuff.  It IS bad and sinful.  And as my husband reminded me, Jesus has paid for each and every sin. Therefore, it’s not only POINTLESS but a display of lack of faith as well as a symptom of FALSE PRIDE to beat myself up.  Kinda like carrying out the old Catholic church ritual.

From those thoughts on my early morning walk, came the heart-lifting reminder and sure word that God is working ALL things for my good and His glory and even this humiliating/image-busting “it’s not like me to do….XYZ” event is in His Hand.

So I let the overeating of the previous evening go.  Just like that.  I haven’t yet processed the notion that all those years of self-absorption with food, débuting with 9 years of bulimia and the 32 years since then have been sovereignly allowed/planned by God. But this kairos moment is another reminder that God has called us to reason from His truth.  As Abraham Kuyper so reassuringly proclaimed:

  • “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

one square inch

My ‘stuff’ is included in that ‘square inch’; God IS working all the misery of my own doing as well as the misery that intersects my life from other second causes.  The God who created the universe and all that is in it IS the First Cause, or He is No cause. We can’t have it both ways.

My comfort is further bolstered by this account of wandering souls, stuck in misery of their own making:

Psalm 107: 10 to 14 –There were those who dwelt in darkness and the shadow of death, prisoners in misery and chains because they had rebelled against the words of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High.  Therefore, He humbled their heart with labor; they stumbled and there was none to help.  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses.  He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their bands apart.

Resting in Doctrine – God’s in charge!

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Job 14:5A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.

Psalm 139:16Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began.

News of a recent hostage death has caused me to think through whether God is in charge or not.  What we believe about God is called doctrine and doctrines DO matter.  They affect our thoughts, which influence our feelings.  These rational and emotional aspects reside at different layers within us, some conscious and others beyond our conscious awareness.  It’s apparent to me that we are guided by thoughts and feelings originating in both camps, whether we know it or not.  Who hasn’t been appalled at a choice comment that slipped out before we could filter it: ‘Where did THAT come from?” we genuinely exclaim in horror.

Garbage in, Garbage out: ‘right’ thinking about God matters.  So what is ‘right’ thinking or doctrine when it comes to whether God is in control of all that happens in our universe? The Bible, the definitive source of doctrine, affirms that He is in fact the first cause* for all that happens. The term for that 100% authority and rule that belongs to God’s is His Sovereignty.

If a king is sovereign over his lands, then what he says is the law of the land.  How much more is it with God who is the author (hence – authority) and creator of all that IS.  And if He is sovereign, by definition then, that quality of being in charge includes the notion of having and exercising all power.  There is no such thing as impotent sovereignty.

Back to the hostage who died.  My heart goes out to the family who is dealing with pain and loss. If they are followers of God, there is one comfort that should hold them up in their grief:

God’s plan for their dear one was not thwarted.  Therefore, they need not take on all the piercing, painful ‘what ifs’ that often assault survivors.  Rescue attempts did not succeed because God sovereignly ordained the day the hostage would die.

This is NOT fatalism because that would mean that it doesn’t matter what one does, that regardless of our actions, the outcome is the same. God’s sovereignty is different because He chooses to carry out His will in our lives through both our human actions and His divine workings.  Rescue attempts ARE appropriate because they might be the means God uses to save lives.

We have an example of God sovereignly determining different outcomes with two of Jesus’ apostles.  James, son of Zebedee,  was the first to be murdered by the Romans.  Wasn’t anyone praying for his rescue?  Undoubtedly!  Then there was Peter, also imprisoned by the Romans.  This time similar prayers led to his miraculous rescue from jail. What made the difference?  God and His sovereign will!

So, why is this doctrine so important?  For one, it is PEACE-producing.  We don’t need to beat ourselves up with the ‘what-ifs’.  That self-inflicted torture implies our actions are sovereign.

So sweet is this aspect of God!  His unchanging character guarantees that His sovereign decrees will always be done.  This in turn lifts the immobilizing burden of possible mistakes off of me.

  • What if I make a wrong decision?
  • What if I should have known better than to make that trip to the Holy Land and fall prey to a terrorist attack?
  • What if I had taken a different route to the bank?
  • What if I had chosen a different spouse, a different job?
  • What if I hadn’t indulged in that immoral behavior?

I can easily wallow in regrets, if I start thinking that I am in charge of my life.

Jesus breathes comfort and peace into our troubled minds:

  • John 14:27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

*Although God is the First Cause of all that happens, there are other doctrines that exclude Him from being charged with the evil we do. Even though God is sovereign, we are still guilty for bad stuff we do. That’s a complex theological discussion that I cannot take up here.

 

What is the meaning of life?

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UVa

Traipsing wearily across the grounds of ‘The University‘, as those affiliated with Mr Jefferson’s proudest legacy like to refer to UVa, I was lost in existential thought.  Not unusual for a 20 year-old with too much time on her hands.  What was the meaning of life?  Why was I here?  Where was I headed? Why was I so unhappy?

“Smile!” chirped the startling and uninvited voice of the stranger who passed me by.  I felt like snarling, “I wasn’t frowning! and what’s it to you!” Non-plussed, I said nothing.

Those at the beginning of adulthood share the propensity to seek meaning with two other cohorts – those in midlife and those approaching death.  It’s then that one has time to think about what’s important.

I remember flirting with those issues a few years ago as I was nearing 50.  One mom whose last daughter was about to leave my school where I taught dealt with that approaching emptiness by outfitting and equipping a new house with fancy décor. This was the temporary diversion she had found to put off those nagging questions that matter.  She didn’t need a larger house now that she was soon to be an empty nester.  And as an example of a man approaching death, I have only to look at my dad.  The more his body betrayed him, the more earnestly he sought to insure that we wouldn’t forget him or his accomplishments.  He commissioned self-portraits and published chronicles of past exploits, gifting all his family members.

Recently I’ve been thanking God for one of His benefits that provides me with daily comfort and assurance. It’s one that I had almost taken for granted.  Paul’s shorthand statement sums it up:

Philippians 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.

If the 2nd half is clear, (when we die, we get to be with Jesus face to face if we have been redeemed by Him), the first half is cryptic.

But it’s not THAT difficult to flesh out.  A Christian is someone who can now see, thanks to God removing the blinders. And what is it that we see?

Was blind, but now see

 

 

For one, we see the big picture of life (aka – the ‘meaning of life’), that is:

  • who created the universe
  • why we were created, our purpose
  • someone IS in control and the universe is not subject to random chance
  • there is TRUTH and it consists not just in principles but in a person who embodies truth
  • despite much evil in this world, one day justice WILL HAVE its day in court; there will be an accounting.

Spoiler alert

 

 

 

 

What will be the nature of this accounting?  Every one of us perpetrators of evil (whether we’re the proverbial little ‘ole lady or an Isis member, or the ordinary sinner who lies, steals, covets, envies, gossips) will either pay for our own deeds or know and be thankful that Jesus suffered in our place as a substitute.

Thanks to Truth, I walk around every day KNOWING that all authority is in God’s hands.  When I meditate on God’s promises in the early morning and look up at the stars, I thank Jesus that He is holding each one of them in their place by His breath and the power of His word.  I don’t have to guess what my purpose is for the day.  I don’t have to wonder what will happen to me when I die.  I don’t have to struggle to reconcile how a supposed loving God can allow all manner of pain and suffering to happen in the world.

Why

 

 

 

God doesn’t reveal to me the purposes behind allowing every bad thing, but I know that He is 100 % in control and that He is a good God and that I can trust Him when He says He works even ‘this’ for the ultimate good of those of us He has called and given the ability to love Him.  That is enough for me.

So back to the part of Paul’s verse that sums up my peace.  The way to live this toilsome, troubling, sometimes terrifying, sometimes terrific life on earth is to center on Jesus, the risen and living Son of God.  He gives me all I need for life, for walking step by step through each day with purpose, peace and provisions, as I need them.

Even though I want to SEE with my eyes the provisions laid up for me, I have to remind myself that He calls me to walk with my eyes of faith (that He has provided).

This gift of KNOWING, of having the Big Picture, of being held securely through a Biblical Worldview is a blessing worth more than treasure can buy.  (Just think of countless quests and books penned.)

To Live is Christ

And to set forth that worldview or ‘Meaning of Life’, Paul dictated ‘to live is Christ’.  It is a handy way of communicating that Jesus Christ is our God, is our Creator, is our Savior, is our Righteousness, is our Wisdom, is our Intercessor, is our Brother, is our Provider, is our Ezer (helper), is our Comforter, is our Protection, is THE Explanation for all that is and ever will be.  Whew!  That is enough for me.

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