What do we do when life goes south?

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We all face disappointments, some minor, some crushing.  God, I have learned, does not waste our trials.  In fact, He explicitly tells us that we WILL have trouble in this life – all of us, whether Christ-follower or not.  As believers who have God’s Word,  we should expect to suffer.  I read just this morning in Acts 14: 21b – 22:  “Then they (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, ‘ they said.” 

So how do we think when yet another blow comes?  Recently I’ve been gifted with a situation that requires me to regain my balance and ‘prepare my mind for action’, as Peter exhorts.

The elevator synopsis is this:  While enjoying my best year of teaching kids French and anticipating staying on at my current school for a while longer, the tables turned abruptly and I know I need to look for a different job for after this contract year ends in June.

Here is how I am bookending or ‘sandwiching’ these new circumstances, using God’s exhortation through Paul to me:

Philippians 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

The background is this:  two believing Philippian gals were upset with each other and the entire family of God was affected. Even Paul at a distance had received reports of this disruptive and sinful conflict.  By NAME, the apostle exhorts these two sisters in Christ to drop the issue and focus on the stupendous fact that both their names are written in the Book of Life.  How’s THAT for putting a dispute into context?

Paul’s thoughts then run to a myriad of OTHER reasons to find greater joy in the Lord than being right or vindicated in a disagreement.  Hence his double directive – ‘Think over all the gifts you have as a child of the Living God! Now THOSE are worth rejoicing about, over and over again, not just once!’

Philippians 4:5  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

I think the logic goes like this:  the über-rejoicing about being in Christ should result in you being mild in temperament, easy to get along with.  Let THAT quality be what people talk about when they mention you, not that you are quarrelsome.  And if you need help with self-control, take heart – Jesus is close by, ready to enable you to build this new habit.

And if you say, ‘But what about my grievance with my sister?  It’s a real problem and still bothers me!’  Take heart, because Paul goes on to provide THE way to deal with that need and all others:

Philippians 4:6 …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

Jesus is our Lord and aims to take care of ANYthing that weighs on us.  But we have to hand it over, for good!  How?  By asking Him to take it on.  I see the thanksgiving part of this teaching as what we do each and every time we forget that the problem NOW belongs to Him.  Instead of worrying, we must say something like:

‘Oh, right, there I go again!  I have started dwelling on the fact that I need a new job.  But I have handed that problem over to You, my Lord.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are managing this for me.  Help me to NOT to take it back, as I am prone to do.’

With the abruptness last week of finding out I need to start a job search, I have succumbed several nights in bed to thinking, thinking, thinking about lots of ‘what ifs’.  That is just plain ‘ole’ sinful WORRY!  Each time I catch myself, I repent and ask for His help to do what He commands.

What carrot does God offer as an inducement to rely on Him to bring about a resolution to my situation?  Something the entire world longs for, pagan and believer alike – true and lasting peace!

Philippians 4:7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Our hearts are the seat of our longings and desires.  And our minds are a thought-generating factory.  As Christians, we need supernatural help to protect and block wrong desires and sinful ideas.  It’s no secret that our strong hankerings and thoughts fuel our actions.

I take Paul’s teaching in verse 7 to mean this:  God’s powerful peace, strong enough to shield you and me from harmful wants and musings, is ONLY given to those who STOP trying to handle their needs and manage their problems on their own.  We only get His peace if we abandon our situation entirely, 100 %, to Him.  But if you’re like me, worrying sneaks up on us unaware.  We often pretend and call it ‘being concerned and responsible’.  Phooey!  Bottom line, how bad do we want to be steadied by this promised gift of peace?  The way to HAVE and to HOLD it is by exercising God’s gift of faith – trusting in and relying on His character and His promises to provide.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Why this advice?  Paul has learned that even when he has set his mind to:

  • rejoicing a lot about all that Jesus is for Him
  • committing to His Lord and Savior all his stressful situations and those of believers he dearly loves
  • he still has mind-space to worry.

His remedy is to fix his thoughts on the many beautiful and true God-given gifts, worthy of his mental energy.  You and I are to do the same.  For instance, when I notice the cleaning lady at school treating her job with dignity, consider her example. Or when I learn about one or two honest, earnest politicians who take their responsibility seriously, I can praise God for His goodness.

But just in case, my mind has such a large capacity that I run out of ideas that are healing and safe, Paul gives us a challenge that should take up the rest of our mental energy:

Philippians 4:9  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do you know how hard it would be to copy Paul and to practice, over and over, his habits of speech and rest and trust and thinking well of others?  That’s why I say that God has given us plenty, more than enough, to fill and steady our minds and hearts.  His promise of reward is not just PEACE, but Himself as the God of peace.

Wasn’t it the bus company Greyhound who advertised:  ‘Leave the driving to us’?  One of the reasons for traveling with them was so passengers could relax and focus on the scenery and enjoy the people around them instead of stressing over the traffic.

In the same way, we are to leave the worrying to God.  We’re NOT the driver, nor the captain of our souls.  Those jobs are way beyond the abilities God in His wisdom has deemed good and safe for us.

So, this job situation, I see as another opportunity to enjoy God’s peace and practice my Uncle Paul in contentment.  How about you?

Do you have to know how He’s going to work?

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Phil 4:6-7  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  and the peace of God, which SURPASSES all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

God had already prepared me last week by focusing my attention on His term ‘surpasses’.  I spent quite a bit of time nosing around Blue Letter Bible to see just what ‘hyper-echo’ revealed.  Paul uses it 3 times to mean:

  • is vastly superior
  • stands above

What struck me was what God promises – in return for handing over problems and worries.  He guarantees nothing short of supernatural peace – quite the opposite of what we’re feeling as beleaguered worriers.  Moreover, He asserts that this holy peace of His brings us life-giving energy.  In contrast, anxiously wanting to know HOW and WHEN He’s going to work out the issues SUCKS away life and joy.

But human as we are, we WANT to see the provision, the solutions. Our minds race ahead, exploring options and play-by-play ‘if THIS, then THAT’ scenarios.

Getting back to how God prepped me for a bigger problem by means of this command cum promise.  Going into Friday of last week,  I practiced meditating on Phil 4:6-7,  how His peace counts more than knowing how He was going to fix 2 problems that have dogged me this summer.  Each day I practiced restating out loud Paul’s advice like this:

“Your divine peace is worth more than seeing or knowing how you’re going to handle these 2 issues, so I choose to leave them with You!”

Silly me – I thought God had opened my eyes to the value of God-sized peace for THOSE two problems.  But now I see that the gift of His insight readied me for Friday’s ‘surprise’.

Year 26 of teaching French starts tomorrow, Monday.  Typically I spend the day before we have to report for teacher workdays organizing my room and taking stock of class rosters and supplies.  Friday morning I walked into school around 9 am, carrying two bags of this-and-that. On the way up the steps, my principal fell in beside me and broke the news that only 3 students had signed up for level 1 French class.  I had heard from one of the 2 Spanish teachers that this year’s entering 6th-grade class was small.  With that information in my mind, I had figured a class size of maybe 8-9 instead of 12-15 as in previous years.

The news stunned me.  Only THREE?  Really?  Throughout the day I kept turning over the implications of such a tiny group.  The Holy Spirit did prompt me to text 4 friends who understand what it’s like to teach a ‘minority’ language in America.  They started praying.  And I returned to worrying and casting on Him and feeling sad.

The dark gray cloud sunk deeper into my heart, despite repeating Paul’s promise.  Joy-smothering heaviness lingered.  It felt personal, for I had taught most of the rising 6th graders in an Intro to French last year.  Students in our lower school study Spanish from Kindergarten through 4th grade.  In 5th grade, one of the middle school Spanish teachers continues with a semester of Spanish and I offer them a taste of French.  The idea is they can better choose the language they like or value to continue in Middle School.

I shared the news with Mike when I got home.  The pall lingered through the evening and dogged me during the wakeful night. The next morning my loving husband handed me an essay about waiting on God.  The author wrote from painful personal experience how these situations are exactly the kind that produces the fruit of patience.  Hmm….I had forgotten that patience is one of those 9 traits of holiness cultivated by the Holy Spirit.

If we really trust God’s goodness, then we can rely on and WAIT for Him to act, exercising patience by means of the faith He gives us.

A few hours later Mike followed up with a written-out specific prayer for me, asking God to give me supernatural patience and peace.  And God DID!

This prayer has SUPER-NATURALLY helped me.  In a tangibly different way, I KNOW the power that a believing child of God can access through prayer and have sent by the Holy Spirit to someone else.  It’s not that I FEEL any different.  I have been enabled to believe that God WILL indeed take care of the situation.  I don’t need to know the HOW or the WHEN.

Within an hour of reading Mike’s prayer for me and after typing it up for myself, my spirits lightened.  I regained my ability to think about other things.  What other things?

To be frank, thinking about ME, my concerns or the future is boring and life-sucking. So what is there to think about?  I’m tired of rolling them around in my mind.

Uncle Paul wastes no time in helping us there.  As soon as he describes the gift of God’s peace for those who off-load their worries, he tells us just what remains to be done, one final thing:

Phil 4:8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (NLT)

Here’s what Blueletter Bible says about the Greek word Paul uses (dwell or fix your thoughts on) “This word deals with reality. If I reckon (logizomai) that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise, I am deceiving myself. This word refers more to fact than supposition or opinion.”

So, what about that small class? I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Lot’s of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes are likely in store for me.  I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

I’m going to wait and see what the Lord has in store for me and for the kids.  I don’t think this situation is something that He will resolve right away.  Knowing God, He’s likely to have planned, just for me, lots of homework (i.e practice in relying on His Word and character rather than on circumstances I can see) and some pop quizzes. I know they are all part of God’s good plan to produce more fruit and Christ-like character traits in me.

But He is good and whatever He brings me is designed to ripen and multiply my fruitfulness, conforming me to Christ.

 

 

How you can help someone

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It started out as an ordinary church supper.  But two events transformed the occasion into a memorable one.

What do you take to a potluck?  For years I’ve relied on my standard, easy-to-assemble quiche.

  • Roll out a commercial pie crust into the plate
  • Add chopped cooked ham
  • Spread evenly 8 ounces of grated cheese (Swiss or Cheddar)
  • Beat up 3 eggs together with 2 cups of heavy cream (or 4 eggs and 1 1/2 cups of Sour Cream for less fat).  Pour on top of the ham and cheese
  • Bake at 400 for 50 minutes

There are rarely any leftovers, but the ingredients have grown pricey.  So I asked my ‘go-to source of practical wisdom, my hairdresser, for some fresh ideas.  What I wrote down was one of those Jiffy corn muffin mix-based dishes that also calls for an egg, sour cream, creamed corn, cheese and a stick of butter.

The little old ladies RAVED!  Not a finger-swipe remained in the 9×13 dish.  Note to self – keep making this for future potlucks.

The next surprise is weightier.  One of our elders shared a 20-minute message whereby he wove together and linked 30 or so Biblical promises from God to us, His people. This man’s goal was to encourage us to believe how much God loves us.  As I let wave after wave of strengthening truths bathe my heart, one couplet of verses startled me. Something new in Ephesians caught my attention, sparking some thoughts.

Whispering, I asked Mike to locate the passage on his phone’s ESV app.  I scanned the screen.  Sure enough, I noticed an anchor in Paul’s most famous prayer on behalf of this particular church.

Ephesians Chapter 3, verses 14-17 records the former legalist confidently asking God to grant the people strength to know His love so that they can be filled up with ALL of God. No new news there. But the structure of that clause-laden Greek invocation arrested me.  Here’s how I parsed it out looking at the Greek words on the Blue Letter Bible Website.

(Paul prays) I ask God to grant you all

  • to be strengthened with power
  • through the Spirit of God
  • by means of Christ dwelling in your heart by faith (both His presence and the gift of faith are permanent realities in the heart of believers)
  • whose presence makes it a given that you are rooted and grounded in LOVE and empowered with effective force
  • So that you all are enabled to seize and possess (meaning of  ‘to comprehend’) both the ‘physical dimensions’ of Christ’s love and the intimate knowing of Him that go way beyond knowledge
  • So that you all may be filled with the fullness (full measure of His grace and provisions) of God

What fascinated me was God’s supernatural interlinking of His Power with His Love. He then transmits to us intimate knowledge about Himself.  Thus, God’s power, love, and knowledge synergistically work, filling us up with Himself!

What a God! And what a prayer!  If you’re anything like me, you might be filled up with a churning mixture of anxieties, fear, doubt, pride with a touch of scorn for others tossed in to sour the pot.  Who would not rather be filled up with just God?

And just how do we replace the junk with the life-giving alternative?  By echoing Paul’s prayer for ourselves and then directing our thoughts to savor these God-given treasures that are rightfully ours.

Without a complete sifting through the Bible, these promises seem to constitute the most powerful prayer we can offer for others and ourselves.  And since I’ve been writing about power prayers, have you ever seriously thought about Jesus’ plea to His Father for us, His brothers and sisters?   Chew on this:

John 17:24 (NIV) “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

Jesus is asking His and Our Father for transfer to heaven.  Do you think that the Father will deny His Son this request?

Commands & promises that simplify life

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Parents mean well, but they can unwittingly burden their children.

My father was one of those ‘can-do’ men who had reduced life’s collective wisdom to short statements meant to both encourage and teach.  Some of this military man’s words of advice were:

  • Drive on all the way (Infantry motto)
  • Your wants won’t hurt you
  • Don’t borrow trouble
  • Do your best

That last one has caused me much grief.  Why?  Because I never knew what was my best. By what objective standard did one measure one’s best?  How would I know if I had reached ‘my best’?

There was one time in my life when I obsessively worked a side business while teaching school full-time and mothering 2 sons.  I almost wrecked our marriage, so driven was I for ‘success’ in that part-time fashion venture.

One week in particular stands out.  Push-push-push!  Striving to reach a sales goal in order to be recognized and applauded at the national sales conference one month later, I drove myself nuts (and probably the rest of the family!).  My dad’s motto about one’s BEST compelled me to keep making phone calls.  My goal consumed me.  I couldn’t rest.  That target named ‘MY BEST’ kept inching further away.

This past week, 2 verses have both grabbed my heart and resurrected painful memories of drivenness.

  1. Psalm 105:4   Seek the LORD and His strength, seek His presence continually
  2. Psalm 37:3  Trust in the LORD and do good

Yesterday was a difficult day teaching.  I dreaded one of my classes.  As I was walking up the stairs to the building, praying, I affirmed over and over again: All I need are the LORD’s strength and His presence.  God has commanded me to seek and pray for these things.  He must really want me to have them!

And He came through!  (why do I doubt????)

This morning, bracing for that same first-period class and sensing the familiar creeping dread, I recalled Pop’s adage about doing my best. I prayed for God’s strength and His presence; and the above verse from Psalm 34 came to mind.  Tim Keller in his devotional on the Psalms had reflected on that psalm the previous night.  And I had been encouraged by the simple command to ‘do good’ in the context of trusting/resting in God.

Far from being burdened by having to aim for my best, I felt relief flooding me.  One’s best might be the way of the world, the mantra of certain motivational speakers, but not the path that the Triune God teaches.

Prior to any effort or work God commands from us, He assures us in numerous places what He has already accomplished FOR us. (chose, created, sought, rescued, redeemed, and saved us). And in view of THOSE mercies, we are to TRUST HIM. For hasn’t He already proven to us that He is worthy of our trust?

How that command to trust Him relieved the burden of my dreaded class was in this way:

  • I don’t know what God is doing in the interactions between my class and me.  Most of the time I FEEL ineffective with them.
  • But I willed myself to trust Him, the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign of the universe.
  • And having committed myself to trust Him this day, I resolved to DO GOOD.

But what did ‘do good’ look like? For me, this morning, I taught French to my class in a way that was sensitive to their moods, abilities and comprehension and did not fret with what they gained from the class.  I did not take personally their bored 13-year-old faces or their chattiness about other topics IN FRENCH class!   I trusted God, did ‘good’ and let it rest.

This particular crop of students is weak. Their abilities probably don’t have as much to do with my skill as a teacher as I think. But God has placed me at that school with those children for His purposes. His plans are good and I will commit to being faithful in my assignment through the power the Holy Spirit gives me.  That is all He expects.

 

 

Don’t scorn patience

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“Don’t pray for patience, or God will give you many exasperating circumstances!”

Doubtless you have heard versions of that adage.  As true as it is, the one who utters it seems to do so with a tone of frustration and resignation as though having to wait were a curse.

A quote by William Gurnall, 17th century English pastor, recently arrested my attention and transformed my view of the fruit of patience.

Here’s the context for Gurnall’s teaching on the value of patience: What are we to think when God is silent after we pray earnestly an ‘acceptable’ prayer?

(Gurnall qualifies prayers as acceptable those tied to one of God’s promises and those that are offered from a ‘clean’ heart, that is a heart that has repented of known sin among other qualities.)

This pastor labored to persuade readers (or listeners to his sermons) to appreciate God’s delay in answering our prayers.

“Be patient, and thou shalt find, the longer a mercy goes before its delivery, the more perfect it will come forth at last…(then giving an example from Abraham’s long wait for a son)….when the date of God’s bond was near expiring, and the time of the promise drew night, then God paid interest for his stay. None gain more at the throne of grace than those who trade for tie, and can forbear the payment of a mercy longest.”

180 turn

Reading that quote the other day flipped my heart 180 degrees. All of a sudden I saw this onerous, groan-worthy quality trait as a priceless treasure God desires and wills to give us. But not as in, cut open my heart and pour in high-octane patience. Were it that easy!

No, instead, He sets out to offer me many, many occasions to wait on Him.  Whether:

  • at the grocery store or
  • for someone laboriously telling a story to get to their point or
  • the arrival of a job offer after multiple interviews or
  • for rain or
  • for a diet to work or
  • for a publisher finally to say YES!

Considering the payoff for this kind of inner strength, I now see the KINDNESS of God in giving us multiple opportunities to practice the skill of waiting on Him.  For what else are delays but God’s sovereign schedule of life’s events?  And what else is Biblical faith, but a treasuring of all that God is for us and all He promises to be in the future? Doesn’t that kind of faith require PATIENCE since we don’t physically SEE what is promised?

Does this kind of waiting on something in the future seem vague and like a discipline involving self-denial?  Then maybe shifting the focus to the reward will help.  Here are just a few of the many payoffs?   Consider some staggering promises of reward:

  • face-to-face seeing God (Rev 22:4)
  • renewed strength (Is 40:31)
  • compassion from God (Is 30:18)
  • food and satisfaction for all our desires(Ps 145:15-16)
  • all the gifts from God due us (1 Cor 1:7)
  • adoption by God the Father (Rom 8:23)
  • help and protection (Ps 33:20)
  • salvation from many dangers (Gen 49:18)
  • grace that is promised when Jesus comes back (1 Peter 1:13)

And if reflecting on some of these pledges of future blessing were not enough to help one see the payoff for patience, God brought to mind James’ motto for the ‘Saints Club’. Consider it PURE JOY my brothers when you face trials of various kinds….(James 1: 2-4).  Why?  because, as this apostle explains, trials grow patient, cheerful endurance in us.  The Greek term for that character quality is hypomone. Literally it means to STAY UNDER.

I take that counsel to instruct me NOT to fight the trying circumstance but to practice patient waiting, praying for God to resolve it or for it to resolve itself or for my God-dependent efforts to have their effect.  Whatever the outward action, the inner state of a follower of Christ is calm, patient, cheerful trust in God who ordained this particular trial and circumstance.

What is ‘driving you nuts’ that God is allowing or bringing back time and time again in different forms to GIFT you with patience? 

The danger of NOT being needy

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A friend unburdened herself to me last month that she was scared to find herself in the midst of a dry spell with God.  She doesn’t sense His presence any more.  He seems distant.   When she reads her Bible, she feels nothing.  She once felt alive to God, close to Him.

Now she finds herself going through the motions.  When I gently probed about what brought on this change, she didn’t know.  She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when her intimacy with God, her excitement of belonging to Him had waned.  She had woken up one day, all of a sudden aware that He ‘was gone’, as she explained it.

She asked me what she could do to get the old feelings back.  We talked about the external behaviors of Christian discipleship such as prayer, worshipping with other believers, thanking God, regular Bible reading, journeying.  She admitted that although she still attended church most Sundays, she had stopped both reading her Bible on a daily basis and pursuing regular time with God in prayer.  She felt hypocritical and mechanical in doing them.  Doubt about the efficacy of our prayers had crept into her mind.

As we were brainstorming and thinking about the practices of believers, God suddenly brought to mind what I think is the key to a close relationship with God.  Neediness.

I feel needy EVERY DAY and many times throughout the day.  I could chalk it up to my age and growing awareness of the fragility and incertitude of life’s circumstances. Or maybe I simply have no more qualms in admitting that in my own strength and resources I can’t do much of anything well, I’m just plain NEEDY!

Stop a moment!  Isn’t ‘neediness’ the very essence of being a created being?  But God as Creator, what does He need?  Not one thing!   To be God is to be self-sufficient.  To be creature is to be needy.

O, the happiness of being in want! That neediness keeps me begging God, scouring my Bible for His sure promises of provision, guidance and wisdom.  Daily, I journal about what I find in Scripture.  Likewise, I talk about the truth of God with my husband, other family and many friends.  I pepper emails with encouragement from God because when I point to God and His greatness, I FEEL renewed and strengthened.  All through the day, I thank Him as I see His provision.  When I start to dread tomorrow, I’m learning to rehearse why I don’t need to be afraid.  When I catch myself worrying, I repent of my unbelief and ask my husband to pray for me to trust God. I’m in constant dialogue with God because I live out of the insufficiency of Maria.

Yes, His mercies are new every morning, because my needs are new every morning!

Financial and health needs, relationship challenges, work problems, decision conundrums and other suffering have turned out to be God’s greatest gifts to me. I knew that at one level. But listening to all my friend is suffering and trying to DO to regain her once close relationship with the happy Triune, all-powerful God of the universe scares me.  I don’t EVER want to lose that.

Nothing compares to knowing God.

Where I used to begrudge any circumstance of neediness, I now THANK Him specifically.

Here’s how I have reworded Paul’s description in 2 Cor 12:10

Original: For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

My version:  For the sake of a close relationship with Christ, then, I am content and thankful to be given weaknesses, neediness, hardships and problems.  For when I am needy, I am strong in the Lord.

For…..The fear of (losing) God is the beginning of wisdom” Proverbs 9:10

One-year anniversary of freedom

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Scales in bathroom

It was a year ago today, 5 December 2015 that I walked away from my self-imposed dungeon sentence of measuring my worth by what I weigh.  I had lived in that dark and despair-filled place since my junior year in high school. And I’m almost 60!

But after MANY years of pain and many attempts to free myself, God gave me the courage to let the scales and a number go.

I have felt SO free this year.  No more early morning self-condemnation.

Instead, I TRY to measure my day by pleasing Him.  How?

  • by relying on His Spirit to do every task in the day.

Do I forget?  Yes, but encouragement from other Christians retools my focus. Just last week a gal wrote about battling unbelief.  The takeaway for me from her article was this:

Each hour I DON’T pray, I’m saying to God:  “I got this next hour, God.  I don’t need your help!”

John 8:36 – So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free

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