Entering a new decade with God

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Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)

It was early fall; I shared lunch with a fellow teacher about 15 years older than me. “How did you cope with turning 40?” I asked.

Her response startled me: “Have you ever heard of Bible Study Fellowship?”

Intrigued, I joined as soon as I could.  And God changed my life.

At 50 I switched schools. Summit Christian Academy in Yorktown, Va hired me, a French teacher, to teach civics, US history and LOGIC!  My qualifications?  An initial BA in Foreign Affairs from UVA.

I had to google ‘Logic’.  And God changed my life.

Sweet 60 is my soon-to-be demographic.  A new decade.  I ponder this significant celebration. It feels different. I know God so much better now.

Over the past 20 years, He has taught me to live by some fundamental facts. (Does that make me a ‘fundamentalist’?)

  • He does all things well (Mark 7:37)
  • He is good
  • He is sovereign
  • I belong to Him, for He has given me His Spirit. (Romans 8:9)

Those truths settle me.  His holy gift of peace permeates.  Being one of His sheep is enough.

No, I don’t know what my Father has in store for me as this new decade dawns. But one thing I do know: I trust Him.  And He promises a happy future for every son and daughter, liberated by Christ. (Matt 25:34)

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. Proverbs 4:18 (ESV)

The cost of trusting God

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Charles Spurgeon: “(do) You want to see….how (affliction) can bring good to the soul; you must believe it.  Honor God by trusting him.” (as tweeted by Randy Alcorn, 20 Mar 2017)

So many friends waiting, waiting, waiting.

There’s D, whose husband got let go from his job at age 61.  It’s been 3 months and he’s gone through two REALLY promising and lengthy job interviews.  Only to hear back in emails, ‘Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to go with someone else.”

In addition to my friend D, several other friends pray for, search and await jobs.

And then there is J who holds on for a solution to a leak in her roof.  It’s not like she and her husband have oodles of money in savings, available to try first one remedy or another. That’s part of the problem.  The house has turned into a money pit, drawing from their retirement funds. They believe they should sell it to protect their savings.  But they can’t list the house until the leak is repaired.  Biding their time, they communicate, encourage and remind contractors, hopeful that each successive remedy will be THE one.

My other friend has endured countless medical procedures and tests and been the subject of panels of medical boards convening to seek the best way forward for an aggressive cancer.  Chosen routes have revealed dead ends.  Patience, while suffering, is her familiar journey partner.

Trying, painful situations hit believers and non-believers alike. We could despair, were it not for knowing the Truth.  For as Jesus teaches, “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  John 8:32  

What is that truth that blocks our natural response to fall into a gloomy permanent pit? That God loves us and that the suffering has a good purpose!  That He has planned each trial to conform us to our older brother, Jesus.  To avail ourselves of that truth, God has given us FAITH to believe the manifold and rich promises that are the rightful property or resource of all who ‘love God and are called by Him, according to His purposeful plan.’ (Romans 8:28)

Just as we have been given physical muscles to exercise in daily life, so too have Christians been given the spiritual muscle of faith.  But the gift of believing God comes with a concomitant responsibility.  We have to use faith, to move out, do what is good in the moment, depending on the invisible but real promises that God will come through just as His word says. We have to exercise or actively depend on God’s written pledge to provide, protect, guide, comfort us.

How do we do that?  By deciding to ‘believe (sight unseen) every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt 4:4).  And that FEELS costly and painful at times.

Who doesn’t suffer the pains of temptation to despair over circumstances that seem to be perpetual?  Yet God commands us to not look at the way things appear, but to see through the circumstances to the God who promises good to those who believe Him and cling to the truth of His promises.

The other night as we were discussing the day’s Bible readings, Mike and I pondered the the connection between trusting…..believing…..expecting…..waiting ….hoping…exercising patience……  All these actions sparkle as many sides of the one diamond called FAITH in God.  But what do those actions LOOK like?  How do you DO expecting, waiting, hoping….?

An insight has recently enriched my mind, an answer to a dilemma. I’ve often struggled to grasp how to live out Jesus’ command, in a self-deflecting, God-glorifying way: “…. let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Matt 5:16    I’ve gotten hung up on the concept, ‘your light’.  How can I have any light in myself?  The answer: this ‘light’ is the gift God has given me to BELIEVE Him.  My responsibility is to show the world in a visible way (light) how much I treasure this invisible but precious reality of relying on and belonging to Jesus. God calls that way ‘patience’ or ‘trust in God’.

Given that He commands me to make visible this divine, inner light, I pray daily to WANT to do just that (and follow through) a – to live in such a way that the world (my colleagues, family and friends) sees my Godward trust, hope-filled expectations, and patient waiting and be STUNNED and chalk it up to God!  (that Maria is so patient during suffering.  She must REALLY love her God and be satisfied by Him!!!)

Patience is a virtue recognized in the western world.  Yet most joke about it and cavalierly let themselves off the hook by admitting they have little.

When I feel strong, I affirm this fact:  God is kind to give me multiple occasions to practice and improve this muscle of contented waiting on Him.  Yet, I seem often to succumb to despair, sometimes multiple times in a week.

But what other choice do you and I have? We can either face the sufferings in life kicking and screaming, or we can submit to the wise and loving hand of the potter who keeps us on His wheel and won’t stop until we are beautifully fashioned into the family likeness.

Potters' Hands

This last truth stunned me this morning when I heard it again: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4

Agreeing with Satan = my self-condemnation

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There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1

There it was, PROOF!  – a ‘poochy’ in a photo we asked someone to snap of us at the peak.   I was horrified to SEE it.  Two days earlier I had realized the evidence of what I had been reluctant to admit, I had gained a few pounds over the past few months. I could feel it and see it in the mirror, but now here it was in living color, digitally for the world to see!

The self-recriminations had set in 60 hours earlier and I had been battling them armed with God’s truth SOME of the time.  At other points, my brain buzzed in the high RPM range, figuring out what I was going to do to lose the 5 pounds.

What also bothered me was I thought I had put the Weight and Body Image Battle behind me, having even declared VS Day – Victory over the Scales Day on 5 Dec 2015.  That day marked a turning point when I symbolically moved the scales off the throne of my heart to make room for Jesus as supreme treasure and pleasure.

But by the full force of this self-recriminating skirmish, all I had done was substitute a different but equally deadly joy-sucking idol for that morning metric measurer, the bathroom scales.   What was this new enemy? –  the concept of leanness as my supreme good.

After the hike, I took my journal outside on the deck to see if I could get to the bottom of this seeming forever struggle.  And God was faithful to spark some gut-wrenching insights into the sin underneath this internal drama.

Here are the questions I wrote down:

  • Why does having a ‘poochy’ bother me more than my sin of idolatry and scorn against a Holy God?
  • Why is ‘leanness’ my ultimate and mostly elusive good?

The first question brought immediate remorse over my topsy-turvy value system.  The scales were just the outward and visible manifestation of my inward and wicked heart as represented by ‘the leanness idol’.  Abandoning my quest to maintain a certain weight didn’t take away what I still valued most in life.

The second question led to digging beneath the visible layers in my heart. By continuing to ask WHY, I tried to reach the bedrock of what drives me.

  • Why do I value leanness?  Because I most admire those women who are lean and fit
  • Why do I admire those kinds of women? Because they are free of self-loathing.
  • Why would NOT being ‘perfectly’ lean bring self-loathing? Because in myself, I can’t stand the feeling of a roll of fat or pudginess or tight rings or clothes.  They make me mad and I feel stuck and depressed.  And all that negative emotion pushes me inward into a seemingly self-perpetuating prison. I do all this to myself!

And then a question that directed healing light to that dark place in my heart.

  • What is the opposite of all that yuck I just described? Contentment with myself.  When content, I find it natural to forget about myself and focus on God and others.  Balled up in myself distracts and distorts the destination of my energy.
  • So if I seek a more lasting and better contentment and inner peace, what would God rather me choose as a source?  Why pleasing Him by being satisfied in Him, of course! The answer was clear as day.

Just at the moment that the Holy Spirit enabled me to ponder this pleasant place of happy and restful contentment, He called to mind Paul’s words about having LEARNED to be content in all seasons.  Hmmm.  If Paul could learn, through practice, then so could I!

A bit energized I started to reason biblically:

  • If God is FOR me, who can be against me?  (not even Maria’s self-criticisms count or SHOULD be able to pierce my peace)
  • If I have been declared ‘just’ by God (as a gift, through the mechanism of grace, and secured by Jesus’ redeeming payment with His life – Romans 3:24), then I already possess a permanent unshakeable peace with God.
  • When I beat myself up for having gained 5 pounds, I am participating in condemnation – Satan’s hideous and soul-eating handiwork.  He is the Accuser par excellence.  Agreeing with Satan mocks Jesus’ extravagant gift to me.

I was almost at the point of echoing my ‘Uncle Paul’s despair-filled cry, Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” – Romans 7:24.  At that very moment, I think a whimsical but life-giving picture came to me. I imagined Jesus looking at me with a twinkle in His eye and saying:

Maria has a poochy and I LOVE her poochy!

What a startling but gentling image. Is it really so far out of the realm of divine possibility?  After all, it was my husband who used to say with tender and happy love about our cat Calvin, Calvin has a poochy!  And Calvin was his favorite cat!

If it’s TRUE that there is nothing I can do to make Jesus love me more or less than He already does, then why not THIS scenario of Holy Joy in one for whom He died?

I think the healing took root at that point, Saturday afternoon, on our deck in the sun, journal and pen in my hands.

Almost with embarrassed hesitation I shared these new insights with my husband.  I felt that unless I articulated them out loud to another person, then I might slink back into the dark, dreary cave where I have beat myself up for far too long.  But there it was, in the light of day, publicly proclaimed for the person most dear to me and uttered out loud ALSO in case that the devil, himself, might be lurking.  And I, too, heard this new ‘fact’.  Maybe it was more important for ME to hear those words spoken out loud, witnessed by my husband and the Holy Spirit.

So I’ve been saying to myself several times a day, ‘I have a poochy and Jesus loves my poochy!’

 

More peace? Less anxiety?

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Would you like to FEEL at peace more and more each day?

Who wouldn’t!  Personal circumstances and problems as well as complex world situations seem to conspire to keep even the most placid in a state of agitation. Add to the warp and woof of 21st century life the seeming random as well as intentional violence! Just a glance at one’s iPhone in the morning is enough to draw up the covers and stay in bed!

stay in bed cat

Hear the promise of the Lord, however!

You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you: because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3

The last 2 days I have whiffed peace.  God has been working in me for years as I grow to understand and love the FACT that He is sovereign and in control of everything that happens to you and me.  Just that knowledge has eased my anxiety about:

  • traffic delays
  • alarm clock malfunctions
  • minor and major wounds from other people
  • accidents or chronic physical conditions (constipation that dogs me!)
  • the pain of my own chosen sin (‘there I go again, blurting out something hurtful’/ ‘there I go again, overeating’/ ‘there I go again, choosing to indulge in self-pity’ / ‘there I go again, lying to look good’ / ‘there I go again, divulging a confidence’ / ‘there I go again, saying something negative about a friend or family member AND enjoying it!’ )

Coupled with a deeper appreciation for what it means for God to ordain/plan/send/prescribe/allow every event has been a growing understanding of God’s will for the lives of His children.

And you know that I’m talking about our growth in holiness, also translated as ‘sanctification’.   1 Thess 4:3a – For it is God’s will that you should be holy:

A very precious friend has played a significant role in my spiritual maturing.  Last October, she mailed me William Gurnall’s 800-page book called The Christian in Complete Armour. Eleven months later I am on page 422 of collected sermons.  It’s so rich that when I dip into it on weekends, I chew slowly, sucking out this English pastor’s exposition of Ephesians 6.  His 17th-century perspective is refreshingly deep.

Across recent pages Gurnall has been talking about the benefits of holiness.  Today, I read this quote:

“….perfect rest depends on perfect holiness….”

Okay – we will NEVER attain to perfect holiness until we SEE Jesus face to face.  But don’t you think it follows from the above premise that:

As we grow in holiness, we grow in rest and peace

What I wrote in my journal this morning was that ‘I should seek holiness and be GRATEFUL for all the circumstances God has planned for me THIS DAY……

  • if it is true that God works all things for the GOOD of those who love Him, who are called according to His purposes  (Romans 8:28)
  • if it is true that NO ‘GOOD’ thing does He withhold from those who are righteous  (Ps 84:11)
  • if it is true that God’s design to do us ‘good’ means to grow and shape us to think, act, react and feel more and more like His beloved Son’

If I take God at His Word, then it follows logically that I should see every event as bearing an opportunity for growth in my holiness or sanctification.  Yes, events can be evil and there is suffering and pain, but each circumstance is packed with holiness-making practical exercises.

And if the more I grow in holiness, the more PEACE I will feel, then why should I fear?  And if God allows/sends/ordains/plans good out of this next event then I SHOULD be able to relax, to rest if I truly trust Him.

Go back to that Isaiah quote and see for yourself.  The taking God at His word lies at the end of that promise…’because he trusts in You.’

Why is this a big deal for me?  Why do I care so much about growing my ability to rest and be at peace and be free from anxiety?  Because I live with fear – a lot of fear!

Some people fear the whole getting old and dying process.

Others fear not having enough money to take them through those final years on earth.

Existentially, I fear something happening to my kids and grandkids.  On a day-to-day basis, I fear not having enough time to get my work done (so I can READ and RELAX).  And in my profession, I fear that I won’t be able to be creative enough to sustain the interest of my students.

So, YES, I AM interested in TRUE and LASTING inner peace that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

And what the Holy Spirit is teaching me through His Word and writers like William Gurnall is that it is in my own personal best interests to see holiness.  I’ll close with a quote of his, taken from page 422:

“There is only perfect rest, because (of) perfect holiness.  Whence those frights and fears which make them a….terror about? (These) make men discontented in every condition.  They neither can relish the sweetness of their enjoyments, nor bear the bitter taste of their afflictions.”

What I am left with is this question:

Maria – why should you fear tomorrow if God promises to use every thing that happens in order to work MORE holiness in you, replacing what is unholy and selfish and destructive?

Just think!  If we could allow this thought to permeate our conscious, waking thoughts, maybe it would begin to seep down into the realm of the unconscious.

What do we have to lose?

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!

Jesus is even better than a permanent ‘bail bondsman’!

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Meditating on the HISTORICAL fact that Jesus has lived out the judicial sentence I deserve for my past, present and future crimes against the Holy God.  I have been declared ‘debt-free’.   And Jesus now accompanies me as my SURETY.

Jesus paid my debt

What is a ‘surety’?  “A surety is an individual who undertakes an obligation to pay a sum of money or perform some duty or promise for another in the event that person fails to act.”

Because Jesus is my permanent ‘surety’, I don’t have to rely on my own righteousness. (not that it would ever be ‘good enough’) That means that I can repent EACH time I succumb to those deceptive shortcuts to happiness, aka ‘sin’.

Thank you, Father, that with Jesus grafted permanently in me because of the new birth, I can begin –  again –  to follow You with a pure heart and willing mind.

This is what God calls sincere, upright and blameless. What an amazing deal for us, that He delights in and is pleased with all these PURE-intentioned starts, SINFUL falls, HONEST repentances and HUMBLE willingnesses to pick right back up to follow Him.

Romans 8:3-4  For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in the flesh,  in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

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