Sanctification through novels

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Stepping Heavenward I downloaded the Kindle version of this book a few weeks ago.  It’s the last reading I do before turning out the light.  My bedtime routine is to check Instagram, read John Piper’s Solid Joys on my phone and then close out my waking thoughts with a few minutes in a Christian book.  God increasingly seems to make good use of those final 2 activities.

Twice now, the journal entries of this 19th century fictional gal have chided me gently, as though I were she, a Christian who is growing in fits and starts.   Most recently ‘Katy’ detailed the frustrations of a day filled with unexpected interruptions.

Annoying visitors, an incompetent kitchen maid, boisterous children and fatigue battle for her peace of mind.  Her goal this particular day is to prepare a special dessert for her overworked doctor husband.

Almost abandoning the dessert because distractions have eaten away most of the day, the Holy Spirit gently redirects her thoughts from self-pity and complaining to persevering. A grateful, loving and very tired husband rewards her sweetly when he finally arrives home to enjoy dinner and dessert.  As she reflects on all the frustrations, the Holy Spirit reveals to her just how He uses these precise types of circumstances to grow her more like Jesus.

As I read through this particular journal entry the Holy Spirit immediately opened my eyes to see the same thing in my life. So often I complain à la ‘Martha’ who wanted her sister Mary to relieve the burden of hosting Jesus.  I indulge a feeling of being overwhelmed by all there is to do and the seeming inadequate time to accomplish them (and have some Maria-time left over, truth be told!).

But that night in bed, the yeast of insight began to work its way into my conscious thoughts as I fell asleep. The Holy Spirit continued the process the next morning while listening to a John Piper sermon.

My teaching days that feel so packed are exactly what the Great Physician has prescribed.  I KNOW He desires me to REST in the assurance of His provisioning grace for all the good works He calls me to do.  And if I do them my own way, depending on my own resources, I usually start to tighten up and feel burdened.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

But like Katy in this novel, I sometimes have to learn the hard way.  And because our Father is wise as well as loving, He lets me ‘kick against’ the burdens on my own.  But not for too long.

If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it.  It’s charming AND sanctifying.

What God does by setting our boundaries

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The boundary/inheritance lines have fallen for me in pleasures….Psalm 16:6  (literal meaning from Blue Letter Bible)

Fences

We normally recite Psalm 16:6 with the phrase ‘pleasant places’ as describing the boundary lines.  So ‘pleasures’ should have jarred the ear a bit.  But that phrase happens to refer just as often to ‘pleasures’ and to ‘sweet things’ as it does to ‘pleasant places’.

If you’ve journeyed long enough in your life to reach your 30s, then surely you’ve accumulated your personal list of disappointments and closed doors.  Whether prom date rejections, cuts from the cast or team, wait listing at your first choice college or job terminations, sorrow is part of life.

For a while I have recognized that dead ends and startling abrupt turns are God’s intentional means to direct His children along the paths He has chosen. We, of course, don’t see all of his reasons and certainly God has many purposes. But one goal of God’s that I now understand more clearly is that, as my good Father, He is determined to maximize my enjoyment of Him.  He arranges my circumstances and structures my days to include ‘lessons’ (trials and suffering) that will increase my holiness.  I’m learning that as my holiness expands, so does my pleasure and joy in God.

This day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength – Nehemiah 8:9

Nehemiah exhorted the people to put an end to their sincere sorrow over past sins and move on to holy happiness in God.  He knew that their repentance was real  – a prerequisite to being cleansed or made holy. Now it was time to enjoy God and experience genuine joy and receive divine strength.

What is NOT explicit, but is built into the text is the understanding that AS we are increasingly sanctified or made more holy (more like God), THEN we enjoy Him more and more.

  • Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

A recent revelation has startled me:  All those disappointments, which I might lament, MAYBE they have been expressly for my joy.  Maybe had God allowed me to fulfill my dreams, I would have been ‘ruined’ for the real kind of joy.  It’s like a child who first eats sugar is ‘ruined’ for the taste and delight of fresh fruit and vegetables.

So maybe all the closed doors and thwarted plans, which have set my boundaries, (THIS far and no further!) have been sovereignly arranged with the EXPRESS purpose of maximizing my joy in God.  Could it be? Well, I wouldn’t put it past Him!

A further insight settled on me last week as I was listening to a secular colleague share his story of desires and closed doors.  His dreams of being a film producer had led nowhere and with mounting debt and a family to support, he finally came to grips with putting that career goal to bed and applied for a teaching job out of state.  He now teaches in the classroom next to me.  We’ve talked about God before and he’s easy to talk with but doesn’t seem to have any divine stirrings…yet!

But if God shuts doors and redirects my plans to maximize my enjoyment of Him, might this gentleman’s blocked efforts to move into another career along with desperation over increasing debt have God’s fingerprints all over?  Would it be unlike God to place him at this school in MY sphere to hear life-saving news?

I’m now praying for a soft heart on his part and alertness to know when to speak up.

Is worry normal or is it a sin?

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Worry

Yes!

Yes, anxiety is normal and yes, practicing anxiety is a sin.

And there is good news.

I’m being trained to look behind a statement in scripture to reason about the condition of the author.  For example, yesterday morning I paused at verse 4 while reading Psalm 86:

  • Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.

Since it was a rainy, gloomy Saturday morning I immediately asked God to gladden both my and my husband’s hearts.  But afterwards I realized that the only reason the Psalmist would have penned such a request was because he was struggling with the blahs or worse and knew he could count on God to help him!  Why ask for something of which you have no need????

Here’s another verse from Matthew 6:25

  • I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.

Why would Jesus dedicate these minutes to expound on worry if He didn’t SEE or KNOW that worry was present in the hearts and minds of those listening to Him?

How about the command NOT to fear?  I read in the on-line Christian Post (5 Nov 2014 blog post entitled Faith over Fear) that Jesus’ primary teaching was: to love others. (125 times taught in the Gospels) According to the writer of the post, Jesus presented and organized His teachings by theme.  And the primary theme (21 times) for His instruction was about FEAR.  Do not fear; don’t be afraid; be courageous; be firm in your faith.  This means that Jesus exhorts us to LOVE by NOT FEARING.  Hmmm, could it be that fear drives out love?  Is that the reason that the apostle John pens in 1 John 4:18?:

  • There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,

And why would Jesus repeat such a message if it weren’t a glaring problem?

So YES – worry and anxiety are normal, but they are neither GOOD, nor HEALTHY, nor appropriate for Christians.  In fact, worrying is a sin since God commands us NOT to worry.

So how does it help to know that worry is both a sin AND a normal reflex?

Because God doesn’t leave us to battle it on our own. There is supernatural power to fight sin.  And we are called to enter into warfare every day of the Christian life. Through daily practice similar to our workouts at the gym, we will strengthen our reflex to rely on His promises and character, growing more like Jesus.  But let’s be realistic; we will not eliminate anxiety 100 %. Therefore, we can expect to have to engage this enemy of the faith daily, WITH the resources God provides. Even my hero of the faith, George Müller, admitted that the decade of his 90s were the hardest.  I imagine his struggles had to do with declining health and increased physical limitations.  There are always new fears to confront.  But God promises fresh mercies each day (‘our daily spiritual bread’)

It’s not for rhetorical reasons that Paul exhorts young pastor Timothy in his first letter, chapter 6, verse 12:

  • Fight the good fight of faith 

This same Paul is the one who explains how to dress daily for the warfare.  Besides defensive armor, he reminds us that there is ONE offensive weapon – God’s word.

The only way to drive the worry dragons away is by saying or singing or shouting or meditating on God’s many promises to BE our strength, to BE our peace and then to bank our life on those promises given to us by a Loving Father whose character is trustworthy.

Here’s one more look at a desperate psalmist and how he deals with danger or suffering

  • If your law had not been my meditation I would have perished in my affliction. Psalm 119:92

The fact that he mentions his affliction is significant.  Like us, he had a choice of mediating on how bad his circumstances were and how he couldn’t see a way out OR he could chew on the truth of God and what He has said.  This Old Testament man of faith makes it clear had he chosen the former course of limiting his view to the present, he would have died.

Aren’t we blessed to have the Bible which does not sugar-coat life’s sufferings?  Instead, it tells us that pain is real and there is help that is equally real and available.

I’ll leave you with an ‘oldie-but-goodie’ sermon link of the man who is teaching me to read my Bible and mine it for MORE than the explicit words:

You can either read or listen to the sermon here

Don’t follow the world’s advice!

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Follow your heart!

Listen to your body!

Two aphorisms glibly and yet soberly offered as though they were truth incarnate.

But the Bible teaches otherwise.  And I am learning –

  • NOT to lean on my own understanding
  • NOR to look to contemporary worldly messages to guide my thinking

As I journey with God, not having the guidance and parental examples of graceful, dependent Christian aging for inspiration, I am discovering to my surprise that God recycles His lessons.  Their very familiarity shocks me. Didn’t I just journal about this 2 months ago?  Didn’t I just discover this verse and sincerely pledge to let it guide me?

Yet, due to amnesia or just plain drifting or a diabolical plot, I HAVE forgotten.

But God is patient, apparently.

Walled garden

So once again, I have run back into my garden with its limits, relieved to be safely within the walls.  I shout with joy along with David and affirm, The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; Psalm 16:6a

Yes, dear friends, it’s about food again that I write.  I don’t know why I meandered away from what I had previously recognized WORKED.  But this time, God in providentially and lovingly allowing me to struggle through depressing self-absorption gave me deeper insight into the harmful thinking in which I’ve swum and lingered.

But it’s not fair!  I LIKE bread and yogurt and fruit and lots of salad stuff and veggies (and dark chocolate)…….

Yes, but as Paul says in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians: “23 All things are legitimate [permissible—and we are free to do anything we please], but not all things are helpful (expedient, profitable, and wholesome). All things are legitimate, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life].

Please read the entirety of Chapter 10, for the context sets up an even more powerful argument to support Paul’s conclusion in verse 23.

So, yes – just as the Hebrews yearned for seemingly healthy food items, an ‘innocent desire’ – “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” Exodus 11:5we must keep in mind that they were enslaved.

So too have I been enslaved by my desires.  I NOW see that the food my body desires is NOT healthy for it.  (I get plugged up and bloated, which sends me spiraling into a self-pity party.  If it sounds ‘sick’, it IS ‘sick’.  It’s called S-I-N!)

Hence my conclusion – that when authors and experts proclaim that our bodies crave what is good for them, we must respond ‘Phooey!’ Would you offer the same advice to a drug addict or alcoholic? Maybe it’s just the opposite – that we must take notice of what our body sidles up to and flee!

As for the other dangerous adage about following one’s heart, I’ll leave that for someone else to tackle.

As for me, I’m going to stay within my garden and thank God for the manna He has provided me this day.  He alone knows what is best for me, for He created me.

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!

My adornment

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Braided hair

Braided my hair this morning. Took 4 minutes.

More challenging than working those fingers blindly behind my head was God’s exhortation to spend ample time setting my heart, my disposition, my inclination to line up with the FACT of who He is:

  • Sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe
  • Holy God
  • Redeemer of inward-oriented Maria who, still captivated by the world, is a lover of pleasure and comfort
  • Author and Finisher of my faith
  • Good Father

Finished dressing, relieved that He knows me so well.  And desiring to please Him.

1 Peter 3:3 Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear.

God always has the better answer

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Blog - Scales

“To weigh or not to weigh?”

I didn’t for 2 mornings. Freedom.

Morning came. And the tempter had whispered right before bed: “What’s your reward for any restraint in the evening if not for the potential measure of success the next morning?”

Wish I hadn’t listened. Result? Self-absorbed.

Confessed to God. Repented.

Looked up at “Christ ..in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” Col 2:3

Gave ‘it’ to God to tell me what to do.

The answer came via 16th century pastor William Gurnall. The Holy Spirit nailed me. Turns out I’m a liar! I had prayed this morning, “Your will be done in my life, Lord!”

And ignored that His will for my life is my sanctification, growing Jesus-like, not weighing X or Y.

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