Sunday, October 30, 2016

His Delight

Dear Friend,

You may have noticed that I've been silent for a little while. I've been working through a lot of major changes in my life lately - new job, getting ready to move, etc. So I certainly have had good excuse for playing hooky for the last few weeks. Truth be told, though, that isn't the reason I haven't been writing.

For the last few weeks, I've been struggling a lot in my relationship with God. The usual guilt. But boredom has been setting in strongly, too. I have little interest in prayer or reading my Bible at the moment, and it's really difficult to write about a spiritual journey when you're not feeling very spiritual.

As I've been processing these swirling thoughts and emotions, I've been feeling a need to approach my relationship with God differently. Most of my life, I've looked at Him primarily as a rather harsh, distant Father. One who is constantly disappointed in me because I'm not perfect. As I've been walking this journey of grace, I've begun to see Him instead as someone who sees my sin, but overlooks it in His mercy and gives me freedom to fail.

What I've been feeling lately, however, is a need to move past focusing on God's mercy. His mercy is amazing, but keeping that as my primary focus causes me to still be very conscious of my sin. And to see that as God's focus too. However, that is not what the Bible teaches. Scripture teaches that God's primary concern is relationship with us - not our sin. He hates sin simply because it involves things that hinder healthy relationship. You can easily see this aspect of Father God's heart illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. In this story, the father did not even acknowledge his wayward son's apology when he returned home. Instead, he immediately embraced his child and threw a party to celebrate his return (Lk. 15:11-32). He didn't care how far his son had strayed or what he had done; all that mattered was that he was home.

So now, as I move forward in my walk with God, my challenge is to shift my gaze from God's goodness in overlooking my sin, and to focus on His delight in seeing me walk into His presence. God loves me. He's happy to see me. And He can't wait to embrace me even when I mess up. Because that's the kind of Father that I have.

Yours truly,

From Gray to Grace

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Secret Place

"He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty" (Ps. 91:1, NKJV).

"But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:6, ESV).

Prayer should be one of the most natural activities for believers, right? It's a time of communicating with the one who has redeemed us and cleansed us of every sin. Praising God, petitioning on behalf of ourselves and those we love, and meditating on and declaring His promises. What believer wouldn't want to spend every minute of their day on their knees before the Lord?

Well, apparently I wouldn't. For many years, I've struggled with prayer. Found it boring, got distracted easily. Felt guilty for not wanting to pray more. And worst of all, I felt like I was talking to a wall. God felt so far away, no matter how much I tried to pray, ask Him to come and meet with me. Something wasn't working, and I honestly disliked and avoided prayer time.

Recently, I've been challenged to reevaluate my approach to prayer. I've always felt that prayer is something that I "should" do. It's the Christian thing to do. And I really do want a closer relationship with God. But somehow, I still didn't want to pray. I could never obtain the sense that I'd prayed "enough" or that I would ever be sufficiently good enough for God to want to meet with me and talk with me about things I cared about.

But lately, I've been feeling this yearning to get away from everything. To get away somewhere, completely alone, away from other people, to-do lists, and electronic devices. And when I do follow that urge, be it to a scenic park or even my own car, I find something. There in the solitude, the distractions fade away and I find a peaceful quietness that allows me to better focus upon my Creator.

Then, the other day, a friend of mine posed a question to me: what would my ideal time with God be like? Ideal time. Wow. What a beautiful way to look at prayer. Not as something I have to do or should do, but as something I actually can't wait to do. As a person that's prone to fantasy, I've long been someone who would daydream about things like the perfect day, the perfect job, the perfect husband. And the more I would do so, the more I would naturally want that thing I was dreaming about. But it had never occurred to me to take that approach to my relationship with God. To think of spending time with Him in the way that I might dream about what a perfect date would be with my future husband.

That approach has started making a huge difference to the way that I look at prayer time. It's taken the rules off - what I should talk with God about, how much time I should spend in prayer, how many chapters I should read in my Bible, etc. It's made it feel more natural - like talking with a friend. A friend that I need no incentive to hang out with - I just want to.

If you've struggled at all in your prayer life, I would urge you today to take a moment to reevaluate like I've been doing. What I'm talking about isn't a magic pill or an instant fix to your prayer life. I'm still struggling with old patterns of thinking about God that make prayer time difficult. But the more I choose to say no to those old ways of thinking and choose the new patterns, the better my relationship with God is getting. It's so freeing.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Beautiful

Today, I would like to share a secret with you, one that those of you who know me may or may not be aware of: I don't wear makeup. Save for a little eyeshadow or lipstick from time to time for an extra splash of color.

While I realize that I'm not the only woman who doesn't wear makeup regularly, I nonetheless am very much aware that I'm in the minority for young women in America today. It's not only common, but also expected of women to wear makeup when leaving the house - except, perhaps, for a trip to the gym or grocery store.

So why don't I wear makeup? Truthfully, I used to. But one day about 3 or 4 years ago, in an attempt to combat a persistent acne problem, I decided to use only natural products on my face. That meant cutting out cosmetics. While I've now mostly abandoned that approach to skincare, I did learn something from that experiment: makeup wasn't doing anything for me. It didn't make me any prettier. And most importantly, it didn't cause people to like me any more or any less. So, I pretty much quit wearing makeup.

What I've finally begun to grasp since that time is that there is something incredibly shallow about the world's idea of beauty. The world says that beauty is about physical perfection. But for all our striving for flawless skin and smaller waistlines, our idolization of supermodels and our judgment of those who dare to show their flaws, there is something about the world's definition of beauty that will leave its subscribers hollow on the inside.


Most people logically realize, of course, the shallowness of such a mindset. The truth that real beauty is on the inside has become fairly cliché nowadays. But that doesn't stop people from trying to attract others with their looks, trying to make themselves more beautiful. It certainly didn't stop me.

A few months ago, a missionary speaking at my church mentioned that an area the church needs to focus on is spreading beauty in the world, because that will attract them to God. That got me thinking about the value of beauty - something I've always intuitively recognized as good but never really thought about why. And here's what I've learned about beauty since then.

First, a definition. To say that something is beautiful is to say that it is "possessing qualities that give great pleasure or satisfaction to see, hear, think about, etc.; delighting the senses or mind" ("Beautiful," 2016). According to Scripture, God is beautiful (Ps. 27:4), far more than anything we have ever seen with our natural eyes or could imagine. What does that mean to us? It means that He is pleasing to look at. His beauty is what causes us to turn our focus to Him. It is why the grandeur of a mountain or the glow of a sunset often causes us to pause for a moment, marvel, and reflect upon things of an otherworldly nature. As human beings, we are created in God's image (Gen. 1:27). When aligned with our original design, we reflect His nature. To me, then, this means that I am beautiful by design.

If that is true, then, why do I not always appear beautiful? Why do I sometimes seem ugly - physically, emotionally, etc.? It's because I'm not perfectly aligned yet with my identity in Christ. God cleansed my heart and restored my identity as His child through Jesus' death on the cross. But it required action on my part to receive it. And it still requires action on my part to continue to walk in that restored identity, day by day, as I learn how to see myself and act authentically as a child of God.

God created mankind as beautiful creatures, and restored that lost beauty through Christ. So He already sees me as beautiful. He sees the beautiful things in me that other people can't see through all the filth of sin and lies I've believed about myself that have covered me. It's His desire to exchange the ashes I've covered myself in for a radiant crown, to wash off every bit of filth and adorn me with fine clothes and jewels, so that all can see the beauty He placed within me (Is. 61:3, Ez. 16).

So what is this beauty? In short, everything about me that reflects God is beautiful. Our physical bodies visibly showcase His amazing design, of course. But it's the intangible aspects of ourselves that most reflect God's beauty. Our unique personalities. Our deep capacity for love, forgiveness, joy, generosity, sacrifice, selflessness, compassion, integrity - these are the things that display God's character (1 Pet. 3:3-4). When we act authentically, as He wired us to, we reflect God's glory on earth.

So in short, I can dress nice, wear makeup, etc. - there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But I don't have to do so to make myself beautiful. True beauty is beauty of the heart. That is what God looks at (1 Sam. 16:7). And He is the only one who can unveil the beauty within, that His grace restored through the cross.





Reference:

Beautiful. 2016. In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/beautiful

Friday, August 19, 2016

Defined Through His Eyes

At some point in our lives, each of us has to face the question of who we are. Some people find the answer to that question, while others search all their lives and never find resolution. Still others choose to ignore that subtle stirring, burying it deep in their hearts as they try to fit the mold given them by society or loved ones. But even at a subconscious level, that question still burns and demands an answer.

I've felt that stirring within me for many years. Even when I was a little child, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, I can recall defining myself by something as simple as my favorite color. As I grew older, I tried defining myself by things like favorite movies or fashion styles. Certainly, those kinds of things can tell people something about me. But they don't really tell who I am.

As I grew up, of course, I could more clearly see the superficiality of such definitions of myself. I would still choose clothing that reflects my personality, but I also understood that it isn't what defines me. So, I would try to define myself by other, more important things. My religious beliefs. My family. The people I hang out with (or don't). My job. My performance. Things I like or don't like, and things I do or don't do.

But still, those things are merely information about me. None of that tells me who I really am. 

So where can I find my identity? As I've walked in this journey of freedom, I've had to come to grips with the fact that there is only one sure foundation for my identity: God. He, after all, is the one who designed me, placed unique gifts and talents within me, and called me to a destiny bigger than anything I could ever imagine. And He knows me completely, inside and out (Ps. 139:1). Problem solved, right? I just line up with what God says and believes about me, right?

Except for one problem. My perception of how God sees me depends upon how I see Him. If I tend to think that God is hard to please and demands perfection of me, for example, then I will automatically feel like a failure because I make mistakes. It's a terrible trap, and far too easy to fall into.

So how do I know what God is really like? According to Scripture, He is tender and kind, full of love and compassion - far from the demanding, critical father He's sometimes made out to be (Is. 54:10, Hos. 2:14). So full of love, in fact, that He would send His only Son to die for me. For me. A miserable failure and a sinner. And then...He erases all of that. Every mistake. Every failure. And His grace says to me, "You aren't defined by what you do. You're defined by who I say you are."

So who am I? In God's eyes, I am beloved. I am redeemed. I am pure. I am gifted. I am one-of-a-kind. I am beautiful. I am His.

When I really believe what He says about me...everything changes. I don't spend my time feeling like a failure because I make a mistake. I know that I am forgiven, redeemed, and pure, so when I do slip, I can simply recognize that I was acting inconsistently with my identity. I am no longer defined by my mistakes. Similarly, I don't just give to others because I have to. I give because I'm a generous person. Not giving in a particular case doesn't make me stingy, but it may mean that I'm not acting authentically according to how I was designed. I am not what I do...but my actions flow out of who I am. I may make mistakes, but my identity ultimately remains unchanged.

And above all, when I know who I am, I’m free to be myself, love myself, and love other people, regardless of what they say or do, because I am God's beloved. All He asks is for me to be true to who He created me to be - a lover of God and other people. That is enough.




Friday, August 5, 2016

Already Free

Shame is such a ruthless companion. For every little mistake you make, it whispers in your ear, telling you what a failure you are. How broken you are. Not good enough.

I've heard that nagging voice more times than I can count. It's not fun. It makes you feel like no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you'll never be good enough. There will always be something wrong with you. And if you listen to that voice long enough, it can pull you down into a pit of despair and hopelessness. What's the use of trying if nothing you do will ever change the fact that you feel broken and flawed?

Actually, the voice of shame is absolutely right in a way. The truth is, I've been beaten up and broken by the storms of life. And I have failed. I'm not perfect. No matter how hard I try to be good enough and do all the right things, I can't. I keep messing up, keep falling short. It's useless for me to try. Impossible.

My whole life, I've known the other side of the story - the side that shame won't tell me. It's useless for me to try to be good enough, but Jesus was good enough. When He died in my place, He forgave me of all my sins - past, present, and future. He set my record straight.

But somehow, that never really hit home to me until recently. I've read the scripture, "by His wounds you were healed" many times, but somehow always thought of it in terms of physical healing (1 Pet. 2:24, NASB). A few days ago, however, that verse clicked in my mind in a new way. Even though I've trusted in Jesus for salvation and forgiveness of sins, I've always thought that I was still broken, flawed, and in need of fixing. I have to wait until I'm "better" to really live life and do what I've been called to do. But Jesus already healed me. In His eyes, I'm already whole. I don't need to be "fixed."

That lie - that I'm broken and that there's something fundamentally wrong with me - is the one big thing that's been standing between me and walking in freedom. Believing that I'm broken, I live like I'm broken, and spend my time looking for a "fix." But I don't have to live that way. I don't have to hold myself back from living life to the fullest now, waiting until I'm good enough, healed enough to be able to run freely. That would be like someone sitting in a prison cell, refusing to come out, even though they've been pardoned and the door is open. Jesus healed me so I can be free today. Not tomorrow. Today.

It takes time to learn to see yourself differently. To see yourself as healed and free and to begin acting like it. But just because you don't always act like it, doesn't mean that you're still broken. The door is still open. All you have to do is believe it. That is grace.









Friday, July 29, 2016

Wooing the Wayward Heart

All my life, I've struggled under the weight of an enormous burden of guilt and shame, and seen God as difficult-to-please, demanding, and ultimately displeased with me. That perception of Him hasn't exactly made me want to run into His arms. Rather, it's closed my heart off to what I perceived as a divine slave master. I would hear that God is good and loving, but struggled to really believe it.

Recently, however, the book of Hosea has really opened my eyes to God's undying love and faithfulness for the wayward heart. This book tells the story of a woman who was unfaithful to her husband, chasing after finery and new lovers instead of the one who had committed his life to her and given her every good thing she had. After she experiences a great deal of suffering from all her philanderings, however, her husband buys her back.

God likens this woman to His wayward people that chase after idols and don't give their hearts fully to Him. His response to our unfaithfulness, however, isn't an iron fist of control that prevents us from wandering away. Instead, it is patience, waiting for us to experience the pain of living our own stubborn way and come back. And then He does the unthinkable: He redeems us. After all our unfaithfulness, our rejection of Him, He buys us back.

But He doesn't stop there. He could simply buy us back and then hold us at arm's length as retribution for our wanderings. But He doesn't. Instead, He woos us. Of the wayward heart, He says, "I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there" (Hos. 2:14, NLT). He showers us with such overwhelming love, mercy, and grace that we can't help falling in love with Him again. And suddenly, our perception of Him changes so that we see him as an affectionate husband instead of a harsh master. Only then does the appeal of our idols fade, so that all we want and pursue is Him (Hos. 2:16-17).

I still struggle with my perceptions of God. But every day, I'm learning more and more about His true nature and falling more and more in love with Him. His love is vaster than I can even imagine, steadfast through my every trial and wandering, and merciful without end. His love is tender and kind, gentle and sweet, passionate and deep. It's the kind of love I crave, and won't find anywhere else. His love is amazing.



Friday, July 8, 2016

Eyes on the Prize

Have you ever wanted something so much that it became an all-consuming focus in your life? It is easy to see how destructive things like drugs and alcohol can be in the case of addiction, causing harm to yourself and to other people. But a wide variety of things can overtake you - sometimes even God-given desires.

Recently, I've found myself struggling with keeping my focus on God instead of the dreams He has given me. For example, one of my greatest desires is to someday get married. While I haven't specifically heard from the Lord that marriage is part of His plan for my life, I do believe that He is the one that gave me this dream. If that is the case, there is certainly nothing wrong with holding on to that dream and desiring to one day meet Mr. Right.

But what happens when I let that desire become my main focus? I obsess over it. All I can see is what I don't have. Mr. Right isn't here yet. I feel incomplete without him. And suddenly, that dream becomes an idol, more important than the one who placed the dream in my heart in the first place.

Every dream that God has placed in our hearts, He has put there for His ultimate glory. But while earthly marriage is a beautiful picture of God's love for us, it is just that - a picture. God desires for our greatest affections and our strongest desires to be focused squarely upon Him.

Lately, when I've felt that desire for a husband rising up strong within me, I've felt prompted to lay that desire down at the feet of Jesus much as Abraham laid his promised son upon the altar (Gen. 22). To pray, "Lord, I want to get married. I long to meet that special someone I can spend the rest of my life with. And God, I believe that You want this for me. So I'm going to hold on to this dream in faith until that day comes or You tell me otherwise. But Lord, I want You to be first - the focus of my eyes and heart. Let my affections be first for You. May I find my ultimate identity and satisfaction in You alone. And if marriage is not part of Your plan for me, then Your will be done. Help me accept that."

No matter what dreams that God has given us, no thing and no person can ever complete us or fulfill us the way that God can. If we place our hope of satisfaction in other things, we will become sick at heart because that dream will not be fulfilled (Prov. 13:12). But if we place our hope in God, He will satisfy us completely (Is. 49:23, 58:11).

Let God be your ultimate prize. Everything else is icing on the cake. His love is more than enough.




Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Does He Love Me?

If you've been following my Facebook page, you may have seen my post yesterday regarding what I feel may be a breakthrough in my life. Today, I would like to share a little more about that.

Having been plagued with doubt for years, I've often questioned God's nearness and love for me. I have heard other people talk about having a close, intimate relationship with the Lord, as with a best friend. But to me, He has long seemed rather distant, cold, demanding, and silent. Seeing Him that way, I've often felt unwanted, unloved, and like a complete failure. 

Although I knew that my salvation was by faith alone, I nonetheless believed that the only way I could please God and maintain an open relationship with Him post-salvation was through right behavior and continual repentance. But as I discovered, I could never fully keep the law. My attempts to do so did not bring me the satisfaction I was looking for, and did not seem to please God, as I had hoped they would. All I felt was distance.

Over the last few months in my healing journey, I've been learning that what God really wants from me is love and relationship - not perfection. I've also learned that whatever distance and lack of love I've felt is entirely on my end - not His - and that my biggest problem is an inability to truly receive love. While I understood all this on a cognitive level, I nonetheless felt nothing but distance. I cried out to God repeatedly, asking Him to reveal His love to me, to cause me to know His love. But to no avail. I still did not sense His love.

But yesterday, something happened. During my morning devotions, I remembered a dream I had several years ago, in which I was standing on a huge hand that I could only assume was God's. In the last year, I've found myself longing to be held, which has made the feeling of distance from God even more painful. Remembering that dream, I suddenly found the fact beginning to sink in that God really does hold me. He is that close. I found myself feeling like a child on her father's lap, with his arms wrapped around me. And for the first time in a long time, I felt myself surrender to His love.

I'm still struggling with doubts. Did I really have an encounter with God yesterday, or did I just imagine it? In truth, I don't know. And I'm still fighting doubts about God's very existence. But you know what? It doesn't matter. I know now that I can come to Him with all my doubts, imperfections, and insecurities, and just find a place of love, acceptance, and security in His arms. That is what the Bible teaches, and now I really know it to be true. God loves me, and that's all I need to know.






Thursday, June 9, 2016

Back to the Blogosphere

Dear Friend,

I'm sure you've noticed by now that I've been on hiatus from blogging for several weeks. To be completely honest with you, I was starting to get discouraged. The old doubts were back, nagging me: Who do you think you are? Do you really think that you have something to say? Do you really think that anybody cares?

That's a pretty vulnerable confession. But in truth, it's also an act of courage on my part. I've found more freedom and acceptance in openness about my flaws and insecurities than I ever have in trying to put on a strong face to the world.

I don't know if anything that I say will help anyone else. I don't know if sharing my messy journey with the world will encourage anyone else to break out of their comfort zones and challenge their patterns of wrong belief. I truly hope that it does, but I have no guarantees of that. But here's what I do know: I need to do this. For me.

I really hope that you'll come along on this ride with me. But if you don't, I'm here on the blogosphere regardless. As long as it takes to win this fight for freedom.

Yours truly,
Laura (From Gray to Grace)





Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Me?

When I was a kid, I had everything I needed. I had my share of hurts, including some big ones. But I was nonetheless loved, safe, and provided for. I even had a few things that I really didn't need. God blessed me greatly, and I should have felt nothing but undying gratitude. But for some reason I had this nagging question in my mind: why me?

Some children don't have families that help them through tough situations, as I did. Some live in abject poverty. Some live in abusive family situations, with no hope of escape. Some die before their time. So why have I been spared from some of the horrors that others go through?

Such a question is guilt-inducing, to say the least. After all, my life isn't inherently more valuable than anyone else's.

But alongside the guilt that I felt was another question, more subtle than outright: is God fair? Is He fair when He saves some people and not others? Is He fair when He allows some people to die from starvation, while others have more food than they could possibly eat? Is He fair when He allows some people to live to 100, while little children die daily from cancer?

Certainly, God's sovereignty must be taken into account here. As God, He absolutely has the right to decide whom He will show favor to or not (Rom. 9:10-24). He may have purposes that we cannot see in allowing people to suffer. Perhaps He knows that the pain one person goes through will help many others (Jn. 12:24-27). But maybe there's something else to consider.

Is it at all possible that it isn't a twisted sense of cosmic justice that allows one person to suffer and another to live in prosperity? I have been challenged recently by songs like Matthew West's "Do Something" to consider that maybe we have some say in what goes on - that God wants to partner with us in changing the world (n.d.). And that perhaps our willingness to heed His call to reach out to those around us - or lack thereof - is what may ultimately make the difference for someone else.

This is exactly what Jesus taught His disciples. He taught them to "'Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, [and] cast out demons'" (Matt. 10:8, NASB). It was His power working through them that healed the sick, but their hands were involved in the process. The program hasn't changed. You may be someone who has been through great suffering, or someone who has thus far been spared the worst that life has to offer. But either way, if you ever find yourself questioning God's fairness or asking, "why me?," think about the people in your life that made a difference. And then allow that gratitude to motivate you to make a change in someone else's life. Somebody is waiting on you.

References

West, M. (n.d.). Do something. Songs of Southside Independent Music Publishing. External Combustion Music. Songs for Delaney. Retrieved from http://www.klove.com/music/artists/matthew-west/songs/do-something-lyrics.aspx




Monday, April 11, 2016

How Big Is Your Sin?

Recently, a friend of mine asked a question related to equality of sins. Are so-called "big sins" and "small sins" really equal in God's eyes?

I used to think that question mattered. I used to think that being a "good girl" was inherently better than being a...well, a "bad girl." And in a sense, it is. Except for the fact that it won't win you any points with God. But I didn't know that.

When I was younger, I used to consider myself a "good girl." I was an obedient child (most of the time), and I never got in trouble with the law. In a way, I considered myself a cut above other people on that account.

But all that changed when I started having doubts of my salvation. Suddenly, all I could see was my sinfulness. Practically every little thought, word, or action became a cause for guilt, repentance, and confession. The mistakes I had previously taken for granted or discounted because they didn't seem like "big sins" grew to monstrous proportions in my mind. I saw myself as sinful, and this perception began to reflect itself more and more in my thoughts, words, and actions. In short, I became acutely aware that my sins were not as small as I had always thought they were, and even one little sin was enough to place distance between me and God.

So, am I saying that it doesn't matter how big your sins are? That it doesn't matter whether your greatest sin is telling a white lie or committing capital murder?

Let's look at it this way. If you drive 30 mph over the speed limit, are you breaking the law? Of course! People who do that deserve heavy fines, right? But what about if you drive 1 mph over the limit? Hmm. Sound familiar? But technically speaking, you still cross the line if you go 41 mph in a 40 mph-zone. You still deserve a fine. That's the way living by the letter of the law works. You have to keep the whole law, perfectly (Jas. 2:10). And that's why no one can ever have right standing with God by keeping the law (Rom. 3:20). It's too easy to cross that line, no matter how hard you try not to.

Thankfully, in Jesus, there's an alternative to striving for perfection. He died in our place, paying the price for our sins - big and small. You may be a liar, a cheat, a hypocrite, a thief, an adulterer, a murderer - it makes no difference. The forgiveness He offers is all you need. When you accept His forgiveness and give your life to Him, He gives you the grace to live, love, and serve despite your imperfections, whatever they may be (Eph. 2:8-9, Gal. 5:13-14). Understanding this is what has finally begun to set me free from the law-based mindset I've lived under. And that's all you need, too, if you want to walk in the freedom of God's grace.



Thursday, April 7, 2016

Free to Do Good

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by shame and self-doubt that you didn't feel worthy or capable of showing love to other people? Or felt that you have to feel a certain way or that your motives have to be just right to be able to do a good deed?

I've felt that way a lot, lately. I would consider volunteering somewhere or helping someone, but then feel guilty for doing so, because I felt that my motives must be selfish in some way. It must be wrong for me to help someone else if I get anything out of it, such as fulfillment, good feelings about myself as a person or even God's favor. My primary motive should be love for the other person, right?

The funny thing about that kind of outlook, however, is that it leads to even more shame. Causes you to feel even more worthless and beat yourself up even more for what a terrible, unloving person you are. Which doesn't solve the problem in any way.

So what is the answer to this mess? For me, the answer has been moving toward a better understanding of the concept of grace. Grace means that my motives don't always have to be perfect. I can help other people even when I don't feel like it and even if I benefit in some way. And in fact, the rewards that come from loving and serving other people are nothing to feel guilty about - the world was designed in such a way that we would reap benefits from generous, sacrificial living. God wants us to love one another, and knows that the best way to get us to make sacrifices for each other is to make loving our neighbor a pleasurable, rewarding experience (Lk. 6:38).

If you stop to think about it, this is exactly the way it works with people who are in the process of learning. A child who is being taught generosity may not like the concept of giving away part of his allowance, but that does not excuse him from learning how to give. In fact, he may only develop a truly benevolent heart through giving even when he doesn't feel like it, and thereby discovering the joys of generosity.

This is the beauty of the freedom we have in Christ. We have been set free from the law that says we have to be perfect, and instead are bound by the law of love. We are free to love and do good works to our hearts' content, and are in fact now obligated to love even if we don't particularly want to (Gal. 5:13-14; Rom. 13:8-10). This is truly the most satisfying way to live and consistent with who we have been created to be as God's children.



Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Move Out of the Way

Have you ever found yourself getting preoccupied with looking for a flashing sign from heaven? I sure have. The funny thing about that, though, is that it seems to be the little things in life that speak volumes of the bigger questions we all face. At least, that has been my experience of late.

One day recently, I had an unusual experience. I noticed that my little dog had run out of water in his dish, so I stopped what I was doing to refill it. For reference, my dog has one of those water dishes that has a bowl on the bottom and an upside-down jug on top filled with water, reminiscent of a water cooler. That in mind, I first rinsed out the bowl, set it down in its place, and then refilled the jug with water. When I refilled the jug, I headed over to replace it on top of the bowl. But when I arrived, there was a problem. The dog was standing in my way in front of the empty bowl, licking at the drops of water clinging to the inside. He didn't see me standing behind him, holding the brimming jug so he could have a fresh supply of water. I had to get his attention and tell him to move aside so I could replace the water jug and his thirst could be truly quenched.

On the surface, this certainly appears to be just an ordinary, mundane, routine occurrence. And in many ways, that's exactly what it was - simply refilling the dog's water dish as I have done, countless times, for many years. But in that moment as I stood behind my dog with the full water jug in hand, waiting for him to move so I could refill the empty bowl, I realized something. Isn't that the way it is, oftentimes, with us? We hold on so tightly and focus so much on our deep-seated needs and longings, doing everything within our power to satisfy those needs. It doesn't matter how hard we try - the resources simply aren't there, and our thirst remains unquenched. But all the while, God is standing right behind us with a jug overflowing with His blessings. Simply waiting on us to move out of the way.

Perhaps that is not the case with everyone. But it surely is with me. Too often, I find myself with a microscopic focus on my emotional needs and heart longings, trying desperately to find something that will alleviate my pain or fulfill me. I read this book or try that suggestion, hoping to find some relief from the incessant doubt, guilt, and insecurity I struggle with. I look to other people to tell me who I am and fill this deep chasm in my heart. I analyze my problems again and again, hoping that somewhere in the recesses of my mind I will find the key to unlock the cell of this prison I am in. But all that does is exacerbate the problem, drawing my gaze like a magnet, ever inward, to myself. And the more I focus on myself, the more I withdraw from the very One who holds the keys to everything that I am looking for.

Have I learned how to completely focus upon Jesus yet? Sadly, no. I am a work in progress in that respect. But the more I spend time in prayer, renew my mind with the Word, and move on with the day-to-day affairs of life instead of looking at my need, the more I see Him moving in my life in ways I could not have even imagined before. I have watched Him, in the last couple of years, bring people into my life, alter my circumstances, and fill me with more hope and courage than I ever thought was possible. I only regret that I didn't learn to start looking outside of myself for the answers sooner.

I hope this post will challenge you, as it has me, to stop focusing so much on the problem before your eyes. Step aside, look to Jesus, and watch Him move on your behalf. He's waiting.






Thursday, March 31, 2016

Just a Thought

Have you ever had a negative, impure, or unholy thought cross your mind? Of course you have. We all have. Or at least I have.

Some people seem to be able to just dismiss ungodly thoughts, brush them aside and move on. But for people like me that have been caught in the snare of a deep sense of shame, those thoughts can be next to impossible to ignore. They linger in the back of the mind, relentlessly whispering: "You're a terrible person." "If you were really a Christian, you wouldn't think those kinds of thoughts." "See? You'll never change." The more I try to block out the thoughts, the louder and stronger they become until I begin to believe them. Believe that I'm the failure I've long suspected myself to be.

But thankfully, I don't actually have to believe those lies. And if you've subscribed to them, neither do you. We may miss the mark, but we are saved by God's grace that allows us to move forward anyway (Eph. 2:8, 2 Cor. 12:9). We may have moments of weakness, but we are strong in Christ (Phil. 4:13). We may have unclean thoughts, but we have been purified by the blood of Jesus (1 Jn. 1:17). We do not yet look like Christ, but we are being molded into His image (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:1-3).

Thoughts are still a struggle for me. But I am learning, more and more, that I don't have to let them rule my life or get me down. If I find myself in an unholy frame of mind, I can simply say, "it's just a thought." It doesn't have to define who I am. Jesus already did that. All I have to do is believe and receive what He says about me. The more I do that, the more the thought loses its power, and the freer I am to choose to think other thoughts that align with God's truth. God has called me pure (1 Jn. 1:9). The more I believe that, the more my thoughts and actions will begin to align with that truth. I am free to think God's thoughts. And no lie from the enemy can change that fact. I am free.




Monday, March 28, 2016

Baptism

One of the most significant moments in the Christian life is baptism. It is an earthly symbol and declaration of the death of our old life, our burial with Christ, and our resurrection to a new life in Him.

For many people, baptism is a simple, one-time event. In my case, however, it was a little different. I was originally baptized when I was five years old, but unfortunately I do not remember that event. As I grew older, I considered getting re-baptized, so that it would be more meaningful to me.

But then, the doubts began to taunt me. Remind me of my constant struggle with lack of assurance of my salvation. Remind me of the doubts I've had regarding God's very existence. I tried to rationalize getting baptized anyway, and very nearly went through with it a couple of years ago. But when I arrived at church on baptism day, I could not go in. How could I justify going through with this act that symbolizes the new life I've found in Christ when I was not even 100% convinced that I had this new life? I couldn't.

Then, a few months ago, I signed up for baptism again. By this time, I had a little more assurance of my salvation, as well as a greater awareness of the fact that the doubts themselves were my true tormentors. But as before, I felt some trepidation as the day approached. I wondered if I needed to back out again. But then, a couple of days before the event, I stumbled across a couple of verses that I have heard many times before:

"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son....And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (Rom. 8:29-30, NIV).

Somehow, I read this scripture a little differently than I have ever read it before. I know, personally, that I have heard God's call on my life. If God has called me, then, does that mean that He has also justified me? According to this passage, and based upon my expression of faith in Christ, He has indeed justified me (Rom. 8:29-30, 10:9; Eph. 2:8-9). Therefore, I have reason to rest in the assurance that Jesus has truly saved me from my sins.

Of course, that left one more problem. Could I proceed with baptism, with the doubts of God's existence still remaining? Pondering this question, I remembered the lyrics to a song that I have sung many times before: "I have decided to follow Jesus; No turning back, No turning back" (Singh, n.d.). With that in mind, I realized that I can choose to follow Jesus, in spite of the doubts. Too, the doubts might never be completely gone. Would I let that fact stop me?

Two weeks ago, I was baptized. And I can honestly say, that I have not felt so much peace and joy in my heart in years as I did that day. Have I still had doubts since then? Yes. But that baptism, my friend, was an act of faith. Which is all that God requires.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Does He Care?

How big is God? Try thinking about that for just a moment. Really. Can you imagine how vast God must be if He is bigger than a billion universes? If He could carry the weight of the entire world's sin for all time on His shoulders? The truth is...you can't imagine it. Such enormity would be mind-blowing for us humans if we even attempted to comprehend it. How is it possible, then, that a God of that magnitude could care about such tiny pepper specks on His radar screen as you and me? Let alone the minute details of our daily lives?

This is the question that a friend of mine, Marcy, confronted recently in her life. She related a story to me of how a relative's hearing aid suddenly went missing. She looked in all the usual places, of course, but to no avail. Then, suddenly, she found it. In the unlikeliest of places - behind the commode in the bathroom. In that instant, she said, it felt like a miracle. After all, if you think about it, that hearing aid could have gone unnoticed for a long time - perhaps long enough for a replacement to be ordered. Or perhaps it would not have been seen at all and would have been swept up during routine house cleaning. But such was not the case. It was discovered, exactly when it was needed.

My friend remembered the many times her own mother had fretted over losing some treasured item, and then prayed for God's help in finding it. At the time, Marcy didn't think much of such prayers. God isn't concerned with things like that - He must be too busy. He has bigger and better things to attend to than lost possessions. Right? Isn't that what we all think - at least in the haunting whispers in the backs of our minds?

But something changed for my friend that day. Whether or not divine providence had anything to do with the solved mystery of the lost hearing aid, a shift occurred in Marcy’s perception of God. Whereas she had previously thought of Him as disinterested in the cares of her life, her mind was suddenly opened to a new view of Him as a caring, attentive Father who is involved in and concerned with our daily lives. She realized that God cared enough about her to help her find something as inconsequential as a missing hearing aid.


And truly, is this not what Scripture teaches? As Jesus said in Matthew 6, God takes amazing care of even ephemeral flowers. How, then, could we doubt that He cares about our daily lives, since "if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for" us (Matt. 6:28-30, NLT)?

The big lesson here, of course, is not that God cares about lost hearing aids. Or wildflowers. God cares about us. Each and every moment of each and every day, He knows exactly where we are and exactly what we are doing. He cares about every moment of doubt, every anxiety, every fear, every tear...He cares. Like any good father would care about the momentary concerns of his child, simply because he loves that child.

I don't know about you, but I find that a comforting thought in my moments of doubt. We may be but pepper specks, but we are on God's radar. He knows. He cares. About us. Amazing.

 







 

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Pure Heart

For some time now, I have struggled with a huge obstacle to coming into God's presence. I don't know if anyone else can relate to this, but I have long felt that I have to come before God with the right frame of mind before I can "really" pray or read His Word. Repent of everything I've done wrong, confess and eradicate every ungodly thought, and let go of all unforgiveness.

The trouble is, I know that I cannot get to a "good enough" frame of mind on my own. Believe me, I've tried. It's exhausting. And it fails every time. No matter how much I attempt to do so, I'll probably never be able to remember everything I've ever done wrong, every impure thought or every ill-spoken word. But that's where the grace of God enters in, right?

That's a comforting thought, until I'm faced with a Scripture like this:

"Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? Only those whose hands and hearts are pure, who do not worship idols and never tell lies" (Ps. 24:3-4, NLT).

Isn't this saying that I need to get clean before I come into God's presence? But how is that even possible? I can't seem to that on my own. I'm powerless to cleanse myself in my own strength - to change myself.

For me, the answer to this dilemma has come in the form of a better understanding of Matthew 5:8, which reads: "God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God" (NLT). A few months ago, I was given a word by someone who said he felt that God was saying to me that I had a pure heart. This person had no idea how much that word meant to me, having long struggled with overwhelming guilt and shame. To have a pure heart is one of the things I desire most. But to say that I already have one? At the time, it seemed a contradiction. How could that be? My heart certainly doesn't feel pure.

But then I realized something. My heart isn't pure because of anything I can do to get it that way. It's pure because God made it pure. Once and for all, when Jesus paid the price for my sins at Calvary and I received His gift of salvation. I can't repent enough, confess enough, think holy enough thoughts or behave well enough to be able to come into God's presence cleansed. That would be a works-based mindset. All I can do is trust in His finished work on the cross, and "come boldly to the throne of grace" to "obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16, NKJV). That's the beauty of grace. The blood of Jesus makes us clean, and all we have to do is believe and receive (1 Jn. 1:7).





Thursday, March 17, 2016

My Hero

We all know the character. Blue suit, red cape, a giant "S" emblazoned across the chest.... That's right. Superman. When I was younger, I used to fantasize that I had superpowers akin to those of my favorite superheroes, of whom Superman was one of my favorites. After all, who wouldn't love to be able to soar through the sky like a bird or lift a car with one hand? Admit it. It's not just me. Right?

I have heard, at times, Superman referred to as a Christ-like character - a savior of humanity. Someone with great power who swoops down from the heavens to save people in their moments of greatest distress. Don't we all wish we had a Superman in our lives, who would rush in to rescue us in our hour of need?

But as great as Superman is, even he has his limitations. He is strong, for sure, but not omnipotent - there are some things even stronger than he is. He sees and hears many things, but he cannot be tuned in to everything at once. And unfortunately, there is only one Superman. He can only be in one place at one time, which means that sometimes he has to make a choice between who will be rescued and who will be doomed to death.

That in mind, I wonder if it is possible that we sometimes think of God as a mere superhero. For example, we believe that God is powerful. But do we not, somewhere deep down in our hearts, believe that His mighty power is limited in scope? If He is as powerful as His Word says He is, then why would I still be facing such overwhelming doubts, despite the many times I've prayed that He would take them away? Why would I feel such a burden of guilt if His blood is really powerful enough to completely cleanse me from all my sin and I have asked Him to save me? Too, we believe that God knows everything. Or do we? Do we really believe that He sees our suffering? My suffering? Maybe He doesn't really know what I'm going through. If He did, surely He would step in and do something about it. Or perhaps He is all-powerful. Perhaps He is all-knowing. But maybe He cannot be in two places at the same time. Perhaps God is busy helping someone else right now, and my needs aren't as high on His priority list.

But is this really the God that we serve? A superhero, running around with a cape, flitting from problem to problem trying as best He can to save us all? But this is not what the Scriptures say about Him. Indeed, according to David, God knows about all of our sufferings, for David says to the Lord: "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book" (Ps. 56:8, NLT). And if Jesus is correct in saying that "...with God everything is possible," then that must mean that He holds all power and can use it to transcend the finite boundaries of time and space to reach out to you and me wherever we are, whatever we are going through (Matt. 19:26, NLT).

If that is the case, however, why am I still suffering? Why am I still struggling with doubt, shame, and insecurity? I do not pretend to know the answer to that problem right now. But I do find comfort in knowing this. God is sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing, and in control. He has a plan far greater than you or I could even dream about, let alone comprehend. He is a God that brings amazing things out of the pain we experience in this life. Through our struggles, He brings beauty from ashes, conforms us to His image, and gives us the ability to both empathize with others going through similar problems and encourage them to look to God as their source of comfort (Is. 61:3, Rom. 8:28-30, 2 Cor. 1:3-4). Just as it is through great struggle that the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis and the chick breaks out of its shell, so it is that the greatest beauty in life is often revealed only after experiencing the depths of great pain.

I hope, like me, that you find a measure of peace in the knowledge that God knows about every doubt and insecurity you've ever faced, is strong enough to lift the burdens you are carrying, and is fully capable of rescuing you from your pain. But if He doesn't, He has a plan. He is working behind the scenes, bringing something beautiful from your afflictions. All He asks is this: will you, as Daniel's three friends, choose to trust God whether or not He saves you from the fire (Dan. 3:16-18)? I pray today that the answer you give is "yes."