Monday, March 31, 2008

My Given Lot

Just about everyone has, at times, wished for a major change in life: to be taller, or smarter, or richer, or more athletic, or just to have been born into circumstances where opportunities are easier to find. Some people make a career of such thinking, wasting their lives either in idle dreaming or in "nothing ever goes right for me" bitterness.

Christians unfortunately are not immune. Sometimes our "prayers" resemble the Israelites' wilderness whining: "God, why did You make me like this?" "Lord, if You really love me, why is my life so miserable?" "God, I'm sick of this situation, and if You won't do something about it, I will!" Some of these attitudes spring from legitimate prayers that were poisoned (perhaps over the long term) by self-centeredness that stated "Your will be done" without recognizing its secret "as long as it coincides reasonably well with mine" reservations; by impatience that demanded a "Yes" answer, or at least an explanation, ASAP; or by presumption that thought it knew what God was going to do and became angry when He didn't "cooperate."

When God doesn't change a hard situation, it's usually because He knows we can grow more, or accomplish more, through struggling with it. With it, notice, not with Him! How long would an athlete's career last if he regularly forfeited matches because he spent all his energy arguing with his coach over "getting stuck with the wrong opponents"? How long could a soldier avoid a court-martial if he raised a fuss with his commanding officer over being assigned to the wrong front? Yet many of us treat God as though He were the enemy, and at the same time sap our strength for the important battles, by constantly whining over our lots in life.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we should never pray for things to change, nor even that we shouldn't "wrestle with God" in hard and persistent prayer. What it does mean is that He, not we, has final right to decide exactly how everything works out.

Including the more frustrating circumstances.

There are those who use the hard times of life
As excuse to not even try;
There are those who sit and bemoan their fates,
Never acting when they can cry;
There are those who rail that life's unfair
And who envy the rich and grand:
But let me take what the Dealer gives
With the courage to play my hand.

For no life was ever devoid of pain,
Nor the spoiled the most satisfied;
And the happiest souls work to do their best
With their eyes on the One True Guide.
Though my way may lead over rocky paths
And my gear for the climb be small,
Let me make the most of my given lot
With a heart for the good of all.

Friday, March 28, 2008

I Asked God

Having spoken yesterday about the necessity of yielding every moment of life to God, I do have to add a caveat: extreme obsession with "what God wants me to do" can get a person into almost as much trouble as ignoring Him completely. Some Christians are so afraid of displeasing God that, like the children of overly strict or protective parents, they hardly dare make a move without His explicit permission. They ask Him every morning how many flakes of cereal they should pour into their bowls; they pray every day about the exact second they should leave for work.

Less extreme cases, or those who are less sure of their ability to hear God's answers clearly (I speak from personal experience here), agonize constantly over how they should spend every dollar of discretionary income and minute of discretionary time. Before making a decision, they fret about possible consequences; afterwards, they wonder for hours if they did the right thing. Keep this up for long, and life begins to feel more like the yoke of slavery Paul warned us against (Gal. 5:1-4) than the rest for our souls Christ promised (Mt. 11:28-30).

Actually, our desperate searches for God's will may not really be motivated by love for Him. We may, in fact, be in love with the orderly, well-planned lives, free of uncertainty, that we think will surely be ours if we get perfectly aligned with God. (Our seeking His instructions "desperately" rather than "eagerly" ought to be a clue.) To flawed and twisted human nature, even the pursuit of God's guidance can become an idol.

Paul said (Rom. 12:2) that the real secret to understanding God's perfect will is the renewing of our minds. Considering that this verse follows close after a worship passage (Rom. 11:33-36) that emphasizes God's "unsearchability" as well as His majesty, I doubt Paul expected that mental renewal to come primarily through "reasoning things out" (even on a Scriptural basis), or solely through asking God direct questions and acting on what we think we hear Him answer. Rather, we need to spend more time praising God for His own sake--worrying less about the details of daily life, but trusting, as said in Jude 24 (NIV) that He will "keep [us] from falling and [will] present [us] before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy."

I asked God if I was right or wrong
Over each little tiny thing,
And I fussed and fumed for a quick reply,
But it seemed no results to bring.
I lived in fear of some great mistake
Or some tiny unconscious sin,
And the load I bore only grew in weight
As I tossed my own fret-stones in.

I asked God why He would treat me so,
Why He seemed such a callous Guide,
And at last He spoke: "Is it Me you love,
Or the thought of a safe, smooth ride?
You have made an idol of certainty;
Will you trust Me to lead in dark?
Will you live by faith in My wisdom's grace,
Which will pilot you toward the mark?"

I asked God to help me seek Him first,
Not decisions or goals or rest,
That the glow of faith would burn strong enough,
As my heart sought to find His best,
That I would not waste time in worrying
If each move that I made was right,
But would fix my mind on His majesty--
And I found, step by step, His light.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Every Moment Is God's Moment

In the mid-twentieth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Psalm of Life was the most popular poem in the United States. The following borrows from Longfellow's rhyme and meter and, to some extent, his subject matter. We all need a rousing call, from time to time, to stir us from the idleness that dreams constantly of the past or the future, but lets the present pass by unheeded.

However, the busy life is no great improvement on the lazy one if busy toward the wrong goals and projects. The world is full of people who spend their lives chasing "success" and die wishing they'd taken more time to just be--or who literally kill themselves with activity before they realize what's happened.

Most tragic is the Christian who is too busy to hear God telling him that there's something else he should be doing. The weekly day of rest was probably included in the Ten Commandments not only to keep us from wearing ourselves out physically, but to get our minds away from the world's input for a while, so we could listen undistracted for our Creator's voice.

Which is not to say we should ignore Him the rest of the time. He gave us our hours and our lives; but they still belong to Him by right. He may tell us, at any time, to drop what we planned and take on work He has planned for us. Every moment is His moment.

Every moment is God's moment;
Every hour is His alone.
We, redeemed by Christ's atonement,
Dare not count our time our own.

Serving God is not a question
How much of our time we give:
His commandment--not suggestion--
Is for Him alone we live.

Do not say you'll do it later;
No tomorrow can be sure.
Give today to your Creator:
Only His work will endure.

Do not mourn the past times squandered;
Do not say your chance is lost.
Every soul that ever wandered
Finds fresh chances in the Cross.

To our God all time is current;
Past and future, in His eyes,
All are one, and no occurrence
Ever caught Him by surprise.

All your talents, all your earnings,
Are yours by God's grace alone:
Take your cravings, take your yearnings;
Sacrifice them at His throne.

Stewardship is not a question
Of how much of ours we give:
God's commandment--not suggestion--
Is for Him alone we live.

Put no trust in earthly treasures,
All of which are quickly lost.
Put no stock in fleshly pleasures;
Flesh belongs upon the Cross.

Give yourself--your skills and talents,
Every penny of your wealth--
To the Lord, Who holds in balance
All of life and strength and health.

Give your earthly days to labor,
Ever seeking for God's will:
When we meet our Heavenly Neighbor,
There'll be joy in service still.

Monday, March 24, 2008

God's Time

Commented a magazine editor on hearing that a longtime acquaintance, whose life had revolved around goal-setting and to-do lists, had died in a car accident: "It was the one thing she hadn't planned on."

Personally, at times I've felt that planning itself will kill me. My dreams are too big for the available time, and I have an internal taskmaster whose theme song is: "You have one year to read an entire encyclopedia, six months to raise your weekly income from $500 to $12,000, three months to write a 200-page book, two weeks to contact every potential client in the Yellow Pages, and two hours to visit every exhibit in the museum--and don't forget to watch the clock the whole time, beat up on yourself if your alloted hour takes 61 minutes, and rush through everything just in case a house fire tomorrow destroys something you haven't finished yet!" Maybe my obsession with detail comes from growing up as an engineer's daughter.

The same problem plagues my spiritual goals. If I decide to pray for fifteen minutes, and run out of things to say in fourteen, I spend the remaining minute on my knees, staring at the clock and complaining to God about my lack of an internal timer. If I make up my mind to read one chapter of the Bible every morning, and I hit Psalm 119 on the day I have to catch a bus twenty minutes after waking up, I rush through it like I were competing for the title of National Speed Reader. I could probably apply the same "race" metaphor to the majority of my waking life; I've all too frequently acted as if God put me here for the sole purpose of cramming in all the earth's knowledge and experiences within forty years.

And never mind whether any of that knowledge is used toward the glory of God and the benefit of my fellow creatures.

Hoarding our time and talents for personal benefit is as bad as burying them where they do no one any good at all. Because we aren't really doing even ourselves any good by being selfish--we're simply turning ourselves into self-centered clods who fume and fuss when something as unimportant as another human being interrupts our plans. Even if we achieve our goals, we end up bitter, depressed, and miserable.

And don't think God won't let us get to that point. It may be the only way He can get our attention.

We'd be far wiser to give Him that attention--and full control of our time--starting right now.

I crushed my time in a death grip,
Determined to hoard every hour,
And to squeeze out every last second-drop
By the strength of my own plans' power.

I feared to "waste time" in praying;
I wanted to get all I could:
But the more I crammed and the more I rushed,
The more empty my whole life stood.

At last I reached my soul's limit:
I sank to my knees in despair,
And I wept as few human hearts have wept
Since the day man first offered prayer.

Then God's voice cut through my sorrow:
"If you give Me back all your time,
And you trade its weight for the one I give,
I will send My own peace for your mind."

So I let my hands fall open,
And He filled them with joy and love,
And at last my mind came to understand
What wise use of time is made of.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Not Mine

Lately, my calendar has been plagued by an epidemic of last-minute changes; I count 22 reschedulings and cancellations (most on less than 24 hours' notice) since the beginning of February. I tend to take it poorly. My nature gravitates so strongly toward orderly and careful planning that I even get annoyed at pleasant surprises.

Unfortunately, refusing to accept the unchangeable doesn't leave a person any less stuck with it. As God said to Paul in the saint's rebellious days, "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14, NIV). The metaphor refers to a sharp-pointed stick, a "goad," that was used to prod animals forward when plowing. As an ox's kicking backward at the annoyance only made the goad stab deeper, so a person's ranting or sulking over the "unfairness" of life only intensifies the pain of disappointment.

More than that, complaining feeds our rebellious nature and steers us toward the dangerous ground of telling God that we know better than He does, or that we don't care what He wants. There's nothing wrong, of course, with praying that things will go "well"--if we phrase such prayers as respectful requests rather than demands, and if we accept that God doesn't owe us anything. Too often, we approach prayer as spoiled brats rather than as humble servants.

The tendency to defy God gets even worse when we do have a choice of whether or not to go through with the whole awful matter. Jesus, Who was "tempted in every way, just as we are" (Heb. 4:15), had His own thoughts of backing out as He stood face to face with the reality that the Cross--the ultimate physical and spiritual agony--was finally imminent. We can never fully appreciate how difficult it was for Him to finally pray, "Not my will, but Yours be done." We do know, however, that had Jesus insisted on His own way instead of putting the Father's will first, we might as well have continued living for worldly pleasure--because we'd have no hope, ever, of anything better.

Jesus accepted the hard parts of God's will for our sake. Do we owe Him any less?

He knelt in the garden grove praying,
His eyes nearly blind with grief
As they looked ahead to the suffering,
And His heart craved a word of relief.
His voice shook with sobs at the vision,
Yet it rang with a note sublime:
"My Father, I long to escape this;
But let it be Your will, not Mine."

Blood mingled with tears as they tumbled
From His eyes to the rocky ground,
While the ones whom He loved slept onward,
So blind to the truth profound;
And He lifted His gaze to the heavens,
His cheeks wet with His tears' sharp brine:
"My Father, is this how it must be?
Then let it be Your will, not Mine."

They came for Him there in the garden,
And led Him away in the night;
He raised not a hand in resistance;
He made not one attempt to fight;
As He writhed in the pain of His death-throes,
His cry rang down the vaults of time:
"My Father, I die for the guilty,
So let it be Your will, not Mine."

His death paid the price to release me;
His pain salved the guilt of my sin;
He calls me His own, and He leads me
In the war He alone can win.
However my pathway seems darkened,
His light from within can shine:
My Savior, whatever the battle,
Please let it be Your will, not mine.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

To His Table

This evening Christians celebrate Maundy Thursday. If you already know what "Maundy" means, you deserve a gold egg....

....For the enlightenment of everyone else: The word is etymologically descended from the Latin mandatum, as in Jesus's famous statement at the Last Supper, "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" (John 13:34). Or in the modern English of the NIV, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Mandate comes from the same root. Loving each other is not a suggestion. Not a "good idea." It's a mandate. A command. An order--an order there is no excuse for not following. "Their habits get on my nerves" is not an excuse. "I can't stand their worship music" is not an excuse. "I was always taught not to associate with/trust their social/ethnic group" is definitely not an excuse. Not even "they/their people treated me/my people badly" is an excuse. Loving as Christ did means to follow His example: to make the first move toward peace (again and again if necessary); and to forgive anyone who asks, without insisting on a "penance period."

Remember, we ourselves have no "right" to sit at Christ's heavenly table. As we are invited only by His grace, only He has the right to choose who else is invited. And He wants everyone there who is willing.

He also wants us to issue all the invitations we can on His behalf. Irrespective of any human differences.

God is calling us all to His table,
From Earth's poles, from the desert sands,
From the cities with all of their bustle,
From the isles and the mountain lands,
From the tundra, from plains that stretch onward,
From the wetlands where floods have spilled;
He gives all His free invitation:
"Come, and eat till your souls are filled."

God is calling us all to His table,
And whatever your shade of skin,
And whatever the home you may come from,
And whatever your past has been,
Though the pain of your life has crushed you
Till you feel that your heart will burst,
He gives you His free invitation:
"Come, and drink here to quench your thirst."

God is calling us all to His table,
And the weak and the strong are here,
Where the wounds of the past end in friendship
And peace drives away pain and fear.
Here the trappings of power mean nothing,
For our Host looks on all in love--
He gives all His free invitation:
"Feast as family on food from above."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Consider the Birds

Tomorrow is my birthday--and celebration plans include a day off from work (easy for the self-employed to arrange); dining out; and bird watching.

No doubt someone will read that last item and think, "That's your idea of a celebration? Getting dirty, wearing yourself out, being mobbed by bugs, maybe getting drenched by a rainstorm?" (Judging from the latest weather report, the latter may be a real likelihood.) There are plenty of people whose idea of celebration is purely formal and climate-controlled.

On the other hand, there are plenty of "hard core" birders who would call me a wimp because I prefer well-laid-out trails with easy access to working plumbing--as opposed to sloshing through marshes, bushwhacking through thorns, and sleeping in the wilderness. But insofar as the general respectability of bird watching is concerned, both they and I can claim Biblical support for the pastime. Didn't Jesus Himself say, "Look at the birds of the air" (Mt. 6:26a, NIV) as object lessons of God's concern for Creation--and for us?

Though birds have their moments of panic in times of real danger, they don't spend their idle times fuming and fretting over whether there will be enough berries on the trees when winter comes in eight months. They don't ruffle their feathers over habitat destruction, global warming, or other threats they can't personally do anything about. They just go on surviving on God's daily provision.

However--and this should keep us from becoming passive about the confidence God will supply our basic needs--birds, once out of the nest, don't sit waiting for food to be dropped into their mouths. They keep busy--very busy--gathering it. (The old saying "eat like a bird" is about as misleading as it can get; birds eat considerably more for their size than the most gluttonous human could ever come close to.) St. Paul, in 2 Thess. 3:6-13, warned against expecting others to feed us. To paraphrase: If we are too lazy to do the work we are suited for and capable of doing, we deserve to starve.

But, work or play, we must never forget the key principle: "Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31b). Literally everything we undertake should be done in an attitude of thanksgiving and praise to Him.

Not least the times we spend drinking in the beauty of Creation and the songs of the birds.

(For a great modern theologian's perspective on bird watching as it relates to Christian living, check out John Stott's book The Birds Our Teachers.)

The waxwing has feasts of berries,
And the hawk has its daily meat;
The hummingbird has its nectar,
And the cardinal has seeds to eat;
Not one of them frets uneasy
Over fear for tomorrow's feed:
So let us, whom God loves even more than birds,
Have faith He will provide for need.

The flycatcher hunts from branches,
And the egret fishes the stream;
The woodpecker drills in tree trunks,
And the goldfinch plucks thistles clean;
Each one, from its time of fledging,
Works all day for the meals it's fed:
So let us see well to the work of our Lord,
For the idle deserve no bread.

The sparrow, at time of eating,
Lifts its head to the sky with each bite;
The mockingbird sings in the springtime,
With its tune heard through day and night;
Though birds are still far beneath us,
God's own glory shines through their ways:
So let us give God thanks for each daily meal
And continue to sing His praise.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

God Is Lord, and God Alone

At first glance, Bible passages forbidding idol worship seem irrelevant to modern society. On second look, the parallels become uncomfortably obvious:

The ancients made "gods" in the shapes of lifelike statues (Rom. 1:22-23); we set up statues and monuments to glorify human achievement.

The ancients gave up their valuables to make idols (Ex. 32:2-4); we squander our health, possessions, and time in the pursuit of pleasure and material success.

The ancients went so far as to murder human beings in the name of religious sacrifice (Dt. 12:31); we take advantage of other people and ignore their most desperate needs so we can keep up the comfortable lifestyles we enjoy.

Whatever we give the majority of our attention to, and defend at the expense of all else, is "god" to us--and very few people, Christian or otherwise, are following the real God so closely that they count everything else as worthless (cf. Phil. 3:7-9). Even those who try, usually find it takes years of conscious effort before acting on God's orders become second nature. Not that it ever does, in this life, become so second nature that every action and attitude is fully subject to God at all times. No one on serious speaking terms with the Holy Spirit can say with a clear conscience that he never sins anymore.

At its roots, all idolatry is the worship of self--our pleasures, our pride, our desire to make ourselves into "gods" who can manipulate the world and universe. That was what ancient idolaters had in mind when they engaged in occult activities. That is what we moderns hope for when we try to manipulate circumstances and other people into cooperating with our wants--when we try to manipulate God Himself by "praying with sufficient fervency" or "summoning enough faith" or "being good enough." It doesn't work. It doesn't deserve to.

The true God "will not give [His] glory to another or [His] praise to idols" (Is. 42:8, NIV).

All the things of earth we see
Vying for our loyalty--
Wealth, and praise, and earthly might--
All will fade and take their flight;
Nothing here remains our own:
God is Lord, and God alone.

All the things of earth we chase
In an endless, frantic race,
Will at last elude our grasp,
Slipping from our weakening clasp;
Let us wealth of earth disown:
God is Lord, and God alone.

All the things of earth we love
Come to us from God above--
His the power to give or take,
His the right to mend or break--
He alone deserves the throne:
God is Lord, and God alone.

All the things of earth one day
Will pass on into decay;
Only things of God will last;
Only He can hold us fast
Till we sing in Heaven, our Home:
"God is Lord, and God alone."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

God Gives Us Each Two Dozen Hours

"Not Enough Time" is the great pandemic of our era. We live in such hurry that we swear at computers for taking over two seconds to download files. We build more and more gadgets to make life run faster--only to find that exploring the resulting new possibilities more than offsets the time saved.

Actually, God gives us time to accomplish everything He wants us to do--but as long as we insist on adding things we want to do and things everyone else wants us to do, we'll be struggling under heavy burdens instead of whistling under the light one Christ offers. Those rare individuals who get plenty done and yet never seem rushed aren't all Christians, but they all operate on two life principles: a strong and specific sense of purpose; and a willingness to forgo anything, no matter how attractive, that fails to contribute to that purpose. For every believer, the priority of each moment must be to find and fill the niche God has specified, for that believer at that moment, to advance the ultimate purpose: God's glory,

Anything less is a waste of time.

God gives us each two dozen hours
For every day we live,
Enough for all we need to do,
When them to Him we give.
He does not wish that we should waste
Life's greatest treasure, time,
In vain pursuit of false success,
In thoughts of "me" and "mine."

God gives us each two dozen hours
To fill each earthly day,
Yet most of us crave countless more,
To spend on work and play.
We ask too much, because we think
Too much of our desires,
And rarely stop to ask of Him
What actions He requires.

God gives us each two dozen hours
(And He alone is wise)--
The right amount for every day,
For all the needs that rise.
He has great things for us to do--
But we ignore His plans,
Though we could free ourselves from rush
By heeding His commands.

God gave to you two dozen hours
For you to use today:
Will you spend them in serving Him,
Or squander them away?
Oh, follow not your own desires,
To build on crumbling sand,
But let God lead you every hour,
And what you raise will stand!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lord, Give Me the Heart of a Servant

This week's Lent topic at my church is "service." Probably nothing is more contrary to human nature than putting others' happiness and convenience before our own--unless we are so overcome with love for the people in question that it fills us with joy just to see them smile.

Such totally unselfish love is generally restricted to new parents and new sweethearts. Very few of us give it to strangers, or even to longtime friends and family members whose faults we are all too aware of--let alone to our enemies. That makes it all the more amazing that Jesus--Who knew everyone inside out, Who had the riches of Heaven at His call, and Who had His heart broken repeatedly even by His closest friends--was a loving Servant to the end, willing not only to do the menial tasks everyone else felt too important for, but even to die in agony to save others from eternal pain--and those the very others who had repeatedly rejected His leadership and ignored His love (see Romans 5:7-8).

And we--even the best of us--are among those rebels. Nor can we, on our own power, summon up the great love and service Christ embodied. We need to constantly allow Him to fill us with His selflessness and caring. Even for those who don't deserve it. Especially for those who don't deserve it.

After all, neither do we.

Lord, give me the heart of a servant,
A will full in tune with Your own,
A joy found through love of my neighbor,
And thirst for Your glory alone.

Lord, give me the heart of a servant;
Lord, cast out all pride from my soul--
All longing for wealth and for pleasure--
Lord, let my devotion be whole.

Lord, give me the heart of a servant;
Though I may have little to share,
Let what I may need count as nothing,
But teach me for others to care.

Lord, give me the heart of a servant,
That, when my life's journey is through,
My works may shine pure for Your glory--
And I will forever serve You.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Lord, You May Make Me Rich or Poor

If God offered to give you any one thing you asked for, what would you choose? A lifetime of youthful vigor? Success in business? A happy marriage?

How about the wisdom to remain constantly in God's will? Few of us are mature enough to think of that first--and yet it is the best thing we could have, though it may not seem so to those who find that God's purpose for their lives is not exactly what they had in mind for themselves. Even outside the "name it and claim it" crowd, it's hard to find someone who is willing to say, "It may be God's will that I struggle all my life to keep this ministry going, and never see it win a convert. It may be God's will that my cancer prove terminal. It may be God's will that I never recoup my losses from this fire." At least, it's hard to find someone who can admit such things with any evident joy. We may be able to accept our fates with resignation to the principle that God knows what He's doing; but to find real, deep joy in the confidence that God has some greater purpose in our pain--and to harbor no resentment when He chooses not to share that purpose with us--that takes real inner strength.

There are, of course, committed saints who are healthy and wealthy and have all of earth's blessings along with God's. The greatest challenge comes when the more "fortunate" Christians interact with the less so. The human tendency is to whine, "I'm as good a Christian as they; why won't You give me what they have?"; or to assume that others would have fewer problems if they had more faith, or that they must have done something to "deserve" their struggles; or to try to console ourselves that the "better off" can't possibly be as "spiritual" as we are. What we should do is follow Christ's advice to Peter in John 21:17-22: commit ourselves in love to His will for us as individuals, and let Him carry out His own purposes for others as well. God knows exactly how each of us can serve Him for maximum effectiveness in His Kingdom--and He alone sees how each piece of the puzzle ultimately fits into the final picture.

Our part is to cooperate as He puts us into place--through whatever process He deems necessary.

Lord, You may make me rich or poor,
Send perfect health or not;
My ventures may "succeed" or "fail,"
With pain or ease my lot;
But one thing I would have You give,
I know is Your desire:
Give me a heart that seeks Your will,
And does as You require.

Lord, show me the good works that You
Prepared to fill my hand,
And light a flame of joy in me
At following Your command.
Help me to seek You all my days,
So when life's race is run,
My ears may hear these words from You:
"Well done, My faithful one."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Human Mind Is a Battleground

Some sinful habits--such as drunkenness or pornography--can at least be kept under control by avoiding the material sources of enticement. But how does one escape from primarily mental temptations--resentment, greed, or pride? How does one deal with the even more insidious tendency to allow relatively harmless, but nonconstructive, thoughts to crowd out thoughts of God? Obviously, physically running away from our own minds is not an option. And keeping constant check on the thought life can soon leave a person wondering if there's any hope outside of the unlikely two months in solitary confinement.

Of course, at their root all temptations are of the mind--you can lock someone in a room full of marshmallows for three hours and not tempt her to eat too many, if she hates them to begin with. And Jesus said (Mk. 7:15) that the real problem is not what we take in from outside, but what we already have inside. Nonetheless, the fact remains that sinful thoughts have to be attacked head on far more frequently than any material sin--and the battle is often exhausting and seemingly endless. So often we're tempted to surrender. So often we do surrender.

Part of the trouble is that we see no option besides either surrendering or fighting the whole battle ourselves. Actually, it's no sin to say, "I can't keep up this fight," because the truth is, we can't! Our Commander in Chief--not we ourselves--plans the battle and stands ready to furnish us with ammunition for every moment. If we kept a constant ear open for His orders (including orders to take time for rest), and always followed them promptly, we'd do fine. What most of us do wrong is to get into the habit of making our own way in "ordinary" things, and only calling for help when the situation is desperate. God still enables us to fight our way out, but it's a much longer and tougher battle than it would have been had we followed our Leader consistently from the beginning.

Ultimately, God does all the fighting--we can act only through His strength (cf. John 15:4-5). We can take comfort in knowing that He is more than equal to any battle, that He will not leave His work in us unfinished (Phil. 1:6), and that in Heaven temptation will be forever banished.

The human mind is a battleground
That can rarely know pure, true peace;
So long as we still here on earth are found,
The war's battles will never cease,
That great war between what we know is right
And the things that our flesh would crave--
And the Christian has all the harder fight,
Than the devil's most willing slave.

The human mind is a battleground
Full of strong infiltrators named
Pride, and Greed, and Spite, and Just Lounge Around,
And Conceit, and the Lust for Fame.
And though we possess the Lord's mighty power
That will give us the strength to win,
As the fight drags on through each mortal hour,
It's so tempting to just give in.

The human mind is a battleground--
But take heart, for the war will end,
And our souls will rest in the peace we found
In our Lord, our Forever Friend.
So be strong and brave, and hold to God's Word:
Those who stand to the end will find,
On the day when He shatters evil's sword,
Perfect, undisturbed peace of mind!

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Lord of All, the Only God

My church's Lent theme for this week is "worship"--the central focus of every human life. Wherever the majority of our time is directed, that is what we really worship. Judging my thought life and leisure activities by that criterion, I must worship learning, vicarious excitement, and variety for the sake of variety.

Not that any of the above are wrong in themselves, or incapable of being used for God-honoring purposes--any more than it's inherently sinful to love football, backpacking, or Web surfing. But when we say of any earthly thing, "Nothing will make me give that up even temporarily," or (if we don't want to be quite that stiff-necked), "I'll give that up only if God directly and unmistakably tells me to [and I intend to leave all possible room for doubt]"--that's a sure sign we're worshiping a created thing rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25). Whenever we convince ourselves we can't live without something, we are raising that thing to the position of God, the Source of Life.

He should also be the Master of our lives, but in the more affluent world at least, most of us are constantly trying to displace Him. Not that we consciously tell Him to go away and not bother us, but we do effectively the same thing whenever we make plans without considering how He may feel about it. Or when we're actually afraid to ask, in case He disagrees with us. Or when we "go through the motions" of weekly church attendance and daily Bible reading and then assume we've "done our part"--even though we never once made conscious effort to listen for His guidance or otherwise learn anything.

Jesus warned us in Mt. 6:24 (NIV) that "no one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." Or Knowledge, or Food, or Entertainment, or any of the other earthly things that clamor for our loyalty. Frightening thought: if we let these claim our devotion, we are not politely asking God to wait; we are effectively despising Him!

Such an attitude is as universal as it is foolish. Since temporary things are so obvious, it is easy to begin relying on them. Focusing on God and His Word is considerable work by comparison. Considerable work--but essential if we want to make spiritual progress.

We can be grateful, however, that God is not only patient with our failures, but is Himself the true Strength that, bit by bit, overcomes our weaknesses.

The Lord of All, the Only God,
Demands each life in full:
But still we try to serve this world,
Drawn off by its strong pull.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

Our God, Who made the sea and skies,
Is Lord of all that is:
But earthly things distract our thoughts,
And take from what is His.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

Our Father made our minds and souls,
And gives our lives each breath:
But still, our sinful hearts prefer
The road that ends in death.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

Our Savior gave His life for us,
To make our way to heaven:
But we prefer earth's fleeting joys
To all that He has given.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

The Holy Spirit guides our lives,
Gives strength to meet each test:
But we ignore His voice and let
The good crowd out the best.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

We dare not trust our mortal strength
To keep us in God's ways:
No, we must trust His power and help,
And give to Him our praise.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

My great Creator, fill my soul:
All other loves dethrone,
Till I forget all lesser things,
And You are Lord Alone.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Words We Store Inside Our Hearts

Do you ever excuse yourself for having said something hurtful to a service person or family member, because you were "under a lot of pressure"? So do I. And do you ever manage to remain polite under even greater pressure, when talking to a prospective employer or someone else you want to impress? So do I.

The truth is, the only reason anger squirts out of us under pressure is that we first put that anger into ourselves. No matter how hard you squeeze an empty plastic bottle, nothing but air will come out. And no one can squeeze orange juice out of a bottle that's filled only with water. Likewise, every time we allow ourselves to think, "It's not fair when I can't have my way," we are filling our hearts with prideful resentment that will eventually come out--frequently with disastrous results.

The Bible has much to say about right words--and right attitudes. If we truly want to be Christ's followers in our actions, let us practice replacing our bitter and selfish impulses with humility, concern for others, and other Christlike thoughts.

The words we store inside our hearts--
The thoughts we think each hour--
Fill up our souls till out they burst
In all their awesome power.

The words we store inside our hearts
Will always find a way
To force themselves out through our mouths,
In every word we say.

If we store thoughts of selfishness,
If anger rules our brains,
The words we speak, before too long,
Pierce other hearts with pains.

A bottle squirts no alcohol,
When pressure is applied,
If only water was poured in--
It gives up what's inside.

So do not blame the stress of life
When you speak words of hate;
It is your own hard, prideful heart
That has you cursing fate.

If you would tame the restless tongue,
And have your words be kind,
Take words of God, and humble thoughts,
And feed them to your mind!