Tuesday, October 27, 2009

All Else Was Forgotten

St. Paul urges all Christians to "Be joyful always... give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16, 18, NIV). I have a painful tendency to come up short on both points. Even when there's nothing obvious to dread, the first mental message I get upon waking is usually "Why bother getting up? Nothing worthwhile ever happens to you anyway." Even when there's nothing obvious to complain about, I feel semi-depressed a good bit of the time. Blame bad habit, natural temperament, physical health, or all three--in any case, "life stinks" is not a pleasant attitude to live with.

Still, as with most negative personality traits, those of us who suffer from chronic pessimism tend to dread even more the prospect of changing. There's something comfortable about familiar territory even when we're miserable in it. The idea of moving up to new ground can generate a mental image of perpetual climbing, never reaching the top, never being able to rest, never really seeing things get perceptibly better. With this idea fixed in our heads, attempts at self-motivation prove sporadic at best.

The antidote is God-motivation, which is probably why Paul placed "Pray continually" (1 Thess. 5:17) right in the middle of his call to joy and thanksgiving. The three are inseparable in a Christlike attitude, and there is no place for being sporadic; this approach is to be practiced "always... continually... in all circumstances."

Hard? No question. Slow progress? Almost certainly. The development of such practices--even coming to understand exactly what they look like in an individual life--usually is sporadic. But it becomes a bit easier when we remember that it's not our strength but God's that does the real work. The mistake most of us make is to let our circumstances, our weaknesses, and our emotions "get in our eyes" and block our view of God's strength, God's adequacy, and God's provision. Even our prayers often focus on our wishes for what we see as the best solutions--which leaves little time or inclination to praise God for Who He is and to thank Him for all He has already done.

Next time you find yourself thinking "I can't" in regard to a point of spiritual growth, don't argue directly. Read the Bible, look at the stars, or review what God has done for you in the past--and see if your gloom-and-doom feelings don't fade away in His light.

Job saw life's achievements all crumble around him;
It seemed God had left him when trouble had found him.
He cried out to Heaven for some explanation,
For justice, fair hearing, and quick vindication.
And God finally answered from out of the thunders,
Directing Job's vision to all the Lord's wonders.
Job quickly left off from bemoaning his story:
All else was forgotten in light of God's glory.

I cried out to Heaven for freedom from troubles,
And for quick relief from my doubts and my struggles.
My longing for ease was obscuring my vision
Of God's mighty strength and His endless provision.
Then He urged, "Remember the ways I have brought you,
The deeds I have done and the things I have taught you."
I felt so ashamed in recalling life's story:
All else was forgotten in light of God's glory.

Our Father is Master of everything living;
Our Lord, the Almighty, is constantly giving;
Yet we, wretched mortals, crave comfort and pleasure
And give little thought to God's Heavenly Treasure.
Stop praying for things that you think you're "deserving,"
And look to your Lord and His purpose unswerving,
And open your Bible--get lost in His Story--
Let all be forgotten except His own glory.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Seventh Day

This past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Houston was blessed with perfect fall weather: virtually cloudless, clear blue sky every day, combined with just-above-chilly temperatures and the near absence of detectable humidity. Especially after the recent heat wave, it would have been almost sinful to spend any of those days indoors.

So I started the weekend a day early. And I don't feel a bit guilty about it.

One advantage of being self-employed is not having any real ethical dilemma in the occasional spontaneous day off. But a surprising number of people feel guilty about taking even officially alloted vacation time. The typical "workaholic" is convinced that his or her career, if not the entire company's financial well-being, depends on being constantly on call to prevent catastrophe--and is blind to the impending personal catastrophes of relationship and health failure. Small wonder that more enlightened employers sometimes reach the point of literally ordering staff members to take time off.

The example was set by the wisest Employer of all. When God included "take every seventh day off" among the Ten Commandments, He knew that regular breaks were vital not only to our physical health but to our spiritual health as well. And an important aspect of spiritual health is remembering Who our real Boss is. Read carefully the above description of a workaholic, and you'll notice that the primary characteristic of such a mindset is an "everything depends on me" attitude.

So one reason for periodically stopping our work is to let God remind us, "No, you need to leave everything to Me."

One day for light, one for the sky, and one for all that grew,
And one for sun and moon and stars, back when the world was new;
One day for birds and water beasts, and one for beasts of land
And human life: and then one day for rest, at God’s command.

God gives His blessing to our work; but on one day in seven
He gives a time of holy rest for those who look to Heaven;
To those who follow in His ways, to those who seek His mind,
He says, “Withdraw from work today, the best My will to find.”

The seventh day, the day of rest, He blessed before the Fall;
And to His people long ago, He gave command that all
Would set apart that time again, all work to put away
To worship Him without distraction, on the seventh day.

God gives the time we need for work, but also time to rest
While we walk through this fractured world as those His love has blessed;
But work and rest will soon be one, when time will pass away,
And Seven Spirits guard the Throne, in God’s Eternal Day!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

God Is Working His Way in Us

"Most Christians who need counseling have one thing in common," writes Jay E. Adams in his booklet Christ and Your Problems. "Their conversation is studded with the word 'can't.'"

Most experienced counselors, Christian or otherwise, would agree that "I can't" is frequently the lazy person's euphemism for "I don't want to bother trying; I don't want to do my share of the work." When a Christian talks this way, it also implies a lack of faith: "I don't believe God is strong enough to change me, or fair to expect me to change, or going to be much help in the process."

But there's another side to the "I can't do what God wants me to do" complaint. Many of us are willing, even eager, to change; come to the point of admitting we really can't do it unless God works in us; announce our full surrender to His will in the matter--and then, when we don't see instant and obvious perfection as a result, sink into discouragement over how often we still fall short. We even start to suspect that God is annoyed with us for not trying hard enough.

Perhaps we're trying too hard--trying to rush ahead of Him in the process. When it comes to spiritual growth, God is fond of the slow-and-steady approach; our problem is that our limited perspectives have little eye for slow progress. It's like losing weight after having been obese and sedentary for years. If the dieter chooses any reasonably healthy approach, the excess fat will come off bit by bit, ounce by ounce; and with new muscle building up at the same time, the scales may not even show much weight difference. It can be easy to conclude, "It's been nearly a month and every day I look the same as the day before; I'm not making any progress at all"--until someone we haven't seen in weeks greets us with, "I hardly recognized you; you look so much thinner!"

God does plan to make us perfect--in eternity. But why does He let us struggle so much in the here and now? Perhaps because the first sin to arise in humanity, and the last to be conquered in the individual, is pride. Like the Israelites in Dt. 8:10-18, who were prone to take personal credit for God's physical blessings, we might easily be tempted to start considering ourselves fully responsible for leaps-and-bounds progress--and slide into the same trap that caught the Pharisees, who in trying their best to "be good" turned themselves into the lowest of sinners.

The only proper approach to changing for the better is full submission to God at all times--and that includes willingly accepting His chosen pace.

God is working His way in us
By paths that we cannot see;
God is using each circumstance
To make us all we can be:
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He’ll bring us His full, true light,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days
As we worship the Lord of might.

God is working His way in us:
Though struggles seem hard to bear,
God is building our lasting strength:
Doubt never that He does care.
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He’ll call us up to His side,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days
As we rest in our holy Guide.

God is working His way in us
To purge us from love of sin;
God is cleaning our minds and souls
To wash out all taint within:
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He shall bring us home at last,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days,
With the hardships of life all past.

God is working His way in us:
So let us fulfill each task
That He gives us to do for Him:
He sends all the strength we ask.
Nearer and nearer comes the day
When He’ll send out His final call,
And our hearts will be pure for endless days,
And our Lord will be All in All!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

You Have Heard It Said

In Mt. 5:21-48 (NIV), Jesus said six times, "You have heard that it was said [or, 'It has been said']... But I tell you..."

J. B. Phillips wrote a "Most People Think" list presenting the world's version of the Beatitudes: "Happy are the pushers: for they get on in the world... Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end... Happy are the trouble-makers: for people have to take notice of them." (See Phillips's book Your God Is Too Small, p. 92 in the 2004 Touchstone Edition, for the full list.)

So often do our natural, pride-infested human instincts run dead opposite to God's way. In our own society, there's an epidemic of the idea that thinking primarily of oneself is a virtue. While most people do know better than to advocate actually ignoring and abusing others, anyone who states outright that "the convenience/needs/lives of others is/are far more important than mine" (cf. Phil. 2:3) is likely to be pounced upon and chided: "Sounds like you have an inferiority complex." "You'll never get anywhere until you convince yourself you deserve the best." "Don't you know you can't really help others unless you first take care of your own needs?" Admittedly, many have burnt themselves out because they were such people-pleasers or so "driven" that they never said no to anybody. This is really just one more manifestation of "the world says selfishness is good for you": we think that we have to make everyone happy, or our lives will be ruined for lack of popularity and success; and meanwhile God is trying to tell us that our souls are overdue for rest and prayer.

Small wonder we listen more to the world's voice than to God's, since the receivers of our sin-infested souls are better tuned to the world's frequency. No amount of experience seems to teach us that the world's "how to be happy" program just doesn't work.

The only remedy is to "adjust the dial" by studying and following God's guidelines in the Bible.

You have heard it said, "Have faith in yourself,
And believe you deserve the best;
Make sure you get all the praise you're due,
And that medals adorn your chest."
But Christ says to us, "Think not of yourself,
But, in love for the human race,
Live your life to serve, in humility,
And to others reach out in grace."

You have heard it said, "Stand up for yourself,
Or you'll find that nobody will;
Make sure that no one walks over you;
Take no insult just standing still."
But Christ says to us, "Think not of yourself,
But of everyone else's good:
Never take revenge; never grouse or gripe,
But show love as your Father would."

You have heard it said, "You must plan your life,
And set goals for yourself each year;
Always know what you'll achieve each day,
And let nobody interfere."
But Christ says to us, "Only God can know
What the week or year may bring;
Do not clutch your plans as if they were life;
Trust the will of your Heavenly King."

You have heard it said, "You just can't trust God:
He will take away all your fun.
If you live your life for 'Heaven's rewards,'
Here on earth you'll be left with none."
But Christ says to us, "When God lives in you,
All your joy will be complete."--
Yes, the world's own "joy" is a hollow thing,
But God's Heavenly gift is so sweet.