Won’t Becomes Can’t

Anne Frank, whose Holocaust diary was posthumously published as the famed Diary of a Young Girl, stated, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. We first make our choices. Then our choices make us.” Miss Frank was a mere fifteen years old when she died in a concentration camp and yet her writings possess a wisdom that continues throughout history.

Consider those words again. We first make our choices. Then our choices make us.

Endowed with free will, we humans have the ability to obey or disobey God. That choice is our right. However, as young Anne—and philosophers through the ages—understood, every choice that we make carries an accompanying consequence, and eventually those individual consequences harden into a consistent reality. In biblical terminology that hardening is called a “stronghold”. And strongholds are morally neutral—they can be either good or bad.

For instance, if I consistently respond to the whisper and prompting of the Holy Spirit in my life I will create a pattern/habit/stronghold of righteousness. Conversely, if I routinely disobey, yielding my mind, affections, or body to sin, I will create a sinful stronghold. And if I consistently won’t obey God (through the exercise of my free will) I will get to a place where I can’t obey Him—I will be gripped too tightly in the stronghold of my sin.

Does this make sense? If I consistently reach for things that are displeasing to God, they will eventually reach back, and then even if I want to let go, I sometimes can’t. I am bound. Addiction counselors understand this. They explain that for an addict the act of reaching for a forbidden, damaging substance is a choice; however, once the choice is made the addiction/stronghold takes over and it is no longer a choice—it is bondage.

I’m not sure if Anne Frank knew that she was paraphrasing a famous adage from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny.” Variations of this quote have been attributed to Stephen Covey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and numerous others, but it actually appeared in ancient literature that pre-dated the time of Christ, and it has always been true. The exercise of our free will is dangerously powerful—it can create realities that either sabotage us or set us free.

Let’s choose life! Let’s tear down our suffocating, damaging strongholds and let’s build new ones on the rock of Jesus Christ.

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Advertisements

Chance vs. Opportunity

Make the most of every opportunity.” That’s what the Bible tells us to do in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5, but what if we don’t? What happens if we don’t make the most of an opportunity? Or worse, what if we miss an opportunity altogether? Are we out of luck, doomed to never get that particular opportunity again?

Sort of.

Second chances are plentiful in life and Scripture. Indeed, thorough readings of God’s interactions with people in the Bible have dubbed Him the unofficial name “the God of the second chance.” However, even though second chances occur quite often, lost opportunities are a different matter. Once we miss out on an opportunity it is gone, never to present itself in exactly the same way again. This does not mean that our second chances can’t be as good as our first chances—sometimes they can be even better—but the uniqueness of an opportunity only presents itself once.

I have a friend who says it this way. Imagine you are waiting for a bus to pick you up, but when it arrives you decide not to board. Certainly that wasn’t your only chance in life to board a bus and catch a ride across town. You will have other chances to take the bus. However, once that opportunity passes it is gone forever—you will never be able to ride that particular bus at that particular moment again. Additionally, second chances often prove more difficult than original opportunities. If I miss the bus today, it will show up again tomorrow, but it might be raining and there might be a huge puddle for me to cross before I can board the bus. If I miss that opportunity, the next day there might be both a mud puddle and a pit bull guarding the door to the bus.

Granted, this example is both simplistic and a bit pessimistic, but there is truth to it. We have to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves to us because their specialness and uniqueness will never present in exactly the same way again. Also, if we fail to move when opportunities present, future chances might prove more difficult than they needed to be.

In closing, consider a thought from missionary Jim Elliot: “Wherever you are be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” If we followed Mr. Elliot’s advice we would live with less regret and we would indeed fulfill Scripture’s admonition to “make the most of every opportunity”.

Satan’s favorite babysitter

under-my-umbrellaSelf-pity is Satan’s favorite babysitter. At least that’s what my pastor used to say when I was growing up, and now that I’m a grown man with a few years of experience under my belt I can conclusively say that he was right.

Self-pity—with its accompanying self-loathing and victim mentality—has NEVER helped me get ahead in life.

I have certainly been filled with self-pity before, and I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how unfairly and unjustly I was being treated. And I was right—I was being treated unfairly, and it was wrong. However, it still didn’t help me. Whenever I’ve made self-pity my friend, it has only pulled me down deeper into anger, defeat, and despair.

I think my pastor called self-pity “Satan’s babysitter” because once we start indulging in it we take ourselves out of commission and Satan can simply walk away. We don’t need any external spiritual warfare to oppress our beleaguered minds; we do a fine job of it on our own. Our own bitter rumination locks us into a state of anxious inactivity.

You and I are too big for babysitters, especially destructive ones like self-pity. It is true that sometimes we are wronged, and the wounds from those wrongs can really hurt. In some ways we probably have a legitimate right to quit the fight and hunker down for a good pouting session. Indeed, nearly every one of God’s preachers and prophets had their share of pouty moments. However, once we’ve cried, vented, pouted, and complained we need to get back up. We need to take the keys away from our babysitter, pick up our battered shield and head back to our post.

God’s compassion and gentleness will heal us and make us great, but our self-pity never can. It will only lock us into a negative, ineffective state. Let’s do whatever it takes to shake ourselves free and carry on in what the Apostle Paul called “the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7).

The Next Right Thing

multidirectional signsWhat am I supposed to do with my life?

Which path should I take, left or right?

Is this the right time to make a move, or should I wait a little bit longer?

Should I follow this counsel or that opinion?

And most importantly, how long is it all going to take?

Sometimes questions like these can make us crazy. We can be so concerned with knowing exactly what the next steps are for our lives that we become obsessed. We fret and stress and live under a canopy of frustration, fear, and anxiety. We fail to enjoy the present moment because we’re so desperate to get into a future moment, and ultimately, we miss what we are supposed to learn and receive today. What we don’t even realize is that today’s obsession with tomorrow can actually disqualify us for tomorrow.

There is a better way.  Sometimes rather than obsessing over the ultimate answer or our final path, we need to simply do the next right thing.

Quite often, if you and I will simply do the next right thing, our larger path will become clear. If we do the next right thing, we will be ready for the next right thing after that. Then if we do the next right thing after that one, we will be ready for the next one that appears. If we were to consistently do this for a lifetime, several things would happen. We would live really good lives, some really great things would happen, and we would always be prepared when our new seasons arrived.

This is not a diminishing of vision. Nor is it an appeal to stop dreaming. Not at all! We need a vision. It is imperative that we dream. However, it is the maximization of today’s opportunities that qualifies us for the vision that is coming tomorrow.

What does it mean to be ‘wise as serpents’?

snakeBe wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” What do these words from Jesus mean? What does it mean to be as wise as a serpent? Are serpents cunning? Are they crafty? In what ways are serpents wise?

And while we’re at it, were there specific kinds of serpents that Jesus was referencing? Was He talking about snakes in general, or did He have a particular serpent in mind? Was He pointing back to the craftiness of the serpent in the Garden when it beguiled Adam and Eve?

I doubt it. The archenemy of humanity hardly seems like a potent role model for Christ’s followers.

Dallas Willard suggested something different. He proposed that the wisdom of the serpent lies in its timing. Although snakes can strike and bite from any position, the true accuracy and potency of their attack diminishes if they are uncoiled. It is when a snake is coiled and poised for assault that its accuracy and striking potential is fiercest.

Perhaps that’s some of what Jesus had in mind. Perhaps He was warning us about the damage that can be done when we get our sense of timing out of sync. I’ve been both premature and late in my timing too many times to count, and that faulty timing has repeatedly hurt me. It’s caused me to either mess up or miss potential opportunities, and it’s created messes and regrets that I would not have had to deal with if I had simply been more careful with my timing.

Timing is everything. A timely action or a word in season can make all the difference in our lives and relationships. Perhaps a good prayer for us today would be to ask God for a greater dose of true serpentine wisdom.

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

Note to Self

note to selfDear Self, I’m not sure what you are thinking or how you are feeling right now, but in case you’re not doing too well, I wanted to remind you of some things. Emotions come and go; truth remains. Unfortunately, emotions often feel more powerful than truth, and sometimes we can judge the entire external universe based on minor, internal mood swings. I’d like to save you from that, and remind you of some truth.

As I write to you (to me) I am in a good place. My thinking is clear and I can sense God’s life and presence around me and in me. I would qualify for Pastor Wayne Cordeiro’s description, “clear-headed and close to God” (remember, he always urges people to only make their biggest decisions when they are clear-headed and close to God). So I think I’m in a good spot to pep talk you and prop you up. Granted, someone could accuse me of doing the very thing I am warning you against, namely attributing a positive mood to ultimate reality. However, that’s not the case.

It is true that shallow emotional upswings do not necessarily correspond to God’s truth anymore than negative, gloomy ones do. We humans are so easily swayed by circumstantial highs and lows, but God’s life is very different from that. Some of King David’s mightiest psalms—where he boasts of an ability to “run through a troop” or “leap over a wall”—were written at the bottom of some very nasty life seasons.

There is a hope and peace and presence that can transcend whatever we are experiencing, and when we touch that presence everything changes even if nothing changes. Please remember that last phrase. Things don’t need to change for YOU to change. Circumstances don’t need to improve for you to step more fully into the life and strength of God’s Spirit.

So, dear self, man up. Don’t quit. Don’t pout. Hold steady. Lean into God. Like David said, you too will live to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!

I want a rule; God wants obedience

breaking rulesHow many drinks can I have? One? Two? More? Or none at all?

Can I watch certain kinds of R-rated movies? Like the ones that are only rated R for violence? Or maybe just language? Or other stuff too as long as it isn’t too bad?

What are my rules for what is and is not acceptable?

Some people don’t care about these kinds of questions—they aren’t “rule people” and they are happy to make these decisions on the fly. Others, however, feel more comfortable with clearly defined boundaries, and they appreciate the comfort and security of always knowing exactly what they should and shouldn’t do.

Personally, I am a rule person and I prefer to know exactly what my boundaries are. I like the security of knowing precisely when I am and am not on the right path, and sometimes the Bible caters to personalities like mine. Sometimes the Scriptures clearly highlight the paths that God wants us to walk, and there’s nothing left for us to do but start walking. There are other times though when the Bible isn’t quite as clear. It doesn’t give us rules to follow; it gives us principles to apply.

Sometimes I want a law to govern me, but God wants something very different. He wants my mature obedience. Sometimes simple rule keeping can be a lesser path than actually following the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Remember, being led by the Spirit is a key mark of mature sonship and daughterhood (Romans 8:14), and often that leading occurs in settings where the rules aren’t perfectly clear. Paul devoted entire chapters of his writings to matters of conscience, coaching us for those times when singular rules can’t fully dictate correct behavior.

We live in a time in history when we must know God’s laws, understand the principles that drive them, and be sensitized to the Holy Spirit’s leading. When Scripture is clear we follow it clearly. When it is unclear–or open to multiple interpretations–we follow its principles. And when multiple paths are legitimate options, we trust the Spirit’s leading in our conscience.