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)

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Your defiant statement

I wish you could see the larger statement that your life is making today.

And by the way, I am not talking about the statement that your life is making to your loved ones and coworkers who relate closely with you. Certainly, your life is making a statement to them, and hopefully they will take time to affirm some of that with you. I’m talking about something different, something bigger, something on a cosmic level.

The New Testament tells us that God uses the lives of His followers to make a statement to the supernatural world around us. Ephesians 3:10 says that “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

There is something about the church—in all of our glory and ruin—that makes a defiant statement to the supernatural realm around us.

Our world is bursting with competing ideologies, bitter hostilities, military armaments, sociological complexities, and overwhelming fears and insecurities, and yet those things are never the final word. God still has something to say and one of the ways He says it is through the lives of followers who live in a different kingdom, follow a different creed, relate from a different perspective, and work for a different cause.

When you do that—when you respond to God’s work in your life—a message gets sent into the spirit realm: “There is more going on than meets the eye. There is something greater than our small, exhausting pursuits. God’s quickening, illuminating wisdom is still at play.”

This defiant message of God’s wisdom displayed through His followers’ surrendered lives, reminds me of a scene from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when Aslan tells Susan and Lucy that the White Witch had been deficient in her education. He said:

“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”[1]

There is a deeper wisdom and a greater power at work in our world today, and your surrendered life is a human megaphone that speaks it into the cosmos.

[1] The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter 15.

There is always a rescue scene

Every great epic story has a rescue scene. Whether it is evil wizards being defeated, dragons being slain, or Death Stars getting blown out of the universe, there is always a scene where the tide turns, justice and truth are finally upheld, and the heroes eventually win the day.

Have you ever wondered why?

Why does every great story have a rescue scene? For that matter, why does every great story start out with paradise being lost, evil setting up shop, and then a small band of heroes getting called upon to fight against nearly overwhelming odds? Why is there is always a moment when the beauty—there is always a beauty—gets captured and seems lost forever? Why does every epic tale have a moment when all hope is lost until someone mounts a rescue scene to finally save the day?

Because yours does.

The story of Scripture—the story in which you and I are living—is a story of paradise lost and then found; it is a story of sin’s death swallowing the world before life and love win the day. The Bible begins in Genesis with paradise lost and it ends in Revelation with paradise found and restored.

1 Corinthians 15:54 tells us the outcome of the biblical narrative: through Jesus Christ “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” The Bible is the archetype—it is the original, true-life narrative that gives form and substance to every lesser story that replays its central themes. This Easter as we re-imagine and re-engage with the Bible’s central theme let’s remember that there is a larger story—scholars call it a metanarrative—that you and I have been born into.

If hope seems lost today—if beauty seems vanquished forever—please hold steady. There is always a rescue scene.

The Temptation of St. Patrick

Hi everyone! On the Eve of St. Patrick’s Day I thought I would share an insightful, helpful article from author Stephen Mansfield about a generally unknown, but profoundly powerful scene from the life of St. Patrick. Enjoy!

“St. Patrick’s Day is approaching. There will be much beer-drinking and green-wearing to mark it. I’m moved by all of Patrick’s life but there is one episode in particular that comes back to me again and again, particularly at this time of year. It helps me. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Patrick was born in Britain late in the fourth century. Though his father was a Christian deacon and his grandfather was a priest, Patrick admitted that he was not yet a Christian when, at the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders. For six years he worked as a captive herdsman, miserable and ill fed in the often-chilly pastures of Ireland. During this time, he turned to his family’s Christian faith. When he finally escaped, he returned to Britain determined to become a priest.

He was ordained in 417 A.D. and he immediately astonished his friends by deciding to return to Ireland—the land where he had been a slave so many years. He explained that God had spoken to him in a series of dreams and had instructed him to “set the captives free” in Ireland. In the years that followed, Patrick’s fearlessness, his many miracles, and his earthy ways of expressing spiritual truth won the Irish chieftains to his God and led to the conversion of thousands.

It was just at the height of his success that a nasty, undermining church fight threatened to end his important work. Reading of it these years later we can hardly believe how such a small matter nearly overthrew the progress of this heroic man.

It seems that while Patrick was studying for the priesthood in Britain, he confessed a sin to a friend. This was the standard practice among clergymen in training and it was understood that anything confessed in private was meant to stay that way. Thirty years later, the friend to whom Patrick confessed decided to make the matter known to the church. Those who were jealous of Patrick or who were grasping for control of his work viciously used this confession against him.

Patrick was clearly wounded by this betrayal and disgusted at the valuable time he lost in defending himself—time that would have been better spent changing a nation. Patrick’s famous Confession is filled with the details of this controversy. We can hear his surprise and his hurt in the words.

They brought up against me after thirty years an occurrence I had confessed before becoming a deacon. On account of the anxiety in my sorrowful mind, I laid before my close friend what I had perpetrated on a day—nay, rather in one hour—in my boyhood because I was not yet proof against sin. God knows—I do not—whether I was fifteen years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, nor had I believed, since my infancy; but I remained in death and unbelief until I was severely rebuked, and in truth I was humbled every day by hunger and nakedness.

Hence, therefore, I say boldly that my conscience is clear now and hereafter. God is my witness that I have not lied in these words to you.

But rather, I am grieved for my very close friend, that because of him we deserved to hear such a prophecy. The one to whom I entrusted my soul! And I found out from a goodly number of brethren, before the case was made in my defense (in which I did not take part, nor was I in Britain, nor was it pleaded by me), that in my absence he would fight in my behalf. Besides, he told me himself: ‘See, the rank of bishop goes to you’—of which I was not worthy. But how did it come to him, shortly afterwards, to disgrace me publicly, in the presence of all, good and bad, because previously, gladly and of his own free will, he pardoned me, as did the Lord, who is greater than all?

We can imagine how deflating this must have been. We can picture the frustration; almost feel Patrick’s pain. He had risked his life daily for his God and his church only to have the bureaucrats back home debate and nitpick every detail of his life. He was questioned about his basic morality after displaying nothing but good character for decades. He was humiliated and even considered abandoning his mission to Ireland.

In time, though, Patrick rose above the enemies of his soul. As we read his story, we find that he forgave his accusers, that he became deeply concerned for his betraying friend’s soul, and that ultimately he appealed to being forgiven by Jesus Christ. Though the church leaders would spend years astir in this matter, Patrick lovingly left them to their pitiful debates. He returned to his Irish mission in peace and became, in time, the greatest name in that land.

Here is the lesson: Leaders are not exempt from episodes of pain and offense. Instead, one of the traits of great leadership is the willingness to rise above the bitterness and strife that all leaders face and to do so in pursuit of a higher purpose.  This lesson is part of the legacy of St. Patrick and we should remember it—and seek to live out its meaning–on the day set aside to honor ‘the lion of Ireland.'”

Note: for more from Stephen Mansfiel check out his blog at: https://stephenmansfield.tv/

Why isn’t goodness more satisfying?

Stolen water is sweet; bread eaten in secret is delicious!

That’s what the ancient proverbs writer said, and it still rings true today. We, humans, love the illicit and the forbidden.

Why is this?

Why is forbidden fruit so tempting? Why do we crave the things that aren’t healthy for us? Why do we want what we probably shouldn’t have?

The answer is…we actually don’t. We don’t want the illicit; we don’t want the counterfeit—we actually DO want the authentic and the good.

The problem is that goodness usually requires some up-front payment, whereas the illicit doesn’t charge us until a little later on—it’s like a quick and easy credit card transaction that satisfies today but makes us pay tomorrow. Goodness and beauty make us work for it on the front end, and if we aren’t willing to pay that price we’ll turn to lesser substitutes that can hurt us on the back side.

King David understood this. Throughout his life, he walked both paths: the illicit and legitimate, and his conclusion was clear. True satisfaction (the kind that lets you sleep at night and brings life to your soul) only comes from what is good. In fact, David said that when our desires touch God’s goodness it’s so satisfying that it’s almost like we start aging in reverse. He said that God “satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagles” (Psalm 103:5).

Jesus agreed with David. He said the Kingdom of God—the reality of the goodness of life in God—was like a treasure buried in a field. It took some work and it cost a life to find it, but once found, it was worth every cent of payment.

Meanwhile we groan

At Grace Church we just finished a church-wide 90-day reading campaign where we read all of the words of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The unique thing about this reading plan was that we only read Jesus’ words—we ignored the entire surrounding context.

I know. I know.

We’re not supposed to read the Bible that way. We’re supposed to understand the Scripture’s context so that we don’t misinterpret or misapply its message. We’re not supposed to lift an isolated passage out of context or we run the risk of “proof-texting”. Even so, it was very powerful for me to read Jesus’ words all by themselves. Hearing Him say, “I am willing; be clean” or “I have chosen you” or “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven” and just absorbing those words was exhilarating.

Although I don’t generally advocate a “proof-texting” context-less reading of Scripture, I had another experience today where a single phrase of Scripture lifted up off the page and spoke to me. In 2 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul was painting a vivid picture of our promised eternal state with God, and then he said, “Meanwhile we groan” (verse 2).

For some reason that phrase spoke to me on multiple levels:

  • Our ultimate hope is secure…but meanwhile we groan.
  • The Gospel keeps advancing in our lives…but meanwhile we still groan.
  • God will finish what He has begun in us…but in the mean time we still endure some groaning.

This isn’t pessimism! This isn’t a gloomy, Eeyore perspective on life. It’s a validation of our groaning. It’s recognition that sometimes—even amidst God’s potent promises—there is a groaning in this life that has to be endured.

Please be assured that our groaning isn’t the final word—rejoicing is. Victory is. But in the meantime, we groan. We groan as we wait for His unveiling…we groan as we wrestle with sin, temptation, and compromise…we groan as we fight for the liberation of the human soul…and we groan, knowing that He is beside us in our groaning.

The ministry of standing

When Nazi Germany bombed London in the direst moments of WWII, Prime Minister Winston Churchill would routinely climb onto a roof (or on top of his car if he was on the ground) to stand and watch the bombs fall. His defiant silhouette—no doubt replete with his famous Churchillian cigar—was a reminder to anyone who saw him that Great Britain was not defeated yet. His ministry of standing in the face of insurmountable odds injected the citizens of the British Isles with hope and won him the nickname “Lion.”

Did you know that’s your ministry too? Ephesians 6 tells us that there are moments in our lives when we’ve done everything that we know to do and all that remains is for us to climb onto a rooftop and take our stand.

Standing isn’t the most glamorous ministry you will ever have. It’s not the most enjoyable of assignments—indeed, we usually don’t engage in this task until most other options have failed us—however, there is something in the standing that releases the power of God.

And after you have done everything…stand.”

Are you standing today? Are you holding your ground despite overwhelming circumstances? Is your rooftop silhouette a silent reminder that you haven’t lost all faith and that the outcome of your battle is far from over?

History tells us that when England was standing America was stirring. Who knows what heavenly forces are stirring on your behalf as you continue to take your stand?