How to Make a Mess of Adversity

CC BY-NC, chris-on, Flickr

CC BY-NC, chris-on, Flickr

Life guarantees each of us some heartache. No need to search for it; it will find you. The scriptures add the possibility of God ordering us to pass through trial for the perfecting of our faith. But whether it is life’s distress or God’s higher purpose at work, trouble can be overwhelming at times and bring us to the brink of despair.

A conversation I’ve had with God during these times has often begun—and ended—like this: “Lord, I’m failing this test!” Frustrated, I’ll start praying and then stop because I’m sure God is sick of hearing me about that same ole thing. I know I am.

This usually happens when I’m at my wits end and don’t know my next move, or I feel that I’ve botched something. It springs from a heart that sincerely desires to please the Lord but is near despair because there seems to be no solution to the problem.

Soul Grief

Sometimes it’s relieving to look at our Bible heroes and see that they dealt with the same emotions we face. Consider these words of Paul: “We do not want you to be uninformed…about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

Keeping it in perspective, my cares don’t compare to Paul’s active engagements on behalf of the souls in his young churches. Yet we all steer a state of mind that must be held at an even keel, whether we deal with real, urgent risks or matters of play. And Paul pulls the covers back for a moment and shows us a low point, which should encourage us.

‘Saved and on my way to Heaven’ doesn’t exempt one from dealing with the gamut of human emotion. Faith should determine how we deal with our emotions, although we won’t be happy perpetually or sad forever.

God vs. Our Image

Another thing that won’t be perfect is how we handle trouble. This is where I have often erred, especially in those times when I knew God was sending me through the wilderness. It is the crux of my ‘failing’ prayer. Let’s keep reading Paul’s words: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (v. 9).

Interesting: Paul submits that his life-threating ordeals occurred so that his team could fall upon the great strength of God to rescue them.

The Holy Spirit showed me how I stopped relying on his grace to face my cares and opted to confront them in my own strength and pride, attempting to persevere with tidiness and perfect form. The truth is, however, the wilderness kills those who don’t adapt. It’s a place of change. And you don’t get the luxury of looking good in the desert. Instead, God leads us there to get better things in and out of us—and that ain’t ever glamorous.

Trial is not pretty and never perfectly endured. But such a mindset only proves that we are not relying on the grace of God, which is perfect, to carry us, start to finish.

My “I’m failing this test!” prayer only demonstrates that I need to chill out and cease trying to please the Lord and score “A’s.” Instead, God’s tells me, “You already please me, and I’m not disappointed in you. Just learn what I’m trying to teach you.”

That means deal with the variables or the aftermath of the situation with faith and dutiful attention, as you must, but keep your heart open to the lessons the Spirit wants you to grasp.

A Spiritual Learning Curve

There is a spiritual learning curve for each of us, and it comes with some hardship. If it weren’t challenging, we wouldn’t grow and couldn’t achieve mastery. In time, however, we learn that it is challenge and resistance, along with the grace of God, that raise our lives from one state of glory to the next. Paul finishes:

“He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us” (v. 10).

Paul is suggesting one clear message: the triumph of God’s grace in our adversity. Later, he renders it this way: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (12:9). Did you see it that time?

Friend, lets lay aside those crooked prayers and rest in the mighty grace of God. We’ll gain confidence in his purpose with our pain and ease our troubled minds.

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“Thanks” Series—Post by Michael Stephens

CC BY-NC, Jason-Morrison, Flickr

(See where the tree grows!)
CC BY-NC, Jason-Morrison, Flickr

This post is the fourth in this week’s “Thanks” series that features quotes on thankfulness given by notable Christians. Today I reflect on the following quote by British author and intellectual C.S. Lewis.

“We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good; if bad, because it works in us patience, humility, contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”

These words make me think of others I’ve spoken—“Why complain when you can be thankful?” I’m a million light-years from Lewis’s brilliance, but I think together we’re onto something here: life is chockfull of occasions to show gratitude.

Eco sustainability teaches the principle of zero waste in nature. No matter the debris or pollution, nature eventually recycles it into use again. Our lives possess that same characteristic because we have every chance to turn all our good and bad instances into moments of gratitude to the Lord. Lewis draws us into the heart of this concept and, in simple fashion, explains why it can be so.

For the Good and the Bad

“If it is good, because it is good,” Lewis says—not merely that we have everything we could wish for, which is nice, but also for the essential goodness that has entered our lives. The adopted boy taken out of the system has drastically more to be thankful for than the fineness of the clothes, toys, food, and vacations he now enjoys. Instead his deepest gratitude springs from one thing: his being chosen.

Lewis continues: “if bad, because it works in us patience, humility, contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.” If you hear Lewis saying we ought to be thankful for bad fortune, you’re hearing incorrectly. We cannot be thankful for disease and violence and poverty and destruction, all things that break God’s heart. But we can be thankful because they are catalysts.

Misfortune offers us a chance to develop in our lives virtue that we might otherwise never experience; and that virtue grants the Lord more control in us and with us. This is spiritual wealth that glorifies God and that, in some unknown way, accrues and awaits us in the life to come.

Moreover, what Lewis conveys of bad fortune rings resoundingly with hope: we should take trouble itself as a cue that better lies just ahead of us. Whether in this life or the next, our present experience is dissolving into something astonishingly wonderful.

God’s Design for Us

Thus, complaints have little hope of thriving when we grasp that every moment is a chance to be grateful to God. The apostle Paul trumps Lewis and me when he says, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18). The will of God is his desire and design for our lives; Paul identifies part of it as a life brimming with gratitude.

On this Thanksgiving Day we raise a toast in praise to the God who has entangled our lives in an intricate win-win situation. His grace makes our good sweeter and helps us transform our misfortune into wealth. He is the author of all good and the Eternal Victor over every dark power. May he who is our every advantage be glorified this Thanksgiving and we remain always grateful.

“Thanks” Series—Guest Post by Chris Hendrix

CC BY-NC, @DartmoorGiant, Flickr

CC BY-NC, @DartmoorGiant, Flickr

This post is the second in this week’s “Thanks” series that features quotes on thankfulness given by notable Christians. Chris Hendrix, writer of Devotions By Chris, reflects on the following quote by early American theologian Albert Barnes.

“We can always find something to be thankful for, and there may be reasons why we ought to be thankful for even those dispensations which appear dark and frowning.”

As things in my life went downhill ten years ago, my brother helped me to keep things in perspective. Over the course of a few months, an employee of mine, her husband, and child died in a crash; I got pulled into a legal fight for the remaining child; my wife had an affair while I was distracted by the legal battle; she then left me for the other man; and my business went under and I filed for bankruptcy.

While having a pity party one day, my brother looked me in the eye and said, “Believe it or not, someone else has it worse than you do. You can be thankful you’re not them.” No sooner than his words hit my ear, they pierced my heart. I had been feeling like my life was worse than what Job had experienced; the truth was my life wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

When my thoughts of pity changed, my perspective changed. I quit trying to find others to feel sorry for me and started finding reasons to be thankful. My situation hadn’t changed; in fact, it got worse. Instead, what changed when I decided to become thankful was how I saw myself in the storm I was in and the purpose of the storm.

Not a Victim

Instead of asking “Why me, God?” I began to ask “What am I to learn from this?” Being thankful changed me from being a victim to a student. Even in my darkest hour God had something to show me and was desperately trying to get my attention. I had been stubbornly ignoring his call and living how I wanted to live. I had ignored his gentle warnings and signals to change how I was living; now his attempts at getting my attention grew louder and louder. God wasn’t content to let me live my life my way; he wanted me to live it his way. I’m thankful now that he didn’t leave me in the life I was living.

The theologian Albert Barnes said, “We can always find something to be thankful for, and there may be reasons why we ought to be thankful for even those dispensations which appear dark and frowning.” In my life I’ve always remembered that someone has it worse than anything I will ever face. I am thankful when I think about that. When times are tough and life isn’t going the way I think it should or I feel I’ve been dealt a bad hand, I no longer pretend I’m the victim. I know now that even when things appear bad or like they can’t get worse, God is there in the storm with me. He hasn’t left me or forsaken me. He’s enduring it with me and wants to use the experience for his glory.

An Attitude of Gratitude

If you’re in the middle of a storm and you feel like things can’t be worse, I challenge you to find something to be thankful for. Are you still breathing? Then you have something to be thankful for. Your life isn’t over. God can rebuild it from the ruins where you are now.

Lose the victim mentality and become a student of what God wants to show you. To change your perspective you have to change your mindset. A changed mindset begins with a thankful heart. Things may not get better right away, but being thankful will give you a purpose in hard times. That purpose, combined with a thankful heart, will pull you through.

Read more by Chris on his blog Devotions By Chris.

“Thanks” Series—Guest Post by Stephen Chan

CC BY NC-SA, C Jill Reed, Foter

CC BY-SA, C Jill Reed, Foter

This post is the first in this week’s “Thanks” series that features quotes on thankfulness given by notable Christians. Stephen Chan, writer of Faith Comes From Hearing, reflects on the following quote by German theologian Meister Eckhart.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

There is a lot that can be said about prayer. The Bible encourages us to “never stop praying” (1 Thess. 5:17). Yet if we know the heart of God and trust that his plan for us is good (Jer. 29:11), it can be tempting to ask why we need to pray at all. Jesus himself said, “…for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).

Perhaps all we need to say to God is “thank you”—for what he has done and in anticipation of what he will do. Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Is it really enough?

Sincere Thanks

Saying “thank you” is not an act to be taken lightly; too often we toss these words around when we don’t mean them.

  • Thanksgiving should be sincere. If gratitude has to be compelled, it ceases to be sincere and takes on an opposite meaning. God never insisted we thank him—in the same way he never forces us to love him. He loves us and blesses us with or without our reciprocation, although our love and praise is what he enjoys and desires. Jesus asked of the lepers, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18). Clearly, we can receive blessings without showing appreciation.
  • Thanksgiving should glorify God, not us. Sometimes our expressions of thanks are thinly veiled “self-praises” that brag about our accomplishments—“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Jesus recognizes this for what it is—self-glorification—and he warns against it. We offer thanks to God from a position of humility because we know that we can do nothing without him (John 15:5).
  • Thanksgiving should focus on God, not his blessings. If we were to offer thanks only for the good things in life, we are really withholding thanks from God until we receive something that pleases us. That would be disrespectful and impudent! But if we are going to be joyful in trouble as James suggests (1:2), we need to remember the first point above: thanksgiving should be sincere! Do we possess the attitude of Job, or David, who in the midst of persecution by Saul, wrote, “My heart is confident in you, O God; my heart is confident. No wonder I can sing your praises!” (Ps. 57:7).

Unending Prayers

Although the Father knows our needs before we ask him, he is pleased with our petitions. When we bring our prayers before him…

  • It shows we trust him. When Saul died and the way was clear for David to be king, David didn’t rush back to his hometown to claim the throne. Instead, he sought God’s advice: “‘Should I move back to one of the towns of Judah?’ ‘Yes,’ the Lord replied” (2 Sam. 2:1). When we pray and seek God, we show that we trust his advice, his plan, and his timing.
  • It shows we depend on him. When the Philistines tried to capture David, David asked the Lord, “‘Should I go out to fight the Philistines?’…The Lord replied to David, ‘Yes, go ahead. I will certainly hand them over to you’” (1 Chr. 14:10). Wisely, David didn’t want to fight the Philistines if God wasn’t on his side. He knew that victory only came from God. By asking God if he would hand the Philistines over to him, David showed that he depended on God.
  • It allows God to reciprocate in love. When my son was born, my wife and I both worked jobs. We desperately needed someone who could watch the baby when we returned to work. We checked newspaper ads, asked friends, and searched across town for someone who could help. When we acted on our own, we found closed doors; but when we prayed, God opened the door of the Muslim family who lived across the hall from our apartment. They happily agreed to care for our son, which started a 15-year friendship between our families that continues today.

Prayer with Thanksgiving

Each verse in Psalm 136 contains a reason to thank God. Yet if you read between the lines, you will see the real reason why we can thank God repeated again and again—“his faithful love endures forever.”

Although we have good reasons to thank God and be “thankful in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18), it would be a strange relationship if all we said to God was “thank you.” Prayer deepens our relationship with the Father. It shows our dependency on him, our trust in him, and keeps us in a position of humility before him.

So let’s continue to humbly but confidently go to the Father with our prayers because “this is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).

Read more by Stephen on his blog Faith Comes From Hearing

The Need for Transparency

CC BY-NC, Rossell_j, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Rossell_j, Flickr

Many years ago my family ate Sunday dinner with a family friend. We all attended the same church, where I was a young minister, and we were accompanied by another young lady also from the church.

The gathering was lighthearted and entertaining. The table roared with laughter at one point when something funny was said; I laughed until I cried. The young lady, seated beside me, turned to see me in stitches and recoiled. “You aren’t supposed to laugh like that! You’re a minister!” Her comment sidetracked the moment and became its own topic of conversation.

That scene always comes to mind when I think about being a Christian and living with transparency. I feel that my faith allows me to be a more transparent person in most ways because I live with my heart turned toward God. I don’t say that for points, but I honestly believe this should be the case ideally for Christians.

I’d like to think that Jesus laughed the loudest and grieved deeply because he knew his humanity was undergirded by God’s grace.

I would be remiss, however, to deny that there are times when I am tempted to cover up the real me with the saint I’d like to portray. Yet I’ve been schooled by the Holy Spirit well enough to differentiate between simple and honest living and pretense.

But I get it. I understand the dilemma we Christians—ministers particularly—find ourselves in, right amongst our own kind. Barring our natural impulse to hide flaws, being God-loving, Bible-reading, do-gooders sometimes makes it difficult to let our unglamorous parts show or to reveal our scars.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to let others dress us up in ways that prevent us from being real people in constant need of the grace of God. And this becomes a deadly deception of Satan when we take the bait and float along on the commendation of the masses and accept the “I’m okay” mindset, thinking that our wounds, vices, failings, and deficiencies can be left untended and not harm us. But they do ultimately and often at the expense of our good name or, worse, our livelihood or ministry. Ministers are well acquainted with this pressure.

And speaking of ministers, it shocks us when we hear of one falling to some misdeed. But I wonder if the culture of fakery we’ve created in some of our churches hasn’t backed many of us, ministers and all, into moral corners out of which we dare not step without a bright smile and neat and tidy lives—and so precipitated one’s demise.

I believe we should tell our testimonies about how God saved and delivered us, but why don’t we tell how God is still saving and delivering us? Let’s keep it real. If we did, those who have experienced God’s healing in their lives could certainly help others begin their process of healing; and those who are humble enough to share their struggles could find the compassionate support of people who have walked their path and embolden others to reveal their scars. Many people don’t share their battles for fear that they’re unique and all alone in their situation.

If everyone in the community has it together (and they don’t) and is not sharing (too often the case) then there is a severe lack of discipleship, accountability, and fellowship.

I understand that some things in our lives are better left private and cannot or should not be shared with everybody. But to the extent that we all can simply be the graced of God, let us not be so foolishly concerned about our reputations that we allow any person to be deceived by sin or deprived of restoration.

More on this topic: Leave None Behind

It’s (Not) Over!

CC BY-NC, luckyfish, Flickr

CC BY-NC, luckyfish, Flickr

Being a Christian doesn’t exempt one from trouble. It comes to us all—trouble independent of our involvement, trouble seen and unforeseen, trouble simply unwanted. But we have to deal with it and in a manner that keeps us mindful of the Lord’s sufferings for us. Paul calls such a communion (Ph. 3:10).

Trouble is a product of life. Things and situations go wrong in a complex world for many reasons. Scripture agrees with this but explains that trouble is also used by God to produce quality faith in us. There is probably no better encouraging text on the purpose of trial in the Christian life than Hebrews 12:5-7 (NKJV):

And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?

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God assures us of the value of handling trouble in a godly way. But let me tell you what really bothers me: when a sincere brother, sister, or preacher prays that a person’s trouble would end or declares that it is indeed over. I promise you that I’m not crazy. No one cares to have trouble, and sometimes I really want mine to go away. But I’ve watched myself grow more irritated and intolerant of those who lack insight about hardship.

Why does it rile me so? Sometimes people don’t have a wholesome biblical perspective on suffering, while others are plainly arrogant. Some people view all trouble as evil and from the Devil, but some things are just the kinks of life. Furthermore, if we can ascertain that trouble is from Satan, we can rightly resist it in Jesus’s name. But we’ll never be able resist trouble God permits in our lives.

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I think John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress gets it right: our way is a path to Heaven, and sometimes that path passes through difficult places. Life is not carefree or ideal. So do we fear or just run off the path or turn back when we encounter trouble? The people who see a devil behind every problem don’t discern that God has a plan with their trouble. They never learn how trouble draws them closer to God and enhances their trust in him. They fail to see that God tests the good in us.

Then there are those who make declarations and literally command God, Satan, or the trouble. They may know nothing about a person’s cares, except that in their pious, spiritual estimation they just need to behave or desist. But they don’t have a right to declare a person’s trouble finished and are truly insensitive (sometimes manipulative) and out of order to do so.

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When we’re submitted to God, our troubles will be over when God says they’re over and have achieved the purpose for which he designed them. We would do well to embrace the journey and the lessons it brings.

What we may be telling about ourselves is that we’re not resolved to take up our crosses for Jesus. We may be revealing how attached we’ve become to society and sanctify our covetousness at the expense of the trouble God allows to divest us of spiritual impurity. If we’re going to be like Jesus, let’s remember “a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt. 10:24, NKJV).

How to Handle a Crisis of Faith

CC BY-NC, Ross Merritt Photography, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Ross Merritt Photography, Flickr

Why does God never leave me?—that’s what I wonder sometimes. Yes, I know the answers, but sometimes it’s helpful to let yourself go there. It keeps you humble and concentrating on grace. And why is it that the more the heat has been raised in my life—whether by God’s fire of testing or my playing with sinful fire—or the more distant I once grew toward him, the more consuming were my thoughts of him?

Why did I never turn away when God felt too far to reach?

I may never understand any of it, except to know that when I would have run away, he simply wouldn’t let me go, or I, like Jacob in flight, ran smack into him any way I went.

When I lived in Indianapolis and trekked through a real spiritual wilderness, one day I was driving from my workplace and listening to a Catholic priest in a radio interview. I don’t recall the specific question he was asked, but it was something like how to explain people who question God or grow sullen in difficult times. I perked up. His response still resonates with me.

He stressed that people who wrestle with their faith often do so not to distance themselves from God, but to reach for him. I understood exactly what he meant. Hopefully that includes being angry at God, too. I once viewed anger at God as a terrible thing (who would dare!) until I got angry with him.

What I’ve learned is that anger and stressed faith will happen and is sometimes necessary in our process. The heart that truly loves God, however, does not shake its fist at him but strains to comprehend his will, to see in the dark. What may look like a fight with God to others (and sometimes to us) is but a fit of frustration to know him better. For me, I realized how ingrained faith was in my soul. Quitting God was no option.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none upon earth I desire besides you. My heart and flesh fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. ” Psalms 73:25-26

After going through the ho-hums long enough, we gain insight. We learn to discern God’s designs for something foremost within us rather than any external conditions we need solved, although God works in our affairs, too. We also learn to measure the degree of our frustration. We may have our “moments” and get low on faith and stray and crave sin and smolder, but we do so with our faith mostly intact. We can only imagine what it would be like tackling life without God or the Holy Spirit’s restraint.

I’ve learned to latch onto this faith ride. I once had the notion that I could simply abandon myself to faith, as if setting a dial to make sure I remain in a proper state of heart. But now I realize that I cannot store faith and that God designs our process to deal with our specific inner needs. It is not possible to be passive in our own making. The heat that God brings into our lives is there to make us move! So faith is not a dial I can set but a wheel I must steer on my journey.

Not to be contradictory, I’ve learned to retain just enough indifference for it all not to matter so much. Don’t let that surprise you and if it does, stay on the journey—it’ll make sense soon enough. But take it all in stride. This is letting the top down to enjoy the sun and breeze and taking in the view, allowing God to care about the terrain we must travel.

The Disciple Who Never Was

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florbelas fotographix, NC

Jesus’s encounter with the rich young ruler is fascinating. Unfortunately, the most we ever retain of it is the command for the man to give away his fortune and his walking away disappointed. But it’s the rest of the story and Jesus’s insight on the human heart that makes this account intriguing.

We know from the story itself that this gentleman was young, rich, and some type of ruler, perhaps of a synagogue or political institution. We also know that he was eagerly devout but now troubled in his spiritual life, which brought him to Jesus.

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In my mind, I always envision this guy as the newbie executive, good-looking and not long out of grad school, boasting a remarkable resume and impeccable work record and reputed to be a go-getter. Everyone loves being around him, even the old-heads. But, although he’s sharp and soaring to the top, he still needs some tweaking, and he runs smack into the one who can help him the most see what he’s missing.

This man finds Jesus on his way out of town. He respectfully bows, acknowledging Jesus’s status as a great teacher. Then he makes a mistake—“Good teacher…” The mistake isn’t apparent to us because we don’t share the language or cultural context in which it was expressed. Surely we consider Jesus a good teacher in every possible sense.

Yet Jesus stops him…on a technicality. The word good—the way it was conveyed—denotes intrinsic goodness and was mainly used when referring to Jehovah. Jesus challenges the man’s needless flattery: “Why do you refer to me with such divine language but respect me as a mere man?” There was much Jesus could’ve said to affirm his divinity with the statement, but this wasn’t the point. Instead, it is a lesson about simplicity and avoiding pretension that this “executive” quickly learns with Jesus.

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So what was he to do to inherit eternal life? Something agitated this young man. He was devout but searching, and his audience with the great Galilean had come. Jesus points him to the Law of Moses to which he discloses his lifelong history of discreet living.

There is a correlation here between this man and the seeker. What we see in the ruler is an awakened spiritual conscience being drawn by the Holy Spirit. We should not doubt his words to Jesus that he had obeyed the precepts of God as best he could. But Jesus, already knowing the condition of his heart, lures him to a perch in his own soul where he could perceive that religion-by-the-book falls terribly short of unbridled devotion from the heart.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus tells him. This was the climactic moment this Jesus admirer had long awaited. He was going to get the solution to his problem. “Go, sell everything you have.” What! This was no letdown; it was a shock. But he was cornered, and he understood exactly what Jesus was telling him.

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Jesus wasn’t condemning this man’s status, wealth, or reputation. Instead, he was attacking the covetousness that festered in his heart. Money had a grip on this man’s life, and his devotion to God, something he treasured, suffered because of it. Jesus’s instruction was a major test that served to reveal the root problem—idolatry—that prevented him from having the peace he sought.

Jesus asked him to do the impossible for himself—for someone else it could be the directive to end a relationship, to quit a job or activity, or to assume a responsibility. The command, whatever it is, exposes what might be controlling us, and within it we always face a decision. Unfortunately for this man, covetousness proved that he could not freely serve God because he would not.

Before I move on, notice something Jesus said: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Does that formula sound familiar? The text explains that Jesus had a fondness for this guy. Surely Jesus appraised his inner purity and strength of character.

Was he inviting this gentleman to be part of his circle…a disciple? The other twelve had indeed left everything behind to follow Jesus. Certainly, there was some type of ministry Jesus intended for him. Here was a break this young executive could’ve only imagined, but his heart wouldn’t allow him to have it.

♠♠♠♠

After the man leaves Jesus dejected, Jesus exclaims, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” In fact, he says it twice. Then, he states something incredibly revealing: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

He speaks of the transformation of the heart, with regard to the rich who have idolized their wealth but not limited to them. The verse is similar to those given in Genesis (18:14) and Jeremiah (32:27) where the reference is more about physical might: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Of course, Jesus would aim the notion toward the heart.

What is possible is the ability for the human heart to overcome even the strongest vices by God’s grace. It may be incredibly difficult and people might never believe it about one, but God will help us, if we let him.

And is this not the gospel? Isn’t this the fullest expression of the cross? That we need not be dominated…mastered by sin…controlled by our weaknesses? After a while sin isn’t fun anymore. Jesus offers us freedom.

(Drawn from Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30)

I Choose

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I remember when I first took a personality test, a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and read the results. I was shocked that my temperament, choices, enjoyments, and flaws, were completely categorized and understood. In time, however, I found myself relying on what those spot-on results told about me. Sometimes I would even contrive my behavior to be what the profile stated. If others commented on my actions, mine was a handy reply: “My personality profile says…”

I had a problem and I was it. The profile merely presented a biopic of my personality type. I was very much the person it described, and some of it I wasn’t, at least then because personalities evolve. The real problem for me was my attempt to live up to what the profile revealed. The Holy Spirit convicted me because the personality profile, although a worthy psychology tool, held too great a priority with me. My interest in my self-development was a good thing, but unchecked it could put my life out of balance.

Psychology is good and proper in its place, but, like all things, it must take the backseat to the word of God, or what God says about me and my potential. The Word tells me that I’m created in God’s image and that my attitudes and actions are to resemble his. I saw then that everything about me, even my personality, must be submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The Landscape of Choice

I wish to approach the subject from a different vantage now. I believe that untended character traits eventually spoil. I mean that they will begin to qualitatively detract from us should we do nothing to develop and mature them or, in some cases, rid ourselves of them. I take comfort in the fact, however, that this is not often the case with people. We usually self-correct amidst the pressures of parents and friends, reward and punishment, gratification and pain. Furthermore, we possess decent enough morals to know when something is wrong in our lives and needs to be changed.

Unfortunately, some people do fall through the cracks, maybe because there was no proper rearing or they were subject to extreme dysfunction. The saddest thing, however, might be said of the one who perceives a flaw but makes no effort to change. It is a possibility to allow flaws from our earliest childhood to manage our lives without a real attempt to replace them with new and better behavior. In my opinion, that is an unhealthy choice for dysfunction.

It gets more interesting with my next few sentences. I believe that people can be genetically predisposed to certain behavior patterns. We know this to be true about depression, just as we know the same is true about diseases, like cancer. Such is a fact that has to be overlooked. For instance, humans have successfully engineered most of the dog breeds we know today for our own very specific purposes and continue to do so, the benefits of which are helping us understand more about ourselves. And consider a hot topic in the world today, homosexuality. Might there really be a genetic predisposition toward same-gender attraction? If it is true, what would it mean to choose or not choose the lifestyle? What would any of this mean to our ability to choose?

What Choosing Really Means

My point is to understand what our choices really look like. I could choose to read my ISTJ temperament profile, accept the good and the bad about it, and declare to the world, “This is who I am—deal with it!” I have met people like this and so have you. They are not pleasant to be around, and, honestly, their way of life is nothing more than a cop-out. I’ll get to that. Still, there is a real reason why I cannot accept that who I am is merely written in black and white and that I’m doomed to be what it tells of me. That goes for a profile and anything else. Let me explain what I’m saying.

I have no choice but to accept the hand that I’ve received in life. A college professor of mine used to refer to it as ‘getting to the table,’ meaning on a level plane where life situations internally and externally (to an extent) coalesce and allow for actualization.

Some people are privileged enough to start somewhere close to the top because they lack no comforts and are blessed with great families and support systems. Others are essentially “scaling a chair”—probably where most of us are found—with varying degrees of home but also with real struggles to consider. The remaining few of us are clinging to sanity somewhere in the thick of the carpet, looking out for big feet and vacuums!

But the one truth is that none of us had a choice in our arrival. Let’s deal with that and get over the rest. To be fair, sometimes what we’ve been allotted just isn’t fair, and it helps our perspective to know that someone in the world is in a far worse situation than we are.

I don’t think we can blame God either. We live in a fallen world, and I believe the Bible about how it has gotten to be this way and why it remains this way. (So we have to point all ten fingers at ourselves.) God permitted it, too, and you’ll just have to ask him why when you see him. But I celebrate the human spirit because God has made it an indomitable thing. We all have been made emotional at the stories of people who have proven that the ravages of a fallen world or an incredible challenge are not enough to give up on life.

No, I don’t curse the hand I have been dealt. I don’t accept that the black-and-white is everything about me because what flaws may characterize me are not indelible and do not have to remain the truth about me. I have a lifetime to perfect myself. What matters is whether I choose to remain as I am or to improve myself, even if this means a fight to change.

As has already been mentioned, this means everything, from attitudes to health and even homosexuality. (I single out homosexuality because it is ripe for this topic and so many people tend to view it as an arch sin and, with such attitude, castigate people but never heal them. Further, I differentiate between homosexuality, a sexual orientation or behavior, and gay, a subculture lifestyle that accepts and readily indulges in homosexual behavior. Homosexual orientation I don’t believe is a choice but homosexual behavior is.)

Ultimately, we choose to resist or give way to the decisions that determine personality, for nothing prevents us from scrutinizing anything we notice about ourselves. People with anger issues generally know it and can find ways to mitigate their feelings or will choose to let those feelings grow into tantrums, rage, or even violence. The same for those with homosexual urges: although they may not choose the urges, they do in fact choose whether to follow through with those urges and so partake of that lifestyle or resist it.

So consider this: it wouldn’t matter if a genetic link to homosexuality were discovered—do you see? If the heart morally resists a path, that path is the wrong one to take. There would need not be the argument of a denial of one’s authentic self or the banishment to lifelong struggle. The woman who is overwhelmingly predisposed to breast cancer and who acquires it like the many women in her family did—does she simply accept the cancer as her lot and let it kill her? Indeed she does not. Instead, she fights it and so chooses to live.

To live authentically and to draw on the power of our human spirits is first to say, “Here I stand.” It is where we arrived and where we have the privilege to build. What a landscape it chances to become!