Prayer for an Unwasted Life

Reebok 25915 Days

Thank you, God, for giving me this day. But do not let my focus on you stop at my gratefulness for your gifts.

Teach me to understand your will for my life today. Give me eyes to see and ears to hear so that I may see the truth and know how to respond to it.

Kill the spirit of slothfulness that has strapped itself to my soul. Free me from casually observing the passing of the day and wasting my time on the omnifarious offerings of this world. For if tonight I die in my sleep, or if I am killed in a fatal crash while running errands, or if today is the beginning of an unknown disease growing inside of me that will impede my energy or shorten my time, I want to hear you say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” when you evaluate how I spent the days you loaned me.

Crush the fears that my heart knows so well and mute the doubts in mind. Remind me, Lord, that I am not my own, for I have been bought with a price. So, grant that every aspect of my life, whether it be for pleasure, for mourning, for necessity, or for fun always glorify you in my body.

“Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Ps. 71:18)

Amen.

Advertisements

Letting You Hunger

1497375602804_image

The idea of God letting His children hunger seems anathema to most people. How could a loving, good God allow those whom He loves to go without food? Such an act seems cruel, neglectful, and abusive. But this is not where the verse ends.

Lately, I have had several clients come to my Christian counseling practice with one over-arching question: “How could God have let ______ happen?” Honestly, it’s not an easy question to answer. But not because the client has begun to question several characteristics of God, including His goodness, His love, or His sovereignty. Such characteristics are immutable truths about God and as such, they do not change or cease to exist due to one’s lack of understanding. Rather, the question is difficult because the client seems to almost always be implying, “How could God have let this happen to me?” This takes the question out of the general will of God and into the specific will of for that person. And aside from having a direct word from the Lord regarding His will for that life, I have no answer that can suffice.

What I can say, however, is this:

  1. He allows us to hunger — When we think of hunger we often think of it in wrong ways. Our concept of hunger is often a mild rumbling of our stomach. A reminder that we need something to keep us alive, energetic, and healthy. But in this verse “hunger” actually means “famished” or “voracious.” It is the type of hunger that pushes us to our limits. The type that forces us to think of nothing else except satisfaction through food. This type of hunger is a desperate hunger, an “I’ll do anything to stay alive” type of hunger. It is the hunger that strains our will, focuses our mind, and engages our spirit to the degree that all we can think about is how to meet our need.  To some, it would seem unloving to impose such a hunger upon the one whom you love. But can we, who ground our children from privileges to discipline them regarding earthly things, truly cast aspersions upon God when He similarly disciplines us over spiritual things? We should not be perplexed that spiritual discipline is more visceral and more painful than earthly discipline. For experience shows us that whether we require discipline for a physical, social, moral, relational, or spiritual area in life, the removal of something valuable in our lives always produces a pain that is equal to, but never greater than, the area of life to be improved. For example, the pain associated with exercise is equal to the physical area of life, but it is not equal to or greater than the level of pain one experiences in the relational area of life when a girlfriend breaks up with you or a loved one passes away. Each pain produces its own type of challenges and its own type of “hunger” to transition a person from unhealthy to healthy functioning. Since spiritual transformation is the highest order of these areas of life, it often requires the highest level of focus (or pain) to produce change. Such growth may be self-imposed but when it is not or is refused to be, God intervenes and creates a hunger so singular in focus only He can satisfy it.
  2. He allows us to hunger in order to humble us — According to the Strong’s Concordance, the word translated as “humble” in this verse of my Bible can also be translated as “to depress (either figuratively or literally).” In other words, there are times when God presses us down into the mire of life on purpose. Sometimes, as we say in the South, we need that smile smacked off of our face. Not because God does not want us to be happy. But because He does not want our happiness to be in the wrong things. Therefore, He creates circumstances that strip away the things we have relied on for security and sustenance and replaces them with need and hunger. For God knows that when we experience these basic urges, our hearts will abandon temporary pleasures and will recalibrate with an eternal focus. In short, humility subordinates itself to God. It does not use personal wisdom to provide its need for love or belonging. Rather, it seeks sufficiency in God’s wisdom and yields itself to God’s guidance as well as His provision. Humility does not believe that life ought to be emptied of pain. Rather, it realizes that if Christ (who was perfect) suffered in taking on our sin, we (who are imperfect) will suffer in taking on His righteousness and being done with sin (1 Pet. 4:1). Finally, humility knows it still has more to learn and actively seeks to do so. Humility points its eyes downward so that its heart may always be pointed upward. Only through hunger that creates humility can one begin to see the insufficiency of temporary desires and the sovereign goodness of eternal ones.
  3. He allows us to hunger in order to feed us unknown food — When manna first fell from Heaven, the Israelites were so confused by what it was they could derive no name for it more clever than the question on everybody’s lips: Manna (which literally means, “What is it?”) God’s wisdom in this act of providence showed the Israelites that the sustenance of God extended beyond anything within the realm of normal human experience. He could have created oases in the desert with fruit trees bulging with produce. Or He could have spontaneously created a plethora of vegetables for them to gather each day. But such miracles could have been written off as “coincidence” or “good fortune” and would not have helped His people.  But when God created an edible, sustaining food out of the morning dew that could satisfy the needs of approximately 2.5 million people every day, He proved that His hand and His work are superior to anything that nature, luck, or man could provide. The lesson for us, therefore, is that when the man-made bread(s) of your life finally expires, and the desert looms before you, when death seems certain and doubt clouds your mind, God will provide for you an unknown food. As with the Israelites, it may take the form of something familiar but it will be unusual as well. It may look bread (a job), but taste like honey (a purpose). It may feel like flakes or wafers (uncertainty) but have enough consistency to be baked or boiled (predictable and trustworthy). In short, God will give you the one food you have forgotten since the day Man chose to eat the one food that was forbidden. He will give you … Himself. And the more you consume, the more you will know

    The Lord is the everlasting God,
        the Creator of the ends of the earth.
    He does not faint or grow weary;
        his understanding is unsearchable.
    29 He gives power to the faint,
        and to him who has no might he increases strength.
    30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
        and young men shall fall exhausted;
    31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
        they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
    they shall run and not be weary;
        they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

  4. He allows us to hunger in order to teach us how to live — The purpose of letting His children hunger, per this verse, is so that we may know “that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Dt. 8:3) One would assume that such an insight would seem self-evident. But consider the implications of this truth. If God created all that we see and all that we know through the power of His spoken word, then there is nothing that we rely on for life that did not originate within the mouth of God. Not our job. Not our bank account. Not our family. Not our joy nor our purpose nor our hope. He is the one who creates. He is the one who blesses. He is the one who takes away. And He is the one who redeems. To live outside of this knowledge or in denial of it is foolishness, for there is no other position that Man should possess other than one of dependence and worship. Yet, so many believe that they are responsible for their success. That it was their hard work or their ingenuity or their charm that won their success, their accolades, or their spouse. But when such things have been stripped away completely, when one experiences humility and has received the blessing of an unknown food, one begins to die to reliance on the sufficiency of self and to replace it with the life of dependence and joy that God intended him to live. Thus, we are admonished to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Pr. 3:5), to “cast your cares upon the Lord and He will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22), or to embrace the truth that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Php. 1:21). There is only one way to live and that is by relying on all that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

There is, therefore, a process that God takes ourselves through in order to refine us and to recalibrate our hearts to His original purposes:

Be hungry.

Be humble

Be fed.

Be dependent.

Starting Over

take-root-breaking-ground-750x418

So, it’s two weeks into 2018. And if you’re like me, the fresh promise of a new year has already soured within your mouth. You started out well. You even felt enthusiastic. But by now the budding resolutions for self-improvement have quickly frozen beneath the arctic blast of winter realities.

That may sound melodramatic, but I mean every word of that sentence. Literally. Continue reading

Extravagant Love

Mark 14:3-5 (NIV)

 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

Have you ever noticed that extravagant expressions of love seemed to follow Jesus? A woman anoints Him with a years’ worth of perfume. A tax collector gives half of his possessions to the poor. Crowds lay palm branches at His feet and rejoice at His entering Jerusalem. And an untold number of people give their lives to promoting only His name throughout the world.

To many, these expressions of love would appear wasteful. And they would be if they were done for anyone other than God. No human beings’ life can match the worth of such excessively gracious gifts. But when compared with the insurmountable richness of God, the tribute of one’s possessions, monies, or life can never match the worth of His person or the gift of His grace.

In his book What Jesus Demands of the World, John Piper says, “…the Son of Man  came to save people from their suicidal love affair with possessions (and every other idol) and to lead then into a kind of impossible obedience that displays the infinite worth of Jesus.” (p. 23) This is not only the goal for Jesus’ relationship with Zaccheus, it is also His goal for the relationship you and I have with Him as well. The question that we must ask is: when or how did I most recently deny temporary, worthless things for the express purpose of displaying the infinite worth of Jesus? I know that if I am honest, I cannot remember a time that I put the public display of Jesus’ worth above my own. I have sought and dreamed of making myself great, but not Jesus. I have considered how to set my children on the path of success, or how to proclaim the beauty of my wife. I have lived a life full of potential selflessness and have squandered it on selfish pursuits. My goal has been to make much of myself, not of Jesus.

Perhaps this is why the question, “How do I extravagantly love Jesus?” struck me so hard. Despite being a Christian for over 35 years I realized I have relegated the expressions of extravagant love for God to “super Christians,” such as King David, the 12 apostles, Mother Teresa, or Billy Graham. I figured I could “try” to do my best, but extravagant love was such a low priority, it was completely off my radar.In reality, “trying” was just something I told myself I would do in order to muffle the twisting screams of conviction in my heart.

But God will only allow His chosen children to sit in the belly of their acidic choices for so long before He vomits them onto the beach and reminds them of their call to follow Him. Thus, I found myself staring at the heart of the question “How do you extravagantly love Jesus?” and trying to manage the stench of my sin.

“Extravagance,” I learned, comes from the Latin extravagari. It is a compound word that combines extra (meaning “outside”) and vagari (meaning “wander”). In other words, when you are being extravagant you are literally “wandering outside” the norms. You are so FAR outside the norms, in fact, that society or convention sees you as being “unusual, unreasonable, inappropriate, abnormal, or absurd.” This begs the question, then, have I restrained myself from loving God extravagantly because I do not want to be viewed as “weird?”

Perhaps. But I think it is more than that. I think extravagant love frightens most of us because we intuit that it demands more than a piece of living, such as behavior, or money, or relationships. Extravagant love demands all of life. Like sunlight through a magnifying glass, extravagant love is focused. It is white hot. And it burns away all idolatry within the heart. It refuses to give any ground to immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, crude joking, deception, disobedience, or anything else that partners in the unfruitful works of darkness. Extravagant love is not holding up placards within a crowd of thousands. It is standing alone in opposition to evil when everyone else bows down. It is exposing the deeds of darkness not only in our speech but also with our lives. It is being filled with the Spirit and making the best use of the time we have, being careful that we walk not as unwise but as wise followers of a God whose person is so compelling and alluring that others are drawn to Him because they have interacted with us. (Eph 5:1-21)

Half-hearted love cannot accomplish this goal. A heart divided between God and anything else is a heart that belongs to sentimentality, fads, or hollow imitation and will not be able to stand firm when the flaming arrows of the evil one begin to strike. A half-hearted loved cannot imitate Christ, who walked in love and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. A half-hearted love cannot say, “Not my will but thine be done” because it is always protecting other interests. Only those who love God extravagantly can live this way. Only they understand the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous statement, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer is not trying to be melodramatic here. He is trying to be biblical. “Freely you have received, ” Jesus said. “Freely give.” (Mt. 10:18) In other words, if you put limits on extravagant love you will find that your self-imposed boundaries prevent you from moving beyond your human capabilities so that you may see the work and the wonder of God. It is a basic truth of relationships that the degree of selfishness always diminishes the degree of love being expressed. If you do not freely give Christ your love, you cannot expect a deep intimacy with Him. Not because He is petulant or passive-aggressive, but because you have imposed limits on a relationship where there should be none.

In these moments it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we just need to focus more so that we do not damage the relationship we have with God. But this would be a poor approach to preventing a relapse into half-hearted love. Why? Because the idea of “I need to focus more” is founded on the emotion of fear and anxiety. 1st John 4:18 tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear.” Therefore, you do not need to work from a position of fear or anxiety. You need to work out of the emotion of love. Your goal should not be “don’t mess up.” Your goal should be “how do I show God love today?” How do you do this? Go back to 1st  Cor. 13:4-7 and write down the characteristics you find listed there. Next, define each characteristic in terms of an “I will” or an “I will not” statement. This will help put a practical, hands-on approach to it. For an example, see this handout: love-is

Finally, it must be pointed out that extravagant love always risks extravagant suffering. Maybe we don’t love in this way because we don’t want to be hurt. But vulnerability is always necessary for intimacy. And conflict is necessary for connection. Without conflict, we cannot explore, understand, learn, stretch, or discover. Conflict provides a challenge. It forces us to examine ourselves and our presuppositions against alternative ideas, beliefs, or realities that demand an answer. Even the most liberal of us tend to gravitate towards stasis, as evidenced by our desire to avoid change or conflict as much as possible. But the reality is that we cannot grow without it. We NEED conflict. Even the entertainment of such an idea as this forces us to wrestle with things we once thought resolved and it is this struggle that will eventually make us stronger, regardless of whether we reinforce our beliefs or adopt new philosophies. For this reason, we are warned in scripture that we Christians will be persecuted. We will not be immune from it. Christ suffered and we will too. And if you intend on extravagantly loving Christ, you must be prepared to extravagantly suffer for Him too. Sometimes this suffering will be an internal conflict and sometimes it will be an external one. And sometimes it will be both at the same time, making you feel like you are about to be ripped apart.

But when you go through these trials of your love for God, remember the words of Paul:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith,with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me,that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Eph. 6:10-20)

Look at that final sentence again. “Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” If Paul needed prayer for his extravagant love, so do we.

I will pray for you. Will you pray for me?

Remember What You Have

1-thess-5_18

November 10, 2016.

3:43 p.m.

My phone notifies me that my wife has texted me. I am finishing up an appointment with a client and think to myself, “Ok. I’ll call when we’re done.”

3:44 p.m.

My wife calls me on my phone. I decline the call. Whatever she needs is obviously urgent. I begin to hurry my session to a close.

3:45 p.m.

She calls back a second time. This is our signal for 911. I excuse myself from my meeting and answer the call.

“Hello.”

“Mark! You need to leave. Right.  Now. Luke and his friends were crossing the street near the bus stop and have been hit by a pickup. The police say they need a parent on the scene.”

Images of a lifeless, bloody body laying on the ground cloud my mind, making it hard to catch my breath.

“Mark?”

“I’m on it,” I exclaim, rushing out the door with only a brief explanation to my client and our receptionists.

Twenty minutes later I arrive at the scene. The police have gone. The paramedics have left, and a call to my son tells me that he is now at home.

When I walk into the house, I find him sitting at his computer, eating a Pop-Tart.

“Why are you home early,” he asks.

I raise my eyebrows. “Uhhh. Because you were hit by a truck?”

“I’m okay, Dad,” he says. “Really. It’s not that big a deal.” He points to a small abrasion on his wrist that is about an inch in length.

He tells me that he and two of his friends decided to go to the park near our house after getting off of the bus. As they were crossing the street, they noticed a pickup truck stopped at the stop sign facing them. Initially, they waited for him to go, but when he remained stopped, they decided it was safe to cross. However, once they were halfway into the street, the truck began to make his right-hand turn and hit all three of them. My son saw the truck coming and jumped back enough to only be clipped by the vehicle’s side mirror. One of his friends, though, suffered a bruised rib, and the other had two fractured wrists.

I hug my son and breathe a sigh of relief.

Later that night I tell my wife, “You never realize how quickly your life can take a left turn into hell.”

She nuzzles herself into me on the couch and begins a refrain that we will take turns repeating for the rest of the evening: “I’m just so thankful. It could have been much, much worse.”

A week and a half later I am still chilled at the idea of what could have happened, and I find myself randomly thanking God for His protection and grace.

It is a gift I do not deserve. No amount of good deeds could have been exchanged for the life of my son. He is of infinite value and I am a man of limited resources. If God were to weigh me on the scales of justice, I would always be found wanting. And I am acutely aware that there are others in the world who have not been as fortunate as I, so I cannot claim that some cosmic “fairness” is owed to me.  I can only express appreciation and gratitude for being allowed to have my boy, first as a life loaned to me from God and now as a life spared.

But that is the nature of thankfulness, I suppose. One cannot appreciate what he has unless he juxtaposes it against the tragedy of its potential loss. And it is this juxtaposition that lays the foundation for the joy in whatever we have. This is as true for children as it is for jobs, marriages, finances, health, or lessons learned through life.

Too often we forget to measure the breadth and depth of our blessings and falsely presume that they will endure continually. But everything we love, everyone we treasure, every possession we hold dear can vanish in an instant. Everything in life, even life itself, melts away like the morning dew, and if we do not acutely attune ourselves to the transient nature of all our blessings, we will fail to be thankful for what we have been given. Nor will we recognize how God abundantly displays His goodness in our lives.

This holiday season, before you carve the turkey and watch the football game, take time to walk around the house. Reflect on how far you have come over the years. Enjoy how the crisp autumn air has gradually wrapped each tree in thin brown paper. Have a conversation with each person who is at your home. Revisit your favorite memories. Tell a story or two. Laugh with each other.

What is here today can be gone tomorrow.

Remember what you have. And be thankful.