Overcoming, in a bold yet becoming way…

Just when you were gaining ground they arrived. You know who “they” are. They are the ones who grumble and gripe. They have a dozen reasons for why something won’t work or can’t be done. You dread seeing them coming, despise hearing their droning, and are deflated when they finally move on to frustrate someone else. This type of folks has always been around. A textbook example of these cranky critics and how to overcome them is found in the Book of Nehemiah.

 

The theme of the book is Nehemiah’s work to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. The book is brief, but has a bounty of lessons about life, faith, work, attitudes, and leadership. It is one of the most practical and applicable books in the Bible.

 

In the first two chapters we see how Nehemiah’s work and service to God began. Nehemiah had heard that Jerusalem was in great disrepair. He responded to this news by mourning for days. He then fasted, prayed, and asked God to clear the path for him to go and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Soon after, while doing his ho-hum job of being the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah had the opportunity to gain the king’s approval to go and rebuild the walls. As a further answer to Nehemiah’s prayer King Artaxerxes even provided a letter of protection as well as the supplies for the work! A lesson here is that while you are faithful in your mundane, day-to-day role be sure to watch for God to do something astonishing. The “small” role that Nehemiah had worked in for years became the springboard for a big assignment.

 
As soon as God had granted Nehemiah initial, and visible, success … trouble began. Enter the professional troublemakers: Sanballat (wasn’t that the name of an 80’s pop band?) and Tobiah (the translation of that Aramaic name is “kid who never got picked for dodgeball because of his dopey name). Those two didn’t want Jerusalem restored or for Nehemiah to prosper. So they began expressing themselves as a means of depressing others. Nehemiah chapter two concludes with this passage:

 

“Then I (Nehemiah) said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” Nehemiah 2:17-20

 

Some quick take-home, or take-to-work, application points for us:

  • Nehemiah inspired those that he would led. He encouraged them, told them what they should do, and why they should do it. Good leaders share the “why” along with the “what, and in the process lift others up rather than tearing them down.
  • At the first sign of success the nay-sayers unleashed a barrage of finger-pointing and fault-finding. Those remain the tools of the trade used by cynics today. Learning to spot these will aid you in setting your feet and standing up to scoffers. It is worth considering that sometimes the loudest and most critical doubter you hear resides within you. Recognize that self-doubt — especially if it’s constant and contrarian — is the work of your sin nature or the enemy; it’s not from God. God desires us to keep moving ahead despite doubters, both external and internal ones.
  • Nehemiah overcame the scoffers in a becoming yet bold manner: God is with us, we will keep working, and this is none of your business. A sanctified smackdown (check out the Archives for the June 5 post Words of Grace, and Granite for more on santified smart-aleckry). It’s a rousing response for your critics: God’s in it and keep your nose out of it.

 

As you go about your life and work please remember Nehemiah’s example of faithfulness and watchfulness while his work began and his strength and savvy  that kept the work going. Take some time this week and walk through the Book of Nehemiah. God will use it to instruct and inspire you. He might even show you how His great work flows through your daily grind…

Truth for those trying times…

As you stride through the fields of life you move through patches of briars and brambles, those patches usually feature dark clouds and cold winds as well. Each of us have gone through these times. Each of us will go through more of them. A memory of such a tough time may have flashed upon your mind’s High-Def screen. As those memories are awakened it is a fine opportunity to recall how God brought you through challenging seasons of life. Enter Romans 15:4:

 

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

 

As I read that passage this morning seeds of thought sprouted. As the thoughts rooted, then grew, I took to pen and paper. Here are some of the principles that bloomed:

  • First, God’s Word is given to for us instruction. Obvious from the text, I know, but the instruction of God’s word is the beginning of the construction of our hope. Or, to put it another way, God’s instruction to us is the framework for our hope in Him.
  • Second, for us to continue climbing steep slopes in life — often rain-soaked and slippery, no less — we must decide to persevere. Romans 15:4 points out the practice of pressing on as a link to hope. During trying times God demonstrates His graciousness to us and we should demonstrate our grittiness to Him. Endurance is faith in continued action.
  • Third, God’s Word is given to us for encouragement. Again, obvious from the passage, but, what is not obvious is the connection of the hope that we receive from the Scriptures to our means of receiving it. Here it is: God’s Word instructs us, our endurance propels us, and His Word then encourages us. At this point it would be easy, and self-gratifying, to think that our endurance is the link between the instruction given and hope gained in God’s Word. It’s not. Our endurance is necessary, but not primary. The question raising its hand and squirming in its seat begging to be answered is this, “Where does the endurance come from?” Just as instruction and hope come from God, our endurance comes from Him as well. Scripture shows us that God is the source of our endurance. It’s not us. It never is.

 

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you…”Romans 15:5

 

Colossians 1:11 steps in as a reminder as well:

“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…”

 

These two verses reveal that our ability to endure comes from strength that God provides. The real lesson here, and true hope, is that it’s all by God’s grace.

Through His grace:

  • His Word instructs us.
  • His Word delivers hope to us.
  • His Spirit grants strength to us, so that we are able to endure.

 
It’s His grace top to bottom, front to back, and on all sides.

 

When you find yourself struggling uphill, cold and wet, remember that His grace in Christ calls to us from His Word. Take a moment, rest under a hillside oak for shelter, and open His Word. He will teach you, strengthen you, and bring hope to you. Then, you will find yourself warm, dry, and ready to climb again. Go climb. Climb with hope. Climb in grace…

Liberty that lasts…

As we celebrate of the 4th of July each of us will consider the purchase price of our liberty. Hundreds of thousands of America’s finest folks have offered their service, and often their lives, to provide innumerable and immeasurable freedoms:

  • To worship as we choose
  • To believe as we choose (or have been chosen to, depending on your view of Romans 8, Ephesians 1, and Acts 13:48). Yes, I had to put that theological jab in there. But, it was designed to nudge you to read those verses, and think on them.
  • To raise our children as we choose
  • To own property, a home, a Bible, and your own thoughts, to clip your fingernails in pubic (please don’t!), to post your events on FaceBook, to pierce or tattoo your whatever, and such.

 

Those macro freedoms are offered to us all, for now. While they are grand, much of the greatest enjoyment comes in the specific application of them in your life. Here are some examples from my weekend:

  • The building excitement of carrying on our family traditions on Independence Day: the kids’ all day swim-fest, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, Dairy Queen ice cream, and watching the local fireworks display. And, getting a little moist in the eyes at some, or several, points during the day.
  • The joy of spending a couple of shirt-soaking hours picking purple-hulled peas with my dad, talking about our jobs, and enjoying stories from years past.
  • The restfulness of reading: the Bible, the poetry of Wendell Berry (A Short Porch is a new collection of his “Sabbath Poems”), Arkansas Sportsman magazine, and Mayflower (an account of the Pilgrims dream of and journey to America).

 

Each of those moments cascade from the many freedoms that we enjoy as Americans.

There are those in our culture who want to change that. They seek to redefine our freedoms in order to conform them to their purposes and views. Know this, their redefining of freedoms is an attempt at reducing them. We will sway with them or succumb to them only if we allow it. While subtle and invisible, the struggle against this is real, and fierce. Without a doubt, our current cultural conflict is a spiritual one. So, what better way to combat the “redefining” of our culture than with eternal truth?

 

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1

 

Notice in Galatians 5:1 that Paul gives Christ-followers a trio of tested truths to grasp to as they grapple for spiritual, and cultural, liberty:

  1. Christ Himself has set us free. It is a precious freedom from the power of sin and full pardon for our sin.
  2. His followers have to “stand firm” in order to retain this freedom. There are pressures and powers within us (our sinful nature) and outside of us (the world, its ways, and the enemy) that will lie to and lure us away from the truth, the life, and freedom that He brings (John 8:32 and 10:10, you know the drill, look them up and read them).
  3. The way our liberty is lost and we are enslaved again is by us allowing it to happen. We have the power of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to correct and keep us.

 

What’s the point of the previous 550 words? In summary: as Christians, and citizens of the United States, we enjoy rich spiritual liberty in Christ, and daily freedoms as Americans, if we forgo the spiritual freedom then we will certainly forfeit the cultural ones. Believe it or not, reading your Bible each day, spending time in prayer, recognizing what God is doing in your life, and appreciating the joys and liberties that you experience are a firm defense against losing them. A great enemy to each of God’s gifts is not our opponent’s onslaught against them, it is your indifference to them.

Our society is at the gates, jangling the chains of submission. You have the sword of truth and shield of faith, what will you do?

Heroes begin humbly …

Oftentimes we lean on others for advice and direction. This is good. Proverbs 11:14 and 15:22 promote it. Suppose that tomorrow the tide turned and your boss or a public leader wanted your advice? How would you prepare for such a moment? A snippet from the life of Elisha found in 2 Kings 3:11 provides the answer.

 

“And Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no prophet of the LORD here, through whom we may inquire of the LORD?” Then one of the king of Israel’s servants answered, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah.” 2 Kings 3:11

 

Before Elisha spoke to kings, he was a prophet; before he was a prophet, he was an apprentice to Elijah; while he was an apprentice, he was a humble servant.

Following Elijah’s chariot-of-fire-ride to heaven, Elisha became his successor. Although Elisha suddenly took on Elijah’s role he had not instantly become a prophet. Over time he had learned how to serve as a prophet under the tutelage of Elijah. It is fitting that Elisha’s first supernatural feat was one that he had just learned from Elijah prior to his departure  to heaven (2 Kings 2:13-14). While serving the prophet Elijah, young Elisha had watched him walk with God, deal with people, handle adversity, and fulfill his role. Elisha had learned as he served.

It’s easy for each of us to want “better” — a better job, a better situation in life, etc. Those things can be good so long as they are kept within the confines of God’s will and Word. In our spiritual lives we often want more as well. We desire to know God intimately, pray fervently, read the Bible consistently, and live wisely. Each of these from the “better things” to spiritual growth will not arrive without work. Sadly, we live in a culture that seeks advancement without effort. The term for that idea is “entitlement.”

It’s easy to spot entitlement. Those who feel “entitled” will think, and often foolishly say, things such as “I deserve, I want, I should get…” If selfishness and laziness married and had a child its name would be “Entitlement.” It is not a great leap of logic to see that entitlement is the opposite of service. Entitlement stamps it feet and says, “I deserve this because I am me.” Services reflects and remembers, “I receive because of Who God is, not because of who I am.” Let that sink in. Think back on the last week and recall which of those two attitudes you demonstrated most often.

Now, back to Elisha to show us that entitlement has no place in the life of a servant-leader.  2 Kings 3:11 employs a simple and moving picture of Elisha’s relationship to Elijah, as well as the theme of his training to be a prophet, “(Elisha) poured water on the hands of Elijah.” He was Elijah’s assistant and had handled the most humble of chores, evening washing the prophet’s hand before meals. As Elisha had served Elijah, he had learned from him; as he had learned, he then served more faithfully. That model and attitude is to be ours as well. We serve, then we learn.

 

For you to follow this example it requires a few “musts”:

  • You must know your role and find contentment in doing your best in it.
  • You must appreciate that what you learn in your current role prepares you for your next one. To attempt to hurry the process is to short change yourself and walk by sight, not by faith.
  • You must come to realize that you do not write out God’s plans or get to hold His watch. God designs, builds, and completes on His time, not yours.

Our culture urges us to claw and climb for what we want as we see fit. Elisha did it God’s way — from being a humble servant of a prophet to learning to be a prophet. Like many other heroes of the faith he served, learned, … and then led. Would you like to become a leader and do it God’s way? The process is simple, but slow: humbly serve, patiently learn, … then lead.

Words of Grace, and Granite…

Most folks enjoy a sweet snack. A chocolate chip cookie, a scoop (or two) of ice cream, or a slice of pie is a fine treat. We like sweets. Our BMIs prove it.

You may be thinking, “that last sentence wasn’t very sweet.” But, we will see in a moment that it actually is a style of “honey-word” that the Bible demonstrates for us. Now, you may be thinking, “what does a comment about my BMI have to do with the Bible?” Excellent question. Enter Proverbs 16:24; it provides the answer, and so much more.

“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”

This verse in Proverbs shows us that a certain kind of words are “like a honeycomb,” and that they have a beneficial effect upon us. First, let’s see the effects that they have on us. Then, we will see what those words look like.

Proverbs 16:24 lists two of the general effects of “gracious words.” These words “sweeten the soul” and bring “health to the body.” They improve both spiritual and physical health. The goal of gracious words is to solidify, not to “be sweet.” In other words, that which is healthy for the body and soul may not seem “sweet” at all. (You already can feel the hard right turn coming can’t you?)

In order to identify and enjoy “words of grace” we must know what they look like, or better, how they are packaged.  The following list points out the different packages that they come in. Some will cause you to nod in agreement while a couple of them might leave you shaking your head.

First, a definition. “Gracious words” are discussions that are wise, discerning, grace-based, and soul-building. The Bible lists several kinds of “gracious words.”

Here is a summary of some of them:
1. Words of grace are words of encouragement. They are words that are meant to help, comfort, or build up others. The Greek word in the New Testament that we translate as “encourage” means to pour courage into the soul of another. Perfect word picture.
2. Words of grace are words of truth. The teaching of God’s Word plants seeds of grace in the soil of the soul. In Psalm 119:29 the psalmist asked God to “graciously teach me your law.” Grace and truth are partners. Grace without truth is sentiment; truth without grace is condemnation. When God’s truth is shared or taught it is an expression of grace that instructs us to further depend upon God’s grace.
3. Words of grace are words of correction. When a Christian lovingly corrects a fellow Christ-follower it is grace-based speech. A love that does not correct isn’t love at all. A handy example of this is from parenting. We encourage and teach our children, but for both to have any substantive effect we must also correct them. This rough-cuts across the grain of a society obsessed with protecting feelings and bent on being acceptable to all, by all.

 

There are numerous examples of biblical correction that are gracious, yet also stout, stern, and satirical. Here are some of them from the mouth of Jesus:
A. Stout – From Matthew 16:23, “But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus loved Peter, and at times demonstrated His love for him by sternly correcting him. That may not seem gracious to us, but it was for Peter’s ultimate good. Allowing Peter to continue on in error may have been “nice,” but it wouldn’t have been grace-based or truth-based.

B. Stern – Check out Jesus’ response to James and John when they asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory: “Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38).

Think of this not as “Aw shucks guys, you are confused about this,” but more like, “Guys, in your prideful and selfish request you have no idea of what you are talking about.” True. Stern. Loving. It’s grace honed with the edge of truth. Jesus went on to use the stern correction of James and John as a lesson on servanthood for the group. The loving and stern correction of two of them became edification for all of them. He called them out in order to build them up.

C. Satirical – This one is foreign to the church today, but was widely used until the last century. Satire is the use of humor to point out an error, bad judgement, or misbehavior. Think of it as sanctified smart-aleckry. As you become aware of satire as a teaching device you will notice as it leaps to life all over Scripture, particularly in the word pictures in the Book of Proverbs and teachings of Jesus.

Jesus regularly used satire. In fact, he used it so frequently that it’s almost shocking. Here are some of his sledgehammer-like satirical lines found in Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Emphasis added)

That is satire! It points out error, corrects it, and does so with humor and grace. (For some hard-hitting satire, and fine use of holy metaphor, check out Jesus’ correction of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23.)

You might be wondering how this post began with sweet words and ended with stout and satirical ones. Here’s how. To weave all of this together we must: 1. Remember that a growing faith is not based on feelings (temporary) but on truth (eternal), and when consistently applied the truth is usually like sand paper to our feelings. 2. Pursue that which promotes long-view growth, not short-term goodies (feeling fuzzy, acceptance by others, etc.).

To summarize, words of grace build others up through encouragement, instruction, and correction. The correction ranges from gentle rebuke to strong satire. All are necessary; each balances the other.

If you want to build up others try sharing some words of grace with them this week. You may need to give someone a verbal pat on the back or a spiritual poke in the ribs. Both are biblical; both are needed. Using the right words in the right manner at the right time always requires … wisdom. So, pray before — preferably, long before — you speak.

Until next time, a great way to learn to use satire as a means of grace-based corrrection is by practicing on your in-laws, or boss, or …. on second thought, start with encouragement and work your way through the others first!

Minding your spiritual mind, mind you…

I have pondered this post for a while. It’s a topic that I have a natural attraction to, but I realize that not everyone shares this same fondness. It is the topic of feeding, growing, and weeding your “spiritual mind.” Now, I know that we shouldn’t separate our “spiritual” mind from our physical one, but there is clear teaching in the Bible about spiritual mindedness and the new mind that we have in Christ. So, let’s get on with it.

Early on in my Christian life this verse knocked me off my feet, and still does:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 ESV

Read it carefully. Paul instructs us to be transformed by renewing our minds. In other words, the primary growth for Christ-followers takes place in the mind, not the will, or emotions. Sorry. If we are to become mature, effective Christ-followers we must grow our minds on God’s Word — which is how we are renewed — and allow God to do His transformative work in our minds first (see also Ephesians 4:23). This occurs when we consitently feed our minds on God’s Word . No shortcuts, no alternate routes.

To get on with building your spiritual mind you must first tear down two barriers that keep you from it. Both barriers are used by our Enemy, and appeal to our natural tendencies. The first barrier that we must overcome is that of being driven by our emotions, and allowing them to dictate the timbre and tone of our spiritual growth.

God created us to have emotions, and they play an important role in life. But, emotions are NOT the primary vehicle for spiritual growth, or even a dependable vehicle for growth at all. Sadly, American Christians tend to fall for this two-bit idea and think that our feelings about Christ and His Word will drive us toward depth and strength; instead, they tend to steer us right off the cliff.

A biblical example — the Gospels record more than two handfuls of times when Jesus asked His disciples what they thought about a situation or His teaching. How many times do the Gospels record Him asking, “how do you feel about this?” Zero. It wasn’t their emotions that He was after, it was a matter of putting His truth into their heads and souls. (Now before you send me a naggy email, or unfollow this blog, give it some thought. Emotions are icing on the cake, not the flour and eggs that make the cake.).

Here’s another example for you:

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” Luke 24:45

What did he open for the understanding of His Word? Their hearts? Their souls? Nope, it was their minds!
To further the point, here’s a practical example: if a strong stirring of emotions could produce favorable and long term results then you would only need once dose of encouragement per year, football coaches would give one pep talk per season, extra pounds could be shed and never return by you having a single feeling of inspiration about a diet and exercise program. I could go on — and would enjoy it — but you get the idea. True life transformation takes place through the renewing of our minds, which can be hampered by our emotions and a reliance upon them for change.

The second barrier to growing our spiritual minds is lack of discipline. Rather than engaging and training our spiritual minds each day, we allow them to crawl up on the front porch and doze while gnats gather to buzz around their hind-parts. Sad, but true. It’s no wonder that more than a decade ago, Os Guinness quipped that American Christians pursue fit bodies but have fat minds.

It is easy to allow our schedule, commitments, and work to gobble up time and energy. This is where discipline comes in. At the beginning of the day, or at its end, when we are tired, is when we have to make up our … well, you know, our minds, to take the time to read God’s Word in a systematic manner and think on what we have read.

In sum, dial down the emotions and crank up the discipline. And, as a corollary to your Bible study and thinkin’, add in some reading of great Christian thinkers. Supplementing, not replacing, your personal Bible reading time with C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, John Piper, J.I. Packer, and so on will do you miles of good. I have it from a good source that if a believer has not read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity at least once in his/her lifetime, then he or she will have to sit through remedial classes in heaven for his/her first six months there.
Here’s a challenge for you for the rest of the month: commit to forsake being led along by your emotions and circumstances, draw on spiritual discipline, and read through a chapter or two of God’s Word each day, then think on it, and pray through it. Also, memorize Romans 12:2, and add in a solid Christian book as a strongly brewed supplement for your spiritual mind.

My oldest daughter loves horses. This past summer she attended six days of Girl Scout “horse” camp. Yesterday, she went back to the Girl Scout camp for the next level of training in horseback riding. She loved it. One thing that stood out to me was that the teacher continually gave instruction to Emma about her riding form while she was riding, not before or after. Form matters.

The form that we need for feeding, growing, and weeding our spiritual minds is one of a disciplined ingestion of God’s Word, thinking on it, and supplementing it through reading solid-minded Christian writers from the past. Emma’s instructor would also frequently say, “keep going, that’s it, finish it out.” When you are tired, or loose your train of thought while reading a passage remember to keep going, finish it out. Your spiritual mind will grow, and you will grow in Christ-likeness.

All Aboard, or Self-Control?

This post was born at 5:24 a.m. My preferred activity at that time, and for the 45 minutes after it, is sleep. The irony that the thought for a blog-post on self-control would poke its head out at 5:24 and demand to be written is stellar. And, as such in content and approach, this post will have the subtle and poetic nature of a dental cleaning. Please keep in mind that the composing and editing of this post took place prior to any intake of caffiene.

The original thought that spurred me on was the lack of self-control that exists in our culture, and among Christians nowadays. We hear a great deal of media howling about self-awareness (right now someone is becoming self aware of something that they shouldn’t be and will soon redefine themselves with the word “trans.”). Once self-aware, that person will be obligated to begin heralding their new discovery through self-expression. Once self-expression arrives on the scene, self-justification and self-promotion are soon to show up. They are a noisy and pushy bunch.

Two questions yawned into my head about this at 5:24. One, what does the Bible say about this? Two, how are Christ-followers to avoid this type of behavior, or lifestyle? Galatians 5:22-23 provided the answer to the first question:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

You know that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are virtues and character traits that are not present in us and must be developed by the Spirit of God through prayer, walking in God’s Word, and following the Spirit’s leadership. In short, they are un-natural to us and supernatural in nature. Pay special attention to the fact that “self-control” is the final one mentioned. I am not going to suggest that it is at the end because it is the least important, I do assert that it could be the final one because the others are necessary for its development.

The answer to our first question is that the Bible promotes self-control, not self-discovery. Skim through the Book of Proverbs and you will see this repeatedly. Yet, when you do, you might get the idea that self-control is a trait that we possess and simply need to exercise it. Wrong, very wrong. Self-control is produced by the Spirit of God in us and is exercised by the wise living prescribed in Proverbs. Self-control is created by God’s Spirit and driven and informed by His Word.

As an aside, self-control is the mother of spiritual discipline. And, of all discipline, for that matter. The choices that we make about food, sleep, money, words, attitudes, etc., are made within the presence or absence of self-control. For the record, self-control does not mean self-deprivation. Think of self-control as the bridle in a thoroughbred’s mouth. It does not stop him from doing what he is best at. Rather, it brings all of his strength, passion, and energy into focus and guides him in the right direction. The Bible makes much, and says much, about self-control.

On to the second question, how do we avoid this type of self-izing that the world lauds? Let me illustrate where this type of “self” living ends up, and then apply some Bible salve to it.

Here is the “self-awareness” travel log. In order to board the world’s train of Self-Discovery you have to abandon self-control at the baggage check; it’s not allowed as a carry-on, or allowed at all. As you pull out of the station, the conductor will announce in a voice that sounds strangely like that of Joel Osteen, “next stop Free Choices.” This town was formerly known as “Lack of Accountability.” Once you visit Free Choices you are well on your way to the second leg of the journey — Freedom-ville (formerly known as Irresponsibility). There are many folks who make their home in Freedom-ville. The migration there is steady and oh-so easy. Remaining there is effortless.  But, those truly committed to self-ing eventually re-board ole’ Self-Discovery and chug down the tracks to Self-Justification. This town has never changed its name despite the many attempts of its citizens to do so. The ruling class feels that the name is appropriate, sends a strong message, and reminds its dwellers that they should feel proud of themselves, their journey, and stand up for where they reside. Once fully self-justified, folks eventually make the final few miles of the trek to I-am-here-and-you-all-drove-me-here (formerly known as Victim’s Corner). Once here, people usually saturate themselves in many sorts of “self” activities and philosophies. They do so without guilt, fear, or remorse because they really believe that someone else put them on the train, paid the fare, forced them to go, and will not allow them to return. Period. End of normalcy.

It is obvious that the Bible, if you have ever even buzzed through some of it — especially Proverbs, James, and Philippians — shows that God doesn’t allow his own to live at Victim’s Corner. Why? Victim’s Corner rejects all of the things that move us to know his grace, depend upon him, and develop the disciplines to know and follow him more fully. (see 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 for a good poke in the eye)

To prove the point let’s re-write some story lines of famous Bible folks as victims:

  • Job – “This should not be happening to me, it’s not my fault, this is all because of how people treated me, and, because the world was jealous that I had a nice family, land, and wealth. This is the world’s way of getting back at me.”
  • King David – “Psalm 159 – A Psalm of King David — Why, oh why, does this happen to me. I deserve more than this. Enemies surround me, and pursue me. If only God had not chosen me to be king, how lovely my life would be. Oh, the pressure to write these psalms. Oh, the agony of ruling. If only I could return to my fields, tend my sheep. If only I had not slain Goliath. I would be free, and free to be me. Free to cloak myself in the soothing blanket of old feelings. Selah.”
  • Paul – “The difficulty of this life is great, I should have never journeyed to Damascus. Then, my life would be more pleasing. I could have focused on becoming a better Pharisee. But, alas, I will make the best of this as long as I can. I will submit to God’s plan, and suffer through it, perhaps through my suffering others will feel better about themselves.” 1 Ridiculous 2:7-8 (Oprah’s favorite verses)
  • Jesus – Well, I can’t. It would be too disrespectful, and blasphemous. The point here is that Jesus never complained about his mission to fully obey and fulfill the will of God the Father, die for the sins of others, and love and sanctify those for whom he had died. That would make a great victim story, but, it would have dishonored God the Father and undermined Jesus’ mission. It will do the same in your life and mine.

So, stay off of the train of Self-Discovery. Instead, walk the Shepherd’s trail. He is the Good Shepherd. He will provide all that you need, give you abundant life, and through self-control empower you to be who He designed you to be, not who you or the world hopes to fashion you to into.

In closing, a good first step toward self-control begins with this verse:

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, – 2 Corinthians 10:5
Kill every lofty opinion (the world’s ways and opinions) and take every thought captive to obey Christ? Yep. Self-control starts in your mind.

By the way, that Bible salve that I mentioned is a gritty emollient containing mint, cayenne pepper, and pumas stone. But, you see and feel it working already.

Corrrection, please!

The headlines over the past few weeks, namely the Vanity Fair cover photo of Bruce Jenner and the maelstrom surrounding Rachel Dolezal (the caucasian NAACP leader in Washington who has pretended to be an African-American) shows us the state of our culture, its depravity, and stupidity. When a person thinks that he or she can “declare” his or her gender or ethnic background regardless of biology, and common sense, what are we left with? Answer: A mess.

We live in a country that thinks that all one has to do if he or she is uncomfortable with his/her place in life is to redefine it and claim it to be something that he or she likes better, or is more convenient. Jenner calls himself “trans-gender,” while Dolezal is “trans-ethnic.” With one sloppily coined statement folks think that they can alter or outright change who, or what, they are. Unhappy people making an unhappy mess.

This is where truth comes in handy. It sets standards, teaches principles, delineates boundaries, and clarifies life. In fact, that is what our culture is seeking to undo. And, they are doing it for a reason — to remove accountability and live as they please, and in turn try to make others agree with them. They call it tolerance. I call it “trans-sense,” oops, I mean sans-sense. Better.

I have read and studied the Book of Proverbs since I was a young Christ-follower. Two decades later I am better for having done so. I am currently digging into Proverbs in greater depth than I have before, and each morning I share a principle or application from it on Twitter (@JodySmotherman). Let me share three things about the Book of Proverbs with you. They are simple, short, yet stout, and provide a good map for the whole book.

  • The Book of Proverbs deals with two kinds of people: the wise and the foolish (though the “simple” are also mentioned as a sort of middle-ground, uninformed person who could go one way or the other. It’s usually easier to break and run for the team of fools than to work toward becoming wise).
  • The Book of Proverbs shares God’s wisdom for living with us in short statements. No long diatribes are present, just succinct statements for wise living. Bite-sized truth that will bite and hold on.
  • The Book of Proverbs shows a common theme that separates the wise from the foolish. It is found throughout the book and summarized in Proverbs 9:7-9 (read it carefully):

“Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” (ESV)

It all boils down to this: the difference between the wise and the foolish is their acceptance toward and application of correction. Period. Folks who will listen to truth — whether read for themselves or shared by godly people in their lives — and appreciate it, and follow the correction that it calls them to, will grow in wisdom. The Bible says that their lives will be marked by words such as “wisdom, instruction, discretion, insight, judgment, good sense,” and much more. Those who reject truth and correction are destined to become more foolish. To summarize, in the presence of truth and correction the wise grow wiser while fools will reject both and happily wallow in their folly.

So, the application is simple. As life unfolds, the wise will increase in wisdom while the foolish will grow more foolish, and more weird. If you keep this in mind it will help you to sort out the silliness and sordidness that surrounds us nowadays.

Here is an example of how it might look if you were to discuss a fool’s folly with him or her:

You: Based on what I know from the Bible, what you just did was pretty foolish (or who or whatever you just “declared” yourself to be).
Fool: Well, I am not foolish. I will tell you what is foolish. You are foolish, and you are foolish for thinking that what I think is foolish. And furthermore, you thinking that people who do not agree with you are foolish is the new definition of foolish.”
You: Huh? (you are really thinking that this is a fool spiraling in his senselessness, and you didn’t know what else to say).

All of this to say that there is Truth — God’s timeless principles of right and wrong. It cuts the culture’s ego and evil right into the quick. We live in a day of excuses, blame-shifting, short-sighted wrong-headedness, and a whiny it’s-not-my-fault victim mentality. God’s Word shows truth, wrong and right, cut and dried, black and white. There’s no room for side-stepping it, or running from it. It keeps coming in a sure and steady manner … while the un-wise cavort about in their soul-blinding, self-deceiving slop.

Here’s a helpful tidbit in closing, when truth and wisdom are escorted out of the life of a person or a culture, the next to exit will be principles, then reason, and then substance. If you wonder why some people, or our nation’s culture, have helter-skelter, up-and-down, superficial ways … Proverbs shows you why that is the case.

Now, you can see that their nonsense makes perfect sense to them. And, to the contrary, that God’s sense makes no sense to them…

Small steps are best…

Yesterday I was reading in Proverbs 6 and jotting down a few thoughts for my daily Tweet from the book of Proverbs. Verses 9 – 11 snared my attention. While the context of the passage concerns the lazy and foolish, nestled in verse 10 I caught the glint of Bible gold, and tried to dig it out.

“9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”

Straight away you notice that the word “little” is used three times in verse 10. As verse 9 provokes the sluggard to wake up, and verse 11 describes the sudden arrival of the consequences of laziness (you might want to insist that your teenagers read this), verse 10 tells us about the steps that link laziness and the certain ruin that follows. In describing the process that leads to that trouble, the word “little” pops us three times. Intriguing. Ponder on it a bit.

Here’s an application that I want to pass along to you: we live in a day, culture, and church culture which salivates for things that are new, big, and fast, and this trend should be resisted. Before you balk at this please think back to all of the new programs that your church has started, the big conferences that have been promoted, and the sermons and books that have promoted quick spiritual results (those types of sermons and books use terms such as “keys to success, steps to growth, secrets of growth,” etc.) over the past five years. Here is the stern-faced, straight-talk truth — there are no quick steps to sound spiritual growth. Christian growth is a process, not an event. In fact, it is a process that involves discipline and determination, not secrets or keys. For example, Jesus stated in John 15:5 that we are to abide in Him as the True Vine. Abiding is not an event, it is a dedicated process. In the same vein, Paul declares in Philippians 3:

“8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul states that knowing Christ, gaining Christ, walking by ongoing faith in Christ, and knowing Him and the power of His resurrection are the aims of his life. Each of those elements that Paul mentioned involves a process, not a singular a-ha moment or spiritual big bang.

Here is a pragmatic reason why growth in Christ is a process and is not caused by infrequent leap-frog events — incremental growth nurtures good habits and grows character over time, while lightning-strike moments are difficult to build into your daily life, and to maintain. In other words, one type of growth is sustainable, the other type is rare, and tricky to weave into your life.

Am I saying that the impact from a powerful sermon, statement from a book, or attendance at a Christian seminar or conference is bad? No, absolutely not. What I am saying is that those moments aren’t the norm, they are Holy Spirit- driven moments that are extraordinary. On the other hand, the insight and wisdom that the Holy Spirit grants to you as you study and ponder on your Bible (or my Tweets and blog, heh-heh), pray, talk with fellow believers, and participate in worship are ordinary, frequent, and solid means for growth. This is where the real growth happens. It’s day to day, not from big event to big event.

This should come as a soothing balm to our consciences and souls. God does not expect us to have Moses-at-the-burning-bush encounters each day. He does expect us to devote daily time to Him, meet with Him in His Word and prayer, and live with our hearts and minds ready to encounter him throughout the day and around the bend.

To nearly exhaust the point, the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. Paul wrote at the end of his life in 2 Timothy 4:7:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

He said that he had fought the fight, not that he had won it in the second round of the match; he had finished the race, not that he had won it in record time; he had kept the faith, not that he had discovered keys or steps to make it happen rapidly.  You get the idea.

You are probably wondering how Proverbs 6:10 and its repeated use of “little” ties into all of this. Here is how. It’s the little things that matter and have great impact in your life of following Christ. The lazy man in Proverbs 6 is not ruined by momentous events; he is wrecked by all of the miniscule choices, and tiny things that he avoided doing. In turn, your life is made of up a million mini choices and events. Your Christian walk is composed of the day-to-day, little things previously mentioned. Don’t seek the large and lively, stay true to the small and simple. Go little by little.

Let’s allow Proverbs 13:11 to summarize and make the final point about how the little steps make a big difference:

“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.”

Nuff’ said…

It had slipped by…

Yesterday I was reading in John chapter 1. The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Each time that I read it I gain insight, pray differently, and “sense” Christ better. Yesterday did not disappoint. As I was reading in chapter one a verse leapt off of the page. It was John 1:30:

“29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

There was a simple statement that caught me off guard: “because he was before me. I myself did not know him…”

I don’t recall that verse ever striking me before, but it didn’t slip by yesterday. A couple of thoughts sparked. First, John the Baptist was born before Jesus, so the “he was before me,” must refer to rank and authority since Jesus is God the Son. No problem there. It was the next phrase that snared me, “I myself did not know him…” Now wait a minute. John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. They did know each other. Since Jesus and John didn’t live time zones apart — there was no such thing back then, maybe sun-dial zones apart though —  what was being said here? Again, John was referring to more than relational knowledge of his cousin Jesus. He was referring to Jesus’ stature and role as the Messiah. That is given by the context of John declaring Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world in verse 29, and followed by the revelation of Jesus as Messiah to Israel in verse 31. Hermeneutical problem solved.

Before I read further I took some time to ponder why this verse, and its content had not caught my attention before. I have read through the Gospel of John dozens of times, yet this verse had not ever caught my eye or attention. I wondered why it had slipped by so many times before. The simple, and overly spiritual, answer was that the Holy Spirit had not ever “impressed it” upon me during previous readings.That answer seemed to put the weight of the matter on the Spirit and serve as an excuse for me. Perhaps I am over-thinking the matter. I doubt it. Examination is a vital part of meditative reading of Scripture. So, in order to take responsiblity for not getting-a-hold-of this verse before, I jotted down some questions that helped to prompt me on how I should read the Bible. They were a sound reminder for me, and I pass them along to you:

How am I reading the Bible?

  • Am I reading it at a nice mosey, or at a jogger’s pace?
  • Does it have my full attention, or is my attention divided among other things? A fine antidote to this is to keep a pad and pencil handy. If a stray thought about work, family, or such starts barking at you it can be chased out of the back yard of your mind by writing it down.
  • Am I reading it meditatively — soaking it in as I go — or moving along at a pace that causes me to miss things?
  • Is my mind clear, neutral, and unfettered so that the Holy Spirit can bring insight, conviction, encouragement, or show connections to other passages? Having a clear mind that is not moving in any pre-determined direction with a text creates an ideal chalkboard for God to write upon.
  • Am I eager to receive truth and insight from the passage that I am reading? We must be active readers of the Word, not passive ones; spiritual growth is never by osmosis, or Osteen, I must say.

A walk this evening fitly illustrated all of this for me. I took Lucy, our Australian Shepherd pup, for a walk on our farm. I took her around the pond and up the first hill for a little piece. She had never been this far. She was excited. Her nubby tail vibrated.  Instead of walking at a pace that I prefered, I allowed her to walk, run, zig-zag, sniff and explore. She seemed to smell each blade of grass, pause at every sound, and quiver with excitement as she went. That’s how I should read God’s Word, and how you should too. Treat it as if it’s brand new each time, expect to see new things, and to meet the Living God.  With our spiritual ears perked, eyes widened, and noses ready we should enter the Bible like an eager pup … determined and delighted to see new things. Then, truth won’t slip by.