Why should we sing?

I don’t go looking for posts about congregational singing, but a couple of blogs I follow comment on or link to blog posts on the topic fairly often.

The prevailing consensus is that congregational singing is declining. I have not noticed that myself, but apparently others have.

Naturally, people want to find the problem and fix it. A number of possible reasons for this decline have been proposed.

Some say that the congregation doesn’t sing as well since the advent of worship teams. Some blame this on the atmosphere seeming more like a concert than a church service. Others point blame at the number of instruments on stage, the loudness of the music, the singing of new songs that no one knows, the difficulty of some of those songs for a congregation to sing. Some have blamed the professionalism or the commitment to excellence of the musicians, because that makes us “average Joes” feel like we don’t measure up. Sadly, many churches are eliminating performed music (what we use to call “special music”) for these reasons. The most recent article I saw said the problem started way back even before the worship team advent, when churches had choirs that “drowned out” the congregation.

My own experience is limited, of course. We’ve only visited one church where I truly felt like the stage and musicians were set up for a concert rather than congregational singing. This church had a choir and a worship team, multicolored lighting, a stage covered with instruments. I don’t think any of that would have been insurmountable, though. The one main problem was that the songleader or worship leader never told us as a congregation when to join in or invited us to sing along. As we looked around to see whether others were singing, we noticed that some were and some were not. So we didn’t know quite what to do.

Most of my church experiences have involved one songleader on stage with a choir behind him, sometimes with musicians on stage or nearby, sometimes not. The choir helps keep the pace and provide the melody for those who might not know a song. I have never been in a church where the choir “drowned out” the congregational singing.

I have been in two churches where the songleader was an actual professional in the sense of having a PhD not just in music, but in voice. In both of those churches, the singing was robust. No one seemed to be intimidated by the professionalism of the leader and others in the choir and church. Ordinary, untrained people sang special music as well as the trained ones. So I don’t think professionalism in and of itself is a factor, or at least it shouldn’t be.

There is one factor, however, that overrides any problems with congregational singing: the fact that the Bible tells us we’re supposed to sing.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Psalm 100:1-2, ESV

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. Ephesians 5:18b-19, ESV

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16, ESV

We shouldn’t use these verses as clubs to beat people over the head with their responsibility, but we should encourage each other to obey God in this respect. Some have tried to encourage thinking about the songs we sing by almost preaching a small sermon between songs, sharing long Puritan readings, etc. There might be a time for that kind of thing, but usually I find that, rather than encouraging singing, it takes away from it. People get weary mentally and their minds wander (or even physically, if they’re made to stand through all of that).

I’ve long wanted to do a study of music in the Bible. I notice that in many of the psalms, singing is associated with thanksgiving. The passages above speak of singing as an outgrowth of being filled with the Spirit of God and the Word of God. Could it be that poor congregational singing is a symptom of a lack in these areas, rather than a problem in itself?

One of my soapbox issues is that our responsibility to do right before God should not depend on other people or circumstances. I can’t stand before God and blame other people for my sin. They are responsible for their influence, and they’ll have to answer for their failures and temptations. But God has promised each of His children that, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). That is true not just for avoiding sin and resisting temptation, but also for doing right. I should do the right thing whether the circumstances are conducive or not, whether anyone else is doing so or not.

Sure, it’s good to study what helps and hinders good congregational singing. But we as a congregation need to realize that whether the song is too old or too new, too high or too low, too fast or too slow, too soft or too loud, whether there is one musician or many, whether others sing better or worse or not at all, we need to sing as unto the Lord. He is worthy of our praise. Let’s overlook the petty hindrances to our comfort level and think about His greatness and goodness and all He has done for us. It will be hard to hold back from singing then!

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
My heart trusted in Him, and I am helped;
Therefore my heart greatly rejoices,
And with my song I will praise Him.
Psalm 28:7, NKJV

The Lord is my strength and my song;
    he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation
    are in the tents of the righteous.
Psalm 118:14-15a, ESV

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Because My Father Is My King

But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Our church is going through the psalms together and discussing a few at a time on Sundays. In many psalms, the writer pours out his heart to God pleading for mercy, justice, protection, forgiveness, revival. Often the writer comes to God out of sorts, but after a few moments of meditating on who his God is, he is set to rights and sees things clearly.

Other psalms (like 95-100) set forth God’s majesty, holiness, and greatness and our response of awe and worship.

On those occasions in Scripture when someone meets a heavenly being of some kind, like an angel, that person often falls to the ground in worship that the angel has to correct. If just an angel causes that reaction, we can understand God answering Moses’ request to see Him by saying Moses would not be able to withstand seeing the full scope of His glory and splendor. John had been the closest disciple to Jesus during the Lord’s time on Earth. Yet when John saw Jesus in all His glory in Revelation 1:17, he didn’t shake his hand, slap him on the back, cry out, “So good to see you again!” He “fell at his feet as dead,” overwhelmed.

It’s good for us to meditate on and remind ourselves of just Who our God is in all of His aspects. We don’t often think of His majesty, splendor, and greatness unless we encounter those traits in Scripture. Sometimes a glorious sunset or huge waterfall or massive lightning storm will give us a glimpse of His powerfulness and immensity.

Yet sometimes I have a hard time reconciling the greatness of God that would immerse me in awe and bring me to my knees in worship with the closeness and intimacy of my Abba, Father, described in Romans 8 and Galatians 4. It’s not that the Old Testament presents God as massive and majestic and the New Testament portrays Him as close, personal, and loving: no, both aspects are presented all through the Bible.

So one day, this illustration came to mind of a child of a king.

A beloved child played on the floor with his father and sat in his lap to read a book.  His father rocked him to sleep and comforted him when he was hurt or afraid. The child knew his father was something called a king, but he didn’t quite understand what that was or what his father did at work every day.

But one day, an affair of state required his father to wear his full royal regalia and address the nation. As the child stood with his mother and siblings, the king’s entrance was announced, accompanied by a trumpet fanfare. When the king came in, the child hardly recognized the man as his father. He looked so different in his crown and royal robe, standing so erect, receiving the applause of the audience, speaking in such authoritative and measured tones, followed by his entourage. The child was awed, but a little afraid of the king. But as his father finished speaking and turned to go back to the family residence within the castle, he searched for his son, and smiled. And then the child recognized the love in his father’s eyes and knew that he was indeed, the same daddy who had comforted him and played with him so often before.

It’s an imperfect analogy, and it wouldn’t carry over in every single point. But the gist of it helps me to reconcile how the Lord whose full holiness will overwhelm me is the same Abba Father who comforts and cares for me now.

Because my Father is my King, I can rest in His power and authority. He’s in charge, and He is just. He is both kind and righteous. He employs all the sources of His kingdom to protect me and provide for me.

Because my King is my Father, I have the closest access to Him. I can rest in His love and know He cares about every detail of my life. I have a glorious inheritance.

He is worthy of my worship, my trust, and my love.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12, ESV

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God. 1 John 3:1a, ESV

O worship the King, all glorious above,
And gratefully sing His power and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, Whose canopy space,
Whose chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.

~ Robert Grant

(Revised from the archives)

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When Little Trials Give Us Big Trouble

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Sometimes it seems easier to trust the Lord for the big trials of life rather than the little irritations.

When a major crisis comes my way, I realize it’s too big for me. I’m acutely aware of my need for God’s grace and strength. I feel myself sinking, like Peter, and cry out for help almost instinctively.

But when I encounter some smaller provocation — when someone interrupts what I am doing; when my computer acts up; when I am running late to an appointment and hit every red light along the way; when another driver cuts me off; when I am in a hurry at the grocery store and the customer in front of me has some time-consuming problem; when I give dinner a quick stir and slosh red sauce over the side of the pan and onto the stove, the floor, and/or myself — then too often I react with simmering impatience, carnal anger, unloving harshness, discouragement or depression.

Amy Carmichael once wrote:

The hardest thing is to keep cheerful (and loving) under little things that come from uncongenial surroundings, the very insignificance of which adds to their power to annoy, because they must be wrestled with, and overcome, as in the case of larger hurts. Some disagreeable habit in one to whom we may owe respect and duty, and which is a constant irritation or our sense of the fitness of things, may demand of us a greater moral force to keep the spirit serene than an absolute wrong committed against us. (1)

“Well, I was provoked.”

Love…is not easily provoked. I Corinthians 13:5

“I’m only human.”

Yes. That’s the problem, not an excuse. With the exception of One, all humans have a sinful nature. Our natural reaction is likely to be a selfish one. As Christians we’re called to have a supernatural reaction.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Galatians 5:22-23.

Even on the highway or in a check-out line.

Thank God there is forgiveness with Him, His mercies are new every morning, and if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness(I John 1:9).

But how can I get the victory over wrong reactions to little provocations and react in a right manner the next time?

  • First of all, instead excusing it, recognize it as sin and confess it to Him.
  • Carefully evaluate and use my time better, such as such as stopping whatever I am doing early enough for an appointment so that a few red lights will not cause me to be late (or agitated), slowing down and take the necessary time to accomplish something so haste doesn’t create more problems, etc.
  • Fix the issue, if possible. Find out if there is something wrong with the computer, gently ask the other person to refrain from or change whatever they are doing, etc.
  • Put it into perspective. A little thing is just a little thing. Being a Christian doesn’t mean every little bump in the road is going to be removed.
  • Relinquish control of my life and time and schedule into the Lord’s hands will help me to handle interruptions better. Have you ever studied the life of Christ with an eye toward how much He was interrupted? It’s enlightening. Even when He was interrupted during prayer or on his way to perform a miracle, He never reacted harshly or impatiently.
  • Relinquish the “I” factor as well. Some of the agitation I experience is simply my thwarted desire for things to go my way. I mentioned in an earlier post that another of Amy Carmichael’s experiences that helped me was when she felt the “I” “rising hotly” in her toward one who was unfair and dominating, and she realized that moment was a chance to die to self. “See in this which seems to stir up all you most wish were not stirred up — see in it a chance to die to self in every form. Accept it as just that – a chance to die.” (1)
  • Do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I need to remember that I’m probably unwittingly irritating someone else sometimes who is graciously (I hope) being forbearing with me. I need to handle the irritations that come from other people as graciously as I would want them to handle mine. Instead of focusing on the irritant, I need to focus on that person as another child of the Father whom He loves every bit as much as He loves me and seek ways to serve him or her.
  • Forbear. A former pastor used to say forbearing was just good old-fashioned putting up with each other. In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Not just forbearing, but forbearing in love. “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins,” (I Peter 4:8). Colossians 3:12-14 says, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”
  • Remember that my testimony before others is at stake. “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:25). I sometimes think of Satan standing before God and accusing that Job only served God because God blessed him, but let Satan take away Job’s blessings, and he would curse God. I envision Satan saying of me, “Yes, she acts like a nice Christian at church, but let me trip her up here and there and see how she reacts.” We’re not only a testimony to others in our homes and at check-out lines, but we forget that our testimonies are as far-reaching as heaven. Rosalind Goforth was a missionary wife to China during years when the Chinese were quite suspicious of and disdainful toward “foreign devils.” To try to alleviate those feelings and establish relationships with the Chinese, the Goforths would allow crowds of the curious into their home to look around and to talk with them. This resulted in some agitation and disruption as well as theft of some of their belongings, but overall they felt it was worth it. Of one particular day, Rosalind writes:

The day had been an unusually strenuous one, and I was really very tired. Toward evening, a crowd of women burst through the living room door and came trooping in before I had time to meet them outside. One woman set herself out to make things unpleasant. She was rough and repulsive and– well, just indescribably filthy. I paid no attention to her except to treat her as courteously as the rest. But when she put both hands to her nose, saying loudly, “Oh, these foreign devils, the smell of their home is unbearable!” my temper rose in a flash and, turning on her with anger, I said, “How dare you speak like that? Leave the room!” The crowd, sensing a “storm,” fled. I heard one say, “That foreign devil woman has a temper just like ours!”

Now, I had not noticed that the door of my husband’s study was ajar, not did I know that he was inside, until, as the last woman disappeared, the door opened and he came forward, looking solemn and stern. “Rose, how could you so forget yourself?” he said. “Do you realize that just one such incident may undo months of self-sacrificing, loving service?”

“But Jonathan” I returned, “you don’t know how she — “

But he interrupted. “Yes, I do; I heard all. You certainly had reason to be annoyed; but were you justified, with all that is hanging in the balance and God’s grace to keep you patient?”

As he turned to re-enter his study, he said, “All I can say is I am disappointed!

Oh, how that last word cut me! I deserved it, yes, but, oh, I did so want to reach up to the high ideals he had. A tempestuous time followed alone in our inner room with my Lord. as I look back now, it was all just one farther step up the rocky hillside of life — just climbing! (2)*

One time when I posted Rosalind’s experience, a commenter took offense at Jonathan’s response to his wife, thinking he should have been a little more sympathetic and suggesting that the lost need to understand that we’re not perfect. But Rosalind felt that what Jonathan said and how he said it were just what she needed to bring her to conviction. A theme she deals with all through the book is her lack of love and tendency toward wanting her own way, and by the end of the book the nationals they interacted with had a much different testimony of her. Yes, lost people or new Christians need to understand that though we are changed we’re not sinless, but this was a matter of first impressions. Jonathan was right that a harsh reaction could undo much positive ministry. Though understanding her annoyance, his point was that it was not an excuse and she could have accessed God’s grace to react in a right manner.

  • The verses mentioned above in Galatians 5 say that gentleness, long-suffering, self-control, etc., are all a part of the fruit of the Spirit. Maintaining time in the Word so He can speak to me through it, yielding to His control throughout the day, memorizing verses in the areas I am having trouble with, sending out a quick prayer for help when I feel that agitation and frustration building up will all help in gaining the victory.
  • Pray. Part of a prayer I often pray from Colossians 1:9-14 is I might be “Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (verse 11). That’s also a reminder to focus not just on avoiding irritation but to also cultivate the positive: longsuffering and patience with joyfulness.
  • Remember “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (Romans 5:3-5, KJV). Even the little tribulations can be used by God to grow and sanctify us. Elisabeth Elliot wrote in A Lamp For My Feet (and it encourages me that she felt this way about some people, too, sometimes):

How can this person who so annoys or offends me be God’s messenger? Is God so unkind as to send that sort across my path? Insofar as his treatment of me requires more kindness than I can find in my own heart, demands love of a quality I do not possess, asks of me patience which only the Spirit of God can produce in me, he is God’s messenger. God sends him in order that he may send me running to God for help.

This is true of irritating situations and intimate objects as well as people. Like sandpaper they can help rub off our sharp edges.

  • Behold our God. II Corinthians 3:18 says we’re changed more and more into Christ’s likeness as we behold Him. When I look inside and tell myself I need to be more kind, loving, forbearing, etc., I get discouraged and fail because I don’t have it in myself. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Romans 7:18). But when I look at Him, that irritability seems to just melt away. “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.  The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.” (Psalm 145:8-9).

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16.

___________
(1) Houghton, Frank. Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur. (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1983), 86-87.

(2) Goforth, Rosalind. Climbing. (USA: Bethel Publishing, 1940), 45-46.

(Revised from the archives)

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How to Have a Steady Soul

Unsteady.

I became well acquainted with unsteadiness after contracting transverse myelitis 23 years ago. For a few months afterward, I couldn’t walk on my own. I progressed from a walker to a cane to finally walking without support. But for a long time afterward, anything from uneven ground to someone walking by me quickly or brushing against me would throw me off balance. I had a few falls if I couldn’t grasp anything firm. Though my internal balance mechanism has vastly improved since then, I still have moments of unsteadiness now.

So the phrase “unsteady souls” stood out to me in a recent reading of 2 Peter 2 in the ESV. Other translations say unstable, unestablished, unsettled.

Peter is talking in this chapter – throughout this whole epistle, really – about false prophets and teachers. Chapter 2, verse 14 says “They entice unsteady souls.”

How do false teachers entice these souls? 1 Peter speaks of the false prophets’ sensuality, lust, greed, passion, so they “entice by sensual passions” (verse 18). James 1:14 uses the same Greek word for “entice,” which carries the idea of baiting, alluring, deceiving, when it says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” They “despise authority” (verse 10). “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption” (verse 19). They “exploit you with false words” (verse 3). They’re blasphemous (verses 10-13).

Probably most of the people who fall away to false teachers are not saved in the first place, but weak or new believers are susceptible as well. A true Christian can’t lose his or her salvation, but a believer can get tangled in false doctrines to their own confusion as well as that of everyone on their sphere of influence. But even those of us who think we’re strong need to “take heed lest we fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

How can we make sure we’re not unsteady or unstable spiritually? Peter tells us:

  • Believe on Jesus as Savior and Lord . “Be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10).
  • Know His Word. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:3-4, ESV). Know it not just for facts, but to know Him (2 Peter 1:2-3)
  • Live out God’s Word. Be doers, not just hearers. Because of the above, “make every effort to supplement your faith” with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, love (2 Peter 1:5-7, ESV)
  • Rest on the Bible’s sure foundation. Know that God’s Word is not “a cunningly devised fable,” but is a “more sure word of prophecy” than even the transfiguration Peter was an eyewitness to. (2 Peter 1:16-19, KJV)
  • Know that Scripture comes from God. “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21, ESV)
  • Look to Him. After listing several instances of punishment coming to wrongdoers, Peter assures us “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations” (verse 2 Peter 2:9, KJV).
  • Confess sin to Him, seek His grace to overcome and resist it: “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Peter 3:14, ESV).
  • Don’t twist the Scriptures as the unstable do. “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). The unsteady twist (wrest in the KJV) the very thing which could stabilize them. We read it in context so we understand its meaning. We don’t wrangle it to make it say what we want it to say. We don’t adjust it to us: we adjust ourselves to it.
  • Be watchful. “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability (2 Peter 3:17, ESV).
  • Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18, ESV)
  • Listen to sound teaching. Contrast the characteristics Peter lists of false teachers in 2 Peter to what he says about godly shepherds in 1 Peter 5. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 4: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Seek to feed our souls His truth rather than feeding our own desires.

Jesus said the one who hears his words and does them is like a man who built his house on a rock which was unshaken by winds and flood waters.

So we watch ourselves, that we’re not being led away of wrong desires. We read and listen to God’s Word as it’s written, in context, not trying to twist it. We listen to pastors and teachers who faithfully proclaim God’s Word. We we obey it. We get to know our Savior better and better and remind ourselves of His truth. and we keep growing spiritually. Doing all of these things might bring persecution, which Peter discusses often in both of his letters. But we can trust God to keep us and deliver us.

Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me. Psalm 119:133, ESV

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Our Valleys Are God’s Peaks

In Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me , she shares an illustration that friends had shared with her. A counselor had asked her friends to make a timeline of the high and low points of their lives, briefly describe each one, and then connect them into up and down graphs. After spending some time on this project, the friends finally finished. Then the counselor asked them to turn their charts upside down. Why? To point out that what we consider the “low” times of life are often the times God is most at work in us, or when we come to know Him significantly better.

“God sees our lowest moments as our spiritual highs because that is when he is doing the deepest work in us…from them come our most significant growth and our greatest dependence on God.”

It’s not that God doesn’t work in the “good” or “high” times: He does, and those are blessings from Him. But it’s usually when we’re experiencing hardship, doubt, pain, need, or other trials that we most seek Him, and, as He promised, find Him. It’s in our weakness that we turn to and depend on His strength.

Vaneetha tried this exercise for herself and found the same observation to be true. She writes:

I often reflect back on that exercise when I’m struggling. Because when I’m in the pit, I’d like to eliminate all the valleys on my graph. I’d be thrilled if the line of my life story featured frequent upward peaks—times of success and fulfillment—but otherwise be mostly flat. That way there would be no more valleys, no more anguish or tears or pain. Just happiness. And that sounds wonderful.

But turning that graph around, I would see a boring, unexamined, and unfruitful spiritual life. An untested life marked by superficiality and entitlement. A life filled with temporary happiness but little lasting joy.

Suffering and trials are gifts. They refine my character, draw me to God, deepen my faith. They have shaped my theology and carved into me the capacity for great joy. In many ways they are God’s greatest blessings.

This gives a new perspective to the phrase “mountaintop experience.” That phrase comes from the time Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus to a mountain and saw Him wondrously transfigured, talking to Moses and Elijah. Right on the heels of that glorious, once-in-a-lifetime experience, they descended the mountain to find the other disciples unable to help a demon-possessed boy. Often right after we experience some kind of glorious high point with the Lord, we run into a low point, and we wonder what happened and why we can’t feel those “highs” all the time. Vaneetha comments:

In the midst of trials, I rarely feel that spiritual growth is happening. Often I’m depressed and just trying to hang on. Life is gray, and I don’t see God’s work at all. But in retrospect, it is in the hanging on, the trusting in the dark, the waiting patiently for God, where real growth occurs.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV). What we would consider the lowest points of our lives He might consider the highest points, because those are the times we most turned to Him, leaned on Him, learned of Him, and grew in our experience and love of Him.

And you just can’t beat the view from the mountaintop.

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Remembering…

It’s hard to believe it has been 17 years since the horror of 9/11. Though the days that followed were grief-stricken, I miss the coming together as a nation and the expression of faith from those days.

I saw the following on a couple of different places on Facebook. I don’t know who originally put it together. But it’s a poignant reminder that we never know what a day may bring forth.

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It also reminds me of a quote from Jim Elliot, who died just before the age of 30 at the hand of others: “When the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die!”

Enjoy every day as if it were your last, and be ready in case it is.

I am not sure how many of those we lost on 9/11 had made arrangements for eternity. I hope they all did. If you have not, please read more here.

Disappointment

No one likes to disappoint others. We’ve experienced disappointment when others have failed to live up to our expectations, and we don’t want to inflict that on anyone else. Too many people only give half an effort, or are too self-absorbed to extend themselves to others, and we don’t want to be like that. We want to do what we can for others, and we want the important people in our lives happy with us.

Those perfectly natural desires can become an unhealthy obsession, leading us to become frantic “people-pleasers” motivated by self-love due to how good we feel when we meet others’ needs.

But aside from that lopsided perspective, it’s certainly not wrong to want to please others in whatever legitimate way we can. Yet we soon find that we just can’t do everything that everyone would like for us to. Randy Alcorn wrote once that he had to say no to about 99% of the requests that came his way. The standard reply his assistant sends to most requests is, “Randy has to say no to the great majority of good opportunities so that he can say yes to the very few God wants him to do.”

It’s a hard balance to maintain, to be available to minister to others as God wants us to, even to the point of pain and self-sacrifice sometimes, yet not to spread ourselves so thin that everything suffers. Randy honed in on the key: finding out what God wants us to do. You’ve heard the old illustration of the professor showing his students that pouring in the small things into a jar first left no room for the big ones. But when the big items were put in first, and then the smaller ones fit around them.

And we can trust God for the disappointment this will cause others. If He does not want us to meet their request, He has another person or plan in mind. Maybe your lack of availability will be the catalyst someone else needs to step up. Maybe a lack of someone to fill that need will lead those involved to see that that program or ministry or whatever needs to be set aside or changes need to be made. During the few short years we home-schooled, we were part of a large home school support group that had grown from a handful of moms. When the lady in charge of it had to step down due to the birth of her seventh child, the group floundered for the next year. But in the meantime, the moms decided they really did want the group to continue, and several different ladies took different aspects of it. It had gotten too big for one person, but no one really realized that until that person had to step down.

One thing we learn when others disappoint us or have to say no to a request is that they are not God. Only He can meet all of our needs. I can’t meet all of anyone else’s needs, either. I don’t have to feel guilty that I can’t.That lack may cause them to lean more on Him.

But even He disappoints people. When Jesus lived in Earth, other people had certain expectations of what the Messiah would do, but Jesus did not meet them. Once, after healing and casting demons out of people the day before, Jesus went out alone to pray. When the disciples found Him, they told Him everyone was looking for Him, presumably to come back and keep healing. But He said, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” Though He did heal as part of His ministry on earth, His main purpose was to preach.

In those cases, Jesus didn’t disappoint them deliberately, but He couldn’t do what others wanted because it wasn’t in line with His and the Father’s mission. Sometimes those people were seeking their own desires or they misunderstood His purposes and character. Part of their adjustment to right understanding was having wrong expectations unfulfilled.

Other times, he disappointed people temporarily because He had a greater purpose in mind. Mary and Martha grieved when Jesus did not respond to their summons that Lazarus was sick until it was too late. But a greater miracle than healing awaited them all, and a greater demonstration of who He was. If He had come at their first request,  everyone would have expected Him to heal Lazarus. And if Lazarus had died while Christ was present and then Jesus resurrected him, there may have been some accusation of collusion or trickery. Sometimes He has to say no to this request because down the road He’s sending that.

In Paul’s case, God said no to his request that his thorn be removed because God wanted Paul to know His grace in a special way, and that example has provided comfort for countless readers even hundreds of years later.

Parents understand that they have to disappoint their children sometimes. Though they’d dearly love to meet every request, to do so would be unhealthy and unwise. Children don’t always understand why they can’t eat candy for breakfast, or why they need a nap, or why they can’t play in the street or go to the zoo. Learning that we can’t have everything we want when we want it is is a life lesson we all need and a step toward maturity. Then we understand that everything we want isn’t good for us and it’s a mercy we don’t always get it. Likewise, though we don’t always understand what our heavenly Father is up to, we trust His love and wisdom when He delays or refuses a request.

Sometimes we disappoint people without even realizing it. We didn’t know they had certain expectations. We won’t know unless they tell us. Newly married couples experience this as they adjust to living with each other and getting to know each other better, and of course people interacting in almost any way can experience this. If someone disappoints us in that way, we don’t sit back and fume or withdraw from them because “they should have known.” We have to decide whether we should just overlook the issue and manage our expectations or have a talk with the other person, but we don’t expect them to be mind readers.

There have been times I firmly believed the person telling me “No” was in the wrong. Someone instilled in me a long time ago the principle that “You can’t say no until you pray about it.” Sometimes I have faced opportunities that were too big for me, yet I did not feel the liberty to say no to them, and I saw God work and provide in marvelous ways that I would have missed if I had followed my first inclination and said no. But it was not my place to convince others that God really wanted them to do what I asked. As I appealed to God, He could either change the other person’s heart or supply someone else to meet the request.

If disappointment is a feeling that results from someone else failing us, Jesus experienced that every day. But the time that most touches my heart was in Gethsemane. Many times Jesus went out to pray alone, but that time He wanted the companionship of His friends to watch with Him before the events leading up to the cross were going to start. But they fell asleep instead.

If we’re in authority over someone else, as a parent, supervisor, teacher, mentor, etc., sometimes we have to deal with their failure to meet expectations in more stringent ways. Sometimes a rebuke, reminder, further instruction and training, or even punishment is needed. Jesus certainly employed each of those when dealing with people. But sometimes, as in Gethsemane, He extended grace, acknowledging that those who disappointed Him were only human. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14, ESV).

And if someone actually sins against us, the Bible prescribes methods of confronting them and admonitions to forgive them.

So, to come full circle: when others disappoint us, we respond in whatever way is needed. If it is a matter of actual sin, we may need to take other action. If we’re in a position of authority over them, we don’t let them get away with laziness or lack of effort, but we understand that no one is perfect. If we’re not their authority, we may try to persuade them to take the matter to God before saying no. But if they still say no, we leave it with the Lord to change their hearts or to provide another way.

And because we want to treat others as we want to be treated, we don’t say no to others callously or lightly. We seek the Lord to see whether this request is from Him, even if it seems beyond us, and we depend on Him to enable us. But we understand that we cannot meet the needs of everyone in our sphere of influence. We are not God: only He is. If we have to say no, we do so kindly and encourage others to seek Him for their needs, trusting that He will either meet their needs in another way or give them the grace to do without. If we’ve sinned, we confess that to the Lord and the other person, repent, and do what we can to make restitution. If we have disappointed someone unwittingly, we apologize, talk out the issues, and correct our actions accordingly as much as possible.

But on either side of disappointment, we come to know that no one loves us as thoroughly as God does, no one else is as wise, no one else has the power and provision to meet all our needs. And even if He seems to disappoint us sometimes, we trust that in His love and wisdom, He has something better in mind than what we originally wanted. And sometimes He teaches us, grows us, shapes us, matures us through lessons of disappointment.

And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.
Psalm 39:7, ESV

What have you learned from disappointment?

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The Ministry of the Mundane

One morning I chafed over having to go to the grocery store – again. I had just gone the day before, but that store didn’t have everything I needed, plus we were getting ready for company and needed a few extras. I groused inwardly about spending way too much of my life in stores and how I had other things I’d much rather be doing.

All of a sudden the thought came to mind, “She bringeth her food from afar.”

You might recognize that as part of the Proverbs 31 woman‘s description. In fact, a lot of what she did was everyday, seemingly mundane stuff: planting, cooking, sewing, weaving, buying, selling. In those days, with no Amazon, super Wal-Marts, or even grocery or clothing stores, most of what she made for herself, her family, and her home was done by hand, from scratch.

Thankfully I don’t have to weave my own cloth. I don’t even have to go too much “afar” to gather my food. We have four grocery stores within a ten-minute drive, and all but one of them lets customers order online and pick up their groceries curbside. So I really don’t have anything to complain about.

It helps me to realize, or remember, that gathering and preparing food is part of what I am supposed to do. Somebody has to do it. My husband doesn’t mind going to the store for me sometimes, but I don’t like to ask him since he already works more than 40 hours a week and then has yard work and house maintenance on top of that.

But realizing it’s part of my job helps me not to chafe: this is just as important as anything else that seems more valuable. It’s part of my ministry to my family.

I’ve wondered why so much of life is made of the mundane. A friend who was a missionary said that when she first went to the field, she had no idea she would be spending so much time in the kitchen. I remember Elisabeth Elliot writing about dealing with a recalcitrant stove or heater and wondering at how much time, especially in a third world country, is made up of such activities. I remember hearing a missionary lady once say that in her country, they still had milkmen pick up their empty milk bottles, and part of her testimony and reputation involved having clean milk bottles out on her porch at the appointed time.

As I have been pondering these things the last few days, I came up with a few possible reasons so many mundane tasks.

The rubber meets the road in those everyday duties. It’s easy to think about loving and serving our fellow man or woman while at home in a quiet, pleasant room with our Bibles. It’s another thing when our fleshly nature bumps up against each other in the real world.

A good work ethic is a testimony to others. Luther was purported to have said, “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.” This article disputes that. I understand the article’s view that it’s not something Luther would have said, but I don’t totally agree with their logic. Perhaps you’ve known someone who thought they served God better by witnessing to people than by doing their job. But we’re admonished to do our work “heartily, as unto the Lord.” We’ve all experienced the pangs of faulty workmanship, employees or even ministry partners who do a slipshod job, creating problems and frustration for fellow-workers, bosses, customers. Sure, we have Mary and Martha‘s example, and we know it’s possible to have wrong priorities, and we need to set aside the earthly for the heavenly sometimes. But when it’s time to work, it’s time to do it well and efficiently.

These tasks teach patience, endurance, perseverance, fortitude, service, thoughtfulness of others.

I can’t do even these things in the right way and spirit without God’s help and grace. I just stumbled across this quote in my files from Oswald Chambers (source unknown): “The things Jesus did were the most menial of tasks, and this is an indication that it takes all of God’s power in me to accomplish even the most common tasks in His way. Can I use a towel as He did?” God filled the workmen of the tabernacle with “the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship.” He goes on to say, “I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you” (Exodus 31:1-6, ESV).

Ministry to others can be shown through the mundane. Someone said of Francis and Edith Shaeffer, “As many people were brought to the Lord through Mrs. Schaeffer’s cinnamon buns as through Dr. Schaeffer’s sermons!” Practical help is just as needful as spiritual help.

When Amy Carmichael’s ministry began to change from evangelism to caring for children, she questioned whether God had really called her to be a “nursemaid” when there were so many other needs and ways she could be used. “It was then that she read the words from John 13, how the Lord of glory ‘took a towel and girded Himself.’…never again did she question whether her gifts were being wasted. She knew that the Master never wastes the servant’s time.” (Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur by Frank Houghton)

Mr. Houghton also writes that, “Occasionally someone suggested that character-training of boys and girls…or, still more, the erection of buildings to house them, was not evangelistic work, and therefore not worthy of support.” Amy wrote, “Well, one cannot save and then pitchfork souls into heaven…and as for buildings, souls (in India, at least) are more or less securely fastened into bodies. Bodies cannot be left to lie about in the open, and as you cannot get the souls out and deal with them separately, you have to take them both together.”

We don’t always necessarily have to be doing anything “spiritual” to show forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit. One of my favorite blogger friends writes about what’s going on in her home and family, but even in her homemaking tasks she reflects the spirit of a woman who walks closely with God. She’s not trying to show that: it just shines through her. In everything she shows “a sense of Him.”

Perhaps, too, the weight of physical, everyday tasks is a reminder that we live in a physical world with limitations and constant needs. That reminder increases our anticipation and longing for the day we’ll be released from these bodies and this world.

At any rate, my perspective changed that day. I had no thought of Labor Day when I first started compiling these thoughts, but perhaps it’s appropriate on this particular day to remind ourselves that “In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23, NASB).

I still need to remind myself frequently that my physical tasks are as needful and important as any type of ministry task. I can do them as unto the Lord. Sure, there are ways I can improve: e.g, planning better can help reduce the number of trips to the store. And I still have plenty of time for things like reading and writing – much more time than the Proverbs 31 woman had. But I can serve, as she did, with strength, dignity, industriousness, kindness, and reverence. Even at the grocery store.

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Goals for the Second Half

There’s always something to look forward to just beyond the horizon.

When we were children, we looked forward to high school and driver’s licenses. Then we couldn’t wait for dating and college. Then we longed for marriage and children.

Perhaps your life track has run a different course: perhaps your goals were tenure at your university, or making partner at your firm. Personal and professional goals intertwined.

And if God grants all of those gifts, we look forward to still more.

When we reach somewhere between age 40 and 50, we realize we’re at about the halfway point, if everything goes well. Soon we’ll be in the “second half” of life, with more days behind us than ahead of us. But there are still things we want to do. Some look forward to traveling during the “empty nest” years. Others finally projects off the back burner. We want to see our grandchildren grow, develop, learn, marry, and have children. We want to be here to have a part in influencing them for the Lord.

A few weeks ago, I was arrested by a couple of verses in the psalms reflecting the writer’s purpose for his remaining years:

O God, from my youth you have taught me,
    and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So 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.
Psalm 71:17-18, ESV

I recently read of a man who was active in public ministry all his life. When his wife developed Alzheimer’s, he took care of her as long as he could at home. When she needed more care than he could give, she went to an assisted living facility. But he did not want the two of them to be separated: he joined her. He has an active ministry there leading Bible studies and services and talking with residents.

When my mother-in-law was in a memory care unit, I would feel somewhat down long after leaving the facility after visiting her. I can’t imagine voluntarily living in such a place while still in your right mind.

I think of this man’s national and even international ministries contrasted with his life now. His ministry is not evaluated by how many people he is reaching. He is faithfully serving the Lord right where he is supposed to be.

Many of us find that our “older years” turn out quite different from what we had expected due to illness (ours or our spouse’s), parents’ or children’s needs, financial considerations, or any number of issues. But wherever He has put us, we can proclaim His might and His power. We can share those with everyone, but the psalm above particularly speaks of “another generation…those to come.”

One generation shall commend your works to another,
    and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
    and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
    and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
    and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

Psalm 145:4-7, ESV

Psalm 78 also speaks of “things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us,” telling “to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done,” “that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (verses 2-7).

We can tell the next generation (whether our own descendants or others God brings across our path) the history of how God has worked in the lives of His people, as Psalm 78 goes on to do. We can share His Word, His law, His grace. And we can also share our Ebenezers, testimonies of how He ministered to us and provided for us. We can assure them that He is not just a God afar off in history, but He is God here and now, active in our lives and theirs.

Moses’s prayer in Psalm 90 asks God in the midst of the flying years (verse 10) to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (verse 12). Moses concludes:

Let your work be shown to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
    yes, establish the work of our hands!
Psalm 90:16-17, ESV

It was down at the feet of Jesus,
O the blessed, happy day!
Where my soul found peace in believing,
And my sins were washed away.

It was down at the feet of Jesus,
Where I found such perfect rest,
Where the light first dawned on my spirit,
And my soul was fully blest.

It was down at the feet of Jesus,
Where I brought my guilt and sin,
That he paid my debt and forgave me,
For He died my soul to win.

Refrain:

Let me tell the old, old story
Of His grace so full and free;
Let my heart keep giving Him the glory
For His wondrous love to me.

~ Original words by Elisha Hoffman

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“A Heart at Leisure From Itself”

We all need encouragement some times. We all occasionally feel down in the dumps, or inadequate, even ugly. We have an enemy of our souls who specializes in tripping us up and bringing us down.

The KJV rendering of Proverbs 12:25 says, “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad.” We know the blessing of that “good word” that meets us just at the right time in our moment of need. I am thankful for the encouragers among us who, sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading, specialize in thoughtful observation and uplifting words.

However, I have seen women Bible teachers express concern over the plethora of material for Christian women which is based on emotion and self-esteem: “You are beautiful.” “You are wonderful.” “You are enough.” There are a handful of blogs I only read occasionally because every single post seems to espouse these messages.

I share that concern, for a few reasons. As I said, we all need a boost every now and then. But this kind of encouragement focuses on self, and the sheer volume of these messages makes me wonder whether we are altogether too preoccupied with self. And if Christian leaders and teachers are constantly feeding us esteem-building maxims, we’re lacking the teaching we most need: that which turns our attention to God and His truth. And, just occasionally, these kinds of message are wrong: for instance, as we discussed last week, we are not enough in ourselves.

Please understand: I am not trying to heap guilt on top of other negative feelings. I’m just turning our attention to a better focus and message. When we’re bombarded by self-defeating thoughts, we need to take them captive and apply God’s truth to them.

I am ugly. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” Psalm 139:14, ESV.  “And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD.” Ezekiel 16:14

I am worthless. “Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” 1 Peter 1:18-19

I am inadequate. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God. 2 Corinthians 3:5

I am not enough. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:4-5

I am not lovable. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Personally, a lot of my self-esteem issues were solved once I truly got hold of the KJV translations of Ephesians 1:6: “He hath made us accepted in the beloved.

Some years ago at a leaders meeting for a church ladies’ group, the pastor’s wife was encouraging us to speak up when we each did our various parts during the meeting. She mentioned almost offhandedly that “Self-consciousness is consciousness of self, and we are supposed to forget self.” That was another concept that helped me turn from my preoccupations with self (which increased anxiety about messing up in some way) to forgetting self in doing what God wanted me to do in the moment, trusting Him for the grace and ability.

Last week I caught a couple of Elisabeth Elliot’s radio broadcasts, replayed now on BBN Radio, in which she was talking about these very ideas. When I stopped the car, I jotted down some notes from her broadcast before I got out to run my errands. I was so hoping I could find a transcript of the program online, but I have had no luck so far.  In searching, however, I did find the September/October 1999 copy of her newsletter in which she discussed related issues. She quotes C. S. Lewis as saying:

The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new
self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him…The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.
Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. (She quotes from Beyond Personality, but a similar quote is in Mere Christianity as well).

She also includes a few stanzas of this poem/prayer by Anna Laetitia Waring. Two lines which most stood out to me are the author’s request for “a heart at leisure from itself, To soothe and sympathise” and “And a life of self-renouncing love Is a life of liberty.”

I also have in my files a quote from one of Elisbaeth’s old email devotionals that were sent out by Back to the Bible years ago. This one is also from her book Keep a Quiet Heart:

“His purpose in dying for all was that men, while still in life, should cease to live for themselves and should live for him who for their sakes died and was raised to life. With us therefore worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of any man…. When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world (or a new act of creation); the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun” (2 Corinthians 5:15-17, NEB).

That new order is a far cry from the notion of self-acceptance which has taken hold of the minds of many Christians. Any message which makes the Cross redundant is anti-Christian. The original sin, pride, is behind my “poor self-image,” for I felt that I deserved better than I got, which is exactly what Eve felt! So it was pride, not poor self-image, that had to go. If I’m so beautiful and lovable, what was Jesus doing up there, nailed to the cross and crowned with thorns? Why all that hideous suffering for the pure Son of God? Here’s why: There was no other way to deliver us from the hell of our own proud self-loving selves, no other way out of the bondage of self-pity and self-congratulation. How shall we take our stand beneath the cross of Jesus and continue to love the selves that put Him there? How can we survey the wondrous cross and at the same time feed our pride? No. It won’t work. Jesus put it simply: If you want to be My disciple, you must leave self behind, take up the cross, and follow Me.

I also remember Elisbaeth commenting on the radio program that what we sometimes think of as self-hate is actually self-love, because so much of our thought and time is still caught up with self.

Please understand, again, all this talk about forgetting self and dying to self doesn’t mean we neglect self-care. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we take care of them in thankfulness to Him and for His usefulness. He wants us to glorify Him in our body and spirit. Sometimes we need help with twisted or negative self-talk or self-concepts due to abuse, or a lifetime of put-downs, or other reasons. But the best way to heal from these things is to see what God’s Word says about how He made us and how much He loves us and how He longs to work in and through us. As Robert Murray McCheyne said, “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.”

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