Rethinking Spiritual Gifts

Lately I’ve been rethinking what I thought I knew about spiritual gifts.

Spiritual gifts are those particular abilities that the Holy Spirit gives people when they are saved by which He wants to work through them to edify the body of Christ. You can find lists of them in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:9-11.

Some years ago “spiritual gift tests” were all the rage: questions and multiple choice answers recorded on “fill in the bubble” sheets which were then tabulated to reveal what your spiritual gifts were.

The idea was to help people identify their spiritual gifts so they’d know how they best fit into the ministry of the church and not waste their time frustrated and ineffective in an area where they’re not gifted. And that can be helpful. In my more trial-and error path, I’ve participated in ministries that left me frustrated, and I thought the problem was my attitude. Then when I was asked to take a different position, I felt I had found my niche, and it was a completely different experience.

But I always felt those tests were more about personality and natural aptitude. I think God does give us our personality and tendencies, but are they different from spiritual gifts?

Sometimes God drops us into a situation that we don’t feel gifted for at all: in fact, we feel totally inadequate. When Moses said, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue,” God did not contradict him. God didn’t reassure Moses that that of course Moses could speak and only needed was a little confidence. No, God said, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” God’s call for Moses had nothing to do with the natural ability which which He created Moses and everything to do with God’s enabling Moses for a task for which Moses felt totally unsuited.

Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah, and others didn’t greet God’s call on their lives with “Sounds great! That’s just the kind of opportunity I was looking for!”

That’s where I am with caregiving. Someone I knew said of their daughter, who was training to be a nurse, that she was a “natural caregiver.” Another friend who is a nurse spoke of loving to use the talents God had given her to minister to people in that way – another natural caregiver. That’s not me. I want people to be cared for, particularly my mother-in-law. But I have never been good with or felt inclined to the hands-on type of caregiving she is in need of now, except with my own children.

Yet here we are. Do I tell God, “There must be some mistake. Not only am I not gifted for this, but it’s keeping me from what I feel I am gifted for.” Probably not a good idea. Spiritual gift tests can sometimes foster a “That’s not my job” syndrome when we’re asked to do something outside of our comfort zone.

Though we need to rely on God’s help, grace, and strength even for those areas where we feel He has gifted us, there’s nothing like being totally out of our element to make us lean on Him and plea for His enabling like never before. And though the main point of caregiving isn’t about me, but rather about showing love and ministering to my mother-in-law, perhaps one reason He has allowed this opportunity is to teach me lessons about my own selfishness as well as serving and loving others in the way they most need it, not in the way I am “comfortable” showing it.

There have been other opportunities through the years for which I did not feel suited, yet did not feel the freedom of conscience to say no. I’m not talking about being a doormat and saying yes to everything I was asked to do because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m talking about seriously considering and praying over an opportunity, dreading it, locking myself in the bathroom to cry over it, yet still feeling like it was something God wanted me to do. And I have seen God turn the dread into excitement, provide ideas, enable me to my own amazement. Afterwards I have looked back and thought, “I can’t believe I did that! Only with God’s help!”

So which ones are the truly spiritual gifts? The God-given aptitudes with which we minister every day? Or the out-of-our-element opportunities that cast us on the Lord in desperate need? Maybe both in their own ways. In either case, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, ESV).

(Revised from the archives)

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire)

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“Let patience have her perfect work”

Sometimes when people are going through a hardship or loss or suffering in some way, we want to “fix” it. And that can be good: sometimes the very reason God allows something to come to our attention is so that we can help in whatever way He has prompted us and gifted us to help.

But sometimes in our attempts to fix or set things “right,” we can seem to minimize someone else’s concerns or brush off their situation as not really that hard. Many of us are familiar with Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Too often we want to make those who are weeping rejoice instead. That’s not wrong in itself: there’s certainly time for encouragement, for gently helping someone restore their focus, for cheering someone up. But there are also times to just sympathize.

We run a few risks when we don’t take that time to sympathize. The person might not feel heard and validated, and in that case, nothing we say is going to register. Or, we might make them feel somehow “less than” an ideal spiritual Christian for having such a struggle. We not only fail to help them, but also they’re sure not going to open up to us next time.

Here is an example: a single person says she sometimes struggles with loneliness and discontentment. Most Christians rush to point out that we need to find our contentment in Christ and not a human being, that no human being can totally meet our needs, that Paul says being single provides many more opportunities to serve the Lord. And those are all true. But we’re bypassing the cry of her heart: loneliness is hard. And it’s not unspiritual to feel lonely. God is the One who said it wasn’t good for man to be alone and who inspired Solomon to write “two are better than one.” He knows the hardship, yet He allows it for other purposes.

Or someone’s husband dies. We rush to assure that her loved one is in a better place. True, if they’ve believed on Christ. And we’ll see them again. True. But it hurts like everything until that time comes. It hurts when a loved one is away for a week, even with smartphones and Skype and texts and all the ways we have to keep in touch: how much more when they’re away for years with no contact? The Bible calls death an enemy. So while death has lost its sting and we don’t sorrow like those who have no hope, we do still sorrow.

Sometimes we find grace by acknowledging the pain and working through it rather than by downplaying it. I so appreciated the pastor speaking at a funeral of a young mom of five children: he said publicly to her husband, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it. You’re going to need God’s grace.” The husband was probably thinking the same thing, that he had no idea how he was going to carry on parenting five children without his wife while also missing her companionship. How refreshing to have someone acknowledge that rather that quote Romans 8:28, pat him on the back, and go on his merry way. The pastor pointed to the available and needful grace of God without minimizing the hardship.

James 1:3-4 says, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. The ESV says, instead of patience, steadfastness: the NASB says endurance. If God allows trials to help us grow and strengthen our faith, among other reasons, we need to let it do its work, to work through grief and pain rather than bypassing it. We need to offer comfort and assistance, yes, but without short-circuiting or brushing away the depth or effect of it. Acknowledge it. Empathize with it. Someone once said Job’s friends did more for him when they sat in silence with him for a week than by saying all that they said to him.

True, sometimes we whine or wallow and need to adjust our perspective. Sometimes our thinking is wrong and needs adjustment. James even says to count it joy when we experience trials, not that the trial is joyful, but that God is using it to do a work of some kind in us. Sometimes as a friend or counselor, it’s not easy to know just what to say or how to help. That’s why I am so glad the next verses in James assure us that we can ask God for wisdom. He also reminds us a few verses later to be swift to hear and slow to speak. We need to hear people out and seek God’s wisdom rather than presuming or assuming or rushing in to “set them straight.” Sometimes God does guide and give us something to say in the moment. Sometimes all we can say is, “I don’t know why God is allowing this, but I know He has a reason. It’s hard. I don’t know how to help. But I can listen and pray with you.

When we go through a trial of some sort, usually we just want relief, preferably from a change in circumstances, or at least by finding some way of making the situation easier. And that’s fine, both to pray for and seek for relief. And when people sometimes say the wrong thing, we can avoid bitterness and appreciate that at least they were trying to help. When people don’t understand, we can encourage ourselves in the Lord. Sometimes that lack of understanding is part of the trial. But in the midst of all of that, we need to remind ourselves that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). We can let them do their work; we can trust in and work with God’s processes and purposes; we can ask Him what He wants us to learn through it all. And knowing that God is working something in us, even when we don’t understand, we can “rejoice in our sufferings” (verse 3).

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Writer Wednesday, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

When I Don’t Get What I Need

I’ve always known I was an introvert, preferring small groups (or, better yet, home!) to big crowds, having a few close friends rather than being the social butterfly, needing time alone to process and think. Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking helped me understand myself better and understand that these issues aren’t just preferences, that introverts’ and extroverts’ brains are wired differently. When she pointed out that introverts are drained by social interaction and need solitude to recharge whereas extroverts thrive on social interaction, the proverbial light bulb went off in my mind. “That’s it!” I thought. I had never heard it put that way before, but it just fit my experience so perfectly. I don’t want to be a hermit; I do value social interaction, but it does drain me and I function better overall with some degree of time to myself.

When my kids were in school, I had about seven hours a day to myself. Oh, that wasn’t all spent curled up reading a book or thinking: housekeeping, grocery shopping, errands, and different ministry responsibilities kept me busy. But I did have a good bit of quiet time. I thought once my kids grew up and left home, that time would naturally increase. I’d miss them intensely, but I had plenty of things I looked forward to accomplishing when that time came.

Instead, I have less solitude than ever. One child is still home but working and taking classes online at home. We’re taking care of my mother-in-law in our home, and we have a lady who stays with her in the mornings plus hospice people coming in and out throughout the week. My husband’s job has him working from home a few days a week now. I am not complaining about any of that: this is the home of all of us, not just me, and of course they all have a right to be here. But some days quiet moments are hard to come by except for early morning and late evening.

I imagine some extroverts have the opposite problem: an intense need for companionship and struggles with too much alone time.

So what do we do in such cases? Allow ourselves to get cranky because our needs aren’t getting met? Whine and complain to God about it? I’m afraid I have done both of those.

Recently, though, I was arrested by Philippians 4:11-13: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul mentions hunger there. He didn’t thrash around before God and say, “You made me to need food. So why don’t I have it? What are you doing?” He trusted that God would help him in any circumstance. He would either meet his need for food or take him to where there is no more hunger and thirst. He will sustain us until the time that He provides. Paul says he learned this contentment, which encourages me that it’s first of all a process, and secondly, that it can be learned.

But why would God create us to need certain things and then not provide them for a time? Just to teach us contentment? Well, one other time that God allowed His people to hunger comes to mind:

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Deuteronomy 8:2-3.

A few reasons are mentioned there:

  1. To humble us.
  2. To test us (the KJV says to “prove” us). He knows what’s in our hearts, but sometimes our reactions to unmet needs are a revelation to us of just how sinfully self-centered we are. This also tests the depths of our love and commitment: that was one of Satan’s challenges to God about Job: “He only serves you because You bless him. Take away some of those blessings, and You’ll see how fast he turns away from You.” Do we only serve God with a right heart when all of our perceived needs are being met?
  3. To teach us dependence on Him to meet our needs.
  4. To remind us of what’s most important.

These are not meant to be explanations for famine: that would be a completely different study. And God may have other reasons for not answering prayers. And this doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t take means sometimes meet our needs, but sometimes those needs surface despite our best efforts. Back to the need for solitude, Jesus many times went away from the crowds and His own disciples to be alone to pray – and He also had the experience of people seeking Him out during those times and interrupting His time alone, another way in which He was tempted in all points like we are, yet without sin.

But God has been working with me for a while on changing my attitude from one of demanding what I think I need or lamenting the lack of it to trusting that He knows what I need and will provide it. And He has, many times over, in unexpected ways. Plus that restful, trustful demeanor helps me not only inwardly but outwardly. Not only is my spirit at peace, but instead of focusing on myself, I can turn my attention to others and try to minister to them for whatever purpose God brought them into my life. I confess I have failed in that more often than I like to admit, but I am trusting His grace to change.

So whatever our need, whether for solitude or companionship, affirmation or humbling, inward or outward, we can trust that God has a reason for allowing it, will give us grace while it is unmet, and will meet it in His own time and way.

Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Matthew 6:32b-33

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.  2 Corinthians 9:8

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Writer Wednesday, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire)

My Sin Is Not Someone Else’s Fault

When I have to confess something to the Lord or apologize to someone else, I tend to want to explain the reasons I did what I did, as if that somehow justifies my wrong response.

The very first people committing the very first sin did the same thing.

One day I was totally arrested by this thought:

My sin is not someone else’s fault.

Wait – aren’t they responsible for what they did? Don’t other people sometimes deliberately try to get us to sin?

Sure. And they’re answerable for their own actions.

But what does God tell His children?

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, ESV)

When we give account of ourselves to God, we won’t be able to point the finger at anyone else.

I used to take refuge in the King James version of 1 Corinthians 13:5, especially in that word easily in the phrase “love…is not easily provoked.” And then a trusted pastor told us that the word “easily” isn’t in the original text. If you look up the Strong’s numbers for this verse, which link to the Greek or Hebrew words and their translations – there is no link for “easily.” Many other translations leave it out.

So I can’t use that as an excuse: “I tried to resist, you know, and did for a while, but really, it was just too much. Anyone would have reacted that way at that point.”

No, God has promised “a way of escape” in each temptation. Too often I am looking for a reason to give in rather than a way to get out of temptation.

We all fall and fail every day. What are we to do?

1. Accept responsibility. Acknowledge what we did wrong and own up to it. (And if I can interject this here, we also need to teach our children to do this. Yes, we understand that they act out when they’re tired, hungry, etc., and we attend to those issues first. But when they do something deliberately wrong, we need to avoid making excuses for them and teach them to own up to what they did.)

2. Confess it to the Lord.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.  Proverbs 28:13, ESV

I’ve been told that to “confess” means “to say the same thing as.” In other words, call it what the Bible says it is. I didn’t tell a little fib: I lied. I wasn’t just a little out of sorts: I was selfish and irritable and unkind.

3. Rest in His promise of forgiveness.

4. Confess it to anyone else involved. A trusted former pastor once said that the circle of confession needs to be as wide as the circle of the sin. If I spoke harshly to someone in private, I need to go back to that person, apologize, and ask their forgiveness. If someone embezzles funds, well, that’s a much wider circle.

5. Make restitution if necessary. If something was stolen or property was destroyed or damaged, we’re responsible to to return, replace, or pay for it. If someone’s reputation was damaged, we do what we can to acknowledge our own blame and clear the other person.

6. Mortify (kill) the sin. I admit this is a concept I struggle with, because if you “kill” something, then you don’t expect to have trouble with it the very next day – or hour. But Romans 8:13 says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (ESV; the KJV uses the word “mortify”). A helpful explanation is here, but an idea that helps me don’t give it life support. Do all you can to undermine it, to weaken it, rather than to give it any impetus. “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13;14, ESV).

7. Seek victory. Pray and seek God’s Word for His help in overcoming sin. Perhaps memorize applicable Scriptures or copy them and put them on a card in a prominent place as a reminder.

8. Plan ahead when possible. The young man in Proverbs 7 who got taken in by  the wrong kind of woman was where he should not have been in in the first place (v. 7-9). We might need to avoid certain places. If we’re going into a situation where there might be trouble, we can make a plan of action: for instance, if I have a tendency for gluttony and a lack or control around food, before the company Christmas party I can plan exactly how much I’ll allow myself, perhaps eat a little beforehand so I am not hungry, seek to talk to people instead of prowling around the refreshments.

9. Look for the way of escape that God’s Word promises. So often when we’re thinking about doing something that, deep down, we know we shouldn’t, a “still, small voice” will be trying to talk sense to us and talk us out of it all the time we’re trying to justify it. We need to ask the Lord to help us, but we also need to take action and flee.

10. Yield to God. Give Him “the right of way.”

Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God (Romans 6:13).

11. Follow the right way. The same verse that talks about “fleeing youthful lusts” goes on to tell us to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22). We need to concentrate as much or more on doing as on don’ting. Erwin Lutzer said in How to Say No to a Stubborn Habit that if someone tells you not to think of the number 8, all of a sudden that’s all you can think about. The best way to deal with a wrong thought is to replace it with another thought. We tend to follow what we focus on.

12. Behold Him.

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. II Corinthians 3:18

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15

Our sanctification as well as our salvation rests on the finished work of Christ. We don’t become any more or less saved or more or less loved when we sin. But sin keeps our relationship from the full fellowship we would otherwise enjoy, hinders our testimony, dishonors the Lord, and so many other things. God expects for His children to grow in Him. So when we do sin, we need to confess it and rest in the love of a Father who is more than ready to forgive.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Psalm 103:8

*I’ve been addressing people who are already born again and have become children of God. Forgiveness of sin and grace to overcome it is only possible when we have that relationship with God. If you’ve never believed on Christ as savior, please read more here.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Coffee for Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

Dealing With Disappointment and Discouragement

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Most parents thoroughly enjoy pleasing their children. There’s nothing like causing a child to smile or laugh in delight. But even the best and most well-meaning parents have to say no to their children sometimes.

We can’t have candy now because dinner is almost ready. If you eat candy now, you won’t want your dinner.

In a few minutes we need to put away toys and get ready for bed.

I’m sorry, we can’t go to the splashpad today. It’s too cold.

No matter how kindly these things are said, the disappointment still stings sometimes, and for the very young, diversion sometimes helps. But as children mature, parents expect them to handle some level of everyday disappointment with some maturity. Of course, the disappointments can escalate (a broken heart, not making the team or the cast, feeling left out of a group) and will need more counsel and comfort.

Like our pint-sized counterparts, we all have to face disappointments and the accompanying discouragement. A lot of it boils down to not getting what we want: The promotion went to someone else, the loan was denied, our love interest loves someone else. For me recently, I had gone to an appointment quite discouraged because it was six weeks post-op, and I thought everything was supposed to be healed and functioning well at that point, and it wasn’t. I thought I would have to face another procedure, which I had really wanted to avoid. But the doctor said everything was progressing like it should. Even so, I felt down for several days and couldn’t figure out what the problem was until I realized it was just the disappointment not being “done” with this issue by now as I had thought I would be.

Sometimes the disappointment is due to misinformation, as in my case. Sometimes it’s a mistaken impression of what we need. Like a child who needs to get ready for bed because his parents know he needs rest and can see he is dangerously close to a meltdown, our heavenly Father knows that the thing we want, while not wrong in itself, is not what we need right now. Sometimes disappointment comes when other people don’t live up to our expectations or want something different from what we want. Sometimes other people are blissfully unaware or downright cruel. Sometimes it’s getting something we don’t want – an illness or an annoying neighbor.

Whatever the cause of disappointment, we need to put it in perspective. We had the wrong information: ok, we factor in the new information and adjust. We didn’t get something we wanted: then that was not meant for us, and something else is. Perhaps God withheld it for that exact reason, because He has something better waiting for the right time. In a book I am reading, the author was disappointed at not being asked to minister in her new church in a particular way (music), but then an opportunity opened up to minister in a different way (teaching) that she found she loved and thrived in. If it involves an opportunity, job, or person, then we continue to grow and develop and seek out new opportunities while praying for guidance. If it involves a failure, we examine it to see where things broke down so we can learn and grow from it. Christina Rossetti said, “A fall is not a signal to lie wallowing, but to rise.” Conflict resolution could take a whole different post, but if our disappointment involves disagreement with another person, we seek to resolve it in the best way possible. We’re not doormats, never having an opinion or a will of our own, but we also realize the universe does not revolve around us, that there has to be some give and take in a relationship. If another has failed us, we seek God’s help to be gracious, remembering the times that we have failed as well, forgive as we have been forgiven. Sometimes we’re disappointed in what we did receive: When I got transverse myelitis, I sometimes lamented to the Lord that surely I could serve Him better without it. But he showed me that limitations don’t hinder ministry: they just define it. Some disappointments come just because we live in a fallen world: this isn’t heaven.

It might take a while for our feelings to catch up with the perspective we’re trying to gain and maintain. It’s not wrong to grieve over a disappointment, but we can “feed” it and hang onto it longer than necessary. As we take our thoughts captive and remind ourselves of truth, eventually the feelings will lessen. Maybe someday we’ll see why we were denied what we wanted; maybe we’ll even rejoice at the direction that disappointment led us, like the author we mentioned. Maybe we’ll never know this side of heaven.

But we can trust our kind, loving, and wise Father and bring all our concerns to Him.

One more thought: I’ve read a number of articles that seem to indicate that whatever we have a problem with, it’s due to our making an idol out of it. If I am disappointed that my children aren’t obeying, I have made an idol out of being a perfect parent; I am disappointed at not getting that item or opportunity because I had set it up as an idol in my heart. Now, that may be the case. We’re all too prone to idol-making of some kind. But disappointment does not necessarily indicate a lurking tendency to idolatry. Consider David’s words in Psalm 142, written when he was hiding in cave and dealing with disappointments on several fronts:

1 I cried unto the Lord with my voice; with my voice unto the Lord did I make my supplication.

I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble.

When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me.

I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.

I cried unto thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living.

Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I.

Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.

As with so many of the psalms, David poured out his heart to God, reminded himself of the truth he knew, encouraged himself in the Lord, and renewed his hope in Him. Asaph and others did as well. And by God’s grace we can do the same.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Faith on Fire)

***Please note, I am not talking in this post about clinical depression. Though the principles discussed will help, depression is a bigger issue needing more than encouragement and perspective. If you feel you may be suffering from depression, please see your doctor. Likewise, deep grief, like the loss of a loved one, is a bigger issue than disappointment and discouragement, and though many of the truths here still apply, dealing with grief is more involved.

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Laudable Linkage

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I don’t usually do these three weeks in a row, but I have come across a lot of good reading lately!

An Army Without Supplies. The people on the “front lines” – of either military or spiritual endeavors – are needed, but so is the support system behind them.

Instant Coffee, Instant Faith. “It is not the massive floods that cause a tree to grow; it’s the steady stream of water day after day, month after month, year after year. The Christian life does not consist only of great breakthroughs; it consists mainly in mundane, steady obedience.”

A Blog on Worship, HT to Proclaim and Defend. “Worship God, not just with your voice, but with your obedience, your devotion, your service, your time, your resources, your priorities, your thoughts, and your actions. Jesus bought all of you, so worship with all of you. Worship: It’s more than you think.

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

How We Misunderstand Strong Women, HT to True Woman.

When the Words of My Mouth Are Pleasing Mostly to Me, HT to True Woman.

I Had an Abortion, HT to True Woman. Counsel to someone who has lost hope of forgiveness.

If You Like Narnia….suggestions for other books in a similar vein.

And finally, I saw this on Pinterest but couldn’t get to where it originated from. But it hit home – I have a tendency to over think things.

Overthinking

Have a great weekend!

Manufactured Spirituality

I’ve had this draft sitting here since last July, and had jotted some notes and spent a lot of thought on it even before that. I’ve (obviously) had a hard time bringing my thoughts into a cohesive and coherent unit. I thought about calling it form vs. function, or the mechanics of ministry, or using artificial means to accomplish spiritual ends. Finally what seemed most apt was manufactured spirituality.

I see this on three different levels:

1. To try to be more self-disciplined, we establish habits to aid in godliness, like regular times of reading the Bible or prayer, church attendance, etc.  And that’s a good thing. But we all know what it is to have days when we’re just going through the motions, when our eyes are dragging across the page and we check “Have devotions” off your list of things to do for the day but haven’t really engaged with the text or been affected spiritually. Or we “feel spiritual” if we’ve crossed that duty off or don’t “feel spiritual” if we haven’t.

2. To try to minister more effectively as a church, we set up various programs or committees. But sometimes our routines and programs not only don’t accomplish the ministry for which they are intended, they can even hinder them. For instance, we’d all agree it’s a good thing for church members to greet visitors. But once when we were visiting a new church, no one spoke to us or even looked at us the whole time we were there – except at the hand-shaking time built into the service.They had squeezed all their greeting into that few moments, leaving visitors feeling awkward and not really greeted at all.

We can fall into the trap of thinking that when we show up for church visitation, then we’ve gotten our witnessing obligation in for the week, or because we have official greeters at church, none of the rest of us needs to greet new people, or because there is a committee to take care of x, y, or z, we don’t have to be involved.

3. We try to force results. For instance, we can feel that small groups would be good for the congregation to get to know one another better, and they work best if everyone participates. So we “make” the quiet person participate by putting undue pressure on them to say something, calling them out and putting them on the spot. Then we feel self-satisfied that the group went quite well today because everyone spoke, when we left the quiet person miserable and determined not to come back. Or, as happened to us once in a new church, whatever the pastor was talking about (I’ve forgotten now), at the end he asked everyone to break into family groups and discuss and pray right then and there about how to implement what he preached on. That seemed to my husband and me like forcing the issue or “making” people respond instead of letting God use His Word to convict and change. Another example: we want people to “go deep” in their conversations and relationships, so we have “turn to your neighbor and bare your heart on command” sessions instead of letting those opportunities arise in a more natural way. We’ve known people who made a profession of faith after a zealous Christian buttonholed them and would not back off until the person responded, yet there was no life change, no interest in the Lord afterward. By contrast, Jesus let people walk away sometimes.

Setting up good habits and routines and even programs can greatly aid us in our walk with God. But we have to keep in mind what they are for and not get lost in them for their own sake.

A book I read recently about getting more from our reading of God’s Word emphasized applying what we learn. That’s a good thing: we’re told to be doers of the Word, not just hearers. But his illustration went something like this: we need to apply God’s Word in measurable ways, not vague ones. So if, say, we come to a passage about prayer, instead of saying to ourselves, “We really should pray more,” according to this book, we should instead make plans to pray six minutes every day. As if God cared how many minutes we pray. The better approach, in my opinion, would be to stop and think about what I could and should be praying for. That in itself would generate a longer prayer list than I could probably keep up with (some people divide their prayer lists into categories over several days). Then the next step would be to study the prayers in the Bible, particularly in the epistles. Paul’s prayers in Philippians 1, Ephesians 1 and 3, and Colossians 1 are wonderful examples. Granted, that author probably intended that, if a person planned to pray six minutes and ran out of things to pray in three, that would lead him to these other ways of expanding his prayer life. But the emphasis on “measurable results” can lead to outward exercises without always the accompanying inward change. Similarly, if I read a passage and am convicted about needing to be more loving and less selfish, it might help to think of specific ways in which I need to do those things. But it would be wrong to check those off my list at the end of the day and think, “There! Done! Good work!” Sometimes instead I need to carry those thoughts with me all throughout the day and apply them in ways I couldn’t know I would need to when I first read them.

Years ago we were visiting my in-laws, and a couple of ladies from the church came by to visit my husband’s mother. I think it may have been her birthday, or maybe they were just visiting her as an “older” church member, but they brought a small plant, and, I believe, a card. She tended to be profuse in her thanks, and perhaps to counteract that a bit after she thanked them several times, one of them responded, “Well, you were on our list.” Wow, what a way to deflate any good feelings about someone coming to visit. She never said anything about it after they left, but it would have been understandable if she had thought, “They don’t really care: they just came because I was on ‘a list’ to visit.”

Our ministry isn’t boxed into a particular time, place, or group of people. Our programs don’t take care of all of our obligations. There is a sense in which we should always be “on,” always at the ready to serve. Even if there are official greeters at church, we can greet people when we see them or help a confused visitor find the right place. Even if there is someone designated to send cards to sick Sunday School class members, we can send one, too. If God has placed on our hearts that we need to help someone else in the church, we need to pray about how to do that rather than just dismissing it because our church has a benevolence committee to take care of those things.  If there is trash on the floor, we can pick it up instead of thinking, “There is a custodian for that.”

On the other hand, I’ve known women who felt terrible for not “serving” in church when their whole lives were ministering in “unofficial” ways. One lady would often apologize for not being more involved in our ladies’ group, but she lived next to and helped her elderly mother, cared for a disabled son, was the go-to baby-sitter for the rest of the family. She sang in the choir and took an interest in people, yet felt she wasn’t really being used of the Lord because she couldn’t plug into some of the ministries. Another had to step down from a position for which she was uniquely qualified, and I watched and was blessed as she found various other ways to minister: greeting newcomers, inviting ladies over for lunch, and other ways that didn’t fit in with any particular official ministry in the church, but ministered very well to the people involved.

Habits, routines, programs help greatly in organizing a ministry, and we need to use whatever systems are set up (reporting a plumbing problem to whoever is in charge, signing up for taking a meal to someone so she doesn’t receive two or three in one night or receive something she’s allergic to, etc.). And sometimes we do need those systems and routines because we don’t always “feel like” doing what we need to. A former pastor once said that the best time of prayer he ever has was when he didn’t feel like praying and had to confess that to the Lord right off the bat. Sometimes just doing what we should whether we feel like it or not is the first step to feeling like it.

But we should seek God’s grace to serve not just out of duty, and not to check off all the designated boxes, but with a right heart. The mechanics of ministry and spiritual disciplines are tools, but not the main focus, not the end-all of our efforts. Routines, habits, programs are an avenue of ministry, not an end in themselves, and ministry doesn’t take place only within those parameters. On the other hand, sometimes we can perfectly follow all of our routines, and our programs can seem to be going swimmingly, but we’re unaware that we’re missing something vital.

The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all. If we would find God amid all the religious externals, we must first determine to find Him, and then proceed in the way of simplicity. Now, as always, God discovers Himself to “babes” and hides Himself in thick darkness. ~ A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

God created whole systems of programs and routines for Israel in the Old Testament. But there were times He told them He hated their sacrifices and feasts – the very sacrifices and feasts He had commanded them (here, here, and here, for a few). Why? Sometimes because they harbored sin in their hearts even while performing their religious duties outwardly. Sometimes because they missed the main point, like those who kept the systematic observations but failed to minister on a personal level, or like Pharisees whose religious zeal was wrapped up in keeping not just God’s law, but their additions to it. God said to them through Hosea, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (6:6). We’re no longer under those systems, but in the same way I think He would want us to implement whatever habits, routines, systems, or programs are helpful, yet not get lost or fixated on them for their own sake, and to keep in mind that the main point is to know Him and make Him known and minister to others in their need in His Name and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

Not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Ephesians 6:6

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 (Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Testimony Tuesday, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday)

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When God wants me to do something I don’t want to do

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I had another interesting intersection between my devotions, messages at church, and my other reading last week.

I’m in Exodus in my Bible reading just now, and I can always empathize with Moses’s reaction when God calls him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. Overwhelmed, he he responds with all the reasons he couldn’t possibly do such a thing, and God graciously promises His provision in every facet.

Who am I? Why would they listen to me? I will be with thee.

What if they ask me what God sent me to them? I AM THAT I AMThus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you

They will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee. God provided three signs to demonstrate before Israel.

O my Lord, I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.

God was very patient with Moses until, at this point, Moses says, “O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send.” I’m not sure exactly what all that means, but it seems to indicate he’d really rather God sent someone else. God tells him his brother Aaron will be his spokesperson, and sends him on his way.

I would probably have had all the same objections Moses did, and more. They make sense and seem quite valid, except that God promises to overcome each one, no matter how the situation seems to appear at this vantage point.

Some of our Sunday evening services have dealt with Jonah, who, as you know, disobeys God’s command to preach to the Ninevites and goes in the opposite direction. His reasons are less sympathetic; in fact, they are wholly unnoble. The Bible doesn’t say he was afraid of them or afraid to speak to them. He was afraid they would actually respond to his message, and he was so prejudiced against them that he did not want that result. His chastening was pretty severe, and he repented in the belly of a fish. But his heart still wasn’t entirely right. “It displeased Jonah” when the people of Nineveh repented. In fact, he tells God that was why he didn’t want to come to them in the first place, because “Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2).

Then, when I’ve had time after my devotions, I’ve been reading in The Women of Christmas: Experience the Season Afresh with Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna by Liz Curtis Higgs. Around the time I was reading about Moses in my Bible and hearing about Jonah in church, I came to the section about Mary in this book. What a contrast. She may have had concerns and fears, but didn’t voice them. Or she may have just believed that God was sufficient to take care of whatever the repercussions would be. No objections. No “what ifs.” No apparent anxieties or apprehensions. Just, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

I found in my quote file this from Elisabeth Elliot, though I failed to note which book or newsletter it came from:

The story of the glory of heaven brought into a common, little house in Nazareth to a simple peasant girl, who must have been amazed and baffled, but she was instantly obedient. How often you and I insist on explanations and understanding before we’re willing to be obedient. There are many things in God’s world that will never be understood until we obey. Her response, Mary’s response—”Let it be to me according to your word. I am the handmaid of the Lord” — should be our response, too, shouldn’t it? Whatever He asks us to do.

I haven’t been called to anything of the magnitude of these three, but sometimes my response is more like Moses’s to what God has called me to do. First, “Who, me?!” Then, “I can’t, for all these very good reasons.” Sometimes, “That’s not my spiritual gift.” And sometimes, sad to say, “I know You will be with me; I know You will enable and provide. But I’d really rather not.” I’d like my nice, quiet, even life with very few and very minor bumps in the road, if that’s ok.

But that’s not ok. My life is not about my ease and comfort, or at least it’s not supposed to be. It’s about glorifying God and allowing Him to work through me in whatever way He wants to. I may not feel equal to the task, but that’s ok. That reminds me the strength to do it is not my own, but His. His provision and enabling usually comes at the time of obedience, not before. And what times I have cooperated with Him in this way, it has been wonderful to see how He has worked and to experience His presence through those things. When we believe on Jesus Christ as our Savior, we know God is with us by faith even if we don’t always feel it. But somehow when we trust Him through difficult things, we experience His presence and help and grace in ways not known before.

Sometimes I get to the, “Yes, Lord, I am Yours: Your will be done” after reluctance, objections, repentance, and reassurance. I hope, like Mary, to get to the place where I can go there directly.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Testimony Tuesday, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday, Thought-provoking Thursday)

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Book Review: Big Love: The Practice of Loving Beyond Your Limits

Big LoveWhen Big Love: The Practice of Loving Beyond Your Limits by Kara Tippetts came through on sale for the Kindle app, I didn’t realize it was mainly about parenting. I probably would not have gotten it in that case since my kids are all grown. But I am glad I did, because the principles carry over into any relationship.

You might remember Kara’s name from her journey through cancer and death as shared on her blog, Mundane Faithfulness. I did not read there regularly but caught a few posts here and there when someone linked to them on Facebook. It was the urging of friends to share the contents of this book and the knowledge that her time was growing shorter that led her to write it.

The main theme of the book is Love is kind, from I Corinthians 13:4. The phrase impacted her in a big way when a preacher with a painful childhood shared them when speaking to the children at the school where she was teaching. She confesses she was “not naturally given to kindness,” preferring to feel “strong and successful” and “bent on winning.” She realized her love “was often self-serving, self-fulfilling, and self-centered.” This truth of God’s love “hit [her] at the perfect time and landed on soil that was ready to be planted with truth.”

She had not grown up in a family that practiced repentance, so the idea of walking in humility and confessing wrongs was new to her. She was married and expecting her first child at this time and wanted to interact with both husband and children in kindness and not have a home like the one she was raised in.

She shares a bit of her family background, how she came to believe on Jesus, how she met her husband, and how she was diagnosed with cancer. But for all that it’s a fairly short book. I read it in two sittings and probably could have in one, but wanted to stop and absorb before going on.

A few quotes from the book that stood out to me:

Competition among mothers kills community. I searched for ladies who were willing to be honest about faults. Honesty and a shared heart is such grace. Vulnerability and transparency encourage looking for grace.

Our kids are so often the reflection of sin that brings us to repentance. It was a beauitful, awful moment of light shining on my sin. I thought I was okay, so long as I wasn’t yelling. But what I saw in the face of my daughter was that I had sailed from the shore of kindness, and I needed Jesus to change my heart and return me to gentle kindness.

Discipline should never come as a surprise to a child. I think it is very important for children to always know what is expected of them. When discipline comes as a surprise, I typically find that I am parenting out of anger and not intentionally teaching and shepherding my children. If I know a child is entering a place where they struggle with obeying it is important to set clear boundaries.

That is our high calling as parents, to direct, train, nurture, love, and shepherd our children. It is important we move from irritation with our children and move toward opportunity for training. Whatever you choose to be your consequence, it must not be a surprise. Children should know clearly what is expected, and when they disobey, struggle, and sin, they need to be lovingly directed and disciplined. Disobedience is an opportunity. Children are not trying to embarrass you. Your children are not trying to create chaos in your life. Children need boundaries, direction, and limits that are all surrounded by a truckload of love. They do not come to us trained, obedient, and ready to listen. They need to know they are worth your time, your energy, and your strength to direct their hearts.

If I never point out the sin and struggle in the hearts of my children, and merely direct their behavior to please me, then when will they know they need a Savior?

I…follow through with the discipline and share honestly about my own struggle…I share my own need for forgiveness and grace. Empathy is a powerful tool in helping a child know you are FOR them. Letting your child know you understand their struggle and love them in the midst of it will help them be able to take an honest look at themselves. They will feel safe and not judged by you. They will know your heart is to direct them and not condemn them.

The Book of Romans tells us that it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. I want to love with a kindness that nurtures a hard heart to desire to be soft. God is the only one able to transform someone else’s heart, but if I live a life submitted to Him, then His love will be reflected through me.

I longed to not withhold love when it was inconvenient to give it. Those faces [of her children] helped motivate me to want to know Jesus well, and to live near Him and listen to His Spirit as I walked in faith with my family.

When I am not drinking deeply from the inexhaustible well of love that is Jesus, it is impossible for me to share that love with the community behind closed doors as well as my greater community.

The heart of the gospel is lavish love being placed on me when I least deserved it.

The act of parenting isn’t excuses for bad behavior, it’s seeking reconciliation, redemption, and grace in our days.

The heart of being able to love big, BIG, BIG is being loved. Jesus loves you that big. He loved you so big he died a death He didn’t deserve to bring you to God. Admit you need Him, admit you don’t have it all figured out, and know His love. Quiet your heart enough to feel His love. Let Him teach you the beauty of sacrificial, humble love.

God’s nearness will be the strength to help you parent with kindness.

The sections I’ve emboldened are the ones that especially spoke to me in my current situation of life, including not just parenting but loving anyone I am called to love. Like Kara, too often I find that my love is “self-serving, self-fulfilling, and self-centered,” though that manifests itself a little differently for me than it did for her, as our personalities are very different. I guess the struggle to love as Jesus did will be a lifelong one, since we have our flesh to deal with. But by His grace, resting in His love for us and letting that overflow to others, we can grow.

There were a few formatting problems in the book – I wonder if that’s because it was designed for a different format than the one on which I read it. It was distracting just at first but then I was able to overlook it as I got into the story. I highly recommend the book especially to parents, but also to anyone seeking encouragement to love Biblically.

(Sharing at Literacy Musing Mondays.and at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)