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Seven Rules to Get You Moving Again

Have you ever felt stuck?  Had a decision or situation or place in your life where you felt that you just couldn’t move?  Felt like your wheels were spinning but you were just getting deeper in the hole?

Sure, we all have been there.  We’ve all felt stuck before. And maybe that’s where you are right now in your life: you feel just as stuck as that poor car in the picture.  The question is, how do you get unstuck?  How do you get yourself moving again?  Just follow these seven rules and you’ll be moving again today:

Rule #1  Remember You’re Never Really Stuck

The first rule of getting unstuck is to remember that you’re never really stuck, you just feel like you’re stuck.  The mere fact that you’re human and you’re conscious means that you have the power of choice.  You always have the power to make a decision, take a step, and move forward.  Until you realize you have that ability to choose, no matter what your situation, you will never get unstuck.

“But I really am stuck– you don’t know my situation…”— your mind may be saying that, but don’t believe it!  Everyone has the power to choose, no matter what.  Just because you don’t have the power to choose what you most want doesn’t mean you have no power to choose at all.

You may be out of a job, and say, “I don’t have the power to choose to go to work this morning”— but you can choose to get out of bed.  You may be out of a relationship, and you may not be able to choose to go out with the date of your dreams tonight, but you do have the choice of going out by yourself and smiling at a perfect stranger, or staying home and calling a friend you haven’t caught up with in years.

No one has unlimited choice; no one can choose their exact perfect choice 100% of the time; we all have limitations.  But we all can make a choice.  The first step in getting unstuck is to convince yourself that yes, you can get unstuck.  Yes, you can make a choice.

Rule #2 Leave Your Past in the Past

It’s so easy to get stuck in the past.  There’s so many miry pits that seem to swallow us up.  A thought of the past will wander into our thinking, and it seems to swallow us up like quicksand.

But as long as we’re living in the past, we’re (guess what?) living in the past.  We can’t move forward until we leave the past behind.  Living in the past comes in three flavors: blame, guilt, & glory.

Blame: “He did this to me.”  “I was never able to do this because of her.”  “If only this hadn’t happened to me”  The voices all say the same thing: there is some choice we wish we could make that we cannot, because of the action or inaction of someone else in our past.  Well, here’s the bottom line you tell yourself:  “It’s in the past!”  Leave it, let it go.  Yes, there’s choices no longer available to you, but you still have options, and the only way you can truly fail is if you choose to do nothing.

Guilt & Regret: “If only I had…”  “If only I hadn’t…”  All of us have those whispers in our thoughts, because we’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all had failures and missed opportunities.  Guilt & regret can paralyze us just as much as blame, and the solution is the same: Let it go, and move on.

Glory: This is a more subtle flavor of living in the past, because you’re living in something wonderful that used to be.  “I had the best spouse ever before they died.”  “That was a great vacation.”  “I couldn’t ask for a better friend than she was.”  Although it’s good to enjoy and be grateful for the past, don’t let it prevent you from living your present.  Your journey hasn’t ended yet; you still have new experiences and joys that you can’t even imagine IF you’re willing to get moving & grow.

Rule #3 Forget the Future

Don’t fall prey to “Someday My Prince Will Come” syndrome.  It’s tempting to spend all your mental energy on your dreams, imagining how things will get better, how that ideal relationship or job will someday appear, how you’ll have the house by the lake or the idyllic retirement.

Well, none of those futures will just magically appear.  To get to that future destination will require you to make smart choices now, and get going.  Focus on what you need to do today, and the future will pleasantly suprise you.

Rule #4 Dump Despair

Everyone has discouraging days; everyone has times when they think, “Well, what’s the use?”  The problem is not if you have discouragement, but what you do with it.

First, simply acknowledge it.  Say out loud, “I’m feeling discouraged right now.”  Next, realize that discouragement is just an emotion, it’s not a statement of fact.  It is your emotional interpretation of a situation, and you can choose a different interpretation.  Your discouragement is not you, and you can change it just as you can change your clothes.

There are whole books written about the how part of how you can turn around discouragement, but remember to (1) Take care of your body with healthy food, exercise, and sleep (2) Spend as much time as you can around supportive, positive, clear-minded people (3) Take care of your spiritual health by spending time with God every day and (4) Realize that persistent, worsening despair should be evaluated by a physician.

Rule #5 Dispel Doubt & Fear

The twins doubt and fear have kept many frozen in their tracks, unable to move, both literally and metaphorically.  Although we laugh when we see doubt and fear played for laughs in characters like Barney Fife, it’s not so funny or even recognizable when the character is us.

Sometimes we try to camoflague our fear by saying we’re being conservative or cautious, or that we just don’t like to try new things.  Doubt can take the form of “I’m just waiting for more information” or “I’m planning on getting to that next week.”

Don’t let your life be wasted by these emotions.  There’s no such thing as a sure thing: life is risk.  The only sure bet is that you’ll miss out on everything if you stay where you are.  Plunge ahead, take the chance, and live your life.

Rule #6 Deny Difficulty & Diversion

When the way is hard, it’s easy to “stop & take a breather.”  “I’ll just lay off the diet for today.”  “I’ll start exercising again next week.”  “I’ll talk to my boss about that tomorrow.”  “Maybe I’ll call her later…”

Maybe those excuses sound familiar, because they’re (guess what!) excuses! There’s not a sound reason in the bunch.  You’ve got to stare them down and say, “No, I’m going to keep going and do what I promised myself I would do.  The decision has already been made.

More alluring than difficulty is diversion.  It seems to give even better excuses than difficulty.  “The sale is only on today.”  “I didn’t know that movie was on tonight.”  “Oh, look at this I could do instead.”  and the dreaded “I haven’t checked my facebook for over an hour!”

As any productivity expert will tell you, the only way to knock down a target is to keep hitting at it. The time to accomplish that goal is NOW.  If you have to think twice about whether you should take that “break” (whatever it is), then don’t.  Focus, focus, focus.

Rule #7 Stop Procrastinating & Start Moving Now!

Are you all out of reasons to not get moving?  No??? Well this should take care of all the other reasons in your hat:  JUST DO IT!  Seriously.  At some point you’ve just got to pull your face out of your navel and do it.

So, here’s your plan:  Pick something that you’re stuck on.  Go ahead, I know you have something.  Pick it now.  Ok, now choose to do something about it TODAY.  You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest, just pick one simple action that you can do today.  Ok, now DO IT.  Promise yourself right now that you won’t take no for an answer, that you will do this before your head hits the pillow, NO MATTER WHAT.  And once you’re moving, congratulate yourself and celebrate by sharing this post with someone else who needs to get moving again.

How to Be Absolutely Certain & Completely Clueless at the Same Time

seems like i'm always leaving by Unfurled via flickr

It’s been said that life is like driving down a road at night. That’s what I was thinking as I was driving home last night, seeing that white line stretching out in front of me.  I suddenly realized that I was both absolutely certain & completely clueless, at the same time, about my drive, and about my life.

I realized that when I’m driving at night, I’m ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN about what I need to do RIGHT NOW, in the moment.  That white line tells me whether I need to veer right, veer left, or keep it straight.  A red light ahead tells me to stop; a green light tells me to go.  As long as I keep my headlights on, the guidance I need for the present moment will always be there.

That’s just like my life.  In my moment to moment living, I have “headlights” that infallibly guide me. As long as I’m walking in step with God, listening to Him, being mindful of myself, my circumstances, & others, I can be confident that I will know what to do RIGHT NOW, in the moment.  God won’t fail me.  He never has.

I also thought of the Biblical story of Joseph.  Throughout his life, he was always guided as to what he needed to say & do at the right moment:  he knew he had to refuse his master’s wife; he knew what to say to the imprisoned butler & baker; he knew how to save Egypt from starvation.

But even though I’m absolutely certain about driving in the present moment, I’m also COMPLETELY CLUELESS about WHAT LIES AHEAD. If you ask me if the road will head northeast or southeast, whether in the next mile I’ll go up a mountain or go across a bridge, whether there’s a lake up ahead or a desert— I’m (literally) in the dark.  I’ve never traveled this road before.

Isn’t life like that too? I’ve never traveled the road of my life before, so I don’t know what lies ahead. I don’t know whether my job will prosper or end; don’t know whether I’ll live to 100 or die while typing this post; don’t know what joys or sorrows, victories or defeats I will face tomorrow.  And guess what?  If I try too hard to control my destiny, to make sure my life doesn’t take a sharp turn or go into a dark tunnel, I’m liable to run off the road completely.

The same was true of Joseph.  Even though he saw visions and interpreted dreams, he never saw his own brothers trying to murder him, never saw being sold as a slave in a foreign country, never saw spending years in a prison.  But he also never envisioned being the regent of the richest country in his world, having wealth and power beyond his comprehension, and being responsible for not only saving his family, but an entire country, from starvation.

That’s where faith comes in, for Joseph and for me.  When I’m driving an unfamiliar road at night, I may be clueless about what’s around the bend, but I remain confident that I will reach my destination.  I know the road was built to take me there, and I know I can trust my map.

Life’s the same way.  I know that the path that God has lovingly chosen for me will succeed.  Although there is much about it I can’t understand right now, and I’m completely clueless about what’s around the bend, I know that my final destination is secure, and that it ends with the One who loves me more than I can possibly imagine.

Should I Pop a Pill or Say a Prayer?


That’s the choice that thousands feel they are forced into every day.

I know, because I hear their stories, and I’m the one they are trusting as their guide, as their physician.

Susan (not her real name) was in last week.  She had been stable for eight years on clonazepam, which had helped lessen her daily battle with anxiety.  However, she was concerned that being on an “addictive nerve pill” was not honoring to God.  And so I was asked again the question that I had been asked so many times before, “What should I do, doctor?”

I understand where she and so many other of my East Tennessee patients are coming from, for I too grew up in rural Appalachia in a “Bible Belt” culture where to emotionally or spiritually struggle in any way meant something was wrong with you and your relationship with God.  I’ve also seen the flip side within the halls of academia, where fragile hurting souls were shattered by a psychiatrist who had the audacity to tell them they could not even speak the word “God” while they were on “his” hospital floor since “he” was their god while they were under his care.

So, what did I tell Susan in the brief time I had with her?  Did I tell her that if she just prayed a little bit harder, memorized just a few more Bible verses, trusted God just a little bit more, she wouldn’t need drugs?  Or did I tell her to forget her religion and her God, and realize that she was a complex mesh of chemicals, and she needed a drug to help regulate her faulty brain chemistry?

I told her neither, because both of those answers represent a cruel false dichotomy which influences many people’s minds regarding the care of souls.  The reality is that we are both body and spirit, material and immaterial, incredibly complex meshes of chemicals and yet something that can’t be reduced to mere chemicals. We don’t have to give up our spirituality to acknowledge the reality that medical science has something to offer hurting souls, and we don’t have to give up our medical science to acknowledge that our hurting souls need more than the latest drug.

Here is the essence of what I told her:  We are here to love God and walk with Him.  From the earliest teachings of Christ and the church fathers that has been clear.  It’s also been clear that loving God and walking with Him is hard, sometimes very hard.  In theological terms, we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies with fallen souls.  Or put another way, every one of us live with a body that has imperfect brain chemistry, living with people who don’t always treat us as we need to be treated, and with a spirit which still doesn’t understand, love, and obey God as we ought.

In light of this reality, the question of whether to take any type of psychotropic drug is simply, “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  In essence it is no different than the question to take a diabetes drug or say a prayer or change jobs or forgive someone— any decision should come down to “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?”  For some people, a drug like clonazepam just dulls soul pain that needs to be dealt with instead of masked, and actually would draw them away from God.  For Susan, the drug helped clear her mind and allowed her to focus on her work, her family, and her God with more freedom.

Yes, I know it’s a simple question, but sometimes simple questions still are the best ones.  “Does it help me love God and walk with Him?” sidesteps all the science vs. faith debates and replaces them with a simple question that can guide any person of faith who is also seeking help from medicine.  In the end, that’s what it’s all about for me, and for you: to learn to live wisely in our journey to love Him and walk with Him.

The Key to Perseverance: Focus on God

 

perseverance by zenzoidman via flickr

  

Perseverance:  noun___    steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., esp. in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.

Say the word “perseverance.”

Now close your eyes.

What situation are you thinking of in YOUR life?

Is it a coworker who seems to be more irritating every week?  That assignment you’ve got to complete even with a boss making completely unreasonable demands?  A friend who seems to “drain” you whenever they’re around?  A parent or loved one struggling with a chronic illness, and you’re struggling to keep it together for them?  A relationship where there’s now more frustration and hardship than joy?

Yes, running a marathon or completing a graduate degree takes perseverance, but it is the perseverance we need in our relationships that seems to tax our souls the most. We lose strength, we struggle with disappointment, and we wonder if there’s going to be any light at the end of the tunnel, any final payoff for our efforts.  In short, we lose heart.

God has good news for all of us whose hearts need perseverance.  He is in the heart business, after all.  What is God’s good news for perseverance? It is Himself.  As with any other issue in life, our solution for perseverance is to focus on God.  Let’s look at focusing on God as the source of our strength for perseverance, the object of our efforts in perseverance, and the rewarder of our deeds of perseverance.

Focus on God as the Source of Your Strength

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

We’re human.  We all have a point of exhaustion, both physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.  And we all face situations & people that will push us to that point, or at least close enough to make us pretty crabby to be around!  When our strength is fading, we hear the voice in our thoughts: I can’t keep doing this!  I give up!  I can’t persevere any longer! 

The solution to our weariness?  God.  Focusing on God.  Spending time with God. See again what the prophet said: “Those that wait on the Lord.”  “Wait” means “wait”—  to stop, separate ourselves to God, and spend time with Him.  It takes God time to minister to our hearts, and it takes us getting quiet enough to hear His voice.  We need regular time every day to wait for the Lord, to be in His presence, and we need more time, focused time, to wait on Him when we have been exhausted by a trying situation.

Focus on God as the Object of Your Efforts

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

And Jesus will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’  (Matthew 25:40)

There are times we will be kind, be patient, be loving, be Christlike to someone, through that strength that only God can provide.  Yet, in spite of our best efforts, nothing happens.  We remain unappreciated, or worse yet still mistreated.  We become discouraged, and the thoughts come: Why should I keep this up?  This person isn’t worth all this effort?  Why not just give up?

The solution to our discouragement?  Realizing that ultimately we are not being Christlike for that irritating, unlovable person, but on behalf of Christ, to demonstrate His character to the world.  Focusing on God, seeing Him and His glory as the reason for all that we do, gives our heart the perseverance to keep going.

Focus on God as the Rewarder of Your Deeds

O great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 32:18-19)

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42)

We all struggle with what is right and just in this world.  We look at our efforts, our good works, and we realize that our good deeds are not always having the payback that we think that we deserve.  Frankly, sometimes there’s not any payback at all.  We feel that life is not fair, and the thoughts come:  This stinks.  Why am I putting forth all this effort?  Life just isn’t fair!

The solution to our frustration?  Realizing that God, not the world nor the people in this world, is the source of our reward. Reward sometimes comes in this life, and sometimes it doesn’t.  But our Father is perfectly just, and we can rest fully assured that God will fully reward our service in His Kingdom.  Focus today on God as the source of your strength, the object of your efforts, and the rewarder of your deeds.

How to NOT Figure Life Out

 quite puzzling by cayusa via flickr

Life is pretty mixed up at times.  It’s easy to conclude that the only solution to the anxiety and frustration we feel is to somehow “figure life out.”  Until we find THE ANSWER to the question life is posing us, we often find no rest for our souls.

I remember twenty years ago, when I was vexed with not knowing whether I should ask a particular young woman out for a date.  I wanted to BE SURE I was making the “right” decision.  But try as I might, I couldn’t seem to come to an answer that I thought was definitive.

After several months drug by (yes, I was a sad case), I showed my roommate at the time an extensive logic table I had drawn up, showing the various advantages and disadvantages of deciding to ask this woman out vs. not ask her out vs. delaying a decision.  He looked at me with his “What planet did you come from?” expression and said, “JUST ASK HER OUT!”

I had tried to resolve my frustration at not being able to figure life out by, uh, trying to figure life out.  Well, all that got me then, and all it ever gets me now, is just more frustration.  There are some things that just can’t be figured out about life.  Sometimes you just have to live it out.

Today I read a quote from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.    — ”Letters to a Young Poet”

Ask yourself: Is the thing troubling me really something that I can answer today?  If not, let it go, and spend your life living instead of trying to figure life out.

Embracing God’s Purposes in Our Trials

Trials.

What trials are you facing right now in your life?

It could be just a ”small” trial like an irritating coworker.  Or you could be running a  ”marathon” trial such as a chronic illness that saps your health and your joy.  Or you may be facing a “crushing” trial of a failed marriage or financial collapse where you feel there is no escape from the unrelenting pressure.

Why is this happening?  When will it end?  How can I make it through? How can good ever come from this?  Will I ever come out of this?

Do those questions sound familiar?

The Bible does not leave us without answers to our heart’s questions about trials. In fact, our answers are found in embracing God’s purposes in our trials. In James chapter 1 we read God’s perspective about trials:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

On first read, those are hardly comforting words to a soul under siege.  They’re confusing words, a schizophrenic perspective that makes no sense at all. We read those verses and the question immediately forms in our mind:

What is he talking about? Joy? Joy? Joy in the midst of this pain I am facing?

Yes, the word is “joy.” And not just any “joy” either— this is the same Greek word as in the familiar response of the wise men “when they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” (Matthew 2:10)  And just for good measure, I love that James uses the Greek word for “meet” trials that means “to fall so as to be swallowed up”— it’s the same word used in the story of the Good Samaritan where the man “met” his trial with the thieves who stole him blind and left him a half-dead bloody pulp on the ground.

So you’re telling me I’m supposed to have joy about this misery in my life? I’m supposed to be happy about it?  Are you crazy?

To which James replies, “Yes, have joy, embrace the trial, because God is at work to make you perfect and complete, lacking nothing.  Have joy as you look toward the end in sight, that this awful trial will result in you lacking nothing in what God has designed you to be.”

How is that possible?  How can I embrace God’s purpose in the midst of this pain?

Here’s the bottom line: embracing God’s purposes in our trials isn’t easy.  It requires several radical shifts in perspective that can only come through the study of the Bible, prayer, and the action of the Holy Spirit.  Only then will we be able to see through God’s eyes and genuinely have joy in the midst of a painful trial.

Where do we start?  According to James, the first profound paradigm shift that we must embrace in the midst of every trial is: what really matters in this trial is the testing of my faith. 

What does it mean to “test my faith?” First, we must be clear about what kind of “test” this is. It’s not like some “qualifying test” set up to see if we can “make the cut” with God. No, this test is like putting gold through fire, a test to make it clear that our faith is genuine and precious. 1 Peter 1:6-9 states:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Second, we need to know what kind of “faith” God wants to see in us.  It’s not what we often want to have “faith” in: that my marriage will survive, that I will get the job transfer, that my cancer will be healed, that the trial will somehow “turn out all right.”  Those “good” outcomes in our hopes & prayers God may or may not grant to us, but they are not what the Bible defines as faith.  In fact, Hebrews 11 clearly tells us that people of faith sometimes experience God’s miraculous deliverance from a trial but sometimes die in great suffering in a trial.

If a “good outcome” is not what we are to have faith in, then what is the faith that is being tested in a trial?  The passage in 1 Peter 1 tells us it is our faith in the revelation of Jesus: faith that He loves us, that He is in control, and that we can love Him and glorify Him and rejoice in Him even in the midst of our trial.  Peter calls this faith “more precious than gold.”

If we are to do well in this testing of our faith in Jesus, we must ask ourselves, “What is the enemy of my faith in a trial? What am I battling against?”  The answer lies in looking at what James tells us that faith produces: steadfastness, endurance, patience.  In the midst of a trial faith tells us, “God is good! God loves you! Wait! Endure! Have patience!Continue to do what is right!”

The lie that comes against us in the trial says, “God has abandoned you! God doesn’t care! God may not even exist! Do whatever it takes to get out of this pain, this problem, this predicament!”  The Bible is full of examples of men who listened to this lie.  Peter, afraid of being arrested, folded under pressure and lied in Mark 14:66-72.  King Saul in 1 Samuel 15 decided to do what was politically expedient instead of obeying God.  Esau let his stomach rule over his head and gave up his birthright in Genesis 25.  Whatever the trial or temptation, our daily choice is always whether we will continue to endure the trial looking in faith to God, or try to fix or escape the trial on our own terms.

That is how we must frame every trial: that this trial is not a test of how wise I am, or how I can solve this problem or escape this burden or engineer what works out best for me; this trial is a test of my faith that God loves me and that I will joyfully follow Him.

And what is the end result of our endurance, of our holding fast to God day after day, maybe year after year through the trial? James encourages us to keep enduring, keep being steadfast, so that this steadfastness can have its “full effect” (more literally “perfect work”) on our souls.  What is this perfect work? That our souls will develop the complete, perfect maturity of character that God intends for us (Romans 5:4).

Here is the final paradigm shift to truly see what the trial is accomplishing in our eternal souls.  Stop focusing on the pain and perplexity that the trial brings, but rejoice to see that this trial is testing your faith to set your gaze on the God who loves you (Psalm 141:8). Rejoice to see that through it God is teaching you endurance as a lesson to a beloved child (Hebrews 12:3-11). And finally, rejoice to see that endurance is forming your character into Christlikeness as you daily embrace Christ & reject that which is wrong (Romans 8:18-30).

Study these great truths from the Scriptures and pray for the Holy Spirit to open your eyes so you can truly embrace this trial before you in faith and endurance, becoming perfect and complete in Christ.

Reflections on “Anyway”

Martina McBride Anyway American IdolYou can spend your whole life building something from nothing
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway
You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach and you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

Chorus:
God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good
And when I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway, I do it anyway

This world’s gone crazy and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway
You can love someone with all your heart, for all the right reasons, and in a moment they can choose to walk away
Love ‘em anyway

You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in that tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway, sing it anyway

I sing, I dream, I love, anyway

I’ve been listening to this song over and over the past few days since I first heard it.  Wow.  I think all good art is something that passes from one soul to another, and says something both true and important about the nature of being human and/or the nature of God.  This song is good.

We all tend to lose heart, become discouraged, and wonder “Why bother?” sometimes.  Why?  Because we live in a fallen world, because “this world’s gone crazy” and “life ain’t always good.”  She speaks of reaching for personal goals, looking ahead to the future, commiting your love to another, and trying to touch people’s hearts.  In all of these quests of the heart, there’s no guarantee of success as we define it, even if we petition God (“when I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should”).

But the hingepoint of the song is that “God is great.”  This is the same conclusion that Job came to in the midst of his confusion and distress, and the conclusion that David repeatedly came to in the Psalms.  The greatness and justice of God is also the foundation Jesus gives in Luke 18:1-8 as He encourages us to pray and not lose heart.

Listen to this song, and remember that because of God’s greatness, we have a firm foundation, an unwavering reason to continue to sing, to dream, to love, anyway.

Difficulty

This week I attended an excellent one day conference that CMDA sponsored for pastors and doctors.  The first talk was delivered by Bert Jones, who is on staff with CMDA.  He spoke on difficulty —you know, a topic that none of us has any personal experience with.  His talk is available for free mp3 download here.  I’ll think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

To whet your appetite a little bit, here is his outline:

God will not permit any troubles to come upon us, unless He has a specific plan by which great blessing can come out of the difficulty.   Peter Marshall

difficulty by gopal1035 via flickrDifficulty is not something that should surprise you. (Matthew 7:13-14; 2 Timothy 3:1, John 16:31, Mark 4:16)

Difficulty is an opportunity to display leadership. (Exodus 18:22,26; Daniel 4:9; Daniel 5:12,16; Acts 27:7-8)

Difficulty is not something you have to dread (2 Corinthians 12:10; Philipians 4:14; 1 Thes. 3:4,7)

Difficulty does not have to be dealt with alone (Gen 18:14; Jer 32:17-27; Zech 8:6; Isaiah 41:10; 1 Kings 1:29; 1 Samuel 30:6)

When you go through deep waters,
      I will be with you.
   When you go through rivers of difficulty,
      you will not drown.
   When you walk through the fire of oppression,
      you will not be burned up;
      the flames will not consume you. (Isai 43:2 NLT)

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner…So if you find life difficult because you’re doing what God said, take it in stride. Trust him. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll keep on doing it.  (from 1Pet 4 The Message paraphrase)

The Heart of Esther

This week’s Bible study looks at the book of Esther, specifically the first two chapters. To approach studying Esther or any book, it’s helpful to consider its type or style, technically called genre. The book of Esther is historical story: it contains accurate historical facts, but it is much more than just a news briefing: it highlights plot twists, constructs parallels, brings out ironies, and masterfully interweaves other elements of good story-telling into one of the truly great writings of the ancient world. It is not prophecy or law or theology: in fact, God’s name is not even mentioned in the book.

So, we need to realize that Esther is not a theological tome to be dissected, but a story to be enjoyed, pondered, and applied to our lives. And that is indeed how God wants us to see historical sections of Scripture. Paul speaks of God’s purpose for historical narrative in 1 Corinthians 10 when he says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did….they were written down for our instruction.” So, we need to ask what examples, what lessons, what principles about the nature of man and the nature of God are contained in this book that God wants us to understand.

Another important question to always ask is who the original audience was— who originally read the book and why? The Book of Esther was written to the Jewish nation to explain the origin of the feast of Purim. It still occupies an important position in Judaism, being one of only five books that are ceremonially read aloud every year by every orthodox Jewish family.

Finally, when you approach any passage from the Bible, you try to discern its purpose. “Why is this passage in the Bible? Why did God sovereignly choose this information to become part of His inerrant Word?” Now, obviously, we cannot fully know the mind of God in this matter, but at least framing our minds to seek out what God is trying to teach us in a passage is a sound foundation for study.

With that background, let’s plunge into chapter 1. The first eight verses describe a six month long party given by a guy named Ahasuerus, which is a Hebrew name corresponding to the Greek name Xerxes I. Now why spend eight verses just to describe a party given by one man, when the Bible only spends one verse to describe the party his wife gave in verse 9? I think that God wanted to make clear what kind of man this Ahasuerus was. When you try to picture who Ahasuerus was, just think Donald Trump. No, really, think about it. Guy with an ego the size of a planet, filthy rich, loved to let everyone know how rich and powerful and special he was, threw lavish parties, had a trophy wife, and get this: enjoyed firing people. And to top it off, both of them had major setbacks which left them with big chips on their shoulder. The Donald has had all his financial near collapses, and Xerxes had the Battle of Thermopylae: yes he was the king that got his 2 million man army’s butt kicked by 300 Spartans. That had to have left a nasty bruise on the old ego.

So, how does this story start out? Donald, err, Ahasuerus throws a six month long party celebrating…himself. At the end, he commands the trophy wife to come out and parade in front of his drinking buddies. Now, here is a crucial juncture, and one that we would do well to think about. Was this a righteous, honorable ruler? No, and God wants to make sure we understand that fact. Was he asking his queen to do something that offended her? Yes. So what was the Queen’s response? She said no. And here’s another interesting thing to note: the Bible doesn’t say why she refused. There’s all kinds of theories, but we don’t actually know. Whenever the Bible is silent on something, even a little thing, it means one thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. She might have had a very “good” reason, or a petty one, but God didn’t put it in because he didn’t want us debating on the supposed merits of whether she had a “good” reason or not to disobey her husband and king.

See, here is where this whole “these things took place as examples for us” theme kicks in. The point of the story is not whether she had a “good” reason to disobey the king, but rather the point is that she chose to disobey. There is a basic Biblical principle of obeying authority, even evil authority, if it does not cause us to disobey God. Our natural man, however, wants to buck on this, just like the Pharisees tried to buck Jesus in Matthew 22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in His words. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.

Check it out: the Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into giving them a “good” reason to disobey evil Roman authority, but Jesus would have none of it. Queen Vashti’s response to her evil authority was ungodly, and even the ungodly king and his court saw it. And what was the consequence for Vashti’s ungodly response? “You’re fired!”

In fact, the Bible spends the rest of the chapter going into great detail of this very concept, and how Vashti was a poor example of obeying authority and that this example would affect not only her but many others. This whole concept of giving honor and respect and obedience to authority seems foreign and backward and simplistic and offensive to 21st century ears, but Jesus and the apostles clearly established it as not just cultural, but Biblical and God-honoring behavior.

If Chapter 1 of Esther looked like The Apprentice: Persian Edition, then Chapter 2 is definitely the very first season (like, from 2500 years ago) of The Bachelor. Here we had dozens, perhaps hundreds of women gathered from all over the kingdom obviously strictly for their physical beauty, and this young woman Esther who the Bible plainly states “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” was among them.

But verse 9 says something very important in the Hebrew which is not obvious in English: Esther won the favor of Hegai, the administrator of this whole contest. This word favor is the Hebrew hesed, which is a very powerful & rich word in Hebrew that describes the covenant loyalty love, mercy, kindness, benevolence & devotion that God has for His people. Esther did not win the hesed of this powerful man just by her looks. It is evident that she won his hesed by listening carefully to his words (verse 15) and the words of her cousin Mordecai (verse 8 & 20).

So, verse 17 shows the result of God’s work—His blessing Esther with beauty, both of soul and body, His placing her “in the right place at the right time” and her heart responses of respect and obedience to authority. She gets five responses from Xerxes: First, she gets love, which in Hebrew is a broader word than mere sexual desire: the word is actually first used in Scripture in Genesis 22:2 to describe Abraham’s love for Issac. She gets grace, the word first used in Genesis 6:8 “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” and she gets Xerxes’ hesed favor. She gets the crown, and lastly she gets a great feast.

So, just to make sure, let’s review the contrast: Vashti has feast, disobeys authority, loses crown, bummer. Esther obeys authority, gets crown, has feast, ends up saving the entire nation (read the rest of the book!).

So what does God want us to learn from the book of Esther? Not that she had a beautiful body, but that she had a beautiful heart, for this is what God looks on (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Peter 3:3-4). Esther teaches us that God wants us to glorify Him by showing the difference between living in a imperfect, sinful world among corrupt authority figures with a human, self-centered heart versus a God-honoring, submissive heart. The Greek word hupataso (click the hyperlink to do a word study), submit, is used in the New Testament in multiple books to describe a believer’s response to authority. It is used to describe our relationship to God, to employers, to parents, to government, to husbands, and to other members of the body of Christ. The application is pretty clear: where in our lives do we need to have the heart of Esther to glorify God by submitting to authority?  Where can we advance His kingdom by giving up our own way?

From Rebelling to Embracing

God leads all of His children on journeys from rebelling to embracing. We start our lives in rebellion—against God, against His knowledge, His will, His love. (Romans 1:25, Romans 5:10, and many others). Through God’s grace, we progress to acknowledging, then accepting, then embracing God. When we embrace God through the miracle of regeneration and see Christ’s sacrifice and atonement, we are Christians, children of God. There is a further sense, a further step, however. As we journey as children of God, we continually encounter people, situations, trials, areas of God’s will that, in our humanness, we will rebel against at first. Growth and peace comes from God’s grace remolding us to accept, then embrace these difficult situations as God’s best(Romans 8:28).

I remember a story from Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography The Hiding Place where she describes being in a German camp, grumbling and despondent over the unbelievably filthy conditions of the bunkhouse where she was. Later, she discovered that the bunkhouse was so bad that even the guards did not want to go around it, thus freeing her to freely share the Bible and Christ there. What on a human level was an abomination was on God’s level His most loving provision.

What is in your life today that you need to ask God to bring you from rebelling to embracing?