Today is April 18

Yes, today is April 18.

This is nothing new for most of you, and if it is, you might want to invest in a calendar.

But today will likely be a normal day, though for some it might be a wedding anniversary, a birthday, the day to remember a loved one who has passed, or perhaps the anniversary of when you started your job (I hope your boss gives you a cookie if it is).

You, like myself, probably woke up this morning with a little too much aggression towards your alarm clock. You probably rolled out of bed half awake to start your morning routine. Perhaps you noticed the beautiful blue sky, the warm sun, and the melody of the birds.

Or perhaps you didn’t.

Some of you were probably eager to get to work. Others maybe not so much.

Maybe you’ve got plans tonight, or maybe your only plan is to not have any plans.

Yes, this will likely be a normal day for most of you.

But for me, I guess I thought that today would feel anything but normal. As I think back on what this day a year ago had in store, I suppose I thought I would feel anything but peace and comfort.

I remember waking up excited that I would get to spend the entire day out of the office. I was scheduled to attend a conference to learn more about the health systems in our region, hoping to take back some good ideas for our health program at work. I eagerly anticipated a day of lectures and trainings (yes, I actually find those things enjoyable) and was excited to have something other than leftovers for lunch (because we all know that the catered lunch is the best part of any work conference).

I did not however anticipate that by 4:30pm that afternoon I would find myself lying on my living room floor struggling to gain some kind of control over my thoughts as a crushing anxiety attack swept over me, leaving me deeply afraid and unsure.

Fast-forward several months and you’ll see blurs of fear, doubt, anxiety, and guilt unlike anything I had ever experienced. You’ll see hours of tearful conversations with wise friends and family, heartache, probably a few nights where I angrily shook my fist at God, and then other nights where I crumbled under the weight of conviction.

Oh, how easy it would be to just stop here and wash my hands of that season in life; to file it away; chalk it up to nothing more than a rough couple of months, and hope that one day it makes its way to the shredder to never be thought of again.

For so long, that’s all I’ve wanted…to simply forget April 18, 2018.

But not today!

In fact, today I want to remember.

There is a necessity in the Christian life to remember. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to remember things like the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8); like God’s miracles (Psalm 77:11, 1 Chronicles 16:12, Psalm 78:42-55), those who have gone before us (Luke 17:32, Hebrews 13:7), where we’ve been (Deuteronomy 16:12; 24:22, Isaiah 46:7-9, Lamentations 3:19-20), the nature of our humanity (Psalm 89:47); and most of all, God’s faithfulness (Psalm 77:1-20).

There is good in remembering. By remembering the Sabbath, we grow in holiness and obedience. We are comforted as we recall God’s miracles and sovereignty displayed throughout our lives and in His Word. We are trained and taught as we remember those who have gone before us. We are humbled in remembering where we’ve been and the frailty of our human nature. We are built up in courage, hope, faith, and worship as we remember God’s faithfulness despite our frailty, disobedience, and fear.

We are built up in courage, hope, faith, and worship as we remember God’s faithfulness despite our frailty, disobedience, and fear.

Though there is a good portion of the last year that has been tainted by the memory of that anxiety attack, the faithfulness of God continues to shine through.

As I remember how utterly frail and weak I felt that day (both spiritually and physically), I am in turn reminded of God’s strength that has carried me since then and helped me to where I am now.

As I remember my stumbling, anger, and fear in the months that followed, I am comforted in recalling God’s wonderful display of patience and kindness towards me; which in turn encourages me in my continued fight against anxiety and sin.

As I recall where I’ve been, I am both filled with gratitude and joy at the many blessings the Lord has poured out onto my life since then, and my hope is renewed in the One who continues to lead me forward, because while I was still weak; while I was still stubborn; while I was still resistant towards Him…while I was still a sinner, God loved me and sent His Son to die for me (Romans 5:8).

I’m sure you have a similar day tucked back in the deep corners of your memory. Perhaps a day that didn’t go so well and that you’d like to forget. But maybe we’ve been wrong in how we view days such as these. Maybe days like these don’t really belong in our shred pile of memories, but rather in a treasured scrapbook of daily reminders of God’s wonderful grace, patience, and love!

Maybe today you need to take a second look at a bad memory, a tough day, or a hard season in life. You might be surprised to find rays of God’s glory shining through the clouds that once brought rain.

Go Make Someone Smile

…no seriously, I mean it. Go make someone smile today.

I am a verbal processer, meaning that my thoughts and feelings are best developed when I talk about them. This is part of the reason why I like to write so much, because I have discovered that when there are no listening ears, writing out my thoughts and feelings is the next best thing.

Both my Mom and I are verbal processers, so we have spent countless hours together talking and sharing the things that are heavy on our hearts.

Some of these conversations have consisted of me just dumping all my frustration out over the phone; my frustration about everything that seemed to be happening to me and how it simply wasn’t fair.

In loving patience and wisdom though, my Mom would listen and let me vent. However, once I was finished, there was always a short pause on the other end followed by what is now my favorite piece of advice…

Well honey, I’m sorry you feel that way. Now go make someone smile and once you’ve done that, call me back.

Oh, how that would frustrate me at the time! I didn’t care how others felt. I just wanted to hear something that would make me feel better. The last thing I felt like doing was going out of my way to make someone else smile.

When we have an inflated view of self such as this, we start viewing things as possessions rather than gifts from God; things like our time, money, and relationships. As our eyes become fixated on ourselves; on what we feel like we’re lacking or on our unmet expectations and desires, we start using the things that God has given us to gratify our growing need to self-justify and self-validate rather than for His good and wonderful purposes.

We become selfish with our time, careless with our resources, and abusive in our relationships by expecting others to do what only God can do.

There were times where I wouldn’t listen to my Mom’s advice and instead wasted time watching Netflix to numb my mind, going on careless shopping trips to Target to distract my thoughts, and spending hours brewing over resentment towards family and friends to justify my feelings.

However, the times when I actually did take her advice proved to be so fruitful that I began to see the truth behind what my Mom was telling me; the truth that we were never designed to fixate on ourselves, but to fixate on someone greater.

Jesus tells us in Luke 10:27 to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’

When we become consumed with ourselves, our primary problem is not that we lack self-worth or self-confidence. Our greatest need is not for validation or encouragement.

Our problem is that we have an inflated view of self because we lack awe; we lack a grander vision of the majesty that lies beyond ourselves. Our greatest need then is not to make ourselves feel better with a self-care day, but to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto Jesus Christ.

what are you really wanting?

The best way to get your eyes off of yourself and fixed on Jesus Christ is to ask yourself this very simple, yet incredibly profound question – what are you really wanting?

When I was first asked this question, it really confused me. I had just spilled all of my frustration and once I had finished, there was that familiar pause and then the question – what do you really want?

I walked away from that conversation perplexed and slightly frustrated, with no new advice or tips on how to feel better about my circumstances but instead with this really annoying, nagging question in the back of my mind – what do I really want?

It wasn’t until about four or five months later that I realized what the point of that question was. It was the same point my Mom was trying to make whenever she told me to go make someone smile – I needed to get my eyes off of myself.

My problem was that I was presently preoccupied with how I felt in the moment and not focused on Christ’s eternal glory and sustaining grace. Because of that, my thoughts, feelings, and emotions were dictated by the circumstances that I found myself in, eventually leading to self-consumed, self-focused behaviors and attitudes.

The thing that we all need to realize is that we were created; we were molded and shaped and designed to be in relationship with God. Our mind, body, and spirit were intended to be sustained, nourished, refreshed, and renewed by God alone (John 15:1-8, NIV). We were made to desire Him and thirst for His love and grace and to be entirely fulfilled by Him.

Therefore, every want, need, and desire that we have is a desperate cry for Him. When we desire worldly relationships, we are crying out for His all-satisfying companionship (Ps. 139:7, NIV).

“Every want, need, and desire that we have is a desperate cry for Him.”

When we are let down and disappointed by the frailty of worldly love, we are desiring the unconditional nature of His perfect love (Jer. 31:3, NIV).

When we wish to be heard and known, we are craving His infinite knowledge and understanding (Ps. 139:1-3, NIV).

When we resent solitude, we want to know that He is with us and that we are never truly alone (Ps. 25:16-18, NIV).

When we recoil and try to protect ourselves against the assaults of this fallen world, we are deeply longing for freedom from sin and death, which is found in Him alone (Ps. 32:7, NIV). We want to find rest under the shadow of His protective wings (Ps. 91:4, NIV).

The worldly solutions to our wants and needs are rudimentary at best. When we’re tired, Netflix numbs rather than restores and refreshes. When we crave understanding and knowledge, Facebook and CNN clutter rather than clarify. When we’ve had a tough week and want to have a good time, a night out thrills, but does not arouse true joy.

Only the Word of God is capable of sustaining and fulfilling our every need and desire, for it is ‘the law of the Lord that is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous’ (Ps. 19:7-9, NIV).

As you are refreshed and nourished by the Word of God and as you find your true joy and satisfaction in Christ alone, trust that when your eyes are fixed on Jesus and not on yourself, you will ‘be radiant with joy’ (Ps. 34:5, NLT), causing all those who see the joy you have to smile from ear to ear.

All Out of Breath: Christian Moralism and the Gospel

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV).

In an attempt to challenge myself this year, I have registered to run a half marathon in October. I am nervous to say the least because I have never considered myself much of a runner, especially when it comes to distance running.

But I am also very excited!

I am excited to try something new; to push myself to accomplish a goal and experience a challenge that I had in the past considered too great for me to achieve. It will be an experience for sure, but I wouldn’t be as excited as I am if I were doing this alone.

Because I’ll be training for and running this half marathon with an experienced marathon runner; someone who knows what they’re doing and can help me learn, I am confident that though it may be difficult, it will be possible (even for an inexperienced runner like me).

As with most things in life, if we set about doing something with the wrong focus or a lack of understanding, guidance, and direction, we will likely fall to the wayside, get discouraged, and more often than not, quit.

Unfortunately, this kind of discouragement can be seen within the church today.

In an article published by CNN in May of 2015, Religious Editor Daniel Burke explains that millennials are leaving the church in droves…and not just the church, but the Christian faith entirely.

A survey of 35,000 American adults shows that the Christian percentage of the population has dropped to 70.6% [in 2015]. In 2007, the last time Pew [Research Center] conducted a similar survey, 78.4% of American adults called themselves Christian.

Daniel Burke, CNN

Though this is concerning, and though we can safely assume that this has only worsened over the last 3-4 years, what really troubled me about this article was Burke’s definition of ‘the Christian life;’ the life that these American adults are walking away from.

At its core, Christian life is a set of sacred traditions linking generations of sacraments and Sunday school lessons, youth ministry morals and family gatherings sanctified by prayer.

Daniel Burke, CNN

After circling the issue, Burke never really landed on a solid explanation for this decline in church attendance and religious affiliation throughout western cultures. However, with Christianity summed up to be nothing more than sacred traditions, sacraments, lessons, and morals, I think it is safe to say that the reason millennials and every other generation alike are dropping out of the ‘race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1, NIV) is because they’re all out of breath, trying to run a race with their eyes fixed on morality instead of on Jesus with little to no Biblically-grounded understanding, guidance, or direction regarding the Gospel of true hope and freedom.

Since Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2, NIV) and since without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6, NIV), when the roots of Christianity are grounded in the do’s and don’ts of Scripture rather than in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are bound to lose hope and run ourselves all out of breath while chasing this illusion of Christian moralism.

Christian moralism

We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:15-16, NIV).

There is this widely popularized and accepted message within many churches today that we need to be and even can be ‘a better person.’ This kind of mentality and approach to the Christian walk subtly identifies the Bible as a mere set of moral guidelines designed to tell us what to do and what not to do in order to be a Christian, thus making mankind the subject and intention of Scripture rather than the glory of God displayed in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6, NIV).

When I first considered this in my own life, I immediately self-justified; believing that I have never and would never believe that the Bible was about me and my moral compass.

“I don’t do that,” I would think to myself.

“I know that it is by grace that I am saved and that it is only by that grace that I am a child of God. I know that I am not saved by my own works.”

When I really stopped to think about it though and when I considered whether the truths that I claimed to believe about grace and hope and unconditional love actually manifested themselves in my life or not, I came to the painful realization that deep down, ‘being a better person’ had become the root of my faith instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thus my life began producing fruits such as anxiety, perfectionism, fear, and pride instead of the fruits of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV).

You can grow up in a church, hear a Gospel about freedom, and still work your tail off trying to maintain the image that you’re a good person.

Michael, American Gospel, 2019)

Claiming a Gospel of freedom while at the same time running myself ragged, I would try to achieve this ‘next level’ of Christian moralism. And so, church or anything else related to it became a place where I could feel better about myself; where I could listen to a message that would fill my tanks for another week of one failed attempt after another, and when I did fail I would mentally beat myself over the head with an imaginary rolled up newspaper like Edna did in The Incredibles, telling myself that I needed to ‘pull myself together!’

Ultimately, Christ became obsolete in my faith while I set my focus and hope entirely on my own morality, which dictated how I felt about myself, how I thought others viewed me, and sadly, how much or how little I believed God loved me.

So this begs the question – why do we do anything at all?

Why do we do certain things like pray, read our Bibles, serve, or minister to the lost?

Why don’t we do other things like lie, cheat, or steal?

Why are we baptized?

Why do we take part in communion?

Why do we tithe or fast?

What is the motivation for our obedience?

Because it is not the actions themselves that are the problem. The Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20, the principles found in the Proverbs, and the instruction of the Epistles are all good and necessary. Even Christ said that he did not come to abolish them [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17, NIV).

The problem lies in our motivation behind submitting to these commands and guidelines. When our motivation for obedience is anything but a deep love for Christ and a recognition of our need for grace, we become easily prone to the tangles of moralistic legalism and/or the trappings of prosperity gospel.

If we don’t know why we condone certain behaviors and condemn others, then we are blindly living by a moral code yet calling it gospel.

A loveless gospel and a gospel-less love

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-12, NIV).

Action grounded in love is what makes up the Gospel, for God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son to die on the cross for our sins (John 3:16, NIV).

We cannot preach love without the Gospel and we cannot share the Gospel without love. It is because He first loved us that we experience any love for Him at all (1 John 4:19, NIV), and it is because we love Him that we obey His commands (John 14:15, NIV).

So when we dismiss love as our foundation and cause for doing anything at all in Jesus’ name, we eliminate the power of the Gospel in our lives and in our ministries.

When we act out of a deep love for Christ and when we resist the temptations of worldly lusts and sinful pleasures because our love for Christ is so deep that even the thought of disobeying or dishonoring Him with our actions or lack thereof is more costly than the pleasure we might gain, we begin living by grace and love rather than by a moralistic code of religious do’s and don’ts.

It is when we stop trying to ‘live’ the Gospel or ‘do’ the Gospel that we are able to simply receive the Gospel of Christ’s grace fully in faith.

When we dismiss love as our reason for obedience, that is when we move into a moralistic legalism motivated by a list of do’s and don’ts and when someone or even ourselves deviates from that code, harshness and austerity follows with no consideration for Christ, His grace, or the Gospel.

There’s a flip-side to this though, because on the opposite end of this spectrum is a love separated from the Gospel.

While a loveless Gospel leads to moralistic legalism, a Gospel-less love leads to the prosperity gospel; a gospel that preaches that Christ died in order that we might be happy, healthy, and wealthy and not because we were dead in our trespasses and in desperate need of a Savior (Ephesians 2:1, NIV).

So we see that anything read in Scripture that is severed from the Gospel of Jesus Christ incarnate come down to live a perfect life, die a sinner’s death, be buried and raised again in absolute victory over sin and death to give us new life and hope in Him alone…when we detach anything in Scripture from this foundational truth, we miss the truth entirely because it is the Gospel alone that can move us confidently and humbly down the straight and narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14, NIV).

In a documentary title American Gospel: Christ Alone, Pastor Phill Howell explains that the Christian life is like a railroad track. We are set on the right path and shown the way to go, but it is the Gospel that is our engine and fuel; the thing that actually moves us down the tracks.

Yet so often in Christian circles today, people are being shown the way to go (the good things that mark a Christian life), but are not being introduced to or reminded of the means by which to move forward (the Gospel of Jesus Christ), leaving them even more helpless than before.

a Christ-centered gospel

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, NIV).

The message that we need to be, or even can be a better person is the most hopeless, damning message anyone could ever hear because it neglects who we are while focusing on what we do.

The Bible circles the reality that we face a much bigger problem than the ones that manifest themselves in our actions and behaviors over and over again.

Christ did not die to help you be a better person.

He died to save us from the sin that we were powerless against, and to be painfully honest, He died to save us from the sin that we loved, and still love.

That’s the only reason sin has any power over us after all…because we love it and it bears no real consequence to us because we have not perceived the great love of Christ displayed in the Gospel.

So then it is passages like Matthew 5:17-48 that rather than helping us make better choices are actually there to remind us of and show us the severity of our inherent sin, our natural wretchedness, and our innate frailty in order to bring us back to our knees in desperate need of grace!

Unfortunately, when all we hear in church sermons and podcasts and lectures is how to not be sexually immoral, how to pray better, how to suffer well, how not to be anxious or depressed, how to have a godly relationship, or how to be faithfully single, etc. without the message ever really coming back to the Gospel, we are set on a path that leads to one of two tragic destinations – pride and/or despair.

On the one hand, when we are told to ‘be better, and here’s how’ without any consideration for our need of grace, pride will likely harden our hearts and convince us that we’ve got this; that we’re fine and that our morality has and will continue to save us; that we don’t need grace or forgiveness for something that we don’t believe we’ve done based on our own standards and that there is no need for help with something that we believe we can achieve on our own.

Yet on the other hand, when we begin to see how helpless and weak we are against our inherent sin and are confronted with the bleakness of our iniquity and see its stark contrast against the holiness of God, our hearts whither in despair, turning to the empty promises of our own morality which has no real power to save in and of itself, but condemns us nonetheless with lies that we didn’t try hard enough, that we didn’t have enough faith, that we didn’t pray enough, tithe enough, fast enough, or read the Bible enough.

The Bible tells us in Matthew 5:48 to ‘be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect.’ We know that this is impossible. If we have any recollection or understanding of our own sinful ways at all, then we know that if this were the standard (which it is), then we are, without question, hopeless. We know that no degree of moralistic achievement or good standing will do us any good, because even the righteous acts of man are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6, NIV).

Yet, if we look back several verses, we will read the life-giving words of Christ saying that though he did not come to rid us of the requirement of perfection according to God’s Law, He did come to fulfill that requirement for us (Matthew 5:17, NIV).

Therefore, we know that to follow Christ is not to be a better person by way of our own efforts, but to love and be in relationship with the only person who could ever completely fulfill God’s requirement for holiness and righteousness.

Instead of asking ourselves ‘what would Jesus do?’ and attempting to do that, the Gospel points us back to what Jesus has already done and then tells us to believe in that!

Christianity only become unattractive when we take away the only attractive thing about it, which is Jesus Christ and the Gospel of His undying love, grace, and mercy for those who are least deserving (all of us).

The beauty of the Gospel and the reason it should be at the center of all that we do is said perfectly in Romans 5:8 and 10 that while we were still sinners,Christ died for us. Therefore, if while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

This Christian life does not neglect or sugar coat the reality that we will never be good enough. Instead of putting before us all these sacred traditions, sacraments, lessons, and morals and giving us this false hope that we can actually achieve reconciliation on our own by following these ’10 steps to a better life,’ the Gospel tells us the truth about who we areentirely sinful and totally incapable of saving ourselves.

Yet it goes on to remind us of a love and a grace that is far greater than all of our failures, all of our wretchedness, all of our frailty, and all of our wickedness.

We are only reminded of this beautiful grace and love that saved us even when we were God’s enemies when we return daily to the Gospel, so that when we do get discouraged by our sin and when we do falter on the edge of despair, we can look back and remember that if He loved us when we were opposed to Him, how much more shall we be saved from our present sin through His life which He freely gives to us.

If you read this and found that any of it resonated with you, please know that there is hope!

You don’t have to fight a losing battle against your sin any longer. You don’t have to bend under the weight of the pride that burdens your heart.

There is freedom in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! So return to it. Return to the good news that we were saved by no attempt or effort or even desire on our part, but entirely by the goodness and grace and pleasure of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So let us throw off everything – all the moralistic legalism, prosperity gospel, pride, and despair – that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles us. Let the joy and peace of knowing this Gospel fill your lungs with new breath that you may run with perseverance, fixing your eyes on Jesus Christ alone.

And the Wind Died Down

Only when we come to recognize and embrace the sweetness of Christ’s grace in the hard times are we able to rejoice in the richness and depth of His grace in the good times.

As the title of my website might suggest, the story of Peter walking on water in Matthew 14 is my favorite story in the Bible. I have realized over the last couple of years how rich this story is with meaning; with truths of grace and mercy and hope in every word.

We can read a story such as this so many times, year after year, and yet, in a single moment, we can read it again and find new meaning and new significance.

When I first started writing, it was like my ‘walking on water’ moment; the moment I knew God was telling me to step out of my comfort zone and walk in faith; to trust Him with the story that He had given me and surrender all that I had gone through and was learning to the purposes of His good and perfect will.

For it is in Him that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Unfortunately, as we human beings often do, I got distracted. I started writing for my own purposes; desiring the approval of those around me more than God’s approval, seeking to write and encourage in ways that I saw best, and following the advice of others rather than trusting in God’s perfect wisdom.

This wandering was not just in my writing though, but in my relationships with others, my walk with the Lord, and in my pursuit of joy and peace.

The words of Robert Robinson’s hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing rang so true in my life at that time – prone to wander, Lord I feel it // prone to leave the God I love.

So with eyes averted and devotion divided, when the wind and waves came, I became afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30)

grace upon grace

In perfect wisdom and love, God used Peter’s failure and mine alike to loudly proclaim His infinite grace. As author C.S. Lewis puts it –

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

And so it was in those moments when I felt way in over my head; drowning in a storm of my own making filled with lies of disappointment, fear, and failure that God spoke the loudest; where grace became the only solid ground on which I could stand.

I cherish those seasons of pain and uncertainty in my life the most though because it is in those moments that leave us stunned and without words that the Lord speaks the loudest.

It is in the moments when we have no where left to turn that His open arms become a sweet refuge.

It is when we are broken that He mends us and makes us whole.

It is when we are empty that He fills us.

And it is only after we have been through a storm that we are able to look back and recognize His saving grace.

and the wind died down

As I look back on 2018, I see beautiful moments of friendship, growth, joy, and hope, as well as tough seasons of anxiety, fear, and doubt. However, more than all of these, I see the unparalleled grace, mercy, and patience of the Lord.

I see my Savior; my Redeemer; the Rescuer of my soul, who despite my moments of resentment and unfaithfulness, never left my side.

When I was broken, He made me whole again.

When I was empty, He fulfilled my every need.

When I felt alone, He comforted me.

When the silence seemed overwhelming, His voice rang loud and clear.

And now, as I look back on the good and bad of 2018 and embrace the Lord’s goodness in the toil and joys alike, I feel the wind dying down around me and grace and peace in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus my Lord (2 Peter 1:2).

It is important though to remember that these seasons of turmoil and rest; of raging storms and quiet waters, all point to a greater reality.

In the storms of life, God loudly proclaims to our bruised and broken spirits that this is not all that there is; that though these sorrows may be painful, they are light and momentary nonetheless.

Storms remind us that we have the hope of eternal and perfect peace in Christ Jesus still waiting for us.

And in the same way, when we are granted seasons of rest and the storms of life die down around us, we are reminded that the good things in this world are but murmurs of the greater weight of glory that is yet to come.

And it is when we recognize this and embrace it in every season of life that we are truly able to rejoice in Christ Jesus; thanking Him with joy and thanksgiving for His good and perfect gifts and sitting back, beaten and bruised by the storms of life to worship Him still.

One of my favorite quotes by John Owen says that ‘beholding the glory of Christ in this life is preparation—small “dawnings of eternal glory”—for the joys of heaven, where we will see Christ in His glory fully.’

This life will be filled with good and bad; with joys and toil, happiness and sorrow. This is simply the reality of our human condition. However, as we learn to recognize and embrace the sweetness of God’s grace in our joys and sorrows on earth, we are preparing our hearts for the day of rejoicing when we will fully behold His glory; when the dawning turns to day, the storm [sin] is silenced forever, and we enter into ‘the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. We will come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. We will come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Hebrews 12:22-24).

We will be Home, where joys abound and the wind is no more.

Let Love Fill You With Christmas Joy This Year

Here we are, just about a week away from Christmas. Dreams of mistletoe and presents tickle the mind as wafting smells of Christmas baking and sounds of holiday singing mingle through the air. The thought of a couple days off from work build with excitement as plans to head home for the holidays receive their final instruction.

For some however, in fact, most, there can be some anxious thoughts surrounding the holidays as well. While this might not be the case for everyone, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we all experience a degree of anxiety when approaching the many family reunions around Christmas time. Because of this, it can be hard to feel the joy of the season; to rejoice as the shepherds did with great delight when the very first Christmas had finally arrived.

As we search for and try to maintain the essence of joy this holiday season, we would be wise to consider the role that love plays in bringing about such season’s greetings. In order to address love as a means of Christmas joy, we must look at Love itself and His first appearance on that oh so holy night.

Based on the December 13, 2018 article by David Mathis, here are three truths to keep in mind this Christmas season.

the first Christmas.

Philippians 2:6-7 says that Christ, ‘being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man.’

We don’t often consider this passage as one to be read during the holidays, but Philippians 2:6-7 is probably one of the most ‘Christmas-y’ passages in the Bible. Not only is this an account of Jesus’ birth, thus reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas, but it also gives us a look at the heart behind Christmas; at the actual essence of that which we are celebrating.

It was not Christ’s impulse to maintain his own rights and privileges as God that brought about the first Christmas, but rather it was His humbled mindset to inconvenience himself and sacrifice his own comfort for the greater gain of mankind (David Mathis).

Instead of grasping for privilege, Christ emptied himself of his own rights.

Therefore, if we are to be of the same ‘mind’ or ‘disposition’ as Christ, we must start by ‘looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:4-5).

The call to love begins here, for love does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5), but desires to serve, love, and benefit those around them. This kind of love then, when grounded in Christ Jesus who is the true centerfold of Christmas, is displayed in us when we get outside of our own interests, comforts, desires, frustrations, rights, and/or preferences and look beyond ourselves to the interests of others, thus sparking the truest kind of Christmas joy in our hearts.

spend and be spent…joyfully.

2 Corinthians 12:15 says that ‘I [Paul] will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?’

In this passage and in his ministry to the people of Corinth, Paul is gladly displaying his love for them by spending and being spent on their behalf.

Do you ever feel spent? Do the holidays leave you feeling utterly exhausted and in need of a vacation from your vacation? Are there times when you wonder if it is all truly worth it; worth the stress, the exhaustion, the irritation, the effort…?

Such feelings of exhaustion and ‘being spent’ are in fact precious in God’s sight and honoring to Him as we image forth His Son, but only when we do so out of a strength and love grounded in Him. It is when we start serving and striving out of our own strength and for our own self-glorification that we draw the attention away from Christ and dishonor Him.

If we look not only at Paul’s ministry, but at the ministry of Christ as well which Paul was imitating, we see such an example of how we are to embrace costly and inconvenient personal losses of time, energy, attention, possessions, money, comfort, and peace of mind for the sake of others. We can only do this well and in a way that pleases the Lord if we do so out of a deep love for Him and an understanding of His sufficient love for us.

This made me think of an article by Bonnie McKernan that reminds us of what it means to look like Christ. ‘It might be letting others lead when I feel the most equipped, or leading when I feel most unable, because God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). It might be keeping quiet when I feel like shouting, or loudly proclaiming when I feel too timid to even whisper. It might be serving others when I most want to be served; it might be resting when serving draws people to me rather than to Christ…’ all of this to the glory of Christ and for the benefit of those around us, including those that are hard to love.

As we look to the glory of God and the interests of others, we imitate the humility of Christ, which in infinite wisdom and love, was displayed for us on the very first Christmas. As we gladly spend and be spent for others, we can remind ourselves of the truth and encouraging words found in Acts 20:35 – ‘for it is more blessed to give than to receive.’

remember your great and eternal possession

Hebrews 10:34 says that ‘we know that we ourselves have a better possession and an abiding one.’ Abiding in this passage is synonymous with ‘lasting’ or ‘eternal.’

When God is our heavenly treasure, the foundation on which our ‘right’ as His sons and daughters rest; when our source of love, energy, compassion, provision, comfort, and peace of mind are in Him, our wells will never run dry and we will be enabled to love without fearing being loved any less, because His love is perfect, unfailing, and sufficient (Jeremiah 31:3, 1 John 3:1).

So often the reason we fail to love others well is because we feel violated in some way; we feel wronged, misjudged, unfairly critiqued, and the victim of malicious intent. However, when we boil these feelings down to their truest belief, what we will often find is fear. We fear exposure. We fear being loved less because of what someone might rightly or wrongly believe about us. We fear the pain of feeling like a failure or a disappointment, and we fear humiliation.

There is no fear in love though, because perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). And there is no love that is perfect apart from the love of Christ Jesus who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself on our behalf by taking the form of a servant and being born in the likeness of man.

When our love for others is found in, grounded upon, and sustained by the love we receive from the Father, we will be enabled and strengthened to endure beyond the point where we’ve just about had enough, and love others from a place of true Christmas joy.

Because You’re Mine

It was ‘Bob Ross’ night as we liked to call it and the four of us had our canvases and paints all ready to go.

The beginning steps weren’t too difficult. We were simply instructed to lay the base colors; the light blues of the sky and the deep greens and browns of the rich earth below.

I was practically Michelangelo at this point.

Then we started adding depth, definition, and contrast.

By the time we got to the mountain range and ‘happy trees,’ I was no better than a 2nd grader with her finger paints.

My final product was anything but perfect. All my hopes and dreams of ever becoming an artist had been swiftly whisked away. But I still loved it.

I thought it was a beautiful painting; worthy of being prominently displayed on my wall where everyone could see it.

Sure it wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t care.

It was mine.

This reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books by Max Lucado, You Are Special.

In this adorable, yet incredibly relevant book; applicable even to the wisest of theologians, our young puppet named Punchinello inquires of his creator, the wood worker named Eli…

“What do I matter to you?”

Eli looked at Punchinello, put his hands on those small wooden shoulders, and spoke very slowly. “Because you’re mine. That’s why you matter to me.”

I absolutely love this part of the story because it is in this moment that the lie every adult knows is confronted … ‘my value lies in what I can or cannot do.’

What a debilitating lie this is.

Our confessional theology; the theology we proclaim to believe in, tells us and the world that our value comes from the One who made us. However, our practical theology; the theology that we actually live by, more often than not tells us and the world that we don’t really believe in what we proclaim.

If we did, there would be no such thing as comparison or pride in our small groups, anxiety when answering a question in Sunday School, or broken friendships among believers.

Rather, our lives tell a story of vain striving; of people who look within rather than above for assurance and value, believing that either…

  1. I’ve got this; or
  2. I suck.

The ‘I’ve got this’ lie suggests to the world that we believe God loves us because of all the good we do while the ‘I suck’ lie implies that we believe that God’s love is conditional; apt to change; to increase or decreased based on our actions or lack thereof.

Both are essentially the same lie – ‘my value lies in what I can or cannot do.’ One is through the lens of pride and the other is through the lens of self-loathing.

Both are equally destructive to the believer’s life.

As I’ve searched deeper into the precious Word of God and developed a greater, more personal understanding of this faith that I claim, I’ve also become more acquainted with the depth of my depravity; of all the ways that I’ve thought wrongly about God and conducted myself accordingly.

This is one of those areas.

I’m only now realizing how much of my life has been driven by this deceptive belief that I had and still have some part to play in determining my value as a Christian.

In some regard this may seem fairly innocent; common even and often masked with sympathetic words such as ‘insecure’ or ‘low-self esteem.’ We might even try to mask this lie with empowering words; words that tell me that I’m ‘self-aware’ or ‘introspective.’

To some degree it’s good to be introspective and aware of one’s motives and actions, but when that turns into a means by which we try to gain favor in God’s eyes, this seemingly innocent misconception suddenly becomes insurmountable.

This lie that I had some part to play in determining my value and worth as a Christian suddenly, when under attack from the enemy, morphed into the lie that I now have a part to play in guaranteeing my salvation.

Yikes! That escalated really quickly!

But do you see how different those two lies are yet how closely they can be related?  Even the slightest fallacy in our beliefs regarding the Gospel is enough for Satan to plunge his dagger of deceit into and twist until we are unraveled by pain, illegitimate guilt, and confusion.

I realized that nearly the entirety of my faith had fed into this lie that I had some part to play in how much (or how little) I was valued by God.

I had a ‘good day, bad day’ faith and once faced with some serious life circumstances, immense fears, and relentless lies from the devil, it quickly stole my focus from that of Jesus Christ standing firm on the water to the fact that I was merely human and could not, within myself, walk on water.

Because I saw myself as part of my own front line defense against Satan rather than the truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Word of God that makes up the impenetrable armor of God (Eph. 6), I presented the enemy with the perfect opportunity to strike at the weakest point in my defense…me!

And I am no match against the powers of hell or the urges of sin, fear, and temptation.

Like Helm’s Deep in the Lord of the Rings – just one, extremely small area of weakness, when targeted by the enemy, was enough to bring down the steadfast walls that protected what was most sacred to the people of Rohan.

Just one, extremely small area of weakness in a believer’s theology and belief in the Gospel is enough to seriously disrupt and derail the security that protects what is most sacred to the Christian’s faith – salvation only by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And since the Word of God alone is secure and infallible, it is only when we, fragile, limited human beings assume some degree of God’s limitless nature as our own that we erode our defenses against the flaming arrows of the enemy.

One might say that I had lost a sense of who I was; of my value as a child of God; of how much I was cherished, loved, and accepted.

However, I didn’t necessarily lose a sense of who I was. In fact, I elevated my sense of who I was and lost a sense and recognition of who God is.

My painting may have had some disproportionate trees, weirdly colored meadows and fields, and shadows that faced the wrong direction, but none of that equated to its value.

The finest works of art do not possess their intrinsic value on their own. They don’t even help in the process. They possess their value because their Artist is intrinsically valuable, making wonderful things because HE is wonderful; imputing HIS glory onto the works of HIS hands despite their inconsistencies and irregularities.

Because we are His, we are special.

Because we are His, we are valuable.

Because we are His, we are saved.