Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Genuine Faith: 1 Peter Week 1

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Faith over Fear- No Other Gods Session 8

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The Road Ahead- No Other Gods Session 7

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The green, rolling hills seemed to be calling my name. After weeks of cold, wet weather, I couldn’t wait to enjoy the sunshine that had finally arrived between storms. Reaching for my phone, I texted a friend: “How about taking a hike?”

Although a walk in the hills meant cutting into the time I’d carved out to tackle some projects at home, I knew being outside was just what I needed. A few hours on the trail would make me more energized and productive than a day of sitting alone in front of a computer screen.

Imagine my delight when I returned home later and discovered Psalm 121 included in Session 7 of Kelly Minter’s No Other Gods:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip–he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,  nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

I love the imagery in this passage and how easily the path described in it parallels our faith journey with Jesus. It is one of the fifteen Psalms known as the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120 through 134). The Israelites would have sung these words as the made their pilgrimages to the Three Great Feasts described in Exodus 23:14-19. Most likely, they would have envisioned themselves ascending the fifteen steps at the temple in Jerusalem (one Psalm for each step). Three times a year faithful Israelites would have journeyed over treacherous paths from far-reaching villages to worship God at the feasts. As they traveled, they passed the time singing laments and praises. The majesty of God’s creation reminded them of his power and sovereignty and spurred them on as they traveled through arduous terrain.

Over the course of studying No Other Gods, we’ve been on a challenging journey too as we’ve identified and relinquished idols. What we must keep in mind, however, is that the journey will continue long after we’ve closed our workbooks and moved on to a new study. The path of spiritual growth doesn’t have a stopping point. We won’t arrive at a destination on this side of heaven. While this thought may make you weary, take heart and consider the observations made in Psalm 121.

-We are not alone on the journey, ever. Our help comes from God. However, relying on him involves lifting our eyes up to see him and to recognize the ways he is working in and around us. Looking down or being self-focused will only hinder our growth.

-We must continually remind ourselves about God’s character and capabilities. Having direct access to the Maker of Heaven and Earth is not something to take for granted.

-We must reassure ourselves that God is never asleep at the switch. He’s never caught off guard by something unexpected, even when we are. He is always vigilant and aware, whether we are or not.

-God shelters us and watches over us. He’s with us on the journey and always has something to teach us through the different processes that unfold in our lives.

-God will never leave us. He was with us in the past, is with us in the present and will be with us in the future.

Remembering these things helps me to take a deep breath and stop trying to figure out life on my own. As much as I like things to be neat, orderly and in their places, I’m learning to trust God while things are still in process and end results aren’t clear. I’m remembering to look to him when I’m fearful or confused or anxious instead of rushing to find comfort or reassurance from an idol. I don’t know what’s on the road ahead, but I do know God is with me every step of the way.

Bebo Norman’s song “I Will Lift My Eyes” is a more contemporary version of a Psalm of Ascent. Click on the link to and make it your prayer as you listen.

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Assuming God is Good- No Other Gods Session 6

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Giggling from the backseat, my son read the completed Mad Lib aloud to his brother and friends. At the time, the boys were in elementary school—a prime age for reveling in the silliness of this classic fill-in-the-blanks activity. You probably remember doing Mad Libs of your own in younger days: one person acts as the scribe and asks the group for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech to write into blanks in a pre-written story the participants haven’t read. The results are usually funny—especially with boys who strive to choose the most ridiculous words they can think of.

As we get older, we continue filling in the blanks mentally, but the results are usually less fun and often reap more negative results. We get in the habit of making assumptions and filling in gaps of information with our best guesses. For many of us, these are more negative than positive. We do it all the time with other people. We also do it with God.

That’s why I find the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac, so astounding. As a test, God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable and kill his cherished child as an offering on the altar. Yet never once do we see Abraham getting angry with God or assuming he’s cruel. Scripture gives us a few clues about how Abraham saw the situation. The first is in Genesis 22 as Abraham prepared to take Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him:

“He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’” (Genesis 22:5, NIV)

Despite the plans he had to sacrifice his son, he told the servants both he and Isaac would return. Why would he say that? I used to think he was just trying to act casually to cover up what he was about to do, but now I see that it may actually have been an example of his faith in God. A few minutes later Isaac asked his father where they would find an animal to sacrifice and Abraham replied:

“`God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.” (Genesis 22:8, NIV)

Again, I used to think Abraham was stalling and giving an excuse to Isaac, but now I see that he really believed what he said. At the moment Abraham raised his hand to kill his son, an angel called out to him, showing that God was, indeed, trustworthy:

“`Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’ Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” (Genesis 22:12-14, NIV)

In Hebrews 11:17-19, we discover more insight about Abraham’s perspective on God, especially regarding the sacrifice of Isaac:

“Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (NIV)

This story is hard to grasp on many levels, but what strikes me as I read it this time is Abraham’s unwavering trust in God. Never once did he accuse God of being cruel or unfair, even though what he was asked to do would cut any parent to the core. Abraham believed God was good and trusted him to provide.

I’m humbled by Abraham’s faith as I recall the many times I’ve filled in the blanks with negative assumptions about God. How many times have I fretted over a difficult or uncertain situation instead of simply laying it at his feet, knowing he is trustworthy? When have I demanded to know why God allowed pain in my life instead of trusting that he would use it for his perfect purposes? If I’m honest, there are many times I’ve struggled to believe the promise of Romans 8:28:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV)

Instead of filling in the blanks with positive assumptions about how God will work in the unknown, I tend to fret and worry he won’t come through. For many of us, we assume God is either not paying attention or not going to act in time, so we turn to idols. We want God to work for good according to our purposes instead of his. So we look for comfort, security and control in other things instead of trusting him and waiting for him patiently. We “fill in the blanks” with idols when God doesn’t do what we want, when we want, how we want. All the while, we’re forgetting what Abraham remembered, even in his darkest hour. God is good. God is for us. God loves us. He has plans for us. He knows us. He knows what we need. He keeps his promises. His timing is perfect.

For me, the best way to remember this is to fill my mind with truth about God. I’ve found listening to good music with sound theology is a great method for doing this. So often, I find myself mentally playing a song that reminds me who God is and keeps me from filling in the blanks with negative thoughts. I’m always drawn back to my good, good Father. Click on the link to marinate in truth about God by listening to Chris Tomlin’s “Good, Good Father.”

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Good Goodbyes-No Other Gods Session 5

To my wonderful Life in Focus subscribers: Please note that I have a new website that includes identical  blog posts to the ones you read here plus many other great resources (plus all of the archives).  I plan to phase out lifeinfocusblog and to post exclusively at www.marybethmccullum.com in the near future. Please consider subscribing to my new site to continue receiving my posts in your inbox.  Thanks for considering!!

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The mama swallow clung to the wall just below her peeping chicks. Perched on the edge of the mud nest in the eaves, her babies flapped their tiny wings. Every few minutes, she would take flight, circling back to the nest and squawking at her chicks, encouraging them to spread their wings and fly. One by one, the babies wobbled out of the nest, plummeted a few feet and then discovered what they were made to do. There was one tiny bird, however, that clung to the nest long after the others had flown off. The mama squawked insistently, darting back and forth near her little one to encourage him to fly. When he finally did, we couldn’t help cheering, feeling privileged to have witnessed his momentous first flight.

I thought about that moment as I read Kelly Minter’s fifth lesson in No Other Gods entitled “Good Goodbyes.” Like the mother swallow urging her chicks to take flight, Minter encourages us to examine the things in our lives that we might need to bid farewell if we’re serious about eliminating idols. For many of us, staying in the cozy, warm nest feels a lot more comfortable and secure than launching out. Although the freedom of flying beckons us, we’re more worried about plummeting to the ground.

Ironically, some of the things God calls us to bid farewell didn’t start out as idols, they were actually good things that helped us to grow. But once we start relying on them to fill us or to provide comfort or security, they can become idols.  And then it’s time to say goodbye. For me, this has often been related to the desire to belong. I’ve spent a good portion of my life viewing myself as an outlier, someone often on the outside looking in. So when I’ve found a person or group where I feel accepted and included, I can latch on pretty tightly—to a degree that often becomes unhealthy. Regardless of whether it’s people in a women’s Bible study, an accountability group or a few close friends, I always need to monitor how much I’m looking to them for identity and reassurance. There are times when God has had to remove me from a group before I’m able to see that I was clinging to it more tightly than I should have been. Here are a few other situations where good goodbyes may be in order:

A role you’re used to playing:

Maybe you’re so accustomed to being in charge, leading or hosting that you’re preventing others from having the opportunity to grow and be stretched in new ways. This could be true in a family, a church, a small group, a volunteer organization or at work.

On the other hand, maybe you’re used to being served and being a participant. You like having little or no responsibility so that you can come and go as you please. Or maybe you’re accustomed to playing the cynic, always seeing what’s wrong with a group so that you have an excuse for never engaging it on a deeper level.

Regardless of which description you identify with above, if you’re in a position that is causing you to be stagnant or that is preventing others the opportunity for growth, it may be time for a “good goodbye” to that role.

A person you’re depending on:

 God brings people into our lives at different seasons to pour into us, to nurture us and to help us develop our potential. Sometimes he blesses us with a partner in ministry that brings the perfect amount of balance and support. But just like the mama bird has to urge her chicks out of the nest, there comes a time when we need to spread our wings and fly. When we begin to depend upon a specific person to continue feeding and supporting us, we may be unintentionally making a new idol.

Even Jesus, the ultimate mentor, left the earth so that his disciples could learn to rely on the Holy Spirit (see John 14 for more on this). Jesus’ physical departure from earth catapulted Peter and the apostles into key leadership roles in the burgeoning Christian church. Think about the power and authority Peter showed in the book of Acts compared to his impulsivity and immaturity in the gospels. Through relying on the Holy Spirit, he led many disciples in spreading the good news of the gospel in Jerusalem, “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8b, NIV)

Similarly, there may come a time when you’re called to move on from people you depend on or partner with. It can be a “good goodbye” if you take the things you’ve learned from them, rely on the Holy Spirit, spread your wings and fly.

 A group you value:

 As Christians, we are called into community. When we find like-minded people we can journey beside in life, this is a true blessing. In Acts chapter 2 the fellowship of believers enjoyed meeting together daily to break bread and grow in faith. We know they weren’t a closed group because Scripture tells us “they added to their numbers daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47b). Eventually, however, the believers scattered in the face of persecution and in the process they spread the gospel far and wide.  It was probably painful for the fellowship to break apart, but ultimately it enabled them to impact many more people.

Sometimes a “good goodbye” may be in order when we want to remain part of a particular group so much that we’re holding ourselves back from a new calling God has for us. If we lock arms with others and look inward instead of trusting God’s leading, we are dangerously close to making that cherished group into an idol.

Jeremy Camp’s song “Christ in Me” challenges me to remember that when I relinquish my idols and fix my gaze on Jesus, I find true freedom. Click on the link to hear a musical inspiration for saying “good goodbyes.”

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The Idol of People-Pleasing- No Other Gods Session 4

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Opening my No Other Gods workbook, the title of Session 4 caught my eye: “The Problem with Idols: People Gods.” As I read through Kelly MInter’s lesson and learned about the ways we make people into idols, the faces of different individuals I’ve idolized over the years popped into my mind. But as I dug deeper into the study, I realized that for me, the problem wasn’t so much about specific people, but about my constant need to please people in general.

For years I’ve jokingly referred to myself as a “recovering people-pleaser.” You may recognize the term “recovering” from Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s because just like someone who struggles with addiction, I have to take one day at a time fighting the urge to be a pleaser. I go through phases where I’m strong and confident and it’s less of an issue and other seasons when I’m racked with guilt anytime I think I’ve failed someone. Ironically, this post is an edited version of one I wrote a while back. It’s humbling to realize this is an ongoing issue I need to relinquish to God time and time again. People pleasers have been around for generations but just so we’re clear, here’s my definition (based on personal experience):

 A people pleaser is constantly aware of the wants and needs of those around her. She feels overly responsible for others. She bases her sense of well being on the happiness of others in her presence. She rarely asserts her own desires for fear she will displease others. She often has no opinion because she wants to do whatever makes those in her presence most happy or comfortable. She has trouble receiving kind gestures from others because she constantly feels bad and assumes she is being an inconvenience or an annoyance.

The root of people pleasing is a fear of what others think and a desire for approval based on outward actions. Ultimately, it boils down to insecurity and idolatry, not courtesy, kindness or love.

Self- Evaluation:

Does the definition make you squirm? Rather than feeling hurt or offended, how about taking some time to evaluate your people-pleasing tendencies? Consider the following:

-How often do you say, “I feel bad” or “I feel guilty” when you don’t meet an expectation you think someone else has for you?

Before going any further, think about why you feel bad or guilty. Is it because you are worried about what someone will think of you? Is it because you see a need you are unable to meet? Is it because you are choosing to do nothing when you should be doing something? Try to determine the root cause and then either do something about it or stop feeling guilty (which isn’t biblical anyway). When we serve and help others, it needs to be out of love, not guilt.

-How often do you say “I should” or “I had to”?

This can be a sign that your motivation is external rather than internal. Sometimes there are things you genuinely “should” do, such as helping someone in an emergency or meeting a need that is appropriate for you to fill. Sometimes we do things because the Bible says we should. They are the right things to do. Other times, however, people pleasers feel they must do certain things in order to meet someone else’s expectations. You don’t “have” to do something just because you’ve always done it or because someone thinks you would be good at it (especially if it’s a volunteer commitment.)

No Joy in Serving

One thing is sure, when you say, “yes” because you feel guilty about letting someone down, there will be little joy in your act of kindness. The thrill of saying, “yes” to please another person fades quickly if that is your only motivation. If there is no joy behind your choice to serve, bitterness results. Plus, the person being served doesn’t feel especially loved if your actions are motivated purely by guilt or duty.

Pleasers Confuse Others

People pleasers are confusing or frustrating to be around because you never know what they really want. It becomes a guessing game to figure out if their words and actions are genuine or simply said and done to please you. It is also unclear if they are being honest, which can lead to trust issues and elevated anxiety for others. Ultimately, it is difficult to have an authentic, loving relationship with a people-pleaser.

Pleasing Can Lead to Sin

Sometimes when our attention is focused on pleasing others, we make compromises that go against what we know is right. When we are willing to sacrifice our values and standards because we don’t want to offend or displease others, we are making them into idols.

No- Win Situation

It’s no secret that people are fickle. Trying to please them is a losing battle because they change their minds regularly. It is impossible to please multiple people simultaneously when they have differing opinions. Trying to do it is like attempting to submerge a bunch of Ping-Pong balls in a bucket. There is no way to hold all of them under water at the same time, no matter how hard you try!  (I attempted it just to make sure).IMG_7830

Please God, Bless People

The apostle Paul sums this up simply– our goal needs to be pleasing Christ, not others: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10, NIV) Make it your goal to please God. Doing this will honor Him and ultimately bless others.

Music and Books to Encourage You

Sometimes people pleasers struggle with feelings of inadequacy. We try hard to measure up through earning favor with others and we live in fear of disapproval. Yet when we remember how deeply loved we are by God, it frees us to love others without expecting them to meet our endless needs. If you want to learn more, scroll down for some suggested books that can help you get some healthy perspective on people-pleasing. Be sure to click on the link and be encouraged by Hawk Nelson’s song “Live Like You’re Loved.” Then go out and live like you believe it’s true.

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