Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


Candy Canes and College Dorms

Watching old home videos recently, I came across a short clip that brought a smile to my face.  It was a few weekends before Christmas and we’d brought our boys to visit Santa.  At the time, they were about three and five and totally enthralled by seeing Mr. Claus in the flesh:

“What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas?”  The red-suited man asks.  Staring wide-eyed, my younger son stammers shyly:  “A candy cane.”  Reaching into a basket, Santa chuckles, hands him one of the many candy canes he’s been giving out all day and responds, “Here you go!  Santa will try to think of something else to bring you for Christmas day.”  Smiling sheepishly, my boys say “Thank you” and slide off his lap.

We all laughed as we watched the video and my older son, now thirteen, asked his eleven year old brother:  “Why did you ask Santa for a candy cane when you already knew he had a basket of them?  You could have asked him for anything!”

My younger son had no real explanation other than, “Well, I saw the candy canes and I wanted one!”

Sheila Walsh shares similar stories in her teaching on “The Promise of More” in The Shelter of God’s Promises.  She points out that people often ask God to give them things that are familiar and comfortable, but not necessarily best for them.  She admonishes us not to settle for what will satisfy us for a moment when God wants to give us so much more.

Sheila highlights an uncomfortable truth:  “We have more than one hundred prophecies in the Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled.  It is easy to ask how the Jews could possibly miss Jesus being the One.  Yet we miss Him all the time because our appetites are not hungry enough for Him.  Governing the world was not what God has in mind, but rather governing our hearts.”  (P. 177)

In our culture, when we hear “The Promise of More” many of us think in terms of the things we’d like for ourselves:  more money; more time; more success; more respect; more friends; more entertainment; more technological gadgets; more health; more security.  You can probably fill in the blank with any number of things.

We might read a passage like Matthew 7:7-8 and see it as a promise that God exists to fulfill our desires:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”   At first glance, it seems like an easy promise to claim and to see fulfilled.

However, many of us have prayed for “more” and not seen results or have received answers that look different than we’d expected.    In my life, this is usually because God is looking to change me more than my circumstances.  As we ask and seek, we grow in relationship with Him.  When we repeatedly ask, He begins to move and work at refining our hearts and aligning our desires with His will.  He has more that He wants to give us than what we’re asking for, which is why He usually isn’t interested in quick fixes.  Like the mall Santa with my son, he could grant our shallow requests for a candy cane and send us happily on our way.  However, in His infinite wisdom, He often says “no” to the “candy canes” in our lives that would keep us from seeing the “more” He has to offer.

The first time I experienced this was in my freshman year of college.  Living in Southern California 350 miles from all that I knew and loved I felt lost in a sea of students.  I struggled to embrace the lifestyle in the dorms.  I was constantly surrounded by people, but felt totally alone. I longed to find deep friendships with others who cared about knowing me truly.  Even the campus ministry I attended just didn’t feel like “home” and I had a hard time finding friends there.

In my loneliness, I pleaded with God to bring me a true friend and to help me find my place in the huge, impersonal university setting.  For the first time in my life I began spending time with God consistently.  I combed the Bible for truths I could claim and poured out my heart to Him in the pages of my journal.  I trusted Him in a way I couldn’t trust my new acquaintances and casual friends.  Spending time with God became my life- line and the only thing that gave me the strength and confidence to face each day.  I ached for a true friend, but I see now that God kept that from me until I was totally dependent upon Him.  He wanted me to lean into Him and to develop the deep relationship with Him that I longed to have with another person.  He wanted to give me more of Him than I ‘d ever had before.  Looking back, I remember all the feelings of insecurity and loneliness, but I also recognize how God met me and stretched me. He laid the foundation for a deeply personal relationship with Him that has continued growing ever since.  Eventually He did bring solid friendships into my life, but He also gave me more than that.  He knew what I needed better than I did.

All these years later, I still seek God daily and trust Him to give me the wisdom and confidence to carry me through each day.   I pray for Him to pour out His Spirit on me so that I am filled to over-flowing.  I see now that each time we ask Him for more of Himself in our lives, He expands our capacity to receive Him and to bless others.  When we stop asking Him to do only what we want and instead invite Him to let His will be done, we will see the “more” that He has to offer.

How about you?  Do you see places in your life where you are seeking the world’s version of “more” and missing out on the deeper things God wants to give you?   Where would you like to see Him give you “more” this week?   Post a comment and share it with us!


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Building Your Core Strength

“God leads us by unexpected ways, off the strong and solid land.”

-Amy Carmichael

Clenching my toes in the wet sand, I looked up at the grey clouds filtering the early morning sun.  It was the last day of our family vacation and I planned to make the most of it, whether it rained or not.  Stand-up Paddle Surfing had been our family’s favorite activity in the Newport Harbor all week.  The final morning dawned cool and damp after an overnight rainstorm, but the calm bay beckoned me onward.  Other days we’d stood on the beach in gentle afternoon breezes that felt more like fierce headwinds once we paddled out on the bay.  Battling strong currents and choppy water, we’d bent our knees to avoid being toppled by wakes of passing boats. Each day we paddled out, our core muscles became stronger and our legs more steady as we balanced on the constantly moving boards.  I didn’t want to pass up the chance to glide through calm waters on that final day.

To the casual observer, paddle surfing hardly looks like a sport.  Before I tried it, people told me it was a great “core” workout.  Although I’d often been unaware when out on the water, the soreness of my muscles afterward told me they were right. Our “core” is essentially our torso, which Certified Personal Trainer Paige Waehner describes as “the body’s center of power.”  She explains that “these core muscles help keep your body stable and balanced.”  Waehner says that among the benefits of working on the core is having “interesting workouts that challenge you in new and different ways.”

Having a strong physical core significantly impacts our quality of life.  It makes our bodies more durable and less susceptible to injury.  Similarly, having a strong spiritual core affects every part of our daily lives.  The more we lean into God and trust His promises, the stronger our core becomes.  His strength becomes part of the fiber of who we are and is readily available for us at all times.  And just like those physical core workouts, God give us challenges that stretch us in new and different ways.

It takes consistent sweat and effort to build our physical strength, whether it is by intentionally doing core-strengthening workouts or engaging in an activity like paddle surfing where it happens naturally.  Similarly, our spiritual core strengthening can happen in several ways. We can be diligent about studying God’s word, praying, serving, giving and connecting with others who follow Him.  However, sometimes we get a spiritual core-strengthening workout when we least expect it.   In The Shelter of God’s Promises Sheila Walsh says “Life’s greatest trials often come without a moment’s notice.  There is no prep time or convenient moment to book them on our daily calendars.  They brutishly make their way into our lives and threaten to undo us…When we look back, those moments can become milestones and strong pillars of our testimony because we survived on His strength alone” (p. 152).   If our disciplined pursuit of God strengthens our spiritual “muscles”, then the trials we face provide the opportunity to show off God’s strength.

The Bible assures us we are going to have trials, but how we respond to them is our choice. Jesus tells us in John 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  If we really believe this, we can be encouraged knowing that God is trustworthy.   He has the big picture in mind for our lives that we can’t always see from our limited perspective.

Looking back, I realize how God has used trials to strengthen my core and to increase my trust in Him.  I didn’t enjoy going through them, but I am thankful for the ways He used them to strengthen me.  Through the things I’ve learned, I have been able to encourage others going through similar difficulties.  I can point to specific scriptures that brought hope and reassurance to me in hard times:  1 Peter 1:6-7 as I struggled through my freshman year in college, Jeremiah 17:7-8 and Psalm 27:13-14 as my husband and I prayed through a major career change for him, Psalm 62 & 63 during some severe illnesses of different family members.  Those passages became a lifeline for me, reassuring me of God’s presence and enabling me to have a supernatural strength I never could have had on my own.

Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling is one of my favorite daily devotionalsEach day’s writing combines several scriptures and speaks to the reader as if it is directly from the voice of God.  A recent entry caught my eye: “Learn to appreciate difficult days.  Be stimulated by the challenges you encounter along your way.  As you journey through rough terrain with Me, gain confidence from your knowledge that together we can handle anything.  This knowledge is comprised of three parts:  your relationship with Me, promises in the Bible, and past experiences of coping successfully during hard times.” (p.327)

So, when the headwinds blow and I’m struggling against the current, I can bend my knees and dig in my paddle with confidence knowing that God is going to give me strength I need.

What about you?  When has God led you in “unexpected ways off solid land”?  Do you have a few Bible verses that have sustained you through hard times?  As you look back, what milestones reveal God’s strength that you never could have mustered on your own?  Post a comment and share it to encourage and strengthen others!


Finding Grace in our First World Problems

“God is more interested in our weaknesses than our strengths. Our strengths cause us to be self-reliant.  Our troubles are God’s grace in disguise.” –Paraphrase of Sheila Walsh

Troubles are something many of us go to great lengths to avoid.  Our culture feeds us continuous messages telling us the value of self-reliance, the importance of playing to our strengths and the assurance that we deserve the best of everything.  Patience used to be considered a virtue, but our culture seems to be doing everything in its power to make it so we never have to wait for anything, ever.  Unfortunately, it seems that much of what we are learning from the world around us is contrary to God’s economy.  We are actually being trained to circumvent our troubles and to coddle our weaknesses instead of turning to God and His strength to sustain us through them.

Oftentimes it takes extreme situations for people to recognize that they aren’t self- sufficient and that they do need God’s grace.  It might be facing a life-threatening illness or financial trouble; a high needs child or a hidden addiction.  It might be suffering from abuse or deep-seated loneliness.   People facing dire circumstances with no earthly solutions often find God’s grace to be the only true comfort.

However, what about those of us cruising through a season of life with relative ease?   Is God’s grace still relevant in those times?  What prompts us to cry out to Him when we aren’t facing a trauma?  How can we be reminded daily of our need for Him?

Recently I learned a term from a friend’s teenage daughter that really strikes a cord with me.  It’s called having a “First World Problem.”   The example she gave was this:  “There was this pair of Nike running shoes I really wanted in this amazing color called Tiffany Blue.  I went to every store in the area and they were out of my size.  I’m kinda bummed because I could only find them in Neon Pink… I know, total First World Problem, but still…”  You might not be pining for a pair of Nike running shoes, but can you relate?  Here in the First World, we worry about the color of our shoes, not whether we have shoes or not.

It could be easy to feel guilty comparing our First World Problems to the rest of the earth, but that isn’t my point.  God can use even seemingly shallow “troubles” in our daily lives to convict our hearts and point us back toward Him.  This is His grace.   He is always ready and waiting to use our trials, both large and small, to turn our eyes off of ourselves and onto Him.

For me, the truth of this became abundantly clear last year when my house was being remodeled and absolutely nothing went according to plan.  This was a definite First World Problem, but as I prayed through each frustration, I found God using the whole situation to refine me and to reveal His grace in deeper ways.  While I lamented living without a kitchen for 6 months, I also thanked God that I had a roof over my head, food to eat and the promise of a new kitchen that would be finished eventually.  With each frustration and roadblock, my husband and I would stop and pray:  “God, what do you want us to learn from this?  What are you trying to show us that we’re not seeing?”  He revealed many attitudes and behaviors that needed changing.   He also showed us the many, many blessings He showers on us every day.

I can also attest to seeing God’s grace in grave difficulties as I’ve sent family members home to heaven and have walked with others through serious illnesses.  He has been there for me in times of deep loneliness, extreme stress and dark depression.  What I’m learning is that He’s also ready to invade my life with His grace in my weaker moments each day.  When I want to make a snap judgment about a person or situation, His Spirit whispers in my ear.  I have the choice to exercise self-control and extend grace or to keep plowing ahead with my own critical spirit.  When things I want to control don’t turn out the way I plan, I can put up a fit and be grumpy, or lean into God’s grace and trust that His plan is ultimately better.  First Peter 4:10 is a good reminder for me:  “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”  (My italics.)

How about you?  How is God at work in your First World Problems?  Where is He inviting you to rely on His grace in every day situations?  If you’re anything like me, this whole topic might sting a bit as God convicts you.  Try leaning into His grace and surrendering your weaknesses to Him.  Share what you’re learning by writing a comment so that others can be encouraged and inspired!