Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Trusting God with the Impossible

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My mind has been swimming in words for the past week. For six days straight I’ve had books spread over my desk as I’ve been writing curriculum for a Bible study on the women in Jesus’ genealogy. Delving deeply into their lives, I’ve discovered connections I’d never noticed before.   For starters, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, have something pretty spectacular in common.

You might remember Sarah, from Genesis. At the age of sixty-five she agrees to leave the only home she’s ever known to follow God’s command and move hundreds of miles with Abraham to Canaan. Scripture tells us Sarah is barren. In spite of this, God promises Abraham he will father a great nation one day. After waiting ten years, Sarah begins to lose hope and decides to take matters into her own hands. Following a common practice for her time period, she suggests that Abraham conceive a child with her maid, Hagar. Although the union does produce a son, God makes it clear that the child, Ishmael, is not the one who will fulfill His promise.

Finally, when Sarah is eighty-nine and Abraham is ninety-nine, the LORD tells them the time has come for her to conceive. Sarah will bear a child at the age of ninety. When she laughs at the absurdity of the news, God says to Abraham:

Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:14, NIV)

Sure enough, a year later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, the child promised by God twenty-five years earlier.

In the New Testament, the story of Jesus’ birth shows another version of God doing the impossible. This time, His chosen instrument is not a ninety-year old woman but a young girl, barely in her teens. When an angel named Gabriel visits Mary proclaiming she will be the mother of the Messiah, she asks: “How will this be since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel tells her the child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and ends his proclamation declaring: “For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37, NIV)

I’ve been thinking about these two passages all week.   God asks the rhetorical question in the Old Testament: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” and Gabriel answers it in the New Testament: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Throughout the pages of Scripture, we see examples that show these words are true. But sometimes we forget that the stories in the Bible are real situations that happened to real people. We boil down the spectacular into cute children’s stories and forget that God really did (and does) amazing things all the time.

The same God who did impossible things in the Old and New Testaments is living and active today. When I forget this, I waste time worrying. For example, if I truly believe God has called me to write the Bible study I mentioned earlier, then why do I still lie awake at night fretting I won’t finish it by the deadline? Or, if I truly believe God changed a Christian-hater like Saul into one of His greatest evangelists, then why do I struggle to imagine Him softening the hearts of certain people I know who need Him desperately?

Reading these stories reminds me that God accomplishes His will in His timing according to His plans, not mine. I can try to manipulate circumstances like Sarah did, but I will never accomplish His purposes without Him.

How about you? Does something seem impossible in your life right now? Are you willing to consider whether it is what God wants for you or not? This might sound scary, but take a risk and ask God to align your will with His. Sometimes He’ll answer your prayer in the way you envision, but often He has a different, better plan. Many times He changes our characters or attitudes instead of our circumstances.

Jesus says, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:14, NIV)

Many of us use the phrase, “In Jesus name” in our prayers because it’s what He instructed us to do. In fact, Jesus says it six different times in the gospel of John alone. Although we may view this as a nice phrase to wrap up our prayers, it’s really meant as an acknowledgement of two things:

1) The only reason we can have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe is because His son paid the penalty for our sin by dying on the cross. We can approach God only because we’ve been washed in the blood of Christ.

2) We want to see His will accomplished, not ours. We affirm that the things we are asking for in prayer align with what Jesus would want for us.  Our wills are inconsequential.

So, think back to your “impossible” thing. Is it something that would please God?  Or are you trying to convince Him that your will is really the best plan?  Does it align with His Word? If you’re not sure, study the Bible, pray and ask Him to make it clear. Understanding God’s will allows you to pray with wild abandon and to celebrate that nothing is impossible for Him.

Click on the link to hear the upbeat encouragement of “Impossible” by Building 429.

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Being Available for Transformation

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Crawling into my sleeping bag, I fluffed my pillow and lay down to gaze at the midnight sky.   With the velvety darkness of our remote location, it seemed the sky was ablaze with more stars than I’d ever seen. I immediately spotted the Milky Way and the Big Dipper and wished I knew the names and configurations of the other constellations that burned so brightly.

Each night as I climbed the ladder to the houseboat roof, I looked forward to settling in to enjoy God’s handiwork before drifting off to sleep. Surrounding me were fourteen teenage girls, away for a week of camp with our church youth group. We were one of the twenty-two boats staked on the shores of Lake Shasta to enjoy a week of growing in faith and friendships while participating in team competitions, water sports and nightly worship gatherings. It was a powerful week of experiencing community and basking in God’s love.

Throughout the five days,  I continued to be struck by the night sky and how it was a metaphor for the trip. Although the many twinkling stars I admired are always in the sky, it wasn’t until I got away from the lights and pollution of the city that I was able to see them. Similarly, the students and leaders on the trip were accustomed to leading busy lives full of activities, responsibilities and noise. But by removing themselves from the clutter and distraction of daily life, they were available for God’s transforming power to work in and through them.  They could see and feel Him consistently.

During the week we had time to discuss biblical truth, to reflect on where we were in our walks with Jesus, to struggle with difficult concepts, to be still before God and to read His Word. We also played hard, laughed often and sang praises to the One who created the beauty that surrounded us. We came home tired, but refreshed; depleted physically but filled spiritually.

Maybe your experience with God is like the night sky I’m accustomed to seeing at home: a few of the brightest stars are visible, but man-made lights and unclean air obscure the majority.   We engage God at times, but fail to see the fullness of the life He has to offer because we’re so consumed with doing things on our terms. We want to keep Him contained within our parameters so that life will remain safe and comfortable. When we do this, we forego the beauty of the brilliant night sky because we want security and predictability of a “normal” life. Sadly, this type of living is so focused on controlling our environment that it keeps us from seeing God fully.

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul invites us to be transformed people that are living sacrifices to God. When we reject the world’s way of thinking and embrace God’s plans for us, we are renewed and transformed. We see Him clearly and allow Him to use us to further His kingdom on earth. Our perspective is changed and we experience the joy and fulfillment of living for Him instead of ourselves.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)

Inviting God to transform you is a daily discipline, not a one-time transaction. Over time, He will reveal Himself to you and change you. Ultimately, it’s like getting to see the whole night sky in all of its brilliance. You’ll be left breathless in awe and wonder at the ways God moves and works.  You’ll experience the joy of being used by Him when you put your own agenda aside.  It isn’t always easy to live this way, but it’s definitely worth it.

Click on the link to hear Phil Wickham’s “This is Amazing Grace.” You’ll be reminded of the rich and abundant life available to us as we live for Jesus and let Him transform us.


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Waiting Well

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Climbing into the driver’s seat, my sixteen-year-old son started the car and drove us out of the parking lot. Staring at the road ahead, he said, “No offense, Mom, but I can’t wait ‘till I can drive places by myself. It feels like I’m the only one in my grade who doesn’t have a license yet.” He still had a few weeks to go before his driving test and was itching for the freedom his classmates had.

I smiled, remembering my own impatience to take the drivers test on my sixteenth birthday. Much to my humiliation, I failed it not once, but twice. The ongoing waiting and practicing seemed endless to me. Finally, six months after I turned sixteen, I passed the test and could drive on my own. I was a much better driver than I’d been previously. Although I hadn’t liked being humbled and forced to wait, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I don’t know anyone who likes waiting. In fact, our society seems consumed with finding ways to shorten or eliminate waiting altogether. Advertisements abound with promises of delivering goods and services faster. We are being conditioned to become a culture of impatient people. We want instant gratification and we want it now.

There are some things, however, that just take time. We are forced to be patient as we wait for a pregnancy to come to term, a job offer to arrive, or a home to be remodeled. We must be patient waiting for physical or emotional healing. Sometimes we have to be patient while we wait for someone else to make a decision that impacts us. But while we wait, a process is unfolding and God is at work. I like to think of it as a flower blooming. A tightly closed bud that is forced to open early will be ruined. Only time and patience will reveal the beauty of the flower as its petals slowly unfurl.

The Bible is filled with characters that had to wait. And while they waited, God was at work in their hearts, minds and circumstances. He was preparing them for His plan and would not reveal it until the time was right.

One of my favorite examples is King David. We learn in 1 Samuel 16 that the God directed the prophet Samuel to anoint David as the next King of Israel at the age of twenty. However, David spent the following ten years of his life hiding in the desert, fleeing from the murderous threats of the current King of Israel, Saul. It was not until David was thirty that he finally took the throne of Israel (2 Samuel 5).

Were those years of waiting a waste? I think not. David had a lot of maturing to do. God used that time to teach him, to humble him and to develop his skills as a leader. David won over the hearts of the Israelites as they saw his character, his integrity and his devotion to God. Despite the people’s love for him, he refused to harm King Saul or usurp the throne, even when others goaded him to do it. He waited until Saul’s death to claim what had been promised to him. And during that time, he wrote many of the Psalms that people have been reading for thousands of years since. David poured out his emotions to God in the lines he wrote. Think what we would have missed if he hadn’t been forced to wait on God. We are blessed by his words because he waited well. Knowing this makes reading the psalms he wrote even more encouraging:

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:13-14 NIV)

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” (Psalm 130:5 NIV)

Waiting on God is not waiting in vain. We can live each day knowing that God has placed us where we are for a reason. He has things to teach us at every step of our journeys. Learning to wait well means looking to God to refine your character, to smooth out your rough edges and to build your trust in Him.

After months of waiting, the day of my son’s driving test finally arrived. By the time he pulled into the DMV, he had logged numerous hours behind the wheel practicing in a variety of situations– crossing bridges during rainstorms, navigating the streets of San Francisco at rush hour, crawling down a two lane country road behind painfully slow tractors, driving fast on freeways and slow in suburban neighborhoods. His wait for the freedom of driving alone had been filled with opportunities to learn and improve his skills.

He approached the test with cautious optimism. Being one of the last to turn sixteen, he knew friends who had passed and others who had failed. He was ready for the wait to end and hoped the DMV tester would agree.

The grin on his face when he returned from the driving test told me all I needed to know. It was a satisfying end to a wait that seemed like an eternity to him.

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Many of us have been waiting much longer for much bigger issues. If you are in a season of waiting, let me encourage you to spend your energy seeking God and learning to trust Him. If you endure a wait with your focus on your circumstances, you are likely to become anxious, impatient, or bitter. Instead, I encourage you to use the time to pursue God. You’ll find a deeper understanding of Him, an appreciation for His Word and a more thankful heart when your season of waiting comes to an end. Wait well and watch how He uses it to produce wisdom, maturity and faith in you.

The band Tenth Avenue North has a song called “Stars in the Night.” It uses the metaphor of sailors charting their course on the high seas by using the stars. It is an encouragement for Christians to use the promises of God as the “stars in the night” to light their paths and give them hope in dark and confusing times of waiting.

For additional encouragement on this topic, see my post from January 2014 “When Praying Expectantly Wears Thin.”


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The Problem with People-Pleasing

IMG_7823 My strained smile gave an answer before I even opened my mouth. My husband had spontaneously invited me to cancel my morning plans so we could spend time together. I wanted to say “yes,” I really did. But the hesitation in my response betrayed my thoughts. There were several friends I had plans with that would be disappointed by my last-minute cancellation. It was a true dilemma for a people-pleaser like me. No matter how I answered, I would be letting someone down.

Realizing the struggle I was facing, my husband stayed upbeat. “Sounds like the timing doesn’t work for today. We can do it another time.” He didn’t want me to feel bad, but I still did. He kissed me goodbye and left for the day as I stewed in guilt and frustration. How many times had I found myself in this situation? I hated saying “no” if it meant someone was going to be disappointed, even if it was the right choice to make.

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. 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. 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 wants 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, not courtesy, kindness or love.

Self- Evaluation:

Does the definition make you squirm? Here are a few things to consider as you evaluate your people pleasing tendencies:

-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 others because you never know what they really want. It becomes a guessing game to figure out if their answers are genuine or simply said to please you (this is part of a pleaser’s inability to receive kind gestures from others.)

No- Win Situation

It’s no secret that people are fickle. Trying to please people 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).

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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 to Encourage You

Sometimes people pleasers struggle with feelings of inadequacy. We try hard to measure up through earning favor with others. Yet in God’s eyes, we’re already made perfect through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Click on the link to hear Mercy Me’s inspiring new song “Flawless.”

Recommended Reading

If people-pleasing is an issue for you or someone you love, here are two books you will find helpful:

Speaking the Truth in Love: How To Be an Assertive Christian by Ruth N. Koch & Kenneth C. Haugk

The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demands by Lysa TerKeurst


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God in Your Photo Albums

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Turning the pages of the photo album, my nephew looked up grinning. “This is an awesome graduation gift, Aunt Marybeth. Thanks so much for making it.” The snapshots inside revealed fun times my family shared with him during his four years attending a college not far from our town.

Because he spent his childhood in Southern California, we mainly saw him during holidays and at family gatherings. As much as we loved seeing our numerous nieces and nephews, big group settings rarely offered the chance to get to know them individually. When he’d chosen to come to Northern California for college, we were thrilled. As I made our nephew’s photo album I realized how much closer we’d become to him while he was in college.

His four years at Berkeley flew by, but as I looked at the many pictures of him with our family, it was evident he’d become part of our regular lives. He’d been there as my kids grew from little boys to gangly teenagers. We’d shared meals, birthdays, and other fun times waterskiing and mountain biking. He had even recuperated on our couch after knee surgery three different times. We’d met his friends, had been to his apartment and knew about the activities he was involved with at school. We’d talked about challenges he’d faced, prayed for him and watched him grow into a godly man.

My husband and I love our nieces and nephews, but circumstances have not always allowed us to get to know all of them this well. If I could, I would make a photo album for each of them, but I can’t create pictures from thin air. The only way I can do it is if they’ve been in close proximity and have allowed us the privilege of getting to know them.

There are some clear parallels between my story and the relationship each of us has with God. Like our big family gatherings, many of us enjoy God in the presence of others at church, Bible study or small group. However we may not think to include Him in the more intimate and personal parts of our lives. Yet when we choose to draw near to Him, He reciprocates with enthusiasm because He loves us individually and intimately. He longs to be part of our lives. Scripture tells us “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (James 4:2, NIV) Like the relationship we developed with our nephew, our intimacy with God deepens by having more points of contact with Him. As you look back on different moments of your life, can you see where you’ve welcomed His presence and how it’s blessed you?

You probably remember the poem “Footprints in the Sand.” In it, a person looks back on scenes in his life and sees two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him and the other to the Lord. But he also notices that during the most difficult times in his life, there is only one set of footprints. Distressed, he questions why God abandoned him during his darkest times. God replies, “During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

As much as I like this poem, it’s not the way I want my life to be. When I look back on my mental photo album, I want God to appear on every page. I hope it will be obvious He was there because I was intentional about including Him. I don’t want Him to be an invisible presence hovering in the background– I want Him there beside me.

When I need strength, wisdom, encouragement or peace, it’s good to remember how God was there for me in the past. In the photo album of my mind, I see Him comforting me as I cried into my pillow my freshman year in college. I picture Him sitting at the dining room table as I prayed with my boyfriend (now husband) for the right timing to get engaged. He was an obvious presence at our wedding and later in the hospital when each of our boys was born. He met us in the early mornings as we pleaded for wisdom about whether I should return to work after the birth of our son.  When a mortgage broker tried to convince us to buy a house we couldn’t afford, God was there whispering “no” and averting disaster. He was with us when we wept for family members who died and when we celebrated the miraculous healing of others. In joy, sorrow and everything in between, He has been present.   The snapshots that include Him have become more numerous with every passing year. Each situation has strengthened our relationship with Him and only made me want more of Him in my life.

I realize that many people may not have this same experience. There are some who came to faith later in life. Others saw God as a distant figure to be revered or feared, but did not understand they could have a personal relationship with Him until they were much older. That’s why the “Footprints in the Sand” poem is so reassuring.   It reminds us that He was there, even when we didn’t realize it (which is awesome). This is a great starting place, but hopefully it will spur us on to want more of Him in all circumstances.

Maybe you accepted Christ as your Savior long ago but you haven’t included God in your life much since then.  Maybe you haven’t ever asked Jesus to be your Lord.  In either case, it’s not too late. Let today be the start of a new focus. Include Jesus in your days. Invite Him to speak to you and to be present in the events of your life, both large and small. He’s ready and waiting, all He needs is an invitation from you.

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” (Revelation 3:20, NLT)

The song below is the musical version of what I’ve just described. Click on the link to hear “Through All of It” by Colton Dixon.  (If you follow this blog and receive this post in your e-mail inbox, you will need to go to http://www.lifeinfocusblog.com to click on the link and view the song.  It’s worth it!)

Click here to read the three different versions and authors of the “Footprints in the Sand” poem:

http://www.wowzone.com/fprints.htm