Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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When Pain Exposes Your Idols: No Other Gods Session 2

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(Second in a series of posts inspired by Kelly Minter’s Bible Study entitled No Other Gods: Confronting Our Modern-Day Idols)

Whenever I’m leading a group through a Bible study, I make it a priority to work through the book on my own before they begin. Back in the spring I studied Kelly Minter’s No Other Gods in preparation for this fall. The day I was reading Week 2, Day 3, I was sitting at my desk attempting to position my arm so that I could write. A huge splint bent at a ninety-degree angle was making it awkward to put pen to paper. It was just four days after breaking my elbow and wrist and I was reading about how God uses pain to identify our idols. Using the life of Hannah from 1 Samuel, the lesson gently emphasized that God occasionally brings pain into our lives for a reason. The last question on that day of study asked me to consider how Hannah’s life was enriched by God’s closing of her womb. Trying to connect her painful experience to mine, I scrawled a list of the things God was teaching me through having a broken arm (my comparison is not intended to diminish the deep pain of infertility). That list helped me to clarify the ways he was working and inspired me to write a few blog posts about what I was learning. (You can find those five posts from May and June of 2016 in the archives to the right.)

Now, seven months later, I was reviewing the lesson again to stay in sync with the women in my group. Turning the page in my book, I discovered a yellow Post-it note with the bullet-pointed list in my messy handwriting from back in the spring. It was the one I’d written a few days after breaking my arm. Ironically, I found it on the same day my doctor’s office had delivered a new device that will hopefully aid in healing my arm once and for all (at the moment, it still doesn’t extend fully).

Reading the list convicted me that some of the lessons I thought I’d learned needed to be repeated. I should probably explain this a bit more. My new therapy requires me to put my arm in a heavy elbow splint and to sit for thirty minutes three times a day. The device must remain on a hard surface and I have to be in a seated position. Since it’s my right arm, I can’t write, type or do anything particularly productive. Suffice it to say, I’ve been lamenting having ninety minutes of “wasted” time daily for the foreseeable future. My husband, on the other hand, thinks it’s awesome.  Apparently, my constant drive to be productive makes it difficult for my family to relax around me.

The more I thought about this, the more I felt convicted that although productivity is a good thing, it has become something of an idol in my life. The drive to complete tasks and tend to responsibilities can be relentless. And wrapped up in that is an underlying assumption that being constantly productive makes me a worthwhile person. There is a sense of power, identity and control that comes from knowing I’m accomplishing things constantly.

Reading Hannah’s prayer after the birth of her miraculous first child, I was struck by the contrasts in her description of God’s activities:

“The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts…

For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.

It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken.” (1 Samuel 2:6-7, 8b,9, NIV)

This is not the description of a haphazard or capricious God, but of a God who knows exactly what to give people in different seasons of their lives. He knows who needs more and who needs less; who needs to be humbled and who needs to be exalted. And he creates circumstances accordingly.

The last line of this passage is the one that strikes me hardest: “It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken.” The power, identity and control that I get from being productive can make me feel strong. But this verse reminds me if my productivity is opposing God’s plans for me, I will be broken. For me, there are times when this has been literal. When I’m working so hard to do things “for” God without drawing on his strength and wisdom, I’m actually producing nothing of lasting value. Only when I draw near to him first and let his strength fill me and his wisdom guide me will I make any impact for his kingdom. And when he needs to remind me of this, he allows painful circumstances in my life, like a broken arm that refuses to heal fully without ninety minutes of doing nothing “productive” every day.

God is much more interested in a heart that is fully surrendered to him than a mind intent on being productive—even when the goal has spiritual implications (like writing a blog, preparing a Bible study or leading a ministry). Author Donna Partow says it this way: “God is not interested in the most efficient or effective way of accomplishing his work in this world…What he is profoundly interested in is you. And me…He is profoundly interested in molding and shaping us—conforming us to the image of his Son. He is profoundly interested in preparing us for the coming Kingdom, when we will reign as joint heirs with his Son.”

Josh Wilson’s song “Fall Apart” celebrates the way pain draws us near to the heart of God. Click on the link and be encouraged as you listen:

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When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

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Turning my head for the briefest moment, I realized my carelessness just in time to see my front wheel colliding with the curb. The pavement seemed to rise up to meet my face as I crashed in a heap. Before I’d had a chance to react, I was sprawled on the side of the road, tangled in my bike and still clipped into the pedals. Rushing back to help me, my husband gently pulled the bike off me and surveyed my injuries.

The road rash on my swollen cheek and shoulder looked bad, but were minor injuries compared to the pain radiating down my right arm. A trip to the ER confirmed I’d fractured my elbow. Wrapping my arm from shoulder to fingers, the nurses listened sympathetically as I lamented that I didn’t have time to slow down at such a busy time of year.

Initially I didn’t realize that even my most common activities would be impacted by this injury.   I knew I could forget about getting exercise for a while. The effort required for simple tasks like bathing and dressing was hard enough. What I didn’t anticipate was that holding a book, writing and typing with two hands would also be extremely challenging. Suddenly, the main things I sought for spiritual and mental health were no longer available to me.

Lying in bed the morning after my accident, I realized I needed to find some new ways to connect with God that were outside of my usual practices. I thought of the many people who constantly share their life happenings on social media—it almost seems as if events don’t really “count” unless they’re posted. It turns out I can be the same way with my spiritual disciplines. If I don’t write prayers in my journal or fill in answers in a Bible study workbook, I feel like I haven’t done an actual “quiet time” like a dutiful and faithful Christian “should.”

I’ve written and thought a lot about the idea of abiding—of remaining present and engaged with God throughout each day. With the limitations created by my injury, God is challenging me to find new ways to do this consistently. My broken elbow has caused me to be a lot less productive and a lot more introspective. Holding an ice pack to my face with my left hand and having a nearly unusable right hand prevents me from multitasking like I usually would. It’s hard to grasp a book or even scroll through my phone. In those idle moments I’m trying to focus on God instead of letting my thoughts just ramble. My injury is teaching me to settle into the quiet and just be in God’s presence.

As much as I’ve grown over the years, I’m realizing God still has many things to teach me (or re-teach me). I am learning to trust him in the midst of my physical weakness and to be attentive to what he wants me to learn during the season of forced rest. And with each passing day, I’m learning to be thankful for the ways life has been simplified to accommodate my injury. I’m learning things I would be too busy to recognize in the usual fast pace of my life.

I’m taking comfort from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth when he writes about an unnamed physical problem that challenged him:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10, NIV)

God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. I pray the same will be true of me as I learn to let his power be made perfect in my weakness. With every task I am unable to do with one hand, I’m being prompted to thank him for something- whether it is the patience I’m learning or the people he’s using to help me.

When I completed my last Bible study workbook by Kelly Minter, I started praying God would provide new sources of inspiration for my writing, but I never anticipated it being something like this. I hope you’ll join me over the next few weeks as God teaches and blesses me through this unexpected season of physical challenges. And as you read, I hope you’ll consider the new places he wants to take you on your faith journey this summer. Sometimes you don’t even have to leave home to do it!

I couldn’t resist sharing a song that feels like it was written just for me in the midst of this crazy time.

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Confident and Unashamed- What Love Is, Week 3

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And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.  1 John 2:28 (NIV)

 Writing to the disciples of Jesus, the apostle John speaks tenderly, reminding them how much their Father in heaven lavishes his love upon them. He calls them “children of God” and gives them clear explanations for how their lives can reflect this profound truth. John writes passionately to believers that were being thrown into confusion by false teaching and ungodly influences in their culture. It doesn’t sound all that different from our current times.

In the verses spanning from 1 John 2:28 to 3:38, John lays out three clear explanations for children of God to understand how they can remain confident and unashamed in their faith. Applying John’s teaching would enable them to stand firm in the truth of God’s love. It will do the same for us as we contend with today’s culture.

Dealing with Sin

John repeats the same topic several times in this chapter: No one who lives in Christ keeps on sinning. Obviously we don’t become permanently sinless after we confess our sin and accept Jesus into our lives. But, as Kelly Minter puts it, we are “free of the dominant power of sin…our not sinning is not about how much harder we try. It’s about our relationship with our Father and His Son.” (What Love Is p. 89)

Just flipping through channels on TV, popular magazines, websites and books, it’s clear that our world celebrates sin and promotes self-gratification above all else. We’re rarely called to consider the consequences of our choices on others or ourselves. And we’re certainly not encouraged to think about how they affect our faith journeys.

However, as we grow in our relationship with God and understand the life he calls us to live, we’re drawn toward him and away from sin. Sin no longer entices us the same way because we know it’s going to hurt God and us. And when we do slip into sin, we’re quick to confess it because we know God will forgive us and we want to restore our relationship with him.

Don’t be Led Astray

John makes a point to say, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” (1 John 3:7, NIV) He admonishes us to look at the lifestyles and choices of the people that we trust for wisdom and advice.

There are countless places we go for these things: family, friends, magazines, blogs, websites, books, and personalities on TV, to name a few. It’s crucial that we consider the sources we’re allowing to influence us and that we ensure they hold to the same biblical truths we do. It’s not uncommon for followers of Jesus to embrace views in popular culture without a second thought, never realizing they are contrary to God’s Word.

Before reading articles, logging onto blogs or watching favorite shows, think about the messages you consistently receive from them. Compelling plots and interesting characters can get us hooked on books or shows that are shaping our views in ways that don’t honor God.  And just because a person looks appealing or speaks with authority doesn’t make their opinion worth adopting. Stop and think about how their words and actions measure up with the gospel. If they’re out of sync, you might be opening yourself up to being led astray.  Once you recognize the discrepancy, you can decide if they are still worth your time or if you would be better off without them.

 Love One Another

In the last portion of the chapter, John moves on to explain that loving one another is a powerful witness to our relationship with God. Over and over John tells us that we should love one another, regardless of whether we’re treated well or not. He says, “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18, NIV)

I’m amazed by how often in our culture we’re encouraged to withhold forgiveness, hold grudges, seek revenge and let our negative emotions dictate our actions and attitudes. Some of today’s most popular songs and shows regularly espouse messages of hate. It seems that being angry and vengeful equates with being powerful in today’s culture. God’s Word tells us nothing could be further from the truth.

 Tying All Three Together

I used to have a favorite magazine that I only bought on vacations. I thought it was harmless looking at pictures of famous people, catching up on the “scoop” in their lives and learning about the latest trends. However, once I had kids, I realized that I was exposing them and myself to lifestyles and ideas that were totally contrary to God’s ways. What seemed like a “guilty pleasure” was subtly influencing me. The magazine celebrated people who were confident and unashamed of their poor choices, desensitizing me to sins so prevalent in popular culture. At the same time, it was causing me to view the lives of the people in the pictures and articles as fodder for gossip.   I didn’t see them as real people loved by God, I was only interested in the entertainment their colorful lives provided for me. As the Holy Spirit worked in my life, the magazine not only lost its appeal, it sickened me. The allure was gone.

Dealing with sin, avoiding being led astray and loving others aren’t the source of our salvation, but evidence that we follow the one true God. Following John’s advice makes us confident and unashamed in God’s presence and provides light and hope for a world wallowing in darkness.

Click on the link and be reminded of theses tremendous truths by listening to “Children of God” by Third Day.

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Live Like You Believe It- What Love Is Week 1

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Reading through the opening chapter of First John makes my mind dart from one topic to the next. I sense John’s urgency as he writes, his passion for his readers to embrace a relationship with Jesus and to let their lives reflect the difference knowing Him makes. John’s approach is direct not because he is harsh, but because he cares too much to risk having someone miss the point.

He starts by emphasizing that he knew Jesus personally saying, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3 NIV)

The word “fellowship” comes from the Greek word “koinonia.” It includes both a spiritual and a practical component. Those who believe in Jesus and his resurrection are united in the Holy Spirit through the Son to the Father. Put simply, they have a personal relationship with God. And this means they also have a relationship with others who are connected with God. “Perhaps the clearest theological use of koinonia [fellowship] is in 1 John 1:3-6, where we read that when we walk in the light truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ and that this relation of grace has profound implications for daily living. For if we say that we have fellowship with God and walk in darkness, we lie! Here the basic meaning of ‘fellowship’ is a real and practical sharing in eternal life with the Father and the Son.” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology)

In essence, when we are walking closely with God, we connect easily with others who are doing the same, whether we’ve known them for years or are meeting them for the first time. I had the privilege of seeing this dynamic recently as I gathered with a group of women for a special lunch. All of us were believers, but some had never met.   Despite this, the talk around the table was rich and deep. An outside observer would have thought we’d all been close friends for years. The reason for this was our common love for and relationship with Jesus. Through many encounters like this one, I’ve learned it doesn’t take long for the Holy Spirit living in me to recognize himself in someone else I meet.   True fellowship flows naturally when people connected with God engage with one another.

Conversely, we don’t experience deep fellowship with people who have a façade of faith, but no substance behind it. John describes them as people who “claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness” (1 John 1:6a, NIV). John doesn’t mince words– he says people doing this “Do not live out the truth.” (1 John 1:6b, NIV) This reminds me of the years I spent volunteering with the high school group at my church. I could always tell how the girls in my small group were doing spiritually by how closely they wanted to connect with me. Those who rode the fence between faith and worldliness often remained at a distance from me, no matter how much I lovingly pursued them. They were lying to themselves, believing they could live by worldly and godly standards simultaneously. They wanted the warmth and reassurance of the light, but were lured by the lies lurking in the darkness. As long as they remained divided, true fellowship couldn’t happen.

John continues his teaching in the next section by explaining the importance of being honest about our sins. Again, not mincing words he says, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, NIV) As our world continues to eliminate moral standards, the line between right and wrong is slowly being erased. Our culture has moved from excusing sin to embracing it and calling it good.  When we determine our own versions of right and wrong, then we can convince ourselves that there is no such thing as sin. And if sin no longer exists, nothing is off-limits. Ultimately, this mentality eliminates the need for Jesus, the one who gave his life to forgive our sins.

For Christians, it is vitally important to recognize sin in our lives and to confess it. This means we need to study God’s Word consistently so that we can know the standards he calls us to maintain. We do this not because we want to follow a list of rules, but because we love God and don’t want anything to impede our fellowship with him or with others. Admitting our sins is an act of humility that honors God and reminds us how much we need him. When we ask for forgiveness it reminds us that we’re not perfect and that we need to show God’s grace to others. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV)  Doing this deepens fellowship with God and with other believers.

I’d sum up John’s teaching in this passage by saying that if we claim to know Jesus and to walk in the light, it will be evident in our lives. We’ll have meaningful relationships with fellow believers and we’ll have a deep love for God and the truth of His Word. We will admit that we are sinners, humbly confess sin and seek forgiveness regularly. Doing these things enables us to live with authenticity and to invite others to do the same.

Jeremy Camp’s song “Christ in Me” describes the tension between getting stuck in the dark of worldliness versus embracing the light of Christ. Click on the link and make it your prayer as you listen.

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Authority Lost and Reclaimed- Women of the Word Part 2

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Squaring my shoulders, I tried to smile, hoping no one could see my heart thumping wildly as the teacher spoke, “Class, this is our new student teacher, Miss Callahan. She’ll be taking over for the rest of the semester and I expect you to show her some respect.”

One or two expressionless sophomores made eye contact with me; the rest slumped in their chairs or talked with their seat mates. No one acknowledged the teacher’s announcement. As an unseasoned student teacher ready to start my first classroom assignment, the scene in front of me was hardly encouraging.

That semester of student teaching was one of the most challenging times in my life. The two classes I taught behaved in almost opposite ways: the sophomores were disengaged and disrespectful while the seniors were open and willing to learn.   It wasn’t that my teaching methods varied from one class to the other or even that the kids were different ages. The issue was the way the students viewed my master teachers, the ultimate authorities in the classroom. One teacher had lost the attention and respect of her students in September, so by the time I arrived in January, her authority meant nothing. I was fighting a losing battle to win their respect. The other teacher, however, was both feared and esteemed. Her authority meant something, so as her student teacher, the class took my authority seriously too.

This memory surfaced recently as I pondered the concept of authority reading the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3.   Just after creating Adam and Eve, God blessed them and said: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28, NIV)

God created the world and then gave Adam and Eve authority to rule over it. They had the free will to choose to do things His way or to follow their own path. Although everything He had given them was good, it wasn’t long before Satan came in the form of a serpent and enticed Eve to doubt God. By tempting her to disobey Him, the snake implied God might be withholding something desirable from her:

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’

 You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Genesis 3:1-6, NIV)

By choosing to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve gave away the authority God had given them at creation. They were too naïve to understand that everything under their authority would fall when they fell. Their actions brought a curse on all of creation and gave Satan authority over all that God had given them.   Although God remained the ultimate and sovereign authority, He allowed Adam and Eve to exercise their free will, even though it went against Him. But they also had to live with the consequences of their choice.

This is why many years later, when Jesus was just beginning His earthly ministry, Satan could legitimately claim authority over the earth when he tempted Jesus: “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.’” (Luke 4:5-7, NIV)

Fortunately, Jesus retraced Adam and Eve’s footsteps to the point of temptation and succeeded in obedience where they had failed. Although Jesus was fully God, he set aside that part of Himself so that He could function completely as a human:

“[Jesus] Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8, NIV)

When God resurrected Jesus from death, Satan was defeated and stripped of his authority: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 24-25, NIV)

Jesus gave us the same Holy Spirit that empowered Him, making it possible for us to be obedient to God and to have an intimate relationship with Him (see John 14:11-21). Jesus returned us to the original place of authority for which we were created. He said to His disciples: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20, NIV)

Our Master Teacher commands ultimate authority and respect and as His “student teachers” we have access to that same authority. It is ours to claim, if only we will recognize this and act upon it.  Satan was defeated at the cross, but he will continue to wreak havoc on the earth until Jesus returns.  He pushes boundaries, preying on weakness and taking advantage of people who don’t know or have access to spiritual authority through Christ.  “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV)

There is no need to fear, however:  “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” (Romans 16:20, NIV)

Do you understand the authority God has given you? Are you using it to combat the enemy and to unleash God’s rule and reign in your spheres of influence?

If you want to learn more about these concepts, consider reading Charles Kraft’s book I Give You Authority, which provided the inspiration and content for this post. The information here is a brief overview of this important topic for anyone that is serious about following Jesus.

For a musical reminder of this important truth, click on the link to hear Blanca’s song “Greater is He.”

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Old vs. New

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There is a person in my life that causes me great angst at times. She’s critical of everything about me, always noticing my flaws and mistakes. When I don’t measure up to her standards, she’s ruthless in her criticism. No matter how many positive things I’m doing, she always notices what I’m not doing or what I could be doing more. She’s impatient, jealous and judgmental. She constantly compares me to others.

As much as I’d like to cut this person out of my life forever, I can’t seem to shake her completely. By now you’re probably wondering: who is this awful person?   Well, I call her “Old Me.” She’s the person I would be without God’s saving grace; she is my fleshly, worldly self.   Sadly, “Old Me” looks a lot like “New Me” on the outside, but her interior life is another story.

“Old Me” seems to show up when I haven’t been spending time with God consistently and renewing my mind in the truth of His Word. She deceives me into thinking I can perform for God to win His favor.   She focuses a lot on doing for God and not much on simply being with Him.

I was thinking about “Old Me” recently while reading Tim Chester’s book You Can Change. In it, he points out that many people change their behavior but are still not pleasing to God because their motives are impure.   When I think about the person I used to be (and that I can still be at times) I see that many of the things I did seemed good, but my reasons for doing them had more to do with proving myself or pleasing others than anything else. Chester explains: “We don’t do good works so we can be saved; we are saved so we can do good works. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith…not a result of works… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10).”

“New Me” experiences joy by doing good things God has prepared for me– it’s about responding to His love, not dutifully checking a box to feel good about myself or to gain approval from others.   In this frame of mind, my eyes are on God, not on myself. My desire is to please Him because I love Him, not because I’m trying to earn His favor.

One of the best passages that illustrates eliminating “Old Me” so that “New Me” can flourish comes from the gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus speaks to His disciples saying,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (John 15:5-9, NIV)

Remaining in God’s love impacts our perspectives and enables us to grow and thrive in our faith. The fruit He produces in us blesses and benefits others. (One of my pastors recently pointed out that a tree produces fruit for others to consume, not for its own benefit). For those abiding in God’s love, joy comes from growing deeper in our walks with Him and helping others to do the same. Conversely, when we don’t remain in His love, we’re not producing fruit–we’re trying to do things through our own effort to prove ourselves. For me, this is when “Old Me” tends to rear her head. In Jesus’ analogy of the vine, the withered branches represent “Old Me” and the only thing they’re good for is kindling.

This battle between “Old Me” and “New Me” happens more often than I’d like to admit. Maybe you can relate. We have a choice every day to abide with Christ, to remain in His love and to let Him renew our minds. The alternative is to do things our way.   It boils down to a standoff between living in our flesh and living by the Spirit. Let’s not be deceived by our “Old Me’s” anymore. God has already won the battle and we can embrace the truth that we are living under His grace. We are holy, righteous and redeemed, no matter what our old selves may try to tell us.

Mercy Me has an amazing song that speaks this truth. Click on the link to be encouraged by “Greater.”

Chester, Time; You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions; Crossway, 2010, p. 28


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Finding Intimacy with God in the Wilderness

IMG_7603It all started with a simple desire to remodel our home. We had no idea God planned to use such an “unspiritual” situation to test and refine our faith. He took us on a long, painful journey through the wilderness. In fact, I’ve spent the last several years writing the entire story and pursuing options for getting it published.

Reading Priscilla Shirer’s words inspired me to share an excerpt from my manuscript that illustrates her point: “The exodus was for this moment—when God’s people would be brought unto Himself and begin intimate fellowship and covenant with Him. This was His goal above getting them to Canaan.” (One in a Million, p. 84)

Below you’ll find a portion of my family’s remodel story: From Our Mess to God’s Best.

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Over the months, the process of remodeling our tiny home had been filled with revealing moments…We’d anticipated the financial cost of the project and the inconvenience it would cause, but had failed to recognize the emotional and spiritual toll it would take on us.  

The thought of having our faith stretched by our remodel hadn’t occurred to my husband or me. We’d learned to trust God through a number of hardships and had favorite Bible verses that comforted us through job transitions, difficult relationships, anxiety, depression and the deaths of family members. We believed God used hardships for good and had seen evidence of it in our lives.

However, we also prided ourselves in our self-sufficiency and our ability to problem-solve smaller issues on our own. Good planning and common sense had kept daily life orderly for almost seventeen years of marriage. We’d never considered that the Lord had things to teach us through the problems that arose from living in a privileged, industrialized society. God was using a mess of our own making to transform us from the inside out, whether we wanted Him to or not…

One of the first challenges came before the bulk of the remodel had even started.  Our contractor wouldn’t make eye contact as he told us the news. “The city’s building department rejected the plans.”

For a moment we were speechless, unable to process this development…The city’s issues meant the modest remodel that was so much smaller than our original dreams now needed to be scaled back even further. We had orchestrated our time line down to the last detail and anticipated construction beginning just after Christmas, once everything had been approved. We had no time buffer for delays in our idealized schedule. This remodel had been years in the making. We’d run short on patience and were ready to start…We never imagined there would be a problem with the plan approval…

The contractor left and my husband closed the door and disappeared into the office without saying a word. An overwhelming combination of disappointment, anger and defeat felt like a wave crashing down on me. Neither one of us seemed able to talk about how we were feeling without making things worse.

I retreated to our bedroom, closed the door and lay face down on the floor with my arms spread wide. The coarse carpet fibers pressed into my forehead and the faint smell of dusty shoes filled my nostrils. My emotions were so raw I could hardly formulate words to pray. The room was quiet and warm as rain drummed on the roof. I was too tense to let the tears flow. For the first few minutes, all I could do was breathe deeply. With each exhale I tried to release all of the negative things I was feeling. Bitterness. Anger. Confusion. Mistrust. With each inhale a different word would come to mind. Peace. Wisdom. Clarity. Direction. Eventually more words came and with my face to the floor, I wrestled silently with God in a one-sided conversation.

Why did you say ‘yes’ to the remodel and then allow this roadblock? Should we keep moving forward, or are you telling us to stop? Why did you let me get excited if this whole thing is going to fall apart like all the other times? What are we supposed to be learning from this?

Despite the physical discomfort, I remained face down in total surrender. Slowly I began to remember God’s faithfulness to us over the years. He usually didn’t do things the way we dictated, and they always ended up turning out better than we could have imagined. I thought of job searches, strained relationships, and challenging moments serving at church. God came through for us every single time. Fragments of different verses that had strengthened us through the hard times in the past came to mind.

I will never leave you or forsake you… I know the plans I have for you…You will find me when you seek me with all your heart…I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living…Be still and know that I am God.

As the promises flooded my mind, God gently pried open my tight fists of control and I held my hands palms up. I was ready to receive whatever the Lord wanted to give and trusted that He still had a plan. I knew there was a purpose for this setback, something we needed to work through before we could come out the other side. I got up from the floor and reached for my journal in the bedside table. Writing prayers had always been a way for me to connect with God.

God, I pray you would help us to trust in you even when things seem to make no sense. Please help us not to fret and to trust that you will make a way. I look forward with anticipation to how you will sort out this frustrating situation. God, please help us to conduct ourselves and treat others in a way that honors you through this process. Please give us wisdom, creativity and tenacity. I trust you even though I can’t see the way forward through this. God, please help us to keep a healthy perspective and to keep our eyes on you.

As I finished writing in my journal, inexplicable peace washed over me. I had no idea how this situation was going to work out, but I trusted that it would. God already knew the outcome and I could thank Him for that.

I emerged from the bedroom and found my husband sitting in our home office with his legs propped up on the desk and leaning back in his chair. His opened Bible rested on his lap. It was a relief to see that even though we retreated from each other, we’d both pursued God for wisdom and answers.  (From Our Mess to God’s Best, Marybeth McCullum)

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God knew our struggles with the remodel and waited patiently until we were desperate enough to wrestle through our frustrations with Him. We had no idea He also was teaching us to rely on Him in preparation for bigger challenges yet to unfold. Our growing dependence on Him was vital for giving us the strength we would need.

Intimacy with the Lord comes through authentic connection with Him. Once we’ve dropped our facades and started being honest in prayer, our relationships with Him grow deeper. The Psalms are filled with David and other writers grappling with their frustrations in the presence of God. One of my favorite invitations to be honest before God is Psalm 62:8: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” (NIV) Our honest laments are the first step toward letting Him change our perspectives.

Through my wilderness experience with our disastrous remodel, I stopped asking God, “Why?” and started asking: “What do You want me to learn? How are You revealing Yourself to me?” When I relinquished my illusion of control and surrendered my sense of entitlement, God enabled me to find deeper intimacy with Him than I’d ever had before.

I pray you’ll find the same thing to be true in your wilderness. Instead of just seeking answers or solutions, seek greater intimacy with Him. Regardless of how your circumstances unfold, you won’t be disappointed.

Whenever I hear Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” I think of my crazy home remodel and imagine God singing the lyrics of the song to my family.   I hope it encourages you in your wilderness journey too.

Shirer, Priscilla; One in a Million– Journey to Your Promised Land; Lifeway Press; 2010 & 2014