God’s Law is a ruler, not a sledgehammer

I don’t really like rules. I understand why we need laws. Without them, everyone would just do whatever they felt like, and everything would be completely chaotic. And that being said, some rules are okay. The rules that are things I would have done anyway–driving safely or not taking illegal food into the movie theater or paying my taxes. But what about God’s rules?

God’s rules are significantly harder to obey. I don’t want to be kind to people who are unkind to me. I don’t want to forgive people who hurt me. I don’t want to do what God says is right instead of what I think is right. That’s hard. That takes faith and trust that God’s rules are superior to our own understanding, and I rarely have the strength to do that.

So what happens? I fail God. I can’t meet His expectations. And I end up feeling like a loser. And that’s the point, right?

metric-cmToday’s verses are Romans 5:20-21.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

While it’s true that the purpose of the law is to point out our imperfection, that’s not what God is trying to communicate. Yes, we need to understand that we can’t keep the law. We can try and try with all our strength, and we’ll still fail. You have to be perfect to keep God’s Laws, and only Jesus has those credentials.

But the point of the law isn’t to make us feel like losers. The point of the law is to help us realize that we need a Savior.

God gave the law as an example of His perfection. If you could keep His commandments, you could be worthy of Heaven. You could stand in His presence without shame. But nobody could do it. Not one single human He created. We all screw up. We all focus on ourselves more than God. We want what we want, and we don’t care what God says about it. Or we listen to what God says and then do our own thing anyway, knowing full well that there will be consequences. And then we beg and plead for help to escape the consequences we fully deserve.

Seriously. People are a mess.

But God knows that.

Jesus came and lived His perfect life and gave it up freely as a sacrifice to pay for our broken souls. Because Jesus died for us, we don’t have to fear the Law. Yes, the Law is still true, and if you break the Law, there are consequences. That much hasn’t changed. But the Law can’t condemn us. Not as long as we believe in what Jesus did for us.

So when you screw up, don’t sink into a pit of self-loathing. Don’t sit there and hate on yourself and call yourself names or give into that horrible little voice at the back of your brain that always says nasty things. Yes, recognize that you broke the Law, but instead of wallowing in your guilt, take action. Change your mind. Don’t do it again. Ask forgiveness. Move on.

Without Jesus, you’d be doomed. So would I. So it’s a good thing we have Jesus, because I screw up all the time.

Don’t fear the Law. The Law can’t hurt you. It doesn’t exist to hurt you or to shame you or to guilt you into submission. The Law is there to help us understand that we can’t ever be perfect. We can’t ever be good enough. That’s not a statement intended to hurt you. That’s a statement of fact.

If it were up to the Law, we’d all be condemned. But for those who believe in Jesus, the Law has no say. Grace is our anthem. Jesus’ sacrifice made us right with God, made us right with the Law. We don’t deserve it. We could never earn it. It’s a gift, pure and simple. Free, open to everyone, no strings attached.

The Law isn’t a sledgehammer to beat people down with. The Law is a ruler that helps us see we can never measure up. And Grace is the still, small voice that whispers we don’t have to.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean you’ll act like a Child of God

I used to frequent this particular site online where I could read and download information on a television show I enjoyed. It took me a little while to understand that there was a code of conduct expected among the users of the site, and the site owners had no qualms about banning users if they got out of line. I almost wonder if it were a joke at times because of the number of users they would ban. They actually kept a log where everyone could see who they banned by IP address and the reasons why. As you can imagine, people pleasing me did everything in my power to never be on their bad side.

Have you ever been in that situation where you have a code of conduct you need to obey or else face consequences. Some consequences are more dire than not being able to access a website. Depending on where you are, it could be demerits from a college, punishment from a boss, and so on and so forth. It’s true that sometimes codes of conduct are biased or full of prejudice or impossible to keep, but regardless of your opinion on the validity of that code of conduct, if you break it, that means you’re not a very good representative of that establishment.

R0C7A5M4WB_1440x960Today’s verses are Matthew 5:43-48.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

This is one of those passages I’ve heard over and over and over again, to the point where I skim over it. But I saw something this time around that I hadn’t noticed before. Jesus says that by loving our enemies and praying for the people who persecute us, we will be acting as true children of God.

Whoa. Back that up. Think about that.

I’m a child of God. I believe in Jesus. I’ve welcomed Him into my heart and my life, and I strive every day to live for Him and Him alone. But you know what? I get angry at people who hate me. And I sure don’t pray for people who persecute me. So if what Jesus is saying here is true (and it always is), I can be a Christian but not be acting as a child of God.

Ouch.

But then, is it important to act like a child of God? Can’t I just say I’m a Christian and go about living life however I want? I guess you can, in theory. But what’s the point? Why would you claim to be a Christian if you aren’t going to live like one?

Saying you’re a Christian is easy. Living like a child of God is one of the hardest choices you’ll ever make. It’s easy to love people who are kind to you. And people who do nice things for you? Loving them is effortless. But what about the people who call you names? What about the people who go out of their way to say hateful things to you and about you, to your face or at your back? What about people who hurt you or who hurt the people you love? Loving those people isn’t just hard–it’s practically impossible.

Again, you can say you love them all day long, but love isn’t just saying a word. Love is doing. Love is action. Love is doing something kind in return for the cruelty your enemy does against you.

Jesus put such an emphasis on this because it goes completely against human nature, but this is a picture of what it means to live and act like a Child of God. It’s not just a title. It’s a lifestyle. And it takes strength only God can give. It takes supernatural love. So don’t hesitate to ask for it, because you’re not born with it.

If you want to be more than just a Christian, with Jesus’ help, you can live like a Child of God. Look for opportunities to be kind to people who hate you. Look for the chance to do good to people who do evil to you. Loving people who love you is nice, but loving people who hate you? That’s legendary.

The difference between being Christian and being Christ-like

Imagine, one day you meet someone who says he or she is a writer. That’s awesome, right? So you ask them what they write, and they respond: “Well, I’m not really writing anything now. But I will soon.” Are they really a writer?

Let’s try another job description. One that’s not artsy. How about an engineer? If someone tells you they are an engineer, generally you ask what they build or what they design. But what if the engineer you’re talking to has never built anything or designed anything?

There’s a big discrepancy in both of those situations. You can claim to be a writer all day long and never act like a writer. You can know everything you need to know to be an engineer but never act like an engineer. So why do we think it’s different with our faith?

roads-divergingToday’s verses are Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. And if you love and obey the Lord, you will live long in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

My Bible study group recently finished a section on the Book of Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ instructions to the Children of Israel before they are about to go into the Land of Canaan.

God is really straightforward with them, and He repeats Himself a lot. Basically what He says is that if they obey Him, they’ll be blessed, and if they disobey Him, they’ll be cursed. Pretty simple, right? If you’ve read the book, you know how that story goes.

And, yes, God is speaking directly to the Children of Israel in this particular verse, but what He’s saying relates to our lives today as well.

We all face choices every day. We can choose to take God at His Word and obey Him, regardless of whether it’s fun or not. Or we can choose to live life on our own terms. Those are the only choices we have. You choose life or death, blessings or curses. Just like the Children of Israel did.

And just like the Children of Israel, if you want to be obedient to God, you need to love Him and commit yourself to Him. That means doing what He says is right. That means living your life in a way that would please Him. That means making choices that honor God. That means living a Christ-like life.

But how many of us know it’s true that you can call yourself a Christian all day long but not be Christ-like?

Just like a writer who doesn’t write or an engineer who doesn’t design, a Christian isn’t automatically Christ-like. That’s a choice you have to make every hour of every day.

I know a particularly troublesome Christian who is sometimes the least Christ-like person you’ll ever meet. I saw her in the mirror this morning. 😉

I’m stubborn. I want my own way. I think I know best. And I don’t want to do it God’s way because He’ll take me down a road that won’t be fun, and I just want to have fun. And believe me, I’ve lived through the consequences of those choices, and I can tell you from experience that it’s better to listen to God. But I’m a work in progress. Every Christian is.

You’re a Christian the moment you trust Christ for your salvation, but becoming Christ-like is a process.

If you want to call yourself a Christian, fine. Carry a Bible. Memorize Scripture. Go to church. Do the Christian thing. But what difference will a title make in your life if you don’t do what a Christian is supposed to do? A Christian is supposed to be Christ-like, and that doesn’t happen just because you install a Bible app on your smartphone.

Learning to follow God is more than just going to church or memorizing Bible verses or going to a Bible study. You follow God in the little things. Following God happens in the small moments–or at least, they may be small moments to you. They’re the moments when you refuse to participate in office gossip. They’re the moments when you decide to bite your tongue instead of saying something rude. They’re the moments when you do something kind instead of something mean. They’re the moments when you choose to love someone you don’t think deserves it.

In those moments, you choose to do those things for no other reason than God told you to. Those are the moments when you are Christ-like, and that’s far more important than being a Christian any day.

One of the horses that carried our team to the Kekchi village Esfuerzo Dos in Peten, Guatemala

Can I trust God with my dreams?

I am not scared of horses. I like horses–just from a distance. I didn’t grow up around them, so I wasn’t used to them. Since I really hadn’t had any experience with them, I had no reason to trust them. So when I ended up hiking through a Guatemalan jungle some time ago and I was given the option to ride a horse or walk, of course I chose to walk.

And if any of you know the story, you’ll know I ended up riding anyway. I’ll be the first to tell you I did not want to get on that horse. I had absolutely zero faith that it could support my weight. I had absolutely zero confidence that I was strong enough to stay on it or that I had enough balance to stay upright.

But I ended up on the dang horse anyway. And you know what? It did just fine. And so did I. The horse got me to the village, and then when the time came to get on another horse (that’s a whole different story in itself), I wasn’t nearly as hesitant. Why?

Well, the other horse held me up just fine, and I didn’t have a problem riding it. The other horse had shown me it was trustworthy.

Maybe that’s a lame example, but it’s what I think about now when I think about how I trust God…. or how I don’t trust Him.

One of the horses that carried our team to the Kekchi village Esfuerzo Dos in Peten, Guatemala

One of the horses that carried our team to the Kekchi village Esfuerzo Dos in Peten, Guatemala

Today’s verse is Isaiah 12:2.

See, God has come to save me.
    I will trust in him and not be afraid.
The Lord God is my strength and my song;
    he has given me victory.

I was talking with my best friend the other night about trusting God and what that looks like in our lives. There are so many areas in my life where I don’t have a problem trusting Him. But then, there are a few places where I just can’t let go. I want to hold on to my own plans, my own expectations, my own dreams and not let Him take over. Probably because I’m afraid He’ll take them away and not give them back.

What’s the reason for that? Why do I trust God in so many areas but not in those few? Well, to put it simply, God has already shown me that He can be trusted in those areas. He’s shown me that He can be trusted to mend broken relationships. He’s shown me that He can be trusted to never forsake us. He’s shown me that He can be trusted with my finances. And, most recently, with the coming release of my first novel, He’s shown me that He can be trusted with my dreams.

But that’s the thing. He’s shown me. Eventually I had to come to a place where I handed those worries and fears over to Him and let Him have His way. And when I did that, He proved to me (over and over and over again) that He is faithful and trustworthy to do what is best for me.

Granted, it didn’t always look like it would be what was best. Honestly, there were times when I was absolutely sure God had completely lost His marbles. But looking back now I can see exactly what He was doing. I can see His fingerprints all over my life, leading me to where I am today.

I know why I am afraid to turn over those areas of my life to God. All that remains is convincing my stubborn heart to let go, to pry my pointed fingers off the edges of those dreams and turn them over to the Lord of my life. It isn’t easy. If it were easy, I would have done it years ago.

So if you’ve got dreams you’re holding on to, don’t beat yourself up. Believe it or not, I really think it’s normal to want to hold on to your dreams. But the truth about dreams is that they will never become reality as long as you hold on to them. The truth? You have to turn loose of your dream and hold on to God, the only one who can make dreams come true.

Ask yourself. Would you rather huddle around your small little dream and keep it safe where you can control it? Or are you willing to let it become bigger than you? It’s a scary thought because as long as our dreams are small, we can manage them. But God doesn’t give us dreams as pacifiers. They aren’t cheap plastic toys He throws at us to keep us from fussing.

God gives us dreams so that we can accomplish amazing things for Him. We were created to bring glory to His name, and we can’t do that if we’re trapped in a prison of our own fears.

God is worthy of your trust. Think about all the times He’s come through for you. Think about all the things He’s done for you, things that shouldn’t have been possible, things that defy explanation. Now think about that area of your life that you’re holding back from Him. If God can provide for all the other areas of your life, don’t you think He can handle that one too?

Don’t let your fears control you. Don’t let what you don’t understand discourage you. God has a plan, and He’s working it out. And because He is good all the time, you can trust that His plans are good. So don’t be afraid to trust your dreams to Him, especially the dreams you think have no chance of coming true.

Lion at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

We never outgrow God

Do you have deep friendships? Not just casual acquaintances–but real, deep, heart-felt friendships. I’m so fortunate to have so many people in my life who I can call friends–more than friends, family. And it’s been that way for decades–the same people. How many people can say that?

Last night, two of my oldest, dearest friends came out to visit me and my roomie, and as we sat on my rickety old couch and munched on tacos and watched Doctor Who, I couldn’t help but remember a time more than 20 years ago when the four of us sat around on the floor, playing games and dreaming about the future.

As I marveled, I realized we haven’t run out of things to talk about yet. If anything, we’ve got more to talk about now than we did when we were in third grade.

As we’ve grown as individuals, we’ve grown as friends. Our relationships with each other have grown wider and deeper and stronger, to the point that even years of separation or thousands of miles of distance can’t put a dent in our friendship. We just pick up where we left off. And if human beings can have relationships like that, why do we think that God is any different?

Lion at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Lion at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are Psalm 139:7-12.

I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me.
I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
    but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you.

I decided to believe in Jesus when I was seven years old on Palm Sunday in 1990. Granted, that’s the day I remember stepping out of my pew and walking the aisle, but Jesus was a part of my life every day before then. I’ve been following Jesus for a long time, though I’m not sure I really began to live for Him until I was older. But I never doubted Him. And I never stopped talking to Him.

We’ve always had a fairly casual talking relationship, me and Jesus. I just tell Him everything that’s on my mind. And what amazes me is that I’ve never encountered a problem in life that He wasn’t big enough to handle.

Not anything has been bigger than Him. When I was little, that was expected. Everything was bigger than me. But as a grown up, you’d think I run into trouble every day that would stump Him. But it doesn’t. And it’s not that God has gotten any bigger. Just my understanding of what He is capable of and how much He’s done for me.

Like my friendships, which have grown deeper and stronger and have matured as I have, my relationship with God has grown too. Or maybe it would be better said that He’s stayed the same and I’ve just come to realize how enormous He is.

One of my favorite parts of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is the brief interaction Aslan the Lion, the picture of Christ, has with Lucy Pevensie in Prince Caspian.

“Aslan” said Lucy “you’re bigger”.
“That is because you are older, little one” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger”.
~ C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

I could put myself in Lucy’s shoes there. Every year, I grow older, and my troubles get bigger and more complex as the digits in my age continue to tick upward. I didn’t really appreciate this little scene between Aslan and Lucy until I was old enough to understand how true it is.

I’ll never outgrow Him. I’ll never reach the point where I can do life on my own. I’ll never reach the point where I don’t need Him every second of every day. Life is too big for me, but it’s not too big for Him. And with Him, there’s nothing I can’t do.

And just like my earthly friends, I never run out of things to tell Him. I never run out of conversations to have with Him. I never exhaust myself telling Him how wonderful He is and how thankful I am for all He’s done for me.

No matter where I go, He’s there. No  matter how fast I run, He runs faster. No matter how much I think I know, He knows more. There’s no place I can go to escape Him (as if I wanted to), because He’s everywhere. And there’s no level of wisdom I can attain that He hasn’t already mastered.

Are you a grown up? Think you’ve got life all figured out? Well, join the club. And realize, like the rest of us, that life is so much bigger and stranger and wilder than you can ever imagine, and there’s no way you can be prepared for every eventuality. The only way you’ll make it is to have someone bigger than you to rely on when the time comes.

The barn at Safe Haven Farm in the snow, Haven, KS

Were you born in a barn?

A really significant wind storm blew through Kansas yesterday. Granted, we always have wind. And it’s never just a gentle breeze. Kansas’s gentle breezes can still knock you over. But yesterday and last night was ridiculous. As I was walking out of the parking garage at my office building at the end of the day, the door to the atrium didn’t shut behind me because the wind was so bad. So what did I do? I walked back up the steps and pulled the door shut. Letting the door hang open while the wind battered it to pieces would only damage the door or the building or both. But as I walked down the stairs again, someone else came in behind me. The wind caught the door, and they ignored it.

Being a good person is hard work. It’s so much easier to say or do what I feel like saying or doing instead of what the Bible tells me. If I’d been a super Christian, I would have run up again and shut the door, but I didn’t because it was obviously an exercise in futility. Wonder what that says about my character?

The barn at Safe Haven Farm in the snow, Haven, KS

The barn at Safe Haven Farm in the snow, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are 2 Peter 1:3-8.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

None of us are born with perfect character. It’s something we all have to work at, day by day every day of our earthly lives. Character is built. Building character isn’t a fun process either, because the best way to build character is to struggle. You don’t build character in sunshine and daisies; you build character in brutal storms and barren deserts.

But the good news is that you have everything you need to build godly character if you know Christ. By trusting Jesus, you have everything at your fingertips to build character in your life, but it’s up to you do it. Godly character doesn’t just happen. You have to choose it.

The Bible is our road map for life. When we have questions about who God is and how He wants us to live, that’s where we should go. The Bible isn’t just full of old stories to entertain us. It’s full of true tales intended to guide us.

Living a Christian life is a process. You don’t get all the answers in one day. You don’t get godly character in one day. But you do get bits and pieces, and you can make a host of good decisions even knowing just a little about who God is.

We have a list in today’s verses (this is the Message paraphrase):  goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Notice this is also a process. You can’t have the next one until you get the first one. So if you want to add knowledge to your faith, first you have to start with goodness. If you want self-control, you have to add knowledge. The process of achieving these character qualities has to be taken a step at a time. It’s really like building a skyscraper. You can’t move on to the next level until you establish the first one.

So if you want to build godly character, start with faith and then be good. That’s where you start. And you know how to be good by turning to Scripture. God has told us everything we need to know. It’s just up to us to act on it.

Sunrise on Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Transformation is a choice

At the beginning of a New Year, everyone wants to be a new person. People want new habits, new scales, new everything because they are trying to be new people, whether through diet and exercise or style changes or clothes changes. How many people do you know who have started resolutions to change the way they look?

But it isn’t losing weight that will make you a new person. Changing your clothing style or the church you attend (or its frequency) won’t make you a new person. Maybe your clothes or your weight can make you look like a new person, but to truly change you into a new person you need to change something deeper than your shirt.

You need to change your perspective on life. You need to change the way you think.

Sunrise on Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Sunrise on Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Today’s verse is Romans 12:2.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

You have two choices when it comes to determining how you’re going to think. You can either think about the world and everything in it the way that God has said, or you don’t. There’s no middle ground. And there’s no shortcut either.

There’s no magic switch that makes this easier for you to accomplish. Actually, it isn’t even something you can do. It’s a choice you make, and God is the one who does the rest. That’s what makes this so difficult.

Look at the verse. You can copy the behaviors of the world or you can let God transform you. Those are choices, and those choses are yours.

If you want to be a new person, you have to let God transform your mind from what it is to what He wants it to be. You have to let Him change the way you think. That’s the only way it works. Otherwise, you will stay the same inside, whether you change on the outside or not.

If all you do is change your outside, it’s like putting clean clothes on after you’ve rolled around in the mud. Your clothes look nice, but what’s under it is filthy.

This choice, between the world’s transforming power or God’s transforming power, is something we need to settle in our minds before we even get out of bed in the morning. We have to decide which one is going to hold sway in our lives. Are we going to listen to the world? Or are we going to listen to God?

On the surface, the answer is easy. God all the way, right? That’s the best answer. And if you’re a Christ follower, you know it. But knowing it and living it are two separate things. And usually no matter how good my intentions are to listen to God, I still get sidetracked because thinking the way the world thinks is so much easier.

Letting God transform my life is a process. He started it when I was seven years old, and He’s not even close to finishing with me. It’s a long, painful process because I hold on to the perspectives that the world has taught me, and He keeps telling me that I need to let them go.

Changing the way you think is impossible if you keep filling your head with the status quo of the world. That’s why we need to get to know God. We need to be reading our Bibles. We need to be praying and having conversations with God. However you work your relationship with God, you need to do it, you need to fill your life and your mind with Him, because the more of Him that is in your life, the less of the world can get in.

So before you walk out your door this morning, decide who you’re going to let transform you. The world will try. The world will never stop trying. But the world’s “transformation” is more of a ‘deformation.” There’s nothing the world has changed that has been better for it.

But God? God can take the broken and the hurting and put them back together again. He can heal hearts. He can change lives. He can right wrongs. But it all starts with a choice, and it’s a choice we have to make.