God’s great grace and the power of second chances

People hurt each other all the time. Sometimes it’s intentional. Most times it’s not, and it just happens because nobody is perfect. Communication breaks down. Misunderstandings happen. Maybe you do something you aren’t supposed to do, and you lie to cover it up. Then you have to lie more to keep it covered. And you can’t lie that long without there being consequences, whether you get caught in your lie or not.

In any case, you end up at odds with people. But you forgive them. Of course, you forgive them. Maybe it’s not the strong, independent thing to say, but I usually forgive people pretty quickly, especially if it’s only my feelings that have been hurt. If I’m the only one who has been wronged, it doesn’t bother me that much. But there’s forgiveness and then there’s restoration. And there’s a big, big difference between them.

Unless you’re God.

AD76394B17Today’s verses are Romans 8:1-3.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.

I love how God approaches forgiveness. When you come to God with a true view of your sin and your dependency on Him, He doesn’t push you away. He doesn’t scorn you or make you feel guilty. He sees you from a far-off distance and runs to meet you. He wraps you up in His arms and welcomes you home.

There’s nothing in this passage that discusses how we have to prove ourselves to God so that He will restore us to a right relationship with Him. We don’t have to prove anything to God. We can’t. All we are capable of doing is turning our hearts, our wills, over to Him. And He knows full well that we might turn away from Him again (we probably will), but He doesn’t let that stop Him from showering us with blessings and making us feel loved and wanted.

God is a God of second chances. And third chances. A fiftieth chances. And two-hundredth chances. I know that’s been said to death, but it’s true. God doesn’t push anyone away. Not ever. Nobody who ever came to God seeking help has been turned away.

I need that. I need someone who will forgive me when I screw up, because I screw up a lot. Do I think it’s wise to instantly restore another human being to a place of ultimate trust after they’ve betrayed me? No. We can’t prove anything to God, but when it comes to our relationships with each other, trust needs to be earned again after it’s lost.

But still… how often are we too harsh on someone who has let us down? How often do we feel the need to punish those who have hurt the people we love? And is that really what God has for us to do? Are we supposed to make it harder for someone to earn our trust after they’ve failed us?

Jesus says in Matthew that people with vulnerable hearts are happy. Sure, that guy hurt you. Yeah, that gal might take advantage of your kind spirit and stomp all over your heart again. But isn’t God’s grace strong enough to withstand the failings of other people? I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt. When someone you love stabs you in the back, it hurts. When someone you trust turns out to be different than you thought, it’s like your insides twist all up. But who are you trusting for your happiness?

God’s grace is enough.

It’s enough to free me from slavery to my own sin. It’s enough to help me forgive people who’ve hurt me. It’s enough to help me forgive people who will keep hurting me. And if God loves me enough to give me second chances over and over and over again, can’t I afford to do the same for someone else?

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.

God reveals Himself through stories

I love stories. It doesn’t matter what kind of stories they are, though I do prefer stories with happy endings (some people may doubt that if they’ve read my latest novel, Namesake, but I promise it’s true!). Stories entertain us. They make us laugh. They help us dream. They allows us to imagine a different life or different worlds. But that’s not all they do.

The best stories, the ones that stick with us, always contain a morsel of truth. The stories that resonate in our hearts are the ones that God can use to speak to us in ways normal conversation can’t. So, in a way, it’s fitting to see the Bible and one big storybook.

1A0499C042Today’s verses are Romans 4:20-24.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that they’d read the Bible more often if it were more relevant to their lives. On one hand, I can understand that the Bible can be confusing, especially if you’re reading a translation that requires a lot of study. But it’s not that the Bible isn’t relevant. It’s that we aren’t actively applying its lessons to our lives.

It’s the same way we apply the truth of stories in our lives, and that’s not a new thing. Remember Aesop’s Fables? People have been telling stories since language was invented, to entertain and to educate. Oral histories of people and culture are all we have left of some civilizations. And in every story, there’s a lesson.

Not much has changed throughout history, though. Our movies, our television shows, our books–they’re all stories. They’re all lessons.

What’s different about the Bible is that it was written by God for us. It’s His Word, the only truth, and it’s intended to show us the meaning of life, our purpose on earth, and to show us who God is and how much He loves us. What I love is how He does it.

God could have written: “Hey, humans. I made you. I made everything. You screwed me over, but because I love you, I’ve made a way for you to be saved. The End.” But He didn’t. Instead, He moved through dozens of authors over hundreds of years to write a collection of stories about how He shows up in our daily lives. God shows Himself through stories. Those moments where something impossible happens? Those moments where everything works out just perfectly? That’s not coincidence. That’s design. That’s God.

We can relate to stories. So that’s why God tells us stories.

So the next time you’re tempted to think that the Bible is confusing or irrelevant to your life, just stop. Take a moment to actually read one of the stories (use a translation you understand), and don’t see it as some ancient historical document. See it as a story that you’d tell around a campfire. See if the lesson doesn’t jump out at you. You might be surprised what you learn.

What’s great about God’s stories is that there’s always something to learn. And those lessons you learn grow and change with you as you get older, because God is always exactly what you need when you need Him. So a story may mean something to you today, but read it again in ten years, and you’ll get something new out of it. That’s real truth, and that’s who God is.

Don’t rate Jesus by the failings of His followers

I don’t have a good feeling about politicians. It doesn’t matter what side they take, what party lines they walk, what policies they promote, I just have a hard time trusting them. But you know what? I don’t know any politicians. I’ve never met one, not really. Never spent time with one. Never shaken hands with one. I had lunch at the governor’s mansion in Topeka once while I was in college. We were visiting for Associated Press Day in my beat reporting class, and I saw the governor across the room, but I didn’t speak to her.

So how can I say that I don’t trust politicians when I don’t know any? Well, I know of them. I hear them speak. I see the damage they do. I watch them break their word over and over again. So in my distant, third-person perspective of politicians, they can’t be trusted. But is that any way to rate someone’s trustworthiness? Just because other people “like” them aren’t trustworthy, does that make them untrustworthy too?

DV0EKCTSGSToday’s verses are Romans 3:3-4.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him, “You will be proved right in what you say, and you will win your case in court.”

People seemed to be running into this same conundrum when it comes to God during the writing of the Book of Romans. Paul addresses the unfaithfulness of people who’d been trusted with God’s Word, how they hadn’t done what they were supposed to do. But Paul’s statement is that just because people let you down, you should assume God will too.

I can’t speak for politicians, and maybe that’s a silly example. But I tend to lump people into groups. Maybe I stereotype them. Legalistic Christians. Good Church People. Mac Lovers. Engineers. Homeschoolers. Bad Influences.

Stop laughing at me. You do it too. Maybe your labels are different, but we all are guilty of categorizing people.

But just because one Legalistic Christian hurt your feelings doesn’t mean that the next Legalistic Christian you meet will do the same. Just because one Mac Lover annoys the crap out of you doesn’t mean the next Mac Lover you encounter will too.

The same principle is true with God. There are a lot of people who claim to follow God, but they go around hurting people, making life difficult, causing conflict at home, in the workplace, at school. Some folks who claim to be Christians lie and cheat and steal. They don’t respect authorities. They are bad influences on people. And they’re unrepentant about it.

But you know what? Just because a Christian acts that way doesn’t mean God is pleased with him or her. God has a specific list of traits that He expects His children to live by, and just because someone calls themselves a Christian doesn’t mean they’re actually living like one.

Many people have been hurt by Christians, and that’s a sad thing. But just because a Christian fouls up doesn’t mean that Jesus will too. An ambassador can be a poor representative of his country. So too a Christian can be a poor representative of Christ.

So the next time you are tempted to give up on God because you had a bad experience with one of His followers, think twice. People are people, and God is God. People will let you down, but God never will.

A changed heart comes from God

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to stick to a resolution? Or maybe you don’t struggle with that. Most people I know have a difficult time with resolutions, though. Oh, they’re easy enough to make, but keeping them is another story.

Is there a reason for it? Well, there’s a reason for most everything that happens in our lives, and it isn’t always that we’re not trying hard enough or that we’re not sincere. I can tell you that I’ve made some very sincere resolutions before that have fallen through. And I’ve worked my tail off to keep a resolution before too, but that hasn’t always made a difference.

So what is it that makes the difference between keeping a resolution and falling off the wagon?

love-heart-hand-romanticToday’s verses are Romans 2:28-29.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

The people I know who keep their resolutions or achieve their goals most frequently have a mindset that is in line with their resolutions. Their heart is aligned with what they want to accomplish.

Maybe this is a bad example, but you can’t lose weight if you aren’t dedicated to the process of losing weight. Being healthy and living healthy takes time and effort and hard work, and if you’re doing it right, you won’t see results overnight. You have to stick to it. You have to keep going, even on the days when you don’t feel like it. And if your heart isn’t in it, you’ll eventually fail.

What about not being late? That’s a good resolution. Say you resolve that you won’t be late to meetings anymore. That’s great! But being on time for a meeting means you have to get organized. You have to get things done, which means you can’t dawdle or daydream or waste time. You have to prioritize, and prioritizing takes hard work and sacrifice. You have to be willing to let some things slip in order to achieve the things you want to achieve.

If you want to keep your resolutions, you have to have a heart that lines up with what you’re trying to accomplish. Your heart has to change before your behavior can change. Many times our culture gets that messed up. We try to change our behavior in hopes that our attitudes will improve, but it doesn’t work that way. The attitude comes first, and then the behavior will straighten out.

The fact remains that God is the only one capable of changing the human heart. He can give us new dreams and healthy desires, but we have to put Him first in our lives. That’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.

So how’s your attitude today? Is it sour? Bitter? Resentful? Jealous? It might be angry or frustrated. It might be hurt or bruised. It might be self-focused and petty. We’ve all been there, friend, but none of us have to stay there.

Spend some time getting to know the Lord. Read the Bible, and talk to God about what’s bothering you. Take steps to put Him first in your life and see what happens. You’ll find that when your only concern is pleasing Him, the rest of your priorities will fall neatly into place. No, that doesn’t mean life will be easy, but it will get a lot clearer. And that’s more than half the battle as far as I’m concerned.

Your spiritual gift is worth more than a plate of cookies

As I’ve stated in many other posts, I love giving people things. I love giving gifts. Birthdays. Christmas. Anniversary. Just because. There’s nothing better than to show up unexpectedly and deliver a present to someone just for the heck of it. Anyone else ever been there?

It’s a great trait to have, sure, but it can be a double-edged sword too. What if you don’t have enough money to purchase gifts? What if you don’t have time to make something intricate and beautiful? Can you still go see people if you don’t bring a gift? Maybe that sounds silly, but that’s one of those silly little fears that pop up at the back of my head. I can’t just show up at somebody’s house or workplace without something give, can I? That’s rude, isn’t it?

What I need to remember (and everyone like me) is that the best gifts you can give aren’t always wrapped up in boxes and ribbons. Sometimes, the best gift you can offer is your time and your perspective on following Jesus.

wood-light-brown-dessertToday’s verses are Romans 1:11-12.

For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours.

In my life, I’ve never longed to visit anyone to bring a spiritual gift. Have you? This is Paul talking to the Church at Rome, though, so if Paul can talk like this, it’s most likely something we should pay attention to.

Paul is this legendary figure in my mind, so it’s hard to remember that he had nothing. He traveled from one corner of the continent to the other. He didn’t have a home or family. He didn’t have possessions really. So of course he had no tangible gifts to bring people. But what he could bring to share with others was the spiritual gift God had given him.

I don’t take my spiritual gifts seriously often enough. If you’re a Christ-follower, you have one too, and God has given them to us so that we can enrich and encourage the Body of Christ, the Church. So what if you don’t have time to make cookies? So what if you don’t have enough money to buy something nice? The gift of your time and your care and your love is worth more than you might think.

What I also love about this is how Paul states that he wants to visit to encourage the people of the Church at Rome but that he also needs encouragement too. If Paul can admit to needing encouragement, heck–I’m right there with him.

So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t give someone a gift. And absolutely don’t let your perceived lack of something prevent you from spending time with other believers. Don’t underestimate the power of the spiritual gift God has given you. He can use you to bless people ten times more than a plate of cookies could. You just have to let Him.

God doesn’t pick anyone because they’re special

During the end of the year, people start talking about everything they’ve accomplished. I do it. Most people I know do it. And it’s really easy to hear about everything that’s going right for people and feel a little bit left out. Do you ever get that feeling? Like you haven’t done as much as you could have? Or that somehow God is doing more for someone else than you?

It’s okay to admit it. That’s a normal feeling. Not a true feeling but a normal one.

When you start looking at people and comparing yourself to them, it’s easy to start thinking that God loves someone else more than you, because all you’re looking at is them rather than God’s work in your own life. I take God’s work in my own life for granted. It can seem small and insignificant to me. And I begin to wonder why other people are so special that God would show up in their lives when He doesn’t in mine.

33E58C5499Today’s verses are Deuteronomy 7:7-9.

The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.

The truth is, you aren’t that special. Sorry to break it to you. But God didn’t pick you (or me) out of a crowd because we had some special skill or unique talent. The only thing that makes us special is God’s work in our lives. It has nothing to do with us.

Sort of like Israel. It wasn’t even a country. It wasn’t even a family to start out with. It was just Abraham and his wife, and they weren’t even able to have children. But God made them a promise. And He kept it. And He’s still keeping it to this day. Israel wasn’t special. It was God who was special, who chose to do something miraculous. That’s how it works with us too.

Now don’t misunderstand. We are loved and unique and priceless. God made each of us, so by that token we are special, individually crafted by God Himself. So that by itself makes us special in comparison to the rest of creation, even in comparison to each other. But I don’t have anything that would make God love me more than someone else. Neither do you. We’re all poor and weak and powerless, and it’s God who comes along and gives us strength and success and victory.

God promises to be our salvation, our rock, our healer, our guide, our light. He promises that when we’re weak, we’ll be strong through His power. He promises that even in our darkest moments, He has a plan that He’s working out for our benefit. That’s not on us. That’s all on Him.

God doesn’t play favorites.

So don’t get into the habit of comparing yourself with other people. When the year-end accomplishment letters start coming in and the personal goals for the year grace your inbox, choose to rejoice with your friends instead of comparing yourself to them. Choose to marvel at God’s workmanship in people and realize that God is working in your life too. It just looks different than it does with other people.

God doesn’t pick anyone because they’re special. He picks people He can use. So if you want God to be visible in your life, if you want His blessings to be obvious, be the kind of person God can use. Be humble. Be honest. Be genuine. Trust Him. Follow Him. Honor Him. And if you’re doing all that, He’s probably more visible in your life than you think.