Small victories win wars

It’s March, guys! The third month of 2017 has already begun. How are you doing with your resolutions? Confession time: January was a complete failure for me, and February wasn’t much better.

I had plans to eat right, to exercise regularly, to rest, and to spend time with the Lord. And while I managed some of it some of the time, overall I failed completely. So in March I trying again.

Does anyone else struggle with this? You have the best, most sincere intentions. You make plans and contingencies. You psyche yourself up for the difficult days, and you try to prepare yourself for the inevitable temptation. You do everything you can to convince your traitorous brain that you shouldn’t eat that or that you’ll feel better after you walk those two miles or you’ll get all your work done eventually and a break will be good for you.

But it doesn’t work.

And then one day you find yourself sacked out on the couch eating M&Ms out of a ten-pound bag while you start in on your fifteenth draft of the same article, and the treadmill makes fun of you silently from its darkened corner of the basement. You feel like the biggest loser on planet Earth.

How does that happen? Well, I’m not sure if it’s the same for anyone else, but I’ve begun to suspect that my approach to goals in general is to blame. I’m a big picture person. I don’t do details very well, and I usually operate under the assumption that no matter what happens, everything will eventually work out.

And since God is in control, that’s true for His people. He’s big enough to work out the details of our lives so that they turn into something beautiful, even if the circumstances are horrible. But that doesn’t absolve us from making wise choices in the mean time.

God gave us brains for a reason.

So many times, as Christians, I think we focus too much on the war, instead of the battle. Wars are made up of many little battles, some that we win and others that we lose. And, frankly, we lose those little battles because we’re willing to accept defeat. In the grand scheme of the war, we can lose a battle because it won’t affect the eventual outcome.

That’s both comforting in one sense and terrifying in another. Yes, it’s great to realize that we’ve already won the war regardless of how many battles we may lose. But does that mean we can just stop fighting?

No! Of course not! (Romans 6:1) Just because Jesus has already accomplished the final goal doesn’t give us the excuse to give up today’s battle. And make no mistake. Today is a battle. This very moment is a battle.

If anyone ever tells you that this life can be free of conflict, struggle, or strife, they’re selling something. Just being honest. Our life here was never meant to be free of those things. As long as we have the Holy Spirit in us, we will be in a constant battle with ourselves and the world around us. But don’t let it discourage you, because Jesus has given us the strength to overcome any challenge (John 16:33).

So how do you win those every-moment battles? How can you overcome the temptation to neglect your physical or spiritual or emotional health?

Well, just like wars are won through through smaller battles, your daily battles should be conquered with small victories. Instead of focusing on the big picture which seems unconquerable, focus on the choice you have to make right now.

Should I eat that handful of M&Ms even though I know it will hurt my blood sugar? Should I not take a break from my daily work because I have too much to do? Should I skip my exercise because it’s too much trouble?

None of those are earth-shattering questions. No answer to any of those questions will shake the world off its axis. But for those questions, there is a right answer and a wrong answer for you. No, the world won’t end if you eat the M&Ms, but it’s not the wisest choice you can make.

Living healthy is a daily battle, and the only way you’ll win is seeking wisdom to face the questions. That’s how you win those hourly battles—by making good choices. And you learn how to make good choices from God’s word. (1 Peter 1:13-16)

Ultimately, the choice is yours. You get to decide what you do, what you eat, where you go, how you act. God has given us that freedom. But if you choose a course of action without wisdom, you open yourself up to the consequences.

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love the big picture of life, I can’t win at life on my own strength. I need God’s help. Frankly, I can’t even win in an hourly battle without God’s Spirit (Zechariah 4:6). Nobody can.

But the truth is: God’s given us everything we need to live a victorious life (2 Timothy 1:7).

What choice do you have to make right now? What does God say about it? Have you even asked Him? If you haven’t, there’s your problem. He wants to help. So give Him a chance and see what happens.

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When you only want half of Jesus

Imagine you walk into the grocery store and fill your shopping cart with essentials. Not the name brand products either. Just what you need to get by. Then, when you go to pay for your cart of groceries, you present the sales clerk with half a credit card. Do you think you’ll get to go home with your groceries?

Instead, what if you gave her half the amount of money you owe the store. Your groceries would cost $50, but you only have $25. Do you think you’d be able to take home the entire cart of groceries? No, of course not.

In the case of the half of a credit card, you wouldn’t get to take anything home. In the case of half the cash, you’d have to take home half of what you wanted to purchase. And that’s a silly example maybe, but why do we think that following Jesus is different? Why do we expect to get all the benefit of belonging to Him if we only want half of Him?

Everybody loves Jesus, right?

He was a great teacher, an amazing role model, and he stood up to the oppressive religious leaders. He encouraged His followers to forgive their enemies and turn the other cheek and be patient with each other.

All of that is true. But it’s only one side of the coin. And trying to force this politically correct portrait of Jesus into the mold of human society is like trying to pay for your groceries with half a credit card. It doesn’t work.

Because, no, not everybody loves Jesus. Not everybody is supposed to. And if you’re truly a follower of Jesus, not everyone will love you either (Matthew 10:22).

Jesus is a paradox. He’s impossible. He came both to unite people with God (Romans 8:15-17) yet divide people from each other (Luke 12:51). He came to offer a way to salvation (John 3:16), but that means facing the truth that the world is condemned without Him (John 3:17). He is God. He is Man. He died. He lives today. He is. And if you think you can explain Him with a few quaint platitudes that fit your definition of Christianity, you’re wrong.

You can’t have half of Jesus. You can’t follow half of Jesus. If you try it, you’ll always be confused and at odds with the Bible. Because Jesus didn’t come to discredit the Bible (Matthew 5:17). He came to complete what’s already there.

Yes, Jesus loves everyone, but no one deserves to be loved.

Yes, Jesus saves everyone who comes to Him, but not everyone will choose to be saved.

Yes, Jesus forgives anyone, but you can’t be forgiven if you don’t ask for it and admit that you are wrong.

Jesus isn’t this pale-hearted milktoast literary figure who blesses people in flowery language and always smiles with a shining halo around his head. Nor is He a religious zealot intent on tearing down the government or protesting every action of a country’s leaders just for spite.

You can’t label Him. You can’t stereotype Him. And if you think you can, you don’t know Him.

During His life on earth, Jesus was the most compassionate, most loving, most tender-hearted man alive. But that didn’t mean He refused to stand up against tyranny, against oppression and persecution. But He didn’t riot and damage property. He stood for truth and justice peacefully, calmly, meekly. He asked questions instead of demanding answers, and He gained a reputation for being someone who spoke with authority instead of someone who demanded what He was owed.

American Christians could learn a lot about how to handle life from Jesus. Ironic, isn’t it?

You can’t separate Jesus’ love from His righteousness. You can’t separate His mercy and His justice. You can’t separate His compassion from His holiness. You can’t separate Jesus from God because They are the same Person.

Does that make you uncomfortable? It should. Jesus has always made people uncomfortable, and the day He stops, is the day we’ve truly forgotten who He is. He should always make us think about what we believe and why we believe it. He should always make us realize how unworthy we are, yet how valuable we are to Him.

So where does that leave us? How do we press forward in this exhausting, emotional, conflicted existence when we don’t understand? How do we decide what is right and what is wrong and how to live?

It’s not as complicated as people make it seem. It’s cliched, but what did Jesus do? How did He live?

He loved everyone, yes, but he didn’t make excuses for them. (That’s not love, by the way.) He accepted everyone, but that didn’t mean He dismissed what was true. He spent time with people who disagreed with Him, but He never compromised what was right. He lived sacrificially to serve other people, but even He still paid His taxes (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25).

If you ask the world about a lifestyle like that, they won’t know what to do with it. It makes no sense to them, and if you don’t know Jesus, it won’t make sense to you either.

Don’t accept the world’s view about Jesus. Don’t even accept the Church’s view on Jesus. Read about Him for yourself. And then spend some time with Him. Get to know Him personally. I promise, you won’t ever be the same. And that, my friends, is the point.

Don’t give power to powerless things

We have a little garden plot here are Safe Haven Farm. It isn’t much, and it’s actually much less now than it used to be. But we get some fresh veggies out of it.

When I was younger, we’d eat out of the garden. We had potatoes and carrots and onions. We had everything to make salsa, except the tortilla chips. I loved the results of gardening. What I didn’t like was the work behind getting those results.

In this part of Kansas, our soil is fertile, but it’s filled with clay, which makes digging difficult. And then there are the weeds.

Weeds, weeds, everywhere, from dandelions to cheat grass and everything in between. Weeds make gardening difficult. They sap the nutrients from the fruit-bearing plants, and sometimes they’re difficult to distinguish too.

And even if you can tell the difference between a weed and a real plant, usually their roots are woven together, so you can’t pull one up without killing the other.

I hate weeds. Everyone does. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re part of the original curse (Genesis 3:17). But weeds don’t just affect our gardens. Weeds can affect our lives too. Weeds can be spiritual.

Idolatry is a spiritual weed. Ever thought about that?

When I think about idols and idolatry, I envision mass groups of people in robes bowing down to bronze statues or singing in foreign languages. Like some twisted church service thousands of years in the past when people didn’t know any better.

Maybe in some cases that’s true. Historically some cultures did bow down before forged statues, but you won’t see that kind of idolatry happening in the United States. American idolatry is much more subversive.

Sports. Artists. Politicians. Performers. Your job. Your friends. Your family. Idols can take the shape of even the most innocent relationships. It’s the power you give them over your life that makes them idols.

Those bronze statues people worshiped in ancient times had no power at all, except what the people who bowed down surrendered (Jeremiah 10:5).

We all have idols. Let’s just admit that right now, because it’s true. We all have something or someone in our lives that is fighting to take precedence over God and His plans. The question is who you’re willing to surrender your life to.

An idol is anything that takes the place of God in your life. So to figure out what idols are in your life, you have to ask yourself what role God should be filling.

God is our comforter. He should be the one who helps us manage our stress. Are you turning to something else other than His Word or His promises to calm you down? That’s an idol.

God is our sufficiency. He should be the one who makes us whole. Are you looking to another relationship to complete you? Are you looking to something you can achieve to make you feel worthwhile? That’s an idol.

God is our security. He should be the one who makes us feel safe, who makes us feel loved. Are you looking to what another person makes you feel to sooth your insecurity? Are you looking to your success personally to make you feel safe? That’s an idol.

Your sports team may be a community, but it shouldn’t be the root of your community. Your job may be how God provides for you, but never forget that it is still God who provides. And you may never be happy with the way you look, but you should always remember that God made you the way you are. And God doesn’t make mistakes.

But identifying idols is only one part of this. And it’s the easiest part. Removing idols from your life is difficult, painful work. Not only does it hurt you, but it hurts the people around you.

You have to dig up your life to expose the roots of the problem. So do the people who care about you.

If you’re blessed (like I am), you have people in your life who love you so deeply that they’re willing to experience the pain of uprooting your idols alongside you. No matter how much it hurts them or inconveniences them, they’ll hang in there right beside you. They’ll walk you through the pain and the heartache of realizing how flawed you actually are, and they’ll love you throughout it all.

But how much better would it be if we didn’t let idols put down roots in our lives? Remember, idols only have the power we give them (Jeremiah 10:5). So wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we didn’t give our idols any power at all?

That job you think matters so much? Instead of trusting your finances, how about you try trusting your faith?

That person whose opinion will make or break you? How about you care less about what they think and more about what God says?

That relationship you think you can’t lose? Ask God what He thinks about you and then reevaluate how the people in your life treat you.

Identify what could become an idol before it puts down roots. It’s like pre-treating your garden plot for weeds before you plant. That way you can pull it out before it damages your life and the lives of those around you. (Matthew 13:24-30)

God has give you the power to choose who will control your life. You can either hand that power over to powerless things, or you can give it back to God, who can actually do something with it.

Which do you think is a better idea?

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.

You’ve got family you’ve never met

We’re all adopted. You know that right? If you’re a Christ-follower, you’ve been adopted into God’s family, and you automatically have brothers and sisters in every nation on Earth. You may not know their customs. You may not speak their language. But you both belong to Jesus.

There’s nothing more amazing to me than meeting someone from another country and instantly having a connection because you both love Jesus. Even if you have nothing else in common, Jesus is enough to bridge cultures and bring people together as long as He stays the main thing.

We’re all one family. Have you ever thought about that? So why is it easier to focus on how we’re different instead of how we’re the same?

people-crowd-child-kidToday’s verses are Ephesians 2:19-22.

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

Family means different things to different people. But to me, my family is one of the central, most important factors in my life, but I’m well aware that family isn’t as important to other people. But family, as it was supposed to be, is designed to be our shelter, our starting point, the place where we experience God’s design.

So what would your life look like if you had a brother or a sister you trusted? What would you be like if you were best friends with your brother or sister? Maybe you’re blessed (like me) and have experienced that relationship. Maybe you’re not, and you’d leap for joy at the thought of having someone in your life like that.

Did you ever think that maybe the person you’re looking for is someone you already know?

That guy you sit next to on the bus? If he knows Jesus, he’s your brother. That woman at the office, the one who drives you nuts? If she knows Jesus, she’s your sister. But it’s easier to focus on the things that you don’t like about them than it is to treat them like family.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about people. Yesterday I was sitting at Mead’s listening to a guy in the corner go off the rails about how much he hates America and wants to change his citizenship and move to Singapore. And I jumped to a conclusion about the man. That he’s not very bright. But that’s wrong of me to say. He could be perfectly bright and just vocal about his opinions. Fair to say I don’t agree with any of his conclusions, but that’s not my job.

Don’t switch your brain off. Obviously sometimes you have to make judgment calls about people or situations, but there’s a vast difference between making a judgment call jumping to conclusions.

If you’re lonely or looking for family, you have one. You have access to family members from around the world. You don’t have to look very far. There are millions of people all around you who know Jesus. We just need to stop seeing them from the outside and hear their hearts instead.

You have family you’ve never met, and eventually you’ll get to see them someday. But there’s nothing wrong with looking for them now. Who knows, they may be just as lonely as you are.

Don’t forget who the story is really about

When I’m writing a story, sometimes I get lost in it. I’m not sure how other people do it, but when I write, I’m really just watching a story unfold and committing the events and dialog to paper. Sometimes I don’t even know how it’s going to end. There are stories I’ve written where all my attention has been focused on what a character looks like or what a character says or what happens next in the story, and those are all important things to know. But it’s in those moments when I get so caught up in the details that I forget the point.

Some people will say that character is the most important part of a story. Others believe it’s plot–the chain of events that unfolds in a book. But I disagree with both of those. They’re important, yes, but not the most important. The most important part of a story is the message. Every story has a message, a lesson to learn, a point to communicate. And if you get so tied up in the characters and the voices and the settings and all the million little picky details, you run the risk of letting the message slip through your fingers.

Today’s verses are Matthew 17:1-8.

Six days later Jesus took Peter and the two brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, “Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus.

Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus’ inner circle–Peter, James, and John. The original three amigos. Can you even begin to imagine what they saw that night? In the blink of an eye, the veil covering Jesus’ earthly form pulled back, allowing them to see a piece of who He is. And if that weren’t enough, two legends from Jewish history decided to stop by for a visit.

Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah! My gosh, you don’t even have to know the Bible very well to know who Moses is. And Elijah may not be as familiar to you as Moses, but he’s the guy who called down fire on Mt. Caramel. These guys are heavy hitters. And their bodies had long since returned to dust.

So you can’t exactly blame Peter. I would have been excited too. Moses and Elijah! But Peter missed the point. Just like we do so often.

We take Jesus for granted because He’s always around. His name is everywhere, and we get used to Him, sort of like Peter did. Yeah, Jesus is a big deal, but He was always with them. Seeing two Old Testament prophets wandering around like they hadn’t been “dead” for a thousand years? Now that was something to write home about.

But God set Peter straight. The story isn’t about Moses. And it’s not about Elijah. The story is about Jesus, and it always has been. From before time began and long after time runs out, the story will forever and always be about Jesus. He’s the message. He’s the point.

Have you started to take Jesus for granted in your life? Are you more excited about something God is doing rather than the fact God is the one doing it? Take a step back. Take a moment to think about what actually matters.

It’s great to celebrate the details. It’s wonderful to focus on specific aspects of a job or a relationship or, like in my case, a novel. But don’t let those details get so big that they overshadow what really matters. Don’t forget who the story is really about.

You’re worth so much because God paid so much

Everybody knows that if you’re looking to buy something that you can’t find anywhere for sale, check Ebay. Ebay has everything. Books and movies, clothes and cosmetics, cars and even entire towns! Ebay is the revolutionary one-stop shop for anything and everything you could ever want to buy, including grilled cheese sandwiches with Jesus’ face on them.

What I find fascinating about Ebay is what people will pay for things. Sure there are lots of outrageously priced items, but just because the price is outrageous doesn’t mean people will pay that much for it. But in some cases, people decide what’s for sale is worth the price it’s being offered for.

Example? In 2010, Warren Buffett, a world-renown economist and expert investor, put up an Ebay auction to have lunch with him. Granted all proceeds from the auction would benefit a charity. But how much would you pay to talk money matters with Warren Buffett? Well, someone paid $2.63 million.

That’s $2,630,000.00. Check the decimal places on that bad boy. Yikes!

We evaluate worth or value by how much people are willing to pay for it. In our capitalistic American society, that’s not a foreign concept, but how do you judge the worth or value of a person’s life? How do you judge the value of their time or experience? Those things aren’t as easy to pin a number on, but the concept is actually exactly the same.

money-finance-bills-bank-notesToday’s verses are Ephesians 2:4-7.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

Everyone struggles with the concept of self-worth. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve met very many people who have it figured out. I don’t. With Christ-followers, there’s something in our brain that cautions us not to think too highly of ourselves, and that’s absolutely a valid thought to have. It is possible to get puffed up, to look at yourself and your life and believe you haven’t got any problems and that you’ve got life figured out. That’s a dangerous place to be.

But we take it a step further. Because we don’t want to think to highly of ourselves, instead we get into the habit of thinking too meanly about ourselves. We downplay our achievements and talents. We deflect compliments because we don’t think we deserve them and we don’t want people to think we’re being proud.

God commands us to be humble, but is false modesty the same as humility? No. In the same way, pride and self-worth don’t go hand in hand.

I was talking about worth and value with a one of my awesome Forever Sisters last night, and I started wondering how you can even judge the value of another human being? What we have to remember is that we aren’t the ones who assign value to people. God does that. God says what people are worth. God says that the price of a human soul can’t be measured.

Even so, in God’s eyes, our lives were worth enough to Him that He sent Jesus to die for us.

You can recognize and accept what you’re worth without being prideful. Regardless of what you’ve done or where you’ve been or where you’re going, this fact is still true: God gave His Son for you. God chose to shed His Only Son’s blood to pay the price for your soul. That’s how much you mean to God. Think about that the next time you start beating yourself up or listening to naysayers or picking yourself apart in the mirror.

Your worth as a person can’t be judged by another person, because another person doesn’t have the power or authority to purchase you. God’s the only one who can do that, because He created You. He made you exactly the way you are, with all your funny quirks and strange eccentricities. God doesn’t make mistakes, and there are no such things as accidents.

Maybe the people around you don’t see your worth. Maybe you can’t see the worth of the people around you. That’s okay. You’re not supposed to be able to see it, but just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So stop basing your value to the world and the people around you on your ability to perform, your talents, your looks, your brains. Stop looking for worth based on what you can do or what you know. Instead, understand that you’re worth so much because God paid so much for you. And if God thinks so highly of you, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.