Focusing on what’s wrong isn’t going to help you

I woke up on Monday morning in a horrible mood. Do you ever just have mornings like that? Where you wake up and you just can’t cheer up? No matter how you try, you just stay in the dumps.

I hate those mornings. Fortunately, they’re few and far between. But when you have a morning like that, is there a way to get back on track?

1302654_51792540Today’s verses are Genesis 39:19-23.

Potiphar was furious when he heard his wife’s story about how Joseph had treated her. So he took Joseph and threw him into the prison where the king’s prisoners were held, and there he remained. But the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love. And the Lord made Joseph a favorite with the prison warden. Before long, the warden put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners and over everything that happened in the prison. The warden had no more worries, because Joseph took care of everything. The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed.

I don’t think there’s anyone in the Bible who had more reason to sulk and stew than Joseph. Sold into slavery by his own brothers, shipped to a foreign land, falsely accused, thrown in prison and forgotten–Joseph never did anything to deserve that kind of treatment. But he never gave up, and he always kept focused on living his life for God. How did he do it? He worked.

He worked for Potiphar before Potiphar’s wife lied about him. Then he worked for the warden of the prison. I’m sure he mourned, yes, and I’m sure he asked God why he had to go through all of this, but he didn’t ever sink into that black hole of self-pity.

When I’m in a bad mood, I find the best way to get out of it is to stop focusing on myself. Sure, it’s important to identify why you’re upset, because if there’s something really wrong, you should change it or fix it. But if you’re in the middle of circumstances that you can’t change, focusing on what’s wrong isn’t going to help you.

Instead, try focusing on what you can do to help people around you. Or, focus on what you need to accomplish in a day. No matter who you are, you’ve got goals you want to achieve. Instead of expending your energy on thinking about what’s keeping you in place, start working on all the things you need to get done in order to start moving again.

For me, there’s nothing more uplifting than making a list and checking items off of it. Maybe that’s my tiny bit of Type A showing, but it’s true. Or if that doesn’t work, set aside some specific time to do something that will cheer you up. Read a book and get your mind off the problem. Bake some cookies and take them to people you care about. If the weather is nice, go outside and walk or ride your bike. If the weather is bad, play a game inside or read a book.

Just stop focusing on the problem.

That’s not to say that you should live in denial. No, if there’s a serious issue going on, you should deal with it. But how many of us really live with serious issues in our lives? Most of the time, if it’s serious enough, we’ll do something about it.

Most of us just live with annoyances. Most of us just grin and bear it. The long hours. The lack of appreciation. The disrespect or the minimal acknowledgement. The coworker who drives you nuts. That small group leader who totally gets under your skin. The hypocrite you have to ride next to on the bus.

And when you’re in a bad mood, they all seem to gang up on you, don’t they? It’s like everyone is out to get you. Everyone has made it their mission in life to ruin your day. And the rational part of your mind knows that’s not true. But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

So set up times in your day to sit and think about something else. When you catch yourself focusing on it or stewing on it, do something else. Get up and go visit with a coworker you haven’t talked to in a while. Ask someone if they want a refill on their cup of coffee. Do something productive like cleaning out a cabinet or washing dishes. Or turn on some music and sing or dance or whatever.

If you can get your focus off of what’s dragging you down, you might be surprised to find that you’re not in as bad a mood as you first thought.

Wheat field at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Living when you know trouble is coming

I heard it said once that the anticipation of pain is much worse than the actual pain itself. I’m not sure who first noticed this fact, but it’s true. The anticipation of pain can create so much fear in us that we procrastinate. We’re so afraid of what might hurt we aren’t even willing to try it. People avoid doctors for this reason, even if they need to go.

I watched a movie recently, Ben Affleck’s Argo, about the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 1970s, and there was one scene where a bunch of the hostages were lined up and their captors were getting ready to shoot them. And just as they had been prepared to die, the shooters pulled the triggers, and there were no bullets in the guns. It had all been to scare them, but it was enough to drive some of them to their knees. They had anticipated pain and death; they got neither. But either way, it was incapacitating.

How do you handle the anticipation of pain and difficulty? Many times, we know it’s coming. We know things may be quiet now but trouble is just over the horizon, and we have no choice but to walk toward it and tackle it as it comes. But even if we make that choice, how do you live in the interim?

Wheat field at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Wheat field at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Mark 10:32-34.

They were now on the way up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. The disciples were filled with awe, and the people following behind were overwhelmed with fear. Taking the twelve disciples aside, Jesus once more began to describe everything that was about to happen to him. “Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him, but after three days he will rise again.”

Knowing that Jesus is God is a funny thing because even though I believe it, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how a man can be God and how God can be man, both at the same time. But that’s what the Bible says, so that’s what I believe. And, to put it frankly, if I understood it, I could put Jesus in a box, and I don’t want Jesus in a box; I want Jesus on a throne.

But as God, Jesus could look forward or look backward even while He was alive as a human on Earth. Had had all the power of God but He was 100% man at the same time. And He knew why He was here. He was born for a reason – to suffer and die for the sins men and women had committed since Adam and Eve failed. Can you imagine growing up with that kind of knowledge? Can you imagine going to school knowing that you wouldn’t ever have your own children? Can you imagine living your life knowing that it was going to end and not just end but end brutally.

He knew everything that was going to happen. He knew He would be betrayed by the people He loved. He knew He would be brutalized. He knew it all, and He chose it anyway. And it’s not like He found out the week before He died; He knew all along. So if you look at Christ’s life, what do you see? Do you see someone who was bitter and resentful? Do you see someone who was resigned to die and who had given up on living?

Not so much.

So what does that tell us about how we’re supposed to live when we know that hard times are coming?

The first few months of 2013 have been nice for me as far as my stress level and obligations go, but it’s getting ready to change in the next few weeks. Life is getting ready to take off, and to be honest about it, I’m kind of dreading it. I’m standing here and watching the tidal wave of stress and responsibility coming toward me at unstoppable speed, and it’s getting ready to crash over me. There’s no point in running from it because I can’t run that fast. And there’s a part of me that wishes it would just hurry up and get here because the span of a few weeks that separates it from me are overwhelming. The waiting is more stressful than the actual events that are approaching.

But what I’m reminded of this morning is that I don’t have to dread it. Jesus knew what was coming for Him, and He didn’t face it with resignation or defeat. He faced it, yes, and He was sure about it. And while I would exactly say He was cheerful about those impending things, He certainly didn’t let it affect His relationships or the life He had left. He knew God was going to use it and that He would make it through.

So if you know difficult times are just over the horizon and there’s nothing you can do about it, don’t spend the time you have left dreading what’s coming. Don’t focus on the anticipation of discomfort, otherwise it will color everything you do. Instead, think about what those difficult times will bring. Think about how you’ll grow. Think about how you’ll help others. Think about what you will be able to do for God.

God will give you the strength to face whatever circumstances come your way. And when it’s over, you’ll be able to look back and see why it needed to be difficult, but what’s more, the results will be so amazing that the difficulty will hardly seem important anymore.

Little pink flowers at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Little is much

Do you want to do something amazing for God? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re okay with sitting on the sidelines and never jumping into a ministry, and that’s okay if you’re satisfied with a life that doesn’t make a real difference. But if you’re the kind of Christ-follower who wants God to be pleased, what do you do with yourself?

I know some people who are able to give financially to the things that God is doing around the world. And I’m not just talking a few dollars here and there. But not everyone can do that, including me. Others jump into full-time ministry and get to serve God for their actual job, and that sounds amazing. But not everyone can do that either. The rest of us have responsibilities, and while you don’t have to have any special qualifications to go into full-time ministry, it does need to be something God has called you to do.

So how can you do something amazing for God if you can’t give lots of money or you aren’t in full-time ministry?

Little pink flowers at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Little pink flowers at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Philippians 2:16-18.

Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless. But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy.

I get frustrated because I can’t do more for God. I try to squeeze things into my calendar until I’m so overwhelmed with busyness I don’t even know which end is up anymore. What stood out to me in this verse this morning is a pretty simple concept: Faithful service is an offering to God.

See that?

Paul is talking about how he will be proud that his work and sacrifice was useful if the people of the Church of Philippi hold on to the truth, and even if he were to die, he would still rejoice. The way Paul looked at it, his life was an offering to God. And, while I think we should all look at our lives that way, we shouldn’t discount how important our willingness to serve is to God.

Are you doing something to serve other people right now? Do you look at it as something that doesn’t matter? Something that’s not important? That’s a lie. If you are helping someone else, you’re a hero. If you are offering your love and hard work to help another person, you’re awesome. That’s not something you have to do. That’s not something you can be forced to do. That’s something you choose to do, and if you do it faithfully, over and over and over, when it isn’t requested and when it hurts you financially and emotionally, don’t think that God doesn’t notice.

He does.

So be encouraged. Because the one thing that can please God is faith (Hebrews 11:6). If you’re faithful in your service to others in the name of Christ, you will make a difference for God. And even if the difference you’re making is small, God has a habit of taking small things and making them huge.

The Bible is full of stories where God took something small and used it to change the world.

So if you’re tired and weary from the work you’re doing, don’t give up. Keep working. Keep trusting. And keep everything in perspective because even if you are only able to do a little, God can take that little and do awesome things with it. That’s who He is. That’s who He was in the Old Testament. That’s who Christ introduced us to in the New Testament. And that’s who is here today. He’ll be here tomorrow too.

Don’t give up. There’s an old hymn called “Little Is Much When God Is In It” and I’ve got it stuck in my head at the moment because it’s so true. Part of living a happy life is putting others before yourself, and part of putting others before yourself is service. And anyone can serve. You can hold doors for people. You can help people carry groceries. You can listen to a friend when they need to talk. You can pray.

Don’t take any of those “small” things for granted. Because they aren’t small to the person who you’re helping, and they’re not small to God either.

Sunset at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Some choices are better than others

Are you ever torn between two good options? Do you ever not know how to make a decision, especially when the two choices facing you are both good? That’s one of the troubles of choosing to follow Christ. You have so many good choices you can make, it’s difficult to choose which one. But even in following Christ, there are good choices and there are great choices. It just depends on what your motivation is for making that choice.

Both choices can lead to real happiness as long as both choices are about Christ and not about us. But the truth of the matter is that God isn’t going to bring us home until He’s done with us down here. If we really are following Christ and making a difference for Him in other people’s lives, it’s better for us to keep doing what we’re doing.

Sunset at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Sunset at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Philippians 1:20-26.

For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. And when I come to you again, you will have even more reason to take pride in Christ Jesus because of what he is doing through me.

Paul wasn’t afraid to die. He was confident that he wasn’t going to, but even if he did die, he wasn’t afraid of it because he knew where he was going. He had confidence in Christ, and that’s what mattered. Actually, that’s what he wanted. He wanted to go home because if he died he would get to go be with Christ. But if he died, he would be gone from here. And there was still work to do. There were still people to help. And Paul recognized that God had put him in place for a reason. God still had a plan for him, and even though dying for his faith would be a good option, living for others was a better one.

Sometimes I think I get so focused on going home that I forget why I’m here in the first place. God doesn’t make mistakes. He puts us where He wants us, and He moves us when He wants us to move, and we can choose to grow where we’re planted (or transplanted) or not. Many people have been killed for their faith in Christ, not in America but all over the world. And there is always a purpose in that. God always uses that. But you don’t have to die for your faith for God to use you.

Do you know other believers in your church? Get to know them. Are you part of a church? Get involved and make a difference. You never know how God can use you until you decide to allow Him to do something with you.

I go through seasons of involvement at my church. I used to be involved in every ministry that was available, but that was back when I was younger. Looking back on that time, I don’t know how I did it. Six years of non-stop craziness, plus school, plus working practically full time. It makes me tired just thinking about it. And I burned out. I ran myself ragged and painted myself into a corner and came crashing down. And that’s not what we’re supposed to do.

If you work yourself to death, maybe that brings glory to God too. I don’t know. But once you’re dead, He can’t use you down here anymore. And burn-out is about the same.

So, yes, I had to step back and recover, but I never stopped investing in people one at a time. And that’s the difference. God puts people in our path for a reason, and if you know Him and you know others who are searching for Him or who need encouragement, why would you refuse to offer it if you have it? You don’t have to be involved in every ministry under the sun. You can just help one person at a time.

And I’m not talking about non-believers right now. Yes, we have a responsibility to reach out to people who don’t believe, but we are also here to build each other up. We’re also here to support each other and hold each other accountable and pray for each other. It’s uncomfortable at times. And it’s usually inconvenient. Satan will make it even more so because the last thing he wants is for believers to show love to each other, because that’s how we show everyone else that we’re different.

It’s one of our purposes for being here. And there’s nothing that brings joy in my life more than when I can fulfill a purpose that was intended for my life. So if you have the opportunity to encourage another believer, if you have the chance to help another believer, do it. Most likely, God brought that person in your path for that specific reason. Maybe the happiness won’t come right away as a result of helping another believer, but it will come.

You want to make a difference for Christ? Yeah. Dying for your faith is a good choice. But living for your brothers and sisters in Christ, showing Jesus’ love to those who believe the same way you do? That’s a better choice.

Gobbledygook

Christianity can be like any other club out there, a group of people united by unnecessary membership fees, dress codes, and unattainable standards. The church can easily turn into a club where everyone talks about the Bible in terms that don’t upset or challenge anyone. I know of a church in Wichita that preaches the truth but decided to never preach about money because that made people uncomfortable (even though Jesus talked about money and wealth).

But the other fact that makes Christianity like a club somtimes is the jargon.

If you’ve been around the church for any amount of time, you probably don’t even know half your vocabulary is made up of churchy phrases that no one outside the church will understand.

Phrases like “accept Jesus into your heart” or “take up your cross” or “passing the plate” don’t mean anything to someone who’s never read the Bible, but Christians throw them around all the time and then sneer at people who don’t understand like there’s something wrong with them.

That’s one of the many reasons I love my pastor — he talks straight. I’ve listened to many preachers who can wax eloquent on salvation or a multitude of other biblical topics, spouting off florid verbiage that sounds both poetic and overdone. I have little patience for communication that doesn’t accomplish anything other than making the pastor look impressive for his vocabulary.

So, when I read the verse this morning, my mind immediately jumped to the many sermons I have heard using this text as reference. Even if you haven’t grown up in church, you will recognize the cliches and church-speak all throughout this verse:

Luke 9:23-24

23 Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. 24 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.

There are many phrases in this verse that passionate repetition has turned to cliche. The one that catches my eye mostly is “take up your cross.” You will hear this phrase everywhere, in every denomination almost. Take up your cross! Or sometimes it’s said that we all have our cross to bear.

In all honesty . . . I don’t think I’m studied enough to tell you what it’s probably supposed to mean. I used to know. But I’ve been out of a traditional church for so long most of my knowledge of cliches and church-speak has faded. I’m pretty sure it means that you should take advantange of misfortune and try to use it for good . . . or it’s part of the concept of salvation, that your old self is crucified with Christ and is dead . . . . or it’s part of understanding what it means to live a Christian life, accepting unjust punishment and prejudice without complaint. I know I’ve heard all of those explanations for that phrase, but is one of them right? Or are all of them right? I can’t tell you.

I can only tell you what it means to me now . . . and maybe it’s different for every person. That wouldn’t surprise me. It’s different for me now that I’m older than it was when I was young. That’s the miracle of the Bible. It grows with you . . . .

Whenever I think of Christ bearing up under the weight of the cross during the long, agonizing trek to Golgotha, I remember that He did that for me. No one made Him do it. He chose to die painfully to make a way for me to have a relationship with God. The Jews didn’t kill Him. The Romans didn’t kill Him. He gave up His own life. He could have stopped it at any moment, but He chose to keep going.

Jesus bearing the cross, to me, is a picture of selflessness, of a willingness to sacrifice His life for other people. He hadn’t done anything wrong. All He had done was speak the truth and heal people, both physically and spiritually. He was fully, totally, completely innocent. But He chose to give up His comfort and His position and His very existence to pay for sins He’d never committed. Jesus lived His life for other people, just like He died for all people.

To me, that’s what “take up your cross” means.

Take up your cross daily. Every morning when you wake up, remember that your life isn’t about you. God put us on earth for a reason and He keeps us here to accomplish something.

The church and religion has taken this phrase and turned it into something commonplace, but “take up your cross” is the furthest thing from common that there is. It’s hard. It’s beyond hard — it’s excrutiating. Because no matter if we have chosen to believe in Christ, we still want to live for ourselves. That’s how we’re wired. But that’s not what Jesus did.

But we throw it around like all the rest of English idiom, like it’s just a string of words that doesn’t mean anything. We all have our crosses to bear, don’t we?

Taking up your cross daily — living for other people — is a lifestyle. It’s a picture of what it truly means to follow Christ, to live like Christ, to give up your life. It’s one of the most difficult things we can chose to do as believers.

Can we believe in Christ and not follow Him? Of course. I’ve met a lot of Christians who are right there. There were many Christians in the New Testament who believed in Jesus but didn’t follow Him. But you’ll see if you read Scripture that they didn’t start making a difference in the world until they gave up their lives, until they sacrificed their dreams, until they turned over their wishes and desires to live for other people.

We can struggle and fight to achieve something great for God in this world, but until we learn to live for other people, we won’t accomplish anything. Until we learn that our lives aren’t about us, God won’t use us — not the way He wants to.

What are you holding on to today?

I can tell you I struggle with turning my writing over to Him. I want to write what I want to write. I want to make a difference with my stories and my plans and my ideas, but who are those stories and plans and ideas for? Me or other people? My dream was always to get a book published and reach as many people as possible. But what if His plan isn’t for me to reach a lot of people? What if His plan is for me to reach one or two people? Am I okay with that?

What about you? What are your dreams? Financial security? (I’ve had that one too.) A relationship? (Ditto.) A house? A car that runs consistently? A job you love? Why do you want these things? What is driving you to accomplish your dreams? Are your dreams for yourself?

I had to come to a realization many years ago that my dreams weren’t as important as God’s plans. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I had to surrender my dream to God. And I can tell you from experience that my dream hasn’t come true yet — at least, not the specific dream I had. But God has answered part of my dream . . . . .

You’re reading this devotional, aren’t you?

Getting shot for someone else is easy

1 John 3:15 says,

 16 We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.

 When I was young, I would read this verse and wonder what it really meant. I used to think that it was talking about sacrificing myself to protect other people. Jumping into the line of fire to save someone else. Like heros out of movies or something, the ones who defy death to take the people they care about.

On one hand, I think this verse is talking about that. After all, Christ did die for us. And, as Christians, we shouldn’t fear death. So being willing to sacrifice our lives for someone else shouldn’t be that big of a leap.

Maybe it’s just me, but death doesn’t scare me. It never really has. Granted, it’s not my first choice when I wake up in the morning, but if today is my day then there’s nothing I can do about it. God’s got me covered. I know where I’m going. And if He can accomplish something incredible through my death, I think that would be awesome. I know people here would miss me . . . but, hey, death just means I get to go home. So I have no complaints or worries.

Being willing to die for someone is an easy choice.

Being willing live for someone is hard.

We are inherently selfish beings. We want what we want, when we want it, how we want it, and it doesn’t matter if it hurts other people or not. Conquering that selfish spirit is one of the hardest things to do as a Christian, but we need to do it. Because Christ did it for us.

We always focus on His death. But what about His life? His life tells us just as much about Him as His death does.

He loved people. He healed people. He walked with people. He taught people. He hung out with ordinary, everyday folks. He didn’t waste time sitting around arguing theology; He was out on the streets playing games with kids, laughing with his friends, eating at people’s houses.

But think about it from Jesus’ pespective.

He had to leave everything behind to come here to Earth. We are foolish enough to think that our planet is a pretty nice place to be born and live. I think it’s awfully nice too, by the way. God made it, after all. So of course it’s wondrous. But Earth is broken and life here is flawed. And even on its best day, it can’t compare to what Jesus had in heaven. And He chose to give that life up to come here to save us, to teach us how to live.

We’re so caught up in being comfortable. We like where we are and what we do and how we do it. Maybe our lives aren’t perfect, but they’re our lives. And we don’t want to change anything because we feel safe in our routine.

But the Bible says that we need to give up our lives for our brothers and our sisters. We need to be willing to live for other people because that’s what Jesus did for us.Now I’m not saying that we have to sell everything we own and live in a cardboard box on the street corner. Many times people who have been given wealth and status can use that wealth and status to help others. What matters is your perspective and your motivation.

That’s what this verse is really saying, I think. That Jesus gave up the life He had in heaven to come to this dirty, broken, cruel world and build relationships with ignorant, arrogant, loud-mouthed people.

Shouldn’t we do the same?