Success through your own strength is limited

I like being productive. It’s the double-edged sword of a performance-driven perfectionist. I like getting things done, being able to check the boxes off, scratching the tasks off my to-do list. I’ve even been known to make a to-do list filled with tasks I’ve already completed just so I can tick them off and feel better about myself. I’m sure it’s some kind of psychosis.

Don’t get me wrong. Getting things done is good. Everyone should have goals, and we should all be working to accomplish and achieve something with our lives. But the trouble comes when we try to accomplish lasting goals in our own strength. There’s only so much of your own strength you can invest in a project or in someone else’s life before your strength runs out. And what happens when your strength fails you? All those project you’re juggling will drop like leaves in autumn. If you have no more strength to pour into them, they’ll fall away. That’s just the way it works.

But what if you could do more? What if you could accomplish great, lasting things? It is possible. It’s just not possible for you.

J8LSZELS1RToday’s verses are John 15:4-5.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.

I don’t think anything I’ve done in my own strength or power will last beyond my lifetime. I could be wrong, but from what I know about myself, my own accomplishments pale in comparison to what God has been able to do through me. Because of God, I’ve been able to do things I never would have dreamed, help people I never would have met, go places I never imagined possible.

Maybe I can write a little devotional every morning for four years, but God’s the one who gives me the words to write. He’s the one who takes those words and uses them to speak to someone else. That’s not me. Gosh, guys, I mean it’s miraculous enough that I can even crank out anything coherent at this time in the morning.

My problem is that I try to do too much in my own strength. I tend to leap before I look. I rush into a situation before I ask God if it’s what He wants me to do. That’s not the life a Christ-follower should have.

A Christ-follower should live plugged in to Jesus. He’s where we get our strength. He’s where we get our wisdom, our peace, our love for others. And it’s His strength and power that allows us to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Autumn is my favorite time of year. Hands down. No discussion. I love the colors and the temperatures and the flavors. I love sweaters and socks and hats. And pumpkin everything. But the next time you see a tree losing its leaves, take a moment to remember God’s strength. While that tree is alive and awake, it’s pumping life into those leaves. But when it goes to sleep, the leaves don’t have the strength to hold on to the branch anymore.

I’m like a leaf. I am fully dependent on God’s strength to get me through my life. Sure, if I cut myself off from Him, I can make it. I can exist. I can let the wind blow me around listlessly and aimlessly. But what kind of life is that? That’s not the life God has in mind for me.

So don’t cut yourself off from God. Stop trying to live life without His strength. Stop trying to make a difference without His power. You can’t do it. If you want to productive, if you want to be effective, if you want to be successful, get plugged in to Jesus. His eternal, everlasting strength is ours for the asking. And with Jesus, you can do everything.

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Oil rig lit up before sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico from Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Living like salt and light is a calling

Have you noticed that if you start living the way the Bible says to live that people kind of look at you funny? I mean, it’s one thing to tell people that you’re a Christian. It’s another thing to live like one because people who don’t believe (or people who believe but don’t follow) don’t understand.

If we start living our lives focusing on the things that matter to God, we’re going to stand out. That’s just the way it is because the way God-followers live is different from the way other people live. And that is the point.

Oil rig lit up before sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico from Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Oil rig lit up before sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico from Jamaica Beach, Galveston, TX

Today’s verses are Matthew 5:13-16.

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

Christians are often called salt and light. If you’ve spent any time in the church, you’ve probably heard that statement–that we are called to be salt and light. And as a child, I used to wonder what on earth that meant. I just knew it was in the Bible so it was important, but I didn’t really get how it was supposed to happen.

But here’s what I’ve learned about things we are “called” to do: We can’t do them on our own.

Yes, we can prepare for them. Yes, we can expect them. Yes, we can hope for them. But as far as accomplishing our calling, I don’t think we have the power or the ability or the foresight or the strength to make it happen on our own. We can know what we’re called to do, and we can be ready for when it’s time to move. But we have no control over when that starter pistol goes off. That’s up to God. We just have to be prepared for when those marching orders come.

An example? I’m called to be a writer. I have been since I was young. I have always had a gift with words and communication, and it’s always been my dream to use my gifts to help other people get to know who God is, whether they believe in Him or not. But being a writer is a difficult task. Anyone can write, but being a writer takes a lot of practice and a lot of rejection and a lot of time. A lot of time, which means it also requires a lot of patience.

I prepared to be a writer as much as I could. I learned how to write. I learned what to do and what not to do and when I can do the things I’m not supposed to do (that’s the trick with writing because there are no hard and fast rules). And I expect and hope that one of these days I will get to use my writing on a greater scale than just a blog or three-minute sketches at church. That’s my calling, but I have no control over when that’s going to happen. All I can do is be ready.

And I might be wrong, but I think it’s that way with any calling. I don’t think God is going to call us to accomplish something that we can do in our own strength. Otherwise, what’s the point?

If you believe in Christ, you are salt. If you believe in Christ, you are light. What does that mean?

That means, Christ in you is like salt to the world. A preservative and an irritant. Salt both preserves things and irritates things, though usually that irritation comes when salt is cleansing a wound. And the part about being a light? It’s the same thing. Christ in you is like light to the world–shining in darkness, obvious and beautiful, and revealing. But it’s not you or me who is the salt. It’s not you or me who is the light. It’s Christ in us.

We are called to be salt and light, but we can’t do that without Christ. We are called to live different, but we can’t do it without Christ. But if we focus on the things that matter to God, if we live the way the Bible says to live, our lives will be different naturally. If you love God, love people, do right, love mercy, walk humbly, and keep believing, your life can’t help but look different. And being different matters to God? Why?

Because the more like salt you are, the more like light you are, the less likely people who don’t believe yet will be able to ignore you.

So live like the Bible says today. Live according to the things that matter, and your life will be different. You will be happy, and the people around you will wonder what you have that they don’t. And then you can tell them.

Flamingos fighting at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Being nice isn’t enough

Sometimes I read Proverbs, and they don’t sound right. Like the writer took two completely unrelated sentences and joined them together with a comma and coordinating conjunction and expected people to get the point. But as a grammar fiend, it irks me because compound sentences are supposed to be composed of two closely related sentences. And many times verses out of Proverbs feel like they’ve been mashed together.

But something occurred to me this morning. God knows grammar rules. So if a verse out of Proverbs sounds mashed together and unrelated, I’m not reading it right. Maybe that sounds like common sense to you, but it was something of a revelation to me.

Flamingos fighting at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Flamingos fighting at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is Proverbs 16:21.

The wise are known for their understanding,
    and pleasant words are persuasive.

See what I mean by two sentences that don’t really fit? If I had been writing this sentence, it would sound something like this: “The wise are known for their understanding, and people ask their advice.” Or something like that. Because being known for understanding and persuading with pleasant words don’t sound related at all.

Or do they?

I was having a conversation with a friend last night in regards to someone she knows who is a very persuasive person … in a mean way. She’s apparently one of those types who can launch into a conversation with a particular type of assertive, engineered cruelty designed to get her exactly what she wants. And she’s good at it. She can browbeat anyone within an inch of their lives until they give in and give her what she’s asking for.

Talent? Maybe. Because I couldn’t do that. I make myself sick when I have to confront people at work about doing something for me that they’re supposed to do anyway. I can’t imagine calling someone up and screaming at them until they break.

But when I read this verse today, the part about pleasant words being persuasive caught my attention. Pleasant words are nice, sure, but persuasive? Most of the time when I need something and try to be pleasant about it, I don’t end up persuading anyone.

But here’s where the very related first sentence in that compound construction above comes into play.

Wisdom. Understanding.

Pleasant words by themselves aren’t enough. Pleasant words wielded by someone with understanding? Now that’s a dangerous combination.

Think about it.

If you have wisdom, if you can understand someone, you can communicate with them on every level. Body language. Vocal tone. Understanding means you “get people.” And if you get people, you know how to talk to them. You don’t have to scream. You don’t have to insult or browbeat or attack.

Now I’m not talking about manipulation. I’m talking about communicating. So many times in our world, we don’t communicate with each other. We form preconceived notions about other people so that when they come and ask us for something, we write them off or we dismiss them because we think we know what they want already. Maybe you do. But maybe you don’t.

In the corporate culture where I work, it’s essential to get along with people, but it’s also essential to get information from people. If people around me don’t do their jobs, if they don’t get me the information I need, I can’t do my work. I suspect that many of you who are reading this are in the same position. Well, how do you get what you need from other people who’ve already made up their minds about you?

Get to know them. Understand them. Find out what’s important to them, what matters to them, what drives them. And when you understand that, you can communicate with them on a different level. You can explain what you need, why you need it, why it matters to you, and why it should matter to them.

That’s not manipulation. That’s communication. That’s understanding the people you’re working with. That’s giving the people you work with a window into who you are. And when you can understand people on that level, you don’t have to resort to screaming and threats. You can be pleasant.

Wisdom and pleasant words are powerful tools. They are persuasive, yes, but implementing them at the same time will make a huge difference in your work environment. Because the wiser you become and the more pleasant you become, the more people will like you. And the more you’ll have a chance to help make a difference in their lives.

And that’s more important than getting your way any day. But if you use wisdom and pleasantness together, you might just get both.