What’s in your heart is more important than what you do

fruit-plant-results-harvest-tree_1170x350

We have pear trees at Safe Haven Farm, but they aren’t just any pear trees. They’re wood pears. They’re wicked hard and unbelievably stubborn. Nothing kills these things, and you have to wait until they’re on the edge of being rotten before you can get a knife into them.

I’ve always figured it’s because the trees themselves are so old. The pears are as tough as tree bark because the trees are ancient. At least, the trees are ancient by Kansas standards. Trees don’t always last long around these parts.

But in the last few years, a tree sprang up in the orchard that produced smallish round pears that you could eat straight off the branch. We’re still at a loss as to where the tree came from and why its fruit is so different, but the old trees make me a appreciate the new one.

The Bible has so many stories about farming in it, and it always makes me smile. In Galatians 6:7-8, the Bible says, “Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.

God set the Laws of Nature in motion when He created the world, and nothing (except Him) can stop them. That means if you plant a pear tree, you’ll get pears. If you plant a wheat field, you’ll get wheat. If you plant green beans, you’ll get green beans. You can’t plant green beans and expect to get strawberries. It just doesn’t work that way.

Life works exactly the same. If you do good things, you’ll receive good things. If you do bad things, you’ll receive bad things. Yes, in some cases, you can do good things and be rewarded with bad things, but the bad things are usually temporary—a preliminary bump in the road on the way to better things.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]But what I’ve learned about following Jesus is that it isn’t really your actions that determine your success.[/su_pullquote]

But what I’ve learned about following Jesus is that it isn’t really your actions that determine your success. Yes, your actions play a huge role. But more important than your actions are your motivations. Why do you do what you do? What is in your heart?

I mean, look at our pear trees. Sure, they’re both pear trees, and they both produce pears. But the old trees give us big, hard, misshapen fibrous chunks of woody fruit. The new tree gives us soft, sweet, juicy fruit. The old pears are perfectly edible. They just take more work to process because you have to cut out all the bad stuff to get to the parts that actually taste like pear.

You can work with the old hard pears, but you have to dig to get to the good stuff. The same is true if you do the right thing with the wrong motivation. Maybe you do what God says is right, and that’s great, but your heart isn’t joyful about it or happy or humble. You’ll get a good result back, yes, because you planted a good seed. But that result will be tainted by your bad attitude. And if you want to do something useful with it, you’ll have to dig out the unhelpful bits.

It’s so much better to do what God says is right with a heart that’s right too. That way, the results you get won’t just be pleasant, they’ll be useful. And you can build on your results right away because you won’t be spending time separating the bad fruit from the good.

It’s important to plant good seeds, so that you’ll harvest a good crop. But even more so, it’s important to plant good seeds with an attitude that’s right. An attitude that recognizes God as Lord and not just God.

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Making excuses isn’t the same as not judging

Imagine you’re shopping at a grocery store, and you see someone take candy or something off a shelf and walk out the door with it. I’m not sure how frequently that happens anymore, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that you witnessed it. How would you respond?

Would you applaud the thief’s bravery and courage for stealing? Would you put the thief up on a pedestal as someone to be respected and admired? Or would you point out that the thief took something that didn’t belong to him and that it’s wrong? What if you were talking to a child?

There’s something in our culture that recognizes injustice, but even though we know something is wrong, we look for excuses not to face it. We blame circumstances. We blame childhood trauma. We blame the government, the economy, the job market. In our desperate search for a reason behind injustice, we look for anywhere else to cast blame because it’s easier to blame than to confront.

man-person-hand-lens_1404x936Today’s verses are Matthew 7:1-5.

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”

I honestly believe this is one of the verses that is taken out of context more than any other verse in the whole Bible. You can’t have a conversation with anyone about anything without “being judgmental” comes into discussion. But without putting too fine a point on it, everyone is judgmental. We all make judgment calls all the time. The only difference comes from where you get your standards for judging.

Jesus made several distinctions about judging each other, and generally He said not to do it. It’s difficult though. our human nature makes it easy to magnify other people’s faults while we ignore our own, but it’s wrong. But “don’t judge” doesn’t mean “excuse bad behavior.”

Bad behavior is bad regardless of how you slice it. Stealing is wrong. A child knows that. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you is wrong. And that’s where people will come into the picture and start talking about how stealing becomes necessary if you want your family to live.

I get that. Some people in some cultures steal to provide for their families. But it’s still stealing, and stealing is still wrong, regardless of why you do it.

What Jesus is talking about when He talks about judging is making a call about the motivation behind someone’s actions. If you look at a man who has stolen a loaf of bread and call him a thief, you aren’t judging. You are stating a fact, and you are calling his actions what they are–stealing. But if you look at that same man who stole a loaf of bread and say that he is a horrible person and that he isn’t a Christian, you’re judging. Why? Because you’re making a judgment call on the state of his heart, and that’s something a human can’t see.

Identifying sin as sinful isn’t hateful. If someone is doing something that God says is wrong, calling it sin is simply agreeing with God. It’s not being mean. God doesn’t just arbitrarily call “fun stuff” sin just to ruin our lives. He calls it sin because it’s bad for us and we shouldn’t let it into our lives at all.

If you have a child who wants to stick car keys in light sockets, will you let him? Of course not! And we’d call you a bad parent if you allowed it to happen! So why do we get upset with God when He tries to keep us from hurting ourselves?

As always, we must speak the truth in love. You shouldn’t go up to that man who stole the loaf of bread and get in his face and tell him that he’s hopeless. What good is that going to do? If he isn’t willing to pay for what he stole, it’s a different situation, but if he is, there should be a way to work it out. Someone should demonstrate grace, the same way Jesus did. And who knows what miracle God could work in that situation?

In any case, the only judge you can be is of your own heart, so that’s where you need to be focusing. But that doesn’t mean you can make excuses for behavior and choices God says are wrong. You can agree to disagree, but accepting sin is still flipping God off. And that never ever works out.

God doesn’t always give you what you want

I’m staying in a swanky hotel right now. I mean, it has a bathtub. A real, honest-to-goodness bathtub that’s deep enough to soak in. And it has a shower too. Super swanky.

When I checked in at the desk, the lady asked me if I wanted a coffee maker brought up to my room. Now, I kind of have a coffee problem. I like coffee. A lot. Black or with milk or half-n-half or cream. Lattes, cappucinos, espressos, whatever. I love coffee.

Generally, hotel coffee is horrible, though. I usually can’t stand it, but when I wake up in the mornings early and write these devotionals, I desperately need a cup of coffee. So I’m willing to take anything. So, I told the lady at the desk, yes, I’d love to have a coffee maker in my room.

I got up to the room, and a guy from downstairs knocked and brought in my coffee machine. But it wasn’t a cheap little coffee pot like I’ve got at home. It wasn’t even a fancy coffee pot. It was a Keurig! A real-life Keurig with real-life coffee pods and everything! It was awesome!

How many times do we ask for something and expect a cheap response? How many times do we pray to God and ask Him for a specific result and expect a cheap answer? I do it all the time, but is that how we’re supposed to ask?

0125151521Today’s verses are James 4:1-3.

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

I ask God for stuff all the time, and it’s normal for me to automatically assume that He won’t give it to me. That’s not because God’s mean. It’s not because I don’t trust Him. It’s just because I’m not sure my motives are always right.

I can’t be the only one out there who asks God for things I know I don’t need. Surely others have asked God for things, knowing that obtaining them probably wouldn’t be in my best interest. I’ve just asked for them because I wanted them. I’ve asked because it would make me happy or it would make life easier or it would help me feel vindicated.

There’s nothing wrong with being happy or having an easy life or feeling vindicated about something, but what is your motivation? For me, if I ask God for something because it will make me happy, that means I’m not content. If I ask God to make my life easy, that means I’m being lazy or giving into fear. If I ask God for vindication, usually that means I’m being insecure and letting my pride direct my actions and thoughts.

If you want God to give you what you’re asking for, check your motivation. Check your heart, because that’s what God looks at.

Hey, singles. Do you want a husband or a wife? Why? Is it because you feel incomplete without them? Is it because you need a spouse to move on to the next step in your plan for life? Or are you just sick of being the fifth wheel when all your friends are getting married and leaving you behind? If you want to get married, what is your heart motivation?

Hey, employed person. Do you want a raise? Do you want a promotion? Why do you want it? More money? More status? More power? What is the motivation behind your desire?

Hey, unemployed person. Do you want a job? Why?

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are or what kind of life you lead. If the motivation of your heart goes against what God says is right and true–or if your desire will go against God’s bigger plan for your life–God won’t give you what you ask for. Period.

And He’s not being mean. He just wants what’s best for us, while we usually can only see what’s good.

But you know what? Sometimes when you ask God will give you more than what you ask for. Sort of like my amazing coffee machine. I didn’t expect to get it. And even then, it wasn’t what I expected when I got it–it was better! And God’s just like that.

So if God hasn’t answered your prayers today, don’t give up. Yes, check your heart. Make sure your motivation is what it should be. And then, keep asking. The day is coming when God will blow your mind.

Scarlet Macaw at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Weighing the heart behind your words

Have you ever said something you didn’t mean? I do it frequently–more frequently than I care to admit. Mostly that’s because I have a really sarcastic sense of humor, and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by so many people who understand me. And the know that most of the time when I’m shooting my mouth off, I’m not really serious about what I’m saying.

Don’t you find it interesting that there’s a perceived difference between what people say and what they actually mean? We live in a culture of sarcasm and wit, and I think sometimes we say things we don’t mean to get a laugh, to catch someone’s attention, to make a point. But what matters more? What you actually say or what you actually mean?

Scarlet Macaw at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Scarlet Macaw at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verse is 1 Samuel 16:7.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The Bible is pretty clear over and over again (not just in this Old Testament verse) that God looks at people in a different way than we do. What I love about this passage is that it deals with a human perspective versus God’s perspective.

God didn’t care that David’s brother was tall, dark, and handsome; he didn’t have the heart to be kind. Not like David.

God cares about the outside, sure. He’s as much responsible for the outside as He is for the inside. But because we can only experience what’s on the outside, that’s what we tend to judge by.

How does this person dress? How does this person speak? How does this person look? Suspect or clean shaven? Respectable or sketchy? We make judgment calls like that all the time, and in many cases those decisions are wise.

But when it comes to following God, it’s so much better to pay attention to the inside instead of the outside. Granted, we can’t see the inside. But God can. And that’s a sobering fact to remember.

Have you ever thought about the fact that maybe God isn’t listening to the words you actually say? What if He doesn’t care about what you actually say–they’re only words after all. And words are only as effective (or destructive) as the intention behind them.

How would your lifestyle change if you realized that you’d be judged on your intentions? If you were going to be held accountable not for your actions but for your purposes, what would our lives look like?

I don’t know about you, but I’d be in prison somewhere.

So what is the point of this? Well, it’s been shown over and over again throughout the Bible that God judges by the heart. And that means He knows our motivation and our purpose behind everything we say and do.

Does that make you think twice about what you were getting ready to do today?

The issue is this: in this life we are told we should be held accountable for the things we say, and I agree with that entirely. But there’s another step. There’s another problem than just not being held accountable for our words. God knows our thoughts, and we have to answer for our motivations and the state of our heart too.

Is your heart jealous? Is it hard and selfish? Is it hurt and lonely? Whatever state your heart is in right now, you can trust aren’t alone.

So the next time you think about what you’re going to say when you’re upset about something, stop for a moment and think about your thoughts. Think about why you want to say what you want to say, and you might find yourself shocked when you can’t find a reason.

Words are important. Words are essential and vital, powerful and immensely important. But what matters even more than the words themselves is your motivation for speaking them.

Sunrise east of Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Check your insides

Do you ever wish that you could see God? I do. It’s not that I have a hard time believing in Him. It’s just that I would appreciate being able to actually look Him in the eye when I talk to Him. Eye contact means a lot to me, and not being able to see His face is frustrating sometimes. Not being able to see Him smile can be frustrating. Not being able to see Him frown is frustrating. Some days I would give ten years of my life to spend ten minutes in His presence when I can actually hear His voice and see His face.

But that’s not how our relationship works. As a human being, I can’t be in God’s presence–not physically. But is there any way to see God? My life is so wild and crazy all the time that I would dearly love to be able to see God so I know I’m going the right way, but is there actually a way to see Him? Well, according to today’s verse, there is.

Sunrise east of Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Sunrise east of Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Matthew 5:8.

God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
    for they will see God.

The pure of heart will get to see God. That’s what this verse says. But what does that mean? What does it mean to be pure-hearted? Does it go back to attitude? Does it come from your motivation for living? Does that mean you never do wrong?

When I think of being pure of heart, I think of some fictional knight in shining armor, one of those valiant chivalrous types who rescues damsels in distress and never does anything wrong. Maybe some people think of innocence in children. Or maybe others think of people who are just generall good. But is that what being pure-hearted means in this context?

Most of the time when I’m doing a word study, since I don’t know Greek, I use the Amplified Version, but for this verse it uses the same phrase: “the pure in heart.” And that doesn’t help much. Pure-heartedness is one of those identifiers that can mean so many different things.

So my other go-to translation is the Message, a paraphrase. It’s not as “accurate” as the Amplified Version or the NLT, but the Message is really good at capturing the essence of what whole passages in the Bible mean. And this is how the Message puts our verse today:

You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

Whoa. Did that rock your world or was it just me? According to this paraphrase, being pure of heart means getting your heart and mind in order. It means focusing your heart and mind on the things that matter. It means having the correct perspective about God, about yourself, about your life. And when you have the right perspective about what’s going on inside you, then you’ll be able to see God outside.

But does that really work?

I’ll be the first to tell you it does.

On those days when I’m so distracted that I can’t tell which way is up and which way is down, I know my inner perspective isn’t right. I know I’m not putting God first. I know I’m not living the way the Bible says. And on those days God seems far far away.

But on the days when I’ve got my head on straight, when I’m paying attention, when I have a healthy perspective on who I am and who God is, then I can see Him. No, not physically. I don’t see Him standing in plain sight, but I see the results of Him. I see Him working in my life, in others’ lives, in situations.

When I’m not focused on the things that matter (like loving God and loving people), I’m focused solely on myself. But when I start taking God at His word, He changes me from the inside out. And it’s not that He suddenly starts working in the situations around me then; it’s that I finally begin to see Him working.

God is always working. God is always there. He’s always in plain sight. But we’re the ones who have our eyes closed.

So if you’re tired today, if you’re struggling and feeling lost and abandoned, take a moment and check your insides. Make sure your heart is where it needs to be. Make sure you’re focusing on the things that really matter in life–like loving God and loving people, like doing the right thing, like loving mercy, like living humbly. And once you get those things under control, try looking for God again. I bet He’s closer than you think He is.

Dead sunflower - Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

New life, old choices

What does it mean to live a new life? The Bible is full of examples and statements about becoming a new person and living a new life and all that jazz, but what does it actually mean? How do you actually do it? Do you just trade out your current life for a new, shiny one?  It’s a great thought, being able to stop living the life that you’re living and move on to something better. But is that really how it works?

Dead sunflower - Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Dead sunflower – Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Colossians 3:1.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.

This is just one example of many verses that talk about living a new life. When I was little, I really didn’t understand the concept. I didn’t really understand what was wrong with my life that I had to start living a new one. It seemed fine to me.

Of course, as an adult, I can see the parts of my life that I wish I could change. But you don’t get to just switch lives, like in those “reality” TV shows where two different moms trade places or whatever. You only have one life, and that doesn’t change. What changes is your perspective and your motivation.

I love the Message paraphrase. It often grasps in concept what the original language is trying to communicate better than the literal translations, mainly because Greek is so complex that it’s impossible to exactly translate it into an awkward, indolent, lovable language like English without losing some meaning. But this is the same verse (in context) in the Message, verses 1 and 2 actually:

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.

I think where a lot of the “new life” confusion comes from is that our American culture has been so steeped in Eastern mysticism that we get the idea that something magical happens when we accept Christ. Maybe we’re not expecting bright lights or ringing bells, but many times I know people do expect to feel something. And they are disappointed when they don’t.

The honest truth about following Christ is that there’s nothing magical about it. It’s a simple choice.

People sin. We do things that make us imperfect. We’ve been imperfect since our first Father, Adam, chose to disobey God’s Law. And because God is perfect, we can’t have a relationship with Him. Perfection can’t remain perfect if it’s tainted by imperfection. But God loved us so much, that He sent Christ, His own perfect Son, to die for us, in our place, so we could be made perfect. So when we choose to believe that Christ did this for us, Christ gives us His righteousness so that when God see us, He doesn’t see our sin, He sees Christ’s perfection. That’s how we’re able to have a face-to-face relationship with God. Through Christ and Christ alone.

A simple choice.

The choices that follow, however, aren’t that simple. Because even though God has forgotten our sins, right now we still have them and we will continue to struggle with them until we die or until Christ comes back for us. Part of being a Christian means that you have a choice, to sin or not to sin. Christ gives you the power to choose not to sin. Before you had Christ, you didn’t have that power.

Living a new life means choosing not to sin.

That’s what the whole concept of “new life” is. You aren’t stuck living the same old life you always were. You have the power through Christ and through the Holy Spirit to choose not to sin. It’s all about choice.

Well then, how do you make choices?

Choice is determined by motivation and perspective. That’s what this verse is talking about. Living a new life means turning away from the things you use to pursue. It means stepping away from the situations and circumstances in the world and getting involved in what Christ is doing. It means paying attention to where God is working and jumping in with both feet. It means learning Scripture and applying it to your life. It means seeing the world and your life through Jesus’ eyes.

If you have new life, that means you have a new perspective. Or at least, you should have a new perspective. Because now you can see the world and everything in it (including yourself) through the filter of real Truth.

So, Christian, when you’re tempted to backbite and bicker and lie and cheat — when you’re tempted to grumble and complain and focus on the negative, recognize that those are old choices. Those are old perspectives, stemming from old motivation. And even though you are free to choose those things, you don’t have to. And they don’t add anything to you or to anyone else. It’s so much better to make a new choice, one that matches your new life. It makes all the difference in the world.

The only sword in the world sharp enough to cut through our crap

I have always heard the Bible called a sword. When I was little, we did sword drills, which basically were contests to see how quickly you could find a specific verse. I wasn’t ever sure why we called the Bible a sword until I realized that that Scripture actually calls itself a sword in multiple places.

I think it’s fitting. After all, if you rush into battle, you have to take a weapon to defend yourself with. It’s the same with spiritual battles too. We have to have a weapon to fight with, and Scripture is the only thing that will work in the battles we have to fight.

Today’s verse is Hebrews 4:12.

12 For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.

I’m going to demonstrate a portion of my geekiness this morning. There’s a Japanese anime that I really enjoy watching called Rurouni Kenshin. What I like the most about it is that it really lacks the odd, strange things that permeate most anime (at least in the first two arcs). Most anime is based around spiritual stuff or weird things, not that I mind that generally speaking, but Rurouni Kenshin is different. It’s actually a historical anime, based on the life of an actual assassin during the Meiji Revolution in 1858. The show revolves around sword techniques.

Basically, without going into too much detail, the main character has taken a vow never to kill again to atone for all the lives he took during the revolution, and to help himself keep that vow, he carries a reverse-blade sword. It’s a sword that has the blade on the wrong side. So when he swings it at people in self-defense, he can’t kill them. He’ll give them a good bruise, but he won’t end their life.

I thought about this aspect of this show today when I read our verse. This is one of those verses that I’ve grown up hearing, but I’ve never really thought about it.

What’s the big deal about the Bible being a two-edged sword? I get the fact that it’s sharp. Obviously. But why the metaphor?

Going back to the show, the main character has to be careful to swing his sword a certain way. Becuase if he flips the sword around and uses it, he’ll kill people because the blade of his sword is on the wrong side.

If you have a sword that is sharp on both sides, it doesn’t matter which way you swing it. It will cut no matter what direction it goes. And I guess that’s what hit me this morning when I read this verse.

It doesn’t matter who uses the Bible to reach others. It doesn’t matter where you’re located or what language you speak. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how educated you are. The Bible is a double-edged sword, and no matter how you swing it, it will cut through barriers.

The last part of this verse says that it “exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” The Amplified Version puts it this way: “exposing and sifting and analyzing and judging the very thoughts and purposes of the heart.”

The Bible cuts through the crap that we use to hide our motivations and our intentions. It cuts through the stories we come up with to use as a shield to protect ourselves. It cuts through the lies that we tell ourselves. And it makes us understand that we are insufficient on our own.

The only way it can do this is because it’s the Word of God. It’s the sharpest sword there is, and there is no defense against it. But even though it can cut through anything, it never leaves us bleeding. Christ already bled for us.

The Bible reveals our faults and our failures and reminds us that Christ already took care of them.

Every day is a battle, no matter where you are. If you’re a Christian, you’re in a war. So don’t forget to take your sword and don’t hesitate to use it today to defend yourself and to charge the enemy’s line. Nothing can stop the Sword of God and no one can escape it. Not even the ones who wield it.