Tag Archives: eternal perspective

Shepherds gather, wolves scatter.

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wolves-and-sheep

The Bible doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about wolves – or more precisely, people who are described as wolves.

 

Zephaniah and Ezekiel both describe Israel in her stubborn, defiant rebellion as being like wolves who devour and leave nothing behind.

 

Isaiah describes them as inhabiting the desolate places with jackals and hyenas.

 

Jesus told his disciples to be on guard because he was sending his disciples out like lambs among wolves – and we all know what happens to little lambs in the clenching jaws of wolves.

 

The people who are wolves in our lives have voracious appetites to destroy.  They don’t just want to take us out of commission.  Their desire is not to make us simply limp, or waver, or even just to shut us up.  They want to take us out completely.

 

And the first thing that happens with every wolf attack is that he (or she) bounds into and scatters the flock seeking out the target and going for blood.

 

Such a lovely picture, eh?

 

So why would I be thinking about wolves on New Year’s Day?

 

Because they’re everywhere, and if Jesus thought it was important to warn his disciples against them, then it must be important to remind every generation about them, too.

 

Most of us are pretty naturally on the lookout for the wolves “out there.”  We are on guard against the atheist aunty to loves to come to family gatherings and openly mock our faith.  We pray for wisdom and discernment in dealing with the militant co-worker who wants to goad us into a religious argument just to try to make us look like the racist-homophobic-intolerant-judgmental-bigot he’s already declared all believers to be.  We are even on guard against the Hollywood machine that wants to pound your faith into the ground with production after production of buffoonish portrayals of weak-minded “Christians” who are idiotic in their approach to…everything.

 

Those things are real, and we need to guard against them, but I don’t really think they are the wolves in our lives.  Those are the things meant to embarrass, insult, and maybe even injure – but they don’t destroy.  If anything, they (hopefully!) sharpen our defense of the hope that is within us and motivate us to live above the fray in a manner worthy of our callings – worthy of the Name by whic we are called.  “Christians” mean we belong to Jesus the Christ after all.

 

But wolves are much more dangerous than any of these things.  Wolves are malicious, calculating, and cruel.

 

Wolves destroy marriages, friendships, mother-child bonds. Wolves split churches and denominations. Wolves tear down and never build up.  Wolves target godly reputations, fruitful ministries, and long records of good works to twist and distort them by making them appear prideful or weak or wanton.  Wolves target the good and want to rip it to shreds.  

 

We’ve all seen it happen and so we might be duped into thinking that we would quickly recognize when a wolf has crept into our sheepfold, but we don’t.

 

There is another passage that is chilling when you know how brutal wolves can be.

 

Matthew 7:15 states, “Beware the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

 

They’re in the sheep pen folks.  They look like sheep and sound like sheep.  They quote Scripture and tell testimonies and teach your Sunday School classes.  They are not the cartoonish wolf with a sheepskin badly slung over it’s back with wolf claws and jaws sticking out so you can immediately sound the alarm bells and put everyone on high alert.  They’re good at looking like sheep.

 

In fact, they’re so good at it that Jesus then gives us instruction for how to recognize them – he says, “you will recognize them by their fruits.”  Thorn bushes don’t grow grapes and thistles don’t grow figs.  And ultimately, though they might fake it for a good long while, wolves don’t grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, or self-control.  Only the Holy Spirit can produce that kind of fruit.  Wolves seek to destroy all that.

 

The remainder of Matthew 7 describes other ways that we will be able to recognize those wolves who pretend to be sheep – they will produce diseased fruit, they will do many things, “in Jesus’ name,” and they will be fools who build on shifting foundations.

 

It is often very, very difficult to recognize a wolf.  It is especially difficult because each and every one of us can have wolf-like fangs of sinfulness that we bear if we feel threatened or claws that take swipes at our fellow sheep.  Knowing the difference between a sheep behaving badly and a true wolf is exceedingly difficult, but Jesus told us to beware of them so it must also be true that he will give us the wise discernment we need to learn to do tell the difference.

 

In recent years I’ve had my spiritual eyes opened a bit to this and have begun to learn what it means to “beware the wolves among you.”  A few patterns have emerged, and in my observations, it has been particularly helpful to note the stark contrast between wolves and shepherds.  Jesus, our ultimate Good Shepherd, is also our ultimate standard.  Of course, no earthly shepherd is as all-Good as Jesus, but in general terms, the shepherds among us demonstrate some characteristics that are in notable opposition to those of wolves.  Comparing the truly good with the truly evil makes the differences easier to see and recognize.

 

So here are ten comparisons that have been particularly helpful to me:

 

  1. Wolves tend to themselves – Shepherds tend to the flock.  
  2. Wolves use people for their own purposes – Shepherds use themselves up for the good of others.
  3. Wolves make much of their willingness to stand against evil – Shepherds make much of God and how He enables them to stand against it, especially through their weakness.
  4. Wolves like to keep things secret and in the dark – Shepherds know that the light of truth clears away the darkness.
  5. Wolves call goodness, truth, and beauty into question – Shepherds praise these things.
  6. Wolves impugn motives without knowing enough – Shepherds are slow to judge motives, knowing that they usually don’t know enough.
  7. Wolves say harsh things to cut down and destroy – Shepherds say hard things in order to build up and restore.
  8. Wolves seek attention, praise, and status even at the cost of others – Shepherds deflect attention, praise, and status especially to bless others.
  9. Wolves skillfully gossip, malign, and covertly discuss the situations of others – Shepherds hold confidences even at great cost to themselves.
  10. Wolves drive people apart – Shepherds draw people together.

 

Again, any one of us can display wolf-like sinfulness.  But these wolf-characteristics cannot be generally true of a sheep.  The two cannot co-exist in one person.  In short, Shepherds gather, wolves scatter.

 

Near the end of Matthew 7 Jesus says that the wise man will be able to withstand the storms and the floods and the wind that seek to destroy because his foundation is Jesus – the rock.  It doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that the wolves he spoke of in the previous verses might be some of the storms and floods and wind.

 

As this new year emerges it presents us with untold billions of things to be talking to God about.  One major theme in all of these is the increased persecution of the church around the world.  Those persecutions could take the form of mass executions, imprisonments, or torture.  Or it could come walking into our fellowships – our sacred families of believers – and sit down among us and eat with us and pray with us and then seek to devour and utterly destroy everything good it can sink its greedy jaws into.
Beware the wolves among us, but don’t fear them.  Because the Good Shepherd continues to care for his sheep and has already laid down his life for them!  Ultimately, we can rest in the knowledge that He will deal justly with the wolves even as He gathers His sheep to Himself.

When we focus on the problem rather than the promise…

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pic-of-david-and-goliath

I read again this morning the account of Joshua and Caleb and the other 10 guys.  You know, the 12 who were sent into Canaan to spy out the land… that God has promised to give to them.

 

After reading I asked my husband, “Would you have been a Joshua or Caleb, or would you have been one of the other guys?”  I know we can never really know what we would do in someone else’s circumstances, but it is good to play “what if…” now and then.

 

We’ve been talking about “risk” lately – when it’s right to take risks and when it isn’t.  And as I heard the story of the 12 spies again this morning a connection was made:  we are not willing to risk when we ought to be eager to do so when we are focusing on the problem in front of us rather than the promises given to us – or more precisely, Promise-Maker who has given them.

 

Example 1:  The Israelites had just left their 400-year slavery in Egypt.  They walked right out from under Pharoh’s nose because God made it possible.  But they encountered a road-block – the Red Sea stretched out before them, and Pharoh’s army was not in hot pursuit to get their slaves back.

 

Admittedly, this was a big problem.  But they had just witnessed their deliverance from the 10 Plagues – including the Angel of Death!!!  They had seen the pillar of cloud that day and the pillar of fire last night that had protected and guided them!  Had they forgotten already?   I mean, we’re talking hours at most here.  Were their memories really that short?  I don’t think so.  But their faith was really that small.  Moses saw the problem for what it was, too, but focused on his great God, who had already proven Himself to be a Great Promise-keeper, instead.

 

Example 2:  The Israelite army was at a stand-still, being held hostage by the taunts and derision of a surly, stupid, bragadocious bully (named Goliath).  He was an oaf, but a huge one, and apparently big enough to send a whole army of God’s men to the other side of the valley to quake in their boots.

 

So, OK, Goliath set the terms for a potentially bad deal.  But the Philistines had invaded Israel’s land that God Himself had given to them.  Every single Jewish boy or girl grew up from infancy knowing that God had given them this land as an inheritance.  It didn’t get lost in history but was central to their identity as a people!  Saul’s army of capable, trained warriors knew it, too.  But they were focusing on the problem of Goliath.  Youthful David, (aka shepherd boy who had just been named King) saw the problem, too, but focused on the Great God who was also the Promiser of the Land (and ultimately their securety) instead.

 

Example 3:  Jesus had begun his ministry and had gathered his 12 specially chosen, closest disciples.  The word had gotten out about Jesus and he was attracting multitudes of men, women, and children who wanted to hear for themselves what great things this teacher was saying.  They had gone out to the countryside and the spent the entire day traveling and then listening to Jesus’ every word.  When the day was waning Jesus told his 12, very special, hand-selected, closest followers to feed these hungry people on whom he had compassion.  Their reaction?  They looked at their relatively empty hands, then at each other, then at Jesus and said, “Umm…With what?!?”

 

OK – there was a lot of people – 5,000 men, plus women and children.  And OK – they didn’t have much to work with – five loaves of bread and two fish.  The problem wasn’t the situation – the problem was that the disciples were focused on the PROBLEM and not the Promiser.

 

So we’re clear here, these guys – these 12 close students of Jesus who followed him everywhere he went – had just seen and heard Jesus do amazing things.  They had just heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount, they had just seen him heal a woman with a long-standing bleeding disorder that no one else could fix.  They had just seen him deliver a man from a demon, heal the Centurion’s soldier without even touching him, raise a little girl from the dead, and oh yeah, calm the storm that the seasoned, hardened fishermen thought they were going to die in.  We’re talking just seen and heard these things!!!  

 

Jesus, however, knew well the Father he served and knew that He would supply all their needs.

 

It seems, folks, that we might want to pay attention to the typical, human responses here.  We are prone to doubt.  We are prone to lose sight and forget.  We are prone to focusing on the problems rather than the promises.

 

We don’t do ourselves any favors by reading these accounts and thinking that we’d be the first to line up to take the land, watch for the sea to part, fight the giant, or figure out how to feed the crowd.  We probably would be with the group that said, “We’d be better off dead than in this predicament!”  But if you’re at all like me your heart leaps at the prospect of being with Joshua and Caleb, David, and Jesus instead!

 

The key in all of these accounts is to KNOW THE GOD WE SERVE.

 

We do not have to fear natural or man-made disasters when we know the One who holds every molecule in his hands.

 

We do not have to fear those who can hurt – or even kill – us when we know the One who has already numbered our days before one of them ever came to be.

 

We do not have to fear the challenges that we face that seem impossible when we know the One who shall supply all our needs – and give us abundantly more than we could ask for or imagine according to his riches in glory because He loves us and takes care of us.

 

How do we know God?  It’s really, really, really simple:  read his love letter to you.  Open up the pages of Romans and John and Isaiah and Genesis and all of it and soak it up as your personal love letter to you from your Dad.  Then, read it again because there are layers and layers and layers of love and goodness there that you can never fully plumb the depths of.  And share it with someone who really needs to know God, too.
*You can read the fuller stories of the examples above in Numbers 13-14; Exodus 14; 1 Samuel 17; and Luke 9.  But I would encourage you to also read the surrounding chapters (and books!).

When Loving Seems Risky…

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image-of-broken-heart-e1438801033741“Risk is right,” or so says John Piper.  And David Platt.  And my pastor, and a bunch of other people I respect and admire.  I’ve heard risk loosely defined as, “an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury.”

 

Well, sometimes that word “possibility” is a little misleading…

 

We take risks all the time (unless we live in a hole somewhere).  We consider the “pros” and “cons” of a situation – and what that often really means is:  If I do this what could I gain compared to what it will cost me?  We are willing to take risks because there is a chance – often a good chance – that it will pay off and bring us great rewards.  We take a new job, we move to a different house, we go to grad school, we get married, we start businesses all because the possibility of reward is worth any loss that we might have to face.  We risk, because we’ve measured and concluded that there is a reward to be had – here, now.  A tangible, definable, measurable reward.

 

But there is one area of our lives that doesn’t – or really shouldn’t – work that way.

 

Love.

 

Let me try to explain first by way of example.

 

When you have a child, an odd (but wonderful) thing happens – to many of us for the first time.  We love another being more than we could have ever imagined being capable of loving without that creature being able to return that love – or anything – at all.

 

Mothers and fathers the world over know this from their experience.  If you’re not a parent you will just have to imagine, and trust that what I’m telling you is the truth.

 

That tiny lump of flesh and bones is precious in your sight despite the blood, the mess, the strange color, and the frantic, self-absorbed screaming coming out of it.  You don’t care about any of that.  You love that little baby with more than all your heart – your capacity to love swells immeasurably and no matter what, you find yourself full to the brim and overflowing with love for that wee creature.

 

They make you crazy.  They suck your energy dry.  They bleed your bank account faster than leeches draw blood.  They are relentlessly demanding, and selfish, and hungry, and needy…

 

Yet, you love them – simply because they are ours.

 

Now we may derive some joy out of caring for them, and we may build relationships that teach them to love us, too – but that is not why we love them.

 

And we know that if something were to happen to them – or if something already has – that would forever prevent them from being able to love us in return, we would still love them with all of our hearts – because our love for them was never based on what they could or couldn’t do for us.  It’s a one-way street from beginning to end, whether or not they ever love us in return.

 

Trust me, I’m thrilled beyond measure that every single one of my kids loves me.  My heart would be broken and full of a terrible sorrow if they didn’t…

 

But I would still love my children if they didn’t love me – and so would you.

 

We feel as if there isn’t a great risk in this kind of one-way love.  Pretty much everyone (unless there are unnatural problems involved) loves their kids.  We know that the normal course of events is that when we love someone, they love us back.  

 

But what do you do when it isn’t that way?  We’re not called to only love our children, are we?  What do you do when the risk of loving is terribly high because you know it will be painful and sorrowful and hard no matter what you do when you try to love a neighbor, relative – or even a spouse who doesn’t love you?  We want a good return on this love-investment.  We want riches and plenty – compound interest on our principle deposits of care and concern.  We’ll settle for equal contributions to these transactions but we’re all hoping for dividends instead.  Who keeps investing in something that never gives any kind of increase or accumulation in return?  It’s just foolish to keep throwing good love, after bad, isn’t it?

 

Actually…. No.  It isn’t.

 

Loving the unlovely – the selfish, the stubborn, the mean, the angry….  This is exactly what we are called to do.   It is exactly what Jesus did.  Loving those who insulted, ridiculed, slandered, maligned, persecuted, and even abused him  – this is what he did.  With compassion he looked at the ones who were crucifying Him and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”! 

 

I know, I know – there are caveats and disclaimers that always need to go in right about here. I don’t have time to go into the differences between lovingly standing against sin and sinfully letting it go (that’s another post someday).  But let’s not use the exceptions – the extreme cases of horrifying evil and abusive sin – as excuses to keep the rest of us from doing the hard work of loving the unlovely.

 

We all have people in our lives who are truly difficult to love – I do, too.  We have neighbors, relatives, and family members who are so caught up in their own lives that they seem incapable of empathy, much less selfless love.  All hopes of mutually loving relationships have probably vanished long, long ago.  But here’s the thing:  We have to learn to choose to love them anyway.  We have to learn to choose to love them even though there will be little – if anything – given in return.  We have to learn to be willing to risk being hurt – again – by them, because we love them because of who Jesus is and what He has done – not them.

 

“Why?” you ask?….  For the sake of the Gospel.  Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:10 both tell us the same thing… God demonstrated and proved His love for us in that while we were still sinners – selfish, mean, hard-hearted beasts – Christ died for us.  Did you catch that?  He laid down his life for us – you and me – when we were still nasty, biting, ill-tempered sinners.  He didn’t love us because we loved him back.  He loved us in spite of the fact that we didn’t.  As every good father does, he loves us simply because we are His.

 

What a beautiful portrayal of Christ-like love our journeys can be when others can marvel at the love we give when it looks like this, and know that it comes from a supernatural Source!

 What a loud, unmistakable testimony our lives become when we say from our hearts, “Lord – I can’t do this without you!  I cannot love this person – I don’t even want to – but I love YOU and I know that is what you want me to do.  Help me to be willing to risk the hurt, the pain – all the messiness of this risky, one-way love.   Help me, please to love the way that you have loved me,” and he does all that you ask.

The world notices, and when they do we can point them to Jesus when they ask – “HOW do you do it??” 

But even if they never do – even if they never notice or ask or admire or appreciate this risky, selfless, one-way love you give, God does.  And that is worth far more than we will ever lose in these costly love transactions.  Our returns will be a hundred-fold – and that is a promise from God Himself.  So you see, this kind of “risky” love isn’t really risky after all.  It’s a sure-fire investment given by the One who manages the Books.

You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is…

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So stop trying.

I know – that goes against all the things you think you’ve been taught.

Be good.

Be nice.

Be generous.

Be compassionate.

Be better.

And the implied message at the end of all those directives is, “so you make (or keep) God happy with you.”

The trouble is – it’s all wrong.  It’s a big fat lie that we actually seem to like telling ourselves and one another.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever received was this:  “You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is…”

If you are a believer – a follower of Jesus who knows for certain that you’ve been forgiven – lifted out of a filthy ocean of disgusting sin that you not only dug for yourself but filled bucket by bucket and were hopelessly flailing about in with no hope of getting yourself out of much less cleaned up from – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

If you are a disciple of the Son of God – a sinner who has repented and hates not only the sinful storehouse you built but also the fact that you are prone to building it again – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

If you are aching to know God better and love Him more because he put the desire into your heart of stone-turned-to-flesh – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

Did you catch that?  God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be!

The real question each of us must face when considering our mortality is not, “Am I at peace with God?”  Rather, it is this:  “Is God at peace with me?”

And if you’ve seen your hopeless condition and run to Jesus for rescue, because you know that his life and his death and his resurrection have satisfied all the demands God has made on us that we couldn’t satisfy – and that it has been offered to you freely – then God is at peace with you.  He is happy with you and cannot be made happier.

His delight has been made free to you – though it was enormously costly to Him – and He is happy to offer it to you.

And the glorious irony is that God is happy with us precisely because of the offer.  For when he sees you and me – sinners rescued from the miry pits of our own making, saved from destruction and an endless eternity of heartache and despair – he sees his beloved Jesus.  Period.

The exchange was so utterly complete that when Jesus became sin for us, he filled us up with himself – and that is all God sees.  Perfect, complete, clean, pure.

God is already as happy with you as He can be, because when he sees you, if you belong to him, he sees his Son in you perfectly reflected and shining in beautiful glory.

You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is, because when He sees you, He sees His Son.

But there was more to the advice.

“You cannot make God any happier with you than He already is.  And indeed, you must not try.”

I can hear you now (because, truthfully, I’ve said the same things).

What?!?  What about following the 10 Commandments?  What about all the Old Testament Commandments – or the New Testament ones??  What about all the places in the Bible that tell us to do this or not do that?  What about all the RULES?!?

Being good is good, and it can reflect that you’ve had your heart changed – but it will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

Being kind is good, and it can be an indication of Who you belong to – but it will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

Giving generously, being compassionate, showing mercy – all good, and definitely character traits of someone who loves well, but… you got it.  They will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

In fact, if that is your motive, you are believing a false Gospel.  You are, in effect, saying, “Thanks Jesus for the death on the cross and all, but I’ve got it from here.  Really.  I’m good.”

For some ridiculous reason we would rather bear the terrible burden of trying to satisfy God ourselves than trust in the freedom that Christ has provided.  How does that make sense?  And yet, I talk with more people than not who claim to know and follow Jesus who are running around trying to make God happy! 

STOP!

Think about it.  If you’re still having to work hard to earn God’s favor – what exactly did you get freed from?  If you really believe that Jesus saved you, why aren’t you living like you’re saved from the crushing burden of trying to do all that God requires?

I’m asking you the same questions I had to ask myself once.  I realized I wasn’t living like I really believed what I said I believed.  I was running around working hard to make God happy.  But you know what – I knew in my heart nothing I did could ever be good enough.  There was always something I could have – should have – done better.  There was always work left undone.  I got lazy or sloppy in my pursuit of perfection and that really messes with this whole happy God thing!  Unbelievably, I had even convinced myself that I could keep starting over with a clean slate – but that’s not true!

If Jesus’ work wasn’t enough, what hope did I have of making God happy?  If Jesus’ death and resurrection was just a starting point, what could I possibly conjure up that was better than what He had already done?

And that, my friends, is precisely the point.  I can’t.  You can’t.  No one can.  We really were hopelessly lost in our own foolish, stupid, selfish, lazy, mean-spirited, ugly, swiftly-filling, ocean-sized pit of sin.  But the rescue has already been completed, and it is spectacularly sufficient and good.  Trying to add anything to it to somehow gain God’s approval would be like doing your laundry in that cess-pool you created and offering it back to God with the hopes that He will somehow like it better than the radiant robes of righteousness that Jesus has already provided.  Just stop.

You cannot make God any happier with you than He already is.  And indeed, you must not try.  For when He sees you He sees His beloved Son, and His work is beautifully sufficient and good.  Jesus has freed you – now go and live in the joy of knowing you are free indeed!

Come Grieve With Me

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Come, grieve with me

Come grieve with me

While my heart bleeds

                                                  –  and tries to breathe again.

Come let me cry

As waves crash hard

                                                    – against my will and might.

Come be the strength

Against my pain

                                       – for heavy is the load.

Come sit with me

In silent love

                                                         – my darkness needs your light.

Come say the truth

I need to hear

                                                         – speak noble, right, pure, true.

Come stay with me

Through darkest war

                                                     – let my soul mourn tonight.

Come.  Stay.  Cry.  Be.

My heart can’t see.

                                           –  I need to know there’s hope.

Sometimes there are no answers.

Sometimes the only thing to do is grieve – and it is right and good to do so.

But so often we don’t know how.  We hate the pain that suffering brings and we rail against it – trying with every ounce of effort to hurry it up and make it go away.  Whether it is ours or someone else’s.

But pain has purpose in God’s economy – and it is worth much more than we want to believe.

Sometimes, often times, the lessons are deepest, purest, truest through the pain.

Would we value health if we never encountered disease?  Would we rejoice in commitment if we never experienced betrayal?  Would we ever be able to bask in the glory of true peace if we never knew conflict?

NO, NO, a thousand times, NO!

Could we delight in the splendor of a simple cool drink if we had never ached with thirst?  Would we treasure life and goodness if we had never suffered evil loss?  Can we bask in the ecstasy of the joy of the Lord if we never know the depravity of our souls?

NO.  No.  no.

We cannot truly know the soaring heights of good until we know the unfathomable depths of the not-good – and the deeper we go into the abyss the more glorious the light of glory will be.

Don’t be afraid to grieve, and don’t be afraid to help others do the same.  Because of and by the very things that cause our grief, we will know and experience more joy.  And because of and by the entering into another’s pain you help them do the same.  You minister to them in ways that are almost impossible to articulate, but are priceless in the end.

We need the fellowship of one another to grieve well – and grieve we all must do.

Stop Teaching Your Children to Be Nice…

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You’ve heard it, I’m sure, a thousand times – “be nice!”

Most of us have contributed to the chorus of mothers and fathers bending low, looking their little ones in the eye, and in the face of some conflict with siblings or peers instructing them to, “be nice!”

STOP IT!

Webster’s defines “nice” as:

          Pleasing; agreeable; delightful.

         To behave in a friendly, ingratiating, or conciliatory manner.

Those are all “nice” ways of behaving – of interacting with our fellow human beings.

But are they good?

If we consider the messages that these words convey we will start to notice a nasty trend…  At the root of each of them is people pleasing.  What we usually mean when we tell our kids to “be nice” is to give in, yield, capitulate, surrender.

If they are simply defending their own selfishness, then yes, by all means, encourage them to yield to righteousness.  But there are better ways to instruct them in that then simply saying, “be nice.”  Calling out their selfishness is a great place to start.

But all too often, what we want when we tell our children to “be nice” is for them to stop whatever behavior is taking place so that they (and we) avoid conflict.  Have you ever interrupted your child telling auntie that she needs Jesus because you know that auntie is a dyed-in-the-wool God-hater who has already raged in furious indignation over your “arrogance” in telling her how to live her life?  What if God is pleased to use the voice of a little child to disarm her fury and penetrate her heart of stone?

What we do when we tell our kids to “be nice” is interrupt a different lesson that ought to occur.  Even if auntie decides to rage at your little one – isn’t that a good (albeit hard) lesson to walk through with your child?

We know that God often teaches us the most profound lessons through the hardest things.  Why do we want to take those things away from our children?

Following are five reasons I can think of – I’m sure there are more.

We teach our children to “be nice” so that…

  1. Conflicts will either stop or not arise at all rather than teach them how to resolve conflict in a God-honoring way (which is harder, takes more time, and more prayers for wisdom than we ever dreamed we’d need!).
  2. They will be well-liked among their peers.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being well-regarded amongst one’s peers, but if we give the message to our children that this is our goal rather than the pleasant outcome of living with integrity, we have simply begun laying the foundation of building up little Pharisees rather than Disciples of Jesus.  We are teaching them to care more about what others think about them than what God thinks about them.
  3. They will be well-liked among our  Our children see to the heart of this pride with laser-like accuracy.  We might not say it out loud, but we say it loud and clear nonetheless:  “it matters more to mom (or dad) what my friends think of me than the person you are turning out to be.”  (ouch!)
  4. They will climb the social ladders set before them.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being successful in relationships – that’s actually a good gift from the Lord.  But when we teach them that climbing social ladders is important we distort and pervert the true nature of God-honoring relationships. Rather than being willing to invest in the life of the other person because they have value and worth as image-bearers of the Almighty, we actually train them in manipulation techniques; I’ll be nice to you if you give me social standing – I’ll give you social standing if you “stroke” me by being “nice.”  Incidentally, these are the “friendships” that crumble in the face of hardship, but understanding what they are based on makes it clear why they collapse when “nice-ness” is gone.
  5. Because we want them perceived as those who get along, don’t rock the boat, keep things smooth and so on.  We want to save our children from the heartache of trials and tribulations.  We want things to be easy and comfortable for our kids… because that is what we really want for ourselves. (ouch again!)

Our culture has elevated “nice” to a place of pre-eminance.  We demand that “being nice” rule our public discourse.  We demand that “being nice” rule our educational institutions.  We operate in a way that places “being nice” as the highest form of virtue and have ceased to tolerate anything that disrupts the peace and harmony of “nice-ness.”

But is this what the Bible teaches us to value?

In a singular and resounding word – No!

Here is what the Bible says about our expectations of “getting along”:

  • If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18-20)

Living as believers guarantees that we will not be well-received.  Let that sink in.

Don’t get me wrong – we’re not to go looking for conflicts, strife, and persecution.  They’ll come along just fine on their own – trust me.  And when our troubles are caused by our own foolishness or wickedness, we need to own the consequences, repent, and learn the lessons we can from them.

But in the course of living lives defined by the transformation of the Gospel within us – lives marked by Spirit-given gifts – we will not always be perceived as being “nice.”  And as parents, it’s our job to prepare our children for the blows that will come as a result of being a disciple of Jesus.

Standing against sin will always bring with it trials of various kinds.

Rather than teaching our children to “be nice” how about if we use words like these as each situation demands:

Be…

    • Loving.
    • Kind
    • Strong.
    • Of good courage
    • Forgiving.
    • Merciful.
    • Truthful.
    • Patient.
    • Gentle.
    • A man/woman of integrity.
    • Compassionate.
    • Humble.
    • Generous.
    • Wise.
    • Someone who stands up for the widows and orphans among you.
    • Holy.

Each of these things will require you to take the time to explain them to your children according to their understanding.  You will need to show them, for example, why avoiding a difficult conflict is not actually good for the other person – even when confrontation opens us up to false accusations and gossip.  You can help them see how God is providing an opportunity to enter into the sufferings of Christ by allowing them to experience insults, and malicious claims against them the way Jesus did before he was crucified.  You can help your child learn to bear the weight of other’s sin in this way because Jesus did it for him – and you will be, at the same time, helping your child to love his Savior all the more as the realization of the cost of the Cross becomes clearer to him through his own suffering.

We are not called to be people-pleasing, ease-and-comfort seeking survivors of this world.  We are called to be God-glorifying, disciple-seeking, victorious citizens of the next.  Let’s help one another teach our children how to do the same.

Fighting for joy…

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Acrylic on paper by James Winn

Acrylic on paper by James Winn

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass is green, the humidity and temperatures are high, and flip-flops are still the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it when feeding animals out in our barn or shoveling 4-ft snow drifts just to go to work.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions, or gut, or whatever you want to call it, and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My experience wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.

Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.

Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“For I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that day that which has been entrusted to me.”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” for the past few months and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful than silly jingles or whatever dumb choruses might conjure up for us.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.  Wake up!  That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My experience wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  We have to tell ourselves the truth – that we don’t know what the future will look like, but that we can trust the One who loves us and gave Himself over for us.  That we can depend on him for everything we need in the face of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.  And that, in the end, everything, he puts before us is both for our good and His glory – even the trials.

The world may be looking a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfected.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.