One Foot in Front of the Other

Uphill. How long had she been trudging uphill? One foot in front of the other. One foot. No stops. No detours. Some people raced along the road, excited about what lay beyond the next slow bend. She’d been around enough bends to know the only thing awaiting them was more trudging uphill. So she kept walking. One foot in front of the other. Uphill.

She stayed in the middle
and tried to be good.

She tried to stay near the middle of the road even though the crowds were thickest there. On her right, the edge of the road topped a steep cliff. She once saw a whole family fall, but she turned away before they hit the bottom. Better not to see. On her left, a high wall bordered the road. It was smooth, sometimes even warm, but she could imagine herself crushed against it if the mass of people swelled. So she stayed in the middle and tried to be good. One foot in front of the other.

The movement of her own feet sometimes mesmerized her. She’d once gotten dizzy from staring down at them. Better to look ahead, look where she was going.

But where was she going?

“No idea,” she said aloud. A few people turned in surprise. She shrugged and lowered her eyes.

Maybe she was turning into one of those crazies who stood on the walled side of the road and waved at people. They always looked friendly, but why did they wave instead of walking? A few didn’t wave. Instead they screamed or held signs, but their words—spoken or written—made little sense. “Repent?” “Believe?” “Kingdom?” What Kingdom? Would a king stop the uphill trudge? Would a king explain the point of walking? Would a king let people fall off the edge of the road? A bunch of crazies, that’s what they were. All of them.

But some seemed so sincere. She was almost tempted to stop once when some guy gestured to her and pointed at a crack in the wall. He’d thought they could escape through the crack. He said it was a gate. Still crazy. That had been a long time ago. Why was she thinking of it now?

Her eyes were
drawn to the wall.

“One foot in front of the other, Jeanne.” This time, she muttered so that no one else heard. But her eyes were drawn to the wall even as her feet continued their steady rhythm. She made eye contact with one of the crazies. Uh-oh.

Instead of waving or yelling or pointing, this woman stepped into the crowded road and weaved toward her. Without asking, she reached for one of Jeanne’s heavy bags, but Jeanne hesitated and the woman smiled. Why did she trust this woman already? Jeanne released the bag. The woman fell into step beside her, even pointed out a pothole to avoid.

After a while, she began to talk. Her name was Mary, and her story felt both strange and familiar to Jeanne. They laughed together. How long had it been since she laughed? The woman talked about a gate that would lead them out of this never-ending uphill drudgery. She had found it and gone through it. When she experienced the peace and lack of struggle on the other side of the wall, she knew she had to come back and show people the gate.

“So those crazies along the wall… Oh, sorry!”

“No, that’s okay.” Mary smiled. I used to think they were crazy, too, but they’re telling the truth. They just have…unusual…ways of saying it.”

Jeanne continued. “There really is a gate? There really is another way? There really is a better life?”

“Yes, yes, and yes.” The whole time they talked, Mary had been steering Jeanne very gradually toward the wall. Now they stopped. A couple of people behind them grumbled and jostled around them. “Look, Jeanne.”

Jeanne had to tear her eyes away from Mary’s glowing face. Mary was pointing at the wall. But it wasn’t a solid wall anymore. There was a clearly a gate. Jeanne did a double-take. Yes, definitely a gate. Why hadn’t she seen it before this moment? “Is this the gate you went through, Mary?”

“Yes.”

“But you joined me back there,” Jeanne pointed down the road, “and the gate is here…,” her voice trailed off.

There’s only one gate.

“There’s only one gate, Jeanne. It appears when you’re ready to see it, but in reality, it’s always been right beside you.”

“That’s weird.”

“I know. I don’t exactly understand it myself, but that doesn’t stop it from being true, does it?”

Jeanne’s voice belied her hesitation: “I guess not.”

“Come on. Let’s go!” Mary was already touching the gate, but Jeanne felt rooted to the spot. The uphill trudge might not be exciting, but it was familiar. She knew what to do and how to manage. Beyond that gate…well, who could know for sure?

Mary turned toward Jeanne without taking her hand off the gate, patience and desire somehow mixing on her face.

Jeanne slowly filled her lungs with air. On the exhale she moved her right foot toward the gate. One foot in front of the other, into new life.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  -Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”  -John 10:9

…And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  -Romans 10:14

One Foot in Front of the Other: Bible-based #flashfiction to challenge all of us. (click to tweet)

Any thoughts? How does this image sit in your mind? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

When Guilt Grounds Me

I can’t even count how many times this has happened. At some point in the day, I stand in the middle of the hallway trying to decide what to do next. I wrestle with competing priorities. Do I write or exercise? Because there’s not time for both. Do I wash clothes or cook dinner? Because both need to be done. Do I call a church friend who’s having troubles or knock on my unbelieving neighbor’s door? Because Jesus calls us to encouragement and evangelism. So I stand there in the hallway with a dumb look on my face. Whatever I choose, guilt will accompany me.

From where you’re sitting there, outside my life and brain, it probably seems straightforward (I’ve told myself the same thing a thousand times): Organize your life better so you can do both. If that solution works for you, I am incredibly happy for you. In my case, more organization or scheduling just makes my life feel even more crowded. Most days, I have a list, which helps me get started, but all the entries on it are important! And it feels weird to put, “Call best friend” on my list. What I need is a guilt-free decision-maker. If you invent one of those, I’ll be first in line to buy it.

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hot-air balloon inflating (c) Carole Sparks

There’s only one thing which helps me at all, and it takes incredible volumes of self-control. I ask the Holy Spirit to show me what God wants me to do in the next hour…or fifteen minutes (yes, even if it’s exercise or wash clothes) and then I try to let go of the rest. See, I think Satan latches onto us with all those things we didn’t do and loads those otherwise empty “loose ends” with brick-filled bags of guilt until we’re immobile, or at least ineffective. (We’ll come back to this.) That guilt weighs us down like sandbags on a hot-air balloon. The thing keeping me stuck there in the hallway is simple: I don’t want to feel guilty, and so the guilt is already strapping me to the ground.

I use the piles of dirty clothes
as an excuse not to obey.

I don’t think God is particularly concerned with how or when I do the laundry, except when I do laundry instead of obeying Him, when I use the piles of dirty clothes as an excuse not to call a friend or write or something seemingly more holy than laundry. (I say seemingly because I think our entire lives can be wrapped up in His glory, which is holy ground! Check Colossians 3:17 and 23.)

My responsibility is to trust
Him in the ordering of my days.

At the same time, He knows it must be done. So I also have to think He will create a time in my day or week when He releases me to wash all those dirty clothes. The pile may get bigger than I like, but time will open to do it. Even harder than household duties, God will block out spaces where obedience means I rest or spend time relaxing with a beloved friend. All without guilt. My responsibility is to trust Him in the ordering of my days, trust Him that the laundry will get done and the floors swept and the blog posts written.

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hot-air balloon takes off (c) Carole Sparks

You know that feeling of “this is where I need to be right now”? It’s when God affirms that you’ve been obedient, and somehow, in your heart, you know it. Why can’t we have that feeling most—or all—of the time? I think we can experience it a lot more often than we currently do.

When Satan immobilizes us or preoccupies us with guilt, we can’t be effective even when we are being obedient. In those times, we treat His Will like tasks to be accomplished. “Just lower your head and push through,” we think. I pondered this image the other day…

Life with my head down
     ploughing the ground,
No thought to look up
     No “Lord, fill my cup.”
Strain and pull
     cart never full...

Yeah, that’s all I have. I’m not much of a poet, but do you see how God isn’t getting any glory in that image? How it’s all about finishing but never being able to finish?

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hot-air balloon in flight (c) Carole Sparks

He picks one thing for
right now and I let the
rest fall to the ground…

I’ve got to hold my time and my days and my to-do list in open palms where He picks the one thing for right now and I let the rest fall to the ground until later—like cutting the mooring lines on a hot-air balloon. Then I can soar on the updrafts of His Will! Then I can be free to obey without distraction.

Now I’m walking away. I’m going to meet my friend for coffee because that’s what I understand to be God’s will for my afternoon. I am not going to worry or stress over this blog post or the laundry piles or the carpet cleaner sitting in the middle of my living room floor. At least I’m going to try.

Let go of the guilt from your unfinished to-do list and fly on the updrafts of God’s will! (click to tweet)

For further reading: Tyranny of the Urgent. It’s a tiny booklet by Charles E. Hummel that examines how we live under the pressure of “right now.”

Does your to-do list taunt you? Do you feel weighted down by the guilt of everything you didn’t do today? How do you deal with it? How do you cut the guilt lines? Please let me know in the comments. I’m still looking for answers!

The Balance Between Liberty and Licentiousness

I know that’s an old-fashioned word, licentiousness. It just means indulging your sin nature, allowing yourself “license” (the root word) to do whatever you want. It’s liberty taken to the extreme. It’s stretching through purpose for self-indulgence. I just couldn’t think of a more exact word, so I took a risk and used this one.

As I spent my quiet time in Galatians over the last weeks, this verse stood out:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. -Galatians 5:13

So many of God’s good
gifts turn to sin when
we take them to excess.

So many of God’s good gifts turn to sin when we take them to excess. It’s like dark chocolate. One piece of really good dark chocolate tastes wonderful and actually has some health benefits. A whole bar of dark chocolate leaves a funny taste in your mouth and actually damages your overall health. That’s what we tend to do with God’s blessings.

Think about it:

  • Love gets twisted into lust.
  • Food overfed becomes gluttony.
  • The conveniences of life such as curb-side service and internet, when overindulged, generate sloth.
  • The tangible blessings of home, cars, clothes, etc. find us prideful or envious, depending on who has them.
  • Sleep, when overused, contributes to escapism and/or laziness.
  • Even Bible study (How could there be anything wrong with Bible study?!?) can become the end goal, the feel-good thing, a source of pride as we acquire knowledge.

To put it bluntly, we tend to pervert for our personal pleasure that which God has given us for His glory and our good.

God wants us to enjoy His
creation and the blessings
of living in it.

The backlash to a self-indulgent lifestyle is one of asceticism, a rejection of comforts and pleasures altogether in favor of extreme abstinence. But God gave us love, food, sleep, and all these other things. He wants us to enjoy His creation and the blessings of living in it.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights… -James 1:17

In I Want to Live These Days with You (8/11), Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the functional purposes of our homes, eating & drinking, clothing, and relaxation but demonstrates how they are also meant to elicit enjoyment.  Of the ascetic life, he writes, “Where people are robbed of the possibility of bodily joys, when their bodies are used exclusively as a means to an end, there we find an assault on the original right of bodily life.”

So how and where do we find the necessary balance? Let’s consider these four ways to check your licentiousness without losing your liberty.

  1. A greater delight in the Giver than the gift

As you sit down to that sumptuous meal, where does your mind go? To your palate and your stomach or to the one who caused these foods to grow and provided them to you?

  1. A steady diet of God’s Word, and not just the parts we like

Keep yourself grounded by digging into difficult Scripture as well as reviewing the comfortable chapters. For example, test yourself for sinfulness in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, which covers sexual immorality, but also relish your protected citizen status in sections like Romans 8:31-39. Sit under Christ-centered teaching that doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable commands and standards of the Bible even while it celebrates the love and blessings found in following God.

  1. An intimate dedication to the work of the Spirit in our lives

Learn how to hear the Holy Spirit and practice responding promptly. (There are books for this, or talk to a trusted adviser.) He will prompt you to step away from certain worldly pleasures when you need it. Your willingness or unwillingness to obey demonstrates your attachment to that pleasure. For example, Paul told the Corinthians that married couples might sometimes abstain from sex in order to focus on prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5) even when God normally smiles on sex within a marriage. For me, an unwillingness to fast when prompted by the Holy Spirit shows me that food has taken too high of a priority in my life.

  1. An ongoing identification with the person of Jesus

Jesus could enjoy a good meal with the best of them…and the worst (e.g. Zacchaeus). He supplied wine for a wedding (John 2:1-11) and a picnic for a crowd (John 6:1-14). He probably enjoyed the foot rub that came with having oil poured on His feet (John 12:1-11), and He could let down His guard to play with children (Luke 18:15-17). This was a man who enjoyed His earthly life. But He also knew when it was time to get serious, to say the hard things, and finally, to release it all.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! -Philippians 2:8

What is the purpose
of sheets?

Imagine you just bought a new set of sheets. They’re 600-thread-count Egyptian cotton, and they feel good. You crawl under the covers and snuggle down. But your purpose in the bed is not to enjoy the sheets. It’s to sleep. What if you were so busy enjoying the sheets that you didn’t sleep? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The purpose of the sheets is to help you sleep better, and they will, if you keep everything in the proper perspective.

In the same way, God gives us so many good things to help us live this life on earth not only with purpose but also with pleasure. He told the Israelites, “Open your mouth and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). If we’ll stay grounded in the four things above, we’ll learn how to enjoy the pleasures without obscuring our purpose.

4 ways to enjoy the pleasures of life without obscuring the purpose. (click to tweet)

What do you think? How do we balance the pleasures and the calling to purity in the Christ-life? Honestly, I’m just trying to work through all this, and I’d love some input. Leave a comment. I’ll try to give a thoughtful reply.

Good Intentions Gone Awry

Have you ever had something completely blow up in your face when you thought it was going to be awesome? Have you ever tried really hard to do the right thing but it turned out to be the completely wrong-as-possible thing to do? The kind soul will tell you afterward, “Well, it’s the thought that counts,” but you know you’ve caused embarrassment—maybe even pain—completely without intending it.

road in Greece

I used to comfort myself when this happened to me by quoting 1 Samuel 16:7 in which God tells Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” If God could see my heart, and he knew that I meant well, then that should be enough.

Shouldn’t it?

Were my “good intentions” not enough to please God?

Even if I totally “screwed up,” hurt people’s feelings, or damaged God’s reputation, it was okay as long as “my heart was in the right place,” right? Well…

A couple of good-looking kings

In 1 Samuel 9, God chose a king for the Israelites based on appearances. He was tall, good looking, stately, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2). If wars were fought as beauty pageants, Saul would have conquered all Israel’s foes! But Saul turned out to have some heart problems, not because of cholesterol but because of covering up his disobedience.

So God sent Samuel to anoint a second king for Israel. Samuel leaned toward a young man who looked a lot like Saul, but God stayed his hand. They went through all the sons of Jesse until they came to the youngest. David was young and probably stinky from tending the sheep, but he had a fine appearance and handsome features (1 Samuel 16:12).

God does care about the external…
just not in the way we think of externals.

Wait. Really? He was good-looking too? I wanted him to be kinda ugly so God could make His point more clearly: that He doesn’t care about appearances. But God does care about the external…just not in the way we think of externals.

The main difference between Saul and David was the condition of their hearts. God knew that David’s heart was pure where Saul’s was not and never had been. David will end up doing far worse things than sparing some tasty-looking sheep and cattle from complete annihilation (1 Samuel 15:14). Umm, remember Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11)? Yeah. But David repents. In his heart, he wants to please God while Saul never gets past pleasing himself. That’s the difference.

Good motives aren’t enough

Back to my question. If my heart is in the right place, that’s all that matters, right? I mean, David had good motives and Saul had bad motives. David was forgiven and Saul was rejected.

Well, it’s not that simple. Motives are extremely important. (I wrote a whole blog post about them.) Charles Spurgeon said this:

“It is not enough to do the correct thing; it must be done in a right spirit, and with a pure motive. A good action is not wholly good unless it be done for the glory of God, and because of the greatness and goodness of his holy name.” –Charles Spurgeon

But “outward appearance”—the part that people see—also counts for something. God didn’t say, “Looks aren’t important.” In fact, He thought it important for us to know that both kings were attractive. He simply reminded Samuel that He could see more than the outward appearance. (I’m resisting the urge to go off on a tangent about judging people right now.)

For us today, it’s not about being tall or having a “fine appearance”–thank goodness! It’s about living out the Christ-life attractively. Our actions matter because they affect other people and impact God’s reputation. It plays out like this:

  • Do the wrong thing for the wrong reason: If you’re the kind of person who has read this far, you probably don’t spend much time in this category.
  • Do the right thing for the wrong reason: This is what Spurgeon was talking about. It’s not enough. Motives count to God.
  • Do the wrong thing for the right reason: Well, you had good intentions, but because people see what we do and how we act, this is insufficient.
  • Do the right thing for the right reason: This is obedience. Yes, we truly do walk a narrow road.

As long as we live on earth, we’re going to mess up—sometimes royally. But like David, those failures must be followed by repentance and a plea for forgiveness, not a cover-up, like Saul. If I “screw up” or hurt someone, even if my motives were as pure as possible, I can’t just wash my hands of it with an “Oh, I meant well.” I have to correct it with the other people involved and try to learn from it personally. Take comfort in the fact that we are still being made holy (Hebrews 10:14). We can expect those times of failure to become fewer as we mature in Christ.

So how do we fix it?

My common sense told me
I was right, but it was wrong.

My problem back there at the beginning was that I didn’t listen to the Holy Spirit. My common sense, which is not omniscient, told me I was right, but my common sense was wrong. As I learn to heed His leading, my intentions join my actions in bringing Him glory.

And also, I experience a lot less embarrassment.

“God sees the heart” is not an ‘out’ for good intentions gone awry. (click to tweet)

What about you? What well-known Bible verse have you misappropriated? OR How does this verse in 1 Samuel affect your life? Let’s start a conversation!

 

A Girl’s Gotta Eat (and so does everyone else): In Defense of Martha

This is one of those posts that reflects years of thought.  I’m not kidding.  I have been pondering this story since before the birth of my second child, and he just turned nine.  I once got accused of being a Martha because I pointed out that, if our plan included a meal, someone would have to organize it.  Food does not magically appear on the table (although Papa John’s online ordering with to-your-door delivery is surprisingly close).

I have always thought that Mary’s sister, Martha, gets a bad rap in Christian circles. This is probably because I am so much more like Martha than like Mary.  I’m a practical girl.  You say, “Let’s take a trip!”  I say, “Do we have enough gas to get there?”  The kids say, “Let’s watch a movie!”  I say, “Will it finish before bedtime?”  In defending Martha, I am defending myself.  So let’s really unpack this story (Luke 10:38-42) and get to the bottom of Martha’s situation . . . okay, her sin.  Because there is no way she was wrong to fix those guys something to eat!

It seems that Jesus enjoyed being at Martha’s house. In fact, he came to love Martha and her siblings (Mary and Lazarus) intimately and even stopped in to see them one last time on His way to Jerusalem before His crucifixion (John 12:1-3).  This is the family that He trusted enough to let them endure profound grief for His glory.  (See John 11.  I wrote about this previously.)  But the scene for today occurred earlier.  Perhaps this was the first time Jesus ever ‘set foot’ in their home.  We don’t know.  At any rate, Martha invited Him and his companions to come in and have something to eat.  The Scriptures say, Martha opened her home to him (Lk 10:38), demonstrating the natural hospitality of near-Eastern culture.  Then she got busy.  They had been travelling and were most certainly hungry.  Since they couldn’t order delivery pizza, it was necessary to actually cook.

Now this is where things get dicey. Martha got distracted by the preparations (v. 40a).  Let’s look at some of her options.

  • We can safely assume that Martha was fairly wealthy. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have invited all these people into her home. Therefore, she probably had several servants. She could have trusted them to prepare something nice and left it alone. But she didn’t.
  • Martha could have ordered food from other people (like catering) and paid them for their work. No one needed to know . . . unless they found all the take-away containers. This too was unacceptable.
  • If she wanted to do it herself, Martha could have made something simple—maybe some fruit and grilled meat if they wanted to eat quickly—or thrown some beans and rice in the whatever-functioned-like-a-crockpot-in-those-days and walked away.  [Semi-random aside:  Remember when Abram prepared a meal for his three guests (Genesis 18)?  They had to slaughter an animal and bake bread.  Those things take quite a while.  Sure, this is thousands of years later, but not much had changed.  In many parts of the world, people still don’t expect to eat quickly.]

It’s clear that Martha had some pride issues because the preparations were taking every ounce of her energy and focus. She wanted to make German Chocolate Cake when no-bake cookies or boxed brownies would have been sufficient.  But before you slam her, consider the fact that her motives may have been good.  When I have someone special in my home, I want to serve them to the best of my ability.  I want to give them the very best I have to offer—not for myself but as a way to honor that person.  Perhaps Martha already recognized that Jesus was someone special; perhaps she was already growing to love Him (speaking platonically here); perhaps her heart was not that different from the widow with two small coins, who gave so generously (Luke 21:1-4).  All of us have walked that fine line between honoring our guests and wanting to be honored for our exceptional hospitality (or any other gift from Him).  My kids ask me why we have to clean the house before company comes over.  There are days when it’s hard to answer honestly.

When the focus of that award-winning German Chocolate Cake jumps from the eater to the preparer, we have entered into sin. This is why God said He hated the Israelites’ worship in Amos 5.  They went through the motions of worship, but with impure hearts.  Just think about it:  (paraphrasing) “I hate your offerings because they are about you, not about Me.”  He might say to me, “I hate your freshly mopped floors and your delicious muffins because you did it to make yourself look good, not to honor Me.”

Ouch.

We can’t really know Martha’s motives. I have read between the lines far more than is acceptable just because I see myself in Martha so often.  Here’s what we know for sure:  Martha went to Jesus and complained (v. 40b).  I can imagine her walking around behind the other men, stooping to whisper in Jesus’ ear.  You see, Mary was behaving counter-culturally.  She wasn’t supposed to be sitting in that room with all the men.  There were clear lines of gender separation in that culture.  So on top of being jealous because Mary got to listen to Jesus while she didn’t, and frustrated because she couldn’t get all the work done, we can assume that Martha was slightly embarrassed by Mary’s behavior.  Her tone could have been a little whiney, or it could have been indignant.  I lean toward the latter because I don’t think Martha was afraid of hard work or long hours.  She wanted everything to be handled properly and in a socially-acceptable manner.  Things just weren’t going the way they were supposed to go, and surely, Jesus—of all people—could see that!  So she offered a solution that would help them both:  tell Mary to go help in the kitchen.

Before we look at what Jesus said, let’s look at what He did not say.  This is significant.  He didn’t deny that there was a lot of work to be done.  He didn’t tell Martha to quit making the preparations; He didn’t tell her to sit down; He didn’t suggest a simpler meal.  He also didn’t say that He was hungry, though, or tell her about His favorite food.

Instead, His words make me think He reached out and laid his hand on her arm. He connected with her, looking beyond the dirty apron, the burn on one hand and the worn-out potholder on the other, the sweat dripping down her temple, the frizz of hair that had escaped her headscarf.  He stopped whatever deep and important conversation was developing (or whatever joke was being told, because we know Jesus liked to laugh!), waiting until her eyes met his, and spoke into her heart:  “We don’t need a lot, Martha.  The social conventions aren’t important; I’m not going to ask Mary to leave here when she is learning so much about Me.”  Perhaps I’m going too far, but I like to think that there was gratitude in His tone . . . something which told Martha that He appreciated her service and understood her situation.

I spent years trying to comprehend the “one thing” of which Jesus spoke. Remember?  He said, Few things are needed—or indeed only one (v. 42).  This just puzzled my Martha mind . . . until recently.  Mary chose to focus on Jesus.  Martha chose to get distracted, and she complained.  In those actions, we see her sin.  She invited these people into her home then didn’t pay attention to them.  The one thing needed was to prioritize Jesus.

I don’t think Jesus expected Martha to drop the potholder, wipe the sweat from her brow, ignore the burning rice, and sit down there with the others. We don’t know for sure because –frustratingly—the Word stops there.  We don’t even know how Martha responded.  It seems more likely, however, that she simply needed to adjust her mindset.  While Mary sat and worshipped, Martha would serve and worship.  Both functioning within the will of God.

Later, Paul would say, In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).  Your mindset has nothing to do with sitting-haha!

So, my fellow Christ-following Martha-types out there, there is NOTHING WRONG with cooking dinner. There is certainly nothing wrong with hospitality, and there is nothing wrong with giving God your absolute best.  Go ahead and bake the German Chocolate Cake if you can do it without losing focus and without detracting from your one-on-one time with Him . . . because the sin is in the why.  Are you distracted from knowing Him by serving Him?  Are you more interested in what people will think than how God will be glorified?  Get these things sorted out, and your service becomes an act of worship, which is what God intended when He created you.

Serve God for His pleasure, not your pride.

The Cake and the Icing

Motives:  why we do the things we do.

Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in [Jesus]. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.  -John 12:42-43

There were several leaders of the Jewish people who actually trusted and sort-of followed Jesus, but they weren’t ‘sold out’.  They weren’t willling to give up their social standing in order to follow Him openly.

In Christian circles, our problem is often the opposite.  Many of us will do the seemingly ‘sold  out’ thing:  a mission trip, a lifestyle change, a bigger leadership role at church.  But I know that I have to check my motives on these things.  I ask myself, “Are you doing it solely for Jesus’ glory . . . or are your motives even the slightest bit selfish?”  It’s easy to convince yourself that you deserve the praises or at least the attention that comes from sacrificing so much for God.  Even if you truly don’t care what other people think (yeah, right!), you may do it for that ‘pat on the back’ from God.

As I clean up after my kids’ birthday parties, there are always half-eaten pieces of cake.  But it’s not like they eat the left side and leave the right side.  With rare exceptions (that one wierd kid . . .), kids eat the TOP of the cake–the part with the icing, and leave the BOTTOM.  Do you eat the cake just for the icing?  Do you still ask for that corner piece with the big flower on it?  If your cake had no icing, would you even want a piece?  Here’s my point:  If no one ever saw or recognized that thing you’re doing ‘for’ God . . . if even God didn’t give you any recognition for it . . . would you still do it?  When you are authentic with yourself, what is your real motive?

I am not advocating a ban on cake icing–blah.  Nor am I suggesting that we drop all of our Kingdom work until we have a chance to examine our motives.  But let’s be completely honest with ourselves.  Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to reveal those areas of service where we’re actually more interested in our own glory than in His.  This is something I struggled with even in starting this blog, and it’s the reason I don’t use my name or details anywhere on the site.  I long to be more important at the same time that Father keeps calling me to be less (Jn 3:30).

The right thing done for the wrong reason is as much a sin as doing the wrong thing.  Ouch.  It’s because He is more interested in our being than our doing.  And the wrong thing done for the right reason?  The end justifies the means?  (I’ve written about this before.)  Still sin.  The way is certainly narrow.

Here’s the challenge:  Will you sacrifice that well done, my good and faithful servant (Matt 25:23)  on the altar of His glory?  Are you willing to release even that?  Until we can get to the place where we need absolutely NOTHING in return for our obedience–not from God or from others–He is not receiving the utmost glory.

Rethinking Peter’s Denial

All we have in Scripture are the facts: Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times. Peter did it. Jesus looked at Peter. So . . . usually, when we read this or hear it preached, Peter is portrayed as the bad guy, and we come away a little disappointed in him, maybe even a little offended. How could he possibly deny Jesus like that after spending all that time with Him?!? If I was Peter, I would have been proud to stand with Jesus. Peter was WRONG!! How could he have made such a BAD choice?

As I read John’s account this week, however, I began to think about Peter a bit differently . . . and I confess that I began to identify with him.

Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27.

Here’s the story (mostly from John’s point-of-view): Peter and John follow the crowd to Caiaphas’ house. Since John knows the family, he waltzes right in, but Peter has to stay outside. John leaves him out in the dark–literally and figuratively. It’s the middle of the night. It’s cold. Peter can’t see what is happening to Jesus and maybe the news he gets from inside is slanted or unreliable.

When John realizes that Peter is still outside, he drifts over to the servant girl who is guarding the door. After a hushed conversation, she agrees to let Peter come in. As he passes, she asks him, “You’re not one of Jesus’ followers, are you?” Obviously, she expects a negative answer. Maybe she had been instructed not to let in any of Jesus’ followers, but John convinced her otherwise. Maybe she spoke with disdain. After all, Peter was an uneducated fisherman from Galilee–not exactly commiserate with the family of the high priest. She probably smelled him as he passed. Maybe she was just curious. At any rate, she puts Peter ‘on the spot’, so he gives her the answer she expects.

The end justifies the means, right?

It seems like such a harmless thing. John went to some effort to get Peter inside; it would be rude to get himself kicked out just because of a lowly servant girl. He doesn’t want to reject or offend John. Plus, this way, he could actually see what was happening and give Jesus the moral support He must surely need. The end justifies the means, right? Plus, there’s a fire in that courtyard, so Peter is thinking that he will be much more comfortable inside. Nothing but positive conclusions. No big deal. It was said and done before Peter could give it a second thought.

Surely Jesus wants Peter nearby,
even if it means a ‘small’ sin.

Then someone around the fire asks Peter again, and he finds himself in that awkward position where he can either confess that he told a ‘white lie’ the first time, or he can lie again and maintain the status quo: warming himself by the fire, able to see Jesus, and ‘in the know’ regarding everything that’s happening. This is better, isn’t it? Jesus can see him and know that Peter is supporting Him. Surely Jesus wants him nearby, even if it means a ‘small’ sin. Right? Then another servant of the high priest (a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off, by the way) challenges Peter. The question is a little different this time, but Peter is in too deep. He knows this isn’t a friendly crowd. If he says ‘yes’ this time, they may think he’s planning a jailbreak or a revolt. Deep in enemy territory, surrounded by people who don’t like Jesus, he probably feels trapped. His answer could land him in prison right beside Jesus. That can’t be right. That can’t be Jesus’ plan. (Can’t you just see those thoughts rolling through his head?) What choice does he have but to continue the farce?

A moment later, the rooster crows. Luke says that Jesus looks over at Peter. I know that hollow, sick feeling Peter immediately got deep in his gut—that mental nausea when he suddenly realizes he can’t do a ‘take back’ on this one…that he has wounded Jesus and damaged the Cause. Immediately, he understands that his carelessness, his casual approach to the commandments, isn’t acceptable, even when it seems justified. The other gospels say that Peter immediately went outside and wept bitterly.

I am SO much like this: able to logically justify my actions, able to make exceptions when it ‘seems’ to be for the greater good. In the spiritual world, things are rarely what they seem. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). That’s all stuff we can’t see, stuff that doesn’t seem important or influential. Oswald Chambers (My Utmost For His Highest, Aug 9) wrote, “Common sense is a gift that God gave to our human nature–but common sense is not the gift of His Son.” Peter used common sense and probably tried to mentally justify his words/actions.  It was very logical for him to get inside, to try and show Jesus how much he cared. I can imagine him thinking, “Jesus is going to be so happy to see me here. Because of this, He will know how much I love Him.” But one simple look from Jesus revealed what Peter actually already knew: Common sense is for the common man. Jesus holds us to a higher standard.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 
-Isaiah 55:8

Common sense is for the common man. Jesus called Peter-and calls us-to a higher standard…to uncommon sense. (click to tweet)