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!

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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 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 (Luke 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 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 worshiped, 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 our absolute best. We can go ahead and bake the German Chocolate Cake if we can do it without losing focus and without detracting from our one-on-one time with Him . . . because the sin is in the why. Are we distracted from knowing Him by serving Him? Are we more interested in what people will think than how God will be glorified? Get these things sorted out, and our service becomes an act of worship, which is what God intended when He created you and me.

We serve God for His pleasure, not our pride.

Stillness

Most people know Psalm 46:10 . . . at least the first part.  It says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  But that’s not the whole story, and it’s a bit of a personal crusade for me that people finish the verse.  In the second half, there’s a purpose to the command of the first half:  “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Let’s just dwell (i.e. take up residence, make ourselves at home) in this one verse for a few minutes . . .

(Ah, the Scriptures are so full of truth.  Thank You, Father.)

z walk talk

Be still

I saw this quote on a t-shirt once.  It made me laugh out loud—how true!  But God’s command for stillness is not like ours.  We tell our kids to be quiet or sit still out of respect for some situation (at best) or for our convenience (at worst).  One translation (NASB) of this verse begins, “Cease striving,” which seems to fit the overall context of the Bible better because I can’t think of anywhere that the Bible commands us not to move.  Another (HCSB) says, “Stop your fighting,” which definitely fits the immediate context of the chapter better.  (It was a battle.)  These days, we think of ‘still’ like inactive:  sitting with a book or even taking a nap; a better picture is those strangely-dressed guards at Buckingham Palace.  While absolutely unmoving, they are completely alert.  (They might be faking the alertness part.  It’s not like you can ask them, but go with me here.)  It’s a watchful stillness . . . a calmness with purpose.  Basketball players on the bench are similar; they continue to pay attention, to be actively involved in the game, even when they aren’t one of the five on the court.  For the rest of us, our Lord is saying to stop working yourself into a tizzy.  Stop worrying and pacing the floor.  Stop checking the phone every five minutes just to make sure it’s still working.

Know that I am God

Stand back and watch God work instead of trying to do it yourself.  It’s not a matter of allowing Him to work, like when you hold the door for someone to enter a room or ‘let’ your 5-year-old wash the dishes.  It’s admitting that you can’t do it, or at least admitting that He does it WAY better than you.  More basketball (and it’s not even basketball season):  it’s LeBron James taking your place in a crucial basketball game while you go sit on the bench.  Whose contribution is better for the team:  yours or LeBron’s?  Yeah, me too.  In the rest of life, everybody is better off if God handles things.   (This basketball analogy breaks down at a certain point, so don’t take it too far.)

I will be exalted

Stillness is not primarily about my peace.  That’s secondary.  And it’s certainly not about me having an easier life.  Ha!  LeBron doesn’t take my place in the game so that I can ‘take a load off.’  He plays so he can score, so the crowd will go wild in his praise, so his team can win.  We have to stop making all of life be about us.  Only God has the right to be self-centered.  (Sorry, LeBron.)  Stillness creates space in my brain for me to actually see clearly—see that He is able, sufficient, worthy of my praise.  Fundamentally, there is more glory to be gained for Him by my stillness than my busy-ness.  (I wrote more about busy-ness here.)

 Among the nations

The command is to be still, not silent (unlike the palace guards).  Take it outside of yourself.  Stillness admits that He does the real work and creates an opportunity to worship Him not just in my conscience (that space I created in the previous paragraph) but in my conversations.  The best basketball players are vocal on the bench and praise their teams outside the arena, too.  Multiply the glory by telling someone—anyone!—what He did when you quit trying so hard to do it yourself.  Then this verse, like so many others in Psalms, connects with the Great Commission.  Yeah; just think about it.

 I will be exalted in the earth

Those last two parts are so important that He says them again.  Two-thirds of the verse are about Him.  Only one-third is about what I’m supposed to do.  Hmm . . .

It seems backward (uncommon sense), this idea that we stop doing so something can get done, but it works.  First, we let go of this idea that we have to do everything ourselves.  Then, we just let Him do what He does.  As a result, we will see two things.  (1) We get what we want:  a solution or resolution . . . and peace along the way.  (2) He gets what He wants:  GLORY!

Because of what He wants, He will take care of what I need.

In a context similar to that of Psalm 47 (a battle), Isaiah also quotes the Sovereign Lord, saying, In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength (Is 30:15).  See?  Our way out (salvation) and our ability to endure (strength) come from stillness.

Instead of the pervasive parental “Sit down and shut up!” that “Be still” conjures in our heads, here’s the beautiful picture we get from this verse.  He grabs my fluttering hands, holding them firmly between His strong, warm palms.  He looks me in the eye, waiting until my breathing settles and I can return His gaze calmly.  My shoulders relax and my heartbeat slows.  I see the depths of calmness in His face.  Then, He gently but confidently speaks, “Stop getting yourself all worked up and remember Who you’re talking to here.  I want universal props; I want everyone in the world to know how awesome I am, so I am going to take care of it.”

My Overstuffed Suitcase (a.k.a. The Busy Life)

Busyness:  a socially acceptable way to express a self-centered lifestyle.

First, full disclosure.

1.  I am currently surrounded by boxes, suitcases, and for-sale items as we prepare to move.  So luggage is foremost in my mind, but I’m not talking about material possessions here (although I also have too many of those).  I’m talking about activities, hobbies, projects, and responsibilities.

2.  I just finished re-reading Radical Together by Platt.  Yeah, that’ll step on your toes.

3.  As I was walking briskly home from work a couple of weeks ago, planning what I needed to do first when I arrived, I found myself distracted by the boys playing in the ocean, the old men sitting on the sea wall, and the women strolling leisurely toward some vague destination.  I was jealous.  I thought, “These people don’t have anything to do or anywhere they need to be.  I wish I had time to sit by the ocean.”  As clearly as my own thought, the voice of God spoke into my heart, “You do too many things.”

So here goes . . .

We drag our lives around like overstuffed suitcases:  about to break a wheel or handle, difficult to manage, risking rejection at the check-in counter or—even worse—bursting open right there in that wide-open corridor, exposing our dirty underwear to the world.  But it seems like there’s always one more “opportunity” we just have to take or one more thing we “ought to” do.  So we stuff that in, too.  But we don’t take anything out.  Neither do we ask God if He wants us to focus our energy on the new thing.  After all, it’s necessary, good, and right.  He can’t object, can He?  Plus, all those activities and responsibilities make us feel important, well-rounded, and cared for.

But then, when God asks us to take a walk with Him, we’re slowed and distracted by this huge suitcase that we’re dragging along behind us.  We can’t respond promptly.  We keep looking back.  We tire quickly.  And when we come to a rocky, sandy, or bumpy place (basically anything unpaved) . . . or even just a curb, we’re stymied.  We can’t go on because of that unwieldy luggage.

Is this really the way He wants us to live?  No way.  Think about the most Christ-like person you know.  Is his or her life crazy-busy?  Nope.

I want my life to look more like the Europeans I see in airports.  They can go somewhere for two weeks with only a regular-sized backpack.  (How do they do that?!?)  I want to be able to “turn on a dime and leave five cents change,” as the old folks say.  When He says look, I turn.  When He says stop, I don’t need a runway because of the inertia of what’s rolling behind me.  When He says jump across, I leap instead of plunging headlong into the ravine because I’m still holding onto that stupid suitcase that I’m so proud of.

And here’s another thing.  The Scriptures command us to carry one another’s burdens.  How can we do that if both our hands are occupied just managing our own junk?  “Sorry, I can’t help you.  I can’t even listen to you.  Do you see what all I’m dealing with here?”  Selfish.  All of our “obligations” give us a good excuse not to get our hands dirty with our fellow-Follower’s problems or needs.

Will our lives be lacking if we live lightly?  Jesus sent the disciples into the world without even a bag, yet they lacked nothing (Luke 22:35).  Neither will we.