Life’s Hard Classroom

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Adult life is filled with illusions that die hard.

As a younger person, I somehow got the idea adults had it all together. I assumed that by a certain age, (probably 40 or so) you knew what to do, had what you needed, and had life all figured out.

If a wry smile comes to your face because of my naivete, I don’t blame you.

It’s likely I was shielded (or simply oblivious) to the sufferings and trials experienced by my parents and other adults around me. And that’s probably God’s mercy.

But then came the time (the first of many!) when I realized it’s not like that at all. Life is hard, a puzzle, an adventure, a roller coaster, a disaster (at times) and all together uncertain and unpredictable.

There are many amazing blessings in life, to be sure. But if we expect to figure life out and get everything “all settled,” we’re in for huge letdown. If we tie our hopes and security to this thing called “earthly existence,” we are in for devastating shocks and crushing disappointments.

One of the most constructive responses to a hard time is to learn from it. We can ask questions like: What is this teaching about myself in terms of my expectations, inner strength, and readiness? About others? About life in this broken world? About God?

There are some situations, however, where we will never find the answers in this life. Especially to the question, “Why?” But there is a way to find strength to press on.

During one tough season I confessed to the Lord that I was tired of “learning lessons.” Enough already! And as I was journaling, it was like the Lord said to me, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me as your Master Teacher to tutor and train you step by step by step.”

That led me to search the Scriptures for passages with the word “instruct.” Here are a few that encourage me greatly.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8 NIV).

God is a compassionate instructor. “With my loving eye on you” reassures us that the Lord does not scorn us for our lack of understanding. Instead, the Lord renews our minds and directs our steps (Proverbs 3:5-6), often in the very moment.

“I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7 NIV).

God meets us in our sleepless nights. When we can’t sleep, we can pray. And we can learn to listen. Don’t dismiss those encouraging thoughts that come, those insights, those memories and scriptures. I often get out of bed for a moment to write them down. I then consider them more carefully in the light of day.

“Good and upright is the Lord; therefore, he instructs sinners in his ways” (Psalm 25:8 NIV)

God does not require we be perfect in order to receive his teaching. He teaches us in the midst of our sin and brokenness, leading us to life.

When we live as disciples (a word meaning “students”) of the Lord in all that life brings, we discover a growing resilience, a deepening wisdom, a more realistic set of expectations, and, above all, the peace and power of God within that pass all understanding.

“So do not fear, for I am with you;

    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

Consider this again, as if the Lord is speaking to you, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me, the Lord your God, as your Master Teacher. I will tutor and train you step by step by step.”

May it be so, Lord, may it be so.

Death Magnified: A Reflection on Lives Cut Short

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Life cut short magnifies death.

The sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant (age 41), his daughter Gianna (age 13), and seven others (ages 13-56) in a helicopter crash in Southern California on January 26th has shaken many people to the core. The impact is similar to the global shock and grief in response to the deaths Princess Diana (age 36), Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul in August 1997.

Statistically, about 151,000 people die daily around the globe. About two-thirds of those die from age-related issues. But it’s the deaths of younger celebrities that seem to have the most impact. Consider the so-called “27 Club” of rock stars who died at the age of 27 like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison (who all died between 1969 and 1971), Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

In a celebrity death, we see death magnified. We experience deeply, viscerally, in ways words fail to express, the tragedy of lost potential, of earthly blessings vaporized in an instant.

For some reason, the death of a public figure brings home the vivid reality of loss that is the strongest mark of death. Everything takes on a new perspective. Time stops. People crave being together. There’s an inner drive, an instinct, to honor the person and to share memories cherished and grieve dreams lost.

Celtic spirituality (not to be confused with the Boston Celtics professional NBA basketball team!) had an insightful name for this experience. Celtic Christians (based generally in the British Isles in the 4th-6th centuries) had a concept of “thin time.” This is a moment or period when we experience that “haunting” of something much more beyond the daily world of our senses and material existence.

We live with a thick curtain between ourselves and “spiritual, eternal” realities. We are absorbed in the world we know. We hardly ever think there’s something more. Then a disruptive event, especially death, pulls back the curtain. It’s like there’s a sheer drape through which we see shadows, sense movement, and perceive a very different “reality.” This is what Christians define as The Real World. 

Death poses the ultimate problem and challenge of life. Followers of Jesus grieve, the Apostle Paul said, “but not as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563 in Germany during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, presents one of the most reassuring statements of hope in the face of all life’s difficulties, including death, in all theology. Framed as a catechism (a question-answer format used to teach students through memorization), it begins with the most important question we all ask:

Lord’s Day 1 Question 1

Question 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The living Lord Jesus comforts us so we can comfort others.

A life cut short magnifies death. But the resurrected Lord Jesus magnifies Life and gives us an unshakable hope.

My Most Empowering Prayer

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Many people limit prayer to their understanding of what is “spiritually important.” They don’t want to bother God, or they don’t think God is really interested in everyday matters.

What, then, do we make of Jesus’ words, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).

Here’s my working principle: If it matters to me, it matters to God.

So how do we apply this to our daily responsibilities?

What burden(s) do you feel as you live for the Lord in daily life?

One significant aspect of my vocation is communicating God’s Word through preaching, teaching and writing. The burden of this responsibility has grown as I’ve seen how powerless I am to change human hearts and minds. I may be interesting or even inspiring for a moment, but that falls far short of “taking every thought captive to obey Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

My work as a pastor is like many other careers. There is, however, a unique dynamic to ministry that affects us all, whether we serve as “volunteers” or as our vocational calling. It’s expressed well by P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921), a Scottish theologian.

The work of ministry labors under one heavy disadvantage when we regard it as a profession and compare it with other professions. In these [other professions], experience brings facility, a sense of mastery in the subject, self-satisfaction, self-confidence; but in our subject [of ministry], the more we pursue it, the more we enter into it, so much more are we cast down with the overwhelming sense not only of our insufficiency, but of our unworthiness.

No wonder Paul asked, “Who is sufficient (competent) for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

I have found hope in Jesus’ words to his disciples, “When they drag you into their meeting places, or into police courts and before judges, don’t worry about defending yourselves—what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there. The Holy Spirit will give you the right words when the time comes” (Luke 12:11-12, The Message).

Based on this promise, I have developed a prayer that has energized my preparation and presentations for many years. “Lord, give me what you want to give me for your people.” And before I speak, I pray, “Lord, give us what you want to give us in this time.” (I mentioned this briefly in my blog “Pray with Open Hands,” September 23, 2019).

It’s a joy hearing people comment, “That message (blog, teaching) was just what I needed. I felt like you were speaking right to me.”

Recently, I spoke at a men’s gathering at our church we call Man Night. The next day I received this email:

Doug thanks for last night. After a very long day yesterday, while getting the kids off to the High School group and my wife off to her Bible study, I told her I was fried and would probably skip Man Night. I was worn out and just not feeling it for some reason.  Then God tapped me on the shoulder, telling me I ought to go.

Then this man, whom I’ll call James, described how he remembered my talk was on staying motivated as Jesus’ disciples—and that he really needed motivation. In my talk, I presented Jesus’ strategy of invitation, not condemnation. I departed from my notes and made some applications to parenting. I shared how it’s easy for parents to become anxious and pressure our children. We condemn them instead of discovering how to invite them into God’s better way. “James” continued his email:

I feel like we’re continually condemning our high schoolers, which just causes more of arguments. So, the power and confidence to back off on the condemnation and instead model Jesus, guiding more through grace, like the examples you gave, was powerful medicine. Thanks be to God.

So, I came for one message, but was moved by another that I wasn’t thinking about, but I really needed help with.  Sounds just about the way God works.  Sometimes the most important thing is just showing up.

I had not planned to speak on parenting, but that was what the Holy Spirit gave me to give these men, especially James.

Prayer can empower us to fulfill the most significant responsibilities of our lives.

The Lord is ready to give his blessings to others through us. The big question is: Are we ready to receive them and pass them on?

“Lord, give us what you want to give others through us. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen!”

Wreck-reation or Re-Creation?

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There are two kinds of people in the world (how often have you heard that??): Those who work to play and those who work.

If you read my blog consistently, you will notice my struggle with work and play, with work and rest.

I’ve come to believe we all have several themes that characterize our lives. These are areas of persistent challenge and growth. We “spiral” around these themes. They can often be framed in terms of competing values. By that I mean certain preferences we naturally pursue compete with values we think we should pursue. For example: a task-oriented person wrestles with their need to put more value on relationships. A perfectionist becomes aware of their need to “lighten up” for themselves and others. A relaxed person feels pressure to be more ambitious. Can you identify some of your life themes?

So back to my theme of work and rest. I have great energy spread over many interests. Combine that with a strong sense of responsibility, a desire to make meaningful contributions to others’ lives, and a commitment to being a faithful steward, and you have one of the recipes for a workaholic.

This is a significant spiritual problem because over-work (work addiction) can easily lead to problems such as self-reliance, neglecting relationships, ignoring self-care, and eventually to spiritual numbness and burnout.

So how do we gain God’s rhythm and balance for our lives?

For me, it began by seeing the essential value of rest, beginning with the Sabbath principle in Genesis 2: 2-3.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

One of my problems was that I had a wrong concept about rest and recreation. Writing in my journal in 1980 was the first time I wrote the pun “wreck-reation.” I don’t remember having seen or heard that pun anywhere else. I wrote it because it captured my problem with the common idea about recreation.  Much of what people called “recreation” was just “wreck-reation”—it left them exhausted and stressed. They were not refreshed and renewed. They needed a vacation from their vacation.

As I reflected on God’s command to rest, however, I saw the inherent message in the word “recreation” as “re-creation.” Lights went on. Re-creation is a biblical mandate—and a blessing. The amazing news of Genesis 2 and the 10 Commandments and all of scripture is that God blesses us with rest (see Matthew 11:28-30 for Jesus’ definitive invitation).

My natural tendency is the attitude described by Tim Hansel in his book title, When I Relax, I Feel Guilty. But now I remind myself, “When I relax, I am honoring the Lord and loving myself.”

In Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon gave some great advice to young ministers that applies to all of us. Writing before the days of mechanized farm equipment, the mower is harvesting grain in the fields by hand using only a scythe:

Look at the mower in the summer’s day. With so much to cut down before the sun sets, he pauses in his labor. Is he a sluggard? He looks for a stone and begins to draw it up and down his scythe, rink-a-tink, rink-a-tink, rink-a-tink. He’s sharpening his blade. Is that idle music? Is he wasting precious moments? How much he might have mown while he was ringing out those notes on his blade. But he is sharpening his tool. And he will do far more, when once again he gives his strength to those long sweeps which lay the grass prostrate in rows before him.

Even thus a little pause prepares the mind for greater service in a good cause. Fishermen must mend their nets and we must, every now and then, repair our mental states and set our machinery in order for future service. It is wisdom to take occasional furloughs. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less.

There’s a God-given need and God-given invitation to stop, to rest, to tend ourselves.

Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade (Ecclesiastes 10:10 NLT).

Re-creation is God’s plan to renew us and to restore us so we can live with joy and energy for God’s glory.

The Clean Slate Club

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One of the common phrases we hear around New Year’s Eve and Day is the opportunity many take to “start with a clean slate.” The reference is to the slate students used (like a mini-blackboard – or now we have whiteboards!) before paper was readily available. They’d do their arithmetic sums on a piece of slate (like shale) then wipe it off to do more. Mistakes were easily erased, so they could start again—with a clean slate.

As I was musing on the clean slate, I thought about “the clean plate club” many parents use to try to motivate their children to eat all the food (especially vegetables!) they’ve been served. My dad used to promote this concept with me, and also with our children, his grandchildren. A clean plate meant we were grateful for our blessings, especially considering the needs of starving children around the world. (Pretty heavy stuff for a four or five-year-old…).

Clean plate and clean slate sound similar, but they have very different emphases.

The clean plate club is well-meaning, but misdirected. It imposes guilt and pressure.

The “Clean Slate Club” I’m suggesting does just the opposite. The clean slate club removes guilt and pressure.

Many of us live so continually with a burden of guilt (see my recent “Thriver’s Guilt” blogs) that we hardly know what it’s like not to feel guilty. Jesus gave his life so we could break from bondage to sin and guilt.

By faith, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ erases the slate of charges against us.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).

And there’s these reassuring verses from Psalm 103:

…[The Lord] does not treat us as our sins deserve

    or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:10-12).

Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place (about her’s family’s courage in hiding Jews from the Nazis) said it this way:  “Bury your sins in the deepest part of the ocean and hang a sign there that says, ‘No Fishing.’”

But a clean slate is not just a New Year’s thing.

A clean slate is not even a new-morning thing, even though I heartily celebrate Lamentations 3:22-23

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

A clean slate is moment-by-moment thing.

In spiritual direction, I find one of the greatest barriers to experiencing God’s presence is focusing on our failures and shortcomings. Because our minds naturally focus on just one item at a time, focusing on our sins (both of omission and commission) takes our attention from God’s grace and goodness.

I continually remind myself of the practical wisdom of Brother Lawrence (whose given name was Nicholas Herman and is also known as Lawrence of the Resurrection). Following his death in 1691, the abbot of his monastic community compiled his letters and notes in a booklet treasured by many, The Practice of the Presence of God. Abbe Joseph de Beaufort recalled of Brother Lawrence:

[That] when an occasion of practicing some virtue offered, he addressed himself to God, saying, “Lord, I cannot do this unless thou enablest me;” and that then he received strength more than sufficient.

[That] when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to God, “I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.”  That after this he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

So, I invite you to join the Clean Slate Club. By faith in Jesus Christ, live in the freedom and joy of God’s holy eraser.

Christmas Reminders: A Prayer in the Rush

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In the midst of the Christmas rush, I need continual reminders to keep my focus on the Lord. I have found it helpful to look beneath my immediate experience to a spiritual analogy. Here’s a prayer I initially wrote for use in worship that I now use regularly during Advent.

Lord, when we rush and rush this season, remind us that the only time You rushed was to welcome home Your returning prodigal.

When we search and search for just the right gift for that special someone, remind us that we are Your special people, and that You gave us the perfect gift in Jesus Christ.

When we weep at the tenderness of care shown in movies and on television, remind us to express that compassion and generosity in our own lives.

When we find ourselves overwhelmed with so many places to go, remind us that everywhere we go needs the light of Your love.

When we feel alone, and everyone else seems to have someone who cares for them, remind us that someone needs what we can share.

When we suddenly realize that we have forgotten You, remind us that we are always on Your mind.

When we get caught up in the good things of this world, remind us that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

When we gather with close family members–but don’t feel so close, remind us that you gave us this family to love.

And when Christmas is over, and we are packing up the ornaments and taking out the tree, remind us of the tree on which You gave Your Life so that our lives would never, never end.

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Enjoy his grace and goodness at all times, in all places. A blessed Christmas to you.

Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 2)

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In my previous two blogs, I have been exploring the phenomenon I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle? In the first blog (December 2, 2019), I defined it, and in the next blog (December 9, 2019) I shared the first remedy: Be Grateful.

Thriver’s guilt falls under the broad category of false guilt. Genuine guilt is our healthy reaction to violating a law or standard, especially God’s standards. False guilt is the feeling we have done wrong when we have not, in fact, violated a law or standard.

The “remedies” for false guilt are found primarily in the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We correct the lies we are telling ourselves by learning the truth of God’s Word, applied by God’s Holy Spirit.

So in this post, let’s consider two more important remedies (in addition to Remedy #1: Be Grateful) for thriver’s guilt.

Remedy #2: Be Generous

The biblical pattern has always been “blessed to be a blessing.” God’s blessings are for our enjoyment as well as our partnership with the Lord.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-2 NIV).

We are too easily seduced by the lie, for example, that it’s wrong to have nice things. It’s just stuff–until it becomes God’s stuff. God uses our resources to further Kingdom work in big as well as small ways. If you are blessed with a lovely home, share it. If you are blessed with a small apartment, share it. Whatever we have, the spirit of generosity blesses others and reminds us how much we are blessed.

Generosity and the faithful stewardship of our gifts and resources express the obedience Jesus called for when he commanded us to let our light shine.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-17 NIV).

God has entrusted us with time, with personality and temperament characteristics, with spiritual, financial and material resources that we are to steward for the extension of his kingdom.

As Paul reminded us:

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work (2 Corinthians 9:6-8 NIV).

To conclude with one more scripture on this topic, it’s interesting to me that Paul did not tell the “rich” to sell everything and give the proceeds to poor.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NIV).

In his book Gospel Patrons: People Whose Generosity Changed the World, John Rinehart writes about many historical leaders like Tyndale, Wilberforce, Whitefield and Newton — and we could name many contemporaries–who brought redemptive change to their times because of wealthy benefactors (quoted by Steve Perry in Living With Wealth without Losing Your Soul, New York: Rosetta Books, 2016). Steve Perry continued, “It’s not wrong to lay up treasure for yourself! But you do so not by hanging on to every last penny, but by seeking ways to be ‘rich in good deeds.'”

Remedy #3: Be Genuine

Be real both in admitting your struggles and sharing your joys. It’s takes a certain amount of courage to share your joys. Learn to communicate in a way that can be a testimony of God’s faithfulness to encourage people.

Appropriate disclosure is the key. As Proverbs counsels us:

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart (Proverbs 25:20 NIV).

So we don’t parade our blessings thoughtlessly in front of those who can’t remember the last time they had something wonderful to share. But Scripture also says,

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story (Psalm 107:1-2 NIV).

We are sensitive to those who are struggling, but we still tell our story about God’s goodness.

It is wise to be intentional about finding safe friends and colleagues who can hear your excitement and satisfaction. But this does not mean we cover-up what God’s doing in our lives.

Be ready for comments from those who are not in a good place. If you sense resentment, do not be defensive. Focus on the person. You might ask, “So, would you like to share what’s going on?” Deep down, we are all longing for affirmation, for validation, and for assurance that we matter to each other and to God.

The fundamental principle for community, both for those who are doing well and for those who are struggling is the same:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15 NIV).

There’s much more to share, but I hope this gives some ideas for handling false guilt in general and Thriver’s Guilt in particular.

Be Grateful: Receive God’s good gifts with humility, always remembering the Giver.

Be Generous: Share what God has entrusted to you.

Be Genuine: Let your light shine in ways that meet others with compassion and encouragement.

Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 1)

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In my previous blog, I presented the phenomenon I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” That’s the guilt we feel when we succeed and do well when others around us, especially those we care about, do not. What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle?

Thriver’s guilt triggered an unhealthy dynamic of self-consciousness by which I became embarrassed by any signs of “success” in my life. I felt I had to apologize and minimize when things were going well. I also became self-deprecating in my conversations and presentations. I was reluctant to share the blessings I was experiencing.

Thriver’s guilt falls under the broad category of false guilt. Genuine guilt is our healthy reaction to violating a law or standard, especially God’s standards. False guilt is the feeling we have done wrong when we have not, in fact, violated a law or standard.

The question is: have we truly done something wrong? Compare the warning lights on a car dashboard with the conscience. When a light comes on, we need to discern whether it is indicating a genuine problem, or whether there’s a short circuit in the warning light itself.

In our lives, it may not be a problem of faulty lights, however. It may be that we have many “extra” warning lights that continually flash, giving us false information.

False guilt is spiritually corrosive. It denies God’s truth and undermines our experience of grace. False guilt disrupts our relationships, draws our focus inward, and robs our joy.

The “remedies” for false guilt are found primarily in the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We correct the lies we are telling ourselves by learning the truth of God’s Word, applied by God’s Holy Spirit.

So what about thriver’s guilt? Because I want to respect the relative brevity of a blog post, I will share my remedies in two posts. In this post, I want to consider the most important remedy.

Remedy #1: Be Grateful

Be grateful and receive God’s blessings with humility.

Enjoying the good things God provides does not mean we are materialistic, nor that we are spiritually immature.

We are too easily seduced by the lie that “poverty is a virtue and success is a sin.”

We may have a tendency to believe poverty is the ideal condition for true spirituality based on Jesus’ exhortation to the “rich, young ruler” to sell all he has in order to follow Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). Here’s part of the encounter:

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

This one incident, however, was not meant to be a prototype for discipleship any more than being a literal fisherman was required to make us “fishers of men.”

Jesus was addressing this man’s idol. The Lord calls us to turn from anything we value more than the Lord. But that doesn’t always require literal all-or-nothing decisions.

For example, if a person struggles with ambition and success, Jesus would not counsel that person to fail. If a person struggles with beauty, Jesus would not counsel that person to become deliberately unattractive and unwashed. We must be careful not to move from specific situations to general principles too quickly.

God blesses his people. Think of the amazing beauty and delight of the Garden of Eden and the splendor of the New Jerusalem. We honor the Lord by appreciating these blessings and remembering their source. Deuteronomy 8:7-18, spoken as God’s people were preparing to enter the Promised Land, clearly presents this principle.

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills… 10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God,… 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant…

Blessings are expressions of God’s goodness. Gratitude reminds us that God is the giver.

If Sarah and I give wonderful gifts to our children, we want them to enjoy those gifts to the fullest, with due appreciation. To reject the gift would feel like a rejection of our love.

But there’s more to this subject. This remedy alone could be perceived as a “bless me” gospel that does foster worldliness and self-centeredness.  So please keep reading! In my next blog post, Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 2), I suggest how to manage our blessings faithfully and interact with others compassionately.

Thriver’s Guilt: The Problem

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We’ve all heard of survivor’s guilt, that feeling of guilt and remorse people have because they survived a traumatic event when others did not.

I recently read an article on those who survived the Las Vegas massacre of October 1, 2017. Many reported feeling guilty for running away because others ran into the danger to help those in need. Or they feel guilty because they were spared when their loved ones or friends were injured or even killed. “Why my friend or loved one? Why not me?” they ask.

Survivor’s guilt has gotten me thinking about a related phenomenon. I’ve never seen it named before (so perhaps I’m coining a new phrase), but it’s been real in my experience. It’s what I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” That’s the guilt we feel when we succeed and do well when others around us, especially those we care about, do not.

Let me assure you that I have experienced many failures and seasons of discouragement. I’m not always thriving. But there are, by God’s grace, some very fulfilling times.

What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle?

I realize it borders on boasting even to discuss something like this. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t read about it before. But I think it is a significant dynamic in relationships, and can also affect our spiritual lives and performance. So here goes!

I first became aware of my own thriver’s guilt when I attended a pastors’ retreat about five or six years into pastoral ministry. I had been an associate pastor for four years and had then been called to be a senior pastor (now we call it “Lead Pastor”) of a mid-sized congregation. I’d also published a few articles in Christianity Today and Leadership Journal.

At the concluding communion service of the retreat, the leader invited us to a time of prayer and confession. He included Jesus’ exhortation, “If you have anything against your brother…” (based on Matthew 5:22) and encouraged us to be reconciled with each other before we participated in communion. One of the pastors came over to me and said, “Doug, I want to ask your forgiveness for my envy of you.”

I was confused. “What do you mean?”

“Well I’m not alone in envying what’s already happening in your ministry…” I’ll stop there.

Of course, pastors are as guilty of comparison and competition as anyone else, but my colleague caught me completely by surprise. His confession suddenly made me realize that while I was guilty of focusing on how much better I thought others were doing—there were some who were watching me.

That revelation triggered not only my own guilt for envying others, but also an unhealthy dynamic of self-awareness. I became embarrassed by any signs of my “success.” I felt I had to apologize and minimize when things were going well. And I became self-deprecating in my conversations and presentations—a problem that people challenge me on to this day.

I became reluctant to share the good things that were happening. I’ve noticed this pattern in many settings: I feel far more comfortable sharing what’s going wrong than sharing what’s going well.

In my next blog post, I’ll share some of the remedies I’ve found so that I can live with freedom, gratitude, and compassion. But for now, let me affirm that “success” (which I define as fruitfulness) and experiencing the “rewards” of God’s goodness are not evil, bad, or wrong in themselves. Scripture abounds with stories of blessing, such as Joseph’s experience in Genesis.

The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did (Genesis 39:2 New Living Translation, NLT).

And we are exhorted to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation and life in this world.

Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5 NLT).

Stated most simply: Poverty isn’t a virtue, and prosperity isn’t a sin. So what do we do with our guilty feelings? Log on next week and consider what I have to share.

How’s your “To BE List”?

To Do (Be) List_v2_2
Graphic courtesy of Stephanie Curry

I would not live well without a “To Do List.” I’ve been making lists since college (at least) and do so daily. I used to jot them down on scraps of paper that I eventually bundled with paper clips—what a mess! Now, I keep a “Day Book” where I compile my lists and ideas. I know there are far more efficient digital ways. But before we go further on efficiency, I want to ask a bigger question: am I so focused on doing that I forget being?

I can’t remember when I first heard the clever phrase, “Remember, we’re called human beings, not human doings.” In his book Holy Sweat, Tim Hansel takes this a step further. “We aren’t so much human beings as human becomings. Every day we are becoming the person we will be. Some people will become less… but most of us want to become more.”

I think of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be: that is the question…”  That profound reflection was on contemplating suicide. It could be paraphrased, “To continue to exist, or to cease to exist—that is the question.” By God’s grace, I pray that is not the question for any of us.

But we all face the question: “To Be or To Do?” How do we keep from focusing so much on doing that we forget the essence of our being, of our identity? How can we guard against the busyness that distracts us from valuing ourselves and others as people created in the image of God?

To be more precise, it’s not about the choice between doing or being. It’s about the priority of being as the foundation for doing. It’s about being overflowing into doing.

It’s also not about passivity; it’s about receptivity. It’s not about doing nothing, but about doing everything as the natural outcome of receiving what the Lord has for us.

So, here are four affirmations on my daily “To BE List”:

Be delighted in your adoption.

First and foremost, I am God’s child! God has adopted me into his family through faith in Jesus Christ. That alone makes life significant and priceless. I pray this is true for you. If we forget this, we have missed the purpose and joy of Life.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children” (Romans 8:15-17, The Message paraphrase).

Be filled with the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have the power within to live the life God wants for us. So God has given us his Holy Spirit. The real issue is not us getting more of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit “getting” more of us.

“So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:15-18 NLT).

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

God’s strategy for change involves our minds. That gives us hope, because we can begin to un-learn the lies and falsehoods of life so that we can learn and live God’s truth. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), opening our minds and hearts to see life from God’s perspective.

“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity” (Romans 12:2 J.B. Phillips Paraphrase).

Be here now—be present in the moment.

It’s natural for us to be preoccupied with the past or be concerned with the future. Those mindsets rob us of the gift of the present moment– which is the only time we really have.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message).

What’s on your “To BE List”?