I don’t know if it’s because my kids are getting older, or because I tend to do most of my shopping online now instead of at the mall, or if it’s simply that my heart is changing…but this year I have found myself focused more on the birth of a child then on Santa, and stuff.
Earlier this year a new show about Jesus came into being. Called THE CHOSEN, it is a re-examining of the life of Christ, all of it paid for through the biggest crowdfunding ever raised. The show is truly special and worth seeing, if you haven’t (especially the Christmas special that started it all). But the reason I mention it, is that I recently watched a little video from them about the significance of the swaddling clothes.
All of my life I have believed that the swaddling clothes were partly an indication of the financial status of Mary and Joseph – to show that the king of the world was born like the least of us. And hey, I swaddled all of my children, it’s been a common practice among mothers for centuries. But what I didn’t know, was that the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were the shepherds who were raising the Passover lambs. These lambs had to be flawless…perfect, without blemish. And in order to ensure that they were…they were swaddled.
This Christmas as you sit down to celebrate with family and friends I pray that you spend a moment thinking about the child who was born to be the perfect sacrifice. The child who would one day die for our sins, for one reason, and one reason only…to bring us to God. For me, that is the gift I will be celebrating receiving this Christmas. Glory to God in the highest.
Why is it that almost the second you decide to try to do better, temptation comes to show you just how weak you really are? I think that probably applies to most things that tempt us, chocolate cake when you are on a diet, a new pair of shoes when you are watching your spending. How are we supposed to win?!
Today for my bible study I was reading Ecclesiastes and James. Both chapters specifically addressed my biggest failing as a Christian…my tongue. James 3 is even appropriately titled Taming theTongue.
“…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:8.
“With our tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness.” James 3:9
“Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” James 3:10
Guilty, guilty, guilty. I have often wondered why, when we were created by God to praise and love him, it is so darn hard to live up to his standards? I think it must be a big reason why so many people have fallen away from “religion”. Once you get past the whole feel good “Jesus comes to save the world and forgive our sins part” there’s an expectation, a call to live a better life, to set a higher standard for your behaviour. And just like you felt guilt when you did something wrong as a child, you feel badly, guilty about not living up to being the person you know God is calling you to be. It’s easier to just walk away, especially in those early days.
Last night as I was driving Isaac back from his riding lesson I heard a song on the radio (see below), and it really drove home something that I think we all need to remember. It’s good to be alive. God gave us life to enjoy it. A relationship with God is about feeling better, not worse. Feeling not good enough, living with guilt… that is a lie told by the enemy, and one I’ve fallen victim too far too often. When we feel as if we aren’t living up to God’s standards we should be turning toward him, not away.
I’ve been pretty honest here about how my own faith has ebbed and flowed over the years. It’s even possible that I might stray away again, like a lost sheep. But I feel grateful that, for right now, I am so tied to my Lord. The more I have thrown myself at him whole-heartedly, the more I have felt his presence in my life on a daily basis. And that’s why it is so darn frustrating to recognize at times that I am just as awful a sinner as I ever was, and that ole tongue is the major source of my failing. But I also take comfort from the words of Ecclesiastes 7, verse 20 that I read this morning…”There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” and verse 18 “the man who fears God will avoid all extremes.”
I am a sinner. I will always be a sinner. Just like my own children, as a child of God I will continue to make mistakes, to fall down. And just as I would pick up my own children, wipe their tears and forgive them for any of their failings or mistakes, so too does God forgive me. All I have to do is ask. And truth be told, we are probably never fair to ourselves. I believe that the Spirit lives in me, and is changing me into the person God calls me to be. Some days he just chips off smaller pieces of this piece of clay than others. God knows all things. He knows when I’m having a bad day, when I’m stressed out, when I’m feeling out of control. He also knows the days when I’ve got it all together. I think he expects more from us in those times that we are more capable (just as we would with our own children). Maybe some days, instead of chipping of pieces of this piece of clay, he just holds me in his hands and pours his love out onto me.
I pray for all those people who are struggling with their faith and with those feelings of not being good enough. God sent his only son into the world so that, while we might feel those things, we wouldn’t have to live with the burden of guilt for our failures. I pray that instead of turning away from God in those times, we instead turn ourselves more fully toward him.
November was a month that was filled with blessings (although I admit to being a wee bit exhausted at the end of it). Thanks to the prayers and generosity of many who allowed God to work through them, my Kickstarter for THE BOOK OF RUTH was more than 100% funded when it ended. Through that entire process I could feel God’s hand, working, reaching out and putting it in front of the people who needed to see it, speaking to their hearts. And for me it was definitely an exercise in trust, and the power of faith. There were many times I just had to “step back and let God”. And there were so many people who lifted me up with words of encouragement and prayers. God is good. And I want to say thank you again, to everyone who shared and supported RUTH.
You might be asking yourself if I’m feeling so blessed, why the title of today’s blog post is about bitterness. Let me explain. As often as we revel in God’s blessings in our lives, we are just as often tempted by sin. This past week, within my community of faith, I have been wrestling with a situation. I found myself being pushed out of a role that I had taken pride in. A role that I enjoyed and looked forward to doing. And I wasn’t happy about it. In fact, I was very hurt. I don’t know if the people involved even considered my feelings, I would even say that it didn’t cross their minds that I might be upset. They just did what it was that they wanted to do.
This was a situation in which, while I didn’t feel it was necessary to take a stand and try to get my way, my first instinct was to step back. To no longer participate in that particular group. As Dave puts it “to take my ball and go home.” But I also spent time and prayed about it. I asked God for help, because I wasn’t 100% convinced that my first response was the correct one. There were other people outside of the situation that needed to be considered. Maybe stepping away was the right thing, but maybe this wasn’t the right way to do it, or the right emotional mindset to be making that decision in. And thankfully I had a week in which to make that decision.
It’s very easy to assign reasons and emotions to the actions of others, but it can be much harder to look at our own motivations. I will say, however that I instantly recognized that pride was a part of the equation from my side. I took pride in doing this particular job. But maybe someone else needed to feel that pride more than I did. I have found so many places in my life to share my faith, am I so greedy as to not be able to share the spotlight? And stepping out completely also meant stepping away from those who needed someone to advocate for them.
I have continued to bring this situation and specifically my feelings about it before God this week and today this was the passage I read.
“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see God. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Hebrews 12:14.
If we, as children of God, seek to live holy lives, lives that emulate the life of Christ, then I have to consider His response to every situation – to this situation. I know Christ would step aside graciously, and throw His support completely behind this peer. And I know that is what God wants for me. I can’t allow bitterness to take root in my heart and cause trouble. I think this is why pride is such a subtle and dangerous sin. But if Jesus could scorn the shame of the cross, then I can certainly give up my pride and help someone have their own chance at ministering to others and being proud.
If there is a place in your life where you have a similar situation, or are finding pride is damaging a relationship, I encourage you to bring it before God and allow his healing power to change your heart just as he changed mine.
I don’t think it would be fair to say that I have had a crisis of faith lately. I think it would be better phrased if I said that I had started questioning some of the things that I had held onto as core beliefs. “How did that happen?” you might ask. It seems almost counter-intuitive, but I have come to understand that it is much easier for your faith to be undermined from within.
A few months back I signed up to get daily emails from a Christian website. Some of the emails I really enjoyed and got something out of. Sure I still read my bible every day, but, as much as I wanted them to deepen my understanding, maybe on some level, I looked for them to be a “fast-food” means of increasing my knowledge of God. A post about Christian mystics got me really questioning the reality of the experiences I felt that I had with God. But the one that really sent me over the edge was the one that tried to explain why not all believers will be recognized by Jesus. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now I’m not saying that these posts didn’t have value. What I am saying is that they didn’t have value for me. Perhaps I wasn’t ready spiritually for their message.
But there I was, questioning God and my relationship with him, feeling uncomfortable in my heart with the things I had been reading. So I thought back to some of the books I have read that truly made me feel as if I had gained a real understanding of God; C.S. Lewis and J.I.Packer. Ultimately I ended up on Packer and and started reading his book KNOWING GOD. I wasn’t a chapter into it before I felt the rightness of the message within the book. It fed me. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I had been starving.
So what’s my point here? I am absolutely not condemning the daily devotional that I had been getting, but I had to recognize that instead of feeding ME, it was putting distance between me and God. And I am always brought back to the word Jesus uses to describe God, the word that we use to identify him withing the Trinity…God THE FATHER. I am a child of God and I think he parents us much like we parent our own children – there is a different set of rules and instructions for each of us. Ultimately it is for each of us to find our own way – and it is for no one to tell us our path is wrong if we are following it with an honest and earnest heart, bent upon knowing and loving our Lord. If God has called us to be his children, will He not also show us the way?
I know that going forward, if it isn’t bringing me to a new understanding, and is instead pushing me farther from, instead of closer to God, then that isn’t the resource for me. That doesn’t mean it isn’t for someone else, though. Perhaps Jesus tells us the the road we walk will be a difficult one because it is one that we must each forge ourselves.
Have you ever wondered if God is really listening to your prayers? I do sometimes.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Holy Spirit and His role and importance in our lives and our growth and development as children of God. And honestly as I’ve been reading I’ve been feeling not even a little like a failure. To the point where last night I was lying in bed and my prayer was specifically about this, about what I can do to listen to, and feel more fully the Spirit in my life.
Normally I start each morning reading my bible, then I’ll read my daily page from Jesus Calling and then I’ll write my blog post. This morning I ended up doing everything in reverse. I wrote my post about trusting in God, then since my computer was already open to my ebooks, I decided to read my daily devotional next and then jump into my bible. These are literally the first words I read. You can’t make this stuff up. “Thank Me for the glorious gift of My Spirit.”
So yes, God absolutely hears our prayers, he knows the questions of our hearts and he will absolutely answer us when we come to him with our earnest petitions. It’s in subtle ways and, in today’s case, blatantly obvious ones that our God reminds us that we are important to Him and how much He loves us.
This weekend I started reading Sin and Temptation by John Owen. The book open with the subject of mortifying your sins. If you don’t know what it means to mortify something don’t feel bad, I had to look it up too. It means to put something to death. So this book on Sin and Temptation was opening with the idea of putting your indwelling sins to death.
God is taking me on a journey through his scholars, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald and now John Owen. In each of these men I have felt in my heart the truth and honesty of their reflections on God. Owen writes that “Sin aim always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head.” WOW!
How many times have we justified a tiny sin in our own lives only to find that it grows, slower ever larger, like a cancer in our hearts? To continue with Owen, “it is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presses on to some farther degrees in the same kind. This new acting and pressing forward makes the soul take little notice of what an entrance to a falling off from God is already made….”
Robert Deffinbaugh wrote that Satan approached Eve in the garden of Eden as a friend. He spoke to her in such a way as to convince her that he was someone who cared about her and wanted what was best for her. How often has sin come into our own lives in that way, convincing us that this is what is best for us, and we listen to that voice, instead of trusting that only God, in his infinite wisdom and love, has our best interests in mind.
I love, and at the same time, am terrified of the idea of asking God to shine his light into the deepest and darkest parts of my soul. But at the same time, I feel as if that is what God is calling me to do, as I walk this faith journey with him. John Owen calls upon the believer to mortify their sins daily. When I think about what he is calling us to do, it goes beyond confession. Confessing your sins and knowing that you are forgiven seems like the first step, and that’s where I was for a long time. But I think what John Owen is writing about, is that there is almost an acceptance of our sinful nature when all we are willing to do is confess. Growth in our spiritual life is about rooting out the sin, “pruning the branches that don’t bare fruit” so to speak. And the more I think about it, the more I have to acknowledge that this is a daily task. Opportunities for sin to gain ground happen every day.
The other thing that John Owen emphatically writes about here is that it is simply not possible for us to mortify our sins ourselves. We can only do it with the help of the Spirit. I’m looking forward to reading more about that.
I don’t want to be one of those people who stands on the side of the road, holding a sign. My purpose in writing this blog isn’t to try to convince you to be or to do something that God isn’t calling you to be or do in your heart already. This blog is about my own journey in faith and my thoughts about things the books and scriptures I read. And I say this because when people start talking about sin, its easy to tune them out. We want to read about God’s love, but when we really start getting down into the nuts and bolts of our sinful nature, many of us aren’t willing or ready to have an honest discussion. There are parts of the bible and God’s word that I’m not ready for yet, and that’s okay. We all have to take our own journey, but I’m so grateful and thankful to all of you for being a part of mine.
Do you sometimes struggles with ways to express your contrition before God? I didn’t grow up in the Catholic church which has an established system of confession and absolution. I was brought up in the United Church which has a very staid, conservative, and moderate faith. As an adult I converted to the Anglican or Episcopalian church because I found that the service gave me the sense of peace and sense of communion with God that I had been missing. I love everything about Anglicanism; the kneelers, the weekly communion, the confessions and Glorias. Being in my church, and participating in that service, brings me a feeling of being in the presence of God in a way that I didn’t find in other services. The great thing about faith is that there are enough different styles of worship to suit everyone.
But as much as there are a variety of different ways to worship God, I think that there is really only one way to come before him as a sinner. With a penitent heart. I talked earlier this year about how forgiving myself can sometimes be harder than coming to God for forgiveness. I also think that it’s can often be at those time that we are riding high in God’s grace that we fall hardest, that we feel most ashamed. We understand how completely we have separated ourselves, from who, and what God calls us to be, by our actions.
I have had an amazing week with God. I called Saturday my day of little blessings. I could see God’s hand in my life everywhere I looked. I guess it seems appropriate that Sunday would be a day I would fall flat on my face. A day in which I would lash out and react with anger instead of love. I woke up this morning knowing that I had done the wrong thing, feeling the weight of it in my heart, and needing a way to become right with God. I thank him that the first thing he did was to take the anger, and resentment out of my heart, and replace it with an understanding that it doesn’t matter if the world at large would consider my actions justified, if I was in the right. What matters is how I responded, and I didn’t respond with love. I needed to atone to that other person for that. I needed to apologize and ask God’s forgiveness for that.
The amazing thing about God is that he already knows what I’m going to need and he provides me with the solution. I didn’t do my bible reading yesterday. It literally didn’t even cross my mind to do it. Because God knew that I would need yesterday’s reading today. Psalm 51. This morning I read that Psalm, and then I wrote it out, and then I prayed the verses I have highlighted here as a meditation. God spoke to my heart, and because I came to him with an open and penitent heart, he not only gave me forgiveness, he also gave me the means to forgive myself. I guess sometimes you have to fall flat on your face in order to learn to let God to pick you up. It hurts my heart to know how kind and loving our Lord is toward us, even when we don’t deserve it. He really is the ultimate Father. I don’t know what my future has in store, but I know that if God already has the answer before I even ask the question, if he’s always going to be there to pick me up when I fall down, then He’s who I want to have walking beside me every step of the way.
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. (NIV Study Bible)
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. 14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. 15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is[b] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem. 19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Today my Lenten reading was Galatians 5:16-26. For any of you not immediately familiar with that passage (and don’t worry, I wouldn’t have been either) it is a letter from the apostle Paul to the people of Galatia addressing what it means to “Live by the Spirit”.
I’m sure that there are many people who go straight to this passage when they tell you what a good Christian does and does not do. Paul’s list includes sexual immorality, drunkeness, and witchraft, but it also includes jealousy, discord, selfish ambition, fits of rage and envy. I can maybe claim to steer clear of the first three, but I would be lying to you, and to myself, if I didn’t admit to feeling jealousy, anger and envy at times. So then the question I had to ask myself and I can imagine many other ask is “How can I possibly be a good Christian?” Paul says that these behaviors are the result of our sinful nature, and that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. If that’s the case I might as well give up now. How can I possibly live up to such a standard?
Likewise when reading the fruits of the Spirit, they include patience, goodness and self-control…all things I know that I struggle with. So where does that leave me?
I think that there are many people out there who read passages like this in the bible and feel defeated. Perhaps you are one of them. I know that, upon first reading this, before I looked deeper into it, I certainly was. So then what is Paul trying to tell us, or what is the meaning behind this reading?
Robert L Deffinbaugh writes that God is gracious, and unlike a bureaucrat, He deals with you on the basis of your heart. He’s not as wrapped up in the details of your life as much as He is concerned about your attitude toward Him and your desire for Him. Deffinbaugh says that the results of the spiritual life are more evident than the reasons. The Spirit evident by his fruits, rather than by His actual visible presence, and “walking in the Spirit” is simply dependence upon God.
I love that interpretation because it allows for, and acknowledges our human weaknesses. I talked yesterday about Lenten aspirations and I think that is what Paul is doing here…he’s giving the Galatians, and us a set of standards to aspire to. And those standards are based upon that greatest of Christ’s teaches…”love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:31). When we love someone, we don’t envy their successes, we celebrate them. When we love someone we want to lift them up, to see them do and be better and it has no reflection on where we are ourselves.
I think that a life by the Spirit can only happen when we “abide in Christ”. When we fully give ourselves, and our lives, up to God. When we come to know, and understand Him we find peace, and joy, and happiness, knowing that he judges us by our heart, and and our intentions. He knows that we will fail. He knows we will sin. That is why He provided us with His son, Jesus Christ; the perfect sacrifice and atonement for those sins. So instead of reading Galatians and feeling like a failure, see this as something to aspire to. Something that can only be achieved by trusting in, and walking with God. Aspire to make God a part of your daily walk and you may find yourself surprised to find how easy and attainable a life lived by the Spirit really is.