What’s in your cup?

Picture yourself in a crowded room, holding a cup full of hot coffee.  You are having a conversation with someone you have just met.  You want this person to like you, so you are doing your best to come across as the pleasant, competent, wise, compassionate and knowledgeable person that you really are – or want to be.  Just then someone in the crowd bumps against your elbow, the hot coffee sloshes out of the cup all over the person you were trying to impress, and you are thoroughly embarrassed.  So much for your image!

Now apply that picture to your emotional state.   You are calm, cheerful and positive as long as everything is going your way.  But what happens when you get bumped by events you can’t control, circumstances that mess with your plans, or people who don’t treat you as you think you deserve?   That’s when what’s in your cup comes spilling out, and you find out what you are really full of.  That’s when you find out whether the image you project matches the reality of what is actually in your heart.    As Jesus put it, out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

Come on, you say, that’s not fair.  I can’t be responsible for how I react to annoying people, unfair decisions, shoddy service, and the many other aggravations that life puts in my path.  Do you expect me just to put up with all that stuff?

Let me ask a different question.  If Christ lives in you, can’t you do better than just react to others?  No doubt there are genuine wrongs and injustices in life, and there is a place for addressing them.  But as long as we are bound up on the inside with anger, judgments, guilt, fear, pride and other baggage, our most constructive contribution may be to clean up our own junk first. As Jesus said, How can you think of saying, ‘Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

The Christian life is intended to be a process of life-long growth in which the character of Jesus shines through more and more in our lives as the image of God is restored in us.   Ironically, one of the keys to this process is not to get too preoccupied with our own growth.  We’ll get farther if we fix our eyes on Jesus than if our gaze is always fixed on ourselves and our own perceived failures.   Still, learning to understand ourselves is valuable, especially when understanding leads to specific and focussed repentance.  Each of us comes into God’s Kingdom as damaged goods, and we can co-operate better with the Holy Spirit’s work if we allow Him to shine his light on the areas of greatest damage for the purpose of restoration.

I have found that if I am honestly and humbly seeking self-understanding for the purpose of growing in grace, the Holy Spirit is more than willing to give me insight. A good question to ask Him is not just “What’s in my  cup” but “How did it get there?”. Although we may be very adept at condemning ourselves, frequently we don’t have a very good understanding of why we are the way we are.  When we consider that deception is one of the Enemy’s favourite strategies it shouldn’t be too surprising that he would do his best to blind us to the root causes of destructive patterns of thought and behaviour.

This is a big topic, and a blog post is not the place to lay out a complete methodology for the restoration and healing of the wounded and polluted soul.  But as one who has needed – and received – much grace in this area, let me encourage you not to believe the lie that you cannot change.   Why should you be any different than anyone else? All the power is on our side – the blood of Jesus, the liberating truth of the Word of God, the instruction of the Holy Spirit, the power of repentance and forgiveness, and the help of friends in Christ.   All the enemy has going for him is deception.  True, he is a master at it, but the Father of lights is greater than the father of lies.

Our spirits are born again when we receive Jesus Christ into our lives; the redemption of our bodies will take place when He returns.   In between those two events, we have a lifetime to allow Him to work out the restoration of our souls. Let’s commit ourselves to pressing forward to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us – the fulness of life which He said was our inheritance. And lest anyone think that all this attention on healing of the soul sounds a bit selfish, consider that the more healed you are, the better equipped you are to help others find healing.  The more free you are, the better equipped you are to help others get free.

What’s in your cup?  I want to be clean on the inside, not only on the outside, so that fresh, life-giving water bubbles up from the core of my being.  How about you?

Share

Mind your own business

Did you ever stop to notice how much of the conversation that goes on around you every day consists of judgment and criticism of other people?

Consider a very common scenario.  You’re hanging out with friends, workmates or schoolmates, and the focus of the conversation shifts to someone who is not present.  Everyone has something to say, and very little of it is constructive, positive or complimentary.  On the contrary, most of what is said consists of putdowns, mocking humour, and complaints.  This tendency is especially common when the person we are talking about is a recognized figure who has attained some success in business, sports or entertainment, or who has some influence or control over our lives – a boss, manager, teacher, parent, spiritual leader or politician.

I grew up in what was in many respects a wonderful family.  However, we certainly weren’t immune from this very common tendency to find fault with others; in fact it was part of the daily bread on which I grew up.  We were a very opinionated bunch, and somehow it seemed we always knew what was wrong with everyone.  On Sunday afternoons after church we would often have roast pastor for lunch.  So, when I surrendered my life to the Lord at age 34 and the Holy Spirit began putting his finger on the areas in which my thinking and behaviour needed radical surgery, one of the first areas to go under the knife was my well-developed tendency towards sarcasm, criticism and judgment.  I’m very grateful to God that before long I was introduced to a form of prayer ministry that helped me to go to the root of these issues, looking deeper than the outward behaviour and addressing the hidden motivations and reasonings of the heart.

Prayer ministry taught me much about my own heart and much about God’s wisdom.  I learned that this tendency to be critical of others may be fuelled by bitterness, resentment, insecurity, inferiority, superiority, or a toxic mix of all of these and more, but the core issue is always the same.  At the root, it is a form of rebellion against God.  Whatever our reasoning, we assign ourselves the right to judge someone who is not accountable to us.  This is always an illegitimate exercise and can never lead to any good.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. In other words, mind your own business.  You and I have enough to do looking after the areas that God has assigned to us, without troubling ourselves with someone else’s failings – perceived or real.

One factor that probably feeds our tendency to be critical of leaders is the fact that we live in a democracy.   We are raised on the idea that public criticism of leaders is part of how we protect ourselves from bad government.  Well, democracy is not actually a Biblical idea, but like all political systems it can be used by God.  One of the keys to making democracy serve God’s purposes is the recognition that all leaders are appointed by God.  Even if He is simply allowing us to have the government we have chosen, in the end our leaders are accountable to God, not to us, and our role is not simply to push for our preferences but to seek leadership that will further God’s Kingdom.   We do this, in part, by honouring and praying for the leaders that God has either caused or allowed to be put in place, even if we don’t always agree with them.  There is, of course, a place for constructive criticism, but one of the keys to keeping it constructive is humility and submission to God.  Even in extreme situations (Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe) where a monster rules and must be actively resisted, we still need to guard our hearts.  Ultimately God, not you or I, is qualified to judge.  If we forget this, we become monsters ourselves.

But what about the areas closer to home – work, family, church?  The more experience I have of being in leadership, the easier I find it to forgive the failings of the leaders in my life.  Admittedly, even the best leaders have faults; and I’m not suggesting we should simply turn a totally blind eye to these things.   At times we may be called by God to make an appeal to one of the people who gives leadership in our lives.  If we are given the opportunity to do this, and we can do it with grace and humility, we may be used by God to help the leader be more effective.  A wise leader will welcome open discussion of issues in a constructive spirit.  However, I’m far more likely to be trusted by a leader who can see that I haven’t got an axe to grind or a point to prove.   If at all possible, I need to make it my aim to work with the leaders in my life to help them succeed.  In the process, I too will be blessed, and so will all those around me.

In the end, the remedy is simple.  Guard your tongue, and guard your heart.  Why complicate your life by making it your job to identify and address everyone else’s failings?  If you want to do this, the Devil will give you lots of ammunition, but you won’t be giving glory to God and your relationships will be stormy at best.  If I can learn to mind my own business – keeping my gaze focussed on trusting and obeying God, recognizing that He has assigned a sphere of responsibility to me, doing the best job I can to be a good steward of what He’s put into my hands, and recognizing that everyone around me will answer to Him just as I will – life becomes a lot simpler, less aggravating, and much more satisfying and productive.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Share

In everything give thanks

Here in Canada this is Thanksgiving weekend.  Early settlers and explorers gave thanks for a safe journey across the Atlantic; later settlers gave thanks for a good harvest; Loyalists coming to Canada from the United States after the American Revolution brought their customs with them.  What many Canadians don’t realize is that our current Thanksgiving celebration is mandated by Canada’s Parliament which in 1957 proclaimed “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed  … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”

Although the celebration has Christian roots, at this time of year even pagans and those who profess no faith recognize the value of gratitude.  But what are we thankful for?  How deep does our Thanksgiving go?  In spite of the current economic turmoil, all Canadians – pagan, agnostic, atheist and believer – can agree that we in Canada have been richly blessed with prosperity, abundant food, peace, safety, freedom, and stable government.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, I freely and gladly confess that these blessings come to us from the hand of a good God.  But as a believer in Jesus, I also need to take my Thanksgiving celebration a little bit deeper.

What if I lived in the Philippines today, in the wake of the two recent typhoons?  What if I were a Vietnamese believer, knowing that my pastor was suffering in prison at the hands of the Communist regime?  What if I were a Christ-follower in one of the many African nations where AIDS is rampant, or in Orissa State in India, where Christians are currently undergoing severe persecution at the hands of Hindu radicals?  Could I still give thanks?

Recently I was struck by the words of the Apostle Paul when writing to his infant congregation in Thessalonica.  These were people who had come to faith in Christ only a few years previously, and had undergone many trials since.   From the time they had first heard the message of Christ, they had faced severe opposition.   Paul himself had only stayed in the community for a few weeks after first preaching the gospel, soon moving on to other parts, but he sent Timothy to find out how they were doing.  Later he wrote a letter to encourage and instruct the young church.  Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4 :

We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no-one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them.  In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.

He didn’t lament over the fact that they were suffering persecution, he told them it was part of their destiny.  He didn’t tell them he felt sorry for them, he told them this was what they should have expected.  He didn’t pray for the persecution to end, he prayed for them to stand firm.  He said this because he knew that for those who stood the test, beyond the pain lay a glorious, eternal destiny in a renewed creation where Jesus would reign openly as Lord.  And so later on in the same letter, he spoke these memorable words – which are far more powerful when we realize they were spoken to a suffering church undergoing persecution :  Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

We in the comfortable Western church complain so easily.  We are so easily discontent.  We so easily think we have it hard.  We need to examine ourselves to see if we are really in the faith.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying material blessings, peace and freedom, but when we think that these are the most important reasons for thanksgiving, we show that we do not really understand the good news.  Our preoccupation with physical comfort has blinded our eyes to our own poverty and our desperate need for the mercy and power of God.   We need to ask the Spirit of God to open our eyes so that we can see again how blessed we are, and change our hearts so that true gratitude overflows into willing service, using whatever gifts God has entrusted to us to advance His Kingdom.  Lord, have mercy upon us.

Share

Circle of life?

Recently several of my friends and colleagues have lost loved ones.  My own father and mother died in 2007 and 2008, and my wife’s parents are in their upper 80s and dealing with diminished capacities.  All of this has prompted me to reflect again on life, death, and eternity.

As we move from childlike innocence to adulthood, all of us have to learn to reckon with events over which we have little or no control, events that threaten our sense of order.  When a loved one dies, your country is suddenly plunged into war, you lose your job and cannot pay your bills, or your health is threatened, it can feel as though your life is sliding from order to chaos.

From what I can observe, our dog Cookie doesn’t spend much time worrying about why things are the way they are, or what will happen to her tomorrow.  But humans are different from dogs – we have a built-in drive to make sense of life in some way.  So, we try to come up with explanations that comfort us and give meaning to our lives.

One very common way of coping with the reality of aging, illness and death is to see them as simply an inevitable part of “the circle of life”.  We live; we grow old; we die.  The ancient Greeks added the belief that death was a welcome release for the soul, which they saw as having been trapped for a time in the physical realm.  In this view, death is not an enemy, not something to be feared or even resisted, but simply a natural and even welcome part of the life process.  All living things come from the earth and must go back to the earth; when your time comes, you die, and your soul goes to some sort of (hopefully friendly) afterworld.

This way of thinking is quite ancient but still very popular today.  It has the appearance of wisdom, and with the addition of a belief in heaven it can even masquerade as a Christian outlook.  But although there are elements of truth and wisdom in this way of looking at life, at its core are two beliefs that are totally contrary to Christian faith: the view that death in its proper time is a friend, not an enemy; and the view that we all automatically go to some state of bliss after we die.

In contrast, the Bible clearly portrays death as an enemy, not a friend.  In Biblical thinking, humans were made for an unbroken relationship with God, and death is an unwelcome intruder, the tragic consequence of our first parents’ decision to turn away from God towards independence.  It is true that believers in the risen Christ do not need to fear death; but that’s not because death is our friend, it’s because Jesus has risen from the dead to conquer our enemy.

But why does this matter?  Does it make a difference what you believe about such things?

Yes it does.  Beliefs have consequences.   If humans are just souls trapped inside bodies for a while, then by killing someone you are really doing him a favour.  Then Hitler was doing those 6 million Jews a favour by incinerating them; he was just liberating their souls from their bodies.  You can see where that type of thinking leads – abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide all become acceptable and even compassionate choices.   If, on the other hand, we were  made for an eternal purpose and we have an eternal destiny in a renewed and restored earth,  then each human life has eternal value.  This has huge consequences both for how I conduct my own life and the degree of respect with which I treat the lives of others.

Probably all of us who have watched a loved one die slowly can relate at some level to the idea of death as a friend.  I have to admit that I was relieved when my mother died, because I felt she had suffered long enough, and I was confident that she was going into the presence of the Lord.   I am so thankful that she met her Redeemer before she died and that she is in His presence today.  However, I did not see her death as simply a natural culmination of her life, but rather as an expression of humanity’s broken condition and our need for a Redeemer; and while I was in agreement with the family decision to let her die without trying to bring her back to life artificially, I could never have agreed to any form of euthanasia because I do not believe that her life was mine to end.

I believe that my life is headed somewhere – it is a journey with a destination, not a circle.  I believe that Jesus rose from the dead to set me free from the power of death and the fear of death, and that regardless of what trials I may face in my life,  I have a glorious destiny in a renewed heaven and earth.  I also believe that I will one day face the one who made me and redeemed me and give an account for what I have done with my life while I am on this earth.  I’m thankful that I don’t need to fear judgment, since Jesus has paid the price for my sins, but I want to live in a way that brings joy to the One who suffered so much for me.

Life is not a circle but a journey with a destination.  All of us are headed somewhere.  Whether we are headed for glory or misery depends on our response to the One who gave His all for our freedom.  The price has been paid, and the gift of eternal life has been purchased for us, at an incredibly high price – the lifeblood of the only truly pure man who ever lived.  What we do with that gift determines our eternal destiny.  The value we place on the lives of others – especially the weak and helpless – says much about the value we assign to His sacrifice.

Over to you …

Share