Loving When I Don’t Want To

Jesus said we’re to love others, but every now and then someone in my life isn’t acting loveable – they’re demanding or ungrateful or not living up to my expectations in some way. I pray for patience and understanding, but sometimes I don’t do so well. What I’d like to do is avoid them altogether, reasoning that my attitude will then continue to honor God, unhampered by the offending personality. Jonah shared my dilemma.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”  (Jonah 1:1-2)

The Book of Nahum describes some of Nineveh’s wickedness, including plotting against the Lord, worshiping multiple gods rather than the one true God, to carving images and casting idols in their temple, witchcraft, they were “full of lies,” plundering and never without victims, leaving piles of dead. Like not quite so difficult people in my life, Jonah wanted nothing to do with the people of Nineveh.

My response to the unlovable depends on who I’m living for. If my purpose is my personal happiness, then I too will go in the opposite direction of Nineveh! I’ll do my Bible Study, tithe, volunteer, dedicate myself at work and love my family and friends while avoiding contact with the “wicked.” But that’s not what God has purposed for me.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:44, 46-47)

If I have truly determined to love the Lord my God and to love others, that means everyone. When I fail to love those seemingly unlovable people God has placed in my life, like Jonah, I am disobeying God. And that always comes with consequences. For Jonah it meant a deadly storm overtaking the ship he was fleeing on. Thrown overboard, the storm threatened Jonah’s life until he surrendered his defiance to the will of God.

“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you,  to your holy temple. (Jonah 2:7)

I may not have currents swirling around me, waves breaking over me with seaweed wrapped around my head as Jonah did, but my stubborn mindset is a choice to defy God and will always have consequences. My condition will deteriorate if I continue to ignore God’s command to love – He’ll get my attention sooner or later.

Have you noticed that we tend to enlist support when we think someone’s being a pain in the neck? We want others to share our opinions. Gossiping or asking for prayer in a way that shares our complaint against someone can’t be reversed. The opinions we’ve helped others form are lasting.

Reading Jonah’s experience helped me realize how I was disobeying God’s call to love someone he has put in my life. My nit picking and fault finding has been interfering with my joy. How can I experience all of God’s blessings when I am withholding an area of my heart from him? When I confessed the error of my ways and committed to love and honor, it was easy to do so. I find that relinquishing my stubborn attitude allows others to do the same.

Are your responses to someone sharper than they should be? Is there someone you need to forgive? Does someone get under your skin? Do you always anticipate the worst from them? Ask God to reveal any attitude that needs adjusting and commit to following His will in the relationship.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

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Spiritual Disciplines

My daughter had an opportunity to sleep in after a later than usual night out with some girlfriends. As an elementary school teacher with an active family, it was a rare opportunity. So when she felt a little hand in hers, she very reluctantly willed herself awake, opening her eyes to find her son smiling expectantly. “What’s up buddy?” she asked thinking there must be a problem.

10404906_10152559617693178_6058693835239133720_n (3)“Nothing,” her nine year old answered gently, “I just remembered that you said how happy it makes you to wake up seeing my smiling face.”

She confirmed it with a smile warmed by her heart. With that he quietly slipped under the covers to snuggle with sleepy mom.

That’s the way I imagine God wants me to start my days – putting my hand in His and stilling myself before him with adoration.

My grandson is not always the gentle snuggler type – he’s just too excited to tackle the thrills of life! We think he takes after his Uncle Joe, whom he adored. There was always adventure when visiting. Joe’s toys included a snowmobile, three white water kayaks, a motorcycle, a boat, a quad, oodles of fishing gear, hunting equipment and about 15 snowboards. IMG_1600 (2)But between his adventures and the miles between us, Joe often missed family gatherings and holidays.   When he received a cancer diagnosis that realigned his priorities, who and what was occupying his attention changed.

I have a friend who shares my love for organization. She has developed a detailed plan for life. It contains intervals for vacations, a timetable for paying off the house, for retiring, for post-retirement activities, and I suspect it contains a thorough budget. A week ago, however, the schedule was interrupted by something unanticipated – cancer.

The diagnosis forced a fresh perspective, one that we can easily lose sight of amid the ups and downs of life. It is proof that we don’t have as much control as we may think. And while the news is drawing her attention back to Jesus, it’s also prompting reflection. How did He get omitted from the timeline, and more importantly, how do I put Him back where he belongs?

Over the years I’ve found myself in that same position – realizing that to some degree I’d drifted away from my Savior. It’s never been a conscious decision, it’s just that life gets busy, or exciting, or comfortable, or whatever, and I became distracted. I had failed to develop, or I relaxed, the spiritual disciplines that keep me tethered to God.

There are many spiritual disciplines – those habits or practices that help us focus and develop a deeper relationship with Christ. Mine have changed during the different seasons of my life. There was a period when I was working full time and my home was full of children whose activities spread us thin, and my only discipline was church once a week when schedules allowed. I was not mature enough in my faith to set boundaries and establish the priorities to assure spiritual growth.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to shake us from a spiritual slumber, reminding us of our need for Christ. That has been the case for me. Those moments, when I suddenly became aware of my sin of busy distraction and disregard for Him, occasionally came with guilt for having wandered. But as I get to know Him better, I think God feels more like my daughter did waking to her dear child’s still, adoring face.

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent… In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:3-7, 10)

There are many habits or disciplines that help draw us to God. I love rising early to spend quiet time in prayer and reading my Bible or working through a Bible Study. Attending a weekly study with other women holds me accountable and allows me to discuss the Scriptures with the group and pray for each other. I look forward to weekly worship and supporting the church financially and through my participation. I hope to never miss a women’s retreat because it offers all of the above. The important thing is that we establish spiritual disciplines to keep us from going adrift. The effort will draw us close to Christ and make a difference for His kingdom!

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Red Faced Preoccupation

Do you turn beet red when you’re embarrassed?  I am so much better now, but for most of my life everyone knew how uncomfortable I was by the color of my face.  My most mortifying moment came in a junior high school assembly. The auditorium was packed and I was sitting near the back.  The faculty was recognizing students for their achievements and called the name of a boy seated behind me to come receive an award.  When he leaned forward to stand, the button on his coat grabbed a chunk of my hair, securing him to my head.  I worked feverishly to liberate him, but meanwhile his absence from the stage was causing the entire assembly to turn around in search of him.  My face was on fire! I finally ripped my hair free and he proceeded down the aisle with a big hairball firmly attached to his jacket.

I don’t think I was particularly shy as a child, but I had my share of insecurities.  I was preoccupied with how I was perceived by others and strived to fit in; I desired the acceptance and approval of others. I don’t think I’ll ever completely outgrow dips in self-confidence, but I’ve learned the secret to managing and overcoming them:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13 NKJV)

The other end of the insecurity spectrum is an overabundance of self-confidence leading to pride.  Daniel 3:4-6 provides an example in the king’s 90 foot tribute to himself: “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

In her Bible Study Daniel: Lives of Integrity, Words of Prophecy, Beth Moore made two points that really struck me:

  • “Self-loathing is just another form of self-absorption”
  • “Constantly thinking little of ourselves is still thinking constantly of ourselves”

I wouldn’t exactly call it self-loathing, but I have definitely experienced sleepless nights over something stupid I said or did! The experts suggest that self-loathing isn’t something we’re born with, rather something we develop.  While some people form a destructive view of themselves due to their appearance or perceived flaw, others experience the horror of abuse, or an extremely critical upbringing, or the ridicule of others.  Regardless of the reason for our feelings, failing to embrace the truth that Christ created us for His purposes leaves us stuck.  Beth puts it this way: like King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, “we can build a poor self-image with our preoccupation until it becomes 90 feet tall.”

Shy, insecure, or self-loathing individuals are limited.  They are so preoccupied with self that God’s purposes for them are neglected. When we believe the message of a damaged self-image, we neglect the work God has planned for us and miss the blessing of stepping out obediently in faith.  Risking self to follow God’s leading comes with blessing. I recently was asked to do a brief presentation in front of a fairly large audience. I could have said no, I’ll be too uncomfortable, I’m not prepared, someone else would do a better job, etc. But how would that help me grow? But as my cue approached I found myself getting nervous and preoccupied with my self. How could I convey what God had put on my heart if I was internalizing the moment, making it all about me?  As I approached the stage I began pleading with God to be with me, to remove my self-focus and turn my attention to Him.  I prayed He would use me to accomplish his purpose as I yielded to His peace. He faithfully responded!

A number of websites offer signs of self-loathing:

  • Being too easily ashamed, second guessing ourselves and others
  • Being frequently envious of others, feeling like you don’t measure up, that others are “better” than you
  • Diverting every emotion involving others through emotions involving me
  • Trying to motivate yourself with negative thoughts (“You’re too slow to win that race”, “You’ll never study enough to pass that test”, “You’ll never be as spiritual as those women”)
  • Almost fighting any loving words, debating them, unable to disconnect them from the inner critic (just say thank you when you receive a compliment!)
  • Apologizing for every little thing, over and over, no matter how minor – even apologizing for someone else’s issue or things you have no control over
  • Setting goals low because you’re not good enough to reach higher ones
  • Remembering the times you were wrong much easier than the times you were right, expecting to be wrong and overlooking the times you succeed

If you can identify with some of these traits, your ability to accomplish all God has in store for is being limited by them.  Quit comparing yourself with others and start comparing yourself with who you were as you progress. Seek the strength to conquer insequrities through his word, beginning with what Jesus described as the greatest commandment:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)

We must get our eyes off ourselves and onto Jesus.  There’s a need within us that only God can fill. We’ll only know true, lasting joy when we truly know God.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. (Psalm 42:1)

Only Jesus can help us realize who He created us to be before we surrendered in defeat to imaginary or real obstacles that He has already overcome and has the power to remove.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

A 2010 article in Psychology Today presents a world view of the root of the self-hatred problem: “The circumstances that initially lead people to dislike themselves do so by triggering a thought process of self-loathing that continues long after the circumstances that set it in motion have resolved, a thought process that continues to gain momentum the longer it remains unchallenged, much like a boulder picks up speed rolling down a mountain as long as nothing gets in its way. For example, your parents may have failed to praise you or support your accomplishments in school when you were young—perhaps even largely ignored you—which led you to conclude they didn’t care about you, which then led you to conclude you’re not worth caring about. It’s this last idea, not the memory of your parents ignoring you that gathers the power within your life to make you loathe yourself if not checked by adult reasoning early on. Once a narrative of worthlessness embeds itself in one’s mind, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to disbelieve it, especially when one can find evidence that it represents a true account.

So regardless of the source of our preoccupation with self, it is time to just stop. Refuse to let the memory have power over our lives. And though you may notice me lean slightly forward when I sense someone seated behind me is preparing to stand, in the event my hair become entangled in a button I pledge to maintain my composure (and color… and hair) while accompanying the poor soul to the stage for a good laugh!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith… (Hebrews 2:1-2)

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  Romans 8:28

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To Infinity and Beyond!

I was reluctant to read Think and Grow Rich, because it sounded like a lesson is self-centeredness, but it was on the suggested reading list of some respected authors. Written in 1937 by Napoleon Hill, it describes how an individual with desire, faith and persistence can reach great heights by eliminating negative energy and thoughts and focusing on the greater goals at hand.

I’ve set short term goals, business goals, financial goals and the sort before. Occasionally (not as often as I should) I review them to check progress and get back on track. But when I reach one, then what? Set the next goal in any direction that seemed important to me, my employer, my family, or our culture? Where were all these achievements supposed to take fork in the roadme? I had never set a course that would align all the short term goals toward what will be most important for me to have attained when my life is complete. As a result, without knowing the final target, the goals I’d made were disconnected, simply zig zagging me through life. Now, when I set out to accomplish something, I need to confirm that it aligns with my life purpose of loving God and loving others. Where I’m going and what I’m achieving is important, but what is most significant is who I am becoming as a result of chasing each objective.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  – A.W. Tozer

Jesus identified our purpose when he was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” If I accomplish a personal goal but in doing so fail to love God and others, I’ve wasted my allotted time and energy.

Like any goal, my life goal won’t happen without focused effort on my part. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” so if makes sense that I would make studying them a priority. In my currently study of the prophet Daniel, it is apparent that he had set a life goal by determining to love and honor God. The king of Babylon conquered Judah, and Daniel was among the Israelites captured. The king ordered his chief official to select some of the captives from the “royal family and nobility – young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” David fit the description, so along with others, he was taught the language and literature of the Babylonians. They were given new names and offered choice food and wine from the king’s table. They were then assigned three years of “training” (more like brainwashing) for the king’s service. But the Bible says that Daniel and three other captives resolved to remain true to God. It is a beautiful example of what it looks like to have a predetermined goal which you commit to living your life by – no matter what.

Having a life focused on honoring God did not spare Daniel and his faithful friends from trials, the likes of which I hope to never experience. But with their hearts and souls and strength and minds resolved to love God, each ordeal only deepened their faith. As they came through each trial they praised God for his faithfulness. They were more focused on their preset goal, knowing this world was not their final destination. They were living for God, in anticipation of hearing him speak the words, “Well done.”

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The Open Gate

gateI have a friend whose son has been struggling with depression, wondering, “What’s the point of living?” He is in the hospital tonight with pneumonia, probably a side effect of his heroin use. I ask that you take the time this very moment to pray for Nick.

It would be easy to become depressed wandering through life not knowing God. Loving God creates purpose. How do we love Him? Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:15, 21)

When the religious leaders asked, Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Somewhere along the way, Nick chose the world over God. Haven’t we all at some point in our lives? God had a purpose for Nick, a plan for him to follow, opportunities for him to glorify God and grow spiritually. Nick asked God to step aside as he chose another path, and God graciously obliged. He will not force His will, it is our choice.

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

Nick chose the easy, wide open road full of neon signs promising whatever self-indulgent craving a particular soul is after. God’s narrow gate was there, without signage, but there. God let Nick choose. But, God has not given up on Nick, His plan awaits. Nick needs only to choose the narrow path.

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.” – C.S. Lewis

When we’re faced with a fork in the road, there are many factors that influence the direction we choose. Fear can freeze me at an intersection. In Matthew 12:30 Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” I must choose to ignore my fears, trusting God to overcome them. If I’m not traveling the narrow road then I’m on the broad road, there is no other choice.

Peer pressure, fear of what others with think, feeling unworthy or unqualified, fearing the commitment required, or the bad habits I’ll need to drop – are all excuses to keep me from following God. Once I choose the wrong road I pick up speed, falling in with others who’ve also chosen poorly. Misery loves company. Turning into the narrow gate now become messy, there’s lots of traffic to navigate in order to reach that exit. Do others I’m traveling with realize they’re on the wrong path? Do they know there’s a narrow gate just ahead? Moving in that direction, away from the crowd, will draw attention. What will they think?

Occasionally fellow travelers are as miserable as I am. They’re looking for a way out and are so thankful when someone takes the lead and changes course. Others may ridicule my decision. Even if it feels like I’m traveling alone, that is never the case. If I turn to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul and mind, whether I see it or not, I can trust that I’ve got a crowd in heaven cheering me on!

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:4-7

My heart is heavy for Nick and his family. His future is up to him. God is standing at the narrow gate, holding it open for Nick. I am praying that Nick has had enough of the highway and its empty promises. I’m praying he will veer toward the open gate just ahead. I’m praying that, by the power of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross for our sins and Nicks, God will silence the enemy and bind him and his army from deceiving Nick any longer.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.  James 5:16

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