Thursday, August 6, 2020

Being a Good Person by Feeling Bad About Yourself

Suggested Reading: Mark 6:14-28

Not long ago, I watched an episode of Gilmore girls with my wife. One of the main characters, Rory, a college girl was chosen as editor of the Yale Daily News while Rory's best friend was ousted from the position.  Rory felt bad about it but thought it was a good move and went along with it. Rory's friend took a while to accept her new position at the paper with anything resembling grace, but the story reminded me of the number of times we feel bad about doing things but choose to do them anyway.

In Mark chapter 6, we find King Herod in a similar position. He had been married to an Arabian princess but had an affair with his brother's wife (who was also his niece) and they each left their respective spouses to marry each other. John the Baptizer criticized Herod for breaking the Jewish law in this way and so Herod had him arrested.  But scripture describes this weird paradox. Herod knew John to be a righteous and holy man so he protected him in prison from his own wife's scheming ways. At one point Mark tells us this, "When Herod heard him he would be very disturbed, yet would hear him gladly" (Mark 6:20, HCSB).

Why in the world would Herod enjoy being so disturbed by John? Well, we do that very thing all the time. I have counseled with a number of people engaged in ongoing activities that were wrong and that they felt very badly about. But the more we talked, I discovered that they were satisfied with feeling bad about what they were doing rather than fixing it.  You see, in many people's minds, feeling bad about doing something bad means you are not really a bad person. So, while they continue doing the thing that is wrong, they decide that feeling bad about it is enough to be a good person "at heart". In an odd way, these people feel better about themselves when they feel bad about what they have done.  And ultimately, these people are only really interested in feeling good about themselves...which happens because they felt bad about behaving badly.

What about us? Do we ever catch ourselves relieved that we feel bad about doing something wrong? Do we feel better when we admit we're doing something wrong even though we don't really have any intention of putting things right? If so, we are only interested in feeling good about ourselves and not in doing the right things.

If feeling bad makes you feel better, something is out of balance.  Focus on doing right and setting things right and you might feel good about yourself for something other than just feeling bad.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Diva Requests and Abandoned Rights

Suggested Reading: Nehemiah 5

I was recently browsing the internet and came across a list of demands that stars have made of the hotels where they stay or of the people who host their concerts. Some of the demands were kind of silly, like a newly installed toilet seat that had never been used or all gold faucets in the rooms. Some revolved around food, where they required particular brands of soda or only organic fruit. Apparently, one celebrity requires that her "suite must be painted and furnished completely in white, with white lilies and white roses, her favorite flowers. White candles prominently placed, preferably with Paris perfume, “Diptyque.” Her sheets must be of Egyptian cotton with a thread count of at least 250. Room temperature set at exactly 25.5 degrees Celsius" (<http://www.huliq.com/43817/top-ten-outrageous-celebrity-demands>).

While most of us are not celebrities who can demand special treatment when we go someplace new, it is not uncommon for very un-famous people to be very demanding when it comes to getting what they are due. Every day we see examples of people who get upset if you call them "Mr." or "Mrs." instead of by their professional title. We have people who go into road rage when another driver doesn't yield the right of way, people in lines at grocery stores or waiting for food at restaurants get upset when people who arrived later get served first. Sometimes, our demand for our "rights" extends to wanting other people to provide the necessities of life for us.

Everyday we encounter areas of life where we feel like we are owed something or due a particular kind of treatment. In some ways, these things help society to function smoothly, such as knowing when and to whom we are to yield the right of way when driving. At other times, these things are simply courtesies that society has developed over time. In either case, we can often feel hurt, angered, or offended when we don't get what is due to us.

In the person of Nehemiah, we find the opposite of this trend. In Nehemiah 5: 14, we read, "Furthermore, from the day King Artaxerxes appointed me to be their governor in the land of Judah…I and my associates never ate from the food allotted for the governor" (HCSB). Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem and discovered the squalor in which his fellow Israelites lived and he decided to skip the rights he could have demanded as governor because his rights would have placed an undue burden on the people. He could have demanded gubernatorial rights but decided he could live without them. In Philippians 2:6, Paul says something similar about Jesus who "existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage" (HCSB). In both Jesus' and Nehemiah's case, they had rights they could have demanded, based upon who they were but they chose not to demand their rights.

When we choose to follow Christ, we choose not to make an issue of what we think people owe us. Instead, like Christ, we should try to take upon ourselves the very debts other people owe to us. Following Christ's example means we pay other people's debts rather than demanding that people pay us what we are owed.

Does someone owe you? Have you been slighted or been cheated out of what was yours? Follow Christ's example and focus on what you can do for the ones who have wronged you. It will make a world of difference.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

God Wants You to Complain. No, Really.

Suggested Reading: Psalm 44

When I was in seminary, I took several counseling courses. In one particular course we watched a video of a counselor and his patient in order to learn from the counselor's technique. In this video, a woman was being counseled and she described her life at home with her husband. One of the things that she complained about was that she didn't really feel like she could complain to her husband, that when she brought actual complaints or criticisms or just shared negative feelings that she had experienced that he couldn't handle it. Since then, I have encountered numerous people who share a similar sentiment about their spouse, partner, friends or co-workers. These people have significant complaints but never say anything because they either feel that the person cannot handle the complaints or that it simply isn't appropriate to make a complaint to that particular person, regardless of how justified it may be.

Sadly, I see many people carry over this same attitude toward God. People have issues with how God has provided for them or guided their circumstances. They feel that God hasn't been fair toward them or that God has simply ignored them and left them on their own. Yet these same people either feel that they will be struck down with a bolt of lightning if they complain to God or that it is somehow inappropriate to take their complaints to God, that it demonstrates a lack of faith or respect.

For those people, I want you to see what Psalm 44:23-26 says.

Wake up, Lord! Why are You sleeping?
Get up! Don't reject us forever!
Why do You hide Yourself and forget our affliction
and oppression?
For we have sunk down to the dust;
Our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up! Help us!
Redeem us because of Your faithful love. (HCSB)

Scripture is filled with examples of people who complained to God. A large number of the Psalms are nothing more than people complaining to God and begging God to listen to them. Now, don't get me wrong, it is very possible to complain to God in a manner that is disrespectful and sinful. But God is not only capable of taking the honest cry of a desperate heart, God wants to hear that cry. There are times when God allows our circumstances to deteriorate simply because we need our focus to return to Him, because it is good for us to turn to God in prayer, even if it is a prayer of hurt and confusion.

God doesn't want empty prayers where we give God only what we think God can take. God is big enough to hear and handle our complaints. God is patient enough to know that sometimes we feel betrayed or hurt or lost or abandoned even in the midst of his promises to never leave us. God is big enough to handle our complaints and our desperation. Are we big enough to give them to God in faith?

Monday, August 3, 2020

Only Granting Demons' Requests

Suggested Reading: Mark 5:1-20

In that same passage from yesterday from Mark chapter 5, something has always seemed a little odd to me. The Legion of demons that Jesus casts out of the Gerasene man makes a request of Jesus and Jesus grants it by allowing them to go into the pigs, but then he turns around and denies the request of the man who has been their victim. In Mark 5:18-20 we find this exchange, 'As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you." So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed' (NLT).

This man who had been demon-possessed begs to be with Jesus, as I would think just about any of us would. This man had lived for years as a prisoner in his own body, haunting the local cemetery and mountainside, wailing and moaning at all hours of the night and day and cutting and gashing himself with rocks so that he was probably scarred from head to toe, and Jesus had set him free from that.  Naturally, the man wanted to be with Jesus but Jesus gave him a task instead, urging him to go home to the people who had known his condition and to share with them what God had done in his life.

In that little nugget, I believe, is the secret to sharing our faith with people. I have had enough conversations and witnessing opportunities through the years to know that intellectual conversations about the Bible only amount to anything on rare occasions.  People who don't believe the Bible aren't necessarily going to be convinced of its truth because we can name prophecies that came true or because we can point to some debatable archaeological evidence or because we can rattle off someway to demonstrate that science and the Bible are compatible, even though all of those things may be good. A skeptic is going to be a skeptic regardless of the evidence we present.

But when we tell someone our own story about how God has moved in our lives, when we tell someone about how God saved us from a terrible situation, healed our broken heart, rearranged our priorities, saved our marriage, set us free from addictions, or helped us through a time of crisis, when we tell someone about the difference God has made in our own lives, it is a little harder for them to argue with us. They may ask, "Well, how do you know that was God?" They may question our interpretation of events. But most people will not look you in the eye and say, "That's just a story made up by some ancient person trying to explain their life!" When you share your own story with people, it is your story and rarely will someone tell you, "I don't believe you!"

More than that, sharing our own story stands in the tradition of the very people who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to lay out the words of the Bible. What is the Bible if not a collection of people telling their own stories about what God did in their lives and saving those stories for future generations to hear? When you feel the call of God on your life to share the Gospel with someone, God is not just concerned with you spouting facts about the Bible because anyone could do that. When God calls you to witness to someone, God is calling, at least in part, because your story is one they need to hear. God wants people to know that He is moving in your life right now and that God's power is not confined to ancient peoples in far-off lands.

You don't have to be a Bible scholar to witness, you just have to be willing to talk about what God has done for you.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Cost of Demon-Possessed Water Softeners

Suggested Reading: Mark 5:1-20

My wife wins things all the time. Several years ago, my wife "won" a free water analysis for our home. So she set up the time and date for the free analysis and then told me I had to be there because she was going to have to work. So, I waited around for the free water analysis person to show up and was a little surprised (though I shouldn't have been) when the free water analysis turned out to be just one more way for a salesman to get in the front door of our home. The entire purpose of the free analysis was to convince me that I needed to buy their fancy, really expensive water softener for our home. The man crunched all kinds of numbers to show me that the money I would save each month would make up for the monthly payments for the machine (though his math was a little sketchy if you ask me). And then he tried to go in for the sale. 

Honestly, the man never had to convince me that we needed a water softener. If you ever took a shower in that house you would likely have agreed we needed a water softener. But, however great their product was, it simply wasn't worth what it was going to cost us. I had to turn the man down (he really was a nice guy and it wasn't his fault that the gimmicky sales department got under my skin) and he had to drive 25 miles back into town. He was thoroughly convinced that the savings would make up for the cost, but I never was.

Mark 5 tells us a similar story of some people who decided the cost of interacting with Jesus was too high for their tastes.  As the chapter starts, Jesus disembarks from a boat ride in which he had calmed a crazy bad storm and is immediately accosted by a demon-possessed man. During a brief conversation, the Legion of demons possessing the man requests permission to enter a herd of pigs rather than be sent back to the abyss and Jesus agrees. The demons leave the man -- a man they had possessed for years, forcing him to live in a graveyard, cutting and gashing himself with stones and apparently attacking people whenever they came near so that they repeatedly tried to chain him up before they realized that chains couldn't hold him -- and the demons enter the herd of around two-thousand pigs. The pigs rush down a cliff into the sea and drown and their herders rush back to town to inform the owners (and anybody else who will listen) about Jesus and the pigs.

When the people of the town come out to see what has happened, they discover this wild, demon-possessed man fully clothed (apparently this was extremely unusual), sitting down calmly and in his right mind. Seeing the miracle that had been done in freeing the man from demon possession, Jesus' power, and the cost in livestock, they began "pleading with Jesus to go away and leave them alone" (Mark 5:17 NLT). Sometimes I wonder if they had a bunch of other demon-possessed people and were scared for the rest of their livestock. Whatever the reason, they saw the miracle Jesus performed in setting this man free and decided the cost was too high and sent Jesus away.

Before we lay into them too much, though, we should consider the number of times we push Jesus away because the cost is too high. How often do we shut him out because experiencing his power in our lives costs us too much -- a relationship we can't bear to let go of, a high paying job that requires us to compromise our integrity, a harmful habit that has become part of our identity, the possibility of missing out on something we've wanted for a long time? The cost of experiencing Jesus' blessings is higher than what we want to pay so we push him away. Maybe we don't send him completely away, maybe we just keep him at arm's length, letting him stay but not close enough to break through our barriers.

What cost have you been unwilling to pay to experience the power of God in your life? What has been holding you back from letting Jesus do what he wants? Is it really worth more than experiencing God's freedom-giving power in your life?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"We Survived But We're Dead!"

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:35-41

One of the few kid's movies I don't mind watching over and over again (when my children insist) is the cartoon superhero movie, The Incredibles. If you are familiar with the movie, there is a scene where superhero mom, Elastigirl, has taken a jet to figure out what kind of trouble her husband, Mr. Incredible, has gotten himself into. She discovers not long before a pair of missiles take out her jet that two of her super-powered children are on the jet with her. As the missiles destroy the jet, she covers them with her elastic body and then puffs out into a parachute shape so that they can float safely to the surface of the ocean below.

When they have safely landed on the waves, her super-speedy little boy, Dash, begins going hysterical and delivers perhaps my favorite line of the movie. "We're dead! We're dead! We survived but we're dead!" In spite of the fact that all three of them have super-powers and have survived a missile attack on their jet, the boy immediately jumps to the worst case scenario and proclaims their doom.

Believe it or not, there is a very similar scene in the Bible. Jesus has been doing miracle after miracle, healing the sick, casting out demons, and outwitting the schemes of the Pharisees. One day, when he has finished teaching, Jesus and his disciples take a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus lays down to take a nap. While Jesus is asleep, a storm blows in, a storm so bad that even these experienced fishermen who are familiar with this particular area and its storms are frightened. The waves are crashing against the boat and the vessel is taking on water and so they run to Jesus and wake him up from his nap, crying out, "Teacher! Don't you care that we're going to die?" (Mark 4:38 HCSB).

Now notice, the disciples didn't come to him and say, "Jesus, we could use your help bailing out the water," or "Jesus, could you pray that the storm lightens up?" or "Jesus, the storm is really bad and we could use your help." They came to Jesus crying out, "We're going to die!" So Jesus, as he is still waking up, rebukes the wind and the waves and calms the storm. Then he turns to the disciples and says, "Why are you fearful? Do you still have no faith?" (Mark 4:40). Now, granted, this had to have been a pretty bad storm to scare the disciples like it did because they were all used to the storms on the Sea of Galilee. But their reaction to the storm was to jump to the worst possible conclusion and panic. "Teacher! Don't you care that we're dying?"

How often, when faced with terrible circumstances, are we guilty of the very same thing? How often when things go wrong do we immediately jump to the worst possible outcome and panic? How often do we cry gloom and doom rather than trusting the God who, even though he might not choose to remove the circumstances, is still capable of saving us? Jesus rebuked the disciples not because they were understandably nervous about a bad storm, but because their doom and gloom reaction demonstrated a lack of faith in God.

What does your reaction to frightening circumstances say about your faith? When trouble strikes, is your tendency to spout doom and gloom? Or do you remain rooted in the faith that God is capable of saving, even in the worst circumstances? Is your standard reaction, "We survived but we're dead!"? Or "My dad's a superhero. What's the worst that could happen?"

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Witnessing With Puppy Love Potions

Suggested Reading: Mark 4:1-20

One of my children's favorite movies is the recent Snow White movie Mirror, Mirror. In this particular telling of the classic fairy-tale, the Evil Queen decides that she wants to marry the handsome prince and she gives him a love potion in order to bring it about. If you have seen trailers for the movie, you already know that she doesn't just give him a love potion, but accidentally gives him a puppy love potion and he begins barking and scratching and fetching and following her around like a little lost puppy dog. Of course, as in all such fairy-tales, the spell is broken and the prince's true affections for Snow White win out. (I hope I didn't just ruin the movie for anyone, but that is what happens in fairy-tales.)

While the Evil Queen's plan is both funny and sad, her attempt to force the prince to love her is often very similar to how we can approach  witnessing to people. Often we want people to be saved so badly, we are so desperate for someone to give their life to Jesus, that we poke and prod and annoy and interfere and bug people as if we can force them to love Jesus. I once knew a young man who was pondering giving his life to Jesus and we had a number of conversations about what Heaven would be like and what it would mean for Jesus to be Lord in one's life. We had some very positive discussions where he seemed to be moving closer and closer to following Christ. But there was another lady in this young man's life who just kept pushing him and forcing the issue as if she could make him love Jesus by the sheer force of her will. Inevitably, after every conversation that this woman forced on him, he was more resistant to the idea of following Christ.

In Mark 4, Jesus told a very short parable about the kingdom of God. He said, "The kingdom of God is like this. A man scatters seed on the ground; he sleeps and rises--night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows--he doesn't know how. The soil produces a crop by itself--first the blade, then the head, and then the ripe grain on the head. But as soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle because the harvest has come" (Mark 4:26-29, HCSB). At this point, Jesus is in a set of parables where the seed being sown is the Word of God. The seed is sown and, in this case, Jesus points out that it grows all by itself. We can't get down into the soil of someone's life and force the seed to grow, it just does -- all by itself.

We are reminded all throughout scripture about the power of the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (NIV). Isaiah 55:11 reminds us "so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (NIV). God's Word is powerful enough on its own to work and poke and prod people from the inside. Our responsibility is to share God's Word with people, to water that seed as it works in them and produces questions and conflicts that God has set us in place to help with. But we must guard against those instincts and tendencies that make us want to force people to love Jesus. We can't ever force someone to believe or to surrender to God's love.  Love and belief simply don't work that way. But the Word of God is living and active and powerful enough to pull the strings of people's hearts all by itself.

God has called us to sow the seed of his word, to water it and to harvest when the time comes. But God's Word grows in a person's heart all by itself. Let's not harm the seed in someone's life by trying to force it to grow.

Being a Good Person by Feeling Bad About Yourself

Suggested Reading: Mark 6:14-28 Not long ago, I watched an episode of Gilmore girls with my wife. One of the main characters, Rory, a c...