Ron Goes for Counseling

After dating several women who told him he had “issues,” my friend Ron finally decided to look for a good counselor.

“That’s a great move,” I encouraged him. It was all I could do to stop short of adding, “And it’s about time, Ron!”

Yet the conversation grew darker when he asked my advice on how to go about finding a counselor who could actually do him some good.

“That’s a tough one, Ron. You’re a pretty hard case,” I chuckled. “And 95% of the counselors out there are either well-meaning but incompetent, or else they’re total frauds, just out to make money.”

I later had to admit that I had no scientific basis for my “95%” statistic. Perhaps the situation in the counseling community is even worse than that!

When Ron asked why I was so down on the counseling profession, I told him my Parable of the Dandelions.

“There are four kinds of counselors, Ron,” I explained. “Picture someone approaching four different advisers for input on controlling the dandelions in his yard.”

Counselor #1: This kind of counselor looks at the yard and says, “I don’t see any dandelions. I think you’re doing great!” This is the counselor of choice for those in denial. The person going for counseling denies he has any addictions or psychiatric conditions, and the counselor comforts him by agreeing!  A variation of this is the kind of counselor who provides reassuring comparisons: “Well, sure, you have dandelions. But there’s no need to worry about it, because all your neighbors have dandelions too!”

Counselor #2: This kind of counselor specializes in validation. After spending an hour with the patient and charging $160 or more, the counselor says, “Yes, you surely are depressed” or “Yes, you really do have a lot of anxiety.” Of course, the counselee already knew  that before spending his $160, but it feels good to have someone validate and confirm all the things he’s been feeling. The problem with this, quite obviously, is that nothing has really been solved  by the counselor. In essence, he’s just saying, “I see the dandelions you’re talking about!” Frequently, this kind of counselor also tries to validate your perspective on the cause  of your problems. By the end of the counseling session, you’ve found other people to blame for your troubles, leaving you guilt-free. “I agree with your assessment that your spouse is a jerk,” the counselor assures you. “So it’s no wonder you have anger issues.” Or you’re told, “Your self-esteem problems are all the fault of your parents.” You feel a remarkable sense of relief in knowing you’re not to blame for your current condition—but your condition never changes when you insist on shifting all the blame to others.

Counselor #3: This kind of counselor goes a little further than Counselor #2. “Yes, you definitely have dandelions, and we’re going to do something to fix that!” However, Counselor #3 opts for the same approach I once took when my dad told me to get rid of the dandelions in our yard: I simply pulled off the dandelion heads, and soon the yard looked dandelion-free. Counselor #3 typically accomplishes this by providing medication to mask a person’s pain, anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant symptoms. The greater the emotional pain, the higher the dosage that is prescribed. I’m sincerely thankful that medication can relieve some of these troublesome symptoms, and some people need that approach, at least in the short run. However, I can’t help but remember what happened when I pulled off the dandelion heads in our lawn. For a few days, it seemed like I was a genius, eradicating all signs of dandelions. But soon the dandelions were back, even more prevalent than before. And that’s why we need counselors like #4…

Counselor #4: I’m convinced that most counselors fall into the categories of #1, #2, or #3. You might wonder how they stay in business when they’re so ineffective. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find: Instead of truly being healed and delivered from their sins and dysfunctions, many people would prefer to live in denial, find affirmation that their problems really aren’t so bad, or find medication that will cover up the symptoms. In contrast, Counselor #4 understands that our emotional “dandelions” must be honestly acknowledged and then pulled out by the roots.

My friend Ron, like so many other people, stands at a crossroads. It’s tempting to pay a counselor to tell him he’s not nearly as messed up as those women say on his dates. And if he had some good medication, he probably wouldn’t worry about their opinions anyway.

The search for competent help won’t be easy, but I’m praying for Ron to find Counselor #4—someone with the spiritual discernment and patience to unearth and remove the roots of his emotional pain.

Tell me what you think. Am I being too hard on the counseling community? What kinds of remedies have helped you  find help and healing for your emotional wounds? Ron could use your advice.

#PrayForRon

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Living in the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’

As Hurricane Irma prepares to bash the United States, here in Charlotte we’re wondering if it will be coming our way. As we wait for the answer, I’ve been intrigued by weather reports saying our region lies in the “Cone of Uncertainty.”

While modern meteorologists probably feel clever in using this term, it’s really no different than King Solomon wrote about over 2,000 years ago:

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things (Ecclesiastes 11:5 NLT).

Then and now, the path of the wind is highly unpredictable. Even Jesus found it important to weigh in on this great mystery:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes (John 3:8).

As meteorologists apply the Cone of Uncertainty idea to the difficulty of projecting Irma’s destructive route, I feel prompted to write about another  kind of Cone of Uncertainty. While the uncertainty about Irma’s path will be resolved within days, I’ve observed a bigger and more long-term issue that seems quite common today…

Some people seem to live their entire lives  in a Cone of Uncertainty!

I’m not trying to be harsh, but you’ve probably met people like this. They’re continually uncertain about their standing with God, their career, their relationships, or what their priorities should be. And if they’re anything like my good friend Ron, they’re stuck in a Cone of Uncertainty in their dating life too.

So what does the Bible say about this? Lots.

Here are just a few random principles for your consideration:

  1. God wants us to live lives of peace rather than confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). His peace is supposed to transcend our circumstances and guide our decisions, even amid the storms of life (Philippians 4:6-7, Colossians 3:15).
  2. We must be careful not to claim certainty on subjects God hasn’t truly revealed yet. For example, Jesus made it clear that no one would be able to accurately forecast the day of His return—even though people continue to try. On one hand, He said we could observe the signs and know His return is near (Matthew 24:33). But on the other hand, He said we wouldn’t be able to know “the day and hour” (Matthew 24:36, 24:42). On this and many other issues, “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).
  3. When God allows us to experience a Cone of Uncertainty for a season, it provides an opportunity for us to trust Him. I love the statement Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego made to the king as they were being thrown into the fiery furnace. Although they were uncertain about the outcome of the trial they faced, they were absolutely certain of God’s love and faithfulness:

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18).

These three men were determined to trust the Lord, regardless of whether He delivered them and changed their difficult circumstances.

  1. There are some things we should be certain  about. In today’s postmodern world, it’s fashionable to say there are no absolutes. People seem suspicious if you say you know anything for sure. The book of First John was written toward the end of the first century, amid some similar trends of uncertainty affecting the church. A new generation was arising that wasn’t as certain or dogmatic about things as the early apostles had been. No wonder John uses the word “know” 32 times in this book! In fact, he says he wrote the book “that you may KNOW that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

So there’s no need to live in a Cone of Uncertainty about whether you’ve been born again and given eternal life. Nor do you ever need to doubt God’s love or His desire to bless you and meet your needs.

This issue came up recently when I was trying to encourage a friend who was going through a hard time. “Brother, the Bible says in Romans 8:31 that if God is for us, it doesn’t matter who is against us,” I reminded him.

I thought that would settle the matter, but it didn’t.

“How do I really know that God is for me, though?” he replied.

Yikes. I could tell this was going to be a much deeper conversation than I had expected. My friend was living in a Cone of Uncertainty on an issue of supreme importance.

But take a moment to apply this to your own life and ponder my friend’s question. How can we know for sure that God is FOR us?

I suppose I could write an entire book in response to this vital query, but for now this basic explanation will have to suffice:

YOU CAN KNOW FOR SURE THAT GOD IS FOR YOU,

BECAUSE HE SENT HIS SON TO DIE FOR YOU!

Shouldn’t that be enough of an answer?

But what if you’ve been living in sin, knowingly disobedient to the precepts in God’s Word? Is He STILL for you?

Once again, the answer is actually quite simple: Even if you’re living in the deepest sin imaginable, God is still for you—He’s for you to repent so He can release the fullness of His blessings in your life once again!

You see, no matter what your situation may be, your Heavenly Father is FOR you, not against you. If you are living in a pigpen, He’s FOR you to come home so He can throw you a party (Luke 15:11-32). If you’re a stuck-up religious person like the older brother in that story, He’s FOR you to humble yourself and enter into the joyous festivities He’s prepared.

What an incredible revelation! Either way, no matter what, God is FOR you. So why not leave the Cone of Uncertainty and join the party, already in progress?

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8 Myths That Eclipse God’s Love & Purpose

While studying the origins of the church at Philippi, I was startled to discover how the story contradicts many of our common misconceptions about the nature of the Christian life. The narrative in Acts 16 debunks at least 8 myths—and I bet you’ve believed some of these misconceptions yourself.

Myth #1: As long as you’re well-intentioned in pursuing spiritual activities, any direction is okay.

The apostle Paul never intended to plant a church in Philippi. In fact, he had other plans. Plan A was to minister in Asia, but he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (v. 6). Plan B was to preach in Bithynia, but God closed that door too. Finally, the Lord spoke to Paul through a dream that he should go to Macedonia, where Philippi is located.

This story shows that God has a specific plan for our lives, even when it comes to “good” activities like evangelizing and planting churches. Yet it’s bewildering in Acts 16 to see God actually forbidding Paul to preach the gospel if that means going in the wrong direction. While the Great Commission tells us to go into “ALL the world” and “to the ends of the earth” (Mark 16:15, Acts 1:8), God wants to direct us on how to proceed.

Myth #2: If you’re a very spiritual person, you’ll always get it right the first time.   

It would be hard to be any more spiritual than Paul, yet it wasn’t until the third try that he found God’s optimal direction for his life (vs. 6-8). That’s good news for you and me! We shouldn’t despair if we don’t hit the bulls-eye at our first attempt to find the Lord’s perfect will.

Myth #3: The most important ingredient in church planting is good preaching.

Hey, I’m a preacher, and I certainly put a high value on good preaching. But if you read Acts 16, you’ll see that the secret to Paul’s success clearly was PRAYER, not preaching. He met Lydia (his first convert) at a place of prayer  (vs. 13-15), and he was on his way to pray  when he cast a demon out of the fortune-telling slave girl (his second convert, vs. 16-18). Then the Philippian jailer (his third convert) was saved after Paul and Silas caused an earthquake through their prayers and worship (vs. 25-34).

I surely hope your church or evangelistic ministry has great preaching, but these illustrations demonstrate that prayer must be the foundation of everything else we do in God’s kingdom. Without that, our impact on people will be superficial at best.

Myth #4: If people are saying the right things, that automatically means they have the right spirit.

Oh, how I wish I would have understood this misconception earlier in my ministry! Many preachers, politicians, or church members say all the right things, but they are being motivated by something other than the Holy Spirit.

Look at what this demon-possessed girl was saying while following Paul and Silas day after day: “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation”  (v. 17). What’s wrong with that? Most pastors would have put her on the front row so everyone could hear her words of affirmation! But Paul discerned that her right-sounding message had originated with the devil rather than the Holy Spirit. Can you tell the difference?

Myth #5: If you’re in God’s perfect will, everything will always go great for you.

Believing this myth will bring tragic consequences, because it means you’ll also believe the corollary: If things AREN’T going well for you, you must not be in God’s will.  What a horrible, yet incredibly common, misconception. Even though Paul and Silas were following the direct leading of the Holy Spirit to minister in Philippi, the result seemed catastrophic. Their clothes were torn off, they were brutally beaten with rods, and they were thrown into prison, with their feet in shackles (vs. 22-24). All this happened because they were following God’s will!

Myth #6: Nothing good ever happens after dark.

Verse 25 says Paul and Silas received their breakthrough “at midnight.”  I love that. Some of God’s greatest miracles seem to happen at our midnight hour—when things look the bleakest and all hope is gone. We may not be shackled in a jail cell, but perhaps we’re imprisoned to an addiction, a health problem, a mound of debt, or a toxic relationship. No matter what the situation may be, the Lord can break off our chains “suddenly”  (v. 26).

Myth #7: God’s salvation is a fragile thing, easily lost.   

Paul later described his complete confidence that the One who had BEGUN a good work in the Philippians would also COMPLETE it (Philippians 1:6). Exactly how confident was Paul in God’s ability to care for these new converts in Philippi? In one of the most stunning plot twists in all of Scripture, verse 40 says that after meeting with “the brethren”  gathered in Lydia’s house, Paul “encouraged them and departed.”

The “brethren”  numbered just a handful of folks at this point, all of them new converts. But instead of staying to care for these baby Christians, Paul and Silas left town!  He entrusted them to their Heavenly Father’s care, believing that nothing would be able to separated them from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

Myth #8: Everything in God’s kingdom rises and falls on leadership.

I’ll admit, there’s a lot of truth contained in this statement, and I’m sure I’ve quoted it myself at times. However, there’s also a misconception here, because we’re often wrong about who is supposed to provide that leadership.

For example…

  • The Israelites could have panicked after Moses died and his unproven understudy Joshua was suddenly in charge (Joshua 1).
  • David’s family never considered him a worthy candidate to be the next king (1 Samuel 16).
  • All of Jesus’ disciples except John denied and deserted Him, and they certainly seemed to be a bad bet to lead the church and reach the world.

But the church in Philippi is one of the most remarkable examples of God raising up unlikely leaders. In Paul’s opening greeting to the Philippians (1:1), he refers to the “overseers and deacons.”  Isn’t that amazing? When Paul left Philippi, the church consisted of Lydia’s household, the slave girl, and the jailer’s family.

So where did the overseers and deacons come from? Did they get imported from some Bible college or seminary? Were they transplanted from the thriving churches in Jerusalem or Antioch? Certainly not. These were homegrown leaders.

My friend, what are you trusting in for your personal fruitfulness or the success of your church? Are you relying on the grace and power of God, or in your own spirituality and the charisma of the human leaders around you?

Thankfully, Jesus is both the Author and the Finisher of every success story in His kingdom (Hebrews 12:2). Let’s fix our eyes on Him, allowing nothing to eclipse His love and purpose for our lives.

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Are You Ready for a Fresh Gust?

Have you ever been in a sailboat when it seemed there was absolutely no breeze? While experienced sailors somehow can catch the wind when there is no wind, amateurs like me often find ourselves dead in the water, going nowhere.

Sailing is such an apt metaphor for life. Winds come and go, blowing from one direction or another. But no matter what winds we encounter, we must resolutely set our sail and rudder toward our desired destination.

Yet this is a mystery in some ways. Even Solomon, known for his great wisdom, admitted he didn’t understand how ships can stay on course, even amid adverse winds (Proverbs 30:18-19).

So here’s a question to ask: Which way are the winds blowing in your  life today? Are you experiencing pleasant breezes or fierce, unrelenting windstorms? Or perhaps you find yourself wearily praying for a “second wind” or a gust to help you get unstuck from your present doldrums.

From time to time, we all need a fresh gust of wind. Whether in our family, our finances, our ministry, or our career, things get pretty stale if no wind is blowing.

Although I’ve tended to shy away from sharing “prophetic” impressions in my blogs, recently I sensed God speaking to me through the metaphor of sailing. Even though the past few months have been fantastic in many ways, I sense that they’ve just gotten me ready for what’s ahead.

As I was praying about these things, I felt that God was saying quite distinctly, “Get ready for a gust  in August!” I took that as very good news. I’ve never liked to drift listlessly in the water, so it was great to hear that a new blast of wind was on the way!

However, I’ve also experienced times in my life when God sent a fresh gust of His Spirit and I wasn’t prepared. A strong breeze does a sailboat no good if the sail isn’t ready and the rudder isn’t set. Even worse, it can capsize the boat if the sailor isn’t paying attention!

Will God truly send “a gust” in Au-gust? We will find out soon! But one thing is for sure: It’s best to be ready.

Sailboats are a lot like eagles, for both rely heavily on wind currents to supply their propulsion. We’re promised in Isaiah 40:31, “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

The message here for eagles, sailboats, or Christians is clear: Continually needing new strength and inspiration, we must wait expectantly for God to send a new gust of His divine wind. And based on Isaiah’s promise, we can expect a gust of God’s Spirit anytime, and any month, we’re willing to wait for it.

So now’s the time to prepare our hearts to be ready when it comes!

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7 Weeks Living out of Suitcase

During my sabbatical in New Zealand and California a few months ago, I lived for seven full weeks with just the clothes in one fairly small suitcase. I had a few shirts, a few pants, some socks and underwear, and a toothbrush, razor, and stick of deodorant.

Yes, I did wash the clothes from time to time. But I traveled light and never lacked a thing.

Shortly after returning back to the Carolinas, I went through the arduous process of moving into a new residence. I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast.

For seven weeks, I had done just fine with only the belongings I could carry in one suitcase. But back at home I had countless boxes and pieces of furniture to move. Too many clothes. Too much furniture. Too many books.

Too much junk…

What an eye-opening experience! If I could get along so well with just the items I could carry, what was I doing with all the other stuff back home?

Jesus said a lot about “traveling light” as we journey through life. When sending out His disciples, He warned, “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep” (Matthew 10:9-10 NIV).

And then there was Jesus’ famous statement about unloading our “stuff” if we truly want to enter into the riches of His kingdom: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25 NIV).

I don’t think He meant we must disavow owning any property. Rather, this is a warning not to clutch our possessions so tightly that they hinder us from the eternal abundance derived from wholeheartedly following Him.

In order to enter a city’s narrow gateway, a camel’s heavy load often had to be removed. In the same way, we must lay down our possessions—and our very lives—in order to enjoy the maximum blessings of God’s kingdom.

I think many of us Americans are so attached to our material goods that we fear what would happen if we ever lost them. But I’m glad I discovered that, if necessary, I could have kept living out of my suitcase.

Likewise, I’m glad I finally came to realize that much of the “stuff” in my storage unit wasn’t really a blessing, but merely a burden.

What do you really need in order to comfortably live? It’s probably a lot less than you think!

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The Downside of Being a Perfect Kid

I was a pretty awesome kid, if I do say so myself. Polite and well-behaved, I never recall talking back to my parents or any adult.

I worked hard at school and got good grades. My parents never had to worry about me skipping classes, getting into fights, using profanity, or disgracing them in any way. They were proud of me, and rightfully so.

Never once did I try a cigarette, smoke a joint, or get drunk.

And all this time, I never doubted that my parents loved me. Of course  they loved me. I was quite lovable, after all.

So what could possibly be the downside to this seemingly idyllic picture?

During my recent sabbatical, I came to a surprising and quite troubling realization: Yes, my parents loved me, but there was a problem…

Because I was so “perfect,” I subconsciously assumed my virtue was the reason I was loved.

This created an obvious dilemma: If my parents loved me because I was always lovable, how could I ever know they’d love me when I was unlovable?

Flash forward to today, and I realize how this warped perspective has infiltrated my relationship with God, my Heavenly Father.

If someone asked, “Jim, do you think God loves you?,” I would say yes, probably so. But my answer would be based largely on the fact that I’ve been a “pretty good Christian,” just like I was a good kid for my parents.

Do you see the problem here? (And it’s a BIG problem!)

If you think God loves you because you’re such a good, well-behaved person, there’s no room left for His grace. On days when you feel good about yourself, you’re confident the Lord loves you. But when you realize you’ve fallen short in some way, you find yourself questioning His love.

This makes God’s love dependent on your performance…your behavior…your productivity. As long as you’re perfect, everything’s fine. But if you screw up, you assume your Father’s love and favor will be withheld.

What a shaky foundation this is!

If you’re having a good day, you think God is certainly pleased with you. If things aren’t going your way, you assume He must be disappointed and angry.

No wonder the older brother in the Prodigal Son story had such a struggle (Luke 15). He had been the perfect kid, faithfully serving his father year after year. Yet because he felt that he was so “good” and so “worthy,” he never experienced the unconditional nature of his father’s love.

The prodigal, in contrast, couldn’t rely upon his good behavior as a reason for his father’s affection. He knew  he needed mercy and grace—and he received them in great abundance.

So let me ask you two questions:

  1. Do you know, really know, that your Heavenly Father loves you, and loves you deeply?
  2. If your answer to question #1 is yes, do you realize He loves you even when you’re an underachiever…or mischievous…or downright rebellious? Do you realize His great love is able to cover even “a multitude of sins”?  (1 Peter 4:8).

It’s such a wonderful relief when you finally recognize you don’t have to be the perfect kid in order to get your Father’s love and affection. You’ll find yourself entering deeper into His love and, perhaps surprisingly, your conduct will improve as well.

It turned out that the older brother in Luke 15 wasn’t so perfect after all. Instead of entering the father’s house and enjoying the party, he just kept on working.

In the same way, a funny thing happened by the time I got to the end of this blog. I realized I wasn’t really  a perfect kid, either. Countless sins have come to mind, and the greatest of all was pride.

Those, like me, who grew up with an inflated view of their own worthiness will usually end up with the same twisted view that their Heavenly Father’s love is based on performance.

He loves you, my friend. Not because you’re the perfect child, but because His love is greater than all your shortcomings.

So go ahead and enter the Father’s lavish party. He’s throwing it for you, after all.

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6 Takeaways from a Great Sabbatical

Jim CLT final

Not all the lessons from my recent sabbatical in New Zealand and California would be relevant to your life, and some things are probably too personal to share. But I wanted to at least offer a few insights I think you’ll find beneficial.

There’s no place like home. Even though New Zealand and San Diego are two of the most beautiful places in the world, sometimes I could relate to Dorothy’s experience in “The Wizard of Oz.” Despite the dazzling colors and fascinating characters she encountered in the Land of Oz, she surprisingly found herself missing her home in Kansas. After traveling to the ends of the earth, I eventually felt the same way about returning to my hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina. I hope you feel the way about the place you call home. Even Kansas can be a glorious place if that’s where God wants you to be!

Gratitude is ALWAYS a good thing. Why do I find it so easy to grumble about my life? The psalmist declared, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord” (Psalm 92:1). God is good all the time, and it’s always good to give Him thanks. The Bible says this is the key to entering into His presence and His blessings (Psalm 100:4), so why is complaining a much easier habit than gratitude?  It’s amazing that Adam and Eve could find a reason to be discontented in paradise, while the apostle Paul found reasons to rejoice even while stuck in a Roman jail cell. Which of these examples are YOU following?

God loves us even when we accomplish nothing. By its very nature, a sabbatical is a time of rest and reflection rather than productivity (note the root “sabbath”). But this is extremely difficult for a person like me, whose self-image is often tied to my accomplishments. To be honest, I didn’t “accomplish” a whole lot on my sabbatical. Yes, I wrote a few blogs along the way, and my daughter Molly secretly arranged for me to preach at the San Diego Dream Center. Yet weeks went by when I “produced” absolutely nothing—and it was eye-opening to realize my Heavenly Father loved me anyway.

God used a song from Bethel Worship to drive home this life-changing realization. Here are a few of the lyrics from the song “Given” (“There Is No Striving”), but I encourage you to watch the YouTube video and listen for yourself (http://bit.ly/2szTSEv):

You never ask that I earn Your affection.

I could never earn something that’s free.

I never have to fight for Your attention,

Because Your eyes are ever on me.

You have given everything my heart could ever need,

And all You ask is I believe.

I am resting safe inside Your promise to provide,

And nothing could ever change Your love.

If you are still striving to gain God’s approval and affection, I strongly encourage you to give it up! As the Bethel song says, you can’t earn something that’s free. Your Heavenly Father is crazy about you, but His love has nothing at all to do with your accomplishments.

God wants to give us new zeal, not just new instructions. Before leaving for New Zealand, I changed the password on my computer to “New Zeal” (but please don’t hack me!). Although I greatly desired a fresh set of instructions from the Lord about my future, it became increasingly clear that He was far more concerned about my heart than my guidance. So if you’re seeking divine direction today, remember that it’s not likely to come in the form of an impersonal email or ticker tape from God. Instead, guidance is the natural by-product of drawing closer to the Lord as your Shepherd and the King of your heart (Psalm 23). And when you ask Him to change your circumstances, don’t be surprised if He first changes your perspective instead.

We’ll never arrive at our intended destination without focus and intentionality. In both New Zealand and San Diego, I saw beautiful sailboats, and they provided me with an important lesson. A boat’s captain can’t just sit there and hope a wind blows in his desired direction. He must set his sail to catch the wind and must firmly adjust the rudder toward where he wants to go. Without intentionality, we will drift aimlessly through life instead of fulfilling our purpose. And even if we originally started in the right direction, we will still need to regularly assess whether we’re on course.

Thankfully, I came away from the sabbatical with some new vision for my life and ministry. However, I’m well aware that I’ll inevitably sink right back into all the same ruts unless I make a firm commitment to purse the necessary changes. And in addition to holding myself accountable, I will need accountability partners to challenge me if I drift off course.

“Mr. Holland’s Opus” was right all along. You’ve probably seen the 1995 movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Glenn Holland was a high school music teacher chronically frustrated by his inability to complete his life’s passion—writing a renowned orchestral score that would one day make him famous. As the years passed, it became unlikely his dream would ever be realized. His day job and family were simply too taxing.

Hey, I feel his pain. Similar to Glenn Holland, I’ve said for years that I want to get more of my own books in print. But, as happened to him, other responsibilities have seemed to get in the way.

On his final day as a teacher, Mr. Holland entered the school auditorium and was shocked to find hundreds of his present and former students gathered to honor him. One of his musically challenged students had even gone on to become governor of the state of Oregon. Together his students performed the opus he’d been working on all those years.

But it turned out that Mr. Holland’s real achievement was not writing the world’s greatest orchestral piece, nor will mine be writing best-selling books. The most important accomplishment any of us can have is to touch the lives of people.

In the midst of his frustration and shortsightedness, Glenn Holland had failed to realize his greatest “opus” was the impact his life had, day by day, on his students and family.

What an incredible lesson as we seek to fulfill our dreams and impact the world. While some of your dreams may remain unfulfilled at the moment, your greatest accomplishment may be simply to show people around you the love of Jesus in tangible ways. No matter what kind of “opus” you’ve been striving to produce, in God’s eyes people  are always the product  that matters most.

Let me know if you can relate to any of these takeaways from my sabbatical. And I would love to hear about the lessons God is showing YOU these days!

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The 4 Ingredients in My ‘I-deal’ Life

ideal life 1

Someone asked me an important question when I told them I was going on a sabbatical to seek direction for my life. Looking me in the eyes with great earnestness, they said, “What makes you happy, Jim? That’s what you should be doing.”

My reply probably surprised them, for many people would have cited romance or worldwide travels as their expected source of happiness.

“The thing that makes me the happiest is to have an impact on others,” I said without hesitation. “And the more impact I’m having, the happier I am.”

Although I don’t really think life is all about “the pursuit of happiness,” this conversation really got me thinking. What, exactly, would my ideal life look like?

I encourage you to ask yourself this “happiness question,” because your answer probably won’t be the same as mine. If you’re not fully satisfied with your present life, what are some things that would bring you greater fulfillment and joy?

After some soul-searching, I’ve identified four primary ingredients necessary to bring me the greatest joy in life. They all start with “I,” so I’m calling this my “I-deal” life.

  1. INTIMACY with God and people. The Bible says “fullness of joy” can only be found in the presence of the Lord (Psalm 16:11), so that must be the starting point in my ideal life. But it’s also clear that close relationships with people are necessary in order to experience lasting joy. By “intimacy,” I’m not referring to romance or sex, but simply the ability to open your heart to others on a deep and vulnerable level. Do you have relationships like that with family and friends? I do, and it’s a blessing I’m profoundly thankful for.
  1. IMPACT. As I told the friend who asked about my happiness, impact is very important to me—perhaps even too  important. I believe we’ve been put on earth not just to be “successful” or just to “hang out” with people. We’re called to make a tangible difference  in the lives of others. Of course, we each have different ways to bring about impact. My personal mission statement is “To change the world through the written and spoken word.” That means I love to write and preach, and those are two of the ways I can touch people’s lives. In my remaining years, I also want to find more ways to pour myself into the next generation. But you may have completely different gifts and passions. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to find your own God-given calling in how to make the world a better place.
  1. INCOME. I’m not retired yet, so income is still an important part of the equation for me. It’s easy to talk in glowing terms about such lofty objectives as intimacy and impact, but we all must find ways to pay the bills as well. If you’re making lots of money but falling short in things like intimacy and impact, I challenge you to make some changes. However, some of my friends have been so intent on their spiritual and social pursuits that they’ve neglected the basic necessity of having adequate financial provision for themselves and their family. Financial stress can really undercut your pursuit of a happy life.
  1. I-CARE. Sorry, but this is the only “I” word I could come up with to mean self-care. Of all the ingredients in my ideal life, this is perhaps the most difficult one for me. Although I’m passionate about impacting others, in the process I often neglect taking care of myself. In the coming season of my life, I must give a much greater focus to my health and fitness. I also need to take more time for rest and recreation, and I must reassess the margins in my work-life balance. As I was departing for my sabbatical, a friend told me, “Have fun!” Sadly, I had to admit that “having fun” is an element of self-care I really need to work on.

Identifying the elements of your ideal life won’t automatically answer all the questions you face concerning your future—but it’s a great place to start. So set aside some time, find a journal to write in, and get started in the process of defining what the life of your dreams really looks like. And don’t forget to solicit the input of trusted friends who can help you deal with any blind spots.

Your ideal life awaits! But you’ll have a much greater chance of experiencing it if you know what it looks like.

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Navigating Life’s Dead Ends

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I love the GPS on my phone. How did we ever get anywhere without electronic navigation to point the way for us?

However, my GPS has sometimes led me astray. More than once, I’ve found myself at a dead end, even after carefully following the GPS instructions.

Life is like that. Sometimes the journey goes smoothly, but at other times we find ourselves at a dead end we never envisioned.

There are various kinds of dead ends in life. Relationships or jobs may end. Dreams and ambitions may die. And old seasons of life must end before new ones fully begin.

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the “dead end” stories in the Bible. They not only provide interesting lessons on how to navigate such situations, but they also illustrate that an apparent dead end may not be the “end” of the story at all.

ABRAHAM and SARAH

For decades, these servants of God had held on to His promise to give them a son. But as Abraham approached 100 and Sarah 90, they finally came to a dead end. Time had run out, for Sarah had been barren many years, and Abraham’s body was “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19, Hebrews 11:11-12).

What happens to your  faith when God has given you promises, still unfulfilled, but you’ve run out of gas on a dead-end road? If you’re like me, it takes a while before you quit relying on your own strength and admit that your own efforts are “as good as dead.”  Sometimes you just plain need a miracle, and that’s exactly what God did for Abraham and Sarah.

THE ISRAELITES

On several occasions, God’s people seemed to reach a dead end in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The first dead end occurred at the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army bearing down on them from behind (Exodus 14). Forty years later, they came to another impasse, when the Jordan River was at flood stage, seemingly impossible to cross (Joshua 3).

In both cases, God made a way where there seemed to be no way. But in each instance, a step of faith was required: Moses stretching out his rod over the Red Sea and the priests stepping into the flooded Jordan River.

These episodes are a great reminder that when we come to a dead end, the Lord will give us instructions for what to do. Instead of moaning and groaning about our circumstances, dead ends present us with an opportunity to listen for God’s plan in moving forward.

PAUL

Sometimes our dead end will seem likely to take the form of an actual physical death. Those who survive cancer or some other life-threatening condition often describe experiencing a new lease on life.

For example, the apostle Paul was so badly injured in Acts 14:19-20 that people thought he was dead and dragged him out of the city. But through this and other experiences, Paul discovered more of God’s amazing resurrection power, able to transform even the bleakest of circumstances:

It was so bad we didn’t think we were going to make it. We felt like we’d been sent to death row, that it was all over for us. As it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened. Instead of trusting in our own strength or wits to get out of it, we were forced to trust God totally—not a bad idea since he’s the God who raises the dead!  (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 MSG).

Can you relate to Paul’s description here? He felt like he’d been given a death sentence, but instead it was a resurrection sentence! It turned out to be incredibly beneficial, forcing Paul to “trust God totally”  instead of his “own strength or wits.”

A Promise to You from God

If you find yourself at some kind of dead end today, these stories should provide great hope. Based on these Biblical accounts, reaching a dead end may signal that something WONDERFUL is about to happen! Why? Because when we come to the end of ourselves, we’re just at the beginning of supernatural enablement from God.

The Lord never promised us that life would always be easy. But He DID promise to be with us through it all:

When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
    When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
    it won’t be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God,
    The Holy of Israel, your Savior  (Isaiah 43:2-3 MSG).

What great news! Even when it looks like “you’re between a rock and a hard place,”  it will no longer be a dead end when the Lord comes to act on your behalf.

Take time to ask Him for His instructions today. Then get ready to watch Him turn your dead end into a new beginning!

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Breaking a Most Difficult Addiction

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Just one week into my much-needed sabbatical, one thing is abundantly clear: I find it extremely hard to fully relax without feeling guilty and unproductive. As an addict to the world of deadlines and to-do lists, “productivity detox” is a difficult and painful process.

Perhaps you’re a performance addict too. But you’ll never know for sure until you take time to break free from your dependence on activities and accomplishments—the “drugs” that enable you to feel good about yourself.

For years, friends have assured me that God’s love for me is not based on anything I can DO for Him. But I’ve been so busy trying to do His will that I’ve never really been able to test their theory.

If you’re a performance addict, you live in fear of what would happen if you suddenly stopped performing. Having carried the world on your shoulders for so long, you’re terrified that a moment’s rest might cause everything around you to come crashing down.

And what would people think if we no longer were performing and producing? It turns out we’re not only addicted to our accomplishments, we’re also addicted to the quest to look good in the eyes of our peers.

Amazing Benefits

My sabbatical has brought me face to face with my need to WAIT for God’s empowerment and direction when they don’t come immediately. I’ve discovered that resting and waiting often go hand in hand, as King David described: Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7).

I’m not sure which is more difficult for me, resting or waiting. I’m poor at both of them. Why? Because nothing productive seems to be accomplished while I’m resting or waiting.

Yet the Bible gives some magnificent promises to those who learn to wait on God. Those who take time to wait on Him will be…

  • Free from shame (Psalm 25:3, Isaiah 49:23).
  • Strengthened and encouraged (Psalm 27:14).
  • Enabled to expand into new territory (Psalm 37:34).
  • Assured of His provision (Psalm 104:27).
  • Able to receive divine guidance and counsel (Psalm 106:13).
  • Recipients of supernatural blessings and breakthroughs (Proverbs 8:34, Isaiah 64:4).
  • Strengthened to mount up with wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31).
  • Blessed with a revelation of God’s goodness (Lamentations 3:25).
  • Recipients of fresh vision from the Lord (Habakkuk 2:3).

This is just a small sample of the amazing promises given to those who wait on the Lord. So why is this so difficult for many of us?

God’s Waiting Room

Lately I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples when they were told not to DO anything after His ascension, but rather “to WAIT for the Promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). The whole world needed to be saved, yet they were instructed to wait in Jerusalem.

It turned out that these faithful believers only had to wait 10 days before the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost. But while they were waiting they didn’t know  this would be the timetable. When God puts us in His “Waiting Room,” we’re seldom told how long the wait will be. We just have to trust Him that the resulting blessings will be worth the wait.

So are you willing to join me in the difficult process of breaking our addiction to activity and accomplishments? Are you ready to enter into God’s rest and patiently wait for a fresh breakthrough of His power and guidance?

Like a heroin addict who goes cold turkey, breaking our performance addiction is never easy. Our self-image is at stake, after all. And when we fully rest and patiently wait, we’re likely to make a horrifying discovery: Our self-image has been based more on our accomplishments than on recognizing God’s unconditional love for us.

But imagine the joy and freedom you’ll experience when you realize your Heavenly Father loves you even on the days when you haven’t accomplished a thing. Yes, He loves you more than you’ll ever know, and your performance has absolutely nothing to do with it.

So go ahead and thank Him. And breathe a huge sigh of relief.

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