Avoiding Overdrawn Relationships

overdrawn account 3

Many decades ago, I discovered the reality of Jesus’ teaching that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). So I became a giver, and I’ve received many blessings as a result.

But, as with most truths, there’s another side to this principle: Healthy relationships are reciprocal.  When one person in the relationship does all the giving and the other does all the taking, the bond inevitably becomes twisted and toxic.

Sadly, I’ve been rather slow in learning this. Giving has always been a natural part of who I am, but receiving is much more difficult for me. I don’t like asking people for their help, even when I need it. And the thought of being a burden to someone else is horrifying.

So, when I give, I seldom expect anything in return. Based on Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-35, I’ve always thought this was the godly way to relate to people. But once again, I’ve often missed another important component of the relationship equation. Too often, I’ve been willing to continually give and give, while the other person received and received. Although this made me feel good at first, it was a prescription for codependency, certainly not a healthy relationship.

The apostle Paul seemed to face this kind of situation with the Corinthian church. He had poured his life into them and opened his heart wide. While this kind of imbalance was fine in their infancy, he said it was now time for them to grow up and open their hearts to him as well (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).

Monitoring Your Account

If we don’t ever monitor our checking account, we run the risk of overdrawing it from time to time. Our relationships need to be monitored and assessed in much the same way.

I’ve found that when our emotional bank account is full and overflowing, it’s very easy to be a giver. But if the other person never puts anything back into the relational bank account, we eventually discover that the account is empty or even overdrawn.

Have you ever experienced this? If you’re a chronic giver like me, I’m sure you have. And then you find yourself resenting the very people you joyfully gave your life to for so long.

If you are willing to do all the giving, you’ll have no trouble finding people willing to do all the taking. Even with that imbalance, everything is likely to seem fine until the relational bank account finally runs dry.

This is a hard lesson, but you’re not doing people any favor if you allow them to become a leech instead of a healthy contributor to the relationship. They may not be able to contribute as much as you do, and that’s okay. But they need to contribute something.

Making Changes

Recently I’ve had to say “NO” to several people who wanted to make a withdrawal from my emotional bank account. Why? Because, over the course of time, they had never put anything into the account.

When people face times of crisis, it’s natural to want to help them. But what about a situation where someone always seems to be in crisis mode? And how should you respond those who never make any deposit into your account even when times are good for them? It may seem harsh, but sometimes the imbalance is so great that the wisest thing to do is to shut the door on the relationship altogether.

In contrast, I’ve found that it’s always a great joy to give to those who’ve taken time to make a deposit of some kind into my life. Whatever they need, I’m happy to give it if I can.

So I hope you’ve discovered the joy in being a giver. But I also hope you’ve learned to develop healthy, reciprocal relationships, where both of you are putting something into the account.

If, like me, your relationships have often been off-balanced, perhaps it’s time for some frank discussions with your friends and family members. Don’t wait until the account is totally overdrawn to request some changes.

One More Thing…

Even as we learn the importance of cultivating reciprocal relationships, where both parties make contributions into the account, there’s another vital principle we must never forget: The ultimate source of love is God Himself, not any human relationship.

“Let us love one another,”  we’re told in 1 John 4:7, “for love comes from God.” If we look to any other source, we’re certain to face disappointment.

You see, we’re much more likely to be hurt by our human relationships when we allow our love relationship with the Lord to run dry. When His love is overflowing in our lives (Psalm 23:5), we’re far less likely to be offended by the failure of people to make deposits into our emotional account. That doesn’t let them off the hook, but it means we can abide in God’s peace and joy even when people let us down.

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The Perils of Being a Good Juggler

jugglers

I have an exceptional ability to juggle lots of balls at the same time. I don’t mean literal balls. My hand-and-eye coordination isn’t good enough for that. But, better than most people, I’m able to successfully juggle multiple projects, activities, and relationships.

Many of my best friends are only able to focus on one project at a time. Sometimes I envy them, for being a good juggler is both a blessing and a curse.

Almost anyone can successfully juggle one ball from hand to hand. And with a little practice, most people can handle two or three balls. Juggling four or five balls is far more difficult, though. Even if you can juggle four or five balls for a short period, the problem is sustainability.

I’ve found that when you’re a good juggler, people keep giving you more balls. It’s not really their fault, but your boss, spouse, kids, and friends seem to think your capacity is unlimited. So you go from juggling one ball…to two…to three…to four. And everything goes splendidly at first.

Yet when you’re a good juggler, you inevitably end up with one more ball than you can handle. Sadly, you seldom see how hazardous this progression is—not until ALL the balls end up on the floor.

Those of us who are good jugglers typically end up juggling many of the wrong  balls. We have a hard time saying NO. Instead of prioritizing and focusing, we try convincing people of our nearly superhuman abilities.

There’s an old gospel song that says, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” The challenge for good jugglers is that we often forget Who this song is referring to. God is able to simultaneously juggle all the balls in the universe—but we’re not God.

If you’re a good juggler like me, my heart goes out to you. As the Scriptures advise, I hope you’ll learn to cast your cares on the Lord, remembering that He’s the only limitless juggler. May you regularly seek His wisdom on which balls are meant for you, and which ones aren’t.

If you’ve taken on too many balls, running the risk of dropping them all, I pray you’ll recognize your precarious situation before it’s too late. In the end, you’ll be far more productive—and much happier—if you focus on your true calling. That’s where you’ll find God’s grace and strength.

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The Parable of My Unbalanced Tires

tire-alignment-2

A few years ago I purchased a new set of tires for my car. They weren’t the highest-rated tires, but they came with a 60,000-mile warranty, which seemed like a safe bet at the time.

As I drove away, I patted myself on the back for getting such a great deal. It was good to know I wouldn’t have to deal with buying tires again for at least 60,000 miles.

Everything was fine as I drove down the road, 25 mph, 35 mph, and 50 mph. But when I took my new tires on the freeway, my satisfaction soon turned to dismay. At 60 miles per hour, the car began to bounce and shake. Not a good feeling at all.

At first I wondered if the stretch of freeway just had some rough spots. But no, there was nothing wrong with the road.

It turned out that my shiny new tires were unbalanced and had hidden defects. Rather than surviving for 60,000 miles, I had to quickly return to the tire shop and replace them with some better tires.

Many lessons can be gleaned from this dismal experience. You probably would point out that, in some ways, I got what I paid for. In the end, I would have saved both money and time by purchasing better tires in the first place.

However, another lesson has come to mind lately: My defective, unbalanced, cheap tires would have been just fine if I was content to only drive 25 miles an hour!  There wasn’t a noticeable problem until I pushed down on the accelerator and embarked on the freeway.

Do you see why this lesson goes far beyond the automotive realm? Look at these examples:

  • A person’s career may seem to be doing quite well when it’s only moving at a slow speed. But what happens when the speed increases, the responsibilities build, and the expectations rise? If there are latent imbalances or defects in the person’s character or capabilities, they’re exposed by this added stress, often in rather shocking ways.
  • It’s dangerous for a person to be raised up in ministry based on their charisma and gifts, without sufficient regard to proven character and experience. The harsh roadway of ministry will inevitably reveal character flaws and vulnerabilities that weren’t apparent when the person was merely coasting down the road.
  • When a new relationship forms between a man and a woman, things often are relatively easy in the early stages. But when superficiality is replaced by vulnerability, the underlying dysfunctions come to the surface. High speed in a relationship tends to carry with it an even higher risk, as the personal weaknesses of each person come to light, often in startling ways.

How does all of this apply to your  life right now? Are you already experiencing some turbulence because of dysfunctions and imbalances in your foundation? Is everything going smoothly at the moment, yet you’re playing it safe because of fear that trouble may be ahead if you venture out at higher speeds?

Although there isn’t always an easy way to test your “tires” before entering the freeway, David had it right when he prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24 NASB).

You see, David was like a long-distance runner who knew he should get his heart checked out before trying to run a marathon. Lots of problems could be avoided if we prayed his prayer and followed his example.

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The Heresy of Unbalanced Truth

scale balance

Recently I attended a new church plant and was horrified by the young pastor’s message. His premise was that all Americans are rich in comparison to the rest of the world, and we should feel guilty about that. According to his perspective, our materialism is the biggest hindrance to living the normal Christian life.

Why was I so troubled by this pastor’s earnest sermon? He quoted lots of Bible passages along the way, including the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22) and the verse about not serving both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).

Much of my annoyance with this anti-materialistic rant stems from the fact that I used to preach almost exactly the same message. “Live for the kingdom, not for money!” I would passionately said. “And if you happen to have any money beyond your basic necessities, you should give it all away, just like Jesus told the rich young ruler.”

Hmmm… What’s the problem here? Isn’t this a sound Biblical perspective?

As I looked around at the pastor’s small, fledgling congregation, I saw that it was mostly composed of young people. My guess was that many of them were struggling just to pay their rent, utilities, and car payment. I could be wrong, but I didn’t spot a lot of rich young rulers that day. And by the looks of the cars in the parking lot, these weren’t extravagant spenders.

I took away several lessons from this church visit…

First, I concluded that even if a message is Biblically accurate, it may be the wrong message for a certain audience. If I had been preaching to the young congregation that day, I would have given a much different message. Instead of telling them they were too rich, I would endeavor to stir their faith that God wanted to bless them and meet all of their needs (Philippians 4:19).

And that brings me to my second conclusion: Most heresies are not an absence of truth, but they’re merely unbalanced truth. The pastor said many things I fully agree with. For example, he told his flock that material things never bring a person true and lasting happiness. Very true.

But the problem is what he failed  to say. He shared the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. And because of that, I’m convinced it misrepresented the heart of God.  

A few days after this church service, I had lunch with the pastor. He’s a pretty humble guy and received it well when I told him his message was heretical.

I explained that he had missed a key point in the rich young ruler story. How could Jesus demand that this man sell everything he had and give the money to the poor? Take a closer look at what He said: “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21).

You see, Jesus’ goal was not to turn the rich man into a poor man. To the contrary, He wanted the rich man to have true and lasting riches—“treasure in heaven.”

From cover to cover, the Bible is a book about God’s desire to have a covenant relationship with His people. What does that mean? Among other things, it means that EVERYTHING we have belongs to Him, and EVERYTHING He has belongs to us as His beloved children.

This explains why the disciples readily dropped their fishing nets and left their boats in order to follow Jesus (Luke 5:1-11). They had just seen Him supply them with a miraculous catch of fish. They “forsook all and followed Him” because they saw they could trust Him to abundantly meet all their needs!

So I agree with the young pastor that we should lay all of our earthly possessions at the feet of Jesus. In fact, that’s a great thing to do on a daily basis.

However, the point of laying things down is to enter into a covenant relationship with Jesus (2 Corinthians 8:9). Once we’ve laid our possessions on the altar, He usually tells us to take them into our hands again so we can make an impact on a lost and needy world (Matthew 14:15-21).

Does your Heavenly Father want to bless you? Absolutely! And for two distinct reasons: because He loves you, and because He wants you to be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2).

My visit to the new church plant was a reminder that we must be careful in handling Scripture, making sure we’re “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Even the devil quotes the Bible, after all (Matthew 4:1-11). As a former attorney, I’m keenly aware of how dangerous it is to only present one side of a case, while conveniently ignoring any contrary facts.

Our Savior was full of grace, but also of truth (John 1:14). He opened the pathway to heaven, but also warned people of the dangers of hell. And yes, He cautioned us not to be controlled by a quest for earthly possessions—even as He promised to give us an abundant life (John 10:10).

I’m convinced the truth will set you free today (John 8:32), especially if you embrace the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help us, God.

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Obama, Jesus, and the Law of Proportionality

One of the most important—but often overlooked—principles in the Bible is the Law of Proportionality. But before I share what the Bible says about this, let me give you an illustration from today’s news.

Although I’ve recently tried very hard to stay away from “political” issues in my blogs, I can’t resist addressing a very strange situation in our country in recent weeks. And even if you don’t care much about politics or world events, the principle I’m going to share will have profound implications for your personal life as well.

Here’s the situation…

This week President Obama announced executive action to limit people’s possession of guns. This apparently was a very emotional issue for him, even bringing tears to his eyes.

I frankly haven’t studied the details of his proposals, and it’s really not my intention to weigh in on the gun control debate one way or another. I think most Americans are willing to allow law-abiding citizens to own guns, but we want to keep them away from criminals and crazy people. Hopefully, everyone can agree on those objectives. And the President should be able to find some common ground with Congress without having to resort to executive orders that are probably beyond his constitutional authority.

Here’s where the Law of Proportionality comes in…

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Obama is totally correct on his position regarding guns. (This is certainly debatable though, when most observers conclude that NONE of the tragic shootings the past few years would have been prevented by the new regulations he announced).

But things start getting really strange when you consider the backdrop provided by other events in the news. Around the same time as the President was passionately addressing the problem of guns, the North Koreans were testing a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, Iran recently launched a missile that came within a mile of a U.S. aircraft carrier. And as we all know, the Middle East is exploding, and ISIS is causing havoc in ever-expanding circles of influence. Does anyone really think Paris will be the final episode of terrorism on the world stage?

And what about the thousands of Christians who’ve been beheaded by ISIS? Where are the tears and outreach over that?

So, while we all hate gun violence, the Law of Proportionality says we need to do risk assessments and prioritize our time and resources. We must address “first things first” and focus on the BIG threats before worrying so much about the SMALL ones.

This is pretty much a no-brainer: Gun violence normally kills no more than a few people at a time, while nuclear bombs can kill millions and destroy entire cities. And a crazy person with a gun or rifle cannot do even a fraction of the damage ISIS can do.

Here’s what the Bible says…

The Scriptures describe the Law of Proportionality in various passages. For example, Proverbs 11:1 says, A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” We’ve all had times when our priorities got out of balance, of course, but this is a serious problem when it happens on a national or international level.

Likewise, Jesus scoffed at people who strained a gnat out of their soup but “swallowed a camel” (Matthew 23:24). If we apply this to today, even if we concede that President Obama may be correct in straining out the “gnat” (trying to remove guns from the wrong hands), he seems to be overlooking the “camel”—much more dangerous threats.

One final passage should be a challenge to all of us, where Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for their violation of the Law of Proportionality (Matthew 23:23). These self-righteous people were so diligent in tithing that they took pains to offer even the tiniest of herbs, but they “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

Let that statement sink in for a minute. If you look at your daily schedule or how you spend your money, you probably could make a case that you’re putting your resources to “good” use. But what about the “weightier matters”? Can you really say that your priorities are the same as God’s priorities? Even if you are doing the “right” things, are they being done in proportion to their true importance?

These questions are hard for me, because God is also encouraging me to learn how to have FUN from time to time. But I don’t want my life to be a game of Trivial Pursuits. I want it to count, to matter, to make an impact.

It’s not easy to get the proportions right. From time to time, we need to reassess our priorities and readjust our balance. It’s all too easy to criticize Obama for getting things out of proportion, when we need to examine our own priorities as well.

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The Contentment Dilemma

It’s beautiful, but also exasperating, that the Bible often points out two seemingly opposite and contradictory sides of a subject. For example, Jesus is both God and man, a paradox that is hard, if not impossible, for us to fully grasp.

And have you ever studied the issue of “eternal security”? If so, you’ve found verses that seem to state the absolute impossibility of losing your salvation (e.g., John 10:28-29, Romans 8:31-39, Philippians 1:6), while other passages warn about the danger of falling away (Hebrews 6:4-6, Hebrews 10:26-27, 2 Timothy 2:12, 2 Peter 2:20-22). I’m sure God understands how all of this works together. But if we’re honest, sometimes it’s a bit baffling for us.

In the face of the Bible’s paradoxes, our tendency is to cite proof texts on one side of an issue or the other. In doing so, we ignore verses that show the other side, and this typically leads to heated theological arguments with sincere believers who have their own set of proof texts.

Hey, I used to be an attorney, so I’m pretty good at presenting just one side of the evidence.

Some of the Bible’s paradoxes are practical, not just theological, in nature. For example, I have a close friend who loves to quote Paul’s words about contentment: I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Philippians 4:11).

Over the many years this friend has known me, he’s periodically observed my discontentment over my finances, my weight, my lack of spiritual impact, and many other things. And even after I was able to get unstuck and make progress in these areas of discontentment, he’s noticed that I always find another mountain of discontentment that I still needed to climb.

When my friend preaches to me contentment, I quote to him a passage Paul writes in the chapter right before his statement about being content: I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).

I guess I struggle with the whole contentment thing. How can we be content, when our spiritual condition or other aspects of our lives fall short of God’s best for us?

What a dilemma this is. By focusing on the importance of contentment, my friend runs the risk of settling for circumstances in his life that God wants to change. In time, he’s liable to get stuck in situations that are far less than God’s high calling for his life.

But my perspective clearly has its dangers too. By stressing a lifestyle of continually “pressing on” to ever-higher goals and objectives, I run the risk of never resting or enjoying the journey. Life tends to become just one long marathon race, never being satisfied with my current position on the GPS.

Somehow both of these scriptural principles are true. Wherever we’re currently at on our journey through life, we must learn to abide in the Lord and experience His peace (Philippians 4:6-9, John 15:1-5). Thankful that He is faithfully working out His purpose in our lives, we can unapologetically take some time to “smell the roses” along the way.

Of course, this doesn’t negate the realization that we haven’t “arrived” yet. No matter how far we’ve come so far, we are still in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). And rather than allowing ourselves to become stuck on some spiritual plateau, we must recognize God’s “upward call” to transform us from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So which side of the contentment dilemma are you on today? Do you need a nudge to get unstuck and press higher, or is it time to take a deep breath, rest, and enjoy where God has brought you so far?

 

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ANGRY God or SMILING God–Do You Get to Choose?

I recently met a woman named Gail who grew up in a church that had a very distorted view of God. It gave her the impression that God was angry all the time. Since He was angry at pretty much everything,  it ended up being hopeless to relate to Him or please Him. No matter what you did, at the end of the day He would still be angry.

Fortunately, Gail eventually met the true God, and it turned out He wasn’t mad at her after all. In fact, He embraced her, welcomed her home, and threw a big party for her. (See Luke 15 for the details.)

Although I’m generally an admirer of 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards, I’m not a big fan of his most famous sermon title: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Can you imagine putting that on a church sign or billboard today? Definitely wouldn’t be politically correct.

But the main thing I don’t like about Edwards’ sermon title is that it gives the same false impression as Gail’s former church: God doesn’t just “get angry” from time to time, He’s angry by nature.  Instead of just being mad at those who sin, He’s mad at everyone, all the time.

What could we call this warped view of God? As Edwards practically says in his sermon title, this is the ANGRY God. Since His anger never changes, you could put a scowling portrait of God on your wall. No matter what you did, the angry scowl would remain.

But oh how the pendulum has swung in our day. Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer churches that promote the ANGRY God theology. But sadly, we’ve adopted a perspective that is not much more accurate: the SMILING God.

Just as the ANGRY God never is happy about anything, the SMILING God never gets angry and never frowns. Everyone and everything is quite OK with Him. “Different strokes for different folks” is the theology of the day, and God could care less about people’s lifestyle choices. People’s behavior is their private, personal choice, after all, and who is God to interfere with their pursuit of happiness?

So if you’re a member of “The Church of the SMILING God,” you probably have a very different portrait on your wall—a God with a huge, unchanging grin.

How did we ever get to such a place, where we adopt a picture of God with an unchanging expression on His face? Is it because He’s actually an UNKNOWN God to us, like the God of the Athenians in Acts 17:23?

You see, if we don’t really know  God, we’re prone to paint His picture with some kind of fixed expression that we’ve picked up from our church or some TV preacher. But that kind of God is not a real Person, He’s just a caricature.

The real God can be seen in the real Jesus. He certainly wasn’t the ANGRY God, but He did get angry at times—mostly at the hypocrisy of religious people. And despite some of the pictures of Him that we hang on our walls, Jesus wasn’t the SMILING God either. Yes, I’m sure He smiled, and I bet He smiled quite a lot. But He wasn’t always smiling, and I don’t think He’s always smiling at the SMILING Church today.

The God described in the Bible is a God who has emotions. He’s not angry about everything—far from it. But He’s not happy about everything either.

We may be uncomfortable with the fact that God has emotions. We’d rather put Him in a tight, predictable box. But He’s calling us to discard our tidy boxes and draw near to get to know Him  better.

Be wary of any preacher who gives the impression that God is either ANGRY or SMILING at every person and every lifestyle present in a massive congregation or TV audience. Draw near, and find out what God is saying about you.  He definitely will SMILE when you do.

 

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