The 4 Ingredients in My ‘I-deal’ Life

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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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Ready for an Honest New Year’s Assessment?

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These 5 Connections Hold the Key to the Life You’ve Always Wanted

A pivotal moment in my life occurred around this time of year in 2010. My friend Don Wright and I were taking our usual walk around the track of Weddington High School, and I told him quite earnestly, “Don, some things have really got to change in my life next year.”

Don has a way of getting to the heart of a matter, and he reminded me of a sobering truth: “I think you said the same thing last year at this time, Jim!”

How terrible it was to see that many areas of my life had become STUCK. Year after year, I had complained. I vowed that things would be different in the coming months and year. Yet nothing really changed.

I hope you have a friend like Don Wright—someone able to provide a mirror to your life and hold you accountable to making the necessary changes to get unstuck. Otherwise, I have bad news: Your New Year’s resolutions are unlikely to bear much fruit.

But what if you’re not even sure about what’s wrong with your current life? Maybe you’re feeling apathetic and dissatisfied, but you don’t know where to start in diagnosing the problem or making any changes.

After years of studying what the Bible says about having an abundant and impactful life, I’ve concluded that these 5 areas hold the key:

CONNECTION TO GOD: Before you worry about any other changes in your life, this should be the starting place. Without a vital connection with the Lord as your “higher power,” your best efforts will surely fall short.

Since I work for a Christian ministry, you might think this area would never be a problem for me. Not true! I’ve discovered that even when you’re surrounded by “ministry,” your connection with God will be anemic unless you spend time cultivating your personal relationship with Him. There must be intentionality and a constant hunger to keep growing in your intimacy with the Lord.

CONNECTION WITH PEOPLE: Unless you’re a hermit, you already have a number of connections with other people. But are they the right people—those helping you become a better “you” so you can fulfill your highest calling in life? Perhaps you need to delete or minimize some relationships in your life, especially any that are toxic, negative, or overly draining.

In my case, although I have great friends, I find myself desiring to spend more time mentoring the next generation of leaders. I also would really value an older mentor in my own life. Once again, changes like these will require some intentionality on my part if they’re ever going to happen.

CONNECTION WITH TRUTH: In the early days of my Christian life, I spent lots of time studying the Bible, which helped provide me with a strong spiritual foundation ever since. However, I’ve slacked off in recent years. Instead of learning new things, I’ve been relying far too much on my previous studies.

Successful people are nearly always lifetime learners, continually reading, studying, and growing. What are your plans to keep learning and growing in the coming year?

CONNECTION WITH CHARACTER: Knowledge and hard work will only get you so far. Perhaps you need to deal with long-standing issues of character and maturity that have robbed you of joy and hindered your fruitfulness. Has an addiction been undermining your life, or do you need freedom from some negative emotion like fear, anger, or depression?

The Bible has a lot to say about the type of “fruit” coming from our lives (e.g., Matthew 12:33, Galatians 5:19-23, John 15:1-5). A new year is a great time to assess the quality of our fruit and do any pruning that may be necessary.

CONNECTION WITH SERVICE: God put each of us on this earth to make an impact in some way. An ingrown life is inevitably boring and unfulfilling, so it’s crucial to identify our place of service. Ideally, our service should flow from the spiritual gifts and passions the Lord has given us, but sometimes we’ll be called upon just to fill a need we see. As we reach out to bless others, more of God’s blessings are released in our own lives as well (Genesis 12:2, Acts 20:35).

I encourage you to assess these 5 areas of your life as you head into the new year. And if you’re in some kind of leadership or management role, you can encourage your team members to grow in these areas too.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I’ve developed an entire curriculum around these 5 connections, complete with an assessment test to see how you’re presently doing in each area. If you make a tax-deductible gift of any amount to Crosslink Ministries by clicking the DONATE button above, I will be happy to email you some of these great discipleship resources upon request.   

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The Parable of the Turtle

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I love the old maxim about risk-taking: “Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.” You see, although you may feel safer while tucked away in your thick protective shell, you’ll never get anywhere in life. Your fears  will block your fulfillment, and your comfort  will turn into your coffin.

I’m convinced that fear is holding many people back from the necessary steps to make progress, enjoy life, or have a significant impact. My fellow baby boomers are especially prone to this common trap. We took risks in our younger days, some of which paid off, while others were brought devastating losses. But now we find it all too easy to play it safe and hedge our bets.

If you’ve talked with any financial planners recently, they’ve probably advised you to limit your risks as you get older. Be safe. Be conservative. Hang on to what you have. Don’t be too adventurous in your investments.

But those same advisors will admit that you’re unlikely to receive a substantial return on those “safe” investments. Small risk, small rewards. No risk, no rewards.

The same is true about our spiritual lives. Remember Jesus’ story about the guy who decided to bury his assets instead of risk losing them? Sadly for him, he ended up losing them in the end anyway (Matthew 25:14-28).

No decision could be riskier or more shortsighted than to opt for a risk-free life. First of all, such a life is impossible to find, since there will always be risks along the way. And even if you somehow succeeded in eliminating all risks, your life would be incredibly boring and unproductive.

Several decades ago, God gave me a vivid mental picture while I was praying. I saw myself playing poker, and I had amassed a very large stack of chips. Suddenly, however, I pushed the entire stack to the middle of the table and shouted, “ALL IN!”

Hmmm… I can’t help wondering if I would still be willing to take such a risk today. Although I claim to be entrusting my entire life to the Lord, lately I’ve only been giving Him the chips I’m willing to lose. And while I’ve succeeded in minimizing my risks, my rewards clearly have diminished as well.

As a student of the Bible, I’ve concluded that we need to grasp a couple of important lessons about risk-taking:

  • If God truly has told us to do something, obeying Him doesn’t constitute a “risk.” Before walking on the water, Peter wisely sought and received a green light from Jesus. Things were going fantastic at first, as they always do when we trust and obey. Peter only ran into trouble when he took his eyes off the Lord (Matthew 14:25-32).
  • Often we must take a step of faith, even when we have no direct guidance from God or assurances about the outcome. I love the story of Jonathan’s plan to defeat the Philistines, despite his lack of resources and manpower. His message to his armor bearer shows a commitment to do “the right thing,” even though God hadn’t told him what to do nor promised him victory: “Come and let us cross over to the garrison ofthese uncircumcised; perhaps the Lord will work for us, for the Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). What a challenging statement this is for those of us who want ironclad assurance from God before we embark on any endeavor. He doesn’t always work that way! Sometimes we need to “take a chance” on a noble venture, hoping God will come through for us.

After they each took a bold step of faith, Peter and Jonathan both received supernatural assistance. Peter had gotten direct encouragement from the Lord in his quest to walk on water. Jonathan, in contrast, trusted God and hoped for victory solely by virtue of his worthwhile mission.

When was the last time YOU took a significant risk, relying on God’s help? Like Peter, has Jesus been beckoning you to take a seemingly risky step, leaving the safety of your “boat”? Or do you find yourself in a situation more like Jonathan, where your heart says to take action, despite an uncertain future?

One thing for sure: You don’t want to be like the turtle who allowed fear to keep him hiding in his shell. If you’re trusting God with your life, you’ll need to stick your neck out from time to time. Your life will surely be more exciting and fulfilling that way.

The Bible is pretty clear that God prefers risk-takers to those who insist on playing it safe. Yes, when you take risks there will be some losses as well as gains. But if you ever start to sink among the roaring waves, He will lift you up again—and I bet He will even applaud your effort.

 

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The Excruciating Wait

As almost everyone knows, faith is an indispensable key to getting your prayers answered (Matthew 9:29). But when you look at the stories of men and women of faith throughout the Bible, you nearly always see another vital ingredient at work: PATIENCE.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise, since we’re clearly told it’s through “faith AND patience” that we’ll be able to activate God’s promises (Hebrews 6:12).

Yet waiting is hard. It was difficult for people in Bible days, and perhaps it’s harder than ever in today’s instant-gratification, microwave, fast-food and fast-everything culture. If we have to wait more than five minutes for our food at McDonald’s, we’re ready to call for a Congressional investigation.

But the waiting process is even harder when it seems to go on forever, with absolutely no signs of a breakthrough. And when the thing we’re waiting for is very important to us, the wait can be EXCRUCIATING.

No wonder Solomon wrote, Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). Perhaps you’ve experienced that kind of painful delay at times. I certainly have.

However, we’re in very good company if we’re struggling to wait for God to fulfill His promises. Here’s just a partial list of Bible heroes who had to endure an excruciating wait time:

  • Abraham and Sarah had to wait decades for God to give them a son.
  • Jacob had to wait and work for seven years to win Rachel’s hand in marriage—but then ended up with Leah instead. Seven additional years of work were required by Laban so he could have Rachel too.
  • Joseph as a teen was given some vivid prophetic dreams about his destiny, but he had to endure excruciating years of adversity before his dreams were fulfilled.
  • David was anointed by the prophet Samuel as Israel’s next king, but he wasn’t able to actually take the throne until many years later.
  • Martha and Mary asked Jesus to come and heal their brother Lazarus—but He seemed to arrive too late! Fortunately, Jesus not only was able to heal, He also could raise their brother from the dead.

Are you agonizing today about some prayer request that hasn’t been answered yet? Is there some longtime dream you’re waiting for God to fulfill? If so, don’t give up! Be patient, and avoid the temptation to take matters into your own hands, as Abraham and Sarah did in having a child by Hagar. Good things are birthed in God’s “waiting room.”

Earlier in this blog post, I shared Solomon’s observation that “hope deferred” can lead to a sick heart. Thankfully, the verse doesn’t end there. Solomon adds this great promise: “When the desire comes, it is a tree of life.”  Other versions say “a dream fulfilled” or “a longing fulfilled.”

This is fantastic news for all of us. Yes, our hopes and dreams may be deferred or detoured at times. But the excruciating wait will make the fulfillment all the more meaningful and wondrous.

Our patience will be rewarded. I’m counting on it.

 

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Beyond a Once-a-Year Easter

I’ve always struggled to get excited about special days—even great days of celebration like Easter. After all, shouldn’t the resurrection of Jesus be a constant reality in our lives, not just a once-a-year commemoration?

Because Jesus lives, we can have true life as well. We can have fellowship with Him NOW, without having to wait until we get to heaven.

But let’s face it: We don’t just need resurrection power once a year. Even worse, some believers apparently have only experienced the power of God once in their lifetime—the day they got saved! No wonder so many experience drab, unfulfilling Christian lives.

The good news is that Easter is meant to be an everyday, moment-by-moment experience:

If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Romans 8:11).

If you’ve given your life to Christ, His resurrection power lives in you—and you don’t have to wait until Easter comes again to get another dose!

Yet it’s heartbreaking that so many Christians are still trying to live FOR Christ, without realizing God’s plan for Christ to live His life THROUGH THEM! “It is no longer I who live,” Paul declared, “but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Anything less than this is empty religion and self-effort, destined to be fruitless in eyes of eternity (John 15:1-5).

In Second Corinthians, Paul speaks often about the trials he experienced and the lessons he learned: “We were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead (1:8-9).

When Easter is more than a once-a-year experience, we learn to lean on God’s resurrection power when times are tough. Yes, there may be times when we’re “burdened beyond measure” in our finances, health, emotions, relationships, or some other area of life. But that’s when we discover the all-sufficient grace and faithfulness of the God of resurrection—the “God who raises the dead.”

So go ahead and celebrate Christ’s resurrection power in your life this Easter—but keep right on celebrating every moment you live!

 

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The Prince, the Slipper & the Magic

Keys to a “Happily Ever After” Life

Another Cinderella movie?!  I could hardly believe it. Haven’t we all heard that story a thousand times already?

But despite my skepticism, I sensed that a fairy tale love story might do me some good. And sure enough, the new Disney movie was filled with numerous sermon illustrations that will definitely come in handy some day.

There’s a reason these old Disney stories never really go away. We’re all  looking for a Prince (or Princess) Charming to rescue us from a mundane, inconsequential life. And we all sense our lives are incomplete unless we find the “glass slipper” custom made just for us.

Believe it or not, these two themes were a central part of the transformation of Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle. When Saul/Paul encountered the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, he asked two great questions that hold the key to OUR transformation as well:

“Who are You, Lord?” (Acts 22:8)

“What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10)

Paul’s first query could be called the “Prince” question. He was desperate to know the identity of the powerful Being who had knocked him to the ground and spoken to him from heaven. Of course, this ultimate Prince was none other than Jesus, and He replied, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” (v. 8).

We can search in vain all sorts of other places for peace, satisfaction, and fulfillment. We can dream of some earthly prince or princess to complete our lives and bring us lasting happiness. And we can make a futile attempt to fill our emptiness with popularity, career success, or financial security.

But every other prince or princess, and every earthly attainment, will eventually let us down unless our life is built upon the true Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords. The only fairy tales with truly happy endings are the ones authored by Him. Why? Because He’s more than just a handsome Prince—He’s a Savior.

The Slipper

Paul’s second question could be characterized as the “Slipper” question. After we discover the identity of the Prince, the most important follow-up question is to ask Him what He wants us to DO with our life.

This second question deals with our spiritual gifts and our calling. We will continually be restless in life until we find “the slipper that fits”—the God-ordained role we’re meant to play in His kingdom and in this world.

We’ve all visited shoe stores and tried on shoes that were too big, too small, too wide, too narrow, too stiff, or uncomfortable for some other reason. What a relief when we finally come across a slipper or shoe that fits us perfectly—just as if it was personally designed for us by a master craftsman.

Next to the all-important question of knowing who Jesus (the Prince) is, nothing is more life-changing than knowing who YOU are meant to be in Him. So I hope you’ve asked Him that second question, “What shall I do, Lord?” And I hope you’ve taken time to listen for His reply.

Remember the scene in John 13 when Jesus knelt down to wash the disciples’ feet? Well, today I see Him kneeling down before you and me. And in addition to making sure the dust and dirt are off of our feet, He’s giving us glass slippers to wear.

Perhaps you’ve tried to fit into someone else’s shoes, but that never works, does it? Your feet end bruised and calloused until you finally realize you need a better fit.

The Magic

Another reason we love the Disney fairy tales is that they always include some magic. It’s not just that the protagonists are handsome, beautiful, hard-working, or intelligent. They need something magical and supernatural in order to get to their happy ending.

In the same way, the Christian life is a magical, supernatural life, energized by the Holy Spirit instead of mere human effort. Without Christ living His life through us, all we have is dead religion—which doesn’t make for a good fairy tale at all.

So after watching the new Cinderella movie, I can confidently list three things you will need in order to have a happy ending in your Christian life: (1) A love relationship with Jesus, the Prince; (2) Recognition of your glass slipper, the customized purpose you were born to fulfill; and (3) Reliance on the power of the Spirit to bring about His “magic” in your life.

Cinderella’s life was dreary until she experienced these three things, and yours probably will be too. But I’ve got a feeling God is about to work some of His magic to turn things around for you.

Yet you may ask, “Is it really possible to experience a ‘happily ever after’ kind of life?”

I understand why you may be skeptical. This world is full of discouraging circumstances, making it exceedingly difficult to “wish upon a star,” as the Disney theme song prescribes.

Nevertheless, King David’s words at the end of Psalm 23 show us that “happily ever after” is possible, after all: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David was a king who had met the Lord as his loving Prince and Good Shepherd. And He was confident the “goodness and mercy” of that Prince would last him all the days of his life.

And notice that while we all hope for a “happily ever after” outcome in this present life, God gives us something even better to look forward to—happiness with Him for all eternity…forever.

No wonder the Disney movies are so popular. They’re just tapping into our heart’s longing for our Heavenly Prince, our glass slipper, and the magic available by His Spirit.

And why are we presented with the Cinderella story time and time again, decade after decade? Perhaps it’s because we need periodic refresher courses in love—much like we need regular reminders about the beauty of the gospel.

Some things never get old, nor should they.

 

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