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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Hurney and Gettleman, Grace & Truth

I’m always looking for current events that display Biblical principles for successful leadership. The decision by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson last week to fire Dave Gettleman as the team’s general manager provides some excellent fodder for a discussion of good and bad leadership traits. After being fired in 2012, Marty Hurney was appointed as the interim general manager.

Here are just a few observations:

  1. Timing is everything. As King Solomon pointed out, “A wise heart knows the proper time and procedure” (Ecclesiastes 8:5 NASB). One of the unusual things about Richardson’s decision is that it came just eight days before the start of the Panthers’ training camp. Even Richardson had to admit that the timing was “not ideal.” An organization’s major decisions ordinarily should be planned with enough time to allow for a smooth rollout and careful communications to all the stakeholders. In this case, even Panther’s head coach Ron Rivera was apparently caught off guard by Richardson’s decision.
  2. Instead of evaluating a person’s overall track record and the long-term picture for an organization’s success, leadership often comes down to “what have you done for me lately.” By almost any measure, Gettleman’s tenure with the Panthers was extremely successful—except for last season. But despite an amazing Super Bowl run in 2015, Richardson apparently felt that the trajectory was going in the wrong direction. And, no doubt, trajectory is more important than past successes. I’ve seen numerous situations where pastors face similar scrutiny. Past success is deemed irrelevant if church attendance and finances are on a downward slide.
  3. We must resist the urge to jerk between extremes. From my perspective, Marty Hurney’s decisions as general manager tended to err on the side of GRACE—giving players big contracts and sometimes keeping them past their prime. In contrast, Dave Gettleman was a man of TRUTH—looking at a player’s current productivity and being unwilling to break the bank when a player’s performance didn’t merit a huge contract. In switching back to Hurney, I think Richardson was siding with grace and loyalty. He wanted to take care of players like Greg Olsen and Thomas Davis, who were in negotiations for new contracts. And it seems he may have been unhappy with how Gettleman parted ways with Panthers stars like Steve Smith and Josh Norman.

I would argue that both Hurney and Gettleman were successful, but partly because the Panthers benefited from the combination of grace and truth that these two general managers provided. Hurney was credited with a harmonious locker room, full of players who felt honored and appreciated. Gettleman was applauded for clearing out players who were past their prime, which greatly improved the salary cap situation.

Jesus, the greatest leader of all time, was full of BOTH grace and truth (John 1:14). He didn’t have to jerk from one extreme to another, for He perfected embodied these two qualities every successful leader must demonstrate.

In Jim Collin’s best-selling book, Good to Great, he notes that organizations thrive when they have “the right people on the bus and have them on the right seats on the bus.” That pretty much describes what a successful general manager must do in the NFL.

When it comes to the future of the Panthers, my hometown team, I hope Marty Hurney will have learned the lessons from the past—both from his own decisions and from those of Dave Gettleman. May he bring back the grace needed to recreate a harmonious team culture, where past performance is honored. But may he also have the guts to make hard decisions when a player is overpaid or should no longer be “on the bus.”

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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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Breaking a Most Difficult Addiction

addiction 4

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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If the World Didn’t Give It to You…

Several months ago, my friend Ron was ecstatic when he met the woman of his dreams at a Christian leadership event. “Jim,” he told me at lunch one day, “meeting Jill was magical…like a Disney movie or something.”

Ron went on to describe all the circumstantial evidence that God had brought this woman into his life. “I’m SO thankful to the Lord!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t have to go out looking for the perfect match. Nor did I have to spend hours on a bunch of dating websites or go on countless dates to find the right person. She was a gift sent from God, right when I least expected it!”

Since it’s hard to talk any sense into a person who’s so in love, I mostly just listened to Ron’s story. But he clearly was convinced this new relationship was heaven-sent, and his heart was definitely all in.

However, when I met with Ron a few weeks later, he was beginning to have some doubts. Although he was still crazy about the woman he had met, he was wondering whether she would love him back after she became aware of his many flaws.

“Jim, I need to lose some weight,” he said with a scowl. “Jill deserves someone who’s in better shape.”

As the conversation continued, Ron went on and on about all the other reasons Jill might reject him in the end. He questioned the size of his house, the make of his car, his wardrobe, and his income, among other things. He was beginning to conclude that someone of Jill’s caliber couldn’t possibly settle for a person with so little to offer.

Again I listened. The more Ron talked, the more I could see he was correct about his limitations.

But then an old Gospel song came to mind: “The world didn’t give it to me, and the world can’t take it away.”

Recalling Ron’s description of how GOD had brought Jill into his life, I said with a grin, “I think I see what is going on here. Although you were totally convinced that the Lord supernaturally brought Jill into your life, now you’re coming up with all sorts of ways YOU must work to hang on to her.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he conceded. “So what should I do?”

“Well, look Ron, if you weren’t responsible for bringing Jill into your life, then perhaps you need to quit acting as if you’ll only keep her in your life by your own efforts and worthiness.”

Ron looked down for a moment to gather his thoughts. “Jim, I see what you’re saying, but let’s be honest: There’s a real chance she will be disillusioned once she gets to know me better.”

“Very true!” I acknowledged. “But you have to go back to the question of whether God was truly the one who brought you together in the first place. If so, you can relax and be yourself. You’ve got nothing to worry about!”

Still rather exasperated, he replied, “Okay, man, I see what you mean. But what if we discover that God really DIDN’T bring us together?”

“That would be great too, Ron,” I assured him. “Then you can walk away knowing you didn’t initiate the relationship, nor were your flaws the reason it ended.”

At that point, Ron breathed a huge sigh of relief, as if an enormous weight had been removed from his shoulders. He said with a smile, “Wow. That’s awesome. I can just be myself and trust God with the rest. If He truly has brought Jill into my life, there’s no need for me to worry about losing her. And if it turns out He really hasn’t brought her into my life, I don’t have to worry about losing her in that case either!”

So why did I share Ron’s story with you? Because it’s a parable about several different aspects of our relationship with the Lord.

Were we saved by our own efforts? No! Our relationship with God began through His grace alone, on the basis of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And just as we were initially saved by God’s unmerited favor, we can trust Him to keep on loving us all along the way. Thankfully, we don’t have to fear His rejection when He finds out more about us—because He already knows EVERYTHING about us. (Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief!)

Ron’s story also reminds us that we can rely on God to keep things safe when we’ve entrusted them to Him. The apostle Paul said it this way, I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day”  (2 Timothy 1:12). Instead of feeling fearful and insecure, treating his relationship with Jill as if it were something quite fragile, my friend should have simply entrusted it back into God’s care.

Finally, what are we to make of Ron’s claim that Jill was a gift from the Lord? Well, the Bible clearly says, EVERY good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17).

Isn’t that good news? Our Heavenly Father doesn’t vacillate. He’s not like a shifting shadow, bouncing here and there. Since He is the SOURCE of every good thing, we can also trust Him to be the SUSTAINER of every good thing. Wow. What an incredible relief.

So take a moment to ask yourself: Is there something you’ve been struggling to entrust to the Lord?  If so, remember: The safest place you can put things is in the loving hands of God.

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God’s Final Answer

When Regis Philbin launched “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in the U.S. in 1999, he popularized a question I’ve always found intriguing. Whenever a contestant gave their response to a question, Philbin would ask them, “Is that your final answer?”

That always seemed like a dumb question to me. Of course it was their final answer. It’s not as if they could get five guesses. And although I wasn’t a regular viewer of the program, I don’t remember anyone changing their mind.

However, lately I’ve realized that many Christians are wobbling in their faith and struggling to believe that God has given them His FINAL answer in Christ. Even if they’ve experienced His love at some point in the past, their difficult circumstances have caused them to question His love for them today. And though they’ve seen many signs of His favor over the years, they mistakenly worry they’ll have to DO something to EARN and MAINTAIN that favor in the future.

As a result of this works-based relationship with God, many people live on a spiritual roller coaster. Their perception of their Heavenly Father’s love is akin to someone picking off daisy petals, one by one, “He loves me. He loves me not…”

Often this happens when we use our circumstances as a measure of God’s love and favor. At other times, we see all the ways we’ve fallen short in our Christian life, and we assume the Lord couldn’t possibly love us when we’re in that kind of condition.

Somehow it’s all too easy to miss the clear teaching of Scripture that Jesus died for our sins “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27). Yes, our debts are paid in full—past, present, and future, for Jesus was “the final solution of sin” (Hebrews 9:26 MSG).

Notice the word “FINAL.” The sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament were God’s temporary solution, but Jesus was His final answer. In His Son, He demonstrated His perfect love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and favor for all time.

If we were still living under the Old Testament, I could understand why we might wonder where we stood with God. After all, the Old Testament ends with this ominous final word in the book of Malachi: “CURSE” (Malachi 4:6). Wow.

That word “curse” pretty much sums up the outcome of works-based and feelings-based spirituality. You never quite know whether you’ve measured up. No matter what you do or refrain from doing, there’s never any guarantee that you have enough brownie points to merit God’s love and favor.

What an exhausting way to live!

Thankfully, when you’re in Christ, you no longer need to doubt where you stand. Instead of having a righteousness based on your own efforts, you’ve become the righteousness of God”  through His amazing grace (2 Corinthians 5:21).

So how do you know God’s verdict is final? In stark contrast with the Old Testament, which ended with a curse, here’s the final verse in the New Testament: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21).

If you’ve grown weary of the treadmill of works-based religion, I encourage you to let this life-changing message sink in:

God’s final answer is GRACE!

And since the canon of Scripture is now closed, God isn’t going to change His mind and retract this good news. He doesn’t love you IF… He doesn’t love you BUT… He doesn’t love you MAYBE

God loves you…PERIOD!

Yes, that’s His final answer.

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Getting Beyond a Daisy-Petal Faith

In college I had a friend named Keith who came from a very legalistic church background. He believed you could become so “sanctified” that you’d never sin again—but if you did  sin, God would revoke your salvation in a mere moment.

I’ll never forget the letters Keith would write to me during our summer break. “Dear brother Jim,” he would begin each letter, “I’m happy to report that I am still saved.”

Wow. Although I’m not exactly sure what I wrote back to Keith, I probably wanted to say, “I’m still saved too…but I never doubted that I would be!”

Even though I’ve never met anyone whose views were as extreme as Keith’s, lately I’ve realized that many of us have a similar defect in our theology. We’re probably not worried about entirely losing our salvation, but we’ve adopted the subtle misconception that our Heavenly Father’s love and favor are as fleeting as a butterfly and as fragile as fine China.

Sorry for all the mixed metaphors, but perhaps the best word picture is the way insecure lovers sometimes peel off the petals of a daisy to ascertain where they stand in their relationship:

“He loves me…he loves me not…he loves me…he loves me not…”

Do you see how dismal this approach is in your relationship with the Lord? Yet that’s exactly what happens when you base your confidence in God’s love on the current circumstances in your life:

You got a raise at work? He loves me!

Your car broke down? He loves me not!

You received an unexpected financial windfall? He loves me!

You received bad news from your doctors? He loves me not!

Fortunately, you can stop this daisy-petal spirituality once and for all. Instead of continually wondering if God loves you or loves you not, you can simply believe what He tells you in His Word: God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

There are two primary reasons why this is fantastic news: First, God has already demonstrated His love for you through a past event—the death of His Son. This means there’s no longer any need to focus on your circumstances or peel off daisy petals to determine whether He truly cares about you.

Second, it’s important to notice that God didn’t decide to love you AFTER you cleaned up your act and got perfectly sanctified. Instead, He showed His love when you were still His enemy, living a life of sin and rebellion. Paul concludes, If when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).

This shows that God’s love for you isn’t based on your worthiness but on the incredible worth of what Jesus did for you on the cross. Quite a difference!

Does God love you? YES! Does He want to show you His favor and bless you? YES! Is His love dependent on some kind of perfection on your part? THANKFULLY NOT!

When you get rid of your daisy-petal view of God, you can finally REST in His love and mercy. Why? Because your relationship with Him is based on His grace “from start to finish” :

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! (Ephesians 2:7-10 MSG)

So are you ready to be showered with God’s grace and kindness? Then it’s time to throw away your daisy and believe His love letter to you in the Scriptures.

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Misleading Signs of God’s Favor

Not long ago, I experienced a stretch of several months when everything seemed to go right for me. Although I’m now embarrassed to admit it, these events caused me to conclude, “Wow. God really loves me these days! It’s so awesome to be walking in His favor!”

Rather than tell you about my own crash landing on this mistaken interpretation of God’s favor, let me share the story of a friend of mine named “Joe.”

After facing some hard times a few years ago, things had really turned around for Joe. He had worked for the same company nearly 10 years, with little change in his salary or position. Then suddenly he was upgraded to a prestigious new window office, overlooking a beautiful lake. “Surely this is God’s favor!” he marveled to his friends.

During this same period of time, Joe started a new exercise regime—high-energy kickboxing. He was excited to find an exercise program he really enjoyed. “What a blessing to discover this great way to get in shape and lose weight!” he said.

But the biggest blessing of all was the day Joe unexpectedly met “the woman of his dreams” at a church event. They had an uncanny list of common interests and perspectives, and Joe had never been happier. “What an incredible sign of God’s love!” he concluded when describing God’s apparent sovereignty in bringing them together. “I’m so grateful for this amazing demonstration of His favor.”

Soon Joe’s story took some unexpected twists and turns, however. His company found someone more worthy of the nice window office, and Joe had to return to his original cubicle.

Then he started having chronic aches and pains from his kickboxing workouts. His back…his knees…his big toe—it soon became clear that the pain and risk of long-term damage was unacceptable. Joe was forced to go back to walking as his exercise of choice, and this was very disheartening.

And then the bottom fell out entirely. Just when everything seemed to being going splendidly, His “perfect” girlfriend dumped him. The trauma was almost unbearable.

If you’ve been following along with Joe’s story, you’re probably asking some vital questions at this point: “What happened to God’s favor? Did Joe do something to anger the Lord and cause Him to withdraw His love?”  

I hope you see how important this issue is. If we see signs of God’s favor when “good” things happen to us, then it’s probably logical to assume we’ve somehow lost His favor when “bad” things happen to us.

Yet, is this what the Bible teaches? Certainly not!

You see, many of us have the same theology as Job’s friends. When Job was prospering financially, in good health, and enjoying the perfect family life, his friends were convinced God had great love for Job. But when he faced unspeakable adversity, they were just as certain he had somehow squandered God’s love and favor.

The Bible is full of similar stories of God’s love for people who didn’t seem to be “blessed” at some points in their life. Joseph…Naomi…Jeremiah…Daniel…Paul—the list could go on and on.

If your theology is wrong on this point, your life will inevitably be a constant roller coaster, never certain where you stand with God…never really sure if He loves you and has your best interests at heart.

If you were walking with Jesus during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7-10), you might have seen the “Hosannas” as a sure sign of the Father’s favor upon His Son. But this kind of thinking would create a serious dilemma a few days later when the same crowd shouted, “Crucify Him!” (Mark 15:12-14) And how does Jesus’ agony on the cross square with the misguided notion that God’s favor always means a carefree life?

The point is this: It’s dangerous to assume God’s blessings are always a sign of His favor, or to see every adversity as a sign of His displeasure. Many ungodly people are healthy and financially prosperous, but that doesn’t guarantee they will find the Lord’s mercy and favor in the final judgment.

Jesus taught that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). This means our outward circumstances are often a very misleading representation of our Heavenly Father’s love for us.

However, this has been a hard lesson for my friend Joe, and for me as well. We’ve had to repent of trusting our circumstances as signs of God’s favor, instead of simply trusting what He’s said in His Word.

Perhaps you’re like Joe and me, needing to realize this powerful truth once again: Instead of loving you with a vacillating love, God loves you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). His grace, mercy, and favor aren’t fragile qualities that haphazardly come and go.

So remember: If you are in Christ  today, you can be confident that you are also in His favor—no matter what difficult circumstances you may be going through.

Isn’t this a tremendous relief? Isn’t it good to know you already have God’s favor if you have Christ?  Paul said it so well: He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Now that’s favor you can count on…rest upon…and radiate to others. Why? Because He loves you—no matter what.

———————————

I would love to preach at your church or conference, be a consultant to your leadership team, or help your organization navigate the waters of transition. You can reach me at info@JimBuchan.com.

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You & Me and Our Crazy Family Tree

Christmas is a special time for families—but that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy time. Gathering with relatives over the holidays can either be pleasant or painful, magical or mayhem. While you have great anticipation in seeing some of your loved ones, other members of your family tree may make you cringe.

Picture the family line of a good friend of mine. If the whole gang could somehow be brought together for a family reunion, I can only imagine the sparks that would fly.

  • One of my friend’s female ancestors slept with her father-in-law and bore him twin boys.
  • Another member of the family tree was a prostitute, known for being a very convincing liar.
  • The family line included someone from a despised ethnic group that had its origins in incest between a father and daughter.
  • Two ancestors were involved in an adulterous relationship, and the man ultimately killed his lover’s husband to keep the affair from being discovered.
  • Several ancestors had multiple wives, and others were known for worshiping idols.

And you think you have some crazies in your family lineage?! The good news is that God is able to redeem terrible situations like these and transform them with His amazing grace.

How do I know? Because the Friend I’m referring to is Jesus.

Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1 reveals all of the sinful and dysfunctional ancestors I’ve described, and yet this was the human lineage of the Son of God. Instead of being able to boast of a spotless family lineage, the Bible describes our spotless Lord and Savior as “a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2).

So what does this mean for you and me? Several things:

  1. Experiencing and extending God’s grace. We need to experience God’s grace and then extend it to our imperfect, dysfunctional family members—just as we’re hopeful they will offer grace to cover our If the twisted members of Jesus’ family tree could find grace enough to become a part of His royal lineage, then surely there’s hope for our weird relatives as well.
  2. No more blame-shifting. It’s time to quit blaming others and making excuses for our past. Sure, your family upbringing may have been a mess. But God stands ready to turn your MESS into your MESSAGE—if you’ll let Him. Through divine intervention, your family tree can undergo a new beginning today. You don’t have to fall into the same old sins and strongholds of your earthly heritage, because you’ve been redeemed from the futile way of life inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). In Christ, you’re a new creation, no matter who your earthly ancestors were (2 Corinthians 5:17).
  3. Facing the facts. If I were writing the book of Matthew, I would have been tempted to doctor the records and “sanitize” Jesus’ family tree. Couldn’t Matthew have just listed all the success stories and none of the embarrassments of Jesus’ ancestors? Yet the beauty of the gospel is that it transforms sinners—people like you and me. If people were already perfect, they wouldn’t need to be transformed. So the next time you wish you could erase some names from your family tree, think again. Face the truth, and let it set you free (John 8:32).

As God’s grace and mercy fill your heart this Christmas, I pray you will enjoy your family members and your heritage more than ever before. May the Lord use you to bring hope and healing to those who need it most.

 

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Getting Rid of Your Scarlet Letters

Of all the novels I read in high school and college, perhaps the one that impacted me the most was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, the book tells the story of Hester Prynne, who is required to forever wear the letter “A” on her dress after she is discovered to be an adulteress.

Think of what it would be like if this kind of punishment was enforced today. What if everyone who has engaged in sex outside of marriage was required to wear a scarlet “A” for Adultery or “S” for Shame?

But many of us deal with different kinds of scarlet letters. Perhaps it’s a scarlet “F” for Failure or Fat, “R” for Rejected, “I” for Inferior, “U” for Unemployed, or “D” for Depressed or Divorced.

You get the picture. Life’s scarlet letters can be customized to fit your personal situations. If we’re not careful, our negative experiences can become our identity.

Yes, many people—even many Christians—are carrying around internal guilt, inferiority, and shame that are not much different than Hester Prynne’s cruel punishment. Unable to believe God has truly forgiven them, they still are wallowing in their past mistakes.

I love the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it’s a message of redemption and happy endings. No matter how you’ve messed up your life with poor decisions in the past, God can set you free and give you a glorious future.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the story of Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho. This woman had a history far worse than Hester Prynne. She undoubtedly had engaged in sexual relations with hundreds of men, if not thousands. Rahab must have been seen as one of Jericho’s most notorious home-wreckers.

Yet this Canaanite harlot end up in the Hall of Fame of Faith (Hebrews 11:31) and even in the family line of both King David and Jesus (Matthew 1:5). What an amazing turnaround!

Despite growing up in a pagan environment, Rahab had heard of the God of Israel, and faith grew in her heart that He was the true God. So when Joshua sent two spies to scout out the fortified city of Jericho, she hid them on her roof and lied to the king’s soldiers about the spies’ whereabouts.

Quite the opposite of wearing a scarlet letter for her sordid past, Rahab ended up being saved by scarlet of a different kind. The spies agree to spare her life if she hung a scarlet cord from her window so the Israelites could find and protect her (Joshua 2:17-21).

Do you see what a beautiful picture this is? The scarlet cord represents the blood of Jesus that later would be shed on the cross for the sins of the world (John 1:29). Like Rahab, none of us can stand before God on the basis of our own good deeds or righteousness. As the old hymn by Robert Lowry says:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

So there’s no need for any of us to keep wearing a scarlet letter of guilt and shame for things we’ve done in the past. This is a new day. When the devil comes to condemn you, you can hang the scarlet cord from your window and tell him the blood of Jesus has cleansed you, just as if you had never sinned.

By taking a step of faith, Rahab changed the whole trajectory of her life. Not only was her own life transformed, but her legacy has now impacted countless generations.

I’m believing God for the same kind of transformation to happen in your life. But first you must ask Him to show you whether you’ve been carrying around some kind of scarlet letter because of past mistakes or traumas. If so, the good news is that you can claim the promise of Isaiah 1:18, cleansed of your sins and made “white as snow.”

And be clear on this: Your Heavenly Father doesn’t just tolerate you or begrudgingly accept you. He wholeheartedly LOVES you and offers you an incredible new identity:

The Lord will hold you in his hand for all to see—
a splendid crown in the hand of God.
Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City”
or “The Desolate Land.”
Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight”
and “The Bride of God,”
for the Lord delights in you
and will claim you as his bride
(Isaiah 62:3-4).

Amazing love, isn’t it? You are “God’s Delight,” and He beckons you to live your life as His beloved bride. You can throw away your scarlet letters, once and for all.

 

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