5 Strategies for Overcoming Stress Overload

stress 2

Stress often gets a bad rap. It’s not always bad. Our goal should certainly not be a “stress-free” life, for that kind of existence would be extremely boring and unproductive.

Just as a guitar string needs some “stress” in order to be in proper tune, so do we. If you strum a guitar string that is too tight, it’s liable to snap. But the same is true if the string is too loose. Whether too tight or too loose, if the string is out of tune it becomes more vulnerable to damage.

Of course, a few people have the gift of perfect pitch, able to keep their strings under exactly the right tension. But most of us need to use a guitar tuner or some other device that lets us know how the string is supposed to sound. Instead of the subjective approach, just tuning the instrument by ear, we need an objective standard to synchronize with.

I hope your life is well-tuned today, with just the right amount of stress. But if you’re anything like me, your tendency is to keep juggling more and more balls until you’re in danger of stress overload. Eventually you hit the breaking point, and it’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Over many decades of life and ministry, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in detecting and diffusing stress overload—mostly because I’ve so often been its victim.

Here are 5 of the top strategies I’ve discovered for overcoming this commonly recurring problem:

  1. Remember that God is God, and you’re not.

This principle is so basic, yet so deep. At the root of all stress overload is the human inclination to forget that God is on the throne of the universe. Throughout the Scriptures, we’re told to be still and know that HE is God (Psalm 46:10). We’re reminded that the government of creation is on HIS shoulders rather than ours (Isaiah 9:6-7). And we’re invited to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:7) and find rest for our soul (Matthew 11:28-30).

Not matter how strong, smart, creative, or resilient you might be, you will do a terrible job trying to be God. So if you feel like you’ve been given “more than you can handle” today, it may be because you’re trying to shoulder responsibilities that only God Himself is qualified to handle.

I’ll never forget my Grandma Fraggiotti singing her favorite hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” The song’s beautiful message somehow was even more penetrating when sung in Grandma’s distinct German accent.

  1. Recognize you’re not called upon to solve every problem and meet every need.

I’ve often fallen prey to stress overload because of trying to do everyone else’s job for them. Years ago I used to love playing volleyball during our church picnics. I was, in all humility, better than most of the other players, so I frequently tried to cover their positions as well as my own. Although I usually was successful doing this for a while, the ball would typically end up falling right where I myself was supposed to be. I was so overextended covering other people’s assignments, that I too often failed to cover my own.

I love John the Baptist’s reply when people asked about his identity. “I am not the Christ!” he told them (John 1:20). You and I need to remember that profound truth as well. We are not the whole body of Christ, but simply a part. In order to fulfill our true identity, we need to be very clear on who we are NOT.

On several occasions, people tried to get Jesus involved in situations He knew He wasn’t called to handle (e.g., Luke 12:13-14). At other times, He refused to fit into other people’s timeframe, because He realized His time had not yet come (John 7:2-8, John 11:3-6).

You will surely succumb to stress overload if you’re always allowing other people’s procrastination to constitute an emergency on your part. Likewise, you must learn to say “no” when you discern that people have an agenda for you that’s not God’s agenda.

  1. Focus your attention on the needs of today, rather than excessively dwelling on baggage of the past or events in the future.

One of my mother’s favorite Bible verses was Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Much of our stress comes either from trying to change yesterday (which is impossible) or worrying about situations that may or may not occur tomorrow.

Remember: God only promises to give us enough grace and strength for TODAY. When tomorrow comes, we’ll have the strength we need then too. But we’ll inevitably find ourselves overwhelmed if we attempt to shoulder the cares of yesterday, today, and tomorrow all at the same time.

  1. Remember the Sabbath principle.

God designed humankind to experience a rhythm of work and rest (Exodus 20:8-11). You weren’t made to work 24/7, nor even 24/6. You need to get adequate daily sleep and set aside consistent time each week for rest and revitalization.

Stress overload is also reduced when you take time to exercise, have fun, and do other activities that provide “energy in.” Stephen Covey refers to this principle as “sharpening the saw.” Few things are as stressful as trying to carry out our responsibilities in life when we’re feeling drained and empty.

  1. Periodically disengage from the cares of life for several days in a row.

While a weekly Sabbath rest break is vital to overcoming stress overload, sometimes we need more than that. I periodically come to places in my life when I need a personal retreat, vacation, or even a sabbatical.

To paraphrase Jesus’ words in Mark 6:31, “You need to come apart so that you won’t fall apart!” He and His disciples were hard workers, pouring their lives out for others. But He also modeled the importance of regularly getting away from the grind of ministry in order to gain new perspective, recharge our spiritual batteries, and regain our emotional vitality.

My favorite car ever was a baby blue 1976 Fiat. But it was a stick shift, and sometimes I forgot to push the clutch when shifting gears. The result was a terrible grinding sound, as the moving gears collided. I learned a valuable lesson from that car: Whenever I’m about to make a major shift or transition in my life, I need to “push the clutch” and momentarily disengage the gears.

By implementing these 5 strategies, you can experience a life of greater balance, joy, and longevity. Instead of operating on overload, your stress level will become like the strings of a finely tuned musical instrument.

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Love-Starved but Love-Resistant

Love hard heart

I recently discovered a strange phenomenon: People who are the most starved for love usually are resistant to receiving love when it’s offered to them.

This is like California or Texas after a long-term drought. When rain finally comes, the ground is so hard that it can’t properly soak up the water. Instead of being a blessing, the rain sometimes causes a flood!

Have you ever tried to show love to someone who was extremely love-starved? If so, the person probably either rejected your love or latched onto it in a completely unhealthy way. If you doubt me on this, talk to some of your friends who’ve ventured into the world of online dating…

The love-resistant principle is illustrated in the life of one of the Bible’s most fascinating characters, Mephibosheth. This son of Jonathan was crippled at age five and after his father’s death on the same day, he was exiled to a desolate wasteland called Lo Debar.

One day King David started wondering if any of Saul and Jonathan’s heirs remained, and he was told about this woeful, exiled prince (2 Samuel 9). David was intent on finding this forgotten young man and showing him kindness.

But although kindness was something Mephibosheth desperately needed, there was just one problem: this crippled son of David’s friend Jonathan was love-resistant. Like a Type 2 diabetic who’s insulin-resistant despite needing more insulin, he was emotionally unable to absorb the very thing he so clearly needed.

We really shouldn’t be too surprised. For several years this man had grown up in squalor and hopelessness. Lame in both legs, he was completely dependent on others. Day after day, his condition reminded him of his great loss, which occurred at no fault of his own.

So what happened when Mephibosheth was brought before the king?

Shuffling and stammering, not looking him in the eye, Mephibosheth said, “Who am I that you pay attention to a stray dog like me?” (v. 8 MSG).

How sad. After years of deprivation, this dispirited, love-starved man judged himself to be a loser, unworthy of kindness from the king or anyone else. Instead of being heir to the throne, now he felt of no more value than a stray dog!

Can you blame him? After all, he couldn’t hold a job…couldn’t produce anything…couldn’t even walk! In the eyes of most people in that period of time, he was WORTHLESS, plain and simple—and that’s how he saw himself as well.

As the story makes clear, Mephibosheth was crippled in both of his feet. But if we read between the lines, we realize that he was even more crippled emotionally. Instead of seeing himself as a prince, he was a pauper, completely unlovable.

Oh, but David’s love—like God’s love for us—was not to be denied. Despite the deplorable condition of this man, both physically and psychologically, the king persisted in his plan to RESTORE him to what he had lost.

That’s good news, because we’ve ALL suffered losses of various kinds. Thankfully, King Jesus offers to bring us from Lo Debar, bringing us restoration rather than judgment.

This story has a beautiful conclusion: “So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem, for he ate continually at the king’s table” (v. 13). No longer dwelling in the spiritual wasteland of Lo Debar, the crippled prince once again ate at the king’s table, just like one of David’s sons.

Are you starving for love today? Remember the story of this dejected young man whose hard emotional shell finally gave way to the relentless kindness of God. When you let the King shower you with His love, it will open the corridors of your heart to experience love from other people as well.

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Job’s Melancholy Birthday

Job's birthday

At my age, birthdays are something I would prefer to forget rather than celebrate. Yet the greetings of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” continue, and I’m always grateful for the nice sentiments.

This got me thinking of the story of Job. He had a happy life at the beginning and the end, but the middle was pretty rough.

Thankfully, we don’t have to get stuck in the middle of the story.

At one point, Job was not a big fan of his birthday. A season of incredibly severe trials had begun, and he cursed the day he was born:

Obliterate the day I was born.
    Blank out the night I was conceived!
Let it be a black hole in space.
    May God above forget it ever happened.
    Erase it from the books!
May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,
    shrouded by the fog,
    swallowed by the night.
And the night of my conception—the devil take it!
    Rip the date off the calendar,
    delete it from the almanac.
Oh, turn that night into pure nothingness—
    no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever!
May those who are good at cursing curse that day
(Job 3:1-10 MSG).

Wow. An extreme reaction, don’t you think? But at that moment Job had forgotten his past blessings and wasn’t anticipating a better life in the days ahead.

I hope you  never have a melancholic birthday like Job was experiencing. But even if you do, his story provides good news—a happy ending!

God blessed Job’s later life even more than his earlier life…Job lived on another 140 years, living to see his children and grandchildren—four generations of them! Then he died—an old man, a full life (Job 42:12-17 MSG).

How cool that 140 years after Job wanted his life to end, everything had changed. He was experiencing a full, blessed life, all the way to the end.

So…I hope all your birthdays are happy ones. But even if they aren’t, you can find hope and comfort in the story of Job. God is a God of turnarounds and new beginnings. Your “later life” can be even more blessed than your earlier life!

Like Job, you may be facing pain in your body or losses of your property and relationships. But we’re told that “God restored his fortune—and then doubled it!” (Job 42:10 MSG). Yes, Job got double for all his trouble.

It may take 42 chapters, as it did for Job, but your story can have a happy ending too. You don’t have to get stuck in a melancholic birthday. The Lord can restore what you’ve lost—and even given you more.

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The Cure for Bone-Deep Pain

bone-deep-pain

I once met a man who had become addicted to prescription painkillers.

“That must be terrible,” I empathized. “Where is your pain located?”

I expected the man to tell me about migraine headaches, pain in his back, or some other kind of physical agony. But, to my surprise, he took the conversation in an entirely different direction.

“Well, my wife left me a few years ago, and I’ve been really lonely. I’m also having conflict with my kids, and I don’t like my job. I basically hate my life and feel like a total failure.”

I wasn’t prepared for his explanation. What did any of those circumstances have to do with getting hooked on prescription pain medicine?

However, as our conversation continued, I began to see the connection. While some people become dependent on pills to alleviate their physical  discomfort, this man was desperately trying to numb his emotional  pain.

Perhaps you can’t relate to this. I hope  you can’t relate!

Yet here’s the sad reality for many people: There’s a kind of pain that goes far deeper than pain in our physical body. It goes to the very soul—to the core of our being.

I call this “bone-deep” pain, but it’s actually much deeper even than that.

King David seems to have been quite familiar with bone-deep emotional pain. While some of his psalms are exuberant and celebratory, many describe his deep internal agony, all the way down to his bones:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled…
(Psalm 6:3).

My life is spent with grief,
And my years with sighing;
My strength fails because of my iniquity,
And my bones waste away
(Psalm 31:10).

When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long
(Psalm 32:3).

Some of David’s psalms attribute his bone-deep pain to things like grief, betrayal, and the torment he frequently received from his enemies. But other passages, such as Psalm 39, acknowledge that some of his emotional pain was the direct result of his own sinful, foolish choices:

O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath,
Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure!
For Your arrows pierce me deeply,
And Your hand presses me down.

There is no soundness in my flesh
Because of Your anger,
Nor any health in my bones
Because of my sin
.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
My wounds are foul and festering
Because of my foolishness…

I am feeble and severely broken;
I groan because of the turmoil of my heart 
(Psalm 39:1-8).

Fortunately, there’s hope for those who are suffering bone-deep pain. David goes on to conclude that God is with him and well aware of his turmoil (v. 9). Even though there is no lasting relief for such pain through prescription painkillers, alcohol, or illegal drugs, David has found the only source of true hope: “In You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God”  (v. 15).

David had experienced the incredible pain of internal torment, but that gave him authority to speak with great eloquence about the Shepherd who offers to lead us to a place of peace, safety, and renewed joy: “He restores my soul”  (Psalm 23:3).

Let those four beautiful words sink into the core of your being today: “He restores my soul.”  The Lord understands the severity of your pain, and He offers to penetrate—bone deep and beyond—to restore your soul.

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Resurrecting the Dead Things in Your Life

Dry bones

One of the Bible’s most incredible statements is that the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead now lives in us (Romans 8:11). Why then do I meet so many people who have dead areas in their lives, still awaiting Christ’s resurrection life?

I’m convinced that just about everyone has some aspect of their life in need of a resurrection. Dead hopes and dreams. Dead careers. Dead marriages. Dead relationships with parents, kids, or siblings. Or perhaps physical ailments in need of a touch from the resurrected Christ.

Can you relate to this? Is there some area of your life that has become stagnant, dry, or even dead? If so, some powerful lessons to be learned from Ezekiel’s stunning vision of God resurrecting the “dry bones” of the nation of Israel (Ezekiel 37).

As the vision began, Ezekiel found himself “in the midst of a valley” (v. 1). Isn’t it interesting that some of our greatest revelations from God come when we’re in a valley of some kind? We all crave mountaintop experiences, of course, but more often our biggest breakthroughs occur when we’re down in some valley or pit.

In this valley, Ezekiel didn’t just see one dead object. The valley was full of bones,” body parts that once had been alive, but now were dead. In the same way, when we find ourselves sitting in a hopeless place, it’s hard to see signs of life anywhere. Death seems to have a cascading effect, spreading almost like cancer. Perhaps it started with a job loss, but then it turned into marital disharmony, depression, or addiction.

Surrounded by death and dryness on every side, the prophet is asked a very important question: “Can these bones live?” (v. 3) When an area of your life has seemingly died, this is a question you will have to confront. Is there any hope? Is it still possible for resurrection to come?

The temptation, of course, is simply to say, “It’s over. Once something has died, there’s no hope it will ever return to life.” Despite being a man of faith, even Ezekiel had little confidence this story was going to have a happy ending. Instead of boldly proclaiming that the dry bones would surely live, all he can muster is the lame response, “O Lord God, You know” (v. 3).

At this point in the story, God gets Ezekiel involved in the recovery plan, instructing him to “prophesy to these bones” and tell them to “hear the word of the Lord” (v. 4). If you’re ever going to experience the resurrection of a dead area of your life, it’s unlikely God will allow you to remain a passive bystander. No, He will give you an assignment, something you can do to spark the turnaround.

Ezekiel is told to speak to the troublesome circumstances, commanding them to heed God’s Word. That’s a pretty good starting place for us as well. We need to start speaking words of life and hope to the dead things in our life, telling them to line up with the Word of God.

When Ezekiel obeyed the Lord and prophesied, “there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling” (v. 7). It can be a scary thing when our dead things begin to rattle, shake, and make noises! But this is often what happens when God begins to restore dead things to life. Rather than bring us fear, these should be signs of hope.

Next, “the bones came together, bone to bone” (v. 7). There’s power in agreement and relationship (Matthew 18:19-20). God’s plan is to bring us together, but if the devil can keep us separated and isolated, our dryness and defeat will continue unabated.

Finally, the Spirit of God breathed on these dead bones, bringing them back to life. The Israelites had said, “Our bones are dry, our hope is lost” (v. 11), but the Lord brought them resurrection and pointed them to a hope-filled future.

Notice that this is not a self-help story. Dead bones don’t come back to life by trying harder. Something supernatural  needs to happen in order to bring dead things back to life.

This great story is about resurrection and hope, but it’s also about purpose. Although the bones had been lifeless and nonfunctional for a long time before, they “stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army” (v. 10). You see, it’s not just about God resurrecting your hopes and dreams so you can have a happier life. It’s about rising up to fulfill your purpose in His mighty army.

Can you hear the Spirit beginning to breathe on you today? It’s not too late for a resurrection!

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I Need My Second Wind…How About You?

tired-runner

“Second wind is a phenomenon in distance running, such as marathons or road running, whereby an athlete who is too out of breath and tired to continue suddenly finds the strength to press on at top performance with less exertion.” – Wikipedia

I meet lots of people who are weary today. Many of them are fellow baby boomers, who get tired more easily than in their younger days.

But weariness is an epidemic affecting people of all ages, and often it has little to do with physical stamina. The weariness is typically more emotional, spiritual, and relational than physical.

I’m referring to a weariness that goes beyond anything Starbucks or Red Bull can cure. Can you relate?

When that kind of weariness hits, it makes us want to quit…give up…throw in the towel…or simply curl up in the fetal position. As General George Patton once observed, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Marathon runners experience this. Usually around mile 20 they “hit the wall,” feeling like their energy has vanished and they can’t possibly run another step. There seems no hope of making it to the finish line at mile 26.2.

Yet long-distance runners often testify that something magical happens if they press on a little farther. Just when it seems the race has been lost, they suddenly get their “second wind.”

I need a second wind today, don’t you?

Some days I just want to quit. Other days I think I have just enough energy to sprint a little further until I keel over. But what I need is simply a second wind—energy enough to complete the race, all the way to the finish line.

Fortunately, Jesus understands that life is a marathon, and He offers a second wind to those who’ve hit the wall:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

Whenever I read this beautiful promise, I’m struck by Jesus’ offer to provide “rest for your souls.” When my body is tired, I can simply take a nap or a vacation. Although those solutions may be helpful, they fall far short of what I truly need: rest and refreshing that penetrates all the way to my soul.

Another stunning thing about Jesus’ offer is that it’s not a 3-point or 5-point self-help plan, so common today in our sermons, articles, and books. Instead, it just has ONE central point, on which everything else depends: “Come to me…”

This promise of Jesus was foreshadowed by another great Bible passage about what we can do when we hit the wall and are weary of life:

The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of all the earth.
He never grows weak or weary…
He gives power to the weak
and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
and young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint
(Isaiah 40:28-31).

Notice that “even youths”—not just the elderly or baby boomers—“will become weak and tired” and “fall in exhaustion.” But the good news is that God offers us a second wind, “new strength,” when we cast our burdens on Him and spend time in His presence.

Too many Christians are relying upon the “wind” they received at their conversion, often several decades ago. No wonder we run out of steam when we do that.

What we need, instead, is a fresh infilling with the wind of the Holy Spirit. That kind of “second wind” will change everything.

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Recovering from Spiritual Amnesia

The Perils of Forgetting Who You Are

There’s a lot of amnesia going around lately, and I wonder if you might be a victim. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that I’m a recovering amnesiac myself. More on that in a moment, but first let me give you some background on the kind of amnesia I’m referring to.

Several years ago, my wife and I watched a rather lame made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime network. A woman was comatose after a serious car accident, and when she awoke she had no idea who she was. Eventually she regained her identity and reestablished her relationship with family members, but it wasn’t easy.

There’s a similar scene in my favorite musical, “Man of La Mancha.” Don Quixote has fallen into a coma after suffering what amounts to a nervous breakdown, and he’s seemingly on this deathbed. When visited by the love of his life, the “virtuous lady Dulcinea” (also known as the barmaid Aldonza), he doesn’t even recognize her. Even worse, he doesn’t seem to recognize himself as the valiant knight who had once pursued “the impossible dream.”

It’s a terrible thing to forget who you are. But fortunately, Don Quixote rediscovered his dream and remembered who he was. Reawakened to his destiny, he was ready again “to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”

I had a similar experience a few years ago. No, I wasn’t in an accident, nor did I fall into a coma or experience a nervous breakdown. I certainly wasn’t on my deathbed, at least not physically.

But just like the woman in the TV movie or Don Quixote, I had forgotten who I was.

My recovery was triggered by a phone call I made to an old friend named Jim Byers. We live in different states, and I had lost touch with for more than a decade until the day I happened to stumble across him on Facebook.

At first this phone call was a little awkward. What would we talk about after so long? I considered ending the call after just a few minutes, saying something like, “Well, it was great hearing your voice again, Jim. I just wanted to say hello.”

But like a mighty locomotive, the conversation slowly gained momentum. We talked of old times, when we joyously ministered together and reached out to pastors and churches across the state of Ohio in the 1980s. God really used us back then, and we had a blast in the process.

Although I lost track of how long we talked, it must have been more than an hour and a half. I rarely talk to anyone that long, but it was worth it.

So what does any of this have to do with amnesia?

After my marathon conversation with Jim Byers, I concluded that I had forgotten a piece of who I am. Oh, it’s not that I have a bad life now. I have some friends here in the Carolinas, and I believe my preaching and writing have never been more powerful.

Yet there was something special about the way God used Jim Byers and me to encourage pastors and help them find the resources they needed for greater vitality in their churches. I miss those days, just like I’ve missed the depth of friendship I experienced with Jim.

Of course, there’s another side of this. Paul says we should forget some of the things in our past so we can press onward toward our calling in Christ (Philippians 3:12-14). Yet he also told Timothy to REMEMBER and “fan into flame” what God had spoken to him and done in his life in the past (1 Timothy 1:18, 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:5-7 NIV). If Timothy was to “fight the battle well,” he needed to remember who he was.

What about you? Have you, by chance, forgotten some important aspect of who God has gifted you to be? Do you need to read some of your old journals or have a conversation with a friend you haven’t talked to in decades?

If you’ve been an amnesiac like me, this can be your day to reawaken your dreams. It’s time to remember the glorious quest that once brought great joy to your heart.

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Is God an Indian Giver?

My apologies in advance to both God and the Indians for this offensive title. But it’s the only way I know to bring up an extremely important theological question. Let me explain…

During the past 12 months, I have had a number of things taken away from me. This has caused me to wrestle with whether Job was correct in this analysis after his devastating losses:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord
(Job 1:20-21).

The subsequent verse endorses Job’s heart to worship the Lord, despite his great distress: “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”

But I don’t think this means Job’s theology was always accurate. In fact, the book of Job is filled with misguided theological discourses between Job and his friends, and at the end of the story God dismisses most of their theories as well-intentioned nonsense.

So what about Job’s statement here that the Lord was the one who had taken away his blessings—the same blessings the Lord had given him in the first place? This view is so prominent today that it has even made it into a popular song by Matt and Beth Redman:

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say, Lord
Blessed be Your name

I’ve always been troubled by those lyrics, in an otherwise great song. They seem to suggest that it’s God’s very nature to give us things, just to delight in later taking them away from us. What a warped, sadistic, and inaccurate view of God’s heart!

I’m sure entire books have been written to address this complicated issue, but let me make it as simple as I can.

Jesus said we have a Heavenly Father who loves to give good things to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:7-11). He certainly didn’t add anything about God then taking away the good things He had just given us. What kind of Father would delight in doing that?

Like any good father, our Father in Heaven wants His children to be blessed. His Word describes Him as a Good Shepherd who lovingly cares for His sheep, even when they face enemies or must travel through dark valleys (Psalm 23). David, the shepherd psalmist, wrote, “The Lord be magnified, who delights in the prosperity of His servant” (Psalm 35:27).

This is God’s very nature, after all. He’s a Lover and a Giver. He so loved the world that He GAVE His only Son—and, thankfully, He never took Him away (John 3:16).

The notion of God as an Indian giver is further debunked by Paul’s powerful statement that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). And Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.”

Although I take great comfort in these verses about God’s unwavering faithfulness, that still leaves the question: What are we to do when we suffer unexplainable losses, like Job did? This has happened to all of us at one time or another. It surely seems that God has taken things away from us at times, doesn’t it?

Here are some brief thoughts:

  • Satan is a thief. Notice that when Jesus pointed this out in John 10:10, He never said GOD is a thief! No, our Heavenly Father is the one who wants us to experience an abundant life, not suffer loss. Job didn’t see behind the veil into the spiritual realm, but it was Satan robbing him of his blessings, not God.
  • God WILL prune anything away from our life that is counterproductive to our good. Jesus explained,Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). So, in that sense, God truly DOES “take things away” from our lives—things that are dead branches…things that are toxic…things that have become idols. He may even challenge us to put something precious on the altar, in order to see if our heart is fully His (Genesis 22).
  • In this fallen world, we will sometimes experience losses because of the sinful decisions of other people. We can’t control the choices of others, nor does even God attempt to do that. But even though He may not always shield us from the consequences of other people’s decisions, He often will RESTORE our losses in due time. We see this repeatedly in Scripture, when God enabled His people to take back what an enemy stole (e.g., Genesis 14 and 1 Samuel 30). The Lord even brought about restoration when the “enemy” was a swarm of locusts (Joel 2:25).

Today I encourage you to resolve in your heart that your Heavenly Father loves you greatly and wants to bless you rather than steal from you. Yes, He may remove material possessions or relationships that are not truly blessing your life, but even that is an example of His love.

Although I vehemently disagree with Job’s insinuation that God is an Indian giver, he was definitely right that we should praise the Lord in every circumstance of life (1 Thessalonians 5:18). God is on our side. He delights in blessing us, and we should continually worship and bless Him.

Let’s make sure we are seeing Him correctly today.

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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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When All Else Fails… ‘Rouse YOURSELF’

I hope you are doing well today. But if not, there’s a good chance you’ve found someone else to blame for your malaise.

You know what I mean. You’re in a bad mood, so you blame it on the lack of affection you’re receiving from your spouse. Your bank account is empty, and you’re convinced it’s because your employer is too stingy to pay you enough. Your spiritual life is bone dry, so you claim it’s the result of your pastor’s uninspiring preaching. You don’t like your situation in life, and you say you’re waiting on God to fix it someday.

But perhaps you’re looking in the wrong direction for your spiritual, emotional, or financial revival. The person to blame may be a lot closer than you think…

One day the prophet Isaiah cried out to God in despair: “There is no one who calls on Your name, who arouses himself to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities”  (Isaiah 64:7). Isaiah’s observation holds a vital key for whatever breakthrough we seek in our lives today: We must “arouse ourselves” to take hold of the Lord!

While the Bible also commands us to “stir up one another to love and good works”  (Hebrews 10:24 ESV), this is not ordinarily where a spiritual awakening begins. You see, it’s not primarily the responsibility of other people—your spouse, your friends, your employer, or your pastor—to rouse you from your lethargy. Even God Himself won’t bring you to a place of renewal and restoration until you rouse yourself  to take hold of Him.

Make no mistake about it: Rousing yourself isn’t a one-time proposition but something you must do on a regular basis. Paul told Timothy to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you”  (2 Timothy 1:6). Other translations say we must “stir up”  or “fan into flame”  the gifts and callings of God in our lives.

Before the day is over, I encourage you to spend some time with the Lord to arouse yourself and take hold of Him in a fresh way. And once that happens, you’ll be in a position to also  stir up others to a renewed passion for their calling in God.

There’s no need to wait for someone else!

 

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