The Happiness Switch

How 2017 Unexpectedly Became My Happiest Year in Decades

Like King David in the Bible, many of my journal entries in recent years could have been titled, “Why am I so depressed…so dissatisfied with life?” This was especially true most years in November and December, when I faced holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

So it came as a surprise when I noticed this month that I’m happier than I’ve been in years – even decades. How could this be, when most things in my life are exactly the same as they’ve been for the past several years?

Strangely, although I still have the same job, friends, and marital status as I did a year ago, somehow my perspective is radically different. This seemed puzzling at first. Yes, God used my sabbatical in May and June to change my outlook, and the birth of my first grandchild certainly helped as well. But I’m convinced that my new perspective has little to do with any external changes in my life this year – the transformation has been almost entirely a matter of the heart.

While some aspects of my new outlook are difficult to put into words, I’ve identified 6 specific adjustments God supernaturally brought to my attitude this year. Perhaps these will be helpful to you as well:

  1. No more striving. During my sabbatical I recognized my bad habit of striving for God’s affection or people’s applause. How stupid! God already loves me – enough to send His Son to die in my place – and there’s absolutely nothing I can do earn more of His love or favor. That’s a life-changing realization! Likewise, there’s no need to strive for more kudos from other people. Those who matter  in my life already love me, and if someone doesn’t  love me, I guess they don’t really matter.

This year I also recognized the unhealthy ways I’ve been striving to make more of an impact. Although it’s noble to desire a greater impact for God’s kingdom, my self-image had become far too entangled with my perception of the impact I was having. God had to take me to the other side of the world – New Zealand – to show me the startling fact that I already am making an incredible impact.

While I was in the process of questioning my usefulness and impact, the Lord reminded me that I’m part of an international ministry that’s recording more than one million salvations through our evangelistic outreaches this year. Also, there have been 30 million views of our daily discipleship videos, and I was directly involved in writing the scripts for those. In addition, I wrote books, booklets, pamphlets, and magazine articles that have impacted thousands of people.

I’m not citing this evidence to boast, but rather to illustrate how crazy it is to for me to strive for greater self-esteem based on increasing my accomplishments. It’s time to REST and REJOICE in what God has done!

  1. No more envy. Until this summer, I never realized the deadly grip jealousy and envy had on me. The final item of the Ten Commandments warns about this: “You shall not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). God has done a remarkable work in delivering me from envy the past six months, and this has resulted in incredible JOY!

No longer do I envy ANYONE. Others may have a bigger salary, a nicer house, and a faster car, but I don’t envy them. And although I have friends who’ve gotten engaged this year, I’m not envious of them, nor of my friends who already have happy marriages.

In Philippians 4:19, the apostle Paul describes the Lord’s ability to meet our needs, and it’s great to know that miraculous provision is possible during our times of lack. But, earlier in the chapter, Paul spoke about another  amazing secret he had learned – the ability to be content regardless of his present circumstances (vs. 11-12). When we recognize how blessed we already are, there’s no need to envy those around us – and that should be a cause for great rejoicing.

  1. No more regrets. If you have regrets today, I can sympathize. None of us is happy about everything we’ve done in past, nor everything that happened to If we’re honest, there are certainly some things we wish had turned out differently.

However, this year Romans 8:28 has become more than a nice religious memory verse for me. God truly can turn ALL things around for good when we love Him and seek to fulfill His purposes. Without the agony of Jesus’ cross, there would have been no forgiveness. And somehow God always uses our “crosses” to release more of His resurrection power and blessings.

Perhaps you’ve faced some horrendous events you can’t even begin to understand right now. My heart goes out to you. But I believe the day will come when you’ll be able to say along with Joseph, “God meant it for GOOD” (Genesis 50:20). You’ll cast off the regrets holding you captive, enabling you to get unstuck from the traumas that once caused you unspeakable pain.

  1. No more complaining. Like never before, I’m making an effort to replace grumbling with gratitude. Paul had a lot he could have complained about while sitting in a Roman prison cell. But instead he chose to focus on the people he was thankful for (Philippians 1:3-7) and the things in his life that were praiseworthy (4:4-8). That kind of adjusted focus goes a long way toward experiencing a happier and more joyful life.

I’m sure I’ll continue to struggle with this at times. I’ll be tempted to complain about aches and pains, singleness, the traffic in Charlotte, and countless other annoyances. But thankfully God has given me the power to change my focus and choose gratitude – and that makes all the difference.

  1. No more worries. At my advanced age, there are plenty of things a person could worry about. We worry about future health problems and wonder who would take care of us in that event. We worry about whether our financial reserves will run out before we die. We worry about being alone in our latter years. And I’m sure you can think of some other things to worry about as well…

Once again, my circumstances haven’t changed much, but my perspective is quite different than it was last year at this time. Why waste time and emotional energy worrying, when God has consistently proven Himself faithful throughout the years?

When I reflect on my past, I notice that the things I worried about seldom actually happened. Instead, God provided what I needed, even if it was at the last minute. Shouldn’t I trust Him to provide for me in the future too? Hey, during my sabbatical, I lived for six weeks with just the stuff I could fit into a medium-sized suitcase – and I didn’t lack anything.

My concerns about future financial provision gained a better perspective this year when I visited a multimillionaire friend. Once he had lavish homes in several different states, but now he lives in an assisted living center. Although he still has plenty of money, he spends his days in a small, one-room apartment – not much different than the kind of place someone on government assistance would have. Nevertheless, my friend is happy as can be, grateful that he has a bed, a comfortable chair, a TV, his own bathroom, and three meals a day. What else would he really need? At this point, his great wealth has largely become irrelevant.

  1. No more codependence. I’ll admit, I have a long-time habit of trying to rescue people. That may not sound like a problem to you, but sometimes it has caused me unnecessary trouble. You see, those of us who are pastors and caregivers at heart frequently go overboard, forgetting to set boundaries and take care of ourselves.

Recently God reminded me of the beautiful words of Isaiah 9:6-7, “The government will be upon HIS shoulder.”  Too often, I’ve tried to shoulder the problems of the universe on my own shoulders, which is a sure prescription for burnout, if not disaster.

So if you see me trying to rescue a damsel in distress, there’s a good chance you should rebuke me. Instead of trying to solve everyone’s problems, caregivers like me must learn the hard lesson of letting God be God, and pointing people to Him instead of to ourselves (Psalm 46:10). As John the Baptist discovered, we must boldly admit, “I am not the Christ!” (John 1:20).

Imagine the overwhelming joy you’d experience if God set you free from striving…envy…regrets…complaining…worries…and codependence. It would be the best year you’ve had in decades!

I have a few additional reasons for being exceptionally happy this year. My job description at work has undergone some helpful tweaks. My home is also better organized now, because I got rid of some clutter when I moved. It always feels good to get rid of unnecessary “stuff,” doesn’t it?

Looking back on this year, I’m still amazed that most of the significant, joy-producing changes occurred in my heart, not in any of my circumstances. Ironically, these internal transformations probably could have happened in 2016, 2015, or even decades ago. Yet even though I wish I would have learned the lessons much sooner, there’s no time for regrets. Regardless of how long it took me to discover these simple truths, I’m VERY grateful that 2017 turned out to be such a transformational year.

Dear friend, you don’t have to wait until you’re my age to implement these life-changing perspectives. Life is too short to delay any longer. You might as well start being happy as soon as possible.

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My Boundless Gratitude — in Retrospect

This Thanksgiving was a chance to reflect once again on my “Gratitude Quotient.” I concluded that I’m happier and more grateful than I’ve been in many years.

However, I uncovered a blog I wrote several years ago admitting two disturbing things: (1) I’m still not nearly as grateful as I should be for how God has blessed me; and (2) Many of the things I’m now MOST grateful for are past events I wasn’t grateful for at all  when they were taking place.

I call this second point “gratitude in retrospect,” the phenomenon of being grateful today for situations I once grumbled about.

Perhaps you can relate. Have you gone through difficult times when it was extremely difficult to give thanks? But now, as you look back, you see that God was at work through it all. Gratitude (finally!) rises in your heart as you see how the painful events have been beautifully woven into the fabric of your life.

  • Maybe you had a relationship breakup that tore your very heart…but it paved the way for the Lord to provide someone much better in your life.
  • Maybe you faced a severe trial in your health…but it caused you to make lifestyle changes in your diet and exercise – and now you’re feeling better than ever.
  • Maybe you lost a job you thought you’d have until retirement…but God opened (or will open) a new door that’s a much better fit for your gifts and passions.
  • Maybe you’ve experienced a financial meltdown, such as foreclosure or bankruptcy…but you learned vital lessons that eventually put you on the path to prosperity.
  • Maybe you went through some other difficult experience that has now given you a platform to help others.

These are just a few examples of how “gratitude in retrospect” can occur. I first noticed this in my life a few years ago, when a friend suggested that I write a book about church splits. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” was my initial thought. “Even though I’m an expert on church splits, who would ever be interested in a book about that?”

But my tech-savvy friend pointed out that 8,000 people every month do a Google search on the subject of church splits. “Wow. There must be a lot of people dealing with this,” I concluded.

As a result of that conversation, I wrote The Complete Guide to Church Splits: Prevention, Survival, and Recovery (which I can send you upon request). This event was a great example to me of Paul’s statement that we can comfort others with the same comfort we received from God during our own times of affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

Working on my book about church splits sparked something much bigger in my heart than just a new book project: I discovered that God had been a lot more faithful than I had given Him credit for. And I became much more grateful for the difficult things I’ve experienced in life – even though my gratitude was too often in retrospect.

I’m still troubled by my struggle to be grateful at the same time as my trials are occurring. The Bible instructs us to give thanks “IN everything,” not just AFTER everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

I’m also sad that although I’ve given lip service to Romans 8:28 for decades, God’s amazing promise there is still not rooted as deeply in my life as it should be. Paul had gone through incredible trials (2 Corinthians 11:22-28), yet he said, “We KNOW that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

As the truth of Romans 8:28 becomes more a part of my life, I hope to become more grateful all the time – not just in retrospect. I want to become increasingly aware that God is always working to “connect the dots” in my life, creating a masterpiece I could never have imagined during my times of adversity.

So I pray you will join me in being grateful TODAY – no matter what the day brings…no matter what you may be going through. You may not understand it all today, but you can be confident the Lord is working out His wonderful plan nevertheless.

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Ron’s New Appreciation for the Holidays

Ever since his divorce several years back, my friend Ron has complained to me this time of year about the upcoming holidays. He has his reasons, to be sure, but he’s begun to sound like a broken record.

“It’s just not the same,” he moans. “With my wife gone and my kids living far away, it’s always an agonizing time for me.”

Then he typically cites the gluttony, commercialization, overspending, and other holiday sins as justification for his negative attitudes. You’ve probably met people who think like that.

“Let’s face it, Ron,” I sometimes tease him. “With your ‘humbug’ attitude, your parents should have named you Ebenezer!”

A few weeks ago, he threw in a new line that really got me thinking. “I wish I could just press the fast forward button and wake up on January 2,” he told me. Although part of me sympathized with Ron on this, I spent some time praying we would gain a new perspective.

Then suddenly it hit me: Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t just ordinary holidays. They represent two of the most important attributes of a happy, successful, and impactful life.

Let me explain…

If you asked me the most important attitudes a person could ever cultivate, my answer would clearly be GRATITUDE and GENEROSITY. Yet although I’ve lived more than six decades now, somehow I overlooked the fact that these are exactly the core principles behind Thanksgiving (gratitude) and Christmas (generosity).

Notice that gratitude and generosity are both “magnetic” traits. People in the secular world or New Age Movement call this “The Law of Attraction,” but it’s a Biblical principle too. Gratitude and generosity attract blessings and favor to our lives, both from God and from people.

In contrast, blessings and favor are repulsed  by INGRATITUDE and STINGINESS. No wonder Scrooge didn’t have many friends until his epiphany came.

Through gratitude (a heart of thankfulness) we enter into the gates of the Lord’s presence (Psalm 100:4). And have you noticed how people love to give things to a person who’s truly grateful?

Likewise, generosity is one of the primary keys to a life of blessing and impact. Proverbs 11:24-25 (NLT) beautifully points this out:

Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything. The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Do you want to prosper? Then set your heart on becoming more generous.

Do you want to enter into a time of refreshing in your life? Then make it your aim to refresh others.

More importantly, do you want to become more like your Heavenly Father? Then one of the very best ways is to become more generous. You see, a central character trait of your Father in Heaven is that He’s a GIVER. “God so loved the world” that He didn’t just think more positive thoughts toward us – He GAVE His Son! (John 3:16).

If you truly see how loving and generous your Father is, you’ll be that way too. But if you view Him as stingy and miserly, you’ll end up behaving like Scrooge and having a miserable life to show for it.

So, what about Ron?

Armed with this new understanding of how Thanksgiving and Christmas mirror God’s two major character traits for a happy and holy life, I’ve been endeavoring to help Ron gain a new perspective too.

“Ron, you may not like every aspect of the holidays,” I’ve told him. “But what if you used Thanksgiving as a monumental opportunity to work on your GRATITUDE? And what if Christmas became your yearly reminder to live a life of GENEROSITY?”

In all likelihood, next year at this time I’ll have to remind Ron again. But who knows? If he truly begins to practice a life of gratitude and generosity, he may even attract a new wife by then. That would be amazing, but miracles really do happen…especially when we’re consistently grateful and generous.

#PrayForRon

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6 Takeaways from a Great Sabbatical

Jim CLT final

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

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

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

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

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

You never ask that I earn Your affection.

I could never earn something that’s free.

I never have to fight for Your attention,

Because Your eyes are ever on me.

You have given everything my heart could ever need,

And all You ask is I believe.

I am resting safe inside Your promise to provide,

And nothing could ever change Your love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Key to Experiencing Thanksgiving All Year Long

Rockwell, Freedom from Want 1943.jpg

Thanksgiving is clearly the greatest holiday ever created in America—and not just because of the great food and football games.

A few years ago I had a new revelation while writing Thanksgiving notes to some friends. In past years, I would say something like, “I’m thankful for YOU this Thanksgiving.” That certainly was true enough, but it missed an important point: I wasn’t only thankful for these friends on one day of the year, but rather was grateful for them all year long.

Suddenly my mind was flooded with Paul’s words to his friends in Philippi: Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God”  (Philippians 1:3 MSG).

Isn’t that cool? At the mere thought of his friends, Paul had a “Thanksgiving moment.” Even when distance or jail cells prevented him from seeing them face to face, his Thanksgiving rose to God whenever he even thought of these people he loved so much.

I hope you have friends and loved ones who brighten your life like that. Whenever someone mentions their name or the Lord brings them to mind during your prayer times, you light up inside. You find yourself welling up with gratitude that such a person would be a part of your life.

This year I found myself realizing in a whole new way that if you have good friends and are a person of prayer, you can experience Thanksgiving anytime. There may not be any turkey or football, and your loved ones may not be physically present with you at the time. But you can “break out in exclamations of thanks”  nevertheless.

Let’s be honest, though: We all know people who don’t bring such a cheery reaction when they come to mind. Rather than sparking joyous praise, they bring us concern or sadness or even a tinge of anger when they come to mind. This could be someone who has wronged us, who we’ve not yet forgiven. Or perhaps it’s a spouse or child who’s not living like we think they should.

Fortunately, Paul has an answer for this kind of situation too—when instead of thankfulness, we feel burdened down when we think about how another person is doing. Just a few verses after the words above, Paul adds one of the most beautiful promises in the entire Bible: I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns”  (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Look at how these two verses work together: In verse 3 Paul describes his great joy and thankfulness every time he remembers his fellow believers in Philippi.

But in verse 6, he reveals the secret of why he could rejoice even when some people weren’t doing very well: He knew God was still at work! Instead of remaining distraught about the circumstances of such people, Paul knew He could commit them into the Lord’s loving hands, confident in His ability to change their heart and turn things around for them.

Do you see how your whole perspective changes when you look at the people in your life through this two-fold lens in Philippians 1? Every day—and every moment of every day—can become a time of spontaneous Thanksgiving. So you don’t have to wait another 364 days—let the hallelujahs ring out now!

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Captured by the Green-Eyed Monster

cute furry alien

I never thought it would happen to me. I can’t remember ever envying someone who had a bigger house…a faster car…a higher salary…or a corner office. Nor did it bother me that I wasn’t part of the envied “1%.”

So it shocked me recently when I found myself in the clutches of the Green-Eyed Monster—a term originating in Shakespeare’s play, Othello: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

A number of events the past few months confirmed that I’ve been afflicted with this terrible disease. Although material things still aren’t the focus of my jealousy, several incidents pushed other  buttons that brought out the Green-Eyed Monster in me…

  • I ran into an old friend who now preaches in churches and conferences around the world. In contrast to his apparent success, I have very few open doors for ministry, despite my love of preaching. It puzzled me that he’s had so many opportunities, when I was sure  I could preach as well, or even better.
  • I spent time with a man who, like me, is a ghostwriter for other authors. I found myself extremely envious of the fact that people were actually reading  the books he wrote (in contrast to my books, read by hardly anyone). And in addition to being jealous of the best-selling books he was producing, I groaned as he boasted about the huge fees he received for each book, exponentially higher than my rates.
  • I read about a pastor a few hours away who was impacting thousands of young people through a church he planted. At my advanced age, I’ve concluded that the only reason to live is to find ways to pour my life into the next generation. Convinced that it’s a waste of time trying to change Baby Boomers, I’m frustrated that I don’t have more opportunities to disciple young believers.

As I’ve looked back at these three incidents, I see a pattern. For the most part, the Green-Eyed Monster didn’t rear its ugly head because of envying people’s money or status—instead, I envied their impact. The most important thing in my life is still to impact the world for Jesus, and I was jealous of those who were doing that more effectively than I was.

There’s a lot you could psychoanalyze in my perspective. Some of my friends have pointed out that I’m much too performance-focused. They’ve confronted me about basing my self-image on my accomplishments rather than on God’s unconditional love for me.

I’m sure my friends are correct in their observation. I’m praying for the Lord to remedy this.

But in each of the three incidents that triggered my bout with envy, something later happened that put everything in an entirely different light…

  • I heard reports that my preacher friend had virtually begged  one church to have him come and speak. This greatly offended the pastor, and made my friend seem like a real jerk, desperate for honorariums. Perhaps his life isn’t so great after all.
  • The ghostwriter did a book project for a ministry I know in another state, and his work was deemed to be substandard. The man also turned out to be very difficult to work with, a real turn-off for the ministry that had hired him for the project.
  • The pastor who built such a successful outreach to young people was revealed to have a serious alcohol problem. The board removed him from his pastorate until he could get help, and for now his ministry is over.

Isn’t it strange that we often envy people who don’t have such a great life after all? We’re jealous of the image they project, but things look entirely different when the curtain is pulled back.

Because of these experiences, I’m no longer envious of the three men who triggered my Green-Eyed Monster experiences. I would rather be me  than them.

Yet I’m still struggling with envy of another kind: I’m “envious” to be more like the person God created me to be. I want to be more like Jesus (Romans 8:29, Luke 6:40), and more like the Jim Buchan envisioned by my Heavenly Father when He created me.

One more thing…

A few years ago, I was telling my friend Bernard about all the things I didn’t like about my life. I thought I had made a pretty good case for why he should feel sorry for me, but Bernard was much too wise to fall into that trap.

“Jim, don’t you realize that millions of people would gladly trade places with you?!” he said.

How ironic. Despite my complaints and my envy of others, millions of people would be envious if they saw the life God has given me. I guess one of the best ways to slay the Green-Eyed Monster is to be grateful for the life I already have.

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The Secret to Thanksgiving All Year Long

Thanksgiving is clearly the greatest holiday ever created in America—and not just because of the great food and the football games.

This year I had a new revelation while writing Thanksgiving notes to some friends. In past years, I would say something like, “I’m thankful for YOU this Thanksgiving.” That certainly was true enough, but it missed an important point: I wasn’t only thankful for these friends on one day of the year, but rather was grateful for them all year long.

Suddenly my mind was flooded with Paul’s words to his friends in Philippi: Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God” (Philippians 1:3 MSG).

Isn’t that cool? At the mere thought of his friends, Paul had a “Thanksgiving moment.” Even when distance or jail cells prevented him from seeing them face to face, his Thanksgiving rose to God whenever he even thought of these people he loved so much.

I hope you have friends and loved ones who brighten your life like that. Whenever someone mentions their name or the Lord brings them to mind during your prayer times, you light up inside. You find yourself welling up with gratitude that such a person would be a part of your life.

This year I found myself realizing in a whole new way that if you have good friends and are a person of prayer, you can experience Thanksgiving anytime. There may not be any turkey or football, and your loved ones may not be physically present with you at the time. But you can “break out in exclamations of thanks” nevertheless.

Let’s be honest, though: We all know people who don’t bring such a cheery reaction when they come to mind. Rather than sparking joyous praise, they bring us concern or sadness or even a tinge of anger when they come to mind. This could be someone who has wronged us, who we’ve not yet forgiven. Or perhaps it’s a spouse or child who’s not living like we think they should.

Fortunately, Paul has an answer for this kind of situation too—when instead of thankfulness, we feel burdened down when we think about how another person is doing. Just a few verses after the words above, Paul adds one of the most beautiful promises in the entire Bible: I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Look at how these two verses work together: In verse 3 Paul describes his great joy and thankfulness every time he remembers his fellow-believers in Philippi.

But in verse 6, he reveals the secret of why he could rejoice even when some people weren’t doing very well: He knew God was still at work! Instead of remaining distraught about the circumstances of such people, Paul knew He could commit them into the Lord’s loving hands, confident in His ability to change their heart and turn things around for them.

Do you see how your whole perspective changes when you look at the people in your life through this two-fold lens in Philippians 1? Every day—and every moment of every day—can become a time of spontaneous Thanksgiving. So you don’t have to wait another 364 days—let the hallelujahs ring out now!

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When People Forget You–and Other Deflating Experiences

I had a very humbling experience last week when I was invited to the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet at a local Retirement Village. I received the invited because, for nearly a year now, I’ve visited the center once a month to sing and tell Bible stories to the residents.

Most of the residents are women in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, and it has been a long time since I’ve found people so genuinely appreciative of my singing. Whether I’m singing an old hymn or a ballad by Elvis, the women clearly love me there. I’m sure they check their calendar each month, counting the days until I return. And if I had posters available showing me with my guitar, many of them would undoubtedly hang them in their room.

This is all background information to help you understand why the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet was such a humbling experience for me.

The banquet was attended by an assortment of people: other volunteers, staff members, and a few residents as well. I was especially happy to see that some residents had come (I always enjoy interacting with my fans, after all).

I approached one of the residents, named Lillian, who had a big smile on her face. Wow, she is really glad to see me, I thought to myself.

So I sat next to Lillian and told her I’ve missed coming and singing for a few weeks now. I wasn’t prepared for her reply.

“I don’t remember you singing here,” she said quite seriously. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”

Lillian was sitting next to a resident named Ruth, who had been listening to our conversation. Ruth was another of my fans, and I looked toward her in hopes of getting some reassurance.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sing either,” she informed me.

How deflating. Two of those I considered my biggest fans didn’t even remember me.

I was crushed.

Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. It probably wasn’t connected with the memory loss of residents in a nursing home. Your experience may have been much more painful than that, when people you had loved and poured your life into seemed to forget you even existed.

There are many possible lessons from my story, but here are just a few:

  • Sometimes people WILL forget the acts of kindness we have done for them, but God never will. Hebrews 6:10 assures us: God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” So, in light of that fact, does it really matter if people forget what we have done? God is keeping a record of it all.
  • When people fail to remember us or show us gratitude, our true motives get tested. Did we only do our good deeds in hopes of receiving people’s thanks or applause? Or were we willing to bless the people even if we got absolutely no credit or appreciation?
  • Experiences like this are an excellent opportunity to forgive. Of course, it was pretty easy for me to forgive Lillian and Ruth for forgetting me. Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible thing, and there’s a good chance Lillian and Ruth are starting to not even recognize their own loved ones. But forgiveness is much harder when the person who has forgotten you is of sound mind, but is simply too caught up in their own activities to acknowledge you, especially during the holidays.

In the final analysis, my experience at the Retirement Village Appreciation Banquet was just another example of God’s sense of humor and His ability to deal with our pride and other blind spots. Yes, I was humbled, but the Lord probably was laughing the entire time. He knew I had developed an overinflated view of my own importance, and He was more than happy to let out some of the air.

 

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Thanksgiving, Ferguson, and the Kindness of God

 

This Thanksgiving I find myself reflecting on the responsibilities we all have when we realize how blessed we are. On this day when we recount the blessings we’ve received from God, it’s also a great time to ask ourselves how we can BE a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2).

One day King David woke up with this same quest on his mind: “Is there not still someone of the house of Saul, to whom I may show the kindness of God?” (2 Samuel 9:3)

If you know David’s story, he had experienced lots of hardships on his way to becoming king and fulfilling his destiny. As part of God’s training process, he had overcome lions, bears, giants, and a deranged, homicidal king. At times he had to run for his life, living in caves and other dark places.

But by the time we get to this episode in 2 Samuel 9, David was feeling overwhelmed by how much God had blessed him. He recognized that he had abundantly received “the kindness of God.” And as a natural by-product, he wanted to find someone to share the blessings with.

Sounds something like Thanksgiving, doesn’t it?

David had a particular desire to bless those from the lineage of his former enemy, King Saul. What a great example this is for us. Perhaps there’s someone you need to reach out to who was once your nemesis. Maybe there was friction or suspicion in the past, but it’s time to overcome all of that with kindness and generosity.

Remember the Pilgrims and the Native Americans? Talk about cultural differences! But what if we could reenact that same kind of spirit in our cities today, where police officers and the black community sat down to break bread and share their resources together?

In David’s case, the options were pretty limited. It turned out that the only person left of Saul descendants was a bitter, crippled man named Mephibosheth.  This son of Jonathan was living in a desolate place called Lo Debar, and his self-image was so low that he considered himself no better than a “dead dog” (v. 8).

Just the kind of person you should invite to your home for Thanksgiving, don’t you think?!

Remember: When you’re looking for people to show kindness to, they might not be the easiest people to love! In fact, you can count on the fact that the people who need love the most will be the hardest to love.

But love them anyway.

Mephibosheth was described to David in such a way that the king might have been reluctant to get involved with such an unsavory character. Yet David immediately had the man brought to Jerusalem to eat at the king’s table—just as if Mephibosheth was one of David’s own sons (v. 11).

Thanksgiving is a time for families, of course. But it also can be a great time to invite someone else to sit at your table, as David did with Mephiboseth.

I’m feeling blessed today, and I hope you are as well. If so, is there someone you can show the kindness of God?

 

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My Gratitude–in Retrospect

I’ve realized two disturbing things about my “Gratitude Quotient” recently: (1) I’m not nearly as grateful as I should be for how God has blessed me; (2) Many of the things I’m now MOST grateful for are past events I wasn’t grateful for at all  when they were taking place.

I call this second point “gratitude in retrospect.”

Perhaps you can relate. Have you gone through difficult times when it was extremely difficult to give thanks? But now, as you look back, you see that God was at work through it all. Gratitude (finally!) rises in your heart as you see how the painful events have been beautifully woven into the fabric of your life.

  • Maybe you had a relationship breakup that broke your heart…but it paved the way for God to provide someone much better in your life.
  • Maybe you faced a severe trial in your health…but it caused you to make lifestyle changes in your diet and exercise—and now you’re feeling better than ever.
  • Maybe you lost a job you thought you’d have until retirement…but God opened (or will open) a new door that’s a much better fit for your gifts and passions.
  • Maybe you’ve experienced a financial meltdown, such as foreclosure or bankruptcy…but you learned vital lessons that finally put you on the path of prosperity.

These are just a few examples of how “gratitude in retrospect” can occur. I first noticed this in my life a few years ago, when a friend suggested that I write a book about church splits. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” was my initial thought. “Even though I’m an expert on church splits, who would ever be interested in a book about that?”

But my tech-savvy friend pointed out that 8,000 people every month  do a Google search on the subject of church splits. “Wow. There must be a lot of people dealing with this,” I concluded.

As a result of that conversation, I wrote The Complete Guide to Church Splits: Prevention, Survival, and Recovery.

But this event sparked something much bigger than just a new book project: I discovered that God had been a lot more faithful than I had given Him credit for. And I became much more grateful for the difficult things I’ve experienced in life—even though my gratitude was mostly in retrospect.

I’m still troubled by my struggle to be grateful at the same time as my trials are occurring. The Bible instructs us to give thanks “IN everything,”  not just AFTER everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

I’m also sad that although I’ve given lip service to Romans 8:28 for decades, God’s amazing promise there is still not rooted as deeply in my life as it should be. Paul had gone through incredible trials (2 Corinthians 11:22-28), yet he said, “We KNOW that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

As the truth of Romans 8:28 becomes more a part of my life, I hope to become more grateful all the time—not just in retrospect. I want to become increasingly aware that God is always working to “connect the dots” in my life, creating a masterpiece I could never have imagined during my times of adversity.

So I pray you will join me in being grateful TODAY—no matter what the day brings…no matter what you may be going through. You may not understand it all today, but the Lord is working out His wonderful plan nevertheless.

 

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