How Christmas Can Tear You Away From Christ

christmas-gifts-2-1121740-mThere is a widening fissure between the modern American Christmas and biblical theology.
And while I agree with the movement to “put Christ back in Christmas”, that’s not what I’m getting at. I am concerned with the fundamental distortion of grace played out in gift giving.

Most of us can define the word “gift” easy enough. Dictionary.com puts it like this: “something bestowed or acquired without any particular effort by the recipient or without its being earned.” Biblically, this is described in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our salvation, our righteousness is a free gift—unearned—to us from God the Father through Jesus.

The first problem arises with good old Saint Nick. At the beginning of December, or perhaps depending on the amount of leverage needed to coerce good behavior, we begin telling our children that the only way Santa will favor their stocking is if they are good.

But wait a minute, I thought Santa was bringing gifts! When did this become remuneration?

The misconception continues far beyond the Santa myth of childhood. We bribe our teenagers with better Christmas gifts if they get good grades, abide by curfew or don’t gripe about their chores.

Now, I’m not suggesting we do away with all the festive manipulation, but perhaps we need to change our vocabulary. If a gift is necessarily free and unearned, then we must term our holiday exchanges as just that—exchanges—good gifts for good behavior.

Moving on from all that, and assuming we’ve glibly acknowledged the truth but will most likely continue wrapping up “gifts” to place under the tree, let’s consider for a moment the equality and fairness of such a thing.

I remember as a kid overhearing my parents and grandparents discuss the ideas they had for my sisters and me. There were always careful calculations to ensure absolute fairness. If my presents cost $50, then by all means they must find enough things for my sister to make sure the same amount is spent on each child. I think once or twice this became such a challenge that they simply purchased gift cards of equal amounts and told us to pick our own presents.

Dictionary.com doesn’t have much to say about the fairness phenomenon, but Jesus did. In Matthew 20, he told a story about a land owner who sent workers into his vineyard. Throughout the day he hired more laborers, but at the end of the day, he paid them all equally, regardless of the number of hours each worked. I love how he concludes the story:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matt. 20:13-15)

In this case, the owner was paying wages for services. To the workers he first hired, he paid the agreed upon wage—they earned every cent. But, to the last ones hired, he paid them what they earned and included a gift—money they had not earned. The master administered justice to the first group and grace to the second group. Neither received injustice.

When we tell our children that we buy them gifts for Christmas and at the same time tell them they must be good, subconsciously but not so subtly, we are teaching them that gifts must be earned. If then we say the “gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”—does that mean they must earn His favor too?

When we play tit-for-tat at Christmas, what does that do to generosity? What does that teach our children that a gift really is?

This mentality is not something we can simply nod our heads about and resolve to do things a bit differently next year. By blurring the lines between gifts and wages, generosity and fairness, justice and mercy, we make it infinitely harder for our children to understand the sovereign, merciful, holy justice of God. If we aren’t careful, our distorted Christmas theology can lead our kids right into the arms of a works-based salvation and a universalist perspective of redemption.

Drop the Golden Rule!

Throw out the Golden Rule!

Yep, I mean it. God doesn’t want you to love your neighbor as yourself.

Now, before you run off and start pulling your sister’s hair, stealing your friend’s clothes or yelling at your parents, consider the fact that Jesus wants you to do so much more.

In Mark 12:29-31, a rich, young man approached Jesus and asked Him what was God’s most important commandment. Jesus answered him straight from the Ten Commandments:

 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.’”

It’s true, God did say that. But the rules changed when Jesus came to earth to pay for our sins by His death and resurrection.

In fact, later in Jesus’ ministry, only days before He went to the cross, He sat in an upstairs room for one last special meal with His disciples. There, He shared His heart. He told them that He had a new commandment for them.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” 

(John 13:34-35)

Under the old commandment, in order to love your neighbor properly, you had to really love yourself. You’ve probably even heard someone say, “You can’t love others until you love yourself.”

There are many times in our lives when we don’t really love ourselves. We can be upset with ourselves for a little while, or perhaps even struggle with depression. Sometimes, we even hate ourselves. When that happens, how are we supposed to obey God and love others?

This is where it gets really good! In the new commandment Jesus gave us, we are told to love others as God loves us. That sounds even harder! But the truth is, in order to love this way we have to learn, understand and believe how much God loves US!

The next time someone tells you, “You have to love yourself before you can love others,” tell them, “No, in order to love myself or others, I have to know how much God loves me!”

The way Jesus wants us to love forces us to stop looking at ourselves and instead to look at Him. As we receive His love for us, then we are able to be obedient and love others. At the same time, we will find peace and joy in who we are because we know how much God loves us!

Good Intentions Don’t Count

I am doing a Bible study about intentional living. So I wasn’t expecting a verse about marriage to pop off the page. But then I shouldn’t be surprised, God is always intentional about getting our attention so that He can make us more like Jesus.

“Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

Don’t see anything about marriage in that verse? That’s because you’re not reading it with the intention of seeing God’s plan for your marriage. It’s there.

The Bible also says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)

Don’t you imagine in that our unions would be much improved if we governed them with wisdom? If we related to our spouse with wisdom and in the fear of the Lord, don’t you think we could avoid many of the pointless arguments, cold shoulders and the silent treatment? Where does this heart of wisdom come from? How do we cultivate a fear of the Lord in our homes and in our relationships?

We gain a heart of wisdom when we learn to number our days. The phrase, “Teach us to number our days”, has a much stronger meaning in the original Hebrew. It means to: Consider, be skillful in, reckon, prepare for and appoint with intention the temporal, brief mornings and evenings of life. (That’s just my lengthy amplified paraphrase.)

Often, I don’t think we approach our marriages intentionally. The expectation is for love and fuzzy feelings to buoy the relationship through the hard times. But when things get really gritty, there’s no deep-seated recourse, no Biblically founded intention to hold the marriage together.

There’s a catchy little phrase that has spawned many a movie. “Live each day as if it were your last.”

That saying is a modern assertion of the truth of Psalm 90:12. Even unbelievers know that acceptance of our brevity brings freedom, genuine love and a correcting of priorities. How many stories are told of someone diagnosed with cancer who suddenly determines to reconcile with a long-estranged sibling? How many times have we heard of someone learning they have months to live and suddenly choosing to work less, spend more time with family and begin seeking God? There’s no denying that numbering our days produces wisdom and ignites intention in our hearts.

So what if we could harness this knowledge of our few and temporal mornings and evenings so that we might have this wisdom now for our marriages and other relationships?

In American vernacular there’s a big difference between having good intentions and living intentionally. I go to bed each night with good intentions to speak kindly to my husband tomorrow and pray for him. I have good intentions when I plan to make his favorite dinner tomorrow or remember to ask about that meeting he had yesterday. Good intentions are my plans to go to the gym and eat more vegetables.

But living my marriage intentionally requires that I apply some elbow grease to those intentions. If I don’t do the hard work to make good on those intentions, then that is all they remain—good intentions, and I must plan again to live intentionally.

Marriage is one of those few relationships that we commemorate every year. Save for the embarrassed hubby that forgot several times, most couples know exactly how many years, and could calculate how many days, they’ve been married. We number those days. Therefore, we’re halfway toward a heart of wisdom.

Next time strife or bitterness raises its head or that gulf slowly widens between you and your spouse, stop and count the days. They are few. Psalm 90 goes on to say that we have 70, maybe 80 years if we’re lucky.

We are finite creatures. All our miseries and complaints are so small and short-lived compared to the eternal glory purchased for us by Christ. The first step toward governing our marriages with wisdom is to recognize how fleeting they are. Next, we must intentionally order, prepare for and appoint our days.

It’s so easy in the heat of the moment, to assume that this crisis of miscommunication or hurt will ruin our lives, make or break our relationship. It can’t destroy us if we don’t let it. When we number our days, view them in the true light of their brevity, it’s much easier to take a step back and intentionally form our response or reaction to every situation.

So, do the math. Number your days. Let that practice form within you a heart of wisdom, the beginning of the fear of the Lord. And then intentionally, with more than good intentions, conduct your marriage with wisdom.

Who or What, Why It Matters

Have you ever tried to tell someone about your faith and been blocked by the question, “But how can God be good when bad things happen?” Or, “Can you explain why things like miscarriages, natural disasters, world hunger and other terrible things happen?”

Maybe you’ve asked those questions yourself, and you wonder if what you believe can really be true. If it is, how do you explain some things?

The apostle Paul had every reason to ask the same questions. He wrote the book of 2 Timothy to a dear friend while sitting on the floor of a jail cell. He’d been arrested for preaching about Christ. Paul should have been asking, “Why?”, and “Is what I believe so important?”, but he wrote instead, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able…”.

Did you catch it? Paul wasn’t trying to figure out what he believed, and he wasn’t telling Timothy about any thing that he believed. He had been obedient to God; it was difficult to explain why God was letting him suffer. But Paul knew Who he believed. That’s the answer we must always come to when we cannot explain the things that happen in this world. We must know Who we believe and we can know that He is trustworthy.

In the Wake of the Valley

I actually wrote this some time ago, but find myself wading through these emotions…again…in the face of another challenge of change. It’s curious that change, instability and loss–no matter what the cause–evoke such similar emotions. Be it a death, a move, a deployment, an addiction, a fear, unmeasured loss, an illness, we humans are so predictable–our God is not.

But then, perhaps He is. God tells us over and over that He is the same yesterday, today and forever. A little known verse, in a little known book, Hosea 6:3 speaks of God’s constancy. Find hope:

“Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”

I’m staring down the muzzle of a move—another move. I’m married to a career military officer and this pluck-up-and-go routine is becoming familiar, though never easier.

Swamped and drowning under a load of pending stress, I fled to the only place I know for comfort—my back porch, Bible straddling my knees and my journal opened, pen poised. I flipped to Psalm 16, my go-to passage for transient times. I needed to hear God remind me that my only good is found in Him, that I have chosen Him as my portion and cup and that the shape of my life is pleasant. My inheritance is beautiful.

Those words help to put in perspective the loss of one home, the seeding of another. They warm me from the inside, calling to mind the fresh beauties that God has unearthed in each place we’ve lived.

In North Carolina, He introduced me to the first best friend I’ve ever had. Then, He seasoned my life with a few more, a vibrant church body, a fun job, three years of firsts. When He led us to Georgia, He pressed my soul more deeply into Him than I had experienced before. I felt pressed down under a weight of loneliness, the seed of my life sinking heavily into fertile soil.

Next, He led us to Washington. Exquisite! In the northwest, God brought me my second best-friend of all time. He colored the horizon deep blue every morning and punctuated it with Mount Rainier, glowing effervescent pink. He fed me with Honeycrisp apples, fresh, flaky salmon and blood-red wine. He tightened the bonds of my marriage and snipped the frayed ends in that relationship. He taught me to write there. In Washington, I worked at a busy Starbucks and everyday, He peppered my hours with smiles, momentary confidences and encouraging winks.

After that, God led us to Virginia, barely outside the bustle of the beltway. Full circle, He walked my best friends across my path again. He opened the first window to give me a peek at what He intends as the hallmark of my life—He blessed my pen and my page. He swept me quickly through a church body where He cultivated leadership skills and deep humility through failure.

And then He brought us here. I’m in Georgia again, and again staring down the muzzle of of a move. I understand the boundaries; I see the pleasant places where God has led me. I am overjoyed to know that God is all my good, He is my refuge and preservation. But my heart still aches. Goodbyes still hurt. The stab of loneliness that lingers for a while in each new location can for a moment feel like shadow of death.

Psalm 23 also talks about the places God leads us. David opens with peace, following his Lord beside quiet water, green pastures and in paths of righteousness. Suddenly, there’s a sharp turn. Though David still follows the Good Shepherd, he finds himself in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

I wonder if that was a valley filled with loneliness as he dodged the pursuit of King Saul who was bent on David’s demise. I wonder if it was a valley filled with fatigue, tired of defending himself, tired of living on the run. Whatever it was, it broke his heart.

As we keep reading, David staggers out of the valley. While there, he found protection in God’s rod and staff—used to continually guide and direct even in the darkest of places. In that terrible place, David remained confident of God’s election, expressed as God anointed his head with oil. And on the other side? As David walked out of the shadows, the cast of his own shadow breaking with the foreboding one behind him, goodness and mercy flowed after him.

I folded my journal, the page still blank and stared at the pretty little, yellow-topped weeds in my backyard. I have walked through shadowy valleys before. Reflecting on each, I can see the wake of goodness and mercy widening behind me.

How God Gets In You

Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:19,21-22

When I was growing up, summer meant neighborhood barbecues and spontaneous games of softball. My sisters and I spent a lot of time with our best friends from across the street. We shared secrets, sleepovers and homemade ice cream. Our friendships always deepened in the summer because we spent so much time together.

Did you know that God wants to live close to you and spend time with you so that, just like a good neighbor, you get to know Him really well?

Mishkan, is the Hebrew word for tabernacle, the tent-like structure God told them to make for Him to dwell in before they built the temple. About the tabernacle, God said, “And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God.” (Exodus 29:45)

Shakhen, the Hebrew word for neighbor is from the same root as mishkan. When God told the Israelites to make the tabernacle, He meant it to be the place that He would live among them; in a way, be their neighbor.

Even better? Because Jesus saved us from our sins through his death and resurrection, we don’t need a tabernacle to live close to God. John 14:23 says, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them.”

If you believe in Jesus, God lives inside of you. He wants to spend time with you. He wants you to know Him.

This was first published in the digital magazine: Tween Girls and God.

Interruption Applied

I’m finally getting somewhere.

Thanks goes to Jen Hatmaker for keeping me up not just one night, but several nights. And thanks, too, for not simply revealing straight away what God’s message was for me in all of this (I guess that’s not fair. How could she know?). Instead she let me sit and percolate the truths in her new book Interrupted. It was a slow process; she saved the best part for last.

It was this quote, near the end of the book, that started stirred me:

“I used to reside exclusively in Christian subculture: I read James Dobson to learn how to parent, studied Dave Ramsey to learn how to budget, sang Third Day for inspiration, went to Women of Faith conferences for encouragement, consulted Christian Coalition voting guides to see how to vote, and read Tim LaHaye for my fiction fix. This was the controlled bubble I lived in with a few hundred of my closest friends…When your running in the middle of a herd of buffalo, everything looks identical. What we see becomes our reality.”

Jen meant this to explain the shallow, sheltered life that many Christians live in, the safe bubble that gives us our “sanctified buffer” such that we hope others see us doing godly things and are impressed by our “awesomeness” to come to Christ without us having to actually associate with the “worldly ones”. Truthfully, I’ve been one of that crowd, part of the herd of buffalo. But that began shifting a few years ago. This time, God is after something different in me.

This morning, a strand of light broke through. God began highlighting similar messages in Scripture and through a few different pastors I’ve been reading and listening to: Steven Furtick, John Piper, John Bloom and Ann Voskamp.

Truth is dawning, albeit slowly, but I’m getting it. It has much to do with maturity–not confusing it with growth, moving beyond the milk of the Word, the testimony of my recovery from anorexia, my easy obedience to Christ and my walk in the Spirit. Moving past the parameters (read: safe bubble), I’ve established, where I know “what works”. 

For all of my life, I’ve sought my “calling”, what I’m supposed to do, and sought to settle in there. My writing has been accepted by publishers and editors–that’s all I have to do now, right–just write about Jesus? Surely, God’s plan was to develop my testimony. I’ve shared it. Now I can sit back as one of the “stories with a happy ending” and continue to follow my calling?

And now we’re full circle back to Interrupted. God’s been interrupting my sleep and peace all week. He’s been overlaying Jen’s testimony on my own life to reveal a personal correction and gentle admonition: Move on. You’re growing, now continue to mature.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19

When Faith Isn’t Enough

flag-813543-mAt 18-years-old, I stepped onto the sandy, Arizona soil in the driveway of an inpatient treatment center for the second time. Even after numerous counselors and previous inpatient treatment for anorexia, I still struggled with an addiction to exercise and food restriction. “Shipped off” to get well, I felt completely alone, unloved and abandoned by God and my family. My life didn’t appear to be “working out for good”. Circumstances seemed to belie the promises of a good God.

Many years later, my husband walked the sandy soil of Afghanistan, leading a company of infantry soldiers. Back home, I received one of the calls that every family member of a solider dreads. “We lost some.”

Patrick was the commander of Bravo Company 4/23. They had only been in theater a little over two months, when one of their strykers hit an IED (improvised explosive device) killing three men and maiming another. Hell broke loose on earth.

I watched my husband grapple with the agony and guilt of knowing he had been responsible for the men’s lives as their leader in combat. I felt like a mindless mist, moving through the motions of coordinating phone calls to the families, assisting to arrange the memorials and comforting the widows. Nothing looked like what I would expect from a good God. A few people voiced this.

“How can a good God let this happen? If God is in charge and powerful and loves us, why would He let these children lose their fathers?”

I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. I don’t know how all this “works together for good”. I don’t know how this matches up with God’s Word, “I am the God who heals you.” I don’t know how lingering illness and addiction connects with, “It is for freedom that Christ set you free,” and “I have given you the power to tread upon snakes and scorpions and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”

God, how does this work?

If anyone ever had a right to pray that prayer, it was the apostle Paul. He spent almost six years of his ministry in a jail cell, he was whipped, shamed, ship wrecked and abandoned (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Finally, near the end of his life, he sat again on the cold damp concrete of a cell and wrote to the man dearest to his heart—Timothy. How desperately he wanted Timothy to be able to hang on to what Paul had taught him. He agonized over how to impress upon this young pastor:

Do not give up! Do not be dismayed by what appears to be. It may look like God has lost control, that perhaps He isn’t all that good—but Timothy—don’t give up. I haven’t. (paraphrase)

This kind of tenacious faith is exemplified in an Old Testament story:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stared into the fire as flames leaped higher and higher.

“You have one more chance,” the Babylonian King told them. “You must bow down and worship my statue, or I will have you thrown into the fire.”

I wonder what raced through their minds. They had been faithful to God; they had not worshipped the idol. Surely God would rescue them! Surely, God wouldn’t allow them to be killed!

Their words in Daniel 3:16-18, teach us something amazing about faith, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.’”

The three men believed that God could save them! But even if He didn’t…

How do we have faith when the things we believe for aren’t happening? How do we have faith that God is good when bad things happen?

Hebrews 11 is often called the Faith Chapter. It lists many heroes of the faith, men and women who believed God against all odds, who had faith in God even when it looked like God wasn’t faithful.

Verse 39 says this, “All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.”

Have you ever felt like that—like God hasn’t fulfilled His promises?
Have you had faith that God would do something, and then He didn’t?
Maybe you prayed that a loved one would survive cancer, but they didn’t.
Maybe you were sure it was God’s will that you find a job, or keep your job—but you didn’t.
Maybe you don’t understand what’s going on, or why God allows some things to happen.

When I feel this way, I am comforted by 2 Timothy 1:12, “That is why I am suffering here in prison. But I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.” (emphasis added)

One weekend, my husband and I were driving through downtown Washington D.C. We were supposed to meet some friends for a baseball game, but as we wound through construction and down one-way streets, we got hopelessly lost—at least I did. I had no idea where we were going and I could see the lights of the stadium behind us. But I know my husband. He’s an incredible navigator. I knew he would get us there safely even if it looked for all the world like he was going the wrong direction. And sure enough, he got us to the baseball game on time!

You see, the secret is not what we believe. The power of our faith is not that we simply have faith, or even that we have hope. There will always be things we don’t understand and things that don’t seem to match up with what we believe about God. We may not understand what God is doing, but we have faith in who God is. We, like Paul, know who we believe, and that He is faithful.

Most world religions require faith. Most world religions have morality as their hallmark and eternal life as their goal. But, as Christians we do not merely have faith—faith in a reward for good behavior or faith in life after death. It is not mere faith that gets us through our troubles, sustains us in prison, or allows us to stand in the flames. The good news is not that you and I have faith, but that the One in whom we believe is faithful.

A Bit of Borrowed Wisdom

TO EDWARD LOFSTROM: A letter of great encouragement for someone who had been struggling with excessive self-awareness.

10 June 1962

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as ‘excessive selfness’. But per- haps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease; fortunate are the minority who know they have it. To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

Your danger now is that of being hypnotised by the mere sight of the charm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness. The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer. The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regards, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will.

A text you should keep much is mind is I John iii, 20: ‘If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.’ I sometimes pray ‘Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.’ Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e., keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III
Compiled in Yours, Jack

Shared from Bible Gateway, C.S. Lewis Daily