Praying Like a Sinner

[This devotional, first published in ‘Tween Girls and God is intended for youth.]

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God … “

Trista glanced across the yard as she climbed into the backseat of her family’s minivan one Sunday morning.

“The Carlsons never go to church,” she said to no one in particular. Daddy fastened Trista’s younger sister in her carseat, opened the door for her mother and then climbed in behind the wheel. Slowly, he backed out of the drive. No one replied, so Trista turned it into a question.

“Daddy, why don’t they go to church? I mean, God says we should, I know it’s in the Bible somewhere. Does that mean they don’t believe in Jesus? If they do believe in Jesus, does that mean we are better Christians? Does that mean they are bad people? Does that mean … ”.

“Slow down, Trista,” her mom interrupted. “If you don’t stop asking so many questions, your dad can’t give you an answer. Besides, I think this is a very important conversation. The things you’re saying sound a little prideful.”

“Trista, have you heard the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector?” Daddy asked. “Jesus tells the story in Luke chapter 18.”

“No. I don’t think so,” Trista said.

“Well, Jesus was talking to some people who were pretty sure they were really good people. They believed that they were doing a good job of keeping all of God’s commandments and that God must be pretty pleased with them.”

Daddy, continued, “So the story is that there were two men who went to pray. One was a very important religious leader and the other was a tax collector. In those days, tax collectors were considered to be bad people. Sometimes they cheated people out of their money.

“The religious leader stood off to the side, far away from the tax collector. Then he started to pray out loud, ‘God, I’m so glad that you didn’t make me like that tax collector over there. I’m a really good person. I do everything you say to do.’

“But the tax collector stood off to the side and looked sadly down at the ground. He cried, ‘God, I’m so sorry for the bad things I’ve done. Please have mercy on me.’

“Jesus finished the story by saying, ‘I promise you, the humble tax collector went home forgiven, not the prideful religious man.’”

Now it was Trista’s turn to hang her head. “I think I understand, Daddy,” she said in a small voice. “God isn’t happy when I am proud of myself and think that the good things I do make Him happy with me.”

“That’s right, sweetheart,” Mom spoke up. “Jesus died for our sins—for everyone in the whole world. You and I are only saved because we believe in Him, not because we go to church or do anything good at all. Also, it is not our place to judge other people. Actually, I know Mrs. Carlson from the bank. Their family goes to a different church and they worship on Saturday nights.”

Trista turned to look out the window and watched the other cars streak past. She wondered where they were going. Quietly, she whispered a prayer:

“Jesus, thank you for forgiving me when I am prideful and when I do bad things or don’t do the things you want me to do. Thank you for parents who teach me to believe in you and to understand the Bible. Help me to be humble and to remember that I am saved because of your grace, not by anything I do.”

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The Problem With “I Did It My Way”

I choose My Way. Words on old wooden board.

I’ve been haunted recently by a fresh perspective of the Gospel. Don’t worry, that’s a perfectly fair use of the word which dictionary.com defines as: “preoccupied, as with an emotion, memory, or idea; obsessed.” So, I’m perfectly happy to have this Gospel ghost invading my thoughts, permeating the atmosphere of my mind.

That doesn’t mean that my mind is completely settled and at peace though. No, instead I’ve come to realize how poorly I’ve assimilated this Good News into my daily life. We’ve been told that the Gospel must get from our head into our hearts, but I think it’s more truthful that the Gospel must rule in both places—occupy both head and heart simultaneously to do us any real good. Otherwise, it may affect our destiny but it won’t change our day-to-day.

You see, since I said “yes” to Jesus at seven years old, I’ve been doing my best to live for him. But, while most of my life has been a valiant effort to please and honor God, it has also been a belligerent rejection of his unrealistic mercy, affection, love and provision. Ultimately, I’ve gotten stuck on the hamster wheel of “Oops, sorry God,” to, “I’ll do better; try harder,” to, “Thanks for giving me eternal life,” to, “See how pretty and shiny my life is now?” and back to, “Oops, sorry God. I’ll do better.” Then, it’s back to work on how best to manage my sin, get my behaviors (the external and obvious sins) under control so that I can go back to being a happy, successful Christian quietly humming, “I Did It My Way.”

So, God’s been relentlessly kind in pointing this out to me through various excellent books: Craving Grace, by Ruthie Delk; Waking Up, by Ted Dekker and of course, the Bible. Now, if you’re interested in joining me on this journey, you’d be wise to read both Delk and Dekker’s books cover to cover. I recommend doing that with the Bible too, but it’s helpful to start with a story that illustrates exactly what I’m talking about. So, let’s look at a lesser-known story—the story of Amaziah, king of Judah, in 2 Chronicles 25.

Young Amaziah, barely 30 years old, was a newbie to ruling a country. But the Bible says right off the bat that he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. (If you know anything about the ancient kings of Judah and Israel, you know that’s not a common characteristic.)

But even though Amaziah (like those of us who call Christ Lord) was obedient to God mostly and desired to do what was right, he still had the human hankering to “do it my way.” Just before heading out to war, he gathered his troops and then decided he needed a few more. So he paid 100,000 men from Israel to join his army. God quickly dispatched a messenger:

“O king, do not let the army of Israel go with you, for the Lord is not with Israel, with all these Ephraimites. But go, act, be strong for the battle. Why should you suppose that God will cast you down before the enemy? For God has power to help or cast down.”

This was Amaziah’s first opportunity and he triumphed. He quickly released the Israelite soldiers and headed into battle confident God’s way was best. God delivered. Amaziah and his army conquered their enemies and took much spoil. But suddenly, Amaziah’s pride at his success took a turn for the worse.

“I Did It My Way,” must have been playing in his head too, as he took the idols of his conquered foe and set them up at home. Another messenger arrived saying, “Why have you sought the gods of a people who did not deliver their own people from your hand?” (Good question!)

But Amaziah replied angrily, “Have we made you a royal counselor? Stop!”

Let’s stop here. Can you see yourself? I see me as clearly as if a polished mirror lay between the pages of my Bible.

How often have I sought to obey and Lord, been successful—even acquired the admiration of other Christians—only to pat myself on the back (discreetly) and think, “I’ve got this good-God thing down!”

Don’t deny it. It happens to every. single. one. of us. The telling point is what we do next. God faithfully sends a reminder to each of us, in every situation (The Holy Spirit is called the counselor for a reason!) to pull us back from the devastating affects of our own way.

What next? Will you shout (with the memory of your most recent victory playing in your head) that, “I’m doing okay doing it my way!” Or, will you quickly see again the cross, the Good News, the Gospel—the resurrection—and realize that every single victory is from the Lord. Will you realize that if you adopt the idol of your most recent success you will quickly find yourself in the position of your defeated foe—guarded by something that cannot deliver or save?

Guest Poem: Has Anyone Seen my Aplomb?

by: Tonja Taylor

Has anyone seen it—my dear aplomb?
Maybe I left it behind at home;
Or put it on a secret shelf,
To wear when I didn’t like myself.

I had it before; it was clearly seen,
Or so to my keen intellect it seemed; 
Didn’t I infer what they implied?
I thought t’was my aplomb they spied—

Sparkling, striking, powerfully pleasing;
“It becomes you,” they said with a grin.
(Then again, it might have been
That they were only teasing.)

Surely it didn’t fall and slip
Down the sink while I did dishes–
Now lost on some iridescent trip
Of ethereal suds and squishes?

Did the maid, in cleaning determination
Think it dust or an aberration?
And remove it forever from its place
In the room where I daily put on my face?

I wore it with charm and poise, and grace.
With style, panache, finesse,
But now I have misplaced my aplomb,
And everything’s a mess.

Maybe the verbal snafu last night
Caused my aplomb to leave in flight;
I should have know it could erase
It; and perhaps make me lose face …

It’s quite the faux pa I have made
I guess; but even so
The moi I was I wouldn’t trade
For the new me I now know.

You can enjoy more of Tonja Taylor’s work on her website:

Shame’s Sneaky Relatives

Shame: “The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another:”

That’s what dictionary.com says shame is. And, being the lover of words that I am, I knew that. So, I really didn’t think I had a shame problem. But that was before I knew that Shame has a half-sister and two evil step-daughters.

I first met False Humility, Shame’s sneaky half-sister when I was a young teenager. I’ve always been average—not excellent or super smart. I’m not super athletic, super talented or super funny. I’m just plain-jane average. Cast beneath the spotlight of my brilliant younger sister, I quickly discounted anything positive about myself. She was everything I was and more; everything I did she could do better.

When we were kids, I quit playing softball and became the bat-girl for her team. I quit learning piano and quit the swim team because she did those things better, too. I played the martyr at home, always the one to give in, defer or tap-out.

It kind of looked like humility when I stepped aside and applauded her successes while mumbling something like, “I’m okay, just not awesome.”

Next, I was introduced to Shame’s step-daughter, Pride. She raised her ugly head in the middle of my battle with anorexia. For fourteen years I excelled at starving. No one wanted to compete with me, but I competed with everyone. In my malnourished mind, I “won” every time I was thinner than another girl, every time I turned down food that another person simply couldn’t resist, every time I went for a long run in the rain while others pulled the sheets over their heads and enjoyed the warmth of a cozy bed. I was an excellent anorexic. All the while, shameful thoughts about my body and personal value swam circles in my mind.

Fear arrived shortly after my recovery from anorexia as I began to share my testimony for the glory of God and the encouragement of others. Fear is Shame’s other step-daughter. When I wrote my book, got a publisher and saw it appear on Amazon, Fear started to mock me. No one is going to buy or read this book. You are going to let down your agent, publisher and family. Everyone has had such high expectations of you and believed you could do this—they are going to be so disappointed. 

I felt sluggish and demoralized for several days, muddling through the successive concussions of fear following the publication of my book. But fear forced to me look to the God who loves me, because “perfect love casts out fear.”

One morning, I opened my Bible to Psalm 25. This single chapter has a lot to say about shame in the life of a Christ-follower. As I read, hope and renewed energy flooded through me. Shame has no place in my life and no power over me.

“I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed…no one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame…O keep my soul, and deliver me: let me not be ashamed; for I put my trust in thee.”

A Babel-builders Legacy

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we many make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth.’” Genesis 11:4

In her recent book, Whispers of Hope, Beth Moore translated the Tower of Babel story into a modern day parable. She likened the Babel builders to the many people who have attempted to climb Mount Everest.

“The spend fortunes, suffer all manner of maladies, risk relationships, and endanger life and limb. They experience a level of cold no average person can imagine to trudge past frozen bodies. But do you know what mystifies me most? If they make it to the top, they can’t even enjoy the thrill of victory. Their heads pound. They’re disoriented. Their lungs nearly collapse. They suffer snow blindness. They stand on top of the famed Mount Everest for five minutes and begin a hasty descent while they can still breathe. Why do they do it? For the sheer accomplishment of climbing to the highest peak on earth and the accompanying notoriety. Ironically, by the time they achieve the goal, most of them can’t even remember their names.”

I wrote furiously up the margin of the page, around the top, over the title and finally pulled out my tattered journal to keep going. Comparing myself to a thrill-seeking, glory-hound is not exactly complimentary, but the similarities are there nonetheless.

My years with an eating disorder could also explain the Tower of Babel in modern terms. For nearly 15 years, a transcript of my thoughts would have read, “I will build a body of perfection. I will create myself in the  image of ideal beauty. Then people will know me, admire me, remember me, envy me.”

And with focused abandon I risked relationships, physical injury and even my life to that end. The difference between Beth’s Everest example and my own is that I could never reach the pinnacle, there was no definition of success. I could never become my own creator. No one ever asked me to help them become anorexic. In fact, no one ever looked at my emaciated body with admiration and asked me to help them create the  “ideal body”.

Praise God, just like at the Tower of Babel, He came down into my little, broken life and scattered the pieces. He revealed to me the danger of my course, healed me, and like the good Creator that He is, gave me again the “perfect body” He intended for me.

Today, I am in the process of building a legacy, of leaving a mark on the world. Almost daily, God sends me people who ask how I overcame anorexia, who helped me to heal and will I pray for them.

Today, my actions center around loving God with all my heart and learning to love others as He loves me. His glory, His name is the mark I want to leave on the world.

This post was first published on Nov. 28, 2013 at FINDINGbalance.com

Missing Peace, Chapter 4: Proud of Me?

Against his better judgement, Dad decided to engage me on my own turf. If I was going to make radical exercise a non-negotiable part of my life, then he’d join me in the middle of it, and if possible keep my from killing myself in the process.

“Abby, I signed you and me up for FreeWheel in June. It’s a week-long bike ride, averaging 60 miles per day.”

“Seriously?” This sounded ideal! A perfect excuse to workout without my parents second guessing my every move. “Just you and me?”

“Yep, just you and me. Hopefully, we can train together some on the weekends. I was thinking this could give you a goal to work toward with your workouts. A goal with a start and an end point. But you are going to have to really eat, too.”

“Oh I will, I promise!” I was ecstatic, like a kid with a Christmas pony. My mind jumped through the numbers. Sixty miles per day. How many calories can I burn on a 30 mile training ride? And of course I’ll eat, tons of carbs. Bananas count, right?

FreeWheel was my father’s worst nightmare. A hectic work schedule prevented him from training sufficiently, but by sheer grit he pushed through four days of wind, rain, hills, and watching his daughter kill herself.

“Abby, you’re supposed to stop pedaling when you go down hill. Just coast and give your legs a break.”

Wind gushed in my ears as we screamed down a lightly travelled section of Highway 66. This piece of rural Oklahoma was new to me, but in my diluted perception, it looked like every other place in Oklahoma. In the Ozarks, we did see wild buffalo, tiny specks so far out on the plain that Dad pulled out the binoculars to make sure we weren’t just admiring deer.

The yellow stripes on the side of the roads were dotted with familiar roadkill, armadillo, armadillo, cat, snake, armadillo. A few Freewheelers felt spunky and stopped to prop an empty Coke bottle between the stiff paws of a decaying armadillo. Stupid creatures, they say that they jump up underneath cars, creaming themselves on the undercarriage, when they had already been lucky enough to survive the wheels.

I might have taken note. I’d been lucky so far, only losing my period and my figure but clinging to my life. Metaphorically, I was caught between the tires of a speeding vehicle and debating whether or not to jump or lay low.

Freewheelers camp each night of their journey in small towns along the route. Girls Scouts and old ladies from the Methodist church pour into the campsites, usually set up on high school football fields or city parks.

On the third night of our trip, the ride’s organizers set up a microphone on a tiny concrete slap. A dilapidated pavilion served as a stage.

“Tonight we are holding an impromptu talent show!” The announcer looked like sting bean. Her tousled hair perched like a scruffy sparrow on her head. Between her neon green shorts and hot pink cyclist’s shoes, her knees peaked out bronzed and speckled with mud.

“Anyone and everyone come show us whatcha got! Sing, play, dance, whatever. The mic will be open till 8.”

The mic stood lonely and silent on the stage for at least 15 minutes. Finally, a couple college boys did a slapstick skit and a man on a harmonica followed.

“Dad, I was thinking about going up there and singing the Star Spangled Banner.”

“That’s a really hard song, Abby.”

“I know, but I’ve sung it at church. I think I can do it.”

“I’m afraid you’ll freeze or get embarrassed. Why don’t we just watch the others tonight?”

“Come on, Dad.”

“You do whatever you want to do. I just think it’s a bad idea.”

I wandered away from Dad. Waves of confidence were unfamiliar to me. Usually, I dwelt in the mud of self-doubt, and everyone around me seemed to confirm my propensity to fail. Dad didn’t even think I could sing the National Anthem.

My mind roiled between my ears. My folks don’t think I am smart enough to feed myself. I’m not as smart as Jennifer, or good enough to play softball. I’m not pretty enough for a boyfriend.

But these waves came, swelling from my heart. This one challenge felt like a microcosm. If I can sing the National Anthem in front of hundreds of people, then I can do anything. I will validate myself there. Surely a stupid, fat and worthless person wouldn’t dare to stand up before strangers and sing such a difficult song.

My head abandoned my hands and feet as they made their way to the stage. A few minutes had passed since the last gutsy performer and weary cyclists had turned to their dinner of hotdogs, tater-tots and fresh strawberries.

The mic popped when I lifted it from the cradle. Heads turned to look at me. Now or never. Dad’s words echoed, “I just don’t want you to embarrass yourself.”

“O say can you see,” I heard my own voice. Graciously, my brain transferred all of it’s anxiety to my hands leaving my voice round and clear. “By the dawn’s early light.” When I came to the end of the first verse a splatter of applause began. But I launched into the last, less familiar verse. “O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand, Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.”

The air seemed cruelly quiet as I dropped the last note. The worst part was walking away. Self consciously, I slid the mic back into its cradle and walked off the back of the stage as if I suddenly had somewhere else to be. Dad found me near the merry-go-round a few minutes later.

“Abby, that was amazing! I’m so proud of you! Did you notice the National Guard guys come to attention?”

I hadn’t noticed the National Guard at all. Apparently the armory was attached to the public park and the cadre had been invited to join us for dinner.

Daddy wrapped his arms around me. “I’m so proud of you.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t hear him.  See, I’m good! Daddy, believe I’m talented, believe I’m strong, brave and independent. I hear you, but are you proud of me yet?

The Right Way to Want

There are two philosophies about success.

  1. Take what you want, look out for yourself. Be self motivated, self aware and self-driven. Look deep inside, learn to love and respect yourself and do what it takes to make yourself happy. 
  2. Be utterly self-effacing. This attitude is often touted from the pulpit as the Christian way to behave. Supposedly, by neglecting your own desires and elevating the aspirations of others, you will find supreme fulfillment.

Is either way true? From my experience, no. On Monday, I shared with you what I am learning about want in the foundations of my struggle with anorexia.

It was so sneaky that even I did not recognize my greed. An anorexic appears to be in need. The life of an anorexic is an exercise is asceticism, self denial, ultimate self control. But for me, it was ultimately a ploy to get everyone else to condescend to all my demands. That’s a pretty ugly naked.

Greed can wear two disguises, one flashy, the other demure.

I was reading a rather familiar story in Numbers 32. It is the story of Moses finally leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, or at least very close to it. This is one of those accounts that I have read and assumed it must have a deeper meaning than what I am able to scrape off the surface.

The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, ‘Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon— the land the Lord subdued before the people of Israel—are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes,’ they said, ‘let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.’

And then I got it! Do you see it?

I continued reading the chapter. Moses was pretty upset with the three tribes’ brazen request for what they thought was best for them. Instead of following the original plan and accepting what God had planned for them in Canaan; instead of marching into battle for conquest of the Promised Land, these guys were asking for they wanted!

But God said, “OK.” God heard the request of the Reubenites and Gadites, and honored it. I gleaned several things from this about my own needs and wants and how and when to ask for them, as well as how and when to surrender.

  1. The Reubenites and Gadites acknowledged that God had blessed them with abundant cattle and they believed that this portion of land would allow them to practice good stewardship of His blessings.
  2. They were attentive to God’s provision and they asked for God to generously give them this portion of land.
  3. They asked humbly, heard Moses’s response and listened to his criticism.
  4. They did not cower in guilt at Moses’s rebuke, but stood up for what they thought was good.
  5. They continued into battle with their fellow Israelites in order to secure God’s blessing for the other tribes as well.

“Love yourself and make yourself happy,” is a mantra in our society. Adding confusion, is the Christianese admonition to overlook one’s self. The TRUTH is, God wants us to look to Him for blessings. He wants us to expect Him to be good. And He longs for us to be grateful for His generosity. Finally, God wants us to extend that same favor to others.

The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them. Ps. 145:15-19