Spiritual Maturity – a Glimpse of the Future

As we continue to grow in our walk with Christ, we might be surprised by just how far we’ve come.  Or, we might find ourselves getting frustrated with just how little progress we’ve made.  As I’ve thought about my own spiritual maturity, and taken an honest look at myself, I realize I have a long way to go.

Then, God shows me just a glimpse of the future He has in store for us, and my hope is renewed.  We won’t truly reach spiritual maturity until we’re reunited with God, personally, in the life after this one; but that’s not the hope I’m talking about.  To be sure, the new heaven and new earth will be fantastic, but that’s not the only life He plans to give us.

Jesus spoke of the kind of life He means for us to have compared to the life offered by our enemy in John 10:10:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

See that phrase, “to the full”?  Other versions of Scripture render it as “more abundantly”, or “rich and meaningful”.  You see, God doesn’t plan for us to just huddle together and scrape by until Christ returns.  He calls us overcomers, more than conquerors, and tells us the gates of Hell won’t prevail against us.  How often do gates attack?  They’re not really all that mobile, are they?  No, He means us to bash them in.  To destroy the work of the enemy and lead the captives to freedom.

We’ve been talking over the past few days about only a few of the many ways spiritual maturity begins to show in our lives.  Today, I’d like to be the “ghost of Christian future” (to borrow a phrase from Dickens) and show you just a bit of the amazing life He has in store for us.

We’ll focus on seeing the world from God’s perspective.

In our early life with Christ, we focus on us.  Later, we focus on others.  As we reach full maturity, we focus on God.  We look at every person, situation, and thought from His vantage point.  Strangely enough, focusing on Him gives us the insight to love others more.  Not just our friends and acquaintances, but even our enemies — all of whom are precious to God.  When we see the world through His eyes, our priorities change.  We don’t have to worry about looking out for ourselves because we know He’s already got us in the palm of His hand.

We recognize the Church and she is beautiful.

Again, God’s perspective takes over, as we see the Church not just as a community to which we belong, but as the precious Bride of Christ.  We see the people in the Church as people who are righteous in His sight and beloved by God.  We don’t think of the members of the Church as part of a social group, but as a part of ourselves.  We hurt when others hurt, and celebrate when they celebrate.  We don’t stop at looking to them for support, but we do find ourselves becoming the support for others, oddly enough.  We find opportunities to teach, mentor, and help them grow, and rejoice when they see God’s victories in their lives.

We get involved in the ministry of reconciliation.

Those who used to be a bad influence in our lives, those we realized we needed to keep an eye on, are now the ones we reach out to with the hope of the gospel.  We are firm in our convictions, sure of the truth, and moved by love to reach — not to join — the lost.  Instead of them leading us astray, we help them find their way.  Led by the Spirit, we are inspired to offer the right words and deeds at the perfect moment to be used by God to draw others closer to the same joy we’ve found.

We don’t have devotions, we live a life of devotion.

As we grow into our maturity, the living and powerful Word of God isn’t just something we read once a day; it has become life and breath to us — we meditate on it even when we’re not reading it.  Every moment we do spend in its pages is precious as we revisit familiar friends and wonderful promises.  We see the entirety of Scripture as a reminder of the redemptive love our Father has poured out on us.  We connect the promise of a redeemer in Genesis to the eternal reign of our Savior in the Revelation.  We pore over the pages eagerly because they contain His Words, carefully protected throughout history and lovingly delivered to us.

Our prayer life, too, becomes more than it was.  We don’t “take time” out of our day to pray, anymore, as much as we pause during our ongoing conversation with God once in a while to get the other stuff done.  We bring every task, every situation, every need to Him as they happen, and we listen and obey as He directs our paths.  He is on our minds as we go about our routine, as we realize we’re on His mind as He goes about His.

Our problems cannot compare to our joy.

Yes, we still have troubles, and we will until this life has ended, but the “mountains” that once loomed large in front of us look like mere speed bumps in our rearview mirror.  God has been so faithful, seeing us through so many troubles, that whatever we’re facing today will soon be behind us.  We have eternity in mind, so a few days, weeks, or even years of struggle are just short-term opportunities for God to show up, again, and give us the strength and help we need.  We even use our troubles to inspire others.

All a matter of perspective…

Have you noticed a pattern?  In each of the areas we’ve discussed, the real change is our perspective.  When we begin to ask God to show us how the world looks to Him, we begin to mature.  How does the world look to Him?  Well, Scripture tells us God is love.  As we grow in love — love for people, love for His Word, and love for God, Himself,  changes everything.  And why not?  The Apostle Paul, in the very well-known passage on love in 1st Corinthians 13, says this:

8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

So, while I may not be where I’m meant to be yet, I sure like the look of where I’m headed.  How do I get there?  I can start by trying to see the world through the eyes of the One who gave everything for me.  That kind of love, when it really takes hold, makes all the difference.

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Spiritual Maturity: Growing Up

Last time, we talked about spiritual maturity, and we started to examine what life in the early days of following Christ might look like.  It wasn’t always the prettiest picture, was it?  Keep in mind: everybody has to start somewhere, God and the Church are here to help, and every step draws us closer to who He sees in us.

We’re looking forward to a time when these words are fulfilled:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

Today, I want to take a few minutes to talk about the changes that begin to happen to a follower of Jesus as they begin to grow beyond the basics.  Call these the teenage years, if you will.  Before we go any further, I should say that spiritual maturity has nothing to do with biological age, and these are not the only signs of growth; but, they’re a start.

Maturing believers focus more on others.

Spiritually maturing believers become more concerned with others than themselves.  Where we once thought, “What can that other person do for me?” we now ask, “How can I help the people around me?”  This can range from the simplest of expressions, like letting someone else go first, or helping a friend with a tough job.  We don’t spend quite so much time seeking our own entertainment, either.  At the very least, we grow to understand that those forms of entertainment should be more honorable and productive, as we begin to understand our time is a gift from God.

Growing believers look for healthy relationships (in and out of Church).

We begin to look around the Church, not for what satisfies and supports us, but for ways we can get involved and support others.  The church isn’t just a service we attend anymore, but a community, one that we would be reluctant to leave, even as we stumble across imperfections — and we will.  In this community, we find friends who start to become a part of our lives outside the church doors.  We might even find some folks we admire and try to emulate.  On the other hand, any old friendships that tend to pull us away from doing what we know to be right are reevaluated.  We might not end those relationships, as long as they’re not too toxic, but we don’t stay as close as we once did.

Developing Christians enjoy a better devotional time.

Our prayer life grows richer, too.  We take time daily to focus on God.  We don’t jump right to our never-ending shopping list, but we take a few moments worship God, admit our recent sins, thank God for His many blessings, and make our requests.  Even those requests will start to change, as we begin to ask God to work in us, not just for us, and we pray less about our needs, and more about the needs of others.  Oh, and we also start to take the time to quiet ourselves and listen to God to speak in that still, small voice.

Maturing believers develop a habit of regularly studying the Scriptures as a standard for living.  They take the time to read and learn from the Bible outside of church services.  They double-check the teachings they hear against what the Bible has to say.  Because they value the Word of God, they start remembering verses they find encouraging or helpful.

Advancing followers don’t get sidetracked by problems as easily.

Problems don’t rattle the growing Christian quite as much as they once did.  Prayer becomes an earlier response when facing the storms of life, not a last resort.  Fewer sleepless night when things go wrong — and they will — reveal a peace and joy that wasn’t quite so obvious before.  We’ve started to see God answer our prayers, which helps us gain confidence in His providence.  We begin to call to mind His promises from His Word to help us when we struggle.

I hope you see some of these signs of increasing maturity in your own life.  I hope those around me see them in mine, to be honest.  As I will be, I hope you’re challenged to strive for the ones you don’t see in yourself.  I’m far from perfect in any of these areas, but am convinced that unless we have an idea of the goal, we’ll never try to get there.  So the next time we get together, I hope to give us a glimpse of what we can become, with His help.

Spiritual Maturity: the Early Days

As a Dad, I have a lot of goals for my kids.  As I look back, I marvel at the progress they have made so far.  As I look around, I assess where they are now, and as I look forward, I envision the amazing people I know they can become.  I recognize my own limited vision and ability to help them; but, I hope and pray and strive to help them become everything God wants them to be.  As they grow, their choices will be their own.  All I can do is try to point them in the right direction.

As a child of God, I’ve come to realize He is working out that same growth process in me.  He knows how far I have come, where I am now, and what I can become.  As I make my way in this life, I’ll make my choices, for good or ill.  My spiritual growth (or lack of it) will depend on my choices.  The good news is, He offers me plenty of guidance if I’m willing to listen.

The same is true for you, my friend.  We are each on a journey, and God wants to walk it with us.  He wants to be our closest companion, and enrich our lives in ways we can’t even imagine, yet.  His goal?  To help us reach spiritual maturity.  Here’s a glimpse of the end He has in mind, as the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus.

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

These verses talk about God’s people, the Church, maturing and growing until we are found to be “measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.”  Now, that’s the text from the New Living Translation.  Here’s another rendering of the text from the English Standard Version: “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”.

I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t measure up.

One of the many wonders of the gospel, as we can see from these verses, is this: the path to Spiritual Maturity is a growing process.  We’re not expected to get it perfectly right the instant we come to faith in Christ.  I hope that’s as much a relief to you as it is to me.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to draw some comparisons between spiritual growth and the more mundane process of growing up as a person.  Just as kids grow into teens, who become adults, spiritual growth can be thought of in phases.  As we take a closer look at each one, I’m taking stock of my own maturity, and looking for opportunities to grow.  I hope you will, too.

So, let’s start with a very young faith, today, and we’ll see what growth looks like next time.

When we first come to faith in Christ, we share a lot in common with babies and toddlers.  See if you recognize any of these common traits in your own life.  Not every follower of Jesus will struggle with each one, but I was surprised to realize how many I saw in myself.

Spiritually immature believers are sometimes self-centered.

You know how I came to realize we’re all born with a sinful nature?  I can’t remember a single toddler who needed to be taught to keep their toys.  No, pretty much all the little ones I’ve ever known, including me, had to be taught to share.  They tend to focus on their own needs and get very upset, often loudly so when those needs aren’t met.

A lot of young believers struggle with a self-oriented view of God, too.  More than a few people have come to faith in Christ because of what Jesus promises to do for us.  And why wouldn’t we?  We’re looking to gain Heaven for ourselves or avoid Hell, to find peace or get help.  All of these are wonderful promises, but did you notice, they’re all about what God can do for us?

Our prayer life, too, usually starts by focusing on us.  Our younger selves bring lists of all the problems we need God to solve for us, and we tend to be more impatient with His answers.  We even look for and value a church that makes us happy.  They play the music we like, the sermons make us feel good, the people are nice to us.  We tend to start to grow frustrated when we’re corrected, even though we’re told that’s part of the purpose of the Scriptures.

If you’re focusing on yourself a little too much; don’t grow anxious — you’re in good company.  I do it, too.  So did the disciples.  From time to time, we all do.  Here’s a simple suggestion: the next time you pray, actively avoid mentioning what you want, and pray only for the needs of others.  Get into the habit of praying for others, and

Spiritually immature believers often struggle to feed themselves.

Ever watch any funny videos of very young kids trying to feed themselves?  I have, the messes are fantastic!

For the Christian, Christ reminds us that we “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For us, time spent in the Scriptures is like food for our spirit.  The writer of Hebrews talks about the church as though they were infants because they are still “unskilled in the word of righteousness.”

Very young believers need others to feed them, or in simpler terms, to teach them the Scriptures.  The Book seems mysterious and confusing, some parts may not seem to make sense at all until someone explains it to us.

One of the very real problems in this stage of spiritual growth is that, like a young child, we can be lead astray by bad advice (false teachings) because we don’t yet know enough to determine the difference between Scriptural baloney and Biblical filet mignon.  Honestly, some of the stuff we hear about from the Bible is a bit tough for us to chew.

There are plenty of false teachers and bad doctrines out there, and more than a few young believers have become frustrated with God when He doesn’t act the way some false teacher said He should.

Just one example: one of the most common false teachings, today, is the idea that God only allows trouble or sickness to impact those who displease Him, and He only allows good things to happen to those who follow Him… a nice sentiment, but not Scriptural.

Ask Joseph, Paul, or Peter if all their troubles magically disappeared when they started following Christ.  When a new believer is told by a false teacher to expect God to act like that, and He doesn’t, they either blame God, or they let someone convince them their own sins are the cause of their trouble.  They become angry with God, or blame themselves, not knowing the Scriptures well enough to see the deceptive message and reject the fraud.  Often, folks in their shoes simply walk away, believing God or the Bible lied to them.  (In truth, Jesus promises we will have trouble, but He also promises to see us through it all.)

To avoid this frustration, the best way to recognize a counterfeit is to know the genuine article so well you can spot the fake just because you know something is off.

As Ephesians says:

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.

For many of us, it’s past time to start learning how to feed ourselves.  If you find studying the Scriptures difficult, you’re not alone.  But I have some great news: getting better is much easier than you might think.

Here’s some quick advice to getting started, or getting back to basics, if it’s been a while.

Grab an easy-to-understand translation, like the New Living Translation (the “NLT”), and spend 15 minutes a day, every day reading the Bible and asking God to show you something about Himself and something about yourself.  Get into the habit of reading your Bible the same time every day, get rid of other distractions for just a while, grab a notebook and pen, and pray both before and after you read.

If you’re not sure where to start, open your Bible to the Table of Contents and find the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of John, and just take the time to get to know Jesus for a while.  In the second part of the Bible, the New Testament, the first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are called the gospels, and they’re four different accounts of the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus.

As you read for your fifteen minutes each day, ask the following three questions, in order:

  1. “What does it say?”  (Can you tell someone else what you read, today?  Answer the “Who, What, When, Where, and Why?” questions.)
  2. “What does it mean?”  (Are there any promises I can count on, any commands to obey, any characteristics of God to learn, any revealing comments about us?  What’s the big idea?)
  3. “What does it mean to me?”  (What does God want you to know or do with the words you just read?  How should your thoughts, words, or actions change based on what you just read?)

Don’t rush.  Write down anything that comes to mind: answers to the big three questions, or any additional questions you think up as you read, and whatever God impresses upon you.  Pray about your new questions, talk to a more mature believer about them, and share what you’re learning with others.

You don’t have to be classically trained in Hebrew and Greek to get started understanding the Scriptures, just keep learning at church and get started at home.  (There’s a reason for those apostles, prophets, and teachers Ephesians mentions — they’re there to feed us, at first, then to teach us how to feed ourselves.)

Spiritually immature believers struggle when facing trouble.

Young children tend to get upset rather easily, often over what we adults realize are rather minor problems.  A toddler who stubs a toe wails as if they’ve lost a limb.  It doesn’t take much to upset them, and it can take quite a bit more effort to calm them.

Young believers also struggle with their troubles.  They worry, panic, lose sleep, and freak out too much.  Don’t be fooled — every believer has trouble, but the real sign of spiritual maturity isn’t how few problems we have, but how peaceful we remain in the middle of them.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and shouldn’t get us down.  When we’re just getting to know God, we haven’t seen Him move many mountains or part many seas on our behalf.  We haven’t found ourselves in the cistern like Joseph and seen God bring us out to run Egypt, yet.  We just don’t realize how much He can do, or how strangely He works.  Sometimes, we get fooled into thinking nothing should ever go wrong once we know Him, and the shock of real trouble can be quite devastating.

If you find yourself in the middle of trouble, go back to the Scriptures, get back to the gospels.  See Jesus calm the storms and calm His followers.  Read Psalm 91, or 23, or Jesus’ instructions in the sermon on the mount, especially the part about not worrying.  That notebook you take with you when you read the Bible?  Start writing down the promises of God, the needs you present in prayer, and the answers when they come.

It’s not all bad…

These are just a few of the ways immature believers of Christ often struggle.  You might not have trouble in all of these areas, but if you do notice anything that makes you squirm a little bit, don’t get frustrated.  Get growing!  Ask God to work in you to help you grow.  He wants to help you!

Before we leave this phase, I don’t want you to think it’s all bad.  There are some characteristics of younger believers that a few of the more seasoned saints might want to remember.

Young believers often keep their sense of wonder and enthusiasm.

Kids are amazed by the simplest things, from peek-a-boo to soap bubbles, everything is amazing!  Even the most ordinary aspects of life can amuse, amaze, and astonish.

Sometimes, I think those of us who have been in the church for a long time need to look at the world through the eyes of a brand new believer.  The idea that the God of the universe would want a relationship with me is incredible!

The fellowship of the local church is full of new opportunities to make friends and build relationships, and our other friends who don’t know God need Him very much.  New believers are usually much more eager to share their faith.

The Scriptures are full of awesome adventures, and newer believers are often better at imagining themselves in the middle of the saga.  The pages come alive as they can see the sorrow in the garden, the trauma of the cross, and the triumph of the resurrection.

Don’t get complacent, though.  New believers who don’t grow become stagnant.  In fact, all believers who stop growing start dying.  Not because God won’t save us, but because we’ve stopped striving to see the fullness of Christ grow in us.

Wooden Nickels

A few years ago, the workgroup I was in came up with a novel employee incentive program involving fake coins, called “Atta’ Boys”, that managers could hand out whenever they noticed someone going the extra mile and exemplifying the traits the group wanted to promote.

That’s right… we were given wooden nickels.

Now, as it turned out, these wooden nickels actually had some value, since you could turn in a few and get an executive’s parking spot for a week, or get a shiny new coffee mug, or a few other token rewards for your efforts.  Nothing of significant value, of course, since anything too valuable could have been seen as an actual bonus, and then folks might start angling for them, or accusing favoritism of those who happened to get more coins than others, you get the idea.

The management in our group just wanted a way to say a small thank you and offered wooden nickels redeemable for rewards of insubstantial value as a way to do that.   Nothing of real value was exchanged, but the sentiment was a nice one, at least.

I kept the few that I earned while they were being given because I couldn’t help noticing the practical application of the old proverb warning us not to take any wooden nickels.  The proverb in question, of course, is a reminder not to accept any substitute for the genuine article.

Sadly, many of us keep taking the wooden nickels the world offers us.  Of course, I’m not talking about actual wooden nickels.

No, when I say we keep taking the wooden nickels the world offers us, I mean we keep settling for poor substitutes for the real blessings God wants to give us.  We exchange the perfect gifts of Heaven for the sad imitations, below.  We try to find the faster, cheaper ways to achieve our own satisfaction in all kinds of ways.

If we’re going to really live up to the instructions we find in the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, we’re going to need to quit taking those wooden nickels.

15 So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. 16 Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. 17 Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do.

— Ephesians 5:15-17

Last time, we discussed changing our thoughts.  You know those old thought patterns the world would like us to adopt?  They’re just wooden nickels.  So, too, are the more physical wooden nickels we’re going to discuss, today.

How many of the vices we now have are a faulty attempt, a wooden nickel, to try to buy our way out of pain, or sorrow, or purchase for ourselves a little happiness, a little peace?  (I’ll give you a hint: the percentage is awfully high.)

As a man who is just starting to really examine my own habits, I find I’ve accepted far too many wooden nickels in my own life.  Maybe you’ll see some in your own life as I share mine.

To get started, let’s talk about our most basic appetite.  Our attitudes toward food, diet, and nutrition are all over the map, aren’t they?  As for me, I spent my younger years trusting the metabolism of a teenager to allow me to eat whatever tasted good.  I definitely latched onto the idea of comfort food, and I fell into the trap of convenience by grabbing fast food far too often.  I got hooked on caffeine, as a way to keep my energy up, and ended up gaining a lot of weight, which likely caused my sleep apnea, which I took far too long to notice because I was always on the soda rush.  I was self-medicating with caffeine!  That’s at least four wooden nickels, I scooped up.

For some, the recognition of this particular set of wooden nickels has led them to swing the pendulum the other way and look for quick solutions for rapid weight loss.  Odd “diets” that presume you can just make a particular change or two for a limited time and see lasting results, pills or procedures that promise instant results and a whole host of other “solutions” are just another stack of wooden nickels waiting for us.

You know what might work: eating less, permanently changing our diet to include more wholesome fruits and vegetables, enjoying the sweets in moderation, and staying active.  God gave us everything we need to not just get by, but thrive.  The best foods: vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, like fish.  The best drink: water.  Hmm, it’s almost as if God already provided us with the best, isn’t it?

Ever seen the video showing the results of experiments on the physical properties of Twinkies?  It’s a fair bet to say they don’t grow on trees.  (If I could figure out how to make that happen, I might be on to something, though.)

You know what I’ve found as I dropped the soda, started eating healthier, and not heading to Taco Bell so often?  I feel better!  I have more energy, and I don’t need the soda every day.  I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m finding when I take care of my body as God intended me to, good changes are happening.

I’m not suggesting we should all go out and become vegan, or that we should all go out and become any particular kind of eater, in fact.  What I am suggesting is that “making the most of every opportunity” or “redeeming the time” was probably meant to include breakfast, lunch, and dinner time, too.

I even know one friend who set up his treadmill in front of his TV.  If you’re gonna watch the television, might as well get some exercise in.  Maybe I should do the same, but make the treadmill power the TV?  In any case, we need to stop accepting wooden nickels when it comes to our health.

What about pain?  Have we accepted any wooden nickels, there?  I daresay there are many who have turned to pills, alcohol, and other substitutes to try to mask, drown out, or simply avoid physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual pain.  Now, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t take medicine.  I have personally benefitted many times from the expert ministrations of surgeons and doctors, who knew how to help me by repairing damage and providing medications to help me during the recovery time; but when we continue taking the medicine long after we should, when we develop an addiction to painkillers or alcohol because they’re the only way we can cope, we have settled for another wooden nickel.

If you find yourself in that situation, God doesn’t want you to be there, and neither do I.  He wants to help us leave our burdens behind, whatever they may be.  Christ offers to bear our burdens, and He commands His followers to bear each other’s burdens, as well.  Admitting we need help is the first step to getting it.  If you need help, talk to someone you trust, someone who will encourage you to get help, someone who will pray with you and for you, and help you toss those wooden nickels behind you.

We can also accept wooden nickels when it comes to pleasure.  We can turn our focus inward, looking to be entertained, and shut ourselves on with a vast landscape of amusements like TV, movies, books, art, games, sports, and hobbies — you name it!  None of these things are inherently evil, and can be used for considerable good, enriching an enlightening us; but, not when they become the focus of our lives, out of balance.  I know people who have used each of those forms of entertainment to produce and consume the worst kind of tasteless garbage; others who have chosen better materials, but still let their own pleasure distract them from their family, friends, and others; and still others who have found a way to connect with people and minister to them based on a common interest.

When we examine our own choices of entertainment, which one are we?  Are we really following the command of Scripture to “Make the most of every opportunity.”?

God wants us to find joy in Him, build rewarding relationships with others, and learn true happiness comes when we stop looking to satisfy ourselves and start serving others.  We need to stop taking the wooden nickels of self-amusement and our own personal pleasure, and exchange them for the genuine article — having real fun spending time with others and helping them grow closer to God as we do the same.

What about intimacy?  Oh boy.  Not to be too blunt about it, but the current thinking of the world on relationships, intimacy, and even sexuality are perhaps the biggest pile of wooden nickels the enemy has been trying to shovel our way for a very long time.

God designed us to be in relationships, and as with just about everything else, the more you work at a relationship, the deeper it grows and the more rewarding it becomes.  God, Himself eternally enjoys the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and He instituted a divine pattern in Scripture from the very beginning.

Adam and Eve were meant to live lives dedicated to one another and dedicated to God.  For a while, they did, then the accepted some wooden nickels, taking the enemy’s word of God’s, eating the forbidden fruit because it looked too good to pass up, and thinking they could hide from God.  They also demonstrated another facet of relationships we still have to acknowledge, today — when our relationships to one another grow more important than our relationship with God, we can lead one another astray.

The Paradise they lost ought to serve as a powerful caution to us: how much do we risk losing when we settle for the enemy’s wooden nickels?

Satan offers quite a few more of those lies when it comes to our most intimate human relationships.  Today, the world promotes “openness” in relationships and seems to be steering away from the monogamous marital relationship God designed, no matter how much we know the benefits of a deep, committed, and lifelong love to be.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new attitudes toward intimacy.  Open marriages, cohabitation, pornography are all open assaults on God’s beautiful intentions for us.  All attempting to promote a “freedom” that is no such thing — allowing us to gain temporary pleasure while we sabotage the lasting benefits of the deeper relationships God meant us to enjoy.

I can’t even begin to count all the hang-ups and emotional issues you never have to face if you and your spouse choose to keep your sex lives within the bounds God designed.  The guilt, jealousy, fear, and resentment that could undermine you isn’t even an issue.  God never wanted those things for you.  He wants so much more for you.

If you have made less than ideal choices in the past, you can still choose to be honest with one another, forgive each other, and set apart the remainder of your lives to live as God meant you to live.  You can stop taking the wooden nickels.

If God has not shown you someone to whom you’re ready to make that kind of spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical commitment, yet, don’t give in to the temptation to do something you’ll regret.  Trust that He has a better plan in mind, and will either bring someone worth the wait into your life; or, He will give you the strength to not settle for less and remain dedicated to God even if you do not marry.  You might (as the Apostle Paul discussed) be set on a different course, altogether.

In either case, don’t try to take a shortcut, hold out for God’s best!

In every area of our lives, our enemy wants us to settle for less than God’s divine plan for our lives — to compromise, to sabotage God’s best for something far less.  In so many ways the enemy wants us to trade the priceless for the worthless.  I pray we will be mindful of these distractions and compromises, recognizing them for the wooden nickels they are.  Then have the strength and courage to say, “Nope.  I’m holding out for the real thing.”

Penny for Your Thoughts…

Ever been in a situation when you wish you knew what somebody else was thinking?  I have — lots of times.  More often than not, the mind I would like to be able to read is my wife’s.  As close as we’ve grown over the years, and as often as we do think alike (much to her chagrin, I’m sure) I don’t always get it right.

Sometimes, I want to know what my kids are thinking (o.k. by the time I need to know it, I usually want to know what they were thinking, I suppose.)  I do find I spend a lot of my time as a parent trying to help them think carefully and use a right standard to help them make better choices in life.  Our goal has always been to help them come to the same conclusions we did about our faith, life choices, and priorities; not because we said so, but because our choices make sense.

We want our kids to think, and think well because what we think about the world shapes what we do.  If we’re so concerned about our kids and what they think about, it follows our Heavenly Father might take a similar interest in us.  Now, He has a distinct advantage, doesn’t He?  The Scriptures tell us on several occasions that God knows our thoughts.  Jesus, specifically, knew the thoughts of those around Him very well — He confronted people more than once with their own thoughts.

So, knowing our thoughts, God doesn’t have to guess what we’re thinking, which is probably why He has so much to say about the subject.  He knows what He’s dealing with.

Proverbs 14:15:

The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps.

Clearly, our thought life matters to God.

We’re even given a standard to know the kinds of thoughts He wants us to have.

Philippians 4:8,9

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

In these verses, there’s a clear link between what we think about and how we live.

I’ve noticed that link in action, myself.  You see, I have a rather long commute to work, and I’ve noticed my mood changes based on what I choose to listen to on my way to work.  When I listen to ranting sportscasters or political discussions, I tense up, and my mood sours.  When I listen to good music, I relax.  When I listen to solid Bible teaching, I am encouraged.  When I shut off the radio and listen to hear from God, well, then I give Him the opportunity to work in me.

The words, sounds, and images we feed into our mind have a lot to do with how we think and live.

What are you feeding your mind, these days?

I say feed because our thought patterns are very much like an appetite.  What we feed it now becomes what we crave later, and as with most appetites, ours are prone to grow.  Eventually, what moves us, excites us, satisfies us today will no longer be enough — we will need more.  The same could be said of our appetites for food, entertainment, sex, pornography, drugs, alcohol, or any other appetite.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, by the way.  Notice I said any other appetite?  If you start developing a hunger for the Scriptures, or prayer, or worship, God can help that appetite to grow, too, and you’ll find a joy far greater than any earthly delight.

If you want to start developing a healthier thought life, you need God’s help, and you need to start replacing the bad stuff you’ve been focusing on with something better.  Ask God to show you how, and start looking for others who are on the same path to walk alongside.

If I’m going to follow the directive in 1st Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.

I’m going to have to deal with my mind, my thoughts, first.  As Romans 12:2 tells us:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Why should it matter to God what you think, anyway?  Well, for one thing, He paid a lot more than a penny for your thoughts, didn’t He?  For another, He knows how much your thoughts can hold you back or propel you toward all that He has in store for you.  He loves you enough not to leave you where you are.

Over the next few days, we’ll talk about the physical implications of these instructions; but, for today, pay attention to what you’re putting into your mind, and see how your thoughts and actions are affected.

Perfect is the enemy…

“Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”

That’s the rumor, anyway.  This old chestnut of a saying has been around a long time, and it’s supposed to be a warning about trying too hard to get everything just right and missing out on the joys of being content with good enough.

In my other line of work, I write software.  I write code to manipulate data and present information to the users of the applications I build.  Several tons of books have been written about how to improve the code I write.  Everything from what to name my variables to how many characters to allow per line on the screen.

I try to write the best code I can in the time allotted, and sometimes, I try to go back and improve the code I’ve written to make it work better, be easier to read and understand, and follow the same style as the code other people have written around it.  Sometimes, I even reformat the other people’s code because I’m convinced my style is better.

So, I’m very familiar with the idea that you can try too hard to write the perfect code and spend days improving one small part of the code when you could have been reasonably satisfied with your first hour’s efforts and used the remainder of your time and effort to build a working version of the entire project.

Or, in writing, I could spend hours trying to come up with the perfect metaphor, and finally, come up with something just slightly better than what I dreamed up in the first five minutes.

There’s something to be said for not stressing out trying to be perfect, to be sure, but sometimes I wonder if I might use that as an excuse for giving much less, caring much less than I could have.

To put in another way, sometimes I wonder if good enough is the enemy of perfect.

Look at the verses from Ephesians 5, again:

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

— Ephesians 5:15

Focus on verse 16.

making the most of every opportunity,

How much are we supposed to make of our opportunities?  Out of how many?

It sure would be a lot easier if God told us:

make something decent of a reasonable number of opportunities,

But, He didn’t.

He tells us to make the MOST of EVERY opportunity.

Sounds to me like God is pretty serious about how we ought to live our lives.  How would my day have been different, yesterday, if I had really looked at every decision, every contact with another person, every thought, word, or deed as an opportunity to accomplish more?

How would yours?

How different could today be, if we really viewed every opportunity as a challenge for God to do His best in and through us?

Now, I am not proposing we kill ourselves in attempt to be absolutely perfect, but I daresay both of us can probably think of more than a few times yesterday when we could, with even just a little more effort, made significantly more out of the opportunities God set before us…

…in the way we treated people,

…in the way we went about our work,

…in the way we managed our time,

…in the way we used our words,

…in the very thoughts we entertained.

Maybe you lived this day to the hilt, and can’t think of a single way any opportunity could have been maximized any more.  If so, this post is not for you.

For the rest of us who are still reading… (you are still here, right?)

…I’m not saying all of this to make either of us feel guilty.  Christ didn’t come to condemn the world, so He didn’t come to condemn you, and I certainly have no room to talk.

He did come to redeem the world, and to redeem you, however, and He means to redeem your time, too.

Don’t worry about yesterday; it’s over.  Ask for these, instead: forgiveness for the times you settled for less than the best, vision to spot the opportunities ahead, courage and strength to make the most out of every one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Your Own Adventure?

When I was a boy, my parents introduced me to the wonderful world of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and I was quickly hooked.  You didn’t read them like a normal book, because every page or two you were asked to make a choice related to the story, and told which page to turn to see the outcome of your story.

Some choices were better than others, and led to better endings, while others led to less desirable outcomes.  The stories were always adventures, and each read through could provide a nearly completely different story, as long as you were willing to change some of your choices along the way.

Of course, I would always hold my place at the previous decision point, just in case I didn’t like the ending I got.  Yeah, I cheated.  I did it because the results were often arbitrary — I would choose an honorable option, only to find the book gave me a bad ending, and other times, I would choose the less noble path, and be rewarded.  At other times, neither option seemed better than the other, and I might as well have flipped a coin.

I wanted to make the right choice, knowing which one was right wasn’t always easy.  As it turns out, the same can often be said for life.  Sometimes, we struggle to know which choice is the right one, don’t we?  Sadly, unlike those books I loved as a kid, we can’t always just go back and undo the choices we’ve made, can we?

Choices wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many of them.  Honestly, I think we might surprise ourselves with just how many choices (even the routine ones) we make in a single day.  Have you ever stopped to count them?  Here are just a few choices I made, yesterday:

  • How long I snoozed in bed (too long)
  • How much time to spend on my phone browsing before I got out of bed (too long)
  • Whether to run my toothbrush under the water before or after adding the toothpaste (after, of course)
  • What to wear (clothes, ideally)
  • What to grab for breakfast (I find food works well)
  • Whether to scrape the windows on my car or let the defroster handle it (running late — see my first two choices — better scrape the windows myself)
  • Whether to get fuel for the car this morning or not (Nah, it can wait)
  • Which route to take to work (ok, the same one I always take)
  • Whether to check my e-mail before going to the lab or after (I chose after, nothing like missing important announcements, like the name of my new boss)
  • How to greet my co-workers after the New Year’s holiday (cheerfully?)
  • Which task to tackle first, at work (talking about the new Star Wars movie, right?  No?  Ok, guess I should try to do something useful)

Those decisions were just a few of the ones I made between waking up and 9:30AM.  Admittedly, most of those particular decisions were not too strenuous, and none caused any sort of dilemma.

But, maybe you’re facing some tougher decisions, today.  Decisions with real consequences and lasting impact on your life and the lives of others.

If so, here are a few guiding thoughts that have helped me.  Maybe they’ll help you, too.

  1. Prefer others over yourself.  (Who will be harmed, who will be helped?)
  2. Follow the pattern of love, as described in 1st Corinthians 13.
  3. Show kindness.
  4. Offer mercy.
  5. Search the Scriptures for Godly counsel.
  6. Seek the counsel of Godly people around you.
  7. Sometimes, it helps to imagine someone else you respect going through the same situation and think about how they would handle it.
  8. Seek the counsel of God, Himself — Pray!

Unlike my list, prayer should not be the last resort.

James tells us to ask for wisdom:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

— James 1:5

A big part of making the most of every opportunity is gaining the wisdom to make the best choices.  If you want water, you look for the source.  In the same way, if we want true wisdom, we ought to go to the source.

As it turns out, Choosing Your Own Adventure isn’t nearly so fulfilling as Choosing His Adventure.