Archive | daily life

God’s Definition of Good

This excerpt is adapted from Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture. It’s available now at Amazon. If you have read it, please consider leaving a review at Amazon, CBD, or Goodreads.

Most considering faith in Jesus want to know if God is good. Even those of us who have long since come to faith wrestle at times to believe our God and His Word are good when our circumstances, in contrast, seem so bad. God promises to work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). The magic question then is what does God mean when He uses that word, good?

Consider the interaction in the Gospels between Jesus and the rich young ruler, a seeker wrestling with His claims. This exchange gives us insight into God’s version of good. One might think Jesus would have eased the tone of His message to draw to faith this young man who was clearly seeking truth—that Jesus would have lured him in with some promise of earthly goodness. But He took a different tactic, painting in stark terms what following Him would mean for this man.

As he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17–22)

Jesus didn’t give an easy answer to this young man, but He did give one that was consistent with His message throughout the New Testament: if you want to find your life, you must first lose it. He spoke to this man of loss, and it seemed a weight this man could not endure. He left Jesus sorrowful; God’s call was too heavy to bear. Yet Jesus always called His disciples through loss to a reward. To this young man, Jesus promised treasure in heaven. Jesus’s call was very much a good call with a good outcome, but this young man was too bound to his earthly possessions to perceive it. God’s good is a counterintuitive good from our earthly perspective, but it is the best kind of good.

When I first read this interaction between Jesus and the young ruler, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Jesus’s love for this man and the message He spoke to him. But Jesus did not tell him an unloving thing. Jesus told him a true thing, and we fool ourselves regarding the nature of genuine love when we believe that it would be better served with a lie. A lying love is a shortsighted love.

Out of love for him, Jesus told him, in essence, that he must value following Jesus above his possessions, that faith in Jesus would mean choices that don’t fit an earthly ideal of security or responsible behavior. In Jesus’s service, he would have to deny himself and take up his cross. This sounds like a very hard path! But this man would not be left to do this on his own. Consider the description of Jesus in Hebrews 12:2: “The founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

When I read this verse, I envision Jesus looking through a door into a room filled with the worst kind of pain and shame: what He experienced on the cross. Yet through a door on the other side of the room, He can see through the pain and shame of the cross to the purest kind of joy and goodness. He walked through that room of pain and shame, enduring the worst evil, and then through the door on the other side, where He now sits in peace and joy at the right hand of His Father. And according to Hebrews 12:2, we are to look to Him. He is our inspiration for and example of something God calls us to here on earth.

God’s Version of Good

Joy is available. The best kind of goodness exists at God’s feet in His throne room. There we can find joy, and peace, and satisfaction. But God’s version of good is not like the temporary earthly joy of money and nice houses that some religious figures offer their followers. It is not self-actualization (“the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world”) in the present. It’s not an earthly “Be all you can be.”

No, God’s version of good sets such a view of the fulfillment of our potential on its side.

Jesus loved this young ruler He said this hard thing to. The description of Jesus’s interaction with this man has the language of goodness—of a desire for the best for someone. But we clearly see that Jesus’s idea of the loving, best direction for this young man challenged the man’s own view of good. He left disappointed, unable to comprehend such an invitation from Jesus being worth the cost.

Jesus’s invitation was not to self-actualization, but it was not to self-flagellation, either. We are not simply to deny ourselves or beat ourselves up. Those who lose their lives will find them, and the implication is that what they find is very much worth the pursuit (see Matthew 10:39). God’s good is the kind of sustaining, life-giving good that feeds our souls. Ultimately, God’s call to this young man, and to us, is about finding the best kind of good. It is about finding true life, not restricting it.

Understanding the goodness of the God of the Bible (and the Bible itself) requires a long view through the dark room Jesus endured to the joy and goodness on the far side. In the end, God’s kingdom is fully realized and there is a new heaven and a new earth where we live in peace and joy with God as He first created us to do. This eternal good story must be the stream that feeds the reservoir that is our understanding of our earthly temporary good.

As a practical note, I suggest Kathleen Nielsen’s study of Joshua as a great look at our faithful God who puts plans into place over hundreds of years that He beautifully brings to fruition.  It’s a low stress study that leads readers right through Scripture, appropriate for individuals or groups.

The Centrality of the Word in Discipleship

As I counsel others and engage in gospel-centered discipleship, I am sometimes distracted away from the Word, God’s self-expression in the form of the Bible itself. Someone struggles to feel a personal relationship with God, and I talk them through prayer and maybe recommend Tim Keller’s new book. Someone wrestles through debilitating self-condemnation over sin, and I lead in a discussion of our identity in Christ and recommend Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Because He Loves Me. Struggles in marriage? What about Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage or Stormie Omartian’s The Power of a Praying Wife? If I’m not careful, I forget that these things, while all helpful, are only periphery supports for the infrastructure needed for discipleship. They are helps, but only as support to the better help, which is God’s own Word.

I’ve recognized this in my own life lately. Over the last year, I have received formal therapy from a licensed counselor, informal counsel from my pastor, and much counsel from wise godly friends over meals or coffee. They have pointed me to books that have offered wise counsel as well. While all of those things have been deeply helpful, they help best as periphery support to the essential infrastructure of personal Bible reading. When I pursue those things without reading the Bible myself, there is a gulf in my heart they can not make up by themselves.

Personally, I think of my time in the Bible as just reading, not study. I definitely do study the Bible, but that flows more out of my desire to teach. When I approach the Word for my foundational relationship with God, I just read. And I don’t usually read very long. I don’t set a goal, because I would be personally offended if a friend approached me like that, and I don’t approach time with God that way either. I open my Bible and read, and I stop when something strikes me. I highlight that thing and maybe reread it. Then I close my Bible to think about that truth or concept until the next time, when I pick back up at the last thing I highlighted.

Right now, I am reading through Proverbs and Mark. Each interaction with the Word feels like I’m reaching back and reconnecting to something eternal and timeless. It’s bigger than me, and it centers and grounds me. Of course, I don’t get that sense EVERY time I read the Bible, and it took a while of plugging through with this basic method to start to feel God’s supernatural working through His word. It’s a slow marathon, a day in day out walk. But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Please hear what I am not saying. I am not downplaying the value of pastoral counsel, Christian books, or licensed therapy. For optimal health during the day, we need exercise. We may need medicine. We could use a nap. But before anything else, we need basic nourishment. We need breakfast. The slow walk through the Word is the sustaining food on which the other helps build. But without that basic sustaining food, we are set up for failure no matter what other well intentioned help we receive.

John 1 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

Psalm 18:30 This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

The War Within over Conflicting Obligations

I have felt torn for a while between two conflicting spiritual obligations. In the last two weeks, this particular conflict has reconciled, and today I am meditating on both the struggle and God’s reconciliation of it. Have you ever felt torn between obedience to two conflicting Biblical obligations? What should we do when Scripture gives two sets of instructions that seem to tug us in opposite directions? The answer for me wasn’t particularly profound or unusual, yet it was counterintuitive to the way my gut was calling me to act.

My gut wanted me to figure it out. The Christian walk shouldn’t be so complicated, I thought. It didn’t feel fair that I was in that situation, and I wanted to take the bull by the horns and wrestle this problem to the ground. But such bulls don’t wrestle to the ground easily, and my attempts in the past to take such bulls by the horns usually just ended up creating new bulls, bigger than the old ones.

Also, I have long since learned it’s not helpful to ask others for advice. Actually, that’s not completely fair. I do have several friends who give me the most needed peer pressure – to endure for the long haul without giving up hope for someone. But more often, when I share such a burden, people just want to fix it, and they pressure me to fix it too. They pressure me toward the obligation THEY think is more important, often not recognizing that BOTH obligations are important. I find that type of pressure about as palpable as fingernails on a chalkboard. Actually, I prefer the fingernails.

I find conflicts between mutually important spiritual obligations to be very frustrating. But I have learned (the hard way) the importance of taking these type of frustrations straight to God in prayer. So I prayed. “God, Your Word instructs me to do THIS. And Your Word instructs me to do THAT. But THIS conflicts with THAT, and I can’t figure out for the life of me how to obey both. So what do you want me to do?!” And then I waited. Then I prayed it again. Then I waited. Then I prayed it again. Then I waited … 

You get the picture. Thinking about it didn’t help. I’d try to forget for a while, but the unresolved conflict kept popping back up in my mind. However, true to His word, God ministered a weird peace to me. I call it weird, because as the verse says, it defies our ability to understand it.

Phil. 4:6-7  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

His peace guarded my heart and kept me from foolish choices. Foolish choices are those choices I make in an attempt to work things out myself because waiting seems too hard. As God guarded my heart, He whispered in my head reminders that He was sovereign and this was His responsibility to resolve, not mine. He is God. I am not.

After some amount of time, I realized there were no bulls to take by the horns and wrestle to the ground anymore. They just evaporated. I looked up one day and realized that while I had been bracing for months against this perceived problem, it had at some point simply dissolved in the mist. God did that, not me. If I had tried to wrestle the problem to the ground and figure it out on my own, there would have been serious casualties. God said wait, and He worked it out in His good time.

My favorite word used to describe our God in Scripture is inscrutable. He’s mysterious. He’s enigmatic. He can’t be figured out. But He is trustworthy and compassionate. And He’s sovereign. All those traits come together into this one amazing Person. The older I get, the more I realize that at crazy moments of conflict that I can’t figure out on my own, I have an option—to stop, turn to God, and stare in His face, waiting on Him, not me, to move. He welcomes such a stance, and He is trustworthy in those moments. To the praise of His glorious grace.

Romans 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

Post-Election Ruminations

When you mix religion and politics, you just get politics. Ed Stetzer

The discussion in late October on literal Biblical womanhood led me to study anew how the Bible presents its instructions. What is wisdom? What is law? What law was fulfilled in Christ and is no longer to constrain us today? What commands does God give us that transcend culture or time?

The Bible clearly presents that Old Testament Law was fulfilled in Christ. Jesus could have remained on earth an earthly King, which is what His followers wanted at the time, but Jesus changed much in terms of theocracy when He declared the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, not the Kingdom of Earth. In the Gospels, even as Jesus declares the Law fulfilled, He still instructs us in God’s ultimate purposes in the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes through the moral code of the Ten Commandments. Instead of minimizing them, He actually intensifies them.

Matthew 5 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. … 

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus eventually boils it all down in Matthew 22 by reiterating what God first said in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.

Matthew 22:36-40 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

When this story is recounted in Luke, Jesus gives the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what He meant by loving your neighbor. We understand that our neighbor really is simply whomever needs our help, even grown men we don’t know. Finally, in Matthew 25, Jesus speaks in very practical terms.

Matthew 25:31-46 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I agree with Ed Stetzer that when you mix religion and politics, you tend to only get politics. So I waited until after the election to put forth some principles that transcend politics but nevertheless have potential application to them. I live in a very diverse and liberal city, and most of my friends voted democratic though I did not this election. Many of my CHRISTIAN friends voted democratic. It would benefit us all for a moment to give the benefit of the doubt (that long lost aspect of Biblical love that Paul clearly establishes in I Corinthians 13) and actually listen for a moment to those who vote differently than us.

Among my Christian friends who voted democratic, they have a pro-life commitment, but that commitment extends past the single issue of abortion. (By the way, did you know there is a pro-life, anti-abortion caucus in the Democratic Party?) Pro-life commitment for them includes caring for life well after birth, providing basic health care, food, and education to children in particular. It includes concern for the life of those in other countries as well, including the lives of children considered collateral damage in a war whose need now seems murky. These friends have a strong sense of mutual responsibility to people who are less fortunate, and they see government as one of the avenues for this mutual responsibility. Mutual responsibility for the poor and sick is firmly a Christian value. God is definitely the first one to propose this value, and He instituted a government which was supposed to do this very thing. Of course, we are no longer under the theocratic government which God set up in the Old Testament. Our US government is set up under very different principles. But if we were obeying OT principles of debt, every 7 years every person’s debt would be forgiven them. God instituted practices (that Israel doesn’t seem to have ever obeyed) that would have repeatedly reset the playing field (Leviticus 25). It’s interesting to think of how His desire to level debt should impact our principles today.

As Jesus first declared in Matthew 3, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. In God’s kingdom, His children provide for the poor, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner. Whether we do it by way of government or not is worthy of debate, but the need to provide for the marginalized is not.

Communication without Emotion

Communication with men in general and in marriage in particular can be hard for a girly girl. I’m not a girly girl in the traditional sense, though I have my moments evidenced by my doll collection in my guest bedroom. I have simple hair, don’t wear much makeup, and find shopping in a mall a torturous experience. But I was raised one of three daughters. Now as the lone female in a house of men, I have come to realize that the way women communicated with which I grew up is not the way men communicate in my home now. I am a girly girl in my communication at times. 

Women can be more subtle with each other. Maybe we shouldn’t be, but we can be and get away with it most times. We can drop a hint. We can suggest. We can put out a vibe. But that doesn’t work as well with men.

Many times, I have dropped hints and subtly suggested things in my home. And I am ignored! Which makes me angry!! Which causes me to say a lot more with a strident tone. Then I get a reaction, but it’s certainly not the one I wanted.

A couple of resources have come my way over the last year or so that have reinforced the value of simply saying exactly what I need or want, when I need or want it, without emotion. The without emotion part is crucial though extremely hard for me. When first practicing the suggestions on how to communicate with the men in my household, I initially got emotional over the fact that I had to state it so clearly without emotion. I want to be known and understood! Why do I have to say that I want X for my next birthday? I want someone who loves me to notice me looking at X with longing and who then tucks it away to surprise me with it at a later date. That seems so romantic. But I’m coming to value the fact that my husband needs me to clearly articulate what I need or want, because when I do clearly articulate it without an attached emotion that makes him feel shamed or guilted, he responds. Because he loves me. And his love for me is tangible when it’s accompanied by gratitude that I said exactly what I meant without a negative emotion attached to it.

I’m learning that dropping hints and putting out a vibe don’t work with men, at least the men in my house. I’m learning that if I can communicate my main points in two sentences, it is much more effective that communicating additional sub points of context and emotion with multiple paragraphs. Again, that’s hard because I want to be known and tend to process things by talking something through. I have to distinguish between wanting to communicate something specific to my husband and wanting to process through something with him. In the first case, I need to say exactly what I mean in as few sentences as possible without attached emotion. In the second, I need to let him know I just want to verbally process something and that I am not looking for him to do something or offer advice about what I need to do. Then I can process with him, with emotion, using multiple paragraphs describing the intricacies of my feelings on the subject. But he’s not on the defensive trying to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s just supposed to be listening. Then he can hug me at the end and have fulfilled what I needed of him. Oddly enough, he often has very good advice with that hug as well.

When we communicate clearly without emotion, we offer the best protection for ourselves from the kind of explosive anger and bitterness that shuts down communication altogether. The great Biblical characteristic of love to bring to each of these communications is that love is ever ready to believe the best of someone. Start your communication giving the benefit of the doubt in conversation. And then say what you mean. Don’t put out a vibe. Don’t drop hints. Don’t get distracted by tangents. Those can come later. But the big rocks of what you want to communicate will get lost if you add the others in too soon.

Matthew 5:37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’ …

Keeping a Quiet Heart

I am mesmerized by the phrase in I Peter 3:4, “…the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” I want to be that kind of beautiful—a beauty that is “very precious” in God’s vision. But “a gentle and quiet spirit” seems so illusive to me. How do I do that? How do I become a woman characterized that way?

I know what the words mean. Gentle means meek, not weak. It means strength under God’s control. Our culture tends to link the term gentleness with weakness. But gentleness is the strong arm cuddling a tiny infant. Instead of using strength to crush the baby, gentleness is tempering that strength, controlling it, and using it instead to bring comfort. Gentleness and weakness are two entirely different things. The other term in I Pet. 3:4 is “quiet”, meaning tranquil and at peace. I know all that—I know the definitions of the Greek words behind the English translation. And, yet, I struggle to practice such attitudes. I wrestle with how to not wrestle.

I have had times of worry and fear periodically in my life. Yet God has always met me in my need. This led me to believe that the worst was over—that I was heading into the twilight years of Christian maturity where I could rest confidently in all I have already learned of God. I got married, learned more of God, had times of struggle and times of peace—but peace generally won. Then I had kids. A wise pastor once told me that after you have children, it’s like your heart is walking around outside of your body for the rest of your life. Now I have 3 people I love dearly (my husband and children) who all have the power to tear my heart out and stomp that sucker flat (as Lewis Grizzard would say). And my response to the ice-cold fear that grips my heart at times is anything but gentle and peaceful. I respond with control. With agenda.With manipulation. I can’t handle being out of control on something that means so much to me—but I am learning how devastating my efforts at control are on the very things I value.

I sat with a wise, long married elder’s wife recently, and she shared with me great, simple words of wisdom. In a nutshell, let go of my agenda and expectations, and trust the One Whose faithfulness supercedes all of our own unfaithfulness. As Paul says in Phil, 1:6, “He who began the good work in you will be faithful to complete it …”. It all leads back to the simple idea of TRUST. “Let go and let God” is becoming less of a cheesy Christian saying and more of a foundational guiding principle for my life.

Let go of my agenda that I may be completely available to the Holy Spirit’s agenda for me. I can’t change people. I can’t even change myself. But God is faithful and loses none of His children. And now keeping a quiet heart seems possible. Suddenly, the fog clears and it makes sense to me. God says a woman who trusts Him, who lets go of her expectations and waits quietly and expectantly on Him to work, reflects a beauty that is of GREAT PRICE. God says a woman that tempers her strength and responds with graciousness rather than manipulation and anger to situations out of her control is in possession of a beauty that does not fade with age. These are inspiring words from Scripture.

I have found Elisabeth Elliott’s book by this title an easy, encouraging, inspiring, convicting read.