I’ve noticed something: some people get better in hardship while others just get bitter. Why is that?
For instance, Jane and Mary go to the same church and both lose their jobs. They have encountered the same challenge, yet their reactions are very different.
Jane prays and can’t sleep. Mary prays and experiences a “peace” she can’t explain. Jane comes to church with a worried, shriveled face. Mary enters the building with concern, but a smile. Jane urgently asks others to pray for her. Mary tends to be praying for people. Jane doesn’t have time to serve because she is looking for a job. Mary volunteers because she is in between jobs. Jane feels she can’t afford to give to the Lord. Mary believes she can’t afford not to give. The reactions are strikingly different. Maybe I notice this because I play the unique role of pastor in each person’s life.
Along with these differences, I also notice Mary posses five habits Jane is lacking. Let me describe them to you.
5 Habits to Cultivate Joy
1) Mary strives to bring glory to God. She takes seriously the command to “find out what pleases the Lord” and then she does it. Her attitudes, thoughts, and actions bring a smile to God. She is committed to this habit when things are going her way and when life is a struggle. To put it bluntly, her circumstances are secondary to her purpose. She is more concerned about pleasing God than herself or anyone else.
2) Mary enjoys God’s gift of community. Paul wrote “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” God provides a place for people to belong. A place where they can do life together “with one another in love.” Mary has decided to spend her life practicing loving others unselfishly in the context of a church family. Being humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving doesn’t work best with strangers. They greatest impact takes place when we use them among those who know us and among those with whom we have committed to know: God’s family.
3) Mary applies God’s Word to her life. She doesn’t just know what the Bible says. She attempts to practice what the Bible says. James, Jesus’ half brother, said it this way, “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”
4) Mary is looking for ways to serve others. She is not ignoring her own needs, but she does not let personal needs dominate her life. She has learned the balancing act Paul described when he wrote, “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” While Mary is serving others she is trusting God will provide for her.
5) Finally, Mary finds a way to introduce Jesus to the people her circumstances bring to her. Jesus’ last command before ascending to heaven was “go and make disciples.” The word “go” means “as you go.” In other words, Mary doesn’t wait for mission trips or service projects or Sunday morning to talk about Jesus. She communicates her faith in Christ as her life unfolds…daily if possible.
There is only a one letter difference between a bitter person and a better person. If we quit focusing on the “i” and instead focus on these habits, we become a better person through Christ.
Better people tend to be happier people. Are you like Jane or Mary?
I have been trying to obey Christ since high school (trust me, some days are better than others). Therefore, I am familiar with the idea that following Jesus costs me something. Because I’ve been doing this for a while, I am okay with this principle. I don’t always like it, but I am not put off by it anymore. I understand that when I follow Jesus in a real life situation, (which is not what I’m naturally wired to do) I’m going to have to give up a more natural response to obey Him in that moment. The “thing” I give up is the cost to obey Him. For example, there is the guy who ran the red light and almost plowed into me. I wanted to display my anger to him, but obeying Jesus means I don’t use hand gestures and words that might be natural in that moment. To obey Jesus means I forfeit the satisfaction of displaying my anger in an ungodly way. It is a small, petty example; but the principle remains: If we are going to obey Christ, it is going to cost us some “thing” in the moment.
The cause and effect described above is familiar to any person who is trying to follow Christ. This is not a new principle. However, we rarely discuss the other cost that comes when we commit ourselves to obeying Christ.
Let’s consider Simon of Cyrene. Are you familiar with this fellow? We don’t know much about him, but we do know he was a dad and he was in Jerusalem the day Jesus was being executed. The Gospel writer Mark introduces us to Simon with these words:
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (Mark 15:21)
We don’t know why he was in the city that day, but whatever his plans were they got changed. Not because he was doing anything wrong. Not because he changed his mind and wanted to do something else. His plans got changed because Jesus was being obedient. He was giving His life up in obedience to the will of the Father. And on that day, in that moment, Jesus’ obedience cost Simon. Simon was inconvenienced, separated from his agenda, and forced into an uncomfortable moment all because Jesus was being obedient. Not only did Simon not give permission for the moment, as far as we know, he did not even have a head’s up that it was coming. Simon’s memories of that day were forever forged and his life would not be the same.
We all understand the personal cost we endure when we choose to obey Jesus, but rarely do we pause to consider what it costs others around us. I remember when God was calling me to be the pastor of a church in California. At the time my family lived about 20 minutes away from my parents. That meant grandparents and grandkids could get together almost weekly…and they did. I was excited to obey God in the call and I was willing to pay the cost to follow. I recall sitting with my parents and sharing the news with them. Guess what the first words out of my dad’s mouth were? “You mean we are not going to get to see the boys grow up?” He did not say it with anger or disapproval. He said it with sorrow and loss. He was having a Simon of Cyrene moment. My obedience was costing him. I can’t apologize to my dad for that moment any more than Jesus could apologize to Simon. Obedience comes with a cost and sometimes the cost is paid by more than just the immediate follower.
What can we do with these moments? There is no way to undo them. However, two things can be done. First, when your obedience to God’s will costs someone else, greet their frustration and tears with gratitude, patience and understanding (especially if it is your spouse…they always pay a price when you follow God). Don’t minimize their pain by justifying that you are paying a greater cost (even if you are). That would be like Jesus looking at Simon and saying, “Put on your big boy pants and quit your groaning. I’m the one dying today.” Validate their discomfort and cry with them. Only use words when necessary.
Second, when the time is right, remind them of this truth. When we lose a comfort or a dream or close relationship because of obedience to Christ, we will gain it back with interest in this life and in the life to come. Jesus said it this way when talking to his disciples about the cost of obedience: “I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
When obeying Christ, there will always be trouble or sorrow or loss…some kind of cost. The cost will be paid by the follower and many times by those who are close to the follower. However, there is a promise of getting back what was lost in the act of obedience. Let that promise become your anchor when facing the storms of obedience.
Everyday, moms and dads physically pick up their small children, strap them in a car seat and take them to various places. Sometimes their destination is a fun place like the park or the zoo. Other times the journey is to a place that might be uncomfortable or scary like the doctor’s office or Wal-Mart (Have you seen some of the people who shop at Wal-Mart?). No matter…the parent does not ask the kid’s permission when taking these little trips. It is just assumed the parent has the best interest of the child in mind and the child will just have to go. If it were not for the existing relationship between the parent and child, these little trips would be classified as abductions.
Imagine how it must feel for the child. She is sitting on the floor entertaining herself when dad walks in and lovingly takes her up in his arms. Her toys and imaginary play world is rudely interrupted by this bigger, stronger person. He is kind but, to be honest, is also inconsiderate. He says affirming words and has a big smile on his face, but because she is only 2 she doesn’t really understand everything he is saying. She did understand the word “go” and the word “no” when she pointed to remains of her play world left scattered on the floor. She understands she will not be alone, but she has no idea what the day holds as he straps her in to her car seat. For a moment she tries to resist and even begins to pout, but her dad just smiles and overpowers her futile attempts to leave her temporary restraints. The car cranks and begins moving. She has no idea where they are going. Even if her dad tried to explain, she probably would not understand. She doesn’t recognize most of the words he uses and his logic, no matter how hard he might try to explain, is just beyond her capability. She has a choice as they pull out of the driveway. She can scream and cry all the way on this mysterious journey or she can trust her dad and try to find something enjoyable in the ride.
Believe it or not, our relationship with the Heavenly Father is not much different at times. He may not physically sweep us off our feet, but He can certainly start a journey in our life without our permission. He may not strap us in a car seat, but He can allow circumstances to limit our options. And guess what? He is not obligated to always explain to us what is happening or where the journey is going to take us. Even if He did, we probably would not recognize all of His words or comprehend all of His thoughts. The Lord said it this way when speaking to the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is not implying that He thinks and acts differently than we do. He is proclaiming that His thought process, His plans and His actions are better than ours.
It seems cruel doesn’t it? If not cruel at least unfair. God has the power to interrupt our life. He is bigger and stronger. He sees the world and our lives from a different perspective. He understands things and knows stuff that we don’t know. He uses a language we don’t always understand. His goals, objectives, agendas, and schedule just don’t make sense to us. His timing seems odd many days and when we are completely satisfied in the moment He decides to set us on a new adventure. It feels just like that little girl being strapped into a car seat.
When God moves this way in our life we have a choice. We can start kicking and screaming (most of us do this with our attitudes and habits) or we can trust God, believe He is good and start looking for the enjoyable moments in the journey. Admittedly, we don’t know where we are going. It could be one of the best adventures we’ve ever had, or it could be an uncomfortable life lesson we desperately need. The key to surviving these divine interruptions is trusting the character of the Father. If it were not for our enjoyment or for our correction, He would not have interrupted our life. We have to be okay not understanding what He is doing…and that is hard to do without an ever growing trust in Him. If we could understand everything God was doing then He would no longer be God.
Maybe you are on one of these journeys right now. If so, I encourage you to trust Him and be patient. As we grow in our relationship with the Almighty, there will be times He explains what He is doing. However, some days He is the Father who owes no explanation. He is just doing what needs to be done. Trust Him.
I have a difficult time finding the right adjectives to describe my life. Happy, blessed, amazing, fun, adventurous, good,…all of these would work. However, none of them could stand-alone and completely describe it. Even when putting them all together, it still seems as though something is missing.
I’m happily married (26 yrs. to the same beautiful woman). I have four sons (2 biological and 2 adopted…and they all still talk to me). I’m not drowning in debt. I’ve traveled. I have friends from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I’m relatively successful at what I do. My peers respect me. I even like myself (well…most of the time). Don’t get me wrong. I still have problems. I regularly deal with difficult people. I fail sometimes. But I can tell you, my life is not a sad country song.
How did I get this incredible life? I know my blessings come from my Heavenly Father, but I’ve been thinking, “God has used both good and bad to make me who I am. He has used pleasant as well as painful events to shape me.” Allow me to share with you 5 individuals/events that became molding moments in my life.
1) My Parents Relationship with Each Other (a.k.a. their marriage)
My parents adored each other. They did not have a perfect marriage, but no one doubted the love they had for one another. They had arguments (like the time dad cut up mom’s credit card), but rarely in front of me. I knew they were together, that “they” were before “me,” and I would not come between them. Parenting today is not for sissy’s. Moms and dads are made to feel guilty if they don’t let their kids be the center of the universe. Let me tell you…the best thing parents can give their kids is a happy marriage, and for that to happen, the kids (and their activities) can’t be the center of attention. I know how to act in my marriage because I had a good example to follow. I didn’t know this when I was growing up, but I see it now. Their marriage helped shape me.
2) My Home Church
A very unique thing happened to me when I was growing up. My family stayed in the same church for over 2 decades. That’s right…from birth until I left for college I attended the same church. It was not a church free from problems or scandals (I saw 3 pastors have very public, moral failures). My parents chose to stay when things got uncomfortable and others left. As a result, I also got to see the power and grace of God work among imperfect people. I went to kids camp and attended youth retreats. My parents always budgeted for those things and encouraged me to attend. I don’t ever remember being forced to go to church. I wanted to go. I made solid friendships there, heard God’s voice there, received His grace there and began to serve Him there. I didn’t notice it when it was happening, but I see it today. God was shaping me through those experiences and relationships. Just a word of advice to the popular reaction of church hopping when things get messy: its hard to spiritually grow up if we keep uprooting ourselves and re-planting in a new place.
3) High School Football
Football was my favorite sport. One week at practice (I was a junior), I had a string of exceptional days. As a result, I became the starting running back. A dream come true. During the game I wasn’t so exceptional. After getting tackled for a loss the coach called me to the sideline, grabbed my face-mask and yelled, “You are only good for practice!” He then shoved me aside. I was crushed. I was embarrassed. I was shamed. For the rest of the season I never entered a game again. I thought often about quitting, but a thought entered my head one day after a particularly difficult practice. Was I playing football for my coach or was I playing football to represent Christ and have a good time? Once I answered that question, I never thought about leaving the team again. So it is with adversity in life. Ever since then when I have encountered difficult situations that seem unfair or cruel, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” If I can’t bring it back to Christ. I stop doing it. If I can, I press on. My senior year I got to lead one of my teammates to Christ. If I had quit…well…that would not have happened. God used adversity to shape me.
4) My Mentor
When I was 17, I felt called to the ministry. By 19, I was the pastor of a small country church in northwest Alabama. Wow…a lot happened in those two years, but one of the best friendships I’ve ever had began at that time. His name was Bobby and he became my mentor in the ministry. He was in his late fifties enduring the illness of Muscular Dystrophy. I was a sophomore in college. On weekend nights my college friends went to gatherings or on road trips. Me, well I was hanging out with Bobby preparing sermons, visiting people, or planning a church activity. It was a bittersweet time. Many days I would experience frustration because I felt I wasn’t having the typical college experience; and on other days, I was soaking up the wisdom of someone who was teaching me how to do what God had created me to do. It was during this season of my life I learned to be teachable. I gave Bobby permission to ask me difficult questions, to challenge me spiritually and emotionally. The pay off…he taught me how to be a spiritual leader and laid the foundation for many of the professional habits I still practice today. Bobby is with the Lord now, but ever since my time with him, I have always had a Godly man in my life whom I have given permission to challenge me. I learned with Bobby that God shapes me through mentors.
5) My First Real Failure
I was the pastor at a rural church in south central Kentucky. The church (filled with many good people) was primarily led by one family. For the sake of this blog, let’s call them the Smith family. I was in my late twenties, cocky and arrogant. I had just earned my masters degree and I truly felt I could take on hell with a water pistol. The Smith’s were well established in the community and held all the major leadership roles in the church. They also had nothing to do with my interview and hiring. I learned later that not one Smith family member supported me when I became their pastor. Needless to say, we did not play well with each other. They were mean to me (not my wife…just me). They thwarted every effort I made to lead the church and because I was such a Godly person I responded with love, forgiveness, grace and kindness. WRONG! Unfortunately, instead of being Christ-like I was Cary-like…and I almost got fired. They encouraged people to stop giving to the church, stop participating in activities, and spread many hurtful rumors about me. The best attended service and largest offering taken at the church (and it was over 100 years old) happened the day I resigned. It was a huge failure in my life, but God used it to shape me. Honestly, I needed that failure. Through that self-inflicted mess, I learned stuff about God, and about myself, that set me up for future success. Without those lessons, I would be a different person today and probably not a better person.
As I stated, God has used both good and bad to shape me. The hope in this is that He is also using the good and bad in your life to shape you. The shaping never stops. I’m still a work in progress, but God used these events/people/experiences to make me who am I to this point in my life. Every good thing comes from above. However, most of the time we don’t realize it was good until we look back.
I recently asked an acquaintance if he was a person of faith. I was inquiring because he had some sincere qualities I wanted to know more about. He proceeded to describe himself as a “spiritual person” following a mixture of Hindu teachings, Jewish traditions and Christian values. Basically, he had made up his own moral code. I’ve not spent much time with this young man, but I do get to interact with him on a regular basis. I have found him to be a very pleasant person who loves his wife and kids. He is moral, considerate, hard working and honest. I think he is sincerely trying to follow the rules and expectations he has made for himself, but when I asked him about being a person of faith, he had no idea what I was talking about. Even though he is spiritual, he told me he really does not have faith nor does he know what it is.
A spiritual person and a person of faith are not the same thing. Although these two types of people may have many similarities (they can both have integrity, be kind, generous, honest and sincere), there is one thing that makes them different: faith. A spiritual person has rules, and quite frankly, many of the rules are good ones. Many Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Mormon and just plain citizenship rules are moral and right.
A person of faith has more than rules. They have a gift that motivates them to follow Jesus, know their Creator and walk in the Spirit of God. Have you ever wondered where faith comes from? Paul told his Roman readers, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17) According to this, we cannot just create faith. Faith comes to us when we hear and receive the message of Jesus Christ. Rules are different. We can create rules. Not only can we create rules but we can also pick and choose the rules we want to follow from various different sources…just like my acquaintance above is doing.
Rules are not bad as long as we understand their purpose. The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a group of people who were struggling with the difference between rules and faith. Notice what he says about the role of rules, he uses the word “law”:
Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 (NLT)
Rules are good, but they have a limit as to what they can accomplish. Paul calls them a “guardian.” The word means tutor, schoolmaster, or guide. In the Roman Empire the title was given to a trustworthy slave who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the wealthy citizens of Rome. The boys were not allowed to go anywhere without their guardian until they entered manhood. Literally, their guardian governed every decision they made. How stifling! What pressure they must have endured to please their guardian? What resentment they must have fostered longing for the day to be their own person?
Rules, from any religion or moral code, still stifle, create pressure and foster resentment. However, faith does not do that. Faith, born from receiving and believing the message of Jesus Christ, does not stifle us. It creates freedom for us to be what our Creator designed us to be. Faith does not pressure us. It releases us to live for a purpose greater than ourselves. When we fail, faith does not create resentment (which motivates us to give up). It creates conviction (a desire to change).
The acquaintance I mentioned above is not in a bad place…unless he thinks pleasing the guardian is the goal. His self-made guardian will frustrate him. Eventually, he will either give up (and start throwing out rules) or he will turn to the One who can give him faith (hopefully, I can encourage this). What about you? Are you still under the care of a guardian or have you been given faith because you received and believed the message of Christ?
Believers around the world are celebrating the risen Christ this week. As a result, their faith is practiced, shared and acted upon. They are not keeping rules. They are living out their faith. There is a difference.
Several years ago Cherry and I had the opportunity to go to Hawaii. We spent a week in Maui enjoying as much of the beautiful island as 7 days would allow. One day we drove to the north side of the island because we were told we could see some huge waves. We were not disappointed.
I grew up in Alabama where the most common vacation destinations are beaches along the Gulf Coast (Destin, Panama City, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores). I’m no stranger to waves. One of our favorite things to do as a family to this day is to play in the ocean. However, the waves on the beaches of Alabama and Florida are nothing like the waves I saw in Maui. Gulf Coast waves reach a height of about 3 feet…and that’s when there is a storm brewing. The Maui waves were 15-20 feet high. They were massive. They intimidated me. I had no desire to enter that water.
Not all people were afraid of the waves that day. Several surfers were thrilled. As I watched them I was amazed at their skill. Sure, some of them fell, but they returned to their boards with grins (and sometimes a grimace) on their faces. If they were scared, I couldn’t see it. In fact, what I saw was determination mixed with joy. They were determined to ride the waves for the thrill of speeding down the mountain of water.
Waves in life (and I’m talking about real waves…not Gulf Coast vacation waves) are things we try to avoid. The Apostle Paul called out some “20 footers” in chapter 8 of Romans. Waves like trouble (the stress of a no win situation), hardship (when we have few options and none of them are pleasant), persecution (being hated or taken advantage of…just because), famine (when basic needs not being met), nakedness (forced vulnerability), danger (staring at a scary, uncertain future) and sword (experiencing a violent crime, act of terrorism, or war). Waves of this nature are not survived with pool noodles and floats. No one can touch bottom and just jump as wave rolls under their chin. When someone is forced into vulnerability and/or taken advantage of, it can drown them. When we lose a home or become a victim of a vicious crime, it can push us to ocean floor.
In this same chapter Paul, filled with the Spirit and inspired by God, makes some outrageous claims about the limitations of these waves and our ability to overcome them. It starts with this promise in verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Remember, Paul had endured many of the waves mentioned above. His inspiration when penning these words did not stem from his stay in a Holiday Inn. He wrote these words while under arrest. He wasn’t claiming hope for something he had not yet received. He was speaking of a hope that he was living off of…a hope he had already tasted.
He then says in verse 37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Paul had been pounded with the big waves and he didn’t just conquer them. Through Christ, he had “more than” conquered them. To me, that is what I saw at Maui. The surfers that day were not just riding water. They were “more than” conquering water mountains. They displayed determination as they swam into the waves; failure when they lost their balance, excitement when they stood on their boards and smiles as they rode the wave until it’s power had subsided. They had more than conquered it.
Life is going to have its waves. Some of them will be huge. We can’t just run from the water. Following Jesus, living for him and representing him means we face the waves with determination and the hope of joy. No wave has the power to be our demise. No wave can separate us from God’s love and care. No wave is too big to conquered. Yes, we will be intimidated sometimes. Yes, there will be days we lose our balance. We will all try to avoid these waves and no one wants to play in the water when they roll in. However, the same wave that scares us can also thrill us. With Christ, we are more than conquerors.
My family recently moved into a new neighborhood. We now live at the end of a cul-de-sac, which butts up to a horse pen. Inside the horse pen are six beautiful horses. I talked to their owner and she shared with me that all of her horses are rescued animals. The magnificent creatures all used to be show horses or racehorses.
The previous owners of the horses lost interest in these animals because they could no longer perform at a high level. So…she takes them, cares for them and uses them to teach people how to ride. They are truly beautiful creatures and I must admit that I enjoy seeing them each day as I leave and come home.
Their owner told me that I could stand at the fence, call out to them and give them treats. She said they love peppermints. On several occasions I have loaded my pockets with mints, stood at the fence and called out to the horses. Honestly, I haven’t had much success in getting them to come to me. I know they hear me calling because they all stand there and look at me. But for some reason, they will not come to me. Maybe it’s because they don’t know me. Maybe it’s because another human hurt them. Maybe it’s because I’m not using a call they understand. I don’t know. All I know is that if they came to me I would be good to them. I would give them the mints they enjoy.
One day while going through my routine of trying to get the horses to come to me it dawned on me…I wonder if this is how God feels when He calls out to humanity. He stands at the fence (which represents our circumstances) and calls out to us. We hear Him calling, but maybe we don’t understand the call or His intentions. Maybe we’ve been disappointed or hurt in the past and we are a little shy about the whole “walk by faith” thing. So, we stand there and look dumb founded. Settling to eat hay when we could have a sweet mint. Satisfied to stand alone when we could have Someone touch us gently and speak kind words to us.
I don’t know for sure, but I think the reason the horses will not come to me is because they are not sure I will be kind to them. They just don’t know and they are afraid to trust. Funny, but I think that is one of the primary problems we have when God calls out to us. Will He really be kind to me? Can I really trust Him?
I must admit I am a fair weather horse caller. If it’s cold outside or raining, I don’t stand at the fence and call for the horses. I know God’s not like that. He lovingly and patiently stands on the edges of our circumstances and calls out to us–rain or shine. Why does He do that? I know I stand at the fence and call to the horses because I want to be kind to them, but God calls for a much deeper and significant reason. The Bible says, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (Romans 2:4, NLT)
Except for a couple of Twitter comments and several private conversations, I have remained mostly quiet about our current presidential election. Now that the dust has settled and people have absorbed the political shock of what actually happened, I would like to say something.
Once the presidential nominees were secured, I was personally disappointed with our presidential options. As I watched the campaigns unfold I became more and more certain that my hope was in God alone. I determined I would educate myself, pray, and vote. I was surprised by the outcome of the election much like the rest of the world. I do not know if President-elect Trump will be a good president or not. I only know that my commitment and service to the Lord Jesus Christ is not emboldened or diminished by who sits in the White House.
Here are some things I observed (and hopefully have learned):