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Hating Too Little?

If you were tA target with an arrow pointing into ito be completely honest, telling me exactly who or what you hate, I would know something very important about you. The information you disclosed would tell me where you are on your spiritual journey. Or, to use another metaphor, it would act like a spiritual gauge, measuring the condition of your soul.

If you are like me, you may have a hard time admitting to hatred of any kind. But what if I were to tell you that God allows hatred—that he expects it of us? Would you brand me a heretic? Or a lunatic? The Bible, you might say, tells us that God is love, so how can we tolerate even a shred of hatred in our lives?

Perhaps the point is not so much that we never hate but that we have the right target for our hatred, imitating God by hating the things he hates. Paul tells the Romans to “hate what is wrong” (12:9). We know that God hates every form of sin, not just because sin transgresses his laws, but because sin violates shalom, breaking the peace. Sin prevents us from living life as it’s supposed to be lived.

Like God, we are to hate the sin and not the sinner. But we get confused, finding it difficult to separate the two. Fortunately Christ has done what we can’t—separating sin from the sinner by virtue of his sacrifice on the cross.

Still, instead of loving the things God loves and hating the things God hates, our disordered and divided hearts often make the mistake of tolerating what he will not tolerate—greed, selfishness, pride, and lust—and then hating what he loves—purity, goodness, humility, and kindness. Our quest as Christians is to let God remake our hearts so we love whatever makes for shalom and hate whatever destroys it.   More

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Sugar, Sugar

colorful gumdropsI love sugar—always have, always will. When I was a child, I used to climb up on the kitchen counter when no one was looking. I’d dip a spoon into the sugar bowl and then aim the heaping spoonful of white stuff straight at my mouth. Once I swallowed so much sugar that I managed to give myself a coughing fit, complete with tiny granules bursting through my nose.

The problem with sugar is that it never leaves you feeling satisfied. One bite of a candy bar just makes you start thinking about the next bite, and then the bite after that. Our desires can be like that too—impossible to satisfy.

Wayne Muller believes that most of us try to find happiness through satisfying our desires. But the two are not necessarily linked. “We can feel the difference between happiness—which is often simple and easy, an inner shift toward appreciation and gratefulness for what is before us,” he says, “and desire, which is often frantic and relentless, cutting the heart with its sharp and painful demands. If we do not disengage, if we stay on the wheel of desire, if we do not stop and pray and sing and walk, the pattern of our addictive craving is free to escalate without limit.”1

What kind of sugar are you craving right now? More shopping? An expensive vacation? A relationship to fill the void? Whatever it is, take some time to reclaim your freedom by stopping to take a walk. As you do so, use the time to pray and sing, breaking away from anything that might threaten your peace. More

1. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 127.

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Difficult People

hands folded in prayerWant a surefire way to improve your relationships with others, even with those who have a way of rubbing you the wrong way or offending you every time they open their mouths? I’m not going to offer you a seven-step guide, nor am I going to tell you there’s a pill you can take that will help you get along with the most abrasive people in your life. My advice is much simpler. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but let me remind you.

The best way to deal with the difficult people in your life is to pray for them—regularly. But be careful how you pray. Avoid the temptation of telling God what jerks they are, praying for them to change so you can experience relief. Instead, pray that God will richly bless them. As you do so, ask God to help you see them the way he does.

Every act of intercession is an act of generosity. God honors that generosity, sometimes in powerful ways. When you pray for a person, you bring them with you into the throne room of God. That’s where prayers are answered and grace is given. There, in God’s presence, you can receive his heart for the people you are praying for. He can show you the best way to pray for them.

Here’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about what happens when we pray: “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”1 Though Bonhoeffer is talking about praying for other Christians, this same transformation can happen as we pray for those who don’t yet know Christ.

Who do you find it hard to like, difficult to tolerate, impossible to forgive? Try a little experiment. Decide you will pray for that person every day for the next twenty-one days. You may be surprised what your heart discovers.  More

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 86.

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The Rabbi and His Admirer

A graphic of 2 people, one with a speech bubble over his head, and one with an exclamation mark over his head.Joseph Telushkin tells a delightful story about a well-known rabbi who wrote several books about the importance of guarding one’s tongue and not speaking negatively about others (lashon ha-ra). It seems that one day the rabbi, known as the Chaffetz Chayyim, was traveling to a lecture he was supposed to give that evening, when he encountered a man sitting opposite him on the train. When the rabbi inquired where his fellow passenger was headed, the man replied, “I’m going into town to hear the Chaffetz Chayyim speak tonight. After all, he’s the greatest sage and saint in the Jewish world today.”

Embarrassed by the man’s lavish praise, the rabbi responded, “Sometimes people say such things, but it’s not true. He’s not such a great sage, and he’s certainly no saint.”

The man shot back, “How dare you disparage such a great man!” Then he slapped the rabbi in the face.

Later that night, when the man arrived at the lecture, he was chagrined to learn of his mistake. After the rabbi’s speech, he rushed over to beg forgiveness.

Smiling, the rabbi merely replied, “You have no reason to request forgiveness. It was my honor you were defending. On the contrary, I learned from you an important lesson. For decades, I’ve been teaching people not to speak lashon ha-ra about others. Now I’ve learned that it’s also wrong to speak lashon ha-ra about oneself.”1

The story of the rabbi and his ardent admirer conveys the truth that, just as we don’t have God’s permission to speak ill of others, neither do we have his permission to speak ill of ourselves. Make a promise today to stop robbing yourself of God’s peace by saying disparaging things.  More

1. Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 441.

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Control Freak

A graphic showing an umbrella trying to protect the whole earthChances are you know someone who is a control freak—a person determined to micromanage every detail of life at home, at work, and at church. Though mothers aren’t the only ones who can fall into the control trap, I think we are more prone to it because of the degree of control we need to exercise when our children are young. Some of us get stuck there, treating grown children as though they are two-year-olds who need to be protected, lest they dart into the path of an oncoming car. Little coincidence, perhaps, that “mother” can be transformed into quite another word simply by adding an s at the beginning.

Of course, some amount of control is necessary to every life. But outsize attempts at control are pathological, rooted more in anxiety than in any kind of lust for power. Being a control freak leads only to frustration and difficulty, because even when our attempts at control are successful, we have probably alienated someone in the process. What’s more, if we have a controlling style of relating to life, we may reach a point of no return, where the habit gets calcified and is nearly impossible to break.

One of my close friends has a mother who typifies this pattern. Suffering from dementia, she is still trying to control everything, though now she does it through a fog of confusion, without the ability to make sound decisions. This makes the family’s efforts to care for her much more difficult.

How do you know if you’re the controlling type? Just watch the way people respond to you, particularly members of your close family. They’ll let you know. If you find that the label control freak does apply, don’t brush it off as though it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. Think, instead, of what you might be missing because your style of responding to life makes it hard for God to care for you. Ask him for the grace to recognize when you are trying to exercise more control than you should. Stop now, before it is too late. More

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Seasons

A hand with another hand at the end of each fingerWhen my children were young, I rarely had a moment’s peace. I adopted both of my girls when they were babies, and though I loved being their mother, I soon found that being single with children was a recipe for crazy making. Even something simple like mowing the lawn had to be carefully planned to coincide with nap time.

I remember one disastrous morning. I had forgotten to roll the trash can out to the end of the driveway so the garbage truck could empty it. Hurrying outside, I assured my five- and three-year-old children that I would be back in a moment. And I was. But in the space of that moment, a mini-calamity ensued. My youngest (a future basketball player) had a bad habit of throwing her dolly in the air and then catching it. While I was dragging the can to the curb, she threw the cloth doll up in the air, landing it in a pan of hot water simmering on the stove. Attempting to rescue the doll, her older sister, Katie, flipped it neatly out of the pan. As it sailed to freedom, my younger daughter caught it with ease. Only this time, that dolly was hot! Luci was howling with pain as I walked in the door.

Okay, I should not have left a pan of water simmering on the stove, even if it was on a back burner. But, really, who would have guessed that danger lurks everywhere, even in a cuddly, pink doll? If you have children, you have your own stories to tell. Like me, you have probably wondered if you will ever find a moment’s peace.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life unfolds as seasons. The season you are in now will eventually pass, and another will take its place. In the midst of life’s challenges, try to find a few moments to turn your heart to God in prayer. You might listen to an audio recording of Scripture while you’re driving, memorize a Bible verse while cooking, or read a psalm before bed. The God of peace will be there to help you, no matter how busy you are. More

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Deflating Your Fears

A hand gently holding a small snakeIf you’ve ever read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you will be familiar with the fantasy creature called a “boggart.” The problem with boggarts is that they have the ability to turn into a person’s worst fears. So for Ron Weasley, it’s spiders, while for Harry Potter, it’s the notoriously creepy dementors. In more than one movie, we see Ron and Harry practicing their self-defense skills against boggarts, so if and when their worst fears do materialize, they are able to survive.

What boggarts are you facing? I used to be squeamish about snakes, but I can honestly say I’ve overcome the feeling. How? Simply by facing it. The fancy term for this technique is “conditioning.” The idea is to subject yourself to small doses of what you fear until you can gradually tolerate larger doses. Eventually, the fear will be reduced or eliminated.

I dealt with my dislike of snakes by giving in to my daughter’s entreaty for a pet snake. After a year of having Rico in our home, I attended a reptile expo at the urging of my daughter. This time, the repulsion I had previously felt was gone, despite the fact that there were more than fifty snakes in the room. I even found myself admiring the beautiful patterns on some of them. Believe me, I am still not a snake lover, but at least I am no longer creeped out by simply seeing one.

Maybe it’s time to ratchet up your confidence by overcoming a specific fear in your life. Ask God to help you face it rather than run from it. Doing so will weaken it and empower you. More

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Taming the Jungle

Ripe tomato on a tomato plantLast year I planted a tiny garden in my postage-stamp-sized backyard—cramming in peppers, carrots, red radishes, white radishes, lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes—lots and lots of tomatoes. So many tomatoes, in fact, that in just a few weeks, my raised garden bed looked like a giant tomato jungle. The plants were so thick that many of the other vegetables failed to thrive, unable to compete for the nutrition and sunshine they needed. Though I had plenty of tomatoes, I mourned the loss of the other plants and decided that I would do better next year, curbing my appetite for tomatoes so our family could enjoy a mix of vegetables.

Just like plants in a garden, there are things in our lives that will only grow if they are given the necessary space and nourishment—things like prayer, faith, rest, spiritual gifts, wisdom, serenity, and joy. Finding balance in life is rarely easy, in part because life is seasonal, always changing. There are times when work or family life makes unavoidable claims on our time and energy. We know that. But we also add things to our lives—even many good things—without giving the matter much thought. As always, having too many good things is not a good thing after all, because a harried schedule can choke out the life of God within us, preventing us from bearing the fruit God desires.

Take some time today to imagine your life as a garden. What does it look like? What plants does it contain? Have you kept up with the weeding? What needs thinning, pruning, or plucking out? Assuming you can do the necessary work to trim whatever needs trimming, is there anything new you would like to plant in your garden? Ask God’s Spirit to direct your thoughts, showing you the kind of garden God envisions for your life. Then ask for help to plan and plot the garden according to God’s direction. Watch and see what happens as you make the necessary changes in your life.   More

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Sabbath

Braided Jewish Sabbath breadSusannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, says that Friday evening was always the best night of the week in their home. “My mother and I kindled the lights for the Sabbath,” she explains, “and all of a sudden I felt transformed, emotionally and even physically.”1 To her, Sabbath was an atmosphere she entered into every week. It was a foretaste of paradise. “The Sabbath,” her father said, “comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow and somber memories.”2

Wouldn’t it be great to have one day a week that created this kind of atmosphere in your own home? In addition to special prayers and a wonderful meal, Sabbath in the Jewish tradition is also a time for refraining from work, a time in which a person can simply relish being in the presence of God along with friends and family.

When Susannah was growing up, her father pointed out that just as it was forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath (because it’s considered a form of work), it was also forbidden to kindle the fires of righteous indignation. “In our home,” she says, “certain topics were avoided on the Sabbath—politics, the Holocaust, the war in Vietnam—while others were emphasized.”3 Sabbath was not a time for dwelling on all that was wrong in the world but for creating a sense of celebration and restfulness, a taste of the life to come.

Why not consider having your own Sabbath celebration? You can put together a short liturgy of prayer by selecting readings from the Old and New Testaments that speak of God’s work of deliverance. Enjoy a festive meal with family or friends. Celebrate God’s goodness by remembering what he has already done and what he has promised to do. On this one special day, remember to avoid talking about topics that will kindle a fire of righteous indignation in your heart.4   More

1.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), vii.

2.  Ibid., viii.

3.  Ibid., xiv.

4.  For more information on the Sabbath and ideas for celebrating it, read chapter 7 of my book The Peace God Promises (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).

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Alone With Ourselves?

A statue of a young girl prayingWhy is it so hard for many of us to carve out a regular time for prayer? I suspect it has something to do with our drive to accomplish things combined with our fear of loneliness. Most of us find it far easier to rush around “getting things done” than to sit still even for a few moments with no other goal in mind than opening our hearts to God. When we do manage to pray, fears we have kept at bay by our constant activity may rush in. A thousand distracting thoughts may take hold. We can feel empty and alone, wondering why God seems elusive. We fill up the silence with constant petitions or chattering thoughts or nonstop spiritual reading, thinking we are the ones who have to control and direct the time.

Prayer, of course, is not meant to be a task we check off our lists but a time for being with the God we love. But what if we are afraid he won’t show up, validating our fears that we are unloved, unworthy, and unlistened to? Perhaps the first thing to do is to simply surrender that fear to God, imagining ourselves in his presence. Instead of lingering on our negative feelings or on the distractions that try to take hold, we simply let go of them, gently lifting our hearts to God. It may be helpful to pray through a brief Scripture passage, lingering on God’s Word as we pray it back to him.

Spending a few minutes this way each day will increase our appetites for prayer because we will find God is faithful and leads us in surprising ways. As we spend time in his presence, God may give us the courage to face ourselves truthfully, without harshness or condemnation. He may open our minds to his thoughts. He may give us his heart for others. Whatever God does within us and through us will be good, because it will be accomplished in love and for love.

The more we pray in this way, the more surprised we will be to look back on our formerly prayerless lives and discover that it was we, and not God, who had sometimes failed to show up.   More

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