General

General

Unshakeable Contentment

honey pours off a wooden spoon

Journalist Annia Ciezadlo has covered wars in Lebanon and Iraq. Her memoir, Day of Honey, offers an unusual take on what it’s like to live in the midst of a Middle Eastern war zone. Annia explains that whenever she travels, she also cooks “because eating has always been my most reliable way of understanding the world.”1

“We all,” she says, “carry maps of the world in our heads. Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I’ve been.”2 The title of her fascinating book is drawn from an Arabic phrase, youm aasl, youm basl, meaning “day of onion, day of honey.” The point of this rhyming Arabic phrase is that some days will be bad and others will be good. People use it to comfort each other, as though to say that a better day will come.

Our lives are also filled with days of honey and days of onion, times when life is sweet and when it’s anything but. Can we enjoy God’s peace in both good days and bad? Paul seems to say that the answer is yes. One translation of his words to the Philippians says, “I have learned the secret of being content” (niv).

I confess that I have yet to learn the unshakable contentment Paul speaks of. A day of onion can still transform my peace into discord. If you’re more like me than the great apostle Paul, join me today in praying for the grace to become content in any and all circumstances.

 

  1. Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey (New York: Free Press, 2011), 8.
  2. Ibid., 7.

 

 

The Best Way to Discover God’s Will

an image of a clock drawn on blueprint paper

Nowhere in the Bible does God lay down a complete blueprint for anyone’s life. He didn’t take Abraham aside, for instance, and tell him,

“I want you to marry your half-sister Sarah, and then the two of you will move to a land that will someday be called Israel, but a famine will cause you to move to Egypt, and then you will bring back a slave girl by the name of Hagar who will bear you a son and there will be great strife in your household because of arguments between Sarah and Hagar and their children, and then I will ask you to sacrifice Isaac and to turn Ishmael out into the wilderness, and then you will acquire great riches, and then Sarah will die and you will remarry, and finally you will live to a ripe old age and three great religions will trace their beliefs to you.”

True, God did disclose some things to Abraham over a period of time, but there was much that Abraham simply didn’t know about how life would unfold.

Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t offer a lot of guidance about our future, though it does offer considerable guidance about how we should conduct ourselves in the present. One thing Abraham did know was what God wanted him to do in the present, and, to his credit, he did it. To seek to know the future in detail would be like a first-year algebra student demanding to move straight from solving two-step equations to partial-fraction decomposition.

It just won’t work.

As Jerry Sittser points out, God has a plan for our lives. But he doesn’t disclose it to us too far in advance:

“We will discover that plan, however, by simply doing the will of God we already know in the present moment. Life will then gradually unfold for us. We will discover at just the right time what we need to know and do. . . . We will discern God’s will as naturally as we learned how to walk—one step at a time.”1

  1. Jerry Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 39-40.

When You Don’t Feel Peaceful

an image of a person silhouetted against a colorful sky that's reflected in calm water

God’s peace has many facets to it. To grow in that peace is to grow into the likeness of the one we call the Prince of Peace. Since shalom contains the ideas of wholeness, well-being, serenity, healing, safety, satisfaction, and even prosperity, God’s peace is something rich and deep that he works into our lives as we grow in greater maturity.

Like joy, peace is not something we merely feel but something that comes to characterize our lives regardless of circumstances. There will be times when we feel our lack of it acutely even though we are attempting to follow God faithfully. Seasons of difficulty will arise. Trials and tragedies will assail us. Such times may temporarily rob us of the sense that God is with us, making us vulnerable to fear. At these times, it may help to remember the things that lead to peace. I’m referring to things like

  • confessing our sin
  • forgiving others
  • obeying God
  • expressing gratitude
  • finding fellowship
  • praising God
  • resting
  • exercising
  • praying daily
  • reading and studying Scripture

Think of these as pearls on a string that together will make a beautiful necklace. While we wait for God’s peace to adorn our lives, we can actively address any areas that may need shoring up, trusting that as we do, God will help us to grow in faith and trust.

 

 

Our Dangerous Tongues

an image of graffiti on a wall of a long, blue tongue

How would you like it if someone called you a motzi shem ra? Huh? You might wonder if you had just been complimented or insulted. In fact, the phrase identifies you as the lowest of the low—someone who lies in order to give others a bad name. Jesus likely used this phrase when he said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil” (Luke 6:22, niv).

Over the centuries, the Jewish people learned through painful experience how dangerous the tongue can be. Think of the pogroms that have been carried out against the Jews, often fueled by outrageous lies. So dangerous is the tongue, the rabbis say, that God designed it to be kept behind two protective walls—the lips and the teeth. Here are a few commonly cited examples of speech that may seem normal to us but that are forbidden to observant Jews:

Don’t call a person by a derogatory nickname, or by any other embarrassing name, even if the person is used to it.

Don’t ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter (because it would draw attention to the person’s lack of knowledge or education).

Don’t refer someone to another person for assistance when you know the other person can’t help (in other words, don’t give someone the runaround).

Don’t deceive anyone, even if doing so does no harm.

Don’t compliment people if you don’t mean it.1

Clearly, the rabbis have thought a lot about this issue. One way to combat the negative power of our tongues is to cultivate the discipline of silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommended silence at the beginning and end of each day. Conscious and prayerful silence can open a space into which God may speak, giving him the first and the last word. Silence can also be a powerful tool against temptation. As Bonhoeffer pointed out, “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.”2

  1. Adapted from Tracey R. Rich, “Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra,” Judaism 101, accessed June 29, 2017, http://www.jewfaq.org/speech.htm.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 91.

Have We Turned ‘Knowing God’s Will’ into a Christian Version of a Crystal Ball?

an image of a person holding a small crystal ball in their hands

Sometimes I think we’ve tried to forge a Christian version of a crystal ball. It’s called “knowing God’s will.” Afraid we might forfeit God’s blessings if we miss his will, we avidly pursue it, agonizing over decisions like what school to attend, whom to marry, what job to accept. Though these decisions are important, and though it is always good to seek God’s will, some of us are motivated more by fear than by a desire to glorify God. We want to be in control of the uncontrollable future, thinking perhaps we can assure a life of satisfaction and success.

But what if there is more than one way to do God’s perfect will? What if he is not always as concerned about specific decisions as we are, knowing as he does that he can achieve his purpose in a variety of ways? Furthermore, why do we sometimes feel so anxious about finding his will, as though God has decided to make it impossible to discover?

Jerry Sittser, the author of The Will of God as a Way of Life, points out that the conventional approach to finding God’s will, in which we think there is always only one perfect choice to make, betrays a faulty notion of God, implying that he is playing a celestial game of hide-and-seek:

“Raising my own children has changed my understanding of both God and the game of hide-and-seek. . . . I was better at hiding than my kids were. But I always gave them hints, like little squeaks or hoots, to help them find me. When they discovered my whereabouts, they would squeal with delight because they loved to find me. I never once wanted to hide so well that they would never find me, because the joy of the game came in being found, not in hiding.”1

Similarly, we can assume that God delights in revealing his will to us as we seek him.

The next time you are faced with a major decision, ask God to reveal his will. But don’t get tied up in knots over it. Just point your heart toward his purposes and rest in the assurance that he will provide the guidance you need.

  1. Jerry Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 25–26.

 

Developing a Slow Mouth

an image of a girl covering her mouth with a scarf

In the course of their quest to live peaceably and simply, the Amish have developed many wise proverbs. This is one of my favorites:

“Swallowing words before you say them is so much better than having to eat them afterward.”

Were I to attempt writing a proverb of my own, it would go like this:

“If you desire more peace, let your ears be quick and your mouth be slow.”

Though I haven’t always lived by that bit of practical wisdom, I have learned to be careful about spouting off on political or religious topics, because doing so often subtracts from the peace rather than adding to it. Responding too quickly often means speaking carelessly, without giving enough thought to what others are saying or to how they might respond to your words.

The familiar phrase “hold your peace” provides a useful visual. When we “hold our peace,” we are maintaining our silence. Our decision to keep quiet unless and until it’s time to speak gives us the ability to stay peaceful, helping to maintain the peace around us. Exercising this kind of self-control can also increase our influence, because people tend to listen to calm voices rather than anxious or angry ones.

Peace is something precious, something to be guarded and protected. The next time you find yourself in a situation in which you are tempted to respond with rapid-fire words, try imagining yourself “holding your peace.” Do your best to think calmly, asking God for his wisdom to shape your response.

Regrets

an image of a person who has pulled their feet out of the mud

I have sometimes heard people say that they have no regrets. But I don’t believe them. Every life has its share of regrets arising from bad decisions, lost opportunities, mistakes, and sins. There are some things we should regret. In fact, regret can serve as a wise instructor, preventing us from making the same mistakes over and over.

But sometimes we get stuck in our regrets, unable to experience God’s peace because we cannot get free of them. What then? Charles Stanley tells the story of a young woman who felt called to become a missionary in Southeast Asia. Instead of pursuing her calling, she married a man who felt no such call. For the next twenty-five years, the woman was mired in her regrets. When she was forty-eight, she told her husband how she felt. A generous man, he encouraged her to undertake a short-term mission, promising to support her in it for up to twelve months.

But all of the woman’s efforts to forge an alliance with a missionary organization failed. Finally she decided to fly to Southeast Asia and look for a missionary who might welcome her help. After four months, she returned home, dejected and in ill health. A wise pastor told her the truth: “That boat sailed. God may have called you nearly thirty years ago to serve Him in Southeast Asia. What you need to ask yourself is this: ‘What is God calling me to do right now?’”1

If you have made decisions or done things that you regret, don’t let your regrets continue to block God’s peace. Instead, take each one to the Lord, asking for forgiveness. Then ask God what he wants you to do right now. Remember that he is both powerful and creative, still able to bring your life—even after many failings—into perfect alignment with his purposes.

  1. Charles Stanley, Finding Peace: God’s Promise of a Life Free from Regret, Anxiety, and Fear (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 109.

Loving Creation

A chicken stands on a cat which stands on a dog which stands on a donkey

I come from a dog-loving, cat-loving, snake-loving, monkey-loving, fish-loving, lizard-loving, turtle-loving, bird-loving family. At one time or another during my childhood, we had at least one such pet in our home. Whenever we felt the need for a new one, my siblings and I had only to find a way of luring my mother into a pet store and then showing her the latest fascinating animal. Once she even let us have a South American tortoise that dined on bananas.

I’ve since come to regret keeping some of those animals in captivity. But my experience with so many different animals convinces me of at least one thing: most animals have more feelings and intelligence than we think. Why do we miss this? I fear that for some among us, it’s because admitting their capabilities would make it harder to exploit them.

But God calls us to be stewards of his creation. We are to take care of, not take advantage of, the creatures he has made. I’m not arguing that we should all become vegetarians, but I am saying that we have to treat other creatures with respect, sparing them unnecessary suffering whenever possible.

I love the story about Francis of Assisi and his encounter with a ravenous wolf that had been terrorizing a city in Italy. According to the story, Francis ordered the wolf to stop eating people and promised that, in return, the people of the town would feed him. According to the legend, the wolf complied, as did the people of the city, and there was never another incident. Sound preposterous? What if God had enabled Francis to perform such a miracle in order to offer us a glimpse of his original intention for how human beings should interact with other animals?

After all, Isaiah prophesied that wolves, lambs, lions, and venomous snakes would one day live together peaceably, without harm. As stewards of creation, let’s ask God to show us how to take proper responsibility for the beautiful world he has made.

 

Don’t Let Fear Rule Your Relationships

a little boy puts his hands over his eyes so he can't see what he's afraid of

My oldest daughter, a lover of reptiles, has yet to meet a snake she dislikes. She finds them fascinating, perhaps because they are so different from human beings. But it’s that very difference that makes many of us afraid of them. By contrast, my youngest wants nothing to do with any kind of reptile, especially snakes. That’s why I was surprised to see her handling Katie’s pet snake the other night. For a few minutes, Luci managed to master her fear, tentatively holding the snake in her hands and then letting it crawl up and down her arms.

I was glad to see her feeling more comfortable around the snake. But my pleasant thoughts were soon interrupted by a little yelp. As I turned my head to see what was going on, I saw the snake flying through the air. It seems Luci had gotten so comfortable with her new friend that she made the mistake of squeezing him inside the crook of her arm. In a panic, the snake, who had never bitten anyone before, must have given her a little nip. Terrified, Luci gave out a yell and sent him flying. Fortunately, the snake survived his short flight, and I was able to retrieve him before he had a chance to slither away in a panic, never to be seen again.

That little interchange between two innocent but fearful creatures made me think about the damage fear can do in our relationships with others, distorting our perceptions and putting us on the defensive simply because people are different from us. Such fears keep us constantly on guard, making it difficult to establish relationships with those who are not like us. Instead of reaching across fences to bring more peace to the world, we shrink back, preferring to confine our relationships to those who look and act like we do.

If we want more peace in our world, we will have to start taking a few risks. Even if we do get “bitten” from time to time, chances are we won’t suffer too much.

Why not decide today to look for ways to forge relationships with people who aren’t just like you? Ask God to show you who to reach out to and how, and then pray that your efforts will produce a little more peace.

 

 

Cherishing Women and Girls

women joyfully blow confetti towards the camera

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Nakusha. She was beautiful and bright, healthy and full of life. But though she looked fine on the outside, she was sad—very sad—on the inside. Nakusha tried everything she could think of to make herself feel better—dancing, joking, smiling, working hard, being helpful, looking beautiful. But nothing helped. She still felt depressed and worthless. And no wonder, because in Hindi, nakusha means “unwanted.”

Incredibly this is a common name for girls all across India. These girls’ families bestow the name, it would seem, in order to express their regret at ever having daughters. A few years ago, 285 girls—all named Nakusha—gathered in central India for a renaming ceremony. Each girl chose a new name. Some picked Vaishalie, which means “prosperous, beautiful, and good.” Others adopted the name of a Bollywood star. One girl called herself Ashmita, which means “rock hard” or “very tough,” perhaps a reflection of what she needed to be in order to survive in a society that devalues women and girls.1

I remember an experience I had in China when I was adopting one of my daughters. An attractive, well-dressed Chinese woman came up to me and asked me point-blank, with a look of complete puzzlement, “You mean you want to adopt a girl?” She couldn’t believe that, given the choice, anyone would prefer a girl to a boy.

How can the world ever be at peace when attitudes like these prevail? As Christians, we know we are all cherished by the Father who loves us. Realizing who we are, let’s stand up for others, linking arms with those who are doing something to elevate the status of women and children throughout the world. Commit today to volunteering your time and money to an organization that is spreading the Good News and improving the lives of the most vulnerable people on earth.

 

  1. Associated Press, “285 Indian Girls Shed ‘Unwanted’ Names,” USA Today, last modified October 23, 2011, accessed May 25, 2017, https://www.yahoo.com/news/285-indian-girls-shed-unwanted-names-122551876.html.