How to be Ineffective and Unproductive

(If you read the title of this post and thought, “I can be ineffective and unproductive right now by reading this blog instead of doing ______,” then we’re going to be great friends. Sarcasm is my spiritual gift, and I salute your wittiness.)

Now, in Peter’s second letter to believers in Rome (presumably), Peter opens by correcting a false doctrine that had splintered off of Christianity called Gnosticism. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a test.)

The Gnostics taught that salvation came through the attaining of a mysterious “higher knowledge,” which is in contrast to the true gospel that says salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ.

So Peter opens chapter 1 with 4 verses that all emphasize the gospel vs. Gnostic garbage. Peter is reminding the believers in Rome that you are saved because of your faith–not because you have some special knowledge. And you have that faith because Jesus is righteous–not because you have attained some sort of enlightenment others haven’t (v. 1).

Further, Peter says God’s power has given us every thing we need for life and godliness (v. 3). In other words, believers wouldn’t even need some special knowledge, even if it did exist, because their abilities to live in a way that both fulfills them and pleases God don’t depend on what they know; their abilities depend on the power of Who they know.

In verse 5, Peter seems to get out his megaphone and yell, “FOR THIS VERY REASON, make every effort to do what I’m about to tell you to do.”

I had to read this 45 times before I could nail down what the exact reason is (because I’m sharp like that). I’m sure you’re much more astute and don’t need me to point out the reason, but for the sake of clarity (and so when I forget later I’ll have something to remind me), here’s the reason: in order to actually live out the fulfilling life that sits there for the taking.

Life, godliness, relationship with God (i.e., “participation in the divine nature,”), and no longer being a slave to sin (i.e, engulfed by “the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,”) all await each believer (v. 4).

Peter is imploring the Roman believers to make every effort to do the following because their wholeness and God’s being glorified hang in the balance.

If that’s what we want–to be spiritually healthy people who thrive in our relationships with Jesus and who regularly resist the seduction of sin (characteristics that all bring God glory)–here is what we need to do:

…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love (v. 5-7).

And this is the point in reading where I set the Bible down and say, “Nope. Can’t do it.”

This is a tall order. Like, Empire State Building tall. Or Everest tall. Not only do I lack most of these things, the thing I lack the most is the very effort needed to gain more of them!

Peter says make every effort. Why can’t I just make some effort, like maybe when I’m having a good day and there’s nothing on TV?

“Lord!” I whine, “I can’t make ‘every effort.’ It’s too haaaaaaaaaaaaard.” And He smiles and says, “I know.”

Well. Now that we’re all in agreement…

Peter’s very point is it is by God’s power–not by human effort–that any of this growing in godliness stuff actually happens anyway.

HOWEVER.

We have a cooperative role to play. We put forth effort toward a goal we can’t achieve, and God miraculously infuses said effort with His power to bring forth His desired outcome: godliness in His children. And on account of His power being put on display in our lives, His glory is revealed.

It’s like if I were to run into someone from my freshman year of high school. To say I wasn’t a believer back then would be an understatement. I didn’t worship Satan, but I was a pretty smug atheist, and I wasn’t afraid to let my peers in the Bible belt know it. If there had been a superlative for “Least Likely to Believe in God,” I’d have won it.

Enter God.

I became a Christian at 16, started attending church at 17, became FASCINATED with the Bible, earned a Bachelor’s in Biblical Studies and Theology, taught and wrote about the Bible for years, earned a Master’s in Christian Ministry, and now I build websites. Just kidding. But, seriously. I do. But I ALSO continue to teach and write about this Jesus guy.

If someone I knew B.C. ran into me on the streets today and learned all this about me, they’d have little choice but to say, “Wow, there really must be a God because there is NO WAY she would have transformed like this on her own. Not possible.”

Well, Peter and I have news for you: nothing has changed. I still have no capability to transform myself into a person who has measurable amounts of faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.

And neither do you.

So when we increase in any of these areas, it is clearly God transforming us, which brings Him glory. We bring God our meager offerings (i.e., our “every efforts,”), and He multiplies what we give Him into an abundance of fruit.

Peter puts it this way: “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (v. 8).

There aren’t many things more terrifying to me than the thought of being ineffective and unproductive in my knowledge of Jesus. The seminary degrees are nice and all, but what am I doing with the knowledge rolling around in my brain? If it stays in there, it only benefits me.

And the same is true for you, whether you have “more” knowledge than me or “less” (can we even quantify that?). Knowledge un-shared, at best, only improves one life.

But if our knowledge manifests itself in our actions–like in our self-control and brotherly kindness and love–it benefits others. What we know about God should motivate us to try to live like God.

And when our motivation collides with His power, we are anything but ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of Christ. In fact, we are the opposite: effective and productive.

If that’s not what you’re after, by all means, make no effort to add any of the qualities Peter speaks of to the knowledge you have of Jesus. And, whatever you do, never share whatever knowledge you have with anyone else. In little to no time at all, you will surely be ineffective and unproductive!

 

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Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

I love when the Lord asks people (us) questions in scripture. He’s never asking for His benefit; He knows all answers to all questions, being that He is God and whatnot.

No, He asks questions to spur us on to examine our thinking about Him so we can discover where we might be erring.

In Genesis Abraham and God have quite a few conversations. And in one such dialogue, God tells Abraham his geriatric wife, Sarah, is going to have a baby. Sarah is eavesdropping on this conversation and bursts into condescending laughter at the idea of her bearing a child. She even mutters to herself sarcastically, and with just a hint of bitterness, “After I am worn out and my [husband] is old, will I now have this pleasure?” (Genesis 18:12).

I’m thinking the Lord’s feelings were a bit hurt by this.

Sarah didn’t trust Him. She had heard with her own ears the Lord’s voice say she was going to have a son… but she didn’t believe Him… What’s more, she scoffed at His promise.

(I’m certainly glad I’ve never done that… I mean, how arrogant do you have to be to hear the God of everything tell you something is definitely going to happen and your response is to laugh in His face, question His judgment, basically CALL HIM A LIAR? Yup, so glad I can’t relate at all in any way… … …)

The Lord heard Sarah’s distrustful musings and asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'” (Genesis 18:13).

First of all, God knew why Sarah asked that question, He just wanted Abraham to think about why Sarah asked that question.

Secondly, I find it interesting God didn’t ask Sarah directly, but, then again, she wasn’t the person with whom He was having a conversation.

Thirdly, I can hear the hurt in God’s question to Abraham. I can sense the sadness God felt at His own creation’s mocking Him.

I don’t think it was self-pity because that would mean God was feeling His own inadequacies, and we know God is not inadequate. Whereas humans would be tempted to ask this question with a “What’s wrong with me that she doesn’t trust me?” sentiment, God is sad for Sarah. God’s sadness says, “I hate that she is so broken she doesn’t trust me. I hate that for her. It was never meant to be this way. I long to make her whole that she might experience the joy of completely trusting me.”

On the heels of His first question, God asks Abraham a second question, “‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?'” (Genesis 18:14).

Again, God knows the answer to this question. He asks Abraham to get him to think it through.

This question clarifies the first. Sarah laughed and scoffed sarcastically at the idea of her having a baby because she secretly believed some things, like a 90 year old woman conceiving, were too hard for God.

God asked these two questions successively to lead Abraham to realize that Sarah, and maybe himself as well, didn’t have an accurate view of the power and sovereignty of God. She was limiting God to the rules of natural law: old people don’t bear children. She trusted biology more than the very words of God.

Like Abraham and Sarah, when God asks us, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” We respond with a pious, “NO! Nothing!” so as to not give anyone a reason to believe our faith is weak. Our answer is right, of course, nothing is too hard for God.

But as soon as the words leave our lips, we feel a twinge of guilt – conviction from the Spirit – because we don’t live like we really believe nothing is too hard for God.

Instead, we live like God can do a lot of things, but He can’t deliver us from our particularly difficult situations…

God is in control of a lot of things, but He dropped the ball by letting _____ happen, and He can’t use it for our good…

He can save a lot of people, but He can’t save that lost friend that is just completely unreceptive to the Gospel…

God can provide a lot of stuff, but He’ll never find a way to help us out of our mounding debt…

God can heal a lot of illnesses, but He can’t heal our bodies.

And so on and so forth.

And just like He asked Abraham, God asks us, “Why are you laughing and saying ‘God can’t do it’? Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

He hurts for us, crippled by our lack of faith. He longs to make us whole that we might experience the joy of completely trusting Him.

What’s your “anything”?

In what ways are you not trusting the Word of God? Which of His promises do you think impossible?

Nothing is too hard for the Lord.

Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. 

Is Anxiety a Sin?

My pastor said something I didn’t like today.

He read Philippians 4:6 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” – and then he offered this interpretation: being anxious is a sin.

To be honest, I stopped listening. I wasn’t angry so much as I was searching my mental database for a theological reason to support my desire for his interpretation of the verse to be wrong, or at least one possible interpretation of many.

Maybe the original Greek wasn’t really a command. Maybe a softer, suggestive tone was lost in translation.

I got home and read the verse in a different translation, “Be anxious for nothing…” Crap. That sounds like a command, too.

I pulled out a commentary, and it said, “This is a command, not an option. Undue care is an intrusion into God’s arena. It makes us the father of the household instead of being a child,” (Guzik). I never liked that commentary anyway.

I pulled out a dictionary and looked up the word anxious, hoping for a semantic reprieve. Google said this:

anx·ious  /ˈaNG(k)SHəs/

Adjective
  1. Experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
  2. (of a period of time or situation) Causing or characterized by worry or nervousness.
Synonyms
uneasy – worried – solicitous – concerned – restless

Really, Internet? The one time I need you to be on my side, and you’re not?

Clearly, Paul is commanding us to not be anxious, and, try as I did, I couldn’t escape that fact. And if we are commanded not to be something, then it stands to follow that when we are that something, we are disobeying the Lord. And what do we call disobeying the Lord? Sin. Geez.

With no wiggle room, I started to wonder why I don’t like the conclusion that anxiety is a sin.

Well, for starters, not being anxious – not worrying or feeling uneasy or feeling nervous – feels impossible. Sure, there are fleeting moments here and there in which I feel peaceful, but, by and large, anxious is my standard emotion. And to say that my baseline feeling is wrong is really saying there is something wrong with me. I don’t hear, “What you’re doing (worrying) is wrong,” I hear, “You are wrong. There is something wrong with you because you worry.”

While that’s a true statement, it hurts to think about. I can’t imagine Jesus having that attacking mentality toward me. Something just still didn’t jive for me about the blanket statement that anxiety is a sin.

After pondering all this, I did what any of us would do when confronted with the ugliness inside of us: I got defensive.

I thought to myself, “It doesn’t feel like I have any control over feeling anxious. I can’t never feel anxious. That is an impossible standard no human could ever uphold.” And in the midst of my rationalizing, I found a loophole that just might be valid.

It’s been said that, because we can’t stop a sinful thought from popping into our minds, we don’t actually sin until we react to that initial thought by choosing to continue to dwell on said thought. This argument is how we explain that Jesus was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Being tempted is not the sin; giving into the temptation is the sin.

So if we apply that to anxiety, we can say the initial anxious feeling about any given situation is not the sin, it’s the temptation to sin. We haven’t actually sinned until we respond to that initial anxious feeling by choosing to stay worried, a la definition 2 above.

I took this idea back to the scripture, and I caught something I didn’t see this morning. The command is, “Do not be anxious…” It doesn’t say, “Do not feel anxious…”

We will all have times we feel an intial jolt of anxiety over something. It’s not until we feed that worry that we move from feeling to being. “Being” anxious has the connotation that we are perpetually worried, not just worried for an instant.

This is a command I find easier to accept. It’s no longer an impossible standard. It allows me to be human and frees me up to experience human emotions without feeling guilty. Then, when I recognize that I am feeling anxious about something, I can choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to not stay anxious.

I’d like to believe that’s the heart behind this verse.

What do you think?

Winning at Failing

I’m not sure how it happened, but I seem to be friends with more and more people who are “green” and “organic” and “work out” and “don’t eat crap”. They never eat anything not grown in their own backyards, they make their own shampoo, and they’d have their doctorates in homeopathy if the Internet could award that sort of thing. They are amazingly energetic, focused people, and I am sincerely proud of them.

But for someone who just tries to keep her head above the ever-rising water, it can be intimidating to think about my “perfect” friends. It’s not that they ever have or ever will condemn me for my all-refined sugar diet and my synthetic-chemicals-only policy, I just feel overwhelmed when I compare myself to them. I make myself feel like a failure, and, quite honestly, from a health standpoint, I am a failure.

If health were the only area in which I wasn’t the valedictorian of awesome, that might be ok. But it’s not.

Turns out marriage is hard. I missed the pre-marital class on “putting your spouse’s needs in front of your own”. Getting this rock of a heart to accept that and implement it multiple hours (minutes?) in a row is proving difficult. Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).  If the Bible is the standard (and it is), then I’d have to say I am failing at marriage too.

Apply that same verse to friendships, and I’m screwed there as well. Selfishly and vainly aptly describe how I react when friends don’t do what I want them to do. I’m not at all thinking about them and their needs, just about myself.  Again, with the failing.

How about parenting? I’m tired. “Teaching” the same lessons that never seem to stick; losing patience before breakfast is over; reacting to the ugly with ugliness of my own. I’m not going to be the poster child of a parent who does not exasperate her children (Ephesians 6:4). Not this week (year?) anyway.

There are more ways in which I fail not fit for public consumption. (You didn’t know I had that filter, did you? Yeah, add that to The Failure List).

It’s more than a pity party I’m having over here, and I’m working my way to a point, so please don’t share a “cute” Facebook image about “bucking up” and “staying positive” and various and sundry sayings that fall into the category of “not my reality”.

(I’m clearly feeling feisty today. Add that to The List, if you want.)

(I’m also using the air quotes ad nauseum. Just imagine Chris Farley reading you this post, and you’ll “feel better” about the “whole thing.”)

Who’s ready for the redemptive point of this post?

I think God brings my failures (all of them) to my attention (all at once) in order to show me a vital truth: I need Him. 

You (I) may think I already knew that about myself. And I did, in an intellectual sense. But in an experiential sense, I seem to need a tangible demonstration very a lot often. Daily, even.

Last week, when I was acutely aware of The Failure List and not so aware of my intrinsic value to God, He did some things to remind me this whole show runs on His power like a car on gasoline (or electricity, if you’re one of my green friends. Sigh.)

Two different friends in spiritual predicaments reached out to me for advice. Me. ME. The woman with The Failure List a mile long and growing. Part of me wanted to say, “I can’t help you.” And I was right, couldn’t help them. But God through me did. The Holy Spirit brought to mind what to say, and it proved helpful (so they say). (I’m such a skeptic. Where’s my list, I need to add that.)

Another friend told me she wants me to speak at a program at our church in the fall. Me. ME. The woman with The Failure List a mile long and growing. Given that my heart is to eventually speak/teach/write as a career, I found it to be so sweet of God to have my friend think of me.

Then yesterday I took my Failure List to a place I volunteer once a week helping women who find themselves pregnant and scared and hopeless. My role is to inform the clients of all their options (abortion, adoption, parenting). The bigger goal is to love them well, showing them Jesus-love no matter who they are or what decision they want to make for their baby. The biggest goal is to spend time understanding what their spiritual beliefs are and sharing with them what mine are.

In the interest of HIPAA, I can’t tell you exactly what happened yesterday, but I can tell you the Lord used my time with one client to show me, “Your Failure List is no match for My power. I can and will use you despite your failures, and I can and will bless you despite your failures. My agenda doesn’t depend on how long or short your Failure List is, and your need for Me doesn’t depend on how long or short your Failure List is.”

If I can muster up the energy I’m going to ask God to use His energy and power to help me fix my eyes on Him instead of The List. That sounds pretty biblical.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal,” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Spiritual Freedom Isn’t Free

People are under the impression that they aren’t free unless they are allowed to do whatever they want.  But that definition of freedom is lacking.  Due to human nature, when we are allowed to do whatever we want, we freely choose to do things that will eventually enslave us.

The Israelites proved this a millionty times.  At least.  And I’ve proved it more times than I care to count.

The Israelites were told twice BY GOD to not intermarry with the idol-worshipers around them because they would surely be lured into participating in idol worship if they did (Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4).  And the Israelites managed to obey while Joshua was alive.

But after he died, their brains stopped working.  More accurately, “…another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).

Where did this lack of Bible knowledge and personal relationship with God get the Israelites?

“Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…They forsook the Lord…they followed and worshiped various gods of the people around them.  They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served [idols]” (Judges 2:11-13).

What we have here is a people who decided they wanted to do whatever they wanted to do.  No more obeying Someone else’s rules.  They wanted to be free!

So, they intermarried and served other gods (Judges 3:6).

They were free to live how they wanted to live!  They were making their own choices.  They weren’t hurting anybody, just marrying whomever they wished and worshiping whatever they wished.

Hmm…sounds like the modern day definition of “tolerance”…

But this tolerance – this freedom – cost the Israelites dearly.  Those very foreigners with whom they lived, with whom they made families, and with whom they worshiped turned on them.  They enslaved the Israelites.

When Israel made their own choices, they thought they were gaining freedom, but they quickly became enslaved.  Every time God bailed them out of slavery, they freely chose to return to the evil practices that had resulted in captivity.  Over and over and over again.

This is no kind of freedom.  In fact, it sounds like the opposite of freedom.

By exercising their free will, Israel became hopelessly addicted to evil.

And I do too.

Whenever I am feeling self-righteous, I raise my fist in the air and say, “I am tired of living by God’s rules!  I want to do what I want to do.  I am an adult, for crying out loud!  I ought to be able to make my own choices.”

And I set out with my defiant heart, freely choosing to engage in activities and relationships that the Lord has told me to stay away from.  I like that I am making my own choices.

For a little while.

Until I realize that I have lost the ability to refrain from doing that which God tells me I should not be doing.  If I don’t have the ability to not do something, I don’t have freedom after all…  Rather, I am enslaved to that something.  It has control over me.  And that is not at all what I had planned.  That’s not what I was going for when I declared my freedom from the Lord.

So I cry out to Him.  And He rescues me.  He loves me too much not to.

And then I am all good.  I realize the error of my ways and never error that way again.  Until that rebellious nature of mine flares up again…

Paul sums it up best by saying the only time you and I are actually free from the dominion of sin is when we are living in the power of Christ (Galatians 5:1).  Without His defeat of sin, we are hopelessly controlled by it.  But by His defeat of sin, we have the power to resist it.

The power to choose to not sin…that sounds like freedom.

image via Crosscards.com