It became painfully clear the first time my wife and I collaborated on a writing project that procrastination was going to be a major obstacle. Her role was to edit my work and keep me on schedule; my role seemed to be to drive her crazy. Most times, her organization and patience outlasted my resistance to deadlines and direction.
I promised to have a certain amount of writing done by the end of one day. For the first hour, I plugged away diligently. Satisfied with what I’d accomplished so far, I decided to take a break. Before I knew it, my time was up. In trouble for sure, I thought of a way out. I set about doing a couple of chores my wife despised and which always netted me praise when I did them.
My plan failed.
I sometimes play the same games with God. He brings specific people into my life He wants me to serve or tasks He wants me to accomplish. Like Jonah, who went another way when God gave Him an assignment (Jonah 4:2), I need to set aside my own feelings. I often try to impress God with good deeds or spiritual activity when what He really wants is obedience to His priorities. Inevitably, my plan fails.
Are you dodging duties God makes clear He wants you to tackle? Trust me (or Jonah): Real contentment comes from doing it in His strength and in His way.
I was sitting with a group of passengers on an airport shuttle heading to our connecting flight when the bus driver was told to "hold in place." It looked like we would miss our flight, and this was more than one passenger could handle. He exploded at the driver, insisting he ignore his orders or "risk the wrath of a lawsuit." Just then an airline employee came dashing up carrying a briefcase. Looking at the angry man, the airline employee triumphantly held up the briefcase. When he had caught his breath, he said, "You left your briefcase. I heard you mention how important your meeting was, and I figured you would need this."
Sometimes I find myself impatient with God, especially about His return. I wonder, What can He be waiting on? The tragedies around us, the suffering of people we love, and even the stresses of daily life all seem bigger than the fixes on the horizon.
Then someone tells their story of having just met Jesus, or I discover God is still at work in the messes. It reminds me of what I learned that day on the shuttle. There are stories and details God knows that I don't. It reminds me to trust Him and to remember that the story isn't about me. It’s about God’s plan to give time to others who don’t yet know His Son (2 Peter 3:9).
Around our home, the words “some assembly required” have been the cause of great frustration (mine) and great humor (my family). When my wife and I first married, I attempted to make simple home repairs—with disastrous results. A repaired shower handle worked perfectly—if the plan was for the water to run between the walls. My fiascoes continued after we had children, when I assured my wife, Cheryl, I “don’t need instructions” to put these “simple” toys together. Wrong!
Gradually, I learned my lesson and began to pay strict attention to the instructions and things went together as they should. Unfortunately, the longer things went well, the more confident I became, and soon I was again ignoring instructions with predictably disastrous results.
The ancient Israelites struggled with a similar tendency: they would forget God, ignoring His instructions to avoid following after Baal and the other gods of the region (Judg. 2:12). This produced disastrous results, until God, in His mercy, raised up judges to rescue them and bring them back to Himself (2:18).
God has reasons for all of the instructions He’s given us to keep our affections on Him. Only by a daily awareness of His loving presence can we resist the temptation to “construct” our lives our own way. What great gifts He has given us in His Word and His presence!
In my work as a chaplain, some people occasionally ask if I am willing to give them some additional spiritual help. While I’m happy to spend time with anyone who asks for help, I often find myself doing more learning than teaching. This was especially true when one painfully honest new Christian said to me with resignation, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to read the Bible. The more I read what God expects from me, the more I judge others who aren’t doing what it says.”
As he said this, I realized that I was at least partly responsible for instilling this judgmental spirit in him. At that time, one of the first things I did with those new to faith in Jesus was to introduce them to things they should no longer be doing. In other words, instead of showing them God’s love and letting the Holy Spirit reshape them, I urged them to “behave like a believer.”
Now I was gaining a new appreciation for John 3:16-17. Jesus’ invitation to believe in Him in verse 16 is followed by these words. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Jesus didn’t come to condemn us. But by giving these new Christians a checklist of behaviors, I was teaching them to condemn themselves, which then led them to judge others. Instead of being agents of condemnation, we are to be ambassadors of God’s love and mercy.
In 1878, when Scotsman Alexander Mackay arrived in what is now Uganda to serve as a missionary, he first set up a blacksmith forge among a tribe ruled by King Mutesa. Villagers gathered around this stranger who worked with his hands, puzzled because everyone “knew” that work was for women. At that time, men in Uganda never worked with their hands. They raided other villages to capture slaves, selling them to outsiders. Yet here was this foreign man at work forging farming tools.
Mackay’s work ethic and life resulted in relationships with the villagers and gained him an audience with the king. Mackay challenged King Mutesa to end the slave trade, and he did.
In Scripture, we read of Bezalel and Oholiab, who were chosen and gifted by God to work with their hands designing the tent of meeting and all its furnishings for worship (Ex. 31:1-11). Like Mackay, they honored and served God with their talent and labor.
We tend to categorize our work as either church work or secular. In truth, there is no distinction. God designs each of us in ways that make our contributions to the kingdom unique and meaningful. Even when we have little choice in where or how we work, God calls us to know Him more fully—and He will show us how to serve Him—right now.
Years ago I had an office in Boston that looked out on the Granary Burying Ground where many prominent American heroes are buried. There one can find the gravestones for John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and just a few feet beyond that is Paul Revere’s marker.
But no one really knows where in this burial ground each body is buried because the stones have been moved many times—sometimes to make the grounds more picturesque and other times so lawn mowers could fit between them. And while the Granary features approximately 2,300 markers, closer to 5,000 people are buried there! Even in death, it seems, some people are not fully known.
There may be times when we feel as if we are like those unmarked residents of the Granary, unknown and unseen. Loneliness can make us feel unseen by others—and maybe even by God. But we must remind ourselves that even though we may feel forgotten by our Creator God, we are not. God not only made us in His image (Gen. 1:26-27), but He also values each of us individually and sent His Son to save us (John 3:16).
Even in our darkest hours, we can rest in the knowledge we are never alone, for our loving God is with us.
Thwip, thwap. Thwip, thwap.
The windshield wipers slamming back and forth trying to keep up with the pelting rain only added to my irritation as I adjusted to driving the used car I had just purchased—an old station wagon with 80,000+ miles and no side-impact airbag protection for the kids.
To get this station wagon, and some badly needed cash for groceries, I had sold the last “treasure” we owned: a 1992 Volvo station wagon with side-impact airbag protection for the kids. By then, everything else was gone. Our house and our savings had all disappeared under the weight of uncovered medical expenses from life-threatening illnesses.
“Okay, God,” I actually said out loud, “now I can’t even protect my kids from side-impact crashes. If anything happens to them, let me tell You what I’m going to do . . .”
Thwip, thwap. Thwip, thwap. (Gulp.)
I was instantly ashamed. In the previous 2 years God had spared both my wife and my son from almost certain death, and yet here I was whining about “things” I had lost. Just like that I’d learned how quickly I could grow ungrateful to God. The loving Father, who did not spare His own Son so I could be saved, had actually spared my son in a miraculous fashion.
“Forgive me, Father,” I prayed. Already done, My child.
A middle-aged man approached me after I led a workshop at his place of employment and asked this question: “I’ve been a Christian nearly my whole life, but I’m constantly disappointed in myself. Why is it that I always seem to keep doing the things I wish I didn’t do and never seem to do the things I know I should? Isn’t God getting tired of me?” Two men standing next to me also seemed eager to hear the response.
That’s a common struggle that even the apostle Paul experienced. “I do not understand what I do,” he said, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15). But here’s some good news: We don’t have to stay in that trap of discouragement. To paraphrase Paul as he writes in Romans 8, the key is to stop focusing on the law and start focusing on Jesus. We can’t do anything about our sinfulness in our own strength. The answer is not “try harder to be good at keeping the rules.” Instead, we must focus on the One who shows us mercy and cooperate with the Spirit who changes us.
When we focus on the law, we are constantly reminded that we’ll never be good enough to deserve God’s grace. But when we focus on Jesus, we become more like Him.
One afternoon I was having a discussion with a friend I considered my spiritual mentor about misusing God’s name. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” says the third commandment (Ex. 20:7). We may think this only refers to attaching God’s name to a swear word or using His name flippantly or irreverently. But my mentor rarely missed an opportunity to teach me about real faith. He challenged me to think about other ways we profane God’s name.
When I reject the advice of others and say, “God told me to go this way,” I misuse His name if all I am doing is seeking approval for my own desires.
When I use Scripture out of context to try to support an idea I want to be true, I am using God’s name in vain.
When I teach, write, or speak from Scripture carelessly, I misuse His name.
Author John Piper offers this reflection on what it means to take God’s name in vain: “The idea is . . . ‘don’t empty the name.’ . . . Don’t empty God of His weight and glory.” We misuse His name, Piper says, when we “speak of God in a way that empties Him of His significance.”
My friend challenged me to honor God’s name and to pay closer attention to using His Word carefully and accurately. Anything less dishonors Him.