Back in my sermon-making days I approached some Sunday mornings feeling like a lowly worm. During the week before, I had not been the best husband, father, or friend. I felt that before God could use me again I had to establish a track record of right living. So I vowed to get through the sermon as best I could and try to live better the coming week.
That was not the right approach. In Galatians 3 it’s said that God continually supplies us with His Spirit and works powerfully through us as a free gift—not because we’ve done anything or could do anything to deserve it.
Abraham’s life demonstrates this. At times he failed as a husband. For example, he twice put Sarah’s life in jeopardy by lying to save his own skin (Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–18). Yet his faith “was credited to him as righteousness" (Galatians 3:6). Abraham put himself in God’s hands despite his frequent failures, and God used him to bring salvation to the world through his lineage.
There’s no justification for behaving badly. Jesus has asked us to follow Him in obedience, and He supplies the means to do so. A hard, unrepentant heart will always hinder His purposes for us, but His ability to use us doesn’t depend on a lengthy pattern of good behavior. It’s based solely on God’s willingness to work through us as we are: saved and growing by grace. You don’t have to work for His grace—it’s free.
A woman I know planned an event at a local park and invited all the neighborhood children to participate. She was excited about the opportunity to share her faith with her neighbors.
She recruited her three grandchildren and two high school students to help her, gave the assignments, planned a number of games and other activities, prepared food, worked on a story about Jesus to present to the children, and waited for them to gather.
Not a single child showed up the first day. Or the second day. Or the third day. Yet, each day my friend went through that day’s activities with her grandchildren and helpers.
On the fourth day, she noticed a family picnicking nearby and invited the children to join in the games. One little girl came, entered into the fun, ate with them, and listened to the story about Jesus. Perhaps years from now she will remember. Who knows what the outcome will be? God, through the book of Galatians, encourages us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (6:9–10).
Don’t worry about numbers or other visible measures of success. Our job is to be faithful to what He wants us to do and then leave the harvest to Him. Outcomes are of the Lord.
My most humiliating experience ever was the day I addressed the faculty, students, and friends of a seminary on its fifty-year anniversary. I approached the lectern with my manuscript in hand and looked out on a vast crowd, but my eye fell on the distinguished professors seated in the front row, garbed in academic gowns and looking very serious. I immediately took leave of my senses. My mouth dried up and detached itself from my brain. I fumbled the first few sentences and then for some reason, I began to improvise. Then, since, I had no idea where I was in my lecture, I began frantically turning pages, while talking a line of nonsense that baffled everyone. Somehow, I made it through, crept back to my chair, and stared at the floor. I wanted to die.
However, I learned that humiliation can be a good thing if it leads to humility, for this is the key that opens God’s heart. The Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6). He showers the humble with grace. God Himself said, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). As we humble ourselves before God, He lifts us up (v. 10).
Humiliation and shame can bring us to God for His shaping. When we fall, we have fallen into His hands.
A number of years ago, Carolyn and I visited a small church where during the worship service a woman began to dance in the aisle. She was soon joined by others. Carolyn and I looked at each other and an unspoken agreement passed between us: “Not me!” We come from church traditions that favor a staid liturgy, and this other form of worship was well beyond our comfort zone.
But if Mark’s story of Mary’s “waste” means anything at all, it suggests that our love for Jesus may express itself in ways that others find uncomfortable (Mark 13:1–9). A year’s wages were involved in Mary’s anointing. It was an “unwise” act that invited the disciples’ scorn. The word Mark uses to describe their reaction means “to snort" and suggests disdain and mockery. Mary may have cringed, fearing Jesus’s response. But Jesus commended her for her act of devotion and defended her against His own disciples, for He saw the love that prompted her action despite what some would consider the impractical nature of it. He said, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me” (v. 6).
Different forms of worship—informal, formal, quiet, exuberant—represent a sincere outpouring of love for Jesus. He is worthy of all worship that comes from a heart of love.
My father and I used to fell trees and cut them to size with a two-man crosscut saw. Being young and energetic, I tried to force the saw into the cut. “Easy does it,” my father would say. “Let the saw do the work.”
I think of Paul's words in Philippians: “It is God who works in you” (2:13). Easy does it. Let Him do the work of changing us.
C. S. Lewis said that growth is much more than reading what Christ said and carrying it out. He explained, “A real Person, Christ, . . . is doing things to you . . . gradually turning you permanently into . . . a new little Christ, a being which . . . shares in His power, joy, knowledge and eternity.”
God is at that process today. Sit at the feet of Jesus and take in what He has to say. Pray. "Keep yourselves in the love of God" (Jude 20–21), reminding yourself all day long that you are His. Rest in the assurance that He is gradually changing you.
“But shouldn’t we hunger and thirst for righteousness?” you ask. Picture a small child trying to get a gift high on a shelf, his eyes glittering with desire. His father, sensing that desire, brings the gift down to him.
The work is God’s; the joy is ours. Easy does it. We shall get there some day.
One year, when I was in college, I cut, stacked, sold, and delivered firewood. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. So I have a good deal of empathy for the hapless logger in the 2 Kings 6 story.
Elisha’s school for prophets had prospered, and their meeting place had become too small. Someone suggested they go into the woods, cut logs, and enlarge their facilities. Elisha agreed and accompanied the workers. Things were going remarkably well until someone’s axhead fell into the water.
Some have suggested that Elisha simply probed in the water with his stick until he located the axhead and dragged it into sight. That would hardly be worth mentioning, however. No, it was a miracle: It was set in motion by God’s hand and began to float so the man could retrieve it.
The simple miracle enshrines a profound truth: God cares about the small stuff of life—lost axheads, lost coins, lost keys, lost files, lost contact lenses, lost phones—the little things that cause us to fret. He doesn’t always restore what was lost, but He understands and comforts us in our distress.
Next to the assurance of our salvation, the assurance of God’s care is essential. Without it we would feel alone in the world, exposed to innumerable worries. It’s good to know He cares, that He is moved by our losses—small as they may be. Our concerns are His concerns.
Several years ago my sons and I spent a few days camping in the Selway–Bitterroot Wilderness in Northern Idaho. It’s grizzly bear habitat, but we carried bear spray, kept our campsites clean, and anticipated no major grizzly encounters.
One evening, in the middle of the night, I heard Randy scramble around trying to get out of his sleeping bag. I grabbed my flashlight and turned it on, expecting to see him in the clutches of an enraged grizzly.
There, sitting upright on its haunches and waving its paws in the air was a field mouse about 4” tall. It had Randy’s cap firmly clenched in its teeth. The little creature had tugged and tugged until he pulled Randy’s cap from his head. As I laughed in relief, the mouse dropped the cap and scampered away. We crawled back into our sleeping bags. I, however, fully adrenalized, couldn’t get back to sleep and began to think about another predator—the devil.
Consider Satan’s temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–14). He countered his enticements with the Scriptures. With each answer, Jesus reminded Himself that God had spoken on this issue and therefore He would not disobey. This caused the devil to flee.
Although Satan wants to devour us, it’s good to remember that he’s a created being like the little rodent. Jesus, “the one who is in [us,] is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
I’ve acquired a number of old clay pots over the years. My favorite was excavated from a site dated during Abraham’s time (circa fifteenth century BC). It’s at least one item in our home that is older than I! It’s not much to look at: stained, cracked, chipped, and in need of a good scrubbing. It’s very fragile. I keep it to remind me that I’m just a man made out of mud. Though fragile and weak, I carry an immeasurably precious treasure—Jesus. “We have this treasure [Jesus] in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Paul continues: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 8–9). Hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. These are the pressures the pot must bear. Not crushed. Not in despair. Not abandoned. Not destroyed. These are the effects of the counteracting strength of Jesus in us.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (v. 10). This is the attitude that characterized Jesus who died to Himself every day. And this is the attitude that can characterize us—a willingness to die to self-effort, trusting solely in the sufficiency of the One who lives in us.
“So that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our mortal body” (v. 10). This is the outcome: the beauty of Jesus made visible in an old clay pot.
There’s a natural spring that rises on the east side of the city of Jerusalem. In ancient times it was the city’s only water supply and was located outside the walls. Thus it was the point of Jerusalem’s greatest vulnerability. The exposed spring meant that the city, otherwise impenetrable, could be forced to surrender if an attacker were to divert or dam the spring.
King Hezekiah addressed this weakness by driving a tunnel through 1,750 feet of solid rock from the spring into the city where it flowed into the “Lower Pool" (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:2–4). But in all of this, Hezekiah "did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:11). Planned what?
God Himself "planned" the city of Jerusalem in such a way that its water supply was unprotected. The spring outside the wall was a constant reminder that the inhabitants of the city must depend solely on Him for their salvation.
Can it be that our deficiencies exist for our good? Indeed, the apostle Paul said that he “gloried” in his limitations, because it was through weakness that the beauty and power of Jesus was seen in him (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). Can we then regard each limitation as a gift that reveals God as our strength?