Fire can be one of the worst enemies of trees. But it can also be helpful. Experts say that small, frequent fires called “cool” fires clean the forest floor of dead leaves and branches but don’t destroy the trees. They leave behind ashes, which are perfect for seeds to grow in. Surprisingly, low-intensity fires are necessary for healthy growth of trees.
Similarly, trials—pictured as fire in the Bible—are necessary for our spiritual health and growth (1 Peter 1:7; 4:12). James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
It is in the season of trial that God’s purposes are often realized, for there the conditions are right for us to grow into spiritual maturity. This growth not only equips us for living, but it also enables us to more accurately reflect Jesus to a world that desperately needs Him.
In the hands of our Father, our trials can achieve His purposes for our good and for His honor. They can shape us into the likeness of His Son.
I love egg roti prata, a popular pancake in my country of Singapore. So I was intrigued to read that a 125-pound (57 kg) person must run 5 miles (8 km) per hour for 30 minutes to burn 240 calories. That’s equivalent to only one egg roti prata.
Ever since I started working out in the gym, those numbers have taken on a new significance for me. I find myself asking: Is this food worth the calories?
While it is wise to watch our food consumption, it is even more important to watch our media consumption. Research shows that what we see can stay in our minds for a long time and influence our behavior. It has a “clingy effect,” sticking to us like that stubborn fat we find so hard to lose.
With the wide variety of media content surrounding us today, we need to be discerning consumers. That doesn’t mean we read only Christian literature or watch only faith-related movies, but we are careful about what we allow our eyes to see. We might ask ourselves: Is this worth my time?
In Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul tells us in essence, “Feed your eyes and minds on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy.” This is a “diet” worthy of what Christ has done and is doing in us.
“Today we’re going to play a game called Imitation,” our children’s minister told the kids gathered around him for the children’s sermon. “I’ll name something and you act out what it does. Ready? Chicken!” The kids flapped their arms, cackled, and crowed. Next it was elephant, then football player, and then ballerina. The last one was Jesus. While many of the children hesitated, one 6-year-old with a big smile on his face immediately threw his arms wide open in welcome. The congregation applauded.
How easily we forget that our calling is to be like Jesus in the everyday situations of life. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
The apostle Paul commended the followers of Jesus in Thessalonica for the outward demonstration of their faith in difficult circumstances. “You became imitators of us and of the Lord,” Paul wrote. “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:6-7).
It is the life of Jesus in us that encourages and enables us to walk through this world as He did—with the good news of God’s love and with arms open wide in welcome to all.
Carolyn and I met Phipps Festus Bourne in 1995 in his shop in Mabry Hill, Virginia. Bourne, who died in 2002, was a master wood carver whose carvings are almost exact replicas of real objects. “Carving a duck is simple,” he said. “You just look at a piece of wood, get in your head what a duck looks like, and then cut off everything that doesn’t look like it.”
So it is with God. He looks at you and me—blocks of rough wood—envisions the Christlike woman or man hidden beneath the bark, knots, and twigs and then begins to carve away everything that does not fit that image. We would be amazed if we could see how beautiful we are as finished “ducks.”
But first we must accept that we are a block of wood and allow the Artist to cut, shape, and sand us where He will. This means viewing our circumstances—pleasant or unpleasant—as God’s tools that shape us. He forms us, one part at a time, into the beautiful creature He envisioned in our ungainly lump of wood.
Sometimes the process is wonderful; sometimes it is painful. But in the end, all of God’s tools conform us “to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
Do you long for that likeness? Put yourself in the Master Carver’s hands.
A few years before he became the 26th U.S. president (1901–1909), Theodore Roosevelt got word that his oldest son, Theodore Jr., was ill. While his son would recover, the cause of Ted’s illness hit Roosevelt hard. Doctors told him that he was the cause of his son’s illness. Ted was suffering from “nervous exhaustion,” having been pressed unmercifully by Theodore to become the “fighter” hero-type he himself had not been during his own frail childhood. Upon hearing this, the elder Roosevelt made a promise to relent: “Hereafter I shall never press Ted either in body or mind.”
The father was true to his word. From then on he paid close attention to how he treated his son—the very same son who would one day bravely lead the landing of Allied soldiers on Utah Beach in World War II.
God has entrusted each of us with influence in the lives of others. We have a deep responsibility in those relationships, not only to spouses and children, but to friends, employees, and customers. The temptation to press too hard, to demand too much, to force progress, or to orchestrate success can lead us to harm others even when we don’t realize it. For this very reason, followers of Christ are urged to be patient and gentle with one another (Col. 3:12). Since Jesus, the Son of God, came in humility, how can we withhold such kindness from one another?
While delivering a well-publicized speech, a respected leader and statesman got the attention of his nation by declaring that most of his country’s honorable Members of Parliament (MPs) were quite dishonorable. Citing lifestyles of corruption, pompous attitudes, unsavory language, and other vices, he rebuked the MPs and urged them to reform. As expected, his comments didn’t go well with them and they dispatched counter-criticisms his way.
We may not be public officials in positions of leadership, but we who follow Christ are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). As such, our Lord calls us to lifestyles that honor Him.
The disciple Peter had some practical advice on how to do this. He urged us to “abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (v.11). Although he didn’t use the word honorable, he was calling us to behavior worthy of Christ.
As the apostle Paul phrased it in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Indeed, these are the characteristics of behavior that honor our Lord.
Thomas J. DeLong, a professor at Harvard Business School, has noted a disturbing trend among his students and colleagues—a “comparison obsession." He writes: “More so than ever before, . . . business executives, Wall Street analysts, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals are obsessed with comparing their own achievements against those of others. . . . This is bad for individuals and bad for companies—when you define success based on external rather than internal criteria, you diminish your satisfaction and commitment.”
Comparison obsession isn’t new. The Scriptures warn us of the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. When we do so, we become proud and look down on them (Luke 18:9–14). Or we become jealous and want to be like them or have what they have (James 4:1). We fail to focus on what God has given us to do. Jesus intimated that comparison obsession comes from believing that God is unfair and that He doesn’t have a right to be more generous to others than He is to us (Matt. 20:1–16).
By God’s grace we can learn to overcome comparison obsession by focusing on the life God has given to us. As we take moments to thank God for everyday blessings, we change our thinking and begin to believe deep down that God is good.
In the summer of 2015, Hunter (aged 15) carried his brother Braden (8) for a fifty-seven-mile walk to raise awareness of the needs of people with cerebral palsy. Braden weighs sixty pounds, so Hunter needed frequent rest stops where others helped him stretch his muscles, and he wore special harnesses to disperse Braden’s weight. Hunter says that while the harnesses helped with the physical discomfort, what helped him most were the people along the way. “If it weren’t for everyone cheering and walking with us, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. . . . My legs were sore but my friends picked me up and I made it through . . . .” His mom named the arduous trek “The Cerebral Palsy Swagger.”
The apostle Paul, who we think of as strong and courageous, also needed to be “picked up.” In Romans 16 he lists a number of people who did just that for him. They served alongside him, encouraged him, met his needs, and prayed for him. He mentions Phoebe; Priscilla and Aquila who were co-workers; Rufus’s mother who had been like a mother to him as well; Gaius who showed him hospitality; and many more.
We all need friends who pick us up, and we all know of others who need our encouragement. As Jesus helps and carries us, let us help one another.
While staying in a hotel in a small town I noticed that the church across the street was having a service. People were jammed into the church with a standing-room-only crowd of both young and old flowing out onto the sidewalk. When I noticed a hearse by the curb, I realized it was a funeral. And given the crowd, I assumed that it was the celebration of the life of some local hero—perhaps a wealthy businessperson or a famous personality. Curious, I said to the desk clerk, “That’s an amazing turnout for a funeral; it must be for a famous person in town.”
“No,” he replied. “He wasn’t rich or famous but he was a good man.”
This reminded me of the wisdom of the proverb that says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches” (Prov. 22:1). It’s a good idea to think about what kind of legacy we are leaving for our family, friends, and neighbors. From God’s perspective it’s not our resume or the amount of money we’ve accumulated that matters but rather the kind of life we have lived.
When a friend of mine passed away, his daughter wrote, “This world has lost a righteous man and in this world that is no small thing!” It’s that kind of legacy that we should be seeking for the glory of God.
Napoleon's defeat in Russia 200 years ago was attributed to the harsh Russian winter. One specific problem was that his horses were wearing summer horseshoes. When winter came, these horses died because they slipped on icy roads as they pulled the supply wagons. The failure of Napoleon’s supply chain reduced his 400,000-strong army to just 10,000. A small slip; a disastrous result!
James described how a slip of the tongue can do great damage. One wrong word can change the careers or destinies of people. So toxic is the tongue that James wrote, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). The problem has increased in our modern world as a careless email or a posting on a social media site can cause great harm. It quickly goes viral and can’t be retracted.
King David tied respect for the Lord with the way we use our words. He wrote, “I will teach you the fear of the