Monday, July 28, 2014

When Your Heart's Not In The Relationship

It is hard to put ourselves out there, to unlock the armor surrounding our hearts and make ourselves vulnerable to another. 

Marriage, friendship, parenthood--no matter the relationship, each involves tearing down protective walls we so carefully construct, many whose brick and mortar we have painstakingly laid by hand after some past hurt or betrayal.

I've been there numerous times, closed tight as a newly formed rose bud, separated from all others around me as I promised myself I would simply live at a distance from everyone and anyone in order to never be hurt like that again.

But time and time again, I have felt others' kindness and offers of love and friendship carefully soften the petals of the heart until my heart is in full bloom of a healthy relationship, once again vulnerable as I extend part of me beyond the safe walls of myself.  

It's a cycle of separation and safety followed by the terror and joy of entering into relationship again only to find myself back at the beginning all too quickly.  

Keeping people at arm's length is a safe existence.  But it's also quite lonely.

What's more, it is not what God intended, especially when it comes to our relationship with Him. 

The prophet Isaiah cautions the people of Israel concerning this type of cold relationship towards God, warning of pending judgment "Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (Is. 29:13).

The Israelites had religion.  They had their sacrifices, offerings, feasts, and prayers down pat.  But there were two problems.

One, their hearts weren't in their worship, and secondly, their worship was "tradition learned by rote."  Neither was a true relationship with the One whom they served with their lips and hands.

To begin with, a real relationship with God must involve our hearts.  At one point in our lives, we've all probably said something like, "My heart just wasn't in it."  In other words, we did whatever it was, but we didn't want to and likely didn't do it to the best of our ability. It was just a task to check off our lists.

On the contrary, a relationship that pleases God is one where our heart is fully in it.  He can't just be another thing to check off our list each day.

A heart-involved relationship requires us to be honest with God, to tell Him when we're upset over the path He's asked us to walk (it's not like He doesn't know anyway!) versus simply praying words we think He wants to hear but that we don't really feel inside. Such transparency fosters trust as real truth is spoken instead of platitudes.

Next to honesty, it also requires us to share every part of our lives with Him.  That means we can't relegate Him to certain times of the day, certain activities, or particular days of the week.  We must seek to worship Him when doing the mundane tasks like washing clothes, listen for that still small voice when weeding the flower bed or mowing the lawn, and look for His fingerprints when stuck in traffic or at the doctor's office.  It's a 24-7-365 relationship.

Secondly, a real relationship can't be mere tradition.  As Isaiah said, it can't be a routine.  Instead, we must seek to make our hearts tender to the Spirit's prompting over our sin so that we can repent quickly and be reconciled with God. 

As the Psalmist writes, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Ps. 51:17). This is what God wants from us.

At times, we may feel hurt or betrayed by what God has allowed to happen to us. Yet, while our flesh may tell us to protect our hearts from Him by merely giving lip service to that relationship, it is in these moments that we most need Him fully in our lives.  

Unlike those around us, He is the only one we can trust with our whole heart. He will never leave us nor forsake us...and that's a promise He sealed with the blood of His only Son. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hanging on the Right Peg

It is all too easy to put people on a pedestal, especially those we admire for one reason or another.

Perhaps it's someone we work with, the model employee whom we strive to emulate in our own career.  It could be the mother or father we uplift because of their parenting skills.   Or maybe it's a relationship between a husband and wife that we elevate, wishing our own marriage could be as perfect as theirs.

Even in the church, we tend to put our fellow Christians on pedestals. If we're honest, we're worse than American Idol judges with our own rating systems, each of us having a "good Christian" checklist in our minds that we unconsciously use to "rate" others and their walk with Christ.  When we find someone who meets those qualifications, we mentally place them high on a lofty shelf where we can look up to their visage  as we strive to be like them.

In this way, we put our faith in them versus in Christ; we strive to be like man versus like Jesus.

It's a recipe for disaster.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of such instances when we put our faith in men versus in God.

In Chapter 22, he speaks against a steward named "Shebna, who is in charge of the royal household" of Judah (v. 15).  2 Kings 18 further describes this man as second only after the king, obviously a position of great political influence, which would have also bestowed upon him great responsibility towards the people of Judah.

Yet, instead of spending his time caring for the affairs of State, Shebna made grand plans for how he would be remembered after this life, constructing a large tomb for himself.  Because of his pride and political corruption, God said, "I will depose you from your office" (v. 19).

Shebna was obviously not the kind of man one would stick his faith and trust in.  But then, God brings someone to power who sounds like a good leader, a man named Eliakim:

"Then it will come about in that day, That I will summon My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, And I will clothe him with your tunic And tie your sash securely about him. I will entrust him with your authority, And he will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, When he opens no one will shut, When he shuts no one will open. I will drive him like a peg in a firm place, And he will become a throne of glory to his father's house" (Is. 22:20-23).

Unlike his self-serving predecessor, Eliakim is a "father" or "supreme counselor"* to those in Judah.  The imagery here is of a ruler who nourishes the kingdom, one who has its best interests at heart rather than one who uses his position for personal gain.

Eliakim seems as solid as they come; the Lord even describes him as "like a peg in a firm place," a peg the Lord has driven in, Himself. 

Once firmly in power, you can bet the relatives and friends came out of the woodwork, each wanting to expand his own influence based on a relation to him.  Scripture says, "So they will hang on him all the glory of his father's house, offspring and issue, all the least of vessels, from bowls to all the jars" (v. 24).

The people of Judah put their faith in this man.  They hang all their hopes on him.

And in the end, they are disappointed; as Isaiah tells us, "'In that day,' declares the Lord of hosts, 'the peg driven in a firm place will give way; it will even break off and fall, and the load hanging on it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken'" (v. 25). 

This peg, hammered firmly in place by the Lord himself--even it broke, fell.  I don't know whether that fall was Eliakim's mortal death, a fall from the king's favor, or evidence of pride and political corruption resulting from power going to his head.  Either way, the result is the same--the "load" of people hanging on him "will be cut off" and fall to the ground.

The only pegs firm enough to hold forever were the nails firmly hammered through Jesus' flesh and into an old wooden cross to secure our salvation.

The warning is clear--hanging one's trust and faith on any man will only result in both disappointment and, ultimately, being "cut off" from God.  The only way to avoid both is to put one's faith in Jesus Christ alone, to strive to emulate Him as the author and finisher of our faith, not to emulate an elevated pastor, deacon, or teacher. 

Even mature Christian men and women are just that--men and women who sin and fall on a daily basis just like you and me.  Our faith must be placed in God alone, not in someone else's relationship to Him. 

We can be sure: if our faith is hanging on anyone other than Christ, we will fall.

*Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon

Monday, July 14, 2014

When God Doesn't Behave

After finishing my master’s degree, I was hired by my alma matter to teach for the fall semester. But as Christmas approached, I discovered that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Although I was more than disappointed, I quickly learned of a job opening at the nearby community college and, as expected, made it to the final interview with the Vice Chancellor—just me and another young man. Surely, I would get the job.

Then, I got the call and a sinking feeling in my chest as I listened to the words, “Not chosen.” I was officially unemployed. No salary. COBRA insurance that would run out all too quickly. And no prospects anytime in the near future since teachers are usually hired for January or August start dates.

Over the next couple months, I was rejected for countless jobs, most that required less education than I had, including Wal-mart. What was going on?!? Had I listened to God wrong when choosing my degree path? (No.) Was I being punished for some unrepented of sin? (No.) Then why wasn’t God getting me a job…now?

I was devastated. God was not behaving like I thought He should.

King David suffered a similar devastation with God acting differently than expected after he decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem . There, the ark would at all times be before the people of Israel as a tangible reminder of God’s presence resting between the cherubim.

Talk about a huge parade: 30,000 lyre-playing, cymbal-smashing, tambourine-shaking men celebrated as they followed the oxen-pulled cart that carried the ark. Then, the unthinkable happened—the oxen stumbled, a man named Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and God immediately struck him dead.

David became angry because of the LORD'S outburst against Uzzah…So David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, ‘How can the ark of the LORD come to me?’” (2 Sam. 6:8-9). Devastated, he refused to take the ark one step further and left it at Obed-edom’s house.

David was offended by God’s actions. And he was scared. This wasn’t the God David thought he knew. This was a fearful God of seemingly random judgment and death.

Yet God was the same as he’d always been. David just didn’t know very well the God he was serving, a righteous, holy God whose very character dictated that He demand reverence and whole-hearted obedience to His Word.

It took David three months to learn God’s reaction was as a result of his own disobedience in not seeking God’s law for instructions in how to transport the ark. And in the knowledge that God was still the same holy God he’d been serving all along, David finally brought the ark into the city of Jerusalem.

In a little different situation, John the Baptist was also devotedly serving God (no disobedience in sight), proclaiming the way of the Lord, when he was imprisoned. How devastating that must have been, to be doing exactly what God called him to do and to be left sitting in jail. He must have wondered why Jesus didn’t miraculously get him out!

In his devastation at where God had placed him, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, "’Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?’" (Lk. 7:20). Jesus said to tell John of the miracles He was working and then stated, “’Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me’” (Lk. 7:23).

We all have the opportunity to be offended with God when He doesn’t act how we think He should. When we feel devastated or offended by God’s actions, we must return to our knowledge of who Scripture says God is. We must rest in the belief that He will always act according to who Scripture says He is, according to his full and complete character, not just part of his character...and that He will always act according to what He knows is best for us, our eternal salvation, and His glory.

Posting from the archives tonight, believing these words even as I pause from this blog to grieve for a brother and sister in Christ.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Difference Hope Can Make in Your Marriage

This week, my children have been memorizing Jeremiah 29:11: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

I've always focused on the beginning and ending phrases in this passage--(1) that the Lord knows all that will happen to me and (2) that He desires a prosperous future for me.  

Such promises go hand in hand with Paul's words: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom. 8:28). 

Somehow, though, I've skipped over the middle part of Jeremiah's promise--"to give you hope."  I've never perceived hope as an important gift from God, but all one need do is seriously imagine a life without hope, and its necessity becomes clear.

Consider living each day with no hope that things would ever get better in your life--no hope for a better job, no hope that your children would mature into productive adults, no hope that your marriage would be happier, no hope in a future beyond this life.  

Imagine a hopeless existence where you must admit to yourself, "This is as good as it gets." Even those who would admit being happy with their lives in general still live with hope, if not for themselves than for a better world.

Paul explains how hope is a lot like faith, in believing in the unseen: "For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it" (Rom. 8:24-25).

God gives us hope to carry us through those hard nights and days.  Perhaps it is not a hope for a perfect life here on earth, but it is always a hope for an eternal future in Christ.  

Without hope, it is too easy to accept defeat.  Nowhere is this most clear to me than in the realm of marriage.  

In Shaunti Feldhahn's newest book: The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage and Divorce, she argues the greatest threat to the modern marriage is not divorce but lack of hope.  

She writes,"You've probably heard the grim facts: Half of all marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate inside the church is the same as outside. And, most marriages are just holding on. But what if these 'facts' are actually myths."

Feldhahn then breaks these myths down, explaining how they came about in the first place, such as the 50% divorce rate being based on projected divorces instead of actual measured divorces. In other words, what we have told to be facts are just assumptions--and faulty ones at that. 

According to Feldhahn's research, 72% of married people are still married to their first spouse (p. 21). What's more, 80% of all marriages are happy (p. 44).  

Interestingly enough, even unhappy marriages can have hope.  Feldhahn writes, "Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later...Among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of ten who avoided divorce were happily married five years later" (p. 53).

Such statistics are incredibly encouraging, offering hope that things will get better in even an unhappy marriage.

The most empowering part of this short book, though, deals with Christianity and marriage.  I've been discouraged in the past by the Barna study that showed the divorce rate being the same for Christians as non-Christians, but Feldhahn explains the Barna researchers only studied "those who professed to hold Christian beliefs, not those who went to church" (p. 67).  In essence, a person could have been a Christian in name only and still have been stuck in the "Christian" category.

Feldhahn's research, however, studied those who were active in their faith and discovered that "weekly church attendance alone lowers the divorce rate significantly--roughly 25 to 50 percent" (p. 67).    

What's more, "couples who go to church or other religious services together on a regular basis have the lowest divorce rate of any group studied, regardless of other factors such as how long they've been married" (p. 74).  In short, nominal Christianity may not make a difference in a person's marriage, but active Christianity definitely does.

While not everything in Feldhahn's book is encouraging (for instance, 74% of first unions now live together before marriage), the bulk of her findings are well worth both Christians and non-Christians taking note of.  Despite the bad news the media constantly feeds us about marriage, the truth is more encouraging.  

Consider how these lies impact our view of marriage.  Even in the church, there is a sense of hopelessness concerning the state of marriage in America, the opposite of what God intends us to have, especially in a heart devoted to Him. 

Consider the impact hope can have upon your marriage and my marriage.  If a couple believes half of marriages fail, then they are predisposed to be less hopeful about their own marriage.  When hard times come, they tell themselves divorce was statistically bound to happen anyway.  However, if that same couple believes most marriages do make it, then that hope will propel them to work harder to ensure their marriage survives.

It's the promise of hope.  It's the power of hope.   

Pass it on.

Divorce isn’t the greatest threat to marriage. Discouragement is.

You’ve probably heard the grim facts: Half of all marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate inside the church is the same as outside. And, most marriages are just holding on. But what if these “facts” are actually myths?
- See more at:

Divorce isn’t the greatest threat to marriage. Discouragement is.

You’ve probably heard the grim facts: Half of all marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate inside the church is the same as outside. And, most marriages are just holding on. But what if these “facts” are actually myths?
- See more at: