Looks, Brains, Money and Other Stuff

Many of you might remember the mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, of Mad Magazine. He was always on the cover of every issue, and the statement “What–me worry?” was emblazoned across the top of the monthly publication. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you’re either too young, or you were doing something more productive than I was in the 70’s…..like being responsible. Anyway, I can’t figure out how the slogan”What–me worry?” has anything to do with the magazine itself, but it’s a catchy tagline that immediately identifies the magazine to me to this day. I’d wager (well, not really) that if I polled people over the age of 60, and asked what magazine the phrase comes from, 75% would get it right, whether they read the magazine or not. The marketing department got it right when they created their catchy tagline…. they successfully branded themselves by using it.

So, what is my point? That we are remembered in people’s minds by certain things they recall about us through the way we brand ourselves. What identifies you and me? When someone thinks of you, what do you want them to remember most? Something about your looks? Your success in life? Your athleticism? How smart you are? Those qualities are commendable, but they don’t set us apart as believers. They’re worldly qualities that are just as present in non- believers as those who follow Christ. Those things don’t tell others what we believe, they don’t define our character, and they don’t identify who we follow.

God says through Jeremiah in 9:23-24, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts, boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” When we read that, we immediately think, I don’t boast or brag. Well, maybe not with our mouths, but boasting isn’t only about what we say. That’s only one use of the word. Another use defines it this way: “A feature that is a source of pride”, or “to glory in”, such as, “the hotel decor boasts of its luxury.” Obviously, a hotel is a non-verbal entity, but it’s decor still sends a message about its identity. When we read, “the heavens declare the glory of God”, it’s the same idea. God takes pride in what He has created. It’s part of how we identify Him. So, if boasting isn’t only a spoken thing, but can also be a silent source of pride, then this begs the question, What things do I silently or openly glory in? Again, I’m not suggesting that we hide our successes under a bushel basket, but is there something else about us that we’d like for others to know, which would brand us as the people of God in Christ, other than money, stuff, brains, and more.

If you’ve ever read about the 5 love languages, you might recall that everyone has a receptive love language. (A love language is a gesture from others that particularly affirms the fact to you that you’re loved/ valued by them.) It doesn’t take me long to identify that my love language is “Words of Affirmation”. In other words, I feel loved or valued when I receive affirmations that I’ve done something well, i.e. a trophy, a statement of appreciation, a certificate, a pat on the back, etc. I also realize that I take far too much pleasure in a job I’ve done well. It’s a source of pride for me. How do I know this isn’t just a healthy attitude, but instead is an unhealthy characterization?…. Because I find it difficult not to point out to others that I did it. I’m far too quick to take the credit…to glory in it. One of the signs in myself that would indicate I’m growing in the right way, is to be quiet about my accomplishments. Humility is hard; it requires selflessness, and my sinful nature operates under the assumption that life is all about me. Carly Simon’s lyrics “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”, describes my human heart. Of course, God said it first! As a result, pride has the ability to enter the picture for you and me on every level of life. Think of the everyday things we take pride (boast) in:

Look at how much emphasis our culture puts on fitness…. how good we can look; our strength. I’m not talking about just a healthy lifestyle; I’m talking about the time and effort we pride ourselves on to be ‘better than’ or ‘more than’. It isn’t enough to be in decent shape as a stand-alone quality. We have to be in better shape than the next person because we pride ourselves on the fact that we’re more disciplined, or more persevering, or more athletic. The shape we’re in boasts of our determination to others. All of this is good…. until it becomes a self-affirming means of branding ourselves. A boast of outward appearance that comes from a source of inner pride that says, “Look at me.”

I’ve always liked the Rocky the Flying Squirrel cartoon series. I’ll never forget a quote from Bullwinkle Moose when he and Rocky were having a contest about who could be the best at something. They were arguing about who would win, and Bullwinkle said in his dopey way, “When it comes to humility, I am the greatest!” You see… even when he was seeking to become more humble, his boast was that he had to be the best at it.

How about the way we take pride in where or how we get educated… to gain wisdom? There is much to be said in favor of a college degree, but which college, if any? These days, if someone aspires to learn a trade, instead of higher education, they’re considered to be ‘less than’ the brightest and the best. Or, if someone is accepted into an Ivy League school, it automatically pegs them as smarter (not just academically). Would you classify yourself as a failure if you could only be accepted into a community college? Do you pride yourself on the fact that you’re wiser than average? Once again, this achievement is commendable, but it has become a source of your pride and identity if you feel ‘better than’ or ‘less than’ your peers. Wisdom isn’t only gained through academics. It comes from living life, listening to the voice of reason, learning the fear of the Lord. However, on the down-side, if a wise person takes it to extreme and becomes ‘dull’ to listen to others, they have become prideful. Their wisdom or intelligence has become a source of their confidence, and their glory is to see themselves as superior. They identify only with other great minds, and the lowly insight of others is viewed as inferior or rubbish. They think,”You don’t know what I know.”

Finally, let’s look at the last thing God says through Jeremiah about how we shouldn’t boast….in riches, and the stuff that money buys. Granted, money doesn’t buy happiness, but who wouldn’t rather be rich than poor? We love stuff! Money creates status in so many ways. It buys houses, cars, the latest gadgets, world travel and the best restaurants, among many other things. However, there is something far more negatively insidious about what money will do. It creates a sense of independence from others. It allows a person to be free of having to expose themselves as weak and needy, and gives them the opportunity to hide behind the power. Money holds its possessor hostage to the belief that more is better, and a path to financial security means things are okay. We glory in how much we can amass while we’re here on earth. It feels good. It says to it’s owner, “I’m smart, I’m wise, and I’m free.”

There was a time in my past where my husband and I made a better than average income at a young age. We had done well professionally, and had purchased all the bells and whistles our money would buy. We weren’t believers at the time. As the months went by, after turning our lives over to Christ, God knew that I depended way too much on status and stuff, so He saw to it that our income plummeted into a complete nosedive. We just about lost, sold, and bartered everything, except a Mercedes Benz that I drove. Things got so bad that I had to supplement our income by carrying a newspaper route…. while driving the Mercedes. Talk about embarrassing! (I have some funny stories about those times.) What the Lord taught me was invaluable. I hadn’t realized it, but I had taken on a new silent boast when we had money. I saw myself as “better”, and the Lord knew I needed to be pruned of my pride in that. No wonder the Bible says that “(the love of) money is the root of all evil”. It gave me an extremely false sense of importance. Even though that time in my life was painful, it needed to happen. I’m still human and I love stuff, but the grace of God has given me a different take on what I have. It’s all from His hand….I take no credit for any of it. It can disappear as quickly as God knows it needs to if I begin to lose perspective again.

So, knowing that God addresses these innate boasts of ours as things we shouldn’t take an unhealthy pride in, what does He mean in Jeremiah 9, when He says that if we boast in anything, we should boast in Him? In other words, how do our lives reflect the fact that God is the giver of all that we have and all that we’re able to accomplish? And, how would that identify and brand us for others to remember? The Hebrew word “boast” used in this passage means the same thing as the English word….”to take pride in” or “to glory in”. In other words, God says that if we’re going to glory in something, let it be that we “know and understand the Lord”. Sounds good, but what the heck does it mean?? To know and understand the Lord sounds like something humanly unattainable and far too lofty. In this context, the Hebrew translation for ‘knows and understands’ simply points to the fact that because we glory in and celebrate who God is and what he’s done, then we’re always to be aware of that fact. He is the One to always be acknowledged as the Giver of all, and that includes our intelligence, efforts to look good, job status and financial success.

The psalmist says in Psalm 29:1-2, “Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. “

This should produce humility, instead of pride. It should produce an awe that He would even notice or bother with us. Consequently, when we recognize that God, through Christ, humbly came to love and serve us, it should motivate us to become more selfless, and less prideful, through His example. Jesus carried the mark of God. He identified himself as a suffering servant, humbly washing feet, and ultimately offering himself up as a sacrifice for us. How will others recognize that brand we bear…. our mark of ownership by Christ? They will see it through our self- sacrificing, quiet, humility and service to others. A willingness to serve, regardless of the cost. I once heard someone say, ‘You can’t wash someone’s feet when you’re standing on a pedestal. ” So true. As believers who glory in God’s majesty, we’re humbled to decrease as He increases. When we struggle with humility, it’s a direct indication that we’ve lost sight of Him, and instead have proudly gazed upon ourselves.

I have a long way to go in this area. I’m not very quiet about much, and it’s a challenge to me. However, I’m confident the Holy Spirit will grow me because He is most satisfied in me as I’m most satisfied in Him. I’m going to memorize Proverbs 27:2, this week: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips. ”

May the mark of Christ be evident in you this week as you glory in Him!

Suffering is on Trial

This subject has been scheduled on my calendar for weeks. I’m always hesitant to choose what I write about or what I teach, because it never seems to fail that whatever subject I choose, a circumstance will crop up in my life where I’m challenged to believe and apply what I’m going to teach or write. The subject of trial and suffering will be no different, as I’ve just learned in the last few days that I have to have surgery to excise a tumor which will determine whether or not I have developed breast cancer. I have a history of endometrial cancer dating back to 2003, and anyone who has ever had a cancer diagnosis knows that you never want to hear the “C” word again. It’s a disease to be feared, for sure, and I never wanted to hear it twice.

So, how do I process this? If I start with my emotions, then I’m toast. This postmenopausal girl can alternate anywhere between heart palpitations and full-blown panic attacks if I let my feeling-oriented, victim mentality rule. And I know if I let that happen, I may file for a divorce from myself! So, I’d prefer to start with what I know to be true (not how it feels), because then I’ll begin to see more clearly how to think about the situation. I surely want to know how to go forward with as little anxiety as possible. I’m acutely aware that it’s entirely feasible to face a fearful situation with confidence, instead of calamity, knowing that God’s plan can be trusted and that suffering has meaning.

The subject of trials and suffering is probably one of the most difficult things to understand about life. I think it’s helpful to clarify some of what we can know….

Suffering can come upon us in multifaceted ways. The definition of “suffering” is, “the experience of physical pain or mental distress.” When we suffer, we go through a mental or physical circumstance of extreme discomfort. Manytimes, we think of the term “suffering” as being reserved for horrible situations or merciless persecutions. There are definitely degrees of suffering, no doubt, but ANY experience that causes a certain level of mental anguish or physical discomfort can fit this term…. to be in agony over something or someone, to hurt, to be in distress, to ache, to endure, to experience hardship, to grieve,… or to wait on a diagnosis! What do we do with this experience?

Suffering always commands a chosen response of some kind. If you cut your finger, you can choose just to stand there and bleed, or you can choose to clean the wound, put pressure on it, and bandage it. It’s your choice, but there’s a decision to be made as to how the cut needs to be handled or mentally processed. We don’t experience suffering without also thinking about how we might be able to respond to it, and then take some kind of action. So, as I’m waiting on surgery and a more definitive diagnosis, I have to respond to the uncertainty somehow. At the same time, I’m aware that suffering is a battlefield…. one that ends up either cursing God, or one that ends up praising God. So, I move on to what this may look like….

Right now, my situation offers me the opportunity to prove that my confidence and faith in God will be demonstrated through my belief that He has a higher purpose for this trial, and that my suffering has meaning. The definition of the word “trial” is, “the action of trying or putting to the proof.” When a new drug is being developed, a pharmaceutical company does clinical trials to determine how the drug acts when taken, or if the patient improves, or if there are any side effects, and if the drug performs up to a given standard that makes it efficacious, among other things. In other words, the clinical trial is the fleshing-out or proof that the drug is genuinely going to do what it was developed for… what it is intended to do. My trial isn’t clinical, but it’s spiritual. We were all created for worship, and I intend by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to prove this trial to be praiseworthy. How we respond to suffering is an indicator of just how much we believe that God already has this. I know He didn’t just find out about my tumor this morning, as though someone else has been running my life. He has known about this since the beginning of time.

The story of Job is a case study on human suffering. Although Job’s suffering was extreme by any standard, it mirrors the experience of anyone who has suffered and has been perplexed about why God has allowed such a thing to take place. These painful experiences can come to us through physical, social, economic, and spiritual circumstances. No matter what the event, at some point we’re all shocked into the reality that life on earth is not heaven. I believe that Job posed the same questions to God in his suffering that you and I often have as we go through situations of extreme distress: Does God really know what He’s doing? Is He trustworthy? Why is this happening? If God is good, why are there trials and suffering?

Sometimes our suffering is a direct consequence of our sin. Reaping what we have sown is a principle of cause and effect. God afflicted Miriam with leprosy as a judgment upon her for her sin against Moses (Numbers 12:9-10). On another note, Job’s friends were repeatedly trying to convince him that his suffering was a direct consequence of his sin, and that if he’d repent he’d start reaping good rewards. This wasn’t true….we know that Job’s suffering was a test for God to prove to Satan that Job would remain faithful. Whatever the reason, there are times God will extend grace and mercy to us, and there are times we’ll suffer for our sin. However, in light of Gods grace of the cross, we will never suffer the full consequences of our sin…. Christ is the One who suffered that for us.

Sometimes, because we live in a broken world due to the Fall of man in the Garden, we experience sickness, death, and the effects of evil. Ultimately, just as before, Christ has overcome the permanency of death through the resurrection, but we’re still exposed to the ravages of a fallen creation.

Sometimes, our suffering is strictly for the glory of God. In John 9:1-3, Jesus was asked a question about a man who was born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. ” The disciples wrongly considered only two possible explanations for the blind man’s plight…. either the blindness was a direct result of the man’s own sin, or it was the result of his parent’s sin. They were mistaken thinking that suffering could only come from a direct outcome of guilt. As we go through life, we can see that this principle doesn’t consistently operate, in seeing through experience that suffering seems to have many counterintuitive truths. There are times when it seems that a person suffers far less than what is merited for their earthly sin, and there are times where it seems a person has to endure a greater proportion of earthly suffering than others, despite their faithfulness. As we lament to God in our pain which may understandably feel unfair, whatever the cause, there must be the realization that any suffering short of hell is still the mercy of God.

Sufferers may never know why God has caused or allowed destructive forces into their lives. However, it can be known to man that there is more going on than meets the eye. God, by his sovereign design, allows pain to exist that it would somehow bring him him great glory. When Jesus declared, “Neither,” in John 9, He had an understanding that the man was born blind not because of his sin, but so, “that the works of God should be revealed in him. ” The man was afflicted with blindness for the glory of God. Likewise, at the end of the Book of Job, after God had spoken to him out of the whirlwind, Job acknowledged that God had a sovereign design for his suffering, although he didn’t know exactly what that design was. Job said, “I spoke about things that I didn’t understand, things too lofty for me, of which I am ignorant.” (42:3) He began to understand that God had a purpose (a design) for his suffering, even though God never really explained to Job that the point of his suffering was for God to get the glory due Him from Satan.

When we’re able to put pain in a context, it somehow gives us great hope. It helps us to understand that suffering has meaning. God knows what he is doing as He primarily considers the greater good of the kingdom, before He considers whether an individual will be inconvenienced. His plan and purpose always has that end in mind, with the ultimate goal of His being worshipped for His own sake. Thankfully, one day, God will finally bring people to the place where they will see Him as he really is, not who they have assumed Him to be.

Job didn’t fully understand why God had called him to suffer, but he knew who was at the bottom of his suffering. He questioned why, but never questioned who. Even though we may complain, mourn, grumble and cry, we know that God is the ultimate source of our life story and He can be trusted. My trust may waver at times, but I know that God has demonstrated His character to me for over 40 years. One of my favorite verses in Job is in 13:15, when he said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.” Right now, I feel slain, but I know that’s just emotion talking. The Holy Spirit reminds me of what is true, and that I can depend on God’s outcome to be for my best…. fear overlaid with trust.

If God’s purposes are for His glory and our good, then we know that whatever He has for our future will have a trustworthy outcome. Romans 8:28 answers the greater good for which things happen…. to conform us to the likeness of Christ. As God is getting us ready to be with Him, He is cleaning us up. If we believe and hold to that truth, then we will see that the process of sanctification (making us more like Christ) can be trusted because no matter how it feels, it is necessary to develop holiness. Remember… God has the long view and we only have the short view. Some things are beyond human comprehension, but knowing that God will restore us someday helps to encourage us and give us perspective. In the words of Paul, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. ” (Romans 8:18) For the sake of our eternal joy, God sometimes uses trial and suffering to speak loudly of His love for us.

My hope is that as I go through this process, no matter the outcome, I will always remember that He is faithful to turn me away from fear, and turn me toward trust, which brings peace through His grace to my soul. He is good. Turn Around and see… cancer is a fearsome word, but the eternal Word we can trust. He has more power, and has been here since the beginning of time. Amen.

Got a Match?

Do you remember the word “incongruent” from Geometry or Chemistry class? It’s a term that describes things which are not in agreement; they are incompatible with one another. Instead of my high school teacher trying to boringly explain a term like “incongruent”, why couldn’t he have happily sung the Sesame Street song, One of These Things is Not Like the Other? Then I might have enjoyed it more. (Plus, it probably would have been entertaining enough to keep me from talking to my friends while in class.)

Unfortunately, as believers, we’re often incongruent. We say we believe one thing, and may even behave in accordance with it, but when we listen to our thoughts (which come out of the heart), we find that we don’t think in accordance with what we state we believe. If you want to know what you really believe, listen to your thoughts…. what you’re saying in your head as you go about life… how you talk to yourself. (It can be daunting!)

Biblical counselors are trained to look at behavior and listen to words, but more importantly, we’re taught to help people listen to and become aware of their hearts. Why? Because what we think comes out of the heart, and how we think exposes our beliefs, our passions, our character, and our theology. The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about what we think, and how we use those thoughts as a measure to live life wisely or foolishly. We’re warned all through the book to be aware of the way folly inserts itself into our hearts, and how to think wisely, instead. Chapter 28,verse 26 says, “He who trusts himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe.” There are several verses in Proverbs which use the Hebrew word “fool” in this manner. It basically means “lacking normal intelligence or stupid”. We say we believe one thing and then stupidly process our thoughts according to another thing. We make silly, unintelligent assumptions based on self-interested emotions. We trust ourselves to our heart’s deceitful voice.

I’m going to make a statement that may seem fairly radical, but I believe it to be true. We always do what we believe. We never do what we don’t believe. Sound too simple? Let me explain:

If we do something because of peer pressure, but we really don’t want to, at that moment we believe that ‘fitting in’ is a higher priority… so we do it. On the other hand, if we don’t do what we really don’t like, at that moment, we believe that doing the right thing is a higher priority. So, when we choose to sin, whatever that sin will do for us at that moment, becomes a higher priority than choosing not to sin.

My husband gave me a mug a few years ago for my counseling office with a Ghostbusters type logo on it. You know… the circle with a line diagonally drawn through the circle? Unlike the Ghostbusters logo, my mug has a circle with the word ‘whining’ on it and the line drawn diagonally through it….in other words, “No Whining”. I kept it prominently displayed on the bookshelf in my office. Wouldn’t you think it was intended to inform the people who came into my office for counseling? Well, it wasn’t. My husband gave it to me. It was for my benefit because I have a horrible tendency to complain (whine). The mug sat on my bookshelf as a reminder to me that I grumble and complain, even though I say I’m grateful to God. It’s an example of how my complaining (which comes out of my thoughts) is incongruent to my stated faith (which comes out of my mouth).

Another more recent example : We’ve had to downsize over the last few years, and I don’t particularly love where we live, i.e. small kitchen, close neighbors, older building. I complain about it in my head (and unfortunately sometimes out loud), yet I outwardly state that I’m eternally thankful for God’s sovereign provision. So, which is it? Am I really grateful for where we live? I say that I am, but then my thoughts (when I complain) tell me I’m not. My inner thoughts and my outward words are not in agreement, so which one is real? The one that wins out in that moment is the one that is real. The winner will be the truth I believe in that moment. This may be a skirmish that lasts a brief moment, or it may be a long battle. If it’s brief, it’s because even though my heart may complain for a while, the Holy Spirit convicts me to repent, and be grateful for the goodness of God. If I stay stuck on grumbling about it, then I really don’t believe it’s a gift from God, no matter what I say about it to others. Gratefulness and grumbling are incongruent…. they don’t belong to one another…. they don’t match.

Do your thoughts agree with your stated belief that God has your future firmly in hand? Then why do you become paralyzed with anxiety and fear? I’m not talking about brief fear which is resolved in a timely manner. I’m talking about being steadily riddled with anxious thoughts about the outcome of things which result in panic attacks, obsessive- compulsive disorders, addictions, etc. Your fear has won out. As a believer, listen to the incongruency going on between your stated belief that God owns your future, and what your thoughts are telling you to do. You’ll do whichever one you really believe at the moment.

Do your thoughts agree with your stated belief that God will fight your battles? Then why does anger overtake you? I’m not talking about anger which is resolved in a timely manner. I’m talking about being so overcome with injustice and offenses, that you don’t let go of grudges. You state that you don’t believe you deserve anything good because of your sinful nature, and yet you stew over unfair treatment and trampled rights, to the point of seething revenge and unforgiveness. Which one is truer about you? Your stated faith that God will vindicate you, or the belief that you have to ‘get even’. Whichever one wins out is what you believe at that moment.

Do we believe that God is sovereign? Then why do we lay awake at night going over and over something that we can do nothing about? I’m not talking about fretting that’s resolved in a timely manner. I’m talking about being so bogged down with worry, that we get little sleep and we spend inordinate amounts of time thinking and rethinking how something in the future will turn out. We may state that we believe God’s plan is trustworthy, but listen to how we think as we’re dealing with an unsure future. Either we believe that an outcome is in God’s solid plan, or we believe that we can’t trust Him and we fret.

You get my point. We are fickle, double-minded, broken people. We have treasured the wrong things, loved for selfish reasons, and believed the lies of the enemy. When we recognize that our thoughts aren’t consistent with what we say we believe, it should cause us to look deeply. But, looking deeply isn’t a bad thing. Even though it may be shocking or painful to see that your heart is not as pretty as you may have hoped, it exposes the fact that it can’t be trusted because the heart’s understanding is darkened. Your first reaction may be to “improve” by resolving that you’ll correct the incongruency. Don’t even go there. It’s the devil’s workshop when we think we are able to will ourselves to do better. The enemy would love for us to believe that we can perfect our sin nature. Buying into this lie would cut Jesus’ redeeming death out of the picture entirely. Instead of Christ’s sacrifice being on your behalf, the cross would be reduced to just a humble guy who extended a hand of goodwill to you through a nice gesture.

The bad news is this is our sin nature at work. We’ll never get to the point (on this side of heaven) where we won’t fight with incongruency. Our flesh and the Enemy are always at work against the purposes of God. We are human, and our sin nature buys into power, control, greed, and safety, to name a few things. We are ruled by our emotions, and struggle to break free.

The good news is that we have the Holy Spirit living in us who reminds us of truth and gives us the ability to think wisely. Sometimes this happens quickly and sometimes it takes awhile. The important thing is to know that He gives us the ability to Turn Around. It’s an immature faith that thinks we’ll get it right. Our best attempt at righteousness is impure and imperfect. A familiar passage instructs us: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6) Don’t be a fool and trust your own understanding. Things aren’t always what they seem. As we become more mindful that God’s wisdom is true and safe, and our thinking is flawed no matter how it feels, we are less likely to trust our thoughts through an emotional filter. The gap of our incongruency starts to narrow as our inner thoughts more closely match those things we say we believe as we remember what is true. (This is one reason we want to memorize Scripture…. so that it can be hidden somewhere in the recesses of our heart to be quickly retrieved.)

Don’t be a fool. Learn wisdom by using your incongruency to instruct your soul. As you see and hear more of your heart’s folly, may the Holy Spitit lead you to a place of trust, resulting in your taking hold of the congruence of God’s stated love for you and His sacrificial death on your behalf. Now, that’s a match you can trust.