Thursday, October 29, 2015

Can Pleasant Work Be a Nightmare?

A writer (not me) recently asked some of his peers: “Is writing always a pleasant work, or can it become a nightmare sometimes.” This question stirred up a lot of discussion, and I think there are individuals still weighing in on the subject as I write this.

Some responded that for them writing is nothing short of an unrelenting source of endless joy. (I suspect they must have been from Oregon and Colorado, where they’ve legalized those funny cigarettes.) Others argued writing is an arduous, often agonizing task tantamount from squeezing drops of blood from the proverbial turnip. And most who replied fell somewhere in between.

Does your work - or life - sometimes look like this?
It occurred to me that such a question doesn’t apply only to those engaged in the craft of writing and editing. It could be rephrased to apply to any endeavor, ranging from being married and raising children to gardening and participating in a favorite sport: “Is (whatever) always pleasant, or can it be a nightmare sometimes?”

Perhaps the word “nightmare” sounds a bit extreme, but if the question is whether something – any endeavor – is always fun, or whether there are times when it’s difficult, painful, stressful (or whatever adjective you choose to inject), I’d say the realistic answer would be the latter.

When a couple gets married, both groom and bride are starry-eyed. Even though they’ve taken the “better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and in health” vows, in their minds they fully expect Utopia. When a mom and dad greet their newborn, all they can think of is the joy this little one will bring into their lives. They ignore the thousands of messy diapers, spit-up, fevers and crying they’ll have to endure.

Gardens are wonderful when they’re adorned with colorful flowers or ripened vegetables and fruit, but getting those typically requires sweat, dirty hands and achy muscles. And when we watch our favorite college football teams compete on Saturday afternoons, we know little of the countless hours these gridiron gladiators have spent lifting weights, running drills, banging heads and cramming playbook schemes into their minds.

So if someone were to ask me if any worthwhile endeavor was pleasant, or sometimes painful, I’d wholeheartedly reply, “Yes, yes it is!”

The spiritual life is the same. That’s why the apostle James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

And just in case we still didn’t get the message, the apostle Paul also made the declaration, “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).

For me, writing is one of my passions, my vocational calling, but it’s still hard work. Especially when I’m up against a deadline (or more than one), and it feels like, as one noted author described it, I’m sitting at the keyboard straining until beads of blood appear on my forehead.

Maybe that’s why the cliché, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” endures to this day. Because it’s true. When faced with adversity, when we’re tempted to wonder whether the reward is worthy of the struggle, so many choose to give up. Sadly, for some, when success was standing just around the bend.

So at this time of year, when “nightmares” are brought to our mind by the presence of costumed ghosts and goblins and spooks and witches and zombies, maybe the real “nightmare on Elm Street” is the decision to quit when victory was so close. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Good-bye, Old Friend

It’s amazing the way pets weave themselves into our hearts. One day a fuzzy little ball of fur with a hyperactive tail enters our lives and next thing you know, it’s declared itself part of the family. Molly was that way. She joined our family about 17 years ago, a part-Chihuahua, part-terrier puppy, a wagging, bouncing bundle of life.

Alas, 17 in dog years is nearly forever, and a few weeks ago we knew Molly’s tenure on earth was coming to an end. Over the past year she had lost what the French call “joie de vivre,” the hearty and carefree enjoyment of life most dogs manifest. The house-training lessons she had learned so well were often forgotten. Her almost non-stop sleeping was interrupted only by brief trips outside, quick munches on a biscuit or wet food wrapped around medication, or occasionally wandering around the house, as if trying to remember something she had forgotten. And going up and downstairs had become difficult with balky hind legs.

So rather than waiting to see her in obvious distress, and after consulting with our veterinarian and some online research, we regretfully concluded, “It’s time.” With sedation preceding the euthanizing drug, Molly’s passing was peaceful – and tearful for us. Mostly mine, since I’m the one whose eyes water during romantic comedies. Even knowing it was the proper, humane thing to do, saying good-bye to a beloved old friend is never easy.

In the biblical creation account, God declared, “It’s not good for that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), so He created animals to become Adam’s companions (before deciding Eve was a better solution). It doesn’t say God introduced canines into the biological mix at that point, but I suspect He did, in part because some of the positive traits we see in dogs reflect the Lord’s attributes – and qualities He desires to see in us.

Things like faithfulness. Trust. Patience. Devotion. Steadfastness. Unconditional love. Recently I read a suggestion that if you want to see whether your spouse or your dog loves you more, put them both in the trunk of your car and close it. Then see how each responds when you reopen the trunk 15 minutes later.

We could leave Molly alone in the house for hours at a time, and when we returned home she was there with tail going 60 miles an hour, bouncing up and down, ready to go out and then come back in to play – or chomp on a biscuit. I don’t recall her once asking, “I wonder if these guys are going to feed me today?” or “What’s taking them so long?” Her faith and trust in us, deserved or not, was absolute. If only our confidence in God were so complete.

As with anything else we experience in life, Molly wasn’t all fun without any frustration. I won’t miss recent months of getting out of bed around 3 every morning to take her out before she went on the floor. For a short-haired dog, Molly managed to shed lots of hair year-round. She could turn any T-shirt into a dog-hair sweater in seconds. And to be honest, it will be a relief planning to travel without needing to ask, “What are we going to do with the dog?” But like all good pooches, Molly’s plusses far outnumbered her minuses.

After our vet had put Molly to sleep, I was reading in Proverbs and came across a familiar verse: “Where no oxen are, the trough is clean; but much increase comes by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4). In other words, to get the results you want, you must be willing to put up with some messes. That passage could be adapted for canines: Where no dogs are, the house is clean; but much joy comes from the wag of a dog’s tail.

Today the doggie hairs Molly had strewn so lavishly around the house have been swept up. Her food and water bowls have been stored away, maybe for future use. But not soon. And the tennis balls she enjoyed playing with now lie still, no longer her toys of pursuit. But Molly’s memory will remain wrapped around our hearts forever.

James 1:17 states, Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” For us, Molly was one of those good and perfect gifts from above, perhaps God’s way of saying, “Enjoy this loving little friend. And learn some things about Me in the process.” And for that we’re extremely grateful.

Good-bye, Molly. We love you. Hope to see you again one day, the Lord willing.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Chafing at the Challenges of Change

Change can be a hard thing. A very hard thing. Whether it’s changing systems for doing things in a business, abandoning long-standing traditions, seeing children grow independent, or embracing the latest technological advances (my personal favorite), it’s often difficult. Many of us find comfort in the tried and true and familiar, reluctant to release the old and embrace the new.

The prospect of "new," requiring change
can be exciting - or frightening.
I felt that way before transitioning from an electric typewriter to a desktop computer a few decades ago. I had shifted from a manual typewriter years earlier, but moving to a computer seemed like a quantum leap. (A leap I celebrated almost immediately.) Then came the time to abandon my film camera for a digital version, another major adjustment that within a very short time had me wondering, “Why did I take so long to do this?” Once I had made these changes, there was no hesitation, no looking back.

Over time even changes can become entrenched, resistant to further change. Take, for example, the Sunday night church service. When a question is raised about when it was started, a number of answers have been suggested, but apparently one reason was a very practical one. In the mid-1800s, when gaslights were nearly universal, electric lights were rare. Some churches, attempting to appeal to people that didn’t attend church, decided to invest in electric lighting as a way of attracting the curious – and hopefully seeing them return on a regular basis.

Sunday school is another change that over time became institutionalized. In 1780, a fellow named Robert Railey in London, England had become burdened for the welfare of impoverished, illiterate children. Seeking to provide help in educating them, Railey enlisted the aid of a number of women to teach reading to these youngsters on Sunday mornings – creating a “Sunday school,” using the Bible as the text.

Before long, 100 children were attending the weekly reading classes, and when other Sunday schools were established, that number swelled into the thousands. By 1831, it’s reported more than one million children were being taught to read – and learning about God in the process – through these innovative schools.

Today, of course, much of that history has become forgotten, with Sunday night services and Sunday school becoming fixtures in many churches large and small. To suggest abandoning them in many congregations would seem tantamount to heresy. “Doesn’t it say somewhere in the Bible, ‘Go therefore and attend Sunday night worship services and Sunday school’? Maybe in 2 Babylonians, or the book of Hezekiah?”

That’s not to speak ill of these and many other well-intended, firmly established practices aimed at edifying and equipping the faithful. But as has been observed more than once, it sometimes seems the seven last words of many churches have been, “We’ve never done it that way before!” Why experiment with something new, innovative and unfamiliar when we’re so comfortable with “business as usual”?

Maybe we should because, as Ecclesiastes 3:1 states, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” Just as summer turns into fall, and then to winter, before completing the cycle to spring, seasons for everything come and go. There’s value in periodically pausing to re-evaluate anything we’re doing. Maybe they’re fine as they are; maybe they could stand a bit of tweaking; or maybe they’ve outlived their usefulness. How will we know unless we take the time to regroup and reconsider our what’s and how’s and why’s?

In Isaiah 43:18-19 God declares, “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

And speaking of followers of Christ, the Bible declares, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Even God knows when it’s time for a change, when out with the old and in with the new should be the order of the day.

So while change sometimes seems daunting, often it proves to be the best thing that could have ever happened. So if you’re chafing at the prospect of some kind of major change, fearing it could be too great a challenge, at least give it serious consideration before discarding the idea. Who knows? God just might be initiating a new thing in your life.

Monday, October 19, 2015

What’s Your Mission?

Are you on a mission? If so, what is it?

“He (or she) is on a mission.” How often have we heard someone described that way? We use this phrase in a variety of ways – a person determined to achieve a goal; an athlete striving for victory, or someone seeking to further a cherished agenda. An interesting word, “mission.”

Decades ago, when NASA and the American space program were making news almost daily, we often heard about “mission control,” as well as various space missions, whether orbiting the earth or going to the moon. Today people talk about taking a mission trip to a foreign land. Members of one religious sect devote a couple of years to a “mission,” setting aside education and careers during that period. Businesses of all sizes draft mission statements that express their reason for existence, along with the how’s and why’s of what they do.

Like this sandpiper on a Florida beach, the waves of
life can toss us about if we're not firmly grounded.
But have you ever viewed your own life as being on a mission – or even took the time to define what your mission is? Years ago I was at a conference where the discussion turned to developing a personal mission statement. “What is your purpose?” some asked. “What do you think is God’s reason for you being here?”

Deep questions for many of us. Until then, the idea of having a personal “mission” had never crossed my mind. Like many people, being married, having children, and pursuing a career were sufficient rationale for who I was and what I did. But having an articulated personal mission statement, I learned, could help provide focus for my life, in both the big picture and smaller details. It also can provide clarification when making key decisions.

So I set about crafting such a declaration. Actually, someone helped me when he read a verse from the Amplified Version of the Bible. The passage, Philippians 3:10, was an elaboration on what the apostle Paul had written. The portion that impressed me the most stated:

“For my determined purpose is that I may know Him (Jesus Christ) – that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly.”

As I pondered these words, it occurred to me that “knowing Christ” meant more than an intellectual exercise. Becoming “more deeply and intimately acquainted” involved more than just perceiving the character of who Jesus was – and is. It meant desiring and allowing that relationship to express itself through my life in every way possible. So as the passage stated, my “determined purpose” – my mission – meant becoming so closely identified with Him that it couldn’t help but be evident to others.

Then I came across another passage that more sharply defined how this personal mission statement would be manifested in my life vocationally: “My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King; my tongue is the pen of a ready writer” (Psalm 45:1).

Since then it’s been my intent to communicate through writing, in as many ways as possible, what I understand as God’s truth, hoping to help others discover how to relate it to their own lives.

Of course, just as the mission of one company is different from that of another, even within the same industry, a personal mission statement should be unique for each of us. The question is, what is your mission. Have you ever thought about it?

Is it necessary to have a formalized expression of one’s personal mission? No. I’d venture to say for many people the idea has never occurred to them. Most of us go from one day to the next, acting upon opportunities, responding to challenges, and tackling everyday tasks without much thought about how they all fit into the grand scheme of our lives.

But taking the time to assess one’s life, in terms of passion, gifts and abilities, as well as trying to discern a sense of calling, certainly can’t hurt. As with a business, it could help in determining questions such as: Where am I going? How am I going to get there? And, how will I know when I’ve arrived? And the best way to answer those questions is to seek wisdom from God.

The alternative, too often, is to be like the description the apostle James put forth: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:5-6).

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not let my life be blown and tossed about by life’s circumstances, one day waking up and asking, “How in the world did I get here?”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Giving is Living – Living is Giving

Giving, as represented in this portion of Michelangelo's
"The Creation of Adam," transcends time and eternity.

We live in a consumer society, drenched every day in a deluge of ads telling us about all the stuff we can’t live without. We’ve perfected the fine art of receiving. So when I read, “Giving is Living – Living is Giving,” it seemed counter-cultural. Then I thought, “That’s right!”

Not that I’m the world’s most generous person; I enjoy receiving things, even in my advancing years. But there’s a lot to be said about giving.

In 1981 I met Bob Lupton, founder of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta. The mission of his organization then – as it remains today – was to serve and help poor families to become self-sustaining. As I was interviewing Bob for a magazine article, he made a statement that’s stuck with me ever since: “The greatest poverty is the inability to give.”

He explained even for people with genuine needs, dignity and a sense of self-worth come from being able to give, especially for parents to provide for their children. This is why well-intended Christmas projects to give food, clothes and toys to impoverished families often fall short – the generosity of those that have unintentionally reinforcing the futility of those that have not.

When Jesus said 2,000 years ago, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), He wasn’t just introducing an idealistic philosophy. He was declaring a timeless principle that when we give, in whatever form, we also receive.

Parents experience this in giving to a child; seeing the delight in the young one’s eyes warms the hearts of mom and dad. Grandparents know this remains true as they interact with their next generation. Dedicated teachers discover this when they not only convey subject material, but also inspire students to learn and grow as individuals. Many nurses find much gratification in caring for patients, whether assisting a new mother give birth or comforting those with debilitating illnesses.

I’ve found giving to be more blessed than receiving while serving as a hospital volunteer, visiting patients who had just undergone open-heart surgery, just as I did years before. Being able to offer encouragement by telling my story and giving suggestions for their recovery process meant far more for me than if I’d been paid for my services.

The same has proved true in mentoring other men, offering my time and attention to assist in their desire to grow personally, professionally and spiritually. In giving, I’ve also received richly, perhaps more than the guys I’ve mentored.

At the same time, the blessing of giving is compromised when it becomes a requirement. That’s why the Bible teaches, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

What we all need is not a guilt trip, not brow-beating or high pressure to give, whether it’s of our time, talents, or material resources. What we do need is a reminder that living truly is giving, and giving is living. It’s about the joy – and blessing – of giving, especially to those lacking a means for repaying us for our kindness.

And also an awareness that as we give in the right ways, we are helping others to get into positions of being able to give as well, thereby extricating themselves from what Bob Lupton described as the greatest poverty of all. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

What Does It Mean to ‘Accept”?

Language has a curious way of morphing from one meaning into another that’s very different. For example, “accept,” as in, “We must learn to accept people as they are.”

In fact, I read a quote from a famous person whom I don’t need to identify. But here’s what he said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

Much of what this person said makes sense. Love isn’t perfect caring; sometimes it’s a struggle – which is probably why many people “fall out of love.” They don’t like the struggle part. They want it easy, without strain, happy-happy-happy all the day.

The part I disagree with, at least as I understand what this famous person said, is “accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” I suppose it depends on how we define “accept.” Does that mean to approve and condone, even applaud the other individual’s behavior? In that case, sorry, I can’t agree.

However, if it means to recognize where someone is at a particular moment in life, but understanding – without judgment or condemnation – that isn’t a good place to be or where they should remain, then I’m fine with “accepting” them.

Let me explain. Over more than 30 years of mentoring men, I've had a handful of them tell me things in confidence they wouldn’t want anyone else to know, including their wives. As I listened, I accepted them – didn't condemn them or pass judgment – but at the same time, I definitely didn't respond, "Way to go – you da man!"

We talked and then, as their mentor, I offered ideas and advice they could choose to consider or reject. That was totally their option, and even if they rejected the corrective steps I recommended, I didn’t hold them in contempt. I accepted them as they are, fellow sinners (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23), but didn’t offer approval or affirmation.

Consider another example: This has never happened to me, but suppose someone were to come and admit he had an unnatural attraction to children, giving adamant assurances he had never acted on it. What would you do?

Again, we could “accept” the person in the sense of recognizing he was dealing with a very serious problem. It wouldn't be necessary to condemn or judge, but I'd certainly encourage him to seek out professional help. And follow up to ensure that he did.

The same applies to persons wrestling with some form of addiction. We can still love and accept them, recognizing as the Bible also teaches, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). But wouldn’t it be good to guide them to sources of help for overcoming their life-controlling problem, rather than being understanding and simply saying, “I accept you”?

To me, the very best example was the way Jesus responded after a woman had been caught in an act of adultery. Religious leaders had condemned her actions and were about to stone her, until Jesus intervened. The story is recounted in John 8:1-11.

First, Jesus put the situation into perspective, challenging the accusers, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). At that moment He was writing something on the ground with His finger. No one knows what He wrote – perhaps Jesus was itemizing individual sins these men had committed. Toppled from their self-righteous pedestals, one by one the men hurling accusations slipped away.

Once they had departed, Jesus turned back to the woman and gave acceptance. He asked, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10) When she replied, “No one, sir,” Jesus responded, “Then neither do I condemn you,” and then added, “Go now and leave your life of sin” or as another translation states it, "go and sin no more" (John 8:10-11).

This I believe is what godly, biblical acceptance is all about. Jesus accepted this woman, interceding to protect her from the religious leaders and their ad hoc justice. However, at the same time He didn't condone or applaud her behavior. He didn’t excuse or try to justify what she had done, which was clearly against God’s law. He didn’t shrug His shoulders and say, “Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.” Jesus simply told her not to do it any longer.

In keeping with the motto, “What would Jesus do?” that’s our model for what we should do upon finding someone doing something wrong or harmful, whether in behavior or lifestyle. We don’t have to judge. In fact, we shouldn’t – that’s God’s job. But neither does “acceptance” call for us to condone or approve it.

As someone has said, “God loves us just the way we are – but He loves us too much to leave us that way.” That’s why we’re offered the opportunity to become “a new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We might not be able to escape our old ways in our own strength. We might not even want to do so. But through God’s strength, we can.

Then we can “test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). I can accept that.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Considering the Impact of a Leader

Leaders like Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth and Harriet
Beecher Stowe were instrumental in bringing slavery to an end
and raising the status of African-Americans in society.

As the jockeying for position in the 2016 Presidential races continues to intensify, with some would-be candidates already bowing out, a lot of important questions are being asked. Everyone is claiming to possess the qualities needed for the top leadership role in the country, but would it be wise for us to consider the impact of a leader, either for good or bad?

Years ago I read Jim Collins’s excellent book, Good To Great, in which he discusses results of a comprehensive study about what made some companies great, compared to others that were merely good. Initially, Collins said he resolved to disregard the impact of top leadership, reasoning it’s too easy to assign praise to the CEO when an enterprise excels. However, he and his research team discovered that wasn’t possible. Leadership was a central factor in corporate greatness. Here’s what Collins wrote:

“We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

History shows leaders like Benjamin Franklin
and Mark Twain, depicted at Walt Disney
World's EPCOT, have had great influence
in their respective fields of endeavor.
There were important factors other than what Collins termed “Level 5 Leadership,” but over the course of his work it became undeniable that the quality and character of top leaders became a major factor in a company’s success or failure. This is particularly interesting because in the Bible’s Old Testament, recounting events from thousand of years ago, this was also true. It’s not a new development.

Examples are too numerous to mention but a few, but Joseph stands out as a man of integrity whom God used in ways far beyond anything he could have imagined. Moses certainly was an unlikely choice for leader of the Israelites. In fact, he kept asking, “Uh, Lord, are you sure you’ve picked the right guy for this job?” But his effectiveness was unquestioned.

In the books of 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles we see a procession of kings whose character greatly influenced the people of Israel and Judah that they led. When good kings ruled, the people enjoyed peace and prosperity. When bad kings arose, the people descended into patterns of evil practice.

King Josiah seems particularly notable. His story is told in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, opening with the statement, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2, 2 Chronicles 34:2).

Even in his earliest years as king, Josiah took decisive measures to purge the land of the false gods and idols the people of Judah had been worshiping. When he discovered how far they had drifted from following Jehovah God, the king tore his robes in a symbolic act of despair and remorse. He declared, “Great is the Lord’s anger that is poured out on us because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book” (2 Chronicles 34:21).

As a result, the Israelites followed Josiah’s example and re-established their sacred observances and thrived during his reign with God’s blessing. Following Josiah’s death, however, another evil king succeeded him and the people lapsed into their prior ungodly practices.

I’ve come to the conclusion that like a football coach who receives too much praise when his team wins and too much blame when it loses, sometimes the President of the United States is given too much credit for positive developments in the nation and the world, and too much criticism when things aren’t going well. There are too many variables at work, especially given the global nature of commerce, finance, and communications, for one person to exert sweeping control over the course of human events.

However, one thing all President can clearly do, given the extremely public and prominent nature of the office, is to affirm and emulate the values, principles and standards they believe that men, women and young people of the land should embrace.

So as we’re evaluating candidates and – hopefully – seeking to come to a well-reasoned, thorough appraisal of the candidates vying for our votes, it’s critical for us to recognize the impact of whomever we will elect. As well as the character of the candidates we consider.

And thinking about Collins’s discovery about what constituted the best, most effective corporate leaders, it might be well to consider this biblical admonition: “All of you, clothes yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not Undeserved, But Ill-Deserved

Among the singular distinctions that set apart the Christian faith from any other belief system is the concept of grace. In all other religious philosophies, in one way or another, it’s a matter of earning or proving worthy of something, whether it’s blessing, eternal life, or well-being in some other form. It might be viewed as an outworking of karma, good works or legalism, but basically it’s a matter of getting what you deserve – and trying how to figure out how to be good enough.

Biblical grace, however, is in many ways the antithesis. It’s unmerited; actually receiving what we don’t deserve. As Ephesians 2:8-9 states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” But recently I heard a statement that provided one of those “aha” moments we occasionally experience, helping me to grasp the concept of grace in an even more wondrous way.

I’ve always understood grace as “undeserved favor from God,” but a speaker at a breakfast I attended observed that God’s grace is not so much undeserved as it is “ill-deserved.”

Look at it this way: Imagine walking along a city street one night, headed to a favorite restaurant for dinner when a panhandler approaches you, asking for a handout. This individual has done nothing to deserve your charity, but even though it’s not your standard practice, you decide to give him two one-dollar bills that you retrieve from the front of your wallet. He hasn’t done anything to merit your generosity – it’s undeserved, offered by you out of compassion and kindness.

However, suppose this beggar, rather than politely asking for some money, came toward you cursing and screaming, spitting in your face, and throwing mud on the nice clothes you’ve just purchased for the special evening out with your spouse or date. This person has given you nothing but insults and abuse, and yet you pull out your wallet and graciously offer the two dollars despite such uncalled-for, unacceptable behavior. That gift would not be undeserved. It would be ill-deserved, because if anything his actions merited a stern reaction or a quick call for a law enforcement officer.

In reality, regardless of whether we’re now ardent followers of Jesus Christ, nominal believers, or outspoken, vehement atheists, we’ve all essentially done that to Him in varying degrees and with different levels of “enthusiasm.”

It’s not a case of attempting to become “worthy,” or of “cleaning up our act.” The Bible makes that abundantly clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). And just in case we suspect something might have gotten lost or misinterpreted in the translation, another verse makes a similar declaration: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

While we might be tempted to apply those indictments to others, people whose behavior runs contrary to our values, God is essentially saying to each of us, “Hey, don’t look around. That includes you!” I’ve read through the Bible a number of times, and have yet to identify even a single exception to this rule.

We can read about Judas Iscariot horrifically betraying Jesus, or how the apostle Peter boldly denied Him three times on the eve of His crucifixion. But if we’re honest, we’ve each done so much more in our own unique ways. None of us is a stranger to such denial and betrayal.

And yet, the Lord stands before us with the incomprehensible offer of grace – not just undeserved, but completely ill-deserved. We’re like the brazen, 100-pound weakling kicking sand in the face of the hefty bodybuilder on the beach. We don’t deserve favor of any kind; in fact, what we’re rightly entitled to is wrath and harsh judgment.

As Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin (what we deserve) is death, but the gift of God (what is ill-deserved) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (parentheses mine). Maybe this is why the words and simple, yet profound message of “Amazing Grace” resonate so deeply for many of us. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What's Not to Like About Being Liked?

It might not be universal, but a deep-seated desire most of us share is to be liked. If we can’t be loved by everyone, wouldn’t it be great at least to have everyone like us?

Did you envy the person voted “Most Popular” in your high school yearbook? Or maybe that individual was you. If it was, how did that feel? I can’t imagine, but it must have been nice.

In 1984, actress Sally Field discovered
her peers really, really liked her.
Sally Field summed it up for many of us in 1984, upon winning a best actress Academy Award for her role in the film, “Places in the Heart.” Her iconic acceptance speech featured the memorable declaration, “…and I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”

Don’t we all wish we could say that? We certainly try hard enough.

We worry about whether people will like what we wear – at work, at school, to ballgames, even to church. We fret over how people will respond to the free food we serve them at a dinner party or picnic. We agonize over whether we’re sending our kids to the right school and what people will say. We wonder what people will think if they see us doing certain things or going to certain places. We want people to think well of us – to like us, just like Sally Field.

But being liked by one and all isn’t easy these days. In fact, it’s downright impossible. As politically correct as our society has become, we’re inclined to hesitate even before stating something as simple as "the sky is blue," for fear someone might take offense. There’s no way to have everyone agree with us, much less like us without reservation.

That’s not to say we should go out of our way to make people dislike us; some of them will do it without our help. If we take a stand on anything, whether it’s about politics, sports, morality, TV shows, matters of faith, even the brand of detergent we use, we’re sure to find folks that will vehemently disagree.

On the other hand, what’s there to like about someone that insists on being noncommittal about everything? As someone has said, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

There’s actually a positive to not being liked by every single person we meet. During His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus cited four “woes” or warnings about when things seem to be going too well. Definitely no stranger to opposition, Jesus told His followers, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

He was offering the caution that if our primary aim is likeability, we’ll find ourselves hopelessly entrenched in compromise, striving to be people-pleasers rather than God-pleasers. It can’t work both ways.

Proverbs 27:21 presents an interesting observation: “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives.” Just as silver and gold are refined by extreme heat, the quality of our character is revealed by how we respond to what others say and think of us. There’s danger if the motivation behind what we do and say is to receive the approval and acceptance of others.

The esteemed religious leaders of Jesus’ day were subjects of this scathing commentary: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in Him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:42-43).

Yes, it’s agreeable to feel liked by people around us. Sure beats being disliked or hated. But there’s value in approaching everyday life as if “playing to an audience of One.” Then we can anticipate one day hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21-23).