Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is Happiness God’s Desire for Us?

From time to time we hear people say things like, “I know God wants me to be happy.” Some TV preachers make similar statements, declaring with broad smiles that since we’re God’s children, He wants us to be happy, frequently interpreted to mean we can have and do anything we want.

But is happiness really God’s primary goal and desire for us?

This came to mind while reading the online journal of a friend who has waged a lifelong battle with Cystic Fibrosis, a debilitating, genetic disorder that affects the lungs primarily but also other organs. There is no cure for CF, and it’s one of the most widespread life-shortening genetic diseases around the world.

David, who has far exceeded doctors’ projections for his lifespan, often speaks about the joy of the struggle he and his family have experienced. It’s noteworthy, however, that he rarely uses the words “happy” or “happiness.” Because the difference between joy and happiness is almost as dramatic as night and day.

Much of what David’s had to endure in his treatments have not made him, his wife or children happy. Despite all that hardship – and there’s been a lot of it – they have never lost their joy.

Joy, especially for followers of Christ, comes from within. It involves emotion, but is based more on enduring faith and trust in God rather than external events. It can enable us to experience peace and comfort even in the midst of severe difficulties. That’s why we’re exhorted to, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

Happiness, however, is largely predicated on happenings. I can feel happy about getting a new car, but if someone backs into it in the mall parking lot, my happiness suddenly disappears. If I receive a promotion and a sizable salary increase at work, I feel happy. But if I return home and discover major repairs are needed, consuming my pay raise and more, then as the Everly Brothers used to sing, “bye-bye happiness.”

So what does the Bible say about this? In some Bible translations the word “blessed” is translated “happy.” But this doesn’t describe a state of perpetual bliss. In fact, Psalm 94:12, which says, “Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law,” has also been translated, “Joyful are those you discipline” and “Lord, happy is the man you discipline….” How often do we feel happy when undergoing some form of discipline?

Another passage, Psalm 1:1, states, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” but also can be translated, How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked….” In many cases, the alternate uses of “blessed” and “happy” seem directly related to one’s willingness to obey and uphold God’s laws and standards.

This isn’t to say God is opposed to seeing us happy. He doesn’t frown when we listen to a comedian who provokes us to belly laughter. God’s not annoyed when we enjoy a nice vacation, get that hoped-for new job, earn good grades, or even receive an unexpected gift. He just wants us to maintain a proper perspective, recognizing life isn’t always happy – or fair.

As King Solomon wrote, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). The New Living Translation expresses it this way: “Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. Remember that nothing is certain in this life.”

If we make happiness our goal, we’re going to spend much of our lives very disappointed. Random forces around us usually don’t conspire to make us happy. But if our desire is to experience and exhibit the joy of the Lord, He promises us, “No problem. I can do that for you!”

Monday, April 25, 2016

Brain Power: Separate, or Shared?

One of the most profound statements I ever heard is, “Not one of us is as smart as all of us.” Ponder that for a moment.

Today we’re inclined to celebrate independence and individuality, and on the surface there’s nothing wrong with that. Every one of us is unique and there’s no reason we should be squeezed into someone else’s mold. However, we tend to ignore, overlook or underestimate the power of synergy, the collective impact of complementary gifts and talents, intelligence and different points of view.

I saw this demonstrated repeatedly during my years as a newspaper and magazine editor. Writers, editors, photographers and designers all contributed their parts for producing each publication – every time the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The finished product was always better than I could have imagined, especially if I had tried to do it all myself – or if only people with skill sets matching mine had been involved.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, apparently had found this to be true as well. He stated, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” I agree. Long ago I concluded I don’t know it all – although occasionally I might act as if I think otherwise. But it’s true. None of us knows it all, or even close. So I’ve been grateful for many opportunities to bounce ideas off others and get their perspectives, as well as reap some of the wisdom and experience of people who’ve wrestled with the same issues that I have.

A spiritual principle behind this can be traced to the beginnings of creation. When God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), He wasn’t referring just to companionship. Throughout the Scriptures we see people working in tandem. Some of the greatest failures recorded in the Bible involved people who determined to operate in isolation. Cain, who killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy, King Saul, and Judas Iscariot are just three case studies.

To avoid the often-tragic consequences of wrong thinking and poor decision-making in solitude, we’re encouraged to do as President Wilson suggested: “use all the brains…that I can borrow.” Proverbs 27:9 states it this way: Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.”

A bit later in the same chapter we find this principle presented from a slightly different angle: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). I’ve found this particularly important for spiritual growth – often called discipling, discipleship, or even mentoring.

Early in my life I struggled with trying to understand how to apply biblical teachings and integrate my faith into my everyday life, especially at work. Thankfully over the years I encountered many people who faithfully strived to follow Jesus’ admonition to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). They became living examples of faith in action.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus constantly surrounded Himself with other people, prompting many lively interactions. Then Barnabas was instrumental in the life of the apostle Paul after his conversion and during the early years of his spiritual growth and ministry. Paul wrote of how highly he valued not only camaraderie, but also mutual support and encouragement from other men like Silas, Timothy, and Epaphroditus.

He even commended John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin, whom at one time had been written off as being unworthy to be involved in the work of the Gospel. Later Paul welcomed Mark back into the fellowship. “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry”  (2 Timothy 4:11). This one-time outcast proceeded to become the author of the gospel of Mark.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul emphasized the importance of hanging out with like-minded people and passing along what was learned in the process: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”

So whether we’re collaborating with colleagues at work, undertaking a project at home or in the neighborhood, or trying to resolve a personal challenge, it’s wise to always remember that not one of us is as smart as all of us. It’s not a sin to pool brainpower.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Awesome Power of Seduction

Seduction. When you read the word, what comes to mind? According to Hollywood, it’s a beautiful, shapely woman eager to entice those that get a glimpse of her. Or a young, buff male flexing six-pack abs for adoring females. That’s one type of seduction, but there are many others – and most of them have nothing to do with sex.

The Bible talks a lot about seduction. It even devotes an entire chapter of Proverbs to the topic. In my book, Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace, I discuss the practicality, honesty and everyday relevance of the book of Proverbs. And chapter 7 of Proverbs gives an unflinching, down-to-earth look at “seduction.”

How to overcome seduction's magnetic power?
This chapter does utilize the sexual temptation scenario, giving the image of a young man (“a youth who lacked judgment”) walking very determinedly into a specific neighborhood where he encounters a woman “dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.” They meet, probably not by chance, and head off together.

The passage explains what happens next: “With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose…little knowing it will cost him his life” (Proverbs 7:21-23). How would you like to be described that way?

But the principle that underlies this passage concerns more than illicit sex. Because temptations present themselves in many seductive forms, and in our uniqueness, some are stronger magnets for us than others. For example, success can become a seductress when it becomes a mini-god, the focus of our time, attention, energy, even worship – especially when its pursuit harms relationships, or causes us to compromise convictions.

The lust for materials things, a sin our consumer society particularly favors, has seduced countless men and women, even within the body of Christ. It’s what causes us to insist on “more, more, more!” when an honest, objective assessment of our possessions would tell us we have more than enough. Money for its own sake offers powerful enticement, irresistible for some.

Pride, which C.S. Lewis declared lies at the heart of all sins, can be particularly seductive. It can seduce us into becoming puffed up over achievements, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. It tempts us to feel offended when someone doesn’t treat us the way we “deserve” to be treated. And it can lure us into feelings of superiority or arrogance toward others. There are many other ways the sin of unrestrained, self-centered pride approaches us in seductive guise.  

In any case, for something to be seductive, it has to be attractive. As someone pointed out to me years ago, “If sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t want to do it.”

Let’s concede we’re constant targets for seduction in one or more manifestations. How do we deal with this? The seventh chapter of Proverbs not only describes the power of seduction, but also proposes how to overcome it. And it’s not all that complicated: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call understanding your kinsman; they will keep you from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words” (Proverbs 7:4-5).

In seeking wisdom, we’ll be able to recognize temptation and its seductions for what they really are. Rather than yielding – using the cop-out excuses, “Well, nobody’s perfect” or “I’m only human” – the wisdom of God promises, “You do have a choice. You don’t have to give in to it. The seductress can’t ‘make’ you do anything.” She can suggest – but she can’t force.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Thinking About Light – and Darkness

Not long ago I saw the familiar car bumper sticker that says “Co-Exist,” comprised of various symbols including a peace sign, the Islamic crescent, the Star of David, and the cross. It’s an interesting mix and an appealing idea, kind of along the lines of “Why can’t we all just get along?”

In some respects there’s nothing wrong with that. We should be able to appreciate different viewpoints, and respect those having beliefs other than our own. If we associate with and listen only to people that reinforce our prejudices, how will we learn and grow? Times when people challenged what I believed have often proved to be opportunities to revisit my own convictions and ask myself, “Why do I believe that?” But in reality, some things simply can’t co-exist.

Even a tiny candle has the power
to cast away darkness. 
Take for example, light and darkness. Complete darkness ceases to exist even in the presence of a single lit candle. Turn on a bright overhead light and, like Elvis, darkness leaves the building. True darkness has no alternative but to cower in the presence of light.

Perhaps this is why, especially on topics of profound depth and strong conviction – including faith, religion and spirituality – the notion of totally opposite points of view “co-existing” is at best unlikely and, for all intents and purposes, impossible. I submit as an example two men, both of great intellect, highly educated, and from the same part of the world.

Stephen Hawking, an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist affiliated with the renowned University of Cambridge, and acclaimed author, has said, “There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either.” A declared atheist who believes science alone holds all the answers of the universe, Hawking has offered his opinion that, “Heaven is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Another Britisher, Dr. John Lennox, professor of mathematics at the equally esteemed University of Oxford, philosopher of science, and staunch defender of the Christian faith, posits an opposing view: “Atheism is a fairy story for those who are afraid of the light.” His view is that science and matters of faith need not – and should not – be regarded as mutually exclusive.

Even the most starry-eyed Pollyanna would be hard-pressed to reconcile such contradictory perspectives. Judging from their credentials, neither Hawking nor Lennox is lacking in intelligence, reasoning powers or educational pedigree. Yet they have reached totally different conclusions. So which one is right?

We might as well ask: which is right, light or darkness?

The Bible speaks a lot about both. Jesus, never one to hem or haw on important matters, was even bold enough to declare, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). A bit later He added, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should walk in darkness” (John 12:46). According to Jesus, light is a far better choice than darkness – and stated He was the one certain way for finding light that can’t be extinguished.

Elsewhere Jesus asserted He had no intention of keeping this light to Himself – and neither should we. In fact, He assured His followers, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden…. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

It’s interesting that our society seems committed to redefining what is light and what is darkness. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Thousands of years ago the prophet Isaiah warned, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).

Sadly, many in the media, the political realm, centers of so-called higher education, and in some cases, even churches, affirm a mantra that darkness is good, and therefore light should be avoided. This message appeals to what the Bible calls our “flesh” or “sinful nature,” and can be strongly seductive. So we have a choice. We can follow the path society directs, or heed the admonition of the apostle Paul: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). It’s a pivotal choice no one can make for us.

In doing so, we should keep in mind this assurance: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Running On ‘Empty’ Promises

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “running on empty”? If you’re driving down a highway, it’s probably not a good thing – especially if you’re miles from the nearest exit. There are also times when we feel we’re personally “running on empty,” depleted of our energy – physical, mental and emotional.

It might happen at work, when we’ve invested much time and effort and have reached the point where we feel we have nothing left to give. We try, but we’re running on empty. Maybe at home, where relationships with our spouse or kids are strained and we feel sapped, lacking resources to make necessary changes or repairs. To rid ourselves of this empty feeling might just call for something little: pausing for a short break, getting a cup of coffee or a snack to recharge, or taking a nap. Instant recharge. If we’re really feeling empty, however, it might be necessary to get away for a while to regroup. Empty – most of the time – isn’t a good place to be.

Recently, however, it came to my attention that running on “empty” isn’t always a bad thing. I must credit my friend, Len Allen, for pointing this out. Leading up to Easter, Len observed on his own blog that some of the most treasured icons of Christianity – the manger, the cross, and the tomb – are empty. Which prompted me to realize it could be said, in a sense, our faith in Jesus Christ is based on “empty” promises.

Stating it another way, we embrace the promises of the Bible because the manger, the cross and the tomb – each of which once held the person and body of Jesus – are empty. The tomb, to be specific, was vacated because it was no longer required.

We're in the midst of a raucous, rancorous, reprehensible Presidential election season. Everyone, Hillary and Bernie and Donald and Ted, are making promises. From experience we know that as with all campaigning, lots of promises being made will prove to be empty ones. They sound good at the time, but ultimately we’ll discover there was little will – or intent – to carry them out.

On the other hand, the “empty” promises of Christ can be embraced exactly because we're assured they will be fulfilled.

During the Christmas season we celebrate the birth of Jesus with the tender scene in the stable, the tiny Christ Child lying in a manger – a common feeding trough. But He didn’t remain there for long. As for the cross, some denominations use the crucifix as a symbol, showing Jesus still nailed to it. But His body was removed from it before sunset the same day. And most important of all, the tomb in which the body was placed turned out to be just borrowed. The morning of the third day, an angel addressed the grieving women who had gone to the tomb. He told them, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he is risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6).

The manger. The cross. The tomb. All empty.

Because of this – and the fact that Jesus was resurrected from death, the promises He made during his earthly life continue to be kept today. He declared, “I have come that they (those who believe) may have life, and have it to the full (abundantly)” (John 10:10). He declared, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14:15).

Jesus promised, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He assured His followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).

And regarding the meantime, Jesus vowed, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

During His time on earth, Jesus made many other promises, but if these were the only ones He made, wouldn’t they be enough? Think about it: A full, abundant life. A personal, first-name-basis relationship with the Shepherd. His continual presence with us spiritually. Full knowledge and understanding of the truth. And assurance of a special place for us after this life has ended.

Jesus, we could say, was kind of “old school.” Unlike today, when so many empty promises are eagerly and casually tossed out, soon to be forgotten, Jesus’ “empty promises” stand firm. His word is His bond.

The essence of Christianity amounts to “running on empty promises,” and despite growing cultural opposition, it remains running very strong.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Time to Hit the Reset Button?

With the relentless advance of our technological society, what would we ever do without the reset button?

Computers have a reset (or “restart”) button, handy for whenever they start acting erratically or decide to freeze up. In most cases we can “reset” and the computer’s running smoothly again. Twice a year, for Daylight Savings Time and Daylight Losing Time (better known as Standard Time), most of us reset our digital clocks, moving an hour forward or backward as the calendar ordains. And if you ever have to replace your car battery, it’s necessary to reset the programmed “presets” on the radio for your preferred stations. In each case, it’s like starting over.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reset button for life?

I was reminded of this while listening to a commentary on the prodigal son, a parable Jesus told in Luke 15. You might recall the story about a son demanding his inheritance from his father even though “dad” was still very much alive. Adding insult to injury, the son squandered his premature fortune on riotous, irresponsible living, ending up in his own personal “bay of pigs” long before anyone had ever heard of Cuba or a missile crisis.

Finally coming to his senses, the still-young man decided to return home, realizing he couldn’t possibly expect to be restored to his family. But even taking on the role of a household servant would be a vast improvement over wallowing with the hogs.

Jesus’ story takes an unexpected turn, however, when instead of being angry or vindictive, the father runs – ignoring the social norm of the day – and welcomes his long-lost son, forgiving his previous ingratitude and disrespect. He even declared an impromptu party for celebrating the prodigal’s return. In a lavish demonstration of unconditional, undeserved love, the father was letting his son hit the “reset” button of his life.

Have you ever wished you could hit “reset” for wherever you are in your own life – to make a fresh start and repair a damaged relationship, redirect a struggling or unfulfilling career, undo unwise financial investments, or revisit poor personal choices that proved disastrous?

The amazing thing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is He does just that. He provide the way to reset our lives, being able to make a fresh start. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”

This doesn’t mean our past is erased. Sometimes the consequences of bad decisions remain. But we’re given the opportunity to experience a new and very different present and future if we desire that. It’s a wonderful truth and promise, even though it takes a lifetime to grasp it fully and experience it by faith.

We see this assurance repeatedly in the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New. In Isaiah 43:18-19, God declares, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

So the next time you find yourself wishing you could hit the “reset” button in your life, reflect on these and other assurances of new life in Christ we find in the Bible. As another translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, Old things have disappeared, and – look! – all things have become new!”

What if we really believed this – and acted upon it? What difference could it make? Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

No Manure – No Mess – No Milk

It’s seems we’re increasingly living in society where people want everything pain-free, strain-free, maybe even brain-free. They want rewards without commensurate effort, results without having to experience any difficulties. If we were dairy farmers, our motto might be, “We want the milk without the manure.”

Alas, that’s not how life works. We don’t become physically fit by sitting in a recliner watching exercise videos. We don’t excel in school and get smarter without the hard work of reading, studying – and thinking. We can’t experience the joys of parenthood without putting up with dirty diapers, messy rooms, unanticipated expenses, and the variety of maladies kids acquire. And we can’t succeed in our careers without experiencing setbacks, disappointments, and if necessary, investing longer hours on the job than we’d like.

My friend, Mike Landry, recently published a book, Advancing Through Adversity: Turning the Worst of Times into the Best of Times, in which he details the struggles he and his family endured over an 18-month period after he was wrongfully sued by a company he had started. Even though he didn’t want this adversity, Mike discovered it would become an excellent teacher, providing important, life-changing lessons he couldn’t have learned in any other way.

He writes, “During tough times, most of us pray for a way out, or plead for our troubles to end. We want answers, resolution, or healing…. If all we do is focus on the given situation or the other people who are involved, concentrating on fixing it or getting through it, we could miss how God wants us to use the circumstances to teach and change us.”

Mike’s right. So often when confronted with difficult problems, all we want is to “fix it” or to “get through it.” But as I’ve found repeatedly throughout my life and career, we gain the most while in the midst of confounding challenges. Adversity can teach much about patience, perseverance, humility, coping with disappointment, compassion, and, perhaps most important, it serves as a wonderful resource for testing and strengthening our faith.

This truth is revisited frequently in the Scriptures, including Proverbs 14:4 which points out, “Where no oxen are, the trough is clean; but much increase comes from the strength of an ox.” Stating it in other terms, without the manure – putting up with the mess – we can’t have any milk.

Another friend, Ted Sprague, casually cited this verse years ago in Atlanta, Ga. during a crucial civic planning meeting that had taken a decidedly negative turn. After he quoted a paraphrase of the passage, “Where no oxen are the stables are clean,” the room fell silent for a few minutes. Then someone responded, “You know, Ted’s right!” The tone of the meeting instantly shifted, taking on a much more positive focus, and important decisions made then influenced the course of the city for many years afterward.

There were problems to be faced, but the benefits from being willing to confront those difficulties far outweighed the drawbacks. That’s why today a plaque behind Ted’s desk quotes the verse along with a concluding statement, “There’s a price to accomplishment.”

The apostle Paul, who knew adversity as an almost constant companion, wrote, “we also glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Not to be outdone, another apostle, James, urged his fellow believers to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).

If we never had to wait expectantly for something, we’d have no need to be patient. If we didn’t have to deal with struggles, we’d have no need for perseverance. But when we face hardships through the eyes of trusting faith, confident God is with us and using them to mold us into the people He wants us to be, we can indeed “glory in tribulation.” We can “count it all joy,” even when we never would have asked for the circumstances that beset us.

Yet another friend from years ago, Dr. Gerald Durley, encountered racism as a young African-American coming to the South for the first time. The mistreatment he experienced was undeniable and unforgettable. Nevertheless, years later he could look back upon the pain of prejudice and rejection, recognizing how God had used it to shape his character and equip him for a fruitful career later in life. And he could say, with all sincerity, “Thank you for adversity.”

The moral we can take from this is simple: If we keep foremost in our minds that without the manure we’ll never be able to enjoy the milk, we can join Mike and Ted and Jerry in the paradox of gratitude, declaring, “Thank you, God, for adversity!”