Monday, January 30, 2017

What’s Wrong with Being Good?

As a society, we seem fascinated with being good. We call infants that aren’t too fussy “good babies.” A well-behaved canine is known as a “good dog.” When people pass from this life, we like to describe them as a “good man” or “good woman.” We often refer to pro athletes that bounce from one team to another, as “good players.” So, being good is a good thing, right?

Isn't "good" good enough?
It is unless we have the choice between being good – and being great. In his classic book on business, Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses an extensive study comparing companies that were “good,” in terms of results produced over time, with companies that consistently achieved “great” performance for at least 15 years. His opening statement sums up his conclusion: “Good is the enemy of great.”

Without going into the factors he describes that transformed companies from good to great, Collins says, “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just too easy to settle for a good life.” And therein lies the problem, the tendency to “settle” rather than strive for more than just good.

Oswald Chambers, in his devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest, takes a similar view. He states, “good is the enemy of the best.” However, he offers this idea in another context. There are many good things we can get involved with in life, Chambers observes, things that can consume our time, energy and resources. However, these can compete with the “best” things we could do, activities and pursuits we’re uniquely qualified, gifted – and even called – to pursue.

Whether we’re doing a job, running a company, parenting, or determining how to experience meaningful lives, the ability to distinguish good from great, or good from best, could make the difference in whether we experience life at its most fulfilling and rewarding.

Why is this important for followers of Jesus Christ? Because in knowing we’ve been made in the image of God, part of our universal calling is to reflect His character, including the excellence with which He created and orders everything around us. At the end of the creation account, the Lord inspected everything He made, “and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). He didn’t say it was just “okay,” or “not too bad,” but very good.

Similarly, in serving the Lord, we’re not to “settle” for less than the best we can do. As the apostle Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” For emphasis, Paul restates this in another letter: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

In His parable of the talents, Jesus described how different servants chose to put into use the talents their master had entrusted to them. Of the servants who had used those resources wisely, Jesus said their master commended them with, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things…” (Matthew 25:23).

We’re unique, not only in our abilities but also in the gifts God has entrusted to us. The gifts I have and the calling God has given me probably doesn’t match your gifts and calling. So how we use our abilities and exercise our gifts, striving for excellence and choosing the best, rather than the merely “good,” will look different from one person to the next.

The key is found in found in Ecclesiastes 9:10, which tells us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” If we’re spending considerable time, effort and resources in doing something we can’t give our very best – if “good” is the best we can do rather than “great” – then maybe we need to re-evaluate our commitment to it. If we’re not convinced we can do something for the glory of God, maybe it’s time to redirect our efforts, concentrating on pursuits where we can see God clearly at work through us.

Good is good, except when it keeps us from the best, or from being great at whatever we do.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Taking Things Too Seriously?

Crossing a pond in New York City's Central Park in a rowboat may be
relaxing, but if riders wish to stay dry, they take their boats seriously.
Life has a way of returning things to the right perspective. Our team loses in the championship, souring our mood for days. An appliance breaks down, or a stopped-up drain refuses to get unclogged, and we feel like our world is turned upside-down until it’s fixed. Then we hear about a much-loved family whose little boy’s severe health issues leave the medical experts scratching their heads. Or a young mother who’s been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.

Suddenly our “pressing” problems don’t seem so overwhelming. Amazing what a little dose of everyday life can do to remind us about what’s really important – and what’s not. Maybe we were taking a ball game’s outcome, or a balky sink drain, too seriously.

I was reminded of this recently when a friend was told, “You take this Jesus stuff too seriously.” For many people, that’s their view. And they’re entitled to it. For those who follow Christ, who understand who He truly is, what He did, and what He offers, I don’t think we can ever take Him “too seriously.” On a list of what’s most important in life, He’s at the top.

Let’s try an analogy: Consider the family and the little boy with the rare disease having no remedy, at least for now. What if, somehow, you stumbled across a cure for the malady. (Suspend your disbelief for a moment, okay?) Would it be right to simply let the family continue to follow their prescribed course of treatment, which is having no positive effect, when you know what could cure the child? The same goes for the mom pondering who will care for her children after she’s gone.

We’d be regarded as cruel, inhumane, or even worse to not tell victims of devastating physical ailments if proven treatment could be provided. We can’t force people to take advantage of the cure, just as a doctor advising a patient to lose weight, stop smoking, drink less, or start exercising can require the patient to do as she advises. But if we knew there was a surefire answer, a solution to what ails someone, then who in their right mind would say, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose on them the remedy I’ve found”?

The reason followers of Jesus can’t – and shouldn’t – take Jesus “too seriously” is because of a dreaded, 100% lethal disease that afflicts all of humankind. The Bible calls it “sin.” A spiritual disease, its symptoms are seen throughout society and around the world in so many ways. Terrorism, murder, corruption, greed, hatred, prejudice, jealousy, malice, and various forms of violence and abuse are some examples. Individually we might not have committed all of these wrongs, but sin is universal: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

To make matters even worse, there’s a consequence for sin that each of us face: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). No exceptions or exclusions, according to the Scriptures.

However, the Bible also teaches there is a cure for this all-inclusive spiritual malady, but only one. It’s Jesus Christ, who declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). He said He was THE way, not one among a plethora of possibilities.

Until the 1950s, polio was a devastating, crippling disease. Then Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that saved countless millions from contracting it. It became – and remains – the one way to avoid polio. Wise people didn’t argue, “Well, I don’t want that way. I’ll wait for another option.”

As with Salk’s vaccine, the Bible teaches that in matters of forgiveness of sins, the opportunity to become “born again” into a new life spiritually, and to be assured of life after death, there is but one way. “Just as man is appointed to die once, and after that to face judgment, so also Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him…” (Hebrews 9:27-28).

Much more could be said, but one other truth underscores why we shouldn’t worry about taking Jesus more seriously than warranted. The Bible states one day everyone will finally know for certain who He is when, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). As I understand it, some with bow with overwhelming gratitude, adoration, awe and humility. Sadly, others will also bow – but in terror, suddenly realizing the dreadful, eternal consequences of having refused the only cure for their sins.

That’s why those of us who have found the cure, Jesus, have the responsibility and obligation to share it, letting others know it’s available. We can’t take disease, physical or spiritual, "too seriously."

Monday, January 23, 2017

CTRL + ALT + DELETE for Everyday Life

Recently I came across a computer-related thought from a friend. It gave me the germ of an idea, so I decided to pass it along. (No worries – it’s a good germ.)

The procedure differs for PCs and Macs, but we all
need to 'Force Quit' from time to time.
Are you familiar with CTRL+ALT+DELETE? If you use a PC, you probably know this combination of keys will “Force Quit” programs that freeze up and become inoperable. Some things are good frozen – like ice cream, popsicles, snow and ice rinks. But computer programs? Nope. So, if you’re on a PC and get stuck in the middle of something you’re working on, it’s CTRL+ALT+DELETE to the rescue.

Sometimes life is like that. We get stuck, can’t make any progress – even start to regress – and realize it might be time to “Force Quit” to get things moving again. Except everyday life doesn’t allow for us to hit CTRL+ALT+DELETE. Or does it?

Expanding on a few points from my friend, maybe we can adapt “Force Quit” protocol for getting our lives righted when things seem upside-down. Here are some suggested steps, along with supportive insights from the Scriptures:

1. Control yourself. There’s much in life we can’t control. It just comes at us, whether we’re ready for it or not. But we can take responsibility for our thoughts and actions – having free will, we can think and do as we choose. For instance, Romans 6:11 declares, “…count (consider, reckon) yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” And Romans 12:2 instructs, Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We can’t control much – except ourselves.

2. Look for Alternative solutions. Remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, who went around telling people, “The devil made me do it”? The Scriptures teach the devil can certainly suggest and entice, but can’t make followers of Jesus submit to sinful impulses. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). The way out – the way of escape – is always the best alternative.

3. Delete situations you shouldn't be in. If we find ourselves in a dangerous environment, about to get caught up in circumstances that would threaten our principles and values, or even realize relationships are dragging us in an undesirable direction, the best course of action is probably to leave – eliminate negative influences trying to pull us down. Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). In another letter to his young protégé, the apostle Paul warned him on matters such as false teaching and avoiding greed, urging him instead to strive for contentment. Paul advised, “flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11).

There’s one more step that frequently works with computers – and could help in realigning our lives as well: Refresh. Sometimes all that’s needed is to shut down briefly, maybe for a few minutes, an hour, or even a day or two. Step back, re-evaluate, and make a fresh start. “Repent, then, and turn back, that your sins may be wiped away, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:20). Even if we don’t believe we’ve fallen into wrongdoing, calling a “timeout” could be the wisest course of action: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).

In our impatience, along with the headstrong conviction that “I can do this!”, being still and waiting patiently might be the last thing we’re inclined to do. That’s true for me. But at times in Jesus’ earthly ministry, He would withdraw to pray, and temporarily escape the clamor and demands confronting Him. If even Jesus needed to take a break once in a while, it certainly must be good enough for us.

Are you feeling stuck, or thinking things are going awry? It might be time to hit the CTRL+ALT+DELETE keys in your life – and if needed, Refresh.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Forgiveness: More Blessed to Receive Than to Give?

A mean-spirited country bumpkin was asked, “Do you have a grudge?” “Heck, no,” he replied in a huff. “Ah jest put mah truck in the front yard like everybody else.” Well, many of us do have a grudge – just not the kind this fellow had in mind. We harbor grudges about many things, ranging from hurtful words people have said, to not receiving thanks for a kind act, to an unresolved family dispute.

Unfortunately, there’s only one way of getting rid of grudges: Forgive. But to do so, it often seems, is like knowing someone who’s sick, then swallowing the nasty-tasting medicine for them.

We’re told, “forgive and forget,” but much of the time it’s difficult to do either. Forgiving is hard, especially when the offender hasn’t apologized or shown remorse. To forgive in effect would mean letting someone off the hook for doing or saying something wrong without making amends. Instead, we decide never to forget the harm they’ve done to us.

On the other hand, if we’ve inflicted harm upon someone else – whether a minor slight or a serious, selfish act – we believe our apologies should be readily accepted, without repercussions. Isn’t “I’m sorry” good enough?

One of the great thinkers of the mid-20th century was C.S. Lewis, whose profound conclusions about matters of faith still resonate powerfully in this century. Lewis observed, “Everyone thinks that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until he has something to forgive.” Forgiveness, it would seem, is more blessed to receive than to give.

But should it be that way, especially for followers of Jesus? In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus presented a vivid picture of what forgiveness should look like. Dismissing the “eye for an eye” philosophy, He stated, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…” (Matthew 5:38-40).

When His followers asked how they should pray, Jesus included these words as a guide: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Moments later He added, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Strong words.

In another passage, the apostle Paul also challenged unwillingness to let bygones be bygones: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Particularly penetrating is the phrase, “just as God in Christ has forgiven you.” If we truly understand the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, what it cost Him to make forgiveness available, harboring ill will toward others and refusing to forgive amounts to an act of rebellion.

This teaching is anchored in the biblical concept of grace – God’s unmerited and unconditional favor. Grace strikes us as an alien concept, since we so rarely experience it in everyday life. Author Max Lucado, in his book, Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine, describes it: “Grace is not blind. It sees the hurt full well. But grace chooses to see God’s forgiveness even more. It refuses to let hurts poison the heart…. Where grace is lacking, bitterness abounds. Where grace abounds, forgiveness grows.”

We have two strong motivations for forgiving others: First, because of what God in Christ has done for us. If we can comprehend how much God has forgiven us, how can we not forgive others, no matter what they have done?

Second, failure to forgive “poisons the heart,” as Lucado writes. Hebrews 12:14-15 speaks of a “root of bitterness” that acts like an emotional cancer that destroys from within: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Regardless of the circumstances, forgiveness can prove to be more blessed to give than to receive, because the giving provides access to peace and release from a lifetime of bitterness