Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What Hinders the Giving of Grace?

I believe that one of the most important, ongoing lessons in my walk with God has been learning to be a giver of grace. The definition of grace is "the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings." Some synonyms used to clarify grace are dignify, distinguish, honor, favor, enhance, and glorify. The Bible says Jesus was full of both grace and truth and that from His fullness we have received grace upon grace. To be a believer is to be a recipient of endless grace and to be like Jesus is to be a giver of such grace.

Just by its definition we know that grace can't be earned. It is something that we are freely given and it is something we are to freely give. Grace can take on all sorts of forms. It can look like a gentle confrontation, especially when we are tempted to be harsh. An example of this might be the spouse who is struggling behaves in a hurtful manner. A wife can choose to confront harshly, or she can choose to not personalize her husband's actions and gently point out his behavior, asking him if everything is okay. Grace may be confronting a hurtful pattern of sin in a loving way that includes a declaration of love and commitment. Grace may also look like the extension of forgiveness for a wrong done, hurtful words spoken, or a contemptuous attitude. None of us deserves grace when we mistreat one another, but it something that Christ has shown us and something He calls us to do as well. Grace can also look like choosing to blessing another with kind words and encouragement, comforting another in loss, and choosing to honor someone because of the position God has bestowed on them. Blessing often helps to bestow the dignity, the honor, and the favor that has been stripped by living in a broken, sin-filled world neglect, strife, and hate are rampant.

I've been doing some soul searching and realized there are several things that hinder my  ability to give grace. The first one is that in emotional moments I just forget. I forget who I was before I trusted Christ as my Savior. I forget His shed blood that purchased my salvation. I forget who He says I am now. When I get hurt, I tend to focus on the pain I'm experiencing and the truth fades to the background and I tend to react instead of being proactive, prayerful, and thoughtful in my responses to life and to people. When I feel anger surfacing, I find myself filling with shame and respond to this shame in a couple of different ways. Sometimes I respond by hiding, which hinders the giving of grace because grace can only be experienced and given in the context of relationship. At other times anger stirs my human pride and I begin to ruminate on the wrong another has done and believe I deserve better. This is when I tend to act out of who I was before Jesus saved me and  I lash out and wound the one who is wounding me. When I forget or let my human pride rule, the other person's offense grows exponentially in my mind until it consumes me. On the other hand, when I remember all those sins I have sinned--the ugly thoughts, the thoughtless words, the rude behaviors, the withdrawing of my heart from others, the unbelief, the mistrust, and the hurtful defense mechanisms that ruled my life for so long--the other person's sin shrinks by comparison and God's grace is what grows big enough in my heart to give away and grace begets grace. 

Another hindrance to giving grace is the strong desire I have to protect my heart from more pain. I went through some things earlier in life that left me deeply wounded. At the time, I didn't know how to deal with the pain of those things so I buried it. Every time someone did something even a little bit hurtful this great big pain would surface along with the new pain. I even got to a place I believed I couldn't survive the experience of any more pain. So I isolated and distanced myself from others who hurt me. I ruminated on the offenses, held grudges, and hid behind a wall of anger I turned inward until I at some point it would explosively spew all over those I cared about. After I worked on those early wounds, I found I could feel the pain of the present which occurs in ordinary relationships and move past it so I could be a giver of grace.

Another hindrance I found was that in the busyness of life and the disconnection that comes with  technology it is easy for me to reduce a person to nothing but the behavior I see. Not knowing someone's heart, not knowing their story, not knowing their pain, and not knowing their desires makes it so easy to judge someone as the sum total of their actions. But when I really know someone I can find it easier in my heart to have compassion on the person who has been unkind. When I know their struggle, I can offer support. When I know their hurting heart, I can be tender. When I know they are repentant, I can be more patient as they are transformed and learn to live out of the person God has created them to be. When I know and accept that I am just as broken as they, I can be and less judgmental and give grace. 

Finally, another thing that hinders my ability to extend grace is not spending enough time with God in my every day life. When I spend time in His Word and read the stories of others who walked with Him before me, it is like looking in a mirror and having a reminder of my failures, my weakness, and my redemption. I am also reminded how deeply God loves and can quit trying to extract perfect love from imperfect people. I am reminded of the grace required at my salvation and the grace that every other person craves to experience. As I read familiar stories, I am reminded of loving people who  have extended grace to me and impacted my life in huge big ways--the pastors who taught me grace and answered Bible questions tirelessly, my Aunt Earline who lived in such a way I wanted the Jesus she had, the spiritual mom who loved me unconditionally and spoke truth into my life as she  tirelessly shared her life with me and my friends, my friend who wrote me my first encouragement note telling me how beautifully she thought God had created me, the friends who have searched the Scriptures with me and showed me Jesus with skin on, my friend who encouraged me to write and to start the next book and the next, the Christian counselors who heard my story and let me talked through the pain and challenged me to let Jesus define me instead of the past, the daughter who encouraged me to do what God calls me to do and not to listen to the naysayers who didn't believe God was big enough to do the work He does through me, and my young friend who often reminds me that I am not invisible--these and many more are the graces of which the Lord has showered me. So often as I read the Word, I remember conversations with them centered around the verses I am reading and it brings joy to my heart. Walking closely with the Giver of Grace allows us to be a free-flowing conduits of the very Grace He has given us.  Grace received and grace given is the way dignity, honor, favor, and glory is bestowed on people who were disgraced and marred by sin.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

This Thing We Call Joy

"Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
Hebrews 12:2 

I 've had a few friends that are what call joyful souls. I envy them a bit because they wake up happy and remain that way most of the day. If something uncomfortable or hurtful  happens, they seem to recover quickly and return to joy with out much ado. Their thoughts are usually on the positive side. But this girl isn't like them. I wake up so slowly that when I first got married, my husband often asked me if I was upset about something. Over the years I learned to wake up earlier than everyone so I could have coffee, spend time with the Lord, and go for a walk so I was capable of smiling and conversing when my family woke up. 

Several years ago I realized every winter I was finding it harder and harder to get up and was experiencing less and less joy. Eventually I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The treatment is to simply sit in front of a full spectrum light for a period of time each day during the winter months. I hadn't realized how much the light  helps until my light burned out. Before I knew it, I was feeling gloomy and struggling  with negative thoughts that kept running through my head. It took so much work to find joy. I knew the light would help so I ordered another one and took steps to manage my mood as I waited for it to arrive. I chose to quit shaming myself for the struggle and embraced the way God made me, even though it included a brain needing extra light to function normally. I chose to rest adequately, eat healthier, and counter negative thoughts with the truth. In essence, I chose to be kind and gracious with myself. When the light arrived and my mood lightened, I realized how hard I had to work to find joy. My time without the light reminded me that depression isn't just the  experience of sadness or grief or having a "bad" day. It is a change in brain chemistry that impacts emotions, energy level, and thought processes, making it difficult to find joy in one's every day life.   

Because I experienced SAD this year, I found myself pondering this thing we call joy. Joy is defined as great happiness and pleasure, especially of a spiritual kind. I looked up some verses that speak of joy. Many of the verses were in relationship to military victories that Israel had over other nations. They were so joyful that people wrote songs to commemorate battles won and they sang as they danced in celebration, praising God for the victories He gave.

King David spoke of joy in the Psalms in relationship to knowing God and the knowledge that He is in control even during difficult seasons of life. When he poured out his heart to God, He spoke of joy of abiding in God, resting beneath His wings, knowing His word, and being blessed by Him. He spoke of the joy that comes in the morning during hard times.

Not all joy was centered around exciting things like winning battles. Hebrews 10:34  says  Hebrew believers found joy even when their property was plundered because they knew they have a better possession stored up for them. Even James tells us to count it all joy when we face various trials. Maybe James gave this advice because he understood people would be able to understand the love and sacrifice of Jesus through suffering they endured. Maybe he knew they would be able to see God work in and though them as they navigated difficult times and believe me the early church went through all sorts of growing pains, persecution and hardship. He may have also known that treasures are found in faithfully navigating the hard--treasures like special knowledge of God and His plans, a deeper understanding of spiritual matters, and a deeper intimacy that results when people walk with Him through difficult, painful times.

The verse that has helped me the most over the years when I have needed to fight for joy is the verse at the top of the blog. Jesus was even able to find joy when He was facing the end of His life. That sounds simplistic and like one of those religious platitudes we all hate having thrown at us when we are suffering. But, if we think of all that He faced during His final days it isn't simplistic at all. He was rejected and hated by the religious leaders of His day. He was often misunderstood by the crowds and when He went to the Garden to pray, He took three of the disciples that He was closest to. Even after telling them He felt so much sorrow He felt like dying they kept falling asleep as He prayed. I can't imagine feeling any more alone than that. The Bible also tells us Jesus experienced so much anguish that His sweat was tinged with blood. Then when He was arrested, it was based on false charges as he was betrayed and deserted by his disciples. The trials he endured in the middle of the night were illegal and not based on truth. The crowds he had preached to chanted for His death, He was beaten, disrobed, and crowned with a crown made of thorns and cruelly nailed to a cross. As God, He knew what He was facing. Yet, we are told for the joy set before Him He chose to lay down His life for us. I am sure that He found joy in being obedient to God and to be once again at the right hand of His Father. But I also think that a part of the joy He saw before Him was the joy of presenting His bride--the church--to His Father. He purchased us out of the slave market of sin with His own blood and in doing so He reconciled us to God by faith.

So, what can we learn from all of this? First, when their is a spiritual victory, we should celebrate big! We can sing songs welling up with in our hearts and dance like nobody is looking as we praise God for His goodness. I remember one youth pastor that literally ran out of a room full of students and did cartwheels and summersaults and shouted for joy because some of the students accepted Christ. I can't help but think we should all respond in the same way when someone comes to know Jesus and is translated from the Kingdom of Darkness in to God's glorious Kingdom of Light, is baptized to show their commitment to follow Him, resists a besetting sin, is emotionally healed, answers the calling God has made on their his life, or when someone gives testimony to the activity of God in their lives.

Second, we can choose to live with an eternal perspective like those who joyfully accepted the news their land had been plundered. Not getting a dream home pales when we think of the place that Jesus, Himself, is preparing for us. The fickle human love doesn't bother us so much when we keep in mind the deep, sacrificial love of God. The sorrow we face in this life doesn't compare to the joy we will face when we at last see Jesus. Our perspective during tough  times is drastically changed when we remember this world--this life isn't all there is. We have eternity to look forward to--eternity where love never fails and where there is no more sorrow, no more death, no more illness, no more sin, and no more pain.

Finally, there seems to be a lasting joy that comes from obeying God when it is difficult to do. Others may criticize us, dislike us, and persecute us, but if we know we've obeyed Him in the hard and have suffered well, we are graced with His joy--a joy that is not the fleeting joy that comes with happy circumstances, but a long lasting joy, knowing we have honored and glorified our King. That is a joy no one can steal. This thing we call joy is our gift to claim and at times may have to fight to keep, but it will always be found when living with an eye on eternity.    

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Struggling to Love Well

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful,
it does not rejoice at wrong doing, but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
hope all things, endures all things. Love never ends."
1Corinthians 13:4-8a  
Love is a concept that is hard to express. Because of this the Greek Language had many words used to describe different kinds of love. One word was used for sexual love, one for friendship, one for relational comfort, and still another for sacrificial love. As I have shared before, I realized years ago that I didn't know how to love God with all of my heart, mind, and soul and I was frustrated at my inability to love people well. I wanted to love, but fear, self-centeredness, self-protection, and a lack of compassion seemed to get in the way.

As I studied the Scriptures pertaining to love, God reminded me of the verse that says we love because He first loved us. I realized then that it is God who fills our empty hearts with love and enables us to love well. Before I understood this, I had spent a lot of time trying to earn love from people as well as God, not realizing Christ had already demonstrated God's love to me through Christ's death. The love I was so desperately trying to earn and trying to muster up to give away was something I already possessed. I had stronghold that caused me to believe I was unloved. It's sad that I didn't enjoy His love simply because of my own unbelief.  

I realized to love God and others I had to first believe God's love for me was real, tangible,  and  personal. As I spend time in His word, I am filled with His love and I am able to love others better. Sometimes I mistakenly think I am getting this love thing down and then God has me spend time with a group of people, which then reveals how far I still have to go to consistently love as He loves. Sometimes it's a ministry opportunity that He gives me and I find myself sitting across from a woman telling her story. As an outsider, it's easy to see how she hurts herself by believing lies and making the choices she makes. Sometimes, I get glimpses of how she is also hurting her family and I can find myself getting impatient and angry with her. I realize there is a righteous anger, but it doesn't take much for a judgmental spirit to meld righteous anger into unholy disdain. If I allow that to happen because I fail to stay connected to God, the love the lady desperately needs to experience is unavailable, the grace she needs to be bathed in is overshadowed by harshness, and the truth she needs to discover sure isn't flowing from  my mouth.

I think many of us experience this struggle with loving well during the holidays as we spend time with extended family.  We so often find it easier to be loving towards friends than towards family.  There are several reasons for this. First, maybe it's because we think we know each other better than we do. The reality is we are all individuals with differing personalities and experiences. In addition, the longer we've been apart from family new experiences and new people have continued to mold us individually, some positively and some negatively.

Second, we often have unfinished emotional business from the past and we tend to view each other through lenses that we developed growing up. We have a hard time seeing things as they actually are.
Our views are tainted by what we already believe.

Third, most of us didn't learn to set boundaries in families of origin and we allow each other get away with disrespectful and rude behavior. We know full well we would not treat co-workers or friends the way we treat family members; nor, would we judge friends as harshly as we do siblings. Most of us as kids weren't taught to handle conflict respectfully and because of this there are often deep wounds unhealed. Most of us weren't allowed to confront rude or wounding behaviors and if we tried to address such things we were told to suck it up, to forgive, or to quit being so sensitive. Now either shame or pride keeps us from having healing conversations, talking about pain that is being currently inflicted, and wanting to look more together than we really are.  

I, for one, often come out of the holidays with a heavy heart because I know I didn't love as well as I wanted to. I experienced and expressed impatience and frustration. I didn't speak the truth as lovingly as I desired. I participated in unkind gossip. I know the disappoint I feel is because I use the Scripture as a bar to measure how well I love. God describes love with some "is's," some "is not's." some "does not's," and some "does." As the verse above states: Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious. Love is not boastful. Love is not arrogant. Love is not rude. Love is not irritable. Love is not resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrong doing. Love does rejoice with truth. Love does bear all things. Love does hope all things. Love does endure all things. Love does not end...mmmm....sounds a lot like the way Jesus loves.

I know during the holidays there were times my lack of love was obvious because it came out in impatient or harsh words. It came out in my actions when I left the room to keep from spouting angry words or made sarcastic statements followed by a laugh to make it look like a joke. It came out in my lack of attention when someone was speaking to me. There were other times my lack of love may have been invisible to others, but believe me I was wrestling with it in my heart, which is impatience, arrogance, irritability, and resentful thoughts masked behind a smile.

There is a fleshly part of me that simply wants to avoid big family functions and some ministry events to avoid the guilt and shame that comes from loving so poorly. But the Word says, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I am nothing." This tells me that the books I've written, the sacrifices I've made, the money and gifts given are all nothing if I don't choose to love well. The truth is that it is impossible to learn to love well by isolating. I have to rub shoulders with others in order for my sinful and unloving ways to be exposed, confessed, and changed. But, so often instead of embracing exposure, I find myself wanting to blame others. I find myself wanting to criticize instead of dealing with my impatience, unkindness, envy, arrogance, and resentment. I find myself wanting to point out others' flaws instead of dealing with the my own blaring flaws revealed by interactions. I confess I sometimes want to walk away instead of facing the truth of how little it takes to not be willing to bear with another or give up the hope that a relationships can change, grow, or flourish with a bit of humility and work on my part. I am a person who desires quick fixes and instant gratification, but the truth is in this broken world relationships aren't easy because they are laden with emotional baggage and hot buttons easily pushed. It isn't easy for me who wants control so I can protect my heart, preserve my pride, and deflect the pain I hate to experience.

I often ask myself how I can love better. There are some things I've come up with--some practical and some of a more spiritual nature. First, I can eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, and exercise. This helps me to deal with the anxiety that rises in social settings. We don't like to admit it, but our bodies, souls, and spirits are intricately connected and impact how we relate in huge ways. As an introvert, I also know that I can take breaks when I feel depleted.

Second, I can check my expectations at the door of every meeting and social setting. That means I give up the right of expecting others to be a certain way, choosing, instead, to accept them as they really are. It means I give up the expectations I have of how I think we will relate and/or interact and accept the truth of where we are in our relationship at any given moment. It also means I look to God, not the other person to fix pain, resolve loneliness, and fill my love-starved heart.

Third, I give up the right to judge and choose to be curious about other people. Often their behavior is driven by what they have experienced, what they fear, or what they desire. If I am curious and ask more questions, I may understand a person better and have more compassion and be more caring in my interactions with them. I may also have the opportunity to be a conduit of grace, love, and healing for him or her.

Fourth, if I feel God leading me to speak His truth into a situation I can choose to take time to pray about it, choose the timing carefully, and choose to do so in a loving manner.

Fifth, I can choose to live loved. This means that I choose to connect daily with God and let Him fill me with His love. When I do that, I am more confident, content, and kind. When I do that, I am more patient, kind, and forgiving. When I do that, I am less confused, not as easily wounded, and not as offended by thoughtless comments, relational neglect, or careless actions. When I do that I am more concerned with a person's heart than how they treat me. When I do that, I am more about giving love than trying to extract it from others.

Sixth, I can choose to live graced. In this life I know I'll always love imperfectly. I can choose to wallow in my failure or I can choose to live life in faith, graced by God so I can seek forgiveness,  love even when it is messy, and move past my failures. When I do this, I'm more apt to extend grace. When I do this, I am able to value relationships enough to do the hard work they take. When I do this I become more like Jesus than at any other time.

So, living isolated is not an option for this Christ follower! He set the example of love by leaving the Safe love He knew from eternity to live relationally with people like us. He walked with, talked with, and ministered to broken people with a bent to sin. He shared His heart, confronted, encouraged, and bore their sin in His body, and ultimately sacrificed His life for them and for us. Comfort wasn't His goal, love was. Even when He was misunderstood, rejected, and slandered, He still loved.

The prayer of my heart this year will be: "Lord help me to recognize your love and fill me with it. Please give me the desire, the ability, and the wisdom to love others well. Help me to love You with all of my heart, my mind, my soul, and my might. Help me to love others with the same sacrificial love you showed me."



Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!