The Way Things Appear

As I look at different houses lining the path of my day, I sometimes wonder about the lives lived within them. Why is the house so run down? Why don’t they take care of their yard? How can they afford that? How much money does he make?

When I see people face-to-face at the store or coffee shop or library, I make more internal inquiries based on appearances. Why doesn’t she care enough to style her hair? How could he wear such sloppy clothes in public? Can she really afford that? Why don’t they discipline their child?

I also imagine what people determine based on my appearance. More so in previous years but still some today, I adjust my appearance to try and direct their imaginations. But then I think, maybe they don’t even consider me much at all.

When others do judge me based on appearance, or at least I think they do, I am offended, angry even. Why? Because they don’t know me. They don’t know my story. And they certainly don’t know my heart, my intentions.

Appearances 1

When I realize I’m judging others based merely on appearances, I have to stop and think and deliberately tell myself that there’s more to the story than I know… more than I could ever know on my own. Rarely are things exactly as they appear.

For certain with passing people as I go about my day and certainly to a great extent with the people ingrained within my life, never will I fully know their intentions, their heart. Appearances will always play some role in my thinking about others and their thinking about me. Knowing this, I must let myself be guided past appearances.

Going Beyond Appearances

We certainly don’t want to be like the Israelites who wanted a king based on what others around them had (1 Samuel 8:4-5). We don’t want to be like the pharisees obsessed with following rules to appear holy (Matthew 23). And we don’t want to live like the Ephesians, simply going through the motions of religion (Revelation 2:2-5).

Instead, we want to defy our human nature and go beyond mere appearances. We want to be like Samuel who let God lead him beyond what initially appeared to be the right choice.

Appearances 2

When God told Samuel to look beyond appearances in the search for the next king, He guided Samuel to the right person. David defied appearances. He did not look like the right choice for a king. (His own father didn’t even bring him up at first.) Several of David’s brothers better fit the stereotype of a king. Yet Samuel followed God’s directing, which led him to the person who would go down in Biblical history as the “man after God’s own heart.”

How do we take our vision beyond mere appearances?

On our own, we can’t. While we can look at appearances and behavior and make determinations based on a person’s whole body of works, we cannot know everything about a person. Plus, people don’t (and shouldn’t) disclose every detail about themselves. Also, some will outright deceive, pretend and mislead to hide reality. We’ve all done it.

Yet, God wants us to develop relationships built on trust and love, which necessitates going past what we see and discovering what lies beyond appearances. How can we do this in a way that encourages truth and nurtures growth?

Appearances 3

DISCUSSION: How do we let our minds become controlled by the Holy Spirit? How do we let God change the way we think? And, how does doing so change the impact of appearances on our vision?

Addiction, Avoidance, Distraction & Technology

texting 2Electronic Fellowship

In a hallway between the sanctuary and fellowship hall at my church sits a pew where most Sundays a half dozen teens fellowship with their cell phones, Ipods and Kindles. During service, their fellowship continues, and many adults join in the fellowshipping with their Ipads and smart phones too.

This electronic fellowship ceases – sort of – during worship but returns fully at sermon start, continuing until the “stand and pray.” Sure, some may use their devices for Bibles, but I’m pretty sure doing so involves less thumb movement.

I realize the caution needed here regarding law and rules and judging others, so let me turn this on myself. I leave my cell phone at home on Sundays and Wednesdays when I go to church because if I don’t, I’ll fellowship with it instead of fellowshipping face-to-face. No matter how much I say I’ll leave it in my bag, the temptation to check it usually wins out at some point.

And yes, I’m even tempted during the sermon (sorry, Pastor) to check messages. I’m simply better focused on connecting with the body and hearing from God if my handheld device gets alone time at home while I’m at church.

But I can’t help but wonder…

Do so many teens stay on their devices while at church because they don’t want to talk to other people? Or, are they simply that addicted to texting or gaming or whatever they’re doing? Do the adults on their devices during the sermon simply have an addiction to staying connected? Or, are they using them to distract themselves from what they know they need to hear but don’t want to hear because then they’ll have to change?

For my part…

I know it’s addiction since I sometimes just can’t seem to resist the lure. It’s avoidance too, because some days my introverted self finds my cell phone much easier to connect with than the people around me. And while I’m at it, I’ll admit that its also distraction. After all, mindlessly surfing the Internet is a great way to not deal with life and forget about mistakes.

Beyond the Church Walls

Certainly, this is not a church-specific problem since this particular challenge with technology exists abundantly outside the church walls too. And unfortunately, our obsession not only allows for easy avoidance and distraction, but it is also creating some serious social issues with far-reaching impact.

According to Psychology Today, a prolific use of technology causes…text 3

  1. Isolation – We feel socially isolated because we end up substituting or mistaking electronic relationships for physical ones.
  2. Unhealthy substitution – Reading LOL in no way lifts your spirits like hearing a person’s laughter. Likewise, electronic confrontation limits effective resolution since emotions rarely come across as accurately when written as when experienced in person. These types of substitution limit the necessary human contact relationships need to deepen and grow.
  3. Loss of etiquette – Many people say online what they would never say in person. Likewise, electronic communication allows for avoidance of difficult situations simply because ignoring and sidestepping is easier electronically than face-to-face.

These are just some of the challenges presented by over-use of mobile devices, challenges that happen when we choose electronic communication too often over face-to-face connection. And, unfortunately, this causes us to become increasingly uncomfortable experiencing and expressing true emotion but at the same time craving it to the point of desperately seeking it out even more and usually in the wrong places.

In closing, consider the following quote by Jonathan Safran Foer in “How Not to Be Alone.

“Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat… My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.”

DISCUSSION: Weigh in on how you see addiction, avoidance and distraction with regard to the use of technology. Please offer any solutions and bring in any relevant Scripture application.

Judging Others

5-23-13 fingers

Recently, an exchange student staying with a family in my church asked if he could speak in front of our adult Sunday school class as part of a requirement for his exchange program. At first, I hesitated because this student is a Muslim.

As we further discussed the possibility, he explained that his requirement was to talk about how he would make the world a better place, and he chose to speak about judging others. He wanted to talk about how people too often judge others based on one small group rather than by getting to know individuals. For example, most Americans – including many Christians – judge Muslims based on what they have seen on television, and this provides not only a very limited picture but a significantly inaccurate one too.

This student from Azerbaijan was absolutely right. The way many of us judge others results in disunity not only between individuals but also between religions and cultures.

Unfortunately, what many people think of when the opportunity to judge another or to be judged comes up is that we aren’t supposed to do it. At all. In fact, many people – Christians and non-Christians alike – use Matthew 7:1 to say that we should avoid judging others altogether.

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)

But a closer look at not only at that scripture but also at the many others that address this topic shows that the Bible does not say that we are NEVER to judge.

What does it mean to pass judgment or to judge something or someone?

To judge means to go through a process of evaluation, to hear evidence, in order to form an opinion. Judging should be evidence of seeking truth. When we make a judgment, we are making a careful guess that hopefully leads to a logical conclusion based on as much fact as possible. Judgment, really, ends up just being a careful guess, since rarely can 100% of the facts be fully known.  In scripture, judgment takes the form of discernment, examination, evaluation and admonishing.

Common sense tells us that judging must be a part of human civilization. Think what civilization would be like if it lacked judgment of criminals in courts, tests in schools and winners in competitions. Common sense also tells us that the context of the situation is crucial. Take the judgment of murder in court where the situation or context determines the type of judgment such as premeditated or accidental.

We know from Scripture that God is the Judge of all (Genesis 18:25; Judges 11:27; I Samuel 2:10Psalms 50:6; Psalms 96:13; Psalms 98:9; Isaiah 3:13; Isaiah 33:22; Jeremiah 11:20; Ezekiel 18:30; Ezekiel 33:20; Hebrews 12:23; I Peter 1:17; Matthew 12:27). We also know that God is set in position as our Judge because He is all-knowing, He is Truth, and His judgments are righteous and true (John 8:26; Romans 11:33; Revelation 16:7; Revelation 19:2).

But even though God IS the Judge of ALL, that doesn’t mean we never judge. In fact, scripture is filled with instructions on how WE are to judge.5-23-13 gavel

THE PROBLEM comes when we base judgments on fears, pride, ignorance and stereotypes instead of on truth. For example, when we judge a whole group of people based solely on one individual or even small group. Even worse, when we judge based on extreme positions of a small number of people from a group.

What does the Bible says about passing judgment? While it says a lot more than this, here are some of the main ideas we must know before we even consider passing a judgment.

  1. Don’t be hypocritical. (Matthew 7)
  2. Don’t be legalistic. (Mathew 7)
  3. Don’t judge by appearances. (1 Samuel 16:7; John 7:24)
  4. Judge based on truth. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; John 17:17)
  5. Judge yourself first. (1 Corinthians 11:32-32; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Timothy 4:16)

Until we know what scripture says about these and other areas, we have no business evaluating another person. If we fail to apply God’s truth when we do pass judgment, we become a part of the problem.

Finally, and most importantly, the command to “do everything in love” must dominate all of our judgments.

“Above all, love each other deeply because love covers over a multitude of sin.” (1 Peter 4:8)

“Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done with love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

When we love each other deeply, perhaps we will judge less because more sin is “covered.” Maybe if we know what we believe and WHY we believe it, we will find that all of what we do will be done more naturally in love.

DISCUSSION: What is your response to people when they quote Mathew 7:1 out of context?

 Subscribe to Struggle to Victory by Email or Subscribe in a reader

Sunday Reflections – Understanding & Improving Our Communication

You cannot NOT communicate. You are always communicating something. I heard this in a college class almost 20 years ago, and it stuck with me. Unfortunately, most of us make too many assumptions and spend way too much time following those assumptions about others’ communication. We too often fail to pay enough attention, or any at all, to our own communication abilities.

Realizing this, you can deliberately choose to improve your communication skills. To start, consider these 7 Essential Elements of Communication to be aware of as we seek to improve our ability to communicate.

  1. We judge ourselves by our intentions. We can’t really know for sure the intentions of others. But when we’re honest with ourselves and with a lot of help from the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12), we can better know our own intentions.
  2. We judge others by their actions. Since we can’t truly know another’s intentions, we usually base decisions about others on their actions. Maybe this is one reason showing faith by actions (James 2:18) is so crucial.
  3. People want validation & acceptance. We just want to be accepted and understood. This does not necessarily mean agreement with another’s opinions or actions, but it does mean a willingness to try to understand their perspective. Fortunately, when we fall short in this, God fills the gaps (John 6:37).
  4. Broad shoulders are invaluable. Having broad shoulders means not being offended easily and forgiving freely. Do You Have Broad Shoulders? Developing them improves your ability to communicate by removing the barriers of unforgiveness and misinformation.
  5. The Golden Rule is a terrific communication tool (Luke 6:31). Simply treating others how you want to be treated will improve communications in your relationships significantly.
  6. Seeking first to understand makes a huge difference. Before insisting on being understood, seek to understand others. Doing so not only improves communication, but it keeps you from looking foolish (Proverbs 18:2, 13).
  7. You can only change yourself. Replace old, ineffective habits with new habits that build relationships (Ephesians 4:22-24). Let your mind be renewed continually (Romans 12:1-2). Develop and grow the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

A look at improving our communication skills is lacking to some extent if we fail to focus at least a little on how we handle conflict. Conflict is not only necessary, but it is also unavoidable. Fortunately, conflict can actually strengthen instead of tear relationships apart if we employ point #7 above by specifically looking at our own part in any conflict (Romans 12:18). Do this using these 7 Questions to Ask During a Conflict.

  1. Am I jumping to conclusions?
  2. Am I being insensitive or too sensitive?
  3. Am I being selfish?
  4. Am I doing God’s job?
  5. Am I trying to control others?
  6. Am I communicating clearly?
  7. Could I be the one who is wrong?

Relationships are a top priority for God (Matthew 22:37-39), and fulfilling His command to love others requires good communication skills. What can you do this week to improve your ability to communicate with others?

 Subscribe to Struggle to Victory by Email or Subscribe in a reader

Drawbacks vs. Benefits of Simplicity

In considering that Balance Requires Simplicity, we must take time understand that simplicity does have its drawbacks, but those drawbacks pale in comparison to the benefits.

First, simplicity is never complete. It must always be pursued in order to keep complexity at bay. I’ve seen simplicity come and go way too many times both in my own life and in the lives of those I love, and that happens when it’s no longer doggedly pursued.

Second, simplicity makes you feel like somewhat of and outsider since most of the people around you will remain trapped in busyness and overload.

When my life was so busy that I barely had time to keep up with laundry, I guess I just wasn’t bothered that everyone else was that busy too. Maybe misery loves company, or maybe I just didn’t have the mental room to consider the level of everyone else’s busyness when I wasn’t even keeping up with my own.

Third, pursuing simplicity makes you more aware of complexity. Now that I have more margin built into my life, I notice how much others don’t have. They aren’t able to chat and hang out, and they don’t have the time to read, exercise and pursue personal interests. What used to seem like just another busy person now seems like a chaotic life.

Fortunately, the benefits of simplicity by far outweigh the drawbacks.

First, simplicity allows time for pursuing passions. Not until I focused on simplicity did the dream of becoming a writer come to fruition. Having the freedom to pursue God-given passions is truly amazing.

Second, simplicity allows room for quality relationships. Relationships can and usually do complicate life. But, this is one area where complication is welcome. When the rest of life is simple, the complication of relationships seems to bring abundance and joy in amazing ways.

Third, simplicity allows for more flexibility. What makes me happy now is less tangible and more associated with meeting others’ needs rather than just having my needs met. I’m less rattled when my plans fall apart and am able to adapt better than I’ve ever been able to before in my life. As with pursuing passions, the flexibility that comes from simplicity is a truly freeing feeling.

The fact that simplicity sets a person apart from the crowd is disheartening at first. Add to that the realization of how much effort simplicity sometimes requires, and taking a step toward it seems daunting at first. But once you opened the door, simplicity will rush in and tear it off its hinges, and you’ll want to forever leave complexity behind.

DISCUSSION: In what ways would you like to simplify your life?