The Mark of Love

Human Maturity

Human maturity involves independence and self care. It involves taking responsibility for commitments. It also means refusing to make excuses and to instead always strive for our best.

As a parent, one of my goals has always been to teach my boys to become independent. I want them to know how to take care of themselves and to be responsible in a well-rounded way. This is the essence of human maturity.

Recently, my husband had to remind me of this goal when I expressed discouragement over my boys needing me less and less every day. My sadness about their pulling away from me became quite heavy one day, and he said…

“Remember, that’s always been our goal.”

Like independence is important in our development as humans, learning dependence on Jesus and His Holy Spirit is even more so in our spiritual maturity.

Spiritual Maturity

Unfortunately, I don’t think I taught my boys the idea of spiritual maturity very well, probably because I’m still learning it myself. And largely because dependence goes against the human part of me that desires to be in control.

“Spiritual maturity is counter to human maturity.” (December 20th, Live Dead Joy by Dick Brogden)

Spiritual maturity involves dependence on God and allowing him to actively care for us. It involves waiting patiently for him to unfold his will and then moving fully into it. Spiritual maturity also means continually acknowledging our weaknesses and realizing we can only be our best under His grace and mercy.

“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God.” (Hebrews 6:1)

Moving forward in spiritual maturity brings growth that obviously lies beyond any we could obtain on our own.

The Mark of Love

Spiritual growth becomes obvious to ourselves and others through one indelible mark.

“Jesus replied: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22:37-40)

If we only mature in a human sense, we become increasingly self-serving and defiantly independent. But, if we also mature spiritually, we live in humble obedience seen through the mark of love on our lives.

Tough Struggles & Humble Obedience

Thoughtful Planning & Smart Work

“Some structures on Earth and beyond appear so graceful we cannot imagine the complicated designs, systems and procedures that made them possible. Architects, engineers, even astronauts must imagine fearlessly — anticipating problems, planning meticulously and course-correcting with split-second agility. Building successfully takes perseverance, teamwork, courage… and a willingness to try.”

~ Lego Interactive Display, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL

Tough Struggles & Humble Obedience

Some people in our lives, or maybe we see people on television or hear about someone in another city or country, appear so together and successful. They seem to be making a tremendous impact for God.

We cannot imagine the struggle, hardship, pain and growth that made being who they are today possible. Parents, pastors and even missionaries must pray fearlessly — confessing struggles, seeking wisdom and learning from mistakes — with continual humility and grace-filled obedience.

Building a Godly life takes perseverance, grace and mercy… and a willingness to die daily.

“When you bow down before the Lord and admit your dependence on him, he will lift you up and give you honor.” (James 4:10)

“But those who obey God’s word really do love him. This is the way to know whether or not we live in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Christ did.” (1 John 2:5-6)

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

How to Not Exasperate Your Children

Do you exasperate your children?

Ephesians 6:4 gives this advice regarding parenting…

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

Note: Just because this scripture singles out fathers doesn’t mean mothers are exempt. It just means that since fathers should be the spiritual heads of the house, this command is first directed toward them for setting the example.

Exasperate means…

“to irritate or provoke to a high degree; annoy extremely.”

Colossians 3:21 provides further detail on the concept by adding the component of why not exasperating your children is important.

“Fathers, do not embitter (exasperate) your children, or they will become discouraged.”

Children can become frustrated and discouraged because of their parents, and most parents know that frustrated kids are individuals who too easily head down the wrong path in life. As parents, we should deliberately choose not to frustrate our kids since there’s already enough in this world to exasperate them.

Before you think I’m advocating giving kids what they want when they want it, let’s look at how we can be parents who aid, assist, cooperate with, encourage, facilitate, help and support our kids. Let’s consider how we can avoid discouraging our children by evaluating our parenting in light of the following elements.

  1. Consistency. Children need security, and they need to know what to expect. They need to know they will be disciplined when they do wrong and that the discipline will be fair. They need to know they will be praised when they do right and that the praise will be appropriate. The more children know what to expect from their parents, the more secure and stable they will be overall.
  2. Availability. Being available for your kids doesn’t simply mean being a taxi service, cooking meals and meeting clothing needs. Availability involves truly listening (that means stopping what you are doing and making eye contact), and it means letting them express feelings and thoughts in a safe environment.
  3. Priorities. Children need to know they are important to their parents. They need to know their parents value them and consider them unique and special individuals. Sure, a parent can say this, but kids really need to see it through actions. This means scheduling time to simply hang out, play, talk, etc. with your kids. It means intentionally asking about their days, their friends and their struggles. While your kids may not be THE highest priority in your life (your relationship with your spouse and with Christ should be higher priorities), they need to be a top priority for sure.
  4. Integrity. There is always someone watching. This is especially true when you have children. children watch their parents to learn how to live life. Parents’ actions teach kids about integrity. The question all parents need to ask themselves is if they are the same at home as they are in public. If a parent is putting on a different face in public than at home, they send a confusing message about integrity. From the smallest to the biggest moments in life, you can teach your children about integrity in ways that will stick through them all their lives.
  5. Respect and Obedience. Having a zero-tolerance approach to disrespect and disobedience goes a long way in teaching children how to be successful adults. How many adults do you know who do not have a healthy respect for their bosses, coworkers or pastors? If someone struggles in this area, they likely struggle more in every area of life than is necessary. Teaching your kids respect and obedience sets them up for victory in life in a way that is dying out in today’s culture.

When parents focus on being consistent and available, when they make their kids a priority, and when they strive to teach them integrity, respect and the value of obedience to authority, they are giving them great advantages in life because frustration and discouragement will be less of an issue for them.

Not exasperating your children simply involves teaching them the character qualities that will allow them to focus on who God created them to be. They’ll learn contentment in this process as well, and they’ll one day thank you for instilling these values in them.

DISCUSSION: What advice do you have for fulfilling Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 as a parent?

Put Your Behind in the Past

Lion King

In this scene, Simba finally moves forward after attempting to forget his past. He realizes forgetting is not only impossible, but doing so denies who he is as well as holds impact well beyond himself.

Our youngest son came to us when he was 9 years old. He brought with him a rough start to life filled with more disappointments, struggles and hurts than most people face in a lifetime. In the six years since he’s been our son, we’ve worked to undo the damage and bring him to a place of continued forward growth academically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

future-or-go-back-221x300One prevailing principle in his progress is the idea of learning from the past and then moving on. We deliberately talk often about how he can choose to overcome his past or let it define him. With every struggle we encounter, we talk in detail about the choices he made in that particular situation and how he can make adjustments for future decisions.

We also talk about how he can better handle life’s situations without reacting and letting emotion control him. Finding positive choices helps him grow and heal. These 5 questions help immensely in that process.

  1. Did you ask for forgiveness? While granting forgiveness remains out of his control, asking begins the healing process. Related, we also make sure that he forgives where needed too, and we reference Ephesians 4:32 in that discussion.
  2. What can you control? The answer is always “myself.” This brings understanding about focusing on controlling his own attitude, actions and words.
  3. What can’t you control? The answer to this is always “others.” You can only control yourself, not others.
  4. What could you have done differently? This question helps him understand that while he may not have meant for something to happen, his actions or reactions set the stage for something to happen or somehow made a situation worse. The idea of a ripple effect is crucial for growth.
  5. What can you do to control your anger/frustration in the future? We then spend a few minutes discussing ideas, which usually include praying, taking a deep breath, walking away, taking a break, journaling and quoting scripture. Having tools he can use when struggles happen again is crucial to prevent repeating the same mistakes.

These discussions with our son also include talking about self-control and its importance, and we focus on how he can build trust through respect and obedience. We then end the discussion with a prayer and “hugging it out.”

Over the past six years, these questions have become automatic not just for addressing issues with our teenage boys but for tackling the struggles in our own lives. They provide an intentional way to Put Your Behind in the Past and allow you to learn the value of Going Backward So You Can Move Forward.

DISCUSSION: What techniques do you have for learning from your mistakes?

Becoming A Defensive Christian

Defense Wins Championships

Game planSuperbowl 50 brought a lot of controversy and drama. Fortunately, a good game took place too. In fact, the game produced one of the best defensive battles I’ve seen since I started watching football the year of the Super Bowl Shuffle.

Denver prepared by studying tapes of Carolina’s offense, and then they developed their defensive game plan based on what they saw. Good strategy because guess what plays Carolina used during the Super Bowl? Exactly what they’d been using all season. Nothing new. So, excellence in preparation met with amazing talent, and the Denver Broncos pulled out a win few expected.

Our Defensive Strategy

Christian Armor Email SalutationThe championship difference made by the Bronco defense in Super Bowl 50 reminds  me of how a solid defense is crucial to victory in the Christian walk too. (I love how God uses everyday life to speak his truths into my life.)

The Bible certainly calls for a defensive-heavy strategy for success as Christians. Though offense stills remains important, defense certainly receives more options.

There are four specifically defensive weapons in the Armor of God listed in Ephesians 6: the breastplate, shield, belt and helmet. The footwear and the sword could be considered both defensive and offensive weapons.

Defense protects. It keeps the enemy — the opponent — from infiltrating and taking over. Defense keeps the opponent from gaining victory. As Christians, we must become defensive specialists.

Become a Defensive Specialist

While the opponent changes from game to game in football, it remains the same day in and day out for Christians. Since “we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11), we can become defensive specialists too and keep the devil’s point scoring to a minimum. How do we do this?

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Ephesians 6:11)

Maybe you, like me, learned about the Armor of God in Sunday school but never really understood its application until much later in life. Not until I realized the value of a solid defense in other applications did I truly understand how it must also be a consistent focus in my life as a Christian.

Just as John Elway did with the Denver Broncos, I need to rebuild my defense and develop a strategy that will allow me to lead a more victorious life. I’m  tired of being defeated. I’m tired of feeling exposed. Time to fortify my offense through the strengthening of my defense.

What does a solid defensive strategy using God’s armor look like?

BE Encouraged

God gives Christians a variety of ways to receive encouragement, including through scripture, through the Holy Spirit and through fellowship with other Christians. All of these provide consistent and bountiful resources of encouragement for His children.

Even in this abundance, we’ve all come across a brother or sister who simply refuses to be encouraged. They’re usually identified by the words “Yeah, but…” in response to any sort of verbal encouragement and often appear blind to any other sort of encouragement.

With total transparency here, I must admit I’ve been that person way too often. Not only have I refused verbal encouragement at times, I could hardly stand to be in an encouraging atmosphere (worship service, for example).

At its heart, failure to be encouraged through the ways God offers encouragement exists as an issue of obedience. We can’t escape the truth that Scripture does in fact command us to “be encouraged.”

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

What I notice most about these and the many other Scripture about encouragement is that the focus of an encouraged individual lies outside of the self. In fact, the focus lies specifically on the Lord.

During the times I’ve refused to be encouraged, my focus fell on myself — my feelings and my emotions — rather than on what God has done, what he’s doing, and what he says he’ll do. The first nine verses of Psalm 77 show this state of mind, the one we find ourselves stuck in when we are discouraged.

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

When we choose to focus on God instead of our feelings and emotions, we’ll experience a building confidence for the present and the future. We’ll realize that experiencing discouragement is inevitable, but being encouraged is a choice. The transition in Psalm 77, verses 10-12, shows this switch of focus.

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

The rest of Psalm 77, verses 13-20, then take us through all there is to focus on with regard to God — His activity, His holiness & power, redemption and His creation. In doing so, we discover much-needed encouragement.

Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Turning our focus to God as Psalm 77 illustrates helps us find peace in chaos and to discover courage as we wait for God’s timing. Moving our focus from emotions and feelings toward God and His might, power and goodness, allow us to move forward in confidence because we know God goes with us as our constant source of encouragement.

DISCUSSION: If you dwell in discouragement, how can the encouragement God offers help you move forward?

Pursuing Encouragement

runnerDiscouragement, like people, comes in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of the shape or the size or the person, discouragement stinks. Deflated. Struggle without progress. Stuck. Directionless. Yep, stinks.

My discouragement with running really epitomizes my battle with discouragement in general. Sure, I’ve experienced periods of relative success. But overall, running exists as simply a 20-year struggle. One might ask, “Why keep doing it?” Well… I guess because it helps me stare discouragement in the face and tell it, “I refuse to quit. I refuse to let you stop me.” If I quit running altogether, that opens the door for me to give up in other areas… in writing, in relationships, in faith. In the midst of discouragement, I often don’t know what to do, but I definitely know what not to do… quit.

While my own discouragement leaves me lethargic and frustrated, my inner locus of control keeps me moving even in the absence of any perceptible progress. However, seeing those I love — my boys and my husband especially — in seasons of discouragement creates a whole new level of struggle and even gets me to believe the possibility of defeat. If I felt knee deep in miry clay before, I feel like I’m laying down in it now and letting the mud seep into my orifices.

When the ones who usually encourage you lack their own courage, and when the ones who you usually encourage can’t or don’t receive it, and when all of this happens simultaneously, life just feels frozen. Yet we continue about our days, continue on the treadmill of life, waiting for that moment when we see the upward path again and can jump off into progress.

If I’m not careful, debilitating loneliness creeps in when I’m discouraged. And if that isn’t held in check, depression usually comes next. I’ve experienced this process one too many times in my life, and I’m determined to not experience it again. Ever. And I don’t want my family to live in discouragement one moment longer than necessary either because I know all to well what comes if it lingers.

BeBold-Verse

Perhaps this battle with discouragement exists as an all-too-familiar place for you too. Perhaps you want to admit defeat and quit running, especially when the end seems hidden somewhere in the unknown depths of the mud. While I don’t know when this season will end for any of us, I do know where to go for encouragement within the struggle.

  1. Studying Scripture
  2. Pursuing the Holy Spirit
  3. Spending time in fellowship
  4. Allowing ourselves to be encouraged 

In our pursuit of encouragement, we must realize that truth often comes long before we believe what it’s saying — before the feelings take hold. Knowing this, I see discouragement as a struggle awaiting victory, and I believe encouragement happens in the midst of — not after — discouragement. What I also know is that the path to being encouraged, to becoming unstuck, lies right on top of the path of discouragement. In other words, struggling through discouragement is the only way I’ll find true and lasting encouragement. With that, giving up simply isn’t an option.

DISCUSSION: What testimony can you give regarding discouragement, struggle, encouragement and victory?

 

Active Remembering

When we “Don’t Forget to Remember” and live with “Purposeful Remembering,” we keep God’s activity and character throughout history and in our own lives fresh in a way that fuels our faith. This active remembering results in going well beyond recalling and to letting our remembering affect our lives in visible ways. In other words, others will see the impact remembering God has on our lives. With that, our active remembering actually becomes a testimony.

But what does this active remembering look like? How do we know that we aren’t just recalling but are letting our remembering affect our lives in an active way? Maybe a better question is, “What are the results of this active remembering?”

“Remember not the former things, neither consider the things of old.” (Isaiah 43:18)

We don’t dwell on the past. As I tell my boys when they make a mistake, “Learn from it and move on.” Too many people live in the past. They live with unforgiveness and bitterness. They tell the same stories over and over again, and a backward focus keeps them from living in the now or from ever moving forward. While we want to remember God’s activity throughout our lives, we don’t want to dwell on our depravity — on ourselves — in any way. Instead, we want to focus on what God has done to increase our faith about what He is doing and will yet do in our lives.

“Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” (Deuteronomy 5:33)

We serve Him faithfully in the present. This speaks to obedience. Serving God faithfully in the present means knowing and doing what He desires because we know from our past that He always does what’s best for us and simply asks us to trust him in that journey. Serving God faithfully right now also speaks to faith, which often grows out of obedience as we gain more experience living in His consistently full grace.

“Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)

We trust God for the future. Our culture says to create our own future. It says to take control of our lives. But God says to trust Him and let Him control our lives. He always outdoes anything we can think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), and some of us can think of and imagine quite a lot. But as we remember His work throughout our lives, we’ll see that His way often took us through the impossible, that it often created paths through the worst terrain, and that we came out stronger as closer to Him as a result. And because we know He’s done it before, we can know He’ll do it again.

Active remembering helps us trust God now and in the future because He’s always the same, and we can count on His consistency of character. We know He is just, that He will honor His promises, and that He forgives endlessly. Remembering helps us know how to live our everyday lives, how to treat people & how to live our lives focused on Him based on His instruction for doing so in Scripture.

DISCUSSION: How is active remembering evident in your life?

Don’t Sleep Through the Storm

Gifted Sleepers

My husband has a gift for sleeping. He falls asleep within minutes of his head hitting the pillow, and he’s perfected the art of the power nap. He can also sleep on airplanes, even during turbulence. In fact, I’ve witnessed him fall asleep prior to takeoff and not wake until landing for shorter flights. I’m jealous. I do not have that gift.

I think Jonah had a gift for sleeping too. After choosing to deliberately disobey God, Jonah heads in the opposite direction of God’s leading. He boards a ship to Tarshish (the most remote location he could think of) and promptly falls asleep in the ships belly. In fact, Jonah sleeps so soundly that he fails to wake even when the storm hits.

“But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came to him, ‘What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.’” (Jonah 1:5-6)

In other words, “How in the world can you sleep in this storm?”

Now, maybe Jonah was just a good sleeper like my husband. Or, maybe he’s like so many of us who sleep (literally and figuratively) in order to avoid God-given responsibility (or responsibility of any kind for that matter). Regardless, it took a serious storm plus another person shaking him awake to finally get Jonah moving.

What can we learn from this single scene in the rather short story of Jonah?1100938_57493317

  1. Storms are sometimes from God. Whether he allows or sends them, storms (trials) are sometimes God’s tools for shaping our lives.
  2. God sometimes uses others to shake us into action. We often fail to have the right perspective during our own trials and need to hear another’s perspective to help us get moving.
  3. God sometimes uses unbelievers to direct believers. The captain was not a believer (yet), but he still implored Jonah to call on his God because the captain’s god (or gods) wasn’t getting the job done.
  4. God uses storms to get us moving in the right direction. The more determined the disobedience, likely the more powerful the storm. If there’s a raging storm in your life, consider how God might be using it to direct you.
  5. Even the best sleeper can’t ignore God forever. We can choose to dismiss Him, but no trick exists for completely and permanently avoiding Him. We will one day have to face Him (Galatians 6:7).

Try as we might, whether by literally sleeping or by “sleeping” in the form of busyness and distractions, we cannot avoid storms meant to set us on the right track. Over time, however, we may put our awareness of God to sleep and become less and less able to see and hear His directing. Let us each determine first not to be deliberately disobedient and to secondly not “sleep” during God’s redirecting.

DISCUSSION: How can we be sure to avoid “sleeping” and missing God’s directives?

Consider reading the following posts for helping answer this question:

Consumed With “Shoulds”

mercy not sacrificeAll to often, I become easily consumed with thoughts of what I “should” do to truly be a good wife, mother, friend, writer, church member, daughter, Christian, etc. Those ideas are usually based on what others say, think and do and how I appear in comparison. Of course, this comes all filtered through my own perceptions and assumptions. And this line of thinking always leads to internal defeat as I realize my desire to promote self and feel good about where I fall in the lineup.

In this way of thinking, activity becomes the focus. The more activity, the better. But I always end up feeling restless and unsettled. Never arrived. Never content. Why?

When my heart’s focus lies with appearances, with going through the motions of “shoulds,” I’ve filled my life with activity (with busyness) that appears meaningful but really exists as quite the opposite. Seems a lot like a focus on the rule following of the Pharisees, doesn’t it?

Filling our lives with the activity of sacrifice (busyness) provides ample distraction from addressing the true condition of the heart. Being busy (offering sacrifices)results in appearing accomplished but fails to consider the state of our intentions and motivations.

Inward Faith Before Outward Expression

Jesus used the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:12-13 & 12:7) knowing the generational familiarity it held for his listeners. The Life Application Study Bible says it this way:

God does not take pleasure in our outward expression if our inward faith is missing.”

Old Testament connections to this are many… 1 Samuel 15:22-23, Psalm 40:6-8, Psalm 51:16-19, Jeremiah 7:21-23, Hosea 6:6, & Micah 6:6-8. All get at this tenant point of Scripture… our heart attitude toward God comes first, then we can make acceptable sacrifices.

These Scripture represent the truth of what God asks of each of us. He doesn’t first ask for busyness (sacrificial activity) but for a sincere faith and devotion to him. He asks for loyalty and obedience. He asks that we are fair, just, humble and merciful. Only then is anything we do — our activity & our busyness — pleasing to him.

Isaiah 1:11-17 gives a succinct path for learning to live out this pattern of being over doing.

Respect. Follow. Love. Serve. Obey.

Of course, God exists as the object of these action steps. He exists as the focus of our activity. And as we seek to live this pattern, we find that the busyness of the world falls away. The “shoulds” disappear from our radar, and we move into the rhythm he meant for us to follow.

No longer do we focus on offering sacrifices — keeping ourselves busy with going and doing — but we instead find ourselves living in a way that naturally loves and serves. Only then do we live driven by our heart’s inward faith instead of trying to create the perception of an inward reality that we think makes us acceptable.

DISCUSSION: How does the truth “obedience over sacrifice” become a reality in the life of a believer?