Life Themes, Part 2

Life Themes

This is a long post. Evaluating a year should take some time. Does for me anyway.

Not only do I need to go through this process for myself, I want to help others in their processes too. I found mine through trial and error. I read a lot about what others did and tried. I kept what worked and threw out what didn’t. My prayer is to inspire you to do the same.

Rather than looking at goal setting, though I do set goals, my focus for making progress revolves around Life Themes instead. Over the years, five themes have emerged and infiltrated my life. I use them to continually evaluate my progress and reset my focus.

These themes serve to help me understand where I’ve been and what I’ve come through in a way that builds toward progress. They help me see my struggles in ways that allow me to focus on victories. These themes also help motivate me to continue moving forward.

Year In Review

Looking regularly at these life themes helps me review my life in a way that sort of hits a reset button on my focus. I don’t believe a true reset is possible in a person’s life. At least, not in the way one can reset a smart phone. It’s impossible for life to start over from a factory default state. A new start, sure, but not a complete do-over.

However, resetting one’s focus is possible. Life themes help me do this. I look at how I’ve applied them in the past, how active they are presently, and how they’re directing  where I’m going.

While I do this periodically throughout the year, I usually look at them more intimately at the beginning of every new calendar year. What follows is a large part of that process.

Life Theme Application

Allow me to share these life themes with some detail and to attempt to provide application points. Use them as motivation for considering your own life themes, whether or not they exist and if you want to adopt any new ones or simply modify the ones you have.

1.) Focus determines reality.

Midlife and empty nest both descended on me this past year. Too often and for too long, I focused on what I was losing. When I reset my focus, I again became grateful for all that I’ve done and experienced.

I’m reminded of the importance of my focus often. Sometimes it’s simply in the movies I watch and books I read, two of my favorite pastimes. Continually, the Holy Spirit whispers this truth back into my life in many creative ways.

No area of life escapes this truth. Where we choose to focus determines the reality of our lives. And, we all get to choose that focus — the place where thoughts dwell and motivations begin. No matter the circumstances, we can always decide to focus on progress over perfection, blessings over trials and protection over limits.

2.) Refuse to quit.

Physically, my body cannot do what it used to do. Take running, for example. No matter how much I decide to do it, my body simply says, “Uh uh.” At least, I can’t do even close to the extent I used to or that I see others my age still doing. I wanted to just stop trying many times. Instead, I adapted. I turned to other types of exercises, lots of different ones. I refuse to quit pursuing physical health.

I wanted to quit in other areas many times too. When a loved one broke trust to a point I thought beyond repair, I verbally said, “I give up.” Multiple times. But, I didn’t follow through. I kept moving. Backwards then nothing for a while, then finally progress with still lots of back and forth. Not the same as before, but I’m finally glad I didn’t follow through on what my feelings directed me toward far too many times.

Perseverance becomes more natural when fueled by obedience to God’s will. Quitting ceases to exist as an option. I wear reminders of these truths daily. Literally, my necklace has two charms: “Persevere.” “Never give up.” Living this has kept me alive more than once, and it’s kept relationships alive too. It overrides feelings and gets me through the afternoon slumps that even now taunt me toward the couch.

When the struggle gets to be too much, I cry out to God to “Help!” I should cry out before this point, I know. His reminder is the same every time: “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Keep moving. Refuse to quit.” I hear the words over and over in my head. They push me forward, and I’m always glad I listen, especially when progress finally appears. And it always does.

3.) Take small steps.

Progress frustrates me. A lot. It does so because I too often don’t see it until I’m ready to give up. Also because I usually don’t see any progress until all of a sudden… there it is! Progress happens in such small increments that I just don’t usually see it right away. Most progress in my life, perhaps all, has happened this way. I simply need to remind myself of this often so the frustration doesn’t completely derail me.

This is where I find traditional goal setting most comes into play. Yes, it fits in the other life themes also, but the idea of small steps creating progress are what I need to often remember when I’m working toward a goal. Weight loss. Raising my IQ. Both goals of mine this year. Both will only happen with small steps taken consistently.

Regardless of the specific goal, educate yourself on the steps needed for its accomplishment. Then, keep taking them. Even if you don’t see or feel progress. Keep taking them. Even if you go backwards. Keep taking them. Pull in the other themes… stay focused and refuse to quit. You will make progress. I’ve experienced this truth enough that reminding myself of it convinces me to take the next step every time. The same will happen for you too.

4.) Keep it simple.

I was once an expert at complicating my life. Over-thinking. Over-committing. Over-emotionalizing. I was so good at this that it still often creeps back in unnoticed until it’s so glaringly obvious that I have to pay attention and do something about it.

Almost every time I start a new project, I venture toward the complex in the beginning. Actually, I do so throughout too and have to reset a simple focus periodically until the project is complete.

Whenever a problem arises in a relationship, I often make it worse than it really is too. Or, I create problems that don’t exist. I’m very creative, you see. I can imagine a lot about a person or situation and make things horribly complex all by myself.

Opportunity falls by the wayside when my life is complicated. I lose focus on Christ when I venture away from simplicity. I cannot keep on track with any of my life themes or goals when I complicate life. Neither can you. No one can.

Simplicity creates a better way to use our energy. It allows for maintaining focus more consistently. Keeping life as simple as possible results in increased productivity. This is true for all of us.

At the same time, simplicity is relative. What’s simple for me may seem boring to you. What’s complicated to me may be your best focus zone. Knowing what simplicity looks like for you and then not comparing it to how others live is key.

5.) Wait on God.

When I push for something I think I want to happen before I know for sure it’s right for me, my life gets complicated. Every time. I’ve done it enough to know it will happen. But I still do it sometimes. Okay, often. But, I don’t get as far as I used to before I hear “Stop. Wait.” And I’m pretty good at actually listening, especially if I do so sooner rather than later before emotions hijack my decision-making ability.

When I don’t wait and instead rush ahead based on emotions or superficial information or even what others think I should do, I end up with regrets. Like, every time. I also get overwhelmed and over-committed along with losing my focus.

When I wait, that means I’m trusting God’s timing. I’m believing He will make clear when I should take a certain step or make a commitment. It means I’m exercising patience, knowing His timing keeps me from overwhelm and overload. At least, the type of overwhelm and overload that runs me down and ushers in depression.

Waiting on God instead allows for the overwhelm that comes with realizing He cares for me more than I can even imagine. It brings me to a place where I am overloaded with His blessings in a way where I cannot out give Him. That’s a great place to be, by the way. That’s the place I seek and aim for every day.

Where Themes Meet Goals

The best way I’ve discovered to tell how I’m doing in any one area is by looking at how all of them are doing individually and how they’re interacting with one another. In other words, if I’m keeping my life simple, I’m better able to consistently wait on God and keep my focus. If I’m strong in my determination to not quit, I’m likely making solid progress with the small steps that I’m taking. Each life focus is intimately intertwined with the others.

What’s more, progress with more traditional type goals tells me how I’m doing with these life themes too. If I’m steadily working toward weight loss as well as toward raising my IQ, for example, I know I’m likely staying focused on my life themes too.

This whole idea of how themes and goals work in my life makes sense to me. It may not to you. If you’ve read this far, though, you’re probably looking for something — anything — that will work for you too. Let me encourage you to simply keep trying different approaches.

Read more about what has worked for others. Try those. Throw out what doesn’t work for you, and keep what does work. Above all, let the Holy Spirit guide this search and lead you to a place where you feel you are making progress too. That place is out there for you. I promise.

Life Themes, Part 1

Effective and Productive

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions. In fact, about half of Americans make them. Unfortunately, according to Norcross & Vangarelli as reported in Psychology Today, most people fail to stick to their resolutions. Specifically…

  • 22% fail after one week
  • 40% fail after one month
  • 50% fail after three months
  • 60% fail after six months
  • 81% fail after twenty-four months

Reasons for this failure involve…

  • Unclear and vague goals
  • Failure to gauge one’s progress
  • Weak self-control and self-regulation

Honestly, not at all surprised by these numbers or by the reasons for them. They’ve certainly proven true in my life over the years.

What I have found to be effective instead is having life themes that integrate into every facet of my life. They have to be biblically-based, though, or even this approach fails to be effective over the long term.

These themes developed gradually and were born out of adversity and failure. And I’m grateful for this process because they now help direct me to being effective and productive in ways goal setting never did.

Focus & Motivation

You’ll may look at the themes I’m about to share and think they are simply positive-thinking mantras. And to some extent you’d be right. But they’re more than that. They also remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve come through, and they motivate me to continue into where I’m being led.

Two passages in Isaiah not only encapsulate these ideas but also help weave these themes together.

“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:27-31)

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

These, and other, scripture serve to remind me of the themes of my life. I need the reminders too. Without them, I just get overwhelmed by life. This is one reason I need to consistently study Scripture. Doing so helps these themes continually come to the surface not just in what I’m studying but in every facet of my life from teaching to talking to a friend or my kids to when I’m alone and working.

My Life Themes

Let me simply share these themes with you now. In next week’s post, I’ll go into some detail on each of them.

  1. Focus determines reality. (Isaiah 26:3; Galatians 5:16-18; Luke 12:34)
  2. Never give up. (Isaiah 50:7; Hebrews 10:35)
  3. Take small steps. (Hebrews 12:12)
  4. Keep it simple. (Colossians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 11:3)
  5. Wait on God. (Isaiah 30:18; Psalm 27:14)

If you were to spend much time with me or even to just read through a handful of posts on this blog, you’d run into each of these themes over and over again. In fact, there are quite a few people you could talk to who could name a few if not all of these since they’ve heard my say them so often. And that’s a deliberate goal on my part.

Which brings us back to the idea of goal setting. The Holy Spirit directs me to goals all the time. And when he does, He also lays out the plan for achieving them. Sometimes the plan comes all at once, but often it comes in just one or a few steps at a time. Always perfectly. And always, these themes saturate the plan.

This approach serves to eliminate unclear and vague goals because I’m following the Holy Spirit, not pushing for progress in my own efforts. As for self-control and self-regulation, that comes through a combination of Bible study and accountability, which both serve to remind me of the life themes planted in my spirit.

No, I have not eliminated all of what keeps most people from achieving goals. However, I do realize my inability to set and achieve goals in my own effort, so I try to continually turn that work over to the Holy Spirit.

As 2018 approaches, I am taking time to review these themes and to remind myself of the Holy Spirit’s continual activity in my life. This week’s and next week’s posts are reflective of that renewal. Including others in more of my life is a goal the Holy Spirit has recently shared with me, and these posts are, hopefully, reflective this too.

“Be a Scrooge!”

“Don’t be a Scrooge”

It’s a line we hear really all year long but certainly more during the holiday season. But what exactly does it mean?

Scrooge (skro͞oj) n.

A mean-spirited miserly person. (The Free Dictionary)

Most of you realize this reference is from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. In the story, Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly, mean-spirit man who refuses to spend any extra money, not even for what many consider necessities (coal for a fire, for example). Contributing to charity to help the poor is abhorrent to Ebenezer, as is accepting his nephew’s kindness toward him.

After visits from three spirits (the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future), Ebenezer realizes how much of a skinflint he has become. He vows to change his ways because of what his future looks like if he does not.

None of us like to think we are a Scrooge, of course, but we often don’t have a problem throwing that term toward another person. I’ve even uses the term when someone simply isn’t being as free with their behavior and/or money as I think they should be.

Watching the movie (the one starring George C. Scott) again this Christmas, I realized that Scrooge has gotten a bad reputation and to some extent undeservedly so. In fact, I believe we all could benefit with instead using the phrase “Be a Scrooge” instead of “Don’t be a Scrooge.”

Be a Scrooge

“Scrooge” is usually used with negative connotations. Yet, he is an uncomfortably relatable character too. Everyone struggles with selfishness to some extent, and we’ve all certainly had to fight through a mean spirit from time to time. If nothing else, we certainly know and must interact with someone else who epitomizes a “Scrooge.”

In the story, Ebenezer becomes a “Scrooge” gradually. He wasn’t always that way. Life circumstances combined with his own choices created the person he became. We all can relate to this idea of gradual change.

But remember…  he didn’t stay that way.

While we don’t want to forget that aspect of Scrooge in the sense that we want to remember not to let ourselves become that way, there’s also inspiration to be found in this character who completely changes his ways. After all, by the end of “A Christmas Carol,” this is what was said of him…

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the old City knew, or any other good old city, town or borough in the good old world.”

Instead of being an icon of what not to become, can we instead think of Scrooge encouragement of what can happen to anyone?

People Can Change

We’re all likely guilty of thinking someone can never change. Maybe we’ve even felt that way about ourselves. Yet, I’m certain every one of us can also find someone who has changed dramatically for the better. And, likely, many of us have also experienced personal transformations along those lines too.

I’ve seen it happen recently in someone I love very much and who I thought lost to the world. He had an experience with the Holy Spirit and became a completely different person almost overnight. I’ve experienced it in myself too. After 25 years struggling with depression, I no longer live under its vice grip because of the transformative power of God in my life.

Unfortunately, while we see people change and are glad for it, the memories of what used to be — broken trust, abundant lies, negativity, depression — don’t just go away. In fact, fears of these coming back often linger for quite a long time if they ever go away. Because this happens so easily and even naturally, we have to determine not to focus on how the person used to be. Instead, we can choose to focus forward and enjoy the person they are becoming.

Let’s determine not to miss the fact that people can change and to remember to include ourselves in that possibility too. Determine to have this hope. Refuse to give up on yourself or on anyone else. Pray more than preach, and trust that God is working in their — and your — lives.

Dealing With Stress

This text began a multi-day conversation with my son, a college freshman, as he attempted to prepare for his first round of college finals. This discussion not only stirred memories of my own college days over 20 years ago but also brought fresh ones to back mind from when I took my GRE a couple of weeks ago.

Because of this discussion, I began thinking about how I’ve dealt with stressful situations and seasons in my life. I realized that I’ve progressed in how I handle them and even in being able to mitigate their impact by the way I live life as well as by the mindset I choose before, during and after trials.

A Part of Life

Every person deals with stressful situations. You’re either going through one right now, have just gone through one or seem to be having an endless string of them. They are just a part of life.

Instead of expending energy to avoid them, the better approach is to expect them and be prepared for them as best we can. Realizing that the situation my son was going through was just a part of his lifelong development of learning and growing, I sought to help him not only get through his current tests but to learn an approach that would benefit him in the future as well.

The approach is nothing new, and many people will pass off this information as simply a “good reminder.” While we do need reminders since in the emotions that accompany stress we often forget how to best deal with it, we also need to realize that we are still learning and growing and adapting with each stressful situation we face. This never stops, and neither should our intention to improve how we move through life’s stressful situations.

Not IF But WHEN

We also have to remember that it’s not a question of IF we’ll go through trials and tests (stressful situations), it’s a matter of WHEN they’re going to happen. Knowing this, we can continually work on how we handle the load stress places on us. 

There are 5 areas that need continually addressed and maintained in order to ensure that we’re dealing with life’s stress to the best of our ability.

1.) Physical

Staying properly fueled, hydrated and rested are minimum requirements. Not doing these almost negates the other items we’ll discuss. In addition, stretching and exercising regularly will help us stay as ready as we can physically for the stresses of life. They’ll also help relieve tension in the midst of stress. We need to be sure to do what we can to head into any stress from a place of physical strength.

2.) Mental

Stress and burnout don’t come as much from what’s actually going on, from the situation itself, as they do from our thoughts about the situation. This is why we must continually renew our thoughts (Romans 12:2). It’s also why we have to remember that worry is distracting and mentally exhausting. Ask, “What would I tell someone in my shoes?” to gain an outside-looking-in perspective. Both of these approaches have served me well for strengthening my mental approach to life’s stresses.

3.) Spiritual

Addressing the spiritual aspect involves regularly making time for God through daily Bible study and prayer as well as through weekly church attendance. Also, staying grateful for blessings helps more than I can ever express. In my son’s situation, for example, him being grateful for the ability and the opportunity to learn and study at a quality university helped him realize how much he’s blessed to be where he is right now. My spiritual state is also immensely healthier as I listen to the Holy Spirit guiding and comforting me. The spiritual aspect of my life is essentially the glue that holds all the others together. Without strength here, nothing else will stay strong for the long term.

4.) Relational

Feeling alone infects any other positive going on in life. This can be especially true during heightened times of stress and burnout. It’s also why staying connected to others is so very important. This also involves asking for help and not stubbornly trying to do it all on your own. I’m grateful my son knows the truth of this and regularly connects with myself or my husband when stress begins to build and often before it gets too weighty for him. He’s great at listening then, too, which is essential in staying connected and warding off feelings of loneliness. And finally, laugh often too. My son is terrific at this. Actually, he’s often the source of this for me. Being strong relationally and refusing to be lonely is essential for living victoriously through the stress and burnout life tends to dole out.

5.) Situational

Making sure this area is working well involves doing what you can and not trying to control what you can’t control. In other words, prepare based on the information you have. Do your best. Simplify where possible. Refuse to dwell in areas you cannot control. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed with what others are or are not doing since you have no control over them. For my son, that meant studying as best he knew how, and it meant not letting his imagination for what could go wrong get away from him. We all have made a situation worse by getting outside of the facts and what we control, so we all understand the need to limit doing so again in the future.

A Pattern of Life

Life is a pattern of ups and downs. The details differ from one person to the next, but the pattern exists for everyone. Look back on your own life, and you’ll see this to be true if you haven’t discovered it already.

As we learn from these seasons, we realize that the areas discussed above work together to either bring us victoriously through stressful times, or they make us feel like we just can’t win. Fortunately, we have a lot of control over what happens.

I’ve stopped trying to keep stressful times from existing in my life. First because it’s not possible. Secondly because the stressful times, really more than the good ones, help me learn and grow in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

Don’t you find this to be true as well?

Discovering Joyful Simplicity

The more I simplify my life, the more I realize simplicity comes intertwined with joy. The simpler my physical life and surroundings, the deeper and better quality my mental state and spiritual life. For me, this means the more organized my house, the fewer activities with which I and my family are involved, and the more I reduce the trivial choices like what to wear or eat, the more joy I experience.

Perhaps my mind simply has less to deal with and can concentrate on quality rather than quantity. Whatever the reason, increased simplicity certainly makes me a more joyful person. I no longer feel trapped by a complexity that spiraled my life out of control.

What does joyful simplicity look like to you?

Use the following suggestions to stimulate ideas for a simpler life in a way that brings joyful simplicity:

  1. Turn off technology. When we play family games, my husband and I turn off the sound on our phones. When we go camping, I leave my phone in the car and refuse to participate in technology. Turning off technology forces me to enjoy simple pleasures like reading and watching birds. This is an amazingly relaxing and simplifying activity.
  2. Go on a fast. A fast in pretty much any area of life lends itself nicely to the process of pursuing simplicity. Spending fast. Food fast. Technology fast. Choose whatever most complicates your life and fast from it with the goal of seeking simplicity for the long term.
  3. Purge. Getting rid of excess is exceedingly freeing. After I start to purge, I struggle stopping. A yearly garage sale makes purging a habit for my family. Taking a look at what’s longer needed provides a terrific avenue for simplifying. Like fasting, purging can occur in a variety of areas. For example, consider purging your calendar or your Facebook friend list or even that pile of books or magazines in the corner.
  4. Help others. Tutor kids. Serve at a community dinner. Teach a Sunday school class.  Pray with a friend. Help a friend clean. Run an errand for someone. Call your pastor and ask what needs done at the church or his house. Helping others provides a simple way to not only bring joy to others but to also know the simple joy of serving.

Simple joy comes through a life free to answer the call of God. When life is simple and not overwhelming, the possibilities for simple joy seem to open up.

Maybe this happens because life is no longer just happening to you. Maybe it happens because you finally have time to think rather than letting life happen. Whatever the reason and whatever the path chosen, a simpler life equates to more joy.

What might joyful simplicity look like in your life?

Finding Your Game

When athletes talk about finding their game, they refer to playing at their best on a consistent basis. Physical training supplements this, but truly finding your game primarily comes primarily through training at a whole different level. In fact, finding your game actually has little to do with the activity, sporting related or otherwise.

“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)

The movie Seven Days in Utopia revolves around the idea of finding your game in life through the pursuit of godliness. This gem of a film provides many life lessons making the movie worth watching, but 5 lessons stood out as steps to take immediately to find your game.

5 Steps to Find Your Game

  1. Know your convictions. Ask yourself why you do what you do. If your purpose is excellence in a sport or in any area of life, consider what drives you. When we discover convictions that go well beyond the temporal, we find motivation in a deeper purpose our existence.
  2. Develop emotional control. Rhythm, balance and patience, essential elements for operating at your best, come through emotional control. When emotions control, rhythm, balance and patience cannot exist with any level of consistency. Instead, use emotions as gauges to make finding your game a continual reality.
  3. Be willing to deter from the expected. So often, we become trapped by expectations, both our own and that of others. Finding your game by stepping out of what’s expected and stepping into the will of God.
  4. Stay prepared. Some people naturally exude confidence. Others struggle with it. The core of true confidence exists not not in natural ability but instead comes through adequate preparation. Preparation creates a confidence that allows for handling the unexpected and the spontaneous with what often seems like a natural grace.
  5. Confront the lies. What lies drive you? Is your value is found in the game that you play? Or, is your value found in how and why you play the game? Knowing your value comes from Christ alone provides the convictions and confidence necessary for finding your game.

The Role of Mistakes

In addition to implementing the above elements to consistently operate at a higher level, realize the importance of how to best deal with mistakes constantly. Mistakes can easily knock us out of our game and into being off balance, out of rhythm and lacking patience, or we they can help build confidence.

Mistakes help build confidence when we use them to address the lies that say we’re the sum total of our accomplishments. They build confidence when we refuse to let them snowball and instead choose to see ourselves through through the eyes of Christ. This revolves around knowing Who are you as a Christian believer.

When we choose to not allow mistakes to negatively impact our self image, and we instead begin relying on our identity in Christ, we find that we are always acceptable. As we learn to be Living Stones, we discover that we can live and walk in repentance and bask in grace. In that, we finally find our game in a way that impacts eternity.

DISCUSSION: What adjustments do you need to make today to help you “find your game”?

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Aliens Among Us

Entertaining Aliens

Movies along with a slew of books provide a seemingly endless supply of entertainment involving aliens.

Sometimes aliens invade Earth to annihilate humans and take over the planet (War of the Worlds and Independence Day). Sometimes they come to take back what another alien stole and that they need to survive (Men in Black). Sometimes they just get lost here (E.T.).

While here, aliens sometimes take over human bodies and sometimes just eat them. Sometimes, humans and aliens become friends. There are also stories about humans flying to alien planets, which makes the human become the alien (Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis).

There are many individuals who truly believe that aliens exist, have already come to our planet, and that the government is conspiring to cover up that fact (think Area 51). We are fascinated by the idea that other races and worlds may exist outside of our own.

We Are The Aliens

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)

As Christians, we know that we are in fact the aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:11). We are strangers here, and this is not our permanent home. Knowing this should change the way we live our lives.

Because we are strangers and aliens, we should stand out. Standing out isn’t exactly about appearance though. Standing out as Christians refers to the way we live our lives in contrast to our culture.

4 Ways Christians Should Stand Out

As aliens and strangers in this temporal world, we have a variety of ways we can and should stand out.

1. Gifts/Abilities

Every individual has unique qualities that set them apart from others. I am naturally organized. My youngest son is pretty athletic. My oldest son has an amazing ability to memorize. My husband has an unusual amount of constant energy. Some people have a unique fashion style, some have amazing musical talent, and still others have natural leadership or teaching ability.

These qualities in and of themselves are not what should bring notice to a Christian though. The way in which a person uses the gifts and abilities given them should be the focus.

Does God receive credit for the ability? Does the church, His body, benefit from the ability? Does the individual operate in the ability or gift for personal fame or to glorify God?

While only God knows the heart, actions often provide an accurate gauge of what’s happening inside of a person.

“Would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?” (Psalm 44:21)

2. Perspective

Christians stand out because we realize that this world is not our home. We become comfortable with being uncomfortable in an ever-changing and increasingly hostile world.

With one eye always on eternity, the Christian perspective exists as one that focuses on the eternal rather than the temporal. A Christian’s focus on eternity provides motivation and energy for living a holy (set apart) life.

“For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)

3. Motives

The question of motive gets at the reason a person does anything. When the motive is for personal glory, the reward may be immediate and temporarily satisfying to the flesh. But when the motive exists for the glory of God, then the reward endures for eternity.

Asking “Why?” in every facet of life helps keep a Christian focused on the surpassing reward of pleasing the Father in Heaven. Being driven by this “Why?” sets a Christian apart in a world where selfish motives abound.

“We have been set apart as holy because Jesus Christ did what God wanted him to do by sacrificing his body once and for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)

4. A Focus on Truth

Empty promises fill this temporal world. Being sure exists only as an illusion in a culture of relative truth. What’s wrong for you is right for me, and both are okay. Right? Wrong!

As Christians focus on the unchanging truth of God’s Word, they become set apart because they refuse to focus on the ever-changing truth of a temporal world. They focus on truth that satisfies the spirit instead of that which satisfies the flesh (and does so only temporarily).

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)

Do you look like an alien?

As aliens, Christians live in this world but focus on eternity. They take the gifts and abilities God gives, makes sure their motives and perspectives line up with His Word, and then choose to focus on the truth He places in their hearts.

This temporal world is one of roller coaster realities with highs that quickly plummet into valleys. But a Christian living as an alien uses those highs to rejoice in God’s goodness and the lows to depend on His mercy and grace.

God wants His children to stand out, and He provides the tools for doing so. When we consider our gifts and abilities, our perspective and our motives and as we live those out with a focus on His truth, we see that God has truly given us a myriad of ways to be and stay set apart

Faithfulness & Mercy

Bike Rides

My favorite routes for long bike rides are on the country roads jutting north and east from where I live. Though I must contend with the occasional dog chasing me down the road and irrigation spray going over the road, the rides are mostly peaceful with little traffic.

Bike rides give me space from activity and the world, and I purposefully do not listen to music or podcasts when riding for this reason. I want my thoughts to flow freely. More specifically, I want them directed by the Holy Spirit without distraction.

Rainbows

Not long into a recent ride, a particular person came to mind. My thoughts revolved around significant concern for his future. I expressed substantial fear and a fair amount of trepidation too.

When I finished my prayers for this person, I looked up from the road in front of me and at an irrigation system in the field beside me. The rainbow in the spray focused my thoughts immediately on God’s promises. It reminded me that He alone is faithful and to trust His work in that person.

I thanked God for assuaging my disquietude. He took my focused uneasiness and replaced it with his unexplainable peace.

Later in the ride after my mind had moved on to another topic, I passed another irrigation system. This time, a rainbow moved along the spray as I rode by.

As I watched the rainbow move, I realized the Holy Spirit had more to say me about God’s faithfulness and his mercy. That more struck me in a powerful but simple way.

Irrigation

A rainbow’s natural habitat is usually in the sky. Twice on that ride, though, it lived in a man-made device. This location change provided a much-needed perspective change for me.

The rainbows in those irrigation systems helped me understand that sometimes, quite often actually, God’s faithfulness and mercy show through people. More specifically, He wants these qualities to show more through me.

I cannot show them in perfection as they appear when looking directly at God himself. However, His faithfulness and mercy can show to others in my attitudes, actions and words. As I lean on God’s perfect faithfulness and his unending mercy, I am more faithful. I also show mercy more than I could without Him.

In fact, without leaning on those qualities in him, I am incapable of showing faithfulness and being merciful most of the time. Instead, I’m ready to give up when someone fails, and I want to disconnect when they refuse to change like I think they should.

The rainbows on my bike ride reminded me about the faithfulness and mercy of God and how receiving them should impact my interactions with others. But the Holy Spirit had more for me. I needed to grasp yet another point.

Focus

Remember the person I began the ride praying for? God wanted me to remember that he was directly showing that person faithfulness and mercy too.

Even though I often feel hopelessness for that person, God never stops pursuing him. Even when I want to give up and walk away, to not forgive again, God rushes in. He shows His presence and gently enlarges that person’s capacity until he finally lets God in even more.

I saw this happen recently, yet I failed to focus on the activity of God in that person’s life. I kept focusing on that person’s past mistakes instead of God’s current work in him.

I knew God had moved in this person’s life, and I still let concern, fear and trepidation flood my thoughts. I knew God had gotten to him in some compelling ways. Yet, I still allowed past mistakes to infect future potential. Through the irrigation rainbows, God reminded me of the work He was doing. He clearly showed His promise of faithfulness and mercy at work in that person.

Reminders

Regardless of what our culture has done with the rainbow, Scripture stands clear on what it means. It assures us of why God allows its colors to display His majesty. It remains a powerful reminder of who He is.

“And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’ So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.’” (Genesis 9:12-17)

God doesn’t need reminding. He gives rainbows to remind us, to again emphasize His faithfulness and mercy despite the activity of mankind.

God keeps his promises. He is merciful and faithful. What he says he will or won’t do, you can be assured of without a doubt. We cannot say that about anyone else. So when I struggle with human failure, my own or others, I focus again on these reminders of God’s faithfulness and mercy.

I Don’t Know

Many Meanings

The phrase can mean you’re not sure which choice is best or the one you want.

“I don’t know if I want that one or the other one.”

It can mean you have a preference but may want to let the person asking decide.

“I don’t know if that’s the best choice, but it’s up to you.”

It can also be a lazy answer because you don’t want to put forth the effort to think about the best decision.

“I don’t know why I did that.”

Saying “I don’t know” can mean you know the right choice, would rather make a different choice, and your will and your conscience are duking it out.

“I don’t know if I’ll tell her or not.”

It can also mean you really don’t know the answer.

“I don’t know why that happened.”

Saying “I don’t know” can send the message that you do not understand something or that you aren’t happy about something. It can be a way to avoid a conversation you don’t want to have because of laziness or discomfort.

Maybe you’re really not sure and just need time to think. Or, maybe you don’t want to tell the truth for some reason. Could be you know the response your real answer will get, so you don’t give it.

There are a lot of reasons to say “I don’t know” when asked something. And likely, we’re all guilty of all using each one at some point.

What Experience Shows

Here’s what my experience says about the use of “I don’t know.”

  • Most of the time, you either really do know and don’t want to tell the truth, or you’re too lazy to make a responsible decision.
  • If you truly don’t know, waiting is usually the best choice. Waiting is active though and involves seeking wisdom. Don’t move forward if you don’t have to without knowing until you’ve prayerfully sought the right path.
  • Sometimes, you really don’t know, and that’s okay if it’s from an honest place and not a lazy or deceptive one. Again, just wait it out. Sometimes, not knowing means you’re not supposed to act.
  • Simply waiting when you really don’t know is usually the best option. Many times, the situation will resolve itself or present the right choice if you just don’t force a decision and wait for it to present itself.
  • Sometimes, you have to make a decision even when you don’t know what to do. Pray about it, then make the best decision you can. God doesn’t expect perfection. Plus, there’s often simply not a right or wrong decision.

A lot of scripture get at these truths, so we can know for sure what God desires when we find ourselves saying, “I don’t know.”

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your path.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)

God wants us to trust in and lean on him. He wants to give us wisdom for our decisions. He wants us to know which paths to take. And he wants us to have and experience good things.

Trust. Ask. Receive.

Why Are YOU Saying it?

“I don’t know” often shows authenticity and can be a builder of trust and an encouragement. After all, no one likes it when someone acts like they know it all and refuses to admit that sometimes, the truly don’t know the answer.

The next time you find yourself going to “I don’t know” for your answers, ask yourself if that’s really true. Seek out your true intentions. Here are some common ones.

  • Not brave enough to make a decision.
  • Afraid to make the wrong decision.
  • Don’t trust yourself to make the right decision.
  • Afraid of not being accepted if you answer truthfully.
  • Don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
  • Easier than saying “I’m afraid.”
  • Don’t want others to disagree with you.

It’s okay to not know sometimes, but it’s not okay to always not know. It’s not okay if your go to answer is consistently “I don’t know” because you’re hiding the truth.

Instead of automatically answering “I don’t know,” get into the habit of asking God for wisdom. Ask him even when you don’t have a specific situation or question. Make this asking a daily habit, and then seek to know him because knowing him more is the only way truly have the wisdom you need.

Shipwrecked Faith, Part 2

In Shipwrecked Faith, Part 1, we defined a shipwrecked faith and talked about how the struggle to avoid one is real for everyone. In this post, we’ll look at avoiding shipwreck as well as how to recover from one.

How can you avoid a shipwrecked faith?

Paul’s advice to Timothy to “fight the good fight” is still wholly applicable for us today. More specifically, he told Timothy to be aware of false teachers, which basically means anything that doesn’t line up with living out your faith according to the Gospel. It’s anything that veers you away from living a holy life and not offending God. Refusing to follow false teaching and insisting on living out the Gospel results in avoiding a shipwrecked faith.

For an even more detailed answer, let’s look at what Paul says next. He tells Timothy that those who suffered a shipwrecked faith failed to keep a good conscience. They knew the truth of the Gospel but chose to live contrary to it. They made a deliberate choice.

Think of your conscience like the ballast for a ship. Without proper ballast, a ship is unbalanced and cannot be maneuvered accurately. So, a captain can know the right path to take but not be able to steer the ship that way if the ballast isn’t working like it should. Likewise, we cannot live out the Gospel, our faith, if our conscience has been discarded.

In order for this truth to be fully applicable to our lives, we need to understand what exactly our conscience is and is not. Your conscience does not define right and wrong. For the Christian, the Gospel does that. Instead, your conscience directs how you live out your faith, whether according to the Gospel or contrary to it.

Let’s break down the truth of what Paul tells Timothy. How can we live out the truth of the Gospel by keeping a good conscience and thus avoid a shipwrecked faith?

Preserve a Good Conscience

Preserving a good conscience means refusing to drift. Recognize that drift begins imperceptibly and happens gradually, especially if we fail to consider it as a possibility.

Drift happens through compromise. Compromise comes when we tolerate what we should not tolerate, things like torn sails, overloaded ships, complacency and arrogance. It happens when we refuse to challenge the sin in our lives. Sin destroys a good conscience and leads us away from living out the Gospel.

The blood of Jesus can restore a good conscience. Under the blood, there’s no guilt, shame or fear of punishment. In Christ, we have peace and rest as our consciences once again function properly, and we become able to live our faith in the Gospel.

Preserving a good conscience also involves keeping short accounts with God and others. This means following a continual process of confession, repentance and forgiveness. It means again and again returning to the Gospel.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Determine to Be Separate

Being separate from the world requires that we know God’s Word. We must meditate on it regularly and actually fear not obeying it. We need to cast it as our anchor again and again and wait for God to show us the way through it.

Being separate also involves declaring Christian warfare. That means we decide to keep up the struggle of becoming righteous rather than giving in to the world, flesh and Satan. We decide to refuse the easy and and to instead fight for our faith.

“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)

Finally, being separate means knowing without a doubt what you believe…

If we truly hope to be separate, we must continually return to these Gospel truths and choose to live them out regardless of what others think, say or do. Separate is necessary if we hope to avoid the drift of our conscience.

Keep An Active Faith

An active faith is one that is alive and growing and focused living out the many directives detailed in Scripture.

“But as for you, O man of God, flee from these things; aim at and pursue righteousness [true goodness, moral conformity to the character of God], godliness [the fear of God], faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11, AMP)

Paul’s advice to Timothy here gives clarity on how to live an active faith… flee from the bad (anything contrary to the Gospel) and pursue the good (that which conforms to and confirms the Gospel). An active faith refuses to be lazy and instead insists on actively living out the Gospel in every way possible.

What if your faith is already shipwrecked?

What if you’re already adrift and off course? What if your conscience has already been thrown overboard and left behind? What if your faith has run aground and the waves are tearing it apart?

What if you’re in a place where you’re refusing to take responsibility and instead continually blaming others for your circumstances? What if you’re already ignoring the limits God provides? What if you’re already compromising convictions?

The answer is the same no matter how far gone you feel you are right now.

Return to the Gospel. Get to know God’s truth again and rededicate yourself to living it out.

  • Rebuild your conscience based on faith in the Gospel.
  • Reestablish your conviction to live separately.
  • Reactivate the activity of your faith.

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1)