By Linda Rex
It’s very interesting to me the many ways in which God works in our lives in order to get our attention and help us to learn things about ourselves we would not otherwise see. Often, we go about our daily business, dealing with life as usual, never realizing there are significant issues with the way we handle certain things. We may not want to admit it, but we each have blind spots which are obvious to others, but which we cannot see.
One of the ways God brings light into these areas of blindness is by challenging our preconceived ideas regarding certain people, places, or things. By placing us through various circumstances in situations we would not have chosen for ourselves, or situations we did choose but they turned out differently than we expected, God exposes parts of our character which we are often able to hide under the glitz of performance.
Another way God pours his light into areas we are blind to is by placing people in our lives with whom we have to interact whether we like it or not. For example, an introvert such as myself may find herself forced to sit in a big circle of seventy people and have to tell how she feels about being present at that particular event at that particular moment whether she likes it or not.
Would I normally have chosen to tell such a personal feeling to that many people who are strangers to me? No. But the requirements of my situation have forced my hand—I will do it whether I want to or not. And I have to own that I would prefer to gloss over the way I really feel rather than expose myself to all those people and admit I’d just rather not be present in that situation. I’d rather be hiding somewhere else where I can just be me, away from the inspecting, critical examination of myself by people I don’t know and don’t believe are safe.
So, in just a few brief moments, I have gained insight into my own heart and mind, and into how I react in difficult and uncomfortable situations. I have learned something about my own character and my propensity to fudge the truth rather than to make other people feel bad or myself look bad. If I pay attention, then I will make note of this response and determine when faced with this situation again, I will act with boldness and integrity, and speak the truth in love.
If, however, I’m not paying attention when this happens, but ignore what is going on inside my head and my heart, I will react to the situation in a way which isn’t necessarily healthy or loving or honest. I might spend much of my life in this way, reacting to similar situations, and not realizing what is really going on. Blinded to this truth about my character, my behavior, and my responses to certain stimuli, I might go on oblivious, depriving myself and others of the opportunity to live in and experience God’s best.
But what if I took a different approach? What if I stopped in the midst of what is occurring and paused long enough to see things as they really are? What if I took the time to feel what is going on in my heart and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, before reacting to the situation?
One of the things they told me in Christian counseling classes about bad habits is the need to place some significant distance between the stimulus or trigger and the behavior it leads into. The larger this gap is, the more distance there is between what triggers our response and the response itself, the more opportunity there is for the Holy Spirit to get in there and go to work.
I was listening to a young lady today, Kayleigh Vogel with Explore What Matters, talk about this very thing. The more they study the human brain and the psychological/physiological responses to stress stimuli, the more they realize there needs to be a proactive effort to create this distance and to enter into it in such a way we choose our response rather than just doing what comes naturally. She was saying the current studies in the neuroplasticity of the brain show over time our response can be changed as new pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced.
But there must be some effort to pay attention to what is going on inside of us. What drives our decisions? What drives our responses? Is it a gut-reaction, or is it a true expression of what we really value and believe is most important? This is worth reflecting on.
One of the things we do as we get to our adult years is to choose a career or find a job. More people are being intentional about what they choose to do for a living, while others grab what is available, just being thankful they have a job. But at some point, it would do each of us some good to consider this question: Does this job or career bring me joy? Does it really resonate with something deep inside me, with my values and what I care about most?
This is true also about what we do in our daily life, or how we respond to the stress we experience day by day. We all have choices we face. They teach us things, and we grow as we make those choices. We should not be afraid of them, but realize—these are opportunities to learn about ourselves and other people, and about this wonderful world we live in—opportunities to grow as human beings and open ourselves up to the refining, transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
As we make choices and other people make choices, and we experience the reality of life in an imperfect world, we can embrace all this as a wonderful opportunity to learn things about ourselves we would not know otherwise. And we can embrace it all as an opportunity for God to mature and refine us, and to transform us more perfectly into the nature of Jesus Christ.
And we can thank God we have new opportunities to see the blind areas of our character and lives as God’s light shines in those dark places, and opens them up to the redeeming power of God’s grace through Jesus our Lord by his Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for all the ways you bring us to see things about ourselves and our hearts we would not otherwise see, were it not for your love and grace. Thank you that by your Spirit, you continually shine your light in all our areas of blindness and bring us into a deeper understanding of who God are and who we are in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [or overpower] it.” John 1:5 NASB
by Linda Rex
Watching my teens go through the process of deciding what kind of career they want to pursue has caused me to reflect on the angst I experienced back during my senior year in high school and when I first attended university. I remember taking surveys on skills and interests. And I remember the effort I put into making sure I passed the SAT and other required exams with as high a score as possible. I wanted to be able to attend my college of choice.
I intended to enroll in my church’s college, but my parents advised me not to, telling me that they were not teaching the “truth” there any more—I may as well attend a secular university. So I applied to the University of Santa Barbara, and I was accepted. My objective was clear. I was going to graduate with a degree in astrophysics, and one day, I was going to be an astronaut on a space shuttle.
I had the best of intentions, and I really thought I could do it—I was an A student and a member of the honor society. But when I got to university, I got a D in chemistry, and I almost flunked calculus. My first attempt to succeed in finishing undergraduate school failed.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t very realistic back then. Maybe I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. But honestly, how many of us actually achieve on the first try the exact thing we set out to do?
As I’ve gotten older and have experienced the ups and downs, successes and failures of life, I have become more conservative in my estimations of what I can and cannot do. I am learning not to rely solely on other people’s opinions and preferences, and to not presume I can do whatever I want to do or think I can do. I’ve realized I need a sober estimate of the truth in the light of my relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is especially true when it comes to matters of a spiritual and moral nature. I have learned my utmost efforts to do the right thing in every situation are flawed at best, and I am utterly dependent upon God for any possibility of doing things the way they really should be done. I am too easily swayed or distracted from where I should be, and too easily influenced to do the wrong thing, especially in difficult situations.
I’m mindful of Peter’s experience when he told Jesus he would follow him anywhere, even to the point of laying down his life for Jesus. But Jesus was no fool. He knew the truth about Peter—in the midst of the intensity of the moment when Jesus was taken captive and interrogated, Peter would deny him three times. And sure enough, Peter did exactly that.
But amazingly enough, doing this did not change Peter’s status with Jesus. After the resurrection, Jesus restored his relationship with Peter and instructed him to feed and tend his sheep. Jesus already knew what Peter would do, and even though he did do it, doing it did not alter Jesus’ love for Peter or his commitment to what he was doing in Peter’s heart and life. In fact, after the resurrection Jesus renewed Peter’s call to ministry, and when the Holy Spirit came, Peter stood up and gave a powerful, moving sermon which inspired many people to repent.
This is so comforting to me. Jesus is not put off by our failures or inability to perform perfectly. Since he already knows we are going to come up short, and he has already given us grace by including us in his death and resurrection, our failures and shortcomings are not an issue. They are already taken care of before they ever happen. Jesus’ relationship with us is not dependent upon our performance, but solely upon the nature and character of God, which is love.
Knowing this isn’t intended to make us want to go out and do awful things—rather, we find we don’t want to presume upon the grace given us. We are so grateful Jesus cares that much, we are compelled even more so to do the right thing in every circumstance.
God’s love for us demonstrated in Jesus and poured out into our hearts and lives by the Spirit moves us to think, say and do those things which agree with who we are as God’s children made in his image. We love God so much in response to his love we don’t want to harm or wound our relationship with him in any way by doing, thinking or saying things which we aren’t created for.
It is when we feel strongly we are in control and able to handle things ourselves we are most likely to get ourselves into trouble. Indeed, pride is our downfall—we trust in ourselves and our ability to do the right thing in every situation—and we find ourselves doing and saying things we never meant to which are hurtful and destructive. And like Peter, if we recognize it and look into the loving, gracious face of Jesus at that moment, we will be heartsick and broken.
And this is where and when God in Jesus will go to work. The Spirit will begin to bring us to that place of true humility where we recognize only by God’s grace can and will we ever be who God created us to be—children made in his image and likeness to reflect his nature.
Even though I had a rough start many years ago, God has never stopped working with me. My vocation has totally changed, my circumstances are entirely different. But my relationship with God in Jesus by the Spirit has only grown stronger and deeper. God has been faithful to me, and he is teaching me to be faithful to him. He is slowly and surely making me into the person he meant for me to be in the first place.
And he will do the same for you. It does not matter how old you are, what you have done, or what you have been through in your life. God will start with you where you are now and begin to work. And in time you may see he has been at work all along, even though you never noticed it before, or responded to his efforts in a negative way when he did try to work with you.
God will finish what he has begun in your life and mine—and his plans are so much more wonderful and adventurous than ours. He has amazing things in store for us—whether we believe it or not. And that’s something truly to be grateful for.
Thank you, Father, your plans for us are so much better than those we make for ourselves. And thank you for offering us the grace to grow up into all you mean for us to be. May we respond to each and every effort you make to grow us up in Christ by your Spirit, and allow you to transform our hearts by faith. In your name, we pray. Amen.
“Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.’” John 13:37–38 NASB
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5