Tag Archives: redemption

What devotion looks like.

Having grown up in church, I’m sometimes guilty of parroting words and expressions I haven’t thought through. “Surrender to Jesus,” and “Put God first,” are excellent examples. I know they’re true, I just don’t know what they look like in practice. But true to God’s nature, when you ask for understanding, you get it (see Luke 8:10).

My most recent “Aha!” came with the word “devotion,” which has largely come to mean “time spent reading the Bible and praying,” an unfortunate reduction of a strong term originally derived from “to consecrate,” or “to make sacred.” What does “making oneself sacred” mean exactly? We’re instructed in Titus 2:12 to do just that in order to live in an evil world, so how do we do it? I found a simple, beautiful picture of devotion in Mark 16, a picture that’s worth hanging onto.

On Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome (the disciple, not the scary one) famously went to Jesus’s tomb to anoint and care for his body. On the way, they discuss a problem: an enormous stone bars them from Jesus. They even ask each other as they walk, “Who will roll away the stone for us at the entrance to the tomb?” (Mark 16:3, NLT).

Get this: three women – Jesus’s mother, at least, would be in her forties by now; I’m not sure about the others – encumbered with spices and oils, are headed out to anoint a corpse blocked by a huge stone.

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They know there’s an obstacle. They know they’re physically incapable of the task they set out to accomplish. In case we’re missing it, verse 4 epithetically points out, the stone “was very large.” But nothing was going to keep them from their Lord. They physically can’t do what they’ve set out to do and they know it, but they packed up their oils and spices and hit the road anyway. And their devotion to Jesus affords them the greatest blessing in all of history: they’re the first to witness the fact that he rose from the dead. When they make it to the tomb, the stone is already off to the side. An angel is waiting for them and says, “He’s alive! Here’s proof!”

Devotion results when nothing keeps you from loving Jesus. It doesn’t matter to you if showing your love for him sometimes seems useless or even laughable. It doesn’t matter to you when obstacles are in your way. It doesn’t matter to you if it’s just you and a couple other people who seem as weak or broken as you are, you’ll do whatever it takes to get to him. Devotion doesn’t care about drawbacks and impediments. Devotion says, “I’m on my way, and I’m trusting you to move the stone when I get there.” Devotion remembers that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

The faith these three women showed is what gets us through our evil-occupied world (Titus 2:12). When matched with enormous stones that can keep us from Christ – stones like addiction and other sinful patterns, dubious track records, pain you’ve caused, pain you’ve experienced, or any other thing that worries you or brings you shame – devotion says, “I’m coming anyway, Lord.” That’s the kind of devotion I want.

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Sex Scandals Got Jesus Here.

In my Human Sexuality course last spring, I wrote a paper outlining my personal theology of sex. In it, I discussed the mysterious beauty of the act and how it reflects a unified, three-in-one God by unifying a two-in-one marital relationship. But I also spent one paragraph’s worth of space on its misuses because of the clarity and severity with which the Bible condemns certain sexual practices. Spoiler alert: it is grave. First Corinthians 6:18 implies the disease associated with sexual laxness. Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 warn that it precludes inheriting the Kingdom of God. Mark 7:20-23 labels it a “defiler” of the heart and mind. Hebrews 13:4 cautions that it ushers in the judgment of God. Revelation 21:8 identifies death as its natural consequence. God is relentless on this point: misuses of sex will never create joy for you. It will bring pain, destruction, and perhaps disease, but never joy.

But this is not an essay on poor sexual choices. This is about how big God’s grace must be because three kinds of sexual immorality are in his own genealogy. If stronger evidence of John 3:17 – that God came into the world not to condemn it but to save it – exists, I certainly don’t know where it is.

The first woman listed in the genealogy of Jesus is Tamar (Matthew 1:3), whose story is found in Genesis 38. She needed to produce an heir for her in-laws but found it impossible. Her first husband died, her second husband was deceitful and died as a result, and the third husband she was promised was never given to her. With a ticking biological clock, she dressed as a prostitute, knowing her father-in-law would proposition her. It happened, she got pregnant, and that boy ended up in the genealogy of Jesus.

The second woman listed in the genealogy of Jesus is Rahab (Matthew 1:5), whose story is in Joshua 2. She was an actual prostitute, not just for Halloween, who hid two of God’s men and saved them from certain death. After talking with them on the roof while they hid at her house, she declared her faith in Israel’s God. Her son is also an ancestor of Jesus.

The fourth woman listed is Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6), whose story is in 2 Samuel 11. By far, she has the most soap-operatic story of them all. King David sees her bathing and wants her immediately. They end up pregnant, which is a problem because Bathsheba is married. So David arranges for her husband to be killed in battle. A child resulting from their union, Solomon, is also in the messianic line.

Even more interesting: women just weren’t included in Jewish genealogies. Inspired by God, the author of Matthew went out of his way to make sure you know about Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba and their place in the line of Jesus.

So it’s true that sinful uses of sexuality are some of the evilest, gravest sins a person can engage with. But in Jesus’s own line, there is incest mixed with deceit; prostitution; and adultery mixed with murder. This is how God chose to get Jesus to us. There’s no way around the fact that sexual immorality leads to death. But when given to Jesus, even sexual immorality can result in life and hope and grace.

Furthermore, as serious as all sins are, God’s grace is even more serious about rescuing you and cleaning you out. God’s grace is serious about setting you free and filling you up with joy. That’s a force to carry you through anything, even the pain of turning to him after sin.

May you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. — Ephesians 3:18-19

Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8:38-39

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I Quit Forever.

I made a New Summer’s Resolution. I am quitting all diets forever, and I mean forever.

This isn’t a new idea. “It’s not a diet; it’s a lifestyle” has become cliché in our age of dietry. So I want to be clear: when I say I am quitting all diets forever, I don’t mean I’m adopting a certain diet as my new way of life. I am not a new Paleo convert. I literally mean I am quitting. All diets. Forever.

It occurred to me one day that I have spent a ton of time being afraid of and simultaneously drawn to a few “bad” foods; namely, cookies, sweet tea, and French fries. These are my heroin, my security blankets, and my antidepressants (that seriously don’t work). But these foods have no inherent value; they are not “bad.” They are inanimate, valueless. My method of consumption is what determines the wisdom of eating them.

Well, here’s the thing: I don’t want my daughter to end up waging the same war I have for 30½ years. I want to win it and end it, perhaps for us both at once. I’d rather my daughter know that some foods are everyday, all-you can eat foods; some foods are treats; and some foods are just for parties. I want her to see food as sustenance and occasionally a social enhancement and definitely a gift from God (as evidenced by the existence of taste buds, according to my pastor). What food is not is an emotional anesthetic or a substitute for affection. I want her to know that fruits and vegetables have superpowers, and that’s why God made them so bright and colorful. I want her to know that singing and dancing and laughing and playing all make for better journeys than Oreos do.

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I don’t want her to be scared of food. I definitely don’t want her to be scared of being fat.

So I’m not quitting health. I’m actually kind of finding it, now that I’m exiting the diet funhouse with all its mirrors that distort and lie and frighten. It’s a hard place to leave, because as restrictive and hateful as diets can be, they’re also seductive. They tell you sexiness and happiness and all your dreams-come-true are in following their simple regime.

It’s a lie.

Instead, we walk together, my daughter and I. We have Bath-Time Dance Parties. We snack on grapes and avocados when we’re hungry. We point to different parts of our bodies and say, “Anna has pretty arms; Mama has pretty arms! Anna has pretty feet; Mama has pretty feet!” And we remind each other that strong is more important than gorgeous, but gorgeous is a given.

A really beautiful memoir I read earlier this year included the line, “Contentment doesn’t double by the serving.” Very true: more potato chips have never led me to more joy. But I’ve learned that you don’t have to diet to eat fewer potato chips. You can just choose an alternative ending. Sure, you’ve always eaten the whole bag. See what happens if you don’t this time. I’ve been practicing. The skill sharpens with repeated success. And it definitely keeps proving the point that more food never equals more contentment.

When I get to the end of my life, my daughter with me in my room, I sure hope she doesn’t say, “Mom, you taught me how to diet.” I hope she says, “Mom, you had soul. You knew how to fight and win. You knew how to dance.” If that’s the story I want to tell, I’d better stop the dieting, choose something greater than the cookies, and just for the love of God get started dancing like she does:

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The Title-Loan Disciple.

By some cruel twist of fate, my family had to pay the IRS this year. It’s not yet been explained to me in a way I find satisfactory. Even so, it’s nice that the IRS isn’t an evil oligarchy running the show and illegally making money off the poor in order to oppress them further. From what I’ve read, that was the case in the Roman Empire a couple millennia ago. Tax collectors took not only the requisite income tax but also outrageously more in illegal funds to keep for themselves. Worse, they were abusing their own people: the brutal Romans hired them as Jews to steal from the Jews. The profession, of course, attracted the greediest, most dishonest thieves alive. They were so sinful that Jesus lumped them together with pagans (Matthew 18:17).

So it’s odd that in Luke 5:27, Jesus stops at one of these booths and asks the guy inside to be a disciple, in Jesus’s most intimate circle of friends. I think this would be kind of like Jesus stopping into a title loan shop and inviting the manager to become a disciple.

But not only did Jesus choose that kind of person, he also gave the invitation while the sinner was in the middle of sinning. Matthew’s at work, stealing from everyone, generally being abusive and awful, when Jesus says, “Wanna get away?”

Jesus saw this terrible man not as he was but as he would become. Jesus knew the strength and goodness seeded in Matthew’s heart. It caused Jesus to push past the sin in the guy’s story to get to the real man underneath.

And look what it does to Matthew: the immediately following verse tells us he threw a huge party at his house (Luke 5:29). He went from being swallowed up by greed, hatred, and abuse to utter generosity. He was willing to pay to feed everyone so they’d come over and meet Jesus too. That’s what Jesus can do: when he calls you away from your junk and starts whispering to you about who you really are, it changes you. Whatever ensnared you the most forcefully can be completely reversed. You simply can’t look at both options – the sinful you and the freed you – and want to stay where you are.

No one

There is one thing that can keep people from Christ though, it seems. He says to the religious bigots, “I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:32). A person who “thinks he/she is righteous” is pride-full, and that’s what apparently keeps Jesus away. In order to receive the grace of the Messiah, you have to know you need it.

But why choose greed and pride over Jesus? He is kind, protective, loving, and holds all power. He has sustained me with joy in my very darkest moments. He has surrounded me with a community of people who, because they love him, hold me up and cherish me as he does. He has not stopped giving me the desires of my heart since I trusted my life to him. And even if none of those things were true, he is still all we need on this earth. He literally provides everything from food to healing to comfort. There is no one like my Jesus. And even though I started out as selfish and sinful as Matthew, Jesus is fulfilling his promise to accomplish inside of me all he promised to accomplish since the beginning (Psalm 138:8). Since it’s a promise made to everyone, that promise goes for you too.

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Live free.

My friend S said something the other day that changed the game: “The opposite of afraid isn’t calm. It’s joyful.” She was telling me about a scary time in her life in which she realized that being calm is only the midpoint. True trust in God leads all the way to the other end of the spectrum – joy.

Historically though, joy has not been associated with the Christian life. Missionaries talk about suffering for Jesus. Lookers-on fear that if they became Christians, they couldn’t have fun anymore. Few pictures depict joyful-looking Jesuses.

Frankly, I get it. At first blush, the Bible seems to be loaded with rules. When you get saved, you give up your “freedom” to live life however you want in order to be given a Bible-sized list of rules. Don’t get drunk. Don’t have sex with someone you aren’t married to. Don’t hate your enemy, even the ones who hate you. Don’t eat the meat of animals with cloven hoofs. Come on.

Yet in John 8:36, the Bible famously declares, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (NLT). And 1 Timothy 2:6 says that Jesus “gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone.” If this “freedom” comes with so many rules, what kind of freedom is it really?

To say Jesus gives us “freedom from sin” feels disingenuous. Romans 3:23 says everyone has sinned. I don’t know about you, but I, a “free” Christian, still sin an awful lot. Besides, to a skeptic, freedom from sin 1) doesn’t matter, and/or 2) isn’t desirable. And yet: Jesus wouldn’t die to secure something for us that wasn’t desirable. So there must be more to it.

Here is what I believe: Jesus purchased us freedom from certain destruction. Sin destroys. Whether sexual sin, monetary sin, relational sin, or one of the “seven deadly sins,” engaging in it causes us to lose relationships, peace, health, trust in others, money, and so forth. Any addict or recovering addict will readily admit the truth of that statement. Try going through life as I did, expecting food – food! – to fill your emptiness. It doesn’t. It costs you energy, health, money, time, and dignity. Or perhaps try to fill yourself with frenetic energy, staying busy, worried, and stressed all the time. Try pride. Try sexual sin. Try over-spending. Try numbing with Facebook, television shows, smoking, being bored, and general time wasting. These things all destroy. They destroy you, the trust others have in you, the relationships you’re in, and all manner of your health.

But Jesus – Jesus pours into you. He brings you abundantly joyful life (John 10:10). He replaces your fear with peace (Matthew 6:25-27) and joy (Luke 2:10). He fills your empty places with good things (Luke 1:53). He brings you hope, even in the most hopeless circumstances, because he makes everything new (Revelation 21:5), and he will accomplish in you what he set out to accomplish (Psalm 138:8). Every single wonderful thing that has ever happened to you has come from him as a gift (James 1:17).

So the freedom Jesus brings is not a list of rules. He gives you the freedom to enjoy your life, to not be bound up in things that don’t satisfy. He brings you a ticket out of consuming worry. He brings you deliverance from addiction. He introduces you to a life of completeness and fullness for all those empty places. He doesn’t take away the consequences of sin, but he gives you another option: himself. Without him, you can’t know the freedom of complete inner calm, inexhaustible joy, and deep wisdom for the most harrowing storms.

jesus-laughing-baptizing

Specifically for me, this has begun to mean freedom from perfectionism. My personality is as achievement- and perfection-oriented as they come. I am the firstborn of two high achievers, so there was no escaping this. I spent decades petrified at being anything other than perfect. It’s no way to live, folks. You’re stressed and frustrated with yourself almost all of the time.

Then, this January, the third time my Counseling Systems class met, I was assigned a huge project due the next week. Being new to the program and to psychology in general, I was terrified at the thought of turning in such an important project so soon, so I promptly scheduled an appointment with the professor. I sat on the couch in her office with a list of questions intended to help me perform perfectly. After hearing her patient answers, I was still scared to death, and the stress squeezed itself out as tears, my paper blurring in front of me.

She then shared with me a part of this truth about Jesus bringing us freedom. “Listen,” she said, “you can’t thwart God’s will with a less-than-perfect project or exam, even if that’s what results. You aren’t that powerful. If it’s God’s will for you to be here, you’ll succeed when you give him your best effort. You don’t have to be perfect.” Slowly, so slowly, I have found freedom from (most of) my perfectionism. God didn’t ask me to be perfect, and he promised to accomplish his work in me no matter what. I’m safe.

Believe me, I was skeptical of this “freedom” too. But he really did purchase actual, true freedom…for everyone (1 Timothy 2:6). In Jesus there is freedom from “hustling” for approval, as Brené Brown puts it. In Jesus there’s freedom from fear (2 Timothy 1:7, 1 John 4:18). In Jesus there’s freedom to hear the truth (cf. John 8:43). In Jesus there’s freedom to keep your joy, no matter what happens, because you know it will all be okay in the end (see Revelation and all the Gospels). In Jesus there’s freedom from all the junk that comes from you trying to meet your own needs – freedom from all that destruction and anger and sadness and hustling and shame. That’s what freedom is and that’s what you get with Jesus.

Tell that to your list of rules.

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Hot Water

I’m not so much on the science, never have been. It explains away so much of the poetry in life. I remember being actually sad in the third grade when we learned that rainbows were merely light passing through water. I’d rather them simply be a sign from God, like in Noah’s story, rather than banal scientific fact. Same with flowers that spring up where you didn’t plant them. Why do we have to attribute that to bird poo? In my book, they’re just a beautiful surprise from a romantic God. My distaste for demystification goes all the way back to my very young days in which I was amazed at how the insides of an egg went from soupy to solid after some time in hot water. How could something so simple bridge the difference between splat and boing? How could the possibility of bouncing exist in the same egg that minutes before had been such a mess on the inside?

I want to think this is what trials, the “hot water” in our lives, are for: to get us from being so easily splattered to people who bounce. If we’re supposed to equate problems with “great joy” (James 1:2), it had better be for something worthwhile like that. Personally, I am not holy enough yet to respond naturally to trials with joy. I will not be joyfully cheering if my car explodes tomorrow. But…to see the grace of God while I rebuild my life, that would produce joy. Albeit slowly, I’m guessing.

In Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace, he claims God gives away grace in a way that is “almost wasteful.” It’s sloshing out of the too-full bucket with every step. In fact, this is how God gives everything. The disciples needed some fish. When they did as Jesus suggested and threw the nets over the other side, “they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it” (John 21:6, NLT). A crowd needed dinner. Jesus created so much that everyone ate and twelve baskets of leftovers were collected (John 6:13). You need a Savior who loves you. The love of Jesus is so wide and so long and so high and so deep that it’s literally impossible for the human brain to understand (Ephesians 3:18). You have a life, but Jesus offers you one that is “richer and more satisfying” than anything you’d have by following your own desires (John 10:10b). Jesus is all about infinitely more, fuller, bigger, greater, wilder than you can ask or even imagine (Ephesians 3:20). It’s not just that Jesus is all you need; he’s all you need and a billion percent more.

If the hot water fortifies your heart and mind and the fortification of your heart and mind allows you to bounce, then I suppose I can stand the heat. As Dallas Willard wrote, God’s “overriding concern” is for my joy, and it’s clearly more fun to bounce than splat.

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Eight Things You Have to Stop Saying to Women Who Struggle with Infertility.

Last month I wrote a paper about counseling women who struggle with infertility. Having received that diagnosis myself and living through multiple miscarriages and failed attempts at pregnancy, it’s a pain I know much more intimately than I would like. It’s also a pain God is redeeming by allowing me to study counseling. I hope one day to sit with women who experience this sorrow, comfort them, and let them know so much joy and magic are out there for them when they’re ready. Here are eight things I believe no woman in this situation should ever have to hear (and also four things I bet she would love to hear).

  1. “God has a plan for you,” “God gives us the desires of our heart,” or any variant of any Scripture. Like you, I believe these things too. If the woman in your life who is struggling with infertility is a Christian, then she believes them too. But when the plan she has always dreamed of is stolen, she doesn’t want to hear Scriptures, even if she believes them. She’s confused and heartbroken; platitudes, even Scriptural ones, aren’t helpful. When Jesus comforted people, he did not spurt Scripture and leave it at that. He cried with them (John 11:35), affirmed them (Luke 7:9), and spoke gently to them.
  1. “I couldn’t have a baby for years, but now we’re on Miracle #2!” That’s great for you. But it feels like you’re rubbing it in her face, not giving her hope.
  1. “Everything happens for a reason.” Where is this in the Bible? We do know that God works out everything for the benefit of those who trust and love him, but she doesn’t want to be told that right now. She’s hurting, and it feels like you don’t care when you say things like this instead of putting your head on her shoulder and crying with her.
  1. “You can always adopt.” She knows. She might decide to later. She’s heard the same stories you have about how beautiful adoption can be. But if adoption isn’t in her heart, it won’t suddenly change her countenance for you to bring it up. She won’t say, “Oh, you’re right! I never thought of that!” She’s dealing with jealousy, confusion, fear, anger, grief, shame, stress, and probably other painful emotions. Right now – and maybe always – adoption sounds to her like raising someone else’s child, not being a mother.
  1. “Just relax, and it will happen.” Sure, there’s science to back up the fact that plenty of women have conceived after it seemed all hope was lost. But telling her it’s her own fault that she hasn’t yet conceived because she’s too stressed isn’t a welcome theory. A little wine and a bath won’t cure grief. She needs support while her heart finds its way.
  1. “My kids fight all the time / cost us so much money / still don’t let us sleep through the night.” She would love to hear kids fighting in her house! She would love to have a baby who wakes her in the middle of the night! Even though you’re trying to tell her “kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” you know you would never trade yours, and so does she. It’s like complaining that you have to take your Lamborghini to the mechanic.
  1. “Never give up hope!” Here’s the truth: she might never have a baby. Neither of you know what will happen in the future. Let her deal with the uncertainty on her terms. She might choose to keep trying to get pregnant or she might not, but that’s her business, not yours. 
  1. “I know how you feel. My cousin/sister/etc. couldn’t have children either.” Unless you have been diagnosed with infertility – actually had the sentence leveraged on you by a medical professional – you don’t know how she feels. Fearing you might not be able to have children doesn’t count. Having a relative who couldn’t have children doesn’t count. Taking longer than you wanted to get pregnant doesn’t count. No one knows how she feels except Jesus and the people she chooses to open up to. Let her tell you how she feels if she wants to.

Four Things a Woman Struggling with Infertility Might Love to Hear.

  1. “This isn’t fair.” Let her know she can vent her anger at the situation, even at God, if she needs to. It really isn’t fair that some teenagers get pregnant without trying or wanting to and some wives/stepmoms/aunts/Sunday school teachers/etc. are ready and deeply want to, but never conceive the first time. It’s not fair that she, this woman who so desperately wants to experience motherhood, isn’t “getting her heart’s desires.” Let her work through it.
  1. “If you don’t feel one speck better tomorrow, it’s okay.” When the third specialist confirmed my diagnosis, it seemed my some of my church acquaintances wanted me to starting getting over it immediately. Witnessing grief can make people uncomfortable. I went through times of hope, times of anger, times of feeling stolen from, times of jealousy, and I would’ve loved for someone to say, “If a bad day turns into a string of bad days, I’ll still be here. I won’t lose patience with you. This is hard, and it’s okay that it’s hard.”
  1. “I am here for you.” Don’t say it unless you mean it. But if you’re willing to truly walk through the darkness with her, she would be grateful. It’s a hard thing: if you say this, you’ll have to be ready to let her feel her feelings in all their intensity, call you at 11:00 p.m. because she read someone’s Facebook post and got insanely jealous, question her faith in front of you, and cry with her on Mother’s Day. But if you mean it, she could certainly use a friend who is willing to understand her.
  1. Nothing. Just hug her.

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