Positively Telling Yourself the Truth

A few years ago, something was taken from me that I loved. I have suffered with digestive issues for much of my adult life, on and off. If I experience much stress, apparently my weak point is my stomach. Anyway, I began to suffer an extra measure of pain, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms that led me to investigate the source. At that time, I really enjoyed having a glass of milk, particularly before bed at night. However, this came to a stop once I realized that milk was the culprit behind my issues. My stomach no longer responded well to it.

Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago. I decided to give milk a try. This was not the first time I decided to see if it still bothered me. I really miss it and keep hoping that one day my body will respond well to it again. However, this was not the case. I slept about 2 hours that night due to those same old symptoms that I had experienced a few years ago.

All the positive thinking in the world cannot overpower what is true.

I told myself it would be different this time, but it wasn’t. I wished I could drink milk again without my body rejecting it, but it still did. All the positive thinking in the world couldn’t have made my body change its response to milk. Yeah, I could “push through” and drink it anyway. However, that would not be worth it. What little joy I might would get in drinking it would be washed away 45-60 minutes later when my stomach started churning.

The truth is, if our perspective and thoughts are not based on truth, positive thinking does not change anything long-term. It may make us feel good in the moment, but there will be a moment of reckoning when reality hits.

So what are we to do? Are we to just mope around in pessimism, always expecting the worst? Without positive thinking, isn’t that all that’s left? NO, thankfully there’s something else…something much more substantial and reliable.

We can rely on truth.

Truth is the one thing we can focus on that will not let us down. It is what it is, and it does not change. Sometimes it stings when we are confronted with it, but it helps us to embrace reality. It encourages us to live our lives freely as who we really are. It also helps us avoid some phony happy-go-lucky perspective that is no more than a bold faced lie that will eventually leave us feeling anxious and frustrated (and possibly with a sour stomach).

It’s often difficult to want the truth and to see it in our everyday lives. The challenge is for us to love and seek truth rather than settling for the phony stuff that is tempting to fall for. We must trust that truth is more trustworthy than our feelings at times. Truth is more valuable and pays more dividends than telling ourselves what we want to hear.

Truth is more than just something to learn about and apply in our lives.

God is the source of truth. Only in Him can we embrace it and live it out. Jesus referred to himself as “the Truth”. Since He personalized “truth”, it is not just a cold theological term, rule to follow, or task to complete. Truth is relational. It is something we discover, learn, and cultivate in our lives with God and others. Truth is comforting, a place to rest, someone we can depend on, and it frees us to be who we really are. It reveals our true identity (who God says we are). Trusting in the truth leads us to see ourselves, others, God, and the world around us with a whole new, colorful perspective. If positive thinking was an old black and white television, truth is a brand new 75 inch HD OLED television with HDR (for those of you who are not tech-savvy, that is a really nice television).

Two weekends ago, I found out that milk still bothers me. However, the truth is there are many things in this world I thoroughly enjoy. Some of them have yet to be discovered. I don’t need milk to be happy. I will miss it, but I will look forward to other things in my life that will likely prove to be more beneficial and satisfying. Tossing milk to the side is hard for me, but it is a small thing in comparison to what some of us are facing. I pray we are able to embrace Him, His Truth, and His love in the midst of whatever situation we are in. Instead of merely telling ourselves something positive, let’s positively tell ourselves the truth.

-Neil

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Transforming Our Weaknesses into Strengths

Paul wrote many letters that we can now read in our Bibles, each containing great insight into his life and the lives of those he wrote to. He is a dramatic example of how one can truly be changed by God’s grace through trusting Christ. I recently had a conversation with some friends about Paul and wanted to share some about what came up, as I realized how impactful it can be to take a close look at Paul “before and after” his encounter with Jesus. Some things about Paul changed, but some things did not.

From the first time we read about Paul in the Bible, we begin to see a driven man. He was passionate about what he believed in. He was extremely knowledgeable of Scripture and the Law. Having his own understanding of what he knew about those things, he strived to keep the law and enforce it with others. He felt strongly that he was doing the right thing. Nothing could stop him. He was even complicit in murder in attempts to protect what he believed in, which included the murder and imprisonment of those who trusted in Jesus.

Unbeknownst to him, he was persecuting not only those who trusted Christ, but also Christ the Lord Himself. Jesus made him aware of this while Paul was traveling to Damascus to continue his threats and carrying out of what he perceived to be justice. After being blinded and then regaining his sight, Paul’s heart was changed by God and his perspective changed as well.

This is where it gets rather interesting. Yes, Paul’s treatment of others, particularly Christians, changed. However, his temperament did not change. He was still a very driven man. He was still very passionate in what he believed in. He was still determined to push through anything and anyone to accomplish the goals set forth before him. However, all of this looked a lot different with the new heart he had.

God transformed Paul’s weaknesses into strengths.

Instead of hatred and self-righteousness driving him, love and humility had taken over in his heart. Instead of making others suffer to prove his own point, he was now willing to suffer himself in order to accomplish the goal of spreading the truth about Jesus (the Gospel). Instead of being willing to take the lives of others, he was determined to give others life in Christ.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21, ESV)

Paul initially treasured the seeking of righteousness through adherence to the rules he interpreted from Scripture. He believed in striving to follow the rules and enforcing them on others. After coming to know the Lord, he then treasured God’s grace due to his newfound realization that he was in desperate need of it. Paul once thought he was good because he worked so hard to be. After his conversion, Paul realized his deep need for dependence on Christ for God to work good in and through him. Paul was once arrogant and feared by others, but he became humble, loving, and loved.

God transforms our weaknesses into strengths.

Many of us see things in ourselves that we do not like, things we might even hate and wish to be changed. However, today I want to encourage us to be open to seeing ourselves from a different perspective. Perhaps those very things that we hate about ourselves are merely us acting out in ways that God doesn’t intend for us. Maybe we are hard-headed, refusing to be open to being wrong, and that causes us trouble. However, with a bit of humility, that same hard-headedness can be steadfastness and determination to seek and stand by truth and trustworthiness, which can keep us OUT of trouble. Perhaps we procrastinate often, but with the right motivation we might discover that we have a knack for avoiding quick, disorganized choices and instead have the ability to engage in well-thought-out decisions that helps us and those around us.

Instead of treasuring God and who He created us to be, we often treasure what we see in others and desire to morph into something else. Let’s make a concerted effort to do something different. Let’s look in the mirror and notice those things we wish were different. Invite God and trusted others to take a look at those same traits and tell us what they see. Perhaps those traits and tendencies don’t need to be removed. Instead, maybe we need a different perspective in order to take advantage of strengths we have been considering to be weaknesses.

-Neil

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All Apologies

The other day at work, I was not in a good mood. Often, when my mood is in the dumps, I spew sarcasm. Sometimes, others laugh at my responses to annoyances around me. However, many times these comments can be hurtful. In this particular case, after I had made one of my notorious comments, I pondered how it might have seemed to those around me. A few nights before, my loving and concerned wife let me know how I was affecting her. My frustration with some things in life was leading me to respond with sarcasm and vent sessions. Since Melissa has a desire to see me happy and content, she said it led her to feel like she needed to tip-toe around me. That’s the last thing I wanted! This really bothered me. I apologized to her and we discussed what was going on to lead to my demeanor. Fast-forward to my situation at work. Thankfully, that interaction with Melissa caused me to be more aware of how I was behaving around my coworkers. After realizing that some of my comments might have been hurtful, I went to those who heard my remarks, apologized, and explained that my frustrations were my issue and in no way were indicative of how I felt about them. However, I did not want to continue making them uncomfortable around me. I don’t want my friends to feel like they must walk on eggshells! 

How often do we apologize?  

It’s an important question to ask ourselves. If we cannot remember the last time we apologized for something, then there’s a problem. We are imperfect people who intentionally and unintentionally hurt each other all the time. If we aren’t apologizing, we are missing something and creating barriers in our relationships with others. We’ve all done things that we need to apologize for in recent history. We shouldn’t have to look too far in the past to find a transgression. 

Some of us over-apologize.

If we’ve apologized to 15 different people in the last 15 minutes, then that very well may be a problem, too. We cannot be responsible for everything that goes wrong! Some of us feel tremendous guilt almost constantly. We begin to apologize for things almost out of habit, saying we’re sorry just because someone else is inconvenienced when we had no control over it at all. It’s important to own our mistakes, but it is also important not to take the blame for things that are not ours to own.  

Sincere and heartfelt apologies are a door to a wonderful gift from God.

Simply put, there can be too much or too little of this very important behavior. Apologizing isn’t just a behavior, though. When it’s done the way God intended it, then it is a heart-driven act that is born out of acknowledgment that we have done something wrong and that we have hurt someone. Authentic apologies are an attempt to tap into one of God’s wonderful and miraculous gifts of grace: forgiveness.  

Forgiveness is essential to receive and to be offered to others.

Forgiveness sets us free from the bondage of guilt. It prevents guilt from morphing into shame, which is much akin to a crippling disease of the soul. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation and restoring damaged relationships. It can initiate the healing of deep wounds. It’s just too important of a gift to miss out on. 

We need to be aware of a false approach to forgiveness through apologies.

There are ways in which we can say we are sorry, but not pursue the forgiveness we need. In 2 Corinthians 10:7, Paul refers to this imposter as “worldly grief (sorrow)”. Here are some clues that we may be engaging in worldly sorrow and not acting out of repentance and seeking true forgiveness:  

We are only looking to get ourselves off the hook for something.      

Deep inside, we are looking for the other person to respond in a certain way. Maybe we want them to apologize for something, too. 

We demand that we be forgiven because “God says you should forgive me”. 

We have no desire to spend ample time trying to understand the hurt we have caused. 

We minimize the sin we have committed, or deny it is a sin at all. We refuse to own the entirety of what we have done. This delegitimizes the hurt we’ve caused. 

There is a wonderful question that we need to be asking those around us: “How am I affecting you?”

So, let’s be careful to examine our hearts for occasions in which we need to seek and offer forgiveness. Let’s make it a habit of asking those around us how we are affecting them. There will be times in which we find that we are not at fault. Many times, we will find that we are. Let’s start the process by talking to God first. Receiving the reality of His forgiveness is absolutely necessary as a foundation to seeking it from others. We must be firmly wrapped up in His love in order to fully own the depths of our wrongdoings. Without experiencing his unconditional love in the midst of our guilt, we will find it impossible to humble ourselves with those we have hurt.

-Neil

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All the Right Answers

One of the biggest stressors I encountered when I first started counseling was feeling pressure to have answers for people. Clients would come in with problems, often major ones, and tell me their story. Sometimes I had difficulty even listening to them well because I was constantly trying to think of what I should say.

Feeling the pressure to have answers is common among many of us.

While we all are not counselors, I do think many of us share this struggle. We all encounter others hurting, in need, lost, and broken. I believe many of us that are Christians feel even more pressure to have all the right answers. This is unfortunate because it places undue pressure on us. God does not want us to carry such burdens.

Having answers is not our job and ultimately it is not what we need.

It took several experiences for God to teach me that it’s okay not to have answers, and I still fail to trust Him in that sometimes. The realization that I could not fix anyone or the problems they were encountering was difficult to swallow. Isn’t that what a counselor is supposed to do? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do? Well…..NO, it’s not.

We may need to be reminded of this: we are not God. We do not have all the answers. He does, but we do not. He has the power to heal, meet needs, draw people home, and restore relationships. We can certainly be a part of that process when we are invited into it, but we are not in charge of it, and we are not responsible for having all the answers and abilities to fix what ails ourselves and those around us.

Trust gives us access to what we truly need, for ourselves and to offer others.

We tap into this healing, restorative, and calming Grace that God offers us by trusting Him. We can trust Him not just to become involved in our lives and those around us, but trust that He ARLEADY is involved. We can trust Him to show us what He is up to, or better yet show us what it looks like for us to be who He created us to be in those circumstances.

Loving others doesn’t require answers.

Love doesn’t demand that we bear the burden of having to fix anything or anyone. Many times loving others well means less talk and more offering them our time and listening well. Regardless of what it looks like, being lovers is exactly what He invites us to do. He does that because that is who He has made us to be. Live loved…receive the love He has for us, bask in it as often as we can, and allow that love to empower us to share it with others. Let His grace and love be a reminder to take a deep breath before speaking or reacting when presented with life’s problems, whether it be our own or someone else’s.

“God, you’ve got this. We trust You. You love us, you are holding us tightly, and you are not going to let go. May we rest in Your love, and share it with each other…even more so when we are hurting. Father, may we not seek cheap solutions, self-help books, psychological parlor tricks, and temporary answers to life’s biggest hurdles. Instead, may we be blessed with a calmness and patience that only You can bestow in us, so that we may desire to receive what we need from You exactly when we need it.”

-Neil

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Grace, Faith, and Our Destiny

As we set out in this new year, many of us ready to engage in new and/or revitalized goals, may we do so with the most important foundation. It is by Grace through Faith that we will discover and live out of who God created us to be (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our destiny is to mature into the person He has already made us to be in Christ.

Below, please enjoy a post from the past that Melissa and I felt was perfect to start off this new year. We pray it aids in solidifying a perspective of grace as you embark on your journey with Him in 2019.

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I had the opportunity to revisit my favorite passage of Scripture with a friend this week. I love it when God helps me to strip away all the extra “stuff” in life that seems to confuse and bog me down, as He holds me at a certain place in order for me to calm down and remember what’s most important. Here is the passage:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV)

It’s all about grace. God’s amazing grace.

It is by grace…nothing other than grace that we are saved. By His grace, we are set free from the bondage of sin. Sin does so much damage. We commit sin, hurt others, and then experience the horrid guilt and eventual shame that comes with it. Other people in our lives commit sins that hurt us, leading to disappointment, broken relationships, and…again…more shame. It is by His grace that sin and all the issues it causes for us are resolved. Our relationship with Him and others thrives on grace alone. Gifts of grace, such as forgiveness, repentance, and love allow the opportunity for the hurt, guilt, and shame to be washed away.

We get to experience His grace when we trust Him.

His awesome grace is always there. He woos us into it by his expressions of love…the biggest having been Christ coming to earth, living on earth, dying, and then being resurrected. But to experience His grace, we must trust Him. Without trust, we fail to engage the relationship He has created with us through Christ. He doesn’t move or go anywhere, but it feels like we are miles away from Him when we aren’t trusting Him. Humility, true humility, is trusting Him and others around us with who we really are. If we allow our shame to cause us to hold back anything, we begin hiding from Him…just like Adam and Eve did in the garden.

Our hard work and striving does not result in us having changed hearts.

It is tempting for us to get into the pattern of trying to earn our way into a deeper relationship with God. We might think, “I really messed up and that is why I am stuck right now. God is waiting for me to get some things right in my life before He is okay with me.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. It saddens Him when we take control of our lives and attempt to earn our way back to Him. He knows we will wind up frustrated, anxious, and perhaps even feeling hopeless. That’s not how relationship works with Him, or anyone. Genuine relationship is about trust, not striving to follow rules to impress someone. We cannot fix not one sin or even the effects of that sin in our lives. When we trust Him, we essentially say, “God, I know I cannot handle this. I need you and the unconditional love you have for me to cover, heal, and resolve this. I need you to remind me that what sin and shame tells me is a lie. There is not something inherently wrong with me, although I may feel that way. I am in Christ, and He is in me. I am what I am because of you. I am loved, accepted, significant, and secure in your grace and love.” By His grace, NOT our works, we are set free to live out of who He created us to be. Grace through faith changes, restores, and matures us.

Living by grace through faith leads us into what God has destined for us.

As we trust Him and experience His grace in our lives and relationships with others, we begin to follow the path of good works He has planned for us. These good works are our destiny. It’s what God wanted for us all along! We get to discover and do the very things that fit who He created us to be. We do not conjure up these acts ourselves. He surprises us along the way, one step of faith at a time, with gifts/opportunities to act out of who we are in Christ. These gifts may include an opportunity to listen, help, serve, give, teach, encourage, or offer other acts of love. We can actually enjoy those things, instead of just striving to make a way for ourselves, doing day-to-day things that never satisfy us. By His grace, while we continually mature in loving and trusting others with ourselves, we get to embrace and experience more and more the acts of love God offers to us through others.

-Neil

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Everyday Repentance and Forgiveness in Relationships

We (Neil and Melissa) will be doing a joint post today. The first part will be written from Neil’s perspective, and the second part will be from Melissa’s. We will conclude with some joint thoughts.  

From Neil’s perspective: 

Mornings have become a hectic time for me. With age, I’ve had to add a couple of different tasks to my “get ready for work” routine, including CPAP machine cleanup, stretches for tendonitis in my shoulder, and vestibular therapy for some nagging issues I have with dizziness. Having so much to cram into such a small time frame is not fun. I love lifting weights, and I feel like I have to rush through it…the one thing in the morning I actually enjoy!! 

Well, that being said, this morning was crazy, as it often is. I had several things happen that set me back, and I was beginning to realize I would be late for work no matter how fast I moved. One thing that needed to be done: packing my lunch. In passing with my wife as she was getting ready, I made the comment, “I really don’t have time to get my lunch together”. And believe me when I say this, I really laid on the pity party pretty thick. I walked away knowing exactly what I had done. Did you see what I did there? 

I wanted Melissa to help me by packing my lunch. Instead of being direct and simply asking if she would, I played a little manipulative game with her. I made comments that could possibly have induced guilt and pity, with the hopes that she would pack my lunch for me.  

This may sound ridiculous. This may sound mean. Well, it was both. I had chosen to be sneaky and manipulative rather than open and honest. I had chosen to wear a mask instead of engaging her with humility. Before she had time to respond to my trickery, I went to her and apologized. I told her exactly what I had done and what I was hoping to get out of her. I believe I could tell by the look on her face that she already knew. She looked at me and told me she understood that I was having a difficult morning. Thankfully, she chose to forgive me. Once again, as she has so many times, my wife offered grace to me. When I did not deserve it, she forgave me and even packed my lunch while I wasn’t looking.  

For some of us, it is so much easier to hide behind indirect behavior than it is to be open and direct…even with those we are closest to. Many times, we do it without realizing what we are doing or the impact that it has. Well, let me be very clear here. It is hurtful, very hurtful, to manipulative others with indirect behaviors such as pity parties (like what I did in the example above), blame, shaming statements, bullying, or any behavior that isn’t born of humility. Checking our motives is CRUCIAL if we are to walk in grace and love, which is the only way that truly produces intimacy and maturity in our relationships.    

From Melissa’s perspective… 

Most mornings, like Neil, I have several things that I like to get done before going to work.  I prefer to work out in the mornings, eat breakfast, wash dishes or start a load of laundry and then try not break my neck from rushing around to get dressed and ready.  I have a tendency to forget about time when I plan my to-do list!  This morning, though, was a relaxing and easygoing morning.  I was not going to work out.  I had laid in bed a little longer than usual and was enjoying moving slowly through my morning.   I was not rushing.  I was calm.   

Before drying my hair I looked at the time.  I breathed even slower when I realized that I had plenty of time left.  I could finish drying my hair and then cook a hot breakfast and actually savor each bite.  I hear Neil come in.  Immediately I can tell that he is not feeling this same calmness.  His morning looked different than mine.  He was huffing and puffing and naming off all he had already done and all that he had left to do before going to work.  I started to feel ashamed of myself.  I couldn’t continue enjoying my calm morning and sit down and slowly eat my breakfast while he was running around.  I had to jump in and help.   

Different emotions began to take over.  There was some anger toward him for ruining the calm zen I had going on.  There was shame at the fact that I was moving slowly and enjoying calmness while Neil had so much to do.  The least I could do was use my time to help.  After all, that is what he wanted me to do right?  He was not directly saying it but I felt it.  My breathing became shallower.  My movements became rushed.  Now I was in a hurry to get my stuff done so I could also help get his stuff done.  It became my responsibility to fix his problems.  Like my post said last week, I am a fixer.   

In the end, I prepared his lunch so he could mark that off his list.  That was really the only thing I could do to help him.  I spent time trying to decide if I could do anything else.  I ate a very quick breakfast and then I rushed out the door.  Did I even remember to pack my own lunch in that frenzy?!?!   

The truth was he was feeling overwhelmed that morning.  His plea for help became a guilt-ridden expectation and stayed that way until he decided to talk with me about it.  He owned what he was doing.  Even though I knew what he was doing, I still responded out of guilt and shame.  Time seemed to stand still long enough for us to talk through this.  The craziness of the morning looked quite comical then.  

Neil apologized and it was not an obligatory apology.  I know this for several reasons, one being he confessed it to me before I even had a chance to respond to his behavior.  He, in detail, was able to tell me what he did and why he did it.  He had searched his own heart.  It was a sincere apology that was only possible because of humility.  He took the courage to tell me that he was manipulating me even though he did not know if I would forgive him or throw his lunch plate at him.  These crazy, little moments are times of growth.  

A conclusion from both of us… 

Neil could have held onto his little secret, and the situation would have remained unresolved. Melissa could have held a grudge, and the situation would have remained unresolved. Trust us, we do both. On the morning we’ve shared with you, we chose a different, better path together.  

Asking ourselves why we do the things we do helps us to see what is in our hearts.  Sometimes it reveals things that we need to ask forgiveness for.  Sometimes it reveals the need to offer forgiveness. Giving and receiving forgiveness is a gift of grace that causes wounds to heal and love to deepen and flourish.

-Neil and Melissa

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What Do You See?

In the picture attached to this post, there are actually three very different things one might notice when looking at it. What do you see?

In life, we encounter situations in which we believe very strongly that we know all we need to know about what’s going on. We are surprised when others have a different opinion. Often, we find out later that we misread the circumstances. Maybe we were partially right, but there was much more than what we thought we saw. We can do the same with people, letting our initial impressions define who we think a person is. Later, we may find out that we were very wrong about our assessment.

Another area we can do this is reading the Bible. There is so much available to us in Scripture, and we have a tendency to think we have things figured out. Many of us have a strong tendency to trust our perspective, but it can be awfully flawed.

Our perspective has been pieced together over time, like an unfinished puzzle. It is unique and important, but it isn’t perfect. It’s always missing pieces.

Our perspective is formed by a lifetime of interactions with others and our environment. Love, hurt, rejection, loss, betrayal, traumatic events, success, failure…it all plays a role in forming the lens with which we view the world around us.

Since our perspective may sometimes impair our ability to judge accurately, what are we to do to help us see what’s really in front of us?

We must be willing to admit to ourselves and others that we don’t have it all figured out.

Input from others helps us see the full picture. This not only includes situations we find ourselves in and people we meet, but even what we see when we evaluate ourselves! Our self-reflection and self-analysis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We need honest assessments from those around us who know us and love us.

When looking at the picture attached to this post, some see a little girl, some see scenery, and others see a skull. I may have only seen the little girl without having input from others who see the scenery and the skull. No big deal there. It’s just a picture. But when I dismiss people from my lives because my assessment of them tells me they are not worth my time, I very well may be missing out on some pretty fantastic encounters and friendships. If I read over a familiar passage of Scripture quickly without my heart open to what God may be saying to me, I may miss a new experience with God and truth that I desperately need to rest in.

Finding God’s truth is not something we do on our own. We do it together.

Trusting ourselves with each other does not mean absence of disagreement. In fact, disagreement is necessary and healthy along the way. But we need God’s grace to make our way through multiple incomplete perspectives trying to come together in love to discover the truth. The gospel of grace is of upmost importance for us to rely on. God gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6), so to experience grace we must humble ourselves with each other. Humility, or willingness to be vulnerable with each other, is the key to working through conflict and disagreement to embrace truth. Humility lets us admit we need others to speak into our lives. It’s what helps us see not just the little girl in the picture, but also the scenery (which may represent details about what is going on) and the skull (which may represent potential pitfalls or danger) as well.

Ultimately, truth is not just knowledge or things to know. Christ referred to Himself as “the truth”. Knowing the truth is knowing Christ. As believers we are referred to as “the body of Christ”. As “the body of Christ”, we have access to the truth. It’s in us because Christ is in us. However, we must work together, like hands and feet, to realize and embrace the truth. If we try to go it alone, we will forfeit precious moments of closeness (intimacy) with God and each other.

-Neil

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One Thing after Another

Sometimes in life we experience a series of events that feel like a beating. We are hit with one difficult circumstance, and before we can recover we are hit with another. It feels like one thing after another. Often, a sense of hopelessness sets in. We become angry. Anxiety increases as we anticipate the next punch in the gut. The fact that it’s not just one thing that has happened to us, but many, makes it seem more likely that it’s an attack on us.

What is going on? Is God ignoring my pain? Why doesn’t He fix this? Does He care? Is He angry and punishing me? What did I do wrong to warrant this?

Those are just a few of the questions that arise in the midst of circumstances that seem to snowball until it is all more than we can handle.

Why doesn’t He change our circumstances?

Good question, but I’m not even going to try to answer this one. When we try, we go in circles. I have read many writings in which the authors have attempted to tackle this question. They all fall flat for me. The answers I’ve found sound like something that came from a person who had no idea what it was like to get knocked down repetitively in life. Perhaps they were well-intended responses, with the goal to help others. However, pat answers are not lasting solutions.

The truth is, 99% of the time we have no idea why He chooses not to step in the way we would like for Him to. So, instead of mulling over a question that we could spend years on and still get nowhere, let’s look at a question that we can actually tackle and see where it takes us.

What did I do wrong to warrant this?

This question implies that we are being punished when we experience bad circumstances. It assumes there is something wrong with us, and that God is displeased with us. Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. In John 9:1-3, when asked by the disciples whose sin caused a man to be blind, Jesus responds like this, “…It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The man, nor his parents, had done anything to cause his condition. Jesus also implied that God was working in and through the man in the midst of his blindness. What we can derive from this, and this is very important, is that when faced with bad circumstances we tend to lose sight of who we are and who God is. The questions we wind up asking reflect this distorted view.

There are three truths that may help us see things more clearly.

First of all, when we place our trust in Jesus Christ, we become new creations. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” As believers, we are “in Christ”. With this new identity, we are fully accepted, loved unconditionally, forgiven, saints, adopted children, complete, friends of Christ, justified, and free from condemnation. No longer is the word “punish” used in reference to us. Christ took all the punishment for sin on the cross.

Second, God is not who we think He is sometimes. When we see Him as a vengeful, displeased, angry, or aloof father, we see Him incorrectly. We’ve been lied to by others, our circumstances, and perhaps even our feelings. God is, instead, intimately involved in our lives, kind, compassionate, always pleased with us in Christ, full of grace and mercy, tenderhearted and forgiving, and smiling as He thinks of us. God is proud of us, His beloved children! (Romans 8:28-29; Hebrews 12:5-11; 2 Corinthians 7:4).

The third truth is not like the first two. These first two truths are foundational for us. When we trust the truths of who we are in Christ and who God really is, our perspective changes. The way we interact with others changes. Everything changes. This third truth is important when we just don’t have answers. This truth is this: “God is mysterious, and so are His ways”. This is not something we want to hear when we are struggling. We want answers. However, many times we do not get them…or we wait years until we finally get them. Although He has mysterious ways, we can choose to trust the truth that He is lovingly involved even when we cannot see it ourselves. This may require us to open up to trusted others and express our feelings, our doubts, and our needs. When we are hurting, we need to be heard. Insightful and caring input from others who listen well to our words and needs can help carry us through those times when the first two truths are evasive. God may be mysterious at times, but it is not hidden that He works through our relationships with others to care for us and meet our needs.

-Neil

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The Matrix

A couple of years ago, I was watching a video in which Bruce McNicol (of Trueface) discussed what he called “The Matrix”. His words hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized I often live in a matrix when it comes to the concept of God’s grace. I do not think I am alone.

Too much knowledge, not enough experience.

Many believers have access to plenty of knowledge of what Scripture says. Preachers preach it. Sunday School teachers teach it. Small group leaders facilitate the presentation of it. Apps on our phones will even read it to us straight out of whatever translation we want to pick. In America, most of us are not lacking the ability to learn what is in the Bible.

While being free to learn and know so much about God, the abundance of knowledge does not necessarily make us livers of what we know. Beyond a shadow of a doubt He knows us intimately. However, just because we know things about Him does not mean we are experiencing the love and grace He wants us to receive.

Love must be experienced for it to be real to us. Otherwise, it is just another word.

Knowing things but those things not sinking in and changing my perspective is “The Matrix” that I’m referring to. Me telling people my wife loves me because she tells me so does not equate to me embracing her love for me. In fact, she cannot make me receive her love no matter how much she loves me. Also, my effort to learn more about her and reciting her words to me that she loves me does not lead to intimacy with her. Sure, those efforts on my part may be helpful, but they will not assure me real, deep connection with her. It is the same with God.

So many of us go to organized religious settings, sitting and listening to sermons, participating in small groups, listening to “Christian” music, and reading our Bibles and “Christian” books. Again, while these activities may provide much needed truth, we can easily wind up in “The Matrix”…knowing a bunch of things that we don’t really experience in our daily lives.

We must acknowledge what we know but don’t truly trust.

How can we avoid being trapped in “The Matrix”? First, it is good to openly acknowledge those things that we say we believe that there is little to no evidence that we actually believe. For instance, God says He loves me unconditionally. Therefore, if I find myself constantly working hard to try to please Him out of fear of rejection, then I am not truly resting in the reality of His never-ending love for me. This type of realization is not easy for most of us. We are very used to just saying what we are supposed to believe as if we actually believe it. Many of us have learned to “fake it until we make it”. Hogwash. God doesn’t want us to fake a thing. He desires that we trust Him by acknowledging our struggle to believe truths and to surrender those things that keep us in bondage…including those things that keep us locked up in “The Matrix”.

We must let ourselves be loved.

Second, we must embark on the wonderful, but often scary, journey of letting others love us. This requires us to practice humility in order to let people into our lives. This means taking off the masks we hide behind so that people can see the real us. Then, when they love us, they are loving US…not our masks. Then, and only then, can we receive the love others have for us. Otherwise, our masks keep it from us.

Living and experiencing love from our Father and each other is what grace is all about. The Matrix serves only to put forth the false image of living out the gospel as we can recite it without any experience of it changing our lives. The gospel of grace is so much more than a theology for us to learn and know. It’s an environment. It’s relational. It changes everything.

-Neil

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Hiding in Plain View

I’ve written quite a bit about hiding our true selves from others. I do it for several reasons. One of those reasons is how hiddenness prevents us from enjoying and getting close to each other.

A sinister thing about hiding is that you can do it in plain view of others. We can go to church every Sunday, join several godly-looking committees, put on a big fake smile and flashy clothes, look down on those who don’t do those things, and feel pretty darn good about ourselves. Others may envy us as we look like the “good Christian who has it all together”.

All the while, we have things just beneath the surface of our masks that look nothing like the show we are putting on in front of others. We may find ourselves denying that those things even exist. When we stumble over them, we sweep them back under the rug as soon as possible so we don’t get exposed.

For some of us, the mask doesn’t ever seem to slip. We’ve fashioned it in such a way that it fits snuggly against the face we want to keep hidden…a face we haven’t even seen ourselves in a very long time.

Let me drop the symbolism here for second. In short, none of us are as “well-put-together” as we often want to seem. We have pet sins that we just can’t seem to put down. We aren’t as “successful” as we wish we were. We aren’t the father, mother, son, daughter, or friend we had hoped to be. We have deep hurts that seem to persistently bleed through the bandages we keep throwing on top of them.

Ironically, while we disguise ourselves so that others do not see our faults, there is a tendency for us to look at others and pick them apart. In fact, the thicker our own masks are, the more we are tempted to do that to others. The slightest slip-up in another person’s life and we are ready to toss them aside…all the while using them as the source of some juicy gossip. While we laugh and feel accepted in those conversations, we are again fooled by masks around us. If the primary source for conversation is gossip, then authentic friendship is the furthest thing away from the conversation.

When we get home from a long day of putting on a show, we often continue to hide in different ways. Some of us withdraw to TV, some hobby we’ve picked up, or too much to drink. Some of us let all the frustration spill over with those we are closest to, so they do actually get something real from us. However, unfortunately it is a lot of misplaced anger that only serves as another layer of something to hide behind. Then there are those of us who slip on another mask as best we can and try to keep the charade going at home.

Is there no end to this madness? It’s nauseating when we take notice of what we are doing and what’s happening around us. Billboards blatantly lie to us about what we can expect if we just give them some of our hard-earned cash. The news tells us a warped, biased version of what’s really going on in the world. And local churches even get sucked into the phoniness with empty platitudes and the all-to-often-used response, “We’re doing just fine!”

Where can we go to find something real and authentic? More importantly, where can we BE real and authentic?

The answer is a hard one to swallow. We can start being real right where we are. It isn’t easy. It’s scary. What if we let others see who we really are and they don’t like it at all?! Is it even worth the risk? For many of us, the answer is still, “No, it’s not”. But for some of us, taking that risk is looking more and more inviting as we tire of the mask-wearing and phony lives that leave us feeling empty and cold.

While it’s scary to take off the masks we hold so dear, it’s also usually hard to figure out how to do it. They are often applied with something not unlike superglue. We don’t know ourselves after we’ve spent so much time covering up our true selves.

So, the question is posed. Who am I really? I need to know some sort of answer, at least a hint, in order to embrace and be my true self.

If I wanted to find out about a product of any kind, the best place to go would be the person who created that product. Who invented it? Reading about what goes into the product is not enough. Actually talking with the creator would serve to give us the full picture of what that product is and what it’s designed for. Actually knowing the creator would give us a sense of what went into the making of that product.

The same is with us. We need to seek our creator if we are to truly understand who we are. God formed us in our mothers’ wombs. He actually knew us long before that. We can read about the truths of who we are in Scripture, and that is good. However, reading is not enough. Simply having knowledge is not enough. We need a relationship with our creator in which He can walk with us and continually show us how He views us in order for us to let it all soak in. It will only be a reality we can live out in our lives once we have had experiences with Him that permeate every fiber of our being.

This may all sound a little kooky, or at least too over-simplified and/or over-spiritualized for those of us truly struggling with our masks and wanting freedom. Perhaps we must start with something tangible and right in front of us. Maybe we need to sit down with one person we trust and ask them to tell us what they see when they look at us. That person may be surprised by that question, so we may need to press them a little to be honest. We may need to share just a little about what we are pursuing. We may need to share our own observations of them. This isn’t a time for criticism and fake compliments, but for sharing real insight into what we see at the very core of each other. The realness in that little conversation might break the seal on the old mask we put into place long ago.

Humility (being real about who we really are) can start with the smallest step of faith you can imagine. Ask God for an opportunities to experience trusting Him and others with yourself. That’s a prayer He loves answering. We will miss some of those opportunities, no doubt. But the ones we embrace will make all the difference in the world.

-Neil

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