Saturday, February 7, 2009

Voice Activated

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

                        Isaiah 6.8 

Stop Hiding

John P. Kee is a gospel singer and pastor whose church sits in one of Raleigh, North Carolina’s most crime and drug-infested areas. His message and music are inimitable in their ability to sheath tough truth in assuring love. “Stop Hiding” is one my favorite songs of his. Imbued with a soft-pedaled r&b flavor, its centerpiece is a hypnotic chorus that says, “The thing that you want to hide is the thing that He wants to use. Stop hiding.” Knowing the background of Kee’s ministry and many of his singers—reformed criminals, addicts, and other “unredeemable” sorts—adds extra punch. What I hear the song saying is the same compulsions that drive us to sin can be redirected to accomplish good.

I can’t accept anyone purposefully dishonors God’s will that we live healthy, productive lives purely out of spite and rebellion. If each of us dug beneath our harmful attitudes and actions, we’d discover genuine needs. Sin comes from attempting to remedy these deficits in thoughtless ways. Romans 7.15 says it all: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” It’s a universal template for sin. “I want to feel secure, but I hate that I’m materialistic.” “I want to experience love, but I hate that I’m promiscuous.” “I want to know I matter, but I hate that I belittle others.” God wants to use impulses compelling us to sin. Once we learn to tap them for His glory, we can stop hiding.

Shortcomings and Weaknesses

We say this so often, I’m reluctant to repeat it. But it’s so essential to our spiritual welfare it can’t be over-stressed. God creates us as we are and places us where are to do His work. He chooses unique tasks and opportunities for everyone based on how He fashioned him/her for a specific time and place. What we bring into the world—gender, ethnicity, and orientation—where we land, and where we travel is not by coincidence. Every experience, good or bad, increases our competency to serve God’s singular purpose for us. We’re where we are at this moment because there’s work here only we can do. All that we’ve been given, all we’ve learned through trial and error, is all we need to get it done. What’s more, God’s plan even factors in our shortcomings and weaknesses. He uses them to lead us to people and places that need His light and love. He uses them to widen our understanding and develop our sensitivities to the vulnerabilities of others. He uses them to manifest His strength in us and through us.

Open Call

A peculiar mystique attaches itself to God’s calling—a dramatic intensity suggesting certain people experience profound epiphanies that launch extraordinary quests and ministries. To be sure, He calls some of us in this manner. Yet God’s beckoning isn’t confined to this. Indeed, it’s an open call, a general invitation to every believer who hears Him. “Who will go for us?” He asks in Isaiah 6.8, and our response immediately follows: “Here am I. Send me!” God’s voice activates movement and inspires initiative. It’s answered by going, doing His work all along the way—not by waiting until we reach a certain time and place in our lives.

In Matthew 22.14, Jesus states, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” We can’t misread Him to mean God selects only the holiest and most devout from a long list of candidates. Actually, the story preceding this indicates the opposite. After guests originally invited to a banquet fail to show, the host opens his doors to anyone, “good and bad.” (v10) One man, however, arrives undressed for the occasion and gets kicked out for ignoring why he was called. God chooses us when we realize all we are and all we have make us perfectly suited for the job He calls us to do. His voice activates goodness in thoughts and behaviors that once answered to sin. Things we want to hide are things He wants to use.

God's voice activates goodness in us so things we want to hide become things He can use.

(Tomorrow: A Mind to Work)

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Child's Eyes

Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

                        Matthew 11.25 

Three Woes

Jesus offers this praise at an odd juncture during a sermon. It comes out of nowhere, as though He’s consciously shifting His attention momentarily from the crowd toward Heaven. His comments prior to this have got pretty heated. He’s just issued a series of woes to three cities that remain unconvinced of His divine authority despite witnessing—and benefiting from—His miracles. His scalding indictment compares two pagan Phoenician cities and the notoriously rebellious Sodom to the shame of three Israeli cities where most of His miracles took place. Had these ungodly towns seen His works, Jesus says, they would have repented. Yet even in their sinful state He predicts their judgment will be more bearable than what the skeptical Israeli cities will face. It’s then, before His condemnation flares into anger that He abruptly stops to address His Father. What Jesus says, however, clinches the root of His displeasure and serves notice on others who experience His power without allowing it to change them.

Blinded by Knowledge

What had these cities done to provoke such harsh criticism? Evidently, they were blinded by knowledge and puffed up by wisdom. By the time Jesus arrived, centuries of study had been invested in Messianic prophecy. Several schools of thought had sprouted up, each with a skewed map of how Israel’s Savior would come and what He would do. As promised, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, but He completely contradicted everything the Jews were taught to expect. He appeared under cover of night without widespread fanfare. He declared God’s love to the entire world, spoke openly and unapologetically to non-Jews, and kept company with religious pariahs of every kind. Because Jesus looked and acted nothing like how the Jews envisioned their Messiah, the truth of His identity and mission remained hidden from them. Only those with innocent faith were able to remove the cataracts of manmade tradition and doctrinal wisdom to see Who Jesus really was. Observing His wonders through a child’s eyes revealed the entirety of His nature to them.

New and Now

In their scrupulous study of Scripture, the Jews missed a definitive component of God’s covenant with them: their Deliverer would be unlike anyone they’d ever seen and speak to them with words unlike any they’d ever heard. Isaiah 48.7-8 reads: “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you. They are created now, and not long ago; you have not heard of them before today.” After that, they should have looked for the unexpected and listened for the unconventional. Knowledge of God and wisdom in His ways should have long ago sealed their image of Him as the God of the new and now. Thus, what Jesus says in His praise basically describes a clash between unbalanced, old-school literalism and a New Order designed to restore balance and revive faith.

God says in Malachi 3.6: “I the LORD do not change.” As people of faith, we take Him at His word. If He declared Himself God of the new and now 28 centuries ago in Isaiah, He’s still a new and now God today. Something new always happens when God moves. Things always take unexpected turns when He speaks now. Everything we knew yesterday can mean another thing entirely today. All the wisdom we’ve acquired in the past can vanish immediately at His word. We can cling tenaciously to our knowledge and wisdom, but what He’s doing for us, in us, through us, and around us will stay hidden from us. Or we can nurture innocence and faith to see Him through a child’s eyes. Only then will His new and now truth be revealed.

Everything a child sees is new and now, which is how we must see God.

(Tomorrow: Voice Activation)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Whaddya Know?

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

                        1 Corinthians 2.2


We’ve all met brainiacs, people whose heads are crammed with knowledge they’re ever so eager to dispense. While their learnedness is admirable, by and large they’re too smart for anyone’s good. It’s hard to get straight answers from know-it-alls. Either they get sidetracked—lost in the weeds—or we regret ever asking the question, because we realize we’ve merely set them up to show off. For brainiacs, knowledge is less about personal enrichment than proving they’re the smartest kids in class. That’s plenty annoying in fifth grade. By adulthood, it’s downright exasperating.

Now take the biggest know-it-all you’ve ever met, clone him/her into dozens of hundreds, and you’ll get a good idea of what Corinth was like. Far and away, it boasted the best-educated, most philosophically advanced society of its time. The Corinthians loved nothing better than a convoluted debate. This raised the art of persuasion to impossibly high standards because, like all brainiacs, the Corinthians had to have the last word if only to show they knew more and understood things better than anyone else. Thus, very early in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul puts all his cards on the table. “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2.1-2)

Proof in Power

Now, Paul was no dummy. Intellectually, he certainly could hold his own against Corinth’s brightest minds; by the end of the letter, he displays his depth of knowledge and wisdom with unquestionable skill. Yet initiating his conversation by disavowing any intention to show off how smart he is attests to his savvy. After all, the epistle isn’t about him. It’s about Christ. Placing Jesus front and center from the start achieves two objectives. First and foremost, it fixes the focus where it belongs. But second, it establishes the nature of the engagement. “This is not a debate” is what he’s saying. “This is truth.” By reminding the Corinthians how he approached them in person, he offsets possibilities they’ll dispute the fine points of his letter and miss its overarching messages.

Paul recalls, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2.4-5) From a distance, we read this with casual objectivity. But it serves us well to pause and absorb the full impact of this statement. Paul’s sole priority centers on anchoring the Corinthians’ faith, getting them to believe in a God Whose love and mercy surpass human comprehension. In a similar passage in Romans 11.33, he exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” The proof is too inexplicable to convey in words. Faith in God can only be proven in power.

Show, Don’t Tell

Our Christian testimony perplexes many people, believers and doubters. A lot of them know as much or more than we (or think they do) and are more than happy to test us in a battle of wits. Confidence in our faith naturally spurs us to try to persuade them of our authenticity and convince them to follow Christ with us. Yet arguing belief with know-it-alls seldom ends to either side’s satisfaction. Indeed, conversations like these can escalate quickly into argument and lead to revealing our weaknesses instead of displaying God’s power. Before entering exchanges of this kind, it’s always best to follow Paul’s lead and establish what we know—Jesus’s unconditional love and acceptance, which we claim through power of the crucifixion. Beyond that, nothing else matters. Since His love transcends all human knowledge and understanding, words are of little use. When someone challenges us, asking, “Whaddya know?” the best response is demonstrating God’s power through changes in our lives. Forget trying to explain it. Show, don’t tell.

This is all we need to know.

(Tomorrow: A Child’s Eyes)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples.

                        Matthew 26.26


“Can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD.

                        Jeremiah 18.6


She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

                        Mark 14.3


A brief disclaimer by way of testimony. This past Sunday our family—my parents, my brother, and I—sat side-by-side in worship for the first time in years. There was no significance to this; it was a pragmatic decision based on my midday flight out of Tampa and concerns about Super Bowl traffic. My brother’s church is closer to the airport, so it made sense to worship there. The experience became all the lovelier by it being First Sunday, allowing our family to take Communion together. As the elements were distributed, the pastor’s remarks opened new meaning in the Lord’s Supper I’d not heard and will never forget. Normally I avoid replicating messages here I’ve heard elsewhere. But this one merits repeating for its eloquent timeliness. The pastor’s observation about breaking bread turned my thoughts to other Biblical accounts of breakage and what they might tell us.

Breaking Bread

After acknowledging the bread’s prophetic import as the body of Christ, the pastor encouraged us also to think of it as a metaphor for God’s work in our lives. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. God does the same thing when we avail ourselves to Him. He takes us, blesses us, breaks us, and returns our lives to live for His glory. The breaking is crucial because it removes passions and propensities bearing no resemblance to our Maker. It forces us to reconcile our lives to His image, to become the beings He created us to be. Breaking deconstructs our personalities—attitudes and habits we adopt for survival and success—to clear away debris that hinders full expression of God’s presence in us. What’s more, the pastor said, it’s a repetitive process. When turmoil incites us to doubt God’s providence, He takes our problems, blesses them, breaks them, and returns them to us to manage according to His plan and will.

Breaking Down

Jeremiah 18 gives us a powerful description of how this works. God sends the prophet to a pottery and says He’ll speak to him there. Jeremiah watches the potter at the wheel, but as the pot takes shape, the potter sees flaws that mar its beauty and usefulness. “So the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him,” Jeremiah notes and God underscores the message: “Can I not do with you as this potter does? You’re like clay in My hand.” God is creativity in its purest, highest form. He brooks no interest in churning out cookie-cutter saints. He molds each of us so every life is fashioned in His image, yet no two lives look the same or serve the same purpose. As He shapes us, however, our clay often resists His touch. It’s stubbornly imperfect, and when flaws surface, He doesn’t gloss over them. He breaks us down and begins again. This requires our patience and trust because transitions from one shape to another give no sign of what we’ll become. It’s vital we know we’re in His hands. Breaking down always improves us. The Potter never fails to reshape our lives for the better.

Breaking Open

As God breaks and reshapes us, it’s our job to break open. In Mark 14, a woman comes to Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She breaks it open and pours the perfume on Christ’s head. The audacity of her adoration outrages some onlookers. They harshly rebuke her for wasting such a valuable asset on worship when she could have sold the perfume and given her profits to the poor. “Leave her alone,” Jesus tells them. “She’s done a beautiful thing by anointing my body in anticipation of my burial.” In other words, she’s attuned to God’s will and focused on the big picture. Each of us possesses valuable assets—talents and capabilities we could easily convert for personal gain and channel into good works. But the woman’s example teaches us the beauty of breaking open in service to God. Our boldness in doing so will rankle some for not conforming to their standards. So be it. “She did what she could,” Jesus says in the woman’s defense—not to imply others could do better than she, but suggesting her gesture was unique to her. By acting in expectancy, she foreshadowed the women who first witnessed the risen Christ after going to the tomb to anoint His body. We likewise should break open in anticipation of the day when others like us will meet the living Savior face to face.

This brings us full circle. Paul’s instructions for the Communion sacrament conclude with this: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11.26) In this sense, breaking bread, breaking down, and breaking open are all of a piece. They testify of Christ’s consummate sacrifice of love and point to the power of His resurrection. Breakage demands humility and submission. Yet without it we’ll never rise triumphantly to new life.

Breakage brings triumph.

(Tomorrow: Whaddya Know?)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Arriving on Pieces

[The centurion] ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship.

                        Acts 27.43-44

From Bad to Worse

The story of Paul’s ill-fated voyage to Rome keeps coming to mind lately as the global economy continues to spiral out of control. One watches in horror as perfect storms gather over homes and businesses with almost random indifference and people fight to stay afloat as conditions go from bad to worse. Families sinking beneath runaway healthcare costs lose their homes. Debt—much of it accrued by imprudent spending—drains the flow of commerce, taking away jobs by the thousands. Governments sit stranded in shallow waters, without the depth of resources and knowledge to forge ahead. And a foreboding sense that this standstill presages a full-on cataclysm has gripped our planet. Those familiar with Paul’s perilous journey no doubt have picked up the nautical metaphors. That episode strongly parallels what’s happening today.

Prisoner at Sea

Paul boards the ship in Roman custody with other criminals being shipped to the capitol to stand trial. He’s already been through quite an ordeal. He’s been called before a newly appointed governor to answer fabricated charges brought by the religious establishment. The governor intends to rule in his favor but he doesn’t know this and makes a terrible blunder. He exercises his right to plead his case before Caesar and is soon headed for Rome, a prisoner at sea. The Bible doesn’t go into his thoughts and feelings about his situation. It couldn’t have been easy for a man as smart, driven, and committed as he to feel flummoxed by his circumstances. However he felt, he had little time to ponder it as things steadily worsened until it was doubtful he and his shipmates would live to see Rome.

Two days out, the wind changes making it impossible to sail forward. The ship stalls off the Cyprus coast to avoid getting blown off-course. The centurion in charge of the prisoners transfers them to a ship capable of withstanding the wind. Still, it’s slow going and many days are lost. Paul urges the centurion and pilot to find harbor, but they keep going in hopes of docking in a larger port. The wind briefly turns favorable before a terrible storm drives the ship far out to sea. It buffets them for two weeks; everything they do to correct their course fails. Finally they spot land and decide to beach the ship so it won’t get swept away. As they steer to shore, the ship strikes a sandbar and crashes to bits. The guards decide to kill the prisoners to ensure none escape, but the centurion nixes their plans. He orders those who can swim to jump ship and those who can’t to grab pieces of the vessel and ride them into shore. Everyone lands safely.

Three Lessons

Well, that’s some saga. Were Spielberg to get hold of it, he could turn it into a special-effects blockbuster. But while the Bible never misses the chance to spin a riveting tale, the stories it tells contain something important—essential—for us to know. In 2 Timothy 3.16 we read, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” So what’s the lesson here? There are many, but let’s look at three.

Number One: We must never allow confrontations—especially those questioning our faith—to rattle us. What was Paul thinking? That the religious establishment wanted him out of their hair was no secret. That they concocted a bunch of false accusations against him was no surprise. That they tried to manipulate the government to do their dirty work was nothing new. They tried all these tactics on Jesus. If Christ wouldn’t answer His accusers, what possessed Paul to think he should? Jesus told us to expect opposition: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10.22) And not having a pocket New Testament handy doesn’t absolve Paul from creating his own problems. Why didn’t he fall back on Exodus 14.14? “The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still.” When we try to defend ourselves or outwit our accusers, we get in God’s way. He does the fighting. We stand firm.

Number Two: As we see now and with Paul, circumstances can rapidly change from bad to worse. An impetuous mistake (like Paul’s) can toss us out to sea and leave us at the mercy of elements beyond our control. But once we’re in the thick of it, we can’t forget we’re not alone. In the middle of the chaos, Paul tells the crew an angel of the Lord stood beside him and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” (Acts 27.24) Our worst crisis poses no problem for God. He is our Savior and when we need Him most, we need to trust Him most. Our God protects us and He graciously protects all who sail with us, too.

Number Three: Storms are destructive. When they’re raging, it’s entirely possible something’s going to fall apart. We’re going to crash into sandbars occasionally. Going down with the ship is not an option. We need to head for shore. If we’re strong swimmers, it’s time to dive in. But if we can’t swim—or don’t have the strength to swim—we grab a broken piece and ride it to safety. How we get to shore doesn’t matter. How many fast swimmers pass us isn’t important. Arriving on pieces is nothing to be ashamed of. Drowning because we’re too proud to admit our weaknesses or because we can’t let go of a shattered ship is.

When life's storms shatter our ships, we find pieces we can cling to and head for shore.

(Tomorrow: Breakage)

Postscript: All Creation Waits

You must—you must—make your way over to All Creation Waits—Considering Christianity: Failure and Challenge, an altogether superb blog written by Kedda, who often graces Straight-Friendly with her comments. Her gifts as a writer are only surpassed by her keenness of thought. Although ACW has only been up since Christmas (“Perfect Time to Start a New Blog” is the first post), Kedda has stocked it with a wealth of provocative contemplations and questions that inspire her readers to reassess Christianity’s role in the world and our role in Christianity.

The opening lines of Kedda’s inaugural post will give you an indication of what ACW is all about:

This blog is dedicated to providing a different vision of Christianity.  At this stage of my life journey I am pondering the whole experience of Christianity down through the ages.  If Jesus the Christ is the Incarnation of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God come into the world, why is the world still a mess, and so far from God?

Don’t let the probing urgency in this statement mislead you to think Kedda’s off on some kind of where-have-all-the-Christians-gone rant. She’s pondering. And she’s doing it with tremendous grace and candor. A lot of heavy lifting goes on at ACW, yet it’s not heavy reading. Those of us who blog our faith in particular will surely find ourselves wondering, “How does she make wrestling with such profound aspects of belief look so easy?” Or, “I wish I’d thought of that.” Or, “Why aren’t more Christians thinking this way?”

Really, I could go on and on—but the longer I type, the later you’ll be in getting to ACW. So please stop reading and click on the link already!

All Creation Waits 

(Big thank-you to Sherry Peyton as the conduit that linked S-F and ACW.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Getting Past the Past

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

                        Philippians 3.13-14

Press On

Paul’s history with the Philippians is quite interesting. It literally gets off to a rocky start. When he and another evangelist, Silas, go to Philippi, they inadvertently cross a few local businessmen, who then accuse them of disturbing the peace. The entire city turns on them. This isn’t unusual, however. Philippi is a mining town whose people are hardworking and honest, but also extremely wary of outsiders. Paul and Silas don’t stand a chance. The city fathers have them whipped and jailed. During their first night there, a huge earthquake shakes the doors open, freeing the prisoners. When the jailer arrives, Paul assures him everyone is present and accounted for—a miracle if there ever was. The jailer converts to Christianity on the spot. Paul becomes an overnight hero. Many follow the jailer’s lead and the first church in Europe is born.

The Philippians aren’t nearly as complicated as the Corinthians, say, or the Romans. They’re less concerned about the whys than the hows. As they put Christ’s principles into practice, they start to see results. Newfound integrity wins them greater prosperity and respect, which they attribute to Paul. This worries him, though, because their admiration verges on worship, which only belongs to Christ. When an occasion arises to write to them about an upcoming visit, he uses it as a reality check. “I’m just like you,” he tells them. “I too am striving for perfection. But I’m not there yet. That’s why I press on.” (Philippians 3.12)

Remember to Forget

“Here’s what I do,” Paul writes. “I forget what’s behind me and keep moving toward my goal of becoming perfect in Christ.” And Paul had plenty to forget. In his former life as Saul of Tarsus, he was the poster child for religious legalism. He was steeped in the Law and so compelled to enforce it, he determined to destroy the Early Church. In Acts 26, he says he wanted “to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus,” admitting he imprisoned many Christians and endorsed their executions. He traveled far and wide to have them punished, trying to force them to deny Christ to escape suffering. He confesses, “In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” (v11) Paul’s troubled past didn’t end with his conversion, either. The persecutor became the persecuted. By the time he writes to the Philippians, he’s endured repeated imprisonment, beatings, hunger, and innumerable personal attacks, many of them generated by fellow believers. Past trauma and turmoil are fastened so tightly to Paul he constantly has to remember to forget.

The Philippians have plenty to forget, too. Although they’re a major source of the world’s gold supply, they’re dismissed as provincials—negligible blue-collar rubes. After faith and integrity improve their standing, merchants and officials who once snubbed them now embrace them. Surely this angers them and stirs feelings of resentment. Furthermore, as a congregation they’ve seen more than their share of trouble. They’ve been abused by legalistic teachers, who seek to undermine their faith by insisting only Jews can be Christians, demanding all Gentile male believers be circumcised to claim Calvary’s inheritance. Paul is greatly concerned that all of these crosscurrents from the past—disrespect, prejudice, false religion, etc.—will continue to haunt the Philippians, causing them to lose sight of their main objective: conforming to the image of Christ. His message is forcefully clear: remember to forget. Press on.

Lose the Weight

Hebrews 12.1 strikes the same note: “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Every one of us, to some degree or another, carries burdens from the past. Many of them are no different than those that troubled Paul and the Philippians. We carry guilt and shame, resentment and fear. We’ve been falsely accused, pushed aside, beat down, severely abused, locked up, and deprived. Our integrity and faith have been challenged, even ridiculed. We’ve been mislabeled, mishandled, and misunderstood. What tremendous loads we bear!

While the past may grow more distant by the day, it will never completely vanish over the horizon. It’s up to us to take the Hebrews writer’s advice and lose the weight—strip the memories of their meaning. Getting past the past is perhaps the greatest task we’ll ever undertake. But we can’t allow the enormity of this challenge to warp our sense of scale. Losing the weight is by far less punishing and exhausting than constantly carrying it. “I have lost all things,” Paul tells the Philippians. “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Let it go—remember to forget—and press on.


The creator of this Wordle calls it "Focus on the Future". Yet it's dominated by the past, a poignant depiction of someone unwilling or unable to lose the weight, remember to forget, and press on.

(Tomorrow: Arriving on Pieces)  

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.
1 Thessalonians 5.6

24/7 People
I entered the world at 7 o’clock in the morning—which, my mother says, is why I don’t sleep very much at night. “You fought all night to get here, and it’s gone like that ever since,” she says. Whether there’s any biological basis for this or not, it is true that I’m at my best in the wee hours. Friends and clients always comment on the peculiar time stamps on my emails and document dates. They can’t conceive working until 5 or 6 AM; for me it’s normal. I’m just not a “day person.”

As a believer, however, I am one of millions of “day people.” In the verse just before the one above, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” This jibes with Jesus’s words in John 5.9: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work.” But as we read through the Thessalonian passage, the day-night dichotomy gets a little murky. Verse 6 tells us to be alert and self-controlled, unlike those who are—presumably—asleep on the job. Then, verse 7 says, “For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.” That’s when the light goes off. Paul’s not talking about day and night; he’s talking about excess and moderation, about maintaining our composure and self-control in all situations. He’s insisting we’re neither day people nor night people. We’re 24/7 people.

Control Issues
Self-control is the last fruit of the Spirit on the list (Galatians 5.22-23), and there’s a good reason why. It reaffirms our understanding that we must control ourselves—our thoughts, our actions, and our motives—in order to bear fruit. First, self-control allows us to be firmly established in our faith, reaching maturity and solidifying our grasp of truth. “Then,” Paul writes in Ephesians 4.14, “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Self-control solves a lot of control issues simply by our retaining full responsibility for our thoughts and behaviors.

The moment we loosen the reins on self-discipline is the moment someone (or something) else takes control of our destiny. And, unfortunately, a momentary slip can sometimes produce a life of trouble at the hands of cunning, crafty, malevolent schemers who prey on lapses in diligence. So self-control is vital for self-protection and safety. Proverbs 25.28 says, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” If we’re ruined by our lack of restraint and sound judgment, we can’t produce spiritual fruit. It’s that simple.

Closing the Circle
But I think there’s a second reason why Paul holds self-control as the last fruit he lists. It closes the circle, tightly interlocking with the first fruit: love. In John 13.35, Jesus cites love as evidence of discipleship. “All men will know you follow Me if you love one another.” Yet while love proves we’re His followers, it doesn’t necessarily make us disciples. Discipline makes disciples. Controlling our desires, impulses, and reflexes is a must. So is corralling our opinions, egos, and drives to overcompensate, overpower, and over-achieve. It’s essential that we remain honest with ourselves at all times, just so we can frankly address the moments when our selves try to slip out of control.

For believers, there are no “I-can’t-help-it” excuses, because we resigned our hearts to that fact long ago. We turned our lives over to Christ, Who is our Help. Hebrews 4.16 says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” When we risk losing our self-control in circumstances we can’t help, we go to God in confidence, knowing His mercy and grace will see us through. We may slip. We may err. But we work through our problems without losing control of our determination and discipline. Self-control teaches us what we can and can’t manage or predict. In turn, this sharpens our awareness of what others can and can’t control, which increases our power to forgive, to tolerate, and to reach out to them. When we close the circle, then, self-control leads to love. And from there, Spiritual fruits of every kind—summer, winter, and useful fruits—blossom and grow.

Paul likens losing self-control to falling asleep; it leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, some self-imposed and others inflicted by predatory schemers.

(Tomorrow: Getting Past the Past)