Some Trust In Chariots

S7300001_r1How many times will I go back to doing things that have already proven not to be helpful before it occurs to me that perhaps I should not go back that way again? As it turns out, I am not alone in my dilemma. Around 3500 years ago, the Lord explained that very concept to the Israelites.

The King, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.”  Deut 17:16 (NIV)

After He delivered His chosen people from Egypt, God knew that there would come a time that they would want to be ruled by a king, so that they would be like “everyone else.” He warned them that even then, in their trying to be like everyone else, they should do it in their own, special, set-aside, holy-people-of-God way.  They were not, like everyone else, to fall into the trappings of acquiring status and power symbols and treasure.  They were not to trust in the size or strength of their army, with all its horses and accompanying chariots; they were to trust in the Lord. He was their deliverance and their strength.

And above all, they were not to go back to Egypt to get these things.  Egypt had been a place of refuge, a place of provision and safety, but it had also been a place of bondage and suffering.  The Israelites had come out of Egypt with a collective mentality of slavery. It took years for the Lord to rid them of this attitude and start seeing themselves as God’s Chosen People and a force to be reckoned with among the pagan nations around them.  The last thing He wanted was for them to go back to that mentality, no matter how tempting the benefits of trading with that nation appeared.

The frustrating thing about this is that the Lord had already proven to the Israelites that they did not need the horses and chariots of the Egyptians. That army was not as mighty as people supposed.  He had swept the entire thing aside into the Red Sea, proving once and for all that even the greatest army on earth was no match for the Almighty God.  So He wasn’t asking the Israelites to do something completely crazy by not amassing a cavalry.  He was asking them to trust the One who had proven Himself mightier than the even best-equipped form of protection man could devise.  And yet even after all that, He knew human nature well enough to know that He still needed to warn the Israelites not to go that way.

In the same way, it seems that every time the Lord sets me free from something in my past, some bad attitude or wrong conception or downright entanglement with sin, after the initial glory of freedom wears off, there will come a point where a situation arises that tempts me to fall back into old habits or thought patterns. That difficult person in my life will do that thing again that always hurts me.  That financial situation that was almost resolved will suddenly have a set-back. That promotion I thought was imminent will once again be put aside. Or maybe a combination of traffic, cranky kids and sleep deprivation will align perfectly so that I have A Really Bad Day.

Like the Israelites, when I am faced with these situations, I can chose to not fall back on what I did before.  I can choose not to go down that road, but instead to trust the Lord and let him show me a new road.

And like the Israelites, that old road that is tempting me, that old thought pattern or entrenched groove of bad reaction, that stupid, self-destructive habit, really was not the best way to go about life anyway.  In the immortal words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” And therein lies the problem, and the reason that the Lord had to deliver me from that in the first place.  It wasn’t working for me.  It was making me miserable.  It was a cold, dark cave of insanely repeating the same action and expecting a different result.

But that road is so easy to follow.  It is so easy to go back that way again. It feels comfortable to me. In a cold, dank, dreary, miserable way.

I have come to the conclusion that I need a sign post, or preferably a road block, at the entrance to that road.  I need to mentally construct that across that path.  A big, neon sign that says “You are not to go back that way again.”  And then maybe another one, pointing in the opposite direction, that says, “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” Isaiah 42:9 (NIV)

At any rate, I need to keep reminding myself of the truth.  That I have a choice in the way I react.  That my misery is not inevitable. And that God has a far, far better way if I will only stop in my tracks and turn to Him instead.

The Freedom To Choose Love

Love hurts

Love hurts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Love is a battlefield.” “Love is a temple.” “Love hurts.” “Love is a many-splendored thing.”  “Love stinks.” “What’s love got to do with it?” Popular songs are full of ideas about love, but what is love, anyway, and why is it so hard to do?

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (NIV)

This is probably one of the most-quoted passages in the Bible, after Psalm 23.  Most of us have heard countless sermons on it, heard it propounded upon at weddings, memorized it in Sunday School, and many have it hanging on a wall in some form of artwork or other.

But I must confess, whenever I come across it, I cringe a little inside.  Because like many of us, some of those sermons I heard preached on this passage recommended that we insert our names in there instead of the word “love.”  This, I suppose, is supposed to be an encouragement to show us how we should live.  A goal to shoot towards.

The problem, however, is that when you do that, you’re messing with Scripture.  Fiddling around with the living, breathing Word of God.  So naturally, it backfires.  And what happens is that this beautiful passage that was written to show us a “more excellent way” is twisted into a checklist.  A to-do list.  One more set of rules to live up to.  The more excellent way turns into condemnation and legalism, but so subtly that many people swallow it whole and think how wonderful it is that God has given us this template to follow to be a more loving person.

And therein they completely miss the point.

You can’t follow a template to love.  Love is not a checklist.  Love is not a to do list.  Love is not a burden.

Because, how many of us, if we were really honest with ourselves, would admit that deep down inside we really feel inadequate in the love department? We just don’t seem to be able to get it right, all the time, and after all, “love never fails,” so we must just need to try harder, love smarter, read more Bible, or grit our teeth a little more.  It’s been a constant prayer of mine for years.  “Lord, just help me to love better.”  Not that that’s a BAD prayer, but I think I was missing the point.

So when I read this passage recently, I suddenly saw it differently.  I was trying to apply it to dealing with difficult people, but before I could get too far down my head-shaking, sigh-heaving road of self-condemnation, the Lord stopped me up short.

“It says ‘love is patient,'” He said.

“Yes, I know,” I wailed.  “I’m so impatient sometimes!  I just can’t do it right…”

He was gentle when He interrupted me.  “But sometimes you are patient with difficult people, right?”

“Well… yes, I guess so,” I replied.

“Good then, you’re doing that.  Keep doing it.  Do it more.  What’s next?”

“Love is kind,” I replied.

“Okay, are you kind to these difficult people?”

“Well, yes, usually I am kind.  I don’t try to be mean, anyway.”

“Great.  You’re doing the kind thing.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.  What else?”

And we went down the list and I suddenly saw that it wasn’t saying I had to do ALL these things, ALL the time, without fail.  It was saying that LOVE is this way.  And that LOVE never fails.

Big difference. I suddenly saw that the more I allowed myself to become more like Christ, to be transformed by the renewing of my mind, the more I would naturally act out of love.  It wasn’t a checklist; it was a description of what I could expect if I surrendered to Him.  And it was already playing out in my life.  Not perfectly, because I am not perfect, nor am I completely transformed.  Nor will I be, this side of Glory.  But I’m not supposed to beat myself up over the parts I get wrong — I’m supposed to celebrate the parts I’m getting right and keep practicing them, because the more I practice it, the more I will choose love without even thinking about it. The more it will become a life-giving outpouring of God’s Spirit and love at work in my heart and the less it will be a set of empty works that I force myself to do through sheer willpower.  All one has to do is look back a few verses to see what works is like — a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.”  Ironic, isn’t it, that in trying to “do” love we end up producing the very thing love is supposed to prevent us from being?

The key here is that love never fails.  So maybe I can only muster up, in a given situation, two grams of love.  But that’s two grams of potent, everlasting, unfailing stuff, so I need to go ahead and dispense it and not worry about the part I can’t come up with.  Because those two grams will NEVER FAIL.  Those two grams will do their stuff, and the nature of love being what it is, those two grams will go out, make changes, multiply and come back to me. And maybe next time, with all the multiplication going on, I’ll be further along in my own process of forgiveness, healing and becoming Christ-like, and I’ll have more than two grams to give.

It doesn’t matter how MUCH love we have.  It matters that we choose to nurture it, feed it and give it away.

Love is not a burden.  Love is freedom. I don’t need to beat myself up over the ways I struggle with difficult people.  I need to rejoice in the love that I can give, and keep giving it.  And remind myself that choosing to be kind, gentle, even-tempered and all the rest of the qualities of love is always the right choice, so even if it’s in small ways, I can go ahead and choose that over being petty, mean-spirited, judgmental or fearful.  There is no element of being a door-mat in that; I am simply choosing to let God’s more excellent way rule the way I respond.  There will be times that I need to step out of the way of a person so bound up in themselves or their own struggles that they threaten to smack into me with the force of a freight train, so I will.  Politely, kindly, without keeping record of wrong, and without dishonoring them, but stepping out of their way nonetheless, and choosing not to join them in whatever hurtful behavior they are engaging.

Because regardless of what those around me choose to do, I have the freedom to choose love. And love never fails.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)

Of Weeds and Graves

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So the Lord God banished (mankind) from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. Genesis 3:23

Genesis 2:4-22 describes how, in the Garden of Eden, life sprang up from the ground.  Man was made from it, animals were made from it, plants grew up from it. Water sprung up out of it to water the plants. It was the stuff of life, breathed into being by the Creator.   The Lord took man and put him in the Garden to “cultivate it and take care of it,” but it was God who made the life spring forth.

Once man was banished, however, he was outside the life-giving Garden and was sentenced to work a cursed ground, one that produced thorns and thistles, one that required “painful toil” and “sweat of the brow.”  As if that weren’t bad enough, God told Adam that he would wrestle with this ground until the day he died, at which point he would return to it.

He was fated to spend his life digging in his own grave.

This is not what God had intended. He had intended for the man to “cultivate it and take care of it,” not wrestle with it and die in it.

We still live under the physical curse of weeds and graves.  No question there — it’s hard to make things grow.  A farmer’s lot is a tough one.  By extension, it’s also hard to make a living for those of us who are not farmers.  Life is just difficult much of the time.  We’re still wrestling, and we still die. But since that is not what God intended, He has provided a remedy.  Certainly, in order to produce the food we need to live, we may still have to dig in the dirt from which we come and to which we will return, but there is more to us than the physical, short-term life in which we live at the moment.  We are, in the words of John Mayer, “bigger than our bodies.”  We are eternal beings.  And so far more important, although less immediately obvious when one’s vision is obscured by the weeds and rocks of life, is the spiritual, eternal part of us. Since He created us, God never lost sight of that fact, and it is in that arena that He provided the remedy when Christ died for us.

“For freedom Christ has set us free….” Gal 5:1a

The original plan in the Garden was for mankind to cultivate the land (abad in the original Hebrew),  and keep it (shamar).  Abad is the same word that is used later for the concept of serving, in the sense of serving a king, serving God or serving as a Levite in the Temple. Mankind was to serve the land.  Once sin entered the picture and corrupted the purpose, he became a slave of the land — an entirely different thing.  Shamar has a sense of guarding, protecting and preserving.  It can also mean to be on one’s guard, to take heed or take care. Unfortunately, Adam did not shamar. He was not taking care, nor was he protecting the Garden.  The serpent walked right in and messed with Eve’s mind without Adam even noticing, and then when he did see what was going on, he carelessly went right along with it.  The result of this was the grave-digging, the slavery, and the separation from God.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Going back to Galatians 5:1, we can see this concept echoed in the remainder of the verse “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.”

Because Christ has set us free, we can return to that original purpose, to cultivate life, not in the dirt, but springing up in the spiritual and eternal soil of our hearts.  We can choose to make ourselves servants of the living God rather than being forced into a yoke of slavery to sin.  We choose it by accepting his remedy – Christ’s death on the cross in our place.  We live in freedom by never losing sight of the important and eternal no matter how many weeds and dirt clods infest the path before us.  We lay down our life of slavery and live instead for His kingdom, the hidden kingdom that exists in the hearts of those who know and love Him.

But just as before the fall, Adam’s mission was to cultivate and guard the Garden, we must also guard our hearts and minds and stand firm against the lies of the Enemy.

We either live as servants of the Most High, serving His Kingdom by cultivating life in our hearts and with each other, or we live as slaves to sin, trying to coax whatever short-lived pleasure we can out of lives beset with the troubles of a fallen world.

We either protect the life that He has planted in our hearts by refusing to identify with and live under a mantle of sin, or we grasp at everything we can for ourselves, hoarding any good thing we come across, protecting what we deem as “ours,” and miss the freedom of sharing our lives, our resources and our time with others.  Even worse, we miss the multiplication of life and love that results when hearts are open and connected.  We miss the springing up that was the original plan. We are left with the dirt, the weeds and the grave.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery. Gal 5:1