The Divine Act of Self-Reflection

Last week we looked at the negatives of self-reliance. So this week I thought we should look at a positive self act, the act of self-reflection. With our lives constantly changing I feel like the need for us to reflect back on past events is vital to help us move through whatever present state we find ourselves in.

But before we talk about what exactly that means, we need to understand what it doesn’t mean. I am not talking about dwelling on your “Glory Days.” I feel a lot of people like to think back to a time when their life seemed almost perfect. Problem is, they start to wish they could go back there or that their current life could somehow shadow that former glory.

Three problems arise with this “Glory Days” mentality. First, we tend to remember things differently than they actually happened. We idealize situations that weren’t possibly as good as we remember. Second, we long for an impossibility. People who wish to return to their happy childhood long for something that just won’t happen.

Which leads to the third and final problem. This longing often makes people stuck. The best example of this can be seen in small towns across America. The stud high school sports star, worshiped by their small town, is unable to move on to bigger and better things. The big fish in the small pond doesn’t want to be a small fish in a big pond. The result is 40 and 50 year old’s who still think, act and talk like 18-year old’s. Their joy comes through telling old stories about their greatness or trying to relive their dreams through their children.

So let’s be clear that is not what I am talking about. I don’t want you to dwell on those old “Glory Days” and get yourself stuck in the past. Rather, I want us to look at a few reasons why reflecting on our past can help us grow, mature and get through whatever present situation we find ourselves in.

First, reflecting on the past keeps us humble. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:11-12, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

I feel like sometimes when we start to notice the growth and improvement in our lives we tend to forget God. We tend to forget just how far we have come from the person we used to be. Paul tells us to remember that not long ago we were lost little children until Christ came along and saved us. How dare we become arrogant and prideful now? A great chapter about this is Ezekiel 16. God is speaking to the Israelite’s but the same truths are for us today. He compares us to a prostitute whom He has rescued and provided for. But over time we forget what He has done for us and prostitute ourselves out yet again.

Divine reflection keeps us humble. It keeps us from forgetting that God saved us and that the person we are today is only because of what He has done for us. Secondly, divine reflection helps us get through the tough times. Maybe right now you aren’t arrogant, you’re hurting. All you think about is your pain and how much it hurts. You have forgotten God. How can there be a God with all of this pain and suffering?

We can’t let our current circumstances allow us to forget the kindness God has already showed us. Psalm 77 and Isaiah 63:7 are two places where we are told to remember what God has done in the face of current troubles. Reflect back on the times God has provided. Remember when God helped you or gave you a way out. Doing this will shine light into your current trouble and help you to see there is hope. If you are hurting, remember all the good God has done for you and may it bring you hope in your current situation.

Thirdly, divine reflection helps us remember the goodness of God in the midst of comfort. Just as we grow arrogant and forget what God has done, also we grow comfortable and forget our need for Him. Countless times in the Old Testament, (Genesis 9, Joshua 4, etc…), God instructs the Israelite’s to build an alter or to do something to mark a covenant. The reason God does this is because He knows we are so prone to grow comfortable and forget (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).

Maybe you have grown comfortable and thus grown cold towards God. Maybe you came to God in need but now feel like you have no needs. Repent and turn back to God. Don’t be like the Church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-21). Remember back on all the Lord has done for you. Don’t grow complacent. Reflect and come back to the passion and joy you once had.

So I hope all of us can spend some time in reflection this week. Please don’t dwell on the past lest you risk getting stuck there. May your past never be the best time of your life. Rather, if you have become puffed up and self-sufficient, remember who you once were and the sins you once committed so readily. Remember back to how the Lord saved you from your prostitution. Remember that you did not save yourself but that He came and saved you.

Maybe you are hurting now. Remember all the good He has done for you over the years. Reflect on the blessings and countless times He has provided more than enough. May this bring you hope in your current troubles. Or maybe you have grown comfortable, complacent and cold. Maybe you just don’t desire God like you used to. Reflect back on all of the good that God provided. Remember that you are where you are and have what you have because of what He did. Remember when you didn’t have anything and that He was and can still be your joy. May we all remember the past in order to grow in our love and trust of the Lord in the present.

What’s next?

Working with young people I am often asked questions about making decisions for the future. Things like what job to take, where to live and who or when to marry all come up pretty frequently. These are some pretty important questions! We usually don’t sit and contemplate what we will eat for breakfast tomorrow morning, (sometimes I do just because I love food so much), but rather questions that will profoundly impact our lives.

Because of the seriousness of these questions I think we are all interested in what’s next. We all believe the future will in some way be better, brighter or more fulfilling than today, (even if today was great!). We even fear the future because we can’t completely control it or fully know it until it’s the present. The future is inevitable, so figuring out what’s next in life is pretty important.

So how do we really know what we should do? How can we know the answer to those difficult future oriented questions? Well for non-Christians out there I am sorry to say I don’t really know what to tell you. If our universe is based on randomness, chaos and chance like atheism wants to claim, then my best advise for you when you encounter these difficult life decisions is just to roll a dice or flip a coin. If our existence is only based on chance, then our decisions should be as well. With no God, we should make the decision that brings the most gain or pleasure, (sounds a lot like the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), or just leave it up to chance.

But for Christians, we know the universe did not just randomly happen. We know there is a loving, personal Creator who holds everything in place. And we know He has a plan for each of our lives. But what is it? While God did not speak to me and tell me the specific plan He has for each of you, He did give us His Word which provides a lot of good advise for us as we seek to answer these difficult questions.

First, we need to understand we CANNOT earn or lose God’s favor based on a decision we make. Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear that we are saved by grace alone. If you think God loves you more or less based on what you decide, (even sinful decisions!), then you don’t understand Jesus or His Gospel of Grace. Likewise, we must remember that nothing we do will shock God. We sometimes think we will make the wrong decision and God will be astounded by it. It’s not like God is up in heaven saying, “No way! I had no idea Dustin would actually move to China.” If you think your decisions surprise or influence God’s love for you then you either think too highly of yourself or too lowly of God.

Secondly, God has given us lots of useful resources in order to make these decisions. Psalm 119:105 says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” and Proverbs 13:20 says “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” Also check out Matthew 7:7-11 and John 14:26. God has given us His Word, a fellowship of believers in His Church, His Holy Spirit to live in us and the ability to speak to Him directly through prayer. Each of these resources guides us as we make important decisions.

Finally, Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

This is probably the most quoted verse on knowing God’s will in all Scripture. But what does it tell us? Plain and simple, knowing God’s will is knowing, loving and serving God. Terms like “living sacrifices” and “do not be conformed to this world” show us that if we want to know how to answer important life questions, we need not look at them as the world does but rather as unto the Lord. We do not try and make the right decisions in order to know and love Jesus but rather we know and love Jesus in order to make the right decisions! When Jesus is your ultimate joy and purpose in deciding what job, where to live and who or when to get married then you are seeking and knowing God’s will for your life!

So I challenge you all in the midst of whatever large looming life decision awaits to remember that your decision does not define you, Jesus does. Remember that Jesus can love you no more or no less because He already perfectly loves you. May you use the plethora of resources God has laid at your disposal to seek after Him and His plans. And finally, may you all remember that the right decision isn’t based on which is right but rather on who’s glory you are seeking. May we all know God’s perfect will for our lives as we find our joy in seeking to glorify Jesus Christ.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

What’s your biggest fear? I feel like this is a question we always like to ask jokingly with friends or family. When I ask this question I usually hear things like snakes, heights, public speaking or maybe women, (all quite scary!). I will admit, even though I try to act like this big tough guy, spiders have always creeped me out. They are just so nasty looking and some can even kill you! While each of these things above can be scary in their own way, they are not really what we are scared of.

So what are you REALLY scared of? Being alone the rest of your life? Being a failure? Change? Not being in control? Wasting your life? Death? The list could go on and on, but I feel like all of our surface fears are only the result of some deeper fear. For example, if you are afraid of snakes my guess is that you really fear death. While non-poisonous snakes may still gross you out your fear level drops once you know it can’t hurt you. And that fascinates me. It is always amazing to me how much we can change when fear sets in. I have seen some of the most logical people in the world go seemingly nuts due to fear.

And that’s the problem. While fear can be useful, (like when a mother is so scared for her child’s life she is able to fight off a bear), it mostly causes us to do strange things. Ever wonder why that great girl settles for that terrible guy or why that honest hard working man starts to cheat and lie at work? It’s all because of fear. We are so afraid that we end up doing things we know are wrong just to make the fear go away.

In almost every culture in the world, the answer to fear is to cover it up rather than deal with it. Its kinda like how I clean my apartment. Instead of actually getting on my hands and knees and scrubbing the dirt out, I sweep it under the couch or throw a rug over it, (sorry Mom I know you taught me better). That’s how we treat fear. We know that actually dealing with our root fear will take some effort and work, so instead we cover it up with whatever is easiest at that time.

Look at America. The news is going crazy today because Osama Bin Laden has been killed and claiming “justice has been done.” But has it? Did killing Bin Laden bring anyone back or really alleviate any fears? I hate to say it, but there is still evil in the world. You kill one and another even more evil pops up. This is why revenge and killing never work. It only causes more revenge and killing. Yet because we fear death or loss we rejoice when an unrepentant sinner is sent to hell. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Ezekiel 18:23. Out of fear we Americans have exalted ourselves to judge when in actuality we are no better than any Middle Eastern terrorist and need Jesus as much as they do.

Or look at China. I am always saddened to see the empty look in many of my students eyes. They have fears and doubts about life and their future, but instead of trying to talk about them, they go to the bars and drink away their fears. Or maybe they go to KTV and try to “relieve pressure” as I have heard some say. Or sadly many men go to the red light district to forget about the fears of life. Why is smoking so popular in China? Because it helps calm the nerves of all the pressures that we face everyday. These all provide a quick fix to fear but none offer any real lasting help.

But I don’t want to just cover up my fears, I want to solve them. But how? I cannot solve my own fears, (if I could I wouldn’t be afraid in the first place!), and culture only tries to cover them up. Thanks be to God for His Word and the answer to all our fears! I have found two very clear answers on how to solve our fear problem.

The first is love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” 1 John 4:18-19. When you experience perfect love it casts out fear. But perfect love is not something you can find from your friends, family or culture because each of these things have been stained with sin. Perfect love comes from Jesus Christ alone. I love verse 19. Our love all comes from Jesus. He first loved us with his perfect love and if we remember that and abide in this amazing love it casts away our fears!

The second is trust. Once you understand and know the perfect love of Jesus it allows you to trust him. Read Psalm 23. I especially like verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Wow. I don’t know about you, but my fears seem pretty petty compared to “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” That sounds like a really bad place! Yet even in the worst scenarios or fears of life, God is there.

And this is the crux of the issue. Our fears all come from a love and trust issue. If you do not know the love of Christ you can’t possibly trust Him. And if you can’t trust Him then life looks unpredictable, random and scary! But if you know perfect love, if you have experienced the love of Christ that casts out all fears, then I challenge you to trust that there is nothing unpredictable, random or scary to God! Trust in God who holds everything in place and controls every part of creation. If you believe God loves you then why fear? May we all realize that fear is not meant to be covered up, but rather it is to be cast out by the perfect love of Christ. And may we confidently trust that the God who loves us is also in control of every single element of the universe.

Misplaced joy is no joy at all

Before I start this week I want to mention two pretty cool things that happened recently. First off, Happy Easter! He is risen! Always a great way to start the week remembering what Jesus did for us and that He didn’t stay in the tomb! Had an amazing weekend full of Easter activities like spending time with some people who had leprosy, meeting lots of new students at our study, and hanging out with three different fellowships on Easter Sunday. I am extremely exhausted because of it but am also filled with joy because of what Jesus accomplished that day. The second is that I just finished watching another sermon by Matt Chandler and it just happened to be almost exactly what I said in my last post! That’s cool to me because I wrote it before listening to the sermon which means some of the stuff coming out of my head may be slightly useful which encouraged me. It’s also cool cause you can go and listen to Matt Chandler more thoroughly explain it in his Habakkuk series, (see below for link)

So the past few weeks have been a lot of planing and organizing for my job, the ministry and my future. I’ve had some ups and downs, but overall have felt pretty happy about my life and my circumstances. Then on Saturday, we had the chance to invite around 50 people to our study, many of them first timers. Praise God right? Well after study, I found myself feeling frustrated and upset. From my vantage point, we also had a number of people who have been coming to study for between 1 and 3 years who were there. I was really hoping some of these people would take that step of faith this weekend but no one did. We even had a place for people to request prayer or ask questions, and not a single person wanted either!

I left that night wondering if all this work was really worth it. I had been putting hours into planning activities, sending emails, preparing lessons and many other little things that are necessary for ministry. Yet all these tasks and hours felt almost wasted as I saw people seem uninterested and even defiant against God and our ministry. So I laid down to pray that night and God spoke to me. Now God doesn’t speak to me in an audible voice, but rather, he puts verses, songs or thoughts into my head that could in no possible way come from myself.

That is exactly what He did Saturday night. “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 43:5). While I could only recall the first part, (Why are you downcast, O my soul), I knew this was God speaking to me. How did I know this was God? Because even though I have read this verse before, it is not one of my favorites or one I have ever memorized or gone to for guidance. Out of the thousands and thousands of verses I have read in the Bible, my brain isn’t smart enough to sort through them all and provide the perfect one for the situation I am in, let alone one I barely know. That only could be God. I realized I was doing the very thing I had been warning others against for years. I was placing my joy in my ministry, my circumstances and my success.

I am what you might call a completionist, (I know its not a word but it should be!). While many people have moved to digital planners and online calendars, I still use the old paper daily planner. Why? Because of the immense pleasure that comes from crossing out something that has been completed on the “To-do” list. Google calendar only lets me delete things which just isn’t as fun. And for the past few weeks, my joy has been tied directly to my circumstances. If I was able to complete the tasks for the day it was a good day, if I got distracted, it was a bad day.

Or maybe I would judge my day based on how well the ministry was going. As things were going smoothly and we were growing and advancing I would feel happy, but when bumps came or something happened that I did not plan for I found myself frustrated and lost. That’s what hit me Saturday night. Myself and many other Christians alike have accidentally slipped into finding our joy in ministry rather than who the ministry is all about. It was like God was telling me, “You don’t save anyone, I do. You don’t control your circumstances, I do. You don’t make something successful or not, I do. So stop placing your hope and joy in these petty things and place all your hope and joy in Me!”

And that is exactly what I did on Saturday night. I let go of circumstances and ministry and decided my joy is found in Christ alone. That next day, (Easter Sunday), although I accomplished very little in my planner and although no breakthroughs were made in the ministry I had an amazing day. God had helped me reorient my joy and place it back on Him.

For Christians I challenge you to remember to keep your joy in Christ alone. Don’t be the seed that gets chocked out by the cares of this world, (Matthew 13:22), but also don’t allow your circumstances or your service to God cause you to misplace your joy. While ministry is amazing and necessary, it is not the ministry we serve and find life in, but rather God.

For non-Christians I challenge you to look at where you are placing your joy. If it is in health, beauty, money, career, family, intellect, food, circumstances or even service I can tell you that those won’t ever bring you true joy. I see many people each day looking for something more in life. They want to have hope in something, but the demand of everyday life keeps them distracted from finding their true joy. So they find temporary joys through things like drugs, sex, and alcohol or through more common things like KTV, marks in school, work or family. If you are looking for hope, for a reason to live or for joy I promise you none of those will satisfy. “For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things,” (Psalm 107:9). Satisfaction, hope and joy can only be found in Jesus.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15: 9-11). May we all place our hope in the only source that can really provide lasting joy, Jesus Christ.