A Gentle Answer

Remember when the first President Bush called for a "kinder, gentler nation?"

What did he mean?

God knew what he meant. That's why He included gentleness as one of the Fruits of His Spirit. He knew we needed it and could not manufacture it very well on our own.
Scripture says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath." We can avoid conflict and calm the fiercest rage with something as simple as a gentle word. But how often do we use it? Why speak softly when a shriek will get the job done?
In a world filled with people Hell-bent on serving their own needs, who has time or energy for a gentle answer?
Someone bugs me, I bug them back. 
Somebody irritates me, they need to hear about it. 
Some jerk cuts me off in traffic, I'm gonna lay on my horn until they wish they'd never merged. 
Somebody disagrees with my politics, I'll show 'em how loud I can be.
We're a nation of shouters, as if the win goes to the loudest and most obnoxious. But what have the winners won?
Okay, so you're first in line. Is it at the expense of your well-being? Isn't your heart still thundering, your mind replaying how you had the last word? Isn't your blood pressure skyrocketing and you're now looking around for anyone else who might step on your rights?
Is that any way to live? Honestly.
Gentleness doesn't come naturally to many of us. Left to ourselves, we'd be obnoxious bullies alienating everyone around us and eventually ourselves.
God ushers His gentleness into our lives with the softest whisper, the barest hint of fragrance, like honeysuckle in the spring. Gentleness is not merely for the benefit of others. Gentleness softens the heart of the one who lives it, making the heart more attuned to spiritual truth. A heart that has been gentled can hear the voice of God. It can understand things not readily seen. It takes time to answer--and in doing so, protects itself from hasty judgements that cause heartache later.
Gentleness is God's plan of defense against our own rash human nature.
Gentleness protects us from ourselves.
If you've viewed gentleness as a quality that you either have or you don't, something you offer to others if you like them, think again. A gentle answer turns away wrath, not only the wrath of others, but the white-hot rage that fires inside your soul and keeps the peace of God at arm's length. It turns away YOUR wrath.
Isn't it time for a kinder, gentler spirit? You can't do it on your own. Invite God's Spirit to do His work in you and you will be amazed at how much better you feel.


Oh My Goodness!

The title is misleading. I don't have any goodness.
Do you?

While you're thinking about that, ask yourself "If I do have goodness, then why do I have it?" If you have some innate drive to be good, do good works, think good thoughts, then where did it come from?
Goodness is the sixth fruit of God's Spirit that he wants to give supernaturally, but it is often overlooked in favor of the more "flashy" ones. We like joy and peace. We will even acknowledge that we need patience. But goodness just lays there on the page, overlooked and under appreciated. After all lots of people are good, aren't they? Even the ungodly do good things, create goodwill, serve mankind.
So why is goodness a fruit of God's Spirit 
if the ungodly can be good too?
Focus on the words in the middle of that sentence: God's Spirit.
Every human being is created in the image of God. We have the capacity within us to channel God's goodness. Without the breath of the living God surging through our beings, we'd be nothing but dirt clods. Any goodness I have exists only because I am created in God's image, to reflect his glory. To be like him. 

Any good in me is simply an imperfect reflection of Christ.
Because left to myself, I'd stifle goodness every chance I got in favor of selfishness. Any opportunity to do good would be weighed on scales tipped in my favor, with the deciding vote being: "How will this affect me?"
The kind of goodness God wants to infuse into us is the pure kind. The Mother Theresa kind. A goodness that flows through our words, responses, and actions simply because we can't help it. Being filled with God's Spirit requires that I have emptied myself of ME. God's goodness can't live alongside my self-centeredness.

Supernatural goodness isn't sidetracked by evil, by selfishness, by ambition. How often do you read in someone's obituary about how "good" they were? All dead people were wonderful, have you noticed that?
Yet, lurking beneath the accolades are wrong choices, sin habits, selfish motives, and broken relationships that nobody mentions. That is man's attempt at goodness. Far from God's ideal.
Goodness is what oozes from every pore because God has filled us with such energy to do good that we can't do otherwise.
Goodness is repulsed at sin, nauseated by the world's shoddy imitations of it, and dismayed over what man has done with God's gifts. Goodness is good because it can be nothing else. It isn't taught or forced. It is a natural result of an intimate relationship with God.
So, one more time...
Are you good?


Well...Kind Of...

My mom had a little song that used to drive me crazy! She would launch into it when she heard my brother, sister, and me fighting in the backseat on the way home from church.

"Be ye kind...be ye kind...one to another..."

She'd just wail away until we stopped whatever fracas we were causing and focused our energy on glaring at the back of her head. The song may not have accomplished what she was aiming for, but it did serve to unite us in common hatred for the song.

On occasion, I've been known to start that song when my own kids are acting up. They hate it just as much as I did and I'm sure my mom is laughing with me from heaven.

So what is kindness? We know it is the fifth fruit of the Spirit and as we've learned, the fruit of the Spirit does not come naturally to us. That's why it's a supernatural gift and one God expects us to exercise if we claim him as our Father.

The song is actually a verse straight from Ephesians chapter 4. "Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you."

Notice the words coupled with kindness are tenderhearted and forgiving. Kindness thinks about the other person rather than itself. Kindness jumps right into the other guy's head and sees a situation through his eyes, responding accordingly.

Most of us are too preoccupied with trying to get others to see things through OUR eyes. Our natural inclination is to ACT like we're kind when someone is watching so that they'll appreciate how nice we are. 

But God's kindness is real. God's kindness is like that all the time, when nobody's looking, when it goes against our natural instinct. Kindness restrains our tongue when we'd rather pop off. When a witty barb would get us a laugh. When pointing out someone's deficiency would make us look smarter.

A constant barrage of information hurls itself at our conscience, most of which we cannot possibly respond to. We respond by hardening ourselves so that we no longer see the starving children photos. We easily ignore the never-ending pleas for money from every corner. We can pass a crying child without a second thought, assuming someone else will take care of it.

We're not mean, just immune.
Kindness insists we take the blinders off, take the cotton out of our ears, and respond whenever it's within our power to do something. That's why kindness is a quality we can only exercise effectively when we're doing it in God's strength.

Naturally...we'd rather not. Naturally, we'd rather pick and choose when to be kind. And to whom we offer kindness.

How kind are you? 

If given the choice, would you rather offer a soft word of comfort or get a laugh? Do you always choose to push someone else into the limelight or do you take the attention for yourself? When irritation has driven you to your limits, do you respond in kindness to those nagging voices?

I know my answers to those questions. The more I learn of God, the more I realize that without him, I am have no capacity to be anything close to kind. That's why I need the Holy Spirit to be kind through me. 
Left to my own goodness, I'm only kind of...


My Patience is Running Out!

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience..."
The Greek word for patience used in Galatians 5 is makroqumia and it means about what you'd expect it to mean: long-suffering, slow to avenge wrongs, endurance.

No surprises there. What I did find interesting when I researched this word was how often it Is used to describe God. And the context usually implies that his patience is undeserved and under appreciated.

It's not hard to be patient with someone who's doing the best they can: a toddler trying to walk, an old man shuffling across the street. But the fruit-of-the-Spirit patience is extended toward deadbeats--willful, arrogant, hard-headed people who don't even realize how much patience is being expended on their behalf. 

Like us.

The fruit of the Spirit means just what it says--characteristics of God manifested supernaturally in our lives. In other words, God has shown us time and time again how it's done. Just look at how long he bent over backward for those rebellious Israelites. Talk about unappreciative! He had every right to be fed up, yet he never gave up on them.

The difference between God's patience and ours
 is that God's doesn't run out.

Ours always does. We may stick with it for a while, but eventually we all have a breaking point and say, "That's it. Enough is enough. I'm done with you." And we walk away, shaking the dust from our feet.

The kind of patience the Holy Spirit pours into us is God's kind. It is an unnatural ability to be patient with people who are not trying their best, with situations that won't resolve, with pain that goes on and on. Our human strength and patience has an ending point, but God's doesn't and that's why we need his kind rather than ours.

Is your patience running out?

Good! Coming to the end of ourselves is a great reminder that we need God. He can't fill you if you're already full of SELF.
Tell him you cannot do it anymore. You give up. You're done. And then ask him to fill you with his patience, his joy, his peace. 

When the line at the bank is longer than it should be, your kid "forgot" for the third time, and the insurance company is wrong again...you won't lose your cool because you're not limited by your perspective.
Patience is the settled reality that this is God's show and we choose to let him deal with it however He wants to.


Can I Get Some Peace?

I like this photo because it illustrates what most of us think of when we try to imagine peace--temporary and easily destroyed by the forces around us.

The term "peace talks" always brings a smirk. We know how much good that does in the Middle East and often the people carrying "peace signs" appear to have been ingesting illegal substances.

Peace is the third fruit of God's Spirit. It's the desire of many but attained by few. So why is that? What's stopping us from experiencing at least personal peace?

"Well, DUH!" You say. "Take a peek into my world for a minute!

Calm down. I see you rolling your eyes.

Just as we learned that joy is not a byproduct of our circumstances at the moment, neither is peace. Tornadoes happen. Earthquakes happen. Violence and crime happens. People cut across your yard, kids make bad choices, the jerk on the tractor is taking up both lanes, and your health insurance keeps cutting benefits.

Life is not peaceful. This world is not peaceful. It's filled with chaos, pain, war, and hurt. But you don't have to be.

If the world could give us peace,
we wouldn't need God to do it supernaturally.

So peace is the third character trait we cannot manufacture by ourselves.

We try to find it in a million ways--from bottled form to mind games--but none of it works. So we keep searching for better ways. The peace you felt during your drunken stupor is gone when you wake up. That's not peace.

And God sits by while you try to help yourself. He must watch you ignore what he has clearly stated in his Word a hundred different ways: 
  • "The mind set on the Spirit is life and peace."
  • "The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your heart..."

  • "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts..."
"But," you argue." I do believe in God. I'm a good person, but I'm still in turmoil. My life's a mess, I'm on three anti-depressants, and I can't take it anymore..."

Well, back up then. Did you see anything in in those verses that promised believing in God will give you peace? John Wesley said, "Mental assent is one of Satan's best tools to keep us from God." 

You can know it all, try your best to do it, pray, read the Bible and work really hard at being a Christian...and be the most miserable person on earth.
This third Fruit of the Spirit is gained through an act of our will. God doesn't expect you to manufacture a pseudo-peace on your own. He expects you to give up trying to control everything and trust him with it all: the overdue bills, the wild kid, the unemployment. Only then can His peace rule in your heart.

Living out the fruit of God's Spirit requires that you stop trying to produce imitations that are based on the world's standards. Some days the only place you will find peace is in the very presence of God. Your world is crashing down around your ears and there is no escape for you except to run to your Father and give up.

But what about when you get there and you know you have no right to be there? You've got a pile of sins stacked up in the corner of your heart that you'd been meaning to get around to making right, but...

God doesn't hand out his peace to just anyone. It usually requires change on our part. But as distasteful as his prerequisites may seem at the moment, obedience is worth it. 

Peace comes when we relinquish our right to it and accept whatever God chooses for us.

So what is keeping you from experiencing peace? Do you think your circumstances are just too stressful to experience peace in the midst of them?

Remember, the fruits of the Spirit are not emotions. Peace is not our natural state. It is supernatural. Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world gives..." (John 14:27)

Peace is a choice. A hard choice at first because Satan will insist that you have nothing to feel peaceful about.

Resist him. Remind him what Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

Your circumstances may scream chaos, but if you know God, you can choose peace.


Joy to the World. Yeah, right.

 But the fruit of the Spirit is 
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Isn't it funny in our modern society how the word "joy" only shows up at Christmastime? You never hear anyone talking about joy any other time of year, but in December we hear Yuletide joy, Christmas joy, Joy to the World, Joyeux Noelle, etc. Mention joy any other time of year and you're likely to get a raised eyebrow.

Ask anyone to define it, and what you'll get is their definition of happiness. We think of joy in relation to our emotions---that giddy happiness that tingles inside our chest when something fantastic is happening.
But joy is not tied to our circumstances and that's where our ability to manufacture it ends. When the computer crashes, my kid just got an F in Algebra, and my husband's job is on the line, I do have strong feelings tingling inside my chest, but they are nothing close to giddy happiness.
So how is it possible to have joy all the time?
I was struck at the number of times in the Bible joy is paired with the words "suffering, tribulation, affliction, and hardship." They go together like peanut butter and jelly. The Apostle Paul was always talking about how joyful he was, usually after he'd been beaten and thrown in prison.
So what's up with that? I start whining when I have to wait for a slow train to cross the street.
I am coming to see that these nine fruits of the Spirit are decisions we make every day. We can choose joy or we can choose from any number of negative reactions to the events in our lives. Instead of becoming angry and discouraged when he was arrested again, Paul chose to see it as an opportunity to learn patience, to share in part of the suffering Christ experienced, and to testify to his abusers.
Maybe you don't have a problem with walking in joy every day, but I am not by nature a joyful person. Not only is the glass half-empty, but my natural inclination is to find out who spilled it and why. 
And that's why God has to do this in us. We're slow learners. He understands that so He carefully listed the traits he wants us to demonstrate.
That's what I'm learning to do, adopt those nine Fruits as my own and choose to live in them whether I feel like it or not.
And guess what! It gets easier the more you do it.
Joy is a sacrifice we offer to God
when we'd rather be crying or beating someone up.
Joy is the ability to overlook our temporary circumstances
in favor of keeping our eyes on eternity.
Our emotions follow our will, just like a train. The more we let God's power flow through us to manifest these Fruits, the more our emotions start to catch on. The more we rely on God to live out his life in us, the more it starts to feel natural and the less we have to force ourselves to respond his way instead of ours.
So, the next time the car breaks down, your son comes home with another section of his body pierced, your daughter calls to tell you she just married a carny, and the power goes off in your house...what are you gonna do?

Joy remembers that God knows about it, cares about it, and will stay right there with you until the crisis is gone. Joy knows that everything I do for God will never fade away and it focuses on that in the midst of earthly stress.
So whether life becomes a hurricane or the good times are rolling, "consider it all joy!"(James 1:2)


What the World Needs Now...


Love has been a popular topic for years. It seems to grow more popular as the world gets uglier, holding center stage even in American politics.

The social liberals claim ownership of it and point to their peace marches and protests, as though shouted reminders to "Save the Whales" and "End Poverty Now" were giant steps to fulfilling those goals.

Social conservatives bristle at the accusations that their policies are unloving and point to their soup kitchens and orphanages as proof. They kiss a few babies, write a few checks, and stick their tongues out at the radicals.

"See?" everyone claims. "See how loving we are? See how much we do for the less fortunate? We're the true humanitarians, the true followers of Jesus, because we LOVE everyone."

OK. Let's be real for a minute.

None of us are all that loving. No, seriously. We're not. Towards each other, that is. We love ourselves. We love admiration. We even love the warm feeling that comes from helping someone else. We love to feel we are a part of something bigger, that our lives matter. We often give out of the sheer satisfaction of knowing that our benevolence puts us a couple steps ahead of the self-absorbed materialist.

Even during those rare selfless moments when we might throw ourselves in front of a moving train for a total stranger, even in those times when we are most impressed with our selflessness, we are aware that this exalted attitude probably won't last long.

The bottom line is that we are all self-centered to the core. Even our benevolence has a selfish ring. Somewhere underneath our apparent generosity lies a me-first mentality that is hard to shake.

When I am asked why I spend so many hours pouring my life and my time into people who are not necessarily thankful for my effort, the questioner often assumes it is because I love people.

They are wrong. I do not love people.
And even if I did, my selfish efforts to love them would fall flat because, frankly, sometimes people are not lovable. And frankly, many times I am not lovable. I don't spend 20-30 unpaid hours a week on people who can never do anything for me because I love them so much. I do it because I love God so much. And he loves them. And he has asked me to and I cannot do enough for him.

The only basis upon which we can serve selflessly without burnout is when we are passionately in love with God and want to bring him pleasure. Period.

That is why Scripture urges us to "keep our eyes on Jesus, the author of our faith."
(Heb. 12:2) When we rely on our efforts to right the world's wrongs, our efforts are a house of cards. 

Human love can only go so far. The world is crying for more than that.

  • We may fill the beggar's stomach, but what about his heart? Does he have purpose in life? Meaning for his existence? 
  • The cripple may be warm, but is his heart still cold? 
  • Maybe we prolonged someone's earthly life, but did we offer them eternal life?
When Jesus fed, healed, consoled, and raised the dead, it was always for a greater purpose. Every act of benevolence was a building block upon which he stood to proclaim the greater message:

God wants a relationship with you.
'm here to tell you how to find it.

Unless we focus on the worthiness of God and serve the people he loves because we love him, our attempts tend to take on a militant, self-righteous tinge.

Trying to love the world in our own strength, 
without offering that greater message, 
is not love at all.


Can You Grow Peaches?

I tried so hard to grow peaches.

My grandma had the most productive peach trees I've ever seen. They grew in her tiny backyard, right in the middle of the city. She did nothing to take care of them, but there they were, thriving on city soil and smog, producing fruit more luscious than anything you could buy.

So I thought: How hard can it be? I'll do that too.

I bought trees from nurseries, from seed catalogs, from plant stores and fussed over them with tender-loving care. They always died.

So I bought more and tried ignoring them, like Grandma did. They shriveled up.

I checked my soil, checked my fertilizer, checked my water and sun, balanced everything, and bought more. This time, they lived! Twins, side-by-side down by the garden.

Year after year, I watched them, watered them, fed them, and waited patiently while their gnarly trunks thickened and strained upward. 

I smiled as I watched them. It would all be worth it when I bit into that first peach. I could almost taste the sweet juice running down my chin. I might even set up a stand by the road. Sell some. Give some away.

And then at last--the first buds!

In due time, tiny green peaches appeared. My anticipation rose.

And then fell. Because they stayed tiny green peaches. All summer. The size of a nickle and green as a pickle. Finally some desperate bird snatched all six of them and that was the end of my peach harvest.

Season after season, I hoped, prayed and watered, and every year the same thing--nothing. After about ten years of this nonsense, I'd had enough. I took my chainsaw down there and whacked those trees to stumps. It was painful, but it was the end of futile hoping. A peach tree without peaches is worthless and a constant reminder of what it should be and isn't.

People are like that. God expects us to produce what he has invested in us and when we don't, we're nothing but an eyesore--a sad reminder of what we could be, but won't be.

The Bible talks about bearing the Fruit of the Spirit. God calls it that because these are nine things we can't do on our own. They are so opposite from our natural inclinations that if God wasn't producing this fruit inside of us, we'd say "forget it."

At first glance, the list looks pretty simple: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But when we look a little deeper, we find that this kind of fruit is not man-made. Just as man can't make a fresh peach, he also can't manufacture these genuine fruits in abundance. So what he does is change their definitions so that imitation peach-flavored candy passes for the real thing.

For the next few posts, we're going to look at each one of these Fruits of the Spirit and find out exactly what they are, why you can't manufacture them on your own, and what your life looks like without them.

And if you happen to be one of the fortunate ones who can grow peaches, go ahead and send me a bushel this summer!


Called to Obscurity

The world loves a hero, and it doesn't take much to become one. Just dunk a basketball well enough, hit a ball farther than anyone else, or sing something in a way that makes people want to pay to hear you...and you're the next icon.

Hero worship is nothing new. Every era and every culture has had its own version of American Idol. But with the avalanche of media outlets, we're drowning in them. Everywhere you look, another example is held up to show us what we're not and should be.

After a while, even the most stable among us can start thinking, "What's wrong with me? Why aren't I on a billboard, a book cover, or at least a cereal box?"

Christians are no exception. We have our own heroes: singers, authors, preachers, speakers. And even when bringing glory to God is your primary focus, it's easy to start thinking: "I must not be doing it right. I haven't done any of that. Those people must be waaaay up there with God."
So we trudge back to our little corners of obscurity, disappointed with ourselves. After all, what do we have to show for all our years spent on earth? No album cover. No book jacket. No mega church. Maybe not a soul outside your circle even knows your name.

But is God disappointed with you? 

Does he expect you to have made a name for yourself by now? Is he more pleased with Billy Graham than he is with you? Do his eyes light up at the thought of another Ted Dekker book while he barely nods at the half-page church newsletter you put together?

You may laugh and say "Of course that's ridiculous." But wait a minute. Is that what you really believe or is that your "Sunday school answer."

Everyone loves recognition and praise. The harm comes when we start to equate our lack of notoriety with our value.

We know the truth intellectually. But surrounded by a world that adores its heroes, we feel lost in the crowd. Just a number. Another face in the masses. Nobody special.

But think of it this way: Has God called you to fame? Has he placed upon your shoulders the task of conquering the Great and Awesome--or is that your idea?

How much do you know about King David's mother? 
What about the person who led Mother Theresa to the Lord? 
Ever heard of any of George Washington's teachers? 
Who taught Lincoln to be so honest?

God calls most of us to live lives of obscurity, as far as the world knows. It's not a failure on your part; it's design on His. Your name may never be a household word, nor your work live on for future generations. But God does have a special calling on your life and if you're living that calling to the best of your abilities, stand tall.

He may have called you to care for your aging parents, to sweep the church at night, or organize care packages for the troops. He doesn't need your name on a billboard; He already knows it.

My little grandma was four feet tall, crippled from arthritis, living on a fixed income in a tumble-down house she built herself. Her husband had divorced her, but she cared for her bed-ridden former father-in-law until he died. She gathered clothes for the poor, took in homeless families, and did good wherever she went. Nobody outside her poverty-stricken neighborhood knew her name, but you can be sure God does!

She was called to a life of obscurity and she did it well until the day she died. I'm certain she now frolics in a mansion that rivals George Washington's. Maybe bigger.

What about you? Do you labor in unapplauded obscurity and secretly wonder if you're a failure?

It's easy to find out. Are you using everything God gave you for his glory? Are you seeking to please Him every way you can? Have you studied to show yourself approved unto God? Is he free to move you and use you wherever he will?

Then congratulations! You are living your calling. God has chosen you for a life of obscurity and you're succeeding! Let out a big breath and feel good about it. You don't have to worry about negative press, bad reviews, or the changing whims of public opinion.
Your ratings are secure and God couldn't be more proud of you!


Ever been to Build-A-Bear?

I used to enjoy it as much as my kids when they got birthday money and off we went to create the plushy pal of their dreams. Choosing cute little outfits, deciding whether it should be a monkey, a kitty, a turtle... A best friend of your own making...now that's the way to do it.
The problem comes when we treat God the same way. We have a Build-A-God society. Ever heard someone announce with great pomp and authority, "Well, MY god would never send anyone to Hell?"
"MY god is big enough to incorporate all religions..."
"My god is la-la-la..." As though they, by imagining it, can create God any way they'd like Him to be. Where did we get the idea that we could design our own god?
I guess the Israelites had the same problem way back there in the desert. God wasn't doing things the way they thought things should be done, so: "Hey, Aaron! Build us a god. Maybe a golden calf...on a nice big pedestal..."
If you've read the Old Testament, God was not impressed. "I AM Who I AM" was His self-description. He can't be defined, designed, or aligned with our ideas of what a god should be like. He has no intention of being created in our image and we are fools if we think for a moment we can do that.
He has given us a lifetime of information about Himself in the Bible, the most historically reliable manuscript the world possesses. To leave out parts we don't like or understand is to begin our trip to Build-a-god.
And what eventually happens to most of those delightful child-built creations? Tossed under beds, stuffed in boxes in the attic, worn out, used up. The same thing happens to self-created gods. They don't last. There's no substance. They change with the times and who wants a god like that?
Be sure YOUR God is the real one--not one you designed yourself.