Unconditional

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This word “unconditional” has captured my thoughts recently.

I wonder…do we really know its meaning?

I mean, most of us can give the dictionary definition, but do we really know it? Are our intellects capable of grasping it?

According to dictionary.com, it means “Not limited by conditions; absolute.”

Pretty simple, right? What’s so hard about that? After all, it’s only five words!

Here’s what’s so hard about it:

Everything we know is conditional. Our paychecks are dependent upon the job we do. Holding that job is dependent upon our performance. Investment income is dependent upon choices. Awards are dependent upon achievements. Healthy relationships are dependent upon trust.

None of these things are bad. They are exactly the way it should be.  Our world wouldn’t function fairly or properly otherwise. But the problem is, this conditions us (no pun or irony intended) to have a no-free-lunch mindset in everything.

Then we talk about loving unconditionally, and it all breaks down. We talk about God loving us unconditionally and it just doesn’t compute, because it’s so against what we have learned.

And so we talk about His unconditional love and grace toward those who trust Him. And then almost before we finish the sentence we find ourselves trying to do things to please Him so we can earn His love and grace.

Our ability to understand and fully embrace ‘unconditionality’ is limited because of things like:

  • Fear of vulnerability. To truly love unconditionally means to be completely vulnerable. Love already can bring pain. Unconditional love could leave us open to excruciating pain. So we set conditions in order to self-protect.
  • Inability to see people’s hearts. We simply can’t tell what the other person is really thinking or what is driving them. We have to rely on our interpretation of the outward signs…which may or may not reflect the inner heart that we can’t really see.  To mitigate the risk, we move with caution – and unspoken conditions.
  • Perceived benefit. Really, no matter how we try to avoid it, there is always the “what’s in it for me” factor. This isn’t wrong.  We make decisions in our lives for two reasons: 1) to make our lives better, or 2) to make the lives of the people we care about better (which makes us feel happy or satisfied or accomplished…which equates to making our lives better). We therefore define conditions to measure cost/benefit.
  • Self-preservation. This is not so much a reason as it is the sum total of all the reasons. Self-preservation is the shield against the devastation that could come from vulnerability; it is the insurance policy against unforeseen things in the other person’s heart; it is the mechanism by which we make sure there is some benefit. Self-preservation equates to conditions.

These conditions may be unspoken, unacknowledged, or maybe even unrecognized. But they are there.

God, however, operates on a different level than us:

  • Jesus was willing to make Himself completely vulnerable without feeling threatened (see Philippians 2:6-8)
  • God knows all and understands exactly what is in each heart – and still loves us! (see Psalm 139:1-6, Ephesians 2:4)
  • And He desires a relationship with us above all else. His joy truly comes from relationship with us, and He doesn’t do the dance to make it appear any differently! (see Jeremiah 31:3,  1 John 3:1-2)

This all adds up to the truth that self-preservation does not come into the equation. Our God is capable of – and practices – something that we cannot grasp or replicate. True unconditional love!

How have you experienced this unconditional love and grace? Or have you? Maybe you’ve experienced it but haven’t recognized it. Maybe you never entered a relationship with Him and so have absolutely no point of reference to start with.

Whatever the case, wherever you are in your spiritual journey, this is a prime topic for meditation and prayer.

We may not be able to grasp it completely, but there are depths that are attainable. And as you reach those depths, it will amaze you!

What Not to Wear

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“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14)

Sort of an odd statement, isn’t it? “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Why didn’t Paul say “get in step with” or “devote yourself to” or “obey” the Lord Jesus Christ?

Paul used the imagery of ‘putting on’ something for a couple reasons.

What we wear covers and protects us.  It keeps undesired elements (wind, rain, paint spray, poison ivy, sand fleas – you name it) off our skin. Appropriate clothing means harmful or unwanted things cannot get to us.

What we wear also shows something of us to the world. Even those who give the least consideration to fashion have to admit that their wardrobe choices, intentionally or unintentionally, are made with purpose. It may be as simple as to draw attention (get noticed) or to avoid attention (fit in), but clothing selection has meaning.

So our spiritual attire is important. Proper dress matters in our most private moments because it protects us from harmful things. And it matters when we step out in public because it reflects our most basic choices.

Let’s thumb through our closets and see what should and shouldn’t be there.

Writing to a different church, Paul lists some things we should be wearing:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Makes sense, right?  Putting on Christ means being like Christ. So let’s don the things we see in His example.

On the other side, Paul and Peter both give some hints as to the sort of things we need to be rid of:

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Some of these are blatant enough that they are no-brainers – everyone knows sorcery and orgies should be avoided.  Others are more subtle – like envy, jealousy, or dissensions. But blatant or subtle, choosing the wrong apparel can be limiting and enslaving.

So, can it be any clearer what needs to make up our wardrobe and what needs to go to the curb?

One final point, because I don’t want clothing selection to become the main point and result in a legalistic checklist exercise. Remember, we started with the idea of putting on Christ. Our freedom comes from abiding in Him and allowing Him to empower our choices.

We will slip up sometimes. But the question is: were you drawn into it because you had a weak moment or did you intentionally pull it off the hanger?

When Paul says “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” he is not saying that if you fall you are disqualified – just that the consistent rejection of proper attire and choice of ‘trashy’ clothes reflects a heart that isn’t focused on following Jesus.

If you are putting on Christ every day, He’ll help you put on the right things. And the rest of that stuff can be left for the moths to eat.

Top Cover

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Near the close of my last post, I said I was going to talk a little more about this idea that God has our back.

Or, in military parlance, He provides top cover (a term used for combat airplanes flying at high altitude to protect a military force from air attack).

When a military force knows they have top cover, they are free to focus on their objective without worrying about unexpected attacks from above.

By the same token, when we know God is providing top cover, we are free to focus on our goals and objectives without worrying about how unexpected zingers could leave us in a pile of rubble.

I first came across the following quote at a time in my life when I was under some heavy fire – the combination of some embarrassing truths and more-embarrassing rumors were posing a threat to me, my loved ones, and my ministry.

I don’t know why I chose to pick up Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline then. The book had been on my shelf for a long time, among the ranks of the I’ll-get-to-it-someday titles (on my bookshelf, there is never a shortage in the I’ll-get-to-it-someday ranks).

I say “I don’t know why” meaning I don’t know what thought processes prompted me. But I do know why I picked it up. There was something in that book that God wanted me to see, at that specific point in my journey.

Buried in that hardcover edition, midway through the chapter “The Discipline of Solitude”, about halfway down page 101, was this priceless gem:

“One of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier. We don’t need to straighten others out. There is a story of a medieval monk who was being unjustly accused of certain offenses. One day he looked out his window and saw a dog biting and tearing on a rug that had been hung out to dry. As he watched, the Lord spoke to him saying, ‘That is what is happening to your reputation. But if you will trust Me, I will care for you – reputation and all.’ Perhaps more than anything else, silence brings us to believe that God can care for us – ‘reputation and all’”

Read that again. Let it sink in a minute. It’s solid advice.

God doesn’t require us to defend ourselves. He only asks that we trust Him. Think about these examples from scripture:

When Moses was accused in so many words of being a cold-blooded killer who would murder indiscriminately, he didn’t rally supporters and build a case to defend his reputation. He fled to Midian where he spent 40 years in solitude while God looked after his reputation, and prepared Moses for the work He had lined up for him.

When David was jealously painted as a political insurgent, he didn’t form an ‘occupy’ protest and shout his innocence from the town square. He escaped the royal city to hide in caves, and waited on God…who preserved his reputation and put him on the throne in due time.

After Saul of Tarsus was converted, he didn’t immediately go to Jerusalem to set every rumor aright and prove that Paul was a changed man, no longer the murderous Saul. He went into the wilderness of Arabia for three years and allowed God to be his justifier. And when he did go to Jerusalem, God had begun to prepare hearts to accept him for who he was.

So rest assured that God is perfectly capable and absolutely willing to provide top cover for His children.

We don’t have to defend ourselves.

And because of that, we have freedom to live courageously!

What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

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Years ago, a friend helped me through a tough time in my life. There are many things that she said, and I value much of the advice she gave during our talks.

But there was one phrase she came back to repeatedly – and it always seemed to make me stop and say ‘hmm’:

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Used properly, this ranks among the greatest questions of all time (in my humble opinion).

Here’s the deal – the things that we dread thrive in the darkness. When ideas are half-formed and fears are nebulous, they seem very overwhelming.

But when we start to take a closer look and actually think through them, we realize that they are not nearly so disastrous.

It’s the nature of the unknown. Unknowns often seem larger than they are.

Have you ever noticed that when you travel somewhere new, the trip there seems to take much longer than the return trip? Or if you go back again to the same place it doesn’t take nearly as long as you remembered it taking the first time?

That’s the nature of the unknown.

So, the key to conquering fear, dread, and anxiety is to tackle and expose the unknown element(s). When you start to feel these emotions forming, step back and consciously think through whatever is causing the angst.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen.”

And then slowly, calmly and purposefully – with lots of deep breathing, if necessary – answer the question.

If circumstances permit, take the time to sit down and write out all the things that could happen.  Map out the possible paths and consequences. Think through all the alternatives. Literally find the worst possible scenario.

Then think about the probabilities of each path coming to reality. Realistic probabilities. If it helps, use a numbering or a high-medium-low scale to grade the likeliness of each one happening.

When you go through this exercise, the monsters that panicked you will usually prove to be toothless and ineffective in the light of clear thought.

I’m not saying that there will never be scary possibilities. There may be things that are terrifying! But I can almost guarantee they won’t be as terrifying as they were before you put them into words.

They may be hard, but they are things you are perfectly capable of handling – especially when you have a God who said “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5).

Snake Charmer

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“He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15b).

“Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19).

I was contemplating the concept of ‘power’ the other day, particularly as it relates to our battles with temptation and sin.

How often do we treat temptation as if it is a snake and we are merely a desperate snake-charmer, trying our best to either placate it, hold it at bay or dodge its next strike – allowing it to have the control, and reacting as best we can to avoid getting bit? Giving it the position of power does not give us freedom. It binds us.

To keep something at bay while playing defense is a recipe for defeat. Just ask any football fan who has watched his or her team blow a fourth quarter lead thanks to the ‘prevent defense.’

To compromise with wickedness is equally a recipe for defeat. Just ask the nations that thought a peace treaty with Hitler was a good idea.

But look at the Genesis passage above, and put your particular weakness in the role of the serpent for a moment. I see here two important truths related to that confrontation.

God tells the serpent “he [man] will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” Let me work right to left.

God said “you will bruise his heel.” What this tells me is that sometimes our sin lands a blow, and that’s okay.

Well, I mean, it’s not okay, but it’s okay…if that makes sense.

We’re human. We make bad choices.

John writes “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9), which presupposes we have sins that need confessing. In fact, he even goes on to write that if we say we have no sin, the truth isn’t in us (v. 10). (And remember, John is writing to church-going Christians here!)

Missteps and offenses are part of life. Temptation and weakness will get the upper hand once in a while. From the very beginning God acknowledged as much. It doesn’t mean we have a free pass, but it means His grace is enough to cover it.

The best part of this passage, though, is where God tells the serpent “he will bruise your head” or, in the NIV: “he will crush your head”.

God is using language that suggests not merely avoidance or keeping our sin at arm’s length, but outright aggression.

We were intended to meet the enemy head-on in the power of Christ. In Luke 10:19, Jesus tells His disciples “I give you authority to trample snakes and scorpions…” Again, His intention is for us to conquer.

Paul starts his ‘Armor of God’ discourse with the phrase, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might…that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11).

He didn’t say find a safe place to hunker down. Or learn some good footwork so you can dodge the blows. Or give it some slack so you can avoid the ‘big sins’.

He said “be strong, take on God’s power, and stand !”

So next time you’re faced with that habit or addiction or weakness that plagues you, remember that God doesn’t empower you to dance around it, He empowers you to meet it head on.

Don’t dance with it, don’t flirt with it – claim the power that resides in you as a believer, and crush it!

Let me close with one more verse. Something to cling to whenever you start to think that the serpent is too strong for you and all you can do is compromise or avoid…

“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory” (Ephesians 6:20-21).

The Perils of Time Travel, Part II

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I wrote last time a couple of reasons why I think God doesn’t allow us to go back and change our past. In a nutshell, our susceptibility to repeating mistakes or our flawed way of fixing things – or both – have potential to get in the way.

But it goes beyond that.

God has a desire and a specific intention for each of our lives. That intention does not include our brokenness or bad choices – we can look at every bad choice and be assured that God would have preferred we chose differently. He doesn’t cause us to make bad decisions, and He is not the author of our bad circumstances or our hurts.

However, He has woven each and every one of those things into His plan for our lives. He is completely sovereign. Nothing surprises Him and nothing ever comes up that He doesn’t know what to do with. And so He takes everything and uses it to build us into the persons we are.

This is a hard concept to get our heads around, but remember our inability to understand something doesn’t make it any less true. Look at Isaiah 55:8-9 – God is essentially saying “I know what I’m doing, even when you don’t get it.”

Scripture is full of stories where people’s poor choices were part of God’s plan. Look at Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Talk about a winding, broken, dysfunctional road.

From Joseph’s hubris in proclaiming to his family his dream in which they bowed before him, to his brothers’ resentful plan to do away with him, to Potiphar’s wife’s lust and false accusation, to the broken promise of the chief butler who was supposed to put in a good word for him.

How many things do you think Joseph would have liked to go back and change? To keep his mouth shut about his dream? To not go looking for his brothers on that fateful day when they sold him into slavery? To avoid being in the wrong place so the Egyptian woman couldn’t make her accusation stick? To keep his interpretation of the butler’s dream to himself?  Yet every one of these things were cobblestones in the road that led to Joseph attaining a position from which he could save his family from starvation, and the future nation of Israel from extinction.

And so, if we went back and fixed our mistakes, how could He use them to build us and others up? How could He use them to further His kingdom or accomplish His plan?

See, and you thought the whole concept of time travel was mind-boggling!

Admittedly, this is difficult on a whole new level for those of us guilty of breaking others’ boundaries.  It feels almost immoral to say that things I did to hurt someone else are being used for my or others’ growth. And it seems callous and insensitive toward the persons I hurt to say their pain is part of the greater good.

Knowing there are some reading this that fall on both sides of hurtful situations, please know that this is not to dismiss or minimize anyone’s hurt, or to justify anyone’s offenses. It’s merely a humble attempt to analyze the inner-workings of the grace and sovereignty of a loving God. I pray that is understood.

So the next time you want to lament your inability to change the past, turn your thoughts instead to the people, circumstances, and opportunities in the present that your pothole-covered path has led you to.

And thank God for it.

Commitment

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“Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.” – Psalm 31:5 (NKJV)

Have I completely committed my spirit to Him? Am I really ‘all in’ in this Christian relationship?

Romans 12:1 tells me to submit myself as a living sacrifice to Him, which is a powerful illustration of this commitment. A sacrifice didn’t just get up and walk back to the livestock pen – it was totally, irrevocably, entirely committed.

So, as a living sacrifice, am I totally, irrevocably, and entirely committed? Or am I committed during certain time-boxed segments of my life and handling things on my own the rest of the time? Or daily committed, but only with certain parts of my life?

Do I trust Him with my security, my protection, my abilities, my well-being?

Do I trust Him to help me do my job? To fulfill expectations and plan the work? To make the right connections and develop the right partnerships?

Do I trust Him to help me relate to my family and friends? To treat them as the valuable persons that they are in my life? To make sure they know they are appreciated and treasured?

Do I trust Him to enable me in the ministry that He called me to? To understand His truths, and find the words to convey them to others? To keep me confident and focused in the face of apparent disinterest or flaming arrows of criticism?

Do I trust Him with my reputation? To protect from misinterpretation or misapplication of my words? To shield me from lies, rumors, and mishandling of the truth?

Do I trust Him to keep me pure? To help me make good decisions, even when the temptations seem larger than life and the battle seems most dire?

Do I trust Him to help me properly interact with others, with discernment and caution where necessary, with compassion and encouragement always? To give place to others in a way that is not self-demeaning? To show a full measure of His love and grace, while not compromising His truth?

Do I trust Him with my family? To reconcile and heal where needed? To shield them from hurtful attitudes and harmful words, directed at them sometimes merely for choosing to love and support me?

Do I trust Him enough to say that even if it leads to hardship, embarrassment, loss, pain, broken relationships, or death, I’m in?

I wish I could say that the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘Yes!’ but of course it’s not. I still want to worry over and try to manage many of these areas myself, rather than trust Him to handle it all.

When the psalmist says “You have redeemed me” I agree without a doubt.

When he refers to God as the “Lord God of truth” I respond with a heartfelt ‘Amen’.

But tying that back to the first half of the verse and wholly committing my spirit into the hands of the Lord God of truth who has redeemed me…that’s where the connection gets fuzzy.

In my head, I can tie it together. In my heart, it’s a little more challenging.

What about you? How are you doing with all this? What do you need to let go and commit to Him?

Whatever it is, He can handle it. But don’t take my word for it…take His:

“The word of the Lord is proven; He is a shield to all who trust in Him.” – Psalm 18:30 (NKJV)