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Putting Your Past Behind You

Dec 31, 2016

What is it in your past that plagues you and haunts you and depresses you and keeps you in bondage? Whatever it is, whatever has happened to you, whatever you have done, our God is so awesome, so huge, so merciful and gracious, that he can bring you healing and release from your past. As this New Year begins, this may be what will help you to have your best year yet, if you can learn to put your past behind you.

Our memories are strange things, aren’t they? It seems most of us are very good at remembering what we should forget and forgetting what we should remember. Amazing how we can remember hurt feelings and injustices and pain, yet forget to send birthday cards or call a friend who is sick.

Maybe you are struggling with some memory—some past history—that you just can’t get out of your head. Whether from your childhood, from a failed relationship, from a former job situation, or from bad decisions and choices of your own, that past tends to hang around your neck like a ton of bricks. You stay busy and try to forget it, but in those quiet moments, when the noise abates and the activity subsides, you are left with the dreadful memories from your past that seem to affect everything you do.

Without apology I enthusiastically assert that you can find answers in the Bible. At the risk of sounding simplistic and naive, my friends, the healing we need from pasts that haunt us is found in scripture. God may use people to help you find the scripture, but until you apply the Word of God to your past, you will never be able to put it behind you.

I remember a talk I had with my good friend, Pastor Donald Cole of the Moody Radio Network, who is now with Jesus. He was a wonderfully wise and loving man. I said, “Pastor Cole, sometimes I’m intimidated when people ask me for help or advice and I simply refer them to God’s Word. I’m not a counselor; I don’t know all the lingo; but I truly believe the answers are in the Bible, not in people. Yet they often respond as though I just don’t understand; their situation is too complex to just go to the Bible for help. But I don’t know anything else to give them.”

He said, “Mary, if the Bible doesn’t have an answer, there is no answer. Never be intimidated to urge anyone to find their needs met in the Word of God.”  We both agreed that in our instant society, often people want quick fixes. And to find the Bible’s answers takes study and time and devotion. Also, the Bible always gives the truth, and sometimes people don’t want the truth.

We know that truth sets you free, but truth can sometimes hurt. When we learn the truth, it may be uncomfortable; it may point a finger at us when we’ve been trying to shift the blame; it may not be an instant fix. But truth will set you free.

So, if you truly want to be free from your past, I tell you wholeheartedly that God’s truth as revealed in the Bible can help you. Do you really want to put your past behind you—whatever it takes? Are you willing to admit you are in some ways a slave to that past? Have you come to the point where you know that your methods aren’t working and you’re ready to try it God’s way? If so, there is wonderful hope for you, because believe me, God wants you to put that past behind you and move forward.

In Philippians 3:12-14 Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is focused on one thing: winning the prize, doing what God has called him to do. He is candid to tell us that he doesn’t have his act totally together, and he’s in the process of becoming what God desires him to be. BUT in order to do that, he knows that he must forget what is behind and focus on the future.

Now, think about what was behind Paul. A life of rebellion against Christ when he actually was the enemy of the Lord, persecuting and killing Christians for their faith before his conversion. After that, he had other things in his past to forget: failures, for one. All of his plans for serving the Lord had not succeeded, as he wanted them to. He had been prevented from going certain places and doing what he planned to do.

Relationship problems also were in his past. He had a disagreement with Barnabas over Mark, and some of the other Christians were suspicious of him and his conversion.

He also had much success in his past, much of which he could be proud. But that also had to be forgotten. He couldn’t live in the victories of the past and be effective for God in the future. So, he determined to forget what was behind him in order to attain the heavenly goal which was before him.

The humanistic philosophy, which pervades so much of our thinking today, has caused many people to be very focused on the past. I think of a dear friend who, in trying to find help from a psychiatrist, has instead been driven to her past more and more until now she thinks of nothing else. The future is on hold for her, because she is obsessed with her past.

How could Paul say he was forgetting what was behind? One reason was because he had a goal in front of him. You know, when you’re occupied with doing something worthwhile, when you have activities which are meaningful and important, you can put the past behind you much easier. I notice that people who are inactive are much more likely to be consumed with their pasts. One of the great blessings of being involved in the lives of others is that it causes us to forget ourselves.

Another reason Paul could put his past behind him was that he knew he was forgiven and that God remembered his past against him no more. I can imagine that he must have struggled with the fact that he had persecuted and killed Christians in his past, but on that Damascus road he found Jesus—or rather Jesus found him and set him on the right road. From that point on he was a forgiven man, and he had accepted that forgiveness.

Have you asked God for forgiveness for your past? Maybe that is what is keeping you enslaved to that past—you really don’t feel like God has forgiven you. Well, if you sincerely asked him to in the name of Jesus and through his shed blood, then he had to forgive you or he would be a liar—and God is not a liar. So, maybe you just don’t feel forgiven. That’s where you must ignore those feelings and believe  by faith that God will do what he has promised to do—forgive you.

When the enemy comes to haunt you with those past sins, quote 1 John 1:9 over and over, out loud if possible: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  Throw the word of God right back in Satan’s face every time he tries to shackle you with your past sins. God purifies from all unrighteousness, so don’t let the enemy tell you the lie that your sin is too much or too awful.

I promise, if you will start to combat that feeling of not being forgiven with the Word of God, in time you will be able to put those past sins behind you and live in the blessed truth of God’s forgiveness.

In order to put your past behind you, you must learn to think correctly. The place where your past gets to you is in your mind—those thoughts and nightmares and memories that swirl around in your head and cripple you mentally and emotionally. The battlefield is your mind.

The Apostle Paul could put his past behind him because he was learning to bring every thought into captivity and allow the mind of Christ in him to control his thinking. In that same letter to the Philippians, chapter 4 verse 8, he tells us what we should think about: Things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. The past that haunts you does not fall into those categories, right? So, that means you must learn to practice this principle and bring every thought you have into captivity so that you don’t think about the dreadful past. How do you do that?

Again, through God’s Word and learning how to apply it on a daily, thought-by-thought basis. I’ve written a book entitled Think About What You Think About, which goes into this challenge of controlling your thoughts in much more depth. I can tell you personally that learning to bring my thoughts into captivity has been life-changing for me, and to this day, it is the key discipline that I must continue to practice in order to live in the freedom that is mine in Jesus.

I know that many struggle with pasts of abuse and injustice, fear and hatred. How can you put that kind of a past behind you? Jesus said, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots” (Matthew 15:13). Did God plant that abuse in your life? No, it was the result of sin, someone else’s sin. God didn’t plant it, so it will be pulled up by the roots. Did God treat you unfairly, dishonestly, or with discrimination? No, people treat us that way but not God. Therefore, he didn’t plant that injustice so it will be pulled up. Did God reject you or leave you? No, he’s promised never to do that. So, since he didn’t plant that rejection in your life, it will be pulled up by the roots.

What does that mean? It simply means that he has the power to yank it out of your life so that it can do you no further harm. He didn’t plant it; he didn’t approve of it; he didn’t desire it for you. Therefore he is more than willing and able to pull it up by the roots. However, you’ve got to give him permission to do the weeding in the garden of your heart. Otherwise those painful weeds from the past just grow and grow and start to overtake all the beautiful flowers the Lord has planted in your life.

Another favorite scripture of mine is Isaiah 43:18-19: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”

Do not dwell on the past!  That is very good advice for all of us. It’s that dwelling and continual concentration on the past that gets us in trouble. Surely in many cases we will not ever in this life be able to literally erase from our memories the painful things from our past, but when we live in the past, when the past controls our thinking, then we have no future.

Think about it: In your life are you more focused on the past than you are on the future? What do you think about most often? What bothers you most frequently? Your past? Can you not see how that is preventing you from knowing the joys and blessings God has planned for your future? God is waiting to do a new thing for you, but if you never forget what is behind you, you won’t be able to see the good things God wants to do.

I pray that if you have been consumed with the past, you will determine to give that past over to God, allow him to handle it for you, and look for the new thing he wants to do for you. God wants you to be future-focused, and he can help you put behind those things from your past which get in the way.

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Life at the Crossroads Part II

Jul 30, 2016

Part II

Some of us—maybe most of us—have made some poor choices at the crossroads of life. We’ve chosen the wrong path and we wonder if it’s just too late now. What do we do when we’re living with a wrong choice, one we would not make again, but now we have to live with it?

I want to encourage you to know that God specializes in turning our deserts into gardens and our ashes into beauty. It’s never too late for God to make something good out of our lives. The question is, what do we do about those wrong choices from the past?

First, we have to acknowledge that when we don’t make good decisions, we cannot expect to avoid the consequences of our choices. You may feel that you made a bad decision out of ignorance. If you had known where that bad decision would lead, you wouldn’t have gone there. And that may be true. Even so, the consequences are there, and they must be confronted.

I think of a young woman I know who just about ran her life into the ground, with drugs and alcohol and wrong relationships, before she came to know Christ as her Savior. She would never make those choices now, and other people in her life played a critical part in leading her down this wrong path. But she still has to face the consequences of living that kind of life. However, she has not allowed it to make her bitter or to question God, and now she is moving into a really good place in her life, where she is truly getting to know God and God is using her story to encourage and help others.

I think many of us would have to admit that in most cases we have chosen the wrong path even though we knew better. We just chose to ignore the potential consequences because we wanted what we wanted when we wanted it. We wanted to be in control of our lives, and we thought we could run our lives better than God.

How many women have told me of their decisions to marry a man that they knew was not God’s choice for their lives. Yet they wanted him, and so they are now living with the consequences of being married to the wrong man.

How many women have chosen to become involved with the wrong men and ended up in affairs and illicit sex, with broken hearts and damaged lives? I have personally tried to tell many women what the consequences of these relationships would be, but they often don’t have ears to hear. They can’t believe it would happen to them. So, in spite of their awareness of a bad decision, they make it anyway.

Living with Wrong Decisions

So, you’ve made some wrong decisions. What do you do now? Is life over? Is there no way back? Here are some suggestions to help you live with your wrong decisions:

  1. Own up to your wrong decisions.

Don’t live in denial. Don’t keep shifting blame. Don’t try to ignore it. Don’t make up excuses. Just get it out in the open, first with God. Confess it to him. Then you may or may not need to talk about it with someone else. But call it what it is, ask for forgiveness, and bring it out into the light. Until we own up to our part in the wrong decisions of our lives, we can never get past them.

  1. Refuse to live in despair.

You serve a God of second chances—many second chances. You don’t have to live in despair, even over bad decisions that have affected your entire life.

Maybe you married the wrong man. You had an abortion. You committed adultery or fornication. You spent money you should not have spent. You lied to your boss. You chose the wrong career. You went to the wrong school. You walked away from God and the church. You bought the wrong house. You ate the wrong food. You chose the wrong friend. You went to the wrong church.

I don’t know what is on your list, but I know that God wants to make an example of how he can still be glorified, even in the midst of your wrong decisions.

So many times we give up on ourselves, live in guilt and settle for so much less than God wants to do for us, just because we can’t forgive ourselves or get beyond the wrong decisions of our lives. Don’t you know that your enemy wants to keep you mired down in the consequences of your wrong decision? Don’t let him win. You don’t have to live in despair and regret, even if you live with the consequences of wrong decisions.

  1. Start where you are and go forward.

The Bible is full of examples and admonitions for us to believe that God can make good things even out of our messes.

Isaiah 51:3: The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

Isaiah 58:11: The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 61:1-3: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

You can be an oak of righteousness, if you will put your past behind you and go forward from where you are. Yes, even though you’re living with the consequences of wrong decisions.

I’ve made many decisions that were wrong, some more so than others. The worst decisions were the ones I knew were wrong when I made them. But there have been others that were not so intentional, just misguided. For example, financial decisions that were made too hastily, and ended up costing me money.

But I’m here to tell you today that God remembers our frame and knows that we are dust, so it doesn’t surprise him to see how often we make wrong decisions. What must, however, break his heart is to see how we wallow in those wrong decisions and allow them to keep us living in guilt and despair instead of taking our medicine and going forward. What must break God’s heart is to see how we don’t learn lessons that we need to learn from our wrong decisions, and we keep making the same ones over and over. It must indeed grieve God to see that we don’t allow him to turn our deserts into gardens and our ashes into beauty.

Determine by God’s grace that you will go back to the ancient paths. Wherever you are, in whatever mess you may find yourself, it’s never too late to ask for the ancient paths and go back to God’s way. You may have to sever some relationships. You may have to change jobs. You may have to confess to some dishonest thing you’ve said or done. You may have to make restitution for harm that has been caused by your wrong choice. But whatever it takes, go back to the ancient paths. You will never know the fullness of joy that God has for you until you ask for the ancient paths.

God can give you the grace to live with whatever bad or wrong decision you have made, even the ones that last for a lifetime, if you will allow him to do that in your life. And you will be amazed at how you can find joy and peace and fulfillment and be used of God even though you’ve made some wrong choices and bad decisions.

That’s the kind of God we serve. He has all power. He can do anything. Are you willing to let him take your wrong decision today and make something good out of it? Are you willing to stop using your bad choices as excuses for not going forward with God and being a blessing to others? Are you willing to allow him to put your past behind you so you can be all that God wants you to be? Are you willing to learn from those wrong decisions so you don’t heap bad decisions upon bad decisions? If so, you can find a fresh start today, right here, right now.

Jeremiah’s exhortation to us is to seek the ancient path and the good way, and then walk in it. Just do it. Obey. I’m often saddened when I talk with people who are at some crossroad in their lives, and they seem to want to know where the good way is. But then I discover that they only want to know the good way if it is easy, or if it suits them, or if it is the way they want to go.

Remember this verse from Jeremiah 6:16:

This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Stand and look down the road; consider the eternal consequences, and ask for and then choose the ancient way. You’ll never be sorry that you did. That is the way to find rest for your soul—true rest.

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Life at the Crossroads Part I

Jul 23, 2016

Part I

No doubt each of us has come to certain crossroads in our lives where we had to decide which way we were going. There are career crossroads, relationship crossroads, financial crossroads, and spiritual crossroads, to name a few. Hardly a day passes that we are not confronted with some decision that may affect that day or week or month, but the choices we make that truly cause a different path for us to take are the ones I want to talk about. When your life is at a crossroad, do you know it—and how do you know it? And how do you make the right choice, especially when neither choice is bad or evil, but you have to choose between two goods?

You may have read or even studied this famous poem by Robert Frost in high school or college. It begins:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth.

 

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Life is full of pivotal points—times when we are faced with decisions and choices that make a difference in our lives. This poem captures one of those pivotal moments and reminds us that the choices we make at critical junctures in our lifetime have enormous impact on where we will go, who we will be, what we will do, and, for those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ, how effective our lives will be for his glory.

Robert Frost expresses this quandary of life’s crossroads in this simple but beautiful poem. He expresses the feelings we’ve had many times as we were faced with decisions. And in looking back, we wonder, did we make the right choice?

Have you ever thought about decisions you made that set your life’s course and wondered where you would be now if you had made a different one? Frost gives vent to these shared musings: “I shall be telling this with a sigh, Somewhere ages and ages hence . . .” In other words, I’ll always wonder what life would had been like had I chosen the other road.

Every person faces these pivotal life-moments, but for those of us who are believers, are we left, like Frost, to simply survey the prospects of the roads in front of us and make our best guess? He decides to choose the road less traveled, but was that the best choice? What guided him in that decision, just some inner curiosity? Is that the best we can do?

Let’s see what the Bible has to say about life at the crossroads, because we need to make sure that we’re not just taking our best guess through life. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have his power to guide us through Life at the Crossroads.

I want to talk about some of the mistakes we can make when we face life at the crossroads. And one of those is to overlook the importance of what we might call “small choices, minor decisions.” Those choices we consider small add up, and they impact our lives more than we would think.

For example, we choose each day whether we will spend quality time in God’s Word, in prayer, and in spiritual disciplines, like memorizing scripture. If you make the wrong choice to skip that time one day, it may not have any serious long-term consequences. But if you keep making that small wrong choice day after day, it will soon add up to a choice with significant negative consequences in your life.

You may choose to allow a relationship to begin in your life, which you know will not be good for you, but you think it’s no big deal and you can handle it. However, that small choice opens the door for that relationship to develop and it could eventually drag you down and cause you lots of heartache.

An old song says, “Little Things Mean a Lot,” and it’s also true that “Little Choices Mean a Lot.” Your everyday life is made up of little choices: Do I buy those shoes, even though they are not in my budget? Do I skip church today because I’m a little tired? Do I take time to call a friend who is hurting? Do I share my faith with a co-worker when I have an opportunity? Do I eat that chocolate cheesecake which I don’t need? Do I make myself exercise today or not?

Those are examples of the little crossroads we face each day, and while one day of poor choices may not take us down the wrong road, repeated days of poor everyday choices will affect our health, our finances, our spiritual growth—you name it. Making good decisions at these daily crossroads of life requires discipline. In Proverbs 5, we see the lament of a person who refused discipline.

At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent. You will say, “How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned correction! I have come to the brink of utter ruin. (Prov. 5:11-12, 14)

Like Frost’s poem, the person who refuses discipline will be “telling this with a sigh” because those poor everyday choices can truly lead to utter ruin, physically, emotionally and spiritually. So, as you face your everyday choices today, remember that how you choose will make all the difference.

What guidance do we have from God’s Word when we’re facing Life at the Crossroads? Consider this passage from Jeremiah 6:

This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

In Robert Frost’s poem, as he is deciding which fork in the road he should take, he writes “long I stood and looked down one as far as I could . . .” He tried to see the end from the beginning. I understand that desire, don’t you? Every time we’re faced with a choice, if we could see the end from the beginning, we would make much better choices. Often the reason we miss the right way is because we don’t stand at the crossroads and look.

Instead we go with our emotions, with our feelings, with our gut, and with our momentary desires. How many Christians have stood at that marriage crossroads and made a choice to marry a person who was not God’s choice? Why would they make such a decision? Because they didn’t look. They didn’t ask what this marriage would be like down the road. They looked with their earthly eyes instead of Forever Eyes, and thought they could beat the odds.

I was talking recently with a young woman who married a Muslim man, even though she is a Christian. He is a good man and she is not abused in any way, but she knows it was not the right choice. I asked her why she made that choice, and she said, “I was blinded by being in love.” She didn’t stand at that crossroad and look for the ancient path, the good way.

I can tell stories from my own life of making poor choices, but I don’t want to repeat those mistakes. We must stand at the crossroads and look. We must ask God for an eternal perspective—what will this look like in eternity? All of us like instant gratification, and that grass on the other side just looks so green sometimes. But standing at the crossroads and looking past the temporary to see the eternal consequences will prevent us from making some of those poor choices that we now regretfully have to live with.

Jeremiah says we are to ask for the ancient paths. Ancient paths? You mean, do it the old-fashioned way? You mean, do what my mother says I should do? You mean, make choices that aren’t cool? In our modern world, ancient paths are not highly respected or desired. Outdated and narrow would be the words many would use to describe these ancient paths. Why would we want to choose ancient paths?

Because the ancient paths are God’s paths. He is the eternal God, the Ancient of Days he is called, and his paths are ancient. They don’t change because they don’t need to change. They are true and good for all time. They are the paths that have proven to be the good paths.

So, ask for the ancient paths. Literally pray, “God, show me the ancient paths as I face this crossroads. Show me your way.” We are often inclined to let the world dictate our paths—to do what everyone else is doing, to choose the “cool” way. Its allurements make rash promises that they can never fulfill. They look good, but oh, they lead you astray. Ask for the ancient paths.

In addition to asking God, seek godly counselors, and ask them for the ancient paths. Ask where the good way is. Sometimes you need to ask for directions. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Don’t be too proud to ask for guidance from godly people who will have a better perspective than yours.

As I think back over my own life, I see how foolish I was at some very critical crossroads of my own life because I simply wasn’t asking for the good way and I wasn’t letting anyone give me advice or counsel. While I refuse to live in regret and believe firmly in God’s sovereignty in my life, I fully recognize the foolish choices I knowingly made and how I lost years of effectiveness for Jesus because of them.

So, if you’re facing a crossroad in life, stand and look, ask for the ancient paths, ask for the good way, and seek godly counsel. Don’t rush headlong into a wrong choice that you will regret. It’s true that God can take our poor choices, our wrong decisions, and help us to recover and even use them for his glory. But how much smarter, how much easier, how much more would it bring glory to God if instead we chose the good way, the ancient paths, and avoided the consequences of making a wrong choice.

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Being Thankful for the Missing Pieces

Nov 28, 2015

I’ve noticed that a lot of people I meet and talk with are truly handicapped over the missing pieces in their lives. Whatever it is that is not there in their life’s puzzle, they have become obsessed with it, it controls their thought life, and it keeps them from enjoying or appreciating the good things they do have.  What about you?  Would that be true of you?

I was talking with a friend recently who has been married quite a few years, and has always wanted children, but she has not been able to have her own. That’s a painful missing piece, and she was sharing the pain with me.  But even though she recognizes that an important piece is missing, she hastened to add: “But, Mary, I have so much to be thankful for.  My life is still full and meaningful,” and she began to recite the good things—the pieces that are not missing from her life.

I said to her, “Do you realize how unusual you are? While you acknowledge that a key piece is missing from your life, and is likely to always be missing, you are focused on what is not missing.”  I’ve known her for many years, and I can tell you that she has never moaned and groaned about this missing piece.  While she has felt sorrow and pain over it, she accepts that no one has everything, and life is full of missing pieces.

Have the missing pieces of your life become so overwhelming that you cannot see or appreciate what you do have? For ten years I allowed what I thought was a major missing piece in my life to control me.  I felt that I had to be married for life to be complete, so I was consumed with pursuing and finding the right person to marry.  I’ve shared my testimony many times before of how that obsession with finding the missing piece led me away from the Lord, away from biblical principles, into a life that was self-focused and sinful.

What I’ve come to learn—and am still learning—is that instead of being controlled by the missing pieces, I can be thankful for them. If that sounds a little “too good to be true,” let me assure you that I don’t live on another planet and I have the same feelings and emotions and struggles as everyone else.  And I emphasize that I am learning this principle of being thankful for the missing pieces.  But as I’ve started to grasp this truth, I’ve found such freedom and contentment.

I’d like to share a poem with you, which really helped me start down this road of being thankful for the missing pieces. I first read it several years ago, and I re-read it quite often; I have it written in my prayer book as a reminder of this important biblical principle, to be thankful for the missing pieces.  The poem uses old-fashioned words, but the truth is still very relevant:

An easy thing, O power Divine,

To thank Thee for these gifts of Thine!

For summer’s sunshine, winter’s snow,

For hearts that kindle, thoughts that glow;

But when shall I attain to this:

To thank Thee for the things I miss?

 

For all young fancy’s early gleams,

The dreamed-of joys that still are dreams,

Hopes unfulfilled, and pleasures known

Through others’ fortunes, not my own,

And blessings seen that are not given,

And ne’er will be – this side of heaven.

 

Had I, too, shared the joys I see,

Would there have been a heaven for me?

Could I have felt Thy presence near

Had I possessed what I held dear?

My deepest fortune, highest bliss,

Have grown, perchance, from things I miss.

 

Sometimes there comes an hour of calm;

Grief turns to blessing, pain to balm;

A Power that works above my will

Still leads me onward, upward still;

And then my heart attains to this:

To thank Thee for the things I miss.

-Thomas Wentworth Higginson

 

When I first read this poem, I began to ask myself, “Where would you be today if you had everything you wanted, if there were no missing pieces in your life?” And it was as though God drew back a curtain to let me see how having everything I wanted could have been disastrous for me.  Why?  Because I might have been lulled into thinking I was self-sufficient and never seen my true needy state.

I recognized that the missing pieces had eventually driven me back to God, and as a result, God was able to take the brokenness of my life and use even me for his glory. I could see that it was because of the missing pieces I now have the ministry I have and the joy of knowing that there is eternal purpose and meaning in my daily life.  And I began, slowly, to thank God for the missing pieces.

Now, let me assure you that God is not expecting us to celebrate the missing pieces, to leap for joy, to throw a party, to pretend it doesn’t hurt or matter. But he is asking us to be thankful even for the missing pieces, to understand that those areas of emptiness and unfulfillment can become instruments of grace in our lives.

I’m sure you’ve heard these verses before, but we need to be reminded of what Paul wrote us concerning thankfulness:

1 Thess. 5:16-18: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 5:19-20: Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Please remember that the man who wrote these words had many missing pieces in his life. He was persecuted severely, put in prison, unable to go where he wanted to go—there were many things in his life that were not easy to swallow or understand.  Yet, he still says we should give thanks in all circumstances.

If there is some key missing piece in your life right now, you may be thinking, “But I don’t feel like giving thanks for this missing piece.” Well, isn’t it great that Paul didn’t tell us we had to feel like it!  In Hebrews 13:15 we read: Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. When we don’t feel like being thankful, we can still offer a sacrifice of praise.  A sacrifice of praise is, I believe, when we praise and thank God against all our feelings, in spite of our feelings.

How do you do that? You speak words of thankfulness and praise.  Words are the fruit of your lips, and this verse in Hebrews tells us to use that fruit as a sacrifice of praise.  It’s hard to do that, I know.  You feel like a hypocrite when you start saying things you don’t feel, I know.  But you are obeying biblical principles by offering a sacrifice of praise.

When I find myself in that predicament, I begin by telling the Lord that I don’t feel like it. But I confirm that I am offering these words of thanksgiving in obedience to Scripture, by faith not by feelings, and then I say those words of thanksgiving, even if they come through clenched teeth!  God will honor our willingness to obey him; he will see that sacrifice of praise, and he will be pleased.

Interestingly, once I start to speak the words of thankfulness for the missing pieces in my life, then the feelings usually follow, and though I may not feel happy about those missing pieces, I still can feel thankful, knowing that the God of all the Universe is in control of my life and cares about me. And he has promised to turn my ashes into beauty.

You know, all of us have missing pieces in our lives; the issue is, how do you handle them? Several options are open to you:

You can become obsessed with what’s missing, and devote all your energy and time to trying to find that missing piece, trying to get what you think is essential for your happiness and fulfillment. When that happens, you become a self-focused person, and if you’ll notice, people who are self-focused are usually pretty miserable.  And obviously, that self-centered attitude is sinful and harmful to our spiritual life.

You may become bitter and angry about the missing piece. Has that happened to you?  Let me just briefly remind you that bitterness always backfires on us, and turns us into unlovely and unhappy people.  When you start to feel that it’s unfair that you don’t have what others have and you’ve been dealt a rotten hand, then you’ve become bitter.

Or you learn to accept the missing piece and focus your life on what you do have and the good things God has done for you. Eventually you can even thank God for the missing piece because you realize that through it you have come to know him better.

I can relate to all three reactions, because I’ve done them all. For ten years I was obsessed with my missing piece, and my whole life revolved around my desire to find what I thought was the key piece missing in my puzzle.  Let me tell you, those were ten tough years.  I had no peace and little contentment, and the happiness I occasionally found was temporary and unsatisfying.  Often I found myself feeling bitter and angry that others, seemingly less deserving, had what I wanted so badly, and it seemed so unfair to me.

But finally I turned the missing piece over to the Lord, and what appeared as so critical before, became a total side-line issue in my life, something I rarely thought about. Why?  Because God gave me so many other things to fill up the space, and has shown me that without that missing piece, I would never know him the way I do.

Jesus told Martha that only one thing was important in life, and Mary had chosen that one thing—to get to know Jesus better and better. When that piece of our life is in the right place, everything else comes into clear focus for us.

I can think of people I know right now who are dealing with the missing pieces of their lives in panic mode, desperately trying to find it. Others are bitter and angry at God because their lives are missing something they consider to be essential.  But I can think of a few people who have simply turned over the missing pieces to God, accepted it from his hand, and focused their lives on getting to know him.  I think of a man who has lost his eyesight and now totally blind.  He went through some years of anger, but now he will tell you that it’s the best thing that could have happened to him.  God has given him such a testimony and impact as he joyfully lives with that missing piece.

How are you dealing with the missing pieces in your life? Well, I want to encourage you to start learning to thank God for them. Maybe you need to meditate on what I’ve said, think about it further, and make a decision to be thankful, even for the missing pieces.

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Worrying is Worthless – Part II

Aug 29, 2015

Part II

I remember a song we sang when I was young: Why worry when you can pray? Well, it’s a good question, isn’t it? Why do we worry when Jesus has clearly told us not to worry? Worrying is truly worthless!

I’m sure you’ve read this passage from Matthew 6 many times, but let’s look at it once again. Jesus said:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.. . So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

In this passage there are at least three reasons why we should not worry if we belong to God through faith in Jesus Christ. They are:

  • Because of who we are—we are more valuable than birds.
  • Because it never does any good.
  • Because it’s a bad testimony.

Worry is a function of your mind, your thoughts. So, in order to stop worrying, you have to change your thought patterns. And in order to change your thought patterns, you have to replace wrong thoughts with right thoughts. So here is one thought that can stop you from worrying: You have a heavenly Father who is taking care of you.

Jesus said in Matthew 6 that our heavenly Father knows what we need and will provide for our needs when we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Now, this may cause you to ask some questions, like “Why doesn’t God answer all my prayers if he is taking care of me?” That’s what we expect a father to do, right? I think of my own father and I am certain that if he could have met any need I had, he would have done it, and he often did.

Sometimes it seems that our earthly father is more predictable than our Heavenly Father. Most earthly fathers can be counted on to do anything they can for their children. Yet often our Heavenly Father doesn’t come through for us the way we think he should, or the way we want him to. Does he love us less than our earthly father? Why doesn’t he act like my earthly father would?

The answer to that is because he has a different agenda for us from our earthly fathers. He has an eternal agenda, and his purpose is to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. That daily transformation that needs to take place in our lives often comes through unexpected—and sometimes unwanted—ways.

Spurgeon, a great preacher of the 19th Century, wrote: “O blessed acts of sorrow that cut a pathway to our God by chopping down the tall trees of human comfort.” Isn’t it true that the difficulties and uncertainties of life are the things that teach us to depend on our Heavenly Father? So, even when you’re in the midst of tough times and you don’t see how God is taking care of you, you should not worry, because he is working everything out for your good. “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Now, I fully recognize that it’s a lot easier to say those words than it is to live them. Believe me, I’ve gone through trials where trusting God to make all things work for my good did not come naturally or easily. And the worrying had to be abandoned many times; it’s not just one quick application of Romans 8:28 and everything is fine. It is a process of choosing to believe and replacing the worrying thoughts with faith-building thoughts. That takes spiritual muscle and maturity, and we build those into our lives by practice.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5
that we must “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I have found that to be a daily task, something I must intentionally do. So, when worry sets in and my thoughts are taking me in that direction, I must choose to abandon those thoughts and replace them with thoughts that will bolster my faith. I must literally capture those worrying thoughts and make them obedient to Christ—to think about all I have to be thankful for, to remember that God has promised to take care of me and to remember that worrying is worthless.

The battle is in your mind, and you stop worrying when you change your thought patterns. I’ve written a whole book on this topic—Think About What You Think About—because I believe that most of our problems begin with wrong thinking. It’s certainly true in my life; as soon as I allow my thoughts to get out of control, to think about things I should not be thinking about, that’s when worrying moves in and I become a worry-wart, as we say!

Philippians 4:8 says we are to think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. When you’re worrying it is often because your thoughts are not true, certainly not noble, never admirable or excellent or praiseworthy. So we need to stop worrying. And you do that by replacing wrong thoughts with right ones. It may only last for a few minutes before you start worrying again, but if you will simply keep replacing wrong thoughts with right ones, soon you will build spiritual muscle and you’ll discover that you’re not worrying nearly as much as you used to.

Jesus said that we should not worry about tomorrow. Isn’t it true that most of our worries are about tomorrow? What’s going to happen? What if this happens or that doesn’t happen? We allow our minds to conjure up all kinds of possible scenarios that frighten us and worry us. Jesus knew this and he specifically tells us not to worry about tomorrow, not to borrow trouble from tomorrow.

I know some friends who are trying to make a decision about a major move in their life—moving from one place to another and altering their current lifestyle dramatically. As I talked with them, I realized that they were considering this move based on being fearful of tomorrow, trying to make sure that nothing bad will happen in the future. Obviously, we should be properly wise in preparing for the future, but there’s no way any of us can know what the future holds. Worrying about the future, making decisions out of fear, goes against this simple directive from our Lord—not to worry about tomorrow.

The Proverbs 31 ideal woman is described as a woman who can “laugh at the days to come.” She is a woman of faith who simply refuses to let her fears of tomorrow hold her captive through worry and fear.

In that same 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples that their problem is they have little faith. “O ye of little faith,” he said to them—and I think he must say it to us as well. How do you have more faith? Well, the Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. So, if you’re worrying a lot, it could be because you’re not spending enough time in the word of God, and therefore your faith is weak.

I know that when I have some concern on my mind and it’s starting to become a worry, if I will just sit down and read the Word, something usually comes alive and ministers to me just where I need it. But if I don’t do that, the worrying just gets worse.

Worry is like the check engine light in your car. You know when that light goes on that something is wrong with your car and you need to have it checked out. Well, when you and I are worrying, it’s a warning light that something is wrong with us spiritually. Either we’ve forgotten who we are in Christ and how our Heavenly Father has promised to take care of us, or our faith is very weak, perhaps because we’ve not spent enough time in the word of God, or we’re not truly seeking first God’s kingdom. Other things, other people, other activities have taken first place in our lives.

We know from Scripture that Jesus was fully God and fully man while he was here on earth, and we know from Hebrews 4 that Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin. That means that Jesus was tempted to worry. As he was on the Mount of Olives before his arrest and crucifixion, we read in Luke 22 that he was in anguish when he was praying to His Father, so much so that his sweat was tinged with blood.

But note how Jesus dealt with this anxiety—this overwhelming worry. He prayed, “. . . yet not my will, but yours be done.” In this midst of the worst kind of worry and anxiety, he submitted to God’s will for his life. He rested in the knowledge that his Father does all things well; his Father could be trusted; his Father had good plans for him, even though those plans included the cross. After he prayed like this, an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.

Well, we have an even better help when we’re worried. Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” When we are overcome with worry, it is sinful on our part because it means we are not trusting God in that area. Well, Jesus understands that temptation to worry and he is able to help you when you’re tempted to worry.

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16). That’s the best antidote for worry. We are to cast all our care on him because he cares for us.

I hope you will remember that worrying is worthless and determine by God’s grace to put it behind you, one worry at a time, and live in the peace and comfort of knowing God is in control of your life and of the universe!

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Worrying is Worthless – Part I

Aug 22, 2015

Part I

My dictionary defines worry as “to feel uneasy or anxious; fret; torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts.” Did you ever realize that when you worry, you are inflicting torment on yourself? Worry is self-inflicted suffering, and it never produces anything good.

Jesus fully understood our propensity to worry, and he addressed it strongly in his Sermon on the Mount. From Matthew 6 we read:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.. . So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

My Pastor, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, spoke on this passage recently and it was such a blessing to me, that I asked his permission to share some of his thoughts with you. In this sermon Jesus gave us three reasons not to worry.

  1. First, if you are a born from above and have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, you should not worry because of who you are! Jesus said that God takes care of little birds, and even though they are not capable of taking care of their need for food, he provides food for them. And Jesus asks, “Are you not more valuable than they?”

Well, are you more valuable to God than little birds? Surely the knowledge of how much God loves us, how deeply he cares for us should cause us to stop worrying. After all, our Heavenly Father is sovereign over everything and everyone in our lives; he is always in control, and because we are his children, he has pledged to take care of our needs. So, that’s the first reason that we should not worry—because we are children of God and he never leaves us or forsakes us.

In this economy many people are worried about their job security, or worse, about trying to find a new job because they are unemployed or underemployed. That’s certainly understandable; we all come to depend on our sources of income and if they are threatened, our natural human response is—worry! I’ve been in such situations and I must confess that I’ve worried.

If you’re in that kind of worry mode, I simply want to remind you of what Jesus said: “. your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus was talking about the basics of life: what you eat, what you wear—the basic necessities of life. And Jesus said it is his responsibility to give those to us, when we seek first his kingdom. If God takes care of unemployed birds, don’t you know he’s committed to taking care of you? Sure the birds have to hunt for their worms and insects, but God provides it for them to find.

Notice that Jesus said we should not seek for our basic needs. Rather Jesus said we are to seek for his kingdom and his righteousness. So, instead of praying that God will give you the material things you need—instead of worrying about how you’re going to get what you need or what you want—pray instead that your priorities will change.

That’s what it means to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. It means we have our priorities in good shape. We invest our energies in doing what God wants us to do. Our goals and objectives in life are not to make sure our needs are met. That’s God’s responsibility. God knows we need certain material things. He doesn’t condemn us for recognizing these basic needs and, like the birds of the air, we have to do some work to have those necessities. But we don’t need to worry about it, because we belong to God and he has promised to care for us.

  1. A second reason Jesus tells us not to worry is that it just simply does no good whatsoever. Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Worrying is totally worthless. It never produces any good results, but instead it causes us to lose our peace, to lose our joy, to waste our energy.

Do you know how much energy it takes to worry? You are spending lots of emotional and mental energy when you’re in worry mode—and has it ever done you one bit of good? No, of course not. Worrying is worthless! That’s a really good reason for any sensible person to just refuse to worry. You know, most things you are worrying about never happen anyway. Just think back on what you worried about last month or last year? How many of those worries have actually materialized? Worrying probably contributes to bad things happening; it certainly doesn’t prevent them from happening.

  1. Then Jesus gives us another really strong reason not to worry. In Matthew 6:32 he says, “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” Jesus is talking about material things, and he told his disciples that those who are not believers are always worrying about these things.

Isn’t it true that most of the people around you are worrying? Just think about the conversations you have with people, particularly people who are not yet believers in Jesus Christ. You’ll observe that they are worrying a lot. So, if those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ worry just like everyone else, what kind of testimony is that?

If you are a real worrier, you can be sure people know it, because you talk about it, it shows on your face and in your body language, and it’s not particularly attractive. Do an honest assessment of yourself: Are you prone to worry too much—and any worry is too much, according to Jesus. He told us not to worry. Worrying is evidence that you’re not trusting Jesus in that particular situation. And it’s not a good testimony to the difference that Jesus makes in our lives.

Have you ever thought about the fact that anything you are worrying about means you simply don’t trust God in that area? Can you see that it is a slander on God’s character when you worry? Just imagine that you’re a mom or dad with a six-year-old child, and because you love your child, you take care of her. She has always had plenty to eat, nice clothes to wear, a roof over her head, her health needs cared for, her safety provided—everything a parent should do you have willingly and lovingly done for your child. Now, suppose every morning this same child gets up crying, despondent and worried. And every morning she comes to you and says, “What am I going to eat today? I’m worried about whether or not you’ll have food for me today. And what about my clothes? Will I have anything to wear today?”

If your precious child did that, it would be offensive to you, would it not? How could she doubt that you would continue to take care of her as you always have done? Why can’t she just trust you to do what is best for her? You always have and yet she simply doesn’t trust you.

The example is rather ridiculous, since children don’t worry about those basic things—at least not if they are cared for as they should be. And yet, as children of God, isn’t that what we do to God when we worry about anything? It must be offensive to him when he sees us worrying, because worry is always an indication that whatever we’re worrying about, we’re not trusting God for.

Worry is totally worthless, but even more than that, worry is faithless! I just don’t think we often put worry into the category of “sin,” do we? We worry and worry and never think to apologize to God and repent of this sin of worrying. Paul wrote to the Romans that “anything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23b). Well, for sure worrying does not come from faith. Faith and worry are like oil and water; they don’t mix. Therefore, continually worrying about anything is a sin.

Maybe the first thing we need to do is to confess our worrying sins. What do you worry about most? Here are some common ones:

  • How to pay the bills
  • How to find a job
  • How to keep a job
  • How to find a mate
  • How to find a cure
  • How to control something or someone—like our children or our boss or whatever

What is on your list? I encourage you to stop right now and ask God to forgive you for anything you worry about, and be specific. That’s a good first step in getting rid of worthless worries.

We’ve looked at three reasons Jesus gave us for not worrying: First, because of who you are as a child of God. Second, because it never does any good, and third, because it is a poor testimony to the world around you who observe you worrying.

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