about feeling like an ass

So this is back in Numbers 22, when the Israelites are still wandering in the desert for forty years. They end up camping out in the land of Moab and the king of Moab gets a little nervous, because he knows how big and powerful the Israelites are. Keep in mind at this time there’s probably well over 2 million Israelites hanging out in someone else’s backyard, and, thanks to God, they could probably trounce just about anyone who looks at them funny.

The king decides his best bet is to find a prophet to come and curse the Israelite people. Then, once they’re cursed, he could take them. He sends a few goons to bribe this pagan prophet named Balaam. Balaam then asks God, “What do I do?” and God says, “Don’t go with those guys.” Now, Balaam isn’t a believer or follower of God, but he’s able to hear God when he speaks to him. As the story goes on, the king of Moab offers more money and Balaam asks God again and finally God says, “Okay, then go with them, but don’t do anything other than what I tell you.” Here’s the main points to get here: 1. Balaam wasn’t a follower of God; 2. Balaam could hear God well, but chose to disobey him.

So Balaam’s on his donkey headed to Moab and God sends an angel to stand in their path. After all, he didn’t want Balaam to go to Moab in the first place. Balaam can’t see the angel, but his donkey can, and the poor little guy is terrified. Three times he tries to stop Balaam from going forward and three times Balaam beats him and forces him to go on. Finally, God gives the donkey the ability to speak and he’s like, “Why are you beating me? I haven’t done anything like this before, have I?” Balaam says, “No,” and at that point God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel standing in front of him. Here’s the main points to get here: 3. The donkey did everything he could to get Balaam to turn around and go back the other way; 4. Balaam’s eyes were opened after the donkey talked to him, and presumably Balaam began to realize, “Wait a second–the donkey hasn’t acted like this before. What would make him act like that?”; 5. God opened Balaam’s eyes.

Now the story goes on, and it’s a pretty cool story until you realize several chapters later that Balaam was actually responsible for yet another Israelite downfall and many, many deaths. There’s probably a gazillion different ways you could read this specific part of the story as it applies to our lives, but there’s one way it always seems to hit me: as believers, we’re going to end up feeling like the donkey. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to end up feeling like an ass.

Think about it this way: you’ve got a friend, someone who doesn’t believe in God (1). You know that she can hear God and can see evidence all around her of his Word and his existence (2). Romans 1:20 and on is a pretty good testament to that. You see your friend going in the wrong way and do everything you can to convince her to turn around (3). Your friend may not heed your words, but she starts to notice a change in your behavior, and maybe she starts to wonder what would make you act like that (4). God opens your friend’s eyes to see him (5).

It’s a wonderful progression, when it gets all the way through point 5. But I think so many times we end up stuck somewhere between points 3 and 4. We don’t see God open our friends’ eyes right away so we start thinking maybe we can force them to see. An extreme version of this would be the infamous Westboro Baptist protests. But it’s not like they’re the only ones doing that. They’re just the most overt ones that usually come to mind.

I have a friend I absolutely love and adore and have for many years. Of all my unbeliever friends, for some reason I want more than anything in this world to see her get saved. I’ve spent more time begging God to open her eyes or use me to speak to her than almost anything else. And it still hasn’t happened yet. Because of my impatience, my relationship with her got really awkward for a while there. I’d decided that, even though she already knew my beliefs, every conversation I had with her had to in some way tie back to God and Jesus and the Bible or else I was failing both her and God. As a result, every time I saw her, I could barely carry on a normal conversation because I was so stressed that I might say the wrong thing and I had to figure out how to work God’s name in there somehow or invite her to some church event. But I couldn’t stop, and I actually tried forcing us to get together and hang out so I could somehow bring up church or Jesus. It was miserable for me and, surprisingly, she didn’t respond too well to it. In fact, she avoided me for a long time. I was heartbroken.

And then one day I finally understood point 5: God opened Balaam’s eyes. Not only did the donkey not have any ability to open Balaam’s eyes, but he took a beating in the process. The donkey could have said, “Way to show up now, God, after I got beat three times. Couldn’t you have opened his eyes after the first beating?” He didn’t, though. That’s me, that’s the ass I am. I feel like the donkey with my friends because I try everything in my power to convince them to turn around and sure, maybe I’m planting seeds, but at the end of the day, I’m not the one who gets to open their eyes. And I feel like an ass with God because I start questioning his timing and his methods.

Sure, I read the story, and sure I knew that only God has the power to open people’s eyes, but it took a long time for me to really get it. As for my friend, she’s still not a believer. But after I finally realized the magnitude of point 5, God suddenly started putting her in my path again. I kept running into her at various stores and places around town. And I stepped back from trying to force God’s name in the conversation and instead let my actions speak for me. Note: This doesn’t let me off the hook from sharing the gospel. Several times over the course of our friendship, I’ve had the opportunity to share the gospel with her. She hasn’t responded to it, and that’s frustrating, but the extent of my responsibility. Now my job is simply to keep on loving her and keep on living out the gospel every time I’m around her. Now she seems a lot happier to see me these days. And I feel a lot more like the donkey and a lot less like an ass.

about obedience and sacrifice

In October last year I acted incredibly foolish one night. I had been praying about being a credible witness toward one person in particular—a dramatic nonbeliever (and by that I mean someone who is more angry than ambivalent toward God). And then, given a perfect opportunity to show grace and mercy and love, I got selfish. I felt offended by him and reacted with indignation. It was a very ugly night, one I wish had never happened. After I had a little time to calm down and realize how terribly ashamed I was and how completely I’d failed God in that moment, I knew I had to apologize to him. Whether or not the apology would mean anything to him personally, I had to humble myself before him, admit my guilt, and ask for forgiveness. I had to be a minister in love by my humility where my grace was obviously lacking. The Holy Spirit was heavy at work within me, stressing the importance of that apology.

Yeah, so. Anyway.

I didn’t do it. I just left it alone. I had about a million justifications for why an apology was not necessary or would even be welcome to him, but of course it was just too awkward and I was just too proud.

The fallout from the event dragged on. It caused a lot of problems. There were a lot of hard feelings, and not just on my part. It greatly hurt my husband—the most important person in the world to me—and still I tried to ignore it. I’m the poster child for complete selfishness, motivated by pride.

A couple weeks later, in my Monday morning quiet time, God spoke loudly and clearly—I was being blatantly disobedient to what he’d commanded and I had to fix it. I couldn’t continue on, worshipping him and acting like a good little Christian if I wasn’t obeying him. Kinda’ like how Jesus tells the disciples if they love him, they’ll obey his commands. That’s a little nugget of truth that hasn’t changed over the past 2000 years. Oops. So I prayed in anticipation of apologizing. I prayed a lot. I prayed and fasted and prayed. And once I took that step in apologizing, he was quick to acknowledge we’d both acted ridiculous and we’d just pretend the event never happened. And it hasn’t been spoken of since.


So back up a bit. Meanwhile, I had been getting super-stressed about finances. The numbers just weren’t where I needed to be, and I couldn’t understand it. Ronnie and I are careful to tithe off every income we get and give above and beyond the tithe monthly to other places. When someone has a need, we usually pray about it together and donate at least something to help with the need. And yet we were struggling, big time. This had gone on for a while, and I was so stressed about money I could barely focus on anything else. I didn’t understand—we were obedient, we made sacrifices, and still we were struggling.

Then that Monday morning came, I obeyed God in apologizing, and afterward experienced a shocking transformation in my mind about other areas of faithfulness. This is about where the Bible says (in James), “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.” I may be the best steward of my money that I possibly can be, but if I am deliberately disobedient to God day after day in an unrelated issue, that’s as bad as if I was greedy with my money and kept it all to myself. Instead, I fell in line with the Pharisees Jesus cursed when he said, “[Y]ou are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” Again, here’s the “love of God,” which is equivalent to obedience to God. Meaning: yeah, you need to be tithing, but don’t think being obedient to God in one area cancels out disobedience to him in another.

I got it, then. I wrote in my journal, “I really feel like I’m understanding more about what you mean when you say ‘obedience is better than sacrifice.’” That’s from 1 Samuel 15:22. King Saul had been told explicitly to destroy this town and kill every living thing—including the livestock. Instead Saul kept the livestock. Samuel, a prophet, asked him why he had disobeyed God’s commands and Saul tried to justify it by using the livestock as a sacrifice to God. Samuel responds, “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” Meaning: if God had wanted Saul to sacrifice the livestock to him, he would have said so. Instead he demanded obedience, and he didn’t get it. You’ll find similar comments in Isaiah 1 when God really unloads on the nation of Judah. “‘What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. …Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.’”

Did that mean God hated sacrifices? Absolutely not. Open to almost any page of the Pentateuch and you’ll find God outlining instructions for one offering or another. But the sacrifices and offering to him are meaningless if we’re disobedient to his commands. I’ll end with Hosea 6:6, which echoes the same idea: “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.” Jesus re-emphasized this point in Matthew 9 when he scolded the Pharisees that they needed to learn the meaning of Hosea 6:6. That, if you can imagine, was a huge insult to someone who’d spent his entire life studying the Scriptures. It’s kinda’ like telling a rocket scientist that he needs to learn what Newton’s First Law of Motion means.

God’s commands to us? Give offerings and sacrifices, pay tithes, help others, yes, all of this. But above all: Know me. Love me. Obey me. These things come first.

about that godly MMA

This Friday is the two-year anniversary of what I can only call the worst night of my life. I’m not going to dwell on the details of that night, not now. Because as traumatic as the night was, it was the resulting realizations that almost killed me. That’s not a hyperbole—I was suicidal again for a while, coming to terms with it all. The biggest realization, the hardest truth to swallow was that I, for all my relationship with Jesus, had zero faith in him to save anyone.

I had been discouraged by backward steps of my unbelieving friends and, as I saw it, God’s refusal to open their eyes, no matter how often I fell on my knees, weeping for them. I had been discouraged by the physical world, as well—awful, terrible things that happened to people I loved most, things I wish to God had never happened for their sakes. I had been discouraged by the blatant blasphemies and insults from other people I loved, I had respected, and who instead chose to condescend to me and twist the Word of God. I was at a point in my life where I thought if I just worked hard enough, volunteered enough in various ministries, and prayed enough, people would be saved. I didn’t realize at the time I was thinking in terms of my ability to save and not Jesus’.

So when the young boy was dying and I knew in my heart, without a doubt, he was already dead, and I had to gather his friends together and encourage them to pray for him, pray for healing, pray for a miracle, I felt like a fraud. I led a group of 8th graders in a prayer I didn’t believe. I was a faithless liar who thought, “If I can’t save this boy, no one can. Not even God.” I didn’t know all this at the time, of course. I was not near as self-actualized as I am now. It took a couple months of counseling and countless hours alone with Scripture and prayer to really grasp the magnitude of that moment. At that point, I became just like Jacob at Peniel.

Quick summary: Jacob, Esau, and parents were living in Canaan. After Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, he escaped to Paddan-Aram to find his uncle’s family. On the way, he sets up camp for the night, God appears to him in a dream, promises tons of blessings, protection, land, descendants, the works. Jacob sets up an altar, anoints it and names the place Bethel (meaning “house of God”), and makes a conditional vow with God, that if God fulfills all those promises then he’ll serve God as his God. He goes to Paddan-Aram, works a lot, gets a couple wives, has a bunch of kids, and then God tells him to go back to Canaan.

On the way back, Jacob is camped by himself when God appears to him again, this time in the form of a man. Jacob and God wrestle—physically wrestle—all night. Jacob is winning the match, but God touches his hip and knocks it out of socket. Jacob demands (another) blessing from God. God, in response, asks him one thing: “What is your name?”

Here’s where it gets good. Craig Groeschel once touched on this in a sermon—why did God ask Jacob his name? As Craig put it, God wanted Jacob to admit who he really was. Jacob’s very name meant “deceiver” and he’d spent all of his life up to this point living up to his name. He had deceived one person after another, and what God was saying to him here was clear: admit who you are. Acknowledge your sinful nature and admit your identity as a deceiver. Once he did, God changed his name from Jacob to Israel, blessed him, and left. Jacob had to come to terms with his identity without God before he could have a new identity in God. He limped on, stopping again at Bethel, this time to build another altar and name the place El-bethel (“God of Bethel”). God had fulfilled all his promises and Jacob was finally ready to serve God as his God.

So there I am, all over that story. My wrestling with God two years ago resulted in him asking me the difficult questions and forcing me to acknowledge my sinful nature. I had to admit my identity as a sinner without God before he could show me what it means to have a new identity in him, to be a new creation.

Two more things to notice here:
1. Jacob had a limp. He had been touched by God, it was painful, and it had lasting effects. Sometimes God leads us to difficult moments so he can open our eyes to his nature and make us aware of our identities, even our hidden motives. Sometimes it hurts and has lasting effects. I commented to a friend last night, “Friday is the two-year anniversary…I’m wondering how many years have to pass before I stop counting.” She, having been through a traumatic experience as a young girl, replied, “Probably not for a while…It will be 12 years…on May 2nd.” But I keep thinking, where I am now is because of where I was then. And I wouldn’t change where I am now, not for anything. My relationship with Jesus is stronger than I would have ever thought possible, and it grows daily. Walking with a limp just means I have to rely on him more than I did before.

2. Jacob built an altar. As if the limp wasn’t enough, Jacob needed to put up a permanent fixture, a sign to let people know, “This is what happened. This is why God is my God.” And, as an even more permanent (if that’s possible) sign, God wanted to include this story in the Bible so people for thousands of years would read about it and know what happened. My altar is a book I began writing back then, a manuscript sitting abandoned on my hard drive somewhere. I’m waiting to see how God wants me to build it. Until then, this blog is part of my altar, my way of saying:

“This is why God is my God.”

about humility vs. low self-esteem (with pictures!)

Last week I prayed for humility and I got it, sort of. I joked to a couple friends, “I’m not going to pray for that again!” After all, It always seems as if the prayers we’re not all that excited about praying are the ones God chooses to answer the quickest. Like praying for patience, for example. I rarely pray for it because I’m terribly afraid to get it.

As for humility, well, I pray for it because I genuinely want it. Often what I end up with, however, is low self-esteem. I usually feel like my baseline for self-esteem sits dangerously low as it is, having fought with suicidal depression, alcoholism, PTSD, etc. for the vast majority of my life. Ironically, I vacillate between severely low self-esteem and a severely inflated sense of pride and indignation. I could never figure out why until now.

So here I am, agonizing Dawson’s Creek-style over the difference between humility and self-esteem and thinking it’s such a fine line between the two and how could pride logically fit into this picture, and God leads me to Romans 8 and opens my eyes to, well, the answer: Pride is self-esteem (whether high or low); humility is God-esteem.

The idea of “esteem” originally comes from a Latin word meaning to value, appraise, estimate the worth of. Self-esteem is constantly evaluating or estimating my own worth. It’s viewing everything in terms of myself and my own perceived value. It’s putting myself in the center of everything. Everything around me, then, is viewed in terms of my own self-worth, whether how these things make me feel, how I think they should make me feel, how I think they should or shouldn’t be. I’m essentially creating my own idea of absolute truth based on how I view myself. I drew a picture:

The problem with this is that idea of “absolute truth” is anything but absolute. As my ideas about my self-worth fluctuate, my view of everything else fluctuates as well. The other problem with this idea is it’s, well, unscriptural. This is what the Bible calls our “sinful nature.” But we’ll get to that.

Humility is not low self-esteem. Humility has nothing to do with our own esteem. True humility is focused on one thing and one thing only—the complete worthiness of God. I called it God-esteem, and that’s a little cheesy, but it’s the best way to define it. Humility is viewing everything in terms of God’s worth and God’s absolute truth, including the way we view ourselves (hence the double arrow in my sketch). There is no room for pride with true humility. We focus on God’s worth first and foremost and subsequently view everything else in terms of God’s standard. Here’s my drawing:

Back to the sinful nature. What the Bible calls our sinful nature is our self-esteem: finding value in ourselves for who we are rather than who God is. You could also call it idolatry, worshiping the created instead of the Creator. It’s our self-esteem that’s at the root of our sins. It’s what caused Adam and Eve to disobey God in the first place—they wanted to be more like God and valued their own potential wisdom over obedience to God. I usually think through my sins (and sometimes even chart out the recurring ones because I’m a little nerdy like that) and every single one of them always comes down to one thing: pride. That is, self-esteem.

So, Romans 8. Actually, the whole book of Romans should be renamed the book of Humility, because that’s essentially what it’s all about—God’s worth, our inadequacy, Jesus’ glory, our justification and sanctification in Christ alone. I considered writing out Romans 8 and commenting on how it so clearly handles this issue, but for brevity’s sake I’m just going to leave you with 8:1-14. As you read through, I’d encourage you to think in terms of “sinful nature” as “self-esteem” and “Spirit” as “humility,” i.e., God’s worthiness. It’s a lesson all its own.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.