Friday, April 06, 2012

What then?

It must be said that there are time when we actually win—when our desires match up with God's desires, and we get what we want and so does he. Sometimes Christian victory and worldly victory are indistinguishable from the outside, and we get a brief respite from the persistent struggles of life.

What then?

What are we supposed to do when we win?


Celebrate! Give thanks—to God, and to others. But don't be fooled into thinking everything will be okay afterwards, that you won't have to fight for something else.
Because—remember—the victory you've just experienced isn't ultimate victory. It's only a momentary victory in the present.

So enjoy it. But don't let it go to your head. Let it, instead, take root in your spirit and become a marker in your spiritual journey—a piton—a position of contentment and godliness from which you never slide back.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

He Scores, You Win

In football, you block for the runner. He scores. You win.

In racing, you box and trap for the lead car. He crosses the finish line first. You win.

In baseball, you fly and the runner crosses home. He scores. You win.

In spirituality, the principle is much the same: you have to get out of the way so Christ can win in you. You have to sacrifice your earthly desires in order for God's desires to manifest in your life (see Romans 8). In order for you to have victory, you must decrease and let him increase (John 3.30). You must become less, so he can become more (see Galatians 5.16-26).

But, in real life, this is often hard to do. It's hard to figure out precisely how to get out of the way or let go and let God. For example, despite the fact that I want God to rule over my desires, it's still tricky to remember to ask, "God, what do you want me to do in this situation?" every time my daughter smears crayon on the carpet. My parenting instincts take over (which God gave me, by the way), and my frustration takes over (which isn't necessarily sinful, by the way), and I tend to react quickly with a reprimand and an appropriate punishment.

And yet, those few times I've been able to slow my reaction long enough to breathe a quick prayer or find a short moment of respite from life's relentless pace, I'm consistently surprised to find God speaks to me and instructs me to do something other than follow my instincts or act like I usually do. Again, it's not that I'm always acting badly; it's simply that he wants me to act better. I don't know how to be better than I am all alone, so he sends his Spirit to teach and guide me. All I have to do is listen and obey.

Attentiveness to the Spirit and obedience to the Father are crucial components for living a victorious Christian life. They don't come easily, or even naturally. They must be learned. We must discipline ourselves to hear from God, to ask God for wisdom, and to discern the will of God in everyday circumstances, before we merely blunder on as we always have.

"Wait a minute," some might say right about now. "Are you suggesting we check with God about absolutely everything? How could there even possibly be time?"

Yes. That's exactly what I'm recommending. And yes, you're right. There's isn't time. But that's precisely the point. We're all so out of practice, it takes a long time and a remarkable amount of discipline to hear from God on anything.

Which is why we need to attend to him that much more.

We have to prioritize him in everything, so that in everything we have the victory in Jesus' name. It might cost some time, but (all things being equal) time is a pretty small sacrifice. If we’re ever going to live in victory, we’ll have to make some sacrifices and take some risks.

What risks are we willing to take to ensure he wins in us? Will we block sin by spending extra time in prayer or studying the Bible? Will we decide now to avoid temptation by not visiting the places and the people that facilitate our worst vices?
Ask God for answers to these questions. And for anything else.

He'll give them, and you'll benefit in turn.

He grows. We win.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

You Win Even When You Lose

Our church is artistic. It comes out in the decor, in the aesthetics, in the choices we make about music and presentation and style. Everyone who walks in the door knows it immediately. But for non-artists, our preoccupation with aesthetics can be confusing. Especially since we tend to stay away from things that are too thematic.

For example, if we were talking about money, we would never use a financially-themed design scheme (dollar signs on the screens or bills on the wall, etc.). Themes are too one-dimensional. And, when people come to church, we're trying to give the Spirit all kinds of avenues to speak to them. If they're really concerned with money right then, the dollar sign motif wouldn't hurt a bit. But if money doesn’t concern them at the moment, everything about a dollar-sign-laden aesthetic subtly communicates "this isn't for you…this doesn't matter…you don't really care."

To be fair, I'm overstating for effect.

But the point remains. We try for abstract aesthetics so people can look around and say, "Gee … I wonder what that means?"

Not too long ago a woman came up and introduced herself after the Cue. She was recently divorced and left in shambles after the termination of her marriage. A friend had suggested she visit our church, claiming "whenever God shuts a door, he opens a window."

I'm not entirely sure what that was supposed to mean in those circumstances, but this woman took that message to heart and began to pray earnestly, "Oh God, please give me a window. All I need is a window. Please … a window."

When she arrived at our church that Sunday she was driven to her knees and flooded with tears. Care to guess why?

We have windows hanging from our rafters in the auditorium. Just windows, going nowhere, showing nothing. Just hanging. Why? We hung them because we thought it looked cool. But really, God had something else in mind. He foreordained that aesthetic, and that woman, in that moment, so he could remind her that our past failures should never be considered in isolation. The past is not the finale. It's just the past. And even after we've failed, there's still hope.

There are open windows.

The great truth of the Christian gospel is that you can win even when you lose; you can have victory even when you're defeated. Because it's not just about the outcome of each circumstance but also about the work of God in you. This woman now understands that, even though her marriage has ended, God has not given up on her. She experienced a small victory in church that day—a victory of hope over despair, of promise over shame, of love over rejection, of family over isolation.

That's a pretty good scorecard for failure, as long as we remember our past is a window into God's better future.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Nobody's Compatible

Last month I had a couple come to me at the church for marriage counseling. Though I'm not a professional counselor, I do meet with couples from time to time to try to assist them in the spiritual components of their relationship. Of course, in my mind it's all spiritual, but they don't usually agree until after we've met.

I digress.

After describing their many problems, the couple informed me that they thought their only option was divorce. They did have problems, and many of those problems had become severe, but to me nothing they described sounded insurmountable. I told them as much, but they were unwavering. They felt like they had to get a divorce because, in the end, they simply weren't compatible.

I hear that idea often: incompatibility. It seems to be one of our favorite excuses for losing in life and avoiding victory like the plague.

We can't work together because our management styles are incompatible.

We can't attend the same church any longer because our worship preferences aren't compatible.

We can't stay married because we're sexually incompatible.

The truth is no two people on earth are compatible. You might get along with some folks better than others, more effortlessly than others, for longer than others, but your differences will always swell to an eventual incompatibility.

Nobody gets along for long unless they’re willing to renew their minds. If you're going to experience victory in your relationships with other people, you must be willing to die to your own desires, your own preferences, and your own ego. You've got to put the sinful nature to death and invite the Spirit to change the way you think and the way you live.

This couple wasn't compatible, but they could have been. If, by renewing the mind, the husband learns to love his wife in such a way that she feels valued, secure, and esteemed, and the wife learns to love her husband without trying to boss him around or nag him about the house, then the marriage will start working.

What you have to understand is that—whether in business, or marriage, or friendship—there is no victory without Christ.

You will always sabotage yourself. You will always, at the root, be “incompatible” with others. You will always defeat yourself. Because you need him to win.

Monday, April 02, 2012

God's Wants

Our culture simply cannot see the sense in following God:

Let's not wait for a solid relationship to grow. Let's have sex now!

Why get married? Let's just live together. It'll be easier.

Solving problems is too hard. Let's just get divorced.

Proper diet and exercise take too long. I need a pill.

Saving money is hard work. I need another credit card.

Children are too much responsibility. I'm having an abortion.

In all these situations and many more besides, our culture thinks of God's prohibitions as restrictive (at best) or (at worst) intolerant, controlling, and merciless.

But those who cry out against God's instruction have forgotten one very important fact: God wants what he wants because it's best.

It's best for us. It's best for others. It's best for the world.

Think about it. If you built something you loved, you'd do everything in your power to protect it and preserve it and enjoy it. I once built my own drum set. It wasn't the best or the fanciest, but it was mine. I still have it, nearly three decades later, and hope to give it to my daughter once she can reach the pedals. I'm terribly proud of it, and any rules I have concerning it are to [a] protect my drums, so I can [b] give them to my daughter.

Rules are for protection, in one direction or another.

God loves the world and so he sets us in charge of looking after it. God loves us and so he gives us rationality and instruction to help us enjoy the best life possible. God gives us freedom to enjoy the world and to enjoy one another and to enjoy him. Any restrictions he places on our freedom are in service to our health and well-being.

Thou shalt not kill isn't really such a bad idea, is it? How about thou shalt not steal? Well, that's not so bad either. I certainly don't want anyone taking my stuff, so it stands to reason that I shouldn't take theirs. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Not with my wife, you won't!

You get the point.

God knows how to live because he invented life. God wants what he wants because it's best—for us, for others, for the world. Though it may not feel best now, it will ultimately be proven best.

You might think about it this way: What God wants from us results in what he wants for us.

What does God want from us? Obedience.

What does God want for us? Life. Happiness. Peace. Love. Relationship. Fulfillment. Meaning. Satisfaction. Laughter.

There is a word that sums up everything God wants for his people. That word is blessing.

What God wants from us (obedience) results in what he wants for us (blessing).
Concerning marriage, God wants (fidelity, honesty, self-sacrifice, responsibility, love, passion, romance) which results in (longevity, intimacy, knowledge, unity, family, security).

Concerning children, God wants (instruction, admonition, encouragement, care) which results in (closeness, admiration, responsiveness, friendship, love).

Concerning business, God wants (skill, management, integrity) which results in (good reputation, increased revenue, skilled employees).

When I'm obedient, the natural result is blessing. Sometimes, of course, other things get in the way of that blessing. Someone else's disobedience, for example, can compromise the natural result of my obedience. The thief prevents the honest, hardworking, responsible man from enjoying his fortune. We cannot totally escape these extenuating circumstances, not in this life.

But don't let that overshadow the basic biblical truth that, by and large, when we live life the way God intends, we get to enjoy the life God intended.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Kinds of Victory

In the 1997 film Life is Beautiful, we are introduced to Jewish father Guido Orefice and his son Giosue. They have been separated from Dora, Guido's wife and Giosue's mother, in a concentration camp during the Second World War, and the movie tells the story of how Guido helps Giosue cope with the tragedy, pain, and loss of Nazi persecution.

They play a game.

Unwilling to give up on his son's innocence or to turn his back on laughter, Guido convinces his boy that the entire camp is a live-action role-playing game. The guards are the opposition, the prisoners are the heroes, and the grand prize for winning is a tank.

**Spoiler alert**

Guido dies during the internment, but Giosue survives and is reunited with his mother. She sees him, at the end of the film, riding in the middle of a parade of American soldiers.

On a tank.

Here is a redemptive work of art that layers (military) victory on top of (family) victory on top of (paternal) victory on top of (ideological) victory on top of (circumstantial) victory.

The Allies win and the Axis loses.

The mother is reunited with her son.

The father protects his boy.

Laughter and hope persist in the face of cruelty and war.

The future is born out of past ashes, and what once was fantasy has now become the present reality.

If you were to have asked someone at the beginning of World War Two what victory would look like, most would have responded with something about their side winning. A few would have spoken about peace. A few more, likely, would have spoken about preserving their souls, or their goodness, in the midst of the ugliness of bloodshed.

But no one would have guessed at a game for a boy with a tank for a prize.

And this is my point: there are an inexhaustible number of ways to win. Victory is defined by who you are in the midst of the struggle and what you choose to create with what you have in front of you.

Don't quit. But don't just try to survive either. Don't forget about the things that make victory worth having: laughter, family, hope, ideals. Because keeping those is victory all on its own.