Days of Doubt.

I’ve struggled with what to write about this week. Not because of writer’s block or a lack of content, but because I have battled with how to put on paper exactly what has been laid on my heart. My dad has prostate cancer, a very advanced form of it, and right before my eyes I have watched a strong, healthy man suffer not only from the disease itself, but from the treatment. There are so many loved ones in my life who are either battling cancer or watching someone they love fight and it breaks my heart. I struggle for words every day to say to them and to my family to comfort them.

What do you tell someone who’s life has been ripped out from underneath them like a rug when they get yet another dose of bad news? How do you remain positive for them but be respectful of the fact that their heart is literally breaking in front of you?

And while it seems that every human instinct in me should be questioning why such a horrible thing is happening to people I love and care about, good people, instead my heart seems to draw closer to the Lord every day. It is so hard to explain to people how I can keep my faith, because the last thing that crosses my mind is to question God’s will. In fact, the question that is constantly on my mind instead is what do people do who go through these things and don’t have God to lean on because they don’t have a personal relationship with him? As I searched my heart for answers, I continued to pray to God for strength, for myself and for those I love. And that’s when Psalm 23 crossed my mind.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” – Psalm 23

The magnitude of comfort that this Psalm brings is me indescribable. I have heard this preached, and taught, and recited since I was little and yet never has this passage meant more to me than now. I often describe the Bible, as many people do, as Christ’s love letter to us as Christians. Imagine sitting down and putting into a book everything that you ever wanted to tell or teach your children. How incredible this piece of literature is, as it is Christ’s personal instructions to us as to how to live life and survive whatever may come our way.

This Psalm in particular, to me, is so stripped down and honest that it resonates with my soul. Here is how I break it down and keep in hidden in my heart.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Wow. To take this line and apply it to your life really reveals the life Christ called us to live. The Earth is our physical home for now, but we do not belong here. God has destined us for a far greater home with him in Heaven and in this verse we know everything we need to know about life with God. Though our egos and our human nature demands that we have worldly possessions, though we judge our success by our things, and our value as a person by the opinions of others, this verse tells us that if we have God, if we allow him to lead us through life, we will be ok. God has provided us with everything we could possibly need to survive and thrive with him. We lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

For me this part is twofold. One, this part of the passage says to me that God will satisfy every need we have if we allow him to be Lord of our lives. The Psalm as a whole equates God to a shepherd and us as his sheep. As a shepherd, he knows what is best for us, he knows how to help us steer clear of harm’s way and he will always provide for our physical and spiritual needs. We all know those people who seem to be constantly searching for something in life, they never feel fulfilled. They buy Earthly goods, or seek the companionship of others, thinking that it will leave them filling whole. But in truth, that fullness can only be felt when we put our trust and hope in God. He will provide for us in a way that no one else can.

This part of the passage to me is also God’s way of saying he knows what is best for us and sometimes that means lying down in green pastures. As humans we are driven to fix problems, to control situations and often times it is a true struggle to just be still. But that is what God calls us to do in certain instances in our life, to just be still and let him work. Just as a shepherd will give his flock rest as he prepares for the remainder of their journey.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

This right here is the most precious part of the entire Psalm to me. God promises us as Christians that no matter how hard things are, no matter how absolutely terrified we are, he is always there. There is nothing in our lives that we should fear, or worry about. Not even the evil things of this world or death itself, for if we are living in the glory of God, he will protect us and lead us through the hardest and most difficult times of our lives. For me, this is the passage I want to repeat every single day to my dad, and to those around me who are suffering as well. There are dark times in our life, God never promised there wouldn’t be. He equates those times to the valley of the shadow of death, teetering on the edge of the demise of our physical being, and yet there even still he remains with us, guiding us with his light and his staff until we can make it to the other side of that valley. But what may be perhaps the most difficult thing about this, is sometimes that outcome, that ascent from the valley is not what we want. It is not the answer we search for. But what it is, is God’s will for our life and it is far better than anything we could have ever planned ourselves.

He knows every single second of our lives before we are even born and much as a storyboard is laid out for a movie, he knows what scenes come next. Take comfort in the fact that our all-knowing and ever-present God knows what lies ahead and he knows exactly what lies beyond and he will get us there, one way or another. We only need to trust him and take comfort in his presence.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Again, the Lord shows us that we will encounter enemies, whether physical or spiritual. There are beings and things that will drag us down and threaten our spiritual well-being around every corner. But he is quick to show us that not only will he help us merely survive those times, but he will provide everything we need to go through them and then some. We can compare the description of “preparing a table” to laying out a feast for us. He will not merely provide a slice of bread to keep us moving, but will fill us with all of our desires.

Anointing our head can only be described as a Biblical practice that was used to honor and dignify a person. God does that for us by allowing us to live a righteous life through him. Despite what evil and darkness we may find in our lives, God always promises a robe of white and a life of goodness and mercy if we trust in him. So much so, that as described in the Psalm, it will run over and burst from its container. For me, this is every time I read his word or worship him through song, I truly feel like my heart may burst from how much happiness and true love he gives me. When I think about the people that have been placed in my life and the impact they have had on me, I feel full to the brim.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

And our final promise from God is what we can expect from a life with him, if we trust in him with all our heart and lean on him, goodness and mercy, love and protection, will always be a part of our lives. He promises strength for the times that are hard, and mercy for when we fall short. The house of the Lord to me in my relationship with him through the Holy Spirit. Because I accepted Christ so long ago, his spirit has been within my heart, guiding me and protecting me. The fact that I will have that for every day to come is what helps me pick myself up and put one foot in front of the other, each and every day.

God never promised that our time on Earth would be free from suffering and pain. What he did promise was eternal strength and love through him at all times, especially those days when we need it most. He promised fulfillment and satisfaction in everything through him. We must only seek him and his will to fill the fullness that we are programmed to yearn for. And not only will God provide for us, he will give us more than we deserve. Not in physical worldly possessions and measures of happiness, but in every Heavenly desire our heart, mind and soul can crave.

Some days are just hard. There are times I just want to stay in bed, cover my eyes, and lock the world out. I want to be selfish and run from everything that threatens my happiness. I sometimes feel like the world is closing in on me and the heaviness of the weight I carry is suffocating me. But in those moments of doubt, in those seconds of anger, my God is always with me. He is whispering in my ear, “Be still child, for I am here to comfort you, to love you, and to guide you through.”

God loves you, and he understands that we struggle to grasp his grace and goodness. He gets that there will be days of doubt. But he calls us to never let those emotions win, to fight against them with the grace and love he has tucked away in our hearts. I encourage you, when you struggle to find your way, pick up your Bible and remember this passage. For our God is an awesome God and his word is true and good.

He will never, ever forsake you.

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A Glowing Ember.

Forgiveness. What a mighty big word. But what is even larger than the implications that word carries is the responsibility it carries for us as Christians. Last week we talked briefly about anger and the gasoline that it can be.  While we touched on forgiveness, we focused more on the actual act of getting angry. As we settle in and set our sights on forgiveness and what that means, I want to look at a definition.

em·ber

/ˈembər/

noun

a small piece of burning or glowing coal or wood in a dying fire.

Now I want you to close your eyes, and use your imagination on this one. Imagine, you started a fire in your fire pit in the backyard and you’ve long since quit feeding it kindling in hopes that it will go out soon. The smoke and bright orange flames are long gone, but what’s left it a handful of ash with a small glowing ember in the bottom of the pit.

But is this fire a dying fire, or one just starting?

You could walk away from that ember now and if you’re lucky, it will go out and all is well. Or you could stroke it a bit by slowly breathing oxygen on the ember, or maybe feeding it a small log. It could slowly grow back into a raging fire if you want it to. But what if you walk inside the house, grab a bottle of lighter fluid and flood the ember with accelerant? That ember will quickly become a full fledged bonfire, lighting up the night. If not taken care of it could quickly escalate out of control.

Bu what if you put it out?

What if you grabbed the water hose and dumped a bucket of water on that ember? You would likely see a ton of smoke and the absence of its glow when the smoke cleared.

Now imagine that ember represents a grudge you’re holding onto against someone.

Maybe you’ve quit feeding that fire a long time ago, you don’t let things that person does or says affect you in any way. Maybe they have apologized and you all seem to be on sure footing again with your relationship. But deep within you, you know that there is still that ember burning ever so slightly. What you choose to do next, could change the course of your existence. Forgiveness is a powerful thing when we let it be.

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13

It’s so easy to hang onto anger, to let it linger in our lives until we convince ourselves that the person we are angry with owes us. It is easy to store the hurt from a wrong that has been done to you in your heart and pull it out as a trump card when the situation is right. But as Colossians shows us, God calls us to forgive. No where in the Bible does it speak of holding grudges, getting revenge or collecting on debts from those who have done you harm. In fact, in this very verse, we are called to forgive as God forgave us. Wow. What if we looked at our current resentment that we have against our brother or sister in comparison to the ultimate price that Jesus paid for us on the cross? How does whatever that person did to you compare to what Jesus endured while he was painstakingly beaten, shamed, tortured and slain for our sins. For the sins of us, people who didn’t even exist yet. How do the two compare?

You may think it seems silly to compare these two things but what we can pull from this verse is that no matter what we do in our lives, no matter how many times we pull away from God, screw up, or disappoint him, he will never not forgive us. No where in the Bible does it say that if you sin 10 times you will be forgiven, but if you sin 11 he is done with us. The God we serve is a loving, and forgiving God who takes us back with loving arms every single time we do wrong. So who are we to hold a grudge against someone who is merely human?

It is easy to tell ourselves that this is comparing apples to oranges, but the truth is that God has never called us to do something that he himself, or his Son has not already endured. Just as the verse tells us, God is asking us to be merciful with our fellow man and to forgive them each time they wrong us just as he forgave us and continues to every day.

In Luke 17, God even takes it a step further telling us there should be no end to our mercy for others.

“Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Luke 17:4

We must forgive our brothers and sisters each time they fail us. Every time they come seeking our forgiveness, we must give it them.

So what happens if we don’t forgive one another?

Let’s revisit our scene from earlier. Obviously pouring water on that ember is the equivalent of forgiveness. We completely smother any grudge or resentment we have for the one we are angry with and extinguish that bitterness. But what happens if we don’t put it out, but just walk away from it? This is basically letting it go, right? Wrong. Sure, that ember could extinguish itself with time. But what if it doesn’t? What if a whisper of air comes flowing by and breathes a little bit of life back into the ember? What is a snide comment, or reminder of their wrongdoing cross our path? That ember will get a little bit brighter and a little bit bigger, slowly growing until it’s once again a raging flame. We often hear people distinguish between forgive and forget. I truly believe that to forgive someone, we must forget what they have done to us. We must move past whatever is grounding us to our anger and seek the Lord’s guidance to forget and forgive.

What about the lighter fluid?

Have you ever been so fed up with someone and their ways that you explode with anger? That you give up on them, express your feelings of anger in an uncontrollable way and then let that anger consume you for the rest of the day, putting you in a terrible mood to the point you are snapping at those who weren’t even involved? That our lighter fluid. Allowing ourselves to give into anger, to give into holding that grudge and harboring bitterness. When we do that, we are letting it control us and drive our actions until we don’t even recognize the person staring back at us in the mirror. If you let it, anger and bitterness can wreck your world, just as quickly as a campfire can turn into a forest fire. One that is unstoppable and headed straight for everything you have ever known and loved.

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32

Your Heavenly Father is calling you to let go of any resentment and anger you hold in your heart. He is standing right next to you holding a bucket full of water saying, “Put it out, child.” Will you  listen? I encourage you to pray this prayer if you are seeking freedom from the bitterness you carry with you.

God, I come to you now as a sinner. As your child who has let you down so many times and accepted your forgiveness 100 times over. I come to you asking for your help and your strength to let go of the bitterness in my heart. Help me to move past the anger I have stored up, and step out of the past into a future that is rid of the darkness that comes from letting anger rule my life. Forgive me for being so slow to forgive my brothers and sisters as you have called me to. And God, help me to see those that I am angry with as flawed children of God just as I, myself am. And God, help me to pray for those I have turmoil with, help me to pray for their weaknesses and their missteps and help me not only forgive, but to forget, right here, right now. I lay my bitterness down at your feet God, take it and make me whole again.

Fire and Gasoline

Don’t lose yourself in anger. It’s gasoline. You can burn it as fuel, or you can use it to torch everything you care about…

I have always been an avid reader, for as long as I can remember my heart has always been happy to curl up in the sunshine with a new book. The only thing that has changed since I have gotten older is the number of pages have grown. In high school, I was blessed to have a librarian that was almost like a second mom to me. She would always recommend books to me and I never hesitated to jump into whatever she suggested. And while I had favorites, there was no book that I read that had a more memorable line to me than the one above written by Karen Marie Moning. Words have always spoken to me and I used to keep a little notebook full of the song lyrics that I loved. It would just be a simple line from a song but something in them spoke to me. That was how this phrase struck me.

I’ve mentioned it before but we are merely human. Anger is a large part of our DNA for the most part, whether we like it or not. Just as easily as we can become sad or excited, we can get angry. But as for all human emotions, it’s not about the emotion itself, it’s about how you deal with it. And Karen was right, if you let anger consume you, you are pumping oxygen into an ember that is eventually going to erupt into a flame. But the thing with this flame is, it will turn into a raging forest fire before you can blink an eye.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” James 1:19-20

The book of James tells us a lot about how we should behave as God’s children and in the verse above we see that anger does not produce the actions that God desires from his children. Does this mean that you can never be angry again? Not at all. In fact, God knows that we are human, he knows that we are susceptible to sin and human desires. All that he asks of us is that we approach those things with a loving heart full of his word and if we have that, he will guide us through how to handle things like anger.

I think so many times in our lives, we come across a person that just infuriates us. Maybe that person is a family member, maybe it’s an ex-spouse or someone you have dated. Or maybe it’s someone you are forced to see every day because they work at the same place you do. And we get mad at them for different reasons. Sometimes their beliefs are different than ours and maybe they aren’t shy about voicing them. Maybe they go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, or make themselves look better than they are. Whatever the reason is, they just make you mad. And often times as humans, we try to suppress that anger, to the point of letting it smolder right below the surface. But all that ends up doing is building up so much anger and pressure that one we day we erupt and explode. At that point, the anger is free flowing and words and accusations come tumbling out before we even realize what we’ve said.

And sometimes, once that eruption happens, something terrible happens. We feel better. And so the next time we get angry, we just let it all go until the next thing we know we are looking into a mirror we just punched because we dropped a cup of coffee on the rug. And sometimes, we hide that anger in our hearts to the point that it drives our other behaviors. It turns us bitter, and distrusting and makes us into a person that we never thought we would become. I’ve been in those shoes, I’ve let my anger become a torch and I woke up every morning full of anger and went to bed every night cuddling with hatred. I was miserable. I heard myself lashing out to the people I loved and I saw myself pushing away everything I cared about. But in that moment, for me the anger was worth it. I wore it like a cloak and let it become a part of my skin. Until one day, I woke up exhausted from it all. I was tired of the turmoil taking place in my heart, and I was tired of fighting. I was just tired. Just as I did with every other time I felt like I had fallen off the track, I dropped to my knees and I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for God to take away the anger and the resentment, the bitterness and the hatred. I prayed for the people I thought I hated. I prayed for the people who had hurt me. And something amazing happened, it was like God took that cloak and plucked it from my back and all of a sudden, it was daylight outside.  There was sunshine and blessings in my life that wouldn’t allow me to hide in my hatred.

That moment is one of the ones that I think my Heavenly Father for the most because it taught me a lot about myself and my relationship with him. It showed me how dark a path without Godly love is and I truly believe that if I had stayed on that path, I would have wound up a very different person from what I am today. But even more so, that moment taught me to trust in God more than I ever had. It taught me not to worry, not to stress and not to get angry because he was in control of everything around me and the ground I stood on and all I needed was him. There was nothing that anyone could do to me to take that away and I started to look at people in a different light. I started to feel sorry for people I once hated, I started to understand that somewhere in that person was a longing that they couldn’t fill and didn’t even realize they needed to. That their lack of love and faith in God was what was driving them to do things that angered me. So I prayed for those people, and I still do today.

I also realized that life is too short to be angry. That holding a grudge may get you the last word, but it will leave you feeling empty and misunderstood. Now, when I have those moments when I would love to be angry or get mad about something, I stop and ask myself, is this really worth ruining my day over? It never is. Unfortunately sometimes I still do, but the recovery time is much shorter.

Does this resonate with your soul? How do you express your anger? Do you let your anger fester and smolder or are you quick to blow off steam?

Every person is different in the way they express their anger. And as humans that is natural. But what the book of James is trying to tell us is that anger can sometimes drive us to do things that God doesn’t approve of.

“But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” Colossians 3:8

God knows that by giving into our anger, we are opening ourselves us to be vulnerable to things such as rage, malice, slander and bad language. What he calls us to do is handle that anger we experience as a child of God. He doesn’t call us to get revenge, he doesn’t call us to tear someone down with our words. He calls us to turn the other cheek, literally.

I think for me that is the one of the hardest things about being a Christian, is constantly being beat down by those who are not children of God and standing there with a smile on your face and taking it. Sometimes you find yourself on the receiving end of that anger and you just want to fight back. You want to let go and give them a piece of your mind because after all, that’s what they are doing, why can’t you? But as Christians, we are called to turn the other cheek. And God makes that pretty clear in the Bible that it doesn’t matter how terrible the thing they are doing to you is, you are to turn the other cheek. Story after story in the Bible talks about these servants of God who are faced with opposition and anger from those who did not know God or approve of the beliefs that they had. We hear about how they were tortured or beaten, held captive or slain. And yet we find it so hard to just simply walk away from a person that is trying to tear us down.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that there is anger in life that comes from a wound that is so raw that your insides are screaming for you to get liberation. There are people on this Earth that endure so much more pain and hurt from other people that I couldn’t even fathom it. But what we have that the person standing over you holding the stick doesn’t is a Lord and Savior that is ready to step into the ring as soon as you are ready to tag him in.

If you are suffering from anger and rage that stems from something that is too much for you to bear, I encourage you to seek out guidance from someone who has been trained to help you deal with that. I encourage you to find a pastor, or a professional who can walk you through how to heal yourself from years of pain. But if you are someone who just seems to find yourself quick to anger, I invite you to do a little soul searching. What is it that sets you off so quickly? Is it a certain person, or a certain issue? Whatever it may be, get a grasp on it and really try to understand what it is about that thing that makes you so angry. Then I invite you to take that and talk to God about it. Let him know that you recognize that this thing is controlling you, that it is forcing you to let loose a fire that you can’t control. Tell him you are ready to put it out, once and for all. And then I encourage you to listen for that sweet, sweet voice of our Lord and Savior to tell you how to handle it.

I also encourage you to find little ways to deal with your anger. One of my favorites comes from a book that I read long ago, I’ve already shared that quote with you. Another comes from a devotion I did as a college student. A husband was talking about the fights he had with his wife and that one day he just decided to see her for what she truly was, a child of God. He spoke about how viewing her that way made it almost impossible to be angry or say harsh things to her because that person that stood in front of him was someone that God specifically created. Someone that God knew every hair on their head and breathed life into their very chest. That is something I have tried to do ever since and I promise you, it is so easy to let go of anger when you think about things that way. It has allowed me to let go of a lot of bitterness and hate that I didn’t even know was in my heart.

Human beings have a way of hurting one another like nothing else can, and the closer you are to someone, the easier it is to break their heart with your words. So I encourage you, the next time you find yourself in anger, take a moment and see things from God’s perspective. Take a breath and ask yourself, is whatever I’m angry about really worth striking a match that you don’t know if you can put out? Anger is gasoline, how will you chose to use it?