Monday, August 31, 2015

Life Isn't Perfect -- But God Is!

I once made an unannounced visit on a family who had just started attending our church. I interrupted a shouting, dish-throwing argument between them. The woman had charged a thousand-dollar gift to a televangelist who said that God would bless her and give her an “abundant life.”  When her husband found out, he hit the ceiling. 

She sobbed, “All I wanted was an abundant life!”

I asked “Would you settle for a pretty good life? If you do, God will give you abundant life.”

“No!” she snapped back, “I want abundant life—nothing else!”

Her problem was spiritual perfectionism. If her life wasn’t great, it was no good.

Perfectionism is the belief that life is either perfect or worthless. It is an inflexible, unachievable attitude of life that ruins our enjoyment of the blessings God gives us.

Dr. Albert Ellis, father of rational/cognitive therapy, isolated three basic irrational, perfectionist notions which account for most of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction of our lives:

1.       "I absolutely MUST under all conditions and at all times, perform well and win the complete approval of others. If I fail, that is awful and I am a bad person who probably always fails and deserves to suffer."

2.       "Other people absolutely MUST, under all conditions and at all times treat me nicely, considerately, and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are bad people who will always treat me badly, and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished."

3.       "The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not, then that’s awful and I can't bear it. I can't ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living."

Not only are these notions impossible, they are also unbiblical. We should never pursue perfection or even excellence for its own sake. Seeking to be better is good, but the illusion that we should only settle for excellence or perfection is a recipe for misery.

 The word “excel” meant to pass the level of our peers. If we excel at math in school, then it means we are doing better in math than most other people. But if everyone in math class excelled at math, then we would just be average. We would just have to work harder at math and so would they. Then they would have to also work harder to keep up with me, and this would continue until we had worn ourselves out. If our measure of what is good for us is based on the performance of others, and their performance is based on ours, then we will eventually make an idol out of whatever we pursue.

 Be careful when you pursue excellence. No victory ever comes without a price. Wanting to achieve is good, but if you don’t learn to settle for less than perfection, or if you think God cannot love you unless you are perfect, then you can never experience the real joy and happiness God has planned for your life. 

Let me suggest to you five Biblical antidotes to perfectionism.

Antidote # 1: You don’t have to be perfect in everything--that’s why God gave us each other.  In 1 Corinthians 12, God tells us about how the Holy Spirit manifests Jesus in our lives. 

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

 Jesus is perfect. His wisdom, knowledge, power, teaching ability, love, compassion, and caring are far beyond those of any of us. The Holy Spirit shows Jesus to the world through us by remaking us into His image, so that the world can see Him in us. 

We are imperfect reflections, however. Though it is our purpose to individually reflect the image of Christ, this is never going to happen perfectly in the flesh. So the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to the world through all of us together, and not just through us alone, but through all the different parts of the Body of Christ, the church.

You may not be a great preacher like Jesus, but you don’t have to be. Someone else may do the preaching. You may not be a great thinker, but you don’t have to be. That is the job of theologians and professors. You may not fix cars or wire houses, but God gave mechanics and electricians to do that. No job is without honor in God’s kingdom, and no one has to be able to do every job. Jesus is manifested in His fullness when we all work together.

Antidote #2: You don’t have to be perfect all at once--that’s why God gives us time. When she was young my granddaughter saw me playing the guitar.  She asked if she could play it. She strummed it a few times, but knew no chords or rhythm. Then she put it down in disgust saying, “I’ll never be any good at this!”  When we are children, we all think this way.  If we can’t be perfect at something the first time, then we give up in frustration. But all good things take time. 

The next time you get discourage because you can’t be perfect at something, or because life isn’t perfect for you, remember that the apostles or saints weren’t perfect, either. Paul admits this in Philippians 3: 12-16

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

If Paul wasn’t perfect, then what chance do you have? Over time we continually get better, growing into the stature of Christ. Excellence is achieved in Christlikeness by holding on to what we have already achieved, celebrating it, and seeing if we can go just a little bit farther. Time is a necessary part in achieving all things.

Antidote #3: You don’t have to be right or successful all the time--that’s why God gives us grace. I really feel sorry for people who must win all the time. They aren’t trying hard enough. If you aren’t losing on a regular basis, then you are choosing to only compete in things where you have a guaranteed win, and you will not get any better. We gain confidence from winning, but we gain much more—wisdom, knowledge, growth, motivation, courage, and perseverance—from losing. This is true in our moral, spiritual lives as well as in our physical and social lives. 

If there’s an upside to sin, then it’s that we fall into it, and we know that we are forgiven. John tells us in 1 John 2: 1-2 

 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

God does not want us to sin, but when we sin Jesus has already forgiven. Our mistakes are hidden in Christ, so that they may be forgotten and so that we may press on. God’s grace enables our lives to progress only upward. When our sins and our mistakes take us backwards, then God’s forgiveness in Christ covers it.

The process of becoming more Christ-like works like a ratchet wrench. Grace allows us to go forward only. The only movement that matters is our progress towards the image of Christ. We may press on, because God is continuing to grant us grace for all our failures. We do not have to be perfect, because God’s grace is perfect in our lives.

Antidote #4: You don’t have to be happy all the time, that’s why God gives us heaven. Being imperfect makes us unhappy—there’s no question of that.  If we all obeyed God’s commands all the time, then we would not be unhappy. Our emotions would be under control, and our actions would be effective. When we failed we would not beat ourselves up about it, but would be able to set it aside in the same way Jesus did, and go on doing God’s work. But we live in an imperfect world, where things happen that are often vary unfair. 

 1 Corinthians 13: 8-13 reminds us

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 

The reason you aren’t living a perfect life is because you live in an imperfect world. Death happens, disease happens, stupidity happens, and evil happens to us all the time. When you are living in a sewer, you have to learn to tolerate the smell, and our world is a sewer of sin and suffering. But God has promised to deliver us from this world in the end. 

There’s good news for perfectionists. You will be perfect one day in heaven, where there is no suffering, death, or sin. But until then, we hold on to the promises of God, and do the best we can to be happy in the midst of imperfections.

Happiness is always temporary. We are like prisoners who stop o admire the sunrise on the way to the gallows. But one day we will be in a place of eternal sunshine, where there will be no suffering, and death itself will be conquered once and for all. 

You can be blessed at all times, because God gives us His Word and Spirit.

You don’t have to have a perfect life. Jesus was perfect on your behalf. Because of His perfection, though, you can have a good life. You can experience His love and presence in the midst of the troubles you endure. “I am with you always,” Jesus says, “Even till the end of this age.”  When we experience failure, we should also experience God’s grace in Jesus. He forgives, forgets, and comforts us in the midst of pain. 

Be Satisfied!

Today we are talking about envy. Let’s start with some definitions. Jealousy and envy are not the same. Jealousy is fearing losing what we have; envy is wanting what someone else has. 

Jealousy is an emotion, and like all emotions it is given by God for a specific purpose. Jealousy is helpful in in two different ways.  First in defending what is rightfully ours. God has this kind of jealousy in Exodus 20: 5

“For I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”  Paul has this kind in 2 Corinthians 11:2 “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray.”

 Paul loved the Corinthians and did not want them to fall away, so he fought and prayed to defend them against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is not wrong to defend our own against attack, nor should I tolerate those who would steal what is mine.  

Second, we should be jealous in seeking God’s blessings. The word “jealousy” comes from the Greek zeelos which means “excited” or stimulated.”  A person with zeal is highly motivated.  Parazelos means to be stimulated by others, as in healthy competition. If I see what another person has accomplished, then I am motivated to seek the same.  If I see what others achieve, then maybe I can achieve it, too. 

But while jealousy has some good uses.  Envy has no good uses. Envy is entirely bad.

Let’s imagine that you and I both were farmers, and had tomato patches next to each other.  Now let’s imagine that your tomatoes look better than my tomatoes. They are fatter, juicier and tastier.  I would probably feel jealous of your tomatoes. That jealousy could provoke me to do something good. I might go to you and say, “How come your tomatoes are doing better than mine?” Then next year, I would do the same, so that my tomatoes would be as good as yours. Or I might decide to grow beets instead, which I would then trade for your tomatoes.

But suppose I was envious of your tomatoes.  That would be getting mad because your tomatoes were better than mine. I could sneak out at night and poison your tomatoes! Then neither of us would have good tomatoes. In the first reaction, we both win. In the second, we both lose.  Envy tears down, while competition and cooperation builds up. 

 The New Testament makes this distinction in two ways. One way is combining the word “jealousy” with a word for “strife” or “war.”  We see this in James 3: 16

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

The word selfish ambition is the word eris,--meaning a quarrel or an argument. It comes from Ares or Mars, the Greek god of war. The feeling of jealousy combined with war makes it evil.

The same words are used in Romans 1: 29

“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.”   Again it is used in 1 Corinthians 3: 3 “for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”

The New Testament uses a different word for envy—phtheiro, meaning “to waste, ruin, or shrivel.”  Zeal builds up; envy tears down. It is wholly destructive. It’s one thing to want good for ourselves; it is quite another to deny good to others, or to envy their prosperity.

The Bible has a lot to say about envy.  For example,

”A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot..”  Proverbs 14:30

"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness."  Mark 7: 20-22

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. 1 Corinthians 13:4
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked, for the evil man has no future; the lamp of the wicked will be put out.”  Proverbs 24: 19-20

Zeal builds up; Envy tears down.

What is the root of envy? It comes from a sense of want. James says this in James 4: 1-4,

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this--that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

When we are young, we believe we compete with our brothers and sisters for the attention of our parents. Our parents have a finite amount of attention to give. When we grow older, we transfer that idea over to God. We assume that God also has only a small amount of blessings to give, and that if someone else receives, we won’t.

That was the first mistake of Cain. He assumed that if Abel his brother was blessed by God, then he could not be blessed. So Cain killed his brother, because he thought Abel stole his blessing from God. What he did not know was that God could give all His love to both of them.

If God has given one person more than another in looks, talents, or material prosperity, then what business is that of ours?  If God gives one man a million dollars and another a thousand, He still has plenty to give. His million has nothing to do with my thousand. God could give each one a hundred million, a billion, or a hundred billion dollars each, and it would make no difference to Him. Whatever God has given or not given to us, it is because of His knowledge and purpose for our lives. He is not stingy, He is just loving in different ways.

The Bible gives us many examples of jealousy like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David--But one of the best examples of envy is the parables of the Prodigal son in Luke 15.

In this parable we meet a man who has two sons. The younger son demands his portion of the father’s estate. Jesus does not give the younger son’s reason for doing this, but it doesn’t take much to guess. As the younger son, his portion of the inheritance is smaller than the older son—probably no more than forty percent. If he stayed at home, then his big brother would be over him forever.  Envy is the likely reason for him running away. Who wants to live under his big brother?

It does him no good, of course. The younger boy doesn’t know how to handle money. Not only that, but he missed out on a bigger inheritance that would have been his if he had waited for the Old Man to die. Envy probably drove him to jeopardize his future.

In time, the younger son returns, and there is rejoicing and happiness. His father gives him a hero’s welcome, complete with a party, new clothes, jewelry, and a fatted calf.  

Now, it’s the older brother’s turn to be jealous. He refuses to come to the party, but stays in the field. So his father leaves the party and seeks him. The older son tells the father in Luke 15: 29-30,

“Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' 

 Now here’s the strange thing! The younger son runs away, envying what the older son gets. The younger son returns, and the older son envies what the younger son gets. If you were one of these two sons, would you be like the younger son and envy the other’s money and position, or would you, like the older son, envy the attention of the Father?  We all envy different things. It came as a shock to discover that some of those I envied were envying me! God provides for in different ways, gives different opportunities, and callings, but He doesn’t neglect any of His kids! 

Envy comes from focusing on how we measure up to others, rather than our standing before God. If our self-worth is based on others, then we are living in envy. But if we look to God for our happiness, then we will find it. Looking at others first steals our happiness; looking to God first gives it back.

The father answers his older son in 31-32. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." The father says, “Everything you have is mine!  Do you think I only have one fatted calf? Ask and you can have one for your friends? Do I only have one robe? Ask, and it’s yours! What you see me give to him I can give to you!” 

The biggest mistake is thinking God is finite in his love or His blessings. This is not the case. We think our poverty or lack of natural abilities is favoritism to others, when it’s really just a case of God knowing what we need and can handle. We all must struggle in life—God just makes sure we are all struggling over different things.

Do not assume that fame, money, talent, or power makes us better or happier people. When I visited Africa, the people I stayed with only had electricity for two hours a day. They had little in education or material comforts. They lived in a place where the temperature was more than a hundred degrees much of the year. Yet they were far happier than we are!  It was not in spite of their poverty, but because of it. Where no one has anything, there’s nothing to envy. No one felt cheated when they did not have the latest clothes or appliances. Yet we ruin our happiness by sulking over things others have, which can make neither they nor us happy. 

Jesus tells us, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Happiness comes from Jesus. It does not come from envy. It comes from knowing that what God gives us is sufficient for all. 

God is not stingy with His love. He gives it to all. He lays upon us the glory of His grace and gives it in abundance. 

Are You Lazy? Proverbs 6: 6-11

In this series we are examining the disparity between the life that Christians ought to be living and the life we actually live. Jesus promises us abundant life in John 10:10,  

“The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.”

 What are the “thieves” that destroy our lives? In this series, we look at what the Bible says about seven of them—the “seven sinister sisters”-- fear, anxiety, hopelessness, laziness, jealousy, perfectionism, and individualism.

Today’s topic is laziness.


“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.

How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?

‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,’ and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Prov. 6:6-11

Are you lazy? Some days, I think I am.  Other days, I think I’m not. Which is the truth?

One thing I know, whether or not we are lazy has nothing to do with how I feel about it.

Some of the most active people I know think they are lazy. On the other hand, some of the laziest people I know think they are overworked. We cannot go by how we feel. What makes a person lazy or industrious is not how we feel about it, but whether or not we are doing our job. 

Suppose you need to pay your bills, but instead you go out and jog two miles. Are you lazy or not lazy? Or suppose you go out and mow your lawn when you feel like sitting and watching television.  Are you lazy, because you feel like resting?  Laziness is what we do or not do, and it is not what we feel or not feel. 

Laziness is a complicated issue. There is no one cause for it, but many. Some of the most common reasons for laziness are listed below:

Fear. One of the most common reasons we procrastinate is because we are afraid that we will not perform our job correctly, or that we can’t do it. Anxiety builds up inside, until it becomes a barrier to starting. Or our fear so weighs us down that we might not be doing well, and we want to stop. 
Fear is not just of doing poorly. We often fear doing something well. To do something right means that more will be expected of us. This fear of accomplishment stops many of us in our tracks.

A divided mind. Sometimes we don’t begin our task for a reason we don’t admit, because we just don’t want to do it. If we are constantly putting something off we need to do, then it may be a signal to us that maybe we don’t need to do it at all. We should reexamine our motives to see if our heart is really in what we are putting off.

Disorganization. This is really laziness of the mind. When we are disorganized, it is because we have put off organization. The first part of every task is to decide when and how we are going to do it. We must first put a job in its proper place before we do it. Many people are hard workers with the bodies, but poor workers with their heads. They only work well if someone else is telling them what to do.

Fatigue. Let’s face it, we sometimes are lazy just because we haven’t had enough rest. We don’t know how to pace our work and our rest, so we “burn out.”  Not taking our time off may seem like being busy, but it’s really asking for trouble. The time can come when we need to be active, and we have no energy left.

Fantasy. Our modern culture has found a way of making us feel better about laziness. It’s called fantasy. I don’t mean simply people who like fantasy books or video games, but a mass media culture which gives us a steady diet of television, books, movies, and video games. These devices create in us the feeling of accomplishment or success, while guaranteeing our failure.

Let me illustrate what fantasy is. When men are young they play sports. Then, when they get older they start watching sports, and when they see someone on a field hitting home runs or running touchdowns, then they get the same feeling of accomplishment they got when they used to exercise regularly. Yet they get no physical or mental benefit from it. We have imagined ourselves as athletes, but get no benefit from it.

People get lost in television, video games, books, or movies with equal enthusiasm. Yet when we are caught up in the fantasy, we are actually doing no good. We are being lazy, and we are caught in the illusion of activity without any accomplishment whatsoever.

The result of laziness is always that we fail to accomplish anything. In doing so we let down God, others, and ourselves.

We let down God, because we do not use the gifts God gave us. God has a plan for our lives. He also has a great plan for the church. When we do not participate in that plan, then we are letting God down.

We let down others, because they depend upon us. James writes of Christians who say to people in need, “Be warm and be fed,” yet do nothing to help them. No one cares about our good intentions unless we are ready to back our good intentions with action. Laziness robs us of action.

We let down ourselves, because we do not accomplish what we might. We wind up following an easy path that leads to nowhere.

How do we stop being lazy? Here are some suggestions that can help.

Stop regretting. Do not waste one moment in regret or remorse. Regret and remorse adds to our anxiety, and worsens our laziness. Jesus died on the cross to pay for all our transgressions, and to give us a new start in life. To look back on our sins, and wallow in regret is to deny the gift of God’s forgiveness. God’s love is a free gift. In Christ’s eyes, your life begins today, not yesterday. The only thing that matters is not what you did yesterday, but what you do today.

Practice Sabbath. God established a pattern of life in Genesis--six days you shall labor, and the seventh you rest. Don’t work all the time. Work six days and be off one day. Keeping the Sabbath refreshes our lives, and helps keep us diligent.  

Seek an active life. Avoid the kind of recreation that does not involve doing something with our minds, bodies, or spirits. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing better in life than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in work. Work is not something we do for pay, but a way of life. It gives our lives meaning.

Do something active in your off hours. Plant a garden, decorate a room, take up jogging, learn a musical instrument, a new language, or go back to school. There are no limitations on any of these just because we are older. We all need to live more vigorous, productive lives. 

Know your goals and your limitations. This involves the hardest kind of work you will ever do, which is thinking. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you have a purpose statement for your life?  Does it involve your life today?  Are you working for that purpose?

Know your limitations as well. What can you realistically do where you are at? Give yourself permission to work within your limitations. You may have to adjust our expectations, but mostly upward. As you seek to accomplish what you feel you can now discover that there is more you can accomplish. 

Eliminate fantasy and distractions. Not being lazy really isn’t about doing more, but doing less. It is substituting what is good for what isn’t.  When we engage in fantasy, and spend hours in front of a TV, video game console, or with a book in our hands in mindless entertainment, then we may find it hard to stop. If you can’t think of anything to do instead of watching television, you should turn off the TV.  It mean you have become addicted. 

Laziness isn’t a feeling, but a disordered life. It is not living the life in its fullness that God has for us to live. Thoreau once said that he wanted to live his life to such a degree that when he died, he would not discover he had never lived. Laziness is the thief of life. When we yield to it, a part of us dies, even while we live. When we resist it, then we find that life has more to offer us than we can possibly imagine.