Convert

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from long-distance running, it’s the importance of food. Until last year, I lived by an “I’m hungry, therefore I eat” philosophy. But half-marathon training forced me to switch over to an “I need energy, therefore I eat” mindset. Before each long run, I have to calculate my intake and purposely feed myself enough calories to sustain me for that amount of activity.

Our bodies are amazing machines that are constantly functioning. All this living we do requires energy and we get that energy from food. We open our mouths, put it in, chew and swallow, and then our digestive system takes over – breaking our food down into smaller pieces so the fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins can be absorbed and converted into energy.

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God’s love is the most rich and powerful substance in the universe. Not only does He love, 1 John 4:8 says “God is love”. His every move in our lives is defined by His affection toward and preference for us.* Created with purpose, cared for every moment, and fully accepted with no condemnation for our weaknesses or sin (1 John 3:20), we are “lavished” with this love (1 John 3:1).

With God’s Spirit alive and at work in me, His love is always readily available for me to consume. Just thinking about it allows me to take it in and begin the process of absorbing it into the depths of my being. It’s a satisfying and fulfilling kind of love that sustains us and even gives us our identity.

Or at least it should.

A couple weeks ago at Mom’s Bible study, we were discussing “The Comparison Trap”.** As moms – and as humans in general – it’s so easy to look around and use what our eyes see in others as a measuring tool for our own value. We see someone’s clothing size, well-kept house, well-behaved children, creative talent, or dynamic personality and then turn those strengths around to magnify the weaknesses we see in ourselves.

The antidote for this, Andy & Sandra Stanley explain, is understanding God’s great love for us. As adopted sons and daughters, our value is decided by Him and when we take that truth to heart, we can stop looking around for other measurements.**

I’ve known about God’s love for as long as I can remember. It may have been mere “head knowledge” when I was a kid, but it has become “heart knowledge” as an adult. I’m fully convinced that God loves me and and yet I still catch myself looking around for my value. I spend regular time ingesting the truth about His love into my system, but that hasn’t prevented me from getting caught in the comparison trap.

In those seasons of discouragement and self-doubt, I’ve found this to be true: God’s love was never meant to just be absorbed, it was meant to be converted into useful energy. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us” or in other words, because He loves us, we love. Sitting around and absorbing God’s love isn’t going to do me much good until I complete the cycle and use it to love others.

When my focus is on loving other people, I don’t have time to think about comparison. Instead of being worried about where I’m lacking, I’m worried about the needs of others and how much I do have that can help them. As my hands and feet serve, my purpose becomes greater than my “self”. And when my heart is engaged in loving people who don’t deserve it, I can’t help but understand how much I’m loved and how little all the things on that comparison list matter.

The more I run, the more hungry I am. On those long run days, I can’t stop eating! Because I used up everything I took in, my body needs more and it definitely lets me know!

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(And in case you’re comparing yourself to my healthy-ish (?) looking lunch, you can stop there because you know I end my day with a ‘healthy’ serving of this:)

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When we’re using up the love we’ve been filled with, we’ll be hungry for more and the more He becomes our desire, the more “the world and its desires pass away” (1 John 2:17). His rich, satisfying, value-giving love becomes even more rich, satisfying, and value-giving when we give it away!

*http://biblehub.com/greek/26.htm
**https://www.comparisontrap.org/ by Andy & Sandra Stanley

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Care

Sheep. Cute, cuddly, soft, and sweet. Don’t ya just wanna snuggle one?

No, you don’t! As a Vermonter by childhood, I got to experience sheep first hand. Maybe it was because I was allergic to them, but I remember them being annoying and dirty. Their rough wool was not something you wanted to pet and boy, were they loud!

If you search for sheep videos on YouTube, you’ll also find they’re not very self-sufficient. Prone to wander and get themselves into perilous predicaments, sheep need help. When they do stick together, their herd-mentality and lack of awareness tends to get them in trouble. And without much of a ‘natural defense,’ sheep require the protection and care human hands, eyes, and minds can provide them.

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As a mom, I can relate to those shepherds. In our busy life, with three kids on different school and activity schedules, I feed and move and protect and feed and move and protect. It’s exhausting on many days, but like all parents, I want my children to live in the security of knowing they are cared for!

More than my care, though, I want them to live in the security of knowing they are cared for by Someone much more capable than me. I want them to know that this God we pray to is not only big and strong and awesome – He’s also available to meet their daily personal needs.

But when your daily personal needs involve school, homework, playing, eating, and maybe a few chores, what do you really need God for? When I pray with our girls at night, I find myself struggling to come up with ways God may have helped them that day or could help them tomorrow – and I see their own struggle when I ask them how I can pray for them.

When David penned the verses of Psalm 23, he was speaking from experience. As a shepherd himself, David knew all about the care of sheep. Before battling Goliath, playing his harp for King Saul, or becoming king himself, David spent his days feeding and moving and protecting, feeding and moving and protecting.

In this well-known Psalm, David points out the similarities between his life of caring for sheep and his life of being cared for by God:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness 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. (v. 1-4)

When David says, “I shall not want,” he wasn’t saying he didn’t have needs, he was saying he was so well cared for he wasn’t aware of those needs. Sheep, by nature, have little awareness of how they are being cared for – they have no way of perceiving all that is being done to keep them alive and well. They don’t know the predators they’ve been protected from and they never wonder how the shepherd will meet their next need – they just know they’re full and happy!

A few weeks ago Tim was away and it was a four-trips-to-the-school-and-back-for-swim-practices kind of night. The first practice was at 5:30, and around 5:10 I looked at the clock and thought, “I should tell Amelia it’s almost time to go.” But I had a mouth full of pita chips and I was busy with a project, so I decided to give her a couple more minutes.

Unfortunately, the next time I looked up, it was after 5:30. “Oh no!” I yelled and we went into full-on panic mode. Practice was already starting and my kid who can’t handle being late was going to be really late! I remember thinking, “How did this happen? God, why didn’t you help me?”

When we arrived at the middle school most of the other parents had come and gone, but it just so happened that another family was just as late as we were. And they just happen to be a family we know well and who lives near us and who we’ve carpooled with before. The dad looked at me and said, “Hey, I heard Tim’s away, can we give Amelia a ride home for you tonight?”

Could I have handled the four trips? Of course. But instead, I was given a moment of rest that I didn’t even know I needed. And it was all orchestrated outside of my awareness. Sheep don’t perceive all that is being done for them and my human brain will never perceive all that God is doing for me!

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After having just about enough of “That’s not mine, why do I have to pick it up?” and “I didn’t make that mess, they did!” Tim and I have started threatening to take a whole day (or week – the time seems to lengthen with each threat 😉) and stop doing anything for anyone but ourselves. We haven’t had to follow through yet, but I think our kids would be shocked at how much we do to care for them!

Our girls may have no idea how much we do for them, but we kind of like it that way and I think our Good Shepherd likes it that way, too. We can’t always label or pinpoint how He’s feeding, moving, or protecting us, but we can absolutely trust that His “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6).

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Counted

As Eleanor Shellstrop’s eyes open in the first scene of NBC’s “The Good Place,” she is greeted with assurances that she is okay and everything is going to be fine. Having passed away in a freak shopping cart accident, Eleanor is now, as afterlife agent Michael informs her, in ‘the good place’.

Relieved, Eleanor begins to settle into her new surroundings. But as Michael describes the process by which she was allowed in, she becomes uneasy. “When your time on earth is ended,” Michael explains, “we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system.”

From a giant screen, Michael displays for the day’s ‘good place’ newcomers some sample actions and the positive or negative point values associated with them – implying that their every action on earth was counted for or against them. “Only the people with the very highest scores – the true cream of the crop – get to come here,” Michael concludes.

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Sure that there’s been a mistake, Eleanor begins to panic. Her life on earth was in no way ‘good’ and she doesn’t deserve to be here!

Of course this show is meant to be a comedy, not a theology documentary, but it does play on our society’s perception of religion. It seems ingrained in our minds that in the end our deeds will be tallied and as long as our ‘positive’ numbers add up, the ‘negatives’ will be overlooked and we’ll earn our ticket into an eternal ‘good place’.

This isn’t a new problem. In chapter 4 of his letter to Romans, the apostle Paul presents his case against this counting mentality. “Now to the one who works,” Paul says, “his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due.” (Romans 4:4) Since doing ‘good’ requires more effort than doing ‘bad,’ it’s natural to conclude that those who put in the work should earn something in return.

But, using Abraham as an example, Paul points out that God’s counting process only involves one action: faith. “Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness” (v. 9) because he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (v. 21) Did you catch that? He was convinced that God was able, not that he was. A counting mentality focuses on myself and what I can do, but faith focuses on what God can do.

Paul sums up his point by saying that, like Abraham, righteousness “will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (v. 24-25) It’s not about a magic moment when you “accept Christ” and “become a Christian” – it’s about a choice to acknowledge that you aren’t able to count up enough points to attain righteousness, but that God is able to do what He has promised and make you righteous by the merit of Jesus alone.

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There’s an unexpected twist at the end of the season finale of “The Good Place”. (*SPOILER ALERT!*) After spending the in-between episodes trying to become ‘good’ and avoid being evicted from the good place, Eleanor discovers it’s all a lie – it turns out they’ve been in the bad place the entire time! The whole thing was Michael’s elaborate plan to torture humans in a way they’d never been tortured before.

The most shocked by this revelation is Tahani, a wealthy philanthropist who thought for sure she had earned her way to the good place with her acts of charity and generosity. But what she thought counted for her actually counted against her as all that ‘positive’ was overtaken by a single ‘negative’ – her desire for recognition. In the end, even our best deeds count against us because of the self-focused motivation behind them!

In verses 7 and 8, Paul quotes Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Putting our faith in Jesus means trusting that not a single one of our ‘negative’ actions will be counted against us (nope, not even using “Facebook” as a verb or blowing your nose by pressing one nostril down and exhaling!).

But just because they’re not counted against us, doesn’t mean they’re overlooked.

In Paul’s quotation of Psalm 32, he uses a Greek word we translate as “forgiven” which means to “send away” or “release”.* But in the original Old Testament Hebrew, the word for “forgiven” means to “lift” or “take”.** When we say God has “forgiven” our sin, it doesn’t mean He’s just eliminated the negative or “sent it away” – it means He’s released us by “taking” the debt and counting it against Himself.

Unlike Eleanor Shellstrop, we don’t live in fear that the promise of eternity in Heaven will be taken away from us – because we didn’t earn it or ever deserve it in the first place!

*http://biblehub.com/greek/863.htm
**http://biblehub.com/hebrew/5375.htm

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Filled

There’s one thing that makes the cold weeks of February bearable. It’s not the Super Bowl (even though WE WON THE SUPER BOWL! 💚🦅🎉💚 Fly Eagles Fly!). It’s not Tim’s birthday (although he may have gotten his favorite birthday present ever – see previous sentence). It’s not Punxsutawney Phil seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s not even Valentine’s Day.

It’s Valentine’s Day at Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s something about a heart-shaped donut filled with vanilla buttercream, Bavarian cream, or brownie batter that makes your troubles melt away. Whoever invented the idea of leaving empty space in a pastry so it could be filled with all that good stuff was a genius!

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Long before donuts were created, Adam and Eve knew something about the good stuff. In the Garden they lived a full life, knowing nothing but wholeness in their relationship with God. They lived in total openness, completely bare before Him. They experienced full satisfaction and didn’t know the meaning of “need”.

But then one day someone convinced them they were missing something:

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. (Genesis 3:1-7 NLT)

As she listened to the serpent’s words, Eve for the first time experienced “lack”. There was wisdom she didn’t have and without it she wasn’t complete. And in his shrewdness, the evil one not only made her aware of the hole, he also made her aware of an alternative way it could be filled.

In the end, though, this “filling” only created a much larger hole as Adam and Eve were now aware of the gap between themselves and God. In one moment, openness turned to hidden and whole became empty.

But when Jesus came, He came to make “life to the full” possible again (John 10:10). He lived, died, and rose again so that the Holy Spirit could come and “fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:5). He made it possible for the empty space in our souls to be filled “with all joy and peace” and even “overflow with hope” (Romans 15:13).

Our enemy hasn’t changed his tactic – he still loves to point out our holes. He knows he can’t take anything away from us, but he can make us aware of the areas where we lack. He can make sure we know we’re not enough by lining up our weaknesses next to other people’s strengths. And one quick browse through social media can be all it takes remind us that our hearts aren’t as “full” as everyone else’s seem to be.

But it turns out the holes are on purpose. God allows us to be incomplete so He can complete us – and the filling is the best part! Every area where we see a lack is a place where God can come in and fill us with more of the good stuff of Himself.

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One of my biggest dreams is to be able to share the curriculum I write for our youth with a greater audience – I work so hard on this stuff and surely someone out there could benefit from it! But last week I made the mistake of following a social-media-profile-trail of published youth curriculum writers. With every click I became painfully aware of another “I’m not…” – not smart enough, not ‘hip’ enough, not young enough – which eventually turned into “Why would anyone ever want to hear from me?”

It took me a couple days to snap out of my funk, but what did it was remembering that all that lack is just more opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do His thing (if that’s what He chooses to do). If I was “all that,” there would be no room for Him to do His own work – and isn’t that the point?

If you’ve given your life to Christ, then the presence of the Holy Spirit, richer than the richest Bavarian cream the world has to offer, is available to you. So every time you’re made aware of a lack, take it as an opportunity to ask Him to fill you with more of the good stuff!

What’s a hole or lack in your life that the Holy Spirit has been able to fill?
Leave a comment below!

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