Ever find yourself fighting against God? I have. It makes no sense.
- If God is all-powerful, things will turn out the way he wants. It’s inevitable.
- If God wills for ultimate good to triumph, why resist?
- If God is all-knowing, why insist on having things my way? Do I really think I know better than God?
Besides, when I fight reality, reality always wins.
Unfortunately, self-will is sneaky and dies hard. A few years ago I attended a four-day writers’ conference, convinced it was God’s will for me. I volunteered for service opportunities, looked forward to promoting my first book and to being interviewed for an ongoing writing gig. Above all, I was excited for the chance to find a publisher for my second book. In my eagerness, I denied my body’s ongoing physical limitations. Less than 24 hours after the conference began, my body rebelled and I was forced to slink home.
Apparently, God and I hadn’t seen things the same way after all. It took weeks to work through my disappointment and accept reality. I have disabilities. The symptoms may not be apparent to others, but the challenges are very real. It’s self-defeating to ignore them, no matter how much I want to.
Evidently God, who knows all about my limitations, achieves his plans in spite of my willful schemes. Although I could not attend the conference interview, I received the ongoing writing assignment anyway. Eventually, I was offered a contract for my second book—my new publisher hadn’t even attended that conference.
When my conviction about God’s will is wishful thinking on my part, whenever I’m trying to force outcomes, I’m fighting reality. Whenever I accept circumstances exactly as they are, do my best, then let go and trust God with the outcome, I feel peace.
Why struggle? Even if things don’t go my way, they can still turn out just fine.
Who guessed faith involved accepting reality?
Prayer: Lord, help me trust that you have everything under control.
Reflection: When have you found yourself fighting against God? What happened?
During Lent, we focus on prayer, fasting, and acts of charity to grow closer to God. It’s self-defeating if these acts become a set of spiritual hoops we jump through, congratulating ourselves on our spiritual gymnastics. We might end up so absorbed in our own goodness that there’s little room for God’s love.
The prophet Samuel corrected King Saul when Saul kept the plunder God had ordered him to destroy. Instead, Saul kept the best sheep, then “sacrificed” them to God. It’s no accident that on his way to the place of sacrifice, Saul stopped in the town of Carmel, where he’d built a monument to himself. (Samuel 15:12) As Samuel told Saul, God was not pleased.
We miss the point when we decide how we want to please God while ignoring the sacrifice wants from us: a humble heart. (Psalm 51:17) God wants hearts open to his will, not insisting on our own.
Choosing Lenten sacrifices to build up our spiritual bank accounts is ironic. We grow closer to God when we recognize our weakness and dependence on his love.
Wherever we are in our Lenten journey today, we can ask God to show us how to surrender our wills to his as we move forward.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by saying following him involved denying ourselves as well as picking up our crosses. Sacrifice might mean accepting the crosses life brings our way rather than choosing our own.
Prayer: Lord, help me accept the challenges life brings today and offer them to you.
Reflection: How are you being called to let go of self-will today?
Gideon replied, “But Lord, how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least important member of my family.”
The Lord answered, “You can do it because I will help you…” Judges 6: 15-16a
God, it seems, loves to work through the weak and helpless.
- David was overlooked by his family as the runt of the litter, but defeated Goliath and became King of Israel.
- Peter, a poor, uneducated fisherman was chosen by Jesus chose as the rock on which to build his church.
- In more recent times, Mother Teresa, a little nobody from nowhere special, is known throughout the world for her loving service to the poor.
Maybe those who feel their weakness find it easier to turn to God and rely on his power and wisdom.
When I think I have all the answers and feel self-sufficient, it rarely occurs to me to look beyond myself—until I run into problems. When I’m smack up against my weakness, it becomes painfully evident that I need help. Even then, it’s not easy to ask for or accept it.
God is the never-failing source of help I can turn to—as long as I don’t expect help to accomplish my will on my terms. When I surrender to God’s will, I always find peace, because I can trust God to give me what I need (to do what he wants, not what I want.)
In my weakness, t’s always a struggle to lay down my will and my expectations, but when I do, I’m never sorry.
How about you?
Prayer: Lord, help me trust that your strength is made perfect in my weakness.
Reflection: How do you react when you feel weak? How can letting go of self-will and surrendering to God’s plan strengthen you?
Why did the Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land? They were afraid because they didn’t trust God to keep his promise.
When we reject the good God offers us, it’s probably for the same reason: fear. When we reject God’s loving plan for us, fear is probably involved in some way.
Let’s look at the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth.
- Pride is giving self-will priority over God’s will. If we believe God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving, why would we ever choose our own way instead of his? On some level, we must be afraid that God won’t do as good a job as we could or that his plan is not as good as ours, so we use manipulation or force to get our way.
- Greed probably involves fear that we won’t have enough or get enough or keep enough of whatever we feel greedy about: money, things, approval, attention. We grab for or hoard more than we need because we don’t trust God to provide for our needs.
- Envy might include fear that we aren’t good enough, or that we aren’t as good as others. Resenting what they have fuels our feelings of inadequacy. We don’t trust God’s love for us and the value we have simply because he loved us into existence.
- Anger, chances are, often involves thwarted self-will. Maybe someone or something threatened our fragile self-esteem, or we didn’t get our way. When our illusions of control are shattered, we get angry. We don’t trust that things can still turn out just fine-even if they don’t go our way-because God has it all under control.
- Lust, at least in part, may include the fear that we are unlovable or perhaps the fear of true intimacy and the mutual surrender involved in sharing love on a level that goes so much deeper than the physical plane.
- Gluttony might, in part, be connected to fear of discomfort. It might also involve trying to fill our emptiness in a self-defeating way because we fear that God’s love and his plan aren’t enough to sustain us, that his allotment of our daily bread won’t fill the gaping hole within us.
- Sloth, laziness, procrastination, might disguise a fear that what we do won’t be good enough. We’d rather not try at all, than try and fail. Underneath may lurk a fear that neither God nor anyone else could love us as we are, that we’ll be rejected unless we’re perfect or successful in the way the world defines success.
In all these options, we short-change ourselves. We deny ourselves the joy that comes from abandoning ourselves to God’s loving care and protective power. It’s risky to trust that he does love us, that he knows what he’s doing, that his plans are to build us up and to give us the future we hope for (Jeremiah 29:11), and that he will keep his promise. It’s a risk worth taking.
Prayer: Lord, lead me to the Promised Land you have in mind for me.
Reflection: How is fear blocking you from the joy God has in mind for you?
Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.” Mark 8: 34
- Forget: How does one forget oneself? How does one forget anything? Having studied French for five years in school, I used to be able to read and write it fairly well. Nevertheless, I only remember a few phrases. How did I forget all that French? Disuse. The knowledge was there, but I stopped acting on it. Maybe it’s like that with forgetting our “selves”. If you’re like me, self-will often makes demands. We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t, but we don’t have act on those demands, either. Self-indulgence makes them stronger. If we don’t pay attention to them, they’ll probably atrophy from disuse. Then we can better discern how to meet our legitimate needs and wants.
- Carry: Fewer demands on our time and energy leave more inner resources available to determine which crosses are ours and to accept whatever our cross might look like on any given day. We have a better chance of discerning what God is asking us to do—or stop doing. Without ego in charge, it’s easier to recognize our limitations and our need for help in carrying whatever crosses are ours. Sometimes our biggest cross might be developing the courage and humility to ask for help.
- Follow: Freedom from self-centeredness makes it easier to keep our eyes on the Lord. We can’t follow him if we don’t look at him. How will we know where he’s going? If we are self-absorbed, we’ll miss the guidance and promptings of his Spirit. If we’re pre-occupied with our agendas, we won’t have room for his directions.
It’s our choice. If, as Jesus said, we want to join him, we need to leave behind our pre-occupation with self, accept the challenges we face, and move, however falteringly, in his direction. We can trust that his grace, not our own strength, will empower us. It’s not all about us anymore.
Prayer: Lord, help me forget myself as I focus on you.
Reflection: Do you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to join him? If so, what will you forget? What will you carry? Where is he asking you to follow him today?
The apostles came back and told Jesus everything they had done. He took them with him, and they went off by themselves to a town named Bethsaida. When the crowds heard about it, they followed him. He welcomed them, spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed it. Luke 9: 10-11
The crowds interrupted Jesus’ private meeting with his apostles. How did Jesus respond? He welcomed the intruders.
When I’m interrupted, I’m a lot crankier. If unexpected events frustrate my agenda, my exasperation is as plain as the thinly disguised frown on my face. Although I usually rise to the occasion, it often involves working towards acceptance rather than being instantly welcoming.
Why is that? Because I forget that my agenda is not God’s agenda. I forget that I was created to know, love, and serve God, as my childhood Baltimore catechism told me. I forget that serving God does not mean flawless execution of my itinerary, however noble my intentions. I forget that God’s definition of success is not my own—or the world’s—definition of success.
If Jesus is my role model, success is welcoming others warmly when they interrupt me, sharing God’s love with others—whether that means offering them encouragement, listening to them, or just not snapping at them for getting in my way.
Someone—I wish I could remember who—once prayed, “Lord, may I take every interruption as coming from you.” What a powerful thought! Interruptions might be sent by God to jar me out of my prideful, narrow focus. God’s plan is better than mine, but sometimes I need reminding. How about you?
Prayer: Lord, help me welcome the people and events you send my way today.
Reflection: When we call on Jesus, he’s never too busy to welcome us warmly. Can we pass it on?
I’ve got a Martha mind. That makes it challenging to “be still and know” God when I want to pray. Even if nothing in particular is troubling me, my mind does mental gymnastics anyway. I’ve tried various things to slow my thoughts: deep breathing, slowly repeating a word or phrase, focusing on an object or picture. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
The other day, they didn’t. So instead, I pictured myself welcoming Jesus into the Martha/Mary home of my heart. I imagined myself sitting at his feet, like Mary. I even leaned my head against his knee and relaxed. I gave myself permission to ignore Martha’s clamors and just listen to Jesus, like Mary did.
Maybe that’s why Martha appealed to Jesus for help in getting Mary’s attention. Martha had tried to get her sister to join her, but as long as Mary focused on Jesus instead of Martha, Martha’s bustling couldn’t distract her.
I didn’t have to pay attention to my Martha mind, either, even though she insisted. I sat there, at peace, listening to Jesus—only he didn’t say anything, and that was okay. Just being with him was enough. After a few minutes, as any good host would, I simply asked him what he wanted. He answered simply, too. One word. Kindness. That’s all my heart heard. But that was enough.
Prayer: Come into my heart, Lord.
Reflection: If you sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, what will you hear?
“I will renew my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. I will forgive all the wrongs you have done, but you will remember them and be too ashamed to open your mouth.” The Sovereign Lord has spoken. Ezekiel 16: 62-63
Why is it so hard for us to accept forgiveness as the gift that it is? We want to deserve forgiveness or earn it. We can’t. If we deserve it, it’s exoneration, not forgiveness.
When we try to excuse or deny the hurt we’ve caused others or the damage we’ve done to ourselves or to our relationship with God, it gets us nowhere. When we create alibis to prove what we did wasn’t so bad, it does us no good. When we acknowledge our wrongs and are truly sorry, God forgives us. We’re better off honestly acknowledging our weaknesses. Then we can recognize the truth: forgiveness is about God’s goodness, generosity, and love, not our worthiness. We don’t have to open our mouths except to say thank you.
Once we accept God’s forgiveness as the free and precious gift it truly is, there’s no reason to keep wallowing in our misdeeds and mistakes. We can stop going on and on about it. We don’t need to dwell on our sins once we have honestly laid them at God’s feet. Once forgiven, we are free to move on and do likewise.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the gift of your forgiveness.
Reflection: Can you trust God’s forgiveness enough to let go of your regrets?
Some were living in gloom and darkness, prisoners suffering in chains because they had rebelled against the commands of Almighty God and had rejected his instructions.
They were worn out from hard work; they would fall down, and no one would help.
Then in their trouble they called to the Lord, and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of their gloom and darkness and broke their changes in pieces. Psalm 107: 10-14
God’s not out to get us. Darkness and pitfalls are just the natural consequences of not following his loving guidance. We want an easier way. We want a more pleasurable way. We want our way. The problem is—if God is who he says he is—if he really is all wise and all loving, he has our best interests at heart. There is no easier, more pleasurable, or better way than following his plan for us. In a way, sin is thinking we know better than God. When we don’t do what’s in our best interests, the results lead to problems.
No one starts out deciding they want to be an addict. They just want to relax or feel “good.” But the booze, drugs, candy, or shopping spree doesn’t provide lasting satisfaction. The process has to be repeated over and over. When physical, mental, or emotional dependence takes hold we become bound by our own pleasures—even when they stop being pleasurable.
Maybe we work hard to earn the approval of others because we’re afraid of rejection. We resent it when we don’t get praise and puff ourselves up when we do. That type of validation doesn’t last either. Trying to grab the limelight, instead of giving us the reassurance we hope for, alienates people instead. We end up lonely and defeated.
Maybe we put all our effort into trying to make things turn out the way we think they should. We try to control others through flattery, manipulation, or intimidation. Why do we do it? We think forcing things to go our way will make us happy. Instead we create friction in our relationships and set ourselves up for disappointment.
Fear, pride, and self-will keep us trapped in the burden of going it alone. We’re afraid to surrender and trust God.
When we’re in enough pain, when we’re worn out enough, when we’re tired of going nowhere fast, we can call to the Lord. When we do, we’ll find him waiting with open arms, to guide us and to do for us what we finally realize we can’t do on our own.
Prayer: Lord, save me from myself.
Reflection: What self-defeating attitude or behavior is wearing you out? Are you ready to ask for God’s help?
Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts, which is able to save you. James 1: 21b
When I was a little girl, my dad had a huge vegetable garden with carrots, radishes, cucumbers and more. I remember him showing me how to plant the seeds. First he had to churn up the hard-packed earth and loosen it. Then he dug holes or furrows. We’d put the seeds in and cover them lightly with soil. All the earth had to do was accept whatever seeds we planted. That sounds easy enough, but first the earth had to put up with being agitated, raked over, and having holes poked into it.
Sometimes it’s like that for us, too, when God plants his word into our hearts. It might take some upheaval to soften our hardened hearts, but they might not be receptive otherwise. The space created to make room for God’s word might first feel like a gaping hole, but we might not have room for God’s word if we’re filled with other things like pride, resentment, or self-indulgence.
When our lives turn upside down, that might be the shake-up needed to loosen our stubbornness in clinging to our comfort zone, and getting us receptive to new growth. When we feel empty or discouraged, that just might prepare our hearts to receive what God wants to fill them with. We don’t have to manufacture new growth on our own, we just have to accept what God plants and allow it to grow in our hearts.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to your word.
Reflection: How can you yield to what God wants to plant in your heart today?