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?
There was no king in Israel at that time. Everyone did whatever they pleased. Judges 21: 25
Ever read the book of Judges? It describes a time in Israel’s history when “everyone did whatever they pleased.” Many of these stories about Israel’s national heroes don’t represent their finer moments.
Israel stopped worshiping the Lord who brought them out of slavery.
- Gideon, chosen by God to lead the Israelites against their oppressors, defeated the enemy against all odds. Gideon then created an idol out of the loot collected and worshipped it.
- Jephthah, also victorious, thanks to God, promised to sacrifice the first person that met him on his return home. That person happened to be his daughter. Nowhere in the Law of Moses had God demanded human sacrifice.
- Samson’s arrogance and willingness to put his love affairs before his better judgment led to his destruction, even though he took his Philistine enemies with him.
- When Micah created idols, the priest he convinced to be his personal priest betrayed him for a better offer, taking Micah’s idols with him.
- A Levite surrendered his concubine to sexual perverts to save his own skin, then, when she died as a result, he used her death to start a war.
Chances are, none of these people woke up one day and decided to get themselves in trouble. They were just doing “whatever they pleased.”
While the results of our willful choices may not be as devastating as those listed here, self-centered choices are rarely a good idea and often self-defeating. Thwarted self-will leads to frustration, conflict, and retaliation. We end up not being “pleased” at all. Whether it seems like it or not, it’s wiser to follow God’s will rather than our own.
Prayer: Lord, teach my heart to trust you and choose your will over mine.
Reflection: When have you done whatever you pleased? What happened in the long run?
What does an obedience have to do with loving God?
Does God give us obedient hearts so that we’ll obey his command to love him? Or do we love him out of gratitude for the gift of obedient hearts that protect us from our own self-destructive tendencies? Either way, in God’s kingdom, it seems that love and obedience go together.
The NAB translation of the above passage makes the connection clearer. Rather than “give” us obedient hearts, it says that God “will circumcise” our hearts. Physical circumcision removes a covering and exposes a very sensitive area. The procedure involves some pain. Thinking spiritually, you can imagine that a circumcised heart would be more open and sensitive than a heart covered over and protected. Circumcision of our hearts involves some pain, too, as self-will and self-centeredness are removed. When our hearts are vulnerable and exposed, we become more open and responsive to God, who loves us and has our best interests at heart.
We obey because we love and we love because we obey.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to your love.
Reflection: What keeps you from obeying God? If you were going to respond to God’s love today, what would you do differently?
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?
Jesus didn’t want to suffer but he was willing to suffer. Even though he knew suffering and death waited for him in Jerusalem, he’d set his face like flint and headed there. His prayer in Gethsemane expresses the tension between his desire and his commitment to follow his Father’s will, all for love of us. In his beautiful, heart-felt cry Jesus asked his Father to take the suffering away. That was what Jesus wanted, but he deferred to his Father’s will.
We can learn from this. We don’t have to pretend we don’t have wants or feelings. It’s more than okay, it’s essential that we’re honest with God about what we truly want. That doesn’t mean demanding that he do things our way. We can lay our wants at God’s feet and leave the choice up to him. We can exercise our free will by choosing to give our will back to God. We hold our faith hostage if we insist God do things the way we think he should. Insisting on our way may seem like freedom, but it’s not. Freedom is the choice to act without being bullied by our feelings.
Jesus’ prayer is a beautiful balance of honesty and surrender, of requesting and accepting instead of insisting. We have a choice at every moment: to insist our will be done or to lovingly entrust our will to God’s wise and loving plan. It isn’t easy. It will cost us. But I have to believe it is worth it. I have to believe that God isn’t cruel or abandoning us if pain isn’t taken away on our terms. I have to believe he will give us what we need to get through whatever challenges we face and will somehow bring good out of it. I’ve seen it happen. Besides, if God can bring good out of the crucifixion, he can bring good out of anything.
Prayer: Father, thy will, not mine, be done.
Reflection: Where are your wants flexing their muscles today? Are you willing to surrender them to God’s care?
While [Jesus] was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Luke 11: 27-28 NRSV
Jesus’ comment sounds a bit like cold-hearted indifference to his own mother. But Jesus isn’t saying he doesn’t love his mother. He’s saying that everyone who hear the word of God and allow it to change their lives are “blessed.” There isn’t any nepotism in God’s kingdom.
Those who follow God’s plan for their lives are blessed because they’re open to receive what God has in mind for them. How can those who have no use for God be touched by blessings they don’t want?
Does Jesus’ response leave Mary out in the cold? Of course not. Who on earth heard and obeyed God’s word more than Mary? Her “yes” allowed God’s Word to become flesh and grow within her. Her “yes” bore fruit and saved the whole, hurting world. Her “yes” opened the blessing of salvation to all of us. Mary truly is blessed among women. The angel Gabriel told her so before Jesus was born. Jesus confirmed it when he said those who hear and obey God’s word are blessed.
Blessings are meant to be shared. Love always reaches outward.
Prayer: Blessed is the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus Christ.
Reflection: How have you been blessed by the Living Word of God?
When the angel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus, the Son of God, she had many reasons for saying no: her youth, her unmarried status, her unworthiness, her fear of the consequences. Instead, she accepted, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Instead of serving her fear, or public opinion, or false humility, she was willing to serve God. In surrendering to his plan for her, Mary served not only God, but other people as well. She brought Christ and his saving grace into a world badly in need of saving.
Mary could have ignored the angel’s words, or gotten busy with some activity to drown out the call. But she listened. She pondered and questioned how it could be, but she listened and accepted.
What are we busy with? Might our activity prevent us from hearing what God’s plan is for us? What might keep us from surrendering to his plan instead of our own? How is God calling us to be his servants? How might he want to use us to share his saving grace with the world…or perhaps with just one other person?
Mary didn’t have to know the future, all she had to do was say yes and follow, one step at a time. God provided all that she needed along the way, including a husband to provide for and protect her and the child. Everything unfolded as it was meant to. All Mary had to supply was the willingness to surrender her will to God’s. That’s all we have to do, too.
Prayer: Lord, I am your servant. Open my heart to your plan for me.
Reflection: What does God have in mind for you today?
What does living in the grace of God look like? It probably means we stop trying so hard to earn God’s love. Grace is a gift, not a salary. We don’t have to do a single thing to be worthy of it but we have it nonetheless. Accepting love and forgiveness that we didn’t earn—that we couldn’t earn—doesn’t mean we don’t pay a price. The price is humility. Not a “shucks, I’m not worth it” or groveling self-loathing, but a healthy recognition that God loves us exactly as we are, warts and all
A spiritual director once told me, “God is crazy in love with you.” How humbling. God knows all about me, including the things I’m not too proud of. And he loves me anyway. It’s too good to be true, but it is. Christ was willing to give his life for little old me and for every one of us—even if we don’t care or don’t even notice. Our indifference or arrogance cant stop his love, although they might stop us from experiencing it.
What does living in the grace of God look like? Here’s a few things that come to mind. Please feel free to add to this list.
- Awareness of God’s grace would keep us humble—a good antidote to judging or looking down on others.
- It’s a good antidote to looking down on ourselves, too. We’re loved by a perfect God! What more do we need?
- We don’t have to prop up our self-worth by tearing others down or showing off.
- We don’t need to pretend we’re better than we are.
- We don’t need to impress anybody, least of all God. We can afford to be honest because that is how God loves us.
- We don’t have to be stingy or self-centered. We can afford to reach out to others in love.
- We don’t have to beat ourselves up over past mistakes and wrongs. God knows all about our past and still loves us. He’s waiting to forgive us when we turn to him.
- No need to count the sins of others to avoid looking at our own.
Living under the grace of God sounds a lot like heaven on earth, and it’s free for the taking. After all, that’s why they call it grace. We don’t have to hoard it. We can afford to share it with others.
Prayer: Lord, your grace truly is amazing.
Reflection: How can living in the grace of God change your day today?
Those who obey God in everything and always do what is right, whose words are true and sincere, and who do not slander others.
They do no wrong to their friends nor spread rumors about their neighbors.
They always do what they promise, no matter how much it may cost.
They make loans without charging interest and cannot be bribed to testify against the innocent.
Whoever does these things will always be secure. Psalm 15: 1-3; 5b
Who can live up to all that? It sounds like we need to be perfect to worship God. But David, who wrote this psalm, didn’t live up to this himself. He had his neighbor Uriah killed so that David’s adulterous affair with Uriah’s wife wouldn’t be discovered. Talk about wronging a friend!
And yet David is referred to in Scripture as a man after God’s own heart. Why? Maybe because he met an important qualification listed in the psalm. David was one of those…whose words are true and sincere… David was honest about his failings. When his wrongdoing was pointed out to him he admitted it and asked for God’s forgiveness.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee prayed by reciting his merits—maybe he was trying to prove he lived up to Psalm 15. In contrast, the tax collector honestly admitted his sin and asked for God’s mercy. Jesus tells us it was the tax collector who rightly connected with God.
If we’re honest we have to admit we can’t live up to perfect ideals this side of heaven. In fact, trying to appear perfect is a recipe for hypocrisy. It paves the way for slandering others, so our own wrongdoings don’t seem so bad. Integrity is so much better than a veneer of respectability. When we’re honest we’re secure because we have nothing to hide. Our insides match our outsides. We don’t have to live in fear of being found out. Not that we shouldn’t try to live up to our values, but when we fail—as we will—we can, like David, own our mistakes and go to the God of mercy and love, our true source of security.
This psalm is a great format for taking an examination of conscience that can lead the way to receiving God’s forgiveness.
- What tempts you to put your will above God’s?
- When have you not lived up to your conscience?
- In what ways have you been less than honest?
- Have you gossiped or spread rumors?
- When have you not kept a promise?
- In what ways have you sold out?
- How do these weaknesses contribute to your insecurity or discomfort?
- Are you willing to bring them to God?
- Can you trust that God loves you as you are?
I encourage you to read the entire psalm and reflect on whatever words or phrases speak to you today.