For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do. Ephesians 2: 8-10
Faith vs. Works? Paul spells it out for us in three short lines. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, not through our own efforts. It is a gift, not payment for a job well done. The fact that it is a gift protects us from the ego that tells us we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and somehow merited our salvation. If we are all saved by God’s gift, there’s no room for spiritual one-upmanship, no matter how well-hidden that attitude may be.
Does that give us a passport to inertia? Of course not. A gift does us no good unless we open the gift and use it. Before I started college my parents gave me a typewriter. (There were no computers back in those days.) My parents knew a typewriter would make college life easier for me and even though we weren’t rolling in money at the time, they wanted me to have one. They didn’t expect me to pay them back. It was a gift. The best thank you I could give them would be to use that typewriter. What if I never unwrapped, opened, or used the gift? It would still have been a gift, but what a waste of my parent’s generosity and how much harder my life as a student would have been.
God’s gift of grace has made us what we are, each unique, with talents and abilities like no one else; to do those good things he has in mind for us to do. We can feel good about ourselves and our talents, while remaining grateful to the Giver. We do good deeds-not to earn salvation, we already have it-but to fully live out the gift of who we are.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for your gift of grace in my life. May I use it to do what you created me to do.
Reflection for sharing: How has God’s grace been active in your life? How are you being called to use God’s gifts today?
Some wandered in the trackless desert and could not find their way to a city to live in. Then in their trouble they called to the Lord, and he saved them from their distress. He led them by a straight road to a city where they could live. Psalm 107: 4; 6-7
Did you ever have computer problems? For several days last week, I wandered around “in the trackless desert” of cyber-space, unable to find my way to a solution. Finally, I called the help desk. A kind and knowledgeable technician asked me if I would give him permission to work on my account remotely. I gladly gave my permission, entered a few codes on my end, and watched as the expert took over my computer, moving the cursor here and making adjustments there. Every now and then he asked me a question or instructed me to do something on my end. The process was definitely interactive, but it was quite clear who was taking the lead. After he had led me back to safe and effective computer usage, he ended the session and removed himself from my account.
God is always available to intercede in my life, but, just as the technician doesn’t take over my computer any time he wants, God waits for me to call on him and give him permission to intercede. It’s a question of how long I want to wander before I call on him and become willing—eager, in fact—to allow him to lead. I then cooperate by doing what is asked of me instead of stumbling around on my own. God leads us out of our difficulties, but we have to be willing to follow. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that willingness even before we reached the point of distress?
Prayer: Lead me, Lord.
Reflection for sharing: Where in your life do you most need God’s direction today? Are you willing to follow where he leads? If not, what’s holding you back? Can you allow God to lead you out of your own resistance?
Then they rejected the pleasant land, because they did not believe God’s promise. Psalm 106:24
I read a story about a sixteen-year-old who wanted tickets to a concert for his birthday. He hinted strongly to his grandmother about it. On his birthday, he opened the present his grandmother gave him. Inside the box was a red shirt, which he politely thanked her for. Disappointed, he put the shirt in the closet without even taking it out of the box. Two years later, when he was packing for college, he came across the box. He took the shirt out and inside the front pocket; he found two tickets to the concert he had long since missed out on. I didn’t like that story when I read it. I identified with the boy. He got gypped. But the truth is, he really gypped himself. His grandmother gave him what he wanted and more, but not the way he expected it to come.
How often have we overlooked gifts because they came in unlikely wrappings? The car accident that left me bed ridden for months was painful but became an opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities. Although not welcome at the time, the gift forced me to trust my life and that of my loved ones to God’s care, not my own strength. Months of unemployment, devastating as it was, allowed me time to pursue my long-held desire to become a writer. God doesn’t zap us with misfortune, but he works through the most unlikely circumstances to gift us with opportunities to grow, change, and reach a better place. Maybe you’ve had experiences that you would never have chosen, but, in hindsight, can see the gifts that came wrapped in them. When we don’t believe that God can bring good out of anything, it is we who are rejecting the “pleasant land” that may be hidden in unexpected circumstances.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to see your gifts, no matter how they come wrapped.
Reflection for sharing: When have I denied myself a “pleasant” state of mind because I didn’t believe God was working a particular situation?
I, the Lord your God, brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves. I broke the power that held you down and I let you walk with your head held high. Leviticus 26: 13
The new year brings a sense of new beginnings. This is an opportunity, not a burden. Our spiritual journey is always a journey of ever-increasing freedom. Some of us have been brought out of slavery from addictions, unhealthy relationships, or negative thought patterns. God made us in His image and gave us free will. It may be a gradual process, but this God-given freedom can be usurped by power, material things, or popularity, or anything we think will make us happy and ends up owning us.
I once worked with a woman who parked her expensive foreign sports car in the outskirts of the parking lot every day. Rain or shine, she walked farther to the office than any other employee, to protect her sweet ride from dings. My enslavement took another form. I always prided myself on my super-efficiency until the day it dawned on me that all my multi-tasking wasn’t getting me anywhere. The goal of efficiency is to make things easier, but all I was doing was wearing myself out! I was a slave to my own prideful ideal of productivity! But I felt guilty and lazy if I didn’t drive myself to work until the point of exhaustion. It took a long time and some spiritual growth before I could balance work and rest and still hang on to a reasonable amount of self-esteem.
We can even be slaves to apparently noble, but mistaken concepts. Peace sounds like a worthy goal, but peace at any price can mask not having the courage to stand up for what we believe in. Sometimes we’re held captive by our own thought patterns—mistaken notions acquired somewhere along the line and held on to for so long that other, healthier possibilities aren’t even on our radar. We can’t be in charge of our own growth because we can never see beyond what we can see. We need a power beyond ourselves to enable us to reclaim our God-given freedom.
Prayer: Praise God, who leads us to freedom.
Reflection for sharing: What habit, thought pattern, etc. do you feel enslaved to? If you trusted God’s power to lead you to freedom, what would you do differently today?
And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
The art of listening is the “North Star of parenting” according to an article by Marlo Thomas. I was reading the piece over breakfast one morning. I wanted to read about how her father’s ability to listen impacted her life, but my husband kept interrupting my reading. He asked me something—I can’t remember what—and I mumbled a quick “Uh-huh.” He asked me something else and I gave another non-committal response. The third time he asked me something, I finally got it. My husband wanted to have a conversation.
Instead of reading about listening, I put the magazine down and listened. We ended up chatting about when we first met as we finished breakfast. The pleasant stroll down memory lane started our day on a warm and happy note. Even though the article I’d been reading was about listening, it took me three tries to get the message. If I’d been reading about anything else, I might have missed a golden opportunity. I wonder how many other opportunities I’ve missed and never even noticed because I wasn’t listening?
Prayer: Lord, help me listen to what You want me to hear today.
Reflection for sharing: How can you open yourself to new opportunities in your day by listening more?
Peter and John were still speaking to the people when some priests, the officer in charge of the Temple guards, and some Sadducees arrived. They were annoyed because the two apostles were teaching the people that Jesus had risen from death, which proved that the dead will rise to life. Acts 4:1-2
Isn’t it annoying to be confronted with something that goes against your mind-set? No wonder the Sadducees—who didn’t believe in life after death—were annoyed. Who isn’t irritated when their convictions are challenged? It’s even worse when there is supporting evidence for the other side!
Of course we think our own world-view is right. Why hold on to an opinion you think is wrong? It makes sense to express and defend our position, but if that position truly is correct, won’t it hold up to challenges? If—after thoughtful consideration of all the information—it doesn’t, it doesn’t—what’s wrong with changing our position?
Why is it so threatening to change our minds in light of new information? Part of it might be ego. “I was wrong” is not the easiest thing to admit to ourselves—let alone acknowledge to others. But I think it’s more than that. When a component of our operating system is shown to be faulty, our foundation can feel pulled out from under us. We might be afraid to trust our judgment about other things. As a result of the new mindset, we might be required to make changes in our lives.
When Paul, zealous persecutor of Christians, was confronted with the Truth, it turned his world upside down. He ended up doing a complete 180 and launching an equally zealous crusade to spread Christianity throughout the known world. While we might not be called to make changes of that magnitude, we all need attitude adjustments from time to time.
Prayer: Lord, teach my heart to be open to the truth.
Reflection for sharing: What assumptions might be worth a second look?