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?
Job lost his children and all his wealth in a single day, but still praised God. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have feelings, grieve the loss of his children, or fear his new-found financial insecurity. It simply meant he did not blame God for his misfortune.
Job was able to praise God because he recognized that all the good things he had been blessed with were gifts, not entitlements. Job may have felt sad, scared, overwhelmed, or even angered by his loss, but he didn’t feel wronged by God because of it.
Are we fair-weather friends of God? If we’re in it only for what God can do for us, that’s not much of a relationship.
I have Multiple Sclerosis. During an M.S. attack, I suffered an excruciating headache for days. I wanted to trust God but was shaken to the core by pain and overwhelmed with anguish. I shared my frustration and despair with a spiritual mentor, who suggested that perhaps there was a bit of spiritual warfare going on, an attempt to get me to turn my back on God. I’d never thought of it as a temptation, but in the story of Job that’s exactly what was going on. Satan’s theory was that Job worshipped God only for what he could get out of the relationship and would turn his back on God if his blessings were taken away. The book of Job shows otherwise.
Right after the conversation with my mentor, a contemporary Christian song came on the radio affirming that we can choose to praise the Lord whether things are going well or terribly.
Hearing that song at that moment, made it all click for me. I sang along at the top of my lungs in spite of my pain. As I sang, I felt a wave of victory come over my spirit such as I can’t describe. There is power in exercising our free will. No person or circumstance can take that away from us.
Prayer: Lord, blessed be your name.
Reflection: What might happen if you praise God in the midst of a problem?
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?
He saw the disciples were straining at the oars, because they were rowing against the wind; so…he came to them, walking on the water. Mark 6: 48
Jesus walked on water. He didn’t float above it. He didn’t sink under it.
He came to his disciples in the storm-tossed sea because they needed him. Jesus comes to us when we need him, too. He won’t allow us to sink under waves of chaos or pain, but he doesn’t call us to float above worldly problems, either.
We’re planted on this earth for a reason. There’s no use pretending we’re above practical concerns. We need to deal with reality, including challenges and pain. Denial is not a solution.
No matter how overwhelmed we feel by circumstances beyond our control, no circumstance is bigger than God. Like Peter, when we turn to Jesus, we’re lifted up—not that he enables us to float above problems. He doesn’t. But when we look to him, he meets us where we are. He gives us what we need to negotiate whatever situation we find ourselves in without sinking. What more do we need?
Prayer: Praise God, who meets us where we are.
Reflection: What storm in life can Jesus help you walk through today?
Farmers don’t constantly plow their fields and keep getting them ready for planting. Isaiah 28: 24
Preparation turns into stalling if we never move on. Why cover ground that’s already been covered? Fear, probably. What if we take the next step and it doesn’t work out? What if we fail?
IF we never actually take the action, we can always think we didn’t fail because we didn’t really try. The truth is, if we don’t follow through, we fail by default.
There’s no shame in failing if we do our best. A farmer planting seeds waters and weeds the garden. Beyond that, the results are out of his hands.
The same is true for us. We’re responsible for making our best effort, regardless of the outcome. This goes for our practical and our spiritual lives. Do we hear the gospel at Mass but never allow it to change us? Growth doesn’t happen just by hearing the word, but by doing it. Moving forward can start small. Bring canned goods to the next food pantry collection or attend a bible study.
We don’t need to keep polishing what’s already shiny. Ask God for the courage to move beyond your comfort zone. If you already spend quiet time in prayer, try volunteering for some service activity. If you’re always on the go, risk spending some time in silent meditation.
God will always guide us along the path he has in mind for us.
Prayer: Lord, show me what my next step should be and give me the courage to take it.
Reflection: What fields have you already plowed sufficiently? What’s the next step?
Then you will know that I am the Lord; no one who waits for my help will be disappointed. Isaiah 49: 23
How can God guarantee we won’t be disappointed when, so often, the things we pray for don’t happen the way we want or on our timetable?
The answer is knowing that God is the Lord. If our God is who he says he is, it’s safe to trust him. He is all-knowing. He is all-powerful. He loves us. We can trust that he knows what he is doing—even when things don’t go our way, even when we face challenging circumstances, even when we-or our loved ones-are in pain.
If we believe our Heavenly Father gave his only begotten son to save us from our sins, we can trust him. Jesus’ understandable request to be spared the cup of suffering was not answered the way he would have liked. He wasn’t spared pain and death, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Resurrection triumphed.
Our God can bring good out of pain and weakness. When we are in the midst of it, it isn’t easy to remember, but that’s what faith is. If we’re willing to wait, we’ve already demonstrated a faith beyond what our eyes can see or our intellects can understand.
Who can understand that when backed into a corner, a Red Sea can part? Who can understand that the death of Lazarus didn’t stop Christ’s healing power? Who can understand how God can bring good out of whatever we’re going through? Trusting God doesn’t mean we pretend things are fine or that we’re not worried about a sick child, a rocky marriage, or family crisis. It means we acknowledge the suffering but trust God to provide what we need to get through it. We trust God to provide his help—not the help we demand or the help the world tells us to expect—but the help of Someone who has our best interests at heart.
If we wait to see what God has in mind, we won’t be disappointed.
Prayer: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
Reflection: When have you waited for God’s help? What happened?
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?
The king is glad, O Lord, because you gave him strength; he rejoices because you made him victorious.
You have given him his heart’s desire; you have answered his request.
The king trusts in the Lord Almighty; and because of the Lord’s constant love he will always be secure.
We praise you, Lord, for your great strength! We will sing and praise your power. Psalm 21: 1-2; 7-8a; 13
Those who make New Year’s resolutions are more likely to succeed than those who don’t. Even so, only 8 % are successful at keeping them, according to one study. Whether we want to quit smoking, lose weight, or start exercising, our resolutions aren’t enough. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh truly is weak.
Facing our own weakness might not be such a bad thing. Maybe it is only when we give it our best shot and fail, try again and fail again, that we realize just how much we really need God’s strength. Like the king in this psalm, we can rejoice because God can do for us what we can never do for ourselves.
Maybe you think your bad habit it isn’t worth bothering God about, but don’t forget: God loves you as if you were the only one on the planet. Even the hairs on your head are numbered. If a problem is blocking you from living the fuller, richer life God has in mind for you, why wouldn’t he want to give you the grace you need?
God won’t do for us what we can and should do for ourselves, though. The king had to go and fight the battles. Even so, the king didn’t achieve victory on his own. God gave him strength and the victory. In return the king gave God the glory. When God gives us the strength to resist our enemies and succeed, it will God’s glory, not ours. That might not be such a bad thing, either…otherwise we’ll end up needing to make a resolution to give up our pride.
I encourage you to read the whole psalm and reflect on whatever passages speak to you today. Here are some questions to get you started:
- When have you experienced a strength beyond your own?
- What victories has God enabled you to enjoy?
- What is your heart’s desire? How might God want to answer that request?
- How has God shown you that he’s trustworthy?
- Why can the Lord’s constant love make us secure?
- Where is God showing his power to you today? How can you thank him?
How much longer will you hide yourself from me?
How long must I endure trouble?
How long will sorrow fill my heart day and night?
How long will my enemies triumph over me?
Look at me, O Lord my God, and answer me. Restore my strength. Don’t let me die.
I rely on your constant love; I will be glad, because you will rescue me.
I will sing to you, O Lord, because you have been good to me. Psalm 13: 1-3; 5-6
Sometimes it feels like the pain will never end. I’ve felt that way more than once: when loved ones were seriously ill; when my first marriage was ending; when a car accident left me bed-ridden for months. The pain was real and seemed endless, but I’ve been brought through ever nightmare I’ve ever experienced. Apparently God did restore my strength.
Although it might sound discouraging at first, this is a psalm of hope. The psalmist complained, but did not despair. Even in the midst of intense, long-standing pain, the he didn’t give up talking to God. He didn’t decide there is no God. The psalmist trusted God enough be honest. He trusted God’s love more than his own feelings. He affirmed that trust and made a commitment to sing to God…why? Because God had been good to him.
We don’t have to be pushed around by our feelings. It’s an amazing exercise to count our blessings when it seems like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Focusing on the good we’ve enjoyed in the past and searching for good in the midst of our problems (without denying those problems) bolsters faith. When our feelings, circumstances, or tunnel vision try to convince us there’s no reason for hope, pro-actively calling God’s goodness to mind does our hearts good. Putting evidence of God’s activity in our lives down in black and white has make a world of difference to me when things looked bleak.
How about you?
- When have you felt abandoned by God? What happened?
- When you feel bad, does it seem like good times will never come again? When you feel good, does it feel like bad times will never come again?
- Feelings come and go. How can that help you keep perspective in rocky times?
- When have you gotten through a challenge? Did you realize it as answered prayer at the time?
- How has God been good to you? Can you sing to him about it, or at least say thank-you?
Why are you so far away, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself when we are in trouble?
The wicked do not care about the Lord; in their pride they think that God doesn’t matter.
The helpless victims lie crushed; brute strength has defeated them. The wicked say to themselves, “God doesn’t care! He has closed his eyes and will never see me!”
But you do see; you take notice of trouble and suffering and are always ready to help. The helpless commit themselves to you; you have always helped the needy.
You will listen, O Lord, to the prayers of the lowly; you will give them courage.
Psalm 10: 1-2; 10-11; 14
Why are you so far away, O Lord? I’ve been in trouble and felt like God was far away many times. Once, when I was living alone, I felt scared and demoralized because medical problems prevented me from taking care of myself. No matter how much I wanted to feel close to God, I felt cut off from him and overwhelmed with despair. Days later, seemingly out of nowhere, he spoke to my heart: It doesn’t matter how you feel. Your feelings do not determine if I am present or not. I am bigger than your feelings. They aren’t powerful enough to push me away. What a relief! I’d been trusting my volatile emotions to gauge my closeness to God, but feelings come and go. Shifting emotions are not an accurate reflection of our relationship with God. Just because I can’t see or feel God’s presence in a given situation, doesn’t mean he is not there. After all, the sun is still in the sky, even if a cloud temporarily keeps me from seeing it or feeling its warmth.
The wicked do not care about the Lord; in their pride they thing that God doesn’t matter…but you do see…you will listen, O Lord, to the prayers of the lowly; you will give them courage. It adds insult to injury when those driven by greed, arrogance, or self-indulgence seem to “get ahead” in life. People who take advantage of the weak don’t always seem to get its comeuppance. When that happens it’s easy to question God’s justice. Apparently that was just as true in biblical times as it is today. But the psalmist tells us God not only sees, but is always ready to help the helpless and needy. So why are there still hurting people in the world? Why did God give us free will and leave us free to choose good or evil? Although I can’t answer that I believe, as the psalmist affirms, that God does listen to the prayers of the lowly. He will give them courage. It doesn’t say he will take away their pain this side of heaven, although the bible tells us elsewhere that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Isaiah 25:8) and there will be no more grief, crying, or pain. (Revelation 21:4)
God’s promises can be trusted. Why we have to wait only he knows but it’s safe to believe that he has a reason. Maybe that’s why he gives us courage when we’re lowly, so we can walk through the challenges this life has for us, trusting that God can bring good out of anything. If he can bring good out of the cross, he can bring good out of whatever we’re facing. I think it’s safe to trust Him, even if I don’t always feel like it.
How about you?
- When has God seemed far away from you? How did you get through those times?
- What are your thoughts when the ruthless seem to get away with something?
- What criteria do you think the wicked use to determine success?
- What criteria do you use to determine success?
- What do you think success looks like to God?
- If God sees us suffering, why do you think he allows suffering to continue?
- Why do you think the helpless are more likely to commit themselves to God?
- As an answer to prayer, how can courage benefit someone in need?