Sin must not be your master… Romans 6:14a
Who would ever be tempted to give up freedom and become a slave? Temptation promises short cuts to happiness, but when we take them, we often end up anything but happy in the long run. As C.S. Lewis put it in the Screwtape Letters, the devil’s formula is “an ever-increasing demand for an ever-diminishing pleasure.” What brought an initial thrill becomes a necessity that drives people to do things they once wouldn’t have considered, all to satisfy an itch that can never be scratched.
Avoiding sin isn’t something we do to become perfect goody-two-shoes; it’s enlightened self-interest. Someone said that God gave us free will and the best thing we can do with it is give it back to him. The truth is, we never really get to call the shots. We’re either surrendering to God’s plan for us, or we find ourselves in bondage to sin.
I remember when I was first married, just out of college, working full time, I thought, “No watchful parents, no children to take care of yet, no responsibilities. I can do whatever I want. Now, I’ll be happy.” I wasn’t. The truth is, I didn’t know what to do with all my supposed freedom. I squandered time and energy. It took several painful years to admit that having my way hadn’t brought me closer to happiness. Then I fell in with a group people who seemed content to live one day at a time, doing—however imperfectly—what they thought God wanted them to do. Whenever I tried following their example, I found that God’s plans for my life were so much better than my own. If you haven’t already, you’re welcome to try it and see for yourself.
Prayer: Lord, please rescue me from slavery to self-will.
Reflection for sharing: When has getting your own way not brought you the happiness you thought it would? When has giving up what you thought you wanted brought satisfaction?
Lord, I have given up my pride and turned away from my arrogance. I am not concerned with great matters or with subjects too difficult for me. Instead, I am content and at peace. As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me. Psalm 131: 1-2
It was a busy week and promised to be an even busier weekend. The project I’d finished didn’t bring satisfaction. Instead, it brought dread. Now I had to contend with the mountain of things I’d put off to tackle once the project was done. That ever-growing to do list was waiting, daring me to tackle it. To top it off, the week had been an emotional roller coaster due to the health and personal challenges facing of several loved ones.
Worn out from the pressure I put on myself to get a handle on everything, I knew I should address my feelings. I didn’t want to. The process seemed time consuming and unproductive. It would keep me from accomplishing all the work I had to do. Luckily, it became clear to me that I couldn’t afford not to take the time. So, challenging as it was to “turn away from my arrogance” in thinking I could power through my to do list, I stopped. I journaled about what I was feeling and laid it all at God’s feet…the good, the bad, and the ugly. Next, I asked Him to show me what He wanted me to do. Only then did I sort through my overflowing in-box. Yes, there’s still a lot to do. But my heart is quiet about it. I don’t have to get it all done today—or even tomorrow. Reality is always manageable when I let go of my pride.
Prayer: Lord, melt my pride with your love.
Reflection for sharing: How does arrogance contribute to becoming overwhelmed? How can humility bring peace?
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?
“…the Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man is looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has, and buys that pearl.” Matthew 13: 44
The other day I felt sick and tired of my struggle with self-will. When do I feel disappointed or frustrated? When things don’t go my way. I wish I could surrender to God’s will all the time, but I suspect that isn’t going to happen on this side of the heaven/earth plane. So I prayed, “Lord, why did you let me have such a strong will? It’s so hard to let go of it and defer to Your will.” In my heart, I felt like God answered by saying, “Because that’s how you know how precious something is. If it cost you nothing to obtain, it wouldn’t be worth anything to you. It would be trash.”
The parable of the pearl came to mind. The man who found the pearl sold everything he owned to get it. Then I thought – What if he sold everything and only thought the pearl was precious…what if it really wasn’t precious after all? But even if the pearl wasn’t valuable on the world market, it was to the purchaser himself. He gave up EVERYTHING for it. It didn’t matter whether others valued it or not.
I have such a long way to go in my faith journey. I want to lay my will down but it is so hard to do. When I do lay it down, it just springs back up again a little while later or in some new area. Maybe I have to be content with just practicing, by sheer repetition, to lay it down over and over. Maybe it will get easier as the habit gets strengthened. Come to think of it, isn’t that what pearls are made of? Layers of response to some irritation inside the oyster?
Prayer: Lord, please grant us the trust in Your Love that relieves us of the bondage of self.
Reflection for sharing: What does your heart treasure?
With a loud cry Jesus died. Mark 15: 37
Apart from all else that could be said about his passion, what strikes me today is that Jesus cried out. I find it reassuring that—even though he rose to new life in victory—he wasn’t above crying out when he died.
Jesus told us we need to die to ourselves in order to follow him. We believe His promise that if we lose our lives we will gain them, but dying to self still hurts. We don’t have to pretend we’re above the pain. It’s okay to admit it.
Opportunities to give up self-will, in both large and small ways, are all around. Some times I miss them as I plug along on self-propulsion. Sometimes I’m aware of the opportunities but choose my own will anyway. Then there are the times when I let go of getting my way. I’m always glad when I do, but no matter how many times surrender works out well, my self-will always springs back up the next time. My “self” never goes down without a fight—even over the most trivial things.
During a hurricane some months ago, our house lost power for days. It got pretty cold. My husband was in another state on business and asked me to join him. I resisted for two days. I wanted to tough it out at home. Finally, I agreed to pray about it. After praying, I saw that there was no good reason for me to stay in a house without power—other than my own stubborn pride. I also saw that I wasn’t considering my husbands feelings. He was concerned but I was too centered on my resilience to see it. Why was I resisting in the first place? Because the blow to my ego hurt. I had to surrender my fear of being a wimp and taking the easy way out. Letting go of my pride enabled me to join my husband until our power came back on. Those days away together were a blessing to both of us: he felt relief, I felt warm, and our relationship grew stronger as I learned that I don’t have to exercise my will on general principle.
Prayer: Lord, grant us the courage to acknowledge our pain in letting go of self-will.
Reflection for sharing: When is it hardest to say no to your self will? How can Jesus’ example strengthen you?
He made the bronze basin and its bronze base out of the mirrors belonging to the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of the Lord’s presence. Exodus 38:8
The basin priests used for washing themselves before entering the Tent of the Lord’s Presence was made out of mirrors. Transformed by inspired craftsman, instruments of self-reflection helped people cleanse themselves as they approached God.
When I was a little girl, I played dress-up. With a white sheet draped over one shoulder, I imagined myself as a Greek goddess. I looked into our bedroom mirror saying, “Barbara, you’re a doll.” My big sister caught me and called me conceited. On the other hand, when I became a teen, I identified more with the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song: check my look in the mirror—want to change my clothes, my hair, my face. Not pretty enough, not nice enough, not good enough on the outside or on the inside. Both states kept me squarely focused on myself.
The aim of our self-examination during Lent is not to become overly focused on our shortcomings, but to move beyond ourselves as we recognize our need for God’s forgiveness and love. Negative self-absorption is still self-absorption. If our examination of conscience doesn’t draw us closer to God, we can get stuck in a hall of mirrors. How do we get out?
A beautiful example is Jesus’ temptation in the desert. The devil challenged Jesus to focus on himself and short-sighted desires for physical comfort, power, and satisfaction of intellectual/spiritual pride. The devil’s temptations directed Jesus’ attention to who he might be, what he might have the power to do, and how to satisfy himself physically.
Jesus responded by using scripture to shift the focus to God, who determined that people cannot live on bread alone. The devil then offered Jesus power and wealth. Again, Jesus shifted his focus back to worshiping and serving God alone. Finally the Devil tempted Jesus with pride, daring him to endanger himself and rely on his clout as the Son of God for protection. Although the devil himself used scripture in this challenge, Jesus countered by focusing on scripture’s message about His Father, not his own status.
As we begin this season of Lent, let’s ask God to direct our focus and transform our self-reflection into a deeper awareness of His mercy and love.
Prayer: Lord, guide me to reflect on you.
Reflection for sharing: How can self-reflection lead to a deeper awareness of God?
Reflection for sharing: What keeps you focused on yourself? What would it be like to surrender that to God?
Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God! Matthew 5: 8
What does it mean to be pure in heart? If it means being perfect and sinless, we’re out of luck. The bible says that all have sinned. That’s why we need a savior.
Actually, the first definition for “pure” listed in the Oxford American Dictionary is “not mixed with any other substance.” If we think of our hearts as being mixed with other interests, if our hearts are busy longing for or pursuing other interests instead of God, it’s easy to see why we might miss seeing Him. Our hearts can be pretty short-sighted sometimes.
We want to be happy. When we come up with our own ideas or buy into what the media tells us will make us happy, our goals can let us down. Disillusionment might be a good thing. If we feel empty, that’s when God can fill us. We have an opportunity to turn our attention from the substances that let us down and look for God. As Jesus said, those who seek will find.
Prayer: Lord, take the clutter from my heart.
Reflection for sharing: Where are you looking for happiness today?
Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully! Matthew 5: 6
When I pray for something I want, I don’t necessarily have faith that God will grant my prayer. But when I pray for God’s will to be done, I can have perfect faith that prayer will be granted. Of course what God wants will be done…sooner or later.
The trick is getting myself to desire what God wants more than what I want. How can I make myself want God’s will instead of my own? Maybe a closer look will help.
Why do I want what I want? Because I think it will be in my best interests…or the interests of whomever I care about. Those prayers can be good and heartfelt prayers. It is good to bring our concerns, needs, etc. to God. But if I can remember that He is all good, all knowing, all wise, and all loving, maybe I can trust that His will for those I care about is even better than my plan.
For example, when my daughter was a child, I was so eager to help her that I sometimes jumped in too quickly, denying her learning opportunities. My “help” wasn’t always in her best interest. One day I heard about a man who saw a butterfly struggling to get out of it’s cocoon. Wanting to help, the man took out a pocket-knife, and slit open the cocoon. The butterfly emerged and staggered around for a few moments, but never flew. The man later learned that struggling to get out of its cocoon helps strengthen a butterfly’s wings so it can fly. Sometimes, doing what God requires—such as helping others—isn’t what our first inclination tells us. But if we desire to learn what God requires of us in any given situation, He will satisfy us fully.
Prayer: Lord, guide the desires of my heart.
Reflection for sharing: What would help you surrender your desires to God?
There the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing; yet it was not consumed. “This is strange,” he thought. “Why isn’t the bush burning up? I will go closer and see.” Exodus 3:2-3 NRSV
We know that in Moses’ day, fire gave light, warmth, and protection. Still, it’s impossible to think of something being on fire and not being destroyed itself. But that’s what happens when we open ourselves to God and his word becomes alive in our hearts. We gain insight, we are warmed by God’s love and are able to share that love with others. It’s easy to be afraid that if we surrender ourselves to God, we’ll lose our individuality and somehow become cookie cutter Christians all stamped from the same mold. But the Creator is infinitely creative. No two fingerprints are the same, how much richer is the individuality of our soul-prints?
Think of a stained glass window. When the sun shines through it, its beauty is enhanced, but the colors don’t all turn sun-colored. The reds glow with a more vibrant redness. The blues shine a richer blue, and so on. When we allow God’s love to burn in our hearts, we won’t lose our uniqueness. We’ll reflect God’s light through the prism of our own true selves. The fire of God’s love won’t destroy us. So, like Moses, it’s safe for us to get closer and see.
Prayer: Lord, draw me closer to the fire of your love.
Reflection for sharing: When have you felt on fire with love? Did that fire nourish you or consume you? Why?
Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place. Colossians 1: 17
Did you ever see a mobile hanging over a baby’s crib? That cute menagerie of animals rotates without a hitch because each animal is perfectly spaced from the center around which it revolves. But what if the giraffe decided it wanted to be the center and have the other animals to revolve around it? What would happen if some animals started orbiting around the elephant instead of around the center? The whole system would be thrown off balance. Pieces would bump into each other and get tangled up.
That’s what happens when we act like the center of our world and try and make others get with our plan. Or when—out of genuine but misguided concern for another—we focus so much on what they’re doing or need to be doing that we find ourselves sucked out of our own proper sphere of functioning. We’re much better off when we remember that God is the center of the universe, not us. When people or circumstances aren’t following our plan, it doesn’t mean they aren’t going the way they’re supposed to. Sure, we all forget, but when we catch ourselves colliding with others, we can remind ourselves that when we’re in right alignment with God, we’ll end up being where we’re supposed to be and we can allow the rest to fall into place. Let’s let God be God for today.
Prayer: Lord, keep me centered in You.
Reflection for sharing: What is pulling you off center today? How can you get back to true center?