On Bad Behavior – There but for the Grace of God Go I

As we covered in the last post, bad behavior is epidemic in the world. Always has been, always will be (that is until Jesus comes back). But something does seem different now; for whatever reason, we are seeing the corruption more clearly than ever. Individually and collectively, we now know that we have a large problem of moral decay in America today.

In a healthy response, people are demanding accountability, demanding that the powerful should experience consequences for abuses of power. I’m all for that, but I’m also detecting a spirit of judgementalism or self-righteousness in many of the criticisms and calls for “zero tolerance” or “heads to roll” (as it were). Perhaps because the abusive behavior seems so extreme, we’re able to see ourselves (and I’m including myself here) as “better than that,” not like the abusers.  It’s easy to do, and it feels good. As the Pharisee prayed, God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

On the other hand, we are supposed to be good! It’s good to be good, and many of us are working (and it does take effort) to live honestly and morally. When I hear of some new accusation, I really want to be “better than that.” Moreover, I think God wants me to be better than that. But God also wants, and deserves, the credit. That last part was the Pharisee’s problem.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”         Luke 18:9-14 ESV [emphasis mine]

I’m happy that I sin less than I used to, but giving credit where credit is due, it’s God who has changed and is changing me, giving me an increasing desire for righteousness and greater self-control. Even then, my self-control is not enough to avoid or resist all temptation and I ask God for his intervention to help me live as I want to and ought to. This prayer comes to mind a lot:

Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;

give me neither poverty nor riches;

feed me with the food that is needful for me,

lest I be full and deny you

and say, “Who is the LORD?”

or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:7-9 ESV

Truly, I (or you) could be as wicked as any of the people profiled in the investigative journalism story of the week. Let’s let go of the self-righteousness and contempt. The saying “There but for the grace of god go I” is valid for all offenses. I’m trying to keep that in mind as new stories break. How about you?



Eating Mindfully This Thanksgiving

TurkeyHow I love Thanksgiving! It’s a wonderful, low-key holiday typically spent feasting and relaxing with family and friends. No shopping, no pressure for the perfect gift, no fancy clothes, just time together with good food and drink. Our extended family will be gathering at my brother’s lovely home, and I’m really looking forward to seeing everybody.

The one thing I’m not looking forward to is overeating and experiencing that uncomfortable, overstuffed feeling at the end of the evening. Yet, based on years of experience, it’s a near certainty that I will. After the table is cleared, I’ll likely be slumped on the couch unbuckling my belt and thinking to myself, I’m not learning. I did it again!

Insanity being doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result, I’m already conceding defeat in the battle to eat “right” on Thursday. I may be a loser but at least I’m sane. And I’m trying to keep my mind right on grace, remembering that God loves me and does not expect me to maintain ideal eating habits at all times. That said, I also know that God empowers me to hang in there and work on better stewardship of my mind, body and spirit. So I am going to try something new.

My new goal is simply to eat mindfully that day. I don’t want to set objectives like keeping a lid on my calories, or avoiding that bloated feeling. That’s what I keep failing at. No, without any guilty feelings, I’m going to let go of those and simply strive to eat mindfully. Here’s my plan:

Before I load up my plate I’m going to ask myself, Am I hungry? How hungry? After reflecting on the answers, I’ll go ahead and serve myself. Then I’m going to eat more slowly, savoring each bite and taking time for conversation during the meal.

I’ll wait a bit before a second helping, and I’ll to repeat the first two questions, Am I hungry? How hungry?  A couple more to ask myself are, How will I feel in 20 minutes if I eat more now? and, very importantly, Will I have room for pie? (Because I will want pie!) Once again I’ll try reflecting on the answers, even just for a moment, before getting another plateful.

If I get to considering a third serving (it’s been known to happen), I intend to keep up the questioning while reminding myself, Hey, I’m going to want to have pie!

Eventually we’ll get to the pie. I know we’ll have at least two versions – pumpkin pie and pecan pie – which are my favorites, because my wife baked them this afternoon. I intend to have a slice of each. My plan is to eat them very, very slowly using very tiny bites and accompanying them with sips of black coffee. I really want to wring maximal enjoyment out of the experience!

That’s the plan. Maybe I’ll overeat and maybe I won’t, but at least I will have been more mindful and intentional about the meal. Over time, cultivating habits like that is of great help in controlling impulsive eating, and I could use the help. Perhaps you’re like me. If so, don’t beat yourself up; we’re both God’s work in progress. Try a little mindful eating this Thursday. Don’t worry too much about how well or poorly it goes on this particular occasion. Just keep at it.

Oh, and have a slice of pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Sharon's handiwork. Nice!

Sharon’s handiwork. Nice!


Resisting the Call of Stuff? Try Waiting a Bit

Wow, that's a nice truck!

Wow, that’s a nice truck!

Even in sunny Florida, there’s (finally) a bit of a chill in the air. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and the football playoff picture is coming into view. Hello holidays! Starbucks has the red cups, and the mailbox is loaded with catalogs. Yes, it’s Christmas sales season again, the time of year when we gorge ourselves in a feast of consumerism only to be left feeling uncomfortably stuffed, and with depleted wallets, after the holiday season. Hey, we’re Americans, it’s what we do.

At our house we’ve been toning it down in the last five years or so. Sharon and I talk through what we want versus what we need, and we are working to become more grateful for what we already have. Gradually, we seem to be wanting and needing less. It helps that we don’t watch television. And our policy on catalogs is to get them out in the recycling bin on the same day they arrive. Why leave them around as a temptation? Slowly but surely we are freeing ourselves of the more-is-better mentality.

Now I still find myself wanting stuff pretty often. Some of my friends at work are “car guys.” When we get to talking about vehicles, I often start thinking about a new one – Man I would sure like a Toyota Tacoma or 4Runner! That’d be great! Maybe I should buy one. But honestly, my current automobile is just fine. It’s comfortable, gets me from here to there, and has many more years of useful life. I really don’t need a new one.

Of course that desire for more, and for the new, happens with many other things too. My single best strategy for defeating that desire is just waiting. I don’t beat myself up for having these natural desires, which are intentionally inflamed by advertising. I just wait, having an internal dialog like this – Do I really need a new truck? Yes, I want it, and it would be nice, but isn’t my current car okay? Isn’t everything fine right now? I can always buy it later, perhaps next month or next year. Maybe I should just wait a bit and see. Maybe I’ll buy it later. Or maybe I won’t.

This has been a surprisingly effective strategy for me. Waiting allows the acute emotions to subside and relieves the pressure to acquire more stuff. However, repetition is necessary. I’ll often have the same internal “maybe-I’ll-buy-it-later” dialog many, many times about a particular desire until it either completely resolves or I decide to pull the trigger on the purchase. Either way, my ultimate action has gotten a lot more thoughtful.

Be aware that the American merchandising juggernaut doesn’t want you to wait. Retailers are counting on our emotions to drive impulsive (and compulsive) purchasing, and so they work to speed us up. We’re all familiar with these headline come-ons: Special Offer, Limited Time Only, Buy It Now, Year-End Closeouts, and my personal favorite, No Cash, No Credit – No Problem! Just waiting conflicts with this “the-best-deal-is-now” mentality. So, I give myself permission to miss the sale, to not get the “best deal,” in order to take my time and be sure of my buying decision.

I don’t need the best deal. I need the best life. You do too. If you’re finding it hard to cut back on your purchasing, try “just waiting,” even just waiting until tomorrow. It’s working for me.


Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.
– Jesus (Luke 12:15)

Resisting the Call of Laziness

file7621243117077If you’re like me, there’s always something else you could or “should” be doing. Perhaps it’s chores or tasks around the home. I try to get my entire honey do list accomplished on the weekends, but it never seems to happen. Sooner or later I’m done for the day without being done with the jobs. But by and large, I’m pretty industrious, and if you looked at what I accomplish between Friday and Monday, you probably wouldn’t call me lazy. What I realized yesterday, was that my laziness was in putting the tasks off until the weekend in the first place.

Last night after dinner, as I was taking the trash out, I caught sight of a spare fence board in the garage. My mind jumped to the two fence boards that needed replacing the back yard, a repair left undone before Sunday night. Hmm… I’ll get to it next weekend. No. Wait. Why not fix the fence now? Good thought! Twenty minutes later, the fence was good to go. Then I realized that if I did just one of the needed jobs each evening, I would probably easily complete my list each weekend. What prevents me from doing so? Laziness.

Even as I write this tonight, there are a couple of burned out light bulbs in the kitchen and bath that need changing. They’ve been out for a couple of days. Yes they’re both in enclosed fixtures, which is a little more work than just unscrewing the old bulb and inserting the new, but really they’re both very small jobs. I know I’ve wasted at least several hours in surfing the net or other mindless activities since they’ve needed changing. I could have easily changed them by now, but haven’t.   Laziness again. (With my newfound insight, I intend to change them right after this post is up.)

This is pretty minor stuff, but it’s made me think about how easy it is to give in to comfort and ease, and I don’t want laziness to derail me in anything more important than light bulbs. For example, this morning I ran my usual five miles. I’ve been doing five miles twice a week for 18 months now, but it’s getting pretty hot and humid in Florida now and today I felt like quitting. Laziness was calling, Cut the run short. Just do two miles, three at the most. After all it’s hot. That’s still a good run. Honestly, I thought about it, even though I knew I was perfectly capable of completing the entire course. So, I talked back to myself, Look you know you can do this. You’ve been doing it twice a week. Sure it’s hot but it’s not deadly. If you quit it’s just because you want to, not because you have to. Do you really want to? No, I didn’t want to. I wanted to finish. A little more self-talk, You can do it! Just keep at it! and a quick prayer, God help me do what I want to do. Help me finish, and I was over the period of temptation and completed the run.

Despite my fitness, despite 12 years of very regular vigorous exercise, I still experience this “call of laziness” pretty often during my workouts. There’s always this little voice around that says, less is okay. You don’t have to do so much. Quit now. Sometimes I do give in and cut the run short or skip the last couple of reps, and when I do, I always feel bad about it. Mostly, I talk and pray through my temptation like I did this morning, and that seems to work pretty well.

There may be other fixes. Today it occurred to me that perhaps I should change my running route so as not to be a double loop that brings me back close to home at the halfway mark. Then once I was halfway, I’d have to complete the other half. In my view, a structural solution to temptation is always preferable than continuing to rely on one’s power of resistance.

Regarding this issue, I don’t think I’m too different than most people. Laziness calls us all. The question is do we give in or do we resist? We know God helps us in our weakness, but many still can’t seem to overcome their laziness. I think the keys to victory here are:

  1. acknowledging our human weakness/laziness/sin,
  2. knowing what we really want,
  3. asking for his help, and
  4. persisting.

When laziness called me this morning, it was the sin in me that wanted to quit. The “real me” wanted to finish. With God’s help I did, and I plan to keep doing so!

What does the “real you” want to do?


Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.
Eccl 10:18

Defiance Blocks, Submission Unlocks God’s Grace

2000px-Gadsden_flag.svgLately, I’ve been impressed with and writing about my own and humankind’s weakness. We have a great deal of trouble doing what we know is right, and we succumb to harmful temptations frequently. That explains a lot of our problem with lifestyle illness and poor health in general, but it’s not the whole story. Sometimes we’re just defiant; we simply refuse to do what we know we should do.

Case in point – seat belts. Recently, John Nash, the famous mathematician, and his wife died in a traffic accident after being ejected from the vehicle.   A few months ago, CBS correspondent Bob Simon died of injuries sustained in a car crash. He, like the Nashes, was an unrestrained, back seat passenger in a car for hire. Both of the belted-in drivers are alive. This isn’t an isolated problem. Pretty frequently I read local newspaper reports of traffic accidents in which unbelted people have been ejected and killed. I’m sure you do too.

What’s that about anyway?! What can it be about? Surely not simply personal weakness or temptation. There’s nothing hard about buckling up, and riding while unbuckled is not a sensuous thrill. It can’t be about ignorance. Everyone knows the rationale for and the benefit of seat belts. And it’s not for lack of external motivators. “Click it or ticket” laws are common and well understood. No, I see only one reason not to buckle up – defiance! “I won’t and you can’t make me!”

But why be defiant? It’s in our nature. Defiance feels good to us. We like being rebels, non-conformists, doing our own thing. Especially in America, where cultivating a fierce independence of spirit is practically a religion. But this is also a basic human trait, part of the fallen nature of humanity. Each of us wants to be “king of him- or herself,” and to prove our power we act out. Seat belts are just a clear example of this larger issue. We defy our parents, our teachers, the government, social conventions, God, and even basic common sense or objective reality. We’ll do whatever it takes to reassure ourselves that we are in charge. Basically, “Defiance-R-Us.”

That’s not how God calls us to live. Submission, not defiance, is the way of Jesus. We are not kings of ourselves, and if we try to hold on to our own power we lose – in this life and in the next. Why are lives still being cut short in car accidents for lack of proper restraint? Why do people purposefully, willfully keep choosing this and other harmful behaviors? They refuse to submit to God or man.

Don’t be like that. Submit and be well. I’m still impressed that weakness is a huge issue for us humans, but defiance is the worse problem. It’s more upstream, a blocker of God’s grace. When we submit, God helps us in our weakness. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can gradually overcome much of our sinful behavior to live fuller and healthier lives. But submission comes before strength.

Given the rapidly shifting state of postmodern society, an extra note is probably warranted here. Christians often need to defy social norms in a secular society. You will need to live very differently (even “abnormally”) from the average person to be physically, emotionally and spiritually well in today’s world. Christians may be even called to defy governmental laws and regulations in so far as they conflict with the higher law of God. This kind of defiance, defiance of man’s improper ordering of society, should flow from submission to Jesus with a joyful spirit, and not from one’s own pride or self-righteousness. Easy to say, hard to do.

Submission remains the first step.


And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”    Mark 8:34-38 ESV

The Only Thing I Can Control Is Myself… Well, Not That Much Actually.

I imagine that most of you, like me, have learned that you really can’t control other people, places or things, and also that it’s an exercise in frustration to try. We can drive ourselves crazy trying to control our spouses, children, friends, relatives or coworkers. Often the more effort we make in that regard, the worse outcomes (from our own perspectives) we seem to get. It’s usually liberating, to us and to them, when admit our powerlessness over others, stop the controlling behaviors, and focus on ourselves. After all, the only thing you can control is yourself.

Not only is this idea liberating, it’s empowering. Wow. I can control myself! So, what do I choose to do! What’s my plan to change? How will I live, regardless of how others choose to live? I can control myself! It may take an emotional struggle to get to this realization, but once you’ve arrived you’re ready to take charge of yourself and make positive changes. For me personally, this concept has been life changing. I enjoy much better emotional health and better interpersonal relationships that I used to because of my ability to focus on myself and to choose different thoughts and behaviors.

But lately I seem to be running up against my limits. Or perhaps I’m noticing them more. Really I think God is doing it. He seems to be showing me my own weakness and impressing me with the weakness of people in general. Although I probably have more willpower and self-discipline than most people, truly I still struggle to control myself. I give in to laziness, comfort seeking, arrogance and my other character faults pretty often. Compared to some others, I look okay (from the outside anyway); compared to who I should be, who I want to be, I’m out of control.

It’s not just me. Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about this issue:

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.  –   Romans 7:14-25 NLT

That is the way it is for most of us. God has given each of us a certain baseline measure of self-control, which we can grow over time with some effort. Maybe just a little, maybe a lot. Whatever. It won’t be enough. Fundamentally we are all weak inside. All of us have an inner sin nature that prevents us from living the lives we want, and we are not able to overcome it on our own. At the deepest level, we really cannot control ourselves.

The good news is that the Holy Spirit has been sent to help us overcome our old nature. One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. I’ve written before about this idea that the Holy Spirit changes you from the inside, but I don’t think I emphasized it enough, and I don’t think I have lived it enough. The Holy Spirit isn’t just a backup for when I reach my own human limit; he’s there to lead me in the way I should go and to empower me to get there.

Now, in my attempts to improve myself, I’m starting to pray differently. Instead of requesting more strength for the struggle, I am admitting my weakness and asking God to change me from the inside, to change my character, in order that I may not struggle so much. I don’t want to be empowered to “fight harder” to be better; I want to not need to fight at all. My prayer might go like this: God, the only thing I can control is myself, and, really, I’m not that good at it. But you have all power. Please change me from the inside. Take away my selfish desires, so that I don’t need to struggle so much. Help me be the person you’d have me be.

I now feel that asking for God’s help, and specifically asking for his direct intervention in my internal nature, should be the first thing I do in my personal change effort, no matter how small or large the issue. What do you think? How do you approach God on the issues with which you struggle?

Everyday Heroism

Saturday night is movie night at our house. My wife manages our Netflix subscription; so I’m never too sure what DVD is coming next, but she usually gets it right. Last Saturday’s showing was The Monuments Men featuring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett among other famous names. It’s the story of U.S. soldiers tasked with rescuing artistic treasures from the Nazis as Europe is liberated during the final years of World War II. It’s not the greatest movie, but I found it interesting and enjoyable.

Although movies are made mostly for entertainment value, they always leave me thinking about the characters. Why did this person act in a certain way? Why didn’t he or she do this or that instead? How would I act in similar circumstances? Typically I’m pondering questions like these for hours, or even a day or two, after we’ve seen a film. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping on Saturday nights for thinking like this. [I know that sounds a little crazy.] Eventually I have to remind myself that it’s fictional, the characters and the story aren’t real.

Fictional stories aside, portrayals of struggle are often a good reflection of reality in movies. Typically the film heroes struggle against adversity to achieve their goals. Drama requires struggle. Obstacles must be overcome. Conflicts must be won. And the biggest, oldest conflict of all – that of good versus evil – is often at the heart of a great movie. The Monuments Men is no different in that regard. The soldiers do “win” in the end, and the Nazi’s really were practically the embodiment evil.

After this particular film, I was left thinking about heroism. What makes a hero? Why do we admire them so? Would I make the cut to be a hero if I had the chance? How about you? Does a person have to be in a war to be a hero? Can someone be a hero in everyday life? After all life is hard. I struggle. You struggle. Can we be heroes too?

Looking up “hero” in the dictionary, I find that that a hero is a person “of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” We all know what a brave deed is, but what is a noble quality? Back to the dictionary, which suggests “qualities of high moral character, such as courage, generosity, or honor.” Presumably these were attributes of kings, queens and other nobles. (No doubt it depends which particular king we’re talking about.)

Many people show such noble qualities in their everyday life. Examples that come to mind are workers donating to the homeless and downtrodden through the United Way and other charities, individuals refusing promotions to prioritize their family life, husbands remaining faithful to their wives, couples taking in children whose own parents aren’t able to care for them, spouses sticking with each other in sickness and adversity. I’m sure you can think of many others large and small. This is heroism, “everyday heroism.” It’s hard to act justly, sacrifice your self-interest, and to do the right thing even when no one is looking. But people are doing it.

The film had me thinking about this “everydayness” quality to heroism too. Setting aside the evils of Nazism, one of the most memorable scenes in the movie for me was when Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon’s character) has the opportunity to sleep with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett’s character). I won’t give you all of the details, but it’s been established that Lt. Granger is a “good husband” and father, but, you know, “it is Paris,” and a war is going on, and Claire is willing. Yet, he doesn’t avail himself of the opportunity. That’s heroism to me.

As I’ve been thinking about this topic, I am more and more encouraged, because I see so many everyday heroes among us. Some are Christian and some are not, but, as a Christian, I see Jesus, the one true king, as the ultimate hero. Following Jesus is a heroic journey, and true disciples will gradually acquire the noble habits and character of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit. Naturally there will be adversity, obstacles to overcome, and conflicts to win, but if God is for us who can be against us. I’m looking to be a hero. How about you?