Advice from a Friend

This post was original shared at inspireafire.com

If the words would come, I would tell you about friendships and advice. And how I recently changed my perspective. You see, a few years ago I received advice from friends who knew me well and cared for me deeply. Their words were accurate and true, but there were layers I was sorting through that even they did not understand.

The experience made me realize how very little I know about those I love the most. No matter how clearly I can see the path of another, there is always the possibility that what I share will not actually be right for them. It might be accurate and true, but it might not be the right time, or the right lesson, or the right path for them.

Who knows why we sometimes take the paths we do? Only God.  And sometimes ourselves.

Trail

This lesson made me hesitant to offer advice. After all, what do I know? The lesson I learned was to keep my mouth shut. The lesson I think I was supposed to learn was an appreciation of complexity.

Even when others share perspectives that are true, there are still different ways to implement their advice. Even if I am not going to take action on their suggestions right away, I have found that hearing my friends’ thoughts gives me a deeper understanding of my situation, and sometimes myself. Sometimes I need to hear a lot of different perspectives and consider them alongside my own before I can fully grasp what is the right thing for me right here and now. The answer is not to stop the advice; the answer is to hold the advice in its proper context.

This is some of what I would share, in a much more eloquent way, if the words would come.

Ironically, I once gave advice to a friend who repeated it back to me tonight: just write something. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

So that’s what I’m doing. I give my apologies to you, dear reader, for having to wade through the result of my own advice.

Here is the other thing I learned recently. It’s easy to be very hard on myself in comparison to others. Why am I not more… fill in the blank. I suspect I’m not alone in this. But those qualities in others that threaten to condemn us are actually an opportunity to strengthen a part of ourselves.

When I watch my most determined friend set her mind and then take off after something, I can learn a little something about determination. Perhaps I can do that too, in my own way.

When I am amazed at my friend who rehashes a recent soirée by rattling off the names of so-and so’s second cousin’s best friends as though she has known them for years, I can learn to be more intentional in my connections. Perhaps I can do that too, in my own way.

When I talk at length with my friend who splices apart social complexities the way some people slice through cake, I can learn to be more analytical in my thinking. I can do that too, in my own way.

I love the complexities of my friends. Their differences, their strengths, and their weaknesses. I hope they never stop sharing their perspectives with me.

Questions from God and the Devil, Part 1

I am a big fan of questions.

Except for when I’m not.

What I mean is that most of the time, questions serve me well. They allow me to engage empathically with others, they help me understand different viewpoints, and they teach me diligence in my thoughts and actions.

But sometimes the questions get out of control. Sometimes they keep me awake at night replaying conversations or inciting possible scenarios. Sometimes their incessant whirling brings such doubt and confusion that I could easily be led away to despair.

Then, questions are no longer my friend. Perhaps this has also happened to you.

The question that arose about all these questions (ironic, I know), is this: How can I tell if a question is good for me to think about or if it is one I should avoid?

I have three answers.

The first answer comes in even recognizing that there are some questions that are not helpful, and that we can choose to dwell or not dwell on a particular thought. The Bible tells us that we should take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) That means we can think about what we are thinking about, and ask God for guidance in discerning what thought paths we should pursue. As simple as it sounds, pausing for a moment of metacognition – thinking about what we’re thinking about – can reframe our thought paths.

When I started to do this, I was shocked at the thoughts that were playing through my mind. The chatter was so familiar and incessant that I didn’t realize some of the patterns I was getting stuck on. I couldn’t even begin to tell if a question was good for me to dwell on until I first became aware of my thoughts and what questions were already there. That’s step one.

The second way we discern questions worth thinking about is through the fruit of the question. In other words, does dwelling on a particular question bring clarity and peace or confusion and despair?

This isn’t always black and white. Our thoughts are complex and we can’t always consider a single question and leap immediately to either clarity or confusion. Sometimes we have to walk through uncertainty as we seek our answers. Sometimes questions raise emotional pain that we do need to walk through and not avoid. But there is a different feeling to wrestling with doubt, fear, or sadness while seeking clarity versus the feeling we have when we are churning on a question that repeatedly plunges us into darkness. When dwelling too long on a particular question produces only increased anxiety, set it aside. It may be that the time is not quite right to consider those thoughts. We can ask God to show us when the time is right. He will bring resources across our path to guide us.

The problem with using the fruit of the question as our identifier is by the time we realize a particular question is leading us in a bad direction, we are already well down the path. While it’s a little helpful to recognize after the fact – perhaps we can at least not go any further! – it would be even better if we could distinguish a priori whether a particular question is a friend or foe.

I think there are ways we can. Once we have identified a detrimental question by its fruit, we can be cautious of that question in the future. When we recognize it creeping back into our thoughts, we can displace it with something else.

Steps one and two can lead to this preemptive third step: recognize the detrimental questions at their onset.

Additionally, and importantly, we also identify detrimental questions at their onset by recognizing the spiritual component to our thoughts. There are questions God asks us that we should spend time thinking about. Conversely, there are questions from the devil, or our own wandering mind, that we should avoid. Knowing which type of question is knocking at the door of our thoughts can help us identify whether it is a friend or foe.

The outstanding question, of course, is this: What are the questions God asks us, and what are the questions that come from the devil or our own wandering mind?

This, my friends, is a question worth pursuing.

So I am embarking on a Bible study to see what I can learn. The good news is that since the spiritual patterns of thought that began at the beginning are the ones still with us today, we can learn a lot by studying the questions in scripture. There is nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes tells us.

In some upcoming posts, I’ll share what I am discovering. We’ll start with the very first question the devil asked… and the counter question from Jesus millennia later. Do you know what it is?

Waiting

I recently found myself in the midst of a possible house purchase.

I don’t remember ever thinking, “Hey, I think I’m ready to go look for a house.” I just woke up one day and discovered I was already looking. Despite my years of happy renting, I was suddenly staring at a potential purchase. Exciting. Terrifying. A little too sudden.

Then just as I was working up the nerve to put in an offer, my realtor went incommunicado.

Who does that? What realtor that close to an offer suddenly shuts down? What if this is my dream house and it’s sold out from under me while I wait? Worse, what if this is a sign that I should back off because it’s actually my nightmare home, and I could end up owning it?

Finally in desperation one night I prayed, “God, I give you this house. Do with it whatever you want…” And then I added, “But if you want me to do something, let me know. Because I could send the realtor another email. Or I could call. Would you like me to call? Or maybe I should see if there’s a different house I should look at. Maybe there’s a reason this is suddenly being put on hold. Maybe there are concerns with this house. Let me think about the possible concerns…”

Two hours later I still wasn’t asleep.

The next day my verse of the day was Psalm 27:14: Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

The following day a song on the radio reminded me, “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord. We will wait upon the Lord.”

I was starting to feel a bit like the lead character in that movie (Was it Bruce Almighty?) that was driving down the road calling out, “God give me a sign!” And all while he was pounding the steering wheel, a giant truck was weaving in front of him loaded with constructions signs that read “Wrong way. Do not enter. Danger.”

So okay, then. If I am supposed to wait upon the Lord, here is one conclusion I have come to: I’m not very good at it.

I have handed that house to God at least 217 times in the last several days, and every time I snatch it right back. I spasmodically check for messages from my realtor. I find myself re-routing my errands to drive past the house. I walk my dog through the neighborhood. I browse listings to see if anything has changed. I have done everything I can possibly think of… except actually turn it over to God.

I’m honestly at the point where I don’t even care what the outcome is so long as the outcome happens so I can stop thinking about it. You’d think that would make waiting easier, but it does not. Because while I don’t care which answer is the right one, I want the right answer to prevail. And what if I’m supposed to be doing something? What if God is waiting on me?

Hahahahahah

It’s laughable, isn’t it? To think almighty God needs something from me before He can act. And yet, in these terrible moments of indecision, isn’t that what it comes down to? Isn’t there some part of us that is scared that we are going to screw it up? As though there is something we could do that could possibly thwart God’s good plan for us.

Now that I think about it, God probably is waiting on me. I suspect He’s waiting on me to let go, and to let Him. He’s waiting on me to demonstrate my trust not just through my words, but through my actions.

God is waiting on me, to wait on Him.

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).

Unchangeable

The other night I went to the grocery store to buy ice cream.  It was on sale, and I was really looking forward to a carton of my favorite, Cookies and Cream.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with sale items, there was no Cookies and Cream in sight.

Sigh.

I was standing in the freezer aisle debating whether to skip the ice cream or get a less desirable flavor when I decided to not give up the hunt so easily.  Maybe there was a carton shoved back behind some of the others.

I dug through first one shelf and then the other.  I sorted through stacks of Rocky Road and Vanilla Bean, and Peanut Butter Cup.  And would you believe my luck?  There in the back I suddenly uncovered a rogue carton of Cookies and Cream.  I snatched it up triumphantly and placed it in my cart.

I was about to walk away when I suddenly realized that what I really wanted was Chocolate Chip.

So I opened the freezer case again, replaced the Cookies and Cream, and bought a carton of Chocolate Chip.

So far I have been happy with my purchase, although I expect at any moment to begin craving Cookies and Cream. (Help me out here.  Am I the only one who does things like this?)

Isn’t it good to know, amidst all our idiosyncrasies and changeability, that there is One who is not tossed so easily by whimsy?  We worship the unchanging, everlasting, eternal God.  He is the one who is, and was, and is to come (Revelation 1:8).  He does not change with the weather, or the season, or the year, or the culture.  Our God is the great I AM.  He was there when time began, and He will be there at the end of time and the beginning of eternity.  No matter what is going on around us, we can rest securely in the firm foundation of our unchanging God.

Think about that the next time you’re deliberating an ice cream selection.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John: 8:58).

God is like Priceline, Part II

If you’re like me, you read last month’s article and felt there was a little something missing.  What about those times when you don’t know what God is telling you to do?  When you’re faced with a decision and you have no idea which way to go?  How can you tell God, “Yes, I”ll book this trip with you” when you don’t know which trip he’s telling you to book?

I don’t have the answer.  After all, I had the question.  But I’ve come to ponder: sometimes traveling with God is not about having faith to follow where He leads.  Sometimes it’s about having faith to strike out even when it doesn’t seem as though God is leading you anywhere.

The Bible tells us to: Trust the Lord your God with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path. (Proverbs 3:5-6).   I find it interesting that it doesn’t say he will direct us.  He is not putting us in a motorcar and taking us straight to heaven.  He is directing our path.  The motor power, apparently, must come from us.

I heard a sermon once that suggested we should “go until you get a no.”  This phrase has stuck with me.  I have found that as long as you are trying, as long as you are going, God can keep opening and closing doors.  Consider a river running its course and how it can be diverted this way and that to reach your chosen destination.  As long as it keeps moving, it will get there.  It may go this way or it may go that way, but ultimately it will end at the exact right place.

We are like that river.  There are times the direction is clear and we must trust God and go.  There are times it branches into different directions and despite our pleading for guidance, God is completely silent.  We must still trust God and go.  God controls the flow of our lives; He will lead us where we need to go.  It’s a little flippant to say there are no bad decisions.  Sometimes we do make bad decisions, but if we are truly trying to do right, God will correct our mistakes as we go.  The bigger mistake is to settle into a pool of indecision.  If we are not moving forward, God cannot divert our path.  We must keep looking, keep seeking, keep listening… in all our ways acknowledge Him…and go.

One of the popular verses in the Bible tells us that all things work together for the good of those that love the Lord (Romans 8:28).  We often use this phrase to provide hope amongst doubt or to marvel at the way God brings joy out of great sorrow.  We think of Joseph, sold into slavery and rising to great power, telling his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20).”  Certainly this is applicable here.  God will use everything in our life, regardless of what path we choose, for good.  But there’s another side to this saying.  Our moments of doubt and indecision are not necessarily something bad that God will somehow use for good.  Sometimes we are placed in these moments of complete and utter indecision simply because it is good for us.  When we can’t lean on our own understanding, when we can’t list the pros and cons and find an answer, when we can’t seek wise counsel or follow a gut instinct or even receive a clear response to prayer, then we have nothing left to trust but God.  It is in these moments that He moves near us, perhaps imperceptibly, opening and closing doors.  While we anguish and decide, he is watching.  And He knows if we go this way what He will do and if we go that way what He will do and all the while we are sweating bullets wondering why he won’t just SAY something.  Just TELL me what to DO!  But He is letting us grow.  He is showing us how to lean less on our own understanding and more on Him. 

Sometimes God gives us even less than a Priceline.com itinerary.  Sometimes we have to not only put in our credit card number but actually take the trip before we figure out what the itinerary was.  His question is still the same: Will you book this trip with me? 

Sometimes faith is moving forward when we don’t even know which way forward is.  THAT is traveling with the God of priceline.com

Trust the Lord your God with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path. (Proverbs 3:5-6)  

God is Like Priceline, Part I

I was reading the later chapters of Exodus one evening – the part where God is instructing the Israelites how to establish the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the altar, and the priestly garments – and it struck me how nice it would be sometimes if God were always that explicit with us.  He told them precisely what to do, what materials to use, where to get them, the exact sizes, how to do it, when to do it…  God laid out the entire blueprint to Moses, who passed it along to the remaining Israelites, who did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses (Exodus 39:32).  Wouldn’t it be nice if things were always that clear?

There have been plenty of times in my life when I can’t seem to figure out what the next step should be; forget about gazing upon a complete blueprint of where my life, this day, the next hour is headed.  Sometimes, it seems, God is rather like Priceline.com.

Priceline.com is a travel service Web site where you can bid on airfare, rental cars, and hotels in the hopes of receiving a good deal.  The catch is that you are only given partial information about what you are bidding on.  You might know, for example, that there is a three star hotel within 5 miles of a particular destination, but you won’t know anything else about it.  You might know there is a flight departing sometime between 6:00 am and noon going to your destination, but you won’t know what airline.  It is only after you commit – once you have punched in your credit card number and your bid has been accepted – that the itinerary you just purchased is then revealed to you.

More frequently then not, this is the way God relays his plans to me.  It’s only after I’ve committed, sometimes several years after I’ve committed, that I look back and see the full itinerary.  I see that this is where He intended for me to go, how He intended me to get there, who He intended for me to encounter along the way.  But in the beginning, there is only a single question: are you willing to book this trip with me? 

It can be a little unnerving to type a credit card number into Priceline.com.  It can be downright terrifying to hand a blank check for an amount “up to and including my life” over to God.  Yet ironically, the thing we should be more afraid of is not handing our lives over to Him.  Paul admonishes: Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness (Romans 6:16)?  There is a dichotomy here, Paul is saying.  We can obey God which leads to righteousness, or we can not obey God, at which point we become a slave to sin.  There is no middle ground.  Non-action is still an action.  Non-obedience is disobedience.

In Genesis 12:1, we see a classic example of the Priceline itinerary of God.  The Lord said to Abram, “Leave you country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”  There is no detailed blueprint here.  Just “I want you to commit.  I want you to leave.  Then I will show you.”  And Abram went.  We know the story, then, how Abram was renamed Abraham and had a son named Isaac who had a son named Jacob who fathered the 12 tribes ofIsrael.  There is a beautiful blueprint that stretches for generations.  We can look back upon it now and see how carefully crafted it was, how everything worked together for God’s purposes.  But in the beginning, there was only a Priceline-type itinerary: Are you willing to book this trip with me?  We know what Abram said.  What do you say?

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

“Morel” Dilemma

I was first introduced to the concept of mushroom hunting when I lived in southern Illinois.  One of my lab mates was shocked to learn that I had never hunted deer, and even more shocked that I have never been hunting at all.  The conversation went something like this: 

“You’ve never been hunting?”  She asked.

“No.”

“Not even squirrel?” 

“No.”

“Not even mushrooms?”

Mushrooms? Ha ha!”

I soon learned that this strange ritual of “hunting mushrooms” was in fact not a joke like I first assumed, but something that scores of people actually did.  With a vengeance.  And it was not localized to the little communities in southern Illinois.  Apparently it’s a much larger phenomenon that just hadn’t quite made it to my native New Englandyet.  There I grew up learning not to eat mushrooms from the woods because they are poisonous.  At least according to mom.  And really, who can argue with mom?

I am proud to say I have now experienced a genuine mushroom hunt, under the tutorial of a friend who is in fact a mushroom hunting champion with the photos to prove it.  I knew I was in good hands, but the possibility of consuming poisonous mushrooms was more than I could handle.  I badgered her with so many “poisonous mushroom” questions she finally resorted to a series of “poisonous mushroom – non-poisonous mushroom” pictorial comparisons.  Some were obvious (flaming red mushroom = not a morel).  Others, however, were more subtle.  There’s the “true morel” which you can eat, and the “false morel” which can eat you.  It’s like a game of truth or dare gone bad. 

The whole experience left me thinking about another kind of dilemma.  Less to do with morels and more to do with, well, morals.  In the early history of Israel, Moses laid out a similar pictorial comparison: See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse- the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey (Deuteronomy 11: 26-28).

Pretty straight forward.  But like fine nuances between true and false morels, some morals are not so easy to differentiate.  The Bible warns us to watch out for false prophets and false teachings.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15).  Kind of like a false morel that looks at first glance to be edible, but upon closer inspection turns out to be poisonous.

So how do we discern what is really God’s command and what is not?  A good place to start is with the commands found in the Bible, for the word of the Lord is right and true (Psalm 33:4).  The Bible also tells us do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you (Deuteronomy 4:2).  How does your moral dilemma stack up against the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and Jesus’ summation of them (Matthew 22:36-40)?

The apostle John gives us another litmus test to recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God (1 John 4:2-3).

And then there’s what I call the “Morel Test,” which states: If this thing you’re thinking about doing were a mushroom, would you eat it? 

You see, despite all the pictorial comparisons and discussions and discernment, in the end I didn’t eat the mushrooms I found.  I just wasn’t absolutely, positively, 110% certain that they were true morels.  And if you have to deliberate that much whether something is true or false, whether something is right or wrong, whether something is morally acceptable or not, the answer is pretty clear: Don’t eat it.  Leave it in that gray and shady spot and walk away.

So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong (1 Kings 3:9).