Month: February 2016
This has thus far been the hardest posting for me to write. And although our family has been plagued with multiple illnesses including some flu-type virus (although not the flu according to the doctor) for the past month (which does account for why this post is tardy; sorry!), I think it is more about the heart of the matter than the timing (I know, imagine that right?!). My initial draft began with a witty and somewhat sarcastic description of Valentine’s day; observing the convenience of discussing love around this time of year and venting some of my own issues with such a commercialized expression of love (I really am ok with Valentine’s day, but I also like to make fun of it 🙂 ). But as the posting became wordier and wordier, I realized it was more about “me” speaking than really addressing the important subject at hand: the relationship between LOVE and obedience.
Not Valentine’s Day love, not romantic love between a husband and wife, and not even parental love between a guardian and child (which is often considered the purest of all). No, we are talking about the ORIGINAL kind of love, the kind we were ultimately created for, the truest love in the truest sense. It is the love that changes lives, that turns people around, that stops us in our tracks and pulls us back to our senses, that picks us up when we are broken and mends all of the hurt within us, that looks on us with beauty and grace when all we see is ugly and guilt; it is the love that envelops us and moves from the inside out and only exists because He first loved us. It is the love between Creator and created… and it can only come from above.
The whole point of last and this week’s reading is bridging the gap between this kind of love and our choices in life: there is a direct connection/relationship between our experience of this love and our obedience (actions). If we want our actions that speak louder than our words to truly show and say that we are bearing fruit, abiding and getting as close to Christ as we can, and obeying (following Him), then this all must come from an inner motivator. And the most powerful motivator of all is this kind of LOVE.
The Power of Love
As you can imagine, there are a variety of motivators behind why we do what we do. When it comes to the obedience we discussed last week, Warren singles out 3 motivators for us to focus upon and assess in our own lives to see what is driving our choices to obey or lack thereof. Take a look:
- Fear: Everytime I see this one I think about any big decisions I have had to make as an adult. From which college I should attend, to whether or not we should really get married, to buying our first car and then our first house, I am always motivated mostly by fear when it comes to obedience about these things. I want so badly to obey, mainly because I am so scared I am going to screw-up and ruin my life (and now the lives of my husband and children as well ) if I do not make the right choice. I cry out to God in desperation because I am in FEAR of what will happen if this is not the right choice. And while it may sound like crying out to God brings me closer to Him, I find that I actually feel distant from Him because when I am operating in FEAR mode, He is this far-away mean God waiting to punish me if I step out of line. I envision Him outside of His true character (which is not very nice) and only loving when I make the “right” choice. And there has to be a “right” choice, right? Well, during one of these “fearfully” obedient moments, I will never forget the counsel of a trusted Christian friend who encouraged me that maybe there was not only one “right” choice, but that God was giving me full liberty to choose from any of the choices and He would bless all of them. Say what?! I know it’s crazy, but it makes total sense now that I am a parent. On any given Saturday, I might ask my son: would you like to go to the zoo or the aquarium? And there is no right or wrong answer, just very cool but different things at both. Is it not totally possible that God looks at some of our decisions the same way? Would you like to live in Virginia or Texas? Would you like to work here or over there? Would you like to keep renting your apartment or move into a house? Would you like to attend this college or that college? Puts all of those big decisions into a totally different perspective huh? Now, while it still does not answer the question, it has always helped me move from FEAR mode to LOVE mode (which I will describe below).
There is another way to look at fear in terms of obedience that is worth mentioning. Some of us choose to obey because we are scared of the consequences of our decisions. We have been raised to believe that the second we step outside of the line, bad things will happen and so we stay as safe and secure and as far away from the line as possible. We always obey, but we do so out of obligation and being scared and we feel oppressed, imprisoned and like we are missing out. We probably also feel incredibly distant from a warm and loving and personable God because we only know rigid, harsh, significant rules with swift and just consequences. While our actions might be outwardly “obedient,” they still have not hit the mark for truly abiding and fruit bearing because we are still missing the importance of freedom and grace. Whenever fear is our primary motivator, it does not last and it causes both us and God pain.
- Rewards: This one is my jam (which is probably not a good thing; but truthful)! I love getting rewarded for things (#onlychildperfectionist). Whether it is a rewards program for the places I frequently shop or a rewards credit card or a reading rewards program or any type of rewards really, I love them! I have even mastered the art of self-rewards, which got me through my multiple degrees (I would focus on school work for a couple of hours, and then get a treat like Starbucks or something yummy to eat). And honestly, this is probably my default motivation for obeying. When I am nice to my husband, I get the typical reward of him being nice to me too. When I am nice to my kids, I get the typical reward of them behaving. When I obey what God wants for me, I know that over the years, it typically results in my favor so I might as well keep with it right? Of course?!
Except… what happens when that line of thinking does not work right away or at all? For instance, I have been praying for something for years now that has still not come into existence. Even though I have prayed in faith, walked in faith, heard things like “soon” and “it’s coming” which I know are all true, it does not yet exist. My reward is not here, even though I have obeyed. Or what about when you have been super nice to your husband, gone out of your way to make sure the house is clean, his favorite dinner is made to perfection, and made plans for the two of you to hang out after the kids go to bed only to find its been a bad day at work, he is in a bad mood, and he falls asleep before you are finished putting your little ones to sleep? Again, the intended reward did not work out. When we obey solely for the rewards, there will come a time when the reward does not happen or does not suffice, and we may be encouraged to either no longer obey or become resentful in any obedience that does still occur. Plus, this type of obedience is really, honestly, self-focused with a “what can I get out of this” attitude. While on the outside it might get things accomplished temporarily, on the inside the inner peace and security depend on the outcome and there is no consistency to who we are and how we feel.
- LOVE: While both fear and rewards are quick to lead to obedience depending on your experiences, there is one motivator that has been most powerful ever since the creation of all that we know. It has been written about, sang about, lived out and sacrificed for throughout the ages, and we know it as the concept of LOVE. It can be defined as adoration, pleasurable, positive, kind, affectionate, devoted feelings toward someone or something and when in its purest form (as described above) it has a life-changing, life-giving, life-sustaining power. When we truly love someone or something with this pure self-sacrificial love, we will do everything we can to move towards that person or thing no matter the cost. This love is so powerful because it does not matter if there is something to be feared or whether or not the reward manifests, because ALL that matters, hear me, ALL THAT MATTERS is the object of affection.
This is Paul obeying Christ right into prison and still singing hymns, out of his great LOVE for his Savior and knowing that even though the “rewards” were not evident, he was still going to love. This is Christ loving us all the way to hell and back, because the only thing that truly mattered was relationship and salvation with us. In something a little more little, this is you putting a blanket on your husband and smiling after your evening gets ruined because all that mattered was showing your love for him and now he is resting so at least he benefited (I wish I could say that was me; but there is a reason I used you in this example). This is me continuing to pray and trust and hope and obey year after year after year trusting in LOVE that God is going to come through in His perfect timing even though it does not seem like it in the moment. How does the scripture go? And the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Can I make a quick observation here? Both fear and rewards have been used for years to train animals through schedules of either pain (fear) or treat (reward) in scientific learning theory. Both are successful methods, which is why parents end up using them as well (spanking versus bribing LOL), although some schedules do work better than others (but that is for another time). But you know what is interesting: we are supposed to be more than just plain animals right? The thing that really sets us apart is our ability to reason and will, and with that, have the ability to LOVE and put that love into action. Now, I know from personal experiences that animals love too so please do not hear me saying that, but instead listen to the higher calling to search out your own heart and see if you are operating out of an innate, flesh, learned response (like that of a trained animal) or if you are obeying out of a chosen, desired, will to love the Creator of the universe?
How does this apply to me?
As you can envision, this secret gets to the core of who we are and our relationship with the Lord. Just like Ordering Your Private World, we have now reached the inner layer of the secret to living an abundant life, and that is all about how we love. And not just how we love others, because believe it or not, that might actually be easier, but how we love God, which includes our thoughts, feelings, and by default, our actions (obedience) when it comes to Him.
Since a lot of this conversation thus far has been abstract (things like fear and rewards and love oh my!), let’s see if I can make it a tad more practical (if not for you, then definitely for me). When I talk about love in a human sense, like for a couple or a parent-child relationship or even among two friends, I can always rely on the “love tank” picture. I cannot take credit for it, although I also cannot cite its original source because I have no clue who said or copyrighted it first, but its a well known metaphor in the counseling realm.
Much like the cars we drive have a gas tank that fuels the engine to make the car move, the relationships we invest in have a love tank that fuel the relationship to allow it to grow and progress and make positive gains. When we do things like spend positive time together, take care of one another, do things especially for the other person, it is like making a stop at the gas station to fill the tank. As life occurs and we move throughout events and circumstances, we expend our energy, and our love tank becomes depleted unless we make conscious efforts to refill it. And so on and so forth for as long as we own the vehicle, or participate in the relationship. To evaluate where we are in our relationships, I have partners draw a fuel gauge like the one below and rate where they would say their own feelings of love are currently located. Then, we brainstorm ways to get them closer to full and start a regular evaluation to maintain these levels.
When this same principle is applied to our relationship with God, we can definitely sketch out a fuel gauge and determine whether our love tank is closer to empty or closer to full. However, you, like me, may have been deceived in thinking that you are responsible for filling your love tank just like you are in your human relationships. While ownership is awesome when it comes to your human relationships (and I am all about it and encourage it as a counselor), when it comes to our relationship with God, it is actually supposed to look different. This is where the power of that original LOVE combines with the power of abiding and get its awesome life-changing, life-giving, life-sustaining powers.
When we abide; we hook our love tank up to the God of the Universe, and HE fills us up until we are overflowing. We do not have to buy Him flowers, get involved in expansive ministries, give huge tithes or spend all of our time at church or in Bible study or singing praise songs to fill our tanks. It starts with simply inviting Him to love in and through you, opening yourself to be a vessel (or branch) of this love, and letting Him do the rest. As our love tanks fill as we abide in Him, we want to do all of those things because we cannot contain all the amazing love (like a car that just has to race because it is full with the best fuel out there). We want to obey, not our of defeating or selfish motives like fear or rewards, but out of genuine desire to enact this love through obedience.
This may not be a big deal for you, but this is HUGE for me. I am a “works” girl; hence my tendency to obey for the rewards. All week I have been trying to work on loving God (even though I have really not “felt” it) because if I am going to write about it I should be doing it right?! Except, this is one thing that I do not have to and honestly, cannot work at (lightbulb!!). This is the thing that gets at so many “Christians” because it cannot be practiced, manufactured, or created on our own. This is something we have to let God do; something I have to rest in, allow in, enjoy in… and when I finally stopped working so hard to make it happen (about 5 minutes ago to be exact), my whole demeanor, countenance, and perspective changed. My God-love tank went from 0 to overflowing in about 10 seconds (OK maybe a little longer), when I finally surrendered the pressure and determination to make it happen and let Him fill it up. Not because of anything I actually did, but from the stopping of trying to do and just allowing myself to abide and be.
So What do I do now?
I bet you can already see where this is going. Using the graphic described above, I encourage you to set aside a moment each day or couple of days this week to check your God-love tank. It should not take very long, almost the same amount of time it takes for you to glance at the dash of your car and see if you need to stop by the gas station on your next trip out. Are you close to empty or overflowing? This question quickly leads to: are you connected and abiding or unplugged and trying to go it on your own? Are you obeying out of this love, or out of fear or rewards? Where do you want to be? What will you do to get there?
Believe it or not, after writing the above words last night about being “oh so full,” I not only disconnected from the computer as I closed up for the night, but I seriously disconnected from the Lord as well. Which meant this morning, I was desperately dry and my God-love tank was screaming EMPTY as I was attempting to care for my children. We all knew it, and so I took a few moments to look at my gauge, speak to the Lord, and breathe in a prayer to be filled. I thought about the picture of that branch in the vineyard, resting so peacefully and being sustained and filled by the vine, and I let the love flow into my tank. It was by no means a miraculous, quick fill, but it was steadfast and sure and I have been loving, obeying, abiding, and fruit bearing the rest of the day. And that picture has stayed with me so that I could share it not only with my boys, but with you too. I am so incredibly grateful for this gift… and for that amazing, awesome power of love.♥
So far in this teeny tiny little book, we’ve discussed some really big truths for our lives. First, we discussed the existential controversy of why we are here, and resolved that we were created on purpose with a purpose: to bear fruit. Then, we explored the how of fruit bearing: in that to truly bear fruit and be productive in living out this purpose, we must get as close as we can to our Creator (through Christ) and abide in Him. And while we were given four ways to abide (meditation, prayer, confession, and focused intent), there is a secret even to this practice that we must harness as well if we truly want to abide and bear fruit: we must learn to obey.
I don’t know about you, but the word obey sparks an explosion of reactions within me. First, my innate reaction is to rebel (yes, this is completely true of me believe it or not) as I am the epitome of being strong-willed. When someone tells me to do something (without asking or suggesting instead), my first desire is to determine what I want to do (regardless of why or what they said). This is definitely something I have had to learn how to tame throughout the years to live in peace with the important people in my life, like parents and husband, and even bosses (which is why I tend to work better self-employed LOL).
However, I am getting to know this whole world of “obey” from a different angle now that I am a parent. So, once I get past my initial gut reaction, my second reaction is a mixture of frustration and desire. I seriously must say the words “listen and obey” about a million times everyday. And each time I have to give the reminder, I get just a little more frustrated. Yet, I yearn so badly for my littles to obey because most often (like 99.9% of the time) I do actually know what is best for them and am instructing them out of love. And while I understand the bend to rebel and disobey that obviously comes naturally to them, I desperately want them to know the good and safe and amazing things the world (and Mommy) has to offer when they obey. I envision that this is also how God feels as he tries to guide and direct us on His path that has His best for us.
One of the biggest lessons I am trying to get across right now when it comes to obedience, both to myself and my kiddos, is that how we behave really matters in the big scheme of things. You may say you want to listen and you understand that it is time to pick up your toys and get ready for lunch, but if you do not choose to obey and actually follow-through with your behavior, then you are going to end up back in time out. You may say that you want to listen to the doctor and you understand that it is time to start eating a little differently and exercising a little more, but if you choose not to obey and actually follow-through with your behavior, then your health is just going to keep declining. I bet you can see where I am going with this:
You may say you want to bear fruit and you understand that this means taking the time and effort to abide and get as close to Him as possible, but if you do not choose to obey and actually follow-through with your behavior, then you will stay exactly where you are or even worst, move in a direction that is even less productive and further away from where you want to be.
In each of these situations (and I am sure you can think of many many more), there is something we are aware we should do (that is not unrealistic or unhealthy), we are aware of what it takes to do it (and actually want to do it), but it is in the follow-through or obedience that the something actually happens. In essence, when we do or do not choose to obey, our actions speak louder than our words.
Our Actions Speak Louder than Words
This has to be one of my favorite little cliche sayings of all times (I am not joking) both personally and professionally because it is so incredibly true and applies to most situations. And like with most truth, there usually comes a love/hate relationship (so if you do not like this saying, I do understand). For me, it is “love” because I am all about my actions lining up with my words, and making sure that what I do is a reflection of who I am. If I want to be a “good” wife, then my actions should reflect that intent (with some margin of error LOL). If I want to love my children, then the way I interact with them should reflect this love (again with that small margin LOL). If I want to be a good professor, then the way I grade and respond to my learners should reflect this endeavor. Similarly, when it comes to abiding and doing all that it takes to truly abide, we are given two options that show by our actions more than our words our true intent: to obey or disobey.
Our natural, human bend is towards disobedience (even if you are not strong-willed like me, your flesh is still imperfect and will move towards disobedience at times). Disobedience happens when we know what we ought to do (and I am not talking unrealistic or unhealthy “should’s” in our life) and we purposefully choose to go our own way. We observe this process as even the sweetest, most mild babies morph before our very eyes into screaming, tantruming toddlers that all go through the “mine” stage, the “that’s not fair” stage, and the “let me see how far I can press you stage.” And even some adults, like my admission above, struggle daily with disobedience and its awful consequences.
As we all quickly learn, from toddler to adult, disobedience typically results in both inner and outer distress. While there may be momentary pleasure in the excitement of rebellion, this is only temporary, especially if you get caught. From the original act of disobedience in the garden, which if you remember correctly destroyed perfection and brought death and destruction to our world (just a little ripple right?!), we humans have sought to do things our own way, instead of the obedient way, and have to endure the consequences that come with those actions. Even little acts of disobedience, like disobeying the speed limit by just 5 miles can result in a ticket, a fine, points on your license, and in rare cases, jail, depending on the nature and context of your offense (not to mention the inner distress of the shame when you have to tell your parents or spouse). And while there are exceptions to every rule, and some acts of disobedience to man made laws are acceptable out of obedience to a higher law (like Daniel continuing to pray even though it was against the law), even these acts of disobedience usually are met with painful consequences (like the lion’s den). Disobedience always has something negative that comes with it, even if done for the right reasons.
In stark contrast, although sometimes with a true struggle, obedience provides the opportunity for health and growth and peace from the inside out. Even though it might not always be easy, choosing to obey always has something positive that comes with it. Obedience, as Warren describes, is submitting our will (our way) to God (p.56). It goes beyond just giving Him our thoughts and feelings, beyond knowing about the world and how to operate in a healthy way within it, to actually DOING those things. It means looking to Him for guidance and direction, and then following-through with what we are instructed. In most cases, when we obey, we experience beautiful results. Just imagine if Adam and Eve had actually obeyed their one rule and not taken that taste; I would probably not be writing this blog but hey, I would be hanging out in Eden and that honestly sounds like a lot more fun.
Whereas obedience does not always ensure outward positive results, such as the many Biblical examples of Paul in prison, Daniel in the lion’s den, Shadrach in the fiery furnace, and even Christ on the cross, I have no doubt that these men experienced an inner peace and health and steadfastness knowing that they were doing the right thing, and that their obedience was showing in their actions. I know that even when I have chosen to obey and the outer context was not so great, the inner victory was so rewarding that it outweighed any of the negatives. Although obeying is not always my favorite, the inner feelings of obedience are always worth it in the end.
Bottom line: Whether you choose obedience or disobedience, you can be sure that your actions will make it loud and clear no matter what your words or intentions say.
How does this apply to me?
When our actions speak louder than our words, it allows us to see what really matters to us. It shows to all the world what we care about, what we want, and who we really are regardless of what we might say or how we might describe ourselves. We all know someone who knows and says all the right things, but then turns around and acts in a completely different way. And to be honest, we all have moments like this in our own lives, which is why understanding the secret of obedience, even as adults, is so important.
I was really challenged on this point at the end of last year/beginning of this year. Not by any one thing in particular, but by the prompting of the Holy Spirit and my own self as I reviewed the ending of 2015 and prepared for the beginning of 2016. In spending time with the Lord and reflecting on the course of 2015, I realized that there were things I had been talking about for years that were just not happening in reality. I would express these desires and callings both internally and externally, but there were just never any actions to go along with them. I can give you all of my justifications for the why behind the non-action: partly out of the fear of the unknown/failure, partly out of creating a routine of mismanaged time, partly out of selfishness and laziness, and mostly out of a whole lot of procrastination.
But to be brutally honest, no matter the reasons above, my life at that time had really lapsed into a pattern of disobedience because I knew what God was calling me to do with my time, my giftings, my health, my finances, and with my life and I just kept doing what I wanted to do instead and hating the results: I was bored, in debt, unhealthy, stagnant and BLAH.
And all of a sudden I realized: I did not like that my actions were speaking things I did not want them to say.
So, I decided to do something about it (hence this blog now exists 🙂 ). I decided to try something new and embrace obedience no matter the cost. I focused in on 2016 as a year of intention and discipline and set out to let my actions truly reflect who I want to be, what I want to do, and how I want to do it. I took it one step at a time (still am) and started with seeking first things first: God, what do you want for me in these next few moments, next few days, next few months, and what is your plan for me to get there? How can I walk in obedience and move towards you, instead of disobeying and walking in my own way?
As I sought the answers to these questions through those four principles of abiding (prayer, meditation, confession, and focused intent), I harnessed and submitted my will to act on them as well. And the result: I feel like I am truly alive for the first time in a very long time. I am seeing God move in and around me each day (even on the difficult ones and yes, those still happen), I am learning something new on the regular (which I love), I am watching the acts of obedience build positive things all around me, and I wake up most days (not everyday just yet) with an excitement and a hope and an anticipation for the cool things that are going to happen.
And best of all, I love love love what my actions are speaking to the world around me.
Maybe you have come to that point as well. You know why you are here, you have a good idea of what or where or who God wants for your life, but you have been stuck in a pattern of disobedience that has been causing distress on the inside and out. Your heart and mind have not matched up with your actions, and you are ready for a change. You are ready for your actions to speak louder than your words in a good way, and truly reflect who you are and who you want to be. If so, now is the time my friend! Harness that will, take ownership of those actions, and move into the obedience that brings hope and freedom and peace.
What do I do now?
So, let’s get straight to the point this week: What are your actions saying about you? What are they shouting to the world around you? Are they saying: look at time, I am abiding and getting as close to Christ as possible and bearing some delicious fruit? Are they screaming: Look at me, I only care about myself and what matters to me, and making money or having success in my life? Are they whispering: please don’t look at me, I do not want to be seen or noticed, I just want to do what I can to get by before I die? Are they not saying anything… just on mute because your actions are really not present; most of the days are spent with your head down and hiding because you are afraid you might fail, afraid to try, afraid that
This week, I encourage you to intertwine the last three secrets we have talked about into your daily life. Grab a sheet (or more) of paper and write down (change the wording if it suits you better) the following:
I am here to bear this fruit… [fill in one or more fruits you are aware of right now].
To bear fruit, I must abide (get as close as I can to Christ) by… [fill in one or more ways you can pursue abiding in your life].
To abide, I must decide to obey (put these thoughts and words into action) by… [fill in one more more ways you will live out your obedience through abiding and bearing fruit this week].
Mine looks a little something like this:
I am here to bear fruit in loving others (my husband, children, and the people around me) and using my gifts in service (through writing, mentoring, and teaching).
To bear these fruits, I must abide by meditating on Scripture, staying in prayer, and reviewing my focus when the evidences of abiding are not present (found this to be very important for an attitude adjustment last week).
To abide in these ways, I must decide to obey by setting aside the first of my day as my time to read Scripture and choose what I want to meditate on, looking for and utilizing opportunities to pray (meals, going to preschool, before naps and bedtime, if anyone is scared or hurt or in need), and prioritizing Monday mornings for my Sabbath rest (in which I review, renew, and refocus for each week).
Once you have written yours out, I encourage you to put it somewhere where you might see it throughout the day. For me, it is currently hanging by a magnet on the fridge in our kitchen because that is where I spend the majority of my time. By writing it out, it allows me (and you) to set a focus and begin the first steps of obedience through a resolve to see these things become a reality. By posting it in a place we can regularly see, it serves as a reminder to take the second step in obedience and actually act upon our intent and resolve. As we resolve and act, resolve and act, and actually live out the obedience… you might be surprised at how everyone starts to take note and things start to change around you (little by little or even big by big)… because as we all know, our actions really do speak louder than our words.♥
“The branch does not bear fruit by struggling, but by abiding” (p.29).
Envision you are walking through a beautiful vineyard right around sunset. The lighting is perfect and your senses are overwhelmed by the sweet smells of blossoming flowers and ripened fruits, the breathtaking views of green and purple and brown, the soft sounds of nature as they sing a melodious song, maybe you are sipping the sweet nectar of a recent harvest as you stroll along, and the air is light and clean and just slightly warm against your skin as a gentle breeze passes by. All is calm and at peace and wonderful.
Now imagine the same experience, but this time, instead of the soft sounds of nature, you hear the horrific screams of labor and anguish as the branches among the vines struggle to grow and create and bear life-giving fruit; much like a multitude of women all in the throes of labor with moaning, screaming, and wailing as life is born out of pushing, pulling, intensity and pain. Not exactly calm and peaceful and wonderful this time, huh?
Fortunately for us, branches do not have to go through birthing pains to produce life, and Jesus chose to use their example versus that of a laboring woman to show us what it means to truly live and bear fruit through this concept of abiding. And while the graphic above was mainly chosen because I found humor in its existence (LOL), it actually gives a realistic portrayal of what it means when we truly “abide” as the method to bearing fruit. Instead of struggling and working and trying to make the fruit happen on our own, we are actually encouraged to spend more time resting, calming, and getting as close to Christ as possible (just like branches on the vine in the peaceful vineyard) in order to bear the best fruit.
The Closer the Better
I don’t know about you, but the word “abide” is not a part of my normal vocabulary. In fact, outside of Christian conversation, I do not believe I have ever used it (who knows, maybe you use it all the time?!). So, to really understand it, I had to look it up and get to know its definition. According to a variety of dictionaries, abide means to stay, to continue, to accept, to follow, to remain close to or even within. It implies a measure of proximity, and in this way, to truly abide infers the closer the better. What an amazing concept when we think about our lives: to truly live a productive and fruitful life, we need to abide, to get as close to Christ as possible (the closer the better) and remain there as long as possible.
While this sounds wonderful, and paints a pretty picture for us to visualize, again I press in for the practical. And thankfully, Warren answers with four recommendations on how we can abide in Christ so that we can remain as close as possible and have this closeness, this abiding, infiltrate our every moment.
- Get Close with Meditation: I think I have heard this somewhere before (I guess that means I should take note and listen), possibly in the last book we read. It makes sense that the same process associated with abiding would be involved with ordering our private worlds: both are about lining up our lives with Christ and living out His Will each day. As a reminder, meditation in this context is not the stereotypical yoga pose of clearing your mind for hours at a time. Instead, it is a purposeful, repetitive focus on truth that allows us to integrate whatever we are repeating to influence our hearts and minds. A personal example is from a time when I was actually in counseling (and not the counselor 🙂 ) dealing with a specific type of phobic anxiety. My counselor recommended that I meditate on a truth that I wanted to implement in my life when it came to my anxiety, and she recommended the acronym of CALM, which stood for Christ Always Loves Me. Whenever I started to feel anxious, I was to meditate: close my eyes, repeat this word, reflect on its meaning, and let the truth of these words influence me in such a way as to decrease my nerves. As the practice gets repeated in a variety of situations, this response becomes second-nature and extinguishes the anxiety (which it did for me). To this day, it is a practice I have maintained and love to use with Scriptures, truthful cliches, and important lessons I learn for anything in life (not just anxiety).
- Get Close with Prayer: In addition to meditating, being in conversation with God draws us closer to Him. This just makes logical sense right?! Think of our most intimate human relationships like marriage or parenting (not the friend you only see once a year and can pick right up with; that is a unique relationship and while seemingly close, is a different form of intimacy): it is very rare to find healthy marriages or parent-child relationships when communication is lacking. In fact, I would easily say that this is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest, that bring families and couples into my office as a counselor. Communication has stopped, and with it intimacy, respect, understanding, and peace have left as well. The same situation can happen in our relationship with Christ. When we stop communicating, we stop getting to know Him and sharing ourselves with Him, and over time, we will start to grow apart. However, once communication has been restored, and when these families/ couples start talking and laughing and sharing once again, you can see the bonds of intimacy rebuild and remain. Again, the same holds true of our relationships with Christ: when we re-establish communication through prayer, in both talking to and listening to Him, its pulls us into intimate relationship with Him. If abiding or getting close is the goal, then communicating is key.
- Get Close with Confession: One aspect of communication that is not always easy, but incredibly freeing and healing, is that of confession. When we leave things in the dark or hidden, it keeps us from authentically sharing who we are when we communicate. And this always keeps us from genuine intimacy or closeness, which is necessary for abiding (remember, the closer the better). This is where another metaphor, the elephant in the room, helps us to understand the importance of acknowledgement and confession. Imagine God is inviting you to come and abide with Him in the living room of your house. You hear Him calling to you while you are in your bedroom, and you desire to go spend time with Him so you set out for the door to make it to where He is. However, the thing that you do not want anyone to know about (even though technically He does know about it) is an elephant blocking the door to your room. Until you acknowledge that the elephant is there and deal with its door-blocking presence, you will only be able to hear the Lord calling from afar. This is done through the process of confession, where we invite the Lord into our room, the most intimate of intimates, and let Him see the elephant and mess we call our own and find forgiveness and redemption and intimacy as we break through any barriers keeping us from Him. Once we confess and invite Him into these things, we can get as close as possible without these hindrances.
- Get Close with Focused Intent: Getting close to God does not just happen on accident (although it might be nice if it did). Because our God is all about free will and choice, He allows us to choose whether or not we want to abide in Him. Just like many things in life (obtaining an academic degree, remaining faithful in a marriage, losing weight/living a healthy exercise of proper diet and exercise, etc.) it all begins with a choice. I can choose to eat doughnuts all day long and hang out on the couch and watch my waist size increase while not enjoying the process (although the doughnuts and couch do sound tempting) or I can choose to have an occasional doughnut, enjoy occasional movie nights on the couch, and still exercise, eat right, and enjoy a certain level of fitness. Similarly, for many in the world, the choice to pursue a relationship with Christ is an obvious “No” and they utilize their intent and will for things outside of fruit bearing and abiding. However, if your heart’s desire is to have meaning through a fruitful existence, and you want to know and grow in God’s presence, then you have the ability to focus your intent on getting to know Him. You can choose to spend time meditating, praying, confessing, and intentionally seeking out opportunities to get as close as you can to Him this side of heaven.
When we make the time and space for each of these important practices in our lives, it allows us to stay close to Christ and truly abide in Him and His love. And according to both Jesus and Warren, the closer we get and the longer we stay, the more fruit we produce.
How does this apply to me?
So, not only do we have a why/reason for living in this goal of fruit bearing, but now we also have the how, or method of living, through the process of abiding. Sometimes having the how does not feel like enough though. Sometimes we meditate, pray, confess, and focus our intent but are not sure if it is really making a difference. Sometimes the world still gets to us and lies to us that God is far away or distant or maybe your abiding just really is not working. I know that sometimes I fall into this trap and faulty line of thinking, and so I am thankful that Warren speaks to that as well in this chapter.
As both a challenge and an encouragement, Warren reminds us that “we never have to ask ‘Am I abiding in Christ?’ because there will be several [more like six 🙂 ] evidences in out lives when we are in communion [abiding] with the Lord” (p.33). If you are feeling discouraged in your abiding or have just started this abiding adventure, look for these things in your life to affirm that there is evidence of “the closer the better” in your own life:
- There will be fruit: See previous post on fruit bearing (LOL). For real though, if you are truly abiding and getting as close to Christ as possible, it will be natural to bear the fruit we discussed in the first chapter. You will naturally start seeking to help others and show them Christ, begin operating out of a holy and honorable character, seek to share your possessions with others, produce good work, and assume a stance of gratitude in all things. If you see these blossoming within and around you, you are on the right track!
- There will be pruning: Aw yes… the dreaded d-word: DISCIPLINE. As you get closer to Christ and stay there, He will begin to reveal things in your life that are not helpful for your own growth process, maybe a weed here or there or a stem that it not being used or a bit of old fruit that was not picked, and He will prune them to allow further growth and health. Sometimes this process can be painful or discouraging in the moment. I know when my mom comes and prunes my rosebushes (I do not garden remember), I always feel so bad for the poor things. They go from being HUGE and beautiful and flowering to being cut down almost all the way to the ground. After pruning, they appear small and naked and I am just a tad hesitant that maybe they will not come back. But every year, they grow back bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than ever, because the pruning process has allowed them to conserve their strength, survive during the winter, and flourish in the spring. If it is your season to be pruned, there may be some pain involved and you may feel naked or small or question your own resiliency, but I encourage you to trust the gardener, as He definitely knows what He is doing. Take heart, your season of growth and health and flourishing is coming!
- There will be humility: Warren calls this a “growing sense of weakness” (p.40) and while I have always loved the idea that in our weakness, He is strong, I actually prefer the term humility here because it is really less about strength and more about recognizing we need more of Him and less of our selves. We are quickly understanding that in order to bear the best fruit and be the best branch we can, we have to be connected to something outside of ourselves that is thriving and healthy. We need something outside of us to care for us and give us all that we need, including a good pruning here and there. We admit that there are many things we cannot do on our own, and we humble ourselves with the recognition that He truly is the vine and we truly are the branches. Apart from Him, we cannot do anything substantial and so we recognize our place/position in life as one of humility.
- There will be answered prayers: When we are spending time in prayer and abiding in Christ, we will be able to take note of the answers to these prayers occurring in the world around us. We will see God at work in our hearts, our minds, our circumstances, our loved ones, and anything we bring to Him in prayer. Remember though, sometimes these answers will not be what we had hoped for or wanted. There are definitely a few things that have been on my prayer list for years and I know without a doubt that they are not going unanswered, but the answer is “not yet.” I know this, because I have observed the power of prayer in my life for quite some time, and I can see the confirmations of what is to come even though the answer I am looking for has not yet happened. Same with the answer of “no.” Although it is difficult to hear most times, a negative answer is still an answer, and if we are truly abiding, we will see this as answered prayer in our lives as well as guidance and direction about what not to do next.
- There will be love for others: If you have been in church or in Christian circles for some time, you will have probably heard the verse “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In fact, it is often one of the first verses I have seen children learn because it is so foundational and also nicely short and sweet. But this little verse has a huge truth behind it, that God not only loves us, but IS love and this love is so big that it is contagious. Thus, when we spend time with Him and in Him and get as close as possible to Him, we cannot help but overflow with this same love for others in our lives. This means we genuinely care for people we have not even met as well as the people that are closest to us (although sometimes loving strangers is easier) and this love influences our daily interactions. We operate with the loving characteristics described in 1 Corinthians 13 in that we are patient, kind, honorable, secure, selfless, protective, trustworthy, steadfast, and hopeful.
- There will be joy from the inside out: And finally, if we are truly abiding, we will have this crazy joy that starts from the inside out, regardless of whatever is happening around us. I always envision someone totally at peace and smiling in the midst of utter chaos (miraculous mayhem anyone?) or Paul singing while in prison when I think about peace and joy that surpass all understanding. When we are rooted and grounded by abiding in Christ, we are not moved by our present circumstances, but we get to operate out of the joy that comes from knowing Him and remaining in Him.
The beauty of these six evidences is that they are very difficult to create on our own (they have to come from an external source) and they are seasonal (much like fruit bearing). Thus, it is rare, but possible, that we will be experiencing the full force of all six at once. However, as you continue to abide, you will be able to observe all six present in your life at specific times. For instance, I am currently in a fruitful season in my life where love and joy and being humbled by what God is doing and all of the answered prayers are all around. This is not my season of pruning (last time I checked, it is not wise to prune something while it is bearing fruit), but I had been in a difficult season of pruning leading up to this time. And I know that I will enter into a pruning season once again, but for now am going to enjoy the fruit for as long as I can!
What do I do now?
As a recap: Last week, we were challenged to spend some time pondering our own meaning of life and determining if fruit-bearing was a good fit (while I believe it is, this is a choice we each have to make and determine for ourselves). If that decision has been made (even if it is only for a trial run 🙂 ), then you get to move on to the next step which is to look at abiding as the means to which we bear fruit. In doing so, I encourage you to take time this week to review your life (maybe during your Sabbath time??) and see if any of the six evidences above are present and how. Are any not present? Any thoughts as to why?
Maybe, like me, the majority of the six are present, and you are excited because you have been desperate to be abiding with Christ and have really been getting as close as you can and are seeing the fruits of this time with Him. Enjoy this realization, but also be cautious! I find that when things are going great like this, I need to PERSEVERE in my abiding time, as it often gets pushed aside because things are going so well. I do not want to stop abiding because things are good (could you imagine if the branch just left in the middle of the harvest?) but instead want to press in deeper and bear as much as I can during this season of productivity.
Maybe, like other times in my life, you are in the middle of a pruning season, which I know from experience can be difficult and sometimes discouraging. I encourage you to take heart and continue to abide, even if it is out of desperation. I have often found that these are the times when I really build up my spiritual reserves, when I find the joy welling up from the inside out (even though it does not make sense), and the humility that presents is actually a relief because I can rest in the fact that God is in control and there is nothing I can do but wait on Him, abide in Him, and get as close as I can during this time.
Maybe you have never really understood or heard of this whole abiding thing, other than in passing, and have noted that pretty much all of the six or at least most of them are missing from your life. This would not surprise me at all, given the current state of our world and even the current state of most Christians. Abiding is not something we talk about very often, especially since it requires time and rest, two concepts we know are significantly lacking in most of our lives. Be encouraged; if you are reading this then the option to abide and draw close to Christ is still available if you are willing to embrace it and move towards Him.
Regardless of your current situation, I challenge all of us to focus our intent 🙂 on abiding in the next month (feel free to keep it going for the next year and beyond but it is good to start somewhere) as we finish out this book. Refer back to the four ways we abide and resolve to intertwine them in your daily life. Start with only one if that is most manageable, but then look to add in the others until all four are regularly present. In doing so, my prayer is that we will all begin to enjoy abiding in its fullest sense… and experience the truth of “the closer the better.” ♥
Why am I here? What is the point of life? What does it all mean? Does it even really matter?
I think we all have asked these questions at least once, if not multiple times throughout life… I know I have. And there are a variety of voices that are quick to give us answers: we are here to have fun and pursue as much pleasure as we can (YOLO), we are here because we have evolved into the best animal ever (at least for now), we are here because some cosmic explosion occurred millions of years ago and we are the current result, and even that there is no reason we are here; it is just coincidental and does not matter so just do whatever (we are all going to die and be nothing anyway).
For some, these proposed answers might work for a time, but for me, they have always left me wanting. There is too much precision, too much obvious attention to detail and timing and happenings in this world for me to believe I am just the result of a cosmic accident or evolving amoeba or that there is no point at all. My heart and mind and soul all cry out in one accord:
THERE HAS GOT TO BE MORE!
And fortunately, there is a response that stands out and addresses my innate need for more: embracing the reality of being created by a Creator on purpose with a purpose for a purpose. Warren (expounding upon the original truth shared by Jesus) describes this process as bearing fruit, or being productive in the world around us, with the amazing metaphor of a vine and its branches. This picture provides us with a visualization as well as a foundation from which we can truly understand why we are here, and operate from as we live out the life we’ve been given.
Why We are Here
Jesus tells us, and Warren reiterates, that the main reason we are here is to “bear fruit” in our lives. This “fruit” can take a variety of shapes and sizes, but basically “bearing fruit” means I am accomplishing my special purpose in this world, or in other words, being purposefully productive. It means searching for and then living out the calling on my life, and purposefully thinking, speaking, and acting in such a way that accomplishes the tasks I have been given in this world.
***Warning: This book has an unusual flow (LOL) in which it technically works backwards (at least from my point of view). It starts with the question of why are we here and the answer of fruitbearing, and then moves into the how of making that happen in the next chapter. So next week, we will be looking at how to bear fruit through abiding and then how to abide through obeying and so on and so forth. One day, I want to read this book from back to front and see how it changes my perspective, so if you enjoy it, this might be something fun for you too 🙂 ***
While talking about fruit-bearing is nice and pretty to think about, I personally need a little bit more to really understand and apply it. Fortunately, Warren describes six things we can look for in our own lives to see if we are or are not being “fruitful.” Take a look:
- Winning Others to Christ and Helping them Grow: As Christians, we understand that our mission is invite others to Christ and disciple them as they live out their faith. For some, this means being incredibly outspoken and in the spotlight about who they are and the God they serve. For others, this means playing an important role in the background, working one-on-one in building relationships, and being quietly encouraging as they live out their faith. As you will see throughout this chapter, the focus is not on the “how” at this moment (that is next week) but the results: do the people around you know who you are, and does your interaction with them (quiet or loud) show them Christ and help them grow?
- Practical Holiness: My best understanding of this fruit is the idea of being transformed from the inside out. It is going beyond the actions we can see in our interactions with others (mentioned above) and getting to the heart/mind of the matter. Warren describes it as “nothing else but the beauty and character of God displayed in our everyday lives” (p.19). In other words, are your insides turned toward what is good, what is honorable, what is positive (Phil. 4:8). Are your hearts/minds in the right place? Do they seek to do good and have positive thoughts/feelings? Again, the focus is not on the how of making this happen, but whether or not it is something you are experiencing (I promise, the how is next).
- Sharing our Possessions with Others: This is probably one of the easiest fruits to recognize. Warren makes the point that a branch does not bear fruit for itself to eat (so true right?!) but for others to enjoy. Could you imagine an apple tree gobbling up its fruit before you could pick it (LOL)? The same principle goes for us when it comes to accumulating possessions: we do not get all we can just to satisfy ourselves, but we look for opportunities to share what we have. Do you share well with others? Are you cheerfully generous?
- Developing Christian Character: Closely related to practical holiness (whether or not we are becoming Christlike on the inside), this fruit focuses more on the outward expression of who we are and whether we walk in integrity at all times. Most of us are familiar with the saying “character is who you are when no one is looking” and this rings true as an important fruit to consider. If you are truly a branch, and truly bearing fruit, it will occur no matter who is watching. An apple tree does not stop producing because no one is watching to see whether it will or not. This type of character has specific attributes to look for: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galations 2:22-23). Do you see these things in your life or do you find yourself often experiencing the opposites (anger, unrest, impatience, maliciousness, etc.)? Do you maintain your integrity in all environments (work, home, ministry, play) or do you cut corners (no matter the reason)?
- Completing Good Work: Believe it or not, this work actually refers to our particular vocation or occupation. In our jobs, no matter what they are (hotel clerk, McDonald’s cashier, engineer, CEO, police officer, teacher, dentist, stay-at-home mom and everything else), if we are bearing fruit, we will be producing good, cheerful work and see our everyday tasks as important. We will view our current workplace as a place to do good, a place to invest in those around us, and a place to live out the other fruits (winning others to Christ and helping them grow, living out practical holiness and character, being generous, and operating out of gratitude). How do you see the work that you do?? Do you see your job as an important environment for bearing fruit?
- Praising and Thanking God: The final fruit to look for is gratitude. This often stems from purposefully viewing life and all of its good and bad as an amazing gift and taking time to praise and thank the Giver. Do you know how to say thank you? Do you operate out of gratitude, recognizing that even this very life and opportunity to bear fruit is a gift?
How Does This Apply to Me?
All of this is so important because the fruit I was created to bear (not just my amazing kiddos) is special just for me. Just like the fruit you were created to bear is special just for you. As Warren describes, you have been put exactly where you are in life that you might accomplish a special purpose all your own. “There is fruit to be produced where you are that nobody else can produce but you” (p.16).
This statement literally blows my mind. For every moment that I have been in a tough situation, when I have worked in toxic (relationally) environments or had to endure a frustrating season to breakthrough to the next, or even just lost perspective on my current circumstances, this concept gives me a convicting reality-check on how I am approaching my life.
Do I see each day, as mundane and routine and boring and frustrating as it can be at times, as the place I have been put to bear fruit (be productive and purposeful) in ways that NO ONE ELSE can? Do I really experience the significance and worth endowed by my Creator, the value that has been given in the unique being that is ME, the awe of being fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139) for my exact position, location, vocation?
Bear with me (LOL… sorry I could not turn down the pun) for one more word picture. If you are not digging the fruit aspect, think of it in this way instead: Have you ever worked on a puzzle and gotten down to the last piece, only to find that it is missing? Maybe the dog ate it, maybe it never made it into the box from the factory, maybe it is lost forever under the couch; no matter what happened to it, the puzzle is now unfinished. All of that work has occurred, every other piece is in its proper place, and yet the absence of one piece leaves the entire puzzle incomplete, lacking, and undone. The size of the piece is irrelevant, whether it is big or little, there will always be something missing and because of the way puzzles are made, there is no replacing it with anything but the original.
This is what it looks like when you and I do not bear our special fruit or live out our piece of the puzzle. The whole of humanity is not complete, and we leave the big picture around us lacking and undone. You and I each have something to contribute, something to add, maybe big or maybe little but definitely something to produce in this lifetime. And this purpose/contribution/fruit/piece of the puzzle bestowed by our Creator gives our life meaning and value and direction (can I get an Amen?).
What do I do now?
The crazy thing about this whole fruit-bearing process is that outside of recognizing the importance of it as our reason for living, we really cannot make it happen on our own. As far as I know, a branch cannot and will not bear fruit on its own or out of its own work (nor does it have the capability to do so). It only bears fruit when connected to the vine and in harmony with the rest of the plant. And it only bears fruit when the core of the plant is healthy enough to sustain and give out fruitbearing life.
With this in mind, our SMARTER not harder application for this week actually starts with just taking an inventory of our current season of fruitbearing. Since we cannot make fruit appear in our lives by ourselves (although we will learn about the “how” behind fruitbearing next chapter), I encourage you to take time this week (maybe during your Sabbath rest and reviewing process 🙂 )to look at the list above and simply take inventory of your harvest. What are the areas you see are producing? Is there anything missing or inactive? Are there ways where you are not being productive or inactive, but actually destructive (hurting others or being ungrateful)?
For me, this means checking to see if I am living out each day in light of my special purpose and positions: loving others (my primary calling), being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend, choosing to use the gifts I have been given/equipped with to counsel, write, teach, and disciple, and serving others with my time, talents, and possessions.
As you are evaluating, take some time to also think through what you truly want in terms of your life. Do you want to bear fruit/be productive, and if so, does your understanding and focus of your life reflect that? The main goal here is resolving your own reason for living and if fruitbearing makes sense, then it gives you the foundational answer (as well as perspective and motivation) to why we are really here.♥
“Life is your most precious possession. Don’t take it for granted. Right now, you are either wasting your life, spending your life, or investing your life. It is you who determines which course to follow” (p.9).
This book is the perfect example of the reality of not judging a book by its cover. In fact, my copy does not even have a cover (I am not joking) because this gem has been out of print for as long as I have known about its existence and the best I could do is a secondhand copy that already had much wear and tear before it ever made it to me. I promise you though, the worth of this book far outweighs its appearance. From the outside, it looks like a worn out, teeny-tiny book that has nothing to offer. It is not even big enough to prop up a table or hold open a door. However, the truth that it holds within its 88 pages (yes, that is all) is life-changing, life-giving, and life-sustaining. As you can tell from the quote above, this little book is all about TRULY living life to its fullest, and it shows us how to do so with an in-depth study of John 15: 1-17.
Why I Chose This Book
It was January 2008 (wow… exactly 8 years ago), and I was struggling. I was one semester in on working towards my PhD, one semester graduated from earning my Master’s in counseling, and I was undone. I was still in school (not my original plan but definitely God’s plan and a blessing in disguise), and I was still not doing what I really wanted to be doing (counseling) and I was really not liking my current state of affairs (no babies, no full-time work, no big plans). So one night while my husband was working late, in a simple act of desperation, I cried out to God in prayer and challenged Him that I would not move from my place on the floor until He spoke to me. In hindsight, I really do not recommend this as a way to interact with our God, but if you knew me personally, you would know I have a bit of a Jacob streak in me and tend to have to limp to truly learn things.
After hours on my knees (no joke) and potentially dozing off, a simple statement came to mind: “be a branch.”
Be a branch?? I know it sounds crazy. Believe me, I thought it was crazy too. But the moment the thought entered my mind, I was calmed with a sense of peace and release, I journaled it right away, and the next day I started researching what in the world it meant to be a branch. My research led me to John 15:1-17 where Jesus describes the true Vine and its branches, and that is what led me to this book. And honestly, my life has never, ever been the same. Through the 5 simple truths and practical applications delivered in the comfortable writing style of Warren Wiersbe, this book has infiltrated my soul with wisdom and knowledge that I draw upon each and everyday. I am so excited to read it again, and even more excited to be able to share this reading with you.
In contrast to our last book, this one is a bit shorter which seems appropriate for the shorter month of February. With that in mind, I am planning on publishing most posts, other than Chapter 1, on the 5 Mondays of this month. If you would like to follow along with me (which I would love!!), here is the schedule I am using:
- Introduction/Preface: This Post right here! 🙂 2/1 Mon
- Chapter 1: Fruitbearing 2/5 Fri
- Chapter 2: Abiding 2/8 Mon
- Chapter 3: Obeying 2/15 Mon
- Chapter 4: Loving 2/22 Mon
- Chapter 5: Knowing 2/29 Mon
My Hope for this Experience
One of my greatest desires for myself as well as everyone I come into contact with (personally and professionally) is that we would learn how to live life to the fullest, to really THRIVE, not just survive. Christ calls this the abundant life and I strongly believe this is the type of living we were created for, even though the majority of us are still searching for it. If you are still searching or not searching but not thriving either, which we all do from time to time even if we have found it, than this book is for you. When I was searching, and definitely not thriving, I was told to “be a branch” and the truths intertwined in this simple, crazy phrase have transformed my life. My hope is that through this month of examining the Vine and the branches, the 5 secrets as revealed through Warren’s interpretation, and spending time looking at our own lives, you would also experience this transformation. Who knows? Maybe you will hear a similar call to be a branch too.♥