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Week Three: You Were Formed for God’s Family aka “We Are FAMILY”

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Last week, we discussed our initial purpose in life: being planned for and living for God’s pleasure. Recognizing this first purpose, we understand ourselves as being made out of His love to then love Him in return. We realize that we find ultimate fulfillment and a joy of our own when we live for Him, and when we do anything and everything unconditionally… just to see Him smile (you can hear the song, can’t you? ūüôā ).

Its amazing to me that God did not stop there, that He was not selfish in this love cycle He created. Instead, He knew that we would want others like us to be around in our lives just like He has others like Him around (the rest of the Trinity) and thus, He created more than one human (it is not good for man to be alone). Enter the first FAMILY, or grouping of connected humans, and our second major purpose in life: being formed for God’s family.

Apparently I am on a song kick, because this past week as I was reflecting on this concept of God’s family, all I could think of was that lovely pop 80’s style song : “WE ARE FAMILY… I got all my sisters with me!” ūüôā I even sang it so much that my 3 year old started singing it too and now it is one of his favorites (sarcastic yay). But seriously, the point of this song (other than to be catchy and make money) was to express the positivity of having family, being a part of a family, and knowing that you have all of your family members with you for fun and support. This is what God wanted for us when He initially created the family. However, as we can see from the original family, blood relatives are not always the best (I am pretty sure Abel felt that way), and along with our souls being damaged and in need of restoration with the entrance of sin, even the family is in need of redemption and thus, God responded with HIS family… or the creation of our spiritual family through the church.

We Are Family

What do you think of when you hear the word family? There are so many meanings in today’s world, and depending on your own experience with family, your thoughts and feelings could be positive or negative or typically, a nice mixture of both. And while there are definite negatives associated with the concept of family, as noted above, those are a result of our sinful, selfish, fallen condition and not what God originally intended. Instead, He meant for the family experience to be positive, and that is why He has given us a second family, our spiritual family comprised of other Christians, in which we can choose to live out the positive aspects of family life through His redemptive guidance and power. When we join God’s spiritual family, these are the benefits we can expect:

  • Living Life Together: One of the greatest things about family, both biological and spiritual, is that it is comprised of more than one person, which means you do not have to go through life alone. You have other people to live life together with, which involves people to share in the ups and downs and provide support, encouragement, and entertainment. With our biological families though, we do not get to choose who we are related to, and so we may still experience loneliness or isolation due to unhealthy dynamics, death, geographical distance, and/or trauma. This is why I love having a spiritual family available to live life with as well. While we technically do not get to choose our “relatives” here either, there are some options as to finding Christian brothers and sisters that we connect with and a church family that we enjoy being a part of. It has been awesome to experience that no matter where I live or where I travel, I can always find extended family members (other Christians) to be “together with” and journey through life. Especially since we currently live hours away from our biological family, it is our spiritual church family that we spend the majority of our time with, share many holidays with, and endure life’s challenges and joys together. If you are feeling lonely and your biological family is either far away or unavailable, I highly encourage you to look for support from your spiritual family: is there a local bible study forming where you could get to know people? What about a local service organization where you could serve with others? If there is a church or missions organization nearby, there is never a time where you would have to be alone. Growing up as an only child, this is music to my ears (LOL)!
  • Cultivating Character Building Community: In addition to having an extended family to share life with, our spiritual family exists with a definitive purpose that many of our biological families lack (although some biological families have this as well): they exist to cultivate our character to become more like Christ. Family from this perspective is not just about keeping a name going or extending a bloodline, but it is about building each other up, holding each other accountable, encouraging each other to find freedom from our sinful past and move towards the freeing future Christ has for us, and helping each other achieve the things God has set before us.¬† When we live life together, we get the chance to do all of the above as well as confess to each other the things we are struggling with, proclaim the things we are excited about, observe each other as we walk in Christ, and share our convictions and constructive criticisms to encourage growth and insight. It is not always comfortable, but being in a spiritual family that cultivates your character is always beneficial.
  • Experiencing Opportunities for Growth through Challenges: While we can have fun living life together and cultivating our characters, being in a spiritual family, just like in our biological family, is not always roses and butterflies. People will still say and do hurtful things, and we will have to determine how we will respond.¬† Fortunately, because with our spiritual family (and sometimes in our biological family as well) we have Christ at the center, we can look at any challenges and conflicts we face as opportunities to live out His love, forgiveness, and reconciliation with each other. Using Matthew 18 and the steps outlined for resolving conflicts within the church and our spiritual family, this¬†means we can lovingly consider, confess, confront, and continue to live life together.

While God does want us to be able to experience all of these benefits of being a part of His spiritual family, I am not naive to think that every church experience is like this. I have been involved with church families that are not beneficial, could be described as toxic, and have lost sight of Christ in the midst of everything else. Because our spiritual family is still comprised of sinful humans, we still have negative experiences amidst the positive. However, if each of us intentionally seeks to live out the benefits noted above; If I seek to live life with you, cultivate our characters to become more like Christ, and utilize the challenges we may face as opportunities for growth, then we can move towards the positive, redemptive experience Christ has in store for us as spiritual brothers and sisters. If your current spiritual family is not doing these things and you are not experiencing the benefits as listed above, then it may be time to prayerfully consider another church family that has similar goals and intents to live out the purpose and plan God has for His family.

 How does this apply to me?

This whole concept of family, both biological and spiritual, is under attack. With a variety of enemies (selfishness, pride, infidelity, revenge, manipulation, etc.), our fallen human condition is often on autopilot to destroy and divide instead of build up and unify. We can see it in our biological families as divorce and death and drama divide us, and these same divisive forces exist in our churches. I personally come from a biological family rampant with division and drama, even to the point of many of my family members no longer talking to each other and being cut off. I am fortunate to have grown up in a strong spiritual family and have always been a part of my local church, but even here I have experienced some of my deepest hurts and faced some of my most significant challenges.

And this is why I am so glad that Rick ends this section’s reading with a focus on the importance of protecting our family. I have been so convicted about this lately in my own heart and life. I know how to love God and be in relationship with Him on my own (being an only child really helped me with that), but living out this love with a family (both biological and spiritual) is totally different. Honestly, it is often a huge struggle for me. While I truly love loving others (it is one of my main passions), there are times when staying home sounds so much better, especially since any event outside of the home (or even in my home for that matter) has morphed since having kids. Not only is it difficult to make it to things, but then expending energy and effort while attending seems even more of a stretch.

However, as I have pondered and prayed, God has really laid it on my heart that there are specific things I can do to purposefully protect and prosper my spiritual family, which I believe starts with my marriage and then extends to my church family.  These things include, but are not limited to, what I am going to refer to as the 5 Ps (to help my memory):

  1. Praying: I need to be purposefully and actively praying for the family in my life (both biological and spiritual). For me, this means my husband, my children, my parents, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and the leadership at my church (elders and lead ministers and families). And while any type of prayer is helpful, I have recently felt lead to pray for each of them by name… to truly battle on their behalf through the power of prayer. While there are many others things I pray for on a regular basis, including loved ones and missions and circumstances, etc., I want to make sure that my family is included, even when they are not currently requesting or seemingly “in-need” of prayer.
  2. Prioritizing: In addition to praying for my family, I know I need to put first things first. In this case, it means making time for my home life first (and ensuring this is in order), then my church family second, and then the other miscellaneous things (like pre-school, art class, work, etc.). When I set aside time in my day or week to attend to these people first, it really makes all the difference for them and for me because they have no doubts of how important to me they are and I do not have to be “stressed” because I know that I have already taken care of what is most important. For me, this means getting up earlier or staying up later than everyone else to get my things completed (quiet time, exercise, shower etc) so that I can make others my priority when they are around.
  3. Participating: When I do prioritize and set aside the time for my family, I want to go beyond just checking that box and actually make sure there is quality time, not just a quantity of time. I love that Rick describes this with the term “focused attention” (p.127) or ensuring that you are present in the moment and attending to the person/people that are with you. For me, this means intentionally putting away my phone or computer and interacting with my children or husband during our times together so that I can focus my attention on them without the distractions of text messages or email or Facebook. It also means not worrying so much about taking pictures of every moment, but actually living those moments (as my 3 year old so often reminds me).
  4. Promoting: This is a big one for me as it means being intentional about focusing on and pointing out the positives of my family. This does not imply that negatives do not exist or that they should not be dealt with, but I find so often that if I choose to dwell on these negative reminders of reality, I miss out on all of the great things taking place as well. For me, I have to be intentional about focusing on and promoting the positives, both to myself as well as when I am speaking to others. A great example of this can be found when considering my church family: do I seek to promote the positives of what they are doing well? Or do I have a tendency to be super critical and only focus on the negatives and things they could do better? To be honest, I have been more on the critical side lately, and it has all been small, insignificant things that I have been judging. When I really step back and think about my church family, there are so many positives that I would much rather promote (the way we love, the way we reach out to the community, the way we invite in and love the broken).
  5. Persevering: I am a firm believer that once you are a part of a family (whether biological or spiritual), you are always a part of that family (although this does not mean that you never change churches; it just means that you are always a child of God at each church you attend). And this means you may at times feel stuck with certain people or in certain places, but I encourage you (and me) to persevere; to remain steadfast in our endeavors to pray, prioritize, participate, and promote with our families. For me, this means applying the 5 Ps¬†in my marriage even when times get rough, staying and seeking to love my children even when they are disobedient and frustrating, and sticking with my church family through the great times and the difficult times (church crisis, current construction, etc.). As promised (Romans 5:3-5), I have found that this persevering results in good things… both for me and for my family!

Our Weekly Challenge:

So when it comes to our family, the challenge for this week is actually two-fold (I know… the posting was late and now there are 2 challenges, but bear with me, they are worth it!!):

  • Examine how you are currently living out Purpose #2: Being Formed for God’s Family in regards to your spiritual family.

How would you describe your current understanding of family? Is it only biological, only spiritual, or a mixture of both? How does this description match up with God’s family as described above? Do you currently belong to a church family and why or why not? If the answer is no, this is where I encourage you to start. While it is easy to find a listing of local churches on the internet, I have found that word-of-mouth is really the best way to find a church. The past two church families we have been a part of were recommended by friends, so this may be a good place for you to start as well. Or maybe you just noticed the sign or live within walking distance, and both of those can work too. No matter how it happens, to start reaping the benefits noted above, the first step is to find and get involved with your local spiritual family.

  • Once you are actively involved in your spiritual family, examine the quality of your interactions.

Are you proactively, purposefully protecting the family that you have? Are you present and participating? Take a look back over the 5 Ps noted above and determine if there is something(s) that resonates with you that you could start doing today. It may be for your husband, for your pastor and his wife, for the people in your small group, or even the lady that always sits in the second seat in the second row at second service on Sunday ūüôā Whatever it is, I pray that you and I will purposefully act to protect and promote the family God has given us… that we may be able to sing (at the top of our lungs if you would like) that… “We are FAMILY… I got all my brothers and sisters with me! ” ‚ô•

 

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Week Two: Planned for God’s Pleasure aka “Just to See Him Smile”

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As humans, we are all about smiles. From the very first smile of an infant to the warmth of a kind smile from a stranger, the smile is one of our best non-verbal communicators.¬† We even have a range of emoticon smiles to choose from so that we can send smiles to each other over text (or email; my students always make fun of me because I am constantly smiling when I type ūüôā ).¬† When its been a great day, a beaming smile shares in the celebration and joy. When its been a bad day, a sympathetic smile offers encouragement, support, and hope.¬† When we are in love, there is nothing better than bringing a smile to the face of our beloved (which in turn, usually makes us smile as well).

So when reading this week and thinking all about smiles, I could not get the chorus of an old Tim McGraw song out of my head. Now I get to share it with you (your welcome):

“Just to see you smile; I’d do anything… that you wanted me to…

When all is said and done, I’d never count the cost; It’s worth all that’s lost…

(ooo ooo) Just to see you SMILE.”

I first loved this song, and its catchy little tune, when I was young and in love and would listen with dreamy eyes and a goofy grin on my face thinking about my boyfriend (now husband). It was summer and the windows were down and we were driving along a country road in the truck and my heart and smile were all a glow (yes, this is actually for real). And when hearing this song since, I always think about him and the romantic context of the song, wanting to do anything and everything to make each other smile (I probably still get the goofy grin).

However, this past week, I heard this song with new ears and a new thought:

Have I ever considered God smiling?

I have envisioned God in multiple public contexts; angry and lightening in his eyes when His wrath is in full rage; eyes closed with silent strong tears, the lines in His face deep and furrowed with grief when sin hurts one of His children yet again; bright and shining and brilliant when standing strong and radiant in all of His glory (so bright that there is not actual facial recognition). Personally, during my quiet time though, I’ve always pictured Him with a serious but soft expression, the perfect balance of grace and justice. All of these I would use to describe my God at different times. But never with a smile.

And yet, this is exactly what Days 8-14 were all about. As Rick focused on Purpose #1 of our lives, he explains that our primary purpose revolves around the fact that we were planned for God’s pleasure. We were created as His children, and much like the motives of many parents today, the whole point in having children was to enjoy His creation and this enjoyment usually brings about the anticipated response: a smile. In essence then, we were created and are here to see God smile.

Just to See Him Smile

In the lyrics above (which you can YouTube to hear as well), Tim McGraw sings an ooey gooey love song about how he would do anything to make his girl smile.¬† While I do not agree with all of the verse lyrics (if you listen to the rest of the song, there are some unhealthy relational dynamics taking place; but that is a different posting), I love the chorus and how he seeks to put his beloved first and selflessly love her no matter the cost to himself.¬† Since most women dream of being pursued by such a partner, the song became a huge hit and even I can remember being captivated and hoping for the same attention of a special someone who would do anything “just to see me smile.”

While this seems standard for romantic relationships, Rick explains that this same dynamic can and should apply to our relationship with God.¬† Our primary purpose, which we have heard before, is acted out through a lifestyle of worship or in other words, living “just to see God smile.” This means we can take Tim’s lyrics above and use them to remind us of how we can live to see God smile. Let’s take a closer look:

“Just to See God Smile…

  • I’d do anything, that He wanted me too…”

The first thing that hits me here is the expanse of this lyric. Note the word ANYTHING… In the context of human relationships, this usually means spending time, money, and effort on the other person. It may occasionally require more, like re-locating or finding a new profession with less responsibilities, but typically the ANYTHING is exciting because of the love that is behind it.

Do we see doing ANYTHING for God in the same light?¬† I’ll do ANYTHING that He wants me to. This anything covers so many things, but Rick gives us some specific examples in our readings of what this might actually look like. In this context, anything includes but is not limited to: loving Him, trusting Him, obeying Him, expressing our gratitude to Him, using the gifts He has given us, talking to Him all the time, thinking about Him and meditating on His word, being honest with Him even when we are angry or upset or doubtful, valuing what He values, getting to know Him for who He really is (not who we think He is but what His word actually reveals to us), persevering and continuing to pursue Him even if we feel He is distant, and making Him a priority in our lives. If we are operating from a place of love, then these things also become exciting as we live out that love in our expression of the anything that makes Him smile.

  • When all is said and done, I’d never count the cost… Its worth all that’s lost.”

So not only is Tim willing to do anything for his girl, but he will not even keep track of how much it costs him, because it is totally worth it. This definitely sounds like how God loves us, especially when it comes to sacrificing His own son, but does it accurately describe how we love Him?

This would mean two main things to me: 1. that we would not keep track of how much doing our “anything” costs us (in time, money, effort, comfort, sleep, etc.) and 2. that we see doing our “anything” as more valuable than the costs we are not keeping track of (time, money, effort, comfort, sleep, etc.). In a world that is obsessed with keeping track of everything (calories, salaries, weather, if you can record it… there is an app to keep track of it I’m sure!), it seems crazy to consider not keeping track of the ANYTHING we have done for anyone, but especially for God. But this is how we want to be loved (as Tim so nicely croons) and it makes sense to me that God might like that kind of love too. Instead, we convert these costs into investments, and choose to see them in a positive light. In the human context, every dollar spent, sleepless night, and dinner out is an investment in the relationship to come. The same applies to our relationship with God; if we are truly living to see Him smile, then all of the “anything” we are doing, even if it is quite costly, is an eternal investment in our relationship with Him.

How does this apply to me?

If I take these two lyrics and their meanings to heart, it totally changes my understanding of what it looks like to live out my faith from a practical perspective. For instance, anything really means anything. On a daily basis, my anything can span from changing dirty diapers (every.single.day) to extending discipline with grace to a disobedient preschooler to making a meal to feed my family to doing my best with my teaching and grading to checking in on and praying for my friends to doing yet another load of laundry to staying up another sleepless night to comfort a crying little guy. Notice it does not say: I will do the biggest, greatest, most public and awesomest thing ever for you. Nope, it says anything… which encompasses the big and the little but most importantly, the things that your beloved wants most. This one is not so difficult for me; I had to figure out long ago that if I was going to find meaning in the most menial and mundane of the daily tasks I complete, I would have to see it as if doing it for the Lord, which gives me a great sense of purpose when cleaning and cooking and hanging out with my kiddos. Since God has called me to be a wife and mother and friend, etc., each of the tasks I complete within these roles is doing my anything. Sometimes I lose sight of it (as noted in last week’s posting on perspective), but most often, I’ve got this one down.

To be completely transparent, its the second lyric that I struggle with the most. This week, as I was praying and pondering and writing, I realized that I have a tendency to keep track of my “anything” (both against my husband as well as against God) and occasionally like to remind both of them of all that I am doing for them. I use my records as leverage or to justify something that I want in an effort to control our relationship, because like many other humans, I have a tendency to operate from an if…then… mentality.¬† If I do this for you, then you will do this for me. But in reality, this is not how I want to be treated and this is not how true love works.

I do not have to remind God of all that I have done for Him so that He will love me or care for me or be there for me; He does that already. And His love will not change based on what I do or do not do for Him.  What I do for Him is really about me expressing my love to Him in return.  When I see it in this light, I do not have to keep track or count the costs, because I can see them as the investments and gifts that they truly are (same goes for my husband; If I am really being the wife that I want to be, then the investment of my anything is worth any cost; but that is another posting yet again).

Our Weekly Challenge:

What about you? Do you see the tasks around you: your work, your family roles, your ministries, your schoolwork, your marriage, your parenting, etc., as the ANYTHING you would do to see God smile? Are you keeping track of all these things and counting them as costs or do you see them as investments? What would it look like if we really took these lyrics to heart and applied them to our lives?

This week, I encourage you to start with the first lyric: Are you willing to do anything to see God smile? Anything? For real ANYTHING? ūüôā Yes, for real ANYTHING.

I’m betting that you probably have a good idea of at least ONE thing that God has wanted you to do with your life that would result in a smile on His face. I know I do. It might be choosing to keep loving a certain someone even though it may be frustrating, continuing in a certain job even though its not your favorite, stepping up in a certain ministry role although you are a little insecure or out of your comfort zone, or maybe even something fun like saying Yes to a vacation because its been years and God wants you to enjoy this world He has created.

And then add in the second lyric: Convert any costs to investments.

It is important to note that this may be easier during different seasons of life. Even though you may be sacrificing some money as a tithe, some time on Wednesday nights for ministry, and some sleep one weekend a year to volunteer at a Youth Conference, you are still having fun and so the “costs” do not feel so bad. But what about when life gets hard? When the ANYTHING is something that is not fun or what you really want to do? When the job is still difficult but He does not open another door (because maybe He has a reason for you to be there), when the husband/wife keeps getting further and further away be He does not release you from the marriage and asks you to keep praying, keep pursuing, when the healing does not come but He encourages you to live every moment that you still have in hope versus fear? This is when we are really encouraged to choose to see the eternal investment, to show our love back to Him, and to sing the song over and over again in our hearts as we press on. I do not expect that it will always be easy, but I do know that I choose to see the difficult anythings as my investment in both the present and the future.

I don’t know about you, but I am actually excited to see what this will look like as I implement it in my life. I know that so far, from having a head start (since this posting has taken me about a week to get together), I have found myself humming the tune off and on with a lighter heart and focused intent to see my anything as an investment throughout the day. I pray that you will too, and that together we can live out our initial purpose of being planned for His pleasure and make His “ANYTHING” a priority in our lives … just to see Him smile.‚ô•

Secret Five: Knowing aka “Come‚Ķ and Know Me Better Man”

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If you have never experienced the masterpiece that is known as The Muppet Christmas Carol, then you may be wondering what in the world the above picture is and/or that it is the strangest model of Jesus you have ever seen (which it is not Jesus or even meant to be Jesus, so no worries here). Even if you have seen the movie, which just happens to be one of my all time favorites (light the candle not the rat; light the candle not the rat ūüėČ ), you are probably still a little confused as to why this picture was chosen for this blog and if I have potentially lost my mind just a little bit. Well have no fear, the answer to all shall be revealed and probably is a combination of some of¬†all of the above.

During the past couple of weeks, while I was finishing reading Secret Five: Knowing and also recovering from a horrible flu virus that has been attacking our family for the last month (hence this post is quite late), I had some large amounts of time to reflect on this final chapter and its incredible gift of wisdom. And honestly, each time I would reflect, all I could see and hear (it might have been the cough syrup I am not going to lie) was the character portrayed above, also known as the muppet version of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

This second visitor to Scrooge, focused on the present Christmas moments, is by far my favorite. ¬†For those of you unfamiliar with this movie, this Ghost of Christmas Present is a jolly, bright, welcoming muppet with kind eyes, a warm smile, and inviting voice. He introduces himself by welcoming Scrooge to a large feast, filled with all the amazing and delicious foods associated with Christmas, and encouraging him to “Come and know me better man!” His job in the movie is to open Scrooge’s eyes to what is happening in the present as a result of his “bah humbug” behaviors and impart the knowledge of what Christmas is really about. I cannot help it: every time I see and hear this character on the movie, I just want to hug him and join in on the festivities (especially the feasting) because his presence is so inviting. I honestly cannot even stop from smiling while writing this and thinking about it.

And while smiling and thinking and hearing the muppet’s voice, it struck me:¬†Do I respond to Jesus the same way I do to this muppet character (a question I never dreamed I would ever ask ūüôā )?

For real though, do I see Jesus as warm, welcoming, loving, and jolly? Do I see Him as inviting me (and you) to partake in an amazing delicious feast and enjoy spending time together? Do I hear HIS VOICE saying “Come‚Ķ and Know me Better man (Sara)!” Because if we look through the Scriptures, I am pretty sure all of the above (minus the muppet part) is true. Jesus came not only to give us life, but also to connect with us in the here and now (the present) and help us to get to know God in the flesh so that we can also know God in the spirit. And herein lies the fifth and final secret to living: getting to know God.

“Come… and Know Me Better Man!!”

This one-liner that has been haunting me for the past couples of weeks (I obviously need to watch the movie again ūüôā ) has truly¬†been changing my perspective on getting to know God. When I started to examine the questions above as to my response to Jesus versus this fictional character, I realized that while I have always loved Go, it has been more from afar. I have never really viewed his invitation in such a welcoming, intimate, and inviting way. I have always seen it more as Him getting to know me (letting Him into my life, sharing my thoughts and dreams, looking to Him for my next steps and following His will) versus me getting to know Him (who He is, what He likes/dislikes, letting me into His life, getting to know His thoughts and dreams). He does not say, “Come and let me know you better”‚Ķ He says “Come‚Ķ and get to know me better!”

And yet, as Warren explains, this getting to know Him process is the whole foundation of everything when it comes to our life; both in terms of our original existence as well as our Christian living. Think about it: when we were first created, it was with the intent¬†to know and learn (for example, experiencing and naming the animals) about our world with a rational mind created with logic and the ability to ponder and analyze. We were also created from the very beginning to exist in relationship, both with God and with each other. So, from day one, we were created to KNOW things and to KNOW God by getting to KNOW¬†His creation as well as by being in relationship with and getting to KNOW Him. From day one, He was the first one to ever say “Come‚Ķ and KNOW me better man!”

And since we did not seem to grasp this and instead turned against Him and looked for other avenues of knowing (like sin and fruit and Satan and death), He even sent Jesus in the flesh to pursue us and invite us yet again to come and know Him. And this time, Jesus goes one step further and in my mind, embodies the invitation of the present because he welcomes us as FRIENDS. Can you believe that? Sometimes, it is actually hard for me to believe, but I am glad that Jesus used this picture because it creates a sense of invitation and intimacy much like the one of the muppet that has been used throughout this post. If Jesus and I are friends, then we are going to hang out, we are going to eat yummy food together, we are going to do fun things together, and we are BOTH going to get to know each other (not just Him getting to know me or me getting to know Him).

How does this apply to me?

Friendship with Jesus and knowing God better both sound great to me (especially if there is hanging out, yummy food, and fun things involved) but again, what does this look like practically? Last time I checked, I have not actually met Jesus in the flesh per se, and as I am typing this, He is not visibly sitting on the couch beside me drinking a cup of tea or waiting to go get nachos (although that would seriously be awesome!!!). According to Warren (and sounding very similar to Gordon’s idea of spending time in the garden), we get to know God when we spend quality time with Him on a regular basis (yep, sounds like a friendship to me). Practically, he recommends:

  • Knowing¬†God Through Physical Presence (our bodies): I don’t know about you, but there is something about being in the same physical space as someone that helps the “getting to know you” process. When our bodies share space, we breathe the same air, experience similar weather and sensations, and take part in sub-concious interactions with non-verbal and chemical communication. This allows us to get to know each other on multiple levels, and this is why most of the deepest human relationships require some form of physical relationship (such as going out to coffee, hanging out for a game/movie night, getting nails done, etc.) to really grow. I know I see this in my deepest relationships; even though the majority of my “best” friends are far away, we take every opportunity we can get to spend time together as much as possible. It is not just about being in the same space that is important, but it is being willing to sacrifice and take the time and effort to be in the space that matters as well. When I get to see my friends that are out of town, I usually have to travel too‚Ķ which requires moving my body and utilizing my body to honor our friendship. If I am willing to do so for my human relationships, it makes sense to me that this would be the case with our relationship with God too. If I really want to know God, and get to know Him in our friendship, then I need to be willing to physically spend time with Him as well as utilize my body and its abilities in support of our relationship. While this sounds weird to me as I am writing it, the example that keeps coming to mind is actually moving my body out of bed to do my quiet/prayer time in the morning. THIS IS THE TOUGHEST PART OF MY DAY!!! It is so hard for me to get out from under the covers while it is still dark and get to my prayer chair, but it is the giving of my body in this way that really helps me to know and grow in my relationship with the Lord. While I can (and do) still pray staying in my bed, I also have a tendency to fall back asleep and am less likely to get into the Word when this happens. My selfishness has decided that I win and my body works for me, instead of sacrificially using my body to support the relationship.
  • Knowing God Through Mental Presence (our minds): In addition to being “with” someone in body and being physically present, I think it is just as important (if not more so) to also be willing to share our minds with someone and be mentally present as well. I cannot tell you how many time, especially as a mom, I have felt so bad because while I am physically present and trying to have coffee with a friend while my kids are running around, I can barely pay attention because‚Ķmy kids are running around ūüôā It is very hard to truly get to know another person with distractions such as this, because even if I catch some of what is being said, I am not likely to retain any of it because he/she does not have my full attention. Once again, this hits me deep when I think about applying a similar principle to my relationship with God. So often, if I do make the time to be physically present (at church, in my quiet time, during small group), I am horribly distracted in my mind while I try to plan my grocery list, think about what needs to be accomplished tomorrow, or zone out because its the only time where no one is requiring my attention. And if I am distracted by these things when I am with God, just like being distracted with one of my friends, I am not likely going to be aware of what is really happening or going to retain any of the knowledge He is imparting because I am not really paying attention. My takeaway from this one: when I actually give my body to God and make it out of bed in the morning, I should probably check on my mind too and see if I can give Him my full attention as well. I might actually get to know Him a little better this way! ūüėČ
  • Knowing God Through Our Actions (our wills): If I am taking the time to be present, both physically and mentally with my friends, then it is very likely that I will get getting to know them and growing our friendship through our interactions. As this process takes place, I will get to know what they like and do not like, the things that make them smile, and the things that are most important to them. And if this is happening, then I will probably start to ACT on some of these things to be friendly and show them that I care. For instance, I found out years ago that my god-sister, whom I love dearly, loves caramel apples. They are one of her favorites and so anytime that we are together on vacation (our families vacation together on a bi-yearly basis), I do everything I can to find a caramel apple. Why? Because I want my WILL aka my actions to show her how much I care, that I know her, and I was thinking of her and loving her. Once again, when applied to my relationship with the Lord, this makes so much sense. If I want to get to know Him and grow our relationship, then I would look for similar opportunities to allow my actions to show Him that I know Him and care about Him. This might not involve a caramel apple, but instead might look like choosing to make financial decisions based on His principles of stewardship or sponsoring a child through a missions organization or even something like complementing a stranger on how I love her hair/nails/shirt. The point here is that I utilize my ACTIONs towards Him, just like I choose to do for my friends.
  • Knowing God Through Transparency (our hearts): This is probably one of the hardest ones for me in friendships, mainly because it is difficult for me to be vulnerable at times (I am working on this one). However, this one to me is where we choose to intentionally share ourselves with each other, meaning our thoughts and feelings and the deepest parts of our hearts. This is where true friendships really shine, because as we hang out, get to know each other, grow our friendships by acting kindly toward one another, we build trust and share the not so pretties with each other. And if we can do this and still choose to stick with each other, it creates a bond that grows stronger over time and can provide much comfort, encouragement, and support as we go through this life. I am blessed to have several of these friendships, where I feel safe and secure enough to share my heart with my friend and know that she can do the same with me. As I am writing this, I am envisioning that God wants us to know Him in this way too. That we can go to Him with our truest self, share our hearts, and seek out opportunities to get to know His heart as well. However, there is a question that keeps coming to mind on this one for me: Do I make myself available for God to share His heart with me too?? If one of my friends needs to talk, I do my best to make time for it as soon as I can. Do I do this with the Lord as well? Something for me to be thinking on as we continue‚Ķ maybe something for you to ponder as well.

Thus, as a re-cap, to practically get to know each other (as well as God), we can do so by being physically present, mentally present, using our actions to serve one another, and sharing our hearts with each other. Much like the way these  getting to know each other methods create a foundation for our human friendships that can then provide comfort, support, and enjoyment throughout life, the beauty of using these same principles in getting to know God is that it provides the foundation for everything else we have talked about with the other 4 secrets of living. Warren says it best:

“You can see how these four elements work together with the five secrets I have been sharing with you. The secret of living is fruitbearing, and the secret of fruitbearing is abiding. What is the secret of abiding? It is obeying: give God your will. What is the secret of obeying? It is loving: give God your heart. What is the secret of loving? It is knowing: give God your mind” (p.83).

So What do I do now?

There are so many directions we could go in for this last SMARTER not HARDER challenge for February’s book club, but I think I am leaning towards taking an inventory one more time. How well do you really know God? Would you consider Him a friend (all reverence still intended)?

If you have never seen the Muppet Christmas Carol (gasp), I actually encourage you to take the time to see it, especially the muppet I have mentioned so many times during this posting. What if you and I envisioned Jesus calling to us in this manner – inviting us as friends to dine at His table and get to know Him better?

If you are up for it (I know I am trying to be! ), I encourage you to say yes and try one or all of the four practical ways of getting to know Him better this week. For me, I started this morning, by seeking to know God with my physical and mental presence as I forced my self out of bed and into my prayer chair to give Him the first of my day in both body and mind. This has been the most difficult thing for me in the past few weeks, but after making it happen this morning, I can see such a huge difference in my attitude and demeanor when I start my day with Him. And honestly, my heart does truly desire to answer His call… and above all else… to come, and know Him better man‚ô•

 

Secret Three: Obeying aka “Actions Speak Louder than Words”

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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 ūüôā ). 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.‚ô•

 

 

Secret Two: Abiding aka “The Closer the Better”

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“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.

  1. 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 ūüôā ) 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 ūüôā ] 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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 ūüôā ), 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 ūüôā 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.”¬†‚ô•