Trust not try

“You suck. Try harder.” That was the main message Jim Belcher heard in church growing up. After reading that recently, it has been much on my mind. That is probably because I know Jim is not the only one who grew up thinking that is the main teaching of Christianity. “You suck. Try harder” is the basic message a lot of people hear in churches and youth groups and at home. I’ve been to Christian events that were basically an hour of being told to try harder. I’ve left discouraged because I knew I wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t know how I could try any harder.

Many people are trying hard. Some are trying hard because they feel guilty. They hope they can do enough good to make up for the bad they have done. Some are trying hard because they are worried about what people think, and they long to make a good impression. Some are trying hard because, like the Galatians in the New Testament, they say they believe a person starts a relationship with God by faith, but they seem to think staying with him, growing in Him and serving Him is all about how hard you work. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? … Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:3, 5).

The call is not to try harder but to trust more. Trust the promises of God’s Word more. Trust God when He says your sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Trust the Lord when He promises to take care of you and keep you safe. Trust God when He says He loves you and wants you to be with Him forever.

It is humbling to have to admit our best efforts at trying harder are never going to be good enough to meet the demands of God’s perfect law. We keep falling short. What Paul said about himself is true for us: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18). We can’t try hard enough, but the wonderful good news is Jesus did enough at the cross for us.

I came home once from a conference where the theme was mostly, “You suck. Try harder.” I wasn’t motivated to try harder. Instead I felt like giving up. But then God reminded me of the good news of Jesus. God’s love for us isn’t based on how well we do. He loves us and wants us even though we keep falling short. Our sin has been paid for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ. My salvation is secure because of Jesus. We try to serve Him, but we won’t always get it right. But we can always trust in the mercy and grace of God.

Jud Wilhite wrote, “… conquering our idols and habitual sins is ultimately a matter of being swept up by His love rather than gritting our teeth and trying harder.” Instead of gritting your teeth, open your heart and get swept up by God’s amazing love.

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100 years ago today

One hundred years ago today, in Luverne, Minnesota, Sven and Marta Larsen gave birth to a baby girl who ended up becoming my mom. One hundred years ago childhood diseases that are treatable now could be fatal. My mom got one of those scary illnesses, but, obviously, she survived.

She survived growing up in the Depression. She survived having a brother who was a prisoner of war in World War 2. She survived when her husband wanted them to leave the only town she had ever lived in to go out west to be a fisherman. Being married to a commercial fisherman means being separated from your husband for long periods of time while he is out at sea, involved in what is often considered the most dangerous profession. Mom survived.

She survived caring for both of her parents during their battles with cancer. She survived the challenges of being a mom and the trials of having loved ones who struggled with addiction issues. She survived when, much to her surprise at age 44, more than 20 years after her last baby, she became pregnant again. She survived a serious heart attack when she was 50 years old and the death of her dearly loved husband when she was 60.

My mom was kind of little and not all that strong physically, but she was strong willed, strong when it came to being disciplined, and strong when it came to showing enduring, sacrificial love. She was strong in spirit, strong in her convictions and strong in her faith in the Lord. She was an example of how God can give us strength that is beyond ourselves.

When she came to the end of her life she was dying but in a way she was still surviving and living. The day before she died somebody from church visited her in the hospital and encouraged her to hold on, “Craig needs you.” Mom’s reply was, “No, Craig doesn’t need me. God will be with him. He’ll be fine.” The next day some other people from church were visiting her in the hospital and I was there as well. They said they’d come by and see her the next day. Her calm, confident response was, “I don’t think I’ll be here.” Three hours later she died.

“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from he Lord. We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:6-7). By faith in Christ, because of God’s amazing grace, we survive, we thrive, we overcome. We live with hope and confidence because of the promises of God. I’m thankful for the one who was born 100 years ago today who survived by trusting the promises of God, and passed on the good news of the promises to me.

Time for more than work

A pastor found a response card at his church had been filled out by his son, who marked down that he would like a visit from the pastor. Dad thought his young son was just having some fun, but he soon figured out his son was serious. He thought asking for a visit from the pastor might be the only way he could get to spend time with his dad. With his words dad said his son mattered more to him than work, but his actions gave a different message.

Recently a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip was posted online. In it Calvin’s dad took a break from work to play with his son. He finished up his work later, after Calvin went to bed. The message of the strip was to take time to play with your kids. Some responded to it expressing concern that their kids would like them to play all day, but they have work to do. It is true, there is work that has to be done, and maybe some people spend more time than they should playing with their kids. More common in my experience is my pastor-friend who got the response card from his son asking for a visit. Many of us from our earliest days have been taught the importance of hard work. It is easy, however, for things to get out of balance and that strong work ethic can so dominate our lives that it becomes an idol that causes trouble in our relationships.

It is good to work hard when it is done out of love for Jesus and a desire to serve Him and others. It is sad when the hard work is done because a person is trying to earn God’s favor. It is sad when hard work happens out of a fear of what others may think or a longing to gain the approval of people. Some, sadly, are knocking themselves out to get more money and stuff that isn’t going to last. God’s grace enables us to work as ones who are not slaves to work but ones who have been set free to serve.

It is not just parents with kids at home who ought to wrestle with the issue of how much time to spend at work and how much time with family and friends. We all have people God has brought into our lives. It is easy to neglect those relationships and get so busy with work that there is no time for coffee with a friend or calling a relative or playing a game with a kid. Do your friends and family envy the people you work with and your business associates because they figure those people get the best of your energy and attention?

The early Christians were busy with all kinds of responsibilities, but they knew the importance of taking time for one another. They knew taking time to keep their relationships strong was crucial to their very survival. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).

In the Gospels we never see Jesus too busy for people. He took time to have dinner with Matthew and his tax collector friends. He took time to talk with the Samaritan women by a well. He took time to go to Zacchaeus’ home. He took time for people then and He has time for you today. Sometimes we’re the one who is too busy for others, but other times we’re like the son who filled out the card, wishing somebody had time for us. God has time to turn His ear to you and listen when you pray. He has time to speak through His Word and encourage you. Jesus took time to come to this earth to save us. He is graciously willing each day to take time to care for us.

Some things matter a lot more than taxes

I had to pay taxes the other day. Like most people, it is not something I enjoy doing. I put off the pain as long as I can.

On the same day I paid taxes I visited a couple from our church who are in their 90s. It’s looking like his time on this earth may be soon coming to an end. He and his wife have been married almost 70 years. Spending time with them gave good perspective on tax day.

After paying taxes I have different numbers in my bank account than I did before, but how much of a difference does that really make? The man I had the privilege of being with is very likely going to be with Jesus soon. At that moment the numbers in his bank account aren’t going to matter to him. They don’t matter to him much right now. As we met together what mattered were the promises of God. A thousand more dollars weren’t going to help him much, but the good news of Jesus helped. What was valuable to him was being reminded again that Jesus loves him and gave His life on the cross for him. What made a difference was knowing his sins are forgiven because of Jesus, death has been defeated by the risen Lord and a home with God for all eternity is promised.

If a little change in the bank account’s numbers doesn’t matter much at the end of life, why do we act like it matters so much now? Too often we’re pursuing the trivial and neglecting the treasure. In a lot of ways the trivial is money and things. The treasure is people and relationships and knowing the love of God and loving others.

Jesus told a parable about a rich man who kept building bigger barns to store all his goods, but neglected his soul. The night came suddenly when his life came to an end. What good did it do him to have all those barns? “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

After paying taxes I’m a little less rich in the trivial things of bank account size, but after my visit the other day and seeing evidence of someone’s faith in the Lord, even in the face of death, I’m richer toward God. That is true treasure.

Focus on the good news

When Pastor Eduardo was a young man in Cuba everyone had to have a government-issued identification card. A person was required to state on the card whether they were religious or not, and if they were religious what religion they practiced. Eduardo put on the card that he was a Christian. That wasn’t a helpful thing to have on your card in communist-led Cuba.

When a person applied for a job they had to show their government ID. Eduardo applied for jobs and showed his ID that stated he was a Christian. He got turned down for job after job. They didn’t come out and say it was because he was a Christian, but he knew. Finally a farmer gave him a job working in his fields. What Eduardo earned at that job helped him support himself, put himself through school, and eventually he became a pastor. Whenever Eduardo is in the area where that farmer lives he makes a point of visiting him and thanking him for having the courage to hire a Christian.

Christians in Cuba still face some restrictions and government regulations, but when I visited there in 2017 there was freedom to openly talk about your faith in the public square. Worship services were held and no one seemed to be fearful of government disruption. Eduardo spoke about how some complain about government regulations. To him it seems they have forgotten or don’t know how it used to be. The restrictions of the present are a small challenge compared to the hardships of the past.

In Acts 5 we read about some early Christians who were arrested for telling people about Jesus. An angel came during the night and opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. They were told not to run and hide, but instead: “Go, stand in the temple courts … and tell the people the full message of this new life.” They got brought before the authorities again, threatened, flogged and ordered not to speak about Jesus anymore. They had a surprising response to the persecution: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:20, 41-42).

It doesn’t appear they spent much time complaining about their rights being violated. They didn’t whine about the dirty rotten Romans or the unjust Jewish leaders. They looked at it as an honor to suffer for Jesus. They kept their focus on proclaiming the good news of what Christ had done.

Compared to much of the rest of the world and Christians of past generations, it is kind of easy to be a Christian in the U.S. today. That can cause some problems in that it leads some to cry out that they’re being persecuted if one person makes a negative comment or gives a disapproving look. Sometimes when I hear Christians complain I feel like somebody ought to apologize to our brothers and sisters in North Korea and Afghanistan and Somalia.

Persecuted Christians around the world and from the past have much to teach us. Instead of moaning and groaning when we suffer a little bit of injustice, let’s focus on the good things God has done and is doing. He loves us and saves us. He is on the throne and will remain so forever. May the gracious, loving way God treats us matter far more to us than any mistreatment we receive from the world. May our thoughts and our words be overflowing with the good news of Jesus.

There’s more because Jesus lives

I’ve never done a funeral or a memorial service where the ones who are mourning their deceased loved one have said, “That’s all over. We’ll never see them again.” Some have maybe thought that, but what they say, at least what I’ve heard, are expressions of hope that their loved one’s soul is alive, in a better place and one day there will be reunions.

We don’t want to believe life ends at the grave. We cling to the hope that relationships don’t end when the heart stops beating.

There was an old beer commercial where some guys were sitting on a boat, drinking beer and, supposedly having a good time. One of them said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” What a sad thing if that was true. How tragic it would be if some brief and quickly-over good times were the best we ever experienced.

Even if we have gotten to enjoy some great experiences in this life, we still hope there is something more. We hope the grave is not the end.

The resurrection of Jesus gives hope that we need and hope that is real. We don’t hope in what we do, but in what Jesus has done. We know there is more to this life because Jesus conquered the grave. He took on death when He gave His life on the cross for our sins. On Resurrection morning He won the victory when He was raised to life again. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (I Corinthians 15:20).

We are like people standing at the door of a dark cave. We know we have to enter but we are scared because we don’t know what it is like. But then Jesus comes and says He has gone in the cave and made it out the other side. He offers to take our hand and never let go and lead us all the way. We don’t fear the dark unknown when we are holding on by faith to the all-knowing Lord.

“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32). It really happened. Jesus was definitely dead, but on Easter He was raised to life. He was the most alive person on the planet, and He remains alive today.

John Lennon wrote, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Even though the song is popular, I don’t think many people really want to imagine that. It is far better to follow the encouragement of another songwriter: “I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by Your side. I can only imagine what my eyes will see, when Your face is before me.”

When I got the call that Ruth Tollefson had died, I was listening to that song, “I Can Only Imagine.” I was thankful that because of Ruth’s faith in Jesus, I knew it wasn’t over. Because Jesus lives, I got to imagine the joyful, peaceful life Ruth was getting to experience right then. Our hope is beyond our imagination, but it’s not a figment of our imagination, because Jesus has risen from the dead.

Thankful Jesus got thirsty

I prefer to be a caregiver, rather than needing someone to take care of me. That might sound kind of noble, but really part of the reason is pride. It’s humbling to be needy and have to ask for help.

Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Kings. He doesn’t need a thing. But as He hung on the cross, He willingly became someone in need. He was thirsty. Extreme, painful thirst was one of the things that happened to those who were being crucified. There was Jesus on the cross, true God and also true man, humbly admitting His need and asking for someone to give Him something to drink. “Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28).

It was humbling what He received when He made His request, and it sounds a little disgusting. A sponge soaked in a jar of wine vinegar and stuck on a stick. Who knows what all was in that jar? Who knows where that sponge and stick had been and what it had been used for? The Creator of water, the pure Son of God gets what was probably a stinky sponge on a dirty stick stuck in His face.

In a way that nasty sponge represents what little the world can offer to try to quench the thirst of people’s souls.

Earlier in the Gospel of John we read of another time Jesus was thirsty. He was sitting beside a well and asked a woman, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7). She was considered part of the wrong ethnic group and was surprised to get the request. Jesus’ thirst was physical. Her thirst was much deeper. She was thirsty for hope and forgiveness and love. Jesus told her He had living water. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 4:13-14).

Jesus humbled Himself and became thirsty, so that the thirst of your soul could be quenched. All the world offers is a fancier looking version of that sponge. It only satisfies our thirst for a little while. Because Jesus became thirsty and suffered and died on the cross for our sins, our thirst for forgiveness can be quenched. Our thirst for love can be satisfied in the love Jesus demonstrated by what He endured on the cross for us.