Beyond Behavior Modification

The last time I got kicked by a horse was when I was working at Rafter Six Guest Ranch.  I was leading one horse through the covered area where we tacked up in the mornings past a loose horse that happened to be there.  The loose horse must have thought the one I was leading was encroaching on his personal space and intended to teach some respect with a quick kick as we passed by.  Unfortunately he nailed me instead hard enough that the next day I had a defined outline of a horseshoe in the bruise on my butt.

I subscribe to the philosophy that if a horse kicks or bites you that you need try to kill it. .  .so long as you aren’t holding an instrument that can actually accomplish the feat.  The idea is that you must get into his mind that if he lashes out in aggression he will die, and if you can achieve that without actually touching the horse all the better.

So I grabbed the lead shank off the horse I’d been leading and holding the snap end proceeded to flail the rope around and around, slapping it on the ground right beside him and yelling my head off at him.  I pushed him into a corner and repeatedly cut off any escape for him till I could see he feared for his life.  Then I dropped my arms and gently called him to me.  The horse turned and walked right up to me with his head lowered while I rubbed him around the neck and ears.

When I put the rope around his neck to lead him out I turned to see my two young wranglers with their jaws in the dirt.  They had never seen me apparently snap before and were stunned.  I explained to them that my actions were completely controlled and not simply punitive punishment or venting my anger on the horse.  The goal of the exchange was not primarily to modify the horse’s behavior, but to actually have him want to be near me in a healthy relationship, which was exactly what happened.

While undoubtedly limited, this is a useful illustration of God’s wrath, something we see particularly in the Old Testament and that many people have trouble with.  For example in Amos the prophet speaks extensively about judgement and punishment for the nation of Israel.  Many understand that this is primarily punishment to stop the horrific things the people are doing; even infant sacrifice to pagan idols.  But in the middle of it God repeats 3 times.  Seek Me.  Seek Me.  Seek Me.

Behavior modification will be an outcome, but it’s not his goal.  His goal is healthy relationship with you.  That’s what Jesus died for.

Enslaved To My Freedom

“FREEEEDOOOM” Many of you can hear Mel Gibson’s cry at the end of “Braveheart” just in reading that word. Freedom is something that we all long for. Cowboys long for the freedom of the open range, bikers the open road, sailors the open sea. But I don’t think many of us truly understand what it means to be free. I would suggest that the only real freedom we have is to the freedom to choose that to which we will be bound. Once we have made that choice we are enslaved to the restrictions and boundaries inherent in that choice.

To use my three examples the cowboy is enslaved by the limitations of his horse. He can only go where and as far as the horse can take him. He is enslaved to the feeding and watering of his horse. The biker is enslaved to the road and the availability and resources to purchase gas. He is enslaved to the physics of riding on two wheels. The sailor is restricted to the water and is a slave to the power of the wind and the waves.

At best freedom is the ability to choose what I will be enslaved to.

Galatians 5 makes this very point. “It is for freedom that you have been made free.” Sounds like a riddle but what he’s talking about is the fact that through faith in what Jesus has done for us we are no longer slaves to following the laws of the Old Testament. Jesus did it all for us. But he goes on to say in verse 13 that we shouldn’t use that freedom to serve ourselves. Why not? Because then I become a slave to my own passions and drives and lusts. We have all known self-centered people, and ultimately they will destroy themselves and others.

Instead, verse 13 goes on, serve one another in love. It’s almost counter intuitive. When I choose to use my freedom to become the servant of others is when I truly find what I always imagined freedom would be. That’s the way God designed us to function. Because it’s the way he functions.

“(Jesus) had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death — and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth — even those long ago dead and buried — will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11 MSG)

You’ll Head Where You Look

Most of us have something that just keeps tripping us up.  Maybe it’s your temper, or lying, or pornography, or gossip, or any number of other sin.  We confess it to God and determine we’re never going to do that again and then we do anyway.  Maybe your problem is that you’re focusing on not sinning instead of where your focus should be.

In Galatians 2:19 Paul says that he died to the law so that he could live for God. Eugene Petersen puts it this way: “I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man.” (MSG) But how does not focusing on “the rules” help me to keep them?

The first thing to understand what Paul goes on to say in verse 20 that by faith he died with Christ and that now Jesus lives his life through Paul.  So the focus isn’t on the rules, it’s on knowing Jesus.  Let me illustrate to help understand how that works.

It’s rather embarrassing to admit, but last week I wiped out on my motorcycle.  It’s embarrassing because it was a stupid rookie mistake.  I was in the Okanagan riding on a beautiful little narrow winding road with gorgeous scenery and some fun tight corners.

There was a car behind me that I allowed to push me a little faster than I should have been going.  My first rookie mistake.  Then I came upon a sudden sharp right hand curve with two motorcycles coming the other way.  Knowing I was going faster than I should have been I was concerned about drifting into their lane and that’s when I made my critical mistake.

The adage in biking is look towards where you want to go not at what you want to avoid.  This is because you will go where you look.  Well I choked and looked at the bikes I wanted to avoid and that’s exactly where I went.  When I tried to compensate I leaned too far in and my foot peg caught and down I went.  By the grace of God I slid right between the two and into the small ditch.

Neither I nor the bike were too much the worse for wear, some mostly cosmetic damage to both of us, but that same principle is true in the spiritual realm.  Where you focus is where you’ll head.  If you focus on keeping the rules it’ll be your effort and you will crash.  If you focus on knowing and desiring Jesus he will live his life through you often without you even realizing.

Agreeably Disagreeing

How well do you disagree?  There are many styles that people use to deal with disagreements.  Here’s a few unhealthy styles that I’ve observed.  The Talker.  This person just keeps spewing words and arguing his or her point until those who disagree are too tired to bother anymore.  The Volcano.  This person is doesn’t have the courage to face a disagreement and just buries everything until the pressure is too much and he just explodes.  The Bully.  This person is very aggressive both in making their point and in criticizing the opinions or arguments of others, making their opponents feel intimidated to express a differing opinion.  The Saboteur. This person will not confront their opponent unless backed into a corner choosing instead to criticize and defame or discredit his or her opponent and/or their position.

When unhealthy styles of confrontation are used relationships are damaged and even destroyed. Everybody has to figure out how to best approach disagreements, even, or maybe especially in the church.  In fact Jesus said that the people will know we are his followers by how well we disagree.  Sadly many of us aren’t very good representatives.

The Bible speaks in many places about how to disagree, but in Ephesians 4:2 I find four characteristics that will help us to develop a healthy way to disagree.

First is humility.  That implies respecting and honoring others even when they oppose you.  Be willing admit that their opinion is valid and worth considering.

The second is gentleness.  Even if your perspective is proven right but you’ve destroyed a relationship to win an argument you still lose.

The third is patience.  One of my struggles in arguments is to remember that it’s not my responsibility to change the other person.  Paul, in Philippians 3:15 demonstrates this principle when he says that even if you disagree with him, that’s ok because God will eventually reveal what is true.

The fourth is forgiveness.  Sometimes even if you are employing the first three characteristics your opponent may not be.  If you extend forgiveness in your heart, even before it’s asked for, the relationship can still be saved and a healthy resolution to the disagreement is possible.

Nowhere in scripture does it suggest that we ought to agree on everything.  But if we are living in submission to God’s direction and control in our lives, he will produce in us these characteristics that enable us to agreeably disagree.

What I Feel About Thinking (or vise versa)

There seems to be a tendency currently in our society to avoid thinking.  How often have you heard someone begin a sentence with “I feel” when they should have been using “I think.”  For example when asked what the weather would be like one has responded “I feel like it will be a nice sunny day since there are no clouds in the sky.”  Or when asked for what a person’s plans for the day are, “I feel like I should go get groceries because we need milk.”  I have teasingly asked exactly how does something like that feel.

I know that for most people it’s just a habit that they have unwittingly fallen into and they really do mean that they are thinking.  But as the shift in meaning has slipped into our language I think it indicates a move in our culture that emphasizes feelings over thinking and that is a dangerous thing.

I saw an interview of a number of students on the University of Washington campus where the interviewer asked how the student would respond if the white, 5’ 8”, male interviewer stated that he were a woman.  Most of the students began their response with “I feel . . .” and all of them went on to accept that what the interviewer felt about himself was indeed fact.

He then posed to them that he was actually a Chinese woman. This forced the students to work through their “feelings” a little more but they all were able to come to accept it as fact.  He finally told them he was also 6’ 5”.  This was finally too much for all but one of the students to believe.

When we order our lives by how we feel instead of by thinking through what is true the inevitable, and, dare I say, logical outcome is that we will believe even that which is obviously false.

Philippians 4:8 says, amongst other things, that whatever is true think about such things.  According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon that word translated as think means to consider, take account, weigh, meditate. In other words it is a rational exercise of the mind.

I may feel a certain way about something, but as I think, that is as I consider, take account, weigh, and meditate about what is true my feelings will follow and come in line also with what is true.

Isaiah spoke of a time when “truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.  Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.” (59:14-15) I think we are seeing that time.

How can you know what is true and what to think on? You need to search for it. I would suggest you start your search in the Bible.  John 1:17 says that truth came through Jesus Christ.  And Jesus himself declared that God’s word is truth. (John 17:17)

And that’s what I think.

Strength. Courage. Do What’s Right.

Suffering and struggle is a fact of life.  It comes in different forms but everybody faces seasons of it from time to time.  Whether it’s a marriage that seems to be crumbling, children whose choices are destroying their lives, the illness or death of a loved one, loss of employment, never being able to quite catch up financially, or any other of hundreds of things, we all face suffering, and it’s hard not to ask “why”.

If I were to tell you I have it all figured out I’d be lying.  I can’t tell you to just trust in Jesus, or pray and God make it go away.  But I can tell you there is hope, a purpose, and strength to face whatever is in front of you.  It’s why James can say, “My brothers and sisters, you will face all kinds of trouble. When you do, think of it as pure joy.  Your faith will be put to the test. You know that when that happens it will produce in you the strength to continue.  The strength to keep going must be allowed to finish its work. Then you will be all you should be. You will have everything you need.”  (James 1:2-4, NIrV)

In his allegorical tale “A Wolf Story” James Byron Huggins eloquently expresses that Biblical truth and the battle we face:

“If you defeat him he will retreat. But he will always return. On another night, when you are tired, weak, or afraid, he will come to you again. He will wait until you are beaten down by the world, attacking when you are weary. He will lure you with pleasures and the secret desires of your heart. It will be a great struggle.  But you must endure it.  You must endure.  The Lightmaker (God) will not allow you to suffer more than you can bear.  Always, his grace is sufficient for the task.

 Remember this and it will give you hope.  And when your great suffering has ended and you stand again in peace, then you will possess a deeper strength and understanding.  You will be more than you were.  And your heart will be great, guiding you with wisdom and knowledge.

 . . . The battle is beyond the flesh, my son.  Our victory has already been promised, an end made sure.  Cling to what you have learned, and it will be life for you when death (the attacker) is near.  Be strong.  Be courageous. Do what you know is right.”

Can You Believe It?

It can be frustrating when someone won’t believe you.  There have been a few times over the years when Wendy hasn’t believed that I know how to get to whatever destination we’re driving to.  Before you jump to conclusions I need to confess that she’s been right at least as often as I have.  But I used to get very frustrated when I knew I was right and she wouldn’t believe me.  Not so much anymore.  I’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to be gracious when I’m right than it is to be humbled after being adamant only to discover I’m wrong.

Gratefully God’s attitude towards us is always one of graciousness.  Not that God is ever wrong, but there are many times when we don’t believe him, and though he may scold us for our unbelief, it is always gently and for the purpose of leading us into belief.

In Mark chapter 16 Jesus reprimanded the disciples for not believing the witness of those who had seen him after his resurrection. But then he commissioned them and they went out and turned the world upside down in their witness of him.

What do you struggle believing?  Maybe you’re like the disciples and are having a hard time believing that Jesus rose from the grave and has extended grace and forgiveness to you.

Or maybe you identify with what a few people, who in my mind are spiritual giants, have admitted they struggle believing:

“I have a very hard time with believing that I don’t need to worry about money.  Nothing – not even disease – stresses me out more than when I don’t think I will have enough money.”

 “’Husband, love your wife as Christ love the church/Wives respect your husbands.’ Deepest struggles over the years have been to believe that I can or even should initiate love toward my spouse when words or actions have hurt or disappointed time and again and I feel like my spouse doesn’t deserve my love.”

“I struggle with forgiving people who have hurt me. My head can have all the right answers about loving and forgiving, but when I get in that persons presence I feel the walls going up and a strange awkwardness.”

My own struggle to believe has been that I don’t need to feel appropriately guilty for an appropriate length of time, like some sort of penance, before God is satisfied that I’m truly repentant.

The key to overcoming unbelief begins in the head and then moves to the will.  I decide that I will believe God and then choose to act on that belief in obedience to God.  The “feelings” of belief will follow.

This is faith.  And faith comes from God.