Monday, January 20, 2014

Growing the Fruit of Peace

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:6-7

In my previous blog post, I shared that out of the nine biblical, "Fruits of the Spirit" found in Galatians 5:22-23, ("But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law"), there are three with which I struggle most.  For my next three posts and in an effort to share my personal study as I seek to improve upon them, I will highlight and share further about those three fruits.

The first Fruit of the Spirit that I need to grow and possess is the fruit of, "peace." Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines peace as, "a period of time or state in which there is no war or fighting; an agreement to end war; a state of tranquility or quiet; freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions; and harmony in personal relationships."  On a personal level and where our daily lives are concerned, I would guess most of us are best acquainted with the last three definitions.  Sure, like good pageant contestants, we all want world peace and can certainly be concerned with our nation's level of it.  We Americans value the benefits liberty affords us.  But unless you are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces (or a family member of one), you probably more often think of being, "at peace," in a more internal way.

Just as there are many definitions for, "peace," in the dictionary, we can also find many Scriptures on peace in God's Word.  I have chosen one of my favorites for the key verse, but there were many others I could have used (listed at the bottom).  In looking over these verses, I found a few recurring themes which are good steps toward having more peace in life.  First, in order to have real peace, you have to know God personally.  He cannot fill you with His genuine peace, the kind mentioned in the key verse above, if He doesn't even know you as His child or you are running from Him instead of toward Him.

Second, if you want peace, you have to pray about everything.  That's right--everything.  Nothing is too big or small for God, and nothing is too sinful or taboo.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we are told to, "Pray without ceasing."  Does this mean we are to literally be praying all the time?  Of course not.  How would we ever be able to have an intelligent conversation with another human being, get anything done, or sleep?!  I believe that verse is telling us to be so close in our relationship with the Lord that not speaking to Him frequently through the day is an oddity.  In Hebrews 4:6 it says, "Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need."  God desires for us to come boldly to Him with our needs and concerns.  This tells me that nothing is off-limits--God already knows everything rolling around in our heads anyway.  He wants us to share with Him our needs and struggles.  He is not afraid of our emotional baggage or our personal issues.  We are told in Scripture to confess our sins to God regularly (1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness").  If you let the mistakes you make in your life pile-up, before long you are going to be weighed-down with a lot of baggage and your peace will be gone.  It's just the way we are wired.  Whether we want to admit it or not, when we fail God and others, we feel badly about it.  When we hide stuff from God (or attempt to hide stuff), we feel like phonies.  The stuff we do against God and others hurts us, too.  But when we confess our sins to God, He not only forgives, He heals and blesses us.  In time, He even rights many of the wrongs.  God just wants us to recognize our need for a relationship with Him and for His forgiveness, mercy, and help.  He wants our open and honest communication just like any of our other loved ones do.

The third recurring theme I found in my study of peace is to, trust God. Once you pray about everything, you have to then trust God to take care of your sins and concerns.  When I was just eighteen years old, I was married, caring for a baby, managing a home, going to college, and just really overwhelmed in about every area of my life.  I called my mom one morning bawling and poured my heart out to her about my concerns.  She shared something with me that I have never forgotten.  She said, "Steph, when you pray to God, this is what you are doing:  You kneel down, pour out your heart to Him, lay all your burdens at His feet, and then you pick them all back up and walk away carrying them again.  You have to figure out how to lay them at His feet and leave them there."  I sat on the other end of the phone and could actually visualize myself doing just that every time I prayed.  She was right.  I wept and wept with my mother that day as she prayed with me on the phone.  I was carrying the burden of my past sins of being a pregnant teenager.  I was carrying the burden of maintaining a perfect home.  I was carrying the burden of being the perfect student.  I was carrying the burden of raising the perfect child.  I was carrying the burden of having the perfect marriage.  And none of it was going perfectly.  I felt like an utter failure on every possible level.  I was at the end of my rope.  But God told me through my mom that day to just trust Him.  All we can do in this life is the very best we can do in our human strength and weakness, and trust God with the rest.  We have to trust Him when He says that He has forgiven us.  We have to trust Him when He says to bring our burdens to Him and He will carry them for us. To this day, when I try to do everything perfectly and fail miserably at it, I recall that day and how God told me to just trust Him.  He told me stop carrying burdens that I am too weak to carry because He wants to carry and handle them for me.  Now when I pray I visualize myself leaving them there at His feet...and I try my darndest to walk away empty-handed and with much trust and hope.

The fourth recurring theme I found was to, be thankful.  If you truly want peace in your life, you have to learn to start appreciating the good stuff God has given you.  We've all heard the phrase, "count your blessings," but do we truly do this regularly?  We need to do this as often as we brush our teeth.  I personally brush mine three to four times a day, and I am going to try to make an honest effort to count my blessings while I do.  If you are focused on the positive in your life, the negative will seem much smaller.  It is a proven fact that grateful people are happy people.  Furthermore, happy people are peaceful people.  It's simple math really--if you want peace, joy, and positivity in your life, choose peace, joy, and positivity.  That's really all being thankful is--looking at the positive instead of the negative, and thanking the Person Who gave you those positives.

The fifth step toward peace I found was to, seek and pursue God.  When we are not at peace, we oftentimes are seeking or pursuing things that are stealing our peaceWe may not even realize it.  We typically think the peace-robbers are after us!  But when we are restless, struggling with a relationship, battling a fear, or fretting over something dreadful, we are actually pursuing those things.  We choose to allow things to steal our joy.  We choose to exert energy in pondering and stressing over them.  So in order to have real peace, we have to actually pursue God instead.  We are told to replace bad habits with good ones, and there is a reason for that.  You can stop doing something bad for a time. But in order to truly defeat the bad habit, you have to take it a step further and fill the void.  Likewise, we have to rid ourselves of worrisome thoughts, actions, and words and seek God in those areas instead.  When you pour yourself into God's Word, into praising Him, into His music, and into praying to Him, you are actively choosing God.  When we choose God, we turn from the bad to the good--and before long, the things robbing our peace are gone.  Psalm 34:14 says, "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it."  We all personally need to come to the realization that without God, our lives are a slippery slope of pointless pursuits, chaos, and sin. The fact that, nothing else satisfies like Jesus, is the one thing that keeps me coming back in pursuit of Him. When I honestly think about the time when I am truly happiest and most at peace, it is when I am spending time with my Father.  Whether I am sitting in my church listening to another awesome sermon, leading worship with the dear friends I have there, reading God's Word while cuddled up in my favorite blanket and sipping coffee, kneeling on my living room floor pouring my heart out to Him, or alone in my car jamming and praising Him with my favorite Christian music, I realize one thing--GOD is my best, great escape.  He is my only real peace.  Everything else satisfies me superficially and temporarily.  But my Lord is a thirst-quencher unlike any other.

In summation, I realize in looking back over the five key themes or steps to take toward peace, we have to choose peace.  To steadily and readily grow the fruit of it in our lives is really up to us.  Peace doesn't just happen--we make it happen by choosing God and actively choosing to intentionally follow the steps He has shown us to attain it.  When I don't feel like choosing those steps, it is usually due to laziness, apathy, or pride.  But none of those traits will give you peace, so why go there?!  I want peace, and I want the kind that, "guards my heart and mind in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7).  Amen.

Related Scriptures:

Psalm 29:11, "May the Lord give strength to His people!  May the Lord bless His people with peace!"

Psalm 85:8, "Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, to His saints; but let them not turn back to folly."

Psalm 37:37, "Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace." 

Isaiah 26:3, "You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You."

Matthew 11:28, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." 

John 14:27, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." 

John 16:33, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." 

Romans 14:17, "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

Romans 15:13, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Another Year, Another Chance

"The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By His mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is His faithfulness; His mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, 'The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in Him!'" (NASB)
Lamentations 3:22-24
As we find ourselves at the start of a brand new year, there are a few ways to perceive it.  Some view it as just another time stamp and desire to continue on with life without any emotional rebirth or recalculation of plans for the future.  Many regard it as a fresh start, with a renewed sense of purpose, fierce anticipation, and an impassioned hope of what lies ahead for them in 2014.  Then there are those who consider it a time to not only reflect, but also realign and reset goals.

After Christmas ends, I always chuckle at how promptly the fitness and gym commercials begin to air.  A few weeks ago, I was thinking about how we, as women, are awfully hard on ourselves.  After having numerous conversations in which I had heard women degrade themselves based solely on appearance (and I am horridly guilty of this, as well), it struck me how overly concerned we girls really are with outward beauty.  You rarely hear another woman say, "Gosh, I wish I could learn to love people more," or, "Man, I really wish I could stop being so jealous," or, "Boy, I really need to work on my critical spirit."  But you often hear, "I've gotta lose 10 pounds," or, "I wish I was taller."  God's Word says we need to be more concerned with our internal beauty than our external (1 Samuel 16:7, "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart").   So I wondered to myself weeks ago:  If I stood on a downtown street corner and asked women what their Christmas wish for themselves would be, how many would give me an, "inward beauty" wish as their answer?! And how would I answer that question...???

There are many things in the, "outer beauty realm," that I wish I could change about myself by just wishing (praying) or even harder work--thinner thighs, thicker hair, less adult onset acne, no crow's feet, and taller stature, to name just a few.  But what does God have to say about those things?  He couldn't care less.  Of course God wants us to look nice and be a good representative for Him and for our husbands and families.  He wants us to maintain reasonably good physical health to make an effort to care for our bodies--the vessels He terms in His Word as, "the temples of God" (1 Cor. 6:19-20, 1 Cor. 3:17).  However, I personally do not believe physical fitness should be at the top of our personal do list--God's Word tells us it is important, but not above spiritual fitness (1 Timothy 4:8).  I do believe we cannot serve God fully or effectively if we are physically unhealthy or unfit.  But what GOD cares most about is my continued efforts to work on the, "inner beauty realm"--my mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  If I am honest, I have more important issues here.  Personally, I need to work on self-control (namely with eating), patience (especially behind the wheel of my car), and peace--Fruits of the Spirit that do not come easily for me (Gal. 5:22).  I also want to be bolder for Christ this year, praying more fervently for better opportunities to share my faith with others.  I want my life to be more about God and less about me.  Though I have made some significant improvements with fear and worry this past year (the aforementioned and much-needed fruit of, "peace"), I also still need to keep working on letting go of both and fully trusting God with everythingHe wants me to stop fretting about the details in my life that only He can handle.  He wants me to be less-concerned with pleasing people and how others view or treat me.  He wants me to only concern myself with pleasing Him and handling just those things for which He has given me to manage.  He is the only One Whom I should truly fear (Proverbs 31:30, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting:  but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised").

Sometimes, the things on which we think we need to work aren't truly issues with God at all.  In fact, I believe some things that people find unattractive in us are actually things that God put there in His design of us that we should embrace instead of disgrace.  Over a year ago in my quest to find a working band, I sought some advice and counsel from someone well-respected in the music arena.  In fact, this man once worked for Atlantic Records, and I met him through another music friend.  He was very kind and encouraging to me, but he told me that if I wanted to be taken seriously in music, I needed to stop being so, "supplicant."  I had no idea what he meant by this, so I asked him.  He said, "Stop acting like others are doing YOU some favor.  Stop begging them to work with you.  If they don't want to work with you, it's their lossMove on.  When it's right, it's right, and you don't have to suck-up to get valued."  Then both my mother and a close girlfriend told me to stop self-deprecating all the time and apologizing for things for which I don't need to apologize.  So I have tried to work on these, "supplicant" behaviors this past year.   It's funny though--in praying about it further, I have felt the Lord saying over and over, "Just be you.  Stop believing what others say and just be who I made you to be.  Believe what I SAY is true about you."  If you really want to know what God says about you, who you truly are, and who you were created to be, Google, "Scriptures on, 'Who does God say I am?'" and you will find out some amazing things about your own identity.  Though I believe the area of being overly people-pleasing or, "butt-kissy," (let's just call it what it is), is an arena in which I needed some change, I do think being supplicant is sort of who I am.  I also happen to believe it is a trait of which our world of unapologetic entitlements and ego complexes could use MORE not less.  We are all called to live lives of humility and seek to get along with others in unity.  Yes, balance is needed there, as with everything in life.  As Christian author and renowned speaker, Beth Moore, has stated, thinking too much OR too little about oneself is self-absorption on two opposite ends of the spectrum.  Either way you spin it, it's all about you.  But thinking of others more highly than ourselves is what we are called to do in God's Word (Phil. 2:3).

So why did I share that story with you?  Because some of the changes you would wish for yourself may need changing and some do not.  Some may only need a little tweaking--or maybe a fresh perspective.  There are things about you that others despise, that you may despise, or that others try to get you to despise about yourself--but perhaps God does not.  Like Eve in the Garden with the original sin, it is the nature of who we are to be discontent at times (hopefully not all the time).  God gave Eve plenty of other yummy stuff to eat, but she wanted the one thing for which He said, "No." God gives us everything we really need, but we still think we need or deserve more.  Only with God's wisdom can you truly discern what things you should work to improve or change.  God has been whispering to me to just be content in some areas of my life.  Sometimes contentment is actually harder than changing.

We live in such a critical, discontent world.  We are overly critical of others and we are overly critical of ourselves.  If you post too many blessings, joyful, or good things about your life on Facebook, someone will be offended that you are bragging, faking, or overcompensating for something else.  If you post honest, transparent, real, or sad things, you are deemed negative, melodramatic, attention-seeking, and needy.  If you post boring recipes or YouTube links, you are annoyingly filling-up feeds with senseless information, obsessed with the internet, and probably have no real life at all.  In this world, you really can't win where others are concerned.  Someone is going to have a problem with you.  It would behoove us all to remember:  God's Word says that many times the things that bug us about others we often do ourselves (Romans 2:1)--and if we don't do them ourselves, they often bring out other sin issues we DO have (jealousy, gossip, selfishness, pride, ridicule, unmerciful spirit, etc.).  Due to our sin natures, we are never going to be fully at peace with others or ourselves.  But praise God, He is not as hard on us as our fellow man or as we are on ourselves.  As the key verse at the top says, God's great faithfulness to us, in spite of our repeated failures, gives us immense hope.  His unfailing love and His endless mercies give us the gumption to work to get things right in our lives--or at least try.  So today I praise God for giving me another year and another chance to get it right.  Will I succeed?  Sadly, no.  But I will die trying!  None of us is perfect and we never will be.  Thankfully God doesn't require or demand that--He only wants our honest effort at living for Him, and showing others the same faithfulness, mercy, and love that He has shown to us (Micah 6:8, "He has shown you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God").  That's really all God expects of us in this life, and I praise Him for it!  I wish you all peace, joy, love, and only God's best.  Happy and blessed New Year, family and friends!