Ten Marks of Wise Living

Solomon didn’t sugar-coat human existence. Often called “the wisest man who ever lived,” Solomon wrestled with the meaning of life. In his diary of that wrestling (the Book of Ecclesiastes), he begins with that seems to be the case — that life seems meaningless. People work; they have kids. The wind blows; rivers run into the sea. All this movement … for what? Because we can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated, and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere.

After examining all the options, Solomon came to this conclusion: Life cannot be its own good. The circumstances of it don’t generate the kind of fulfillment for which humanity longs. There has to be more to life than simply living it. Solomon’s wrestling offers alternatives to the drudgery of simply existing so we can live as we are designed.

Here are ten suggestions from a very wise man:

1. A positive approach is half the battle. 

The starting point for finding meaning in a seemingly dead-end existence is to change our perspective. A simple decision to see life as hopeful is a good first step toward wisdom. The smart ones are not the ones who can criticize everything; they are the ones who can see through to creative solutions. In our current culture, it is no small thing to choose positivity over criticism.

2. Evaluate your values.

Our church has set three simple values for ourselves to help us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. Those three values have changed us. They took away all the hesitation and need to please. Instead, we are now more focused, more determined, and our decisions have more integrity. Take time to figure out what matters to you, so you can begin to make choices based on values rather than the moment.

3. Timing is everything (but not everything is up to us).

Singing the words of Ecclesiastes 3, The Byrds informed a generation that there is a time for everything. There will be times when we must restore something that looks for all the world like dead, and also times when we have to tear everything up that we thought we cared about in order to be on the side of right.  Knowing which time is which is the real trick and if it were all up to our always getting it exactly right, we’d be sunk. Timing is everything, but God’s sovereignty is able to work God’s design into our choices. Are you being stepping up when the time is right, trusting God to place the floor beneath your feet?

4. Embrace the power of partnerships.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Steve Robert Putnam theorizes that since the 1960s our nation has dramatically decreased its ability to foster friendships. Along with a decrease in social interaction has been an increase in panic attacks, paranoia and other fears; intolerance of noise; difficulty with concentration; and an increase in aggressive fantasies. Why? Because we have lost touch with the divine design. We threaten our own quality of life when we put self above others. Healthy partnerships are the cure. They require vulnerability, accountability and honesty. Pursue partnerships that honor God and add value to your life and work.

5. Learn to trust by becoming trustworthy.

God is not as committed to our happiness as he is to our character. Becoming trustworthy is what happens as we become holy. So how can we improve our trust factor? For starters, we can learn to listen first before we form opinions. The fact is, we probably know less than we think we do about any situation. Lean in and learn to trust others’ good intentions rather than assuming the worst in the absence of information.

6. Practice grace (it is the key to healthy relationships).

Grace is not for wimps. Solomon’s version of grace looks a lot like accountability (Ecclesiastes 7:5): “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.” We need people who love us enough to speak the truth in love. Grace is not only unmerited forgiveness; it is that willingness to lean in and stick together, no matter what.

7. Pursue joy, and not just happiness.

If we’re waiting for all the clouds to break and for everything to become clear this side of death, we will be sorely disappointed. And anxious. What if, instead, we just decide to enjoy the rescue, instead of rebelling against it? What if, as Hugh Halter has so wonderfully counseled, we decide to “enjoy life, and live like a missionary”?

8. Live for the long haul (and not for the moment).

Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher in the 20th century. He once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words,  instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that it all leads someplace, we should start with a goal, then work back from there. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish? Start there, then plan backwards toward your present.

9. Weigh your words.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. In the right atmosphere and for the right reasons, transparency can be a marvelous freedom. Undisciplined opinionating, on the other hand, is the surest way to expose your own foolishness. In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy.

10. Fear God (it is the beginning of wisdom).

This is where Solomon concludes his quest for the meaning of life. He counsels his reader to learn how to fear God, not in the guilt-generating sense of thinking God is out to get us but in the humbling sense of recognizing there may be more to this than we can understand. It is the stark realization that in order to love this life, we have to love God more. And that in the process of loving God more than our own lives, we will find ultimate freedom, wisdom and joy.

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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The Divine Frisky

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University did an online survey of about 1500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things. Like, kick a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free. I guessing not all those respondents are pagans.

(Surely, you’ve heard the old joke about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.”)

Lots of us haven’t managed to master Paul’s advice: “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably” (Romans 12:18).

But you say, “You don’t know what this person did to me. You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts.” But if it all depends on circumstance, we are right back to a works-based religion, the kind Paul said kills spirits. If your acceptance of me depends on me, I’m sunk. I can’t be that good. If your acceptance of me is grounded in what Jesus has done for you, there’s hope.

Because, frankly, you haven’t been that good, either.

This is great news on two fronts: I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; nor do circumstances control my capacity for joy. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Christian Maturity, writes this:

“The real Christian is the most natural person in the world. He has natural joys, natural gaiety, natural laughter, natural culture, natural grace—he is a man reduced to simple naturalness. When one is not living the Christian way all his pleasures have to be induced—induced by entertainment from without, by liquor, by stimulation of various kinds. They have to try to have a good time. I don’t try to have a good time—I just have one, naturally and normally. A simple, bubbling gaiety from within, what Rufus Moseley called “the Divine frisky.” As you get cleaned up and cleaned out within, you develop a hair-trigger laugh—one with which you can laugh at yourself if you cannot laugh at anything else.”

How attractive that is! — to be known for the infectiousness of your laugh rather than the accuracy of your tomato-tossing, to have your mood drawn up from deeper wells than whatever has just happened. Wouldn’t it be something to be known for that, rather than the contentiousness and moodiness that too often define our average, proud lives? Don’t you think this is what Jesus was after when he called us to live his commandments, “that my joy may be in you, that your joy may be full” (John 15:11)?

Joy is a mark of holy living.

I’m “convicted,” as they say, by the stunning gap that separates my reality from this vision, but I’m also smitten by this notion of “the Divine frisky.” I’d like to be known for my capacity to find joy in any circumstance, to be at peace whatever the cost to my pride.

I’d like them to say at my funeral, “She had the best laugh!”

(This post first appeared on my old blog site, firestones, in 2014.)

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Habit #6: Joyful people recognize they are part of something bigger than themselves.

I-forgot-how-bigPeople are funny.

Not you, of course, but people you know. Sociologists tell us that people tend to classify other people in one of three ways: scenery, machinery or people.

“Scenery” is people who are significantly different than us. We acknowledge their existence and recognize that they live real lives, but we don’t see them as three-dimensional. They are are more like photographs — images with whom we have no relationship.

Then there are people who function for us more like machinery. They get things accomplished for us, like lawn care or house-cleaning or bug-extermination. They might even be volunteers in our church, but we don’t see them as people so much as a means to an end. We interact with “machinery” as a matter of necessity, not choice.

Then there are the people with whom we have actual relationships — people we value, whose stories we know, about whom we are genuinely concerned. They are us. And we like us.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us slot most folks into the categories of scenery or machinery. We put very few people in the category of us, which makes those people who see people in the margins as actual people that much more compelling. This is how Jesus saw people. He saw people with demons and people who scammed other people out of their money and people who have been sick for years and a drain on others, as people. Even the crazy ones, he saw as people.

People in need of mercy, yes; but people, nonetheless.

On my my most recent trip to India, we visited a mercy ministry in Bangalore. It was not a particularly well-run place; the people there were a mix of old, disabled, infirm and insane. Because I was fumbling around for a way to be useful, I began looking for what Mother Teresa encouraged us to look for in others: Jesus in his most distressing disguise. As I began to look, I began to see.

I sat down next to a woman who was skin and bones. Half naked and not fully conscious, she had been laid out on a concrete slab with her back side — full of bed sores, covered in flies — exposed to the sun. I don’t know how she was still alive and suspect she didn’t last long after I left.

The direct sun seemed an unmerciful place for someone so fragile, but no one moved this woman and she was certainly not able to move herself. I asked about a place in the shade and was told she needed to stay where she was. I asked about food and was told she couldn’t eat.

What to do, then, when there is nothing to be done?

Helpless in the face of such poverty, I wondered: as a follower of Jesus, what is my responsibility to this woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world? Do I demand justice? Throw her over my shoulder and haul her out of there? Helplessly move on?

Since none of those seemed viable options, I decided to simply notice her. I looked at her. Really looked. This was real poverty, real suffering. I sat down by her side and waved flies from her face (they’d filled her nostrils). I would have suspected that the Word of God would dissolve in the face of this reality but to the contrary, it was the only thing that seemed to make sense. In fact, a word from Isaiah came to mind as I sat there swatting flies and I spoke it aloud over her life: “The Lord called you from the womb. From the body of your mother he named your name … You are honored in the eyes of the Lord. God will be your strength.”

Far from being irrelevant, it seemed the one thing I might want if I were in her place. I think I’d want to know I wasn’t invisible, that I mattered, that in my final moments, the truth blanketed me. For any of that to happen in this moment between this woman and me, my take on the Kingdom had to expand exponentially. To be bigger. To be great. Very quickly, it had to become much bigger than my middle-class existence had come to accept.

In order for me to believe that word was true for a woman whose nostrils were filled with flies, I had to accept that the Kingdom of God includes mysteries I can’t comprehend, and I had to allow it to call me to a holy response that is bigger than my comforts allow.

You are not forgotten. The Lord knows your name. Your life even now has value. The world has failed to treasure your life, but God has not forgotten you.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

And it is much bigger than any one of us can comprehend or carry. We are called to something much bigger than ourselves.

God, forgive me. I forgot how big.

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Habit #5: Joyful people pursue progress, not perfection.

I have a goal. It is to do one regulation push-up. One.

I was inspired to this goal by Olivia Perez-Breland who posted one day on Facebook that she’d accomplished the feat without actually meaning to. Sprogress-not-perfection2he was in the gym doing modified push-ups, when she noticed how easy it had become for her. So after ten or so, she decided to try a regulation push-up and sure enough, she could do it. In fact, she did several.

I thought, well … if she can, I can. Never mind the fact that she’s 20 years younger than me; let’s do this! I started focusing on modified push-ups and made them part of my daily work-out. I kept it up, and over time I noticed I could do more than when I first started. It was getting easier. I made it a goal to be able to do one regulation push-up by the end of the year, and I  worked on that goal for months.

Because I was writing a message at the time on the habits of joyful people — one of which is an ability to focus on progress not perfection — I wanted so badly to make one push-up happen before the Sunday of said message. I wanted to be able to end my message by showing my pueople how a focus on progress (not perfection) yields results. I wanted to be able to tell this story of working toward something for months, then end with the remarkable news that I’d met my goal. “See! I did it! The repetition of a discipline yields results!”

And then, I even fantasized about dropping and giving them one.

All for Jesus, of course.

It didn’t happen.

After months of trying — not even one!  That was months ago. Some time after that, I finally made one push-up. One. And for about a week after I finally accomplished a push-up, I was able to do it whenever I tried. But since then, I’ve somehow backslidden and am on my knees again (I could probably make a whole ‘nuther sermon out of that one sentence).

I may not ever accomplish a series of regulation push-ups, but what I can do today is twenty more modified push-ups than I could do a year ago. Which means that even if I’m not where I want to be, at least I’m not where I was.

Which is the point.

Progress, not perfection, drills into a deeper well of joy.

What places in your spiritual life could you point to and say, “I’m not where I want to be, but at least I’m not where I was”? And what disciplines are helping you get there? In what places are you frustrating yourself by focusing more on perfection than on simply making progress? How would a shift toward making progress help you better understand and embrace the concept of grace? How might it increase your capacity for joy?

(This post was first published on my old blog site, firestones, in November of 2014. I still haven’t returned to an ability to do a regulation push-up.  But I’m making progress …)

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Habit #4: Joyful people give from a place of grateful generosity.

Some of us have sinned a lot. Some of us have sinned a whole lot. Some of us ought to be dead (or at least incarcerated for an extended period of time). Some of us should be very, very grateful for the things they don’t know about what we’ve done.

And some of us who have sinned a lot, who have made a lot of mistakes, who have walked on the dark side, have discovered in Jesus a kind of forgiveness that hardly seems possible. When we found grace, we fell on it like a starving man at a buffet.

Grateful people are a joy to be around. People who have found life after years of mere existence are inspiring. They tend to respond to life with a grateful generosity that is catching. If you are one of them, consider yourself deeply blessed. To live from a place of deep gratitude is a real gift.

Not everyone cultivates this gift, however; left to itself, gratitude can starve again. If you want to lose your joy while giving, follow these seven way-too-easy steps:

1. Respond to every need as if it is your personal responsibility to meet it.
Here is a spiritual principle: The need is not the call. The call is the call. If you want to lose your joy while giving, then respond as if the need is the call. And of course, there are more needs than any one person can ever possibly fill so pretty quickly, you’ll be overwhelmed and you’ll get bitter. This is a great way to lose your joy.

2. Let yourself believe you’re the only one who cares.
I call this the Elijah Principle. Maybe you remember that story in 1 Kings of the time when Elijah ends up on top of a mountain talking to God and he gets a little whiny. He says, “Everyone else has abandoned you, God, and I’m the only one left.” We’ve all felt that way.  When you’re the only one taking out the trash, or doing everyone else’s job, it can feel lonely. Discouragement can give you tunnel vision. But God told Elijah, “Son, there are 7,000 people down in the valley waiting for you. You’re not alone. You’re just not tuned in.”

The truth is, God chooses to work through us but it won’t all fall apart if we somehow can’t keep up. There are others working, too, and God’s plan will unfold. That’s a given.

3. Make guilt your driving motivation for giving.
One of the bigger lessons I’ve learned about the Spirit-filled life is this: You cannot be in two places at the same time. That’s both a physical reality and a spiritual principle. The same frustration we have when we try to do squeeze too many things into our calendars is the frustration we feel when we are in one place internally and another place externally.

John Townsend and Henry Cloud talk about this in their book, Boundaries. They talk about the internal yes and the external yes. It is the battle between our commitments and our feelings. When the internals don’t match the externals, the Holy Spirit has no room to move.  If you’re spiritually frustrated in your giving, maybe this is a question for you: Do your internals match your externals? Because folks, you can not be in two places at the same time.

4. Close your heart toward every need except your own.
The other end of that spectrum, of course, is being so self-protective that we ignore every other need except our own.

5. Have an agenda behind your giving.
If you want to suck the joy out of giving, give with strings attached. Decide you’ll only give if it makes you feel good, or if your name can be on it, or if it gets used in a very specific way. That’s a surefire way to generate frustration and choke out joy.

6. Have no personal strategy or vision for giving.
Give as a reaction instead of a reasoned and prayerful response. Kingdom giving is always about “call,” and not just about “can.”

7. Don’t ever pray about it.
Give for the emotional rush, or give because of an emotional appeal or because someone makes you feel guilty or because someone has manipulated you. But for goodness’ sake, don’t give because you’ve prayed about it and sought the counsel of the One Person in the universe you can confidently say is smarter than you.

That’s how to lose your joy while you’re giving. If, however, you’d like to cultivate joy rather than kill it when you give, then Paul has some good advice for us: Holy Spirit living leads to Holy Spirit spending. Let the Spirit invest in your life, then invest your life in the Kingdom. Find things that make you grateful (like your salvation, for instance) and give from that place.

When we think more intentionally about the use of our resources, our giving flows from a more grateful place and leads to deep joy and real peace.

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Habit #3: Joyful people know how to wait.

Our church has been in a season of remarkable transition in the last year or so — a season of trusting and waiting and listening and deepening. Change is not usually easy and this is no exception; but I have noticed a sweetness to this season.  God has worked in such gentle and unmistakable ways.  Every need provided for, every shift purpose-filled. Watching God’s hand move over our community of faith has been an amazing, faith-building experience. It causes us to suspect we are on the cusp of something pretty powerful.

God’s theme through this season is an old one:  wait. It has not been lost on us that the word “wait” is such a primal theme in the texts we call “wisdom literature.”  Evidently, wise people know how to wait.  Waiting on the Lord is a popular theme for the psalmist and a proverbial one for Solomon. Mary waited and pondered and she, too, was a wise woman.

Wait, God says. And the more I do it, the more I realize it isn’t what I thought it was. In moments of spiritual clarity, I see that waiting is not a gap of emptiness between two events. It isn’t a staring contest with God; we’re not toe-to-toe waiting to see who blinks first.

I’m struck by the connection between the term “waiting” and another biblical phrase, “the fullness of time.”  While the waiting may seem to stretch on as empty space from my perspective, I am beginning to reckon that from God’s vantage point, this isn’t space at all but a full, rich basin of intangibles all designed to prepare me for the next thing.  While I’m drumming my fingers or begging and pleading for movement, God is no-holds-barred working out his will.

Who knew the time was so full?  Shaping, preparing, stripping, educating, awakening.  All that must happen before we can move on wisely.

Think “desert travel.” After experiencing their complete lack of faith in their own future, God told Moses that not one person of the original generation of exodus travelers would make it across the line into the promised land. Everything and everyone that smacked of faithlessness and fear would be eradicated, because he simply wouldn’t allow those traits to seep into the DNA of his people. Those forty years they were marching in circles, God was busy sloughing off the old, birthing the new.

In the same way, our desert travels are not empty time but the very fullness of it, as God sheds from us everything that isn’t fit for the promised future he has appointed for us.  He strengthens us with layers of spiritual sinew designed to help us stand (“mount up on wings like eagles; run and not grow weary; walk and not faint”) when this new thing happens.  We get impatient and beg for movement while God works, knowing that a move in one moment less than the fullness of time will crush us.

Wait, he says.  Not because he is finishing a crossword, or because he hasn’t yet figured out which direction the map is taking us.  Wait, he says, because we are in the middle of something important now.   Foundational work is being laid here, work that will help us hold the next thing.

Wait.

Wait actively — patiently (which is to say, lovingly), prayerfully, expectantly.  Wait like the father who stands at the window, watching for his long-lost son to return.  Wait like Mary, who knew from the moment of conception that she and her son were headed toward greatness.  Wait like the angel assigned to a slab in an empty cave, sitting for who knows how long so he would be there when someone stopped by, to tell them of an unprecedented power and presence unleashed into the world.  Wait like Paul, who sat in blind silence for three days while God completely rewired and wound him up for a new thing.  Wait like John, who steeped in desert-island darkness long enough for his eyes to adjust, revealing the unhindered, unfurled Kingdom of God in three-D splendor.

Wait.

In our own season of waiting at Mosaic, we’re leaning heavily on God’s promises as we build our faith muscles.  We’re learning to fast, something our circumstances didn’t require from us nearly so much in past days.  We’re learning the kind of worship that looks like quiet trust (“Though he slay me, yet shall I praise him”).  And we’re developing a more holy hunger.

In days past, we might have gorged on the first available opportunity to come our way.  These days, we are allowing the wait to purify our motives.  We aren’t on our own time any more; we are yearning toward the fullness of time.  The work of waiting is creating in us a deeper hunger for the Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Right now, we can almost taste it.  Maybe God will move the day we can actually taste it — taste and see that the Lord’s timing is delicious.

What if that is what all spiritual waiting is really about?  What if our waiting is answering Jesus’ own prayer?  What if our waiting is actually more important than the thing we’re waiting for? Wouldn’t that be just like God?

“I came that my joy might be in you,” Jesus said. As it turns out, joy is not a moment (like an emotion) but a process of being at peace with God’s pace and time.

Joy is embedded in the waiting.

A few questions for those challenged to wait: Do you have a knack for focusing on what you haven’t done instead of on how far you’ve come? Do you ever spend energy worrying about how slowly things change? Does your life move so fast that often you don’t have time to stop and notice the progress? Do others ever get frustrated with you because you are so hard on yourself?

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Habit #2: Joyful People pursue intimacy with God.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. – John 15:4

The first time the Greek word for abide shows up in the book of John is when he’s talking about Jesus getting baptized by John. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit comes down and remains on him.  That word in Greek is the same as the word used in John 15:4: “Abide in me.”

A baptism, then, ought to be something that lives with us, that invokes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what makes it a sacrament and not just a sign.

John uses the same word again when Jesus is talking about the eucharist in the most graphic of terms. Jesus says, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood makes his home in me and I make my home in him” (John 6:56).  In this expression, there is a mutual abiding.

Here in the two sacraments of the church — baptism and eucharist — we are reminded just how deeply this connection with God is woven into the fabric of Christ. There cannot be intimacy with God without the work of Jesus. And just as true, where Jesus is, abiding happens.

Abiding happens when Jesus Christ makes his home in me and I make my home in him.

In chapter 15, John is careful to connect this kind of abiding with the call to bear fruit. How do you know you are abiding in Christ? John says you know it when you find yourself bearing fruit. How do you know your baptism is alive in you? You’re bearing fruit. How do you know your worship life is alive? You’re bearing fruit.

People who abide bear fruit, but not just any fruit. People who abide bear much fruit. They bear fruit that lasts. They bear fruit that abides. Jesus affirms these three things.

People who abide bear much fruit. I tell people all the time that I’m looking for the kind of results in my ministry and life that don’t match the effort. When the results outstrip the effort, I know the supernatural has been involved. I want this, because, frankly, it gets old, measuring progress in centimeters when I want to measure in miles. I frustrate myself when I focus my efforts in places where I don’t bear much fruit rather than in the places where I do. I’d like to get better at catching the “holy hints,” noticing the places in my life where the outcome is unequally bigger than the effort. When I press in where I see fruit, I am gratified and God is glorified. Those are the places where the Holy Spirit is present.

People who abide bear fruit that lasts. I have been saved a lot and saved from a lot. Some days, though, I still wake up and feel like I’ve never been a Christian and wonder if I will ever be a Christian (I’m in good company; John Wesley journaled those same feelings).

The places where I manage to feel most secure are the places where the gospel of Jesus actually sticks, where I press in and people get transformed and stay transformed, when I do work that bears fruit far beyond my intention. Bearing fruit that lasts is about more than just posting Bible verses on a Facebook page, or learning Christian-ese. It is about seeing lives beautifully, finally transformed. At the end of time, we’ll discover this is all that lasts.

People who abide bear fruit that abides. Moses teaches me a lot about how to abide as a leader so that the people I’m leading are positively influenced. When he and the Israelites were out in the desert, he would sometimes take his tent out beyond the camp to meet with God (mental note: getting outside the camp to be alone with God is a good habit to cultivate).

Out there away from the people, in moments of deep intimacy, he and God would talk face to face, like friends. In those conversations, Moses would talk honestly, and sometimes even rail against God, venting his frustrations over all he couldn’t understand. God would listen and from what the Bible says, God would meet Moses there at his point of deep need. Far from being offended, the Lord would provide.

So why doesn’t that happen more often for me?  How often have I railed against God but come away empty-handed, frustrated, with more questions than answers? Why doesn’t God hear me the way he heard Moses?

I have a hunch about that. I suspect it has to do with my proximity to the Spirit. When I’m yelling at God from the far side of intimacy — when I haven’t done the work of building a close and intimate connection (my home in him and his home in me) — I get nothing but frustration.

But listen: when I’m yelling at God on the abiding side of intimacy, I notice that it is a much more fruitful conversation.

I’m not talking about “making God do stuff.” I’m talking about the kind of connection that puts me in sync with God and his ways so that when I ask for things, I’m asking from a place of abiding. A place of faith.  A place of knowing, of intimacy, of wisdom. When I ask from that place, it bears fruit.

When I am abiding, I bear fruit. And fruitfulness breeds joy.

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Habit #1: Joyful people forgive easily

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called Blink, about the thousand decisions we make every day in the smallest slices of time — choices we make in split-seconds during a conversation — that determine how we respond to life at the subconscious level.

forgiveness2Gladwell writes about an interview with a psychologist who has made a study of watching couples in conversation. This guy has become so adept at watching their non-verbal communication that he can tell with incredible accuracy how likely they are to divorce after just a few minutes of watching them talk. His point is that how we react to other people in the briefest moments (even non-verbally) says a lot about what’s beneath the surface.This psychologist has boiled hundreds of facial expressions down to four major categories. He calls them the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. And he says the real killer among those four is contempt.

“You’d think criticism would be the worst, because it maligns character,” he says. “But contempt is worse, because it puts one person above another. It’s when we look down on another person that we do the most damage.” And it is so damaging, the psychologist says, that it affects our immune system.

Contempt is a killer. No wonder the enemy of our souls has made a career out of getting us to go there. He wants us to make pecking orders. To make ourselves better than others. The enemy has made quite a career out of doing nothing more than keeping your heart hard toward another human being. And it is brilliant, really. He can make it slice both ways, so we feel chronically inadequate while we’re tearing others down so they never feel good enough, either.

That’s the tactic of the enemy of our souls.

In his teaching on forgiveness, Chuck Swindoll asks some good questions:

  • Do you free people, or do you hold them hostage?
  • Do you relieve them of guilt and shame, or do you increase their load?
  • Do you encourage others or discourage them?
  • Do you find yourself participating in the world of construction or the world of destruction?
  • Do you point out people’s faults and failures or their strengths and accomplishments?

As it turns out, joy flows from the same well as grace, so the goal is to cultivate within ourselves a kind of grace that overflows. To put it plainly, I have to learn to discipline my emotions, especially the emotion of anger, so it doesn’t create opportunity for sin in my life.

How can I drill down and tap into that well of grace?

  1. Name your spirit of offense.  This is what it means to confess your sins. If you won’t name it before the God who already knows it, he is not likely to heal you of it
  2. Pray daily for those toward whom you have unforgiveness. Ask yourself: What one good quality in this person’s life can I begin with as I pray? Never mind whether they deserve it or not. Here’s the thing. When it comes to grace, “deserve” has nothing to do with it.
  3. Seek help from others. Sometimes what we need most is another perspective. David Seamands says that when we are angry or depressed, our perceptions change. A little hill becomes a great mountain. But real friends can help you see its true height in perspective.
  4. Sing! Make music. Its such a simple thought, but it works. If you can’t stop being angry at someone, try singing the thought out of your head. That’s what David did. That’s where a lot of those psalms came from. He chose in the midst of his anguish to praise the Lord.
  5. Remember and give thanks. This one is related to singing, but different. With this one, we are choosing to look at things differently. We are choosing, like Joseph, to see the big picture and to say, “Maybe the world meant to hurt me, but God means nothing but good from this.” God can use anything, and God can make good out of anything.
  6. Lean heavily on the power of God’s Word. Because here’s what I’m learning about scripture and about Jesus and about all the things we teach and say: It works. God’s Word is exactly what it promises to be. It is good news for the poor and release for the captives. It really is a way for blind people to see and it is the very power of God for salvation.

If God asks us to forgive our enemies and those who persecute us, it is because he wants nothing less for us than joy. And if God tells us that we can’t be in communion with him as long as we harbor anger and unforgiveness in our hearts, he tells us that because He knows it to be true. He knows what we’re made of and he knows what we’re made for.

“I came,” Jesus said, “that my joy might be in you, that your joy might be full.”

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The habits of joyful people

“I tell you these things that my joy might be in you, so that your joy might be full.”

– Jesus (John 15:11)

Did you ever run across the old children’s book called Mr. Happy? His story goes like this: One day he leaves his very happy home and goes walking in the neighborhood. He finds a door and wonders to himself, “Who lives here?” When he goes through the door he is led down a long staircase and into the room where Mr. Miserable lives. Mr. Happy leads Mr. Miserable out of the room, up the stairs and back to his home, where Mr. Miserable stays for some time. Over the time he is there, Mr. Happy begins to rub off on him and one day Mr. Miserable finds himself beginning to do something he has never done before. He smiles. The story ends with the lesson that if we’re ever miserable, we can fix it by smiling!

Isn’t that precious? And maybe a bit delusional?

Yes, there are some people who actually can “fix” themselves just by turning their frown upside down. I don’t how that works. Either they have such optimism that they can will themselves happy, or they live in such denial that they can smile past anything. Privately, I am envious of those people. We need them, so the rest of us don’t pull the whole ship down.

But those people — the naturally giddy ones — are not most of us. Most of us are moody. We are stressed out and confused about our lives and the lives of people we live with. We deal with real depression, real anxiety, real mood disorders. Many of us chronically feel like we’re running just to keep up. So how do messages about joy work for real people like us, whose lives are a little more complicated than Mr. Happy? How do we do this thing called reality without it looking like a Hallmark card? How does joy mesh with stress and broken dreams and broken relationships and the death of people we love and the kind of anxiety and depression that goes deeper than a bad mood or a bad day?

Here’s my real question: How does what we read in the Bible about joy make sense if you’re on Prozac or worse yet, if you’re not, but should be? If Jesus said, “I came that you might have joy, and that you might have it to the full,” then how do I acquire that inheritance

Here’s what I believe: I believe biblical joy is not only attainable, but is the normal state of the Spirit-filled life. Christians are meant to grow in joy.  And as we’ve already said, maybe your temperament or approach to life or other circumstances makes this more of a challenge for you. But as a follower of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, it is your inheritance. And there are things we can do to clear the channel so we have the most opportunity to experience the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

Let’s start with a definition. What is biblical joy?

1. Joy is a spiritually generated response to God’s goodness.

2. Joy is a deep, down assurance that the quality of my life is not rooted in my feelings or circumstances but in the love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.  Spiritual joy comes from a deeper place than our everyday emotions, which are also gifts from God. The difference is that emotions don’t have roots, but spiritual fruit does.

4. Joy is a natural fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

What are the habits of these Spirit-filled people? I count at least seven:

  1. Joyful people forgive easily.  
  2. Joyful people have learned the value of intimacy.
  3. Joyful people have mastered the discipline of waiting.
  4. Joyful people are gratefully generous.
  5. Joyful people focus on progress not perfection.
  6. Joyful people maintain a mood rooted in something bigger than themselves.
  7. Joyful people pursue the Holy Spirit.

Over the next few weeks and the next few posts, I’d like to teach a little on the habits of joyful people because as we’ve said, Christians are meant to grow in joy. I don’t notice an over-abundance of joy in the Christians I meet, and I wonder if it is because we’ve misunderstood the nature of this inheritance. Maybe we’ve become impatient for it; maybe we haven’t done the hard work it takes to break through into joy.  Yet, Jesus promised it.  “I came that you might have joy, and that you might have it to the full.”

How do we acquire that inheritance? I hope these posts on the nature of joy will help you diagnose those areas of your life that block the flow of joy, so you can experience all the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

 

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