I question our practice of painting biblical heroes more heroically than the Bible does. Hiding the faults of our heroes robs us of grace. That’s why the Bible doesn’t hide them.

I once suggested we tell true stories of our heroes, stories that show God’s pursuit of them despite their failings. I pointed out:

  • Abraham was an idol worshiper and God loved him and pursued him;
  • Joseph was a narcissistic boy and God loved him and pursued him;
  • David was a murdering adulterer and God loved him and pursued him;
  • Esther had sex outside of marriage with a non-believer and God loved her and pursued her.

I was surprised by the many readers who were upset at my negative description of “good” Abraham, Joseph, and David. I wondered, “Have they even read those stories?

But I was astonished at the hail-storm of hundreds of angry emails that hated my history of Esther. Esther is beloved. Many think she was forced into sexual slavery.

I think she was a complicit adulterer.            

Why won’t we admit any shortcomings in our heroes?

Let’s put aside (for a moment) Esther’s willing compliance or innocence. Why do we begin reading the Bible with a built-in bias for these heroes to have an innate goodness?

Nowadays we want think Esther was pure as the driven snow, but readers for over two thousand years thought otherwise. When early readers read Esther, they saw moral ambiguity at best. And like us today, they did not like it:

  • The first translations into Greek added words to “improve” Esther’s character, saying she never violated kosher law and she abhorred the bed of the gentile.*
  • For the first seven hundred years of the Christian church no one—not one person—wrote a commentary on Esther.
  • Luther wrote, “I am such a great enemy of the book of Esther that I wish it hadn’t come to us, for it has too many heathen unnaturalities” (slightly edited).

We are biased. We want Esther (and other heroes) to be naturally good because we misunderstand the evil within ourselves, and we fail to grasp grace. Instead we grasp for high self-esteem, and believe God primarily works with inherently good people. Like us.

How would a person who feels broken receive Esther?

A woman called me shortly after my villainous questioning of Esther’s purity. She had been raped as a sixteen year-old by an uncle. She spent the next ten years using her body to gain men’s affection, even occasionally for money. She said,

“When my uncle raped me, it was mostly the force of his personality, but there was a tiny bit of me that was complicit. I didn’t resist, partly because I wanted the attention of any man who at least wanted something I had. In subsequent encounters [with the uncle] I even took the initiative.

“Now [over twenty years later] I understand the brokenness of that little girl who was abandoned by her father; I understand the innocent longing for affirmation; I feel for that little me that was confused and without tools to cope.

“But I still felt guilty for the little part of me that participated. I thought, ‘God could never use me.’ Then I read Esther and understood that God can make even the smallest into something great. The story of Esther brings me hope.”

Her uncle was monstrous. He is guilty of abominable exploitation of a young woman’s personal confusion. But I sympathize with her confusion, and I love the comfort she receives from Esther.

It is her brokenness that allows her to see (and draw hope from) Esther’s brokenness. The person who feels an innate goodness refuses to see God’s heart-changing grace.

Does God use us because we are born good? Or does God take the most broken—even the most brutalized—and turn us into “possible gods and goddesses that if others saw now, they would be strongly tempted to worship”? (C. S. Lewis, slightly edited)

Where will God receive the most glory; in the natural strength of our intrinsic goodness, or through the majesty of God’s supernatural, transforming grace?

So what about Esther?

Esther lived in an age of brutality beyond my imagining. Hundreds of girls were taken for the king’s harem. Perhaps some saw it as an opportunity, but many must have hated it.

The age was also brutal to men. Every year five hundred boys were taken captive and castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Persian court (Herodotus 3.92).

Scripture never mentions Esther’s inner life. It only describes her behavior. It neither says “She wanted to be queen,” nor says “She loathed the idea.” It only describes her behavior. And what is that behavior?

  • Scripture commends Daniel for identifying as a Jew and not defiling himself with unclean food. Esther assimilates and eats all the food provided.
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resist their king’s command under threat of a fiery death. Esther pleases her king more than all the other virgins of the harem.
  • Ezra condemns any Jew who marries a Gentile. Esther loses her virginity in the bed of an uncircumcised Gentile she marries only later, and is crowned queen.

Some say that Esther had no choice; others say she should have resisted to the point of death. Some even say suicide was preferable to allowing that defilement.

How would I have done?

Far, far worse. As a kid I used to wish I had been one of the disciples so I could have been the lone friend who didn’t abandon Jesus. As an adult, I know myself better.

I admire the bravery of the disciples—not of course their “bravery” during the crucifixion—but their bravery in detailing their faults in the Gospels. The Gospels overflow with their ambition, stupidity, and cowardice.

That took guts. Why do you think they wrote the gospels that way?

And something changed in Esther

Esther’s predecessor, Queen Vashti, was banished for defying the king. Esther won the king’s favor by not defying him. Yet the book climaxes when she finally does defy him.

In making her decision she exclaims, “If I perish, I perish.” It reminds me of the men before the fiery furnace who say, “Our God can save us, but even if he doesn’t….”

Why do we want our heroes to have been so good?

Karen Jobes wrote a terrific Commentary on Esther. She says,

“Other than Jesus, even the godliest people of the Bible were flawed, often confused, and sometime outright disobedient. We are no different.”

Let’s not falsely disparage biblical characters, but let’s not ignore their failures either. Because we are no different: flawed, confused, outright disobedient, and proud.

Why do we want our heroes to be better than they really are? Because we think we are better than we really are. We would see more of God’s transforming grace if we spent more time acknowledging our own failures, just like the Bible does of its heroes.

After all, God can raise up inanimate stones to be his righteous ones.

Isn’t it more hopeful (and truer to the gospel) that God’s miraculous, transforming power is wonderfully displayed for all the world when he takes the broken stones we are, dips us into the furnace of his love, and out we come as nuggets of pure gold?

God can make the littlest great; but he can’t use the greatest until we become little.

Sam

* Greek translations of Esther add six long “chapters” which scholars identify by letters A through F (to distinguish them from the Hebrew chapters that we number). Section C:26 adds, “[God,] you know I abhor the bed of the uncircumcised,” and C:28 adds, “[I] have not eaten with them at their table.” See this translation of the Greek additions.

Does it feel like each week is an opportunity for God to uncover the “good stored up in your heart” or to reveal the disappointment you have been and will be?

I’m sure we have all frequently felt the latter and occasionally felt the former.

Jesus’ words in Luke 6:43-45 should be very hopeful and encouraging as followers of Jesus Christ, but for many of us they can bring a sense of apprehension when taken out of context.

Jesus said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.”

We tend to be afraid that we are proving to God and the world, week by week, that we are really thorn-bushes pretending to be vines.

We have this unhelpful tendency to evaluate our entire life and effect by our recent activities and interactions as if growth, maturity, goodness, Christ-likeness, sanctification was spontaneous.

And, if you’ve ever experienced the presence of an authority figure, be it a parent, boss, pastor or coach, who continually had the look of disappointment and the tone of frustration, you probably have this tendency of self-judgement.

Many years ago I had a boss who had this look of disappointment and tone of frustration with me, starting with my first day in the office.  Every day felt like another opportunity to prove to him that I never should have been hired – that I was inadequate for the job and an embarrassment for the organization.

This situation drained me of creativity, joy, vision, whole-hearted engagement, hope, strength and initiative.  I was trying not to prove him right rather than bringing the weightiness of my life to my world.

It wasn’t until I decided to face my fears, lean on God, offer what ever good God has stored in my heart, that I felt my life and calling (true effect) coming back to me. That my life was a vine, not a thorn-bush.

God is not waiting for yet another reason why He shouldn’t have invited us into His family and family business.  He does not have a look of disappointment in His eyes nor a tone of frustration in his voice with us.

Here is essential context of our redeemed life as people who offer to the world the good stored up in their heart:

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6

“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?  Numbers 23:19

“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you (make you good) through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  1 Thessalonians 5:23

“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23

So, from one vine to another, let walk together in the assurance of The Gardener’s love, grace and work in our lives.

Gary

It seems so hard to “nail down” what our calling is and what we should do.

A short while back, I attended a Branding conference put on by Free Agent Academy, of which I’m one of their professors.  I was there as an attendee, not a presenter.  The Branding professor asked us to write out a very brief description (elevator speech) for our business (idea).  I struggled with this for hours and hours.  I couldn’t articulate it.  I was lost in a foggy swirl of ideas and emotions.

Then, in a moment of exasperation I said, “I’m not sure I can articulate what my life (work) is to be about, but I can tell you what makes me mad, what breaks my heart, the battle I must fight.”  That blew the door open. It was one of those “knock and the door will be open” experiences for me (Matt. 7:7).

Sometime the path to our core God-give desires for our life (our calling; Phil. 2:13) is discovered by peering through the window of sorrow, anger and heartbreak.

Through that window I discovered and wrote this:

“I am unsettled by the diminishment, dismissal and side-lining of individuals who carry the image and glory of God – which comes through the relentless assault of the world and Satan or the abuse and abandonment of people.  I am disturbed by the quick-fix teaching and counsel about calling that ultimately disheartens people, distancing them from God.”

“I absolutely love when I see the glimmer of the vein of gold that runs through a person’s life, but more importantly, when they recognize and own the glory of their life. I love and am compelled to help people recover their heart, walk with God, interpret their life, offer their glory, and persevere with joy.”

“I want to spur others on toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24), warning those who are idle, encouraging the timid, helping the weak.” (I Thess. 5:14)

Though I had been speaking and writing on calling for years, I had never really wrestled through articulating my calling, my compelling, my effect until that moment.  And, it wasn’t a quick take-down wrestling match; I had to wrestle with my heart for hours upon hours.  It was the hard, diligent work of detangling my thoughts through my fingers that brought the clarity I was looking for.

In the new weekend event we just piloted called, It’s Your Time, which is a follow-up to the calling retreat, It’s Your Call, we had the participants write out their “Calling Manifesto *”.  What they found, as I did, is that it is really difficult to drill through all the accumulation of rock and soil from the years of life and battle to get to the “vein of gold”.  But once you get to it, you can see the path and follow the vein more easily.

Don’t let the thought, “I can’t articulate my calling” turn into “so I must not have one”.  Articulating, translating, discovering, drilling-down, detailing is hard work, for everyone.  You can do it, but it will take time and effort…and it is be enhanced with the encouragement and feedback that comes with doing this with others.  That’s why we’ve created this new event that I’ll tell you about later.

Your vein of gold, which is the splendor, the calling of your life is there.  You can find it and you can see it with enough clarity to walk it out.  I promise.  But the first step is the hard work of articulating it.

Here to help you as we walk together,

Gary

It is natural to shudder when we think about the tests of God. They seem so scary. Yet I believe the tests of God are the key to hope and joy. Let me explain.

I began flying lessons in 1997. These lessons taught me to take off and land, to navigate using aviation charts, and to communicate with air traffic control.

flight-training-night-1-lg

I particularly liked learning to land.

On my second flight, my instructor Jayne pulled the throttle to idle and announced that my engine had just died. She asked what I was going to do. Throttling her was not an option because I hadn’t yet learned to land. But I was strongly tempted.

Soon a pattern emerged. She’d kill the engine, I’d want to kill her,  I’d look for a place to land, and we’d practice standard engine-restart procedures. Then we would circle down to the landing site until Jayne said we would have made it (or not). Then she’d re-throttle the engine, we’d climb, and we’d review what I had done.

Jayne drilled the engine-out procedures so thoroughly into me that I could have done them in my sleep.

Though I never tried.

Two Types of Tests

Jayne taught me to fly through a series of tests. The nature of these tests—repetition and reflection—taught me to fly. Educators call these tests Formative Tests. They are educational methods that train us in the midst of the test, like my flying instructor’s engine-out surprises.

Each time Jayne killed my engine it was a test, but the test itself trained me to handle emergencies safely and confidently. Formative Tests teach us today how to avoid disqualification tomorrow.

However, when we think of God’s tests, we think of something else. We picture Summative Tests. Summative Tests measure how much we have already learned, such as midterms, finals, and college entrance exams (the ACT or SAT).

While Formative Tests are designed to qualify us for the future, one could say that Summative Tests are designed to disqualify us, as in “My SAT score was low so I failed to get into Harvard.”

So what

Why is this distinction so important? Because understanding the difference between Summative Tests and Formative Tests is the key to joy or despair. It is the difference between midday-sun and midnight-darkness. Frankly, it is the gospel.

Most people consider Christianity to be one large Summative Test, the ultimate College entrance exam; a big moral test which we repeatedly fail.

But it isn’t.

Why do we fear the tests of God? Why do we freak out when we read passages like this, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12)? We fear God’s tests for these reasons:

  • We fear the Failure of tests
  • We fear the Pain of tests
  • We fear the Purpose of tests

The Failure

If God’s tests are Summative (assessing and disqualifying), then yes, we should fear them. But if God is using tests to form us, then we can be at peace—even in the middle of a crisis. When we misunderstand the nature of testing we think God is disqualifying us–though he is actually qualifying us.

Through his tests he actually makes us more qualified; he dismantles our false self and builds in us our truest calling. He broadens our shoulders and he strengthens our steps. He’s teaching us to fly.

The Pain

When we are barely holding our lives together, the mere thought of the burden of a test—adding one more thing—causes pain. We fear our engine-out-plane will hit the ground. But God himself is our flight instructor, sitting in the plane next to us. He is not on the ground giving radio instructions. His exercises develop strength. He is preparing us for something great.

We willingly experience self-inflicted pain to attain our own goals—the pain of exercise to gain health, the pain of dating to find a spouse, the pain of child-rearing to have a family—so why do we fear the pain of God’s tests? Isn’t he always after greater goals than we seek? Isn’t he more careful with our hearts than we are? He is always after something richer than we imagine.

The Purpose

We think we know what we need, and we fear God will get it wrong. God’s tests often go in directions we don’t wish. We want to be a doctor, and God wants to give us peace. We want financial security and God wants to give us joy. God formed our hearts and deepest desires. He created our calling before we were born. He knows what we need, and through his tests he reveals our hearts and our calling. And he is teaching us to land.

When we believe God’s tests are simply Formative, we experience hope, the pressure is off. We know that God has prepared us for this moment, and we rest knowing God uses this moment to prepare us for the next. It’s okay. Even if we “fail” this time around, God uses today’s experience to prepare us for tomorrow.

Only one test is truly Summative. That test is what we choose to believe. Do we choose to believe his tests are Summative or Formative? If we believe his tests are Summative—and failure is disqualification—then everything rests on our shoulders.

When we believe in our hearts that he has done everything for us—he has already qualified us—then every test is just another engine-out exercise.

He’s teaching us to fly.

Sam

(The video blog is at the bottom of the page.)

It’s amazing how encouraging and comforting hearing the phrase “me too” can be.

I’ve had the opportunity to say “me too” many times over the past year as friends have told me of their fear, weariness and discouragement concerning their work, their calling and their future.

I use to think that the fear and discouragement I was feeling was more particular to me because of the way I’ve done things over the years and my lack of faith.  Now I’m realizing how prevalent this really is.

Jesus, knowing the story we would be brought into said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled and don’t be afraid.” (John 14:27)  Or, as the Amplified Bible translates it, “Stop allowing yourselves to be agitated and disturbed; and don’t permit yourselves to be fearful and intimidated and cowardly.”

Whoops, that’s exactly what I’ve allowed my heart to be many times – disturbed and cowardly.  There is ample reason for us to feel this way with everything so unstable, unpredictable and unreliable…and that’s exactly why Jesus said this.

But, there is something more profound, more core to our troubled and fearful heart than our circumstances.

Paul Miller wrote in A Praying Life, “Increasingly, we are returning to the world of pre-Christian paganism, where evil seemingly has the loudest voice and the last word…Our modern, secular world has removed the Good Shepherd from Psalm 23…We are left obsessing over our wants in the valley of the shadow of death, paralyzed by fear in the presence of our enemies…Weariness and fear leave us feeling overwhelmed, unable to move.”

Our culture has made ingenuity (mankind’s ability to be perceptive, brilliant and innovative) the good shepherd.  And while this is an aspect of the glory of God that He deposited into His creation, it give us very little comfort or assurance.  The beginning of Psalm 23 might sound something like this:

“Because of my and mankind’s ingenuity, I lack nothing, my soul is refreshed and I am guided to the right paths. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil and am comforted.”

Wow, with this cultural belief hovering around our heart, no wonder we feel troubled and fearful about the present and future.

In addition to this cultural belief or trust system that we live in, there is a “spirit of fear” that visits us all.  It’s that paralyzing fear that overtakes us in a moment with no immediate justifiable reality confronting us.  In an instant, we have become a retreating coward.

Walter Scott said, “To the timid and hesitating everything is impossible because it seems so.”

Scripture say, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”  2 Timothy 1:7

Of the three characteristics of God’s spirit, “power” is the ability to accomplish what God wants, “love” is the focus of and end result of power, and “self-discipline” is sound judgment to know how to combine power with love in a time of crisis.

We can do this…we can live this way.  We must – other’s need to see our genuine courage and faith in order to hold on to theirs.

We must hold on to the real, living Good Shepard.  We must stand against a spirit of fear.  We must stand with others, for courage is most vulnerable when it is isolated.  We must tackle each moment with the truth that God knows the plans He has for us, plans to prosper and not to harm, plans to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11); that God works in all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28); and that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Let us stand together in the admonition of Paul,  “Do not become discouraged (utterly spiritless, exhausted, and wearied out through fear). 2 Cor. 4:16 (Amplified Bible)

Gary

(This blog on video is at the bottom of this page)

So often my heart goes to “God, do something – show me what you want me to do, open a door, make a way.” Then there is silence and stillness…seemingly.

Holding on to the truth that God does guide, counsel, provide and create, I wonder if I miss His answers and interventions. After all, God said, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go…” (Psalm 32:8) Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:19)

I think God often brings us answers in the form of ideas and opportunities and says, “I heard you…here you go.” Then something transpires in the form of

  • a passing comment,
  • someone sharing the difficulty of their journey,
  • a sudden awareness a problem at work,
  • a memory of something we dreamed of doing or being,
  • an idea that pops into our head.

We can easily dismiss these type of things as the clutter and distractions of our mind or of a needy and broken world rather than the onramp to the road we were asking for.

The next thing that happens as we ask, seek and knock may contain the next thing that’s needed in our journey of discovering, developing and deploying our calling.

We read in 1 Kings 19 that Elijah was in a bad place, even though he experienced God in some amazing ways throughout his life. He was fatigued, fearful and doubting God’s involvement in everything. He was in deep resignation.

Elijah wanted God to take him home. Instead, God took him to the desert, on a brutal forty day hike. God’s first words to Elijah upon his arrival were, “What are you doing here?”

Ok, that seems a little absent-minded or cruel…or was it?

Answering God’s question, Elijah explains his deep disappointment and confusion over the way things had turned out. In response, God said, stand here and watch for Me.

What? Didn’t God hear what Elijah just said? He wanted an explanation, some help or at least some sympathy.

God shows him some amazing effects – rock shattering wind, an earthquake and fire. After this large-screen, 3-D, surround-sound show, God whisper to him. It was God’s whispered words that causes Elijah to cover his face before God in humility and respect.

He asks Elijah once again, “What are you doing here?”

What? Not again. This doesn’t make sense…or does it?

Elijah gives the same response as before, with God answering, “Go back the way you came…” then gives him his next steps.

What? Couldn’t God have simply told Elijah his next steps without a 40-days-x-2 excursion?

Evidently not. Everything about Elijah’s experience was an answer to the cry of his heart. God’s message to Elijah was basically:

  • Watch for me in all things – big or small, obvious or obscure, loud or quiet,
  • You’re not alone,
  • Get back into the game – we are not done yet,
  • It’s never too late,
  • I’ll sustain you – I told you that “this journey is too much for you”, but you made it.

Ok, that’s cool. What seemed so ridiculous and irrelevant was needed, powerful and beautiful. So, as your heart cries out, “God, do something – show me what you want me to do, open a door, make a way”, watch for Him. He may whisper to you through a scripture, a thought, conversation, observation, situation or a reaction of your heart. Stay alert and oriented. Follow God’s leading – big or small, obvious or obscure.

It may be the onramp for the next road you’ve been looking for.

Gary