Is your pride getting in the way of your relationship with God?

Fifteen years ago, a client of mine became president of his company. It all came about through a fluke (he was a mid-level manager), good luck, and a couple coincidences. He was very humble about his promotion, “It was just God’s grace. I hadn’t wanted it, I didn’t deserve it, and I never tried for it. God just dropped it on my lap.”

Within a couple years he began to attribute his advancement to his own hard work and brilliant insights. He said that his promotion had been delayed too long by people who didn’t appreciate him. He fired people who disagreed with his opinions.

He felt his genius was needed everywhere, and he was glad to offer it:

  • He convinced the high school athletic committee to change coaches because he knew a better way—though he had never played an organized sport in his life.
  • He became head elder at his church and bullied them into adopting a “better” Bible translation—though he had never studied Greek or Hebrew (not even Pig-Latin).

He once scowled in anger when a friend told him his zipper was unzipped (true story), and he sent his dental hygienist home in tears when she suggested he begin flossing (another true story). The slightest correction was met by him with red-faced fury.

Success turned a wonderful human being into an uncorrectable, insufferable know-it-all.

We Fail the Easiest Test

Several years ago I was a novice blogger when I wrote a blog about Sunday school problems that went mini-viral (for me) with over 500,000 reads.

People began to ask for my writing advice, and I liked it. I enjoyed the spotlight. I began to wonder if my opinions might possibly save the world. Frankly, I was surprised—and a bit disappointed—that NASA hadn’t called me for advice about their solid-fuel rockets.

I had, after all, written a pretty successful blog about Sunday school.

We usually hide our pride, but we secretly applaud our brilliance when:

  • Our kids behave better than our neighbor’s kids;
  • We don’t worry about the future like our other friends who constantly fret;
  • We advance further and faster than our college classmates;
  • Our bodies are thinner and more fit than our colleagues.

Of the two tests of God—adversity and achievement, or failure and success—we handle difficulties better than victories. Hardships drive us to God whereas accomplishments drive us to self-congratulations.

The Sinai Desert and the Land of Milk and Honey

When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, after forty years of adversity, Moses offered them his final advice:

Remember how the Lord has led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling and training you; because the Lord is bringing you to a good land, filled with olive oil and honey. You’ll eat plenty and lack nothing.

But be careful, or you will forget the Lord your God. Otherwise, when you have built beautiful houses, and your cattle and oxen multiply, and your silver and gold increase, then you will become arrogant.

You may say to yourselves, ‘I have become wealthy by my own strength and by my own ability.’ But remember the Lord your God, because he is the one who gives you your abilities (Deut. 8:2-18, selected verses).

In our poverty we ask for mercy, and in our riches we ask for praise.

Sam

P. S. I may be slow to respond to comments today. I’m expecting a call from NASA.

When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.

Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.

Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)

Reasoning and bribery plan didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than the urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.

[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]

Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.

God’s Commandments Seem Odd

God’s first commandment in Scripture was, “Don’t eat from that tree.” God doesn’t explain it. He doesn’t say, “Fruit from that tree is high in cholesterol and you don’t want clogged arteries.”

It’s odd. I would think his first command would be to avoid something obviously bad: “Don’t kill,” or, “Don’t hurt each other.”

God’s first command is to forbid something that appears good. Many subsequent commands make more sense: don’t kill, lie, or steal. But his very first commandment prohibits something attractive and appealing. With no further enlightenment.

We want understanding: “Just give me an explanation!” But agreement is not obedience. Reliance on agreement means that our real master is our own understanding (and sometimes God happens to get it right). Real obedience arises from believing God knows more than we do.

Only when obedience doesn’t make sense do we begin to learn to obey. Why was God’s first command so mysterious? Because the heart of obedience is allowing God to be Lord.

Godly obedience means trusting the inexplicable commands of God no matter how strongly our hearts speak contrary, or our cultures disagree, or our feelings rebel, or our desires overwhelm.

We Need the Hard to Receive the Soft

Scripture overflows with puzzling directives that don’t make sense. They include decrees about sexuality, money, work and rest, gender, parenting, marriage, and even good deeds. Some seem sensible (because of our personality or culture) while others seem ridiculous.

Obedience means making God our Lord. The essence of worship is not the songs that begin our church service. Worship begins when we declare, “Your ways not mine.”

And it’s a two-way street. When God becomes our Lord—and only when he becomes our Lord—we can receive his equally inexplicable assurances. Agreement-based obedience trains us to trust our own feelings or understandings.  But what hope will our emotions and reason be when our hearts tell us that even God couldn’t love us?

When our hearts are dismayed (or our spirits are crushed), we need a trustworthyLord to set things right:

“If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”

Sam

Last weekend my wife and I attended two weddings. Both couples used traditional vows:

To have and to hold, from this day forward,
For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer,
In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
Forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live.

My wife and I got married thirty-three years ago, but our church met in the YMCA, so we asked another local church to rent their building. They required, however, that we receive premarital counseling from one of their staff.

The pastor they provided encouraged us to write our own vows, but he disliked our traditional ending. He suggested we change the last clause to read,

“As long as we both shall love.”

A Marriage Made in Heaven

When God officiated the world’s first marriage, he concluded the ceremony with this marriage-charge: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and [the two] shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

The “cleave to” and “one flesh” phrasing generated the basis of our vows, “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”

But those Genesis words mean something more. Something we rarely think about. Paul directly quotes that passage above and then he adds, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that [the Genesis quote] refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

A Marriage Made in Hell

Business relationships are built on value and convenience. We buy our laptops at Best Buy until we find the same laptop on Amazon a hundred dollars cheaper. We drink coffee at Starbucks until a Panera opens up half a mile closer.

We’ve begun to treat personal relationships with this same commercialism. When the marriage-going gets tough, modern people just get gone. If our spouse no longer pleases us (or if we find a more attractive companion with fewer problems) we follow that pastor’s bad advice: we stick around only as long as we feel love. Which their sickness and poverty drains.

Scripture says that God views his relationship with us like a marriage; you might say, abad marriage. But with a difference. When we make marriage vows, we commit ourselves not to who the person is today (so much) as to who that person will become. We just don’t know who that person will become. We are clueless.

God is faithful to us his spouse forever. And he knew all that his marriage vow would cost:

For better and for worse: We have literally been the spouse from hell, ignoring him, demanding our own way, and daily choosing other lovers.

For richer and for poorer: We became spiritual, emotional, financial, paupers; morally bankrupt. Until Jesus gave up everything so that “by his poverty we might become rich.”

In sickness and in health: From the moment of our birth our bodies slowly begin to die. Physically and spiritually, we live in sickness. Christ came to absorb even our death.

To love and to cherish: To cherish means to prize something, and God calls us his chosen inheritance, his own “special treasure,” despite our chronic unfaithfulness.

Forsaking all others: After the original “fall” (and knowing then all our subsequent failures), God could have just started over. Instead he chose to stick with us.

When God sought Adam and Eve in the garden after their unfaithfulness, he knew that his evening stroll would end at Calvary. He knew then, at the moment of his betrothal vow, he knew then all that it would cost. And yet he vowed to us joyfully. God committed himself to us as long as we both shall live. Which through Calvary is forever.

We think of God as the King, which he is. And the Shepherd, which he is. And the Master-Craftsman potter, which he is. And our friend, which he is. This weekend I began to think of him as a spouse in a terrible marriage; we are the Beast who he joyfully and patiently loved to the end.

Because his vow could just as easily have been: “As long as I shall love.”

Sam

God’s Timing

Eight years ago, my niece Amy married Nathan, a great guy. They moved into a starter home in the country. Over time, and with the addition of a son and daughter, the small house felt smaller. With a third child on the way, they decided to sell their house and find a larger home, a place closer to town with neighbors for the kids and a garage for the cars.

They put their house on the market late last October, and within four days they had signed agreement. Which meant they’d better start looking for their replacement home.

Two weeks later they fell in love with a house in their preferred neighborhood, at the right price in the perfect size, and with an attached garage. (It usually takes only one Michigan winter to make the most frugal-minded puritan lust for a garage. They endured seven winters.)

Their bid was accepted. But the inspection uncovered rotted roofing, siding, and windows, and substandard plumbing. All of which was going to cost them more than $40,000. The owners wouldn’t budge on the pricing, so Amy and Nathan reluctantly released the house. They moved in with Nathan’s family a few weeks before Christmas.

Imagine an extended time of suitcase-life with two kids, living in someone else’s home, and pregnancy. (I can imagine all but the pregnancy myself.) Their family-host was gracious, but weeks of this lifestyle took its toll, as though they were imposing on friends. They searched, and searched desperately, for their next home.

They soon found another house that thrilled neither of them (except for the hope of living on their own again); they made a bid that was accepted; the inspection turned up arsenic in the water; the owners refused to re-negotiate; and Amy and Nathan decided again to wait.

And they waited and waited, and weeks turned into months.

Patience Is a Pain We Try to Avoid

We all know the value of waiting. Aphorisms abound that extoll perseverance: “Patience is a virtue,” “Good things come to those who wait,” and even “April showers bring May flowers.”

But we all hate the wait. And we’re not alone:

  • When Abraham grew sick of waiting, he tried to accomplish God’s supernatural promise of a son through natural means, and trouble flourished (Gen. 16);
  • The Israelites rewrote history as they waited in the desert, dreaming of Egypt “where the meat and fish was free,” conveniently forgetting their suffering-slavery (Num. 11);
  • King Saul lost his kingdom when he refused to wait an extra day for the prophet Samuel to preside at a celebration sacrifice (1 Sam. 13).

Why the Heck “The Wait”?

“The vision is yet for an appointed time … though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come” (Hab. 2:3 KJV). God says there is an “appointed time,” and it will “surely come.” We think we know both what we need and when we need it. God says, “Nope! My ‘appointed time’ also means my ‘perfect timing.’”

So what do we do while we wait? Oswald Chambers says,

The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to.

We think we know the “what” and “when” of our lives, while God says our greatest need is the “who.” The“who” that is him always provides what we really most needwhen we most need it; he gives us exactly what (and when) we would ask for if we knew all that he knows.

The Perfect Home

When the arsenic-water-house deal fell through, the housing market just dried up. Nothing captured Amy and Nathan’s interest—and believe me, they were interested! —so they continued to live like the third-wheel on someone else’s bicycle. I’d love to say they waited patiently, but at least they persevered.

In early March their realtor called them with “the perfect home.” And she was right: it was far more beautiful than anything else they had seen; they made an offer that was accepted; the inspection passed with flying colors. And two weeks ago they moved into a house better than their dreams.

My niece’s comment on this entire episode of their life was simple. She said, “It was worth the wait.” What are you waiting for that will someday be worth the delay?

Wait for it.

Sam