Seek God first, and you will never be a nobody. Our society focuses on looking out for number one. How can I make my dreams come true? How can I excel and make a name for myself? I would like to say as a Christian I am immune to these longings, but the call of greatness beckons at the back of my mind. No one wants to be a nobody. We want to be known and respected by a wide audience. When we don’t have that, it feels like something is missing.
My favorite Christmas movie is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Every year I watch this movie to remind myself that even when my life doesn’t go as I planned, it can still have value and meaning. George Bailey never left Bedford Falls, but unknowingly, he enriched the lives of everyone who lived there. His reach extended even further because he saved his brother’s life, who in turn protected others in World War II. We may never know the ripple effect of our lives.
Though I love this movie, it frustrates my friend. She is galled that George never leaves Bedford Falls and none of his dreams come true. He doesn’t get to see the world, but is stuck working in the Savings and Loan. She thinks that he should have been able to go places, earn a good salary, and make a difference. His desires mattered. He shouldn’t have to miss out on his hopes. There must be a way to have personal happiness while also bringing good to the world.
While I understand her angst, this line of reasoning directly opposes what I see in the Bible. Our lives aren’t supposed to be about fulfilling our own dreams and having success as defined by the world. When we strive for these things, even when we get them, they don’t bring the joy and fulfillment we expect. Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (NKJV). When we seek to build God’s kingdom instead of our own, we experience the abundant life and utter joy God desires to give us.
I am so thankful for the times God has forced me to surrender my demands in favor of His plans. Several years ago, I tried to get a job in my favorite town. I felt qualified for the position, and figured God would give me what I wanted. He didn’t. Instead I got a job in a city I’d never lived in and had no idea what to expect. However, that was a much better place for me to live in because it was closer to my sister who was doing missions work. We visited often and deepened our relationship. I also joined a local Bible study, where people encouraged me in my walk with Christ. God knew my needs better than I did.
Mark 8:35 says, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (NKJV). Praise God He convinced me to try something new because I would have missed out on so many good times. I let go of my demands to go where I wanted and gained sweet memories instead. My dreams pale in comparison to what God has planned for me.
Another area where I struggle is wanting to feel like I’m somebody who has left a positive mark on the world. I want recognition for my good work, and can get insecure if I feel like my efforts are unnoticed. However, John 3:30 says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (NKJV). My goals are backwards if I try to make myself big instead of honoring God’s name. God must receive all the glory. Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the Lord, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images” (NKJV). God rightfully deserves all the glory. When we live for our own renown, we will never get enough recognition and always be frustrated. It is ok to be a nobody for God if He so calls you to that. George Bailey may have felt like a nobody, but he made a huge impact on the world.
Sometimes, God allows us to be nobodies for a while to humble us and prepare us for what He has next. He has to ensure we can handle success before freeing us to fulfill our destinies. Think about how Joseph sat in prison for years having done nothing wrong. God had to strip him of the pride he had displayed with his brothers before raising him to second-in-command over Egypt. 1 Peter 5:6 says, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (NKJV). When we allow God to mold us in the shadows, He ushers us into the light to reflect His glory at the right time.
Focus on being who God has made you to be for His glorify instead of trying to promote yourself. God knows best how to use you for His greatest glory. Philippians 4:12 says, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (NKJV). When we learn to be content in all circumstances, no matter where God has us, He will get all the glory. God’s glory lasts for eternity. If you want to be somebody with eternal impact, seek God first. In the end, only His Name matters.
God doesn’t owe us anything. Sometimes I forget this truth. I bemoan my life and don’t understand why I don’t have what everyone else seems to have.
A while ago, a friend and I ran errands to get care package items for the people on her mission trip. She felt loved with acts of service, and I liked quality time, so a trip to Walmart to buy gifts was perfect. I returned to her place to change clothes because I was heading straight to another friend’s wedding that evening.
I complained that it seemed unfair that she got to go on a mission trip and my other friend was getting married. What was I doing with my life? Nothing. I explained to her that even though I tried to obey God, read my Bible, and pray regularly, my life looked nothing like I’d expected. Tears of frustration welled up in my eyes. Why wasn’t I going places or getting married? Didn’t God know I was doing my best? Didn’t God love me?
My friend introduced me to a story from Luke 17. Jesus reminded His disciples that after a servant came in from tending sheep, his master didn’t offer for him to sit and eat first. No, the master expected the servant to make food for the master and rest later. Luke 17:10 says, “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (NKJV).
Her illustration rubbed me wrong. I didn’t want to be an unprofitable servant who simply does her duty. I’m not a robot. My friend highlighted that our pride causes us to bristle. We want to feel worthwhile in and of ourselves, when all of our worth and value comes from God, not from our works.
We don’t serve God because of what we get from Him, but because of who He is. God is worthy of more than we could ever give Him. If we approach our relationship with God as a series of transactions, we will lose every time. We can never do enough to earn God’s blessings. It is naïve to even think so, yet we do. The only exchange happened when God sent His Son Jesus to take the punishment for our sins on the cross. Jesus took our sins, and we get His righteousness and eternal life in heaven. That is a much better reward than trying to earn the American dream through bribing God with my works.
Years later, my life still doesn’t look like everyone else’s life. I’ve decided that’s a good thing. If the world is living to serve themselves, my life shouldn’t look like theirs. I live to serve Christ. Over time, God has opened unique doors for me to serve His kingdom that wouldn’t have been available if I’d taken a more traditional road. And that joy I thought would come from having it all, actually came as a byproduct from seeking God first. Obedience is its own reward. Now my goal is to get to heaven one day and hear my lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:23, NKJV).
Sometimes I am very human and make silly mistakes. Be the errors big or small, the enemy of my soul likes to fashion my sins into a mallet to bludgeon my soul so I can’t escape the shame. For years I lived under strong condemnation, but God is helping me fight my way to the light.
Earlier this year, God gave me a phrase to help me embrace the freedom I have in Christ. It was my first writer’s conference, and I had no idea what to expect. My friends let me stay with them to break up my drive. The next morning as I left town the song “Reckless Love” by Corey Asbury came on the radio. The song breathed life into my worn out spirit. I had needed the reminder that although the previous year had been abysmal, God hadn’t left me there. Instead, God was actively pursuing me with His love.
I got so excited about the song that I turned the wrong direction on the highway and drove for over 20 miles on autopilot, basking in the love of the Father. Eventually, I noticed the numbers on the signs were increasing instead of decreasing. I did a U-turn at the next exit and finally headed in the right direction.
Satan worked hard to rob of the joy I’d just had. My grandma driver tendencies wouldn’t let me speed enough to make up the time. Now I would be late. Not having been to a conference before, I imagined myself walking in late, all eyes swiveling to me as I entered in shame. Perhaps no one would read any of my writings if they knew I was late. My thoughts began to spin out of control.
Then God told me to live under grace. He said “Just LUG!” My heart was in the right place, and God did not judge me. Instead, He rejoiced that I had embraced His love for me. Now He wanted me to make His love for me greater than my mistake. I could live in the freedom to be human and err, yet still be loved by the Lord. Even though condemnation felt normal, I chose to LUG. The freedom that accompanied that decision was delightful. This was how I was supposed to live – forgiven with my sins covered by Christ, not condemned, still a slave to sin.
Romans 6:14 (NKJV) says, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” When we know Christ, we are not ruled by the law which requires us to be perfect. The law was designed to reveal that we are sinners (Romans 3:20) but will never be perfect. Praise Jesus that He was the sinless sacrifice for us. He fulfilled the requirements of the law that we never could. He also took the complete punishment for our sins on the cross, thereby making it possible for us to LUG.
James 2:12-13 (NKJV) says, “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” God’s grace is bigger than the law. Under the new covenant, we live under the law of liberty, the law of freedom and forgiveness in Christ. We are not to live under the fear of the old law where our works won’t measure up. Instead, we live in assurance that we will be judged by the work of Christ on the cross that paid for our liberty. We get mercy because Jesus took the judgment.
Now, does this mean that because we can receive God’s forgiveness that we should abuse His grace? Paul addresses this clearly in Romans 6:15, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (NKJV) When we live out of our identity as being free in Christ, we actually want to obey God. Our motivation is not to prove ourselves as good enough. We do right because we are already made worthy by the blood of Jesus.
Now, what do we do when we have genuinely messed up and sinned, not just gotten lost driving somewhere? 1 John 1:9 (NKJV) says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When we confess our sins, we agree with God that what we did with wrong. In response, God forgives our sins and restores our relationship with Him.
We’re not supposed to agree with Satan that our sins are bigger than God’s grace. We’re to accept God’s forgiveness and continue to LUG. As we live under that grace, we focuses on how big God is and put our sins in proper perspective. God’s grace defeated the law though the blood of Jesus. I pray we choose to LUG with joy!
Have you ever struggling with making your sins bigger than God?
What has helped you cling to God’s grace?
This week I guest blogged on Katy Kauffman's Overcoming the Obstacles of the Christian Life
A Blog Series on the Gospel of Mark. You will find the first part of the blog here, and then a link to the rest on her website. Thanks for reading.
The harvest is worth the effort to cultivate good soil. Too often, I sabotage myself by falling into common traps that prevent God’s seed from taking root and thriving. The parable of the sower in Mark 4 highlights some common impediments to growth, but ends with the harvest. How do we avoid the pitfalls of having bad soil? Developing fertile ground requires digging into God’s Word so His truths feed our hearts.
The Same Seed for Everyone
Mark 4:14 “The sower sows the word.” (NKJV)
Jesus scatters the seed onto all types of soil. He does not discriminate with whom He shares the gospel message. God’s Word doesn’t change. The difference in growth depends on the soil.
Click here to read the rest of the blog.
God has given us unique interests He intends to use for His glory. In June, my church had a free prayer booth set up at the local fair. Everyone wore bright blue shirts that said “May I pray for you?” on the back. The air was sweltering hot, so I sought something to quench my thirst. To my joy, I spied an Indian food place selling mango lassis. The delicious yogurt drink beckoned me. When I returned, my friends asked, “What’s that?” Several from our group went sporadically to buy lassis.
The next morning at church, my pastor’s wife and I prayed for the food truck owner. Who knows how God used that prayer, but obviously God was bringing that man to our attention for prayer. Even if the man didn’t know he needed prayer, God did.
But we never would have prayed for him without the mango lassi. I started a trend. People kept visiting and the man recognized our blue declarations about prayer. Had I not bought the first drink, the whole train of folks probably wouldn’t have walked to his food truck.
Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (NKJV) God gave me a desire for Indian yogurt so we would pray for this man. God paves pathways for us full of all our assorted interests where we can walk out the good works He has prepared for us. We just have to open our eyes and look for those walkways.
Not only does God prepare good works for us, He also enables us to do them. Philippians 2:13 says “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (NKJV) Sometimes I get opportunities to do good works, but they are costly, awkward, or difficult. Not all good works taste as delightful as a mango lassi. I recognize them as from the Lord, but honestly, they would be easier to skip. So I ask God to give me the will to do His good pleasure.
My car broke down recently, and I took public transportation home. While waiting at the metro station for my bus, I saw a woman standing in the road asking for money. She was the same woman I often gave to while driving home from church on Sundays in a different area of town. My lunch money for the next day was one dollar, and the bus was due any minute. If I chased her down, I’d have no lunch and might miss my bus.
I prayed for grace to do the right thing. Fortunately, God gave me the courage to give her the money, and I still caught the bus. Proverbs 19:17 says “He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, and He will pay back what he has given.” (NKJV) The next day I found a can of soup I’d stashed in my desk. God gave to her, and I even had lunch. What a generous Provider we serve. You can’t out give God. I pray God will flood your path with good works for His glory and enable you to do them, no matter how they taste.
I don’t know about you, but I could always use more joy. Sometimes I read verses and wonder how James counted it all joy when he fell into various trails (James 1:2) or how Paul rejoiced in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). Then a friend gave me a recipe for joy that required me to set my priorities straight.
Here’s the recipe:
When we live this way, we experience joy like God intended. The Bible instructs us how to prioritize our lives. Mark 12:29-31 says, “Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (NKJV)
Here’s how I see that broken down:
J – Jesus
The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. When you focus on loving God first and seek to build His kingdom above all, it gives perspective to life. Maybe your boss says mean things. Remember, he’s just your earthy boss. God is your ultimate boss. Perhaps your family or friends are unkind. Seek to honor God first, and rejoice in His love for you.
O – Others
The second command says to love your neighbor. This extends beyond people who live next door. As Jesus shared in the story of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is anyone who needs help. We are to honor others above ourselves. It is usually easy to love our friends and families, but harder to love the person who cuts us off in traffic. We are to yield even to them, and trust God to get us to where we are going safely.
Y – You
Though you come last, you aren’t excluded. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31a, NKJV) Sometimes you can try so hard to serve God or help others, you neglect yourself. This doesn’t honor God because if you don’t care for yourself, you have nothing to give to God or others. However, you come last because if you only look out for number one, you won’t build God’s kingdom. Instead, you’ll build a sand castle that will dissolve when the first waves come ashore.
As you see, if you mix up the order, you don’t get JOY. If you put yourself first, then friends and family, with Jesus as a distant third, you have YOJ - “You Own Junk.” You might get lots of stuff by putting yourself first, but you wind up with junk in the end. Invest in what lasts forever—Jesus. You can’t take it with you when you go.
If you put others first, then Jesus, and yourself, you get OJY. “Orange Juice, Yeah!” Orange juice may be distilled sunlight in a drinking glass, but it’s not joy. Your family and friends are important, but Jesus said in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (NKJV) This sounds harsh, but Jesus is saying our love for God must be so great that our love for our family looks like hate in comparison. That’s a strong love.
Another option is Others, Yourself, and Jesus – OYJ. “Oh, yay – jumping!” You may enjoy a trampoline park, but it will leave you bouncing around with no solid ground. Your life’s foundation needs to be Jesus. If you trust in your own strength or your friends, you will fail. You don’t know all that God does.
The last option is JYO – “Just You Only.” Yes – you love Jesus, but focus on what Jesus can do for you, not how to life out your relationship with God. If you are only a spiritual taker and have no outlet, it makes you spiritually backed up. Find ways to share your lessons from God. When you explain what God is teaching you to others, it helps you better understand the truths yourself.
As you see, the only way to get real joy is by prioritizing - Jesus, Others, You!
When I began to pray the long play (LP) version of the Lord's Prayer, I improved my prayer life exponentially. Ten years ago my brother was really sick. I was desperate for God to heal him and couldn’t fix the situation. I knew to pray, but words eluded me. So I returned to the basics – the Lord’s Prayer. At first, I repeated the words as a heartfelt cry unto God. Then I expanded the prayer, and it came to life as I saw the words encompass every area of my world.
Here’s how I broke up the prayer:
“Our Father, which art in Heaven.” First, I focused on God’s character. Who God is.
“Hallowed be Thy Name.” Next I honed in on names of God.
I often combined Jehovah Nissi with Isaiah 59:19 “When the enemy comes in like a flood, The Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him.” (NKJV) I envisioned the Lord raising His banner above me in the midst of my battle, fighting for me as His child. I felt protected and safe.
“Thy kingdom come.” Here I included items like God’s kingdom to reign over all the earth. My prayers ranged from the government to getting the gospel out to unreached, unengaged peoples in remote parts of the world.
“Thy Will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” I couldn’t pray for God’s will while holding onto my demands. I had to surrender my hopes and dreams. God’s character and name reminded me I could trust Him. I told God even if my brother died, I would still trust Him. It helped me to envision the worst, and walk back from there. That allowed God to be Sovereign in my mind over any outcome. The verse also reminded me this world was not my home. There would be a day when things were right in heaven. Life was messy from living in a fallen world. This life was not all there was, and my hope was secure in heaven with Christ.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Next I thanked God for all that He had already provided for, and asked Him to do it again. Asking for daily bread brings dependency on God. Too many times I want God to provide not only for my daily needs, but I want peace about the rest of my life. Lamentations 3:21-24 says “This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is Thy faithfulness.” (NKJV) God’s mercies don’t run out, and are new each day.
When the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, they were only allowed to gather enough manna for one day. Only on the day before the Sabbath were they allowed to gather for two days. God loves to show us our need to rely on His strength. That way we don’t get proud, and God gets the glory rightfully due Him.
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is a key aspect of prayer. I had to examine my heart and ensure I wasn’t harboring a lack of forgiveness. When I compared how much God had forgiven me with any sin a person could commit against me, I found no justification for not forgiving someone else. When I forgive others, it frees God to forgive me and hear my prayers.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God knows we are tempted to turn against God. The spiritual war wages around us though our physical eyes do not see the fight. The enemy will do anything to steer us into destruction. We need to ask God to keep our feet moving on the straight and narrow so that even when we are on our knees, we crawl forward. We need God’s protection.
“For Thine is the Kingdom.” God already rules over the whole universe. We can choose to acknowledge this or not. When we submit to God’s reign, instead of trying to write our own guidelines, we have a greater peace from not striving to understand everything.
“And the power.” John 15:5 says “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (NKJV) This verse is beautifully shows we are weak and powerless. God has all the power in the universe. I pray God uses His power to do what I cannot.
“And the glory, for ever.” All glory belongs to God. When I boast in my accomplishments, it falsely boosts my pride, and strips God of the honor due Him. God is not about building my ego, but building His kingdom. God deserves all the glory. I’d pray for God to get the glory through my brother’s sickness, regardless of the outcome. I remembered how Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died and was in the grave several days before Jesus came and called him back to life. God will allow our temporary grief for His greater glory.
“Amen.” This final agreement relinquishes my rights to God to take my imperfect prayers based on finite knowledge and transform them into His will. It reminds me of Romans 8:26 “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (NKJV) The Holy Spirit turns our prayers into what we would ask if we knew all God does. He sends those corrected desires to the Father. It is as if I prayed, “God, please give me a pink pony.” The Holy Spirit, knowing I have nowhere to keep a pony, but the real issue is that I am lonely, instead asks, “Father, give her a friend.” The Holy Spirit knows the true need and translates that to the Father on my behalf. Leaving me utterly grateful.
That is my LP version of the Lord’s Prayer. As I interceded for my brother, God did heal him after over a year of us not knowing if he would survive. But my trust in God grew so much because I saw Him answer prayer and change my heart as I surrendered to Him. May the Lord’s Prayer become alive to you as you play your own LP version and commune with the Father in a new way.
It never ceases to amaze me how God transforms things that seem to be leftovers into something magnificent. The leader of my women’s retreat showed us the best visual of this I’ve ever seen.
She started with the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. First, He asked His disciples to find food for what would have been over 20,000 people with women and children. The disciples looked at Jesus like He was crazy. Where were they going to find seven months worth of wages to buy that much food?
But Jesus insisted they feed the people. He knew they were tired and hungry. Jesus desired to meet their felt needs. So, Andrew brought a young lad with his humble lunch of five loaves of bread and two small fish to feed five thousand people. He brought what he had.
Jesus took the bread and fish and blessed them. Then Jesus broke the loaves and fish. From that, Jesus fed all the people. Not only did everyone have enough, Jesus sent His disciples to pick up the leftovers. Twelve full baskets remained.
Jesus doesn’t waste the broken parts. Actually, Jesus loves those best. It is because the bread was broken that He was able to feed so many. Had it stayed five solid loaves, there wouldn’t have been enough to go around.
The leader shared about how sometimes in life we feel broken. Life comes at us unexpectedly and then,
She threw a plate on the floor and the sound echoed throughout the room. We sat there shocked, unsure what had happened. She explained how when live gets hard, it’s like we are shattered. Broken shards are everywhere. She picked up the parts from the floor, and noted how we try to gather the pieces we find and move along with what remains.
But then life hits again.
She hurled the pieces down again, resulting in more broken bits. Then she described how sometimes life is relentless and continues to wail on us. She pummeled that plate to smithereens with a wrench. I could feel the loud beating in my chest.
I tried to watch, but tears streamed down my face. I felt like I was witnessing my life from last year. My bad week last April was the first real crash. Dreams shattered, and I was left stunned. But I picked up the pieces and marched forward, trying to make do.
Then things fell apart again, and the fall was worse. Before I saw her example, the way I described it was that I felt like a piñata that had once been colorful, holding sweet things inside. Then I’d been repeatedly bludgeoned with a baseball bat until all that remained was a tattered and empty shell. I hurt.
But God began to gather my pain and reconfigure it the same way the leader began to form those bits of plate into something on the floor. She was making a mosaic from the fragments that never could have formed had the plate not broken. God loves broken people because He knows that is all of us.
Psalm 34:18 says “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” (NKJV)
When the mosaic was completed, it formed the word glory. When we let Him, God takes all our hurt, all our suffering, our pain, and shame, and reworks it into something beautiful for His glory. He wants to build His kingdom through our lives. He knows what to do with the leftovers that result from the hardship of living in a fallen world. God doesn’t waste our pain.
God is doing that in my life now. This time last year, I was in a lot of pain. I never imagined God would have me blog and podcast. He is giving me new dreams to replace the ones that died. Not that my original dreams were bad, they were just too small. God has better ways to expand my borders to reach more people for His glory. I just had to be broken first. God is teaching me not to resist when I’m broken, but to get excited. Because God loves to use the broken shards from our jars of clay and transform them for His glory.
Have you ever gone through a rough time and felt broken?
What is something good God brought in your life from pain or loss?
Last summer, after finishing my least favorite chore—yard work—I cut a few roses. I’d snapped a photo while taking out the trash the night before and wanted to decorate my kitchen. Then I noticed poison ivy had wrapped itself around the branches. I had to yank it out, or it would kill my rosebush. The poison was invisible at night, though a closer look at the picture revealed it was there the whole time.
The Holy Spirit reminded me of John 15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (NKJV)
My friend calls this God’s CRaP – Cutting, Refining, and Pruning. God uses these ways to transform us into His image. It’s painful, but otherwise we will be choked out. God’s love compels Him to change us, though it hurts temporarily. He knows the result is worth the pain.
God’s cutting eliminates sin in our lives. God hates sin. It has to go. When I rented my place, I warned my renters about the poison ivy. Instead of killing it, they potted the poison ivy and hung it on a trellis. It had purple flowers, but this was poison ivy. I spent an hour unwinding the ivy from each branch, then trashed that traitorous pot.
For my rosebush, I had to destroy the harmful poison ivy. For my life, that represented sinful thinking where I misunderstood God’s true character. These lies were replaced with Biblical truths about God’s faithfulness, loving kindness, and tender mercies. God showed me Isaiah 1:16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil.” (NKJV) My thoughts were evil, and had to be put away so I could live life in right relationship with God.
God surfaces our sin patterns so He can remove them. The same way I got scratched fixing my plants, God suffers with us so we can flourish. God does not want to harm us. Many times when God works on me, it hurts. Deeply. I want Him to stop. Malachi 3:3 says “He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness.” (NKJV) The silver refiner stands over the flame, feeling the fire’s heat. He repeats the process until the impurities are gone and the silver reflects His face. God feels our pain, but loves us enough not to leave us full of sin. This is how God transforms us into His image.
God also refines our hearts to have space to replace our motives with His. Psalm 37:4 says “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (NKJV) Previously, I thought this meant if I loved God, He would give me what I wanted. Instead, it means when I love God, He implants His desires in my heart. I noticed my requests changing. I went from – “God, help me feel better.” to – “God, be glorified in my life. May Your renown be my desire. May I help others know you better and point people deeper into Christ.”
I had to prune my rosebush. My shears hacked those dead branches off. Though they once bore fruit, they were now dead. Those branches had to be removed so new growth could arise. Otherwise, the old ones would suck up the nutrients the new branches needed.
Sometimes I over commit. A total extrovert, I despise being alone, and can run myself into the ground trying to do everything. I forget Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.” (NKJV) Even areas that once brought life need to be reexamined to see if they are still green. If not, they need to be pruned. My long-time church home changed, and it was time to move on. It was hard to leave, but sometimes letting go is the only way to open our hands wide enough to receive God’s best for us.
Last year God did a deep work in me. He had me surrender all of my dreams, and let go of friends and places. The process was excruciating. My verse was Hebrews 12:11 “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (NKJV) The pruning was painful, but I’m starting to see the peaceful fruits. Experiencing God’s CRaP is rough, but the roses are worth it.
We all have those books in our lives. The ones that have such a significant influence we read them again and again, finding new insight every time. While the Bible has impacted my daily life the most, I thought I’d share other books that have profoundly touched me. These books have shaped the way I think and see life, and pushed me to better understand my identity in Christ and how to live fully and abundantly.
1) Daily Light – Jonathan Bagster, Anne Graham Lotz. This book has been the deepest blessing in my life. It is a Scripture compilation with morning and evening sections. Bagster collected these verses for his family devotions over a 100 years ago. My aunt and uncle brought my mom a little red copy from the Christian retreat center L’Abri in Switzerland where they lived with Dr. Francis Schaeffer in the 1970s. My mom carried it in the car, and read to us when we were children. Eventually, it lost its red cover and most of its binding, so she kept it in a Ziploc bag to preserve the pages. She later took it inside so it didn’t disappear forever.
A pastor from Tennessee reintroduced the book to me during a missions’ conference in Slovenia. Anne Graham Lotz had reprinted the book because of how it benefited her family. Once home again, I bought copies for all my friends. It amazed me how often the Scriptures were exactly what I needed. God knew which verses I’d require on a given day, and had the Holy Spirit lead Bagster to include them so long ago. Many corners are dog eared for easy access to let the truth soak into my soul. I can’t rave about it enough.
2) Radical – David Platt. Radical challenges Christians to examine their lives to see if they are living the American dream or actively seeking to advance the God’s kingdom on earth. It highlights the billions of people who have never heard the good news that Jesus lived a perfect life and took our punishment by dying on the cross. Jesus then rose again so we can have eternal life. When we studied Radical in my ladies Bible study, we covenanted to work through the five challenges together:
The book impacted many of our decisions: one lady bought a smaller condo so she could give more to missions and three women felt called to missions work overseas. I can’t overemphasize what having a strategy to join God’s work does to empower you to live on purpose for the kingdom of heaven.
3) The Search for Significance – Robert S. McGee. If you have ever struggled with perfectionism, seeking the approval of others, guilt, or shame, this book is for you. It shows the root of these struggles stems from not understanding our identity in Christ and what Christ has done for us. Scriptures are used to combat these lies and yield right beliefs about God. I reread this book when once again I’m trying to win the approval of people though I already have the full love and acceptance of my Savior. When friends want to borrow this book, I buy them their own copy because so much personal stuff is written in the corners. It also gives them a hardcopy to answer the various quizzes to assess their current beliefs.
4) The Purpose Driven Life – Rick Warren. We tackled this book early on in our ladies Bible study. While it uses several random Bible translations, the overall point is good – life is not about me, and it isn’t supposed to be. It is about Christ. At the end, I wrote my life’s mission statement, which was close to the first and second commandments: “My mission is to love God and to love others, and to help others to love God and to love others.” A friend keyed in on the second half, pointing out that my mentoring, evangelism, and leading a Bible study tied in nicely. I want to equip people to strengthen their relationship with Christ. This is why I am blogging - to serve as an arrow to point people to Christ.
The book introduced how my SHAPE - Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experiences - makes up who I am and impacts how I can best serve the Lord. I conducted SHAPE surveys with the ladies in the study and myself to understand how God could use us best. It was insightful to see how because we had different stories, God had unique ways we played into His plans. Yes, I have lots of energy and am very passionate. God loves that about me and can use me in differently than He would someone else. I can sit and wish I was quieter and more subdued or walk in the good works God has prepared beforehand for me.
5) Operation World – Jason Mandryk. If you have ever talked to me before, you probably think I get kickbacks from promoting this book. I don’t; it’s just that rich of a resource. Operation World provides insight into how to pray specifically for needs in every country. Also, each country has its own day so people worldwide pray for the same country at the same time. God uses our prayers here and applies them globally. How mind blowing! The most recent version was printed in 2010 before the Arab Spring, so a lot has changed. Nonetheless, it provides meaningful ways to intercede on behalf of the nations.
6) The Celebration of Discipline – Richard J. Foster. For a solid overview of foundational Spiritual disciplines including Bible reading, Scripture meditation, prayer, fasting, simplicity, solitude, service, and celebration, look no further. I’ve actually studied this book twice in different small groups, and learned new things both times. The book is a great reference and specifically provides a clear overview of the importance and mechanics of fasting. During the study, we stressed that by partaking of the Spiritual disciplines, it does not obligate God to bless us; however, it aligns us with where God’s blessings fall.
7) Classic Christianity – Bob George. This book sounds like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity from the title, but instead of being theoretical, it addresses one’s identity in Christ. It covers how to be free of sin and live in God’s joy daily. I appreciated the comparison between a “good self-image” and a “proper self-image.” George explains a proper self-image knows we are sinful and depraved, but also knows we don’t have to stay there. Pride in our abilities could lead to a “good self-image,” but in Christ we are new creations and can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. It roots our identity in Christ instead of in anything inherent in us. How freeing.
8) Boundaries – Henry Cloud, John Townsend. Because I have the tendency to be a people pleaser, this book was especially helpful. It is subtitled: “When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life.” Although I still do not completely implement these truths, it helps me remember I’m better able to serve Christ when I don’t overextend myself.
9) God’s Promises for Singles and God’s Promises for Women, J. Countrymen. These are more Scripture compilations to give verses that speak to your current state of mind. This is great when you don’t know where to look. Many times I’ve gone straight to the “Bewildered by God” and “Disillusioned by Life” sections of Scripture and found exactly the truths I needed at that moment. Don’t worry, they also have God’s Promises for Men and God’s Promises for Your Every Need.
10) The Complete Green Letters, Miles J. Stanford. I warn you, you need a scuba tank to read this book because you will go deep, but the dive is worth it. The deceptively short three to four page chapters take at least an hour to really grasp, but the truths revealed are incredible. It helped fill in gaps about my identity in Christ. It shook me to realize God will not answer pleas for help because He won’t feed my flesh. Instead, He allows me to become weak so I come to a place of complete dependence on Christ and not myself.
It was really hard to narrow my list to only ten. There are a lot of other good books out there, so please share them below. I’m always looking for good book recommendations.
Joanna Eccles has led Bible studies for over ten years and completed the year-long C. S. Lewis Fellows Program. She is passionate about discipleship and helping people know God better. Joanna enjoys coffee, traveling, and reading, and currently lives in Virginia.