Beyond Control

In a podcast, author Michael Lewis explains the extra coaching he arranged for his daughter who wanted to be a better high school softball player.  But the coaching wasn’t about her technique, it was about her mind.

She was great in practice.  But during games, she said, “I am hard on myself.  I don’t want to let my teammates and coaches down.” The thought of a college coach watching caused further distraction, as she hoped for a scholarship.  Her attention was on future outcomes beyond her control.  Her coach helped her learn to focus on what she could do in the present moment.

We learn to judge ourselves based on outcomes.  We anticipate the emotional responses of joy, satisfaction, and acceptance.  But those can be the seduction of the siren’s song. The problem is that so many of the outcomes in life are beyond our control.  So we soldier on and live with the disappointment, fear, and anxiety that nag us.  Certainly some things are within our control, but most worries are about things that are not.

You have another option.  You can learn to focus on what matters, do what is right, and trust God with the outcome.  That is a Biblical theme.  Take Jeremiah.  God told him, “I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  But lest Jeremiah’s opinion of himself swell, God said, “You shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you.”  Yet Jeremiah was to keep speaking.  That was what mattered.  It was all he could control.  The results were beyond Jeremiah. (Jer. 1:5, 7:27)

You can hear this theme in Paul’s, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10), and Peter’s, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  They understood that living life God’s way is what matters, and that was within their control.  Pastor John MacArthur developed this theme in his blog about his church’s decision to defy the state government.  Whether or not the church should meet during the pandemic isn’t the point.  This is: Believing the state cannot regulate worship, they chose their course of action and left the results in God’s hands.

More from the prophet:  “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord…for he will be like a tree planted by the water. (He) will not fear when the heat comes…nor cease to yield fruit” (Jer. 17:5-8).  The heat may come from personal circumstances, the COVID pandemic, or national politics.  Regardless, it is liberating to trust God with things beyond your control.  Even if outcomes are not what you want, you can trust God to strengthen and nourish you in the midst of it.  When the heat comes, your life bears fruit because your roots are by the stream of living water.

Judgment Light

I’m an Auburn man, so I have to be an Auburn fan, win or lose.  But I have to admit, the way our football team won over Arkansas this year was a gift from the referees.  Our quarterback tried to down the ball, but it should have been judged a fumble.  Auburn retained possession and kicked the winning field goal.  Lights out.  It’s done. After the game, the SEC admitted the officiating error.

It can’t feel good, being on the dark end of judgment.  Take the Supreme Court vacancy.  You couldn’t pay me enough to sit before the Senate to be considered for that job, especially given the politics of the moment.  You know going in that whichever party nominates you the other will judge everything you ever said or wrote, and the media will dig for (or invent) scandals.  The judge is being judged.

You face all kinds of judgments if you think about it.  How did your annual performance review turn out this year on your job?  Is your customer happy with the work you did or the product you sold?  The IRS judges how you completed your tax return.  The highway patrol judges if you obey traffic laws.  Anytime you care what people think about what you said, or how you look, you are expecting a judgment.

“As God is my judge,” say people swearing to tell the truth.  And He is.  Daniel, the name of a historic Hebrew hero means just that.  The Bible tells us, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27), and “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10).  The referee, the Senate, or the customer might judge wrongly, but does God?

For all the dark, foggy gloom, you will find blue skies and bright sunlight in the words of Jesus.  He said He didn’t come to judge because that has already happened.  God already knows that “men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”  He said, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world.” Simply put, everyone has the opportunity to step out of the darkness and into the Light.  And then this amazing grace emerges: “He who believes in Him is not judged” (John 3:16-19).  Just to make sure nobody misses the point Jesus later said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12).

No, God doesn’t judge wrongly.  Nor does He make a referee’s mistake.  When Jesus stepped forward to accept your guilt and you accept that offer by believing and following Him, God judges you in the light of mercy.  Step into that judgment Light!


True Conversion

J.C. Watts found success as a college and pro football quarterback, and in politics as a U.S. Representative from Oklahoma.  In between those seasons of his life, he made a startling discovery about himself.

Watts left pro football to become a youth minister.  It was a return to his roots, being raised in church by Christian parents.  That return led to his discovery.  He said, “Like so many, I had put my faith in church work.  I could check a lot of boxes.  A guy came to our church and challenged us to think what we had put our faith in.  I called my pastor that night and said, ‘I think I have this all mixed up.’  I prayed for salvation and was baptized.”  He placed his faith in Christ and experienced a true conversion.

Jesus told a story (Luke 18) about “people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” but were sadly mistaken.  One man prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people (sinners)…I fast twice a week; I pay tithes.”  The other man prayed, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!”  The former was like the old Watts, checking all the religious boxes.  The latter recognized his soul’s great need, and God’s great mercy.

A true conversion to Christ is quite different than beginning religious activities.  It is entirely possible to be the best church member or a sincere minister (like Watts) and miss the point.  C. S. Lewis addressed that reality in an article he published just before Christmas 1959 in the Saturday Evening Post.  He imagined a demon talking to other demons.  “All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by ‘religion’ ever vanishes from the Earth.  The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy.  Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”

It’s shocking to think that people could have just enough religion to inoculate them from the real thing.  A true Christian conversion has much to do with who you are, who Jesus is, and what He did.  “All have sinned,” the Apostle Paul warns.  Jesus is God the Son who came to rescue you from your sins by giving His life as a ransom.  That transaction is yours when you answer His call to repent and believe.  Paul described his conversion saying, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).

If you discover you have never been beyond religion or the steps of the altar, go to Jesus for your own true conversion.  “Come to me,” He says.

Basket or Lampstand

People put their lamp on a high lampstand last month by gathering in Washington DC for “The Return.”  The purpose of the event was to call for individual soul-searching and pray for a return to God.

What a counter-cultural thing to do.  This cultural moment has no time for a God who interferes with our personal preferences or the majority rule of America’s democracy.  We live in an age in which a federal judge who has impeccable credentials in academia and on the bench is called a “(unprintable) nut,” according to a late-night TV personality.  Why?  Because the judge’s life and practice are informed by her faith in God.  No matter that most of the Supreme Court justices claim the same faith.  The problem is that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” a criticism leveled by a U.S. Senator.  Apparently, faith is OK as long as it dies quietly under a basket.

The dogma does live loudly in believers, informing our treatment of people and our conduct at work.  “Do your work heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). This has particular meaning for a judge who must be about justice, mercy, and equity, values near to the heart of God.  That used to be OK.  America was once united around the ideas of liberty, virtue, and faith.  Even our non-believing founding fathers understood that the Judeo-Christian ethic was a central organizing principle.  Without a common understanding of virtue, liberty is not sustainable.

Look, this is not about the politics of the moment.  My point is to encourage believers to live with courage and with the light of Christ.  He said, “Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand” (Matt. 5:15).  America has historically been welcoming to people of all faiths or no faith, so live as though that’s still true.  As we live the ethics of Christ Jesus, loving our neighbor, providing for the infirm and needy, working for the public good, then God is glorified and our nation blessed.  We want our non-believing neighbors to know that we want God’s best for them in a nation “under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That doesn’t mean you won’t endure insults on behalf of Christ.  “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:14-16).

So get rid of the basket.  Use the lampstand.