Monday, April 26, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Pit of Perfectionism

I am a closet perfectionist. Those who have been to my home or my former classroom might raise their eyebrows at this statement. They have observed my constant battle with clutter. Dust tends to gather when I am not paying attention. Details elude me. But while I might never pass a white glove test, I am a perfectionist in many other ways.

When I sew on a quilt or scrapbook a page, I want it done exactly right. I agonize over my writing, trying to make each word meaningful and well-said. As I prepare for a speaking opportunity, I struggle for weeks over the content. Nothing outside of perfection will do.

Excellence is the battle cry for many Christians. While this desire is well-intended, we must be cautious. Because trying to live out "perfection" can lead to a performance mentality: making our accomplishments the focus in our relationship with God.

Saul was all about performance. When Samuel confronted him on his disobedience to a specific command from the Lord, at first he denied any wrong doing. Then he tried blaming it on the men in his command and justified his actions with a spiritual motive. Finally, Saul admitted he had sinned. But the next words out of his mouth belied the true attitude of his heart: "I have sinned... because I feared the people and listened to their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the Lord." (1 Samuel 15)

Samuel responded to Saul's disingenuous confession with a stinging retort: "I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel." God saw through the performance right to his hard heart.

We are tempted to think God's opinion of us rests on what we do or do not do. This is probably because many of our earthly relationships are performance-based. Others judge who we are by things like how well we perform our job, the behavior of our children, or how involved we are in ministry. And our perception of what they think of us determines how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to them. Unfortunately, we try the same tactics with God.

It's not what God wants from us.

"You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it," David wrote after confessing his sin. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." (Psalm 51:16-17)

God never has nor ever will base our relationship with Him on our performance. The relationship began when we first trusted in the grace of God for our salvation-a gift we could never deserve or earn. Yet, ironically, as we continue in that relationship, we tend to sink back into relying on our accomplishments. What we are doing for Him quickly becomes the focus. This can be a dangerous place to be. It can become all about us and puts the burden for winning God's approval back on our shoulders. No longer is the relationship about God's grace and mercy.

What He wants from us is not our performance. A performance merely hints that we are self-sufficient and deserving of His love. Instead, He wants us to acknowledge our weaknesses and confess our sin. He wants us to approach Him in brokenness. He never loved us because of what we have accomplished. He loved us and continues to love us because of who He is.

When we quit trying to impress God and embrace our helplessness, we are drawn back to the original relationship with Him. We are needy. He is sufficient. That's when the miraculous starts to happen: his power is displayed through our very deficiencies. We are ultimately more usable to Him. We have climbed out of the pit of performance mode. And the air at the top is clean and sweet.

God created out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.
- Martin Luther


This is the latest version of my weekly newsletter, The Dogwood Digest. To receive this devotional email, please use the link on the right of this page. Thanks!

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Skirmishes Go On

"O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Corinthians 15:55, 57

Once only inhabited by a small Japanese civilian community of sulfur miners and sugar farmers, the island of Iwo Jima became a stronghold of pivotal importance in World War II. As the war progressed, Japan evacuated its citizens from the island and prepared for the inevitable Allied forces invasion. A huge number of bunkers, hidden artillery, and an amazing eleven miles of tunnels were in place by 1944. Twenty-one thousand soldiers were at the ready when Allied forces began firing on Iwo Jima.

On the fourth day of the battle, the first objective was captured: Mount Suribachi. Five marines and a Navy corpsman were photographed raising the American flag at its summit. That moment is now immortalized in the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, VA.

Once the high ground was secure, the invasion slowly moved northward. Very heavy fighting continued as Allied forces eventually took the airfields and remainder of the island. The Japanese fighters considered surrender dishonorable and most tenaciously fought to the death. A month into the invasion, 300 Japanese soldiers launched a last-ditch effort counterattack. The casualties were heavy on both sides, but the next day, the island was officially declared secured by the Allies.

Even so, over 3,000 Japanese troops remained in the island's maze of caves and tunnels. More American lives were lost as they worked their way through the tunnel system routing those Japanese that refused to surrender. The battle may have been won, but the enemy continued to fight, determined to take as many with them in their demise as possible.

On Easter Sunday we celebrated the greatest victory the world has ever witnessed. The Son of God, after three days in the grave, rose from the dead. No longer are we under condemnation for our sin. It was dealt with, paid for, and cast from us as far as the east is from the west. The victory is already ours because Christ has already won. "When you were dead in your transgressions," Paul wrote, "He made you alive together with Him . . . having canceled out the certificate of debt . . . having nailed it to the cross." (Colossians 2:13-15) Sin no longer holds us slave in its power.

The enemy has also been soundly defeated. Satan's future final demise is already recorded in the Bible, when he is cast into the lake of fire to suffer torment for eternity (Revelation 20:10). The war is over.

Yet while victory has been recorded with indelible ink, the skirmishes still go on. While we were given new life at our salvation, we still struggle against our old sinful nature which relentlessly demands satisfaction, and we fight the enemy ever-tempting us to sin. As Paul wrote the Galatians, "For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please." (Galatians 5:17) The war may be over, but the fighting continues on.

These skirmishes are a part of the life God expects us to live. In fact, He carefully equips His soldiers to fight the good fight. Satan may have lost the war, but he is deadly serious about taking as many down with him as possible before the last nail is driven into his coffin. So we have been issued a belt of truth (a great thing when you are up against the Father of Lies!), a breastplate of righteousness, and shoes bearing the gospel message in which to stand firm. Our shield is one of faith, which can deflect every fiery dart of doubt and accusation the enemy can launch at us. Our head is protected by the helmet of our salvation. And last but not least, the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, contains all the knowledge we need to win each skirmish, which mostly, after all, takes place in the mind.

We may even lose some of these skirmishes, especially when we attempt to fight in our own strength. But it is important to remember in those moments of depressing defeat: the war's victor has already been determined. The Good Guy won. Our hope is not in the circumstances of this world. It is in the future God has prepared for us, "an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you." (1 Peter 1:4) Nothing that happens to us on earth will impact the surety of our salvation. The battle belongs to the Lord.

This is the latest edition of my weekly devotional email, The Dogwood Digest. If you would like to receive this free devotional, use the link on the right of this page to subscribe.