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Posts Tagged ‘Grace’

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 (NIV)

“This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.” – Saint Augustine

For most of my life I’ve had an ongoing battle with perfectionism but it took me over fifty years to see it as a hindrance rather than a help.

Daily we are bombarded with images of men and women who appear to be highly successful because they strive for perfection in their appearance and professional life. However, if you take a close look at anyone’s life, no matter how “together” they may appear, it won’t take long to discover that even among the best of us there is a much deeper longing for meaning in life and relationships.

Deep down I really know that I’m a deeply flawed individual but it would be nice to appear to “have my act together” to everyone around me so that my faults and failings don’t come out too often.

For those of us who have a personal faith in God it’s easy to quote chapter and verse either to justify our perfectionistic tendencies or excuse our shortcomings or both.

Jesus’ words above recorded by Matthew have often been quoted to me by some who say that God expects “perfection” from people, speaking mainly of the followers of Jesus. The implication is that perfection in this life is somehow attainable through whatever means are necessary to achieve it.

Honestly, that’s no way to live life with a heart for God and it’s not even realistic or even achievable if we stop to think about it.

What was Jesus saying here and does the Bible teach us that striving for perfection is a motivating factor in our lives? Before drawing any quick conclusions just take a closer look at the Biblical language, especially in the case of Jesus’ words.

The Bible speaks of God’s “perfection” as in Deuteronomy 32:4, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He.” (NIV)

The Hebrew word for “perfect” here carries the idea of “blameless” or “without fault.” I think most people with a faith in God and particularly Jesus-followers would have no problem with the concept that God is perfect and unblemished.

However, when it comes to the way the Bible speaks of humans in relation to “perfect” a different word is used. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus uses the Greek word “teleios” meaning “perfect” in the sense of “having reached its end,”  “complete” or even “mature.”  In other words God is perfect and can’t be “matured” any more than He already is but we humans are far from mature. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of “growing” us up as we trust His perfect Son Jesus and live by faith.

In my battle with perfectionism I’ve found that there’s a world of difference between striving for excellence as opposed to perfectionism as a “soul-condition.”  Human perfectionism no matter how well-intentioned is rooted and grounded in pride while the Gospel message of Jesus is one of humility.

Striving for excellence can be very much about serving God and others if our motives are to glorify God in everything we do. Perfectionism on the other hand is a mindset that seeks to avoid being judged or criticized by others. The malady is one of obsession with what others think, or may think of us.

Researcher and author Brene Brown defines perfectionism as “a cognitive, behavioral process, a way of thinking and feeling that says this ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, and live perfect I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgment.’”

The peril of perfectionism is that we can actually become callous to our own humanity so that we don’t have to face our failings and imperfections head on.

The alternative to prideful perfectionism is humility and vulnerability which breaks down pride in our lives and gives us a healthier appreciation of God and true freedom to trust Him with the reality of who we are – warts and all.

Ms. Brown expresses it well when she says, Why, when we know that there’s no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone? Is it that we really admire perfection? No – the truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.”

I think our Lord and Maker is more interested in enabling us to serve Him out of faith and love rather than approving of our efforts to create a false image of ourselves. He provided a very humble, gentle and vulnerable Savior to show us the way to do just that.

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“By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures. A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength; for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.” – Proverbs 24:3-6 (NIV)

Yesterday Dustin Johnson, the thirty-year old, highly successful professional golfer at the top of his game, announced that he has decided to take a break from golf to address personal issues in his life and seek outside professional help.

Today the news is that drug use is the issue. It’s being rumored that he is being suspended for six months by the PGA for being tested positive for cocaine.

So the sporting world is facing a new challenge for one of its star performers. Even so I can relate to where Dustin is at just now.

Being a film-fan I always enjoyed a good western movie. In the great westerns of yesteryear you could generally count on the US Cavalry coming to the rescue in desperate situations. When the peaceful, hardworking homesteaders on the frontier got surrounded by the enemy and all hope was lost, the US Cavalry seemed to arrive just in time to save the day!

Life has a way of landing us in trouble that we can’t squeeze out of unless someone from outside comes to the rescue. The problem is that we often don’t know how much trouble we’re in before we call for help. I don’t know about you but it seems that in my life I keep having to learn lessons the hard way. All too often pain seems to be the best teacher.

In the early days of US television there was a famous western series called “The Lone Ranger.” It featured a masked man who, along with his trusty Native American sidekick, “Tonto” would rescue people out of hopeless situations.

In my generation, it was every boy’s dream to be “the Lone Ranger.” Strong, independent and reliable were subliminal code words we seemed to inhale with every episode.

For most of my life I preferred “The Lone Ranger” to “The Cavalry”. I wanted to be able to solve my own problems and meet my own needs without having to call in anyone else to help. For more years than I care to admit, I never sought out a mentor, although I often heard that it might be a good idea.

Unfortunately in the real world pride makes small men even smaller. Proud men dislike outside help. Hollywood, fueled by pride and competition, doesn’t preach that sermon.

In reflecting on Dustin Johnson’s situation I can’t help but think back to the beginning of Tiger Wood’s problems in November of 2009. He was in deep trouble long before the news hit the media. Although many of his problems may be resolved he’s still working his way back to prominence in golf almost five years later. He was in a deep crisis way before the Cavalry arrived.

The verses quoted above from Proverbs direct us to a much different pattern of life  – people who are wise, successful and productive in life have “houses” (i.e. lives) that are built on understanding, knowledge, strength and guidance from many advisers!”

The best leaders are also people who are led, most of time by the people they intentionally and willingly choose to follow. They are team players, not Lone Rangers! They rely on key outsiders and even disgruntled customers to speak into their lives and situations.

People who are growing and influential are vulnerable and connected to others. They welcome feedback because they know they can learn from it. They seem to know who they can trust. They confide in those people, seek their input and make mid-course corrections. Generally everyone wins from that type of behavior.

Because of our natural self-protection and blind spots we often don’t know we are in trouble until someone on the outside gives us a clue that we are not in a good place and that we need wisdom beyond our own boundaries.

Several years ago when facing a personal crisis I finally started to stop trying to be the Lone Ranger and start calling in the Cavalry. It made all the difference in my own life and new life patterns of dealing with problems emerged.

Often our own pride blinds us to see God-given advisers all around us. The truth is that we can’t watch ourselves travel through life – but others around us can. Many of them are smarter than we are and have pretty keen eyesight and life experience.

Look at your own life. I’d say that your “Cavalry” is all around you. They can be friends, spouses, small group leaders, pastors, teachers, church leaders, business consultants, coaches, doctors, specialists in a field of interest and the list goes on.

Now that I’m a little wiser I continually update my list of “Cavalry” members God has placed around me. I’m grateful for a growing number of key people near me whom I can call in to help before the crises of my life get out of hand. It’s like heeding the warning signs of cancer as soon as they appear – and doing something about them before it’s too late.

My hope is that at age thirty Dustin Johnson hasn’t left his decision too long before seeking help. If things go well for his recovery he’ll be the real winner in the long run.

Now when I see a crisis brewing I’m quicker to spot my foolish pride and call in my own Cavalry because in reality Lone Rangers finish last.

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“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:37-39 (NIV)

Do you ever wonder if Jesus ever had any bad hair days? With all the important things on His mind it’s doubtful that Jesus, The Son of God, ever worried too much about things that concern most of the rest of us humans.

In all the Gospel accounts you never hear Jesus complain about the state of his hair, the dusty roads or his dirty feet. And He did have dirty feet. We know that because he walked the same paths of first century Palestine as did his disciples and the rest of humanity. He also got tired and frustrated like the rest of us.

Jesus, however, seemed to have a focus that transcended the mundane things that seem to distract us on a regular basis, but that’s a different subject.

I’m learning more these days about the concept of “self-compassion.” It’s actually a very liberating concept which differs greatly from self-esteem or self-indulgence. It simply means that in order for us to have true compassion for others, we must first have compassion for ourselves.

How do you relate to yourself? Does that influence how you relate to others?

To be honest for most of my life I’ve given myself a harder time than any other human being I know. It’s doubtful that I would ever hear Jesus speak to Himself, or to me, the way I regularly talk to myself.

Can you ever imagine the Lord Jesus Christ making these comments to Himself?

“You’re a dumb human being!”

“Your feet stink!”

“You’re a hopeless case!”

“Why don’t you crawl in a hole where you belong?”

Of course we know that Jesus wouldn’t say that to Himself because He was the perfect Son of God. But how would Jesus speak to us about our concerns both major and minor?

Jesus valued each human being as worthy of love. He knew that every human was made in the image of God and was worthy of His affection and admonition. He gave His very life for each and every human being regardless of nationality, race or intellectual aptitude – despite all of their faults and failings.

He taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, implying that we should love ourselves and others as God’s image-bearers.

He bids everyone to come to Him by faith and find redemption, soul-rest and restoration regardless of their situation in life.

If the Divine Son of God never had a bad word to say about Himself, or us, then perhaps neither should we.

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“For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:32-33 (NIV)

“How much did you save on Black Friday?”

This question looms large in households throughout American communities as the run up to Christmas begins now in early December.

The Thanksgiving Holiday is held on the fourth Thursday of November in the US. The day after this national day of feasting has been referred to for some years now as “Black Friday.” It’s a day when many people are off work for the extended weekend and major pre-Christmas sales begin.

This year Black Friday began on Thursday evening. Before their turkey dinner was even digested consumerism tightened its stranglehold over many Americans who gladly participated in the mayhem. Pandemonium was created when consumers shopping in certain locations began to attack each other hoping to be the first to escape with “Christmas blessings” in material form.   

My nephew wasn’t alone when he referred to the day as “Black-Eye Friday” on his Facebook page.    

As a product of a consumer society I now have a better understanding of myself, materialism and the number it does on my own soul. I come directly from a culture of people who constantly measure or quantify everything from bank accounts to beauty secrets. I want desperately to know “how much” of just about everything in my life.

“How much is my house worth?”

“How much do I have in the bank?’

“How much fun did I have at the party?”

“How well are my kids doing?”

“How does my marriage measure up?”

Not only do we have arbitrary measures for our own lives and all we possess in comparison to others, but we judge people based on their purchasing power and then feel satisfied and justified when we beat someone else out of a bargain.

Too often our treasure is in the things of this world of ours that can be measured.

A few years ago it gradually began to sink in that God’s Kingdom cannot be measured. The values that should dominate our lives are not measurable, at least by human standards.

Who can quantify eternity?

Who can find any measurement for the eternal God?

What about qualities such as love, kindness, patience?

If we look for it, we can see evidence of God’s grace all around us, but are never able to contain or quantify it. What are the statistics of heaven? Can we even dare to speak in those terms?

God designed His Kingdom to be just that way and Jesus His Son told us so. Somehow in God’s economy, He is the sole Judge of what’s valuable. We are told to seek His Kingdom and His righteousness first and then the material and the measurable will take their rightful place in our lives. 

This presents a problem for a consumer society. It’s been said that the best things in life are free, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the best things in life are immeasurable.

When we get focused on the measurements rather than the eternal value of God and people we lose sight of where true life really exists.  The measurements of the world are not the measurements of Heaven.

Next time you start feeling that you, your spouse, your children, your job, your income or your possessions don’t “measure up” to standards start asking yourself, ”Whose standards am I living by?”

The flow of our culture is to gather and compare and consume. The flow of God’s Kingdom, as embodied in Jesus Christ, is to receive gratefully from Heaven and joyfully give to others out of a heart captivated by love.

This year Black Friday’s values really spoke deeply to me. Or perhaps it’s better to say that true Christmas values spoke louder by way of contrast.

In the Christmas season we reflect on the reality that God sent His Son here to bring us through faith into a Kingdom that cannot be measured. How a consumer-driven society handles an immeasurable truth like that one is an issue that only an Eternal God can address. 

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“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’  Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  . .’ ” Matthew 18:21-23 (NIV)

“Here’s the deal,” coach blurted out. “I can give ALL of you one lick and we’ll forget about it, or I’ll give ALL of you three licks and THEN we’ll talk about it.”

Even though it was over forty years ago I can still hear coach Hall’s tone of voice and sense my feeling of helplessness.

It was my third year of secondary school and I was one of about fifteen second and third year students who were taking golf for their physical education requirement. There was a good system in place whereby we played a few holes of golf at local courses after school and then were required to hand in signed scorecards the following day proving we weren’t skipping out.  

Early in this particular year we had a stretch of frosty weather and by the time we got out to the courses they were closed. A few days of this went by and no cards were showing up at school. We all thought we had passed on clear information on the matter to Mr. Hall our basketball coach-turned-golf-monitor. But to our shock he decided to dispense with the perceived problem en masse. He called a short meeting after school and meted out the discipline he thought would rectify our infraction to the satisfaction of the school administration. It was a simple case to him that no cards were showing up and we were all guilty!

That day I and my teammates were victims of unexpected injustice as we all lined up for the ONE very painful and quick paddle to the backside while the coach was temporarily relieved to think that he had fairly rectified the situation. Little did any of us know what would happen next!

Being on the receiving end of unfair treatment brings wounds that can last for years. The deeper the wound the more difficult it is to forgive. Many have observed that the wounded who refuse to forgive are actually held captive by the offenders who often forget about their actions because they may be nursing wounds themselves.

I think we all find forgiving those who have wounded us to be a difficult matter.

Where we live in Ireland we find this repeatedly with victims of family and institutional abuse. One of my colleagues is a specialist in counselling adult victims of child sexual abuse. From all I have gleaned from her over the years I know that forgiveness in these situations is a process.  It’s one that can last for years and even over a lifetime.

We are also all too familiar with institutional abuse in this country. The Magdalene  laundries and their enduring legacy have returned to the Irish news in recent days. These were institutions which existed in Ireland, Britain and other parts of Europe and even in North America from the 18th to the late-20th centuries supposedly to house “fallen women.” Originally designed to be agencies of mercy they eventually became instruments of abuse and bondage for many girls who ended up there.

My heart goes out to the women who were victims of these institutions and no amount of whitewashing can take away the enduring emotional pain of the victims as well as perhaps the perpetrators of the abuse who were likely themselves victimized in their younger days.

Although no injustice  I have ever experienced has come anywhere near the abuse many like these women have experienced I do know that bitterness and a refusal to forgive others blinds us to our own sin and rebellion. When we consider forgiving  those who have wounded us it often causes us to forget our own rebellion and the harm we have caused others.

Ultimately the only way we can understand and cope with forgiveness is in the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He told a story in Matthew chapter 18:21-35 of two servants who owed debts. One’s debt was enormous and the other was pretty minor. The comparison  of the debt is between the first servant who owed  “ten thousand talents” or millions to his master vs. another servant who owed  very little, “a hundred denarii,” to the other servant.

The story is one of extreme contrast – the first servant, after begging for mercy was released from his debt only to go out and exercise harsh judgement against his fellow servant who owed him very little.

Jesus had a way of putting things in perspective. The implication is that no matter how great the infraction against us may seem, there is our Master in heaven whom we have grossly offended. Our debt is enormous – no matter how much we try to minimize it. From our perspective, what others have done against us always seems large and worthy of ultimate justice. In fact, just the opposite is true. The person who bows the knee to Jesus,  who ultimately paid the price for all sin and injustice at the cross, is the One who carried the brunt of the worst abuse anyone could suffer.

The simple fact is that we have no idea of the large debt we owe to our Heavenly Father. Despite the enormous size of the debt it has been cancelled at the Cross of Jesus. We who have been the  greatest recipients of Grace and Mercy are called on to forgive any debts that are taken out against us.

The message is all too clear and all too difficult to cope with at times.

When Mr. Hall thought that he had settled the matter of the missing scorecards, he didn’t realize that one of the student’s mother’s (mine) would issue a complaint against him to the Principal. After some quick deliberations the Principal cancelled the golf programme for us younger students for the remainder of the school year. We ended up in the gym for physical education instead of on the golf course.  Now I was working through forgiving my mother for making a fuss about the situation!

In a world where abuse, violence and injustice will probably be with us until the Lord’s return we still have to work through the actions and attitudes related to forgiveness. It’s only at the Cross of Jesus where Sin and Grace meet. Only there we glean insight into the forgiveness we need to receive and give on a daily basis.  

In the end I think we have to admit that those of us who are the recipients of greater mercy are to be greater instruments of forgiveness as well.  

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