Exercising is something people love, hate or do because they think it will give them a benefit. If you’ve ever tried to get in shape, you know it doesn’t happen overnight. Depending on your fitness level, it can take weeks, months or even years. I’ve made the mistake of overdoing a workout after taking a break and paid the price in sore muscles. I’ve learned to start slowly and build up. I’m riding my bike again and not embarrassed to tell you I have to walk up some of the hills near my home.
Thinking about physical exercise made me think of our spiritual muscles. How I wish the parallel didn’t exist. For some reason, I can be patient with myself when it comes to building up my muscles and fitness level, but I can get frustrated when my spiritual fitness seems to take too long. I want to be more loving, patient, kind, giving and compassionate – now. I’d also like to keep my mouth shut more often. But sometimes I feel I’m taking a step back or treading water. I do sometimes feel like I’m moving forward, but never fast enough.
I’ve been telling myself I’ll get to the point when I can ride up one, then two of the hills I have to walk now – perhaps I should remember the same thing when it comes to spiritual growth and transformation. It takes hard work in the form of practicing the spiritual disciplines (the same as if we were learning a language), focusing on Christ and continual trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to make us more like Jesus. And of course, patience.
One of the few true freedoms we have is what we do with our minds. We are free to think about whatever we want. We can go anywhere in our imaginations, which is one of the reasons I love to read. I can go back or forward in time; explore outer space or become embroiled in a mystery. We can create, plan, solve problems – or get ourselves in trouble.
Controlling where our thoughts take us is difficult, but so very important. If we let our thoughts go in negative or destructive directions, our actions will likely follow. (For an in-depth study of this, I recommend The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.) It’s easy to get caught up in worry and anxiety, especially when situations in life seem – or are – out of our control.
What can we do about wayward thoughts and rabbit holes of negativity and discouragement? We can do as Jan Johnson suggests in the Trusting God retreat: make the pivot. As some of the psalmists did, process your feelings with God, rant and rave a little if necessary, lament and cry. And don’t worry – he can take it. Then pivot back to him, remembering the reality of who he is and what he’s done for us. And as always, he’s the one who can help us make the pivot. We’re never on our own, even when we’re down in the dumps or angry at life.
Since we moved, I’ve been doing a lot of baking – sourdough baking in particular. And no, I didn’t start because of the virus or the stay at home restrictions. I began a sourdough starter last year and made English muffins, crackers and bread sticks. It was fun and felt good to create what I considered culinary works of art. Lately I’ve branched out into pancakes, pizza dough and bread. I’ve even used it in banana bread and chocolate cake!
You may be wondering what this has to do with God. No, I’m not going to tell you about a trinity of yeasts in sourdough. But a sourdough starter is alive, and all life comes from him. When I’m tending my starter, I enjoy seeing it bubble with renewed life after being fed.
The life of God is the life force of the universe, even in sourdough starters. His life force is what raised Jesus back to life from his grave and it’s what gives us new life in him right now. It’s also our hope for eternal life with him, his resurrection that is also our resurrection. When he died, we died and when he rose, we rose. His life is in us. When I feed and use my starter, I praise him for his life and his love that causes him to want to share it with us.
I was happy to learn that some of you signed up for the Trusting God retreat with Jan Johnson and Matt Rhodes. I hope you were able either to listen live or to have accessed the recorded event. I also hope you enjoyed it and benefited from the teaching and interaction.
One lesson really helped me and has stuck in my mind since I heard it from Jan. She told the story of how she mentioned to Dallas Willard that she had been struggling with a pipe and felt the problem was insurmountable. He told her it was never just her and the pipe – Jesus was with her and she was never alone. Then Jan asked attendees to share their problem, phrasing it as “It’s not just me and _______.”
It’s not just me and this computer. It’s not just me and this flat tire. It’s not just me and this tree root. It’s not just me and this person I’m arguing with. What a great way to look at trials and frustrating situations. It’s never just me alone with whatever is going on in my life. God is always with me, always on my side and when I ask, he helps me figure it out – or gives me peace about it.
Learning to trust God is a daily, ongoing process. If you’d like to share something you learned from the retreat or needed to be reminded of, we can help each other along the path to greater trust.
If you saw the movie “The Sound of Music,” you might remember the sweet, romantic song Maria sang in the gazebo after the captain declared his love. She couldn’t believe something so wonderful could happen in her life, which is probably why she sang that at some point, she must have done something good to deserve it. If this is true of how God works in the world, the reverse must also be true: when bad things happen, it’s because we’ve done something equally bad.
Sadly, this is how many people perceive life and they think God metes out blessings and curses based on our behavior. Some even believe Jesus was crucified because God wanted to punish someone for the sins of humanity and Jesus was “it.” But God didn’t send Jesus to the cross to be punished and he doesn’t bless or curse us because of what we do or don’t do. If he did, we’d all be in bad shape.
In Matthew 5, Jesus told people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them because when they did this, they’d be true children of their Father in heaven. Then he told them in verse 46: “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” He also blesses obedience but he’s certainly not capricious or arbitrary. When bad things happen, it’s either chance or bad choices. When we’re blessed, let’s just be grateful.
Trust is something we all learn about as we grow up. Playing cards provides a lesson that for many, is hard learned. I remember hearing the advice to trust everyone but cut the cards, meaning you can’t really trust anyone. When my dad worked as a carpenter for several years, he taught me the adage “measure twice, cut once.” I’ve never built anything, but I learned to sew and that’s when I learned I can’t even trust myself. Measuring twice didn’t ensure I could get it right.
Many people have trust issues with God too. We pray and he doesn’t deliver, so we decide he can’t be trusted. Bad things happen so we decide we can’t trust him to always be on our side. Not knowing God very well leads to mistrust; the more we know God, the more we trust him.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I talk about Dallas Willard from time to time, citing his books and quoting his material. I’d like to share a resource with you that is based on his book, Life Without Lack. It’s a five day, online retreat called Trusting God, presented by Jan Johnson and Matt Rhodes – and it’s free. You don’t have to attend the live sessions; you can access them anytime. It starts next week and you can register here: https://trustinggodretreat.com/signup
Learning to trust God – and learning that we can trust God – is much more important than measuring twice and cutting once. It will make all the difference in how we live as Christians.
On my walk in the woods behind my house, I had to stop several times to admire the wildflowers on the path. I took a few photos too. I saw several varieties, some so small I had to bend down to even see them. I remembered what Dallas Willard said about flowers being tiny reminders of grace. His grace was scattered all over the woods!
The trees, ferns and flowers were also in abundance. I couldn’t help but thank and praise God for his generosity. After all, he didn’t have to create flowers, although they are part of the ecosystem. The beauty, colors and variety just seem like a big bonus.
Isn’t that like him? He’s a God of abundance and generosity. Let’s keep this in mind as we struggle with shortages, financial setbacks and inconveniences, whether minor or major. Paul reminds us in Philippians that he had learned to be content in all situations: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13, NIV).
I’m making an effort to notice every instance of God’s abundance every day, noting them in my journal and expressing my gratitude to our God of lavish generosity.