The Expectation Gap

Everyone is familiar with the Disney formula. Impossibly hopeless underdog finally overcomes every obstacle in becoming the hero he was meant to be. Yet, this seemingly inspiring message sets the stage for depression and discouragement. Why? Because it creates an expectation gap between who we are and who we think we should be. If the message is “everyone can be an all-star hockey player and defeat the Russians” then it creates constant disappointment in ourselves every time we miss a shot.

I have personally been a victim of this dichotomy of who I am and who I want to be. I wake up many mornings thinking I should be ready to run the 400 meter dash with gold-medal Olympians only to limp across the finish line in last place. Spiritually I think I should be more mature than I actually am. This breeds discouragement in my heart. I would be happier to accept that I am an amateur runner that wins more races against people just like me as we limp along.

Our pastor has recently been talking about series of messages about the Christian life. There are five stages of spiritual growth he’s covering. Here they are in order. 1. The defeated Christian 2. The coping Christian 3. The growing Christian 4. The free Christian and 5. The fruitful Christian.   These messages have forced me to identify with a stage and I would place myself as a coping/growing Christian. Of course they are not stages with clean boundaries. We all have a little of each. Yet I would say I am mostly at the coping growing stages. Having accepted this even as I really want to believe I am a fruitful Christian actually increased my happiness. I’m no longer a level 5 with level 10 expectations and constant discouragement but I’m a level 5 with level 5 expectations and constant encouragement!

In fact I would say that having high expectations of oneself can be fueled by self-defeating pride. It may be the root cause of what psychologists call “low self-esteem”, something I see everyday at the adolescent psych unit I work at. Not to pick on our “culture” again, but I’m going to pick on “our culture again”. It’s making it worse… For example, we’ve all seen pristine and beautiful pictures of the Eiffel Tower, yet if you’ve ever been there in person, as my wife can tell you, “it’s rusty, small and disappointing”. This happens everyday as we see the idealized version of everything. As we open our Better Homes and Gardens magazine and see the perfect house (no baby toys strewn about the floor) or turn on Rachel Ray as the perfect Spiced Rum Cake pops out of the oven (no string of expletives because you added 2 cups of salt instead of sugar).

Now this discrepancy in our expectations happens on an individual scale as well. We are told we can be anything we want if we just believe, yet of course we can’t escape the constant disappointment of our sinful selves. As Paul cries out in Romans 7 “who will save me from this body of death”. His expectations were right where they should be and it shouldn’t be suprising then that he had more joy than most of us do. I asked a young man at the psych unit the other day “what stresses you out the most?”  he told me “not knowing what is wrong with me”. When I asked him to elaborate, he exclaimed, “I keep doing what is wrong, I don’t know why I lie all the time and I can’t control my behavior”. This was a refreshing moment of transparency as I gazed through the window into a world we all experience everyday…. Who we think we should be and who we actually are. He was disappointed. Low self-esteem comes from high expectations.

Fortunately for us, we don’t need to be spiritual Olympians to impress God or to be loved by him. He knows our ability levels perfectly and is impressed with even the seemingly smallest of victories. And our joy isn’t mainly derived from how we perform but from God’s grace that covers us when we don’t. So be on the safe side and do you best to assess your spiritual maturity where it is really at. Don’t be afraid to admit, “I’m coping Christian”. Of course God is always smiling over us, but he sure is pleased when we hobble across the finish line with a smile on our face as well.

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A Glass of Cold Water

Given that feelings of failure and fears of failure follow me, Christianity is the faith for me and God is the God for me.  He’s my God.  He’s our God.  The only thing we have to prove is that we don’t have the strength to stand on our own.  Drink up.  

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A Walk Through Romans: Chapter 3

Verse 29 “Or is God a God of the Jews only”.  I’m sure the Jews thought since they were God’s “chosen” people that they were special or better than anyone else.   But they were actually chosen precisely because they were weaker than everyone else, and they were indeed a very small and weak nation.   The Pharisees had so much pride in being the son’s of Abraham and they flaunted the title, when in reality, the fact that God chose the Jews is a rather humbling thing for them.  They were not chosen to reveal how wonderful they are, but how wonderful God is.  They were models of sin and failure to reveal God’s utter patience and grace, they were chosen as a nation because God wanted to broadcast to the whole world, “look at what I can put up with!  Be amazed at how much I can forgive!  Look at how miserably they fail at keeping my law, but how gracious I am for keeping it for them!”   How humiliating to be a Jew!  They embodied everything that is wrong with a fallen humanity to be examples for us gentiles.   It would be much like the witch in the story of Repunsel as she looks in the mirror, watching her once beautiful face transform into the hideous image that she has so desperately tried to hide.  The Jews are our mirror, to reflect our ugly and broken flesh.   In our desperation to get away from ourselves we smash the mirror and turn to Christ….the only one that can make us beautiful once again.

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Religious Scrupulosity

I’m breaking the “religious” routine with this post, but I just can’t help myself…okay maybe I’ll get a little spiritual, no promises.  I’m blessed (see here I go) to have a little cousin that I actually think of as the brother I never had.  I remember him as a newborn baby coming to our house just after he was adopted, and now he’s 16.  Maybe I’m immature for my age or maybe he’s mature for his, but we seem to relate really well.  In fact we both have OCD, or  that’s what we’ve been told.  It’s a curious condition. In fact, I have a few of my favorite working definitions: a disease of doubt or relentless uncertainty.  My form of OCD is actually what is called scrupulosity.  It’s OCD taking the form of my religious practices.  In, short, anyone can get compulsive and fear driven when it comes to the religious disciplines that we’re told to engage in everyday, but scrupulosity bringsit to another level of near paralysis.  For example, I’ve been known to doubt my motives to such a degree that I remove myself from ANY religious activity.  I’ve been told over and over that we can’t intellectually determine our motives and I agree, yet this impulsive thought still rides me.  I can get so caught up in this mindset that I can agonize over doing the dishes.  It’s a false guilt that follows me like a shadow.  My favorite way to describe scupulosity is this: Scrupulosity is driven by an overactive mind, an oversensitive heart, and the fear that this produces.

Scrupulosity is really just an intensified sensitivity to the law.  That is why I’m striving to understand grace…it’s absolutely imperitive for me to understand this or the most menial tasks in life become unbearably difficult and joy sapping.  In fact, the underlying premise of OCD and scrupulosity is described by Paul in Romans 7:8 “Butsin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.”  Our minds were not designed to ignore fear.  If there’s a raging moose charging at you, it doesn’t matter how much you tell your mind to ignore it, you can’t.  Just the same, if you tell yourself not to lie, cheat, steal or covet because you will be punished if you do…guess what, you’re mind won’t ignore it.  You are literally trapped in fear.  Grace is the ONLY antidote to the fear that our minds CANNOT ignore, after all, perfect love casts out all fear. Most people don’t realize this, but that’s the answer to OCD.  The more we tell ourselves not to fear the thought that is spinning around in our head, the more it spins. It continues in a vicious cycle until irrational compulsions are performed to provide temporary relief.  I’ve often found myself spinning out with guilt and fear over trivial matters, but I am finding tremendous relief by just acknowledging that my brain is simply misfiring, this fear is irrational, and on top of that I’m lavished with grace.

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As Sam and I were exploring a condemned house this last weekend, we walked upstairs and found an interesting sight.  My nose started runningas soon as I entered the house and I could only assume it was because of the black mold, but it wasn’t until we saw a spiders web covered in this dark allergen that we my suspicions were confirmed.  It’s funny how something so delicate can so effectively reveal something so harmful and infectious.   Please allow us overtly sensitive folk with OCD and scrupulosity be heard as we shout with all ofour fears and compulsions, that the law destroys and grace gives life.  Whether you pray or meditate or even love others, I urge you not to make them a law unto yourselves, you will destroy the real joy and peace they were intended to bring and replace  them with fear and guilt and drudgery.  Everything is done, with Christ it’s finished.

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A Walk Through Romans: Chapter 1

Verse 5 “Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name..”

What about grace brings about the obedience of faith?  Maybe it’s the conviction that we have received something far better than what disobedience can bring us.  To obey means there was something to disobey as well.  Why would anyone disobey if they didn’t desire what that disobedience would produce. Like lying to save face.  One values their reputation over what is right.  But with Christ we have been given a glimpse of the greatest pleasure, one that isn’t worth turning from in disobedience.  We obey for His names sake, to prove to the nations that this man is all that he says he is and more.  He’s more satisfying and beautiful than anything we can have here on earth.  That is how we are his ambassadors; we are the representatives proclaiming how great our home country is.  Every time we walk away from sin, we are saying that Christ is worth more and has promised more.

Unfortunately the connotations of “obey” are negative in our culture for the most part.   Probably because we think of stringent parents or conservative officials that we think only want us to obey for their good.  We can’t see past the fleeting disappointment of a withheld desire for a longer lasting greater one.  Much like not eating the cake to keep weight off and feel better later.   Christ is worth waiting for because of all he has promised us.  Now we just need the world to ask us why we are waiting.

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Lessons from the Sac and Fox Trail

 

As I was hiking through the Sac and Fox trail today with my handy pocket bible I stumbled across Colossians 3:1-3 “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set you minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”   It helps to keep my mind on the destination while hiking long distances to boost my resolve to keep going. Yet, occasionally, I find an overwhelming desire to get off the trail and make my way towards something more exciting than what this path has to offer.  But today I was thankful for some encouragement to stay on it.  As Christians we need this encouragement all to often, in fact I believe that may be the very definition of encouragement, a reminder that the path were on is still worth the trouble. 

 The Promise

I stay on the path because God has promised something great at the end.  Of course I  can’t see exactly what that is, but given that God hasn’t been known to give subpar gifts, I believe Him.  God has given me His word as a guide and I follow it because the author promises “a better place”. 

 The Temptation

Even as I’ve been given a promise I walk this trail encountering pseudo promises along the way.  The core element of these promises, whether God’s or the devil’s is of course pleasure.  Do I endure the trail knowing that true and lasting pleasure is waiting, or do I listen to those that leave the path I’m on to drink from the cold refreshing springs just over the hill.  Am I to take matters into my own hands and leave the path to find this oasis, or will I trust God to provide rain further down path?  In fact, along this path those that have began the journey with me are readily leaving and bringing as many of us with them as they can, not just for water, but for delicious fruit and scenic landscapes and sunny groves.  Those of us that remain on the path are tempted; the pleasure is just so readily available. 

Yet as I walk I glance around to see those just off the trail. Those that seemed so happy and confident leaving the trail in the first place are now beginning to look worn and sick.  All around us are men and women are dying…they’ve been drinking from the wells that seemed so promising, but have now proven to be contaminated. 

 The Pain

Theirs a stark contrast between those off the trail and those that chose to follow it.  Through my doubts I have found that God has indeed provided the rain.  Our shoes haven’t even begun to wear and our faces are bright. We’re breathing easy as we watch those all around us panting in misery.  I reach out for some but they lurch back, not yet ready to give up all they found being off the path.  The scene becomes horrid as I witness bodies strewn through the woods.  I continue on…the springs and groves that I thought were so appealing at first have now become repulsive, I’ve seen the fulfillment of their promises in the lives of so many that now seem so sick and despairing. 

 The Doubt    

Yet I still find my resolve to stay on the path being challenged. After all this trail is so long and the Lord hasn’t provided rain for quite some time.  In fact, I don’t think it’s ever taken this long.  He hasn’t let me down yet, but then again, it’s never been more than a day.  I grow weary and impatient, and I’m even becoming rather angry at Him for holding out.  I was sure this path was heading in the right direction, but that direction seems to be going everywhere but toward these springs bubbling up from the rocks just off the trail.   The tables have seemed to turn on me, those of us on the trail are now the one’s panting and those drinking from the springs seem refreshed.  My convictions are becoming more lucid and in a moment of weakness I step off the path.  Determined to reach those springs just within view, I make my way through the thick and thorny undergrowth.  It seemed manageable from the path, but I now find myself caught in a tangle of thorns.   I either keep pressing forward and endure the pain or turn around and once again trust God for water. 

 The Grace

The thorns pressing into my skin seem to have snapped me back to reality….God hasn’t failed me yet, how could he now.  I turn around and stumble back to the path.  As I lay down on the trail, I look up at the sky and see dark clouds moving in.  Surrounded by trees towering over me, I realize I’m surrounded by mercy.  A rain drop lands on my hand and mixes with blood from a cut.   The pain of leaving the path, and the rain waiting for me as I returned, all point me back to the promise that I set off for in the first place.   In God’s mercy and grace he has made the spring that has weakened so many, difficult to reach for those of us that know a better way.  I praise God for the thorns that pierced my hands and for the path that he has gone ahead to cut for me. Both lead me to Him.  My convictions to remain on this path have been strengthened through enduring weakness.  Caught in a downpour I lift my hands.  Soaked from head to toe, I set off once again, this time setting my mind more firmly on things above.

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God Hates Plagiarism

John 17:1 “Glorify your son that the son may glorify you”.  God has given Jesus everything that makes him so beautiful and all that beauty is supposed to point back to God as the beauty giver.  I want to make this point clear so I’m going to be blunt….God has endowed women with beauty and the most beautiful part of creation is a women’s naked body.  What God made to be a reflection of His beauty has now become her shame.  Before the fall, man was innocent and naked and unashamed.   But just after the fall, they both knew they were naked.  They were looking at each other as if their beauty was their own and not God’s, thus it became shameful.  It had to be covered up.  It would be much the same if a man adorned his wife with beautiful jewelry and then she decided to flaunt her beauty to others as if it was only her own, forgetting that the adornments were to reflect the husbands love, not to be enjoyed selfishly.

When a man gazes at a women’s naked body, he is seeing a part of God that is only meant to be seen in relation to His beauty.  It’s not the women’s beauty as much as it is a reflection of God’s beauty.  But since the fall, we cannot see God and thus any context in which a man sees a women’s naked body, the beauty is more naturally attributed to the women and not as a reflection of God’s beauty.  That is why pornography is such a sin.   It’s taking what is God’s and enjoying it without Him.  It’s much like a man stealing an artist’s painting from his house because he likes it so much.   One shouldn’t enjoy the art apart from the artist.  No man questions that plagiarism is wrong, but then will gauk at women on the street.

After all, we were all made in God’s image.  We were made for God to enjoy not for us to enjoy apart from him.  We are all God’s wonderful composition but then we forget and spurn the composer.   This all becomes so graphically horrid as we contemplate the crucifixion of life’s artist.   The colors God uses are just too beautiful to let God be the one deciding how to use them on His canvas.  Yet we forget that God has never dropped his brush.  He’s still in control.

We are so quick to take God out of the picture, yet we are only beautiful because of Him.  Joseph’s amazing technicolored coat was only so special because it symbolized the Father’s love and favor, not because it was so colorful.  This is exactly Christ’s sentiment in John 17 as he tells His father, “glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you”.   Jesus wants God to adorn Him with beauty so He can tell the world “Look at what my Father has done to me!  Isn’t he amazing!”  I can just picture a young girl receiving a dress from her father and then dancing all over the house wanting everyone to see how special she feel’s because her father love’s her so much.  We should have the same reaction with all the Father gives us.  He only blesses us so that we will in turn praise Him.  It’s a reciprocal relationship.  The more a husband loves a wife, the more the wife will respect the husband.  But we must be cautious about stealing what He’s given us when we don’t acknowledge Him as the giver.  That is precisely what makes sin so sinful….  plagiarism.  It’s walking right into God’s house and stealing pieces of his golden throne to wear as ornaments on our crowns.   But the reality is, God is giving away His gold for free, let’s just give Him the credit.

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