Living life from the center of the story

I’ve often wished I could crawl into H.G Well’s time machine. Perhaps you have too, but our bodies anchor us to the present. Moving back in the past or getting a peak at the future is only available in science fiction.  Yet while we are physically bound within the limitations of time, our thoughts, emotions, and choices are not.

For instance the Christian is to be grateful that his sins of the past have been forgiven (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Likewise, he is to live his life with the end in view.

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you (Philippians 3:13-15).

You and I tend to live our lives from the center of our story. Such a temporal perspective will cause us to feel trapped by our circumstances. For instance, when things are going well, that’s great; but when things are difficult it’s easy to get discouraged.

When we read about biblical characters it’s easier for us to see the end of the story.

Here are a few examples:

  • We know that Moses will be used to split the Red Sea, and victoriously lead the Israelites out of Egypt; but we forget that he cared for sheep in the desert for 40 years first.
  • We read the letters of Paul, and know that they have ministered to millions of people, but we forget that they were written when Paul was facing beatings, danger, toil, and hardship (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

We live life from the center of the story, but our thinking is not trapped there. We must learn to set our eyes on the end of the story. When life is challenging today, remember God’s promises for tomorrow. Here’s one:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Top 10 promises to memorize

Memorizing verses about the character of God and the nature of the gospel is an effective means to hold temptation at arm’s length. Temptation occurs at the “desire” level (James 1:14) so loving God more changes our desires. I have found the best way to do this is to get to know him better and to grow in appreciating the benefits of the gospel. The following 10 promises and accompanying verses have helped me to do both.

#1 God is good, loving and faithful.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100:5).

# 2 God loves me and enjoys acting on my behalf.

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing (Zephaniah 3:17 NIV).

 #3 God sacrificed his Son to show his love for me.

 8…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:8,10).

#4 Nothing can separate me from the love of God.

 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:35, 37)

#5 God is purposefully at work in my life and circumstances.

 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. . .  13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek   me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11, 13)

#6 God will never stop loving me.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:23-24).

#7 God will always be with me.

 . . . for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6).

 #8 God is with me when I’m in trouble.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.             Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea . . . (Psalm 46:1-2)

#9 Having been forgiven I need not fear God’s condemnation.

 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

#10 God saved me, because of who he is, not because of who I am.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-6).

The danger of the subtle idol

You would think that a Christian shouldn’t struggle with idol worship, but the battle with the desires in my own heart tells me otherwise. The Bible describes the heart as the dwelling of our thoughts, emotions, and choices. There is a daily battle there, as to whether we will worship the true and living God or the gods of our making.

In his book Worship Matters Bob Kauflin explains,

Throughout the Scripture, idolatry is the greatest snare the people of God encounter. God condemns idolatry repeatedly in his Word. He hates it when we pursue, serve, or are emotionally drawn to other gods, which are not really gods at all. Idols enslave us and put us to shame (Isaiah 45:16; Psalm 106:36). Idols are powerless to help us and end up making us into their image (Psalm 115:8).

When some of us hear the word idolatry, we picture primitive tribesman bowing down to statues of wood, metal or stone. . . But idol worship is a daily ritual in America. too. Only it’s more subtle and therefore more dangerous. Idols are all around us. Can you spot them? They come in different forms. Material comforts. Financial security. Sensual pleasures. . . Things like reputation, power, and control.

As Christians we’re sometimes like the people described in 2 Kings 17:33: “they feared the Lord but also served other gods.” We fear the Lord externally, doing all the right things on Sunday morning–singing, strumming a guitar, lifting our hands–yet actively serve false gods throughout the week. We profess to love the true God but actually love false idols. It’s a condition that God, in his mercy, is committed to changing (p. 21,22).

The subtle idols are often invisible to the human eye, but the worship of them is not. When you feel your anger rising because you didn’t get what you wanted, you are worshipping the idol of your expectations. If you can’t exercise Spirit-given self-control over your sexual desires, you are worshipping at the idol of your sensual pleasures. If you are characterized by worry and anxiety, you are worshipping at the altar of your security.

The heart is the alarm mechanism for keeping God worshippers from becoming idol worshippers. Whenever you are willing to sin in order to get something you want you are worshipping an idol.

How the character of God holds self-pity at bay. . .

Living with suffering is hard work; it’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented it becomes difficult to hold self-pity at bay.  Suffering can come in many forms; not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of loving God.

When the apostle Peter heard Jesus speak of suffering that was needful for him to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). 

Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic (1 Cor. 2:8, 13). God’ wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God (not the wisdom of the man) is a quality Jesus develops (Heb. 5:8). He exercises this ability most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.

When confronted with the suffering (separation from God) he will experience on the cross Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way: “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).

Abba is a family term. It might be best rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me. . .” Jesus is clinging to this aspect of his Father’s character: his love. Then he adds, “. . . all things are possible for you.” He is acknowledging that the Father has the power to act if he would so choose.

Both with Peter and with his Father Jesus embraces suffering without questioning the character of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that he affirms and focuses on the character of God in the midst of his suffering. This is the means through which we avoid self-pity when times are hard. We trust the character of God not the wisdom of man.

One of my seminary professors who left a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year of seminary, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own and immediately recognized the similarity. Having not intended to so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath, and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly. Then I asked him how I could pray for him. There was a long pause, and then the words: pray that I would be faithful to the end. I did. Thirty days later, Fred Barshaw met Jesus.

Our response to suffering will take one of two roads. We can focus on the character of God and pray for faithfulness; or focus on the difficulty of our circumstances and indulge self-pity. Your focus will determine your ultimate outcome.

Discovering God

When we speak of discovering God it is not because he is lost, but because we are. The Bible describes our condition in this way,

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Rom. 3:10-12).

Left to ourselves we pursue our pleasures, our desires, what makes us feel good. It was never our natural inclination to seek out God. In a sense, we were lost and didn’t even know it.

From the start, the glory of God should have been our goal, but it wasn’t. Each of us pursued our sin instead. So the Bible says, “. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

The good news is that although we were not seeking God he was seeking us. The Scriptures declare,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

God saw that we were lost, and he didn’t wait for us to make the first move. He sought us out. If you have been waiting to move towards God, until you feel better about yourself or the things you’ve done this verse should help “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

God wasn’t waiting for our self-improvement, self-discovery or self-righteousness. He sent Jesus to pay the ultimate price while we were still lost. Because the wages of sin was death (Rom. 6:23), someone was going to have to pay. Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sin and the penalty was paid.

This is a gift and the Bible calls it grace (Eph. 2:8, 9). It can’t be earned; it can only be received. We do this through believing. Believing that we need a Savior; believing that he is that Savior; believing that when we ask, he saves us.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jer. 29:11-13).

Prayer and decision-making

Jesus spent time in prayer before he made major decisions. Two occasions bear this out. In the opening days of ministry Jesus was shifting ministry locations (Mark 1:35, 38). If you’ve ever made a move, you know there’s a lot involved in that decision. Jesus had previously moved his ministry operations to Capernaum (Matt. 4:13). Now he would extend his ministry into the hills surrounding Galilee. To do so, he would be leaving some tremendous ministry opportunities behind (Mark 1:37). When Peter points this out, notice Jesus’ answer:  “Let us go to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38).

How did Jesus make this decision?  Three verses earlier we discover the answer. Jesus was praying “early in the morning” (Mark 1:35). It seems reasonable that Jesus discovered his next steps through prayer.

Selecting the twelve apostles was an important decision. The fact that Jesus didn’t choose perfect people is evident in the transparency of the gospel record. Thomas doubted him. Peter denied him. Judas betrayed him. All twelve argued over who would be the greatest. Yet, prior to their selection, Jesus spent the night in prayer. Luke records,

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles . . . (Luke 6:12-13).

Jesus not only prayed about this selection, he literally continued in prayer throughout the night without interruption. 1  When you face a major decision, do you pray like Jesus? Do you spend more time talking to God or talking to others?

There is another truth easily missed in a cursory reading. We may assume that Jesus’ unique relationship with his Father spilled over into his prayer life, yet we don’t see the Father speaking back to Jesus during his time of prayer; we just read that Jesus prayed all night long.  It’s not that the Father couldn’t audibly speak back; on three other occasions he spoke in an audible voice so Jesus could hear. 2 Rather, the Father speaking back seems to be the exception rather than the standard.

I confess, sometimes when I’ve prayed over a decision I’ve thought: I just wish God would tell me what to do. Perhaps you have too. Not so with Jesus. He seems to have discovered his answer through the process of prayer, not because the Father gave a quick and easy answer. He labored in prayer, and so should we. 

1 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words

2 God the Father spoke to, or on behalf of the son, from heaven in an audible voice three times: At his baptism (Matt. 3:17), when he was transfigured (Mark 9:7), and the final week of his life when his soul is troubled (John 12:28). This is significant. The Father’s response to Jesus’ prayer time does not appear to be all that different from when you and I pray.

Trade in pride for humility

Millicent Fenwick understood loss. Born in 1910, she lost her mother five years later when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Fenwick went on to serve as the editor for Vogue magazine and as a New Jersey congresswoman. She gives the most colorful statement about self-pity you’ll ever read:

Self-pity . . . the most destructive emotion there is. How awful to be caught up in the terrible squirrel cage of self.

If you’ve seen a squirrel cage you understand the analogy. I remember seeing one at my aunt’s homestead years ago. It had a small box for sleeping and a large rotatable cylinder for exercising (kind of like a treadmill for squirrels). If the squirrel accelerated, the cylinder would spin faster. The squirrel would burn up energy, but never get ahead. This makes the cage a great analogy for trying to overcome self-pity on your own. You feel like you’re running in place; lots of energy expended, but when you stop there’s no progress.

If you could take a spiritual MRI of someone who is struggling with self-pity you would find pride as the stimulus. Pride whispers “you’re entitled.” When you don’t get what you think is deserved you feel sorry for yourself.

The solution is to change your way of thinking; then connect your thinking to your actions. This might sound simple enough, but it’s not. Feelings keep getting in the way. Our emotions tell us to crawl back in the squirrel cage and run a little faster. It’s just us and the cage, and no way out. With our thoughts consumed with self, we don’t know how to think about others. We just keep running.

Fortunately, we have Jesus as an example. He surrendered his sense of entitlement, and chose a spirit of humility instead. Paul captured it this way,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

The ESV Study Bible helps us understand the meaning,

Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God . . . “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, possessing all the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God . . . and it is directly contrasted with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7) . . . Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead him to hold onto his privileges at all costs. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for his own benefit or advantage. Instead, he had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2283). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles).

As God, Jesus had the right to rule. We were his creation, not vice versa. But Jesus didn’t grasp that right, he surrendered it. In so doing he put on humility, thereby finding it possible and preferable to serve others with the best of attitudes. Like Jesus, we can choose the spirit of humility over the sense of entitlement.

Genuine humility shines brightly when pressed into service; self-pity will not endure. The genuine article will always outshine the knock-off.

So today, serve others with a spirit of humility. Stop running in the squirrel cage of your self-centeredness.

How Jesus overcame self-pity

In the gospel record we find a number of instances where Jesus could have chosen to feel sorry for himself. When we examine the surrounding circumstances and his response, we gain a greater understanding for how we should respond in similar situations to avoid self-pity.

Change your role.

Our culture prizes being served. Google “pamper yourself” and expect to find over 7 million hits. You won’t read much about serving the poor and needy there, but one phrase is sure to show up: you deserve it. Search the web for that phrase and you’ll find 133 million people giving advice.

You will always be susceptible to self-pity whenever your starting point is someone serving you because you think you “deserve” it. Not only will others not meet your expectations, but you will desire the wrong thing. You’re looking to be served and not to serve. The disciples had this problem. Mark records they were arguing about who should have the best seats in the kingdom. Jesus response was instructive for them and for us.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

The lesson we learn from Jesus is to replace a failure to be served with a desire to serve.

Deepen your desire.

You would think that Jesus’ words and actions would have been enough to bring about change in the disciples, but they were not. On the night before his crucifixion the disciples are at it again; this time in the upper room. Perhaps it was Jesus’ triumphal entry earlier in the week that got them thinking it was time to divide up the kingdom.

Imagine the situation from Jesus’ perspective: Three years of selfless ministry, his death only 24 hours away, and still they’re arguing. That’s enough to push anyone into the self-pity chasm. Look at Jesus’ response.

Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).

Remarkable. Chances to indulge our self-pity are viewed by Jesus as opportunities to deepen his desire to serve.

Purge your response.

What if you’re not recognized for your service? Is a bad attitude justified? God is purging. He wants you to develop the heart of a servant, not simply the actions.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “The hardest part about being a servant is being treated like one.” Agreed. Most of us can enjoy doing a kind deed for someone, but when the deed is taken for granted or we fail to be appreciated it’s easy to have a self-pity attack.

Even when his acts of kindness were rebuffed, Jesus didn’t succumb to self-pity. He kept serving. This response inoculated him against potential bitterness. It’s hard to have a complaining spirit when your ultimate goal is to serve others.

Self-Pity: Thinking too highly of oneself

Self-pity causes us to see ourselves as better than we really are. We tend to think of self-pity as thinking too poorly of ourselves, but the opposite is true. We are thinking too highly of ourselves. Self-pity is a preoccupation with self. Because it is birthed from the “pride” family of sins, it comes with a sense of entitlement. This is revealed each time we are denied something we believe we deserve, or when we receive something we don’t believe we deserve.

Jonah’s conversation with God in the 4th chapter of his prophecy reveals this clearly. He had been denied what he really wanted to see – a front row seat to the destruction of Nineveh. He entered the city from the west; courtesy is submarine ride through the Mediterranean Sea. His message was simple: “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” A few days later he exited the city through their East gate, climbed a mountain and sat down to watch the destruction. Only one problem: the people of Nineveh repented. And God, being true to his character, showed mercy. The destruction was called off. This angered Jonah; because he thought the people of Nineveh deserved to be destroyed. Check out the conversation,

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

 Jonah knew the character of God. He appreciated second chances when they were extended to him; he just didn’t believe the people of Nineveh deserved the same deal. God saw it differently.

In the hot desert winds God showed Jonah grace again. He appointed a plant to grow up and provide shade for Jonah’s aching head. Jonah must have smiled. He liked God’s grace when it was directed towards him. You get the impression he thought he deserved it. But grace is never deserved, so the next day God appointed a hungry worm. The plant could not survive the worm’s appetite. Jonah’s cabana was gone. He was angry again, but God’s grace lesson wasn’t over. God sent a wind from the east. To avoid the sand in his eyes, Jonah would have to turn back to the West, and stare at the city of people he didn’t think deserved God’s grace.

Self-pity pours from this chapter. Jonah was angry at everything and everyone. He complained incessantly. Twice he declared he’d be better off dead than alive. Beneath the surface of Jonah’s self-pity you hear his sense of entitlement.

He deserves grace for his wrong choices.
He deserves shade for his aching head.
He deserves to watch the destruction of his enemies.

He deserves, deserves, deserves. And when he doesn’t get what he deserves he mires down in self-pity. Sadly the book bearing his name ends right there – with Jonah staring at God’s grace, but unwilling to grant it.

His life is a vivid reminder of the suffocating isolation that self-pity brings.

How we become prone to self-pity

If you developed a top 10 list for Bible characters, Moses and Elijah would probably make the cut. Men of strong faith, used mightily by God, and respected by the people they served. Yet, both had moments when they struggled, when self-pity took root, and discouragement followed. The biblical accounts of their struggles are helpful, because God answers them, revealing his perspective on their situations.

What you learn from Moses and Elijah is that we are most prone to self-pity when see ourselves improperly. That improper view of self (and ultimately God) distorts the truth.

Here is the truth: Moses was used by God to lead the people out of their slavery in Egypt, but it was God who would do the delivering. Notice God’s words when he called Moses,

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . (Ex. 3:7-8).

Moses was on the road to the Promised Land when the unsatisfied desires of the Israelites put him over the edge. It’s not that Moses hadn’t heard their complaining before, but this time was unique; because, Moses assumed the burden to be his that only God could bear.

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent  . . . Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of the people on me? (Num. 11:11).

God never placed the burden of the people on Moses, Moses assumed it. While his life was typically characterized by humility (Num. 12:3), in this situation he thought to highly of himself. God was not placing a burden on Moses that he was to carry alone. Moses seems to have forgotten that God was the one who had promised to deliver the people.  

For a moment, Moses saw himself in the God position – as if the burdens of the world were his alone to bear. Trying to hand a seemingly impossible situation on his own brought about his bout of self-pity.

Ultimately we embrace self-pity not only because our perspective of self is too large, but because our view of God is too small. Notice the dialogue between God and Moses,

But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Num. 11:21-23)

God had promised Moses he would not have to walk this road alone, but briefly Moses looked around, felt alone, and lived that way. Ultimately, the burden was too great, and he reverted to self–pity under self–imposed pressure.