When your spiritual memory is selective

Brick Wall Version2Taken from Dead-End Desire: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity. Available at Christian retailers, Amazon.com and the biblical strategies website (biblicalstrategies.com).

To overlook God’s awesome work in our past and develop a complaining spirit, we need only be selective in the way that we remember the past. We see this tendency in the Numbers 11 narrative:

Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled . . . the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt.” [emphasis added]

Did they just say they remembered eating for free? Talk about revisionist history. Were they not the slaves of Egyptian tyrants for 420 years? Weren’t the final years in Egypt unbearably difficult? How could they forget how bad their past was? The same way they forgot how good God was. Their memory was selective.

We learn a valuable lesson from the Israelites, easily missed in the first reading: our desires generate selective memories. Like an intentional case of Alzheimer’s, we choose to leave things out of the story so that we might get what we want. In this case, the Israelites wanted meat instead of manna. That, in and of itself, would not have been sinful, except that God was the one serving up the manna. Furthermore, God had a far greater lesson he wanted them to learn when they hungered in the wilderness. Moses points to it nearly 40 years later when he instructed the next generation.

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you . . . testing you to know what was in your heart. […] And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

God wanted them to turn to him when they were hungry. He was the provider of every good and perfect gift. In God alone they would find their fulfillment, but the Israelites were convinced that a good steak would suffice. The purpose of our circumstances (especially the difficult ones) is always greater dependence on the Lord.

The people assumed that their less than desirable circumstances were cause to complain. Actually, they were an opportunity to depend more fully on God. Perhaps you’re shaking your head in disbelief, unable to understand how the Israelites were never able to grasp this truth. Careful. They weren’t the only ones to struggle with a selective memory. I know that same struggle, and I bet you do too.

We get so focused on what we don’t have, that it’s easy to forget what we do have. If I promised you the thing you really wanted right now, you might be willing to tweak your past a bit to get it. Just like the Israelites, our desires rewrite the events of our past. We too, can fall prey to a selective memory.

This past year my wife Kym started keeping a diary of the ways God had worked on our behalf. As the kids chimed in around the dinner table one night, I suddenly realized that I had already forgotten some of the things that I had praised God for just a few months earlier (go to page  61 to start your own praise journal). Selective memory is like a scalpel, cutting out your recollection of God’s work in your past. Once you’ve begun to forget, a complaining spirit isn’t far behind.

The importance of Scripture memory

This is a brief summary of some work that I’ve been putting together for Scripture memory. Scripture retrieval is an essential resource for Christian living. The resources mentioned in the video are available at biblicalstrategies.com.

5 steps to developing a praise journal

Presentation1The 136th Psalm provides an excellent pattern for developing your personal praise journal. Read the Psalm, purchase a blank journal or notepad and get started.

Step 1: Start with the God’s attributes. Psalm 136:1 declares “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.”  Even if you believe your Thanksgiving list might be short, you can begin a praise journal by listing the attributes of God. Develop your own definitions of these attributes from the Scriptures.

Step 2: List God’s creative works. The Psalmist focuses on the creative work of God for six verses. The Bible says, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Giving God thanks for his creative work can prime the pump for  more praise.

Step 3: Reflect upon God’s protection and provision. The Psalmist remembers how God protected and provided for the Israelites. Make two columns. Title one  God’s protection and the other God’s provision. List the ways that God has worked in your past. Be specific. The events listed in Psalm 136 actually happened at a time in history so include the dates if you remember them.

Step 4: Tie it all to God’s mercy. The phrase “his mercy endures forever” is repeated 25 times in this Psalm. Tie your blessings and difficulties to God’s gracious hand. See Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.

Step 5: Review the goodness of God. The Psalms served as the ancient Hebrew’s songbook. The words would gain familiarity as the Israelites sang them in worship. Return to your praise journal regularly; not just to add to it, but to review, in order that you too can remember.

When faithfulness meets discouragement

faithfulness_std_t_nvOne of the ways that Jesus avoided potential discouragement amidst difficult circumstances was to focus on God’s will.

The ultimate test of submission to his Father’s will takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane, where his suffering spirit cries out, “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).

But how did Jesus get to this ultimate point of surrender? What steps did he take? And how can we follow?

One of the practical ways that Jesus did this was to give his undivided attention to the roles to which his Father had called him. For instance, he was appointed to be a prophet (Luke 4:43, Mark 6:4), priest (Heb. 4:14), and king (Matt. 2:2; 27:11).  As his teaching ministry matures, Jesus communicates his growing understanding of these roles and his desire to faithfully fulfill them. The fact that these roles are increasingly prominent in his thinking is evident even in his choice to return to the danger zone of Jerusalem for, in his words, a prophet must die there (Luke 13:33).

At one juncture in his teaching, he makes three “something greater than” statements confirming his understanding of these roles (Matt. 12:6, 41, 42). The ESV Study Bible explains:

Jesus claims that he is greater than the temple (Matt. 12:6), the prophet Jonah (v. 41), and the wise king Solomon. He thus elevates himself and his message of the kingdom to be greater than, and the fulfillment of, the three greatest institutions in Israel—priest, prophet, and king.

One of the practical implications of Jesus’ pattern is that you and I can live through our discouraging circumstances by giving our undivided attention to the roles God has called us to.

For instance, God has given me certain roles to fulfill:

  • I am Christian
  • I am a husband
  • I am a father
  • I am a pastor/teacher
  • I am neighbor/friend

I have discovered that when my focus is on being faithful in these roles, I give less consideration to my circumstances–no matter how difficult– and how they make me feel.

So what roles has God called you to fulfill today? Is your focus on being faithful or on the difficulties that surround you?

Perhaps this is one of the secrets that Jesus discovered that gave him the grace to live through imperfect times and still become the perfect prophet, priest, and king.

How to overcome discouragement

dealing with discouragement_t_nvThe circumstances Jesus faced would have caused the strongest of individuals to feel sorry for themselves.

Consider:

  • His own family didn’t believe his message and desired his destruction.
  • When he prayed, he didn’t get the answer he desired.
  • He was betrayed by Judas, a professing friend.
  • He was falsely accused, and unjustly tried.
  • His most devoted followers first slept and then ran, in his greatest hour of need.
  • He faced the injustice of the official who was in place for his protection (Pilate)

Through it all, Jesus expresses pity for others, but he never engages in pity for himself. When we examine his responses, we gain a greater understanding for where our focus should be, and how we can avoid self-pity’s dead end road.  Jesus would dwell upon the love of God, seek the will of God, and live for the glory of God.

If you are struggling with discouragement today, try this three-fold plan. Over your lunch break make a list of the ways that God has shown his love to you. Next, consider what would God have you do right now?

  • Doing an act of kindness for a fellow worker in need (Luke 10:25-37).
  • Showing love and respect to your spouse (Eph. 5:33)
  • Exercising patience in traffic (1 Thes. 5:14)
  • Being a wise steward of your time and finances (Matt. 25:14-30; Eph. 5:16).

Such actions focus us on doing the will of God in the moment.

Finally, consider how you might walk in greater humility, focusing other’s attention towards the glory God and away from self. John the Baptist had it right when he said, “He [Jesus] must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Dwell upon the love of God, seek the will of God, and live for the glory of God.

Why do we procrastinate?

FEAR AND PROCRASTINATIONThe new year is often a stimulus for change. New Year’s resolutions abound. We may even be bold enough to share them with others. After all, we don’t want to still be eating Christmas cookies in February, nor buying Christmas gifts in March. We know we cannot live like December the other eleven  months of the year.

While we may start the new year fresh with resolutions intended to change us, by the second week of January a familiar friend shows up: procrastination. He reminds us:

  • It’s too cold to exercise this morning, you can always start tomorrow.
  • You can make up your Bible reading later in the week when there’s more time.
  • Why hurry with those resolutions, you  have the whole year ahead of you.

Often in my personal battle with procrastination, I’ve assumed I only needed to be more diligent. Work harder. Get up earlier the next morning. Only to discover, that when I got up earlier, I still didn’t get to the task I was supposed to get up earlier to do. That is because there is an underlying cause for procrastination that most of us fail to deal with: fear.

We’re afraid we might fail again. We’re afraid we’ll make the effort to change – really give it our best shot – and it will go unrecognized. The truth of the matter is we’re afraid, that while we really want to make a difference in this world, our life may not make much of a difference after all.  Starting something and quitting clearly feels like failing, but not starting something until tomorrow doesn’t seem to carry the same stigma. Still, whether we quit before we start, or quit after we start the end result is the same: we were unable to accomplish what God wanted us to do that day.

The Bible is filled with characters who sensed their own inadequacy, and were afraid, yet still stepped out on faith. Feeling a sense of his personal weakness, Gideon did most of his work at night (Judges 6:, 15, 27). One of the leading hero’s of the Jewish faith, Moses, claimed a stuttering problem (Exodus 4:10). Joshua feared he would be unable to lead as well as his predecessor (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9).

Procrastination could have played a part in these men’s lives. Can’t you hear it’s voice: Gideon, wait until you feel braver. Moses, work on your speech impediment for a few months before you go back to Egypt. Joshua, you need a few more years developing your own reputation before you lead.

Each of these men stepped out on faith, in spite of their fear, and God used them. One strategy for overcoming procrastination is to face that fear head on, and then act by faith not by fear. Procrastination doesn’t say “quit” it says “wait,” but in the end it’s all the same.

When God asks a question

The LORD said to Cain . . . “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? (Genesis 4:6) 

Throughout the Scriptures God asks questions for which he knows the answers. He uses these questions to move the listener towards change. As a friend of mine once shared,

A question stirs the conscience, but an accusation hardens the will (Ken Collier)

For Cain, as well as for us, the point is this: inherent in the why question is that Cain had a choice. God was stirring Cain’s conscience when he asked why he chose to respond with anger instead of obedience.

In our English language this is captured in the word responsible; a word we often use without considering its meaning.We are response able – able to choose the right response. I recognize that it often doesn’t feel this way. Self-pity and the ensuing emotions consume our thoughts and feelings; so much so that we believe them to be our only option.  God wishes to challenge our thinking and so he asks, “Why did you choose to respond in the way that you did?”

 Cain chose to feel sorry for himself; so do we. He was not the victim of his emotions or circumstances. Self-pity, while an enslaving habit, remains a choice.  Paul confirms this in the book of Romans: “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.” (Romans 6:16, NLT)

God’s question for Cain reveals this liberating truth: when you are embroiled in self-pity you don’t have to be. You choose to be.


Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for defeating self-pity.

Available November 2012 through www.biblicalstrategies.com.