Taking Up Your Cross

Not everyone takes up their cross, not right away. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s easier – and more natural – to ask God for the things we want. But we also draw close to Him hoping that He will change us. We have a picture of what the life of a believer should look like, and we want it. We want to be fulfilled in God.

Maybe you’re not there yet. You believe in Jesus Christ and you have accepted Him as your Lord and Savior, and that was a huge deal. Now you might be asking, “Will God do something huge in my life? Will He speak to me?”

Yes. But we have to ask Him. We have to say, “God, I’m open.” We must take up our cross. We must say, “God, I’m ready to be changed.”

To let God change you, you have to truly give yourself up to Him. You have to let go of everything and surrender. You have to go to God and say, wholeheartedly, “I’m in, Lord, I’m in! I’m yours, and I’m willing. Mold me!”

It’s scary to do that! It can bring a lot of turmoil, and it may last a long time. Just look at David. God told David he was going to be king, but then waited decades to make it happen. The time did not pass easy for David. King Saul sent an entire army after him, with orders to kill him. David had to run for his life. He was hiding in caves, not sitting on a throne!

That wasn’t even the limit of the bad things that happened. Afraid for his life, David lied to Abimelech. Because of that lie, Abimelech and all the priests of the city were massacred!

Your pain and confusion will not come with a price like that, but picking up your cross does lead to tough times. I did it because I truly wanted it. I wanted to live the life that God wants for me, fully and completely dedicated to Him. So I asked Him. I said, “Okay God, I’m ready to change. Make me who you need me to be. I am your clay, ready to be molded.”

“Mold me.” I asked, and that’s what I got. And I went through fire. If you are hesitant to ask, I completely understand. Who wouldn’t be scared of going through fire? But fear is not from God, so go ahead and ask. Jesus is the Savior of your life. He’s got you. He has invited you to pick up your cross and follow Him. In other words, you get to be with Him.

It is totally worth it.

 

Those Things You Can’t Control

I read a story about a couple who wound up in their parish’s counseling office. The husband complained that his wife was forcing him to go to church. When the counselor asked the wife why she was doing that, she complained that her husband preferred to stay at home to watch cartoons. “But,” the counselor said, “you’re forcing him to go. It’s making him miserable.”

She said, “He has to come with me! What am I supposed to tell people when they ask me where he is?” And the counselor said, “You tell them he’s home watching cartoons.”

She protested. “How am I supposed to tell people that? What will people think of him?” And the counselor said, “They’ll think he’d rather watch cartoons than go to church. Big deal!”*

This floored her. She had been trying to control what other people thought of her and her husband and it hadn’t occurred to her that she didn’t need to. It was making them both miserable and the thing is, it was unnecessary. You can’t control the thoughts and opinions of other people. Trying to do so is an incredibly tough way to live. How many times do you walk into church, worrying in the back of your mind about what everyone thinks of you? It’s so draining, and in the end, you feel like a failure. You think, “Man, I’m failing as a Christian. I’m just not happy. The fruit of the Spirit is joy, and I’m miserable.”

The answer is grace, God’s wonderful gift that frees us! Grace frees us from fear-driven control and the shame of feeling like you failed. In grace, you don’t have to worry about other people’s opinions. You don’t have to be miserable. You don’t have to feel like a failure. You know you can’t control the thoughts and perceptions of others, and it doesn’t trouble you. You’re relying on Jesus! You can ask Jesus for wisdom and He’ll come through. That’s what He said He would do.

Legalism comes with long lists of things you can and can’t do, and even longer lists of things you should and shouldn’t do. It’s a constant struggle to try and meet all of those expectations. And it’s so unnecessary! You can’t control everything and everyone, and you shouldn’t try. There’s no need for it. You don’t have to worry about what people think of you. Not when you’re in the care of the One who loves you most of all.

Don’t live in shame. Don’t live in fear. Never mind about that person over there who is frowning on you. You don’t live for him. You live for Jesus! That’s all that matters. God is smiling on you, you know. He loves you so much. That’s where you will find your joy.

*Jeff VanVonderen, Families Where Grace Is in Place

When You Marry Your Wife

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her… Eph. 5: 22-25

Do I think that I’m the head of my family? Yes. That’s scripture. As Jesus is the head of the church, so the man is the head of his family and the home. But men have someone to answer to. God says, “You answer to me.”

When I stand before God, He will say, “I viewed you as the head of your family. Did you love them as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her?”

This is a powerful message for a Christian man. How you treat your wife and how your treat your kids is very, very important. How are you loving on them? How are you giving yourself for them? How your marriage is going is on you. When it comes to my marriage, when it comes to my wife, it’s on me.

If the husband is head of his wife just as Jesus is head of the church, then in order to understand this scripture we need to look at what Jesus did. Well, He died on a cross for us. Some people take this to mean that you have to be willing to die for your family.

Well, of course I’d die for my family! But I don’t think that’s what this scripture means. I don’t think that’s the correlation. When Jesus died on the cross, He took our shame. He took our shame, our embarrassment, our terrible decisions, all of our sin, and He said, “It’s on me.” And so He died.

That’s the correlation. That’s what husbands take on. When you marry your wife you say, “I will love you as Jesus loves us. I will take the embarrassment. I will try to provide a shameless environment.”

I don’t think we do that now. I don’t think that men look at marriage that way. I don’t think men fully understand what it means to be a husband, or what it means to be the head of a family, or what it means to be in a marriage.

So many men say, “My wife just doesn’t want to submit. She never listens to me. She never wants to submit to me.” They shame their wives. To those men, I say this: “If you want your wife to submit to your decisions, then make sure you take on the responsibility to create a shameless environment when the decision is wrong. We as husbands need to create a shameless environment where they feel loved and accepted even when they are wrong. To protect her heart is more important then being right and making her feel shame in her faults.”

What if a man goes to his wife and says, “I will bend over backwards for you. I will take your shame and I will take your embarrassment. Any situation that you have, I will step in and I will take it for you.” What happens then? Something beautiful. You will see a woman who is very satisfied in the marriage. The wife reflects the marriage, right? She will tell you how the marriage is going. All you have to do is look at her.

I Want to Love on You, Man

It can be uncomfortable hanging out with Christians. I might feel like having a beer, but I don’t know if they’ll accept that. Sometimes I’m not even sure if my thoughts will be acceptable to them, much less my frustrations. I might literally say to myself, “Is it okay to have this thought, or to be frustrated in this area around these people?”

My non-Christian friends don’t judge me. They don’t really care if I have a beer or not. They don’t judge me for my thoughts, or for my frustrations. If I’m feeling frustrated about something and I talk about it, they really don’t care. They just accept it. They’ll just tell me, “I know what you mean. I’ve been frustrated that way too.” Their attitude is, “Yeah. You’re normal. Just like everybody else.”

Just like that, I can sympathize with people in my life who are struggling with something. A guy can come to me in struggle and in pain, and he can confide in me without fear of judgment. He can say, “Hey Jeremy, I’m struggling with something right now, and I want to tell my wife, but I’m afraid to. I feel like a bad person.” I feel really comfortable with this. I can say, “Yeah, I understand. I could probably go there too. And if I made the choices you made, I would be in the exact same spot.”

I don’t have to fear becoming like anyone else in their sin, just like they don’t have to fear it around me. We have Jesus! There’s always going to be more grace than sin. And if I live by the Spirit, then I will act by the Spirit. So I can say to that guy, “Let’s figure out a way to help each other. I don’t want you to feel condemned around me. I want to love on you, man. I want to help you.”

I look at everybody, believers and non-believers, the same way. We all sin. We all struggle. We all feel pain. I want to understand people’s pain. I want to understand their struggles. I want to be able to say, “You know what? I’ve been there, or I could easily go there.” And I want to help. How many more people would feel comfortable around followers of Jesus if they were treated that way?

The night before Jesus was arrested, He celebrated Passover with the apostles, and then He washed their feet, telling them,

You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. John 13:13-15

Listen, do not judge. Jesus is our judge, and yet He came as a servant king. When He knew His time with His beloved followers was ending, He did a job reserved for the lowest servant of the house. Why? He lowered himself to show humility. He told us, “I have given you an example. Do as I have done.” He showed us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Serve. Reach out, empathize, dialogue, be constructive. People will see us loving on each other, no matter what pain, no matter what struggle, and they will seek to be around Christians, where they will be loved, not judged.

Jesus Wept

Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Luke 19:41-44

Jesus looked at Jerusalem and He wept. He looked at Jerusalem and He said, “I see what’s going to happen to you.” It was still a few decades away, but Jesus could see what was coming. The Romans would demolish the city and nearly everybody in it would die. Jesus wept because these were His people and He loved them. He loved humanity. He loved us – you and me.

Jesus loved us so much that He died for us, even while knowing that in two thousand years, a lot of us would not even care that He existed, much less care that He wept.

He died on a cross for people who say, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in Buddha.” He died knowing that it was for people who would come to believe in crystals. He died for people who would look at the moon and call it God. He died for the Romans who assembled a whole pantheon of gods. He died, knowing that He was doing it for the sake of people everywhere who believe in every god except for Him. Why would He do that? The reason is simple. He loves us. “Whether they believe in me or not,” He said, “they’re created in my image. And I love them.”

I have a whole new understanding of His love for us now that I have kids of my own. I would die for my kids. Even if they hated me, I would lay down my life down for them. I wouldn’t say, screw those kids. I wouldn’t do that to my own children, and Jesus wouldn’t do it to us.

I would die for my sons, hoping that they would eventually figure out who they really are. I would die for them, hoping that somehow they would come understand who they are called to be. I would extend life to them, so that they could do good things in this world. Even if I could never see the men they would become, I would die for them.

That’s why Jesus died for us. He was there when everything was created. He understood what He was dying for. He did it for us.

A Gift. Freely Given, Never Earned

It can be difficult for us to trust God the King. We already have a lot of trust issues. We have trust issues with government. We see our representatives making deals without regard to morality. They will actually sacrifice their own morals to make sure their agenda gets done! We see that, and we get disillusioned. No wonder we don’t understand what it means to trust God’s Kingdom!

We can learn a lot about trusting God by exploring kingdom imagery. Imagine living in the 17th century and the King says to you, “Come and be my son.” What do you think someone back then would have said? Obviously, they would have said, “Really? You’re asking me? I am in! Yes!”

Now God says, “Come and be my child,” and we actually hesitate. Now we say, “I don’t know, I kind of like living out here, outside the gates of the kingdom.” Why? Because when we look at government, we don’t see trust. We don’t see a reason to trust.

So we don’t understand that we can trust God the King.

We’ve lost so much trust that we love Jesus and thank Him for saving us, but we still struggle to trust God. We don’t trust that He accepts us as His sons and daughters. We go out into the world, but we don’t really believe that we’ll be allowed back into the kingdom. We think God will shut the gate behind us.

So we get into a works mentality. We’re not perfect, so we sin. Then we feel like we have to cover for how we acted. We believe we have to earn our way back in, not understanding that we have never stopped being God’s precious children. We say, “I judged somebody, so I have to read five psalms today.” Or, “I had a lustful thought, so I have to put in two extra hours at the food pantry.” Or, “I thought I was a better Christian than my neighbor, so now I have to go to Nicaragua and help build a new school.” With this mentality, fulfilling the royal law becomes work. Honestly, it becomes an ordeal.

When you start doing stuff to make yourself feel better because you sinned, then you have a works mentality. You’re missing the point. We live in grace now, because of the sacrifice Jesus made, and then His resurrection. Now we live in God’s life. We walk in His Spirit and love with His love. When we sin, we can work it out on the spot with Him. He works all day every day for us. He loves us!

If you do something in order to show people what you’ve done, you’ll be dissatisfied. You won’t feel very good when you’re done. But if you do something to help a struggling neighbor simply because you love her, you’ll feel so good and fulfilled. Your heart will be right where it needs to be.

So trust the King! And when you struggle, send word to Him. Tell Him, “I need some help here.” Trust Him. He will come.

Everyone Will Thrive

And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the LORD your God:
“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.
“Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.
“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
“Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
“The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.
“The LORD will command the blessing on you in your storehouses and in all to which you set your hand, and He will bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 28:2-8

If you live in legalism, you eliminate God. Maybe you don’t tell lies, and that is consistent with a righteous life, but what if the only reason you don’t lie is because the Bible says, “Don’t tell lies”? Then you aren’t depending on God, You’re depending on rules. Things fall apart when you depend on rules.

What if you were able to just rest in God and understand that His grace will show you the way? When you do that, when you believe that God gives you His favor even though you didn’t earn it, then whatever you say, whatever you do, wherever you walk, wherever you go, you will be blessed. Your basket will be full. You will be at the head and not the tail of everything you do. You will be on top and never at the bottom. And everything your hand touches will prosper.

In grace, you will find success.

You may not find success in exactly the way that you want. It might not happen exactly as you want it to happen. But God will show you exactly what you need to do. He will show you exactly the decisions you need to make so that your spouse will thrive. He will show you exactly how to talk to your children so that your children will thrive. You’re on a journey, and you can believe that your entire journey will be a success because you are God’s precious child.

What happens when you walk and talk with the people you meet on your journey? They feel good around you. They feel good because you depend on Jesus to tell you what to say to them. You don’t have to be super-spiritual. You don’t have to quote Bible verses at them. Life’s journey is not about soapbox Christianity. It’s not about telling people to accept Christ or else rot in hell. Don’t tell people that they’re bad. Just ask God to tell you how to love them. He will tell you!

When you do that, what do you think will happen? Man, the people you meet on your journey will just love on you! They will want to live a righteous life because of you. Listen to Jesus, because He will tell you exactly what people need to hear. Then they will respond to His love! They will want to be around you! Maybe they won’t believe in God. Maybe they won’t do all the same things that Christians do. But you’re the one they’ll hang out with, because you won’t judge them. You’ll be too busy living in grace with them.

Allow Jesus to guide your steps, and everyone will thrive.

Let Go and Trust

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10

The Bible says that because of righteousness, you are forgiven and purified. You actually are! It can be hard to believe this, but it’s true. That’s what grace does.

Can you avoid sinning? No, you cannot. Can you forgive yourself in the place of God? No, you cannot! Why try to avoid sin, if you know you can’t? If you continue trying, you’ll create problems that God never meant you to have. You’ll try to behave a certain way, and you’ll try to control your loved ones so they’ll avoid sinning too. You’ll never know freedom.

In a mindset of sin-avoidance, you set yourself up for disappointment, and your loved ones too. When your expectations don’t pan out, you react from your flesh. Someone doesn’t do what you thought they should do, or someone doesn’t treat you the way you thought they should treat you, and you react, with frustration maybe, or even anger. You sin as a consequence of trying to avoid sin!

You can’t avoid sinning. That’s why God gives you grace. Grace gives you the freedom to trust yourself and others. Grace leads you to let go of control, replacing it with trust. By receiving and walking in grace, you don’t have to strive to control your behavior or control the behavior of others. When you walk with that freedom of trust, you stop trying to avoid sin. You have a new habit now. You simply don’t want to sin.

Will you sin? Yes. We all do. If you could totally avoid sin, then the death of Jesus wouldn’t make sense. If He didn’t save you, then it was pointless for Him to die. His grace doesn’t protect you from sinning. It invites you to forgiveness and restoration when you do.

1 John talks a lot about this, but people misinterpret it. 1 John is read as if it says, “Do not sin, and if you do any of the things on this list, you’re going to hell.” But that’s not what 1 John means. It says that if you live a life of sin, with an attitude of sin and a habit of sin, and if you live with hatred towards people and God, then hell is definitely a destination.

But it is not telling you that must avoid sin. 1 John says, “Listen, you’re going to sin. But you have to realize that when you live in Jesus you are made righteous and holy. Live in that. Confess and God will purify you.”

Will you live in your flesh from time to time? Yes! You can’t be perfect. The flesh cannot be saved. Nowhere in scripture does it say that the flesh can be saved. The flesh is evil and you cannot expect to make it good.

But you are good — in the spirit of God. He has made you righteous. He has freed you from sin. That’s what His grace does, and it’s for you.

Scared to Death

When I was a professional athlete, I didn’t trust people well at all. I struggled with trust. I was a very insecure person. I was scared. What do you think I was scared of? I was scared of failing. Failing! I was scared to death. 

Two things drove me: fear of failure and fear of success. I battled with it all the time. I’m not going to lie to you, man, fear of failure is what drove me to success on the mound. You can see clips of me pitching in the World Series. You can look up my stats. You can see that I was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, and you can probably find video of me crying after we won. But I’m telling you right now, I didn’t make better pitches in the postseason than I made during the regular season. In fact, I made some terrible pitches in the postseason and got away with it. 

So why did I put up those numbers? What drove me on that mound to have such intense focus?  It was fear, man. Fear of failure. I didn’t want to be the loser of the 2014 World Series. I didn’t want to be the scapegoat. That would follow me around my whole life. “Jeremy blew it in Game 7, boo, we hate you.” I am not going to lie. I was driven to compete because I was scared to death. 

Everybody’s like that. It’s not just me. Everybody’s afraid of some kind of failure. I’m tired of us not being able to talk about it. I’m tired of us not being able to say how we really feel. We’re all afraid of something, but we hide it because we don’t trust. 

Instead, we make things up. Somebody asks, “How are you doing?” and you say, “I’m doing great!” Only you’re not. All someone has to do is look at your wife. I can look at anyone’s bride, and I can see if they’re doing great or not. I’ll ask somebody at church, “How are you doing, man?” And he says, “I’m doing great!” Then I look at his bride. She’s just sitting there looking at him,  shaking her head. She’s like, “You’re a jerk.” Sound familiar?

We say we’re doing great even when we’re not. I did it all the time. I faked it to make it. I didn’t trust people very well. But that’s been changing. I’ve found a few people that I can trust with me.

Everybody needs a few people they can trust. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of people. You only need a few. They just have to be the people that you can trust to love you, not judge you or shame you.

They have to be the people that you can trust with your whole self — all of you — the worst of you as well as the best of you. You have to know that no matter what, they will love you. They might hold you accountable when you mess up! In fact they should, because sometimes you need their help in order to grow. You only need to know that they do it out of love.

Hot, Sweaty, Uncomfortable

Why do we shame each other? You hear it in church all the time. “Shame on him! Shame on her! That is so wrong!” You might even say it to yourself.

This is a terrible way for us to hurt each other. Can you honestly say that you have never lived in your flesh? You’ve never acted out? Never cut someone off in traffic? Never flipped someone off? Never yelled at someone? Never gossiped? Never had a bad thought about anybody? Never lied? I know you can’t say that, because none of us can.

But we shame one another anyway. Why?

We do it because we don’t understand trust. We don’t understand that we have a companion and savior we can trust, named Jesus. We don’t understand that we can seek and find a few people who will love us no matter what. We don’t even dare to imagine what that could be like. So we wear masks in the hope of hiding our shame. We try to show, “Nope! I’m perfect! This is who I am!”

It’s not true. Masks are fakes, and they are uncomfortable fakes. Kids take their Halloween masks off all the time, right? Masks are uncomfortable and they don’t want to wear them anymore. You will get hot and sweaty behind your mask, too. You won’t breathe well at all. Masks may start out comfortable, but they won’t stay that way for long.

It’s not fun to wear a mask, but that’s what happens when you try to hide your shame. You think, “I’m not a good person, so who will love me? I have to look like I’m good. I’m going to have to fake it. I’m going to have to put on this mask. It’s going to make me look like I’m always doing well, and I’m going to always try to act as if it’s true.”

It’s very exhausting.

It’s so freeing to get into relationships where you don’t have to hide your flaws. It’s so freeing just to be liked, flaws and all. It’s even more freeing to be liked and loved, just as you are. When that happens, it’s easier to accept that you will make mistakes and have problems. The flesh will always be the flesh, but there is grace for us in Jesus and in the people He brings into our lives. Mistakes, problems and flaws all come with the territory, but in trust, you are freed from the shame of it. You’re free! Just because a few people love you, and even like you.

In Christ, the truth will set you free. There’s no condemnation now. Grace abounds over sin, and you are invited to live in grace. You can live a righteous life.

That’s what happens when you take off the mask and let people see the Spirit of God.