Exercise for a Healthy Body

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I recently read that almost half of Americans say they want to lose weight, but only about half of those people are actually making any attempt to do anything about it. While the lack of follow through is disturbing, I think this desire for physical health is great because God has given us these bodies and a healthy body is a good thing! However, of far more importance than a healthy physical body is a healthy spiritual body and far more disturbing than a lack of effort at physical health is a lack of effort at spiritual health.

THE CHURCH; THE BODY OF CHRIST

Interestingly enough, God frequently uses the physical human body as a metaphor for His body – the church. While this term can be accurately used to refer to both the universal church (the entirety of believers in all times and in all places) and the local church, the majority of the New Testament emphasis on the church is referring to individual local churches. That’s because the local church is of great importance to God. It is through the local church that He plans to spread His gospel. It is through the local church that He intends to cultivate mature believers. It is through the local church that He intends to provide accountability, support and opportunities for ministry. It is, in fact, the local church that He has chosen to represent Him in a world that has rejected Him. With this tremendous responsibility in mind, the health of the local church should be of great importance to each of us who claim to be followers of Christ. Since the church is made up of people, a healthy local church is really just believers living the way God expects – and a big part of that is how we get along with each other. Just as weight loss cannot take place without working at it, a healthy church won’t just happen without some intentional effort. So, here are three spiritual exercises that will lead to a healthy church body.

PURSUE UNITY

First is unity. In order to have healthy relationships with your church family, you must make unity a priority. I don’t mean unity as in everybody being the same and I certainly don’t promote a lack of diversity. Too many churches think that the fact that they look the same, like the same things and agree on everything is unity. That’s not unity – that’s laziness. Unity is being different and even having disagreements and still being able to have mutual love and respect because of Jesus. Unity is working through differences for the greater purpose of God’s Kingdom. Unity is the deep and genuine joining together of the hearts of believers to each other through a mutual pursuit of Christ. True unity is only achieved through pursuit of Christ above all. You must stop pursuing your ideas, your desires, your comfort, your convenience and start pursuing unity through Christ!

RESOLVE TO PRACTICE HUMILITY

That type of unity requires humility, a quality that is foreign to our natural selves and is only through achievable through God’s grace. As Paul points out in Philippians 2, practical humility is basically a selfless concern for others. We reject selfishness and pride. We do not strive for our own glory or positions of power. We do not try to manipulate to get our way because we truly believe that other people are more important than us. A healthy church consists of believers that live out the creed: “others matter to me more than I matter to me.” Too many churches are filled with believers who just care about themselves. We must renounce this kind of selfishness and embrace a Christ-like humility.

RESOLVE TO PARTICIPATE IN SERVICE

The final characteristic of healthy church relationships that I would like to mention is sacrificial service. Service costs something. It costs something in terms of effort, money or time. It might also cost in reputation. It certainly costs in pride. The cost might be different for each of us, but serving others will cost something – though in the long term those costs are meaningless. After all, what is money and time and energy other than currency to be spent for the kingdom?! When that is our mindset we realize that though there is a temporal cost to serving others, there is also an eternal reward. God honors His humble servants. Additionally, there is also a very real benefit here and now. When we commit to serving and caring for others we find ourselves cared for beyond our wildest imagination.

God’s plan for His church is designed to be best for all of us. His plan is that individual believers will function as a single local community that loves and cares for each other. This won’t happen if each of us is only concerned with what we can get out of church or how our interests can be served. It is time that we stop doing lip service to the idea of a healthy church and begin exercising the principles that will actually make it true.

 

Photo Credit Dwight Burdette. Original here.

Christ-follower or Blessing-follower?

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“2016 – the year without presents on Christmas.” This (accompanied by a few masterfully timed sighs) was the dramatic exclamation of my ten year old a few days before Christmas. His over-the-top theatrical outburst was due to the fact that we decided to move our traditional family Christmas activities (including presents) to Monday and intentionally focus on celebrating Jesus on Christmas Day. In the interest of full disclosure, this was primarily due to the busy nature of a Sunday Christmas rather than any super-spiritual aspirations on our part. However, this decision has taught me at least one thing: regardless of my best efforts and intentions, to small children Christmas is about one thing – getting presents!

A Fatal Flaw

In children, this is generally cute and eventually outgrown along with many other childish attitudes and behaviors. However, it does reflect one universal and fatal flaw in the human condition – we make everything about us. This includes the gospel and salvation. A common focus of gospel presentations and personal testimonies is all of the good stuff we get from God. We get joy. We get peace. We get a savior. While each of these is good and true, this is essentially a reversal of emphasis between two aspects of a single truth. The truth: God sent Jesus to earth and provided a way of salvation for all mankind. Our distorted perspective focuses on the benefit we gain from receiving this gift, while the true emphasis is on an awesome God giving a gift that we need.

 

A Self-centered Gospel

This may seem like the proverbial splitting of hairs, but as we build upon this faulty foundation our faith can take a very self-centered turn that was never intended. If the focus of the gospel is all about us getting joy and peace and salvation rather than about a great God giving us those things, than our life of faith becomes all about what we can get from God. The Christian experience becomes all about personal needs and desires. Following Jesus becomes nothing more than a means of getting what I can from God, from faith, and from the church.

This type of self-centered faith is why there are so many professing Christians who seem to live like nothing more than moral unsaved people. You know the ones I’m talking about – the “Christian” who might cuss more mildly, drink a little less, and go to church several times a month. But when it comes right down to it, these professing Christians are just living for themselves and have found a way to add God into their life on their terms. They want the blessings of being a Christian without any of the personal sacrifice or inconvenience.

The Heart of the Gospel: Sacrificial Love

I am not denying the tremendous blessings that come as a result of salvation. I am simply saying that the American church tends to overemphasize the getting to the neglect of the giving. You see, at the very center of the gospel story is God Himself giving up His place at the right hand of the Father. God gave up His high position in heaven to become human in order to redeem us. The very heart of the gospel is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” The heart of the gospel is sacrificial love!

As we build upon this foundation, we will certainly receive blessings, but we will also live a life intentionally focused on imitating the kind of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. My faith becomes about responding in worship to a God to whom I am eternally grateful. My Christian experience becomes all about opportunities to sacrifice my wants and desires for the sake of serving Jesus through service to others.

A Practical Impact

This change of perspective will have tremendous practical impact on one’s daily life. You will be less offended when your rights are violated. You will be less hesitant to help someone in need. You will be more willing to go out of your way to serve someone. You will certainly be less concerned about getting your way all the time.

There will also be an impact on your attitude and behavior toward the local church. You will view church as an opportunity to use your gifts for the blessing of others. You will be more willing to sacrifice your preferences, like music, and decorations, and preaching styles. You will be less determined to make everyone cater to your comfort and desires. In short, you will desire to serve in the church rather than simply be served by the church.

Life as God Intended

I am not proposing that we do not receive blessings from God and I am certainly not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy them. They are a real and special and important part of what God has done for us. However, just like presents at Christmas, we cannot let these benefits and blessings become our primary focus. They are not the whole story. My prayer and desire for every true Christ-follower is that while enjoying the blessings of faith, you will live a life in passionate pursuit of the God of the blessings rather than the blessings themselves. That is living the way God intended; that is living in the manner that Christ lived. I challenge you to examine your own heart. Are you a Christ-follower or a blessing-follower? Prayerfully consider the answer and remember, it isn’t too late to make the change today!

Stranded…Again!

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Driving down the road in the first big snow storm of the season, my oldest son says, “Hey Dad, I hope we don’t get stuck in the snow like last year.” To which I replied, “Well, if we do, let’s make sure we all handle it better than we did that time.” The incident he’s referring to was quite memorable -especially to small children-, but certainly not a highlight from my career as their role model and not one of our better moments as a family. We were driving in a snow storm and chose to drive up the steepest hill I’m aware of anywhere near where we live. And we had bald tires because I’m also not so great at the whole vehicle maintenance thing. Needless to say, we didn’t make it very far and ended up stranded part way up with children whining and mom and dad not so politely or quietly blaming each other for the predicament. As I said, not our finest hour. So, when I replied to my son that we should all do better, it was a sincere desire as well as a reasonable goal, but certainly not anything I wanted to test out in the near future.

However, fast forward a matter of minutes and we are once again stranded on a snowy road discussing our options for getting home. The situations were very similar, yet wonder of wonders, we did indeed all respond quite differently. Certainly I was frustrated that the vehicle was in all likelihood totally shot and my wife had her suspicions that I could have done something about it and the kids definitely were uncomfortable. Just like before. But unlike “last time” there was no whining, complaining, yelling, screaming or blaming. (And the kids did well, too.) There was laughing, joking, calm conversation about God’s plan and provision and even some prayer. After a good Samaritan stopping to help and a phone call to some great friends who came to our rescue, we finally made home. All in all, a good night.

We certainly aren’t perfect and probably didn’t pass with flying colors, but we responded better this time than last. And in this crazy journey of life, that’s a victory! Now, I’m not saying we didn’t feel discouraged and that we weren’t a little bit curious about how God would provide. Difficulties like this, though a fairly routine part of life, can certainly be frustrating. However, they can also be a reminder of God’s great love and mercy. You see, He didn’t give up on us when we failed miserably at responding to difficulty. He provided for us anyway. He loved us anyway. He gave us many opportunities to grow our faith. He showered us with His forgiveness and mercy and loving kindness for an entire year and then put us in a very similar situation to the one in which we failed so that we could see the product of all His hard work in us.

As you face whatever rough patches come your way, I encourage you to look for what you can learn and for how you can improve. Accept God’s forgiveness for whatever shortcomings you find and praise Him for His grace and mercy. Let go of the failings of yesterday and embrace the small successes that God brings your way. And most of all, trust His goodness even when you find yourself stranded for a little while.

Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving as a holiday is many things to many people. It might be little more than a day off to one or a significant and profoundly meaningful day of reflection to another. It could be about turkey and football or the end of fall and the beginning of Christmas. Perhaps it is a day for family gatherings, parades and Charlie Brown specials. Whatever your Thanksgiving entails, I’m guessing that in the midst of it all there will be a time of reflection and giving of thanks. For the Christian, this should be a special day filled with worshipful gratitude to our heavenly Father, but even for those who are not a part of the family of faith it is generally a special day filled with greater than usual gratefulness.

It’s about more than more.

Though gratitude should be a constant companion of every Christian, we generally find ourselves putting forth greater effort over the holiday season to “be thankful” and “count our blessings.” Along with everyone else, I usually focus on the quantity of my thankfulness. You know the drill: more thankful for more stuff more often. While this is certainly good and commendable, I have found my thoughts going in a little bit different direction this year. I’ve been thinking more about the quality of my thankfulness.

Don’t forget quality!

I don’t mean how good I am at being thankful, but rather the quality or substance of that for which I am thankful. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I should be thankful for everything. However, I recently read a statement that caused me to consider the types of things for which I am most frequently thankful. The quote by D.A. Carson is this: “…by and large, our thanksgiving seems to be tied rather tightly to our material well-being and comfort. The unvarnished truth is that what we most frequently give thanks for betrays what we most highly value.”

While a general attitude of gratefulness and thanksgiving is important and becoming in the life of a Christian, it can also be an effective gage of where our priorities really lie. This realization has led me to consider whether all or most of my gratitude is focused toward material things, possessions and physical blessings. There is much to be thankful for that is outside of the scope of the material realm.

Expand your thankfulness.

Here are some areas to consider as you offer thanks this holiday season and the rest of the year.

  • Spiritual blessings and not just stuff. Are you as thankful when you are shown grace, mercy and patience as you would be if you were given cash or some other material gift?
  • Meaningful relationships. Do I value people or am I merely thankful for I get from those relationships?
  • The Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. Are you truly grateful for God’s direction in your life and His Word that is available to you?
  • Spiritual growth. Do you feel as grateful when your children manifest Christ-like character as you do when they excel in school or sports? Are you as thankful for personal spiritual growth as you are for career or personal success?
  • Trials and difficulties. Are thankful for the hard things God places in your life or are you only grateful when life is easy?

Be thankful for your treasure.

Obviously we should also be thankful for material blessings and personal comforts, but that isn’t world that we should be most preoccupied with. After all, Jesus tells us in Matthew 9:19-21 that we should “…not lay up … treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Make it your goal this season to evaluate what is truly most important to you. If necessary, make some adjustments and be sure to offer thanks for your real treasure.

The Path to Joy

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difficulty and uncertainty of life. There is great turmoil in our nation surrounding political and social issues. There are serious questions about the future for those of us who are people of faith. Looking around, I see a great deal of pain and suffering. I know many people that deal with chronic and constant pain. Many others are struggling with pain from relationships or some other emotional pain. The reality of life is that it can be difficult and painful and often can leave one discouraged.

In contrast, I also know that the Christian life is meant to be a life of joy. Peter writes that believers in Christ are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Paul prayed for the church to be filled “with all joy…” (Romans 15:13). The psalms talk about singing and shouting with joy. Unfortunately, there are times that I wonder, “How exactly is that possible?”

Though life’s experience may cause me to question the reality of having joy despite the difficulties in life, my understanding of God’s Word leaves me confident that it is indeed possible. The Apostle Paul provides a multitude of examples of this through his own experiences and it is a common theme in much of his teaching. One of the common threads that form the foundation for a life of joy is that we must turn our attention away from ourselves.

Selfishness is a plague that we cannot seem to escape and far too often it worsens when things go wrong and life gets tough. We turn inward and become so focused on me; my problems; my trouble; my pain. That just makes us more miserable. You can be certain that if you focus on your problems, you will have very little joy.

Instead, we must turn our attention outward. We must look for opportunities to use our difficulties to advance the cause of Christ and bring God glory through our problems. We must look for ways to bless, encourage and serve others. I can assure you that through choosing to look outward you will find a renewed joy in your own spirit. You will find that one of the fastest way to bring a little joy into your own life is to focus on others instead of yourself.

If you are struggling to find joy in life, I challenge you today to stop living life for yourself and begin living it for God’s glory. The crazy thing you will discover is that when you live for yourself and your own happiness, you never actually find joy. It is a blessed paradox of following Christ that when you begin to live for His glory above everything else, you find immense joy.

What Are You Looking At?

5kidsComedian Jim Gaffigan says, “You know what it’s like having five kids? Imagine you’re drowning. And someone hands you a baby.” Today I brought home my own 5th child and I’m sure that those moments where I feel like I’m drowning will come. But today? Today I feel nothing but joy as I consider the many blessings that God has given to me. Five healthy kids, four of whom already show interest in following Jesus. An amazing wife that does an incredible job taking care of all of us. Wonderful friends who have sacrificed to be a blessing and help to us and a church family that truly cares about living out the love of Jesus in their lives. I have a job I love, a comfortable house to come home to and more than I need in terms of stuff. I am truly a blessed man.

Despite all the blessings in my life, I can be tempted to look past the blessings and see only the negative. Even during such a special weekend as this one has been it would be easy to focus on the sleepless nights, the hard chairs, bad hospital food and the stress of finding people to watch our kids. Isn’t it amazing how we can do that? Despite tremendous blessings, all we see are the problems. Sometimes all I see are the messes my kids make and the things they break. It’s easy to focus on the bills that have to be paid, the projects yet undone and the things I think I need to buy or do.

When this is what I see, the joy and gratitude give way to stress and frustration. This undoubtedly has an affect not only on me, but on those around me. The longer I focus on the difficulties, the more critical, negative, and stressed out I become. Before long, my personal attitude begins working against the blessings I do have as relationships deteriorate and consequences take effect. The saddest thing about this process is that it is nothing more than the consequence of a simple choice.

I’m not saying that you can choose the difficulties of life any more than you can choose the blessings. The reality is that much of life is simply beyond our control. However, what is within your control is the perspective you will have. Consider the instruction of the Apostle Paul – “Rejoice in the Lord always… (Philippians 4:4).” You can choose to focus on the negatives and difficulties of your life or you can focus on all of the blessings God has given you. Even in the most difficult of circumstances you can turn your eyes to Jesus and rejoice in Him. I urge you to take a moment to evaluate your life and consider this question: What are you looking at? May you find great joy and peace as you look at Jesus and all the blessings he has placed in your life.

Disagreement Is Not Hatred

As father to 4 young children, it should come as no surprise that I often find occasion to discipline one of them. Not infrequently, one of them will respond by trying to turn the tables and accuse me of “being mean.” They will angrily scream things like “You don’t like me; you hate me. You’re so mean.” Now as a parent of small children, I don’t take these remarks personally. I merely take them as an indication that repentance hasn’t occurred and proceed to work toward that end.

These kinds of remarks, though, are also a reflection of the culture in which we are currently living. We are living in a culture in which no one can offer correction or criticism without being considered mean; a culture in which you cannot disagree without being intolerant and unloving.

We see this mentality play out in current events on a daily basis. Christians cannot teach that homosexuality is a sin without being called hateful. Law abiding citizens are unable to criticize violent protests and mob riots without being considered a racist. Concerned minorities cannot criticize the actions of law enforcement without getting called anti-police. Athletes cannot peacefully protest without being called un-American. Good people cannot disagree over politics and presidential candidates without calling each other names and questioning their spirituality or patriotism or both. It is time that we addressed this wrong perspective.

Contrary to current popular opinion, it is possible to love someone and disagree with them. There is indeed a proper place to lovingly correct someone. Now correction and disagreement can certainly be done in unloving or hateful ways, but the correction or disagreement itself is not unloving. In fact, sometimes the most loving thing we can do is point out to someone that they are wrong. In Proverbs 3:11-12, the Bible offers this advice: “My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD or loathe His reproof, for whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.” These verses are speaking specifically of God’s correction, but I think they provide some insight into how we should view criticism. We should not reject it or resent it. We should accept it as an expression of love.

When done in the proper way, criticism or correction and disagreement can be a very loving thing. While we may not be able to change the world’s perspective on this, I hope that the church can learn to view correction and disagreement in a more biblical way. We must stop the name calling and accusations every time that someone disagrees with us and we truly need to learn to accept correction. We must endeavor to live out the truth of God’s Word while also accepting the differences in those around us. As important as it is that we demonstrate love in our actions, we must now also strive to manifest love in the way that we accept correction, criticism and disagreements.

 

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Two Deer, Personal Conflict and God’s Word

Driving home from church in the dark one evening I came upon 2 deer in the road. In the rural stretch of road I drive, this alone is not that unusual; in fact I was prepared for it. I was driving cautiously with my high beams on and attentively watching the road when I came over a rise and saw them. I came to a stop as 2 big bucks stood head to head pounding each other with their antlers. There heads were low and moving side to side as their bodies were each braced by their hind legs firmly planted on the pavement. They were so focused on their conflict (and impressing their lady friends that were surely hanging around somewhere) that I thought they must have been oblivious to everything else around them. It was magnificent! These two beautiful creatures with impressive racks seemed so engrossed in their battle (and perhaps tangled in each other’s antlers) that I hoped they didn’t notice me. However, as I scrambled to pull out my phone to capture the incredible moment they both stopped and stared directly into my headlights. I guess the lights and sounds of my vehicle were too much for them and they disengaged and both headed into the field on opposite sides of the road.

For the rest of my ride I was just overcome by a feeling of awe as I considered how cool (and rare – at least in my experience) that brief encounter was. As I continued to contemplate what I had seen, I began to sense a parallel to the reality of our everyday lives. Much like those two deer, we often find ourselves engaged in conflict of some kind. We feel trapped or entangled by some circumstance. Perhaps we experience conflict in a relationship. Whatever it is, we generally recognize that conflict is a part of life.

However, much like those 2 deer who disengaged their conflict because of my lights, often the solution to our conflict lies in the light. I don’t mean someone’s high beams or even actual light. I’m talking about the light of God’s Word. Many scriptures such as Psalm 119:105 refer to God’s Word as a light because it has the ability to illuminate our situation in a unique and special way – a divine way. We may feel trapped or overwhelmed by conflict, but if we take the time to look into God’s Word and apply it to our circumstance we might just find the conflict resolved as quickly as it began. I encourage you today to begin the important and rewarding practice of searching the scripture and applying it to the everyday situations you face throughout your life. It might not fix everything, but I can assure you it will begin the process of healing and peace that God desires for you.

 

Photo by Brian Stansberry – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30389408

The God of All Comfort

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My wife’s sisters were visiting recently and they each have a baby that came with them. It was a lot of fun seeing our kids play with their baby cousins as they don’t get to do that very often. While all of the kids seemed to have a great time, their visit really seemed to draw out the compassionate side of my seven year old son.

I was on the couch one night and one of the babies was in the floor crying. Now, standard operating procedure for me around a crying baby – particularly one that doesn’t belong to me – is to wait it out as long as possible until the mom comes and takes over. This, however, was not an acceptable solution for my son who decided to help. He has this very special blanket that we all call buggus. It used to be bug blanky, but now it’s just buggus. He’s had it since he was a year old and he loves it. And when that baby cried, he did the most caring, selfless thing that anyone could do. He lay down on the floor with the baby and wrapped his blanket around him and just comforted him until he calmed down.

It was such a sweet thing to see and in that moment I was extremely proud of my son for being so sensitive and compassionate. Later, as I thought about it, I realized that it was really the perfect picture of what God does for us.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 we are told that God is “…the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…” The Greek word for comfort here is paraklesis and it literally means “a calling to one’s side.” It is giving strength and encouragement while alleviating grief. That is comfort and that is what most of us are looking for. We just look in the wrong places. We look to relationships and self-gratification and all kinds of other selfish means.

But we should be looking to Jesus for the comfort we need. Jesus is calling you to his side. He loves you. He cares for you. He is waiting to come alongside your mess and help you and encourage you. That’s the God we serve. A God of comfort. A God who, like my compassionate son, crawls down into our problem with us and wraps the blanket of his love around us to provide strength and encouragement and relieve suffering.

If this kind of comfort sounds appealing to you, I want to encourage you to stop trying to chase it down on your own and simply rely on God for the comfort you need. He may not remove the difficulty or the cause of suffering, but I can promise that He will deliver you from the hopelessness that comes with trying to face it alone.

Aim Higher

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I recently attended a Christian concert during which a host from a Christian radio station issued a 3 day Christian radio challenge. Obviously, this challenge consisted of listening to exclusively Christian radio for three days. Considering the fact that my radio diet consists pretty much of equal parts preaching and ESPN, I wasn’t really that interested. However, the competitive juices began flowing when my 9 year old son leans over and yells out, “Dad could never do that!” That did it. It was ON! The challenge had been issued. The gauntlet was laid. I had to step up. And I did. BIG TIME.

On day 4 I was proudly proclaiming my success at the 3 day Christian radio challenge when everyone burst into laughter and informed me he had said 30 days. It turns out it was a 30 day challenge – and I should probably get my hearing checked. I had hit my mark and believed and declared myself a success, but in fact had fallen woefully short of what the real mark should have been. Everyone had a good laugh and I returned to my regular listening habits, but my mishap got me thinking about this issue of goals and success.

I believe that too many Christians are living lives in which they are setting their sights way too low. We are measuring success by a standard far inferior to the standard we should be looking at. We settle for minor successes and miss out on grand victories. God has big plans for each of his children, but I am afraid that we aim much too small.

Think about it. Jesus set us free, yet we remain in a prison of our own making due to sin or guilt or shame – all the while proclaiming our freedom. Jesus said He came to give life more abundant, but we declare ourselves successful as we struggle to barely get through each day of a frazzled, hectic and certainly less than abundant life. Jesus said to live our lives for the heavenly kingdom, yet we’re proud of ourselves for going to church on occasion. Jesus said forsake all to follow me, but we say we are His followers while living for ourselves. Do you see the pattern? In these and a myriad of other ways, we aim lower than God’s standard and celebrate lesser victories.

We must aim higher. We must embrace true challenges, not our own deluded versions of them. It has been said that our greatest fear in life should not be failure, but rather success at things that do not matter. Are you truly succeeding at living the life God has for you, or are you merely succeeding at a trivial, self-made version of it? I pray that as the church we can rise up together and set our sights on God’s standard of success.