Dealing With Failure- Matthew 18:21-22

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

COMMENTARY

Peter said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith unto him, not until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Each of us must learn in life how to deal with those that disappoint and offend us. And while often we speak of that in terms of other people sinning against us, the truth is that the person who most often upsets us is our own self.
And in return, we usually are also our own worst critics, giving ourselves self-talk that is far crueler than what we would say to any other person. When we do something that lets us down, we mentally shake ourselves and ask when we’re finally going to get it right!
But I feel that Jesus’s counsel in this verse condemns withholding forgiveness from ourselves, as much as from another. And eventually, I started treating myself better after I felt God say to me: “Hey, don’t be so hard on Abe. I love that guy!”
We can forgive ourselves, be kind to ourselves, and still ask ourselves to grow and improve. In fact, our behavior is most likely to improve, when we set our expectations for ourselves with a heavy dose of self-love.

Our Own Reality- Proverbs 13:20, 1 Corinthians 15:33 (ESV)

He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.

Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”

COMMENTARY

He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”
Some of us believe that the company we keep won’t affect who we are, neither the media we consume, nor the interests we pursue. We believe that we can give an ear to corrupt minds, yet still retain our pure convictions. We believe that we can take mixed entertainment, yet look past the depravity that comes with it. After all, Jesus was a companion of sinners, wasn’t he? And he still retained all of his morals, didn’t he?
That is true…but also Jesus never succumbed to temptation, a feat that none of us can claim. Also there is quite a difference between lifting those in the world versus being a part of that world.
The simple truth is that we are far less impervious to our surroundings than we might imagine. For better and worse, the environment we dwell in does become a part of us. You might not be paranoid now, but spend your time researching conspiracy theories, and sooner or later you’ll start to believe them. You might not feel very spiritual now, but spend your time among the devout, and sooner or later you’ll start seeing the hand of God around you.
Thus a thin man might eat a fatty meal one day and look himself in the mirror and say “I am still thin…clearly fatty food has no effect on me.” Or an obese man might eat a lean meal and also see no effect. But if they continue with it over time, gradually the fat will become the first man and the lean will become the second. For reality becomes our repeated experience.

Our Own Reality- 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Mark 7:21-23

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

COMMENTARY

Charity suffereth long, and is kind, rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, wickedness, deceit, all these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
That which is within us comes out. If we are filled with defilement then we frame the world with evil thoughts and act in selfishness for our own gain. But if we are filled with charity then we frame the world with hope and act with kindness. If we are filled with corruption we will see all around us as corrupted. But if we are filled with love we will see all around us as beautiful.
In either case, the reality we perceive is merely the outward manifestation of who we are within. Thus the way we view the world says much more about ourselves than it does about the world.

The Doing Muscle- Summary

We all have wished that we more consistent at doing the things that we know we should. If each of us was able to be our best self each day, the world would already be a divine place to live. Indeed, one might argue that the best thing any of us can do to right the greater wrongs of the world, is to simply improve our own selves instead. How can we help the world live by the principles that we think are important, if we’re not even fully living them ourselves?

Doing this study was a great help to me. It helped me to understand why it is so hard for me to consistently be my best self and what I can do to be more successful. It also has helped me to be more patient with my own imperfections.

Not only have I better understood these principles by conducting this study, I would say that I have seen my behavior improve as a result. By implementing these principles and practices in my life I have found I am more successful at doing the things I already know I should be doing. Let’s take a look at what some of the principles and practices are.

The Self-Improvement Hierarchy

One truth that stood out to me was the need to put first things first. Forming ourselves into our best self is a very monumental undertaking, not unlike trying to erect a great building. And as when trying to erect a great building, it is absolutely necessary to begin with a solid foundation. One might stack toothpicks up very high for a brief moment, and for that brief moment it might appear quite impressive, but sooner or later a tower of toothpicks is destined to fall. So too with heroic efforts to be morally perfect one day, only to then binge on all of one’s indulgences the next.
Jesus, himself, taught the importance of establishing a solid foundation before building upwards. He spoke of storms of life that will try to blow down our progress, and how they will succeed unless we are rooted on something sure.
So before we try to tick off our personal-perfection-checklist we need to get down into the basement and see what the conditions are like. Are we prone to addictions? Do we have unconfessed sins adding unnecessary strain? Are we desecrating our homes and bodies (our temples) with things that degrade the soul? Are we trying to found our success on our own strength only? If the answer to any of these is yes, then we’re never going to make any long-term progress. We need to establish a far better foundation first, and only then we can start building in earnest.
Matthew 5:23-24- Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Matthew 7:26-27- And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Failure is Part of the Process

Of course, even after we’ve got our foundation taken care of, that doesn’t mean the act of building ourselves higher is an easy process. Even those that have bridled their appetites and established a core of strength still make mistakes, still doing things that they know they shouldn’t, still leave undone that which their conscience tells them they should do.
And as we look at the scriptural narrative it has always been this way. At the height of their work the prophets and apostles were still making mistakes. Moses struck the rock, Peter was reluctant to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul got into heated disagreements with his fellow missionaries. Yet none of them are defined by their failures, because they continued trying to do right in spite of them.
If we try and fail and then give up, then yes, that will be the final, defining note in our journey. But if we try and fail and retry, then it is the “retry” which defines our legacy instead. It isn’t about reaching the full destination in this life, it’s about staying on the road.
Galatians 6:9- And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Philippians 3:12, 14- Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Divine Help is Necessary

The final principle I realized was that, ironically, that which we call “self-improvement” is most likely to fail when it is performed only by the self. I believe many of us have a personal pride, and want to make ourselves into the ideal man or woman without any help from anyone else. Or perhaps we might feel that humbly relying on God is only meant for that first step, the one where we were trying to sort out our foundation, overcome our addictions, and confess our major sins. We might feel that God needs to save us, but once He has, now it is all on us to make something beautiful out of the new life we have been given.
But that simply isn’t the case. The steps that take us from sinners to the repentant turn out to be the exact same steps to take us from the repentant into saints. Just as much as we needed to plead with God to sponge away our guilt and shame, we again need to plead with Him to give us the strength to become more like Him. It is a dangerous journey before us, and we were never meant to take it alone. This has to be a partnership, for that it is the will only it will ever succeed.
Isaiah 40:31- But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 41:10- Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

The Doing Muscle- John 21:3-4, 15-17

Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.
But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

COMMENTARY

Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter reverted back to the lifestyle he knew before. I can certainly relate to that. Very often I try to instill a new behavior in my lifestyle, and sometimes I start to see those changes come to fruition and get excited, but then, more times than not, a few days later I’ve lost what progress I had, and am back to my old default behavior.

Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?

What did Jesus do when he found Peter back in the fishing boats? He asked him to verify his love, and called him back to caring for the Lord’s flock. And then he did it a second time. And then he did it a third.
There are two things I want to note here. First is that just because Peter had abandoned his post once did not mean that he had lost his calling. If we try to do what is right, make some progress, then fall back, the story is not over. We can always get back in the saddle.
Which leads to the second point: what truly matters is that we pick ourselves up and try again. I believe many of us think of discipleship as exercising our “do it perfectly” muscle. However, as we see in this example, discipleship is instead about exercising our “try it again” muscle. If you are to be perfect at anything, be perfect at picking yourself back up and trying again.

The Doing Muscle- Judges 7:2-5

And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.
Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.
And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.

COMMENTARY

And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands
And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many
In the story of Gideon’s army, we learn how the Lord filtered his forces down, then filtered them down again. The first cut, in which all the soldiers with any fear were sent home, was not enough, there was more purifying that needed to follow.
In my own life I have also found that I am purified by degrees. For today there are certain practices that I must strive for, and if I accomplish them then that is well for today. But tomorrow…it is time to be purified even further.
There is a temptation when we have achieved our goals to not set new ones that extend further. It is all too easy to say that now we are “good enough” and this half our progress. The problem with this is that complacency is soon followed by deterioration. Rather than let a milestone be the end of our journey, it is better to let it be a signpost pointing still onward.

The Captive Heart- Isaiah 53:6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

COMMENTARY

All we like sheep have gone astray
Arguably the wounds that cut us most deeply are the ones we inflict upon ourselves. We might respond to them with intense shame, believing ourselves to be irredeemably broken and fundamentally flawed, or else we might become defensive, responding with anger at any suggestion that we did something wrong.
In either case, we have an intense feeling that it is not okay that we are imperfect. Which, in a world without grace, I suppose would be true. In a world without grace, admitting that you had done something wrong, confessing your faults, and exposing your weakness could only result in condemnation without forgiveness. It would be a horrifying prospect. Thus it is little wonder that we feel like we have to put on a perfect face, even as we know that none of us are.

And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all
But, thankfully, there is grace, there is forgiveness, and there is a way to be loved even after we have done something wrong. All the horror of unremitting condemnation was faced for us by another. It was laid on the back of our brother. It is a sobering fact, but also the only way that this story could have a happy ending.
Because of our mortal frailty we have all gone astray, but because of His divine consistence we may all regather. We can be flawed, but live with the peace as if we had been perfect. We can learn from our mistakes, yet live as with the wisdom of having always known right. We can surrender all the bad, and preserve all of the good.

The Captive Heart- Question

The end of my last study was very impactful to me. It brought up the point of how we so often choose the very things that hurt us the most, and how God must intervene to save us from our own selves.

But to be sure, each of us are also victims to the onslaughts of others. Indeed most of our own acts of self-harm have their roots in the way others cut our confidence out from under us. We were made to question our worth, and that wasn’t right. So God must also intervene to save us from others.

Yet is it any wonder that others have learned to be cruel, given how harsh and uncompromising this world can be? Sometimes it is neither ourselves nor another that causes offense, it is the misfortune of nature, of chance, of having a physical body and a frail mind, of being subject to disease, deterioration, and death. So God must also intervene to save us from the mortal world.

And He does so. With this study I would like to examine how we are assaulted, and how we find reclamation in the gospel. In the meantime I would invite you to consider in what ways you have been hurt by yourself, by others, and by the world? How are you hurting right at this moment? In what ways is God trying to rescue you? Are there ways in which you are blocking Him? What are the reasons why?

Who Am I?- Summary

This study felt like it had two distinct halves. The first was captured in the title: Who am I? The other was: And what does that have to do with God? An unanticipated follow-up question that came up for me was: Does being God’s creation compromise by individuality?
One dynamic from my life is that I am the fourth of nine children. And many times I really felt just like that: the fourth of nine. I wasn’t sure what my personal identity was, separate from the mass. As a result, my pattern for life has not been to choose an identity for myself, but to let identities choose me. And that has led to some unfortunate results.
It is not unusual to yearn to understand oneself better, I would say it is a fundamental need that we all feel. After concluding this study, I am convinced that that need cannot be satisfied without God. Let’s examine why.

We Want There to Be an Us

There is inherent in each of us a desire to be a real person. That might seem a strange thing to say, obviously we’re all real people, aren’t we? But yet we all have experiences where we feel that we are non-persons. We feel overlooked, or lumped in as just part of a larger conglomerate, or not worth personal consideration. In times like these we receive a message that we might occupy a space, but we are not a seen, validated identity.
Being a person is essential to being a person. We cannot abide the contradiction of feeling that we aren’t what we obviously are. We feel hurt when a sense of non-personness arises in us because it is contrary to our very nature. Just as the pain in our hand teaches that touching the hot stove is wrong, the pain in our heart teaches that accepting the role of “nobody” is wrong as well.
And this is healthy and natural. When we were formed, we were designed to have this need for the self. It is neither a mistake nor a selfishness to demand that we are full individuals, that we are distinct and totally real persons, that we are our very own soul. This sense exists in us because He is a very real person, and He made us in His image.
Genesis 1:27- So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Luke 4:13- And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.

We Get Lost Looking For Us

Perhaps the greatest paradox of all: no one is so lost as when searching for themself. Unfortunately we most often respond to those moments of doubting ourselves by trying to build up artificial identities instead. We try to win the attention of those that overlooked us, which most often leads to either radical conformity or radical defiance. Whether they see us because they love us or see us because they hate us, we intend to make them see us.
Of course playing for the attention of the very ones who ignored us is a losing game. The fact that we try to prove our somethingness instead proves how deeply we feel our sense of nothingness. The more we try to pour into these facades, the less real us we have to work with.
In the end the only point we prove is our sense of having no worth. We would rather be something bad than to not be anything at all. But the lie is in believing that those are our only two options.
Luke 15:18-19- Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
Exodus 3:11- And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?

God Rescues Us From Ourselves

But because we have claimed these identities as our own, we often find it difficult when we hear that God refutes them. To be sure, the statement that “God loves me just the way that I am” is 100% true. But that doesn’t mean He wants me to stay just the way that I am. He isn’t that cruel.
God does not come to save me because He despised who I was. He comes because I despised myself, and He wants to prove to me that I am still worthy of love. I hated myself, and He came to help me see that what I thought was myself was not myself. What I hated was but a shroud, while my actual self has been preserved just the way it should be.
He invites me to let go of the artificial identities that gave me no pleasure. He says that it is time to stop letting these identities choose me, to let Him choose for me instead. He tells me that in His family I am neither four of nine, nor one of billions. I am just me. The only one of me that He has. And He proceeds to teach me to myself.
It goes against the grain to admit it, but there is no real me without God. It takes humility to say that I do not define myself, that He does. It hurts my pride to confess my nothingness. But as I do, I finally find my somethingness.
John 15:16- Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.
Luke 15:24- For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

Genesis 17:5- Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham.

Who Am I?- Personal Example #2

I do wonder if God is ever amused that we get so worked up on mysteries and questions, especially ones to which He has already placed the simplest answers in plain sight. As I found myself trying to reflect on whether I can be a creation, made in the image of my Heavenly Father, and still be an individual, I had the following thought come to me: “well how is it with your own son, Abe?”

I do have a son of my own, and he is very like me. He doesn’t necessarily look a great deal like I do, not even back when I was his age, but his mind and demeanor I find very familiar. My wife has commented on it as well, how he is very much my son, and not hers.

But then, for all the likenesses between us…he is not me. I can understand much of him, I can relate to many of his experiences, but some parts are entirely an enigma. Parts that my wife cannot claim either, things that are just all him.

As my son grows, I expect that he will manifest even more qualities that are like mine, but I know that he will also always be his own individual. My hope is that the two of us will always be close, share common passions and purposes, be united, and be willing to work together…. But that we will always do so as our own selves.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Frankly, I do not want another me, I rather like being the only one! So, too, I would much rather that my son be himself.

I am convinced it is the same with God. God has Himself, so that’s already covered. If I made myself just like Him, then I would only be giving Him what He already had, and that isn’t what He’s interested in.

What He really wants from me…is me.