Did you get the one gift you dreamed of opening this Christmas?

This was the question pastor Drew Derreth asked during his Christmas morning sermon. As I listened, I looked around at each of my children. My three youngest were still dressed in their PJs (a privilege reserved for Christmas). I was confident they would answer with a resounding “Yes!” but I wasn’t sure about my two older children. The magic of Christmas morning seemed to be wearing a little thin for them. As Drew spoke, I tapped my eldest on the shoulder and gave him an inquisitive look. He smiled back politely. He seemed determined not to show any disappointment despite never finding the one gift (an expensive drone) under the Christmas tree. He shared his siblings’ excitement over their gifts and gave many thanks for what he received, but he seemed a little let down.

Can you relate?

Disappointment is hard to hide, especially over the long term. We may acknowledge we have no right to complain, but the life we dreamed of having is not the life we wake-up to. Our gratitude feels forced, not natural. We long for authentic joy and we do what we can to quicken its return, but no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to conjure up the deep joy we desire.

Why is it so difficult to manufacture joy?

Young children make joy look so easy. Christmas morning convinces me that they experience the most joy despite doing nothing to produce it. Mom and Dad are the ones who plan long and labor hard. They budget, shop, cook and wrap. Where are the children while the parents exhaust themselves labeling presents and tying every last bow? They are dreaming peacefully in their beds. Strangely, childrens’ joy seems the greatest because they don’t have to work for it. Kids need to do only one thing excellently in order to experience pure, raw joy. They need to know how to receive gifts — something every kid does instinctively.

If you are finding it hard to manufacture joy, maybe you’ve forgotten the secret every child knows instinctively — joy comes most naturally from receiving and delighting in good gifts.

The Bible, like the old Sears catalog, inventories all kinds of wonderful gifts God has to offer, but the best gift is pictured for us in Isaiah 9:6. The good news for all who circle this gift and place it on their list is that they are guaranteed to receive it.

“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

This gift provides the greatest joy because God, the most lavish giver, knows we crave a “who” more than a “what”. Lasting joy comes from a person; not a religious ritual, nor a set of wisdom principles, nor moral victory, nor any created thing. This incredible person, though born in weakness as a child, will carry all authority and power on His shoulders. As such, he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. As a Wonderful Counselor he will prove himself not only wise, but also gentle and loving and good. He will reveal precious insights about God, ourselves and our world. Even though he is born a child, he will be called Mighty God. As fully God and fully man, he will reconcile man fully to God. As Everlasting Father he will dote upon His children and eagerly attend to all their needs and concerns. As the Prince of Peace he will end all strife and alienation: spiritually toward God, relationally toward one another, psychologically toward oneself.

If you didn’t get that one gift you desired this Christmas, look past all the ribbons and bows and see Jesus. Take him for yourself and discover the desires of your heart. He alone can restore a deep and lasting joy.

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Warning: Don’t RSVP to This Invitation

Self-pity sends out invitations to its party every time good things happen to others but not us. Invitations tend to arrive around weddings, baby showers and the holidays when we are struggling with singleness or infertility or the loss of a loved one. More invitations arrive when we have lost financial security, or good health and we notice nearly everyone else living carefree.

At the worst moments, self-pity appears like a stalker that refuses to take no for an answer — showing up unannounced with yet another invitation to its lame party. When we are forgotten by friends, passed over at work or under appreciated at home; this persistent wooer offers the hand of friendship. But, self-pity is not a friend worth having.

No one recognized this more than Helen Keller, who became deaf, blind and mute before turning two years old. Pity seemed Helen’s only friend. Yet she discovered Self-Pity’s defiling and unappeasable character only after a real friend, named Anne Sullivan, entered in with a truer compassion — one tough as nails and reliable as the North Star. Keller concluded, “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it we can never do anything wise in this world.”

Jesus never offered his hand in friendship to self-pity. He told a story, in Matthew 20:1-16, about a wealthy landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After the laborers agree to work for a denarius a day he sends them into his vineyard. Three hours later he finds people standing idle in the marketplace and says, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” He repeats the same thing at the sixth hour, and ninth hour. At the eleventh hour he finds people standing about and asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?…You go into the vineyard too!” When evening arrives, he gathers all the laborers together to pay them their wages beginning with those hired last. When he pays them a denarius, those hired first believe they will receive more, but each also receives a denarius. On receiving their pay they grumble, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” But the landowner replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose to give to the last workers as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

This story irritated me for a long time. First, the story seems to reward laziness and irresponsibility. Second, Jesus appears unsympathetic toward the the community of laborers provoked to jealous strife by the landowner. Third, the behavior of the landowner seems really unfair! But as much as I hated to admit it — the landowner did nothing unjust in the story. Those who labored the longest were still given a fair wage for their day’s work — even one they had agreed to. Rather than praise the landowner for his abundant generosity toward the least deserving, I was inclined to criticize him for his merely legitimate treatment toward the most deserving.

I knew I shouldn’t continue to feel irritated after logically working it out, but I was and I didn’t understand why exactly. The only answer I could come up with was not flattering. I realized that I considered myself a first hour worker, not an eleventh hour worker. Thinking otherwise I would not feel irritated but grateful. Self pity can only grow in the soil of self righteousness but gratitude grows in the soil of humility.

Jesus is no fan of self-pity. First, as a teacher, he tells parables like this one that leave no room for it. Second, as an example, he refuses Self-Pity’s invitation at every turn. Even on the night Jesus was betrayed, He never once felt sorry for himself. He knew Judas would betray him. Instead of having a pity party, he hosted a foot washing party to show his disciples how they ought to love one another. Jesus even washed Judas’ feet at the last supper. Third, as a redeemer, Jesus was really the only first hour worker…ever. John said, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” Jesus has been working faithfully from the dawn of eternity. Unlike the first hour workers in the parable Jesus rejoices that we, who are much less deserving, get the same eternal inheritance as he does. Forth, as abiding savior, Jesus offers us His Holy Spirit, the truest comforter who pursues us at all hours of the night even after we’ve foolishly entered the deadly party of self-pity and can’t find our way home.

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Sing About Your Unsung Heroes!

Who would you rather be — king David or his friend Jonathan, the natural heir to the throne? Both were blessed as chosen members of God’s royal family. But David received more — much more!

Everyone knows about king David. Few know about Jonathan. David left a dynasty that will last forever. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem the multitudes proclaimed Him the Son of David, not the Son of Jonathan.

David lived to be an old man. In his last days, the most beautiful virgin in all the land, Abishag the Shunammite, “comforted” David in his bed. Jonathan died in his prime — a faithful soldier of Israel. He paid the ultimate price for his Father’s sin, not his own.

So why does David get all the glory?

The scriptures call David “a man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). But was David’s devotion to God distinctive from Jonathan’s? We have every reason to believe Jonathan was just as much a man after God’s heart. He was loving and faithful toward Yahweh. Unlike David who committed adultery and then murdered his faithful captain Uriah; there is no record of any grievous sin Jonathan committed. David’s son, Solomon, born by Uriah’s wife, became the richest, most powerful king of Israel. Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, became a cripple.

The scriptures show David as courageous in battle and zealous for the LORD’s reputation.  But Jonathan was just as zealous and courageous. It was Jonathan who first demonstrated that “nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:6) He defeated a fortified Philistine garrison almost single handedly. It seems David followed Jonathan’s example when he later went up against the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17).

God passed over Jonathan, as the next king, simply to discipline his father Saul. Yet, Jonathan submitted joyfully to God even at great cost to his own status, safety and reputation. Like David, Jonathan never raised his hand against God’s anointed. Instead he chose to bless both David and Saul. He loved them more than himself. He risked his life for David and then died for his father Saul. Unlike David, Jonathan lost everything by loving faithfully.

David foreshadowed Jesus as a king.  But Jonathan foreshadowed Jesus as a faithful brother and dying prince — the one who “humbled himself to the point of death” and was pierced for another’s transgression.

History overflows with unsung heroes like Jonathan. For every David there are dozens of Jonathans. We must celebrate unsung heroes or we will distort the ones we normally sing about. I am thankful the Bible retains the stories of unsung heroes like Jonathan, Ruth, Boaz, and Barnabas.

Who are the unsung heroes in your life? Is it your spouse, a grandparent, a child, a teacher, a coach, a co-worker, a sibling, a neighbor, a babysitter, a counselor, a soldier…? Take notice of the unsung heroes in your life. Others will not sing their praises but you can. So sing loudly! Celebrate them, encourage them, brag about them.

Often, they are the heroes that reflect Jesus most clearly.

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Make the Most of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day calls us to reflect and give thanks to God and others. But, many charge through the day without a single thought of gratitude. Missing the point of Thanksgiving Day is tragic. Failure to give thanks stymies us — not just on Thanksgiving Day but every day. 

Here are five things that happen when we fail to give thanks.

  1. We miss out. After healing 10 lepers Jesus asked the one that returned to give thanks, “Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give thanks to God?… Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:17-19) All ten were healed physically, but only one received a second and greater blessing — faith that made him well. All ten appeared fully restored, but only one was heart-healed. It’s a tragedy when circumstances improve and yet our hearts remain sick. We miss out on total healing when we fail to give thanks.
  2. We harm relationships. Socially, ingratitude is like horribly bad breath. People avoid complainers whenever possible and endure them only when necessary. Energy drains out of a room when grumblers enter. Nothing alienates like failing to thank others who help along the way. Trust breaks down. Resentment builds. Ingratitude makes a person ugly, shallow and annoying.
  3. We sabotage our joy. Psychologically, thanklessness is self harming. We blame circumstances for stealing contentment but often another thief (ingratitude) was already inside and allowed to loot first. We get mad at others for assaulting our peace but don’t recognize how we may have already subverted it.
  4. We grow extra weary. Physically, ingratitude has the same effects as starvation. Health requires a steady diet of thanksgiving. But when we starve our heart of the nourishment it needs our body feels the effects — tiredness, muscle pain, head aches, clouded thinking and lowered immunity. (Medical studies show that practicing gratitude has many benefits including: heightened immunity, increased alertness, improved sleep, and decreased pain.) 
  5. We endanger our soul. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for [idols]” (Romans 1:21,23)  Godless ingratitude, let unchecked, will consume our soul with darkness and eventually disintegrate our humanity.¹

It’s good to feed your stomach delicious food, but this Thanksgiving commit to feeding your heart gratitude.

  1. Remember Small Blessings: Take time to notice benefits, large and small. Thank God for food, shelter, health, relationships, modern conveniences and pleasant experiences.  By getting specific you’ll realize the innumerable blessings you take for granted. Recounting them will change your perspective from a restless emptiness to a serene fullness.
  2. Don’t Wait to Encourage: Take initiative to tell loved ones and friends at least one thing you appreciate about them.  Lead an “encouragement game” where participants are required to answer thoughtfully about others.  Start with these questions or develop your own:
    • What do you appreciate about _____?
    • How have you seen ______ care for another person?
    • How has ______ grown over the past year?
    • What special memories did you create with _______?
  3. Comfort Pain, Reflect Gain: Invite people to share about the year’s lows and thank them for their honesty. Offer grace by listening. As people share their pain be on the look out for positive character traits (strength, honesty, perseverance, wisdom, grit, grace, humor) and reflect them through encouragement. When you don’t know how to respond admit it.  Tell them you care and ask how you can help.
  4. Pass Forgiveness Forward: In Matthew 18:21, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”  Jesus’ answer was unexpected (He replied seventy times seven times.) He raised the bar and told a story that illustrated the lavish forgiveness of God toward us. The moral of the story was — since God has forgiven you extravagantly, you can (and must) forgive others. Only when you’ve experience forgiveness can you pass it forward.  Thank God for the total forgiveness granted in Jesus Christ and let that melt your heart toward those hard to forgive.
  5. Enjoy Divine Peace“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) Only Jesus Christ is capable of winning the war with anxiety. Jesus overcame the worst of our broken world. His life proved God’s unending perseverance with you and his power transformed even death. You can trust God. Thankfully anticipating God’s goodness toward you and you will enjoy a divine peace, which surpasses your understanding.¹

Don’t blow another Thanksgiving. Make the most of the day. You won’t regret it and others may even thank you.

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¹Special thanks to Tom Hallman for suggesting I add a fifth danger and blessing.

Find Hope for Your Marriage

Revelation 21:1-8 pictures the greatest wedding of all time — God’s wedding. It takes place in the capital city of the new earth. I use this passage when officiating weddings because the bride and groom need a sober vision for marriage and experienced guests often need a hopeful vision.

Beautiful weddings are a sensual experience, touching all five senses. God’s wedding will be no different.

  1. See: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and…I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:1) Is there anything more beautiful than a bride on her wedding day? Not from the groom’s perspective! The groom busts with joyful anticipation as he gazes upon her beauty. She has adorned herself for him — not the groomsmen, nor even the guests. God looks at His bride with the same delighted anticipation. He gazes at the most beautiful bride in the world — sinners transformed by love and grace.
  2. Hear“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” (21.3) Finally, the Father grants the bride (Christians) and groom (Jesus) intimate access to each other. During engagement boundaries exist. The bride is allowed to enjoy messages from God, walks with God and even visits from God. But on the wedding day, the Father will loudly proclaim that the bride may finally dwell with Jesus forever. Their access to each other will be full and forever. What a pleasant sounding proclamation.
  3. Touch“He will wipe every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (21.4) On this broken earth we shed lonely, painful tears. But in heaven, there will be no more sad tears. Wedding day tears will replace them. Precious tears will well up from gazing upon our beloved because we will realize we don’t deserve any of what we’re receiving. In heaven, Jesus will pull our face close to His and gently wipe away every tear that leaks with the joy of laughter.
  4. Taste: “It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of water of life without payment.” (21:6) Life in this lonely and harsh world leaves us thirsting for more. In heaven, our thirst will be satisfied with the best God has to offer — the spring of life. Even better, we will receive it without paying! Like a wedding, we will feast for free because someone else has already paid for the banquet. He who sits on the throne will say, “It is done.” Everything has been taken care of. God himself has paid the bill! Only an eternal and infinite God could afford such extravagance. He will lavish it upon Jesus, and His bride — a wedding gift that’s merely the deposit of a bigger inheritance.
  5. Smell“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8) Burning sulfur is the worst smell — outranking dead bodies, sewer gas and wet dog. John reserves the last of the five senses to describe hell — the great divorce from God. When officiating weddings, it is tempting to skip this verse. But skipping would make my description of marriage unbelievable, especially in the ears of experienced people. Verse eight keeps it real. The list of sins span the gamut, but they have one thing in common — covenant breaking (cowards, faithless people, the sexually immoral, etc). People mock the idea of hell for the same reason newlyweds mock the idea of divorce. They think they’re too good for it. Their love is too strong. They refuse to entertain the possibility that their marriage could one day become a living hell. But when tested in life, people are more than capable of turning the heaven of their wedding day into a living hell.

Because we are sinners our marriage has the seeds of hell within it. But in Christ our marriage will also have the seeds of heaven in it. Your marriage will increasingly look like heaven or hell over the passing years! Let the mere scent of hell (covenant breaking) snap you awake like smelling salts and turn you back to your spouse in humility and love.

Hope for marriage comes as we recognize Jesus’ perseverance to endure hell for His bride and offer heaven in return. As you embrace your eternal spouse, Jesus Christ, you will be able to absorb the hell your earthly spouse sometimes drags you into and offer them heaven in return. It will feel like death, but as you carry your cross, Jesus will raise you to a new, heavenly love for your spouse. Then the gates of hell will come crashing down in your marriage as you grant forgiveness, offer compassion, speak encouragement and serve patiently.

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Are You Sick with Envy?

“A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Proverbs 14:30

8350807501_72d94a2300_zThis proverb contrasts contentment and envy.  Contentment is a heart at peace and it gives life.  Envy is a heart at war.  It rots a person to the bones like a malignant cancer.

Here are 5 symptoms that indicate you may be sick with envy:

Envy kills joy. I was in a good mood as our family left for a day trip to visit friends. When we arrived, I walked into their kitchen and gasped with admiration. But, as I gazed lustfully upon their stainless steel Bosch dishwasher my good mood died. Before that moment, I had been perfectly content with my raucous, energy hog of a dishwasher. As I drove home, I ruminated on spending money I didn’t have for a new machine I didn’t need. My wife noticed my grumpy attitude and asked, “Is everything okay?”

“I’m fine!” I lied.  But envy had murdered my good mood.

Envy wastes time.  Have you ever lost sleep comparing yourself to others? It’s good to admire another’s strengths and humbly learn from them. But, there’s no benefit to spending time entertaining resentful feelings toward people you otherwise appreciate and enjoy. The vigor you would otherwise use to pursue happiness is siphoned off by distracting thoughts of jealousy.

Envy wrecks community.  Envy is isolating.  It’s sad when we allows ourselves to grow distant from friends simply because they excel in areas we struggle. Envy is unloving. It keeps us from truly rejoicing with people, even though we desire them to rejoice with us. Envy is illogical — especially if we desire to be on a winning team and partner with people capable of great work. Envy whispers, “Just as long as their work is not too great!” Envy insists that our star shine the brightest. It undermines our ability to joyfully participate in something bigger than ourselves.

Envy alienates us from God. Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.” (Proverbs 23:17) This proverb warns us that bigger sinners will receive the blessings we covet but are denied. My wife, Marty, worked for years as a nurse in labor and delivery. We struggled with infertility, so my anger spiked whenever she recounted the behaviors of her patients and their boyfriends. Their denial of reality and indifference toward the gift of a new life was nauseating. I never envied their messy lives, but I envied their easy pregnancies. Why would God give healthy babies to people who didn’t want them, and withhold a baby from us? Since God seemed so unfair in his dealings, I questioned if he actually cared much about justice — about right and wrong. My conscience slowly hardened. Rather than fear what the Lord might say, I thought the Lord should fear what I might do. I avoided God and I started acting like a person I didn’t enjoy being around.

Envy causes exhaustion and prevents true rest. Shops and restaurants provide a good example. They rarely close because they’re all afraid to lose customers to the competition. Envy for bigger profits drives owners to bribe employees away from their families. Recently even Thanksgiving Day was sacrificed to the god of envy. We may pick on businesses, but the problem of envy runs deeper in the human heart. It can trap people anywhere and at any time. I see it on vacation when a family member yells, “Put that cell phone down” because someone is preoccupied with work emails. I also see it in the glazed eyes of those sitting in the pew on Sunday, worrying about their week ahead rather than beholding the God who holds them in His hand.


Are you sick with envy? What symptoms do you have? Jesus, the great physician, came to heal this deadly disease. His life, His death, and His resurrection guarantee He has the ability to cure all disappointment and restore all loss. Because of Him, we will experience blessings beyond our imagination. Heavenly creatures will stand in awe of us. As we rest in that coming reality, our hearts will stop warring and grow tranquil.  We’ll begin to sense a recovery from this debilitating disease. And one day, when we see Jesus, and He takes our hand in His, we will be fully and permanently cured.

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