Death Grip: Letting Go of the Rope

Did you ever play the game Tug-O-War as a kid?

If you haven’t, it’s a game where you and some friends stand on opposite sides of a long heavy rope, gripping it and “tugging” on it as hard as you can until one team manages to pull the other over a designated line.  Once the team crosses the line by giving way to your brute strength and unrelenting resolve, you win!  Yay, game over.  Simple enough.

Every time I played this game as a feisty and incredibly competitive eight-year-old girl, my hands took a beating.  Callouses and cuts covered my palms as I’d grip that rope as tightly as I could, right up until the moment of sweet victory or the moment when I crossed over the “loser line.”  No matter how hard it was to pull and tug and cling – I refused to let go.  Call it stubbornness or “commitment;”  I didn’t want to give up.

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As an adult, I still tend to grab onto things and refuse to let go – and sometimes the things I hold onto are the wrong things.  The approval of others, feelings of anger, old shame lies, comfortable sin habits, and the need for control being just a few of those things.  I cling to them firmly, hoping to find the love, the justification, the happiness, or the self-inflicted punishment that I am looking for (and feel I deserve).  I’m not ashamed to say that I love to win, but in a situation like that, the only way to truly win is to let go.

When it comes to my relationship with God, I also cling, but if I am completely honest, most times I don’t cling because of hope or love.  I cling because of fear.  It’s a fear that whispers, “If I let go of God, He will leave.  If my grip slips or if my hands grow tired, He will walk away.  If I let Him go, then He will most definitely let me go.”  I’ve always thought that the secret to walking in righteousness and faithfulness was to hold on as steadfastly to God as I could.  I was trying to hold on for dear life, and I was dying in the process.  There were moments when I’ve thought to myself, “If only I grip hard enough, if only my fingers start bleeding, if only I pass out from sheer exhaustion – then I’ll be okay and only then will I be deemed worthy of love.”  At least, that’s what I thought.

But it was on the days when I was weak that I learned the truth about God’s power and strength.  God’s love was never dependent on how tightly I gripped onto Him.  Instead, His love was and will always be entirely dependent on how tightly He grips onto me.  And the beauty of that statement is found in the simple fact that He will never let me go.  (And He will never let you go, either.)

Agh. Thank you, Jesus.

God does not want me to play Tug-O-War with Him.  He doesn’t want me to waste my life trying to win over His love and affections and approval and acceptance through own human strength or ability.  I don’t need to prove myself to Him or win Him over through my performance, my athleticism, my service, or my sparkling personality.  The “loser line” has already been crossed, and here’s the major plot twist you guys – we weren’t the ones who crossed it.  Heck, we weren’t even playing.  We were sitting on the sidelines while Jesus willingly “took one for the team” and sacrificed Himself to become our champion, and His win was enough for all of us.  The game is over.

When my trust and hope are in God and not in myself, I find the freedom (and the permission) to let go.  The crazy part is that it’s actually in the letting go that my faith muscles begin to grow.  My identity rests in the fact that God has my back, that He fights my battles, and that He won’t ever stop loving me (because His love never depended on me in the first place).  He begins to increase, as I decrease.  He becomes greater, as I become less.  I need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am enough, not because of how hard I try to be enough, but because my Heavenly Father already says that I am enough.  As those truths start to sink deep into the dark recesses of my spirit and my soul – the shame, the fear, the performance anxiety, and the endless and pointless striving begin to cease.

Then the real post-game celebration begins.  And that’s when the hardened callouses on my hands (and the hardened callouses on my heart) fade away, as I revel in the fact that it is finished.

Hebrews 13:5 – “For He has said, ‘I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!'”

Let’s Get Dirty

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”    – C.S. Lewis

The word “love”—along with it’s many definitions—is splattered all over the pages of the bible.  You won’t have to look very hard to discover that love is patient and kind or sacrificial and selfless.  But this week, the Lord has been teaching me about another way to define love that isn’t spelled out as clearly in the scriptures.

Love is… dirty.

And just to be clear, I’m not talking about the bow-chicka-wow-wow kind of love…but nice try.

This kind of love is messy and uncomfortable.  It inconveniences you and it requires you to take risks.  It’s a love that suffers, that gives, and that exhausts you day after day.  It’s hard and time consuming—and it will most definitely cost you something.  It’s also important to note that this kind of love isn’t about you—it’s about them.  And to be honest, when I see opportunities to give and receive this kind of love—I prefer to yell “fire” and run as fast as I can in the opposite direction. Continue reading “Let’s Get Dirty”

Shockproofing Sin: One F-Bomb at a Time

There’s a question thats been floating around in my head these past few days…

It’s been driving me crazy, and it demanded an answer.

Why are Christians so shocked when a fellow sinner… sins?  I mean, think about it.  Say you’re sitting in church, and the guy next to you reeks of weed and bad life decisions.  Or say you overheard your bible study friend admit to fantasizing about a guy she saw on her soap opera. I’d bet 9 times out of 10 you’d avoid eye contact and silently intervene in prayer for the person’s salvation.  But what if that person was already saved?  What if they loved the Lord?  How would you feel then?  Shocked? Disappointed? Angry? Continue reading “Shockproofing Sin: One F-Bomb at a Time”

When a “Good Christian Girl” Has a Bad Day

Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to go wrong?

Maybe you caught every single red light while running late to a meeting, maybe a bottle of your favorite red nail polish spilled all over your white carpet, or maybe you were planning on buying groceries—but the amount of money left in your bank account said, “Ha ha, not today friend, you’re on your own…”

Yeah.  Those days are the worst.

It’s when every little thing seems to go wrong.  It’s when stuff breaks, things get lost, and there seems to be no justifiable reason as to why.  It’s when the quality of our character and the quality of our faith get tested the most, and it’s in those split seconds when you truly discover where your hope and your peace lie.  And let me tell you…  I am the queen of messing those moments up. Continue reading “When a “Good Christian Girl” Has a Bad Day”

Uganda: Loving Simply and Simply Loving

Did you know that missions trips have a lot in common with surprise birthday parties?

Yeah, me neither.  Until now.

Think about it.  Sometimes the events of the day catch you totally off-guard, sometimes you experience anxiety, excitement, and fear all at the same time, sometimes you stay up until the wee hours of the night enjoying great conversations with great friends, and sometimes you just can’t wait for everyone to leave so you can be alone to sleep.

Oh, and sometimes there’s cake.

I just got back from my trip to Uganda, and it was totally like a surprise birthday party—full of excitement, exhaustion, and every other emotion you can possibly imagine. Continue reading “Uganda: Loving Simply and Simply Loving”

But Why Does My Heart Still Hurt?

Forgiveness.

This word makes me want to throw my arms up in a fit of joy and throw up my lunch all at the same time.  I can’t even handle this word.  I don’t really understand it, I can’t really comprehend it, and yet my entire faith walk is supposed to be based upon it.  It hurts, it heals, and it frees.  It renews, it restores, and it redeems.  If given in grace, it can build up and strengthen; if withheld in anger, it can torment and lead to condemnation.

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful things in the entire universe.  (Besides love, and maybe chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick.)

So let’s get free.

I messed up.  Big time.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I mess up multiple times a day, but many months ago I decided to take it to a whole different level.  That happens sometimes when Sam decides that her way is better than God’s way.  It also happens when Sam is scared or insecure or not trusting in the truth of God’s Word.  So here’s the thing.  If there was a trophy for the “Christian Hide-and-Go-Seek Sin Champion of the World,” I would have five of them stacked proudly on my shelf, because I always had a knack for keeping my sins hidden in the dark.  But luckily for me,  God has supernatural high-powered night vision goggles, and nothing gets past Him (wink wink).  Thankfully, I am loved (and will always be loved) by a God who wants to turn my darkness into the light.

Psalm 32: 3-5  “When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long.  Day and night Your hand of discipline was heavy on me.  My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.  Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt.  I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And You forgave me!  All my guilt is gone.”  

God, in all of His mercy and loving-kindness, called me to confess and to repent,  Jesus showed me how, and the Holy Spirit gave me the strength to follow through and actually do it.  So I reached out to the people that God told me to confess to, and let me just tell you… it was more painful than stepping on a Lego…barefoot.

Some of the responses to my confession were seasoned with grace and love, while others seemed to be seasoned with cyanide.  That hurt too.  But you know what, I was finally free.  My heart was right with God, I stopped hiding, and I spoke truth.

…So why did my heart still hurt so badly?  Why did I still feel like I was suffocating?

This is the question I asked God, and faithfully, He answered.  “Sam, you’ve forgiven others, you confessed, and you’ve asked for forgiveness from Me and from the people around you for your mistakes.  But there are a few things that you are forgetting, sweet girl.  My opinion of you is the only thing that matters, and when I say you are forgiven, YOU ARE FORGIVEN… but you have yet to forgive yourself.  And that my child, is a choice.”

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Dang.  God is never wrong.  I want you all to know that I have yet to master the art of “forgiving myself.”  It’s something that I am learning how to do more and more each day.  It’s something that requires complete humility and complete dependence on a gracious God who means what He says.  It requires me to let go of any hopes that I can ever save myself, and it requires me to let go of the pride in my heart that tells me I don’t deserve to be pardoned.  If the God of the Universe says that I am forgiven, then let it be so.

So on the days when my heart (or the devil himself) tells me one thing and my Lord tells me another, I need to remind myself of the truth.  I will never stop desperately needing to hear the truth of the Gospel—and that’s not a weakness, that’s a strength.  Since the Lord’s promises are true (and because God never lies), I can forgive myself and let go of my feelings of shame and hurt and guilt because His words say that Jesus already nailed those things to the cross when He died to set me free.  He loves me in spite of my mess.  He loves me in my darkest moments.  He loves me at my worst, and He loves me at my best.  He knew exactly what He was doing when He took my place and my punishment at Calvary, and He still knows what He’s doing when He vouches for me before the Father—standing up for me, advocating for me, and rebuking the accusations of the enemy.

We have all fallen short, but we also have a God who has picked up the slack and filled up the gap on our behalf.  So as we love God and love one another (on both the good and bad days), let’s try to remember that…

Isaiah 44:21-22  “I, the Lord made you, and I will not forget you.  I have swept away your sins like a cloud.  I have scattered your offenses like the morning mist.  Oh, return to me, for I have paid the price to set you free.”  

To Sin Less or to Be Sinless: That Is the Question

Sometimes, I get so tired of being a Christian.  Literally, I get exhausted to the point of needing multiple power naps a day.

This week I finally decided to sit down and ask myself, “Why the heck do I feel this way?”  If the Christian life is supposed to bring freedom and abundant joy, then why do I constantly feel worn out and enslaved?

I finally got the answer.

For so long, I believed that being a Christian meant that it was my duty to “sin less.”  I don’t know if anyone else has tried that, but for me, “sinning less” is absolutely draining.  It usually lasts about 5 whole seconds from the moment I wake up, and then it’s all downhill from there.  Heck, I’m pretty sure I even sin in my sleep.

But here’s what I learned (and this may sound radical so bear with me).  Jesus never ever asked me to “sin less.”  He asked me not to sin at all.  Jesus never demanded progress, He demanded perfection.  After Jesus taught the famous beatitudes, He said in Matthew 5:20, “But I warn you — unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Oh, snap.  If my salvation is dependent on my level of perfection and my good works, then I am in big trouble.  (Houston, we have a serious problem.)  I can tell you right now that, even as a missionary who’s walked with the Lord for just over 8 years, I do NOT measure up.  I will fail the test of righteousness every single time, and that’s a promise.  So if Jesus demands perfection, (and if I am an imperfect person) then how is the Gospel “good news?”

Here’s where I got my answer.

In Matthew 5, Jesus was preaching to the Jewish people.  He knew His audience from the inside out.  He knew their thoughts, their hidden agendas, their traditions, and their mindset.  Jesus knew exactly what He was teaching, and it must have sounded insane to those with listening ears.  The Pharisees were some of the most legalistic, religious, and obedient people alive in that day and age.  Jesus knew that no one could be as righteous as them in terms of lifestyle.  They set the tone for perfection.  The Jewish Pharisees were only concerned with the external appearance of their actions, but Jesus wasn’t stupid.  It is written in 1 Samuel 16:7, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord doesn’t see the things the way you see them.  People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” 

Jesus was making a point.  He saw what was hidden in their hearts.

Their obedience to the law wasn’t good enough.  They still fell short because their hearts were impure; every good thing they did was tainted with nasty sin.  But before I get prideful and start judging those guys for being so ridiculous, Paul makes it very clear in the book of Romans that we all fall short of the glory of God too.  In Galatians 2:21, Paul says, “I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless.  For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.”

Halle-flippin-lujah.  There’s hope!

Then it hit me (like an overly pumped up soccer ball to the face).  I realized why I had been so tired.  I was trying to live in perfect obedience to a law that I was never required to keep.  The law condemns me every time I try to live up to it.  All it does is reveal how sinful I am.  I was trying to work harder, seem wiser, look purer, be better… and sin less.

When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished,” and Jesus always means what He says!  If He says is it finished, then it’s actually finished!  It’s done.  I like to think of it this way:  Imagine me walking up to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and finger-painting smiley faces all over it.  Then imagine me looking him straight in the eye and saying, “Check this out Leo!  Doesn’t your painting look so much better now?  Talk about a masterpiece!  Those smiley faces are flawless!”  I could’ve just as easily slapped him in the face.  (And I do the same thing to God every day when I try to add to the finished work of the cross.)

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Does that mean that my salvation is a “get out of jail free card?”  No, God is (and will always be) a representation of perfect justice.  Someone had to pay the price for my disobedience and my unrighteousness; a debt was still owed.  Jesus took the punishment that I deserved by living a perfect life that I couldn’t live.  He fulfilled the law that I could never fulfill (Romans 3:23).  He nailed my sins to the cross (Colossians 2:14) and died a terrible and shameful death in my place (2 Corinthians 5:21).  He loved me enough to meet my unreachable requirements of perfection, knowing ahead of time that it would cost Him everything.  This is the Gospel.  This is good news.  This is love.

Let me share one last thing that convicted me this week about the character of God.  The man on the cross next to Jesus in Luke 23: he didn’t have a holy resumé to hand over to Jesus, he didn’t try and convince Jesus that he was good enough to enter heaven, and Jesus never gave Him a penance requirement before he died.  The man’s belief was enough.  The man recognized his sin and his need for a Savior, he acknowledged Jesus as his only hope, and he called out to the Lord in faith.  And Jesus saved him.  That is grace.

Just like the criminal on the cross, I was justified (undeservingly), and now I am being sanctified.  The good works that I do now are not what make me righteous before God.  Instead, those good works are responses to the love and mercy and grace that I have received from Him.  They aren’t the means of my salvation, they are the outflow of it.  God loved me while I was a mess.  He saved me when I had nothing to offer Him, and that’s what makes grace so amazing.  C.S. Lewis said it this way, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”

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So now, instead of wasting my time trying to “sin less,” God calls me to believe that I am sinless.  And instead of growing tired and worn out from failing to measure up, God calls me to rest in the fact that Jesus measured up for me.  I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Steve Brown:

“The good news is that Christ frees us from the need to obnoxiously focus on our goodness, our commitment, and our correctness. Religion has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited us to a dance… and we’ve turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we’re doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching.” 

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If You’re A Sinner and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

Do you remember the old catchy tune that goes, “If you’re happy and you know it then your face will surely show it, if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”  Well, Pastor Steve Brown did a little remix of this childhood classic, and it goes something like this, “If you’re a sinner and you know it, then your life should surely show it, own it, and use it for the glory of God.”

…Say what?  

When I first heard Dr. Brown sing that song, I thought he might’ve drank a little too much “somethin’ somethin’” before he went up to preach at the pulpit.  I mean, why on earth would I want anyone to see my nasty, dirty, ugly sin?  I thought Christians were supposed to brag about how they sin less and less every day, and how they no longer need to hear the juvenile Gospel message because they finally got their “crap together.”  Honestly, I’d much rather take the easy way out and hide my insecurities and flaws behind a false Christian persona who utters things like, “Bless your heart dear child, praise Jesus, glory hallelujah, the sun is shining and the birds are singing hymns, amen.” (Add southern accent for full effect.)

This week I have been reading through the book of Romans in the New Testament.  That book gives the legalist in me anxiety.  It was written for (you guessed it) the Romans, and it was written by the apostle Paul, a law abiding Jew and murderer of Christians who seemed to have everything going for him according to the world’s standards.  That is, until Jesus met him on a journey, wrecked his world completely, and put it back together a hundred times more beautifully.  Let me tell you why this letter from Paul makes me cringe.  To sum it all up, Paul explains that God’s finger of judgement, righteousness, and wrath, the finger that was pointed directly at me, has been redirected.  That finger now points directly at Jesus. Everything I deserved, Jesus got.   The punishment, the hate, the death, the persecution.  All of it.  Jesus freely and willingly took my place on God’s judgement stool, and because of that, my debt to the King of King’s is completely satisfied.  Because Jesus acted on my behalf as a substitute, I have life, forgiveness, and freedom.

I haven’t told you guys this yet, but… I’m an outlaw.

I don’t live by the law, because I can’t keep the law.  Ask my mom, she’ll tell you first hand.  I break the ten commandments every day, I sin in my sleep, and I have a tendency to yell profanities out of my car window when I drive (If you live in Miami or South Africa, you should be able to sympathize.)  I am rebellious, I want to do the exact opposite of what I’m told to do, and I like to be in control.  So, needless to say, the book of Romans doesn’t exactly sit well with my human nature because I can’t justify or fix myself. My need to punish myself for bad behavior gets nullified and tossed out the window. I’ll give you a quick taste of what I mean:

Romans 3:20 says, “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands.  The law simply shows us how sinful we are.”

But then Romans 3:27 says, “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God?  No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law.  It is based on faith.  So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.”

And finally Romans 8:1 says, “So now there is no condemnation of those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

So what does this have to do with “owning my sin and clapping my hands?”  Well, when I try to appear good, I actually cheapen God’s grace.  The greater a sinner I reveal myself to be, the more amazing God’s grace becomes.  God is glorified when I stop trying to be like God, and I start being honest about my need for God.  I mean, look at Paul.  The guy was a cold-blooded murderer, and yet, God loved him and chose him to preach the good news everywhere.  Who better to do the job of sharing God’s grace with the world than the undeserving guy who called himself the “chief of sinners!”  If anyone understood the life changing power of mercy and grace, it was Paul.

So, it’s Easter season and, to be honest, I didn’t celebrate “lent” because it would have turned into another legalistic rule following game that could have ended in one of two different ways: I screw up and feel guilty that I didn’t last 40 days with my sacrifice of choice, or I would have had an ego trip for lasting 40 days without messing up my sacrificial promise to God.  Either way, it would have had nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with me.  I am also a firm believer of purposing to give 365 days of my life to the Lord instead of just allotting Him 40 “really good ones.” (But it’s a heart issue, and I digress.)

Thinking about this season, I am reminded of one of the men who was nailed next to Jesus on the cross.  He wasn’t baptized, he didn’t receive any of the sacraments, He didn’t go to church, He never attended a bible study, He didn’t have a checklist of good deeds or accomplishments, He didn’t do a penance, He didn’t evangelize or save thousands of non-Christians…

He just believed in his heart that Jesus was Lord and he was saved. 

Just like that. On the spot. Right before he died.

The man deserved to die by crucifixion. He was a criminal and he messed up big time, but Jesus, while being wrongly accused and tortured on the cross, accepted and loved that man beside Him without any hesitation. The forgiveness wasn’t earned, but Jesus poured it out him anyways.  That’s grace.

Grace is reckless, it’s unfair, it’s unlimited, it’s unbiased, and it’s unconditional.

But most importantly… it’s free.

When I die, more than anything, I want to be known as an imperfect girl who lived according to that saving grace and shared it freely with the world.

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So I end with the wise words of Dr. Steve Brown, “If you’re a sinner and you know it, then your life should surely show it, own it, and use it for the glory of God.”