On Comparing, Scarcity & Working Your Little Territory

Man planting little territory

Cut comma, delete clause, better word. First impression! No typos on this one, Abigail. Big breath. Triple check.

Read it out loud. Read it again.

Breathe. Post.

Scarcity

Is it wrong to want more influence? Is it bad to try to build your tribe? And is it sinful to want more opportunity to make a bigger mark for God?

It all depends.

It depends first of all if you’re being, what Paul David Tripp calls, a glory thief. If you’re craving the credit for what only God could create, or wanting your tribe to dote on you and hang on your words rather than worship God, you are a glory thief.

But there’s this other piece I’m learning. S L O W L Y learning. I am learning that while it isn’t wrong to approach Mom’s apple from a position of scarcity—because there are a limited number of pieces— it is both irrational and wrong to approach ministry and writing this way.

Because there is plenty of ground to go around.

Comparing

On Friday, I wrote the big **Intro Post** to the Hope*Writers group I joined four months ago. Four months of build up to make the perfect first impression that could connect me to the “right people” and help launch the MORE MEEK book before long. That’s what the deleting and cutting and breathing and re-reading were all about before I hit post.

Saturday evening I looked back at the post, back at the group. I looked back like Lot’s wife and I started comparing. Not only the meager likes and tepid welcomes on my intro post with the massive likes and red hot welcomes on Amy’s intro post, but my life with her life.

There, I said it. The Green-Eyed Monster still isn’t dead in me.

You see, Amy was working for the campus organization that I almost joined 20 years ago. She is doing what I love do as her job. Plus Amy has a real book published by a real publishing house.

Silent tears kicked off a short-lived, impromptu pity party on Saturday night.

Yes, I know. Ug-ly.

Tend Your Territory

Enter Jonathan Rogers into my ugliness. The words of his post were God sent for me that Saturday night, when I started comparing my writing with hers.

Rogers describes urges his writing readers to switch from a hierarchical orientation to a territorial orientation. A hierarchical orientation is fueled by comparison. Instead of comparing and thinking better than, more than, think of faithfulness tending your land. Because comparison, we know, is the thief of joy.

Writing, like running (and, for that matter, like football) requires discipline and work and a willingness to do hard things when a thousand easier things present themselves. But the goal of all of that work and discipline is to get better, not to get better THAN. Other writers are your allies, not your adversaries…

If you’re a writer, forget about your place in the hierarchy. You don’t have a place in the hierarchy because there is no hierarchy in any meaningful sense. What you have is a territory—a little patch of ground that is yours to cultivate. Your patch of ground is your unique combination of experiences and perspective and voice and loves and longings and community. Tend that patch of ground.

The Draft and the Marathon: Hierarchies and Territories

Please be encouraged. Because we all have a patch of God-given territory. It’s ours to tend. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.

So tend your little patch of ground that is uniquely yours. Tend the girlfriends who want to spend time with you. And tend the growing sons who need you even if they don’t want you. Tend the home that needs your gentle stability. Attend to the readers and listeners God sends you.

Tend, tend, tend. Tend them.

Two Prayers: Both/And

Remember the prayer of Jabez? It’s buried in an obscure passage in a rather obscure Old Testament book. The genealogy is humming along, when after forty-four names, the name Jabez breaks in. And in 1 Chronicles 4:10 we read,

Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.

Jabez prayed for more territory—for me that might look like more people to encourage with God’s Word, more Bible studies, more readers, and maybe, getting that MORE MEEK book in print. What would enlarged territory look like for you?

Pray for it. But remember, too, the words of Psalm 131—that little prayer that King David prayed,

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

Both. Pray for an enlarged territory. Pray that your little patch of influence for Christ, please God, would increase.

And. Pray for a calm, contented soul that is not so preoccupied with too great things that it cannot give thanks in everything.

Fellowship With Christ Or (Pity) Party Alone

After a three month build up to that big first impression intro*post, which 5-6 hours of deliberation, I did the deed on Friday. Then came the sore dejection and deflation on Saturday when I compared my post, and my life, with Amy’s.

Then I got to tending. I started the Bible study prep in the Gospel of Matthew for my little Sunday afternoon territory. And as I prepared this little patch of ground that God has entrusted to me, I started to see that even though my envy is ugly, God isn’t afraid of ugly. So neither should we be. Jesus touched the unclean and made them clean. He deals in beauty made from ashes.

It was getting late and I was still straddling the fence. But my choice distilled to this: Do I stay at the party or blow the joint with the meek and humble Jesus? Do I compare or choose fellowship with the man of no reputation? I can’t do both.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth— as in Can anything good come out of Nazareth? — little backwater Nazareth. There was nothing in his appearance that would attract us to him. Not to mention that his own family thought he was crazy. Oh, sure, he didn’t feel the exact same deflation I felt at Facebook post. But in Hebrews it says, He was tempted in every way as we are but was without sin.

He knows. Which means he can sympathize with the likes of you and me.

All Glory Be To Christ

That was Saturday night. Then came Sunday morn.

God wasn’t done speaking to me about envy and legacy. He speaks through his Word. Sometimes his Word is expressed through man’s lips or song lyrics that remind us of God’s truth.

And it just so happened that on the first Sunday of the new year we sang a song that starts like this, and this pity-party throwing, would-be glory thief was all undone.

In the best of ways.

Should nothing of our efforts stand
No legacy survive
Unless the Lord does raise the house
In vain its builders strive
To you who boast tomorrow’s gain
Tell me what is your life
A mist that vanishes at dawn
All glory be to Christ

All Glory Be To Christ

Woman hoeing little patch of ground
My Mom tends her territory with a little help from the boys.

Optics Matter. So Smile.

Smiling car driver
Taking Elizabeth’s Smile & Drive Challenge

Optics matter. 

As much as it hurts a no-pretense, country girl like me to admit it, they do. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, optics means how a thing looks to an outsider. The word is often applied in the worlds of politics and business. A politician playing golf as his home state is declared a disaster or a Starbucks barista holding a Dunkin’ mug, as examples, would create bad optics.

Image, if not everything, means a lot. It can make or break a cause. And I don’t just mean on Wall Street or in Washington.

I mean for you Christian, driving along in your automobile. 

Elizabeth’s “Smile & Drive Challenge”

My friend Elizabeth has got a thing for joy. And for smiling while she drives. I’ve seen it. We’ve passed in Burlington’s streets and parking lots and it’s striking. 

Elizabeth has a gorgeous smile to begin with, then add to it that she sports it while weaving her black, 12-person van around the one-ways in our town and she stands out.

Let me tell you how the challenge came about. Our ladies’ group was discussing what more than conquerors and “not somehow, but victoriously” mean and how sometimes it’s all we can do to crack a smile. 

Which is when Lizz looked at us with a twinkle in her eye and began:

So,  I’ve been trying to smile while I drive. Even when I stop for a red light or a train.  

Then she threw down the gauntlet:

I challenge you. Smile while you drive. 

I don’t know if that sounds easy to you. But I ca. assure you, it does not feel natural. Smiling while I drive feels odd. 

So why does Elizabeth do this? 

Optics Matter

Elizabeth cares about optics. That’s why. 

Or, to be precise, Elizabeth wants to attract unbelievers to Jesus. And there’s nothing like a radiant smile to attract people. 

As much as I’d like to believe that it’s virtuous to be authentic and let it all hang out so no one can charge me with hypocrisy, it’s not. If we want to influence others for Christ, we must dress up

Because, as Steven Cole has said, Our job as believers is to give good press to our good God, not by spinning or bending the truth, but by conveying by our demeanor and words how excellent He truly is.

Or again, reflecting on Psalm 67:1, John Piper asks, How can you say to the nations, “Be glad in God!” if you are not glad in God?

Optics and gladness and good press for a good God. That’s why I took Elizabeth’s challenge. 

Smile: Make God Look Good

I love Alexander MacLaren’s description of adorning the gospel, of making God look good. Even though he wrote it 150 years ago, it sounds like he was describing optics. 

[M]en do quite rightly and legitimately, judge of systems by their followers...It is just as fair, when a creed comes before our notice which assumes to influence men’s conduct, to say: ‘Well, I should like to see it working…”

So when we Christians stand up and say, ‘We have a faith which is able to deaden men’s minds to the world; which is able to make them unselfish; that is able to lift them up above cares and sorrows; which is able to take men and transform their whole nature, and put new desires and hopes and joys into them’; it is quite fair for the world to say:

‘Have you? Does it? Does it do so with you? Can you produce your lives as working models of Christianity? 

So, dear friends, this possibility does lie before all Christians, that they may by their lives conciliate prejudices, prepare people to listen… to the message of God’s love, win over men…and make them say: ‘Well, after all, there is something in that Christianity.

The Smile & Drive Challenge is a cheap way to improve optics. Smiling while wait for in the pick-up line after practice now this is a “working model of Christianity.” 

Smile: Make Yourself Feel Good

The goal of the Smile & Drive Challenge is to make God look good. People may see you smiling as you drive and put 2 and 2 together and think, “She’s a Christian and she’s smiling. Her faith must make her happy.” Smiling Christians are more likely to draw others to Christ than grumpy Christians. 

But God is so good that he made us with creature features to promote our own health. Smiling is one of those. Mother Teresa said, We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do. 

Intentional smiling can improve not only your mood but your body’s stress response. Think of smiling as free therapy. Apart from the stress release, smiling has been found to lower blood pressure and improve immune function. Truly, a joyful heart is good medicine (Prov. 17:22). 

Joy will bring out our smiles, but smiling can also bring out joy. Even if you’re not feeling the joy, do what joy to would do. It might just be enough to ignite the spark of joy so that you feel it too. (Read this for 10 more reasons to smile.)

Good Press Or Bad Press? 

But the biggest reason to smile is because our God is good. Psalm 100 is a call to make a joyful noise and give thanks and be glad and the last verse tells why. It’s a good one to memorize if your joy well is dry:

For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I’ve asked myself and I ask you: Does your life give God good press or bad press? If you’re doubting His goodness and grumbling about your trials, it’s not good. Why would onlookers be interested in your God?

But if those around you notice your joy and glad submission to God, they just might be drawn to the Lord who whose joy is your strength; who is so good that you smile while you drive. 

That can be hard.

Smiling Through Spilled Gazpacho

God wants to keep me honest so he has me write. You see, when I started writing this post earlier this week, life was peachy. Literally peachy. My friend Jen had just brought me a box of those juicy Georgia peaches and, my, were they sweet.

But two days later a few got bruised, a son got grumpy and a row with Jim ensued. The rats in the cellar all broke loose. To top it off, en route to dinner group, the precious peach gazpacho spilled. 

My smile was AWOL until two miles west of the gazpacho spill. That’s where the Spirit called to mind the words in this half-finished post. And you know: Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. 

So quick as a ripe Georgia peach disappears, my frown turned upside down.

When Your Smile Is Worth Double

Peach  gazpacho cleans up in a jiffy, but some of you face troubles that won’t go away. But here’s the good news: your smile is worth more. 

Because your smile is a sacrifice of praise. Your praise is so precious because it comes from a faith tested by fire. Anyone can smile and sing God’s praise when he’s living like he wrote it, but lips that praise God’s name in the hard times command attention.

I recently read a story about unconverted John Wesley. A conversation with the the luggage handler at his college impressed Wesley deeply. Somehow Wesley had learned that the porter had only one coat and had not enough money for that day’s food. But the man overflowed with praise. Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon! What else do you thank Him for?”

“I thank Him, answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], p. 100.)

That poor man gave his good God good press and God used it to bring John Wesley to saving faith. Steven Cole concludes, God is good, so we who belong to Him should give Him good press by being people of exuberant joy, glad submission, and thankful praise. 

In other words, optics matter. 

Will You Take the “Smile & Drive Challenge”

If you’re still on the fence about taking Elizabeth’s challenge, consider this: God’s reputation and honor are at stake.

“If we do not rejoice — if God is not our treasure and our delight and our satisfaction, John Piper says, then he his dishonored. His glory is belittled. His reputation is tarnished. Therefore, God commands our joy both for our good and for his glory.” Optics matter.

I know that smiling and joy are not the same. But I also know- I mean from experience know- that I cannot smile without feeling honest to goodness joy in the Lord.

So, if you happen to see me driving around town and I’m not smiling, please honk. 

And smile.

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Where do the saints get their joy from? If we did not know some saints, we would say– “Oh, he, or she, has nothing to bear.” Lift the veil. The fact that the peace and the joy of God are there is proof that the burden is there too. The burden God places squeezes the grapes out and out comes the wine; most of us see the wine only..If you have the whine in you, kick it out ruthlessly. It is a positive crime to be weak in God’s strength.

-Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, “Inspired Invincibility

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

-Jesus to his disciples, in John 15:11

On Eggs, Dregs and Choosing What You Did Not Choose

Only eight words.

Eight words I grasp with my mind. Eight words I pray grace to live till I die.

These eight words: Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose.

The TL; DR on this post: expect delays, remember that comfort is overrated, and think twice when you pray for smooth.

Choose what you didn’t choose is really just another way to say what James said 2000 years ago: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you meet trials of various kinds.Which starts with learning to welcome- not to resent- life’s interruptions.

A lesson it may take a lifetime to learn.

Interruptions Are Real LIfe

The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination! —C.S. Lewis

That quote exploded my big-plan, little-margin life when I first read it years ago. Sometimes I still chafe when my plans are interrupted and I have to wait.

But He’s changing me. I know that because when the red line that suddenly popped up on my Google map had me praying just now, not grumbling, while our van crawled along for miles. And when my day-off plans were quick shortchanged by a call from the school nurse, I could count that “trial” right.

Because waiting for the green line and tending a sick son are precisely the “real” life God is sending me.

Count It All Joy

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

We will be interrupted and we will be tried. Which is why James wrote when you meet trials, not if. And that means we need to commit before they hit to count our interruptions and trials as-you guessed it- joy.

So trials are inevitable and they often come on us suddenly, like interruptions.

Which explains why James used a word  that means “meet” or “fall into.” It’s the same  word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan when a man fell among robbers, and in Acts 27 when the ship Paul was on struck a reef. The word emphasizes the surprise nature of trials.

Trials can come on suddenly. But all trials- internal and external- are tests by God intended to make us strong and mature and complete.

Lacking nothing. 

Dregs

But you know what happens when we’re not tested?

There’s a striking illustration of that in Jeremiah 48.  “Moab has been at ease since his youth,” the prophet wrote. Moab was a neighboring people to Israel. They’d lived an easy life; undisturbed and at ease.

John MacArthur closed a sermon on James 1:2-4 with an explanation of that Jeremiah text.  It has to do with wine-making. With dregs. Verse 12 says, “Neither has he been emptied from vessel to vessel, nor has he gone into exile. Therefore he retains his flavor and his aroma has not changed.” 

When wine is fermented initially it is a combination of what is sweet and what is bitter. The liquid was poured into a skin and left for a long time. Eventually, the bitter part would fall to the bottom and become what we call the dregs.

After a period of time what was on the surface was then poured into another skin and another passage of time would yield more dregs. After some time it would be poured into another skin and a few more dregs until finally it could be poured into a skin and there would be no dregs at all because all of that had been removed in that process.

What you had at the end was the pure wine.

Sweet, Pure Wine

We want to be pure wine.. We don’t want to retain a bitter flavor and musty aroma.

But without trials- trials counted joy- we’ll stay bitter and musty. Moab’s problem was that he was never poured from trial to trial to trial. Moab’s sinful, bitter dregs never went out.

That’s why maybe we don’t always pray for smooth and ease. Why, by grace, we don’t fall apart when trials and delays come our way.  Why we can sayIf God needs to pour me from vessel to vessel, and trial to trial to so the sinful dregs of my life can fall to the bottom and pure, sweet wine of righteousness remains, then bring on the trials.

And, somehow, to count them all joy. Which means we learn to choose what we didn’t choose.

Choose What You Didn’t Choose

Choose to see the interruptions as sent by God for our good. See the sickness that keeps us home and flat tires that slow us down, infertility that blocks a dream and relationships that break our hearts as for our good. That we might be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Christian joy is grounded in our union with Jesus, and that union, not our plans coming to pass is the fountain for our joy, which sounds and is supernatural. Murray M’Cheyne’s words, “It is always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.”

But that sure grates against our 21st century plan-oriented sensibility, doesn’t it?

Despite the autonomy and self-determination we have, much of life consists of things we didn’t choose. And as one friend just reflected- most of her life’s greatest joys were unplanned. Is that true for you?

Control is an illusion anyway, but we can choose joy.

Eggs

Because saint’s trials are purposeful. They come to test our faith. The boot box says waterproof, but we don’t know till we hike in the rain. We say we trust God, but we don’t know till trials come our way. Alistair Begg makes it plain, Faith is a muscle. Test it and it grows. Leave it alone and it atrophies. 

The pressure builds endurance. Kind of like boiling eggs. But if we pull the egg out before the pressure’s done, the good won’t come. If you don’t leave the egg in hot water long enough, it’ll be a useless mess.

Let perseverance finish its work, James 1:4 says. Get ‘er done, mama says. Finish the work. Don’t pull out of the pot before the pressure’s done.

South African pastor Andrew Murray shares four truths that helped him to joyfully endure trials:

  1. I am here (in this trial) by God’s appointment. It’s not haphazard.
  2. I am in his keeping. He will hold me fast.
  3. In appointing my trials and keeping me, I am in his training program.
  4. I am in his training program as long as he wants me there.

Choose what you didn’t choose. Count it all joy.  If we’re going to be spiritual adults we can’t be dodging his purposes.

Let the egg boil already.

Choose Joy

Alistair Begg says, trials responded to properly are always fruitful. That’s Begg’s code, I think, for Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose. 

We accept that life is change and until the day day we die there will choices made for us that we did not choose. And we can resent the choices we didn’t make for ourselves or we can choose joy.

This is the day that the Lord has made. Don’t waste it. Choose what you didn’t choose. Choose joy. Because Someone who knows the beginning and the end sees it all and steers it all and loves you more than you can fully know, let those trials meet you.

They were traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love.

If You Knew Everything You Knew

Tim Keller said it this way, God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows. 

The fullness of the Christian life is available where you are now. You don’t need a dreamy husband or cuddly kids. You can be full and complete without a great church that sings the songs you like and work and ministry you crave. I can be full and complete without a bigger blog or a published book.

Which is not to say, don’t change your circumstances if you can (see 1 Corinthians 7:20-31). But it is to say, don’t buy the lie you can’t be full and complete until you do.  In Christ, you can (see Colossians 2:9-12).

Fullness and joy comes from being with Christ. In your presence is fullness of joy, David knew.

So choose His presence. Joy will come.

The Lord sees further than I do; I only see things at present but the Lord sees a great while from now. 

And how do I know but that had it not been for this affliction, I should have been undone.  

Jeremiah Burroughs

Props to Skye Jethani for the phrase: Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose. (Listen to the full interview with Skye, here.)