Little By Little We Grow: How The Phone Stayed Home

Phone in hands

I don’t know which was the bigger miracle—my question or his answer.

Miracles Never Cease

The first title of this post was “Miracles Never Cease: How The Phone Stayed Home.”

It was an amazing, soaring short story about how a son who so loved his phone willingly agreed to leave it at home for a weekend youth retreat. The climax of the story was the part when the prone to over-control mom—after days and days of praying and pondering and asking her friends to ponder and pray— stunned herself.

How’s that? you wonder.

Believe it or not, it happened when she asked the son in a voice so open and gentle that it surprised her own ears,

So, what would you think of leaving your phone home this weekend?

That open-ended meek question was miracle #1. If you knew the Mom you’d marvel.

But then on the heels of #1 comes miracle #2.

That’d be okay.

That’s it. That’s what the son said without hesitation, protest or reservation. Two miracles right in a row. That would have been the post. It’s what I had written at 10 pm last Sunday night.

A JoyPrO about two amazing Spirit-controlled actions of a mother and son. Tied with a bow. Happily ever after. The end.

Then along came 11 pm.

How One Phone Stayed Home

When in a too-rare flurry of mother-son affection, the mother decided to sneak into the sleeping teen’s room to plant a kiss on his forehead. That was her plan.

So she stole in to where he lay—wide awake with earbuds in and spare phone in hand. And off came the bow.

Did you sneak this phone on the retreat?

Yes, he nodded. I did. But I hardly used it, he added, handing off the hot phone.

But there was more. Two words from this son the mother so hungers for,

I’m sorry.

It was late and he was caught red-handed. But this time, she believed him. Because little by little we grow. And little by little we change.

Because it’s little by little that we drive out the enemies of our soul.

Little By Little

Please stick with me. Because these couple of verses in an obscure chapter of Exodus have a lot to do with snuck phones and with how all Christians grow. With how I learn to ask not force, with how I learn to resist self-pity and give thanks, with how I train myself to get to bed before eleven. Little by little.

Here’s the background. The Israelites were fresh out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. But the Promised land was occupied—by the -ite peoples—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These were strong nations.

But not so strong that the God who’d just split the Red Sea and closed it on Pharaoh’s chariots could have destroyed them all at once.

But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you.  Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. (Exodus 23:29-31, NIV)

Little by little I will drive them out. And you will drive them out too.

I Will, You Will

In a message on Exodus 23, Kevin DeYoung explains how those three little verses describe the whole of Christian life, of Christian growth. You drive them out, I drive them out. That is how we grow.

Did you see that? In verse 30, “I will drive them out.” In verse 31, “You will drive them out.” That’s how it is with sanctification, with the process of becoming more like Jesus. We work out our salvation, for God works in us to will and act. God is doing the work. At the same time, he tells us to get to get to work (Philippians 2:12-13).

DeYoung sums up Christian growth this way: Victory comes from God, victory takes work, and victory comes little by little.

God works in you, so you work. Growth happens little by little, change comes from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Degrees. Little by little degrees. The son didn’t take his phone but he snuck another. The mom held her tongue two times, but not the third. By degree. Victory comes little by little, when we work because God is at work.

Perpetual Vigilance, Constant Dependence

Don’t despise the day of small things. I wrote about that with the same phone-sneaking son 6 years ago. Screen time and sneaking have been issues for a decade. And truth be told, overbearing and controlling have been too. And after those two miracles the night before the retreat, I was so hungry for growth. I was hungry for victory and freedom in his life— so hungry I could almost taste victory.

And sometimes God works his power in our lives in an instant. He removes a desire or heals a cancer or creates a life. All of a sudden he does it and completely he does it.

But more often, we see his work little by little. Transformation comes slowly. Today may not feel like a success, but over time we could see growth.

Little by little the Israelites would drive out their enemies. Bit by bit, rather than in an instant, would keep them from getting sluggish and overconfident. And it would keep the wild beasts from multiplying in the unpopulated land.

Thus too in our spiritual warfare, it is no doubt ordained for our highest good that our corruptions should be subdued, not all at once, but by little and little; that our old man should be crucified gradually. This keeps us in an attitude of perpetual vigilance, and reminds of our constant dependence upon God, who alone giveth us the victory. (G. Bush)

And when you think about it, what could be better this side of heaven than to fully rely on God?

Little By Little We Grow

Israel was promised a bountiful land, but we are promised an abundant life (John 10:10). Not easy life, but abundant life.

And as the LORD drove out their enemies and Israel drove out their enemies, so too we are called to fight the good fight of faith and to make every effort to grow. Knowing that while we prepare our horses and make our plans every victory comes from the Lord.

So I was going to end the first post, the happy bow post before I learned about the stolen phone, with Ephesians 3 verse 20. But then I scrapped it. Because that’s a powerful victory verse and we’d had a setback.

But as I think about it, to stay the course and drive out our enemies little by little takes massive power within us, too. And it’s at work in the son and me.

So I think I still will.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,

according to his power that is at work within us

Ephesians 3:20

4 Questions To Help Identify (Your) Idols

Polar Plunge Women in icy water

Idols? What idols? And why would you want to identify your idols? After all, asking these questions is like plunging into Lake Michigan on February 1st.

Exposure stings. It’s painful in the moment, but— my Polar Plunging niece tells me—you’re glad you did it once it’s done.

Exposing our idols at once stings and bites and cleanses and invigorates.

What is an idol?

I’ll borrow from Brad Bigney, since he wrote the idols book my girlfriends are studying with me.

An idol is anything or anyone that captures our hearts, minds, and affections more than God.

Brad Bigney, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols

In other words, when I fear or seek anyone or anything more than Jesus Christ, it’s an idol. And worshiping idols is a fool thing to do.

Because idol worship is a self-injurious, double sin. In Jeremiah 2:13, God explains how,

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Whenever we look to things other than God to meet our desires— even perfectly legitimate desires for gifts like health and happiness or security and peace— we have become idolaters. Period.

Because God is the Giver of all good gifts. When we turn a good thing—whether health or helping, our children or friends— into an ultimate thing, it’s become an idol. Paul David Tripp asks, Could it be that desire for a good thing has become a bad thing because that desire has become a ruling thing?

3 Reasons Idol Worship Matters

  1. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them (Jonah 2:8). That’s why idolatry matters. God gives special grace to the humble, to those who fear him, to those who seek his face. By idol worshipers forfeit that special grace that could be theirs.
  2. They pursued worthless idols and themselves became worthless (2 Kings 17:15b). That’s another reason your idol worship matters. Because we become what we behold. When we look on Jesus, we are transformed to his image, from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). But when we pursue drivel, our souls shrivel.
  3. When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts...I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them (Ezekiel 14:7-8). That’s the big gun. God does not share his glory with others or share his praise with idols (Isaiah 42:8). In shorts, if you set up an idol in your heart, God will set his face against you.

Clinging and pursuing and setting up idols sounds a lot like slavery. Timothy Keller has written, An idolatrous attachment can lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold on to it. It may drive you to violate all good and proper boundaries. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.

I told you. It would feel like a cold shower. So get your towel out. In we go.

4 Questions To Identify Your Idols

But first, have you noticed how it’s so much easier to spot other people’s idols than our own? I can see a friend with a security idol a mile away—the anxiety, the refusal to risk, the control. And an approval idol—I can spot that one from two miles away. But I can be a bit blind to my own.

So it follows that others might see my idols more clearly than me.

That’s where the questions come in to play. But my Thursday morning girlfriends and I are serious about rooting out our idols. We’ve taken the stinging, invigorating, cleansing plunge. You are absolutely right—this is not for the faint of heart.

Because most of us are a little too defensive. We’re a little too tightly wound to receive criticism aright. We want answers for our troubles, but we can’t handle the truth.

Are you ready? Brace yourself. Then humble yourself and invite a spouse or a close friend to speak into your life.

Ask:

  1. What do you see me running to instead of God?
  2. Where do you see a demanding spirit in me?
  3. What do you see me clinging to and craving more than God?
  4. Where do you see me wanting something so badly that I’m willing to sin to get it or sin if I think I’ll lose it?

An Idol Revealed

I was feeling strong the night I posed those four to Jim, and he didn’t hesitate. His answers were stinging and cleansing at once. But none was a shock. I’ll spare you most of the sordid detail, I will confess to you that Jim’s answer to #4 was <gulp> “writing.” Which, I’m aware, goes deeper to a root of influence and pride. I like to feel esteemed. Not always and in every way, but sometimes and most every day.

I am guilty as charged: I have sinned to get my writing in. Namely, I may ignore the family around, or I may stay up too late—it’s 10:37 pm as I type—and wake up grumpy and get myself sick, both of which are unloving to those around me. Or I may be tempted to use work time for writing, which is stealing. And if, after I’ve poured heart and soul into it, my writing goes is unread and ignored I may commit the twin sins of envy and self-pity.

2 Ways To Guard Yourselves From Idols

It’s not quite Whac-A-Mole, but my idols keep popping up.

Seeing as, “Man’s nature…is a perpetual factory of idols” (John Calvin), my first tear-down technique is to realize that the fight won’t be over till glory. Bigney calls this a “wartime mentality.” Galatians 5:17 is true: For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want to do. That is as true for me today as it was 20 years ago and will be 20 years from now.

The second idol-destroying strategy is to seek Jesus. I seek Him in his Word, and I seek him in the wisdom of the saints. As Bigney notes, “Reading the Bible keeps you honest, because you don’t just read the Bible—the Bible reads you.” It exposes us—Polar Plunge style sometimes—but the more time we spend with Him in his Word, the smaller our idols will be and easier to uproot. But, adds Tullian Tchividjian explains, If you uproot the idol, but fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.

That’s it: be on guard, and know Jesus. And follow him. Obey his Word. That will starve those idols out.

For me and my writing (and respect) idol, it meant no JoyPrO post last week. It meant delaying this post to play Euchre and watch a movie with the boys last night. And every single day, by grace, it means that I won’t open the laptop to write or head to Facebook to post if I haven’t sought God in His Word first.

Knowing Jesus Christ will keep us from idols. Or, as Elisabeth Elliot wrote, When God is first in our hearts, all other loves are in order and find their rightful place. And a cold plunge can be a rousing way to expose those other loves.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

1 John 5:21

Bonus: 10 Probing Idol Worship Quotes

1. “Thus it is that we always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

2. “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior. ” –Martin Luther

3. “Saint Augustine defined idolatry as worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped.” –Colin S. Smith

4. “If we make an idol of any creature, wealth, or pleasure, or honour – if we place our happiness in it, and promise ourselves the comfort and satisfaction in it which are to be had in God only – if we make it our joy and love, our hope and confidence, we shall find it a cistern, which we take a great deal of pains to hew out and fill, and at the best it will hold but a little water, and that dead and flat, and soon corrupting and becoming nauseous (Jer. 2:23).” -C.H. Spurgeon

5. “What are you really living for? It’s crucial to realize that you either glorify God, or you glorify something or someone else. You’re always making something look big. If you don’t glorify God when you’re involved in a conflict, you inevitably show that someone or something else rules your heart.” –Ken Sande

6. “The most dangerous mistake that our souls are capable of, is, to take the creature for God, and earth for heaven.” –Richard Baxter

7. “Our culture says ‘live your dream,’ but God calls you to place your dream on His altar and to keep it there at all times. It is good to have hopes and dreams for the future, but we have no rights. There are no certainties. Any dream can become an idol and, if it does, God will bring it down.” –Colin S. Smith

8. “When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping. When such a thing is threatened, your anger is absolute. Your anger is actually the way the idol keeps you in its service, in its chains. Therefore if you find that, despite all the efforts to forgive, your anger and bitterness cannot subside, you may need to look deeper and ask, ‘What am I defending? What is so important that I cannot live without?’ It may be that, until some inordinate desire is identified and confronted, you will not be able to master your anger.” -Timothy Keller

9. “When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around.

Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. People who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.” -N.T. Wright

10. “The bottle of the creature cracks and dries up, but the well of the Creator never fails; happy is he who dwells at the well.” -C.H. Spurgeon

2021: Better? Or More Need of Endurance?

solo oak tree in snow
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:3c

I can’t wait for 2020 to be done! 2021 has got to be better. I keep hearing that and I’m just not so sure.

But I know we have need of endurance.

Need Of Endurance

That’s how the author of the book of Hebrews put it, For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised (Hebrews 10:36).

Endurance is bearing up under pressure or strain. It’s holding the weight above your head for 30 more seconds while your arms are quivering and aching. It’s carrying the six-year old all the way back while your legs are shaking. Weight bearing strengthens your body. It also strengthens your soul. But there are no shortcuts. You must bear up.

Endurance is strength in opposition. People who endure stand firm and handle pain because they know that trials can be productive (James 1:2-4). I like to write about about strong moms and strong grace and strength to do the ordinary things. My business card says I’m a spiritual strength trainer. I love to help people stand firm and grow strong.

So it’s not surprising that in this truth-denying climate, with freedom-ceding Covid-19 and a hyper-charged political scene, I hear the call to endure louder than ever.

Because 2020 might have been birth pangs and tremors. Not recovery and aftershock, but beginnings. You have need of endurance.

Because who’s not to say that the year of our Lord 2021 may be an even wilder ride?

Oak Or Squash?

Before James Garfield was President of the United States, he was head of Hiram College. At Hiram, a father once asked Garfield if his son’s course of study could be simplified so he could get through by a shorter route.

“Certainly.” Garfield replied. “But it all depends on what you want to make of your boy. When God wants to make an oak tree, He takes a hundred years. When He wants to make a squash he requires only two months.”

The blessed are the steadfast. The ones who endure like Job and grow strong in their faith like Abraham (Romans 4:20). The ones who feel the pain and scratch with potsherds and grieve their losses as praise, but don’t charge God with wrong (Job 1:22). But they don’t take shortcuts. They cling to God’s promises (Romans 4:20). They’re strong, steady oaks.

The not-blessed are those who squish under pressure. They feel they heat and turn to mush. They don’t stand firm. They spring up. But trials— like 2020 come and under the pressure, they wilt (Mtt. 13:21).

Or, to borrow from Garfield, they seek shortcuts. They don’t stand firm and they’re squash. Squishy, mushy squash.

God Supplies What We Need

So bear up. No shortcuts. Oaks of righteousness endure. Remember righteousness comes by faith. And faith means taking God at his word. His word in Philippians 4:19 says, my God will supply all your needs. So if we have need of endurance, we can bank on the our God—the God of endurance—to supply it. He gives it to the end to all who are saved. And he gives it with such kind purpose.

James 5:11 says that the purpose of the Lord is “compassionate and merciful.” And so his oaks endure.

Because God gives endurance. And because they know He will come through.

Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand...

Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:8b, 11

5 (Fruitful) Truths For (Imperfect) Friends

Friends sitting at table
Friends Who Fit Me

Even though no zig-zagged, half-heart BFF charm has ever graced my neck, I really love my friends. I’ve been given some great ones. Lately, I’ve been thinking how much my friends fit me.

I mean how they shape, form, fit and transform me. I’m learning. 

Truth #1: No one likes jealous, clingy friends. Enjoy a bunch of (imperfect) friends.

My jealous bone came out in 6th grade when my friend Jill spent the night at Teresa’s without me. I pouted. Then Mom’s sage advice clicked: being clingy will drive friends away.

If you think of yourself as a needy, leaky love tank waiting to be filled, you’ll probably stay that way. You won’t have many friends. Mom’s advice made sense and I stopped pouting and soon Jill – and Teresa- were both my friends.

But I still try to take mom’s advice to heart. I get it about how if you love someone, set them free and if they come back they’re yours and if they don’t they never were. That.

But I’m not too proud to say I need friends. A bunch of friends. Because no one soul can bear the load of me, and no one friend can meet all my needs. Friendships flourish when we don’t expect all from one. 

Paul knew this too. He had a big bunch of imperfect friends. 

Truth #2: No one outgrows the need for (imperfect) friends. Not even saints.

For the last month, I’ve been studying the last half of the last chapter of the last epistle that Saint Paul wrote. Paul who wrote the magnificent theology of Romans 8 and set the doctrinal record straight.

But do you know what was on Paul’s mind at the end of his life? His friends. His fickle, deserting, imperfect friends.

Paul ends his second letter to Timothy with mention of no fewer than 17 friends (18 if you count Timothy and 20+ if you count “the brothers”). Verses earlier, Paul wrote those triumphant words, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. He spoke about the crown of life  that the Lord would award him. You’d think that would be the end.

But it wasn’t.

Paul eagerly- desperately?-wanted to see his friends. Do your best to come to me soon…Luke alone is with me (4:9,11). Paul was a spiritual guy. He’d already been caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). He knew what it was to set his mind on things above and not on earthly things (Col. 3:2). 

And Paul really wanted to see his friends: Jesus- soon, Timothy- now.

Truth #3: You can love Jesus and (imperfect) friends. It makes both loves sweeter. 

John Stott explains how these two desires, to be with Jesus and to be with our friends, are not incompatible.

One sometimes meets super-spiritual people who claim that they never eel lonely and have no need for friends, for the companionship of Christ satisfies all their needs. But human friendship is the loving provision of God for mankind. (John Stott, Message, 120)

In other words, if you say you’re beyond the need for human friends- maybe because you’ve been burned by friends- you’re beyond the Bible. Paul had been burned. Paul was deserted by his friends at his first defense in Rome, but said, “May it not be counted against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16) 

(Have I mentioned yet that our friends won’t be perfect? That they will fail us even as we fail them. They will hurt us and we will hurt them. Count on it. There will be the giving and taking of wounds. But that needn’t end our friendships. It’s par for the course. In fact Jesus made Peter- as in Peter denied the Lord and cried Peter- his Rock to build his church.)

Commenting on Paul’s words at the end of 2 Timothy, John Piper clinches the point:

Don’t feel you must choose between the supreme love and delight you have in Jesus and the pleasures of Christian friends… The joy of a Christ-centered friendship is meant to magnify the worth of Christ as the common treasure of the friendship and this deepens the sweetness of the friendship.

Because maybe behind our choices, it’s God who chooses our friends. And because He does use (imperfect) friends who fail us to shape us into Christ’s faithful friends.

Truth #4: God shapes us through our (imperfect) friends. Welcome the rub. 

We are the friends we keep: the faithful and the unfaithful, the timid and the bold, the new and the old. We need them all. Failing friends, failing kids, failing wives can still be our friends- our  sweet friends, John Piper says. God brings them into our lives and they all play a part in the people we become.

God works in us through the friends he gives us.

A few weeks ago a friend told me how she’d asked another friend if there were any “blind spots” in her. That question is not for the faint of heart. But, if she could do it, I could too, and an hour later I asked her the same of me. What she said is another post and I’m not recommending you do the same. But I am suggesting that you have you’re close enough to others to feel loves frets and rubs– divine sandpaper on our rough spots, if you will.

Sometimes that hurts, but it need not be painful. Being with a soft-spoken friend helps me to speak more gently. Time with a big-hearted friend makes me want to be more generous. Being with a self-controlled friend makes it easier to skip bedtime snacks. Sanding me smooth. 

But most spiritual growth is slow. Sometimes we don’t recognize the tools. We might even ask, God, how are you actually working in me?

In Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives this memorable answer. 

…[It] is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways...He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences…

Now here’s the kicker:

But above all, He works on us through each other… Men are mirrors, or ‘carriers’ of Christ to other men… That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important.

We need friends because they are one of God’s choice tools to transform us to be like Jesus.

Truth #5: (Imperfect) Friends fit us for heaven. And we are fit with them. 

As I write, we’re deep into the Advent season.  And the Advent is about preparing Him room. It’s about making space for the Savior.

But this year, as I shop and bake and wrap and read it’s dawning on me that Someone else is doing the lion’s share of preparing. For all the thoughtful stocking stuffing and gift wrapping he does, I don’t mean Jim.

All this while, Christ is preparing us, fitting us. He is rebuilding our ramshackle houses, transforming our stinky stables, and sanding our rough trim to make a fit throne room for the King.

The last line in Away in a Manger nails it: And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.

It strikes me that He might just be doing that through (imperfect) friends. 

In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:21-22