God doesn’t author “second bests”

I need to confess some wrong thinking I’ve recently uncovered in my mind. I’ve had this paradigm-shifting moment in my life this month that I think a lot of us need to hear, because I think a lot of us have good intentions but are totally operating in this slightly off-center theology.

Or, you know, maybe it’s just me. In which case enjoy this next 700 words or so of me making you feel better about yourself. 

If you’ve visited my little corner of the internet much in the last year or so, you know that we fought a pretty brutal losing fight last year. We lost our baby boy in May, and then, like you do, moved across America to plant a church. To say that it’s been a whirlwind would be an enormous understatement.

I can honestly say, for the first time in almost a year, I feel genuinely good. Like, if I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store and they asked me how I was, I could say “I’m good!” without it being that southern hospitable thing that everyone just says no matter what, when actually your whole life is up in flames. Rest assured, dear friends, that this has been a long time coming.

I have wrestled with God this year more than the previous 26 years of my life combined. I’ve brought some hard questions to Him and searched His word through some pretty dark nights in my soul until I could reconcile some really deep stuff — at the end of the day really just wanting to know the answer to two questions: “Are you still good?” and  “Am I OK?”

By the end of the year I really believe I had gone to the deepest depths with God to reconcile that the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “YES.” But more than that, I had this moment of realizing that, sure, I believed God was good. But I hadn’t necessarily believed He was the most good. That He was best and He had my best in mind all the time.

I was looking at Him through the lens of my hard year instead of the lens of eternity, and at the end of the day what was really in my heart was that He was “good enough.” Here’s what I mean:

I realized I was looking at my season as a consolation prize. I’d had good intentions when I said things like, “Although I experienced great loss this year, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to pick up ministry opportunities that I wouldn’t have if I had a family.” The problem was that the posture of my heart underneath those statements was, “This is my consolation prize” instead of “This is God’s best.”

I had to take myself back to a place of stripped down simplicity and ask, “OK, what is the character of God?”

He’s good (John 10:14). He’s loving (Psalm 145:8). He is perfect in all of His ways (Psalm 18:30) — which, by the way, means He literally can’t author second bests. He only does best. He is a good dad who gives good gifts (Luke 11:9-13). It’s His pleasure to give me the kingdom (Luke 12:32).

He does not willingly grieve or afflict His children (Lamentations 3:33). Goodness, I need that written on every wall of my house.

He does not give consolation prizes. Nor does he hand us “second best” because “He simply couldn’t salvage what sin broke before.” (Hello, He already did that. On the cross.)

Of course He didn’t choose for us to lose a baby last year. But He wasn’t surprised by it and Heaven’s purpose for our family did not get derailed by it. He still intends to fulfill every. single. promise. It just won’t look like I had hoped or thought it would. And somehow in my small, limited human mind, I had amounted something looking different to something looking less than.

Meanwhile, He’s weaving things together and handing me all sorts of open doors for opportunities to see dreams realized and promises fulfilled in ministry. He’s entrusted me with His Bride.

Here I am down and out about my own lack of children and He wants me to mother His. Mercy, Lord. Forgive me for not seeing that as the most treasured thing you have ever given me.

He’s assigned me to a race that He made me to be the gold medal carrier of, and I’ve been treating it like a participation ribbon.

“Oh, well at least I can do this ministry thing in the meantime.”

You know, like live inside of one of the most significant moves of God our city has ever seen, witness people giving their lives to Jesus & see a city and state that’s been in bondage since its very conception delivered and set free. But this has to be God’s second best.

OK, does this not sound absurd!? Ugh. Friends. We are so blinded by our circumstances sometimes. PLEASE, learn from my few laps around the track with this wrong thinking, and —

RUN. YOUR. RACE.

No one else can. Just like you can’t run anyone else’s.

Run hard and fast. Trip over a hurdle once in a while and then watch what happens when you’re still able to get up and keep running.

Heaven’s purpose for your life has not been derailed by your failures, your losses or your insecurities. Pick up your baton and RUN. This is your leg of the race to run. No one else will.

I believe in you.

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Play like a champion today

I am a competitor. If there is a winner to be declared at the end of a certain activity, you had better believe that I will be contending for it. Growing up, it might have been a little unhealthy. I was the kid that ruined family game night because I was so intense. And I’ll admit, sometimes Noland still has to call me out on my irrationally passionate competitiveness. Losing a game of ski ball is just not a good reason to be the 23 year old throwing a fit in the arcade.

The point, though, is that I love to win. But probably even more than the intensity of my love for winning is the intensity of my hate for losing. I. Hate. Losing.

As I grew up and was an athlete all the way into my college years, I had to learn the fine line between being someone who loves excellence (which is absolutely God’s heart) and being someone who operates in a spirit of performance (which is not God’s heart). And as we hear all the time that team sports teach us life lessons, I was learning this within the parameters of my soccer career, but it translated in to every part of my life.

The question I started learning to ask myself was, “Am I doing this because I genuinely want to be the best that I can be, or am I doing it because I want the approval of man?” The approval of man will always test our humility and motives, but the approval of God when we’re being the best version of who we’re created to be will always test our hunger, and our dedication to our calling as believers. It’s a good heart check to do on ourselves once in a while. Who am I living for? What am I living for? What’s the end goal here — the prize to be won, so to speak?

My dad asked me last week, as he was preparing for a sermon, what is it about our culture as the American church that belittles and takes lightly the power of being in the word of God daily? Not just on Sunday mornings when a pastor is regurgitating it to us, or just on whatever night of the week we’re in life group and people are challenging us, but every morning in the secret place with God, seeking more of Him in the book He’s left us to be our guide for life.

Is it because we think we grew up in our Sunday school culture knowing everything and we have nothing left to learn from God’s word?

Is it because we’d rather read a book that has a more “relevant” topic and uses scripture within it, so we think that’s enough?

…we went through what seemed like hundreds of questions like these as we talked that night, and Dad and I both landed on the same resolution of why we discipline ourselves and get in the word of God every morning: because we want to set ourselves up to win. Our culture has equated discipline with punishment, but the word discipline is actually defined as, “mental or physical training; the practice of training people to obey.”

So what’s happening when I read my Bible is I’m learning to obey. I’m training to obey. And I don’t know about your life, but my life experience has been that obeying whatever God is saying in that moment or season always ends up as a win.

When I think about my soccer career, the majority of my time was spent training, not competing. I can count way more times that I was preparing to win than times that I was actually winning. And that’s not because I lost a lot of games, it’s because I trained a lot of hours. And even though the hours of training vs. the hours of winning big games are exponentially greater, the feeling of winning was always worth it.

If you’ve ever won a big game or achieved some big goal you set out for, you know the feeling when it finally comes to pass. Your body hurts from playing so hard, you can barely breathe, there’s tears and there’s cheering and celebration — I mean really, some of the most glorious, victorious memories of my life happened on a soccer field. 

My walk with God should be no different. Ministry is not easy. Making disciples is not easy. That’s why we put in the time to train for obedience, to fill ourselves up, to get His word in us so that His word is what comes out of us. We do it for those glorious, victorious moments where it all comes together and we think, “this is why it’s worth it.” 

Maybe this is the race Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 9, when he says that we should run the race in such a way to get the prize. Or in Hebrews 12, when it says to run the race with perseverance, throwing off anything that hinders us and fixing our eyes on Jesus. We don’t win races if we don’t train for them.

I woke up one day this week, and I felt like God said, “Play like a champion today.”

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Photo credit: ESPN.com)

 

If you know anything about sports or at least saw Notre Dame play in the national championship football game this year, you probably know something about that phrase, or about the sign that the Fighting Irish football team hits on the way out of the locker room every Saturday. Around the national championship, ESPN did a story on the history of the sign, going back to 1986 when Lou Holtz was coaching the Irish. He had seen a sign like it and wanted to get one for his team, so he had one made and on the first Saturday that they began the tradition of hitting the sign, Holtz gave his players this speech:

“Every time you hit this sign, I want you to remember all the great people that played here before you, all the sacrifices that your teammates have made for you, all the people, your coaches, your parents, who are responsible for you being here.”

Similar to what the Notre Dame football team does every time they head out on to the field, what I should be doing every day on my way out the door into whatever battle is ahead of me, is remembering those who have gone before me. This is what we do when we read the word of God. We remember what He’s done, and it carries us through as we fix our eyes on Jesus to remember what He’s promised is still ahead. Because really the race we’re running is only a leg of a relay — and someone has passed us the baton of faith, as Christine Caine puts it, and we’re to carry it in such a way that sets our team up to win when we’re done with it. This isn’t an individual race — it’s a team sport. 

This makes my training so much bigger than me and my personal relationship with God. It’s what my personal relationship with God will do in the lives of the rest of His people as we move closer and closer to the day of His return. It’s about laying my life down for the sake of His purposes coming to fruition in the earth. 

Suddenly, discipline isn’t a punishment anymore. It’s a gift. The gift of the invitation to know him deeply and lead others into that same communion with him. We can’t do it if we don’t know him first.