10 Seconds On Joy

Just straight Scripture, here.  

Jesus, to His disciples the night before He was led to the slaughter to save His people: 

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 

John 16:21-22

No one will take your joy from you.  

Amen and amen.  

60 Seconds On Joy

So here’s the thing about deep, abiding happiness, or “joy.”  It is ultimately going to be determined by the ability of whatever you’re living for to deliver on its promises.  

If the thing you look most forward to is retirement, your joy has a good chance of being severely constricted.  It’ll only last as long as the good, healthy part of your work-free golden years does.  It’s dependent on them.  

If it hangs on you achieving your career goals, it’ll be as fragile as your ability to be perfect.  

Even if you live for a capstone beauty like family or community service, you’ll be asking other imperfect humans to bear the sum weight of your total gladness.  

They can’t.  

The only One who can fulfill the human thirst for true joy is the One who authored that thirst.  Jesus Christ is the only entity in existence who promises only what He can deliver, and can deliver every good thing.  

No person or career or fantasy vacation can deliver unshakeable happiness.  They weren’t made to.  They aren’t the foundation the human soul was designed to rest on.  

The human heart was made to crave happiness like human tissues were made to crave water.  We’ll always seek it.  So trust in Jesus.  

Better to drink from a well than a mirage.  

Poisonous Root


I have known people who have chronic physical pain, at least one with intense back and hip problems, who still smile and generally speak to neighbors and family with warmth. I know at least two people who have vicious relatives they have to interact with weekly and yet who still treat the offending family member with grace and relative cheer. They help to support and care for people who insult them and condescend them and gossip about them, and they, by and large, still live out their lives and help these family members with a measure of joy and optimism. I know a person who has been through almost constant financial hardships for at least the last fifteen years, and who still talks to strangers at the grocery store and his family at holiday meals about how his life is good and how he’s grateful to the Lord for getting him through some (often very long) difficult times. I knew happy kids at a Christian orphanage in Haiti, a place where no one had jobs or plumbing, and where none of the kids had parents or what we would think of as a home.  

I know other people who start to remove joy from a room after a few sentences of conversation. Who view life as unfair (chiefly as it relates to them), and view themselves as having been subjected to a particularly, uniquely tragic existence.  People who are offended very easily and who forgive with great difficulty.  They overlook almost no wrong that is done to them, but their eyes somehow miss their own poisonous tongues and violent, heart-held grudges.  

What’s the difference between these two groups of people?  Why does the first set remain pleasant and hopeful through pain and the other become bitter or despairing?

Generally speaking, the answer doesn’t lie in the circumstances around them, but the kind of heart and attitude within them.   

Now, I am often in that second group.  I’m repenting of it and seeking Jesus’ grace for change in it, but I still often am.  But I’m blessed in that two of the people closest to me are in the first group, and as I’ve watched them go through every bit the pain I have (and if I’m honest, more), I’ve been forced to acknowledge that the roots of my bitterness and anger are my own sinful motivations and idolatries and sense of entitlement. 

The good part is that healing and forgiveness and change can happen when turning from my sin and believing in Jesus’ grace for me have occurred.  Repentance and faith can lead to the Holy Spirit’s changing the darkest, angriest parts of my heart.  

If you think you might be in that second group, I’ll exhort you with the same words I need to hear:  Resist the temptation to blame your circumstances for your sin.  Their may be legitimately difficult circumstances around you, you may truly be being harmed by others, but the heart is where sin comes from.  

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 

1 John 1:9-10

There is no forgiveness without repentance, and almost as tragic is that there is no change, either.  To continue to lay the blame for your anger, grudge holding, or gossip on the doorstep of your circumstances is chain yourself to that way of life indefinitely.  

Bitterness, like all sin, kills.  Kills relationships, kills the heart, and can even kill the body.  And of course, in the end, after eating your earthly life from the inside out, kills your soul by sending you to Hell.

But praise be to God that Jesus gives life.  Full-throated, self-spending, unimaginable life.  

By grace through faith in Him alone, Jesus can work back the poison of the bitter person’s heart.  Purer blood has never been bled, and it’s offered free of charge to every sinner who asks in faith.  

Trade death for life.  

It hurts, having that poison spilled from your veins, but a lot less than dying.  

Plus the good part lasts forever.  

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.

Hebrews 12:15

That Time My Joy Was Flimsy


I was sitting
across from a supervisor as he told me about my job performance.   I was hyped for this meeting, because I was pretty sure I was going to get the praise I had worked really hard for.  This was a job I had really given my all to.  I desperately wanted to succeed at this place.  I mean it was part of my identity.   For a long time I had poured a lot of my best efforts into this gig, and I honestly thought I stood out from the crowd.   I thought that people talked about how different I was from the others who had the same role as me, that I was a shining example of competence and diligence.  

He told me that I was performing a little below average.  

And that others had complained about me. 

And that things needed to change for me to keep the job. 

Man, believe me when I tell you I was crestfallen.  

I’m often reaping the results of putting too much of my heart’s hope in things that just can’t bear its weight.  And what I’m learning from experience and what I know from the Bible is this:  The more you invest your heart in things that can’t be spoiled, the sturdier your joy will be.

I’ve been bummed about having to re-think my calling or my place in the world, before.  And I’ve been depressed after sports heartbreaks (fresh wound:  the Bengals had a gutwrenching playoff loss to the Steelers Saturday night).  And I remember being pretty despondent after at least one election.  I’ve wrestled my whole adult life with the temptation to find my meaning and joy and hope in something other than Jesus Christ.  There isn’t a day that goes by, I don’t think, when I don’t at least momentarily love something or someone more than God.  

And it always ends badly.  It leaves my hope and my gladness in the hands of something temporary, something that can be taken from me.  Finding my biggest happiness in anything but Jesus is always a recipe for temporary happiness. 

Sometimes I obsess over the opinion my peers (or friends or enemies or relatives) have of me.  Sometimes I might worry and fret about a financial problem.  There are days I may just look forward to TV or food far more than I do prayer or time in God’s Word.  Whatever the thing is, I’m telling you this is a constant, hourly struggle.  

But I can’t give up the fight to find my joy and hope in God.  I have to keep at this.  Because if I don’t, if I surrender to the pull of this world and start putting my hope in created things rather than the Creator, I’ll be the worst kind of vulnerable.  I’ll be at the mercy of idols.  And idols make terrible gods.  Just ask the Old Testament Israelites.  

If my day-to-day joy is in Jesus Christ, then it can’t be decimated by housing crises, sports scores, job screwups, or overdraft fees.  If my deepest happiness is coming from the presence of the Lord God, it won’t have drastic fluctuations that are based on my circumstances.  It won’t be like the stock market, up and then down and then up again, virtually unpredictable.  It’ll be a strong, dependable thing, like the sunrise.  New every morning.  

Constant, sustainable joy can only come from an eternally good source.  If I want to have that, the kind of spiritual gladness that can get me through poverty or persecution or a child dying or a cancer diagnosis, it has to come from enjoyment in Jesus.  

This is a war I’ve had to wage daily for as long as I can remember.  And I’ve lost a lot of the battles.  But eternal joy is a weighty thing, so I’ve counted the cost.  And I’ve decided I’ll keep fighting to savor the only One who offers it.  

Some Help for Feeling Like a Failure

Here’s how I’m going to try to help:  By clarifying.  Nothing can be done when you have a merely vague, depressing sense of not measuring up, just a shapeless fog of hopeless inadequacy or shame or self-loathing.  

So, permit me to put “failure” into four categories:

  1. Actual Moral Failure.  This is the simplest type, in my opinion, to define.  This sort of failure is the failure to do what is good and/or to actively do that which is evil.  It is, simply put, sin against God and/or others.
  2. Imagined Moral Failure.  This would be something you feel shame or guilt over, but which has not actually been revealed by God as sin in His Word.
  3. Actual “Earthly” Failure.  Here I mean a failure that is not directly sinful; it is a mistake or a shortcoming, but not an ethical violation against man or God.  This would simply be having truly failed at a task/endeavor at which you were trying to succeed.
  4. Imagined “Earthly” Failure.  This is (a) thinking you blew it, failed, or were inadequate concenring some task when in reality you were not the root cause of the breakdown, or (b) fretting about about something that is not truly a failure at all (like distressing about your looks or your lack of charisma).  These are mistakenly labeled failures, and they may be (wrongly) thought to be failures due to pride, misplaced priorities, insecurity, vanity, fear of man, or some other problem in the heart of the person mischaracterizing them as failures.  

Let me give an example of each:

Actual Moral Failure:  Gossiping about a co-worker.  

Imagined Moral Failure:  Having a normal, healthy sexual desire for your spouse, but believing it is strange or sinful..

Actual “Earthly” Failure:  Having lost track of an assignment at work due to not prioritizing your time well.

Imagined “Earthly” Failure:  Despairing about a relative not liking you when the reason is something truly outside of your control.  

Now, I believe that the only one of these four types of failure we should feel healthy guilt (or conviction), over is the first category. 1 John 1:9 tells us to confess our sins to God, and that He can cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  We are not told to confess our inability to close a sale or our weight.  A little remorse or regret for a legitimate screwup at a vocation or for having forgotten something due to carelessness is one thing, but shame is for sin, and shame and sin are what Jesus resolves for all who trust in Him at the Cross.  

That is the consistent testimony of Scripture: We are, in our own selves, wicked and morally rebellious, morally damaged, and spiritually impotent creatures. And that, our actual moral failure, is what Jesus eternally rectifies in His perfect life, sacrificial death, and powerful resurrection. He has overcome the evil of everyone who believes in Him so that they can have peace with God.  

But while that first category is what we should be convicted about and seek forgiveness for (and is the type of failure that should generally attract most of our attention), what I find in myself is that I’m often drowning in shame or anxiety over things that fall into the latter three categories. To my own detriment, I might waste time and spiritual attention being:

  • Ashamed of things I’d heard or imagined were sinful (or less-than-holy), but which God never calls wicked (to which Paul would tell me, “for everything created by God is good, and and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the Word of God and prayer”). 
  • Despairing over not being as qualified or as talented as someone else I know. 
  • Allowing myself to become depressed or angry that I couldn’t provide something for my family which I’m not even called to provide (such as a perfect, magazine-spread house).
  • Hating myself for a dream not coming true that God never intended to come true.  

So instead of repenting over (turning from) real sins, I’m often dwelling on things that aren’t sins at all.  

Instead of resting in the forgiveness of my sins and letting the joyful, hopeful energy from that help me kill the remaining sin in my life, I can spend hours in anxiety over career missteps or things I don’t like about my personality or being angry that I’m not as captivating as another pastor. 

All right, a few words before exiting the stage:

Obviously these categories can overlap.  And I don’t mean to give an exhaustive description or explanation of failure and shame, here.  But this has helped me a bit as I’ve thought about failure from the inside of shame, guilt, and fear, recently.  

I’ll come back to these categories of failure in the coming weeks and expand on them, but I’ll leave this now by saying:  I hope God’s grace in Christ nourishes all His redeemed failures.  

Where Do We Go From Here?


The following is my final e-mail to CrossBridge Church:

It’s generally a good thing to get a taste of your own medicine. If it’s real medicine, anyway.  

Sunday, in between cups of coffee and bouts with my flesh, I offered the goodness of Jesus Christ as the purpose for living, as the thing that should drive us and motivate us and satisfy us and cause us to give thanks. Fast forward 24 hours and I’m struggling to believe that very thing in the deep parts; not in the part of your heart where you know something is true, but in the part where you know that it’s enough.  

God is sovereign, and He had me write this last of our weekly CrossBridge e-mails to you on a bad day for a reason. I’m going to take a shot at it: I think it was so that you would know I’m serious. Jesus is enough for busted, self-loathing, wrestling-with-his-anger me. And He is enough for despairing, can’t-seem-to-beat-his-lust you, or fearful, not-sure-about-her-kids you, or hardened, bitter, critical-and-can’t-change-it you.  

A Jesus as good and as real as the One in the Bible, as the One who’s standing at the right hand of the Almighty Father interceding for the people He treasures, is enough for you and for me. He just is.  

If this e-mail finds you unbelieving, or unsure of whether you’ve ever believed, I’m inviting you to the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth. Come. Your knees and pride get broken, but the rest of you gets fixed. If you’ve heard of Him all your life, including in this last year of e-mails, but haven’t truly trusted in Him yet, I beg of you: Come to Jesus with empty hands and inherit everything worth having. Call out His Name right now and ask Him to rescue you. Ask knowing that He’s good for His word, because this is a God who keeps all of His promises, and who delivers on every hope He offers.  

To all of us who are of the common faith and saying goodbye to CrossBridge on Sunday, I offer you the warmest comforts of our Savior’s very Good News: He came, and He is coming. 

Where do we go from here?  

Heaven, man. The other side of the river. And even if we arrive separately, we’ll get there together. Remember what I said about the promises. 

Busted, believing, and always yours,


How Idols Make You Waste Your Life

Something happened the other day, and all I could think about was how it affected me.
I stewed. I simmered. I was like a crock pot filled with sin and anger and replayed grievances. Wouldn’t want to open that lid, trust me; what I was cooking in there was not at all appetizing.

A set of circumstances played out in front of me, and without praising God for giving me another day of breath, without thinking deeply about what the other people around me might need or how I could serve them, without realizing how my own wickedness was the very moisture creating this thick, black cloud in my heart and mind, I thought. And thought. And thought.  

I revisited every way that I had been wronged. I kept chewing on the things that I needed that I wasn’t getting. All I wanted was _____________, I thought. That’s it! Come on, I’m not asking for much! Minute after minute after minute of self-centered, self-focused ingratitude.  

Can I tell you something from experience? The more you dwell on yourself, the less happy you’ll be. I’ll concede that it may not apply universally, but my yesterday and my Bible tell me it’s true in the way that proverbs are: Most of the time for most people.  

At any one moment in this 24 (or so) hour period, I could have stopped obsessing over what had happened to me and picked up my Bible and asked God to amaze me with who He is as I read about Him. Did you know God loves to startle His children with His own beauty? He will joyfully, tenderly give His overpowering Holy Spirit to those who ask in faith. The God of Jesus Christ loves to give good gifts to His kids, and the greatest gift in the universe is Himself. I could have taken a deep breath, laughed off how seriously I was taking myself, and said, “All right, God, I’m sorry. I apologize for thinking so, so much about myself and so little about you. Can you help me change that? I’m going to pick up your Word in faith, Father.” I could have.  

But I didn’t.  

So minute after minute became hour after hour. I went to bed angry and bitter and feeling wronged. That, of course, led to waking up with thick, palpable shame hanging over me as I threw the blankets off. That shame ended up bringing me to repentance, thankfully, later in the morning. But I had wasted hours of my life obsessing over myself and my grievances. I hadn’t praised my beautiful, all-satisfying Abba. I hadn’t been a joyful and forgiving husband, father, and friend (much) because I hadn’t meditated on my God and His Gospel. I had wasted a day on morbid, compulsive self-focus that could’ve been spent enjoying Jesus and caring for others. 

I hadn’t been joyful because I hadn’t meditated on the only thing that gives real joy: The sweet, awesome, breathtaking glory of Jesus Christ.   

The emotions of my mind and heart reveal what I’m worshiping. If I get bitter, angry, or despairing, I’m almost certainly worshiping an idol. Those are the emotions of a heart clutching and clawing for something that can be taken from it, a created thing rather than the Creator. I get bitter because I didn’t get the free time I worshiped. I get angry because I didn’t get the attention I idolized. I despair because I don’t see any way I’ll get my hands on the romantic affection or pay raise or recognition I’ve set all my hopes on. Negative emotions spring from worshiping idols because idols can decay and be stolen.  

But if I’m exuding peace, joy, faith, and above all love, I’m worshiping and finding my identity in the unchanging love of my Savior. Worshiping God never produces sinful emotions or sinful actions; worshiping idols always does. 

Now, if someone had told me all this while I was in the midst of my simmering yesterday, I would’ve either lashed out or I would’ve hated their guts quietly, internally. That’s what my idol-clutching, self-obsessed flesh would have reacted with. But once God’s grace softened my hands, once my fingers dropped from the idol that following morning, I’d been humbled to the point where I could (at least somewhat) honestly say, “Yeah, I need to love God more and my ____________ less. If I was satisfied by Him and in love with Him as much as He deserves, I wouldn’t be stewing, here.”

So, if this is you, don’t lose a day of your life like I did. There’s no guarantee this day won’t be your last. Don’t waste any more time stewing, thinking about the ways that things you’re worshiping were taken from you, or not given to you the way you wanted, or have never been given to you at all. Let the idols drop from your hands. Lift your eyes up from looking inside yourself. Stop simmering on all the ways you have been wronged. Instead of all that, ask God to amaze you with His glory, which will outshine all your favorite idols and can never be taken from you.  

It’s early in the day. Look to the Lord in faith. Make this one count.  

It’s a freeing and joyful thing to drop an idol and look to Jesus for meaning and identity, instead. The thing’ll tell you need it, but just put your fingers in your ears and let it fall to the floor.  

Idols always lie.