The Stumbling Block


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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on

I recently heard a talk radio personality talking about his love for the word “earn.”  It is one of his favorite words in the English language.  He didn’t go into great detail about it, but the strength of his conviction was evident by his impassioned tone.  I believe many people in America share his love for that word.  We are a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of nation.  We root for the underdog, wanting them to succeed through hard work and perseverance.  And while we value our children’s self-esteem, we are not really an “everyone gets a trophy” kind of country.  We want rewards and accomplishments to have value, to really mean something because we worked hard for them.

I share a lot of the same opinions and convictions with this radio personality but I don’t share his affinity for the word “earn.”  In fact, when he made that comment I was reminded of how much I dislike the word, “deserve.”  The words are similar.  According to Miriam Webster, the first definition for the word earn is: “to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.”  And the second definition is nearly identical to the definition for the word deserve: “to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward.”  So, although this radio personality and myself both seem to have visceral reactions to these very similar words our reactions are in opposite directions.  Why is that?

I can only speak for myself but my dislike for the word “deserve” comes from my faith.  At the very core of Christianity is the concept of grace.  It is the exact opposite of earn or deserve.  My faith teaches me that I can do nothing to be saved.  All of my good works add up to, as one prophet puts it, “filthy rags.”  (Isaiah 64:6)  I cannot earn God’s favor.  I do not deserve heaven.  But, I have both because of the grace given to me as a gift by Jesus Christ.  He is the reason God sees me as one of His children.  He is the reason I will spend eternity in heaven.  It was what He did as God’s Son that makes me worthy to receive.  So, even when I hear the word attributed to things like a vacation, retirement, or splurging on an unusual purchase, I cringe.  Nothing I have is “deserved.”  God has and continues to be gracious to me.

This concept of grace does not fit with the flag-waving, red-white-and-blue, American pride I described above.  In fact, the two are quite a contrast.  As far as sin is concerned, we do not have the ability to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and save ourselves.  We are completely unable to cleanse ourselves of our own sin thereby bridging the gap between ourselves and our perfect Creator.  If that were possible there would be no need for a Savior.

In this context, even our love for the proverbial David vs. Goliath underdog is often misplaced.  David only defeated Goliath because the Lord delivered him into his hands.  He said so himself.  “David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head.’ ”  1 Samuel 17:45-46  The “David’s” of the world are not to be the object of our worship and admiration, only God who was the true source of David’s victory.

And, as Christians, we believe that Christ died for all.  His love, His forgiveness, His mercy, His grace, is for all who believe in Him.  That means that everyone IS eligible for that trophy regardless of, and often in spite of, their performance in this world.  Unlike us however, God does not award us this “trophy” of salvation to build up our self esteem.  HE is our esteem.  He is the very reason we came into being.  We reflect Him in our uniqueness.  It is in His image that we are created… not the other way around.  It is not about us.  Our “trophy” is a renewed and repaired relationship with the One who created us and it is absolutely undeserved.

These truths of our faith go against what has been ingrained in us as Americans.  This post is not meant to be a criticism of our great American pride or our nation as a whole.  Not at all!  It is instead a reminder that we as believers cannot trip over this common stumbling block.

Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “What then will we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.  Why not? Because their pursuit was not by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written:  ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and the one who believes in Him will never be put to shame.’ ” (Romans 9:30-33, emphasis mine)  Paul is quoting from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16).

God knew that what He chose to do for us to reconcile man back to Himself, would be a stumbling block for us.  He knew our pride.  He knew it long before America existed.  He knew it long before Christianity existed.  He spoke about it through His prophet Isaiah in the 8th century B.C.  What He asks of us, is to lay aside our desire to earn our way to heaven.  It can’t be done anyway!  He’s asking us to stop working as if it’s even possible.

He is also asking us to recognize and acknowledge that our salvation comes from only one source, His Son, Jesus.  This too is a stumbling block for many.  Not only can we not earn our salvation, we must acknowledge that salvation can only come through Jesus.  Grace does not come through all religions.  All religions do not lead to salvation.  Jesus alone sacrificed His life, paying the price for our sin so that we could have eternal life.  He is the stumbling block in our politically correct world.  But this is not new.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter to them he said:  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’  Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

As believers it’s important that we stay alert and don’t trip over Jesus as so many in this world do.  Our faith requires us to lay down our pride and acknowledge that only by God’s grace through His Son are we saved.  This is utter foolishness to the world.  It always has been.  But to us who know God personally, it is the power and wisdom (and grace) of God.  We have to be willing to “look foolish” to the world.  We have to be willing to lay aside our desire to “earn” our way.  And we have to acknowledge that nothing we have done “deserves” the salvation we receive by faith in God’s Son, our Savior, Jesus.

Lord, make your church willing to look foolish to the world.  Thank you for the precious gift of your Son to save us from the sin that keeps us from your perfect presence.  Thank you for the fact that we cannot earn it.  Give us the humility to simply receive your grace.  May we be a witness to those who are stumbling over You.  May they see Your light in us.  Use us so that they may know with assurance that they too can have the free gift You are offering.  We love you, Lord.  In your Son’s most precious name, amen.


Step by Step…Stride for Stride

two runnersI was a sophomore in high school when I began running Cross Country.  Before then I hadn’t even heard of it before.  It was my biology teacher who talked me into it.  He knew exactly how to convince me too… he told me it would get me in shape for basketball season.  Done.  Sign me up up, Coach!

We had practice twice a day, before and after school.  I loved to run but I knew nothing about running long distance.  I don’t think I had ever run more than a mile at one time so the whole concept of running a 3 mile “race” was new to me.  I was used to running as fast as I could and I couldn’t do that for more than a few hundred feet.  How would I keep going for three miles? …and be racing other people in the process?  I had a lot to learn.

I will never forget one September afternoon, our Coach, had us running the Bowdoin loop right behind the school.  It was a short, 1 mile loop that included a steady uphill grade.  (It felt more steep than I’m sure it really was.)  We must have run it six times that afternoon. It was that last run up the hill that I remember most vividly.

There weren’t many girls on the team and those who were had a lot more running experience than I did.  They were stronger and faster than I was and that was always obvious especially during practice and particularly by the end of an afternoon practice.  I got used to running alone.  The boys were always so far ahead they were out of sight, and the girls… well at least I could still see them up ahead of me.  So, that last time up Bowdoin loop I was feeling it.  My strides were short but steady.  I wasn’t about to walk it, but it was a struggle to keep going, especially on my own. 

I remember hearing someone come up alongside me.  It was unexpected but I welcomed the company.  I looked over and realized it was my Coach. This man who towered over me physically had matched his stride to mine.  When my foot hit the pavement so did his.  Stride for stride we climbed that hill.  At one point he even said out loud, “Step… step… step…” each time our right feet hit the ground.  I wish I had the words to convey the strength I felt going up that hill.  He wasn’t running for me.  His presence wasn’t pressuring me to match his stride.  And he certainly wasn’t yelling at me to get me to run faster. He just came alongside, met me where I was at, and in so doing allowed me to find the strength in myself that I didn’t know I had.

There are two parallels I think we can draw from us.  First of all, we have the greatest Coach of all available to us every day in the Holy Spirit.  He dwells within us and is our Encourager and Counselor.  He is there to keep us on God’s path and guide our every step.  He is with us always.  We are never alone!  He is in us and with us in our life stride for stride.

At the same time I believe God wants us to come alongside others just as my Coach did for me that afternoon, just as God does for us everyday.  There is power in coming alongside each other!

As I write this I am convicted.  I don’t know if you’ve done this but I sure have… I’ve been the one that’s come alongside and wanted to run “for someone,” doing too much, taking over, not letting them run their own race.  I’ve also been the one that’s come alongside and said, “Keep up with me,” instead of changing my stride to meet theirs.  And, unfortunately, I’ve also been the one who has been impatient and demanding, wanting others to just move faster or “get it” quicker.  Ugh!  There is a lot to learn about coming alongside.  It seems simple but to do it right we must be led by the One who does it best.

I hope all of you have or will experience the power that comes when someone is just there with you, walking with you or running with you, stride for stride.  It is of the Lord.  It is inspiring.  It is healing and it is strengthening.  There is nothing like it! 

Lord thank you for being a God, a friend, a Coach that desires to come alongside us every day and every moment of our lives.  Help us to be like you in the lives of our friends, family members, co-workers, and loved ones.  Show us how to pace with them and give them the strength they may not even realize they have.  All our strength comes from you, Lord.  Thank you.  Teach us and show us how to be like you so that others may come to know you better.  In your name we pray, amen.

The Power of Godly Men

I would guess she was about 9 years old.  A sweet young girl… adorable… determined.  She was sitting with her Aunt it appeared – a close female relative but not her Mama.  It was a point in our church service where several people moved to their designated places throughout the sanctuary to pray with those who requested it.  I saw a young man and woman in their early 20’s move to the aisle nearest me holding their “Can we pray for you?” paper sign.  Then I saw the little girl get up from her chair.  She made her way to the aisle barely waiting for her Aunt to join her.  She headed straight for the couple – more specifically, the male half of that couple.  I’m not sure she even noticed his beautiful wife next to him who bent down slightly to greet her.  Her eyes were on the handsome young man and instantly she began to pour out her heart.  Within seconds she was in tears as she spoke to him.  He awkwardly glanced at his wife then quickly returned the gaze of this hurting young girl.  His posture went from bending down slightly, to crouching, to kneeling, and at last to taking this young girl into his arms to hold her and pray over her.  His wife and the Aunt were now both in tears, their hands on each others’ shoulders joining him in his prayer for this sweet, tender-hearted girl.

I did not know any of the four people I have described. I don’t know what was troubling the little girl or what her prayer request was.  I don’t know where her parents were or what brought her to church that day.  What I do know was this young man became Jesus for that little girl in those few brief moments.  To be honest, he became Jesus to me to as I witnessed what was happening.

What incredible power this young man had in that moment.  Not power that he possessed, power that was delivered through his body and his words.  It was clear from wauching him that he for a moment felt ill equipped.  The look shot at his wife was a priceless, “What do I do here?” look of panic.  But God used him.  God filled him with instant assurance and allowed him to respond just as He would of… by getting on her level, looking into her eyes, holding her gently in his strong arms, and speaking words of love, care, and peace over her.  It was beautiful.

Witnessing this permanently changed my view of men.  Don’t get me wrong, I have never been anti-man by any means! 🙂  But I don’t think I ever realized the unique power that men have to show the true love of Jesus to the people in this world.  Whether that be to their spouse, their children, their co-workers, their neighbors… or like this young man, a little girl he never met before, they have the power to reflect the true love of Christ like no one else can!  What a tremendous privilege, blessing and mantle to bear.

That privilege is not just for Godly men, of course, it is the responsibility of all of us.  But for my readers who happen to be male, please don’t forget what a powerful gift you have to share.  Be the example in your family and to all of us of showing the love of Jesus to all those around you.  You do make a difference – not only to those you touch, but to those who watch you touch the lives of those around you.  We need you to lead the way.  We’re watching.  Your influence is powerful.

Lord, help all of us to realize that you want to show the world your love through us.  Help us never to take that for granted.  Help us to never assume someone else will do it.  Help us never to disqualify ourselves because we feel ill equipped.  You will provide.  And it is your desire for us to be your “glove” in the world.  Thank you, God, for wanting to use us as you touch the lives of those around us.  What a blessing and a gift that mantle is!  In Jesus’ precious name, amen.




Do You Recognize the Skin that Clothes You?

I can only imagine that the Garden of Eden must have been a giant petting zoo. I just picture Adam showing Eve every animal and telling her their names. I also picture Eve wondering why on earth he named them the way he did. What an incredible time of coexistence between humans and animals. There was nothing to fear. They could bask in the sun with the lions, wrestle with the bears, cuddle with the sheep, and run with the ostriches. What an experience those two must have had!

I recently came across a short sentence from those early chapters of Genesis that could easily go unnoticed. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (3:21) This of course was after their sin. Their nakedness was the first sign that the perfect world they lived in had been compromised. Something was terribly wrong. They were ashamed to be in the presence of their Creator. The very God they walked with in the Garden they now hid from. They were separated and needed restoration. Even in their disobedience God provided for their needs. He made a way for them to be in His presence. He clothed them.

Adam and Eve received garments of skin. God killed one of His animals to “cover” the sin of man and woman. It was the first time blood was shed on account of our sin.

Imagine how it must have felt for Adam and Eve to see those garments for the first time. Surely they would have recognized the animal it came from. Surely it would have felt familiar to them, perhaps even still carried a scent that they recognized. Although we do not know what kind of animal it was, I imagine it to be a lamb. A young one perhaps. Innocent and perfect. Perhaps the very one that curled up next to them as they rested in the afternoon sunshine. Or the one that Adam carried around on his shoulders as they walked with the Lord. It had to be a devastating experience. Their one act of disobedience had changed everything for them and now…it had cost the life of one that they loved.

As we approach Good Friday I think we need to ask ourselves, “Do you recognize the skin you’re clothed in?” The truth is we are no different than Adam and Eve. We too have sinned. And our sin has caused a separation from God. But just as God provided for Adam and Eve He has provided for us too.

It was Jesus’ skin that the Father provided not only to us but to all of mankind. A garment of righteousness for us to wear. The cost of the garment was priceless… it cost Him the life of His very own Son. And through his death and resurrection, as believers in Christ, we are clothed in His perfection. When the Heavenly Father sees us, He sees the righteousness of His Son covering all of our sins. It is His skin of righteousness that makes us His children. Our relationship is restored. We are covered.

This is the time of year we get to be most cognizant of what He did for us and how great His love is. Don’t miss it. Don’t take on the skin of righteousness without first recognizing where it came from (our Heavenly Father) and from Who (His Son Jesus). And if you have never accepted that covering for your sins, it is yours! Jesus died and then came back to life defeating death so He could give it to you! Ask Him today to be your Savior and He will cover every sin that has ever separated you from God. And He will restore your relationship with His Father once and for all.

Thank you Father for loving us so much that even when we sinned against You, You made a Way to cover and restore us. That Way was the sacrifice of Your only Son Jesus. Thank you that kind of outrageous love. May I never forget it. May I daily recognize it is the skin of your precious Son who clothes me. I love you, Lord. Thank you Jesus for all you endured for me!