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Category: Obedience

Actions, not words – keeping the ego in check

God has this incredible but often annoying tendency to set me right when I get a little full of myself.

My ability to puff up my own ego is usually done subconsciously. In fact, I don’t wake up every morning thinking, “how can build up my ego today?”

I don’t go about seeking ways to do so.

Ego-building is done more passively.

It comes to me, either via a compliment, or positive statement, or an acknowledgement of an achievement.

Now there is nothing wrong with a compliment or even a good review of my book. In many ways, we all need those. However, when I don’t deflect those praises up to God, then I kind of tuck those warm-fuzzies away into a giant Hefty bag in the back of my head.

Eventually, that bag gets bigger and bigger, stretches more and more, until every molecule of that bag has reached critical mass.

That’s when God steps in and, with a tiny divine pin, pops that bag until it flits about my head making a deflating raspberry sound like air rushing from a balloon.

All that remains is the carcass of that garbage bag settling onto the floor.

Peter has always been one of the disciples with whom I most identify.

And not for the right reason.

Peter screwed up more openly—and dramatically—than the other disciples. Other than his open three-time betrayal of Jesus the night of the latter’s trial, Peter’s ego tended to fill up before the others. Impressing others with his spiritual acumen by saying the right thing at the right time would surely result in oooh’s and aaah’s from others around him.

Whenever I think of Peter, I think of his pattern in the Bible trying to show the others how spiritual he is only to have his ego popped by God’s divine pin of humility.

One infamous example, in Matthew 14, shows the disciples in a boat on the sea of Galilee during a particularly fierce storm (Matthew 14:25-32).

This situation is cause for alarm. Their boat is not one that typically is fitted for rough seas. It is not like a naval vessel or cruise ship which could generally survive a hurricane. No, you have to think of this in terms a large rowboat.

It is completely at the mercy of the waves.

If that wasn’t frightening enough, they were even more creeped out by the sight a figure coming toward them.  It wasn’t another boat, which would make sense, but that of a man walking toward them.

Strolling along.

On the open sea.

As if he was on his way home from work.

If there was any clearer sign that they already sank and have crossed over to the other side, this would have been it.

Then they remembered that lived with the holy I AM, a God who is not bound by the universe’s laws of physics and hydrology.

After first thinking they were seeing ghost—hence the thought they might have crossed over—Jesus’s calling out to “take courage” quickly brings home the point that they are still firmly planted on earth.

Kudos for the disciples picking up on that as quickly as they did.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Perhaps wanting to show the others how spiritual he is, Peter shouts an impressive request: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water” (14:28).

Peter must have felt pretty good about himself. In front of the others, he put his faith on display before the others. Surely that would be enough. Surely that would be all that was required. Surely Jesus would be thrilled at my—

“Come” (14:29).


That response was not recorded in Scripture. I am guessing that was what Peter was thinking.

That is most certainly what I would think.

Words are easy when you are puffing yourself up. Anyone can say powerful things.

To impress others.

To impress yourself.

God, on the other hand, wants something else.

In John 1, the author introduces Jesus as God, the eternal Word (Logos). If there was a context where words matter, this would be it.

Even for God, however, being the Word is not enough. The Word took action, stepped from the throne, and became a human. Further, as a human, the Word lived, suffered, and experienced the one thing the eternal Word never could: death.

A brutal, horrible death.

The eternal Word became the ultimate sacrifice, reversing the curse of sin once and for all.

The Word took action.

Now, back to Peter.

Peter’s mortal words—“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water”—might sound admirable, but they require action.

Peter had to put his money where his mouth is.

Peter had to get out of the boat.

To his credit, Peter did.

Then he looked at the waves and sunk.

It only took a brief second for him to realize he can’t do it without Jesus.

For the Christ-follower, discipleship require actions more than words.

And actions require complete dependence upon him.

I get into that spiral where I am comfortable speaking words as opposed to actively living for Christ.

Words are enough.

Then God steps in to redirect me from myself to him.

Another Dan-ectomy.[i] I must have my ego ripped from God’s work. It is a spiritual surgery done by Dr. God, who doesn’t give me the option.

It’s not about me.

At all.

I receive constant reminders that I am not that great after all. Every time I speak words, I am reminded that I am not as great as I think I am. My mistakes become highlighted. For every victory of moment of praise that points at me, I get at least two reminders that people can get along just fine without me: an unfounded—or more frequently, founded—criticism, yet another example showing my that I am what could be considered a Jack-of-NO-traits, a copy of my book seen in a pile at a yard sale.

Whatever I do puffs me up.

Whatever God does through me shows it is all about him.

And for God to work through me requires that I take action.

I have to get out of the boat.

But like Peter, who cannot walk on water without Jesus, I can’t do anything without him either.

And when—not if— I sink, my only words should be “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30).

God can take it from there.

[i] This term is not my own. It actually was coined by Jeff Glover, a dear friend in my home community back in Portland several years ago. But it applies to me too.

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Dear Lord, help me not to be a jerk today!

This week, while preparing to teach in a new state, at a new school, for a new school year, I taped a poignant prayer to my computer monitor.

It wasn’t the masterful, insightful words of a Francis of Assisi, or Teresa of Avila, or even an average pastor on an average Sunday morning. It did not ask God to glorify himself through me, or to make me a better man, better teacher, or better Christian.

It was far more basic and less spiritual:

“Dear Lord, help me not to be a jerk today.”

That’s all. I wish it were something more profound, but the truth is – sometimes I can be a jerk.

There are a number of reasons my jerk nature erupts. Sometimes it’s because I just disagree with someone about something. Or I’m ticked off about the way something went. Or – here’s a big one – some authority over me (say, my employer, or my local government) implements a policy that I hate.

Most often, I become a jerk when I feel I am not in control. This is pretty scary, because when am I actually in control of anything? So opportunities always abound for me to be a jerk. I can think of too many relationship moments I have blown because – instead of being the approachable, trustworthy person I want to be – I was a jerk.

And I am a good one. I suspect “being a jerk” is one of my spiritual gifts, and I am sure it is in the Bible somewhere. I can be an aggressive jerk that picks fights over the silliest, most trivial things, or a critical jerk that tells everyone they’re off the mark. If my arguments are proven wrong, I am put to shame – but even if I am proven right and “vindicated,” what good is that if I’m a jerk about it?

I can also be a passive-aggressive jerk – being nice to people’s faces, but bashing them behind their backs. I can be gossipy, sarcastic, or just plain mean. It feels good, but it does not enhance my spiritual growth or build trust with others.

So I taped this prayer where I can see it every day.

When I pray, “Lord, help me not to be a jerk today,” I am thinking only of myself. Narcissistically speaking, this prayer is all about me, and me alone.
Sure, it always feels better to point out how others are being jerks and how they should stop. Sadly, I absolutely love doing that! But the whole splinter-vs.-plank-in-the-eye thing that Jesus taught kind of sucks the fun out of it. In fact, my desire to call out others for being jerks probably says more about my own jerk status than it does theirs.

So I can only discuss me being a jerk.

I don’t want to be a jerk. But the truth is, sometimes I can’t help myself. Giving in to my jerk nature is too easy, and at times I don’t even know I have given in until it is too late. I immediately regret it, but often the damage has been done.

Unfortunately, my jerk nature is yet another embarrassing symptom of my sin nature. It is a part of my brokenness. And no matter how I try, I cannot just wake up one day and get rid of it by will-power.

Instead, I must lay my jerk nature at the cross. I must give it to the one who has conquered all sin. Every day.

So this little prayer begins with “Lord,” establishing who I serve: my Savior, not my sin nature. It is Jesus who brings peace amidst the turmoil that triggers my jerk nature.

The prayer continues with “help me,” reminding me that I cannot stop being a jerk simply by my own effort. I need the power of the cross to overcome this sin. I must give my jerk nature to Jesus. To this day, I am amazed at his unconditional acceptance of me. There is no sin so big that the cross cannot cover it – and conquer it.

Then the prayer asks that I not be a jerk. This is the heart of it – what I want the most.

Finally, the prayer ends with “today” – a reminder that I need Christ’s power now, today, every day. Without the word “today,” I could be overwhelmed by all the days ahead of me, and also waiting a long time for help. I need victory today, not tomorrow.
And when tomorrow does come, my prayer will be the same:

“Dear Lord, help me not to be a jerk today.”

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Is Daniel an exception to the “loser” rule?

It was a great question from someone on Facebook.

In my book, Losers Like Us, I illustrated how – excluding Jesus – everyone in the Bible had faults and sins just like ours, and therefore they were all losers like us.

Then came that Facebook question: What about Daniel? Was he an exception?

I had to think about that one.

Daniel_in_the_lions_den_by_Wincent_Leopold_SlendzinskiThe book of Daniel is set during Israel’s captivity in Babylon (in the 500s BC)—yet it mentions elements of Greek culture which did not exist at that time, and it is written partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic (a later language). For these and other reasons, many scholars believe that someone else wrote Daniel’s story long after his death, just as Moses wrote the patriarchs’ stories long after their deaths. Also, some scholars believe Daniel was not a real person and the book of Daniel is just an allegory which was written to encourage the Jews, perhaps during the oppressive reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV (about 165 BC).

I can’t say exactly when or by whom the book was written, but I do believe Daniel was a real person because Jesus calls him “the prophet Daniel” (Matthew 24:15).

From the beginning, Scripture presents Daniel as a man of great character, and never accuses him of a single flaw. As a captive in Babylon, he walks a fine line: with great humility he submits to his captors, yet with great courage he refuses to obey their pagan demands. When Darius, the Babylonian king, decrees that those who pray to anyone other than him will be fed to the lions (Daniel 6:7-9), Daniel continues praying to Yahweh every day, in front of his window, just as he always has (a respectful “neener neener”). His trust in God is complete. And when he is thrown to the lions, God shuts their mouths (Daniel 6:22) to save his life.

With a bio like that, it’s hard to find fault with Daniel. So the question about whether he still qualifies as a loser gave me pause.

Yet I conclude that, yes, Daniel was a loser. I say this not because I feel superior to, or critical of, Daniel – but because he was human, and therefore a loser in the sense of being a sinner. Thus he is not an exception to the rule.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog (2015/06/17), “Can we be sinners but not losers?”, only Jesus lived a sinless life; all the rest of us, including Daniel, have been sinners and therefore losers. And as long as we live on this earth, sin is with us even though we have received grace and salvation (I John 1:5-10).

But there is another, more personal indication that Daniel was a sinner / loser: his response to the presence of holiness.

In Daniel 10, a man appears before Daniel. But this is no ordinary man. This man is ablaze with fire, shining like polished brass or bronze (v. 5)—just like the man seen by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:27) and John (Revelation 1:13-17). John identifies this man as the risen Christ (Revelation 1:11, 13, 17).

Yet Daniel, Ezekiel, and John all respond to this man in the same way: they fall to the ground (Dan. 10:9, Ezekiel 1:28, Rev. 1:17).


Because unholiness cannot coexist with holiness – just as darkness cannot coexist with light. In the presence of God’s perfect holiness, I believe Daniel falls to the ground because of his own sins and impurities, even though they are not specified by name.

Yet Daniel lived a life full of faith and power, whether he was defying a maniacal king or facing down a den of hungry lions. He was both a sinner and a saint—at the same time.

All of us, including Daniel, are sinners and therefore losers. Only when we acknowledge our guilt and brokenness can we begin to understand the healing power and significance of grace.

As the life of Daniel shows us, following Jesus is not about totally conquering all imperfection, all of the time; instead, it is about surrendering our imperfection to God, while he builds his kingdom in the middle of it.


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Imago dei … even when I don’t want to

Jesus said the first and most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – and coming in at second is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

The first one is pretty easy—at least, it is pretty easy to make an appearance of loving God. Whether it is real or not, only God knows.

The second commandment, however, is a little harder to fake. Merely saying I love my neighbor doesn’t mean much; I have to live it out. Jesus didn’t just say “I love you” to humanity; he put himself on a cross to show it.


Last weekend, my dodge of this second commandment was painfully exposed. My church participates in “Love Portland” – a Saturday in August when we prepare local schools for the students’ return. The work involves mostly simple tasks like trimming, weeding, and painting, which these under-resourced schools don’t have the staffing or funding to do; If we don’t do it, the campuses simply remain untrimmed, unweeded, unpainted.

The purpose of this event is put hands and feet to loving our neighbors, expecting nothing in return. The underlying desire of the organizers and participants is give a gift of service to our community.

In my case, however, my underlying desire was to avoid giving that gift. I had my reasons, some of them legitimate. First, I work graveyard on weekends, and big events like this tend to get me stirred up so that I have a hard time sleeping to prepare for work. Second, the temperature was supposed to hover in the upper 90s that day, and I turn into a real crab-bucket at anything over 80. Third, the wind was full of smoke from raging forest fires some miles away, and the news kept warning everyone to stay inside and avoid breathing it. Fourth, I have a bad back, so I always try to avoid activities that might tweak it.

Unfortunately, beneath all of those reasons—or excuses—for not loving my neighbor hid the truth: I just didn’t want to.

Once again, Jesus’ command to “love my neighbor” came down to an ultimate cage-match between my spirit and my flesh (sin nature). I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone. I didn’t want to share another’s burden. To which Jesus responds: “Love your neighbor.” And then, as if to seal the deal, he adds: “as yourself.”

Jesus’ words launch an inescapable circle of reasoning inside my head. I do love God, I insist. Then show it, he says. How? I hedge. Well, he repeats, by loving others exactly the same way that you love yourself.

Every day, I expend an ocean of effort to get my own needs met, look out for myself in the name of self-preservation, and pump up my Facebook profile to impress everyone else. And that ocean is the amount of love I am called to pour out on others.

Wynants_Jan-ZZZ-Parable_of_the_Good_SamaritanIn other words, as much as I don’t want to be inconvenienced—that is how much I am to love my neighbor. As much as I don’t want to leave my comfort zone—that is how much I am to serve others. As much as I don’t want to share another’s burden—that is how much I am to come alongside the needs of my community.

Just because God—who I say I love—commands it. And loving God is loving my neighbor.

Suddenly, as all my selfish excuses fall flat, these two commands combine to trigger another spirit-versus-flesh battle within. I think Jesus intends it to be that way. These are not commands with which to impress others; they are internal. They create a struggle between the self-centered desires of my flesh and the God-centered desires of my spirit.

This struggle between my flesh and my spirit went on for an entire week before the service day. But two things helped my spirit win out.

Self-awareness. We must be aware that we consist of flesh and spirit. After we put our trust in God, our spirit desires to please him, but our flesh still wants to please itself. So ignoring our flesh, and pretending it isn’t there, gives it the advantage of stealth: we never see it coming. Instead of engaging us in a full-frontal assault, it can sidle up next to us and woo us with sly arguments. I believe this lack of self-awareness is how I can rationalize away bad choices and even sin.
Last Saturday, I was completely aware of the source of my resistance. I knew full well that it was my flesh which was copping the attitude. And the Holy Spirit used this awareness to show me just how self-centered I was being.

Accountability. In my case, accountability came through my wife. She encouraged me to join her in serving the schools, but she also allowed me to talk through my objections, helping me get to the bottom of my resistance. She even gave me the freedom to back out. All of this processing helped turn my heart away from selfishness and toward loving my neighbor.

It’s no secret that Jesus called his followers to be in community with one another. We need close friends who will challenge us to fight against our own flesh, give us the freedom to reach our own conclusions, and pick us up during those times when our flesh wins the day.

Fortunately, on that hot, smoky Saturday last week, my spirit won out: I did participate in the event. My flesh kept screaming its displeasure even as I walked into the school; but my spirit fought back and did what was right.

But how about the next time I am confronted with the opportunity to carry out the second greatest commandment? Will my flesh gain the upper hand or will my spirit win? The battle between flesh and spirit will continue as long as I live. Starving the flesh and feeding the spirit is an ongoing process. I will take the wins whenever I can get them.

For now, I will be grateful that this time, Jesus helped me choose to love my neighbor. In his name.

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Life on the altar

Contrary to the popular saying, time does not heal all wounds. Instead, it brings perspective.

February is the month when, seven years ago, I flew to England to defend my final doctoral thesis – only to watch it vaporize in less than an hour.

Since then, for the last seven years, February has always felt dark and heavy. I thought my sadness would dissipate, little by little, with each passing year, but it hasn’t. You don’t get over loss; you come to terms with it. I’m still trying to come to terms with why God led me into that doctoral program, only to let it blow up in my face.

Many people have tried to explain this mystery. Some have suggested that maybe I didn’t hear God correctly, or maybe I didn’t even listen – maybe my prayers for guidance were only a token gesture, seeking a rubber stamp on what I had already decided to do.

I have wrestled with this possibility, and have tried to discern whether it could be even partly true.

However, to this day, despite the rotten outcome, I still believe with all my heart that God led me into that particular program, and provided the funds. (Fortunately, I didn’t go into debt to pay for it—I paid as I went along.) Yes, I have erred and even sinned in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. But the same can be said of all the students who earned their degrees before me, as well as all those who did so after.

Sometimes when we can’t understand something, we “fill in the blank” with easy answers. And “maybe you didn’t hear God” is the easiest answer. It’s similar to Job’s friends concluding that his suffering was caused by sin – a conclusion later rebutted by God (Job 38-42).

No, there’s something more to this catastrophe than the possibility that I was just unwilling or unable (too rebellious or dense) to hear and obey God’s direction for my life.

* * *

In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to go to a certain mountain and sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise – the son who, miraculously born to Sarah at age 90, God has promised to bless with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

In Genesis terms, to “sacrifice” Isaac means to kill him—that is, to ritualistically place him on an altar, slit his throat, and burn his body.

I won’t lie to you: that is a disturbing command.

Sure, we know the ending: Abraham lays Isaac on the altar to kill him, but at the last second an angel prevents the killing. God’s command turns out to be just a test of Abraham’s faith, and Abraham passes the test. At least, that’s our confident Sunday school interpretation of this story.

But the story has perhaps less to do with faith than with sheer obedience. Metaphorically speaking, the life on the altar is really Abraham’s – not Isaac’s.

titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtIn this story, Abraham cannot possibly know the ending. He only knows that God – the very God who initiated Isaac’s miraculous birth and promised Isaac’s descendants will be too numerous to count – now commands the killing of that same Isaac.

God is asking Abraham to kill his own future – his dream.

Apparently God never intended to let Abraham go through with it, because after the surreal almost-sacrifice of Isaac, a ram is provided to be sacrificed instead (v. 13).

But Abraham still lost something – something very precious. His obedience had to change the father-son dynamic.

I mean, come on – there’s Dad standing over you, holding a knife to your throat. That’ll stick with you.

The hike back down the mountain must have been filled with awkward silences and suspicious glances.

And imagine the dinner conversation that night…

Sarah: “So how was your trip?”

Isaac: “Dad tried to kill me.”

Abraham’s actions must have destroyed Isaac’s trust for a good long while, maybe even forever. Scripture doesn’t indicate whether he eventually came to understand Abraham’s shocking attack against him, so we really don’t know.

Yet like a kamikaze, Abraham went all in.

That’s life on the altar.

* * *

Like Abraham, I feel that my own life is on the altar. I still believe God led me into that doctoral program – and then chose to take it as a sacrifice when it went up in smoke, so to speak.

In relationship to God, we all are in the position of Isaac – a living sacrifice on the altar. And though God, my father, seemed to kill me – my future and my dreams – ultimately it’s about continuing to trust him, no matter what.

It appears that God’s plan for me is not a full-time career in academia, as I envisioned, but rather a kind of ministry of encouragement to others who have suffered painful, humiliating losses or failures like mine. Since the publication of my book, Losers Like Us, I have been able to share my story with others who have experienced such losses or have questioned their purpose in life, as I have. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do feel an intimate connection with their pain. That connection would not exist if my PhD effort had passed.

Time does not heal the wound. But it does widen and deepen my perspective. As painful as it was, my story—seven years of time, money, and hope, sacrificed on the altar—is not about me; it is about obeying God just because he is God.

Even when a sacrifice has to die.

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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I am Jonah

Photo by Daniel Hochhalter

It’s been almost two decades since I left my home state of Montana and moved out to Portland, Oregon for seminary. When asked where I’m from, I still answer, “I am from Montana, but I live in Portland.” After eighteen years, I still don’t see myself as being from here. I still consider myself an outsider. I just don’t seem to fit in.

I think I’m too rural for the city; I feel claustrophobic here. My horizons are blocked by the neighbor’s fence behind me and the tall apartments in front of me. I always seem to be jostling against people and bumping into things. Even the parking spaces are smaller. It’s hard to ignore the chaos and clamor—the yelling, the car horns, the police sirens (one is screaming past right now). Whenever I get chance to return home to Big Sky country, my body decompresses. My breathing slows. My heart rate goes down. My natural movements become, well, more natural.

And there’s culture shock. I just don’t fit in with Portland culture. If you’ve ever seen the cable TV show Portlandia (I watch it for training, to help me understanding my surroundings!), you know this city has a culture all its own.

Unlike many Portlanders, I am not a hipster. I don’t sport trendy scarves, tattoos or facial hair. Skinny jeans make me look like a sack of organic flour, its lower half caught in an ever-tightening vise. I don’t hike or run marathons. I don’t drink gourmet coffee or designer microbrews; in either case, I wouldn’t know a good batch from a bad one.

I do share Portlanders’ love of books and bookstores, especially our legendary Powell’s City of Books—the world’s biggest independent bookstore of new and used books. But as the city keeps growing, I find I seldom have the stomach to fight the traffic, crowds, and parking fees to get there.

So I hunker down at home and gaze longingly at pictures of spacious vistas—like seascapes along the coast or landscapes of the majestic mountains and plains in Montana.

Naturally, this begs the question: why don’t I just move?

Ah, there’s the rub. For multiple reasons, it seems clear that God wants me here for now. I am called to reflect Jesus and show God’s love to this city; yet for my own selfish reasons, I’d rather flee.

I am Jonah.

Jonah, too, was called to go to a city against his will. God told him to head east to Nineveh, but Jonah headed west to the ocean. God wanted him to call Nineveh to repent, while Jonah wanted it destroyed. God said go, and Jonah went—the other way. He shipped out to sea, and because of his disobedience, God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship and everyone in it. So the judgment Jonah had desired for Nineveh was now brought down upon his own head.

After being thrown overboard by his shipmates, then swallowed and puked up by a fish, Jonah finally obeys. He goes to Nineveh and calls its residents to repent. But when they do, he is even more contrary than before. In fact, he actually throws a tantrum because things didn’t go his way.

Yep, I am Jonah. Oh, I am not so callous that I want to see my city destroyed. It’s just that I wish God would call someone else to live where I live, and let me move away. It feels like I never fit in here, and I don’t want to step up and try. I just want to take my toys and go home.

But I also don’t want to be a reluctant prophet, trying to pick and choose where I am called to go. I don’t want to insist on reflecting Jesus only where I feel comfortable – and pitch a fit when I end up somewhere else – because the gospel is for everyone, everywhere. Jesus said “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John12:32). Paul said he must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Peter said we Christ-followers are “foreigners and exiles”—called to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).

Those scriptures apply to me too.

But how can I authentically reflect Jesus’s love to this city when a part of me still wants to leave?

It comes down to grace. In grace, Jesus sought me out; so I need to pay it forward. If I truly understood the depth of his love toward me, I think I’d be more than willing to share it wherever I go, even if part of me doesn’t want to be there.

Maybe one day, God will allow me to retreat to a wide-open space where I can breathe. But until then, I—a twenty-first century Jonah—am called to represent Jesus every place I go. Even the places I’d rather not be.

1200px-HawthorneBridge-Pano All scriptures are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.

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