Free Will

October 28, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

Expanding upon what we’ve been talking about, namely the two trees in the Garden of Eden and what they can teach us, we look today at the concept of free will.

First, let’s review.  In the Garden, there were two trees:  The Tree of Life (Tree of God) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Tree of Me).  Adam and Eve chose to not rely on God by eating from the Tree of Me–my plans, my agenda, my strength, my effort.  And so do we.  This is the fundamental sin of mankind.  It’s called Pride.  I will do it myself.  I do not need God.

When Adam and Eve committed this sin, God banished them from the Garden and set up a barrier so they could not get back to the Tree of Life.  Jesus Christ came and died on a cross, which created a bridge across that barrier from us having to do it ourselves to being able to once again rely on the Providence of God.  The bridge Jesus created became the crossbar of the cross and on that cross bar are:  forgiveness, grace, mercy, and God’s love.  These, in accord with Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself, save us from being doomed to a life of living on our own that is mortal and will die.  To a life that is filled with joy and light and peace and happiness living once again as we were meant to, staying at the Tree of Life.

Very good.

So where does “free will” fit into this?

Here is the picture I draw for my Sunday School Class:

Now a lot of people get free will wrong.  They think it means, “God lets me do whatever I want.”  To one extent that is true, God will let you do “whatever you want”–right or wrong, but the choice is simpler and more profound than that.  You see, some people think that the whatever-I-want choice is between good things and bad things.

For example, “I can help my neighbor or I can go shoot someone.”  Okay, now I’m hoping you know that one of those is “right” and one is “wrong.”  But here’s the thing:  You can do the right thing for the wrong reason… and STILL be wrong!

How?  Well, let’s look at the story of the two men in the Temple.  The one, the tax collector, had stolen from everyone.  He was vilified and hated by many.  He was seen as a cheat and a liar.  Obviously setting him on the side of darkness and sin (the Tree of Me).  The other man in the Temple LOOKED really good on the outside.  He tithed.  He prayed.  He fasted.  Oh, he looked really good.  But the truth is that he too was on the side of sin (the Tree of Me).

See, what we miss is that the second tree is not the Tree of EVIL, as in, so as long as you’re not doing evil, you’re okay.  No.  It’s the Tree of the Knowledge of GOOD and Evil.  That means that you could be doing GOOD things and still be stuck in the sin of pride.

How, so?  That doesn’t make sense.  Oh, yes, it does.

God doesn’t want us to do good things on our own effort.  He doesn’t want us to do good things for Him and bring them to Him like some kind of bribe for letting us into His Kingdom.  His Kingdom is not built on OUR effort.  It’s build upon HIM.  Not us.

What God wants is for us to cross that bridge of His Son, admit how fallen we are, be humble to know that all good things come from God and only God, and orient our whole life around just staying close to that Tree of Life, recognizing that we’re not the ones in charge and we’re not the ones doing the good things in our lives.  God is.

Good for good sake is a trap.  It will drain you of all energy running around trying to do all of these good things for God.  It will bring you, eventually, to the point of giving up because you can’t do all good things on your own.  It’s not possible.  It will make you resent God and everyone else. If you try, you will feel defeated and worthless and like a failure, and nothing you do will feel like enough.  Now I ask you, does that LOOK like what God wants for our lives?  No.  He says He wants us to be “at rest.”  How can we possibly do that if we’re running around doing good things out of fear of God punishing us if we don’t?  Answer:  WE CAN’T.

This is where free will comes in.

Free will is literally the choice of which tree are you going to eat off of (live off of)?  Are you going to try to go it on your own, trying to do enough good things and be good enough to try to convince God you deserve Heaven?

I’ll tell you what happened to the self-righteous man in the Temple who thought he was living right by doing all good things–he walked away unjustified by God!  That’s scary.  The man who thought he was doing all of these great things for God was NOT in fact living in God’s Kingdom.  He was still an outcast.  He just didn’t know it!

Look at the other man, the tax collector.  He threw himself at God’s feet and begged for mercy and forgiveness.  He knew he was a sinner.  He knew he was nothing on his own, and God forgave him… and justified him in the sight of God.  That means he walked in on one side of the barrier and because he stopped trying to do it all himself, recognized that he couldn’t, and begged for God to save him, he crossed that bridge and came out in God’s Kingdom!

Free will is the gift of choosing:  Where are you going to live?  In Heaven or in Hell?  In light or in darkness?  On God’s Provision or on your own devices?

Make that choice wisely for it will affect you at this moment and all the way to and through eternity!


The Bridge

October 25, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

Last week we talked about the Tree of Life and the Tree of Me.  They looked like this:

Now when Eve sinned and chose the tree of Me over the Tree of God, God came and put a barrier up so that Adam and Eve and the human race could not get to the Tree of Life.  He wasn’t being mean and cruel or vindictive.  He knew that a person going on their own power, strength, plans was dangerous… and allowing them to be immortal by eating off the Tree of Life was a horrible idea.  So He put up the barrier and posted an angel with a fiery sword there to guard the tree.

Stay with me here, because this is where the story gets interesting.  For thousands of years the people lived on their own.  Read how well they did in the Old Testament.  Over and over, they started off okay, but soon fell back into selfishness and violence and worshiping other gods.  So God sent His Son to save the people from themselves.  Jesus willingly crossed the barrier from the Tree of Life to the side where everyone was going on their own agendas.

Jesus came to tell us that although Adam and Eve had made that disastrous choice, we weren’t stuck living there.  Jesus came to literally be the bridge between the way we were living and the way God always intended us to live.

It looks like this…

Through His cross and resurrection, Jesus was able to bridge the barrier that God had put into place to keep us (who had chosen to go our own way) from eternal life.  But how do you cross that bridge?

By renouncing doing it yourself.  By stopping eating off of the Tree of Me.  But those are self-done.  What you most need to do is take Jesus’s hand, tell Him you’re sorry for trying to do it on your own and trust Him to do it for you.  When you do that, you are doing exactly what God intended you to do from the very beginning.  THIS was the way He wanted life to work!

On the cross beam of the cross, think of the words of God:  forgiveness, mercy, grace, love, hope, joy, peace…  They all fit there.  They all are found in crossing that bridge that Jesus made for us–from sin and darkness into light, life, and God’s presence.

The question is, are we going to take it, or are we going to choose to stay, existing off of the Tree of Me and calling that “life.”  It’s not.  It never was.

But it’s still our choice.


The Tree of Me

October 21, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

Teaching Sunday School is fun.  I teach fourth grade.  One of the focuses of the 4th grade curriculum is the Ten Commandments and sin.  The lessons talk about our conscience, original sin, sin, etc.   One thing I have found is that the kids know the basic story of Adam and Eve and the garden, but teaching them the real meaning opens up so many doors.

See, most of us think that Eve’s sin and Adam’s sin happened there and that’s the end of it–of course, it perpetuated in original sin, but we don’t understand that we make the same disastrous choice they did nearly every single day.  Because we don’t understand that, we keep making that choice and then can’t figure out why our faith feels so shaky and weak.

Let me explain it this way.

There were two trees in that garden.  The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  But let’s make this a little simpler as I do with my kids.

There were two trees in that garden–the Tree of God and the Tree of Me.

Now the Tree of God is good for every good thing.  It provides, it sustains, it comforts, it encourages–in abundance, all the time, every day.  The Tree of Me, however, is always a temptation.  The Tree of Me says I don’t need God.  I’ll do it on my own.  Or worse, I have to prove something to God.  I have to do things to prove I’m good enough.

The Tree of Me represents my strength, my wisdom, my understanding, my effort.  It is highly limited and ultimately doomed to fail.

The Tree of God represents God’s strength, God’s wisdom, God’s understanding, God’s effort.

Now, seriously, which one would you rather use?  Better yet, which one ARE you using?

Do you set your goals and go for them, heedless of what God says or wants for you?  Do you do things FOR God?  Are the things you do for God because they are a duty and He might be angry if you don’t?  Do you frequently look around your life and wonder where any abundance might be?  Is abundance something only other people experience?  Do you fret and worry over everything?  Do you panic at the trials of life?  Do you feel buffeted in the storm with no way out?

If so, I challenge you to consider that you are probably eating off of the Tree of Me rather than the Tree of God.  Eating off of the Tree of Me, you have a pretty fair assessment that you can’t do what’s in front of you, that life is much bigger than you, and you’re just a few steps away from utter disaster.  But when you eat off of the Tree of God, problems are compared to God, and God can handle any problem.  Time issues, family issues, people issues–they are all handled, not by you but by God because you let Him.

I can’t, but He can.  This simple phrase puts the futility of the Tree of Me into perspective.

So which tree are you eating off of?


Life Challenges

October 18, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

As you know, my son is dyslexic.  His reading is improving rapidly now that we know; however, he’s still behind.  He’s now reliably reading on an advanced-kindergarten to early-first grade level.  The problem is he’s in second grade.  Some of his classmates are on chapter books, and he feels less than because he’s still reading kindergarten books.

Now his mother (that’s me!) is thrilled beyond comprehension because I see how far he’s come.  He only sees how far he has to go.

Moreover, he doesn’t yet understand the unique set of skills and understanding that this particular life challenge will present to him.   All he sees is the downside.

Isn’t that just like most of us?

Don’t we all have unique life challenges?

I know I do.  For me, mine was being horrible at sports when it seemed everyone around me excelled at that.  My “accomplishments” in this area paled so radically to the other kids in my class as to brand me forever as the last or second to last picked.  I was as likely to get hit in the head as to catch whatever ball was thrown my way.  I couldn’t run.  I certainly couldn’t run and catch.  I could shoot a basketball–as long as there were not nine other people on the court with me.

I clearly remember kindergarten year.  We did a program for all of the parents.  In the program we were supposed to do gymnastics.  I was the child that did ONE somersault, and the crowd clapped like crazy because I had done one.

In track I was last.  In baseball, I got one bat–and struck out.  In fact, one of the oldest stories about me happened when I was about four or five.  For the first time… maybe forever… I caught a ball someone threw to me.  I was so excited, I said, “I captured it!”  (Of course, that was my strong-suit, my vocabulary, meeting my life’s challenge and taking them both down… I was teased about that forever afterward.)

It wasn’t until I was in my late-twenties that I began to see how this life challenge had affected me.  I held back.  I didn’t want to play.  I didn’t want to mess it up for everyone else. I internalized my life challenge, and it became my excuse for not trying.

In thinking about this with my characters, I can so see the pattern.  They have an innate weakness, something happens, or they are otherwise convinced that they have a certain life challenge, and that life challenge, they come to believe, is written in stone.  They then make that weakness the cornerstone for their approach to life.  They deny it, work around it, push it down, pray it goes away, pray no one finds out, use it to determine their own self-worth.

Just like I did.

What I see now with my son is how this life challenge for me gave me so many positive attributes.  I became compassionate for others who struggled because I had struggled.  I became encouraging to young children just learning and do not push them to do things they are not capable of doing.  I do not belittle people because I know what that’s like.

What can my son learn?  That everyone’s different and some are good at some things, like he’s good at math and electricity, and others are good at other things.  I hope he will learn to cheer others on instead of tearing them down because now he knows how that feels.   I hope he will learn that, yes, this is a challenge, but it shouldn’t take him out of the game of trying and learning.

The truth is, now, I’m not two-left-footed.  I’m really quite coordinated with things I enjoy–like dancing and playing on the Wii.  It’s just I have to stop using my life challenge as an excuse to take me out and keep me on the sidelines, and start using it as a way to understand all of life (myself included) better.

So what is your life challenge?  What circumstance or thing in your life are you using or have you used to hold you back, to keep you sidelined, to keep you from playing the game?

I’m convinced Satan tries to use these things to do just that.

Are you going to let him?


Trapped in the Darkness

October 14, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the miners trapped in Chili and rescued this past week.  It’s a story that would be hard to miss in our 24/7 news cycle.  These men, working far below the earth’s surface, suddenly encapsulated, entombed by a collapse of the world around them.

Maybe you’ve heard about their rescue.  How people from half a world away brought in equipment and expertise.  How they drilled first one hole and then widened that hole to the point that a capsule could be sent down to bring the men up.

Maybe you’ve heard how one rescuer didn’t just stay on the surface but put his life on the line in that capsule, going down, to both help the men get back to the surface and to prove that the escape would be safe enough to travel.

Maybe you heard all of that and thought, “Wow.  That’s something.”  And then you went on with your life.

Or maybe you thought like I did of how incredible that metaphor is for our spiritual lives.  How so often we get trapped in spiritual darkness by a collapse in our lives.  Maybe it’s a lost job or a failing marriage.  Maybe it’s a death or an accident.  Maybe it’s simply a string of small collapses that finally closes off our ability to get back to the light.  And there we are, trapped, with no hope of freeing ourselves, reliant completely on the Grace of God and the goodness of others to break through the rocks and free us.

The amazing thing when you think about this story from a spiritual perspective is how the help is there even when we may not know it.  There are people in this world who want to help and who will go to great lengths to help.  But the most incredible is our Savior.  Think about it.  Jesus didn’t have to come and save us.  He was in Heaven.  He was on the surface.  He was safe.  Why would He CHOOSE to climb into that capsule and join us in this spirit-shattering world?  Why would He do that?

Well, I believe, much like the rescuer at the mine, Jesus chose to do it because He believed in the equipment and the expertise of those He was putting His life’s trust in.  He believed in His Heavenly Father, and He loved us so much that He was willing to put His life on the line to save ours.

He came to show us that we could do it too.  We could climb in, trust God, and make it to the surface.  He came to show us that we do not have to stay trapped in the darkness.  There is a way out.

God bless the miners and the men and women who worked so tirelessly and selflessly to get them out.  It’s always stories like this that give me hope for this world for it is this very dynamic–that life is precious and we should do whatever we are capable of doing to preserve it–that ultimately speaks of God.  Life is precious because God created it.  If we live like that, we can uncover and unearth many souls that are trapped in darkness.

With God’s Grace, that should be our goal.


Normal Moms and Other Freaks of Nature

October 13, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

You may have noticed I’ve been kind of haphazard in my posting the last couple of weeks.  I have a good excuse.

I was busy on a project with God in which we made $70,000 net for one school by selling 4,000 raffle tickets, and $30,000 net for another school by selling 500 tickets.  God and I kept all of those tickets straight–who sold what (and to whom with the smaller raffle).  Both were very successful, but I’m glad they are over.  Now I can get back to being a “normal Mom.”

About three weeks into the craziness, my son told me he was ready for me to be a normal mom again.  “What’s that?” I asked.  “You know, a normal mom, they drive up, drop you off, and leave.”  (They are so cute when they’re honest!)  Instead, his not-normal mom parked every morning, got out, walked with him with her own stuff, up to school, and was there for half of the day most days.

Tomorrow I get to be a normal mom again.  My oldest daughter helpfully said that’s never going to happen because I’m never going to be normal.

I think I’ll choose to take that as a compliment.

The good news is… maybe I can find my carpet back now!  Who knows.  Stranger things have been known to happen!

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get back to some kind of schedule with this blog.  There’s strange, and then there’s impossible, but I’ll do my best.  Thanks for sticking with me through the rough spots.


Lazarus, Part II

October 7, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

In our last discussion, we talked about the parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man.  In this story that Jesus told, the rich man was sent to hell; Lazarus to heaven.  A great chasm was between them so that when the rich man begged father Abraham to send Lazarus with a cool drink, father Abraham said that Lazarus could not bridge the gap even if he wanted to.

The rich man then asked that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to the rich man’s brothers because he was sure that once his brothers saw a man come back from the dead, they would believe in God and repent.

However, father Abraham says that even if Lazarus came back from the dead, the brothers wouldn’t believe anyway.  That prediction, such as it is because this is a parable told by Jesus, became disturbingly accurate.

Much like the parable of the workers who attack and kill the Master’s Son, this parable is spot-on in its aim at the human race.  It shows that Jesus held no illusions about how His death and resurrection would turn out.

I think it would be easy for Jesus to have thought that, “Okay, once I die for them, they’ll finally get how much I love them.  After all, what more do they want?  And surely after I come back from the dead, THAT will make them all believe.”

But Jesus clearly knows that the ultimate sacrifice that He will make will not be enough for some people.

Just like father Abraham says:  “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.”

Notice, that the moral to this story is pointed out only later.  First when Lazarus dies and Jesus raises him back to life and then when Jesus Himself dies and is raised from the dead.

And Jesus accurately, through the voice of father Abraham, predicts what will happen.

Yes, there are some who come to believe, but there are many who continue on their wicked way, unpersuaded even when someone rose from the dead.

How’s that for getting the details right?

Go God!


Lazarus, Part I

October 4, 2010

By:  Staci Stallings

One of the things that continues to astound me is how intricate the Bible is.  As an author, I will tell you that it’s a challenge to get all of the details in a book to line up.  If Papa says he loves Mama’s green eyes on page 306, then her eyes had better have been green as well on page 3.  It’s a classic writing mistake and difficult to ever completely master because each book contains new details to keep track of–often mountains of them.

Did Character A have a scar on his left arm or right arm?  Is the sofa against the far wall or the side?  Did your character take their coat off and suddenly they are doing so again?

All writers struggle with getting the details right.  It’s part of the job.

So it’s really interesting to me how the “writers” of the Bible, you know, the actual people here on the ground that wrote it, could get all of the pickiest, teen-niciest details not just right but mind-blowingly right.  How what happened in Leviticus can all of a sudden show up as a shadow in Galatians.  Or what Isaiah said come to fruition in the Body of Christ Who wasn’t even born yet.

That’s cool.

And so it is with this lesson that hit me full force last week.  In Luke, there is a parable that Jesus tells about a rich man and a poor man.  The rich man is not named.  The poor man is.

The story goes that the rich man had a beggar named Lazarus who would beg outside the rich man’s house.  The poor man, Lazarus, would gladly have accepted even the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table and yet the rich man did nothing to help this poor beggar.

Lo and behold, one day both of them died and the rich man found himself in the pit of hell.  To make matters worse, he looked through the flames and the torment to see Lazarus, this beggar, seated with Father Abraham in Heaven.

The rich man, still believing he has any power, begs Father Abraham to let Lazarus give him a little water to cool his parched lips.  But Father Abraham refuses the request saying that there is a huge chasm between them that Lazarus cannot bridge.  The rich man then pleads thusly:

“I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house; for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won’t also come into this place of torment.”

To which Father Abraham tells him that his brothers have the prophets and Moses.

But the rich man continues:

“No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

And Father Abraham says, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.”

Now think about that last line and why Jesus might have chosen the name Lazarus for this story.  He could have chosen any name for this beggar.  After all, it’s just a story.  In fact, He didn’t have to name the beggar at all.  Like the Prodigal Son whose name apparently is “Prodigal Son” because Jesus didn’t give him a name.

So you have to ask yourself, why did Jesus give this particular fictional/parable character a name, and more to the point, why the name Lazarus?

Scholars point out that the Lazarus Jesus later raised and this Lazarus the beggar are clearly two separate characters because the Lazarus who was raised was never a beggar.  However, I think that misses the bigger picture.

It is not only on the hinge of the name that this door swings but moreso on the master stroke of the situation.

The rich man begs that Lazarus be brought back to life so that his brothers might come to believe in God and repent, and Father Abraham, in Jesus’ story, is quite astute to point out that even if Lazarus came back from the dead, the brothers would not believe.

As it turns out, Father Abraham was exactly right.


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