Pain is a great motivator. When a physical condition or a relationship causes us significant pain, we attend to it. We take action, change or do whatever is necessary to stop the pain. But if the pain is only slight, we tend to let it fester until it is so bothersome it cannot be ignored.

Recently I strained my lower back – again. This time I was laid up and loaded down with muscle relaxers and over the counter pain killers for almost five days. I knew what caused it. The same thing that was responsible for each of my other twice yearly lower back strains for the last two decades – weak muscles. I also knew how to prevent future strains. If I wanted to enjoy pain free movement as long as possible, then I needed to consistently perform exercises that engaged my back and stomach muscles.

So if I knew what I needed to do to get the outcome I desired – a strong and flexible back – why had I not yet done it?

Simple. Because the pain had not been bad enough yet to motivate me to change my behavior and develop the habit of regular core exercise. I felt strong and healthy most of the time, so what was a few days of manageable pain every six to nine months?

A friend calls this the 75% rule. If something in your life is pretty good about 75% of the time, he suggests that you shouldn’t change anything. But if your satisfaction level falls below this arbitrary percentage of contentment, it’s time to make a change.

If we want to stop the pain and find joy in life again, then we must take action. The pain is our problem, not somebody else’s. If we wait for somebody or something else to do or stop doing something to take away our pain, we will wait our lives away. Pain is a warning light that tells us we better look into an area of our life now, before serious damage is done. Pain and its consequences are much easier to deal with if we detect and treat the underlying cause sooner rather than later.

Where are you hurting today? Is the pain in your body, mind or heart? What do you need to change in your life to make the pain go away, prevent it from returning and bring back the joy?

Is there a habit you have cultivated that is making you suffer? Drugs? Alcohol? Gossip? Pornography? Have you eaten yourself into a disease like diabetes or obesity? Or are you being eaten up inside with resentment or bitterness toward your spouse, child or a friend? Are you addicted to social media? Has your tongue lashed out at yet another victim? Are you starving a loved one’s soul and being starved in return by withholding kindness, affection, love or respect?

Maybe something terrible has happened to you for which you were not responsible. If so, I am sorry. But what are you going to do about it? Accept it, grieve and mourn and then, as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption said, make a choice: get busy living or get busy dying.

We were made to move. God designed our brains, hearts, blood, skin, joints and muscles to work together in perfect harmony so that we could move. We rest, but we were not made to rest. Rest is what we do so that we can move – walk, run, bend, stretch, reach, laugh, jump, serve. If we don’t use a body part, it begins to atrophy. We must use it or lose it. To avoid accelerating the natural process of dying, we have to move.

In what area of your life are you ready to move? What will you change? It’s time to do something. Baby steps count. Thinking about taking a baby step does not.

Life is for the living, so let’s get up and get after it.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” – Psalm 39:4

 “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – Jesus, John 10:10

Letter to Santa

Dear Santa:

I understand you are coming to town to deliver gifts to people. Apparently, you have a list of those who have been good this past year, and those who have been bad. If I make your good list, I will get something from you but if I don’t, I am out of luck.

That’s a problem.

You see, I am not a nice person. I have been mean and done dark and dreadful things. Even so, I am not a bad person. I have shown love, kindness and compassion. I am just a person, capable of good because of God and evil because of sin.

What you are offering, Santa, is justice. While I like the idea of other people getting what they deserve, it is a far less appealing concept when applied to myself.

I don’t want what’s fair. I want mercy and grace. I want to be undeservedly forgiven and pardoned for both the negligent and intentional bad things I have done, and to receive blessings that I have not earned.

Fortunately, there is someone who offers a gift to everyone, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

Santa, you operate on the merit system, giving people only what they deserve. You don’t give gifts, you give wages.

Jesus operates in the realm of unentitlements, giving people better than they deserve and more than they have earned. He gives to the unworthy. Like me.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Titus 3:4-5

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8

When you are celebrating with your family this year, and Mrs. Claus or your brother gets on your one last nerve or does something stupid or says something hurtful, take a deep breath and look up. Remember how Christ left the glory and comfort of heaven to be born, suffer and die for you, and then, in the strength only God gives, love them, because he first loved you.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” Matthew 7:12

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:43-44

This Christmas, Santa, I encourage you to leave your naughty and nice list at the North Pole and instead light up the darkness of our world with the gift of Jesus. After all, it is because of him that you can be good, for goodness sake.

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11

The Perfect Gift

I understand what it means to be poor – at least in America. My five siblings and I were raised by a single mom who struggled with mental illness. We lived on welfare and usually burned coal in our fireplace to stay warm in winter because firewood was too expensive. One night we ran out of coal, so we all piled into our Plymouth Volare station wagon and drove down the dark alleys of our rural Idaho town in search of firewood. We didn’t really consider it stealing as our mom trolled with her headlights off and we hopped out to silently swipe a log here and there from our neighbors’ neatly stacked woodpiles. We figured they wouldn’t miss the wood and we needed it to keep from freezing.

Christmas, because it is associated with gift giving, can be particularly stressful for the poor. When you don’t have much, it can be challenging to find creative ways to give thoughtful gifts at Christmas that cost little or no money. Even those who have plenty of money with which to buy gifts may not have much time to do so because they are too busy working to acquire that money. And if you are in the blessed minority with both ample time and money to purchase gifts for your loved ones, you may still struggle to find that elusive, perfect present for each person.

You know the one I’m talking about. That special something your loved one doesn’t already have, which says you took the time to consider what they enjoy, care about, and would never buy for themselves, and for which you went out of your way to get for them. That magical gift that tells them they are special and precious and loved and irreplaceable. Yeah – that one.

When I was a child, the perfect gift was a Mrs. Beasley doll, a Louisa May Alcott book, a new Milton Bradley board game or the year I hit the mother lode: a 10-speed bicycle. These days I dream of peaceful, laughter-filled family gatherings and healthy, God-honoring children and grandchildren.

When I think about the best gifts I have received over the years, with few exceptions cards and personal notes come to mind. I have saved and tucked away thousands of words of love, gratitude, caring, compassion, encouragement and healing.

Whether spoken or written, kind words are the perfect gift. They are free, readily available and in ample supply, require minimal time and effort, need not be wrapped and are sure to bless the beneficiary. If you can speak or write, you can give the gift of a genuine, kind word.

In a world that has become increasingly negative and full of hate, the opportunity each of us has to extend kindness by a simple word or deed is priceless. To whom can you give a word of encouragement or appreciation today? Who do you owe a heartfelt thanks or an apology? When was the last time you told someone you care about, how much you care? Who do you love who may not have felt your love in a long time? What simple thing can you say or do at no financial expense that will express your gratitude and love for another?

December is the month we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Bible says that sometime after he was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east to worship Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Interestingly, we never hear what Jesus, Joseph and Mary did with these gifts, nor does the Bible suggest that Jesus would have appreciated it if his disciples would have given him some gold, frankincense or myrrh to demonstrate their love for him.

Instead, Jesus says repeatedly in John 14 that if his followers love him, they will obey his commands. And then he says his command is this: love one another. John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17. We begin to love our neighbors, our co-workers, friends, spouses, and children when we offer a truthful, kind word that builds them up for their benefit.

Consider giving the perfect gift this Christmas.

“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

Joyful Trials

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.

Before Ford installs brakes in one of its cars, the vehicle manufacturer runs several tests on them to ensure they are safe, reliable and fit for their intended purpose. Ford’s goal in running a battery of tests on important vehicle equipment like brakes is to safeguard its customers and the general public. When a driver needs to use his brakes, he must be confident that they will consistently perform as designed and stop the car. If the brakes fail, the result could be tragic.

God tests our faith for the same reason – to ensure that when we need it, our faith will not fail us but instead will steady, comfort and encourage us. Each test of our faith is used by God to identify an area of weakness, to correct and to strengthen us so that when trials come, we will be able to stand firm.

Each time we fail a test of our faith by crumbling in the face of adversity, having turned to our earthly supports instead of Christ for help, we grow in wisdom as we discover that while we can’t, God can. Others may be unreliable, but God is trustworthy. We learn that He alone is our refuge and strength and that through Christ we can do all things, but apart from Him we can do nothing.

When we stand firm by trusting God in the midst of a crisis, He is pleased by our faith and will deliver us in His time according to His will. We become more mature Christ followers as we endure the trials of this life with absolute assurance that God is in control. Come what may, we know that God has promised us eternal life, and God keeps His promises.

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12

Lord, please help us find joy as we face trying circumstances, knowing that you will use each trial to develop perseverance in us and to grow us up in our faith so that one day, like Jesus, we may be complete and  lack nothing.