How does your (spiritual) garden grow?

By Erika Rizkallah

Got a brown thumb? Happily, spiritual planting is all about growth! We can learn so much about growing our faith by applying lessons from the garden.

I inherited my gardening passion from my dad. I also come from a long line of farmers and joyfully remember the summer weeks spent with my grandparents. My brother and I explored fields planted with corn and soybeans and hunted for wild asparagus growing near a ditch in front of the farmhouse.

When I moved into my forever home I inherited the previous homeowner’s garden. I was thrilled with the yard until I learned she practiced Ikebana (Japanese flower design). On closer inspection, I discovered it contained all sorts of heinous invasive plants. I spent hours weeding, only to find them sprout again, trying to strangle plants I wanted to keep.

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But I was patient, and after pulling them by the roots, I planted my favorites in their place. Now I have a gorgeous yard that fills me with satisfaction and peace — though it’s still a work in progress.

Tending to my little corner of the world connects me to God in a more meaningful way. Adam and Eve’s first home was a garden and many of Jesus’ teachings took place outdoors and reflect his love of nature. Themes of harvest, sowing and reaping feature prominently in the Bible.

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Growth and spiritual fruit production are imperatives for anyone seeking maturity in Christ. Here are five ways our earthy and spiritual lives are similar:

Great soil: All gardeners know the key to a productive garden is great soil. It’s the primary ingredient for flourishing plants and must be healthy. Conditioning is often necessary because let’s face it, almost no soil is perfectly healthy in its natural state. If it’s too sandy, wet or filled with sticky clay, plants wither and die.

The soil of our spiritual life is the heart. Biblically speaking, the heart – kardia in Greek – represents our whole inner being. It’s not just a blood pumping organ, but the source of life, made up of mind, soul and spirit.

Nourishment: We can’t simply plop flowers and plants into a garden and expect it to grow. We must nourish it. Sunlight, the meticulous watering and protection from the elements are critical. We often need to amend soil with fertilizer and emulsifiers, which come from surprising sources. We apply dead fish and poop to feed our plants — this used to gross me out.

In spiritual matters, our fertilizer is prayer and scripture reading. And just as manure provides nutrients, trouble (the poopy parts of life), also benefits us. Adversity strengthens and causes us to seek God, to rely on him and his word for our inner health.

 

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Maintenance: Here is where many gardeners begin to falter. The first part, getting the soil and feeding right, is relatively easy. The hard part is keeping up with it. Regular maintenance includes weeding, pruning, pest control and deadheading — a fancy term for removing spent flower heads.

Spiritual life requires maintenance too. We get this by spending intentional daily quiet time with God. Enjoying friendship with fellow believers can help us weed out sin and discern the parts of life God’s wants to prune. While painful, pruning — cutting off dead and unproductive stuff — helps us grow and flourish. Regular maintenance gets rid of pests, slugs and worms threatening to devour us.

Patience: Waiting is the truly difficult part. After all the time and energy spent on the early part of the process, it’s not unusual to see little result. We live in an “instant” society and gardening is anything but immediate. It can take months and even years for some plants to thrive and grow. So it goes with faith . . .

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But hidden under the dark surface and seemingly dormant areas, God is always working.  Patience is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and our Father is generous to provide for our needs. Though often boring, waiting is necessary and active.

Being still, standing firm in our faith and trusting are active habits. Even though we sometimes can’t see it, God is ever-present and cares deeply for us.

Produce: This is the good stuff — our hard work has paid off! Beautiful, bountiful flowers bloom and we pluck fruit from the trees. We bite into the luscious apple, craft a bouquet and feel satisfaction and accomplishment.

God wants this for us. He wants fruit production and for us to enjoy that fresh fruit of our labor.

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Take a bite out of the juicy peach and thank him for his daily tending!

Your Turn: Our earthly and spiritual lives are a work in progress. There’s always work to sow and benefits to reap. Where are the areas your spiritual garden needs tending most?

God’s plans have purpose

By Erika Rizkallah

All I wanted for my 50th birthday was a trip to Hawaii so I could visit Volcanoes National Park and walk the rim of a volcano. When I expressed the desire to my family, everyone was excited — except for my son.

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“Nope. I’m not going.” he said.

“What? Why? It’s my birthday trip.”

“I’ll stay home then, you go have fun.”

I pressed him for a reason and he said, “Lava. I’m never going anyplace that has volcanoes.”

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I begged, I badgered and I even taunted him. “You’re being ridiculous. You’re more likely to get injured in a car accident.” I said.

He wouldn’t budge.

“What are the odds of a volcanic eruption happening WHILE WE’RE THERE?” I shouted.

He stood firm and after a few days I let it go. I don’t usually let our kids dictate vacation plans but I could see he was seriously anxious and I didn’t want to argue. Then oddly, I lost all desire for my Hawaii trip.

Imagine my wonder and surprise when Mount Kilauea erupted during the week we’d planned to go!

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I sent him a video text of the eruption with the words . . . “Uh, I guess I owe you an apology.”

The wisdom in Proverbs often speaks of man’s plans in light of God’s. Here’s one I find particularly apropos:  In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. Proverbs 16:9

Feel like you don’t have much to offer?

When I was growing up, one of the most popular tunes on the radio was a song called Stand By Your Man, co-written and recorded by Tammy Wynette. Though it contains only 128 words and was written in 15 minutes, it’s sparked debate and controversy for years.

No one predicted the surprising results this scant and quickly written song produced; Tammy catapulted to fame and it remains one of country music’s Top hits 50 years later.

I’ve been married to the same guy for 24 years and consider myself fortunate. He’s a business owner and we have a great life despite many ups and downs. Long ago, God told me he’d provide for me through my husband and I’ve accepted his promise gratefully.

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But it’s difficult at times, especially in this day and age when we voraciously compare ourselves to others. Though I’ve worked off and on through the years and have my own online business, I’m not “self-supporting.” When I fill out paperwork, I put “Not Applicable” under the employment section. One time at a doctor’s office, the receptionist shouted across the room, “Are you still unemployed?”

These questions make me cringe — I hate labels. I’m independent and was the main breadwinner in our family for several years before I quit work to take care of my children. In my hometown near Washington D.C., women would ask, “What do you do for a living?” When I explained I was a stay-at-home mom, they often discreetly drifted off looking for someone more interesting to talk to.

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True story.

The bulk of my work goes unseen and uncompensated. I’m not what the world considers “successful,” but I know I am. So does my family and most importantly, so does my God.

Still, sometimes I want the sacrifices I’ve made to be seen and dare I say, celebrated.

It reminds me of the Bible story known as the widow’s offering. One day, Jesus was teaching in the temple and he sat down across from where people were putting in their required offerings.

Mark 12:41-44 says: Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.” 

Sometimes women at any stage of life can feel like our offerings are meager. On low  strength and energy days, the only fuel I have is knowing that Jesus sees me. He accepts my small offerings and he loves it.

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He sees and loves you as well. No offering is too small to make a huge difference in the world and for his kingdom.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to the widow. I know God provided for her because it’s one of his promises. He’s close to the poor, the oppressed, those who feel small.

The lesson was so important that he called his disciples over to witness it. The story is told in the books of Mark and Luke; the nameless woman is still held up as an example over 2,000 years later.

That’s incredible . . . and so are you!

 

 

 

Easter is more than bunnies and baskets

By Erika Rizkallah

In a few days, millions of Christians will celebrate Easter — an observance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Savior of the world.

As a child, I didn’t know about Jesus. For me, Easter was all about the basket. For some reason my father hid the baskets from us.  My brother and I would jump out of bed and spend the morning searching for it.

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I suppose it was easier for a single dad to hide two baskets instead of a bunch of eggs, but it’s one of my fondest memories. I grew up in a non-religious home so we didn’t go to church and I didn’t realize the holiday had anything to do with Jesus.

It meant little more than the beginning of spring break, all fun and games!

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Now, Easter is ripe with meaning. Truthfully, I hate reading about most of the details surrounding the Easter story.

The way Jesus was treated before his death fills me with sadness. I can’t help but feel the agony of what he went through — the betrayal of Judas, the illegality of the trials and brutality of the crucifixion.

In my quiet time yesterday I learned something new and I thought I’d share it with you. But first I have to set the scene . . .

Jesus has already been accosted and arrested in the garden at Gethsemane. The chief priests handed him over to Pilate to be condemned to death and Peter has disowned him. He’s flogged within an inch of his life. Leather whips embedded with bits of bone and lead rip through skin and muscle.

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Then he’s taken into the Governor’s hall and surrounded by the whole company of soldiers. The Bible tells us that they stripped him, dressed him in a scarlet robe and pushed a crown of thorns onto his head. And then they mocked him and knelt in front of him, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” After that, they spit on him and beat him in the head repeatedly with a staff.

This part of the story saddens and repulses me. But what I didn’t know is that for the Roman soldiers, this was a popular game they played with condemned prisoners. There was an actual game board etched into the floor. They would roll the dice and move the “king” around the board while the troops mocked and abused him.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

And though at any time Jesus could have commanded more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him, he didn’t.

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He sacrificed himself and saved us. This is why we celebrate and commemorate his victory over death.

After the crucifixion the sky went dark and a tremendous earthquake shook the land. The only people standing near him were a centurion and a group of guards.

Matthew 27:54 says, When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!

It makes me wonder how they spent the rest of the day.

What grace our God has given us — let us never forget what Easter is truly about!

 

 

What’s missing in your walk with Jesus?

By Erika Rizkallah

One of the most well known stories in the New Testament begins in Mark 10:17. It’s the story of the rich young ruler.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a young man ran up to him, threw himself at his feet and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

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The first thing Jesus points out is his error. He asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the response he expected. After all, he was rich, young and a ruler. He would have been used to people kowtowing to him.

His had the correct approach. First of all, he ran up to Jesus — something a dignified and respected man would never do in that culture. Then he threw himself at Jesus’ feet, another unusual action for a man in his position.

It was a declaration of worship and I believe he really wanted to know the answer to his question.

But Jesus often does and says the unexpected.

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Jesus responded, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

The ruler declared, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

I love the next sentence. The Bible says Jesus looked at him and loved him. This story is often told and preached in pulpits all over the world . . . with the love part left out.

“One thing you lack,” said Jesus. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

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At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

I always feel for the guy when I hear this story. Here was a person who seemingly had it all: youth, wealth and power and yet, he walks away from the conversation in a state of sadness and uncertainty.

Jesus used the episode as a teaching moment for his disciples. He says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

This flips the disciples out — they’re shocked and amazed — because during that time, it was thought that wealth and power were signs of blessing from God. A guarantee of gaining entrance to Heaven.

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Sometimes we come to Jesus asking deep questions and don’t get the expected answers. But maybe that’s the point.

Only he knows what we truly lack. Only he knows what hinders our faith walk.

But like the rich young ruler, we first have to be brave enough to ask the question.

How about you? What questions have you asked Jesus lately?

 

 

Pursuing peace and quiet

By Erika Rizkallah

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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he restores my soul.

Psalm 23:1-3

What pictures come to mind when you think about the words peace and quiet?

Try closing your eyes and pondering for a moment. Go ahead, I’m waiting.

These are a few images that come to my mind:

landscape-photo-2930249_1920I don’t fish so I’m not sure why this is.

canola-fields-1911392_1920I’m not a farmer, but whenever I see rolling hills and fields, my spirit sighs and settles.

snow-3084740_1920  Maybe I’ve read one too many fairy tales, but this makes my heart happy!

The moments I savor and crave most are those when my home or yard is still. The house is silent and I’m alone. No groan of lawnmowers chewing up the grass, horns honking, or people whining.

Silence energizes and the sounds of nature refresh our souls. And yet, what a nosy and noisy world we live in.

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Sometimes I imagine what it was like before God created mankind. But of course, mankind what just what he had in mind. The Bible teaches us that after he created the world, he made Adam out of the dust. He created Eve out of Adam’s rib — flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.

He placed them in a garden and walked with them and all was well for awhile.

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I think that original beauty and silence is sorely lacking today. I believe we need to find our way back and snatch up as much of it as we can. But silence is scary for a lot of people these days.

How can we hear the Holy Spirit’s whispers if our ears are crammed with noise and our homes rife with strife?

How can we commune with the creator if we stuff our lives with the busyness of the world?

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What do you think? Do you have enough quiet time in your life? Do you make getting alone with God (or yourself) a priority? Do you fear what you might hear?

God loves when we seek him in this way. He loves to whisper into our spirit and he delights in our attempts to hear him.

In 1 Timothy 2:2 the apostle Paul gives instructions for worship and prayer. He asks that we pray for our leaders “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

This is worth pursuing.

Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. James 3:18

 

Sharing the hope of Christ

By Erika Rizkallah

The other day my son and I drove one of his buddies home from school. I got the chance to listen in on an interesting conversation. His friend, Matt, is part of a growing movement of Millennials who believe the earth is flat.

Shocked, I struggled to keep my mouth shut and just listen, but I had to butt in.

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“Matt, do you seriously think the earth is flat or are you joking?” I asked.

“Yes ma’am, I do. I’ve spent months researching it and there’s compelling evidence out there that proves the earth is not round.”

“No mom!” my son shouted, “Don’t get him started — he’ll never stop talking about it.”

Let me first say that Matt is a super smart kid, very respectful and a self-described  “super hard-core Christian.”

And my son was right, once he got going, he didn’t want to stop. I expressed my skepticism and he had answers (good ones!) for every challenge I issued. In fact, a few of his questions made me really think. I admit to doing a little research of my own when I got home.

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He said, “How can you be certain we landed on the moon? Did you see it yourself? No, you were told about it in school and you accepted it as truth. Do you know that most pictures of earth are computer generated models? And what about the fake picture of the moon walk?

He told me he wasn’t just going to accept what the government told him about the world without researching it first. He also said his tactics sometimes got him in trouble with school administrators.

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While I don’t share his views, they’re popular with a group of people known as the Flat Earthers — an organization founded centuries ago by The Flat Earth Society.

His diligence and unbridled passion about the subject reminded me of the Apostle Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 

Matt taught me a lesson that day — I need to be equally prepared and courageous enough to share the hope of Christ with others. I must be willing to gently argue my case and tell my story to skeptics.

Maybe my efforts will pay off and help someone dig deeper into the message about His love for them.

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How about you? Kids say the darnedest things! What lessons about God have you learned from them?

 

 

 

 

Lessons from a Liar

By Erika Rizkallah

Have you ever heard the Bible story about Ananias and Sapphira? This couple carries the unfortunate legacy of being some of the most dishonest people in the New Testament.

Their story is told in Acts 5:1-11 — it’s a warning for the ages.

To fully understand it we must read the previous passages in Acts 4:32-37. The author tells about a special time in the early church. Jesus has ascended to Heaven and the persecution of his disciples has begun. The Holy Spirit settled on the believers who’d gathered together and formed a close-knit community.

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The Bible says: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. Acts 4:32.

The apostles boldly testified about Jesus’ resurrection and there were no needy people in the community. The generosity was so great that some individuals with land and property sold it off and gave it to the apostles to distribute to anyone with need. They practiced Christ’s command of brotherly love. One man who did this was Joseph, who they nicknamed Barnabus, which means Son of Encouragement.

This sounds Utopian, but there’s always a snake in the garden.

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Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostle’s feet. Acts 5:1-2

Peter knew something was up. He said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” (v.3,4)

When Ananias heard this he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (v. 5)

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The story continues with Sapphira, who wasn’t there when the offering was made. She arrived three hours later and Peter questioned her, asking if they withheld any money. She lied and Peter said, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” (v. 9)

Then she dropped dead!

In hindsight, we could read this and wonder why they did the things they did. But we might also feel sympathetic — haven’t we been tempted to lie or hold out on God?

Did pride cause Ananias to lie? Greed? Maybe it was both. Or maybe he wanted to be like Joseph — maybe he wanted to be called a Barnabus. I know when I see a friend do something awesome, I want to be like her.

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What about Sapphira? Didn’t she have a clue that something might be wrong when her husband didn’t come home? Maybe she feared what he might do if she told the truth.

Either way it’s a sad story that hurt their loving community.

It’s also a reminder to us. We must continually check our hearts for evidence of greed and dishonesty. We must always remember that our enemy — the great serpent — lives to tempt us into grieving the Holy Spirit.

His goal is our destruction and the dissolution of Christianity.

 

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We must remember that like those in the early church, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and his grace is sufficient for us.

Heavenly Father, we praise you. We ask that you give us the courage and strength to rely on you for all our needs. We ask that you make us aware of any evil in our hearts and keep us from the temptations of the evil one. Above all, we seek your glory and not our own. Amen

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. John 4:24

 

 

Living with Chronic Pain – Rise and Go!

By Erika Rizkallah

“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:19

In the passages of Luke 17, Jesus spoke to his disciples about temptation, sin and forgiveness. He told them that if a brother sinned against them seven times and repented seven times, they must forgive him. This would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow — sometimes it’s hard to forgive even once.

His disciples urged him to increase their faith. He explained that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed they can command a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the sea. And the tree would obey!

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Is Jesus simply using hyperbole? I think not. I think he’s trying to teach them that faith — even a small amount — is powerful and they have more authority than they realize. I think he’s also teaching them that the increase of faith is their responsibility.

It requires action. The tree will uproot and plant itself if they command it, but it won’t do it on its own.

At this time, they’re heading to Jerusalem, passing between Samaria and Galilee. Ten lepers met them as they entered a village. By law, lepers were considered unclean and outcasts from society. These men, standing at a distance, begged Jesus to have mercy and heal them.

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He called out and told them to go show themselves to the priest, a requirement for anyone healed of disease. So they left and were healed as they went along.

Think about that for a minute. Jesus didn’t actually touch the men, he told them to go and they did. I think this object lesson showed the disciples two important things:

They had the power to command and faith requires action.

Notice that all ten men left believing they’d be healed and declared clean.

However, there’s another important facet of the story. Before they got to the priest, one man came back, fell to his knees before Jesus and thanked him. Before, he stood at a distance, and after, he sat at Jesus’ feet.

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Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

The foreigner was a Samaritan — a hated enemy of the Jews.

Living with chronic pain can make us feel like lepers. Sometimes we feel like outcasts standing on the fringes of life, unwelcome and alone. Jesus doesn’t see us that way. In fact, I think he wants us to understand that even small faith is powerful.

I’m commanding my pain to plant itself somewhere else.

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We can live with anticipation of knowing that at any time, Jesus can appear and send us on the journey to healing.

So rise, start journeying and don’t forget to praise God!

 

Marriage and a wife’s self-esteem

By Erika Rizkallah

Recently, I had an enlightening discussion with a gentleman in my writer’s critique group. He’s a man dedicated to God and is writing a book that will help other men.

He submitted a devotion about marriage – an analogy based on his time spent hiking the Appalachian Trail. His piece promoted perseverance and commitment and offered help to husbands using four Biblical principles. Well written and informative, our small group (all women) thoroughly enjoyed it.

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However, I told him one sentence “tweaked” my spirit.

“Tweaked?” he asked.

“Yeah, you know. Pricked? Tugged at?”

He just smiled.

Has that ever happened to you? Where you read something and you think Hmm I’m not sure about this or maybe, I’m not sure I agree with that statement. 

The passage spoke about how husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. This is correct and true. But then he wrote something like, “A wife draws her self-esteem from her husband.”

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Those were the words that tweaked my spirit.

I politely questioned the statement saying, “I definitely do not get my self-esteem from my husband because he is imperfect. My self-esteem comes from Jesus Christ and who He says I am.”

He replied that his sentence is a biblical truth stated in Ephesians 5:33.

Our group got into an honest discussion about love and respect – what wives and husbands need (which coincidentally) is the title of a popular Christian book written by Dr. Emmerson Eggerichs. The book is widely read within the church.

We talked openly about our marriages and what we desired from our spouse. I learned something in our discussion. We all have different ideas about this issue. Ideas influenced by where we live, our life experiences, various teachers, and cultures.

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But nowhere in the Bible can I find any reference to a spouse’s self-esteem coming from their partner. Ephesians 5:33 states: However, each one of you must also love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Love and respect are Biblical commands and I don’t believe they’re mutually exclusive. My husband and I desire both things from one another and the practice of this has made our 23-year marriage strong and healthy.

I’m writing about this for two reasons:

The first is to illustrate how important it is to know what the Bible says, so we’re not influenced by merely human ideas. The second is so that when we seek esteem, we turn to Christ for validation. I love what the Apostle Paul has to say about us:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Acts 17:26-28.

Your Turn: Has your self-esteem been influenced by other people’s ideas? If so, how?