Last week, I had a conversation with my doctor as part of a routine follow-up (just one of the perks of surviving another birthday). I am proud to say that all my numbers are improving, thanks to a nutritional plan that he recommended I follow. Part of the conversation included my continued craving for the doughnut I had been denying myself. The doctor then stated, “Don’t think about these things as things that you are denying yourself of enjoying; instead, think of all the things you are providing for yourself by your restraint.” As I think about what he said, I remember that I would rather enjoy cardiac health and longer life than three minutes of refined sugar and saturated fat, however delightful those three minutes may be.
I am a big proponent of delayed gratification (the practice of foregoing instant, but temporary, pleasure with the hope of receiving a permanent, and greater, blessing). There is a problem that I see as I exercise discretion through delayed gratification: I tend to focus on what I am refusing and neglect to fix my gaze on what I am gaining. I know that I am skipping dessert when everyone else is indulging; what I need to know is that these tiny steps of obedience are enabling me to spend time with my theoretical four-year-old granddaughter drinking imaginary tea at her make-believe soiree. These are the thoughts that make baked goods (even the always delicious hermits) resistible.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I celebrated my birthday, I spent a few moments reflecting on my past 53 years and all the things I wish I had accomplished by now. I spent time ruing some of the choices of my youth (refusing to limit my spending in order to afford some savings, allowing myself to take shortcuts which lessened both my workload and my stamina) and regretted the nevers of my middle-age (never owning my own home, never travelling to Europe). These moments of reflection upon my dalliances with instant gratification have not discouraged me; they increase my resolve to engage in the sacrifices I must make to seize the future God desires for me.
So, as get up early to spend some time in Bible reading, I pray that I will not focus on the sleep that I am missing but rather upon the deep well of scripture that I am drilling for the day of spiritual dryness. As I spend time in concerted prayer, I pray that I will not dwell on the television show I am missing but rather the conversations with God and the concerns for others that I am finding. As I limit my daily caloric intake, I pray that I will not fixate on the dietary restrictions but rather the increased days that discipline will add to my life.
The only way I can remain ‘on track’ for the long haul is not by thinking about each painful step, but by thinking of the finish line. May we all finish strong the race set before us through self-denial and seeking the greater joy.
The other day my wife and I were driving past one of the many parks in our community. I commented about the unleashed dog and its owner, the sole occupants on the grass. Then I said to her, “Do you think the dog thinks it is in charge and that the man is its pet?” There is was, loping around the ball field, and the owner dutifully walked after it with an unhooked leash in his hand. From all appearances, the dog was the leader and the man was the follower.
This made me think about my relationship with God. Do I make the similar assumption that I am the leader and He is simply following my lead? Do I assume that because I am unfettered I am free to do anything and go anywhere my heart desires? Do I assume that I can disregard the master’s commands if they are inconsistent with my own desires? Do I live a carefree life, gamboling in the grass, expecting that He will always be right behind me? Do I think that I am the one in charge in our relationship? Do I mistake the ability to occasionally choose my path with the capacity to consistently walk rightly with the Lord?
You [the Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. Job 42:3 (NIV)
Like Job, we all, at some point in our lives, come to the place of acknowledging that we are not the masters of our own destinies; God is. We all, at some point in our lives, come to the realization that we speak about things we do not understand or have knowledge about. We formulate plans without the privilege of prayer, we make selections without the strength of the Spirit and we begin walking without the wisdom of the Word. When we forget who is the master and who is not, we obscure the plans God has for us. We are so busy nosing around in the soil that we neglect the blessings of being with the Lord.
I am reminded that I cannot think up or imagine the fullness of what God has in store for those who faithfully follow Him. I am like that dog in the park, who is toying with an expired squirrel while a steak dinner is being prepared for me at home. I am like that dog in the park, thinking that I am free as I wander into oncoming traffic, oblivious to the dangers present just beyond the sidewalk. I am like that dog in the park, fully reliant upon the kindness, provision and direction of the master, whether I know it or not. I am like that dog in the park – only as free as the Master allows for my own safety and satisfaction.
I praise God that He lets me run ‘off the leash’ regularly, always watching, always ready to restrain me if I get into trouble. I praise God that He is my Master – perfectly protecting, pampering and providing for me, whether I know it or not.