Stop Telling Christians to Put Jesus First

My pastor is doing a sermon series based on Game of Thrones.

The sermons explore the book of Ecclesiastes, in which King Solomon pursues every imaginable form of pleasure only to find his life entirely devoid of meaning. Empty. Futile. Dust in the wind.

It’s not a bad parallel to the characters in the HBO series, most of whom spend eight seasons chasing power. A few also chase wine and women. Most die gruesome deaths in the process, and almost none find any sort of fruitful sense of purpose.

The point, of course, is that Jesus needs to sit on the throne of your heart. It’s right there in the Bible, over and over again: prioritize the kingdom of God, and all of the other stuff will get taken care of, too. It’s a valid point. I even agree with it–but pastors need to stop saying it.

He’s Not First

You’ve probably heard a variation of that sermon a hundred times. “Is Jesus the King of your heart? Do you love Him most? Do you worship any figurative idols?” If you’re like me, your answer is likely the same as it’s been the past 99 times: He’s not first.

Not really. Not if you’re honest.

You’re terribly distracted, you see. You prioritize all kinds of things above Jesus because of your vanity, or your pride, or your selfish ambition, or your laziness. You’re not proud of it. You’d like to be different, but you know perfectly well Jesus isn’t on your throne. You are!

Jesus isn’t on your throne. You are!

You Can’t Change

So … what can you do about it? That’s the missing part that seems, in my opinion, critical. Nobody has a good answer.

As a recovering perfectionist, my natural response tends to be, “I need to try harder!” Read my Bible longer. Pray more often. Go to more church services. Volunteer.

But I know from experience where that leads, and it’s the same place the Game of Thrones led Jon Snow: to disillusionment. It’s also the same place King Solomon ended up, the richest and wisest and most powerful man who ever lived. Bummer.

Let Him Work

Here’s the problem with putting Jesus first: you can’t do it. It’s impossible. Stop trying.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I’m a big fan of trying in general, meaning that you should absolutely keep taking small steps toward self-improvement, but you were never meant to perform your own heart transplant. Jesus wants to do that for you.

The whole point of the Gospel is that you can’t save yourself, so Jesus has to step in and make some serious changes on your behalf. The first step to putting Jesus first is to be honest with Him. Try this prayer for starters: “Lord, I know you’re not on my throne. I wish you were. Help me.”

Your part is to keep on asking.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t expect you to participate at all, but the key point I’m making is that He does the work in you. You just need to recognize the problem, acknowledge the ugly truth, ask Him to do what you cannot, and trust Him to answer.

My pastor honestly preached a great sermon on the Christian version of the Game of Thrones. He simply left us to figure out the application on our own–because it’s not enough to inspire a sense of shame. True repentance means to turn around, to enact a change in leadership.

In my case, only Jesus could gently persuade me to relinquish my seat on the throne and bend the knee to the true King.


The Reluctant Bride

God Wants to Do Homework with You

Evan and Marie - HQ-8927
Daniel Swanson Photography

You probably don’t even realize how often you experience anxiety.

In all likelihood, you worry constantly. Like a bad habit of popping your knuckles or slouching, you don’t recognize the severity of the problem until you try to quit.

I’m practicing a new discipline.

I have started praying every time I feel the slightest bit stressed out. Today, a client showed up at the station who hadn’t been answering my emails. My boss needed information from them, but they tended to record their radio shows and rush out the door. No time to talk. I felt my stomach tighten in anticipation of bothering them.

Then the automatic reminder of the Holy Spirit chimed in my head, and I remembered to tell God about my insignificant, momentary concerns. Jesus, I’m feeling nervous about this right now. I’d like to trust You, but I don’t know how. Please help. Thank You.

Those simple prayers work.

Over the past few weeks, I have rediscovered a truth that the Lord tries to teach me again and again. God cares about the dumb details of my life. Start saying quick prayers every time you feel the smallest amount of stress. Although He may not respond immediately, God will answers those prayers. He has been waiting for you to ask!

God cares about the dumb details of your life.

I remember the first time it occurred to me that God might want to participate in my college homework. Sitting in the basement of the CCU library, fretting about an essay, I had the unusual idea to invite God to write with me. It seemed odd at the time, but one brief prayer transformed my entire outlook. Suddenly the project took on new life, new energy, new excitement. I wanted to write that essay, and I wrote it darn well.

The kind of prayer I’m talking about isn’t complicated.

All you need to do is tell Jesus what you’re feeling and ask for His help. Remember that it’s OK to be completely honest with Him because He already knows, anyway. You can tell him straight up, “I highly doubt this will do any good, but I’d sure like some help right now.” Nine times out of ten, He will surprise you. The tenth time, it’ll take a while for you to realize that He came through after all. Sometimes you only notice in retrospect.

This stuff really works.

Try it. I dare you. The next time you start to worry, even about something insignificant, tell Jesus and ask for His intervention. See what happens … and share it with me! Then do it fifty more times. This is slowly becoming a habit for me, and although I’m still in the early stages of transformation, I can already tell a difference in my general demeanor.

Your life gets better when you include Jesus in it.

We’re taking baby steps toward the abundant life Jesus told us we could have. Don’t worry about the distance you still need to travel. Moving slightly closer to Jesus is so much better than standing a little farther away. Isn’t it wonderul that He wants you?


The Reluctant Bride

Evan and Marie - HQ-7804
Daniel Swanson Photography

5 Signs You’ve Become an Adult

Evan and Marie - HQ-4199
Daniel Swanson Photography

Face it: you’re boring now.

You hear words coming out of your own mouth that would have made you roll your eyes and groan just a few short years ago. You’re basically one step away from telling kids to get off your lawn. You’ve even developed a taste for prunes and oatmeal.

Alright, so maybe it’s not that bad, but I’ve been startled to discover that previously boring subjects have suddenly become interesting to me. Although transitions always feel awkward, I’m finding that I don’t mind these changes so much.

1. You get excited about home improvements.

Sure, the financial aspect of maintaining a home gets stressful, and the lengthy to-do list feels overwhelming, but there’s something satisfying about caring for your own home. Buying a new couch can be fun. Even small tasks like laundry and dishes mean more because you genuinely want to create a pleasant home environment.

The exhilarating aspects of home ownership came as a shock to me because, as a kid, I barely noticed my surroundings. Cleaning my room obviously didn’t thrill me. Now that I have a house, it’s not like I keep everything tidy and clean all the time–far from it–but I do care a lot more, and I love the satisfaction of a vacuumed carpet. Weird.

2. You initiate conversations about the weather.

In high school, my mom and aunt included me on a trip to North Carolina to see the lighthouses. We toured old houses. I had my first taste of grits. (Not a fan.) During one long drive through a historic neighborhood, my mom kept telling me to look out the window. “Marie, do you see these gorgeous trees? Look at the sunset!”

I had a novel and a coloring book in the backseat and found her interruptions mildly irritating. I could not have cared less about the scenery. Now I smile on my commute to the office when I see a tree with yellow flowers or a cluster of puffy clouds. Every weekday, the receptionist and I exclaim about the temperature. That’s new.

Evan and Marie - HQ-4198
Daniel Swanson Photography

3. You use the phrase, “Time flies!”

… or some similar expression to try to explain how you just barely got back from your honeymoon five minutes ago, and suddenly you’ve been been married three and a half years and have two cats. That time warp sensation seems to be exclusive to grown-ups.

Remember how you felt the day before your birthday when you were turning eight? You thought you’d explode with impatience because the hours lasted so interminably long. Now entire weeks go by, and when someone asks you what happened, you can’t recall.

That’s not just me, right? Does it freak you out, too?

4. You look forward to bed time.

I remember lying in my bunk bed, staring longingly at the sliver of golden light under the bedroom door. I didn’t feel the slightest bit sleepy, and I could hear my parents, sneaking their hidden stash of Milk Duds from the back of the pantry. Their world seemed a lot more glamorous than hunting for shapes in the popcorn ceiling.

As an adult, I still procrastinate, but by the time I finally lie down, it feels so good. On the other hand, I do also enjoy being the one to stay up late and eat candy sometimes.

Evan and Marie - HQ-5103
Daniel Swanson Photography

5. You’re honestly fine with it.

You’re mostly OK with being a little boring most of the time because you actually like your life better now–at least, parts of it. Yes, you’d trade in the responsibility and stress, but think about how it felt to be a kid. Was it really stress-free? Maybe I was more intense than the average child, but I never want to move backward. I’m not afraid of so many things these days. I prefer the small amount of perspective that I’ve gained.

God loves you here.

My Junior year of college, I went on a retreat with some Freshman girls because my roommate was their RA. We sat around a campfire one night and sang a song that was new to me at the time: There’s no place I would rather be / No place I would rather be / No place I would rather be / Than here in Your love / Here in Your love.

I’ve sung that song in a lot of different phases: in the shower in Oxford, England, an ocean away from everyone who knew me. Driving away from the music building at CCU for the last time. It’s my reminder that it’s OK to be here. This stage of life; these particular struggles; these giddy moments. He loves me here, too.

You know what? Embrace the boring. Life can be pretty wonderful as an adult.


The Reluctant Bride

Evan and Marie - HQ-4829
Daniel Swanson Photography



How to Trust God Better: A Daily Exercise

Evan and Marie - HQ-7763
Daniel Swanson Photography

You don’t have the peace of God.

Not really–not if you’re honest with yourself.

You’ve had a few impactful experiences in your life when God gave you supernatural peace, but most of the time you feel worried, stressed, and anxious. You know you’re not living the abundant life that Christ wants for you, but you feel powerless. You don’t know how to maintain a constant state of calm.

I want you to try an experiment with me.

Multiple times throughout your day, every time you start to worry, pause to pray. Say these exact words, either mentally or verbally: “I trust You.”

Every time you start to worry, pause to pray.

I’ve been having some trouble with insomnia lately, and when I got into bed the other night, I started to feel a wave of anxiety, picturing the sleepless night ahead. Instead of allowing the dread to build, I told God, “I trust You.” That tiny prayer took a surprising amount of emotional effort because I had to let go of the outcome.

I fell asleep quickly that night and stayed asleep.

Since then, I’ve started incorporating that one-sentence prayer into my little anxious moments throughout the day. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

1. I have a lot of little anxious moments.

Every time I express my trust to the Lord, I realize how tight my shoulders have become. I remember to exhale. I relax the muscles around my eyes. Momentary prayers seem to serve as a subconscious body check. I hadn’t realized how often I allowed worry to take control of my body. No wonder my stress levels have been so high!

2. Jesus wants to participate in my life.

Somehow I manage to forget this lesson over and over again. In college, I learned that Jesus wanted to help me write essays and study for tests. During my tour as an actress and dancer for Dare2Share, I learned that Jesus wanted to perform on stage with me. Now I’m learning that Jesus wants to help me send emails to my boss, too.

3. Peace is possible.

I’ve barely begun developing this habit. Already, though, I’m beginning to see that God wants to move me toward obedience. He commanded me not to be afraid–many times, in fact. I have been disobedient, and I tried not feel guilty because I thought it wasn’t my fault. It couldn’t obey Him. It was impossible … and I was right, sort of.

Invite Jesus into every moment of your life.

You literally cannot experience peace by trying harder. God intentionally created you with a major flaw called worry. Why would He do that? Because He wants to be with you. It all comes back to that breath-by-breath, active encounter with the living God. I’m so, so bad at it. Sometimes I think I’m growing closer only to relapse for months or years.

Try it. Next time you feel your stomach start to tighten with stress, say to God, “I trust you.” See what happens. Maybe you’ve already been practicing for longer than a few days, and you have even more thrilling illustrations and lessons to report. Tell me!

I’d love to hear how you experience peace by experiencing Jesus.


The Reluctant Bride

Evan and Marie - HQ-7727
Daniel Swanson Photography

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Got Married

Evan and Marie - HQ-4530-2
Daniel Swanson Photography

I’m not advising you to get married.

I’m also not suggesting that married people have more fulfillment in their lives than single people. I’m simply sharing my experience because I expected to hate marriage.

Weird, right?

I’d heard about how “hard” marriage would be, and I experienced a lot of fear and indecision beforehand, so I can honestly say that my marriage has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Sometimes it’s nice to recall the good decisions that you’ve made.

Here are five aspects of married life that I love:

1. Companionship

Ordinary tasks take on more meaning when you share them with someone. I’ve always felt this way. Even in college, when a dear friend helped me clean my dorm room, the chore became a bonding experience. Now that I’m married, grocery shopping or cooking dinner can become a date. My husband calls this “life-ing” together.

I’d much rather fold laundry for us than for me. Long drives to audio gigs become special memories. Yard work becomes an opportunity for conflict management. Watching Netflix on the couch doesn’t feel like a waste of time because we get to cuddle. Companionship imbues my mundane moments with a greater sense of purpose.

2. Friendship

Growing up, my best girlfriends and I giggled about the same boys. We stayed up late, watching Disney movies and eating raw cookie dough. We wore matching outfits. Honestly, marriage feels a little like that sometimes.  My husband and I sit around the house most evenings, telling each other about something cute our cat just did.

We stay up too late on work nights watching funny YouTube videos. We reference obsolete Office quotes and laugh at our own jokes. We have long phone conversations while driving, sharing every uninteresting detail of our day. We eat ice cream straight from the carton and record music videos together. Basically, we’re besties.

3. Company

I don’t do well on my own. Once upon a time, when I lived in a house full of siblings, parents, and grandparents, I craved “alone time” to play with my beanie babies. As an adult, I have discovered that I need someone with me. My semester in Oxford, England first impressed this lesson on me, and married life has provided further confirmation.

It’s not that I can’t ever be alone. Sometimes I enjoy a nice hot bath, a novel, or an evening to myself to clean the bathroom sinks. I recently flew to California for a one-night business trip, and I didn’t have a nervous breakdown in the hotel room. After a day or two without quality time, though, I get sad. My husband makes me feel more secure.

4. Partnership

I think this is the part people are talking about when they say that marriage is “hard.” You react immaturely to a stressful situation, and your spouse gets to see the worst side of you. Then your spouse hits a low point, and you wonder how the two of you will ever recover. In the worst of times, you sink simultaneously. Those times really stink.

The way I see it, everyone goes through something horrible at some point, married or otherwise. No, it’s not fun to bear someone else’s burden. It’s also not very enjoyable for them to carry yours … but we have no other option. I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t handle my issues alone.

5. Growth

Stagnation is probably my worst fear. Fortunately for me, it’s literally impossible to remain stagnant when you’re married–at least, that seems to be the case for Evan and me. We push all of each other’s buttons, which means that we have lots of … opportunities to mature. We don’t have a choice if we want to get along.

Most recently, my husband is learning to balance his work and home life, and I’m learning to give him space when he needs it. We’re both finding these lessons to be very challenging, but we’re better for it (I hope). I’d like to say that I’m a little more of an adult since getting married: more confident, more capable, and a tad less self-focused.

Jesus does all of this, too.

I’m abundantly relieved to discover that married life can be so great. I’m also learning, though, how much I still need Jesus.

It makes sense to me that the Bible calls Jesus the Bridegroom. Of course we all need constant, supportive people in our lives, but Jesus does it best. He’s willing to be our Companion, Friend, and Helper. He knows exactly when to push us and when to be gentle. He promises never to leave us alone.

I sure hope this blog post doesn’t discourage you if you’re not married because Jesus wants so much to be all of this for you and more. He wants that for me, too. As much as I rely on my husband, Evan can’t be my only source of strength. Jesus can.

I’m thankful to have both of them.


The Reluctant Bride

Evan and Marie - HQ-4539
Daniel Swanson Photography


How to Stay Calm

Evan and Marie - HQ-5513
Daniel Swanson Photography

Something unexpected happened, and you freaked out.

Afterward, you felt embarrassed about your overreaction.

Trust me, I have made the same mistake countless times, including this week.

I also believe that we can both do better. Here’s how:

1. Tell God.

Duh, right? Seems obvious for Christians, but I don’t think we practice the habit often enough. As soon as you encounter an uncomfortable situation, say to God, “This happened. I’m not sure how to respond.” It only takes five seconds, and it actually works.

2. Tell yourself.

The smartest thing my counselor every told me was this: “Feelings aren’t facts.” In the moment, the tiniest problems can seem like the end of the world, so I talk to myself internally: Your feelings aren’t facts. Chances are, you won’t feel this way in an hour.

Feelings aren’t facts.

3. Distract yourself.

If possible, find a task to consume your focus. Hustle to the laundry room and fold a shirt. Play a song on your phone. Brush your teeth–whatever pops into your mind. At work, open a new document and start typing.  Have a conversation with a coworker.

After about ten minutes, the initial wave of emotions will pass. Then you can revisit the situation with a little better perspective. Reacting immediately leads to regret.

4. Breathe alone.

Suppose the first three steps didn’t work, and you start to lose control. Go into the bathroom, shut the door, sit on the toilet, and breath slowly. Count to five for each inhale. Fill your diaphragm. Force yourself to finish ten full breaths before you quit.

5. Read the Bible out loud.

I use this step as my last-ditch effort when I can’t stop crying.

Through the gasping breaths, pick a Psalm at random and start to read verbally. The act of speaking serves as a distraction and requires more regular breathing. The meaning of the text gets you out of your head, and the Holy Spirit can start working on your heart.

Do not consider this a comprehensive list.

These five tricks  happen to have worked for me in the past. In fact, I tried a couple of them today with relative success. I didn’t even need to resort to number five–but I’d still love to hear your top five tips for keeping your emotions in check. Leave them in the comments!

Let’s work on staying calm together.


The Reluctant Bride

Evan and Marie - HQ-9164
Daniel Swanson Photography

5 Tips for Making Tough Decisions

Evan and Marie - HQ-8388
Daniel Swanson Photography

I hate making decisions so much that I almost didn’t marry the love of my life.

So when I tell you that I have a few tips about making difficult choices, trust me–these lessons were hard-won. Please know that I sympathize with your inner angst.

1. Take your time.

This is a weird one for me because, historically, I have taken way too much time to make decisions. Take my engagement as an example: almost a year and a half of agonizing thought, prayer, and discussion.

Ever since getting married, however, I seem to have swung wildly to the other extreme. Now I attempt to skip the entire experience by making decisions swiftly and at random, which is not a great alternative.

It’s OK to slog through the painful process. Pray. Search the scriptures. Talk with trusted friends and family. You’ll come out of it wiser. Hang in there.

2. Talk to future you.

Sometimes I like to stage imaginary conversations with myself six months in the future. Pretending that I have already picked a certain option, and I ask, “Do you regret your choice?”

My boss recently asked me to travel once per month to a radio station out of state. I’d meet with new clients and write new ads, which would mean a bigger workload and a larger commissions check each month.

Monthly travel sounded daunting, but we’d been going through a slow season with the local stations. I had a heart-to-heart with future Marie, imagining that she had declined the opportunity. She regretted missing the chance to grow. She felt bored. So I said yes.

3. Just make the decision.

Once you’ve carefully weighed each option, pick one. Acknowledge that you cannot predict every outcome, let go of your need for control, and take the scary step. In my experience, even a wrong decision will turn out better than no decision at all.

In fact, I’d estimate that the majority of choices don’t fall under the category of moral dilemmas. Often, either alternative could lead to some favorable results. Commit yourself to one path, and you’ll typically find both trials and successes.

In the rare case that you do make a horrible mistake, and disastrous consequences ensue … at least you’ll learn from the experience and make a better choice next time. Remaining in a state of permanent indecision gets you nothing but a tummy ache.

4. Stick with it.

Once you have made up your mind, don’t revisit the decision. Commit yourself fully to the path you have chosen. You also shouldn’t be too hasty to judge whether you made the “right” call or not. Give it some time; see how it goes.

A couple of years ago, my ENT recommended sinus surgery. He hoped that it would help me to breathe better at night. The financial cost was significant, however, and I would  need to take time off work for the recovery. After deliberating, I took my doctor’s advice.

The recovery ended up being much worse than the surgeon had anticipated. I had to take more days off work than I had planned. The pain was, frankly, horrible, and I didn’t respond well to the pain medication. Clearly, I had made a terrible mistake …

… except that I can actually breathe through my nose now. And, in retrospect, the nine-day recovery doesn’t seem so terribly long. Sometimes I need to give myself a break and have a little patience before labeling myself a failure.

Action cures fear. Indecision, postponement, on the other hand, fertilize fear. – David J. Schwartz, The Magic of Thinking Big, 1959

5. Trust yourself.

Right now, you don’t trust yourself. You don’t really trust God, either–not if you’re honest. That’s OK. Go ahead and do something scary.

Here’s the unpleasant reality: in order to develop trust, you must first risk failure. It’s going to feel awful the first few times. You’ll want to throw up, and you’ll feel certain that you’re going to ruin your entire life. You won’t.

And once the world hasn’t ended a couple of times, you’ll slowly start to become more confident in your own ability to make good choices. You’ll also be able to look back and observe how God was working undercover the whole time. He seems to prefer at little secrecy at first, for some reason.

I’m sorry that it’s scary right now.

I wish you didn’t need to feel afraid. I also believe that you can do this.

Because I did.


The Reluctant Bride

Evan and Marie - HQ-5048
Daniel Swanson Photography