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

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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

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Daniel Swanson Photography

How to Trust God Better: A Daily Exercise

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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

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Daniel Swanson Photography

5 Tips for Making Tough Decisions

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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

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Daniel Swanson Photography

How to Beat Your Fear of Failure

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Daniel Swanson Photography

They key is to try. Just keep trying.

I want so much to know God better; to become more organized; to practice healthier habits; and to keeping moving steadily toward my future goals.

I am also so very afraid.

Much like everyone else on this planet, I have trouble maintaining momentum. I do really well for a few weeks, and then I realize that I haven’t exercised or written a blog post in days … and then weeks. Heck, I even follow a blog about how to write a good blog, and the author warned me about that very problem.

Because of my pride, I hate to acknowledge that I’m one of “those” people who sets a goal and then gets tired. As soon as my excitement and motivation wane, so do my efforts. Enter discouragement. Enter self-doubt. Enter fear.

Strange, isn’t it, that while engaged in trying, I don’t feel scared? The moment I stand still, I start to wonder about the future, imagining an endless series of false starts. Then I attempt to mask my sense of inadequacy with excuses. It’s not a big deal; I’m doing fine. That goal didn’t matter very much anyway. I’ll get better. I’m just stressed out today.

What if, instead of assuaging my guilt with meaningless self-talk, I chose to silence my worries by trying again? Push “play” on a workout video. Open a new tab. Channel the mental energy I’ve been wasting on shame into trying.

Suddenly I’m back in college, listening to my classmates fret about upcoming assignments instead of working on said assignments. I pleaded guilty to the same crime on many occasions. Almost always, opening a book calmed my fears enough to help me focus. Turns out trying is an instant morale boost.

Trying is an instant morale boost.

Not only do I forget my fears while trying, but I also stop obsessing about the outcome. Stuck in a state of nervous inactivity, I create elaborate plans about what I will accomplish once I finally [get motivated] or [get over this cold] or [get back from this trip] or [insert other excuses].  In the midst of trying, however, my goals automatically shrink to realistic sizes … and I don’t mind so much.

I am often surprised to discover that when I actually try instead of berating myself for not trying sooner, I start to enjoy the process. As much as we avoid work; as much as we complain about work; as much as we dread the work ahead of time; effort feels good.

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So don’t worry about the times you didn’t succeed in the past. Just try again. Simply by trying, you can let go of the shame of previous inconsistency, silence your inner critic, applaud the courage it took to try one more time — and there it is!

The elusive motivator you’ve been seeking.

Trying makes you want to try again.


The Reluctant Bride

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Daniel Swanson Photography

You Might Mess Up

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I have an embarrassing story to tell you.

The other day, I auditioned for a musical performance with a local theater company. I’m a decent singer and actor, so I figured I had a shot. Unfortunately, the show involved tap dancing, which I’d never attempted. Truthfully, I’m not a great dancer, but I gave it a try.

It was, simply put, an unequivocal disaster.

That tap audition reminded me of some very vivid and terrifying dreams from my past, in which I’m standing on an empty stage while an audience stares at me in silence, and I can’t remember any of my lines or even the name of my character. I made a fool of myself in front of a roomful of people, surrounded by mirrors, wearing the wrong shoes.

You don’t want to face the reality that you might fail. I know. Neither do I.

You don’t want to face the reality that you might fail.

I’ll admit that failure does feel pretty awful … for a little while. After that, you laugh.

Let’s take a brief look at my biggest mistakes: blowing things out of proportion. Getting way too worked up about small issues. Letting my emotions run amuck. Delaying out of fear and indecision. Speaking hastily; saying too much; snapping at someone who doesn’t deserve it; flinging cruel words at the people I love — I’ve done these and more.

Would I list my recent tap audition among those failures? No, probably not. In my experience, many of my most shameful mistakes occur because I dread some supposedly worse outcome. Ironically, my resistance to failure often becomes my greatest sin.

“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

She greeted me, a nervous stranger, during the preview weekend for Colorado Christian University, before I became an official student. Her question made me uncomfortable.

“Um … I don’t know. Write a book, I guess.”

“So why don’t you write a book?”

“Um … I don’t know. It probably wouldn’t be any good.”

There it was: the fear. I didn’t want to begin because I might mess up.

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You will mess up. I wish that you and I could take a deep breath together, accept the inevitable mistakes that await us in the future, grieve for a moment, and then relax. You won’t gain anything by avoiding failure, but you could miss out on a lot of joy. Maybe you should ask yourself which would bother you more: messing up or missing out.

I’d hazard a guess that messing up won’t hurt as much as you think it will. Either way, since no one can avoid mistakes altogether, you might as well give yourself a break. That tap audition bruised my ego, sure, but my life didn’t end. Honestly, it’s empowering to discover that I can handle a little bit of failure. Plus, now I have an uncomfortably amusing anecdote to share.


The Reluctant Bride

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Daniel Swanson Photography

The Only Kind of Art that Matters

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Daniel Swanson Photography

Consume that which drives you to create.

My most artistic friend had invited me to the Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver art museum, so we swapped dressy outfits and went on a date. Everyone mistook us for sisters, anyway, so we figured we might as well wear the same clothes. College classmates had even tagged us in the wrong Facebook photos, confusing Alyssa for me.

One poor kid named Curtis never got our names right in four years at a small school.

Anyway, we stood in line to view a small selection of original works, some iconic and others less recognizable. Apparently, none of Van Gogh’s art would have qualified as famous in his day, since most people hated his paintings until after he died. Then, near the end of a dim hallway, I stopped in front of a cluster of purple aspens.

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Daniel Swanson Photography

He must have seen the trees near the edge of dusk, just before total darkness descended, to imagine so much purple in the shadows. He must have ached just to see them. He must have felt so deeply sad. He must have been longing for something, to paint them that way. I knew because I felt it, too. To me, he hadn’t painted merely a grove of trees. He had captured a mood that spoke from the canvas to my gut, and suddenly I needed to write.

Now, you should understand that I knew absolutely nothing about painting. I had gone to this exhibit for no other reason than to spend a fun evening with a friend … but staring at that image, I felt impatient to express myself, almost fidgety with a childlike urgency to play. Since I knew words better than a paintbrush, I wanted to get back in the car and drive immediately to the journal by my bedside.

The best kind of art inspires more art.

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The best kind of art inspires more art.

Inspiration goes way beyond temporary chills. True inspiration culminates in creative activity. Real art propels you toward your own form of artistic expression. Find that kind.

Today, I can’t find those purple aspens online. Maybe I remember the details wrong. Maybe Van Gogh didn’t even paint it! Memory does funny things — but picturing those trees, right now, I feel the same drive to create: a physical sensation in my diaphragm, spreading through my arms into my fingers. Five years later, I wrote this blog post because the artist shaped my opinion of the true purpose of art.

Seek out the kind of art that moves you to creative action. Don’t settle for passive entertainment or escapist distractions. Pay attention when inspiration strikes you in unlikely places, and then respond in your own way. I did this. You could photograph, draw, tell, dance, sing, film, act, or a thousand other marvelous things.

Who knows? The art that you create just might inspire someone else.


The Reluctant Bride

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