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

5 Signs You’ve Become an Adult

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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Daniel Swanson Photography

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’re Doing a Good Job

I’m going to say this again because you need to hear it:

You’re doing a good job.

Keep going. Don’t get discouraged; don’t give up. Right now, you can’t see the progress because you’re too close to the situation. I promise you’re becoming something beautiful.

Recently my husband and I have been working on communicating better about a few hot-button topics, and it’s been rough. After three years of marriage, I noticed that we tended to repeat the same arguments, and every time those issues came up, things got a little more heated. It had finally gotten to the point where we weren’t talking about those subjects any more. We were only fighting about them. Something had to give.

We started trying to develop some healthier habits, but the process was extremely emotional. I came close to quitting because I didn’t see any difference. (Just to clarify, I considered giving up on the habits, not the marriage. We love each other a lot and are committed for life. Didn’t want you to worry.) Then, over the holidays, my sister made a passing comment about how happy and connected we seemed. It took me by surprise.

Really? We seem happy and connected?

Since then I’ve noticed it myself, but at the time my family’s encouragement gave me the boost I needed to keep trying. That’s what I’m praying this blog post does for you.

Now, because we’re sinful human beings in need of a Savior, I do need to acknowledge the possibility that you’re not doing a good job. Maybe you’re giving in to your fears. Maybe you’re harboring unresolved bitterness.

Believe me, I’ve been there. Back when I resisted marrying my husband, I knew perfectly well that I was allowing fear to rule me … but recognizing my failure didn’t help. After all, I didn’t want to give in to anxiety. At the time, I honestly didn’t feel like I had control. In that scenario, there’s only one thing to remember:

You may not be doing a good job, but Jesus is.

You may not be doing a good job, but Jesus is.

Looking back at my worst moments, God inevitably used them for my benefit. In that dark, dark season when I thought God had abandoned me, He was working toward a display of His glory that would leave me stunned. So if you’re not at your best currently, don’t sweat it. Trust God to be better. In the meantime, I’m here to reassure you that yes, you will get there eventually. Don’t lose heart.

I sincerely believe that right now, today, you are doing a good job. More importantly, however, your heavenly Father always does a good job — and He loves you so, so much.


The Reluctant Bride

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 1:6 (NIV)

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Why Routines Are the Key to Progress

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Daniel Swanson Photography

Without routines, you will not achieve lasting change.

Think for a moment about the people you know who never seem to find success. Do they  get excited about new goals only to give up after a few weeks? In my experience, people who never learn consistency spend their lives feeling frustrated, unsatisfied, and stuck. You do not need to become one of those people.

All you need to do is the same thing, every day, for the rest of your life.

People who never learn consistency spend their lives feeling stuck.

If I may be vulnerable with you for a moment, standing still is probably my greatest fear.

Stagnation terrifies me because, in my weakest, most passive state, I don’t move forward. I never would have gone to college if my parents hadn’t pushed me. I couldn’t have married anyone less stubborn than my husband because no other man would have waited so long. For me, the status quo holds a lot of allure. I love routines because they save me from myself.

For me, the status quo holds a lot of allure.

A good routine guarantees eventual progress. A few minutes of practice every day at almost any skill will yield results over a lifetime. Routines help me to feel secure because I don’t need to worry about regressing. As long I persevere, I will continue to improve.

Now, please understand that routines do not guarantee perfection. They only ensure progress. As a recovering perfectionist, I know that my desire for perfection often destroys any chance at self-improvement because I don’t begin. Fear of failure keeps me from trying at all. When I do finally get started, I tend to waste all of my energy perfecting the first step and never reach the end.

Instead of attempting perfection, I want to be content with forward motion.

Right now, I’d like to move closer to Christ. It’s been a while since I maintained a solid routine of prayer and Bible study, and I’m afraid of missing out on Jesus. Maybe it sounds simplistic, but I’ve seen how graciously God responds when I extend a little effort. Sometimes I think Christians over-spiritualize their relationships with God. As with any human friendship, consistent communication builds stronger bonds.

You already know the routines that will propel you toward your goal. You also recognize when you need to switch things up so you don’t go completely crazy. I’m praying this post gives you the encouragement you need to keep going. Maybe you don’t see the progress right now, but sticking with something almost always works.

Routines tend to be boring. They’re hardly ever fun, entertaining, or exciting. They don’t always feel like progress in the moment, and they require a lot of dogged determination and tedious repetition. They’re also the only way to achieve lasting change.

Don’t give up.


The Reluctant Bride

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Daniel Swanson Photography



How to Set Smaller Goals and Make More Progress

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I’m talking about ridiculously small goals … ones that feel so pathetically insignificant, you doubt that you’ll see any results at all.

Trust me. You will surprise yourself.

I had two problems: dishes piling up in the sink and laundry piling up on the floor. I wanted an empty sink and a clear carpet. Unfortunately, I also knew myself well enough not to attempt sudden, drastic improvements.

Instead, I set two goals that seemed embarrassingly easy: switch a load per day. For me, that meant moving dishes from the sink into the dishwasher and going to bed, not waiting for the cycle to finish. It meant transferring wet clothes into the dryer without worrying about folding. The next step could wait until tomorrow.

To my utter astonishment, within a few days, my sink emptied and my floor cleared. I didn’t procrastinate because my tiny goals didn’t feel daunting. As soon as I got home from work, I switched a load of dishes and switched a load of laundry.

It took about ten minutes, and my house became a much nicer place to live.

Not only did my baby steps turn into substantial progress, but I inadvertently tricked myself into becoming motivated. Since switching loads didn’t feel difficult, most nights I thought, “I could do a little more.” I’d spend a few extra minutes running upstairs to grab another armload of clothes or scrubbing a pot that didn’t fit in the dishwasher … because I wanted to keep working!

What sort of sorcery was this?

This probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but I discovered that most of my laziness stemmed from fear. I feared failure. By setting minuscule goals, I removed the intimidation factor, and suddenly I felt free to accomplish more. On the nights when I didn’t have the energy for anything extra, I went to sleep guilt-free because I had accomplished my minimum.

Most of my laziness stems from fear.

Here’s my advice: Choose a goal, and then divide it into pieces. Pick one piece, and start there. Maybe you want to get in shape. Instead of planning an hour-long workout, do sit-ups for five minutes before bed. Write 5 Minutes of Sit-Ups in your planner every day. It will feel silly. Do it anyway.

Little goals work better long-term because they’re so repeatable. Today, for instance, I’ll admit that there are dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor. I’m not overly discouraged, though, because I’ve seen how quickly small goals can become big progress–and I know I can do it again.

Start today with one small goal. When you lose the habit, start again. Don’t get discouraged. Over time, setting smaller goals will help you to develop confidence in your own ability to make lasting change. In my experience, that is the real victory.


The Reluctant Bride

P.S. I’d love to hear how you break your goals into more manageable chunks!