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Reader Question: Beagles, the Bible, and Birthdays


Ali writes:

Have you written on "birthdays?" My parents taught us the bible teaches that birthday celebrations are wrong and selfish. I remember King Herod being an example. I also was the example for my younger sisters as on my 6th birthday I acted selfish and ungrateful and I ruined having birthday celebrations for my 3 younger sisters. I don't honestly remember how I acted, but it must have been terrible to ruin "birthdays" for my 3 younger sisters.


I can understand why some religious folks get uneasy about certain popular movies or books or styles of clothing or genres of music. But birthdays? Sometimes you can push a line of thought too far and pull the whole thing down with it.

Apparently, the argument goes something like this. The Bible doesn’t have much to say about birthdays—certainly not whether we should celebrate them—and what it does say doesn’t show them in the most flattering light. Pharaoh had someone executed on his birthday. Job cursed the day that he was born. Herod threw a wild birthday party that included him ogling his stepdaughter’s exotic dance and wound up with John the Baptist getting beheaded. So, the Bible never says outright that we should celebrate birthdays, and the few times they’re mentioned at all, it connects them with sinful things. That proves birthdays are evil, right?

Wrong.

That argument is just begging for a good reductio ad absurdum, so I’ll give it one. Let’s take another biblical example: dogs. Every mention in the Bible of dogs is negative. Dogs are symbols for false prophets and blasphemers. Dogs licked Lazarus’s wounds in the rich man’s gate. Dogs ate the body of Jezebel. Don’t cast your pearls before swine or give what is holy to dogs.

So…. what do we say to this li’l guy?

Given the theological considerations as established, the only thing that can reasonably be said under the circumstances is Awwwwwwwww! Who’s a widdle cutesy muggins and his widdle biddy puppy feetsies and—ahem. Excuse me. Where was I?

That’s just the point, though. I’ve met a lot of people who interpret the Bible hard and fast and legalistic, but I’ve never met anybody who thought puppies were evil—well, aside from chewing the furniture—even though the Bible seems to say so. We all know instinctively that puppies were made to be loved.

And what about house cats? The Bible doesn’t mention them anywhere, not even once. Yet I’ve never seen a debate on whether a Christian should own a cat. (Or, maybe more accurately, whether a cat should own a Christian.) Everyone knows that would be ridiculous. Who can’t love a kitten?

Yet the logic of this argument would be even stronger against puppies and kittens than it is against birthdays—if I can use the word “logic” to mean “fallacy.” The Bible only ever mentions dogs in connection with sin. Does that prove dogs are sinful? No; that’s the “guilt by association” fallacy. The Bible’s original cultural milieu considered dogs unclean. Does that prove dogs are unclean for us? No; that’s the “false analogy” fallacy. The Bible doesn’t mention cats at all. Does that prove Christians shouldn’t keep them? No; that’s the “argument from silence” fallacy. That’s a lot of fallacies, but that’s what the anti-birthday doctrine is made of.

Why does this argument fail so spectacularly? For one thing, because real Christianity is not Bibliolatry. If you try to use the Bible as the compendium of all knowledge—the source of all rules for living—the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy—then you’re not using it right. At least, not according to what the Bible says that Jesus said about what the Bible says:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)

Scripture isn’t meant to point us to rules or principles for life. It’s meant to point us to Jesus, who gives us life. (I discuss this at more length in an odd article called God’s Little Instruction Book.)

So, what did Jesus say the Bible was all about?

Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35–40)

The Bible, according to Jesus, can be summed up in two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. That makes sense, since the Bible is a book about Jesus, and Jesus embodies God’s love for us and for everyone (John 3:16).

In other words, if you read the Bible and you come away with more love for God and more love for the people around you, you’ve probably found the correct interpretation. If, on the other hand, you read the Bible and come away with less love—if it makes you, for instance, steal the happiness from a six-year-old girl and give her a load of guilt instead—then you don’t even need exegesis to know you’re doing something wrong.

So let’s reframe the question and make it about love. If we love God (as revealed in the Bible) and love our neighbors (as informed by the Bible), what should birthdays be to us?

Once we ask that, things get much clearer. First off, we discover that faith in Christ is certainly not a matter of keeping rules about special days or holidays or feasts. Here’s Paul, writing crisply as he usually does:

In view of these tremendous facts*, don’t let anyone worry you by criticizing what you eat or drink, or what holy days you ought to observe, or bothering you over new moons or Sabbaths. All these things are no more than foreshadowings: the reality belongs to Christ. Let no man cheat you out of your joy by wanting you to join him in his false humility and worship of angels. Such a man, presuming on the little he has seen, by using an unspiritual imagination, entirely forgets the head. It is from the head alone that the body, through its joints and ligaments, is nourished and built up and grows as God meant it to grow. (Colossians 2:16–19, Phillips)

*Read the first few chapters of Colossians to see which tremendous facts. It’s worth it.—EP

According to this passage, criticizing and condemning people about the special days they observe is a case of missing the point, a show of pride disguised as false humility, mistaking the symbol for the reality. Listen to that kind of critic and you’ll be cheated out of the joy and freedom that comes from Jesus’ love. You won’t grow by keeping those rules, because spiritual growth comes from Christ just as your body’s growth comes from your head.

The fact is, God doesn’t particularly care whether we celebrate Birthdays or Name Days or Saint’s Days or Sweet Sixteen or Bar Mitzvah or QuinceaƱera or whatever growing-up ceremonies you happen to have or not in your culture. He cares about your heart. He cares whether we celebrate the people we love, starting with our children. Children are blessings, so parents ought to treat them like it. This is where the attitude behind birthdays matters most.

To see why, we only have to look at the way God treats His own Son:

“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’” (Psalm 2:7)

Psalm 2 is a striking messianic psalm. It describes every nation belonging to the kingship of “the Lord and His Anointed”—the latter identified as “the Son” to whom we should “do homage” (Psalm 2:2, 12, NIV). This particular verse is crucial to the biblical theology of God, Christ, the Trinity, things like that. Because He is begotten by God, the Son of God is fully God—“begotten, not made” as the Nicene Creed puts it. The New Testament writers quote Psalm 2:7 at least three times (Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, Hebrews 5:5) to make the case for the deity of Christ. This is not a small point.

God the Son in His deity did not begin at a point in time but comes eternally from the Father (cf. John 1:1–3, John 8:58). Psalm 2:7 might also be taken to apply to the Incarnation—when the Son of God was begotten as the Son of Man—or the Resurrection, when He became “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15) and was “declared to be the Son of God in power” (Romans 1:4).

The point is this. Even though the Son is fully God and fully eternal, even though there never was a time when Christ was not—when the psalmist tells us “the decree of the LORD,” he tells us that the Father celebrates His Son’s birthday.

“Today I have begotten You,” He says. It’s not a statement about time but about identity and belonging: “You are My Son.” By pointing out the begetting, the eternal birth, the Father names the Son as His own. The Father gives the Son His approval and tells us to honor Him, to love Him, to bring Him our homage and gifts. The Father pours out His love and delight on His Son, naming Him “My Son,” celebrating the identity of the Divine Child on the “day” of his begetting.

Nor does this end with God, or at least it shouldn’t. God is “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:15). The way God treats His children is the way human fathers are meant to treat their children. That’s why Jesus could base an argument for God’s goodness and provision on the fact—wait for it—that­ even sinful parents give their children gifts:

"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11, NASB).

This is where the evil of the anti-birthday doctrine reveals itself. It’s a savage irony that these systems of doctrine claim to be based on verses about children being blessings from the Lord, then turn around and say it’s wrong to celebrate birthdays but right to burden children with mountains of guilt in the name of God. That’s not how you treat a blessing.

Parents, let me be blunt: Don’t you dare ever, ever put your doctrines before your daughters. As Christians, we follow the One who said “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). If your theology doesn’t involve you tangibly expressing your love and delight and celebration and joy in your children, then your theology is worthless. If you can’t love your own son or daughter whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen?

It’s not a stretch to say that all of Christianity is built on the truth that the Father loves and celebrates His Son. Trusting in Christ means believing what the Father said about Him:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, 9:7, Luke 9:35, et al. This comes up a lot.)

The Father loves His Son and does not hesitate to say so in public. These are the words of a Father affirming, delighting, and approving His Child. God doesn’t say He is pleased with Jesus because Jesus is so good or holy or unselfish. God says He is pleased with Jesus because He is His Son, the Beloved.

We should never lose sight of this truth: If we are the children of God (John 1:12-13), this includes us. God loves us and is pleased with us. God doesn’t wait for us to meet a list of biblical requirements before He loves us, any more than we need to study everything the Bible says about dogs before we decide to love that puppy. God expresses His love to us in words and actions and sacrificial gifts—even the unimaginable gift of His firstborn Son. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Should we celebrate birthdays? Well, God does—not because of the birthday but because of the birth. Whether you ever got a birthday party or not, know one thing for sure. God is glad you were born. God is glad you’re you. God loves you. You were born, and born again, to be loved. You are God’s beloved child. In you He is well pleased.

God celebrates His children. God celebrates you.

Happy birthday.


Image sources: Cake Wrecks, Daily Squee

Eric M. Pazdziora is a writer, composer, and copyeditor who lives in Chicago with his wife Carrie. If you have a question you'd like Eric to answer, you can contact him through his website at ericpazdziora.com. You can find his other writings and original music there, too. Check out his CD New Creation.

25 comments:

  1. Herod's birthday was used as the example?? Wow. Drastic much?

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  2. Loved the reductio ad absurdum! More importantly, though, excellent use of Colossians 2:16–19. Thanks for an excellent analysis.

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  3. Right on! This spoke loud and clear to me and pointed out somethings I needed to be reminded of. It is so easy for those of us who were brought up in legalism to fall back into that.. Thank you for posting this!

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  4. Interestingly, my birthday was just a couple weeks ago...and I had 2 parties! :-P

    Excellent breakdown and analysis of this ridiculous "anti-birthday" doctrine. :-P Honestly, telling a 6 year old that she ruined birthdays for the rest of her siblings?

    What kind of behavior did they expect from her? And even God doesn't punish anyone else for someone else's sins (though I doubt very very highly that she acted "sinfully" as her 6 year old birthday self. She was probably just running around having fun. :-P)

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  5. Thank you this was incredible to read! In my heart I knew my parents false legalistic teachings could not be right (birthday, Christmas, and on and on) but, it is so great to have a logical breakdown of their false ideas when I doubt. I know my parents to this day desire to please God but, they add so many extra rules and feel better about themselves and look down on others who don't follow their extra rules. Now that I'm in my 30's I'm in the process of sorting out my parents rules for pleasing God from what God desires. At this stage of life (mid 30's married with 3 kids) it is exhausting to try to discern and understand what were my parents personal convictions, what are Biblical truths, and what false teachings were my parents own made up religion (something they added to Christ and the Bible). I know my parents must have been deceived but, it still is so hard to crave a relationship with them they are very spiritual and feel they are above me for not keeping the extra things that they feel please the Lord. I now understand that I didn't ruin birthday's for my sister's but, I still struggle with the guilt and shame of those words my parents said. I wrote this very fast...please excuse the mistakes!

    ~ Ali

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  6. Ali, I'm so happy that Eric's article blesses you! Amazing article, Eric! Thank you.
    ____

    A brief thought about convictions.

    I won't presume to speak for anyone else but some things I hear often from others are that I bash, hate, despise, look down on, belittle, judge, or criticize those who hold convictions or who believe differently than I do.

    Truthfully, those who think so are mistaken. Romans 14 has this to say:

    5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ....
    ...
    19 Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. 21 It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother [or son or daughter] stumbles or is offended or is made weak. 22 Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.


    Honestly, if an individual believes that celebrating Christmas or birthdays is wrong before God, then it would certainly be wrong for that person to do anything against his conscience. When that individual begins to prescribe doctrines of men based on those convictions, or when a conviction is used to shame, manipulate, cause another to stumble or be made weak [i.e., not be edified or keep peace]... that is the context addressed here.

    I wrote more about that HERE.

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  7. I think of the "odd" birthday song the Duggars sing and think of the fact that children are a blessing from God. Is it ok to have a celebration of thanksgiving for God's gift? I'm really having to think about this. I know some people don't celebrate Christmas because the Bible doesn't say to do so. Can't these parents give even a little joy to their children?? A cake is so bad? I just see lots of kids growing up in this and HATING the Lord for it all--let alone hating their parents.

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  8. Gina - Yes! I'm often bewildered by the absurd lengths people will go to make themselves feel spiritually superior.

    Jay - Nik - Joanna - Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Ali - I'm so glad this was encouraging for you. It was a challenge to write, so that's a great reward. Of course there are a lot of hard things that can be said about parents who treat children so insensitively, but then the bits about God loving everyone unconditionally go both ways. Once we see how God loves us, it's easier to see how He loves the people who hurt us. I'm sure God feels exactly the same way you do about your parents... It's never easy!

    Hillary - You can speak for me with that, too. In fact I had part of that quote from Romans 14 in a couple of my early drafts (then had to pare it down for space and flow). Thanks for putting it clearly.

    Hopewell- Quite right! One thing I wished I could convey in this article was the expressions of utter bewilderment from the people I ran this idea by, when they didn't know about legalistic subcultures. Total expressions of "Wha... Huh... How could anybody believe that?!?" And yet this nonsense is turning people away from God. Grrrr.

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  9. I love that you said God cares about our hearts not about what we are doing or not doing. this christmas i had a revelation to put my dh over doctrine. oh my! was that fun! :)

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  10. I've never understood how people can do this to their children. Although some people think I'm crazy for forgoing Christmas and Easter to keep the Biblical feasts, I did it because I love them so much and love the focus of them. And my kids love them, too. And we all love Birthdays for celebrating each family member and Thanksgiving for being thankful (and eating too much food - lol! Kids NEED traditions and holidays. I'm not going to look down on others for not celebrating the same holidays I do, but I do look down on those who deny their children any.

    And the "hitchhikers guide to the galaxy" reference made me grin. :D

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  11. So I have a question for anyone who might want to answer:

    My husband grew up in a legalistic family who "celebrated" holidays in a very limited way. Christmas, Easter, and even birthdays were made into a guilt-trip religious day that was not fun for the children.

    We currently feel that it's right for us to truly celebrate holidays (I actually enjoy birthday parties and traditional Christmas!). But my husband seems to have a hard time *wanting* and *being able* to freely enjoy the holidays. He would rather just work and not acknowledge the special day--not because he has religious reasons, but because he just doesn't see the point, and can't find excitement and joy in those birthdays and holidays.

    Is there any way I can help him find enjoyment in holidays?

    Thanks,
    M.

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  12. M. -

    I felt incredible guilt and didn't see the joy in the holidays or birthdays. I mostly felt different and ashamed. It had been ingrained in me that it was selfish and not biblical to celebrate your birthday or Christmas. My husband (we've been married for 10 years) at first didn't get the depth of the legalistic environment I grew up in. My family looked perfect when he was dating me and honestly he never saw the bad
    behavior of my Dad until he married me. Although now, looking back he realized how not normal it was for my Dad to "not give his blessing" on our marriage. For my Dad to say to my husband when he asked to marry me that I would be hard to lead spiritually, that I would be rebellious...basically a curse! Still makes me angry and deeply hurt. I was never rebellious to my Dad and if he had told me not to marry my husband I would have listened to my Dad. But, instead he cursed me behind my back to my husband and my husband who was so uncomfortable, confused and unsure what my Dad was doing didn't tell me till we had been married for 7 years what my Dad had said.

    My husband made a big deal of my birthday and it made me uncomfortable but, gradually I began to enjoy being loved and celebrated! My suggestion is to enjoy celebrating your husband and maybe your love will let him enjoy his birthday and holidays!

    ~ Ali

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  13. Hillary,

    "Honestly, if an individual believes that celebrating Christmas or birthdays is wrong before God, then it would certainly be wrong for that person to do anything against his conscience. When that individual begins to prescribe doctrines of men based on those convictions, or when a conviction is used to shame, manipulate, cause another to stumble or be made weak [i.e., not be edified or keep peace]... that is the context addressed here."

    Thanks you for explaining this. Thank you for putting this into words. I'm off to read your link. Thank you!

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  14. M.-- That's a tricky one; it's hard to get someone to like things he doesn't, especially since he has psychological associations that make him dislike it. Probably the best solution is in what Donald Miller said: "Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way." I never liked jazz music until I started dating a jazz singer (now my wife! :-) ). Your husband needs to have some stronger positive associations with special days before he'll enjoy them fully, I think, like Ali said. Don't force him, but do provide plenty of opportunities for him to see "Birthday" not as "Day for getting legalistic lectures" but "Day on which I can make my children's faces light up like fireworks."

    Frogla-- Good for you! :-)

    Joelle-- Exactly; the actual festival isn't as important as the fact that you're celebrating the ones you love (God and your family). And I always enjoy when I can sneak a little "genius bonus" into my articles. ;-)

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  15. Every time I think I have heard of everything in the lengths to which Extreme Christians have taken fundamentalism even from the legalistic Bibliolotry of my childhood (70's) I am stunned by another absurdity. While I can certainly understand not celebrating a birthday with all the hoopla (ponies and clowns and bouncy tents) because you want to turn the focus away from materialism and conspicuous consumption, but to use the lack of celebration to actively belittle a child's developmentally appropriate, burgeoning individualism just blows me away.

    It is a theme that I see again and again in stories from Extreme Christianity, that actual people are less than irrelevant; only what you represent as Biblical Woman, Biblical Man, Baby-as-Blessing that has any value. Children beyond infancy seem to have no place in this world except as pawns to be manipulated in the grown-ups great chess game of one-upping each other with their religiocity.

    Sigh. Even in a community that is entirely about the community over the individual, the individual person need not be annihilated into the collective, there is still great space to celebrate the individual person who is serving the community. A God who created every freakin' snowflake to be an individual expression of snow-crystal glory can surely not be pleased that his greatest creations are being trained simply to be cogs in the great wheel of life.

    And re: the husband who just can't get into the Spirit of Holidays. My husband was very anti-holiday due to his family using the occasions to get drunk and pick fights with each other until everyone was screaming and slapping and storming out to the barn. When we got married I told him we could keep celebrations to a minimum but that I needed to celebrate for me and for our future children. He need not to be involved but he wasn't allowed to be a Grinch, stealing our joy. He agreed to that much.

    This last Christmas, twenty years later and our children are 12 and 13, he actually found the joy of deciding what to buy for them for their presents and he enjoyed rather than endured the shopping for the gifts and our list of traditional stocking stuffers. It was the first time that I saw him truly entering the spirit of it all rather than simply playing along to humor me or the kids.

    Be patient, be kind, allow him space, don't let him steal your joy just because his was stolen. Eventually he'll just enjoy his kids' fun as a gift and it will grow from there.

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  16. Seriously? Someone disapproved of birthday celebrations? That is the epitome of selfishness and refusal to care.

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  17. Ali and Eric-- Thank you for the thoughts and encouragement!

    M.

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  18. Mr. Gothard once said that he would never personally have pets. They could become idols. And they took time and money that might better be spent on the Lord's work.

    That was one comment that, while it made me feel guilty, I refused to believe was correct. Years later, I learned that pets are excellent ways for us to learn joy (being happy to be with someone). Dogs are especially good for this because they are always happy to see you. The cats my family had were almost as good as dogs in that regard.

    Since joy is an essential ingredient to maturing emotionally, I sometimes wonder what the real motivation was behind that (supposedly offhand) comment of his.

    Thankfully, we always celebrated birthdays in my family. The younger children enjoyed them immensely. As we got older, we tended to do less celebrating and more working, but we still always had some fun things.

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  19. Sandra--Very well said! Thanks.

    Anon-- Wow, really? Every time I try to come up with something so ridiculous that nobody could possibly take it seriously.... Wait, wasn't Judas the first to use the "That money could be used for the poor" defense? I'm glad you saw the truth!

    Pippi-- Exactly. I'm thankful you chimed in, since I think it's important for those from this subculture to see exactly how unbelievable these beliefs can be!

    M.-- You're very welcome.

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  20. Anon -

    I'm now in my mid 30's and married with 3 kids but, growing up we didn't have a pet no dog or cat, etc for the same reason my Dad believed pets took money, time and energy away from the Lord / ministry. It is sad that people can come up with such extreme thoughts of what is or isn't "spiritual". I'm sorry you had to feel guilt over that silly statement. I too have felt guilt about legalistic teachings those over me have taught as their convictions for me and others. I'm glad you found joy in your dog and cats! I agree with your conclusions...God created animals it's not wrong to enjoy them or have a pet for your family!

    ~ Ali

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  21. wow, I am so glad to have found your blog. I came here from OneSurvivor's website because of the rave review she wrote... and I am so happy to have read this entry. I can't even say why, exactly, but it was just what I needed to hear today.
    "He cares about your heart. He cares whether we celebrate the people we love" sums it up.

    Thank you.

    I am early in my spiritual quest... still learning and hungry for knowledge about all religions and teachings.

    I'll be back

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  22. very good arguments- I wish I had that puppy :)

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  23. Shen, welcome! I'm glad you've found a safe place for your spiritual journey.

    Priest's wife, me too! I completely recommend dailysquee.com for your cute animal needs.

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  24. (Just stumbled on this site, and I want to thank you all for so much wonderful content!)

    Funny -- I grew up in a very conservative, legalistic family, and some of my brothers and sisters are still struggling with the after-effects of this heritage... but I have to say we never felt condemned for celebrating birthdays. Yea, they were subdued and we didn't get a lot of presents (not a materialistic orgy), but we still felt it was a day when each of us was special in our own right. However, given some of the other nonsense I've seen in the name of "Holiness", I can believe it. :-(

    My father, who was an engineer in the early days of computers, was still tickled when he got older and we did his birthdays in "binary". (light=1, dark=0)

    (Somehow, even though there was plenty of evil swirling around me in my youth, God somehow surrounded me with His cloud, and I walked mostly (though not completely) unscathed. I am only beginning to understand the torment my siblings endured, and the reasons for some of their destructive behaviors later on. Thankfully, God has given me Grace to be a source of continuing encouragement to them, though it is often confusing, frustrating, angering and exhausting. It's a lesson in leaning on Him and not in my own strength or wisdom!)

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  25. It always amazes me how we can use such convoluted methods to draw such oddball conclusions. It is really sad because oftentimes the world just looks at us and shakes their heads. Then we wonder why the message of Yeshua is not more readily accepted. Even the world knows that some things are worth celebrating!

    Thank you, Eric, for continuing to write with such clarity. May we always seek the truth of freedom with responsibility. May we separate what is truly important from what is not really even important at all...at least not in the sense that some would have us believe!

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