Progress on Display

29861Faith means being sure of the things we hope for and knowing that something is real even if we do not see it. Faith is the reason we remember great people who lived in the past. It is by faith we understand that the whole world was made by God’s command so what we see was made by something that cannot be seen. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

I was in 4-H when I was young. 4-H is a youth organization that focuses on developing citizenship, leadership, responsibility and life skills. When it began, its focus was primarily agriculture. It has expanded greatly over the years. When I was in 4-H, most the kids were involved in farming in some way (but then again, most the people in my community were involved in farming in some way).

Summer was a time of field work, county fairs, and 4-H work. Whatever projects we’d chosen for the year were put on display at the county fair. In many cases, it was crop samples. There was also sewing, food, photography, crafts, and much more. A lot of time usually went into the 4-H projects. There was often a lot of frustration, too. I chose dog care one year. All of our dogs ran around the farm with little discipline. They were great dogs but not obedience school stars if you get the idea. I took my beagle to 4-H-sponsored obedience classes, and we both survived, but I’m not sure either of us learned much.

Weeks passed, and I had to take him to the dog show to be judged. He was supposed to not only show discipline but good grooming and care as well. Our dogs were always well cared for in terms of lots of exercise and love, but grooming? Well, that wasn’t exactly a priority on the farm. The day before the dog show, I gave my “project” a bath. He was looking pretty good. The problem was our dogs ran free on the farm, which meant my clean dog was anything but clean the following day as the time drew near for the dog show. He had decided to take what I could only guess was an extensive midnight run in the woods, and he showed up at the house covered in dirt, burrs, and ticks. My project didn’t exactly turned out as pristine as I had hoped!

Sometimes the results of our efforts aren’t exactly what we prefer. But when the time comes, our results are on display. 4-H displays came only once a year, and we could prepare for them. Displays of our faith are on display at all times. People see evidence of our faith in our daily lives.

What evidence of faith are people around you seeing today?

We’re not always going to get a “superior” rating or a blue ribbon. In fact, let’s hope we don’t! We want to excel for God, but we need to do so in authenticity, not in performance only. We want to see others’ authentic progress and even learn from their mistakes because seeing the reality of struggles and triumphs gives us hope. On the other hand, we tend to want to disguise and hide our own mistakes and struggles. We only want to show the positive progress of our faith. It’s not all uphill, and we might as well accept it and do life side-by-side in ways that we can learn from each other through the messes of life.

4-H was organized into clubs that met on a monthly basis. We shared what we were doing by scheduling talks and demonstrations. Our meetings invited accountability and relationship-building. We also worked on service projects with each other and had a lot of fun throughout the year. I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much in 4-H had I tried to do it on my own.

It’s the same with your faith. God has no intention of you living a life of faith on your own. Commit to community, where you can share the ups and downs of the progress of your faith.

Let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, because we have been made free from a guilty conscience, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us hold firmly to the hope that we have confessed, because we can trust God to do what he promised. Let us think about each other and help each other to show love and do good deeds. You should not stay away from the church meetings, as some are doing, but you should meet together and encourage each other. Do this even more as you see the day coming. (Hebrews 10:22-25)

Appreciation in Context

29861Wild animals, don’t be afraid, because the open pastures have grown grass. The trees have given fruit; the fig trees and the grapevines have grown much fruit. So be happy, people of Jerusalem; be joyful in the Lord your God. Because he does what is right, he has brought you rain; he has sent the fall rain and the spring rain for you, as before. And the threshing floors will be full of grain; the barrels will overflow with new wine and olive oil. Joel 2:22-24

God’s promises give real answers to the prayers of faith. So much about the spring highlights the consistency of God’s promises. With the renewal of the earth, there is a renewal of spirit. Seeing the buds of earth brings out blossoms of faith. Out of the bleakness of winter comes the color of spring. Out of the enclosed, stale air of winter comes the outdoor fresh air. Out of the bone-chilling cold comes the sun-kissed warmth. We lift our eyes to the heavens and praise God for the relief. We are renewed in ways we couldn’t imagine. We are overwhelmed with gratitude.

If you happen to live in a region in which season change isn’t drastic, you might be tempted to overlook the benefits of marked seasons. However, all of us have experienced spiritual season. We tend to dislike spiritual winters. We’re surrounded by bleakness, chill, and unproductivity. We simply don’t see growth, so we can’t imagine it happening. Growth might not be obvious, but there are important things that happen in spiritual winters that must occur in preparation for the spring. Without the winter, we couldn’t have spring. If we lived only on the mountain top, we would certainly not appreciate it as much as ascending to the mountain top from the depths of the valley.

We appreciate the spring because of its comparison to the winter – and other seasons. Our appreciation comes in the context of the big picture.

Have you ever looked for hidden objects in books such as I Spy or Where’s Waldo? Or perhaps you’ve looked for words in a search-and-find word puzzle book. Experiencing a spiritual spring is like having someone highlight the object in I Spy or Where’s Waldo or the words in the puzzle book before you open the page. What you most need stands out to you.

When have you struggled to find God’s presence?

When have you experienced God’s presence in an abundant manner?

Because of God’s promises, we don’t have to be afraid, we can be joyful, we can trust God to do what is right, and we can trust God for provision. Joel 2 emphasizes all of these truths. Because of God’s promises, no matter how long and bleak our spiritual winter is, we can be certain spring is coming. God will not leave us in winter when we are fully seeking and relying on him.

If you’re currently in a spiritual winter, what do you most need to anticipate from God in a pending spiritual spring?

If you’re currently in a spiritual spring, what are you most celebrating about God’s presence?

If you’re currently in another spiritual season, reflect on what spiritual springs in your past experiences have been like.

The following verses speak to the promise of joy. Soak in and claim God’s promises today.

I have told you these things so that you can have the same joy I have and so that your joy will be the fullest possible joy. (John 15:11)

Be joyful because you have hope. Be patient when trouble comes, and pray at all times. (Romans 12:12)

Be full of joy in the Lord always. I will say again, be full of joy. (Philippians 4:4)

My brothers and sisters, when you have many kinds of troubles, you should be full of joy, because you know that these troubles test your faith, and this will give you patience. (James 1:2-3)

You have not seen Christ, but still you love him. You cannot see him now, but you believe in him. So you are filled with a joy that cannot be explained, a joy full of glory. (1 Peter 1:8)

Your hope is in God, not the messiness of this world. God is strong and can help you not to fall. He can bring you before his glory without any wrong in you and can give you great joy. (Jude 1:24)

Winds Blow and Waters Rush

29861Happy are those who don’t listen to the wicked, who don’t go where sinners go, who don’t do what evil people do. They love the Lord’s teachings, and they think about those teachings day and night. They are strong, like a tree planted by a river. The tree produces fruit in season, and its leaves don’t die. Everything they do will succeed. But wicked people are not like that. They are like chaff that the wind blows away. So the wicked will not escape God’s punishment. Sinners will not worship with God’s people. This is because the Lord takes care of his people, but the wicked will be destroyed. Psalm 1

Strength and resilience takes time to develop. Consider the plants alongside a river bank. The small shoots are quickly washed away when the water rises and rushes along the banks. Only the strong or protected survive. Waters recede and roots grow deeper. Seedlings eventually – through trials, nourishment, and time – develop into towering trees. By appearance, they might seem to be precariously perched on the waters’ edge, ready to fall with a swift breeze, but the roots have dug deep. The tree survives because the roots have dug into unseen places of security. The roots provide the stability for the tree. Much of the tree is still exposed to the harsh elements of sun, wind, and water – elements that are also essential for nourishment, growth, and reproduction. What’s exposed and what’s hidden work together, providing for each other. One cannot flourish without the other.

Consider your life. Is it beautiful by the world’s standards but with little foundation underneath, precariously perched, awaiting disaster at the slightest trial?

Is it firmly rooted but battered from the world’s harsh treatment?

Is its growth stunted, desperately wanting growth but not able to get a firm hold in order to weather the elements and dig deep to find a firm hold of something solid? Is it longing for relief from too much sun, too much wind, or too much water – it’s just too much?

Life sometimes seems “too much.” The trials and situations are exhausting. We get soaked and exhausted by the rushing water. We are parched by the scorching heat. It is in those “too much” moments that the roots we’ve established are our only means of survival. When our roots have dug deeply, they provide stability. When our roots have dug deep, they provide a means for nourishment.

Psalm 1 refers to the difference between God’s people and wicked people. To clarify, it’s not what we do that determines that we’re godly or wicked. It’s our roots. God’s people will make bad decisions. God’s people aren’t perfect. God’s people are not always good. However, God’s people have roots in God’s presence. They look to God’s Word for guidance. They trust God for provision even in the bleakest situations. They realize they aren’t stable without the stability of God. They’re only courageous because God is courageous. They’re strong because God is strong. Their identity is firmly founded in God as Creator. Wicked people are also created by God. They’re not inherently in a worse situation. They weren’t simply given a bad life, full of insurmountable problems. The thing that categorizes them as wicked people is something that can be easily changed. It’s up to them. Wicked people do not look to God for purpose and sustenance. They either choose to ignore him or choose to disobey him. Either way, there is a choice, just as godly people make a choose to acknowledge and obey God.

Who are you choosing: God or yourself?

If you’re not choosing God, no matter what alternative you think you’re choosing, you’re choosing yourself. To choose God is to deny self. To choose anything other than God is to promote self.

Perhaps you gave the obvious “Sunday school answer” to the above question: Of course, you choose God. After all, if you’re a Christian, to admit anything else is simply wrong. Take a deep breath and let God challenge you. Perhaps you’ve chosen God for your life in general, but let’s get specific. Each of us has opportunities to grow every day.

In what areas do you most struggle with allowing God to have complete control?

Admitting your areas of weakness isn’t weak. It’s humble. Humility takes strength: God’s strength. Until you admit you have a tight grip on something in your life and pause to pry open your fingers long enough, God will not mercifully lift it from your hand. We often hold onto things in the dark that he wants to draw into his light so we can see his perspective and grow us through the realities of the situation.

God intends for us to be the salt and light of this world.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its salty taste, it cannot be made salty again. It is good for nothing, except to be thrown out and walked on. You are the light that gives light to the world. A city that is built on a hill cannot be hidden. And people don’t hide a light under a bowl. They put it on a lampstand so the light shines for all the people in the house. In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and will praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Psalm 1 says God’s people “don’t listen to the wicked, don’t go where sinners go, don’t do what evil people do.” How is that possible? How can we be in the world but not of it?

When have you struggled with being the salt and light of the world yet not negatively influenced by it?

The key is discernment. God wants you to rely on him. He wants your attention and obedience. Where he will lead one person to be his salt and light, he will not lead another. He knows exactly what is needed for each person in each situation. It doesn’t mean you will never struggle. It doesn’t mean you will not be negatively impacted when you know you are supposed to be the salt and light in an ugly situation and you end up being pulled into the wickedness of it. We don’t have one simple choice as we stand at the crossroads that then determines everything else in our lives. We have a series of crossroads. We have immeasurable choices. We can be certain of a decision at one crossroads, then let our discernment muscles atrophy so that the next decision leads us straight into wickedness. We can then easily rationalize that “God led me here” looking back at the previous crossroads. God doesn’t insure smooth sailing after a single act of obedience. He requires continued obedience. In fact, growing in faith – developing discernment muscles – usually means more difficult decisions are ahead. Trusting God doesn’t make life easy. Trusting God highlights purpose in life, purpose beyond our understanding but within our grasp of joy. Trusting God means you can face things that are out of control without behaving in out of control ways.

Answered Prayers

29861Then Job answered: “I wish my suffering could be weighed and my misery put on scales. My sadness would be heavier than the sand of the seas. No wonder my words seem careless. The arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks in their poison; God’s terrors are gathered against me. A wild donkey does not bray when it has grass to eat, and an ox is quiet when it has feed. Tasteless food is not eaten without salt, and there is no flavor in the white of an egg. I refuse to touch it; such food makes me sick.”

“How I wish that I might have what I ask for and that God would give me what I hope for. How I wish God would crush me and reach out his hand to destroy me. Then I would have this comfort and be glad even in this unending pain, because I would know I did not reject the words of the Holy One. I do not have the strength to wait. There is nothing to hope for, so why should I be patient? I do not have the strength of stone; my flesh is not bronze. I have no power to help myself, because success has been taken away from me.”

“They say, ‘A person’s friends should be kind to him when he is in trouble, even if he stops fearing the Almighty.’ But my brothers cannot be counted on. They are like streams that do not always flow, streams that sometimes run over. They are made dark by melting ice and rise with melting snow. But they stop flowing in the dry season; they disappear when it is hot. Travelers turn away from their paths and go into the desert and die. The groups of travelers from Tema look for water, and the traders of Sheba look hopefully. They are upset because they had been sure; when they arrive, they are disappointed. You also have been no help. You see something terrible, and you are afraid.”

“I have never said, ‘Give me a gift. Use your wealth to pay my debt. Save me from the enemy’s power. Buy me back from the clutches of cruel people.’ Teach me, and I will be quiet. Show me where I have been wrong. Honest words are painful, but your arguments prove nothing. Do you mean to correct what I say? Will you treat the words of a troubled man as if they were only wind? You would even gamble for orphans and would trade away your friend.”

“But now please look at me. I would not lie to your face. Change your mind; do not be unfair; think again, because my innocence is being questioned. What I am saying is not wicked; I can tell the difference between right and wrong.” Job 6

What stands out to you about Job’s words?

If anyone could say he was going through a winter of life, it would be Job. Literally, life was dying and drastically changing around him. Death and bleakness surrounded him. But who did he call out to in his bleakness? God!

Job’s conversations with God didn’t cease. He wasn’t thrilled with his situation. He was discouraged, frustrated, and even desperate. But he relies on God. How I wish that I might have what I ask for and that God would give me what I hope for. How I wish God would crush me and reach out his hand to destroy me (verses 8-9). He knows God can give him what he most wants (at the time) even if what he wants is self-destruction. Of course, just because Job wants something doesn’t mean he’ll get it, because God balances his will and what is best for us in the long run with what we think is best for us in the short term. God understands how all things work together. He knows our passing frustrations and our deep-seated needs. He’s aware of the length, depth, and breadth of our needs and desires, and he knows the purity and impurity of our reliance on him through every step of the way.

When have you asked God for something you truly wanted at the time but are thankful he didn’t give you?

There was a popular song years ago called Unanswered Prayers by Garth Brooks about thankfulness about the prayers that didn’t get answered. It was a beautiful song. I could relate to many of the “unanswered prayer” situations listed in the song. Yet I knew it wasn’t prayers God hadn’t answered that I was most thankful for, because God doesn’t neglect to answer our prayers. It’s just that we don’t get the answer for which we were most looking. We think God will give us exactly what we want because of isolated verses such as

So I tell you to believe that you have received the things you ask for in prayer, and God will give them to you. (Mark 11:24)

If you remain in me and follow my teachings, you can ask anything you want, and it will be given to you. (John 15:7)

I tell you the truth, my Father will give you anything you ask for in my name. (John 16:23)

When we read or hear these verses but don’t get what we ask, we think God isn’t holding up his end of the promise, but let’s keep what God says in context of his character. He doesn’t ever break a promise. It’s not possible, because it’s not who he is. He is consistent and reliable without exception. So, let’s reconsider the above verses within the context of verses surrounding them. Particularly look for commands God is directing toward you and all his people through these words as well as conditional words such as “if” and “when.”

Jesus answered, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, fall into the sea.’ And if you have no doubts in your mind and believe that what you say will happen, God will do it for you. So I tell you to believe that you have received the things you ask for in prayer, and God will give them to you. When you are praying, if you are angry with someone, forgive him so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins. But if you don’t forgive other people, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins.” (Mark 11:22-25)

If any do not remain in me, they are like a branch that is thrown away and then dies. People pick up dead branches, throw them into the fire, and burn them. If you remain in me and follow my teachings, you can ask anything you want, and it will be given to you. You should produce much fruit and show that you are my followers, which brings glory to my Father. I loved you as the Father loved me. Now remain in my love. I have obeyed my Father’s commands, and I remain in his love. In the same way, if you obey my commands, you will remain in my love. I have told you these things so that you can have the same joy I have and so that your joy will be the fullest possible joy. This is my command: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:6-12)

I tell you the truth, you will cry and be sad, but the world will be happy. You will be sad, but your sadness will become joy. When a woman gives birth to a baby, she has pain, because her time has come. But when her baby is born, she forgets the pain, because she is so happy that a child has been born into the world. It is the same with you. Now you are sad, but I will see you again and you will be happy, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will not ask me for anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you anything you ask for in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy will be the fullest possible joy. (John 16:20-24)

How do these extended verses challenge you?

Just as we must keep God’s Word in context, we must keep the lives he has for us in context. The season in which you’re living right now will not last forever. In fact, the life in which you’re living right now will not live forever. You have eternal life. This life in and of itself is a season. Let God speak his perspective into your season today.

Death for Life

29861Today’s reading is a long one, but it’s rich with details, lessons, and promises. In order to soak it in, read it aloud. Hearing and speaking the Word increases the impact it will have. You will increasingly claim God’s Word as you become more familiar with it.

As Jesus left the Temple and was walking away, his followers came up to show him the Temple’s buildings. Jesus asked, “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. Every stone will be thrown down to the ground.”

Later, as Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his followers came to be alone with him. They said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that it is time for you to come again and for this age to end?”

Jesus answered, “Be careful that no one fools you. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will fool many people. You will hear about wars and stories of wars that are coming, but don’t be afraid. These things must happen before the end comes. Nations will fight against other nations; kingdoms will fight against other kingdoms. There will be times when there is no food for people to eat, and there will be earthquakes in different places. These things are like the first pains when something new is about to be born.”

“Then people will arrest you, hand you over to be hurt, and kill you. They will hate you because you believe in me. At that time, many will lose their faith, and they will turn against each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will come and cause many people to believe lies. There will be more and more evil in the world, so most people will stop showing their love for each other. But those people who keep their faith until the end will be saved. The Good News about God’s kingdom will be preached in all the world, to every nation. Then the end will come.”

“Daniel the prophet spoke about ‘a blasphemous object that brings destruction.’ You will see this standing in the holy place.” (You who read this should understand what it means.)  “At that time, the people in Judea should run away to the mountains. If people are on the roofs of their houses, they must not go down to get anything out of their houses. If people are in the fields, they must not go back to get their coats. At that time, how terrible it will be for women who are pregnant or have nursing babies!Pray that it will not be winter or a Sabbath day when these things happen and you have to run away, because at that time there will be much trouble. There will be more trouble than there has ever been since the beginning of the world until now, and nothing as bad will ever happen again. God has decided to make that terrible time short. Otherwise, no one would go on living. But God will make that time short to help the people he has chosen. At that time, someone might say to you, ‘Look, there is the Christ!’ Or another person might say, ‘There he is!’ But don’t believe them. False Christs and false prophets will come and perform great wonders and miracles. They will try to fool even the people God has chosen, if that is possible. Now I have warned you about this before it happens.”

“If people tell you, ‘The Christ is in the desert,’ don’t go there. If they say, ‘The Christ is in the inner room,’ don’t believe it. When the Son of Man comes, he will be seen by everyone, like lightning flashing from the east to the west. Wherever the dead body is, there the vultures will gather. Soon after the trouble of those days, ‘the sun will grow dark, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will fall from the sky. And the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ At that time, the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky. Then all the peoples of the world will cry. They will see the Son of Man coming on clouds in the sky with great power and glory. He will use a loud trumpet to send his angels all around the earth, and they will gather his chosen people from every part of the world.”

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree: When its branches become green and soft and new leaves appear, you know summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things happening, you will know that the time is near, ready to come. I tell you the truth, all these things will happen while the people of this time are still living. Earth and sky will be destroyed, but the words I have said will never be destroyed.” Matthew 24

What stands out to you from Matthew 24?

Let’s focus on the last several verses, keeping them in the context of the entire chapter. Even when celebrating the beauty of summer and the fulfillment of possible growth and blooming, it’s important to keep such beauty in the context of the seasons surrounding it. After all, the season of spring with its planting and growth led into summer, and the decline and chill of fall will follow. Many aspects of nature deteriorate in fall in order to break down and benefit the earth through the quiet dormancy of winter…in preparation for spring and summer again. The cycle repeats itself over and over.

Jesus knows what is coming in the future, and he wants everyone to know the signs of what’s to come. He uses the illustration of the familiar fig tree to place a mark on the spiritual calendar. Even though the fig tree will be in the middle of a healthy growth process, death will follow. Destruction is necessary before growth. To be more specific, destruction is necessary for your personal growth.

Jesus uses another illustration when he’s talking about his own death:

Jesus said to them, “The time has come for the Son of Man to receive his glory. I tell you the truth, a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die to make many seeds. But if it never dies, it remains only a single seed. Those who love their lives will lose them, but those who hate their lives in this world will keep true life forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Then my servant will be with me everywhere I am. My Father will honor anyone who serves me.” (John 12:23-26)

In order to live, we must die. We get to live with God for eternity, but we must die to ourselves as we live on earth. It’s a concept that is hard to understand, accept and act upon. We like to see things from our own perspective. We think we can understand more when we’re in control. But the truth is we’re not in control anyway. We have choices, but whether we choose to accept him or not, God is God. He Creator; we’re created.

It’s not about us. It’s not about you. We live in a narcissistic culture that says, “Put yourself first. Protect yourself. You have rights, and you need to claim them with everything you have. You’re entitled.” Even Christians jump on the entitlement bandwagon. Have you ever heard someone say, “We stopped going to that church because our needs weren’t being met?” or “When _______________ happened, no one said anything to us or stopped by to ask us how we were doing. They don’t care, so why should we?”

Starting with our own standards and expectations is not only narcissistic but also against God’s Word. We don’t follow Jesus to get our needs met. We follow Jesus to serve others – just as Jesus set as an example for us.

Jesus called all the followers together and said, “You know that the rulers of the non-Jewish people love to show their power over the people. And their important leaders love to use all their authority. But it should not be that way among you. Whoever wants to become great among you must serve the rest of you like a servant. Whoever wants to become first among you must serve the rest of you like a slave. In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Serving requires a sacrifice of self. Faith requires a death of self.

Let God reveal to you what needs to be destroyed within yourself in order to fully yield to God. He wants to grow you through each season of life, including the decay of self in order to nourish the unfolding beauty of the Spirit in you.

Sin No More?

29861But the people of Judah are stubborn and have turned against me. They have turned aside and gone away from me. They do not say to themselves, “We should fear the Lord our God, who gives us autumn and spring rains in their seasons, who makes sure we have the harvest at the right time.” But your evil has kept away both rain and harvest. Your sins have kept you from enjoying good things. Jeremiah 5:23-25

Sin isn’t widely accepted in today’s world – at least not the acknowledgement of it. Emphasis seems to be on freedom: the freedom to do, support, and tolerate whatever someone wants. (The irony is that one freedom seems to be left out: the freedom to judge or condemn. Not that we need to personally judge or condemn someone by assuming God’s role as judge, but we can and should certainly discern between God’s right and wrong and encourage others to live by God’s standards in order to fulfill the purpose God has for each of us.)

As with so many areas of life, we have redefined God’s meaning of a concept.

We have freedom now, because Christ made us free. So stand strong. Do not change and go back into the slavery of the law. (Galatians 5:1)

My brothers and sisters, God called you to be free, but do not use your freedom as an excuse to do what pleases your sinful self. Serve each other with love. (Galatians 5:13)

Let’s highlight what God is telling us.

  • Our freedom comes from Christ.
  • Christ makes us strong.
  • We should choose freedom over slavery.
  • God plans for us to be free in him.
  • Freedom cannot be used as an excuse for sin.
  • Freedom requires service.
  • Service should be accompanied with love.

How does what God’s Word says about freedom and the world says about freedom differ?

Freedom from God is not a burden. We leave the burden behind when we replace slavery with freedom.

Has freedom in God ever felt like a burden to you? How?

Living life for God isn’t always easy. We can feel as if we’re under a weight of pressure, wanting to insure we do everything as God intends. God certainly has high expectations of his children, but God doesn’t intend for us to feel the same pressure felt by a child of parents with extremely high expectations when one slight slip might mar the child’s possibilities and the parents’ favor for a lifetime.

But God had special plans for me and set me apart for his work even before I was born. He called me through his grace. (Galatians 1:15)

What do the following verses reveal about God’s expectations of you?

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Glory be to him now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18)

Jesus has the power of God, by which he has given us everything we need to live and to serve God. We have these things because we know him. Jesus called us by his glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3)

I do not mean that I am already as God wants me to be. I have not yet reached that goal, but I continue trying to reach it and to make it mine. Christ wants me to do that, which is the reason he made me his. Brothers and sisters, I know that I have not yet reached that goal, but there is one thing I always do. Forgetting the past and straining toward what is ahead, I keep trying to reach the goal and get the prize for which God called me through Christ to the life above. (Philippians 3:12-14)

God has high expectations and intends for you to live a purposeful life for him, but his purpose includes a process of spiritual growth. God’s plan involves both purpose and process. Both the purpose for and process of our lives in Jesus include freedom. God’s gift of freedom comes with the release of burden and the commitment to set aside sin.

We cannot allow sin in our lives because of the freedom God gives us. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re perfect here on earth. Remember, spiritual growth is a process. However, just because God meets us where we are, forgives our sins, and extends his grace is not an excuse to continue doing something we know is wrong. Define “wrong” by God’s standards, not the world’s. Wrong is anything that pulls you away from God. It’s anything that isn’t right on target with God’s will. It’s missing the mark of what you’re supposed to do and who you’re supposed to be, which is the same thing as…sin.

Refusing to excuse sin because of the freedom God gives us means we don’t say it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. If we know we’re doing something that might require asking for forgiveness, we probably need to deal with it before moving forward. Refusing to excuse sin because of the freedom God gives us also means we don’t compare ourselves to others, justifying “at least we’re not doing what that person is doing” or, phrased in a positive way, “at least I’m generally a good person.” Being good isn’t good enough. We can’t be good enough for God, because that means we’re relying on our own works, not his grace. That’s not to say we don’t work our best for him, but our work comes out of his grace. Our work is the fruit of our faith. We do good works because we want to honor God, not because we’re trying to earn our way to heaven. There’s only one way to do that:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved. We believe with our hearts, and so we are made right with God. And we declare with our mouths that we believe, and so we are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disappointed.” That Scripture says “anyone” because there is no difference between those who are Jews and those who are not. The same Lord is the Lord of all and gives many blessings to all who trust in him, as the Scripture says, “Anyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.” But before people can ask the Lord for help, they must believe in him; and before they can believe in him, they must hear about him; and for them to hear about the Lord, someone must tell them. (Romans 10:9-14)

Timed Training

29861You are struggling against sin, but your struggles have not yet caused you to be killed. You have forgotten the encouraging words that call you his children: “My child, don’t think the Lord’s discipline is worth nothing, and don’t stop trying when he corrects you. The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as his child.” So hold on through your sufferings, because they are like a father’s discipline. God is treating you as children. All children are disciplined by their fathers. If you are never disciplined (and every child must be disciplined), you are not true children. We have all had fathers here on earth who disciplined us, and we respected them. So it is even more important that we accept discipline from the Father of our spirits so we will have life. Our fathers on earth disciplined us for a short time in the way they thought was best. But God disciplines us to help us, so we can become holy as he is. We do not enjoy being disciplined. It is painful at the time, but later, after we have learned from it, we have peace, because we start living in the right way. (Hebrews 11:4-11)

Discipline is paramount in faith. In order for discipline to have maximize effect, there must be a relationship.

How is the discipline you experience from God dependent on your relationship with him?

How is the discipline you’ve experienced with people in your life, whether on the giving or receiving end, dependent on your relationships?

We had our dog Jip for 17 years and missed him when he was gone. We knew we wanted another dog at some point, but we wanted to think through the best timing. We weren’t ready the spring after Jip died, but we thought spring would be the best time, since it would give us many months outside before the harsh months of winter. Our next dog would be an outside dog, like Jip was, and we wanted as much time as possible to teach and train him and build a relationship with him. The two go hand-in-hand. If I walk up to a dog at the park, he will likely not respond to me as promptly as to his owner. I could also build a relationship with a dog and not teach or train him. He wouldn’t be disciplined, and in the process, would frustrate me at times and be frustrated about expectations and boundaries. In many ways, Jip was undisciplined. He was a good dog, but it was a good thing he was low maintenance. Because the girls were young when we got Jip, I didn’t have the time or energy to train a dog. I had my hands full with two daughters. Truth be told, I could have trained Jip, but it wasn’t a priority for me at the time. I loved him with care, but I didn’t love him with discipline.

We picked up Della in the spring when she was only eight weeks old. We had the entire summer ahead of us. She settled into her new home quickly. She seemed comfortable with us, and we loved spending time with her. We began the discipline process right away. In fact, her previous owners had already started teaching her a few things, so Della had a head start with us. We wove establishing a relationship and discipline tightly together, so she knew what to expect from us, and we could depend on her to respond. Of course, the discipline process isn’t without speed bumps along the way. If I relax a boundary, she quickly begins to develop a bad habit. Sometimes I have to take a step back and repeat a lesson in order to move forward and learn more.

God teaches us in the same way. Our relationship with him and the discipline we experience are intricately tied.

What if we only experienced God’s discipline without an established relationship?

What if our relationship with God was void of discipline?

We are blessed to not have to experience either of these situations. God wants a relationship with us. As Creator, he already has a relationship with us. When we accept him as Lord and Savior, the relationship deepens. Not only do we have a relationship with God, but God is love (1 John 4:8). He cannot separate himself from love, because it’s who he is. And God’s love isn’t the touchy-feeling middle school love kind of love. It’s more than we can imagine.

What does Ephesians 3 reveal to you about God’s love?

I pray that Christ will live in your hearts by faith and that your life will be strong in love and be built on love. And I pray that you and all God’s holy people will have the power to understand the greatness of Christ’s love—how wide and how long and how high and how deep that love is. Christ’s love is greater than anyone can ever know, but I pray that you will be able to know that love. Then you can be filled with the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)

God wants us to be filled with his love. He wants us to live out the love he gives us. He wants us to be vessels of his love. Living by faith means living in community with others, loving one another with God’s love, which means we need to (1) establish and invest in relationships and (2) love with truth and correction. We need to live in discipline with each other.

Who is currently in your life who personally disciplines you, challenging you to grow in your relationship with God?

Who is currently in your life whom you discipline, challenging her or him to grow in relationship with God?

As iron sharpens iron, so people can improve each other. (Proverbs 27:17)