5 Things to Try When Your Bible Study Feels Dry

I started Amos last week in my personal Bible study time. I could spend the rest of my days in the Gospels, but we need the whole of Scripture. Every portion—every verse—has a purpose. So about once a year, my husband and I venture back into the Old Testament. I studied Amos for a Hebrew exegesis class in seminary, but I have never walked through it in my personal quiet time.

The first couple of chapters were interesting, from a historical and geographical perspective, but I had some trouble with application. My Bible study time felt dry. What do you do when your Bible study time feels dry? Continue reading

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What God Gives Generously

At no time of year is God’s generosity more evident than Christmas and the New Year. He gave His Son, an event we’ve commemorated for over 2000 years now, and He has just given us another year of life and blessings. It is fitting, therefore, to also consider some of God’s other generously-given gifts as we close out this year of focus on generosity. (Conclusion coming next week.)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  –James 1:17 Continue reading

Math, Psalms, and Real Righteousness

real-righteousnessMost of you don’t know this, but I love math—especially geometry. I love the organization of it, the logic, the confidence in repeatable results. I think math is beautiful. I haven’t persuaded my eleven-year-old of this perspective yet, but I’m working on him.

In math, order usually matters. 5 -3 ≠ 3 – 5. There’s an order in which to write the equation and there’s an order to the procedures used in solving it.

Boring!! Okay, I’ve already lost some of you. Here’s the point:

In the Christ-life, order also matters. But we don’t like the specified order. Just like a couple of Algebra I kids who think they can get creative with solving quadratic equations, we think we know better, easier ways to live out our lives.

Psalm 15.

In this psalm, David begins by asking God who can get close to Him. He says it much more poetically: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). This is a recurring theme with David. He asks essentially the same question in Psalm 24:3. This time, David must have been thinking about Moses, whose face glowed after time spent with God in the tent of meeting or on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).

Then David answers himself, running down a list of honorable actions (Psalm 15:2-5). It’s not the Ten Commandments but more a list of things to which a basically good person should pay attention. Here’s what’s interesting (well, one of the things): None of these things are about proscribed rituals. They are all about relationships!

Not Ritual but Righteousness

Rituals do not
produce righteousness.

Here’s David, who once sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps when they were moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13). This guy knew how to “do” sacrifices! Yet when he considered what it takes to be close to God, it wasn’t about rituals. It was about relationships—specifically, relationships with other people. Long before Amos chastised the “cows” who paraded into religious ceremonies even while thinking up new ways to cheat each other (e.g. Amos 4:4-5), David knew our actions toward each other revealed far more about the condition of our hearts than any number of religious rituals. Wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to the Pharisees, who tithed their herbs and spices while turning a blind eye to justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23)?

Not Regulation but Relationship

We need to be careful here, though. It would be easy to take this list of actions, hang it on the wall, and think we could be close to God by, for example, never slandering, never doing wrong to a neighbor, and never casting slurs (all from verse 3), along with the rest of the list.

What’s wrong with that? Well…

  1. It’s straight-up legalism.
  2. It’s impossible to do for a day, much less a lifetime, and even trying would be exceedingly stressful!
  3. It misses the whole point.

The actions listed here by David and lived out in relationships, all reflect a certain condition of the heart. They demonstrate kindness, peace, patience, self-control, etc. Wait. That sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), doesn’t it? Ah ha! The heart condition must come before the demonstrations.

When my relationship with God is good and right, my relationships with others reveal it. This is the definition of righteousness.

Obviously, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. And thank goodness! Think how hard it would be to clean the church every Sunday if we had animals and blood all over the place. But we do try to regulate our Christianity.

We want to make righteousness (remember, that just means a right relationship with God) about what we do and don’t do: church attendance, tithing, not watching R-rated movies, schooling choices for our children, boycotting company X, etc.

We want to make
righteousness about what
we do and don’t do.

Let’s stop for a second here. Why is this? Why do we lean toward the regulations? I think it’s because they are easier and less messy that David’s list in Psalm 15. Honestly, I’d rather skip R-rated movies than try to always speak the truth from my heart (15:2). Such truth-telling might offend someone or it might compel me to do something inconvenient or difficult. A personal, intimate rightness with God (that definition of real righteousness again) will require me to confront my own moral failings, and well, that’s just more than I can handle. Know what I mean?

God has always said it’s our relationships with others that reveal our rightness with Him.

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. -1 Samuel 15:22

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. -Matthew 10:42

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27

As you can see, in all three sections of the Old Testament (histories, wisdom literature, and prophets) and in both parts of the New Testament (gospels and letters), it’s our actions in relationships that confirm our connection with God. Never our rituals or regulations. And here’s the good news: We have the Holy Spirit, with His Fruit to both confirm our relationship with God the Father and empower us to live according to His standards. So I don’t worry about the list. I just focus on keeping my relationship with God in good condition.

Later in James,

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. -James 2:24

Perhaps this verse is the best to set alongside Psalm 15. The actions David describes are the tangible result of a righteous life, not the prescription for it. This is where the Christ-Life is like math. Order is important. The right relationship with God yields healthy, God-centered relationships with other people, never the other way around.

right relationship with God ⇒ right actions toward others

When your righteousness is revealed through your relationships, you will never be shaken (Psalm 15:5b). Just like my geometry proofs.

Get your relationship with God right, and it’ll show in relationships with others. (click to tweet)

Whew! I hope this made some sense. I feel like I just blurted a bunch of stuff onto the page. Let me know what struck you as significant and/or where I missed it. I always appreciate your comments.

The Proper Perspective on Problems

We all have problems, some big, some small, and some that feel big but are actually quite small. Some problems we bring on ourselves (like overloading our schedules), but some seem to come out of nowhere (like many illnesses).

“Pure joy” feels impossible
when I’m in the middle of
something difficult.

The Scriptures call such problems “trials” and teach us to consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds (James 1:2) because of what we gain from the experience, namely perseverance and spiritual maturity. I don’t know about you, but “pure joy” feels impossible when I’m in the middle of something difficult! The promise of increased perseverance and maturity does help, but still. But there is a greater, higher reason for our problems. Read on…

These days, most believers understand that our problems aren’t necessarily punishment for sin. They may be part of the consequences—the result of our non-Christ-centered decisions (read: sin)—or part of God’s plan to get our attention, but illness, death, even financial straits aren’t God’s retribution evidenced in His followers’ lives. In Jesus’ day, however, the standard assumption was that afflictions/problems/trials were punishment for personal or inherited sins. It was natural for people to ask, “Why is this happening to me?”

Our first reaction
is often “Why me?

But we still ask that question, don’t we? Our first reaction to a problem, our first prayer, often begins with us saying, “Look at me, Jesus! Why me?”

John 9:1-12.

There was a man who was born without sight. We don’t know the details. Did he have eyeballs? Was it more like cataracts? I always wonder these things, but it’s not important.

He was a grown man, not a little boy, which makes me think he was at least eighteen years old. Eighteen years without seeing the love in his mother’s eyes. Eighteen years without watching a sunset. Eighteen years without studying Torah.

Eighteen years of thinking he bore the guilt of his parents’ sin.

In a single moment, Jesus swept away all that guilt. Jesus tells him and everyone else why. It’s the why in all of our hearts when something tragic happens…when we, though faithful, receive that crushing diagnosis…when our world crashes around our feet. This is the answer to that pervasive question, “Why me, Jesus?” Don’t miss it!

This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. –John 9:3

It happened for God’s glory.

Likewise, my problems happen for God’s glory.

I’m sure this man’s experiences over the years produced incredible perseverance and maturity in him. I’m also sure he was thrilled to be healed and probably celebrated for days. But all these things are self-centered. They focus on him and what happened in his life.

Paul understood this concept. He had more reason to boast or call attention to himself than any other believer on the planet (2 Corinthians 12:6, Philippians 3:4-6). Yet there was this one thing, this thorn in the flesh, that God wouldn’t take away (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). He had a problem, and he eventually understood that God was using it for His own glory, which is why God wouldn’t remove it. For this reason, Paul got to where he actually delighted in that problem (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). He considered it “pure joy.”

Our best perspective on a problem
is to look for how God can be
glorified through it. (click to tweet)

When we go through problems, it’s really easy to fold inward and concentrate on how it affects us. While it’s okay to be encouraged by knowing that the testing of your faith produces perseverance, etc. (James 1:3), our best perspective on a problem is to look for how God can be glorified through it. James knew it; Paul knew it, and this unnamed, formerly-blind guy learned it along with the disciples.

All this time, we’ve been asking God the wrong question when we cry out to Him from the throes of our problems. We ask why: “Why is this happening to me?” But He’s already answered that. The better question—the one He’s sure to answer if we watch for it—is how: “How can You get the most glory from this?” It takes a change of perspective, a focus on Him rather than ourselves.

When we bind our joy to His glory, we see our problems from the proper #perspective. #NotAboutMe (click to tweet)

Oh, I like this phrase: bind our joy to His glory! You can tweet that last sentence, if you want to share this post.

What’s your reaction here? How does this make you think…or rethink…about a problem in your life? How have you seen this perspective (of God’s glory) prove true in the past?

 

 

 

Friends and Influence

Friendship ain’t what it used to be.

Facebook has skewed our definition of friendship. People you just met and people you haven’t seen for decades all become your ‘friends’ on Facebook. Then you share special moments with them as if you are reporting the news, without ever having an authentic conversation. I realize that, as a card-carrying introvert, I need and expect to have fewer actual friends than my super-extroverted husband, and I’m fine with that. One’s quantity of friends is not so important as the quality of one’s friends, and that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

There’s a spectrum of meanings for ‘friend’: from passing acquaintance to willing-to-die-for-him soul-mate. As we go to Scripture, our understanding of friendship affects our interpretation of the Word. (By the way, sorting out our perspective/worldview from Biblical truth is called hermeneutics.) Take, for example, James 4:4-5.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Jesus didn’t have a problem
associating with “the world.”

Sounds like we shouldn’t make friends with “the world” (i.e. “people in their rebellion against and alienation from God.” That definition comes from my NIV Study Bible notes). But apparently Jesus didn’t have a problem associating with “the world.” The Pharisees accurately accused Him, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Why did Jesus spend time with these sinners? Did He just pretend to like them for what he could get from them? No way. The people labeled sinners by the Pharisees were social outcasts, along the lines of Hester Prynne, with that scarlet ‘A’ on her chest. Jesus had nothing to gain—and much to lose—from identifying with them. Yet He did it over and over. He even called a tax collector as one of His elite twelve followers (Luke 5:27-28).

So it’s obvious that James didn’t mean we should separate ourselves from all contact with people who aren’t Christ-followers. If we did, it would be impossible to follow Jesus’ example or obey His command to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

Intimacy
inspires
influence.

When James speaks of our friendship with the world, he speaks of a shared intimacy that inspires influence. Like Sarah urged Abraham to sleep with Hagar or Delilah convinced Samson to share the secret of his strength, we can be influenced by those with whom we are intimate. It doesn’t have to be sexual. When something happens (good or bad), who do you call first? When you need help making a decision or you seek advice, to whom do you talk? Who knows your most private secrets? Whose reaction can you anticipate whenever you’re together? That’s the kind of friendship to which James refers. Such individuals influence you—for better or for worse.

That’s why James uses words like adulterous people (4:4) and jealously longs (4:5). God plants the Holy Spirit in our hearts to be our counselor, our guide. Through the Spirit and the Word, we get to know God intimately. As a result, we submit to His influence (James 4:7). Don’t like submission? Think about this: any time you heed the advice of another person, you are submitting to that person (Ephesians 5:21). James’ audience (from the first century to today) rejected the built-in intimacy of the Holy Spirit in favor of rebellion and alienation as they allowed their worldly friends to influence them.

Jesus never let the tax collectors
and sinners influence him.

Think again about Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners. He never let them influence Him. His association with them never drew Him into sin. Okay, so he had a bit of an advantage, being God and all, but nevertheless, we follow His example.

When my son was in first grade, he struggled to understand friendship. There were daily DTRs (Define The Relationship) over after-school snacks. His teacher said everyone in the class should be friends, but my son didn’t want to be friends with the cruel kid or the kid who consistently disobeyed the teacher. We worked hard to distinguish “friendly” from “friendship.” Surely, all Christ-followers can work toward consistent friendliness, but we don’t have to truly befriend everyone around us.

What’s the take-away here? Personally, I am prompted to evaluate the level of influence I permit my friends to have in my life.

  • Does my friend draw me toward Christ with his/her lifestyle?
  • Is our relationship healthy: emotionally, socially, mentally, even physically?
  • Is our relationship pure in all these ways?
  • Do our conversations consistently glorify God?

I like to rub shoulders with people who don’t follow Christ. I’m comfortable calling them friends, according to the cultural definition. I will, however, guard the degree of influence such friends exert in my life. For those most intimate friendships, I will seek out Christ-followers who hold me accountable and pray for me.

Intimate friendships influence our relationship with God. How’s your’s going? (click to tweet)

What about you? How do you guard your friendships for God’s glory? How do you balance your relationships with people who don’t follow Christ?

 

For further reading:

Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. This one’s all about living out our faith in “the world.”

Let’s Revise the Popular Phrase, “In But Not Of” by David Mathis at DesiringGod.org. Mathis explores Jesus’ prayer about how His followers are in the world but not of the world (John 17:13-18)—exactly what I’ve talked about here!

 

 

3 Lessons from My Empty Wallet

Let me say first that we are not impoverished. I’ve seen poverty; it doesn’t look like my life. We have enough money to pay the bills and purchase food. We have enough money to give our children a weekly allowance and buy the occasional pizza. So, no, we’re not destitute. Also, I realize that many people live in much direr straights than ours, and I am not making light of that.

These days, we have to say ‘no’
much more often than we say ‘yes.’

Maybe I should put it like this: At this ‘season’ of our lives, we don’t have extra money. We don’t pay for any television service; we can’t go to the beach or get pedicures, and we earnestly pray that our cars keep running because major repairs would be a real problem. When it comes to things that cost money, we have to say ‘no’ much more often than we say ‘yes.’

This hasn’t always been the case for us. As God led us into the circumstances that created this situation, I began to look for what we might learn through this sort-of trial. (It’s not a real trial in the Biblical sense…more like a period of testing.) So far, I’ve discovered three things.

Faith and Wealth Are Often Inversely Proportional

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  -James 2:5

It’s easier for poor people to trust God. When you have money, you need to work really hard to stay dependent on Jesus rather than depending on your finances. When you don’t have money, you’ve no choice but to trust Him for your daily needs, which increases your faith. It’s uncommon sense: being poor makes you rich.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Like the Hebrew people in the wilderness gathered just enough manna for that day, He models praying for just enough to meet one’s needs on this day. It’s hard to pray those words with authenticity when you could buy a loaf of bread using your pocket change.

Less money ⇒ more faith.
More money ⇒ less faith.

So riches and faith are often inversely proportional. Yes, there are incredibly faithful wealthy people. I’m just saying that it’s much harder for them to remain in that state of dependence on God. For me, this lack of wealth has given me so many opportunities to trust Him and therefore, to glorify Him as He met our needs every time!

(There’s an implicit reference here to Matthew 5:3, where Jesus says the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven. I don’t have the space to dig into it here, but go for it, if you’re interested.)

Self-Discipline in One Area Affects Other Areas

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  -Matthew 16:24

I’ve never been very good at telling myself ‘no.’ Indulgences such as another piece of chocolate or a new pair of shoes or ten more minutes in a novel are natural to me. (I don’t think I’m alone in this.) And fasting? Just the thought of it makes my stomach growl. But in the last two years, I’ve said no to Starbucks, to movie dates, to new clothes, to nice furniture, to weekend getaways, etc. Having done all that, I find it easier to turn off the TV, to choose a special offering over ice cream, and yes, I’ve even fasted—twice!

Because I have been compelled to discipline my spending habits, spiritual disciplines have become more accessible. I’m as surprised by this as anyone.

Contentment Doesn’t Depend on Circumstances

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  –Philippians 4:12-13

There is much in American
life that I don’t need.

Have you ever noticed this before?!? Paul’s power statement that athletes tattoo on their arms and body builders quote in their gyms…it’s actually about contentment! (Context is supremely important.) In the last two years, I have learned that there is much I don’t need. I am not hurt by saying ‘no’ to this or that fun purchase. I’ve actually become more content as I bought less stuff and spent less on entertainment.

If someone handed me a new couch or a trip to the beach, I wouldn’t refuse them. After all, I’m not trying to be ascetic, nor am I testing out a vow of poverty. The simple fact is, I no longer feel like I need those things to be satisfied with my life…or even to be comfortable.

Don’t pat me on the back just yet. I’m still working on all this, and God challenges my pride/humility ratio daily when it comes to finances. I really have a hard time saying, “We can’t afford that.” I feel like I’ve learned enough, however, to pass some of it on to you. I pray that you are encouraged and challenged.

 Becoming more content with less money: 3 Lessons from My Empty Wallet (click to tweet)

For further study: I Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19. Increased faithfulness doesn’t guarantee increased finances. Also Matthew 6:19-21.

What has God taught you about wealth, finances, money, etc.? What verses did He use? How did your life change as a result? We would all like to hear about you, so leave a comment below!

 
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