IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE

“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:36-40.

The Pharisees were the keepers of scripture and Biblical law. One of them asked Jesus this question, “which is the most important commandment?” Basically, they wanted Jesus to mentally sift through over 600 laws and distill them down to one. That would be similar to you deciding which Florida law is most important out of the countless laws on the books.

Jesus broke the law down into two commandments from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 when put together they read; “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … you must love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was simply saying that if we truly loved God and our neighbor then we would naturally keep all the other commandments.

To become a person who consistently loves others, you first need to be a loving person. To truly love, we must first know God. Love starts with God and ends with God because God is love. We see this in 1 John 4: 7-8 when he writes: “ Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

There is not one person Jesus does not love and did not come to save – this includes everyone you lock eyes with, walk past on the street, hear about in the news, live next door to, stand behind in line at the grocery store, or sit next to in the theater. When we actively love those around us, putting their needs before our own, we are displaying the same amazing love that Jesus has poured out to us.

It is easy to believe love is just a nice, heart-warming feeling. But as Christians, we are called for it to be more than that – we are called to take action. We can share God’s love by noticing the unnoticed, loving the unlovely, by extending grace to those who are not so easy to be around.

When we look at how to love others, scripture offers plenty of insight. Romans 12:9-10,13-16 (MSG), gives us great examples of love in action: “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle… Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.”

All God does is out of love. He loves perfectly. Our goal is to love as God loves. Love isn’t something that is derived from within us. For the kind of love that God calls us to – the love that loves our neighbor as much as we love ourselves –  must come from Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to you when the Bible says to love others?   
  2. What can we do this week to be better at loving others?    

LIFE’S GREATEST AIM IS TO …

“Let love be your highest goal!… – 1 Corinthians 14:1.

”My greatest aim in life is…” The way you finish that statement can tell you a lot about yourself.  If your greatest aim in life is to attain wealth, you will likely choose a career that will maximize your earning potential. On the other hand, if you are motivated by having little or no stress, you may simply choose relationships, work, etc., that causes no stress. One thing is sure, however. Whatever the number one aim of your life will influence and impact every area of your life. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, God gives us a simple and direct answer to that question: “Let love be your highest goal!…”

When responding to a question about what Jesus believed to be the greatest commandment, Jesus couldn’t have been any clearer that this is also our greatest purpose in life. Reflecting on Matthew 22:36-40 makes it clear that there is no greater purpose in life than to love the Lord and love others. The command to love God and love people to a higher level than anything else in life. Nothing can be more important. Nothing should ever take its place. Nothing can be a greater purpose in life than to love the Lord and love others.

The Christian journey begins with the recognition that you are unconditionally, irrevocably, and ridiculously loved by God just as you are. Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, and whatever you’ve done in the course of your life, you are already loved and accepted. No conditions. No qualifications. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You are a child of God. We are to love like that.

Love is the deliberate act of valuing someone more than you value yourself. Love is the deliberate act of caring for, and listening to others. Love is wanting others to succeed, to be happy and fulfilled.  Love is truly seeing, and caring, about another human being’s existence and welfare. It is wanting to be there for someone, to support them and help them grow; to make a difference in someone’s life; to share in and care about someone else’s happiness and struggles other than your own. Even when it’s hard. Even, and especially, when you don’t really want to.

Because when everything in life is transient, love becomes the only thing that endures. Indeed, it is the only thing that can endure life. Because regardless of how successful you are, how well-traveled, well-educated, well-heeled, well-fed; regardless of all your accomplishments and accolades and accomplishments, a life without love, without the love of others, without loving others will always feel empty and you will never be the person God called you to be.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to you when the Bible says to love others?   
  2. What can we do this week to be better at loving others?

WHAT IS THE GOAL OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE?

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  – Matthew 6:33.

So what is the goal of the Christian life? The purpose of the Christian life is to know Christ and to be like Him.  Christianity is not a religion of rules and rituals that we must work at keeping to climb the ladder to heaven. Instead, it is a personal, growing relationship with the risen, living Lord Jesus Christ that results in our growing conformity to Him. It is living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel isn’t a formula you apply to your life; it’s the story you’re meant to inhabit. So what is your place in that story? 

Becoming a Christian requires that you know some things about Jesus Christ. The Old Testament points ahead to Christ; the New Testament tells us of His life, His death for our sins, and His resurrection and present reign in heaven. It also tells us of His coming again and future kingdom. It expounds on His teaching and reveals His will for His people. We can never know Him fully because He is infinite and we are finite. But we can know Him definitely as Savior and Lord and we can and must spend our lives focused on the goal to be more like Him. ”

As we come to know Jesus, we will become more and more like Him because we know who to imitate because we see Him more clearly. “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

 We become like the One who stretched out His hand in compassion to heal a leper, who had mercy on the woman caught in adultery and resist the temptations of the devil.  As we see Jesus submit to His Father’s will—“I want your will to be done, not mine.“—we learn to submit to our wills to the Father’s will. And as we gaze upon Jesus enduring all things because of His love for us, we learn to endure the sins and failures of others out of love for them.

 As we see Jesus empty himself and make himself poor so that He might make us rich, we in turn learn to empty ourselves. As we marvel to watch Jesus kneel before His disciples the night before He is to die and wash their feet, the Holy Spirit grows us in humility.

 But where do you start? Transformation in Christlikeness is a process. Try focusing on one change in character at a time, even if the change takes time. Most of us fail in our efforts to change and become like Jesus because we try hard for a while and then give up. We don’t keep our focus long enough, and we don’t go deep enough; we don’t develop a plan for how we can work with God’s grace to change to become like Jesus on the inside in that one area.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the most important step to becoming more like Jesus?
  2. What can you do this week to take that step?  

THE MOST IMPACTFUL BOOK IN HISTORY

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” – Hebrews 4:12

The Bible is the single most important book ever written. It is an eyewitness account of historical events that have shaped the world in which we live. This book is a priceless, fascinating, and incomparable treasure. People have died torturous deaths simply to gain access to the Bible in countries where this book is discouraged or even banned outright. It raises the dignity and rights of every human being ever born. It is truly an amazing and remarkable piece of writing that will astonish and surprise you. Consider the following:

First, the Bible was written over a period of 1,600 years by 40 different authors and in multiple languages yet it speaks with a common voice.  On days when movie producers have a hard time recreating a scene exactly from day to day, the Bible has an internal consistency and theme that is nothing short of amazing.

Second, think about its circulation. The Bible is the most published book in history. It has been at the top of the best-seller list yearly for 200-300 years. It is impossible to know exactly how many copies have been printed in the roughly 1500 years since the Bible contents were standardized, but research suggests that the total number is somewhere between 5 and 7 billion. And that does not include all the digital versions that people have on their various devices. The Bible in its entirety has been translated into over 700 different languages and more happen each year. No book comes close to this.

Third, we can trust in its reliability. The Bible is the Word of God and has been miraculously preserved through the years of copying and translation so that we can be sure of its trustworthiness and reliability. The same goes for the Bible’s durability. Some have tried to eliminate it. All who have tried have failed.  The Bible has survived bans and burnings, ridicule and criticism by opponents.

Fourth is the Bible’s effect: people who start reading the Bible never finish reading it. They want to keep reading it over and you keep seeing new things. People have multiple versions. They study it and carry it around. What people learn transforms their lives and values like no other book ever has. The Bible is truly a gift.

If you are a Christian, the Bible is an indispensable book. Our walk alongside God takes a thousand twists, turns, and obstacles. Fortunately, the Bible is the map for that journey. Take time every day to read this remarkable book. Read it with an open mind and open heart. It contains pure truth about God, about life, grace, love, and an eternity with God. You’ll be amazed at what you discover about God, and about yourself.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes the Bible so unique in your mind?
  2. What can we do this week to spend more time in the Bible?

HOW DO WE MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” – Deuteronomy 30:19.

In the garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented the possible choices people could make to do the right or the wrong thing. Adam and Eve’s choice to eat from that tree is a prologue to all the times God’s people would make sinful decisions in the future.

There is a sign at a high school that says the following. “You are not born a winner, You are not born a loser, You are born a chooser.” Like Adam and Eve, we will experience choices. Every day brings new challenges and decisions for you and everyone around you. Every day is a new day, and every day means we either choose to live for God, by the standards He lays down in scripture, or we live for ourselves by our own standards of right and wrong, as in the days when “. . . the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).

When you make a choice against one thing, you make a choice for something else. When you make up your mind to abhor evil, you make the choice to cling to what is good. When you choose to ignore the prompting of the Lord in an area, you are making the choice to do something that opposes His best plan for your life. Choosing to do right isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it.

Following God is determined not only by the one big decision we must make at the time of our conversion but also by the many small decisions that we make throughout each day. Perhaps the most profound act of worship is not found in a worship service where we corporately praise God and offer our prayers, but in private when no one is watching, and we choose to obey God rather than fall into temptation.

What do we want to change in the next six months? What do we hope to change in the next year? Are you going to be healthier, stronger, and more mature? Are you going to be less in debt? Are you going to be more like God wants you to be? The change will only happen if you choose to change.

Change requires making choices. It’s not enough to dream of changing. It’s not enough to desire change. In order for you to change, you will need to make a decision. You must choose to change. You can only muster the faith to embrace and choose change by knowing His love, knowing His character, and trusting Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever seen someone’s life change so much that you couldn’t deny it was God changing them?
  2. What can you do this week to change an area of your life that needs changing?   

HOW TO GET RID OF BAD HABITS

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” – John 1:5.

The habit of consuming a half-gallon of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough after a hard day might seem like a good idea in the moment, but it would be wise to consider the implications for tomorrow instead of the temporary pleasure of indulging today. Bad habits always have consequences and are hard to overcome which explains why it is often challenging to do so.

So what keeps us stuck doing the same thing over and over, stuck in a perpetual déjà vu?  What do we need to do to escape the grip of bad habits in our life so we can become the person God created us to be? The first step is to identify the triggers that cause the bad habit. By discovering the “cue” that ignites the habit, you place yourself in a position of power over the temptation. When you are nervous, you bite your fingernails; when you are bored, you open up your smartphone and disconnect from the world around you. By understanding the triggers behind your habits, you can begin working on a strategy to overcome them.

One of the ways we can deal with bad habits is to replace them with new ones. Repetition is the key to forming habits, either good or bad. So, for you to overcome old bad habits, you need to form new ones and continually repeat them until they overshadow the bad habits. John 1:5 reminds us that good has more power than bad: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” The devil always wants us to form bad habits, while God wants us to form good habits. So it makes sense to replace bad habits with good ones.

It is easy to convince ourselves that a solution is unlikely or impossible. We have made so many unsuccessful attempts to overcome their habits that we have resigned ourselves to failure. We may have lost a few battles, but we have not lost the war. In spite of our previous failures, that does not mean we can’t achieve ultimate victory.

It won’t be easy. Breaking bad habits takes a strong commitment, an investment of time, a lot of hard work, and a willingness to be uncomfortable while you change a bad habit into a good one. For example, Samson. When Samson grew up, he developed a bad habit of always doing the opposite of his parents’ instructions. He developed over time the habit of drinking and running after women. Eventually, he met Delilah, (Judges 16:4-30), who brought about his downfall.

Start with small changes: Big changes are made by taking small steps – one at a time. If you repeatedly try and fail to change a bad habit, perhaps you are biting off too much. Rather than make a 180-degree flip, is there a way that you could make a gradual transition into a better routine?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Based on who you want to become, what habit do you want to break?
  2. Think of the last time you broke a habit. What worked? What didn’t work?

DEFINING A HABIT

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking the complex and overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”” – Mark Twain.

What is a habit? A habit is “an established practice, tendency, or manner of behavior.” It is a behavioral pattern that is acquired through frequent repetition. We tend to be creatures of habit and we tend to underestimate the power of habits over our life… both good and bad. A habit can be harmless, or life-threatening. It can range from a facial mannerism to something as deeply ingrained as a character weakness. It can involve something as simple as using the same route to work every day, to something more serious like not being able to control our anger.

The habits that conflict with your ability to see yourself today and transform you into the person you want to be tomorrow are bad habits. In other words, they conflict with you being Christ-like, those are your bad habits. Paul writes in Romans 12:2: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world…” or in other words the habits of this world.  “but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

Almost nothing causes more regret than bad habits. We are talking about the bad habits that in retrospect, we wish we had not ever let get started.  That when we look back, we wish we could go and tell our younger selves, “Don’t even start down this road because you’re going to regret it.” The reason we even start down that road is that we don’t think we will regret it.  We don’t think we are causing any real harm.  We might even know it’s wrong, we might know it’s even a bad idea, but we just do it anyway.  The problem with bad habits is that we are dulled to the dangers they pose and the pain they inflict because we can go a long time before we see any consequences that we regret.

 And that’s the devil’s strategy.  He limits any real harm at the start because otherwise, nobody would ever become a slave to any bad habits. He allows us to be lulled to sleep, to become dull to the dangers, until we end up piling up regret.

The key is to make the changes necessary to become the person God wants us to be. How many times have we come to grips with a bad habit, but didn’t actually make any changes?

If we want to break some bad habits, we have to quit deceiving ourselves into thinking that just showing up or feeling guilty is God’s endgame.  It’s not.  It never has been.  Our Heavenly Father doesn’t want us just to learn more, He wants us to obey more. God wants us to become the person He always intended us to be.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is a habit you would like to break? What can you do to start breaking that habit this week?
  2. What are some spiritual habits you would like to start?

GODHEAD THREE: THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT

“After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” —  Matthew 3:16-17.

Admittedly, the Trinity is probably one of the most mysterious concepts in our faith. But God is at one time, three persons; the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God, with all the attributes of God, but each person is distinct from the others. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. However, they are all God. We need to remember that this isn’t just God showing up in a different form at different times. Each person of the Trinity has always existed and has always been fully God. We will never understand the Trinity by human investigation, logic, philosophy, or science. The only way you can begin to grasp the Trinity is through what God says in His word.

Matthew 3:16-17 tells us that Jesus (the Son) getting baptized, the Father speaking, and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. If each Person of the Trinity is distinct and yet fully God, then should we conclude that there is more than one God? Obviously, we cannot, for Scripture is clear that there is only one God: Isaiah 45:21 is just one example: “Consult together, argue your case. Get together and decide what to say. Who made these things known so long ago? What idol ever told you they would happen? Was it not I, the LORD? For there is no other God but me, a righteous God and Savior. There is none but me.” 1 Kings 8:60 adds, “Then people all over the earth will know that the Lord alone is God and there is no other.” God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one.

What difference does it make whether God is one person or three? Is this really going to impact our lives at all? Actually, the three Persons of God matter a great deal: The three Persons show God is totally committed to us: All three Persons of God are fully involved in and committed to making us His children.

Paul explains it like this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . he chose us in him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . .  when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” — Ephesians 1:3-14 (ESV)

Scripture shows how each member of the Trinity fulfills His specific role and how those three roles interrelate. In simple terms, The Father creates a plan, Jesus Christ implements the plan, and the Holy Spirit administers the plan.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How are the persons of the Trinity distinct?
  2. How much do we need to know about the Trinity? 

THE HABIT OF STARTING YOUR DAY WITH GOD

“When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.” – Job 1:5.

If you were asked to summarize your average morning, it would probably go something like this: You hit the snooze button two times before you roll out of bed. After a quick shower, you throw on your clothes, run a brush through your hair and teeth and walk out the door. Most people have some variation of that rushed routine. The problem with that routine is not what is included but what is missing. What is missing is starting your day with God.   

When we converse with acquaintances or family members, we generally follow a basic format. After greeting them, we inquire about their health or other subjects to indicate our genuine interest in their well-being. There’s give-and-take as the conversation proceeds. And that’s basically what God wants us to do; develop the habit of starting our day with God.  If you only have a short amount of time throughout your day, you’ll have to use your time wisely to get the most out of it. You probably don’t have an hour in the morning to spend with God. But starting with a few minutes would not be that difficult. Use that time to say a quick prayer, read a short passage in your Bible, meditate, or listen to a worship song. Use a few minutes each morning to actively pursue the Lord instead of focusing on the daily routine.   

Then look for opportunities to spend time with God throughout the day. God may be calling your attention to Him as you’re walking back to work after a lunch break or in between classes at school. You may not always have huge, glaring opportunities to spend with God but there are many “small” ones you can take advantage of if you are open to them.

The key is to be intentional. Intentionality is the key to everything. Don’t do it to check a task off your to-do list, don’t do it for a picture-perfect Instagram post, and don’t do it to impress your friends and family. Spend time with God because you love Him and want to know Him more.

There are so many benefits/perks of spending quiet time with God. Spend quiet time with God on a regular basis, if not daily, and your life will change. First, God takes pleasure when we spend time in the Word and fellowship with Him in prayer. Psalm 147:11 says, “No, the Lord’s delight is in those who fear him, those who put their hope in his unfailing love.” Secondly, your trust in God grows. You can’t trust God unless you know Him. The only way to truly know Him is by spending time in the Word and really basking in who God is. The more time you spend with someone, the more like them you will become. The same is true of God. As you saturate yourself with scripture, you will become more Christ-like.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you start your day with God? Why or why not?
  2. What different ways have you tried to intentionally connect with God? Were some more meaningful or impactful than others? Why do you think that might be?
  3. What would it take for you to make this a priority in your life?

IT IS SIMPLE, IT IS JUST HARD

If you are going to live as disciples of Jesus, we have to remember that all noble things are difficult. The Christian life is gloriously difficult, but the difficulty if it does not make us faint and can in, it rouses us to overcome.” Oswald Chambers.

There is a passage in Mere Christianity in which C.S. Lewis talks about whether the Christian life is hard or easy. “It’s both”, Lewis says. “It’s hard as death in the beginning, and then as his life begins to worth within us and transform us, it is relatively easy, because he does the work of transforming us.” The question could be slightly rephrased as does living as a christian make life easier or harder? You can answer that question both ways; it is harder and easier.

Luke 14: 28-30 says:”But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!’ Jesus’ appeal is for those who would follow Him to reflect on the serious demands of discipleship. But does that make Christianity hard?

To believe irrefutably that Christianity is hard is a little bit tricky because it risks belittling the atoning work of Christ—making it sound as if salvation depends upon man’s effort. On the other hand, if Christians say following Jesus is easy, they risk downplaying the cost of discipleship. So how exactly does Scripture depict the life of a Christ-follower? Is it easy or hard to be a Christian? The answer is both.

Take a minute to read Matthew 11:29-30. Jesus breaks the easy/hard question down in extremely practical terms. “Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” But read  Matthew 7:14 and you get a contrasting image of discipleship: “But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.”

So Jesus’ yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30) while the way is hard (Matthew 7:14) While christians’ spiritual burdens may be easy, their path is difficult. It’s a trail that leads believers into the hard sayings of Jesus such as the command to love one’s enemies (Luke 6:27), forgive others “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), and regularly assume the role of a servant (Matthew 20:26).

The Christian life is not always easy. Sometimes it is very difficult. Jesus didn’t come to confuse us. He came to love us and to show us the way to peace. He’s our ultimate example, and what’s more, He told us that we would do even greater things than He did.  Easy or hard? Yes, it is.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In your opinion is it hard or easy to follow Jesus? 
  2. What can we do this week to love God and love others a little better?