All In And All Out

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” – Romans 12:1

The definition of all in is “to be totally committed to something.” Being all in as a Christian is a radical abandonment to the will of God and a wholehearted pursuit of Jesus Christ as our only option. There is no middle ground in our relationship with God.  We should be all in. 

As Christians we are called to be all in and all out. We are called to be set apart. Romans 12:2 says, “set apart.” Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.…” But it is not about being holier than thou or self-righteous. Our goal in seeking to be set apart is not to stand on higher ground so that we can look down on people. Set apart means something different. 

It is easy to look at being set apart in terms of what I did or did not do. It was almost like a contest where we are trying to do more of the right things than others. But if we think in those terms we have it backwards. It is not about looking different than the world.

Acts 4:13 says, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13). It does not say they were different from the world. Most followers of Jesus want to be different and they want people to notice they are different. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the goal is not for people to notice that something is different about us, but it’s for them to know the one who made us different. Our goal in being set apart should not be for people to look at us and say, “Wow, look how different they are from the world around them.” Our objective should be for people to look at us and say, “they look like Jesus.” 

Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. John 17:15-16 says, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”  We should not distance ourselves from any contact with our secular culture; we should influence it.

God’s goal in setting us apart is not about taking us out of the world, but about Him taking the world out of us. By pursuing Christ, the things of the world lose their grip on us. He wants to conform us into His image, not distance us from the world.

Discussion questions:

  1. How can a Christian be all in and out at the same time?
  2. What can we do this week to become more all in for Jesus?

Dare To Be Different

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” – Romans 12:2.

Most of us by nature are conformists. We tend to want to blend into the crowd and desire not to stand out as different. As kids we want to conform. And sometimes that is difficult. Who didn’t want a pair of Air Jordan’s when the first model was released in 1985. Not only was Michael Jordan defying gravity and schooling opponents, but his Air Jordans were sought after because everybody wanted to be like Mike. Only people who could afford over $100 for a sports shoe that would last a couple years could be like Mike. Being cool had a steep price.

Today, as adults, we feel similar peer pressure, but the stakes are higher. Now it is cars, homes, memberships, investments, salaries, résumés, benefit packages, and vacation destinations—not to mention all the latest toys, gizmos, and accoutrements. We may call it “staying in style” or “not wanting to fall behind,” but it is the same urge not to stand out as different.

We Christians have another ingredient to add to the mix: our calling. God’s invitation to His family really complicates matters in terms of fitting into society. He has called us out of this world: “The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” (John 15:19). God wants us to be different. We are set apart from other people in the world, and asked to steadily widen the gap.

In Romans 12:2, Paul makes a very blunt statement.  John is equally as blunt: “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you.” (I John 2:15). We are called to be different, to be set apart.

To be set apart means that God has His hand on you for a specific purpose. Today the world has a desperate need for people who are different. One does not obtain that kind of distinctiveness except through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the one that issues the drumbeat of the different drummer. He is the one that calls us to stand out of the crowd, to be distinct, separate, unusual. He calls us to be different.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you feel different as a Christian? How?
  2. What can you do this week to stand out? 

What We have In Common Is What Sets Us Apart

“So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. 15 But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. 16 For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”  – 1 Peter 1:13-16. 

It is a good idea to periodically remind ourselves of our purpose as followers of Jesus Christ. We are not called to be happy, but to be holy. In the unique way God created us and relates to us, we are not destined to happiness, nor to health, but to holiness.

The 1 Peter passage is a call to holiness. Holiness has gotten a bad rap over the years. People equate it with religious intransigence and outdated fundamentalism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Being holy is being like God. Because just as the Savior who called us is holy, so we are to be holy in all we do.

This is a passage about practical holiness. To put it that way seems stuffy and boring. But it’s obvious that Peter didn’t feel that way at all. To him, being holy is being like God. And that’s the most exciting thing in the world. Holiness means being so much like God that you change the world. Or to be more precise, holiness means to be so much like God that the world begins to change around you.

But if you doubt my words, would you accept the words of C. S. Lewis? This is what Lewis said about holiness: “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing … it is irresistible. If even ten percent of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end?”

People who think holiness is dull and old fashioned don’t understand what it really means. When you meet a truly holy person, you are naturally drawn to them. We’ve all known at least one person that is filled with a kind of contagious joy. They are working to be like God, and they are filled with this joy. They are different. They have left their old ways and have been set apart.

To be holy means to be full of God in every part of life. We must emulate who He is. We aren’t talking about behavior modification. We are talking about spiritual transformation. Living holy is not the path to knowing Jesus. Truly knowing Jesus is the path to living holy. We need to be a generation that follows Jesus with the courage to be different, to be holy as He is holy.   

Discussion questions

  1. What does it mean to be holy on a daily basis?
  2. Ask Jesus to show you how to grow in holiness, in the fear of the Lord and in the hope of His return.

The Good, Bad And The Ugly

“Job scraped his skin with a piece of broken pottery as he sat among the ashes. His wife said to him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.” – Job 2:8-10

Given the inescapable fact that we must not only face trials in this life, one of the most difficult questions in times of trial is the question of “why” and “why me?” Our character is often sorely tested without warning; we are often at a loss to even find words to describe our situation, so we sometimes shrug our shoulders and just say, “stuff happens”. Often the situations with no ready made answers are the very situations where God does some of His best work. This is illustrated beautifully in the life of Job.

If you have spent any time in church you have probably heard the story of Job. Job had trusted God in the good times. Now the scene was set to determine if Job would trust God in bad and ugly situations. He endured loss like no one else we know. His home was destroyed, his children were killed, his health was ruined, his finances  were wiped out and his friends offered no support. But after working his way through his questions and struggles, Job eventually resolved to trust God—no matter what. That is when his wife told him to “curse God and die.”  But Job accepted what God sent. He had accepted good; now he was accepting the bad and the ugly.

Job’s response is incredible. What amazing, faithful words while Job sits on an ash heap, scraping his painful sores on his body, contemplating the death of his children and loss of his wealth and possessions. What about us?

We must be ready to receive good from God and we must also be ready to receive the not so good. The question is are we going to happily receive God’s blessings and good things that come in life but then turn away from God when those blessings are removed? Are we going to reject God when life does not go according to our plans? 

Losing a job is traumatic. Finding out you have cancer is devastating. Having a child stray is overwhelming. Yet I suggest to you today that God has created a built in purpose for each trial He allows in our lives. Even those that seem to hurt so much, even and especially for them. Our life and our circumstances are in God’s hand. He holds all things together, and He fits pieces together, that don’t seem to make sense. He holds us secure, safe, close. God will never allow a trial without any good coming from it, somehow, in some way. There is purpose in trials: God is still in control. He has not forsaken us but wants us to trust Him so we can mature.

God has a purpose in whatever we face, day in, day out, good, bad, great times, and tough trials, in it all.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you have a present trial? How is it affecting you? 
  2. What do you need to change to handle your trial the way God wants you to handle it?
  3. What will you need to do if you want to accomplish God’s goals for your trial?

I Want More

“To just read the Bible, attend church, and avoid “big” sins—is this passionate, wholehearted love for God? —François Fénelon, The Seeking Heart

In the movie based on the Charles Dickens novel, 9-year-old orphan Oliver Twist falls in with a group of street-urchin pickpockets led by the Artful Dodger and masterminded by the criminal Fagin. One of the famous scenes from the movie is Oliver, desperate from hunger, rises from the table, walks up to the master, bowl and spoon in hand and says “please, sir, I want some more.”

People say it all the time: I want to want God more. I want more of Him, I don’t ever want to feel I have “enough God.” “I’m just not sure how to go about getting more than I already have.” The how can be different for different people, but one thing is sure; we will never get more of God by sitting still and hoping spiritual growth will come to us. It requires action. Wanting more of God is a purposeful pursuit. We don’t need to pray about doing something that God mandates in the Bible: love, serve, go. He’s already made it clear: yes, a follower of Jesus should be doing that. But what about the times when things aren’t going very well. Should we want more of God then? The answer is still yes.

Wait a second: What about the times we have struggled through “dark valleys”—times of trial and grief? Trials knock us down and surround us. We toss and turn at night, wondering what we are going to do. It starts to feel like we’re Oliver who got smacked in the side of the head with a ladle when he asked for more gruel. It is in these times when we need more; more faith, more trust, more of a relationship with God.

Isaiah 43: 2-3 says, “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

We want more of God and more of His transformative work in our lives. We want more God when our faith and trust in God is stretched and grows stronger during trials. If we want to find God, that’s where God will be. The fact is we can see God in our trials. We can move closer and closer to God in our trials. We should want more of God in trials. We should hunger for more of Him. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Identify your biggest trial right now and consider this question: How can this help me find more of God?
  2. What are some steps to have more of God in our lives?

Faith Revealed In Trials

“No coward soul is mine, No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere: I see Heaven’s glories shine, And faith shines equal, arming me from fear. —Emily Brontë”

The Bible often speaks of the importance of faith in knowing God. For example, Ephesians 2:8 (ESV) teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” First Corinthians 13:13 adds, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” But why do faith and trials seem to go hand in hand?

We all face trials. These trials have the power to either produce a barrier or enable us to grow closer to God. The choice is up to us. Either we will remain anchored to God or lose some of our connection with Him. 

James 1:2-4 says, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” Allow the phrase, “consider it an opportunity for great joy” to settle in for a second. Think about past trials in your life. Think about the trials you may be facing today. Imagine some of the trials that are on the horizon. So what is our first response when trials come our way? It’s hard to imagine “joy” being the initial reaction. Joy is not the emotion that best describes your mindset when you consider your trials, past, present and future.

In most cases, our first instinct is to devise a strategy or method of eliminating the trial completely. The second instinctive response is to run. It can certainly seem like the prudent thing to do. We don’t have the time nor the inclination to deal with trials with all that is going on. But Scripture commands us to count our trials as joy and run at them head-on for the sake of being transformed into a faith-filled, steadfast child of God. God sees trials as a chance to produce character within us, not as a circumstance intended to harm us or derail His plans for our lives. 

The greatest gift we’ve been given in the face of trials is faith. When problems are a head wind in our life, it is hard to see any benefit. Seeing the benefit requires faith. We have to believe that the end justifies the means, that God has an outcome as good as the trial is bad. 

Hebrews 10:35-38 says, “So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised. For in just a little while, the Coming One will come and not delay. And my righteous ones will live by faith…”   That faith is revealed in our trials.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Some of life’s deepest and most lasting lessons come to us wrapped in pain. Agree or disagree and why?
  2. What are the two necessary beneficial responses to God’s trials in our lives?

Faux Faith

“So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”  – Deuteronomy 31:6.

Before he was a icon, Michelangelo began his career forging ancient Roman sculpture. He created a new sculpture out of marble, then intentionally broke it, buried it in a garden, and dug it up, declaring it to be a lost Roman antique. Throughout history people have been trying to pass fakes off as the real thing. When it comes to faith, faking it doesn’t help—it hurts.

Hebrews 11:6 says, “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” What does faking faith look like? Imagine a relationship with someone you don’t quite trust. There is something about them. You don’t tell them that you don’t trust them, you prefer to fake it when you are around them. You put on the smile and pretend that everything is cool. When we fake faith, we do the same thing to God. We just don’t trust God as much as we should, but we are still going through the motions. 

It reminds me a little of a sport that is not for the faint of heart; bungee jumping. People stand very still on the edge of the bridge, breathing heavily or shaking a little. There is one overlying concern. “Will this cord support my weight? Or in other words, is bungee jumping safe? There are a few who get cold feet at the last moment. But in spite of all the collective apprehension, most jump. Some of the people who will  jump off bridges hundreds of feet in the air have no faith in God. They think it is illogical to trust their lives in something or someone they cannot see. They would not take a leap of faith into the unknown, yet they don’t hesitate to trust their life and their future on a man-made cord.  

In trials we can feel like we are tied to a bungee cord, hanging over the side of a bridge and the ground is rushing up to meet us. The difference is that as followers of Jesus, we know we can have absolute faith in the cord we are connected to (God). We are concerned that we will jump off a bridge and we will splat on the ground (financially because the bills are piling up, or a illness is threatening the life we developed, or a relationship is falling apart). Faith is trusting God in those moments. In the midst of a trial when we feel alike we are about to hit the ground, we need to trust God to work his perfect will. We finally look to the heavens and ask God, “when are you going to let me off this bungee cord?” The answer might be “when you trust me enough to stop blinking.”

When trials occur in our life is when we need to have faith in God. God is worthy of our trust.

Discussion questions:

  1. What does real faith look like?
  2. What can we do short-term to improve our faith?

A Trial Run

“For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.” – Romans 8:16-17. 

The topic of trials and suffering is not the most popular topic in Christian circles. But whether we like it or not, and whether we ever want to fully face up to this reality in this life, every single one us, saved or unsaved, will have to face a certain amount of trials and tribulations as we journey through this life. It is cold, hard reality. 

In 1 Peter 1:6 and James 1:2, both Peter and James mention, “trials of many kinds.” Their point is that trials can be long, short, emotional, physical, mental, or circumstantial, and come with varying degrees of difficulty. Our trials come in all shapes and sizes. If you find yourself in some difficult or constraining circumstances that are a source of struggle for you, consider yourself in a trial; it was allowed by God and can work for good in your spiritual growth.

1 Peter 1:6-7 is one of the most valuable passages on trials, because it describes the dynamics of how God changes us in a trial. Peter describes the gold smelting process where gold is heated up and impurities float to the surface. The next step in the process is to scoop away the impurities. The result is a purer piece of gold. The result then, of trials, is to accomplish a purer and stronger character and faith. It is in trials that our weaknesses, sin, and character flaws come to the surface, so that they may be transformed.

Trials can also illuminate deficiencies in our faith. When we come through the trial, we find that our faith has been stretched to several times its original size, as we own the character of God in a way we never did before.

Trials produce maturity, and this is why they are a blessing to us. James 1:4 describes a progression where trials produce perseverance, and perseverance, maturity. The goal of trials is not to make a person more persevering. That’s not a very exciting goal. But the result of persevering under trials is a more mature faith, and that is motivating. All Christians want mature faith.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How have the trials that you have experienced brought you closer to, or pushed you further away from God? How have trials affected your faith?
  2. When you read James 1:2-4, it seems like suffering is a major way in which God produces maturity and perseverance in us. Why do you think trials refine us so well?

Being Holy Because God Is Holy

“So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:13-16.

“You must be holy because I am holy.”

Whoa,,,what? Be Holy. How is this even possible? It is not easy being a good spouse, or parent, or friend. How am I supposed to be as holy as God? I’ve got issues. I do things I don’t want to do. I make mistakes. Being holy in life generally and in marriage specifically, seems impossible.

The Bible has a lot to say on the subject. Psalm 14:2-3 says, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one.” And in Isaiah 64:6, we read, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.” What hope do we possibly have of becoming holy like God?

Fortunately, holiness is not just based on our own efforts at being good. Holiness is who we are based on our relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then the Bible says that you have been given a new heart. A new person has replaced the old person. We are holy because of our position in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 10:10 says it like this, “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.”

We have been made holy… not because we follow a bunch of rules of things to do and not to do. It is not because we exhausted ourselves trying to be a spouse or parent or a better person. It is because of Jesus Christ. But even though our position as a child of God is secure when we accept Him as Savior, it is still important how we conduct our lives in marriage and in life. We must continue to live in a pure and Holy way that pleases and honors our Father in heaven.

Living a life of holiness isn’t easy. We are to imitate Christ. To do that we must turn away from the temptations of the world, and we live in obedience to our Heavenly Father.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. Does living a holy and pure life seem impossible? Does that mean marriage is impossible as well?
  2. What is he hardest part of living a holy life? 

Stay Away

“The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.” —1 Corinthians 10:13.

“I’ll go in if you will.”

“Maybe we should go home, it’s getting late.”

“Chicken!” You are scared aren’t you?” 

“Okay, let’s do this.” 

The two friends push through a wrought-iron gate that leads to a decayed Victorian mansion in front of them. There is a sudden wind bringing in ominous clouds. So begins every haunted-house scene in every horror movie ever made. We collectively whisper, “Don’t do it!” as they open the door and walk in through cobweb-littered halls and rooms. We know what’s coming. Someone or something will jump, fall, or fly out of a closet, through a window, from behind a door and drag them to the basement. We know it will not end well.    

We are not so different. We are supposed to flee from things that can harm us, yet we have a hard time walking away from things we know are not good for us. There are several places in the Bible where we are commanded to flee, to turn tail and run from an enemy far more vicious than anything lurking in a horror movie mansion. 

“Flee” is a strong word. The Bible does not tell you to amble, meander, lope, or trot from your sin. It tells you to flee. Fleeing involves effort. It involves speed. You flee when you need to find and experience safety from a threat. When you know the mansion has a bunch of axes in the shed, you don’t go near the shed. When there are chainsaws in the horror movie garage, you don’t go near the garage, in fact you flee because it is too dangerous to remain where you are.

If you know certain situations will bring you into temptation take preventive action. The most effective way to overcome temptation is to avoid it altogether. The mature Christian knows when to turn tail and run. If you have a problem with the wrong crowd, pick a different crowd. If you have trouble with alcohol, stay away from places that serve alcohol. If you watch the wrong TV programs, change the channel. But if you find yourself in a sticky situation – get out! Don’t just walk away — run. You don’t try to resist it, run away.

Fortunately for believers, the Holy Spirit takes the horror out of the horror show. He is a blazing torch we carry into the haunted house, and he ferrets out the monsters. No sin escapes his searching eye. We must simply trust and follow Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What danger might there be for us if we do not flee from sin? 
  2. What weapons do we need in order to combat the enemy of sin? 
  3. When does one flee from sin?