The Art Of Self-Control

“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.

Self-control is not a new or revolutionary idea by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t turn heads or grab headlines.  Self-control is so important and yet it may be the epitome of “easier said than done.” Self-control can be learned.

Alongside love and godliness, self-control is an important part of how we are to conduct ourselves as Christians. “In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness.” (2 Peter 1:5-6). 2 Timothy 1:7 adds, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” It is a “fruit of the Spirit” in Paul’s famous list (Galatians 5:22–23) and one of the first things that must be characteristic of leaders in the church (1 Timothy 3:2). And Proverbs 25:28 likens “a person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.“ True self-control is not about developing the ability to control ourselves, but giving control to Christ. In other words, not bringing ourselves under our own control, but under the power of Christ.

Most Christians have read or heard a sermon on the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23.  Each of the fruits are characteristics of God that are manifested in the believer. That is to say, God is the source of each of the fruit. We can’t conjure them up through self improvement, we can only allow God to form the fruit in us through the work of His Spirit in our lives. And that includes financial self-control. 

James 1:13-14 says: ”And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away.”

These verses tell me that the biggest problem I have – is me. I do the things I do – because I like to do it. When I do something I know is bad for me – many times I still do it because I like to do it. I want to do it. Self control can set you free. Free of that destructive habit. Free of that addiction. Free of poor choices. And free of debilitating debt.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was a big test of your self-control? Did you pass or fail?
  2. How does the Bible speak of self-control as a Christian trait in a positive way? (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 2:2, 5-6,11-12)
  3. If you realize that you are going to be in a situation that requires self-control, do you try to prepare yourself ahead of time? How?

Debt Changes Tomorrow

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” – Romans 13:7

It was Hebert Hoover who said, “Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt.”  We sometimes forget that debt impacts tomorrow. When we get into debt, we assume that we will earn enough in the future to pay the debt. We believe the promise of “easy monthly payments.” But let’s be honest, there is nothing easy about those monthly payments.

Even for those who are wise, and do not get in over their heads, there is still the constant pressure of debt. We can all identify with the poet who wrote:

“Tomorrow never comes, they say,

But all such talk is idle gush,

For when we have a debt to pay,

Tomorrow gets here with a rush.”

Debt can and often does directly change standards of living and financial security for individuals today and into the future. We all want to see into the future, but none of us really knows the future here upon this earth. Solomon talks about that several times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. For example, Ecclesiastes 8:7 says, “Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?”

Debt is a limiting force that causes you to live your life in such a way that your ability to pay your debt is a major consideration in every life decision you make. That will not change in the future. How many people do you know who can’t retire or even cut back on their workload as they get older? Short-term debt has become long-term debt. In many cases, the ultimate cause usually comes down to long term debt that they never seem to get rid of. They’ve spent decades pushing their debt into the future and now it has come home to roost.

When it comes down to it, you have to decide what kind of life you want to live. Once you realize that when it comes to debt, less is more, and none is best, then you can start changing your life for good.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can we separate short-term debt from long-term debt? Why or why not?
  2. How can breaking through the bondage of debt result in spiritual freedom as well?
  3. What will you need to do to gain that freedom?

Life And Debt

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” – Romans 13:8.

Imagine for a second that you hear a knock at the door. You pause the TV and walk over and open the door. There stands God, and after a pause God looks at you and says, “Come follow me …”  You are naturally speechless and mesmerized for a few seconds. 

Then reality hits and without much though you blurt out “This is not a good time to follow you. I have a pretty good job and as you know Lord, I need a pretty good job. I owe thousands on my credit cards. I bought a new car and have four years of payments and the mortgage payment won’t pay itself. So when you take all of that into consideration, you can understand why I just can’t pick up and leave, right?” 

You would not be alone both in that predicament and in that response. But if God came today asking you to walk away from everything and follow Him, would you have to say “no” due to financial obligations? Very often our ability to respond to God’s call or follow His plan for our lives is related to our financial situation, especially debt.

The Bible clearly discourages debt.  Romans 13:8 reads: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another” and in Proverbs 22:7 we learn that “Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.”  In today’s culture slave probably seems like a strong word and it is. But see if you don’t feel like a slave if you miss a payment or two on your mortgage, car loan or credit card.

Years ago, during the housing crash and recession that followed, there were a lot of people who looked at debt in a whole new light. The financial woes provided an opportunity to fully understand what Proverbs 22:7 is telling us. As users of the resources that God has blessed us with, we should be careful spenders not just during a recession, but as a response to His call to be good stewards of all the blessings He has showered upon us. We need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap that how we handle money doesn’t have a direct impact on our spiritual life.  

Think about the same scenario I mentioned earlier. You hear a knock at the door and open it to hear God say “Come follow me …” Your response is, “”There is nothing that would prevent me from from following your will for my life, Lord. So Here I am. I will go if You lead me.”

 Discussion Questions:

  1. What has been your experience with debt?
  2. What makes it so difficult to get out of debt?
  3. What are the benefits of living debt free? How would your life change?

  

We Have More Than Less

“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.” – Psalm 23.   

Thanksgiving is upon us and already stores are putting up their Christmas decorations. It’s that glorious time of year set aside for giving lots of stuff and to stuffing ourselves a lot. But to celebrate these holidays—and every day—as God intended, one thing above all is necessary: we must grasp that all of life is grace. James 1:17 reminds us of that fact: “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father…”  Thanksgiving is the time to count your blessings, name them one by one. But how do we do that? God has blessed us far more than we deserve and with far too many blessings to count. Yet there are times that we want more.

Jesus showed time and time again that He would and could provide for those who followed Him. Just as a shepherd provides for the sheep, so does Jesus provide for those who follow Him. Psalm 23 tells us exactly that. David is an old man when he wrote Psalm 23. He had seen tragedies and disappointments, but he also had come to know God. David knew that God was beneath him in green pastures, beside him in still waters, before him at the table, behind him pursuing him with goodness and mercy, behind him preparing a heavenly home, and with him all the while as the good shepherd. David had been given more than he deserved.

That is why we should be grateful every day. Not because we hope to earn more than others, or that we have more stuff, but because we know that he has already given us more than we deserve. We serve a generous God.

I am not here to serve a God that gives people what they deserve. I am here to serve a God who gives people more than they deserve. I am here to serve a God who has given me more than I deserve.

So as you embrace this time of Thanksgiving, will you focus on the Giver, who gives you more than you need? Will you prayerfully consider that less is more and that if you have more than you need share it with others?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Americans are some of the wealthiest people in the world, but do you think Americans are generous with their wealth? Why or why not?
  2. What excuses do people sometimes make for not being more generous with their resources (time, money, and energy) toward others? Are they valid?
  3. God has blessed us with more than we deserve. When God blesses us how should we respond?

Time For A Change

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” – Hebrew 13:8

Our current teaching series is entitled Making Change and as the name implies, it is about making changes in our lives. I believe most people think the idea of change sounds good, until we realize we may have to do things differently. And too often we spend our time and effort trying to change others other than changing ourselves. Warren Wiersbe said, “Real contentment must come from within. You and I cannot change or control the world around us, but we can change and control the world within us.”

The Christian life is fundamentally a changed life. And it is never too late or too early to make changes. Regardless of what season of life you are in or how long you have been a Christian, you can change.  Jesus equipped you to experience the abundant life of glorifying God in all you do. It sounds easy but then there is that uncomfortable space in between, the desire to make a change and moments of second guessing and questioning of whether making the change is the right thing to do. If God is nudging us to make a change, we pause and ask God a question: “Am I hearing you right?”

I know people who are not intimidated by change, in face they embrace it. But there are others who run from change as if it is the worst possible outcome. They find comfort in the familiar and in the predictable. They like to know what’s coming and how it will turn out. To many people change is an itch they prefer not to scratch. But it is these moments of uncertainty that God can teach us about change and in fact change us. It is in these times that we realize that change is not so bad.

Preaching for 19 plus years at Northstar has afforded me priceless experience. Years of developing a sermon each week taught me how to prepare efficiently and how to comfortably communicate. In preaching, like most other disciplines, there really is no substitute for experience. But looking back, I realize how much both my preparation and delivery have changed, or maybe the better word is evolved, over the years.

Don’t fear change. Embrace change. It is helpful to remind ourselves that change is God’s idea, He orchestrates it, and it never takes Hm by surprise. Since He doesn’t fear it, neither should we.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What changes would you like to make in your life?  What are the obstacles to making those changes? 
  2. What changes would you make as a result of this week’s sermon on less is more?

Be More With Less

“Less is more and more is less. One righteous will outclass fifty wicked, For the wicked are moral weaklings, but the righteous are God-strong.” – Psalm 37:16-17 (MSG).

I don’t know about you, but I regularly reflect on “how much is enough” in my life. How much money is enough for one to be happy? How much stuff does one need to be content? The constant quest for “stuff” can dominate our thinking consciously or subconsciously, pushing God to the sidelines. Need proof that we tend to have too much stuff?  Consider the following: we hold garage sales where we sell clothes, furniture, decorations, cookware, tools, books, toys, basically anything not being used. If we don’t have the time to do a garage sale then we donate all the stuff we don’t use to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.   

We work long hours for the money we spend on technology, clothing, toys, furniture, decorations, cars, and hopefully someday, a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood. While we don’t believe the purpose of life is to chase possessions, our calendar and checkbook sure seem to tell a different story.

Sometimes less is more. Typically, we have excess. We don’t need all that we have. If you haven’t yet experimented in living with less, you might compare it to dieting: a feeling of constant deprivation and craving what you’ve said no to. But in reality, the opposite is true. It is natural to be nervous about clearing out all our extra stuff, such as clothes. But typically, we found out that we enjoy the simplicity that we actually use the clothes we do have. When you’ve gotten rid of what you don’t need and set out to only keep what’s necessary, that insistent voice inside badgering you to buy more is quietly silenced.

When Jesus taught His disciples, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:33-34), He was inviting us to a freedom of heart that can be only experienced when our hearts are no longer tethered to all we own and when we learn the principle that less is more. Owning less may be one of the most significant steps you’ll ever take to the abundant life Jesus promised.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does less is more mean in your life?
  2. Do you have excess in your life? What would your life be like without that excess?
  3. What can we do this week to focus on what matters?

Setting The Agenda

“Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. What is your request?” he asked. She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

In Matthew 20: 20-23 we read the story of a mother requesting that her two sons sit at Christ’s side in His kingdom. Jesus replies in verse 22-23, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”

Jesus saw through this mother’s hidden agenda. It seems they were were still thinking in terms of personal prominence and personal reward and distinction. But Jesus was having none of it. Jesus wanted to be sure this mother saw a difference between what she was asking and the realities of the Kingdom.  She could not have realized the seriousness of her request. We can shake our head at the mother’s request, but what about our agenda? Our agenda often centers on what we want and what we want is usually more than we currently have. 

Some people assume that Christianity is actually an enormous boost to achieving their personal agenda. They have dreams of a happy, healthy, family-filled prosperous life. And now that God is on their side and He is the fulfiller of dreams and the maximizer of personal potential, golden times are ahead. Craig Groeschel said that ”We reflect God’s character the most when we give freely of ourselves with no strings attached, no secret motives, no hidden agenda.”   We may not like how things are going, but we can trust God’s plan. We can trust that God is working out His design to form Christ in us. But we must understand that His agenda is different than ours.

Whether you struggle with daily glitches that change your agenda, or with major changes that bring heartache, I want to encourage you that God is in control. He has a plan mapped out for you. He sees your struggle, and He has compassion for you. His design for your life is good. Even when you can’t understand His plans, you can trust that He loves you and He’s planning something more beautiful than you can imagine.

I’m not claiming to have the answers. But I do know that God is sovereign and in control. God knows what He’s doing. Sometimes I forget, but he has a plan. God knows my heart. He knows what I desire. And He has plans to “prosper (me) and not to harm [me], to give [me] a hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). I challenge you to put your agenda aside and live according to God’s agenda. It will change your perspective and your life.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do we tend to think that God’s agenda/will is something difficult to discern? What does God want us to understand?
  2. Was there a time when your agenda clashed with God’s agenda? What happened? What did God teach you from the experience? 
  3. Respond to the statement, “The point is not to avoid life’s troubles, but to trust God in them.” How can you practically do this this week?

What Really Matters?

“Better to have little, with godliness, than to be rich and dishonest.” – Proverbs 16:8.

It is all but impossible these days to get people to pay any attention to things that really matter. Cynics amongst us are likely to ask: “What really matters in the end?” The quest to answer the question of “what matters” has driven human history, and inspired philosophers to probe the meaning of life. No one can avoid this question, and all of us develop our specific idea of what matters. But what many people think really matters doesn’t. The degree of fame that we achieve does not matter. Our level of intelligence is not what is most significant. The position to which we rise on the corporate ladder is not of ultimate importance. Nor does our wealth and possessions ultimately matter. It will all be meaningless. What really matters is our relationship with God. 

Isaiah talked about this coming reality when he said: “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17). Can you even imagine not being able to recall anything of your life while you existed on earth?  Well that’s exactly what this verse is saying. The former things will not be remembered or even come to mind. 

This verse can put things in perspective in a hurry. It prompts us to confront the out-of-whack, craziness of our lives, and get back to what really matters. It is also a sobering reminder of just how temporary this whole thing called life really is. The Bible reminds me of that fact in James 4:14: “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog–it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.”

We came into this world with nothing and we will leave the same way. So what really matters? The simple answer is that Jesus matters. Nothing that we make on earth is sure to last, except for its effect on advancing Jesus’s gospel and His church. In this sense, it’s true that “only what’s done for Christ will last.”

So what are you pouring your life into making? When it’s over, what will you leave behind that will really last? Is it more or is it less in God’s eyes. 2 Corinthians 4:18 tells us, “So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” We need to stop focusing on what will pass away and focus our lives on what will have eternal significance. So make your priorities the priorities of God. For in the end, that will be the only thing that truly matters.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. If someone was examining your life, what would they say really matters to you? How would they know?
  2. When you think about your life, what is your greatest concern—the way people see you, your financial situation, or your future? Explain.
  3. As you consider your life, what area(s) do you need to have a more external perspective? 

Finding God In My Schedule

“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. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” – Hebrew 4:12-13

You should continue reading this if you live at an inhuman pace because your weekly time budget is overdrawn. You should continue reading this if you are also overdrawn time wise in your spiritual life and in relationships with your spouse and children. And you should continue reading this if you are in a regular life rhythm and are trying to control the uncontrollable. If you are continuing to read, you need to apply the brakes in some areas of your life and give control back to the one who is in control, God. And that starts with finding time for God in our schedule.

Yes, we can be very busy. There are days when everybody needs something and you just can’t keep up. And maintaining control of the uncontrollable can really take a toll:  physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In those times, the question we should be asking ourselves is simple: why do we let God take a backseat when we get busy? 

The obvious question is also simple: given that I am overdrawn in the time department, adding another thing (morning devotional, Bible study, prayer) into an already jam-packed schedule really is going to be an even bigger challenge. It is a matter of priorities. Do you genuinely hunger for quiet time with the Lord? Do you strive every day to grow deeper in your faith than you were the day before? God trumps all other priorities.

To be blunt, I don’t think we can be so busy that we are comfortable saying, “I don’t have time to spend with God.” That statement says a whole lot about us, and the true attitude of the heart. It signals we really don’t understand how amazing God is, how precious it is to be in His presence and most of all how desperately and deeply we need Him in all areas of our life. Because if I fill my life trying to control other things, I have successfully crowded out the one who is in control and inferring that my schedule is more important, my priorities are higher and that I can do it all myself, thank you very much. Most of us have been there and done that.  And we find out that it simply does not work when God is not in the equation.

The reality is that we are most in control when God is closely, intimately involved and in control of our entire lives.

Discussion Questions:

  1. God is not up in Heaven with a scorecard, marking down every minute you do (or don’t) spend in prayer. He isn’t keeping a huge tally card of how many verses you have memorized or how many pages of your Bible you read today. What do you think He does expect?
  2. What can we do when we have no time margin for God?

Large, But Not In Charge

“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. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” – Hebrew 4:12-13

Most people will learn a life lesson the hard way, eventually. It could be in the pursuit of happiness, it could be in a business venture, it could be in seeking validation of others, or it could be in an expected hardship. If I was to guess, I would say that one of the lessons we most often learn the hard way is how little we have control over our lives. Nebuchadnezzar leaned that lesson the hard way.

Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylonia and is considered the greatest king of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned by name around 90 times in the Bible. History records Nebuchadnezzar as a brutal, powerful, and ambitious king. The Bible does not say this in so many words, but as a powerful and ambitious king he probably thought he was all that. He probably looked out over Babylon and took personal credit for all its power and splendor.  He believed himself to be large and in charge. He basically said so in Daniel4:1-2: “King Nebuchadnezzar sent this message to the people of every race and nation and language throughout the world: “Peace and prosperity to you! “I want you all to know about the miraculous signs and wonders the Most High God has performed for me.” He forgot who was really in control.   

In Daniel chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar is given a dream by God. Daniel interpreted the dream for Nebuchadnezzar and informed him that the dream was a warning to the king to humble himself and recognize that his power, wealth, and influence were from God, not of his own making. Nebuchadnezzar did not heed the warning of the dream, so God judged him as the dream had declared. (Daniel 4: 31-33)

This story reminds us of something we should all take for granted. God rules the roost. The king had been impressed by God, but not transformed. He thought he was in control because he ruled. When we try to control our lives we think we rule as well. We think we are in charge. God is in charge and we are not. Nebuchadnezzar learned that the hard way and set the record straight in verse 37: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honor the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Daniel 4: 31-33: Do you think this is learning your lesson the hard way? What lessons do we learn the hard way?
  2. What can we do to ensure we remember who is in charge?