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?

A Balancing Act

He shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenant, but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action.” – Daniel 11:32 

We Christians can sometimes be a walking contradiction: do we sit, watch, and listen to Christianity or do we live, do, and demonstrate Christianity? In other words, should we be spectators, passive observers who watch without doing and have no say in the ultimate outcome of the event they are watching. Or should we be participants that have active roles that impact the outcome? Yes, God is in control, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role. 

Our first inclination when faced with a situation or circumstances that we are concerned about is to pray.  And that makes perfect sense.  When we pray, we are demonstrating our dependence upon God.  But the key moment comes after we have prayed.  What do we do then? This is the critical point where many believers sit back waiting for God to meet their need. And sometimes God does exactly that. But sometimes faith requires action. “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1John 3:18) 

If you are praying for God to help you get out of debt, pray, but then take action. Sit down and put a game plan together to help you meet your financial needs and achieve your financial goals. Create a budget. Live within your means. If you are praying for your marriage or for a relationship, pray, but then act. Seek out Godly counsel from your pastor or some other qualified Christian counselor, then put your faith into action and do all you can to have a healthy marriage or relationship.

Galatians 6:4 tells us, “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.”  And Jeremiah 17:10 says, “But I, the LORD, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.”

Prayer is not a passive exercise but an active one. We are active participants in God answering our prayers. It requires action on our part. It is God who is answering our prayers, but our faith requires us to be involved in that process. James 2:14 tells us, “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” No doubt there are some things we pray about that are completely out of our control and we must simply trust God to move on those needs.  But much of what we pray about we have the ability to put action to our prayers. It is still God who is answering our prayers, but He is working through our actions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do actions require faith? Why or why not?
  2. How do I decide when to take action and when to wait on God?

What, Me Worry?

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as if I were dead. But he laid his right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” – Revelation 1:17.

The first four words of Revelation 1:17 are “When I saw him…” John must have been totally awestruck by the awesome, Lord Jesus Christ….and terrified. He falls at the feet of Christ. Jesus sees that John was overwhelmed and tells him directly “Don’t be afraid.” The grave could not hold Jesus and He now holds the keys of death and the gravel. God is in control, even though many people want to have everything under control, or at least believe they do. Having control seems more predictable and it certainly seems safer.

But reflect for a few minutes and determine if you are in control of any part of your life right now. Do you have control over your future? Your children? Your daily schedule? Can you control your daily commute to work and home from work? What do you control and more importantly, how much stress do you put on yourself by trying to achieve that control? It is a burden that most of us could probably do without.

Instead of spinning around out of control, we can choose to turn to God. We can ground ourselves in the truth that He is sovereign. He is the One who holds all things together. Nothing escapes His notice. We can rest assured that He is far more concerned with our well-being than we are. And He loves us more than we can possibly fathom.

Yes, bad things happen. We want to control everything in our life instead of merely resting in God’s presence, remembering that God sees us, God loves us, and God has us. But in the midst of crazy seasons of life and the worry that results, the Bible reminds us that we do not need to be in control of it all. One example is found in Psalm 139. “Lord, you have examined me and you know me.You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. Even before I speak, you already know what I will say. You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding.” (Psalm 139:1-6 GNT)

Remembering these verses doesn’t mean that my to-do list will go away, or even that my anxiety will evaporate. But they remind me that my stress is a small part of the bigger picture and that God’s reality is bigger than my own.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you handle control issues?
  2. Why should we trust in God rather than seize control of our lives?
  3. What can we do this week to put the control of our lives where it belongs, with God?

Wrestling With God

“But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.” – Isaiah 43:1.

It was Corrie Ten Boom who said, “Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear.” Worry results from us seeking to wrestle something from God that doesn’t belong to us. Basically, we seek to have control of something we have no power to control.

Do you remember the story of Jacob and Esau? The father Isaac was tricked into giving Esau’s blessing to Isaac. When Esau returned, Jacob had already received the blessing—which guaranteed him a double portion of inheritance. Esau was furious and vowed to kill him, so Jacob fled. (See Genesis 27) After years of living apart, Jacob decided to return to his home and hoped to make peace with his brother. One night on the journey, he sent everyone ahead of him while he stayed behind. What follows is an interesting story. The account of Jacob wrestling with the angel is found in Genesis 32:22-32. The account includes the renaming of Jacob as “Israel”, literally “He who struggles with God.” The account is also regularly described as Jacob wrestling with God.

Through a long and difficult struggle, God taught Jacob to bring his fears to Him, and to cling to His promises. And it seems Jacob finally “got it,” returning to Bethel once more to obey his promise to worship God there (Genesis 35:6-7). 

I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to wrestle with God, until I realize that we wrestle with God all the time. We wrestle with Him on seeking His will for our lives. We wrestle with Him to give us peace and clarity. And of course we wrestle with Him for control of our lives.  We wrestle with Him until we come to that place that we give Him control of our lives. 

Maybe you are in a wrestling match with God right now. I understand it is difficult to give up control and I understand the fear of letting go of control and turning over every aspect of your life to God. But I also understand the peace that comes from releasing control to God, knowing that He has promised to take care of you. Turn over your concerns and worries and leave the rest to Him. 

 Discussion Questions:

  1. How often do you wrestle with God?
  2. What can we do this week to turn over more control of our life to God?

First Love

“Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.” – 1 John 4:18-19.

Like many of you, I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that God loves me. He is the God of the universe, the grand Creator, the author of beauty and wonder. How can we not marvel at His love, to be awestruck by His holy presence each day. If I really grasped God’s love, if I really seized it and took hold of it in the whole of who I am, it would impact my life much more greatly than I can even imagine. 

God loved us while we were enemies. God sacrificed his Son for us while we were enemies. Romans 5:10 says, “For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son.” Ephesians 3:18-19 reminds us His love is great. It’s wide, long, high, and deep. It surpasses knowledge. The early Christians endured persecution, hardships and unbelievable suffering. Yet Paul wrote to them:

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.” No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

Such love is beyond our ability to grasp with our minds, but it is not beyond our ability to experience with our hearts. The more we study it, the more we understand it, the more we realize, we will move steadily beyond our understanding. But it does not mean that we cannot have confidence in the fact that God unconditionally loves us. Know it, cling to it, and remember it; don’t underestimate the love of God for you.

Rejection. No one is immune to it. Everyone will experience it to some degree. And no matter who you are, your life is changed because of it. God is our hope. His love which is undeserved is a beautiful reminder that rejection from man never means rejection from God. 

The question is, will you seek the approval of man or seek the approval of the audience of one, God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your definition of “unconditional love”?
  2. How often do you try to grasp the love of God?

Despised and Rejected

“He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!” – Isaiah 53:3-4

Jesus was and is the most rejected person in all human history. Yet Jesus was perfect. There was no sin, no personality or character flaw in Him that caused Him to be rejected. Yet He suffered undeserved rejection all His life. Jesus was rejected by His peers, by His nation, by the Gentiles, by the world He had created. In the hour of His agony He was betrayed by one friend, denied by another, and abandoned by all of His disciples. He experienced loneliness, suffering, grief, and rejection. He even felt rejected by God, His Father. Remember His cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46).

So how did Jesus deal with rejection? “One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” (Luke 3:21-22)

The rejection of man had little affect on Jesus because He was completely accepted by His Father. Since He was secure in His Father‘s acceptance, the praise or rejection of others had no power over Him. Jesus knew that regardless of how people would respond to His teaching or actions it held no pull over Him. He didn‘t have to prove or defend anything. He was laser-focused on His Father’s business  “And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”  (Luke 2:49 KJV)  The words convey a strong commitment. This is no option. This is what He is about. 

That begs a questions: Are we about our Father’s business rather than worrying about the approval or rejection of man? Is being about our father’s business reflected in how we live our lives?   

If He is Lord, really Lord, then we will want our lives to mirror His.  We will want what He wants, do as He does, go as He goes, give as He gives and live as He lives. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does being about my father’s business mean to you?
  2. What can we do this week to focus more on doing our father’s business?

Rejection Just Ahead

“Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” – Galatians 1:10.

The fear of rejection is one of our deepest human fears. Biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen in a critical way. We’re anxious about the prospect of being cut off, demeaned, or isolated. Rejection confirms our worst fear — perhaps that we’re unlovable, or that we’re destined to be alone, or that we have little worth or value. We may feel like a failure. So how do we overcome the fear of rejection or more specifically, the rejection of others?

The first thing to do is realize that people will let you down. It is not a case of if, but of when. That coupled with the fact that we place far too much value on the opinions of other people is what causes fear. People are going to let us down.  We fear people whose opinion is temporary rather than fearing God whose rejection is eternal.

In 1 Samuel 16, Samuel goes to the house of Jesse to anoint the new king. Samuel assumes it is the tallest of the sons.  But the Lord tells Samuel he has rejected the tallest of the sons. “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” That is good news. That is the constant theme in the New Testament: Jesus doesn’t care what people look like and how religious they look. He looks into the heart.

That is the main difference between people and God. When people look at us, they look at us externally. They look at our appearance. They look at our homes, our position, our salaries, our car. God doesn’t care about that. He looks at our heart. God sees us different than the world. And that’s good news.

He knows everything about you. He sees our weakness. He sees our insecurities. He sees our failings. He sees our fears. He sees our inadequacies. And He loves us. Some of you have a really hard time with this.  God loves you unconditionally. Fall back on that love. “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:18) 

We can live in this trap of wanting the inconsistent and false approval of other people or we can resign the game and fall back on God’s unconditional love. I like to think it’s this unconditional love that stops our head from moving side to side and seeing what other people think about us and it stops our head and focuses our eyes on the only one who really matters anyway and that’s God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What difference does it make when you “open your life to the love and acceptance of God in Jesus Christ?” How does this help reduce the fear of rejection in your life?
  2. How does “living by God’s rules”—knowing what He approves and living to please Him—bring a sense of security to your life?
  3. What practical steps can you take to think and care more about God’s approval than the approval of others?