The Illusion of Intimacy

“O God, you are my God;  I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land…You satisfy me more than the richest feast. I will praise you with songs of joy. I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you through the night. Because you are my helper, I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your strong right hand holds me securely.” – Psalm 63:1-8

There is a huge difference between finding real intimacy with God and talking about intimacy with God. It is easy to talk about something without really experiencing it. Yes, we can talk, write, teach, and preach about our relationship with God, but that does not mean we have a genuine intimate relationship.

Intimacy takes work, time, effort, sacrifice, and vulnerability. And it takes Jesus. You can’t substitute those ingredients and expect success. Intimacy with God seems like a daunting task. Most people would probably say, “I want an intimate relationship with God, but it feels like a massive obligation in an already complicated, overwhelmed life. I have enough trouble pulling off an intimate relationship with my spouse and kids, let alone God.”   

I understand that viewpoint. Our relationship with God.often revolves around doing the right things and maintaining the right image. We go to church on Sunday, and small group during the week. We have a long prayer list that we do our best to go through daily so we don’t leave someone or something out. We read our Bible as much as we can. Those and other things are part of a theological formula, or specific action steps that we need to take or follow to draw closer to God. But is that what an “intimate” relationship with Jesus all about? Those things are great and we should be doing them, but having a real, intimate relationship with God is not about what you do, how long you do it or where you do it. Its about knowing who God really is.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus demonstrates with His own life that a relationship with God is not about rules, rituals,or man made religions. These things are not bad, but do not necessarily help us attain a real knowledge of God. In Luke 11, we read that even the disciples struggled with really knowing God. One day when they were observing Jesus’ deep communion with the Father while He prayed, they noticed how He spoke to God intimately. He wasn’t caught up with following certain rules or rituals. The disciples wanted to have that same connection so they asked Jesus to tell them His secret to having close communion with the Father. Jesus revealed the answer to them in an parable, which is summed up in verses 9-10: “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

God wants an intimate relationship with each of us. So keep seeking and praying and you will find Him.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you define intimacy with God?
  2. What are some ways that our hunger for God dissipates?
  3. What can we do to strengthen our relationship with God?

Redefining Failure

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” – Luke 22:31-32

In Luke 22, Jesus continues to teach and prepare His disciples, even during His last precious meal with them. Jesus warns Peter of a danger that lay ahead of him. In verses 33 we read, “Peter said, “Lord, I am ready to go to prison with you, and even to die with you.” Jesus responds in verse 34, “Peter, let me tell you something. Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.” We all know that Peter denied the Lord three times that very night.

But remember what Jesus prayed for In Luke 22. He prayed that when Satan tempted Peter, his faith would not fail. He didn’t pray that Peter would not fall in temptation, but that when he did fall, his faith in God’s perfect love would not fail him That is faith, that no matter how many mistakes and failures we make, God still loves us, just as we are.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus didn’t say “Simon I have prayed that God will give you to courage not to deny me at all, let alone three times?” I find it interesting that the Lord did not pray for Peter not to fail. After all, Peter’s failure on the night of Jesus’ trial was pretty bad. In the hour of his Lord’s greatest anguish, Peter had denied even knowing him. This sin shook Peter to the core of his being. In Jesus’ worst moments, Peter was denying he had any connection with the Lord even though a short time before his denials, he had been unshakable in his belief that he would never turn away from the Lord.

When Jesus chose you and I to be His disciple, He expected our future failures as He expected Peter’s. We may not want to believe that we could deny Jesus, but Jesus knows what is in us. So he exhorts us along with Peter to “Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” (Matthew 26:41)

The key is not to let our failures define us. And, don’t internalize a failure until it starts to ferment into regret. Own it. Learn from it. Pain can be a great teacher. As C.S Lewis said, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you’re out. Not by a long shot. Even in our failures, God can still accomplish His purpose. It’s through our weaknesses that He shows himself strong. Peter’s failure did not define him. And ours will not define us. They are humbling stumbles along the path of following Jesus, who paid for them all on the cross. Jesus specializes in transforming failures into rocks of strength for His church.

Discussion Questions
1. Read Hebrews 12:11-13: How do these verses apply to failure? What hope do they give?
2. What is the most significant thing about failure you have learned this week? How can we apply what you have learned to your life?

 

The Risk Reward Equation

“Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest. Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things. Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another—or maybe both.” – Ecclesiastes 11:4-6

In Ecclesiastes 11, Solomon warns us against becoming so cautious that we do nothing, that we take no risks, until all the pieces fall into place. In verse 4, Solomon writes, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” This verse is directed to people who are overly cautious. The farmer who waits for the most opportune moment to plant, when there is no wind to blow away the seed, when there is no rain to ruin a ripe harvest, will never do anything but sit around waiting for the right moment. Nothing happens because perfect conditions never happen. Yes, rain and wind could harm or even destroy the crops. And yes, the work that you did may have to be redone. But even if you have to redo it several times, having a harvest is better than doing nothing and having no harvest.

I’m sure you see the application to our lives today. Stepping out in faith is better than waiting for the perfect moment. There is no perfect time to have kids. We never have enough money, energy, or patience. Once you have children, don’t wait for the right time to spend time with them. Before you know it, your kids will be all grown up. If you are married, don’t wait for your husband or wife to be all that you want. Begin pouring your life into your spouse now. Don’t wait until you have spare time, more money, or better health. If you are not currently serving in the church, get involved today. If we wait until we’re less busy, until we feel right, until just the right moment, we will never serve, and we will never see results. Solomon is telling us to represent God in all that we do and with all that we have. To do that, we can’t play it safe, we must take some risks.

What types of risks can you take? There are many possibilities. Every Christian’s life is marked by windows of opportunity that require radical steps of faith in order to follow Christ and fulfill His purposes for your life. And what makes that step radical is that it can and often does involve significant risk.  And that risk can create the fear of failure. And that fear of failure can have you saying, “wow, if this doesn’t work out, the impact on my life could be…well pretty bad.”

But where there is no risk, there is no faith.  And where there is no faith, there is no power.  And where there is no faith, there is no joy.  And where there is no faith, there’s no intimacy with God.  And where there is no faith, there is no reward. “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)

Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think God asks us to take risks? What do we learn about ourselves, and how do we grow by taking risks?
2. What is the opposite of taking risks? What happens when we never step out in life and take risks?
3. What are some of the obstacles to stepping out of our zones of comfort? Which of these obstacles could we work on this week?

Failure Is The Opportunity To Succeed

“My mother always taught me never to look back in regret, but to move on to the next thing. The amount of time people waste dwelling on failures rather than putting that energy into another project, always amazes me. I have fun running all the Virgin businesses–so a setback is never a bad experience, just a learning curve.” – Richard Branson

One of the most well-known stories in the Bible is the first encounter between Jesus and Peter. Peter and his friends had fished all night, but they had caught nothing. The next day, Peter was washing his nets, probably tired and discouraged. Jesus comes along and tells him that He would like to use his boat as a platform from which to speak. So Peter allows Jesus to use his boat. After Jesus finishes he tells Peter, “Let us go fishing.” Peter reacted and said, “Master,” …“we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” Peter went fishing and caught so many fish that he was astonished.

This story teaches us about failure and success. On their first fishing trip, their work netted them nothing. On the second trip, they caught so many fish their nets began to tear. It was the same lake, the same boat, the same nets, and the same people fishing.

So what made the difference? Jesus was in the boat the second time.The second time, Peter was not going it alone. Jesus made all the difference. When the fishermen saw what Jesus had done, they were amazed. Luke 5:8 tells us: “When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m such a sinful man.” 

“For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him. His partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also amazed. Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (Luke 5:9-10)

If you’re reading this today and feel as Peter did, then you need to remember that It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, or how far you’ve wandered or how many failures you have experienced along the way. God is always actively pursuing us to bring us back to Himself. I want you to know that He will break every possible barrier to reach you. Today, you can meet with Jesus, bring Him your failures and mistakes, and allow Him to work in your life. With Jesus in your boat, the fear of failure and worry about the results fades away.

Peter and the other disciples had a lot to learn, and there would be failures, but from this point on they followed Him.

  1. Discussion Questions:
    1. What emotions might Peter have felt in that moment when he pulled up the nets with so many fish? Have you had a moment like this in your life?
    2. A failure is an opportunity to grow. Agree or disagree and why?
    3. What can we do this week to prevent our failures from defining us?

In The Final Analysis

“Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.

When was the last time you blew it? I mean, really, really blew it? The “this is the final straw, I’ll never get out from under this failure” blew it. You may have been there in the past, you may be there today. What we need to know when we think we have really blown it, is that failure is not permanent, it is not final. 

Psalm 23:6 tells us, “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.”  Good news for sure. When we make mistakes, we sometimes come to the conclusion that we finally did it this time. But we learn from Scripture that favor with God doesn’t depend on us and our wisdom, or goodness, faithfulness, or thankfully our ability to prevent failures. God isn’t waiting for you to get your act together, to try again and get it right this time. He created us and He knows we are far from perfect. He knows we will be over our head and we will fail. 

In the midst of our failures it is comforting to know that God “has my back,” that He will never allow me to get outside His grace. We all have had our wrong turns we would do differently if we had it to do over. But God can use our wrong turns to somehow get us to His desired destination. God can use our successes and failures for His glory.

The lesson for us is that even if we have failed, we can’t let fear of failure paralyze us and keep us from following where God leads us. God will equip us and empower us to do what He is leading us to do. Success is not up to us, it is up to God. What is up to us is being willing to get up after failure and going where God leads. Failure is not final. Look at Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  I wonder how many of us let the fear of failure keep us from getting back up and causing us to give up too quickly.

When you think failure is final, remember that God is for us. He is always here for us, always here to guide us, teach us, help us to turn in the right direction. He will always love us . God wants us to be a part of what He’s doing. Of course God can accomplish everything in spite of us, but He’d rather accomplish it with us. He invites us to be a part of what He’s doing no matter how many failures we experience along the way.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you think of a time in your life when you were scared to do something you knew you had to do, but you went through with it anyway? How did you feel afterward?
  2. Knowing God and His Word allows us to face our fears with faith. Why? How can you do this in practical ways?

If All Else Fails

This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9.

Winston Churchill said that “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” The truth of that statement is demonstrated in so many people:  Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Steven Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts multiple times. Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Behind every success story is an embarrassing first effort, a stumble, a setback or a radical change of direction. The reality is that it is in our failures where we can often find success in our spiritual life.

The fear of failure can become so pervasive that people stop doing or trying something they might fail at, so they don’t fail. They protect themselves by only doing the things that they consider “safe”, where they know they have no chance of failure. If we attempt to limit our exposure to life, we put ourselves and God in a box. God’s plan is always outside the box.

There will be people around you that tell you that what you are doing is destined for failure. Ignore them and trust God to lead you in life. God teaches us through our failures. Many times we are so paralyzed by fear of failing that we do not step out in faith, believing that God is there beside us. Proverbs 29:25 tells us that the “Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the Lord means safety.”  The greatest failure is the failure to try. The trouble with many people is that during trying times they just stop trying. We fail when we don’t have the faith to trust God. For the glory of God, you’ve got to take risks. That’s what brings maturity. That’s what brings success in life. Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is. If at first you don’t succeed, you’re normal. Try again. 

Revelation 3:8 says, “I know all the things you do, and I have opened a door for you that no one can close. You have little strength, yet you obeyed my word and did not deny me.”  The Lord is always opening and closing doors if we are following and trusting Him. Failures will come, but we must recognize them for what they are, so the future can open up for us. Recognize the open door God has placed in front of you, and walk through that door. The safest place to be, is where the Lord is leading. So don’t be afraid of failing because God is with us. “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10 )

Discussion Questions:

  1. Living in fear keeps us from experiencing our God-given potential. Agree or disagree and why?
  2. Was there a time when you were fearful of the future and acted out on that fear (i.e., leading to anxiety, etc.)? What happened?

Real People. Real Change.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” – Philippians 4:8. 

Change is something we all need. It is an ongoing part of life. With it’s constant flux, life demands adjustments for our schedules and plans. Essentially, change is the new norm. But people’s spiritual lives call for more than slight changes to the calendar. 

It is not that we are against change. In fact, we believe we can change. But it still seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So is real change possible? Is change that lasts – change that really matters – really achievable? You may be saying, “I can change.”  But it is never simple.

Change that’s real and that lasts comes from God. God is our change agent. Things can change beginning with our relationship with God. It starts with changing our behavior. Isaiah 55:6 says, “Seek the Lord while you can find him. Call on him now while he is near.”   Breakthrough change requires courage and also often requires taking a step of faith. We can’t achieve breakthrough change the way we normally handle problems. It requires us to trust God. Because we know God and His character, we know He loves unfathomably and unconditionally. For that reason, and that reason alone, we can make the changes that we need to make. Sometimes we simply need to change our strategy. Rather than ask God to change your circumstances, view your circumstances as an opportunity for God to change you. 

The 2007 movie The Bucket List cemented in the popular concept of making lists of things to do before you die. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman’s skydiving, drag racing and trips to exotic places are typical of many bucket lists, but why not create a more unusual bucket list. Regardless of your age, make a list of the short and long-term changes you want to make in your life. That list might include: loving others. ”Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” (Philippians 2:4). Or become more active in doing God’s work: “Then Jesus explained: “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.” (John 4:34). Or Matthew 6:33, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you are honest with yourself, what area in your life is hard to change?  
  2. Do you retain “veto rights” when God asks you to change?
  3. What can you do this week to undergo real change in your life? 

The Power of Passion

“Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.” – Romans 12:11 

For the past several days, we’ve been examining the topic of personal change by exploring what the Bible has to say about it. Today we look at the principle of motivation: nurturing our enthusiasm. Make no mistake about it; enthusiasm energizes everyone. Enthusiasm doesn’t come from without, it comes from within and it can be a dramatic change agent. The concept of enthusiasm is clearly taught under such words as “zeal,” “spiritual fervor,” “wholeheartedness,” “joy,” and even “love.” So what is enthusiasm, why is it important and how can it change us for the better? 

Jesus was asked, “which command in God’s Law is the most important?” His answer is well known and life changing. He said: “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list.” (Matthew 22:36-37 MSG) That is a powerful statement. 

God created human beings to live in close relationship with Him, and our lives were meant to be shaped by a passion and enthusiasm for who God is. He is meant to be the One that occupies our minds and fills our hearts. He is meant to be what excites us and brings us joy. Today, Christians can be defined by any number of things. What should define a Christian is their personal and enthusiastic pursuit of and passion for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Enthusiasm or passion isn’t passive. Being passionate about something means you’re going to do something about it. Passion results in action. Passion and enthusiasm enables us to make choices that strengthen our close friendship with our heavenly Father. As you develop a closer relationship with God, your passion will grow, and as it does, making changes in your life will naturally follow.

Proverbs 8:30 says, “I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence.”  When we love Jesus Christ with passion and enthusiasm, our hearts change, we change—we can then love others as Jesus commanded. God will do His part to increase your passion, but He also expects you to do your part. When you have a quiet time set aside to pray and to study God’s word, you are taking the first step toward seeing your passion and enthusiasm increase.

So, how is your enthusiasm and passion? Are you filled with excitement and purpose? If not, today’s the day to begin pursuing an increase in passion. God is filled with so much passion for us that He deserves nothing less than whole-hearted passion from us.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When and why did you first fall in love with Jesus? In what ways has your original love for Christ faded? How can you rekindle that flame?
  2. What activity or idea may be replacing your enthusiasm for the Lord?
  3. What can you do to deepen your enthusiasm for Christ this week?

Living A Purpose

“Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.” – Romans 12:3.

The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is a movie adaptation of a beloved book series. In the first movie, Lord Elon of Rivendell told the fellowship as they are ready to depart on their quest, “hold true to your purpose.” Every one of us who are followers of Jesus have had our ups and our downs and even some flat times. But one thing is constant; the need to evaluate our relationship with Jesus. We need to assess where we are and what changes we need to make if we are to hold true to our purpose of serving the Lord Jesus Christ.

You can’t make progress if you don’t have a starting point. We need to assess so we don’t follow our plan, or our purpose. We want to follow God’s purpose and His plan for our life. Our purpose is to serve God. But to do that, we must answer this question: “How is my relationship with God?” And that requires us to hold up a spiritual mirror. Spiritual mirrors are not normal mirrors. They are not a tangible piece of formed glass hanging on a wall. Spiritual mirrors help us assess the real state of our walk with Jesus.

An honest spiritual evaluation requires humility. We need humility to say I’ve got it wrong, I know what I should be doing. None of us are perfect; we constantly mess up. We have an anger problem. Or an ethics dilemma. Or an addiction. You don’t have to shout it to the rooftops, but you have to be totally honest with yourself, to stand in front of the spiritual mirror and humbly assess your current state. Then seek the help of God. Until you do, nothing will change. Remember that, as we talked about last week, God is a master of taking the bad and making it into the good.

The other thing about humbly assessing our current state is to assess your faith. Trusting God is the secret to any change. We have limits; God does not. With limited faith we have limited options. With unlimited faith we have unlimited options. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you do spiritual evaluations? What does this evaluation involve?
  2. How can we make spiritual evaluations more valuable?

Be Transformed

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:2. 

I believe everyone wishes that they could somehow wake up tomorrow and magically make the changes needed to be transformed into the best version of themselves. Of course this is unrealistic. Everything evolves through a strategic process and carefully plotted steps of transforming the heart and the mind. 

In Proverbs 23 it says, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he…” ( Proverbs 23:7 KJV). Our actions are a result of what we think. Intellectually we may believe something to be true, but the real litmus test is in our actions. This is why it s so important to renew our minds with the word of God. To know, understand and follow what God has said to the point when we will act on that belief system. 

Peter said, “as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises…”  ( 2 Peter 1:3-4 ). In Romans 12:2,  Paul urges us “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  

This is amazing, not because this change comes with anything we do, but because it comes by knowing God and His word. We can experience effortless change in life simply by renewing our minds to the truth of God’s word. Paul wrote to Timothy that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” ( 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ). The Word is what equips us and prepares us for this life. But to be effective in our lives, it has to change us and transform the way we are living.

Life change is not about trying; it’s about training. Merely trying to experience life change can never bring about life change. I can try very hard to hit a golf ball 300 yards, but I won’t be able to do it until I train the body and mind to do it. Training requires discipline. To truly live a Christ-like life, we have to order our lives around those activities, disciplines, and practices that were modeled by Christ. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What can you do to be more aware of what goes into your mind? 
  2. What would a mind decorated with things that remind you of God look like? What practical thing(s) can you do to focus your mind on the Father’s love?
  3. What’s one change you could make this week to secure your mind more?