Hard Heart

“So Moses left Pharaoh’s court and went out of the city. When he lifted his hands to the Lord, the thunder and hail stopped, and the downpour ceased. But when Pharaoh saw that the rain, hail, and thunder had stopped, he and his officials sinned again, and Pharaoh again became stubborn. Because his heart was hard, Pharaoh refused to let the people leave, just as the Lord had predicted through Moses.” – Exodus 9:33-35. 

The showdown between God and Pharaoh over the fate of the enslaved Israelites is an intense story. Pharaoh is a man with a closed mind and a hard heart. It starts with God explaining the mission to Moses: You are going back to Egypt and do all these wonders and Pharaoh’s heart is going to be hardened.

The wonders begin: The Nile turned to blood, frogs covering the land, gnats covering everyone, and then biting flies; the livestock in the field died. One plague after another and Pharaoh hardens his heart each time. Pharaoh will not yield to God. He may be forced to give in to His demands, but he will never yield his heart.

The next plague is boils, sores breaking out on man and beast. The plagues are now very personal. Every Egyptian individual and animal was afflicted. More plagues ensued. Yet, Pharaoh refused the command of God again and again. Plague number seven was hail like they had never seen. The eighth plague is a locust swarm that will devour everything not destroyed by the hail. Once again, Pharaoh pleaded for mercy and promised to let the people go. Once again he went back on his word. His heart was too hard. He relents for a moment and then his pride kicks in and he goes back on his word. What will it take?

What does this mean to us today? Have you ever found yourself in a position where you don’t sense God’s presence. If you can’t hear the voice of God, or if you can’t experience Him, it could because we have hardened our heart. We shut down our heart to the still small voice. Remember that the heart is the place where God lives. It is the place where you meet. It is the place where you make all of your decisions, where all of your thoughts and emotions originate.

Ask yourself a question: Does God seem distant because there are parts of your heart that you have hardened? Pray and ask God to open up every part of your heart to Him. Pray that your heart will be fully open and alive.

“Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (Proverbs 4:23)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Pharaoh was so stubborn? 
  2. Read Isaiah 42:18-25: Notice in verse 20 God says, “You see and recognize what is right but refuse to act on it. You hear with your ears, but you don’t really listen.” In what ways can we be guilty of hearing God, but really not paying attention to him?
  3. What can we do this week to open up the parts of our hearts closed off to God?

Getting Goosebumps

“For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.” – Romans 9:19-21.

How many times have you been in a situation where you’re talking about something spiritual? Or you just finished serving somebody, and then it happens; chills run all up and down your arms, or even your entire body. Goosebumps appear. Or is it a tingling sensation? Or electricity? Or joy? Or an aha moment? You pause to reflect and you wonder to yourself; did I just experience a God thing or a God moment?

Often, Christians find themselves in a spiritual rut. They feel like God just isn’t there? At some point in our spiritual walk, we all become discouraged and feel this way. So what is the antidote, what can you do? What should you do? There is no simple answer to those questions. Everybody is different and experiences God in different ways. From my experience, one way God makes his presence known in powerful ways is while serving on a short-term mission trip.

Many people go on these trips as a means of feeling good about themselves. They spend a few days, do some good things, have some good experiences, then go home and continue their normal life. Sometimes people go on the trip in hopes that God would show Himself to them. God seems distant and they hope that this trip would rebuild the connection that had once been so strong. And then something happens, usually in the first day or two; God shows up. There’s a dynamic that takes place when a bunch of people are tired, worn out, and exhausted from a day’s work in serving together on a mission for something far greater than themselves.

When I attended a trip to Kenya, I was ready for Jesus to transform lives, but little did I know, he would use people of Kui and these experiences to change mine. We were doing what God created us to do. Love others. Serve others. Sacrifice for others. That produces goosebumps that will stay with you for a long time.

Everyone told me before I left that they could not wait to hear all about it when I got back, and when I got back, I had a hard time putting into words how I felt about my trip. Words simply just do not give justice to God’s presence through the mission experience. I got a glimpse into a small piece of what God’s love truly looks like and how I should try to love. I learned that I need to love more like the people of Kenya, where actions really do speak louder than words. I need to love complete strangers more freely in a reflection of God’s true love. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some ways we can sense the presence of God? What are some areas that we can expect goose bumps?
  2. What in your mind is the real value of short-term mission trips? 
  3. Is there a missionary or local ministry reaching the lost that you can pray for regularly? Is there an unsaved people group, locally, or globally, that you can be praying for regularly?

Feeling God

“But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” – Psalm 73:28   

Have you ever felt like God was a long way off, like there was a chasm between Him and you that you just can’t cross? I don’t feel Him in my circumstances. My prayers are not answered.  It is in these times I want to feel His presence pass over and through me, I want to hear His voice and His direction for my life. So I pray. I spend time reading and meditating on scripture. But nothing. Not even a whisper. What gives?

Our relationship with God isn’t based on a feeling. It is easy to imagine that following Jesus results in an endless series of miracles, burning bushes, still, small voices, warm fuzzies, goose bumps and sensations of peace that pass all understanding.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. 

Many of the most renowned Christians have admitted to walking through some trials in their life where they could not feel the presence of God, where heaven seemed quiet. David wrote this in Psalm 13” “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?” And then there is the prophet Isaiah who was wondering, “When you came down long ago, you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations. And oh, how the mountains quaked! For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you,”  Isaiah cries out in dismay, “you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins. ( Isaiah 64:1-7)

Many Christians assume that silence from heaven means something has gone wrong, that the inability to “feel” God’s Spirit means God has turned His face away. But this is not what God’s word tells us.  I don’t know the full answer, but I know that part of it has to do with the fact that He wants us to walk by faith, not by sight; and walking by faith means sometimes pressing on even when we can’t feel or see Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think when God feels distant?
  2. What do you do to think of God, remember Him, or feel Him with you during your daily activities?
  3. What can we do this week to better feel God’s presence?   

More Not Less

“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

God has taken any number of bad raps throughout history. He has been labeled and ridiculed as being unfair, bizarre, foolish, preposterous and absurd. Yet, I reckon one the most unfair assumptions of God is that He is some sort of “comic killjoy” sitting up on His towering throne high above the heavens – throwing lightening bolts at us when we dare make mistakes, laugh or even giggle. Too many people think that God is anti-fun and look at the Bible as just one big rule book – where we have to be super religious, pious and totally bland and boring. Given all of that, the quality of life for the Christian must be bad, really bad. 

Christians are often portrayed in print and film as joyless robots who have settled for a flavorless life. They promote the lie that an abundant life is out of reach. They trumpet the idea that Christians are all too happy to settle for less. Non-Christians see the Christian life as a kind of clearance table. Things on this table were discounted because they were not as good as the other stuff. So the Christian life is less, not more.

I could not disagree more.  The Christian life is more, not less, and for any number of reasons.

First, there is God. None of the bad raps and labels given to God over the centuries has changed the fundamental fact that the gospel is that Christ has brought us home to God. “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18). Only in God can we have a home run life.  This is not less than ideal – it is the ideal.

We see differently. Watching a football game in high definition for the first time was a whole new visual experience. When we become a Christian we see the world in light of God and experience His blessings in light of grace. Eyes formerly blinded by sin become illuminated by grace. 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 says, “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News…. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” Seeing myself in God’s light is not a second rate life, it is true life.

Finally, what on this earth can compare to knowing, loving and becoming like Jesus? Our life as Christians is about growing more in our knowledge of and fellowship with Jesus. What joy to have a Savior who knows you intimately—all of your failings and foibles—and yet He loves you infinitely—even through your sin. That doesn’t sound like a killjoy God nor does it sound like a life that belongs on the clearance table. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you see the Christian life being more? Less?
  2. What keeps the Christian life from being more?
  3. What can we do to ensure we never lose our awe of who God is and what He did for us? 

Faith Stew

”Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”  Saint Augustine

How do I know if my faith is growing?

If someone asked you that question, how would you answer it? It is an ageless question with no easy answer. In Sunday’s sermon we made a statement: Being right with God comes by faith in Christ. I would like to talk about faith from a somewhat different perspective. Faith, as defined by the Bible, has two components: 1) a belief in something that is historically true and 2) a subjective trust in that fact. It is similar to gravity. Once you understand the concept of gravity, you change your life to accommodate that knowledge. For example, you don’t jump off the roof of your house. Faith has the same effect on your spiritual life.   

Back to the question – how do I know my faith is growing. As Christians, we want to keep our faith strong and to also increase it. We believe that the Lord is calling all of us who love Him into a deeper relationship with Him. He doesn’t want part of us, He wants all of us. We want to be mature today if possible, tomorrow if today is not practical. Faith is a gift of God. But there are times during seasons of doubt that we often feel it is difficult to have faith. Because we start encountering this messy thing called life, with its doubts, missteps, and sin. And together the messy parts of life are not a puddle that we can step over or around. No, we step into it. We start to wonder if our faith is shrinking rather than growing. At best, our faith is stagnant. So how can you increase your faith when you see no evidence for it?

This tendency to get discouraged and doubt the process happens to all of us at one time or another. The problem is that we want results quickly, we want change overnight. We don’t want the trip to take several weeks, we want to jump into hyperspace jump light speed (Star Wars) or warp factor 9 (Star Trek). We can’t microwave our faith. Faith is a stew that needs to be marinated and cooked, low and slow. After all, Jesus used the mustard seed to talk about the kingdom advancing. I’m not a expert, but I know enough that you don’t throw a seed in the ground, add some water and you have a tree the next day. Faith takes time. It takes patience. It takes persistence. It takes prayer. We put ourselves in the best position to see God grow it by exposing ourselves to God’s Word, involving ourselves in the local church, praying for our faith to grow.   

If you wonder if your faith is growing, just stay the course. God will grow His people. God will grow your faith. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Faith is not something you can manufacture. Agree or disagree? Why?
  2. A faith journey often gets worse before it gets better. Agree or disagree?
  3. What challenges have you experienced after taking a step of faith?
  4. Is there a step of faith you need to take this week?   

The Law Demands – Grace Supplies

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” – Matthew 5:17-18. 

In Sunday’s message, we talked about the fact you cannot earn God’s acceptance by obeying the law. We pointed out that no matter how hard you try, no matter how religious you are, no matter how many good works you do, or bad works you avoid, you cannot earn God’s acceptance by obeying the law. In this devotional, we will delve a little deeper into what God’s law and His grace mean in our lives today. 

The Bible contains laws that God gave “for our good.” (Deuteronomy 10:13; Romans 7:12) They are the rules of engagement that show us how to love God the way He wants to be loved and how to love others. God’s laws are not a burden, but a blessing. (1 John 5:3) There is a significant “but,” however.

The “but” is that no one has ever, except our Lord Jesus Christ, perfectly obeyed God’s laws. Consequently, our inability to comply with God’s laws creates a rift between us and God. God is separate, or cut off, from everything that is sinful and evil-He cannot tolerate sin: “This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all.” ( 1John 1:5) So sin must be removed in order to have a relationship with a holy and just God. God’s grace, His love and mercy, makes reconciliation and a relationship possible. Grace does not remove the laws but pays the penalty of sin because of God’s sacrifice.

We are saved by grace, through faith. Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” The keeping of the Law cannot save anyone: ”For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” (Romans 3:20) Titus 3:5 adds, “he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy…” 

The purpose of the Law was basically to bring us to Christ: “Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith.” (Galatians 3:24). Once we are saved, God desires to glorify Himself through our good works.  Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” And Ephesians 2:10 adds, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Therefore, good works follow salvation, they do not precede it.

So it is not a case of law vs. grace. God’s revelation is that law and grace work together.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Romans 3:20: What does this verse mean to us today?
  2. Read Romans 7:4-6: What effect did the law have on us before we came to Christ? What is your relationship to the law now that you are a believer? What is the difference in how we serve God?
  3. Based on what you have read about the law in this devotional, how would you describe the purpose of the law? Grace?

Is Christianity A Religion Or Relationship?

“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.  He said to them, You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” – Luke 16:14-15 (NIV)

It has become cool to bash religion. People bash organized religion because they view it as judgmental, hypocritical, anti-fun, too political, insensitive—and boring. Often, their disenchantment with the church is legitimate. They had a bad experience in church or with church people, or they are simply buying into the usual suspects that have stigmatized the church as being intolerant and exclusionary for decades. Your immediate reaction—like mine—is that these generalizations and characterizations are, for the most part, both unfounded and unfair.

Religion to many people is about going to church, because that was what we are supposed to do, participating in the rituals and traditions. We can be religious on a Sunday and then do what we want the rest of the week. Religion is somewhat of a social gathering, or a form of entertainment. But is that what religion really is?  That is not Christianity.

Many people think that Christianity is not a religion; it is a personal relationship that God has established with His children. A personal relationship with God is exactly that: a relationship very much like the ones we have with other close friends and family members. But does that mean it is not a religion in the sense of participating in the church? We all know the church is imperfect. Christ calls us to strengthen it by their presence rather than criticize it in their absence. The old quip forever rings true: “If you do find the perfect church, don’t join it, for then it would no longer be perfect.” Spirit-led Jesus followers recognize that they are imperfect Christians working with other imperfect Christians to serve a perfect Christ. When we love and give to one another, then we grow as individuals and as the family of God.

Consider this for a moment: Salvation is not merely a personal relationship with Jesus that allows us to go to Heaven when we die. It is also a communal relationship with the church to live on a mission for Jesus’ Kingdom in this life. His call to “follow me” means come join a group of disciples who together are the people of God. The New Testament uses collective metaphors to describe the church of Christ. They include flock, temple, body, etc. Each of the images communicates the same big idea that God’s people are to remain together. Sheep die individually but live as a flock, fed and protected by a shepherd. A building falls down if too many bricks are removed.  Limbs die if removed from the body.

We need the church because we need the help of others to keep following Jesus. We need incentive and accountability to strengthen their spiritual lives. We need to do life with other Christians. We need exhortation, strengthening, encouragement, and prayer in every season of life as we build and grow our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Following Jesus is both a personal relationship with Him and a collective relationship with the local church.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the stereotypes of religion that you have? 
  2. Why do people think talking about religion can be offensive?
  3. How can church strengthen our relationship with God?
  4. What can we do this week to strengthen our relationship with God? 

Is God A Killjoy?

“Well then, shall we keep on sinning so that God can keep on showing us more and more kindness and forgiveness? Of course not! Should we keep on sinning when we don’t have to? For sin’s power over us was broken when we became Christians and were baptized to become a part of Jesus Christ; through his death the power of your sinful nature was shattered. Your old sin-loving nature was buried with him by baptism when he died; and when God the Father, with glorious power, brought him back to life again, you were given his wonderful new life to enjoy.” – Romans 6:1-4 (TLB). 

Is God a killjoy? Sometimes we may imagine God as a task master, a dictator opposed to fun or pleasure. That is what most people probably think when they drive by a outdoor billboard that says “Don’t make me come down there – God.” We may envision Him as a grimacing judge with a gavel, readily pointing out faults and stifling any sense of joy we have. Immediately after becoming a Christian you are required to undergo a “fun bypass” surgical procedure that ensures that fun is removed from our system. It’s like an old school arcade game, where things pop up and you have to hit them with a massive hammer. God is just waiting up in Heaven for something fun to pop up in life and then “whack” saying “Hey, you! Yeah, you. You look like you’re having fun over there. Well, cut it out unless you want another whack.”

God does not want to spoil our fun. He wants us to enjoy our life. He wants us to have joy. In John 10:10, He said that He came so that you would have life, and have it to the full. He came so that you would have abundant, overflowing life. God wants you to enjoy life. Romans 6:4 says, “… you were given his wonderful new life to enjoy.” God made you. He knows how you operate best. And He knows what makes you happy. God is not a killjoy. He likes laughter. He enjoys it when you’re having fun. He wants your life to be full of joy-complete, full, and incredible. But here is the thing we need to remember: Joy depends on God, and joy comes from God. 

Is it really possible to have real joy? Often we go through life experiencing less joy than what God desires for us. We become weighed down by life’s circumstances and allow those things to rob us of the life-giving joy that God intends for us. And we look at God as a killjoy because since He is in complete control of everything, He is responsible for the valley’s in our life. I have often wondered what God is thinking when we blame Him. I’m thinking something along the lines of “wait, how is this my fault? I never promised this path would be perfect.” Psalm 16:11 (AMP) says, “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy,  at your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” 

God is a loving Father who wants to fill our lives with extravagant joy. He wants us to dance and laugh and sing because we are happy – deep, down soul happy.  That doesn’t sound like a killjoy to me.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you say when someone says that God is a killjoy?
  2. What are the symptoms of joy in the life of a Christian?
  3. What can we do this week to increase our joy in the Lord? 

Great Expectations

“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die.” — Philippians 1:20.

When a person applies for a job, they are often given a job description. It’a kind of a check list of things that the employer expects the employee to do. The employee, especially when they are new, can reference the job description to see if they are doing the things that they have been asked to do. We often have a job description for God, a checklist of what we need or expect from Him. The truth is, we have expectations of God. And sometimes, honestly, He fails those expectations. So what do we do when our God-sized expectations are not met?

The reality is God has been failing to meet people’s expectations for centuries. We even see it in the Bible. John the Baptist struggled with this very subject. He had preached about the Messiah’s kingdom coming with power and justice. But instead, Jesus’ ministry centered on preaching and on acts of mercy, and John found himself  wasting away in prison.  Unable to reconcile the contradictions, John sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). In other words, John the baptist had expectations, and Jesus had failed to meet them, at least at that moment in time. 

Have you ever been in the place that John the Baptist found himself in? The place where the reality and our expectations are world’s apart. The place where our timetable is completely different from that of God’s. After all why would we need patience. If God promised to act, why not act now? If its as if we expect God’s whole universe to orbit around our expectations or our timetable.

When we find ourselves most disappointed with God, God has not failed us—but our expectations of God have failed us. We should always hesitate to assume there is a problem when we are the problem; we simply cannot see the big picture. It is hard to accept, but we must come to grips with the limitations of our understanding—and also the limitlessness of God’s. In response to John the Baptist, Jesus challenged him to shape his expectations from the Word of God and not from the circumstances that seemed to contradict it: “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me” (Matthew 11:6).

When God doesn’t answer the way we think He should, we can feel let down. We don’t understand why God chooses to not do things that seem obviously right to us. But I know that He can see more than I can and that He can give me the strength I need to go through those tough times. In those times, we need to remind ourselves of God’s great love for us. He has good things planned for our lives (Jeremiah 29:11; Ephesians 2:10; John 14:1-3). God has not abandoned us nor His plans for our lives. Believe in His goodness and wait on His faithfulness (Psalm 27:14).

Discussion Questions:

  1. How have expectations influenced your Christian life in positive or negative ways?
  2. What kind of expectations should we have when it comes to our relationship with God today?
  3. What is the difference between an expectation and a promise? What are some things God has promised His people? What are some things people expect from God? What happens when these are different? 

Shock And Awe

“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven.” – Hebrews 1:3

In the series “I want to believe, but…” we look at four different versions of God which don’t exist. They are fabrications people want to believe about the nature of God. Too often we put God in a box, we take God for granted, or we become too comfortable with God. We view God’s job description as primarily getting us out of sticky situations that pop up from time to time. But once that sticky situation has been resolved, we expect God to move into the background once more until He is needed. When we view God through a lens of habit and familiarity, when we view Him as an on demand God, we have lost sight of who God really is.

We should regularly seek, find, and connect with the true character of God. God is not there just to direct our paths and make sure we don’t screw up. He’s not there to passively receive our list of requests. He is the God of the universe, the King of Kings. We should marvel at Him, to be awestruck by His holy presence each day. 

Understanding God in all His fullness is impossible. In fact, Job 36:26 says “Look, God is greater than we can understand. His years cannot be counted.” However, does that mean we should avoid the subject all together? No, because God has made many of His traits and attributes understandable. These characteristics, as revealed in the Bible, are crucial to understanding the truth about God, who He is, what He is like, and what He does.

First, there is the wisdom of God: He knows everything, and His knowledge is infinite. He makes no mistakes. He is the Father who truly knows what is best. (Romans 11:33, Psalm 147:4-5) God is infinite. He knows no boundaries. He is without measure. (Hebrews 13:8) God is sovereign.  He is in control of everything that happens (Isaiah 46:9-10). God is faithful. Everything that God has promised will come to pass. (Deuteronomy 7:9)  God is love. (1 John 4:8). God is fair and impartial. (Psalm 75:7)  God always has been and will forever be. (Psalm 90:2)

Too often we have an inadequate understanding of God. We have a superficial, shallow, popularized, sort of personalized understanding of God. And losing the understanding and awe of God often leads to wanting things our way from an on demand God. I hope we never lose our awe for our God who is abundant in grace and mercy, slow to anger, who loves all who sin and redeems them, who is righteous and faithful to us, who is near to all who call on Him, who hears the cries of the oppressed and weak, who watches over us and protects us and heals us.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Psalm 145: What is that Psalm telling you?
  2. How can we better understand God?
  3. What can we do to ensure we never lose our awe of who God is and what He did for us?