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? 

Enough Is Enough

“…I have cared for you since you were born. Yes, I carried you before you were born. I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.” – Isaiah 46:3-4. 

Will Jesus provide for you? Are you struggling to believe it?  When you do, the math doesn’t add up. Because when the hard knocks come, and they will, I need to ask myself one question in order to move on. “Is God enough?”

When I need to forgive someone for something that seems unforgivable, is God enough? When a loved one has cancer, is God enough? When I lose my job, is God enough? When I am in debt, is God enough? When I am reminded of my past mistakes, is God enough? When my health is declining, is God enough? When I am let down and disappointed in my life, is God enough? Yes He is.

“The one thing I ask of the Lord – the thing I seek most—is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord’s perfections and meditating in his Temple. For he will conceal me there when troubles come; he will hide me in his sanctuary. He will place me out of reach on a high rock.”  (Psalm 27:4-5)

In some cases, our dissatisfaction in life comes from thinking we need something more than we have, that what God has given us isn’t quite enough, that we are entitled to more. This is a lie from Satan. God is not a genie in a lamp, and we are not Aladdin. God is enough. The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is God will be enough on the sad days, and God will sustain us when we are weak. God will sustain us when we are confused. God will sustain us when we feel dry and desolate and angry and empty. God is enough. We don’t need more than Him and what He has already provided.

That will become obvious when we get to know God better. Not just getting to know Him as we think of Him, but getting to know Him as He truly is. That means studying God’s Word, learning more about His character (His love, mercy, faithfulness, power) so we have an accurate picture of who He is. 

When life becomes more than you think you can handle, don’t quit. And certainly don’t believe the inaccuracies about God you may be entertaining in your head. Instead, ask yourself, “Is God enough for me?” If the answer is “yes” it will change everything. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How has God been more than enough for you?
  2. What can you do today to remind yourself that God is enough?
  3. Is there a situation in your life that you need to turn over to the Lord?

Stuck In My Ways

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9

Rarely does God do something exactly as we think He should or will. We don’t see what God sees or know what He knows. His plans often do not match with our wisdom and His timing. He has a timetable all His own. Because He is God, and we are not, there will be times that we don’t get it; it doesn’t compute, or register, or it doesn’t make sense.     

As is often the case in life, those looking from the outside can usually see more than the one in the circumstance. Moses experienced this as he learned how God was going to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt. God told him He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Yet, the result was not what Moses expected. Rather than allowing God’s people to leave, Pharaoh increased their hardship. Moses went from hero to goat. “Then Moses went back to the Lord and protested, “Why have you brought all this trouble on your own people, Lord? Why did you send me?”(Exodus 5:22).

Much of the frustration we experience as Christians has nothing to do with what God does or doesn’t do. It has everything to do, rather, with the false assumptions we make about how we think God will and should act. It is foolish to attempt to do God’s work using our own “common sense.” We can never fully appreciate let alone understand His ways.   

The point is this. When you and I fully surrender to God’s will in our lives, it’s not always going to make sense. We won’t always understand what God is doing and why. But be assured, that He has a plan and is working that plan precisely as He wishes. Sometimes that plan calls for radical changes and sometimes we seem in limbo. But even when we think nothing is happening, God is moving, working, lining things up, and maybe working on our patience and heart at the same time. C.S. Lewis said,“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God calls us to be faithful, not successful. He wants our heart more than our accomplishments. Our job is simply to follow. Where we go, when, and why is up to Him.

We should stop second guessing God, or growing frustrated and discouraged when His plans don’t match up to our plans. We should not be questioning His motives. As you look forward to what God may do, be careful you do not try to predict what He will do next. You may find yourself completely off the mark.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think we expect God to act and work the same way we do?
  2. The ways of our God are mysterious, perfect, unfathomable, inscrutable and unexplainable. What other words would you use to describe God’s ways?
  3. It’s so easy to get caught up in what we want and how we want it done, but we must remember that we are here on earth to do God’s will – not ours. Agree or disagree and why?
  4. What can we do this week to gain wisdom in understanding His ways?

Your Wish Is On Demand

“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.”  – Matthew 7:7-8

Some of you may recall a sitcom in the late 60’s called “I Dream of Jeannie” about an astronaut who finds a magic bottle containing a female genie who has the power to grant his wishes. The story lines usually dealt with the tension between the genie and her master as he contended with the genie’s desire to solve all his problems while he preferred to let things follow their natural course. The basic premise of the show has a certain appeal. And why not: who wouldn’t want three wishes? Who wouldn’t want somebody to listen to our requests and poof, all your troubles disappear and all your needs and wants are supplied? 

There are Christians and non-Christians who believe that God is that on demand genie that will meet all our needs. We treat him as if He is responsible for giving us our every desire. All we have to do is name it and claim it, God will say the magic words and then our desire will appear. That is not how it works. If that were the case,  I would never get another cold, or have an argument with my wife, always get the prime parking spot, Florida State would win the national championship every year and my kids would win the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yes, God wants us to come to Him with our every desire. But, God also wants us to be so in tune with Him that His desires for our lives become our desires. We can absolutely ask God for whatever we desire, but we need to understand that if it is not in His will, He will say “no.”  Can you imagine what this world would be like if God was limited to only acting upon our selfish whims? I do not even want to think about it. What if God was confined to a small lamp? The God I serve is way too big for that.

God’s purposes so dwarf our “in the moment” wishes that we should be staggered by His wisdom, His power and His plan for our lives. James, the brother of Jesus, described our narrow view of God and some of its consequences this way. “You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.”  (James 4:2-3)

When you read the Bible you come across pesky and irritating terms like sacrifice and leaving and forsaking and following and giving, oh, and loving….like Jesus loved. That doesn’t fit with the “open the bottle and good things start to happen” view of God. The on demand God does not exist.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When we grasp how deeply God loves us, and how far He went to redeem us, how will that change how we view Him?
  2. In what ways do we take God for granted, expecting him to do our bidding and becoming upset when He doesn’t?
  3. What will you take with away you from the message this week?

I Will Never Leave You Nor Forsake You

“Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20. 

In Luke 24:13-32, we read the story of two travelers on the road to Emmaus. As they walked and talked together, Jesus Himself drew near. They did not recognize who it was but how their hearts burned within as He opened up the Scripture to them. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”  (Luke 24:32)

For every Christian, the resurrection is not only real, but relevant. The evidence is compelling. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus promised, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.” The two travelers learned what is was like to be in the company of Jesus and we can as well. Because Jesus is alive, His followers are not alone. We have the Son of God as our partner in life, every step of the way. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we now enjoy His personal fellowship with us always.

Knowing that Christ is alive should fill us with joy. Knowing that our Savior rose from the dead should motivate us to complete the good work He has started in us: “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.“ (Philippians 1:6) Knowing that Jesus is victorious over death should inspire us to imitate him, to live the life that glorifies Him. It should embolden us to tell others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The resurrection means we can be children of God. We have the promise of eternal life.  We should always be striving to be closer to Jesus. We have that possibility because of His Resurrection. We can feel like Paul, who wrote, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) The resurrection also assures us that Jesus can transform our lives every day. We live empowered by the presence of Jesus to live changed lives.  Jesus is no longer someone we know about, He is someone we know.

My prayer is that we long to feel that close to Jesus. To feel His presence through the Holy Spirit. To picture Him there, talking with us. To walk on the road of life with us and to say, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the cross of Christ reveal the power of God? How does the cross of Christ reveal the wisdom of God?
  2. What impact has the story of Jesus’ crucifixion had on your life? What impact would you like it to have?  
  3. How might we maintain a cross-centered focus in our lives this week?

Run The Risk

“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. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.” –  Philippians 1:20–21. 

How do you define risk? To me, risk is simply an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury. Taking risks can result in losing money, losing face, losing your health and even losing your life. Whenever people are trying to sell the stock market, they tell you upfront, “do not invest money you cannot afford to lose. There are risks with any stock transaction.” So how do you weigh the risk versus the possible reward? 

If you were a first century Christian, it was very difficult to avoid risk, especially if you were in Rome. The Roman Empire could be a very dangerous place for early Christians. One of the most famous events was the great Rome fire. In A.D. 64, Rome was destroyed by a great fire: only four of its fourteen quarters remained intact. The emperor Nero was blamed by the Roman populace, and in turn blamed the Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus explains what happened:

“…Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called ‘Chrestians’ by the populace. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

These early Christians knew the risk. Christianity was punishable by death during this era. Every conceivable method was used to stop them from talking. But many Christians refused to break with their faith. So how do you explain their testimony? What caused them to go everywhere telling the message of the risen Christ? There was no visible benefit to them. They gained no prestige, wealth, increased social status or material benefits from their whole-hearted and total allegiance to this “risen Christ.” Yet, they laid down their lives as the ultimate proof of their complete confidence in the truth of their message.

Likewise the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection testified to it with their lives. Their testimony has inspired millions more to follow suit—to suffer persecution and death at the hands of an unbelieving world for the knowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That He came to earth to die for our sins as was foretold in the Bible hundreds of years before His miraculous birth. That He died upon the cross and rose again. That He presented Himself to hundreds of people before returning to Heaven. That He will return again at the end of the age. These men and the early Christians did not proclaim the Gospel with their words. They cried out to the world with their very lives. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did the Risen Savior motivate early believers?
  2. If Jesus rising from the dead was a hoax, do you think Christianity would have spread across the world?   
  3. What does the risen Savior mean to us today?

The Implications Of The Resurrection

“The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.” – Romans 8:11. 

Few people would argue that the resurrection is the central issue of Christianity. That’s because if the resurrection isn’t true then we’re still in our sins, and following Christ is meaningless. Here are some crucial questions: What does the resurrection of Jesus mean to you? Is it central to your faith? However we answer those questions, the resurrection will have implications on our life. The power of the risen Christ is active in every Christian, transforming our lives. 

For one, our faith is not in vain. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus proves that He is the Son of God and that His message is absolutely true. His miracles are divine and authentic and assures us who He is, and His resurrection is the final and absolute confirmation from the Father that Jesus is who He claimed to be.

Our sins are forgiven. This is huge because we are all sinners. “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own…” (Isaiah 53:6 ) And Romans 3:23 says, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” The truth is, Jesus has paid for the sins of the entire world. “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” (I John 2:2). His resurrection is a statement that the atoning sacrifice was completed and fully accepted. So our standing with God is not contingent on meeting His standards which we could never do, it is contingent on our receiving Him as Lord and Savior.

God is at work in us. In Ephesians 1:19-20, Paul writes “I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.” The same power that the Father used to raise Jesus from the dead is at work in us. Take a second and let that sink in. This is a strong message from someone who is chained in a Roman prison while he writes this. Paul assures us that whatever happens in our lives, whatever challenges we meet, whatever trials we face, God will absolutely fulfill all His purposes for us and His promises to us. No power, human or spiritual, will be able to thwart God’s good plans for us.

And finally, it will be worth it all. “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58). The message of Easter is a message of eternal hope. What we do on this earth is not in vain. There is a eternal future with God waiting for each of us who are followers of Jesus.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How should the resurrection impact your life on a daily basis? 
  2. How much does the evidence and faith play a role in your belief in the resurrection? 
  3. What does the resurrection mean for your past, present and your future?