Master And Commander

“When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, “Are you friend or foe?” “Neither one,” he replied. “I am the commander of the Lord’s army. At this, Joshua fell with his face to the ground in reverence. “I am at your command,” Joshua said. “What do you want your servant to do?” The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did as he was told.” – Joshua 5:13-15.

The Joshua 5 passage above describes one of many critical moments for the Israelites who had just entered into the promised land. It outlines a meeting just outside Jericho between their leader, Joshua, and a mysterious stranger. There is no doubt that Joshua was a natural and godly leader. After Moses’ death, he led the Israelites. He brought them to the edge of the rain-swollen Jordan River, and with a mixture of courage and trust ordered the people to move forward. God dried up that flooded river and they crossed over on the dry ground.  

Unquestionably Joshua was a leader. The people knew it. Joshua knew it. But Joshua was about to learn a powerful lesson about who the real commander of the army was. He’d gone out alone to scout out the challenge of conquering the great walled city of Jericho. I have to wonder if Joshua was thinking, at least to himself, “how can our army overcome these massive defenses?”  At that moment Joshua rounds a bend, and right in front of him is a fierce warrior with his sword already drawn. Joshua could instantly have drawn his own sword, but he asks the warrior “Are you friend or foe?” In other words, whose side is he on.

The answer was one Joshua could never have expected. “Neither one,” he replied, “I am the commander of the Lord’s army.” (v. 14).  Who was this? Was this God? Or Christ? Or an angel? Scholars have suggested all of these. Certainly, Joshua knew God was speaking to him. He was in God’s presence, and the commander of God’s army was before him. For Joshua, there was only one thing to do – he fell face down on the ground in reverence.

God stood right before Joshua. He was there – right there. This was not a voice from the clouds. He was standing with sword drawn. This was God the warrior, ready to fight. That encounter told Joshua the battle ahead was God’s, and would be won in God’s way and God’s strength.

Joshua could never have won against Jericho on his own – it would have been disaster if he’d tried – but he surrendered to the commander of the Lord’s army, and what followed was an amazing victory.

There are battles none of us can win, and our greatest need is to bow humbly before God, surrender our will to His, and accept Him as our Commander. To let go control and trust Him is never easy. But it’s also the most important thing we may ever do.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think it was like to be in God’s presence?   
  2. What can we do this week to make God the Commander of our lives? 

Doing What’s Right And Good

Let us not get tired of doing what is right, for after a while we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t get discouraged and give up” – Galatians 6:9 (TLB).

Are you a person who toes the line between right and wrong? Are you a person who doesn’t believe that the warm fuzzies we gain from doing what is right don’t compensate for what we’re sacrificing? Because sometimes doing what is right is putting up with other people’s angry outbursts. Or offering a gentle answer to a belligerent teenager. Or continuing to tithe at church when that money is needed in other places. Or listening to someone tell you about their troubles when you would rather indulge yourself with a Netflix marathon.

It is so easy to get tired of doing what is right. Doing right doesn’t seem to give you any perks when many people take the easy way out, cheat, lie, etc. and always get what they want. The biggest problem in society is not that some do wrong, but that those who know how to do good do not do it. There is a confrontation every day, between evil and good, a battle to be fought and the word says doing good is how we triumph over evil.

In times like these we need to remember who we are doing good for.  When we do the right thing, we please God. We may not reap immediate benefits from doing the right thing, but eventually we will get the absolute best reward of all, spending eternity with our Lord and Savior. The bottom line is you can’t go wrong doing the right thing.

The major theme of Galatians is that we are saved by faith, and not by works. Yet what I do as a believer is important. True salvation is not just accepting Jesus into my heart with an eye toward heaven in the future. It is an ongoing relationship with Jesus as my Lord. And that is what is reflected in this closing instruction in Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. “Let us not get tired of doing what is right, for after a while we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t get discouraged and give up” (Galatians 6:9 (TLB)

So what does it mean to do good?  Doing good is not the same thing as doing no harm. Doing no harm is a passive activity. But doing good is active. It is something that takes effort on our part. Something that is directed toward other people. Doing good means that when I see an opportunity to help another person, I take it. It may be something simple and with little cost. Or it may be more costly and time-consuming. Doing good simply means that I do what I can to help others. That is especially true within the church body. We should actively look for ways to do good; to be helpful to our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Don’t think what you’re doing doesn’t matter. Don’t give up on doing the right thing.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where does doing good fit in your life? Can you plan for it daily? 
  2. What do you do when you grow tired of doing what is right?  

Make Plans Without God

Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass —Psalm 37:5

It is hard to imagine a company or church being successful without planning and goal setting. Conversely, it is easy to imagine a company or church succeeding if they just plan well enough or persist long enough. While planning helps and is necessary, it is not enough. 

Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted. Unless the Lord protects a city, guarding it with sentries will do no good.” Ultimately, we cannot do anything of lasting value unless God blesses our work. The Apostle Paul reminds the believers at Corinth: “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)

This verses does not diminish the work of Paul or of Apollos. Both men possessed incredible faith and courage. They remained committed. They endured setbacks without losing heart. But, they knew it was fruitful because God “made it grow.

A farmer understands this metaphor all too well. A farmer can till and fertilize the soil, plant the seed, chase off  any animal which is trying to eat the seed, and irrigate or water the fields. But he can’t make it rain. Nor can he stop storms. The bottom line, the farmer, whether he acknowledges it or not, is dependent on God for a successful harvest.

Do you often wonder why your plans don’t work out? You’ve done your best, you thought of everything, you’ve laid it all out and somehow it didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? I’ll tell you one reason it doesn’t work in many cases. It doesn’t work because you leave God out. You plan according to your knowledge and your understanding, and your resources and what you want to accomplish in life, where you want to go but you leave God out of the planning. We need God to be a vital, living factor in our lives. The only thing that will secure an insecure future is to bring God into our plans. 

 It is crucial to develop the habit of inviting God into all of our plans from day one, whenever they may be. First of all, to allow Him to confirm if the plans are actually coming from Him, and second so that we can receive His wisdom, advice, and help. The Bible says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” (Proverbs 16:3, NIV)

We don’t know what tomorrow holds. To plan, is just to guess. To do as He says today takes away the guess work away. Whatever your plan or dream is, consult God first and foremost.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where does planning fit in your life? Do you plan daily for activities? 
  2. How does God fit into that decision making process? 

Facing An Uncertain Future

 “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 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.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.   

There have been many times throughout history where people would pause, look around and honestly admit they faced an uncertain future. Today is no different. It would be difficult in today’s culture to be a person who thrives on being in control. 

It can be scary not knowing what’s going to happen. We experience fear and anxiety. Yet, we also have dreams and aspirations. We can’t simply hide away and try to live our lives with as little risk as possible. Being risk averse means we lose the fullness of life. 

Instead, God calls us to live with courage, gratitude, and joy, trusting and listening for God’s guidance and resting in God’s unfailing love. Change and danger are constants in life. If we are going to live our lives as fully as God intends, we have to open ourselves to all of the challenges, risk, danger, occasional boredom, disappointment, as well as love, peace, and joy that we are likely to encounter. God sees all the possible outcomes from a very complicated and messy set of circumstances and will guide us to the best possible outcome when we trust God completely.  

In Matthew 6, Jesus is reminding His followers that they don’t need to worry or stress about the future, their security, or anything else. He uses imagery and parables, turning His followers’ attention to the birds, noting: “Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?” (v. 26) Jesus goes on to say that God already knows what we need. “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (v.34)

When you read those verses, you realize that we have a God who meets our needs. But we must stop thinking of God as a backstop in case our efforts to control our life and circumstances amidst a pandemic fail. Whenever we get caught up in worry over the future, we need to remember that God will take care of us. It requires a decision to trust Him and not to jump in before we have a resolution from God.   

 We are all facing an uncertain future. If you are worried or stressed about that future, don’t panic. It’s amazing how the heart changes, learns, and grows from these times. It’s not always easy but trusting God is the solution for an uncertain future.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you fear and how does it affect the way you live? Does it lead to anger, worry, or anxiety?
  2. What can we do this week to trust God in an uncertain future

Lessons Learned From COVID-19

 “While God, for the most part, allows this cosmos [creation] to work according to the laws of nature, there is never a time when He is not actively involved in every detail of life.” – Charles Swindoll. 

It’s October 2020. We have been fighting the COVID-19 virus for 8 months. We have done everything possible to stall the spread of this very aggressive virus. It made us panic. It disrupted our lives. And it has forced us to pause, re-calibrate, and remember God’s faithfulness amidst worry, fear, doubt, skepticism, frustration, isolation, and uncertainty. The worst of the coronavirus virus will eventually pass and we will begin to resume more normal routines.

For many of us, we have learned some of the things that seemed “small” were actually incredibly important “big” things in life. It’s easy to go through life and not take a moment to focus on the little blessings we all have. So when this is all over, what lessons did we learn, and what are some things that you will never again take for granted? Maybe it was hugging your grandparents, seeing the latest movie, going to a concert, dinner dates, or having the family over for dinner. There are thousands of things that could be listed, but I would like to talk about three. 

First, we started focusing on things that truly matter. Our social isolation has forced us to take a break… a “time-out” to rest and reset some priorities… in our lives… our homes… and in our hearts. We paused and took inventory and really evaluated what it is we spend our time doing, our money investing in, and our efforts pursuing. 

Second, we have learned that time has one direction and that direction is forward. Without sounding like Captain Obvious, you can’t get anything back from yesterday.  During the pandemic we learned to appreciate today while you have it. The pandemic taught us a great deal about time. We tended to think through what it is that’s lasting and eternal… and put all our efforts to invest in what matters most. Maybe it’s slowing down to connect with that particularly difficult child. Maybe it’s pursuing a meaningful, or possibly overdue, conversation with your spouse.  Maybe it’s asking a neighbor if you can serve them in some way or carving out the time to just get to know them. Maybe it’s finally addressing that wedge that’s grown between you and another.  Maybe it’s being present in lives of others instead of rushing past.

Third, church worship service and other gatherings are one of the most undervalued and under-appreciated events in our culture. This is the first time in many of our lives that we have not been able to “be” at and with the church every week. It was unnatural and debilitating. It was frustrating. There is something powerful and unique when the church gathers.  To be in-person to sing, hear God’s word, and take communion is an abiding place for the Spirit. During the time we could not meet as a body, we learned how important it is to do life together with other believers on a regular basis. I don’t think we fully appreciate how much we benefitted from being in church every week until it was missing. In the same vein, we took for granted the opportunity to meet in small groups each week.    

Discussion Questions:

  1. What lessons did you learn from COVID-19?
  2. How can these lessons bring us closer to God?

Life In The Margins

“Later in the day, just after the Sabbath ended at sunset, the people kept bringing to Jesus all who were sick and tormented by demons, until the whole village was crowded around the house. Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons. But he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he really was.”– Mark 1:32-34.  

Margin is the breathing room we build or at least try to build in our lives. It is the space between what we take on and the limit of what we can take on. Specifically, margin is the space to regroup, to get your mind in the right spot, to daydream, the time to pick up a good book or to take your kids on a bike ride.  It’s a deliberate time creating more balance and deeper engagement in everyday life. 

In some ways the pandemic has created some margin but in other ways it has increased anxiety, frustration, impatience, irritability and this quiet sense of desperation. We can learn a lesson about margin from Jesus during and after the pandemic ends.   

Mark 132-34 says in part, “people kept bringing to Jesus all who were sick and tormented by demons, until the whole village was crowded around the house. Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons.” Ever had a whole town gathered at your door wanting something from you?  Jesus did. Think about that scene for a few moments.  Jesus went to the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. He has healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a critical fever. At sundown, the Sabbath ended, and they began to bring from the surrounding region all these sick and demon-possessed people for Jesus to heal. Mark tells us “the whole city was gathered together about the door”: the lame, the demon-possessed  and those with “various diseases.” (v. 34)  It was a busy, full evening Jesus spent in Capernaum. 

Jesus had a full day. Mark records that early in the morning, before it was daylight, Jesus went out on the mountainside and there, alone by himself, he prayed. “Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray.” (Mark 1:36)

The first thing Jesus does the next day is to go off to a solitary place to pray–to create margin.  Jesus models for us how to stay spiritually fresh. It doesn’t happen by chance. Jesus did it by taking the initiative to connect with the heart of the Father through prayer on a regular basis. Imagine what your life would be like if you set aside time every day, creating margin by keeping first things first. That’s the type of life Jesus modeled and calls us to emulate. 

During the pandemic and after we need margin in our lives. When you’re not hurrying and worrying all the time, you have time to think. Time to relax. Time to enjoy life. Time to be still and know that God is God. “Be still, and know that I am God!…” (Psalm 46:10)

Discussion Questions:

  1. In your opinion, do you have more or less margin during the pandemic? 
  2. What can we do this week to ensure we have margin in our lives during and after the pandemic?   

To Know And To Be Known

“Before you Gentiles knew God, you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist. So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing.” –   Galatians 4:8-11.

Want to figure out if what you do defines who you are? Try telling somebody about yourself without sharing what you do for a living. We seem to think that our job defines us, but who we are is something deeper, something we seldom offer when meeting someone. If you want somebody to really know you, tell people your life’s mission. It might be to think, live, and act with abundant faith. Another is to know God and to be known by Him. 

While we absolutely want to know an omnipotent, omnipresent God, are we allowing ourselves to be known by Him? To be known by God is a two-way street where we decide to open our hearts that we might experience Him in even the deepest, most secret places of our lives.

Yet, for whatever number of years you have spent pursuing God, and longing for His presence, do you really know God? It’s easy to fall into a trap of believing that the length of days we have been a Christian or been a faithful servant of Christ equals a depth of knowledge and wisdom we have of the Savior. Even during times of pandemics and other challenges in life, it may not result in a closer walk with Him. Fortunately, God wants us to know Him. 

The Bible teaches us that God wants us to know us. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand what we must do to get to know God on a spiritual level, and how to get to know Him better.  We must, however, always remember that getting to know God better is, as in human relationships, a gradual, and even a lifetime process that requires time, patience, and, above all, a real desire.

We should be be in awe and grateful to know God and to be known by God. God knows you better than you know yourself. He knows not just what you do, but what you think, not just your actions but even the hidden motives behind them. He knows things about you that other people can only guess at. And through His Word He wants to speak to you, He wants to open your eyes and heart, He wants to tell you who He is and who you must serve. He is trustworthy, He is kind, and He is loving, and most importantly wants you to know Him. 

J.I. Packer said, “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Would you say that the purpose of life has to do with knowing God? Why or why not?
  2. Why is sincerely following a religion not the same as knowing and loving God?
  3. What can we do this week to know God better?

Before You Judge, Seek To Understand

“Before you assume, learn the facts; before you judge, understand why; before you hurt someone, feel; before you speak, think.” – Author unknown. 

Have you ever been absolutely sure that you were right about someone else’s bad thoughts, hostile feelings, or harmful intentions only to later find that you were wrong? Most likely. While holding this mistaken view of their perspective, did you act in ways that made the conflict worse? Probably. When you later learned of their true thoughts, feelings, or intentions; did you then realize how your own words and actions had contributed to the escalating conflict between you? Yep. 

As much as we’d love to say we’ve never judged anyone, having a judgmental heart is a struggle for many of us. If you are one of those people try to understand people and their circumstances before judging them. John 7:24 (NIV) says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” Be open to the idea that your perspective doesn’t show you the entire picture. Ask yourself some questions: Have I given the person a chance to share their perspective? What do I need to know before drawing a conclusion? The more you understand, the less likely you are to judge.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view until you climb inside his or her head and walk around in it. If we did that, it would make a huge difference. Tennessee Williams said: “Hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.” It was Abraham Lincoln who said one day: “I don’t like that man—I must get to know him better”.

In this volatile political environment, it is easy to argue with another person because you haven’t taken the time to understand them. Every person is important to God so every person is worth understanding. Take the time and trouble to get to know others before you make a judgment about them. God wants us to not only understand others but to love them as well. The Bible clearly says we are to love others as much as we love ourselves. Matthew 7:12 says, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.….”

We want others to take time to hear you out. We want others to try to understand where you’re coming from. We don’t appreciate it when people write you off before they understand what you’re saying.  We should treat others as we want to be treated. Let’s try to understand where they are coming from; if for no other reason than that’s what we wish others would do for us.

In other words, strive to understand before you strive to be understood.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think it is important to understand people before judging them?     
  2. What can we do this week to love more and judge less?  

Being Judgmental

 “Let every word you speak be drenched with grace and tempered with truth and clarity. For then you will be prepared to give a respectful answer to anyone who asks about your faith.” – Colossians 4:6 (TPT)).

Have you judged anyone lately? Our initial reaction might be to say no, but if we honestly think about it for a few minutes, we would have to admit that the answer is probably yes. It isn’t always that obvious. The man who cut you off in traffic, the woman that does not dress appropriately in your mind at work, the politician who was caught doing something improper; it is easy to judge.  While it may be easy to do it is wrong because it is fundamentally incompatible with authentic Christian faith.

Judgment has a slippery little way of sneaking its way into our hearts if we aren’t paying attention to our motives. As C.S. Lewis said, “See the bear in his own den before you judge his conditions.” We need to remember that Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for arrogant, judgmental people. Conversely, Jesus was pretty much never harsh to people outside the faith. So how does one overcome and restrain our inner Judge Judy?

Look inward before you look outward. If you are a Christian and continually criticize or judge others then you don’t fully understand the grace you received from God. In the musical Les Misérables, there is a scene where Jean Valjean steals some candlesticks from the Bishop of Digne, the priest who takes pity on Valjean. By all rights, Valjean should find himself in prison, probably to die there.  But he received mercy and pardon instead. Jean Valjean repented and dedicated the rest of his life to becoming a force for good in the world. People who understand the immensity of the compassion they received will naturally want to extend the same compassion to others. In other words, offering grace. 

Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t offer us partial grace. He doesn’t offer us halfway grace. Jesus gave, and continues to give, full grace. The grace that took Him to the cross. This fundamental truth should guide us or redirect us from judging others. The divine grace we receive from Christ should fuel our gracious natures and fill our thoughts and actions. Because we are people who desperately need grace, we should be people who lavishly give grace rather than judging others. How we judge others says far more about us than how we are judged by others. This is why God will judge us in the manner we judge others, not in the manner they judge us. Therefore, we should be quick to believe innocence, charitably slow to pronounce guilt, charitably redemptive when it must be, and silent if at all possible.

The more we refuse to “… grumble about each other…” (James 5:9), the more we will “…encourage each other and build each other up…” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and the more we will show grace. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to judge others?
  2. James 1:19 (CSV) says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” Why is it so important to remember to listen first and be slow to judge according to James 1:19 and the verses above? Why is it better to leave judgment including final judgment to God?

Is It Possible To Truly Know God?

“I brought you to a garden land where you could eat lush fruit. But you barged in and polluted my land, trashed and defiled my dear land. The priests never thought to ask, ‘Where’s God?’ The religion experts knew nothing of me. The rulers defied me. The prophets preached god Baal And chased empty god-dreams and silly god-schemes.” – Jeremiah 2:8 (MSG). 

Is it possible to know God well? After all, He is God. He made all others, and any importance they have is owing to Him. Any strength or intelligence or skill or beauty that we have comes from Him. He is infinitely greater than the best person you ever knew or ever heard of.  It is impossible for God to be boring or uninteresting. So given all that, how well do we know Him? 

We need to know Him because God impacts every attitude, thought, and action we take. If we see Him as uncaring, we will struggle with believing He truly loves us. If we look at God as a stern no-nonsense judge, then we will look at God as being unfair. In addition, our culture consistently sends us messages about how to see God as well. Over time, this can make it difficult to truly know God. ”Behold, God is great, and we know him not…” (Job 36:26 ESV)  Can we really, in this life say, “I know God?” The answer is yes but with a caveat. We can only know God if we put in the effort to know Him.  

Because God is not a passive object of study for us to conduct when we have time. Knowing God is not a laid-back spectator sport. The reality is that we can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of Him. An interest in theology and knowledge of God and the capacity to think clearly and communicate clearly on Christian themes is not the same thing as knowing Him. Knowing Him will require everything in our being, our heart, and our emotions. Our life must say to God, “I want to know you.”

Jeremiah 29:13 says, “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me”Jesus said in Luke 11:9-10, “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 promises that when we seek Him, we will find Him. He also promises to give us the Holy Spirit we need in order to know Him if we ask. So what about you: How much effort are you putting in to truly know Him?  

If we are not investing time in getting to know God, it’s as though you were flown at the speed of light for a couple of hours around the sun and the solar system, and instead of looking out the window, you opted to read a book. Or if you could go back in time and spend some quality time with Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr, or Gandhi or Mother Theresa, but you preferred to binge-watch Heartland on Netflix. My prayer is that God would incline our hearts, and open our eyes to see Him as fully as we can and seek to know Him more.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you know God? How do you know for sure?
  2. Why is sincerely following a religion not the same as knowing and loving God?
  3. What steps can you take practically in your life to better know God?