God Is Sovereign

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” – Hebrews 3:12-13 (NIV).  

It’s hard to fully understand the full impact this pandemic has had and will have on our lives. Yet, one thing is certain: God is sovereign. This is the truth of Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them”  God works all things together for His good purposes.

God’s awe-inspiring, miraculous, all-knowing sovereignty means that even while the world is under siege by a deadly virus, we can live knowing that God can use even this for His glory. No matter what happens, God is sovereign and is still able to make these things work together for good.

There has not been much “good news” recently. But there are still opportunities, even in a pandemic. One possible opportunity while we deal with the virus is to slow down and focus on our relationship with God. Before the virus, we were moving faster than ever before. We’re addicted to speed, obsessed with hurry. We are in this continuous struggle to accomplish more things and participate in more events in less time. In addition, we can’t go out as we normally would, so there isn’t as much to do. That makes this time a great opportunity to focus on our relationship with our Heavenly Father.

You see, our relationship with God is like any other relationship in the sense that it requires both parties investing time and energy into it for it to grow. God is invested: Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8 that God was invested in this relationship while we were still sinners. God was so invested that His Son Jesus died for you so that you could enter into a relationship with Him. God is invested and God desires to see our relationship with Him grow. During the pandemic, this is an opportunity to invest in that relationship with Him. 

During this pandemic, spend time in His Word, spend time in prayer, and spend time with other believers. We are not able to be with other believers as normal, but many of us have more time to spend in His word and in prayer. Jesus told us in Matthew 7:7 that when we seek Him we will find Him. Some of the best ways to seek God is by searching His Word and talking with Him in prayer. Those practices may have gotten moved down the priority list due to having so many things to do. But now that we aren’t as busy, we need to take advantage of this opportunity by investing extra time into our relationship with God now.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some steps we can take this week to strengthen our relationship with God?  

Our Words Give Us Away

“… It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words. A good person produces good deeds and words season after season. An evil person is a blight on the orchard. Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.” – Matthew 12:36-37 (MSG).  

Our words are very powerful. Our words, often so recklessly spoken, carry more weight than most of us can imagine. In fact, hardly a week goes by in which you and I don’t read or hear about some celebrity, elected official, or admired athlete whose words have gotten them into hot water. But the matter goes far deeper than being “politically correct.” Our words reveal the state of our hearts. 

Scripture is clear that words can be powerful. In Matthew 12, Jesus teaches the connection between our words and our hearts. He says that simply trying harder to be good will not work because the root of the problem is within us. He says: “You must determine if a tree is good or rotten. You can recognize good trees by their delicious fruit. But if you find rotten fruit, you can be certain that the tree is rotten. The fruit defines the tree. …How can your words be good and trustworthy if you are rotten within? For what has been stored up in your hearts will be heard in the overflow of your words! When virtue is stored within, the hearts of good and upright people will produce good fruit. But when evil is hidden within, those who are evil will produce evil fruit.” (Matthew 12:33–35 TPT)

The words we speak show what is in our hearts. If our hearts are evil, then the words we speak and write will be evil too. In James 3:8, God’s Word says: “but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison.” Transforming the tongue begins with a change in the heart. Jesus said, “But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you.” (Matthew 15:18) The heart influences the tongue. When it is full of anger, selfishness, envy, pride, it will affect everything we do.

Something needs to change within us. Our focus needs to be transformed. Instead of looking for the bad in a situation, we need to look for the good. Instead of being preoccupied with self-interest, we need to focus on the interests of others. Changing our hearts is a good place to start. The Bible teaches, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20 Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” James 1:19-20  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What needs to change to better control the tongue? 
  2. What would we do differently this week if you knew your words were powerful?

The Positive Use Of Words

” The words of the godly are a life-giving fountain; the words of the wicked conceal violent intentions.” – Proverbs 10:11. 

Tongues can be weapons of mass destruction, launching holocausts and wars. Tongues can also be the death of marriages, families, friendships, churches, careers, hopes, understanding, reputations, and governments. But the tongue can also accomplish a lot of good.  It is not much of a stretch to think that the problems of the world could be solved overnight if people could get victory over their tongues. What if there was no anger, no profanity, no lying, no grumbling or complaining, no unjust criticism? 

Proverbs 15:4 says, “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”  However, words not only have the power to crush spirits; they also have a mighty power to lift spirits, to bring strength to the weary, to give hope to the hopeless, to put courage back in, to make souls stronger.  What if we told people you are loved at your best, and you are loved at your worst; you are uniquely gifted. I see potential in you; I value you. I love you. Tongues can make marriages memorable, families strong, and churches healthy. Tongues can give hope to the despairing, advance understanding, and spread the gospel. It just requires us to think before we speak.  

God calls us to cultivate a habit of speaking life-giving words. Ephesians 4:15 says, “Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.”   

Perhaps the greatest outreach the church can offer is to become the kind of community that turns a regular faith into an irresistible one. What if all it took for us to become the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth” to our communities was to choose kindness over criticism toward one another; giving the benefit of the doubt over assuming the worst in one another, and building each other up instead of tearing each other down. What kind of difference could we make if tamed tongues only spoke words of love, mercy, grace, and encouragement?   

Psalm 141:3 says, “Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips.” God wants us to speak life-giving words.  A loving heart produces a gracious tongue. A faithful heart produces a truthful tongue. A peaceful heart produces a reconciling tongue. A trusting heart produces an encouraging tongue.

Be a person whose words make a positive difference. “And so now, I entrust you into God’s hands and the message of his grace, which is all that you need to become strong. All of God’s blessings are imparted through the message of his grace, which he provides as the spiritual inheritance given to all of his holy ones.” (Acts 20:32 TPT)

Discussion questions:

  1. How have you used words for good?  
  2. What can we do this week to use our words for good? 

The Heart Of The Matter

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23

At some point, we will all say something we wish we had not said. You wonder whether you are doing the right thing when you feel the words just chomping at the bit to escape from your lips. They want out so badly. It is just an insult, or a jab or quip, but you just can’t suppress it…you can’t contain the words. They have a power of their own. You know that the words will achieve no positive goal, but you just sigh and let them go. And usually, a few seconds later you wish you could keep your tongue in control. The Bible tells us that controlling the tongue is a heart issue. 

There is a spiritual connection between the heart and the tongue. The heart is your data base and your mouth is your outlet; when pressure comes, whatever is in the heart will come forth. It is not a matter of training your mouth what to say but building and guiding your heart.  

Scripture tells us to guard our hearts because it is the source of our life. It is the essence of who you are. It is your authentic self—the core of your being. It is where all your dreams, your desires, and your passions live. It is that part of you that connects with God and other people. Out of the heart come all our motives, desires, motivations, and our words. We are to barricade our heart against anything or anyone else that seek to claim it because our heart belongs to God. Only God can have permission to lead, guide, and instruct our hearts. That is why we must safeguard it. We must diligently and consciously protect it from invasion other than God. 

It naturally asks the question of what are you allowing to shape it? There is no shortage of people or things that want to lay claim to our hearts. But they can only possess it with our permission. If something or someone has taken hold of it, it is because we have let down our guard and let him/her/it in. As Christ-followers we must become intentional in guarding our heart against anything that is contrary to scripture. Rather, we must focus on what enables us to be more like Jesus.

In Proverbs, Solomon reveals the outcome of pathways chosen. Many of the verses in Proverbs offers us hope as it looks to the desired end of our lives and challenges us to think backward along its logical course. How do we want our lives to end? In what areas do we really want to succeed at all costs? The path we take today will lead us there. It attempts to provide us some perspective. And when you have that perspective, and when your eyes are fixed on the prize, you will better guard your heart.

Guard your heart by sharpening your ability to draw closer to God. These will help you guard your heart because you will be spending your energy on Him. Remember, as goes your heart, goes your life.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it so important to guard your heart? Why is it important that we address any issues at the source rather than downstream?
  2. Read Matthew 22:37-38: What is the first and greatest commandment concerning the heart?

A Slip Of The Tongue

“…For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.” – James 3:2-6. 

James 3:1–12 contains the single most sustained discussion in the New Testament on the use of the tongue. One of the marvelous things about this passage is that it requires virtually no explanation. It almost preaches itself, as James piles up one metaphor or analogy upon another. We hardly need to do anything other than simply read the text to grasp its meaning.

In these verses, James offers us a few revealing insights about the tongue. The tongue has great power. And words matter. A lot. James is not telling us to keep our mouth shut at all times, rather he’s telling us that it is a rare and mature person who knows how to control his or her tongue and use it for good. So rather than say nothing, find the wisdom to know when to speak, when not to speak, and what to say.

We need to get to the heart of the matter. We don’t have a tongue problem, we have a heart problem. Jesus says in Luke 6:45: “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” A problem controlling your words is not simply a personality flaw or a product of your environment or your culture. It’s an issue of the heart. When we say something we shouldn’t say, we can use the excuse, “I don’t know where that came from.” Actually, we do. It came from the heart.

Jesus came to give you a new heart. Ezekiel 36:26 says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” When God is sitting on the throne of our hearts we start to reflect His grace. In our relationships with other people, words used wisely can heal hurts, unravel misunderstandings, point to truth, express love and affection, show respect, reflect repentance, offer forgiveness, bring joy and laughter, give comfort, help us remember what’s important in life, and inspire us to become not just smarter, but wiser human beings.

Trying to control the tongue is a lifelong endeavor. The emphasis shouldn’t be placed on how far we fall short. Instead we can focus on our progress. When we obey God’s Word to become more like Jesus, we are being perfected. We are getting closer and closer to what Christ is like by using words to speak life into the lives of others. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the tongue is such an issue? 
  2. What can we do this week to control the tongue?

Need A Little Encouragement?

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” – Hebrews 3:12-13 (NIV).  

Hebrews 3:13 tells us to “encourage one another daily.” First Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” and 1 Thessalonians 4:18 adds, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Throughout the Bible, we see instructions to encourage one another and verses that are meant to encourage us. Encouragement is emphasized in the Bible because it is necessary for our walk of faith.  

There are a lot of things that are discouraging today starting with the pandemic. But we also face the challenges of our bodies breaking down, our plans faltering, our dreams diminishing, and our joy dimming. We should encourage each other because it is an essential way of extending grace to each other.

I encourage you to make encouragement a daily discipline. For some of us, encouragement comes naturally, for others, not so much. Develop a system or daily reminder to send someone an encouraging note, email, text, or phone call.  Pray and ask God to show you who you can encourage. Nothing encourages us like promises from God’s Word. Make a list of Scriptures that God has used to bless you personally or an excerpt from something you read in your daily devotional. Find and share riches of God’s grace with others.

Without encouragement, life would soon feel pointless and burdensome. Without encouragement, we can be overwhelmed by the very real pains of our lives. Without encouragement, we feel unloved. Without encouragement, we begin to think that God is unconcerned with our welfare. So, the Bible tells us to encourage one another, to remind each other of the truth that God loves us, that God equips us, that we are treasured, that our struggles are worth it.

Don’t forget about the pastors, the church staff or your small group leader. They need encouragement just as much as anyone else. If your pastor or staff member or small group leader says or does something that God uses in your life, tell him or her about it. Nothing encourages a pastor or staff member or small group leader like hearing specific ways God used a sermon or counseling session or small group curriculum to work in your life.

So, get started. Who can you encourage right now? Who has blessed you recently that you can thank? What verse can you share with them? How might God use it?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you try to encourage people on a regular basis?   
  2. Who can you encourage this week? 

What Does It Mean That God Is In Control?

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10.  

If you’re a Christian, I’m sure you have said at one time or another that “God is in control.” Even when the world seems out of control. God is still in control. But what does that mean exactly? If you lose your job, is God in control of that? How about if you need a parking space, or lost an earring? What about which parts of your yards get weeds. What about the number of stars in the sky? How we answer these questions determines what you really believe when you say that God is in control.

Scriptures addresses this issue: Hebrews 1:3 says, “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….”  Another passage of scripture that addresses this issue is found in Colossians 1:15-17. “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him.He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.”  

The passage in Hebrews and Colossians tells us that at each moment, Jesus holds all things in the universe together. The reason the physical universe continues to exist at each moment in time is that He wills it to be so, and actively determines that it should be so. And that includes the small things: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” (Proverbs 16:33 ESV) 

The difficult thing is not that God is in control but that we are not. We worry that our future depends upon how closely we can manage every detail. In our fear and worry we often see what we didn’t get rather than what we do get from God. We fail to fully understand we have a loving Father who designed His perfect plan for us.  He loves us and has prepared good things for us. 

Matthew 6:34 says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the days is its own troubles.” Consider that God is in control today. Trust God for today. He will take care of tomorrow. God will give you strength for every challenge that comes your way, wisdom for every decision you make, and peace that surpasses all understanding.

Have faith in God today. Live for Him today. It is a daily choice. God’s solution for worry is to put Him in control of your life.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does God is in control mean to you?
  2. What would we do differently this week if we knew God is in control?  

How Do We Measure Faith?

“Dear brothers and sisters, we can’t help but thank God for you, because your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing.” – 2 Thessalonians 1:3

Just from the title, I suspect that some of you are already trying to construct the criteria in your mind for determining both the quantity and quality of faith in your life. You probably rounded up the usual suspects such as: church or small group attendance, tithe/offerings given, or the various missions and ministries you are engaged in. But is it that simple?  

Simply put, to grow in faith means to grow spiritually. The goal is to grow in both knowledge of God and in godly living; ultimately, it is to become more Christlike. One way of measuring if we are growing in faith is how well are you loving others? How can you know? Ask yourself, “Is my love increasing?”  These two go together, don’t they?  It’s hard to say your faith is growing if your love is not increasing. In other words, spiritual maturity or “going deeper” is evidenced by loving God and by our love for others.

Galatians 5:6 says, “For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love.” What Paul is wrestling with here is the false teaching that getting circumcised will help man merit or earn salvation. He says in Galatians 5: 2, “Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you.” In other words, if you look to your own merit, or to the merit of the things you can do, then Christ in dying for your sins and obtaining your salvation will be of no use. When you depend on your works, you reject the work of Christ. In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love does.

What makes verse 6 so remarkable is that the faith that connects us with Jesus is “faith that works through love.” In other words, it is a kind of faith that proves its reality by producing love. Love doesn’t merit our salvation. Love proves the reality of the faith that results from our salvation. When my faith is in Christ, I can love; I can forgive the unforgivable, love the unlovable, serve the unworthy. More than that, when Christ rules my heart in faith, I no longer need to be told to love, but love naturally flows from within me; I can take the initiative to do the impossible, to serve others joyfully, willingly, and unconditionally.

Paul is telling us that faith expresses itself through love; love for God, and love for others. A faith that does not express itself in love is dead and worthless (James 2:14-26).

Discussion questions:

  1. How do faith and love work together in your life? 
  2. What can we do this week to be more loving to those around us?

There Is Always Risk

“David replied to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies—the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. Today the Lord will conquer you, and I will kill you and cut off your head. And then I will give the dead bodies of your men to the birds and wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel!” –  1 Samuel 17:45-46

How do you react when you hear the words “risk-taking”?  Do you feel the rush of adrenaline or do you feel some butterflies start to take flight in your stomach? We are used to movie superheroes taking risks and coming out on top. But risk-taking is not nearly as glamorous or exciting as the big screen portrays. In reality, we find a sense of security in our comfort zones. We are content in those comfort zones.  But what if God wants to stretch us and that requires some risk? How will we respond? 

There are a lot of people that are simply risk averse. They prefer to play it safe. David was certainly not one of them. The Israelites were at war with the Philistines. Day after day, the Israelites heard the taunting of a giant named Goliath. He mocked the armies of Israel, and therefore mocked the God of Israel. Saul and the Israelites were terrified, not seeing a solution. Given this situation, what kind of boy approaches a giant with only a few river pebbles? Seems pretty risky to me. 

In fact, the Bible is full of risk. Noah building a boat on dry land. Abraham going without knowing where he was going. Moses going to Egypt and telling Pharaoh, This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so they can worship with me. Faith requires risk. Without risk, there’s no faith. But what if? What if I give sacrificially and I don’t have enough money for my needs? What if I embark on this venture on faith and it doesn’t succeed? What if I choose a different path and it leads to disaster? What if I misinterpret what God is telling me to do?  What if I utterly fail? Any of those things could happen. That is where faith and trust in God come in. 

Has God prompted you to take a risk? There is no guarantee it will be comfortable. There is no guarantee the journey won’t be littered with difficulty. There is no guarantee it will turn out the way you expect it to turn out. But will it be worth it: yes it will. Will it bring you blessing even amidst challenging circumstances: yes it will. Will God be glorified and exalted through it: yes He will. 

Risk-taking is not easy but it is a part of our faith journey. As we follow God’s lead we have risk, yet we find comfort in knowing that He first took a risk on us. How will you know what God is going to do in your life unless you take risks? Why not get up there with David and sling a couple of stones at a giant? 

Discussion Questions:

  1. If I’m truly going to walk by faith, it’s going to involve some risk. Agree or disagree?
  2. How does your faith affect the choices you make and the things you do? What have been the results of your greatest steps of faith? How have they caused your faith to grow?
  3. What commitment are you willing to make to put your faith into action? 

Faith In Action

“Faith in action is love, and love in action is service. By transforming that faith into living acts of love, we put ourselves in contact with God Himself, with Jesus our Lord.” – Mother Teresa

Walking by faith and not by sight is a scary proposition sometimes, especially when my exceptions for the end result are different than God’s. Walking by faith means that we bring ourselves into alignment with God, not the other way around. We need faith as we run our race in our pursuit of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

We must hold strong to our faith because it is the very thing that leads us towards the things we hope for. It’s the thing that keeps us moving forward, even if that movement seems in the wrong direction. Why? Because, “just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.” (James 2:26). A better word for “dead” in the verse above might be “dormant,” “unproductive,” or “inoperative.” Actions are needed to bring faith to life because faith is designed to always spur us on to obedience in Christ and to be more like Him.  

Scriptures tell us that it’s impossible for us to please God without faith. Faith does not only mean belief: faith means action. Faith means we do whatever we can to love. To share. To be generous. And to point people to Jesus. We are a people who take action. A people who believe that our tiny little action of giving a sandwich to the hungry, a dollar to a homeless person, or a coat to the freezing is a byproduct of our faith in Christ.  

Remember the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof in Luke 5.  The man’s friends could have taken the posture that our friend will somehow find his way to Jesus. But their action said I will get my friend to Jesus. If the man’s friends weren’t living out their faith, this unfortunate man would have still been laying on his mat unable to walk. Our actions in faith may seem small. But our God is big. And He asks each of us to act on what we believe, trusting that He will do more than we could imagine. 

We will all have those moments in our lives when we are asked to step out in faith. And we all have concerns about that first step because getting out of our comfort zone can produce stress and worry.  Our initial inclination is to question whether we are ready to put ourselves out there. On the other hand, you are excited about what God wants to do through you and and you can’t wait to see what that is, but…you don’t have it all worked, figured or factored out. That is where faith comes in. God responds to our action, not our concerns. So step out even if you have that unsettling combination of wanting to step out in faith but not feeling completely prepared. God didn’t ask you to get ready to go; He just asked you to go. You can get ready along the way. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the barriers to doing something every day that requires faith?
  2. What can we do this week to overcome those barriers?