Winter Woes

“He directs the snow to fall on the earth and tells the rain to pour down. Then everyone stops working so they can watch his power. The wild animals take cover and stay inside their dens. The stormy wind comes from its chamber, and the driving winds bring the cold. God’s breath sends the ice, freezing wide expanses of water.”– Job 37:6-10.  

The Alaskan winter is dark, cold, long, relentless and takes no prisoners. Life Below Zero is a documentary television series that illustrates the daily and seasonal activities of people who are preparing for and then hunkering down during the brutal Alaskan winters. The temperature plummets to minus 60 below zero; add the constant battle for the most basic necessities, and you have the daily challenges of people navigating through winter near the Arctic Circle.  

The beauty in the way God designed the four seasons is that, though each one is distinct, they all work together to bring life and growth. Spring is a period of freshness and new life. Summer sees growth and productivity. Autumn is a time for harvesting the rewards of past labors. And then there is winter. Winter is the season that often brings hardships and challenges to married couples waiting for spring.

It is hard to complain about winter for those of us who live in Florida where we don’t experience the dark, cold days, piercing winds and chilled bones. But winter in marriage can and does happen anywhere and to anyone. Winter may last a month or it may last 30 years. It may begin three months after the wedding or hit in the mid-life years. Winter can be caused by any area of married life that can cause differences. Couples who fail to negotiate these differences can find the marriage getting cold. Over time the marriage can move into an ice age. That is the time to get serious and to get prepared.

Unlike sledding down a steep hill or a ski trip to Utah, working through a wintery season in your marriage may not be fun. But when you persevere and begin to take positive steps to improve your marriage, you’ll emerge stronger, more committed, and better able to work through your differences. By continuing to work and pray, you can discover deep healing and deeper intimacy. And when you choose to love again, the melting ice of winter will water the seeds of spring.

If God is unfailingly faithful to His promises, and the Spirit really is more powerful than our weaknesses, and we both truly want more of God, He can and will grow our marriage even in the toughest winter conditions. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you experienced “winter” in your marriage/relationships? 
  2. What are some things we can do to prepare for the winter in our marriage/relationships? 

Technology And Relationships

“Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.” – Christian Lous Lange.

Technology is an amazing tool that has improved the quality of life for people worldwide. We are always connected, anytime, anywhere; to work, to our friends, to those that we want to be like and want to be like us, to people that live down the block and people thousands of miles away. But the negative aspects of technology can creep up on you.  

It’s no surprise that technology can have a negative impact on relationships. Technology use interferes with face-to-face interactions with others. A survey done on the subject indicated that higher levels of technology use adds up to significantly less time spent together as a couple, or in other relationships. It goes without saying that almost anywhere you go, people’s eyes are locked on their devices. Couples in restaurants ignore each other while waiting for their salads and blankly, endlessly scroll down listening intently for the buzz, ring, and chirp rather than what the other person is saying. In so many ways, it’s a paradox. We’ve never been more connected as a culture, yet we’ve never felt more disconnected. I can sit down at my computer and be in touch with someone on the other side of the world in seconds. What I have to remember is that the person who is most important to me is in the next room.

Better relationships happen when you pour your life into people, real people with whom you can talk face-to-face, laugh with, and hear their tone of voice. Put down the phone and walk away from the computer and spend some quality time with your spouse. Find the time to be  “unplugged.” I’m not referring to what we call unplugging nowadays–turning off our cell phone for 15 minutes, or not binge-watching Netflix for a weekend. I’m talking about unplugging our devices and plugging into our relationships.

Having too much information on our phones and computers causes them to slow down, freeze, or shut down unexpectedly. It’s the same with our relationships. Too much information, too many things happening in our lives, too many distractions and our relationships can become drained, frustrated, angry and burned out. The solution is to unplug and then plug into our relationships.  

I encourage you to unplug and spend time with your spouse and family without your devices nearby. Ask friends to hang out in person — and then suggest that everyone put their phones away so you can avoid distractions. Visit your grandparents. Support your siblings. For some of us, this will not be an easy path. It will require dying to ourselves and our devices daily. But it will be worth it. God wants us to be so fixed on His glory and so in love with His beauty that we live with all our might for Him. With our eyes on Him (and up from our phones), we can have the kind of radical relationships we are looking for.   

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ways that technology affects your life every day?
  2. When does technology distract you from your spouse?
  3. What is one step you can take today to show your spouse that they are more important to you than “technology?”  

Four Seasons Of Marriage

“Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” – Acts 14:17 (NIV).  

Marriage relationships are constantly changing. Attitudes shift, emotions fluctuate, and circumstances change. The natural seasons – spring, summer, fall, and winter are analogous for the changes that occur in a marriage. Marriages are perpetually in a state of transition, continually moving from summer to fall or perhaps from winter to spring – perhaps not annually, as in nature, but just as certainly and consistently. And typically, the cycle repeats itself many times throughout the life of a marriage. It is important to know which season your marriage is in and how to deal with the challenges and opportunities each season presents.  

The “Spring” of marriage is the time of productivity and being busy. Instead of letting the busyness of life take over, you have to find time to say “No” to other things and to say “Yes” to the marriage. The “Summer” of marriage is a time of rest and relaxation where you have time to work at the marriage because you have the space to do it. The “Fall” of marriage is the time of big change. Whether it’s a career change, having more kids or losing a loved one, change happens and it can cause a lot of stress on the marriage. The “Winter” of marriage is the time of struggle and sadness full of obstacles and stress. This is the season when you have to fight the hardest for your marriage. 

No matter what season we are in we need to remember that God is in control. The seasons change because of God’s design and control. He graciously provided four seasons on the Earth for a reason. Not every area of the country enjoys as major of a change as others, but the seasons still produce what God intends for them to produce. As Solomon said, “…there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” This time is fixed and follows God’s pattern and design. In the same way, God is in control in each season of your marriage. 

In addition, God intends for us to take advantage of this season. God’s intention in this season of your life is for you to not just accept it but embrace it. This is what God has given to you. So look at this season as God’s gift to you and your spouse. God desires for you to respect and trust Him in this season. God’s design in bringing various seasons in life with both their opportunities and challenges teaches us to trust Him – His plan, His purposes, and His character. He brings these things in His timing or season in order to also produce respect. We are not in charge. We do not determine the season. God does. Therefore, as the seasons come and go, we are to increasingly trust God with them and our marriage.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the season change help you respect and trust God more? Do you embrace the opportunities and challenges ahead? Do you see this season as a gift? 
  2. What can we do to better trust God and rejoice in this season?

We All Have Our Flaws

“Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.” – Romans 15:7  

We long for acceptance in our relationships. Everyone wants to know that even with all of our faults, we are still appreciated, loved, and valued.  Yet only God is able to love us unconditionally all of the time. We are loved—warts and all—and we were loved while we were still sinful. God loved us so much that He gave His only Son for us (John 3:16). 

That’s how God sees us. God calls us to see others through His eyes. Accepting each other and loving each other in spite of our faults will benefit one another but, more importantly, it will reflect God in us.  Yet sometimes we feel as if we are somehow above the fray.  

From our high and lofty view, it’s easy to see all the ways other people are failing us or have wronged us. We can sit up on our perch and pick out the mistakes everyone else is making. We are able to do that because we have such a perfect understanding of how the world should run. “I would never make a mistake by doing that…”

The flaw in this logic is that we are all sinners with no innate holiness. Any success or achievements or character attributes we possess is because of Jesus’ work in us.  Any growth we experience is God bringing it about in me. When I criticize someone else for committing a sin I believe myself to be free from, I’m forgetting the obvious truth that Jesus is the one who has given me every victory I have ever experienced over sin. Paul warns the Corinthians about lifting themselves up on their supposed merits as if they were responsible for generating them: “For what gives you the right to make such a judgment? What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?” (I Corinthians 4:7)

Paul is telling us that when we think ourselves superior to others, we are not only forgetting what we have received, but we are boasting about our holiness as if we were personally responsible for it. That is an argument that we should never make. 

God calls us to see others through His eyes. He calls us to accept others the way He does—as dearly loved, broken children of God who are created in His own image. Accepting each other and loving each other in spite of our faults is seeing others the way God does. That means I should not view them through the lens of their flaws.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is the person or persons in your life that you are having a hard time accepting?
  2. What can you do this week to overlook their flaws and accept them as they are?  

It’s Your Funeral

“In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out..As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself….Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?” Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.   

At the end of the day in this all-too-short life, what matters most is relationships. Spouse, parent, child, friend—whoever your closest loved ones are, they warrant more than a passing glance; they deserve an intentional and meaningful relationship with you.

Stephen Covey encouraged all of us to think about our funerals. I’d like to encourage you to do the same thing. The people attending your funeral will be your spouse, your kids, your remaining siblings and other family members, and other people that you have had a close relationship with other the years. Now imagine the conversations around your funeral gathering. It is safe to assume the attendees at your funeral won’t be talking about your resume, your stock portfolio or your net worth. Rather people will remember you in terms of your relationship with them; did you love well, forgive easily, if you cared enough to be there for them. They will remember if you served them or expect to be served by them. They will know whether you thought life revolved around you or whether you really tried to honor God and others. They will remember whether you were generous or miserly, arrogant or humble, compassionate or indifferent. They will know if your life reflected the grace of God.  

Most of us doing this exercise would probably come up with a mixed bag of the good, some bad and maybe even some ugly.  Fortunately, this is only an exercise. We still have time to make relationships better.  The people attending your funeral will also remember that turning point, and the progress you made. They will say, “I remember when he didn’t have time for me, but he has changed.” Or “I remember when she told me that my troubles are not her problem, but now she helps me all the time.”  A business colleague chimes in, “All she cared about was her reputation at work…but now, she cares about the impact she is having on me.” And even better “as he has gotten older, he reflects the love of grace of Jesus Christ.” 

If your marriage is broken, restoration is possible. If your friendship is frail, a fresh start is possible. Even if you’ve made mistakes in all your relationships, they can be redeemed. “Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (Matthew 19:26).

Get the picture? Imagining your funeral is a deep and yes potentially sobering exercise. It gets to your core values and how you are leading your life in many important ways. But when you imagine this scenario, don’t just try to determine if you were a good or bad person, lived a godly life or not, but what you are doing with your life in the area of relationships.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you had one month to live, what would you work on in the area of relationships?

Experiencing Intimacy With God

“To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances; To seek Him, the greatest adventure; To find Him, the greatest human achievement.”- Augustine.  

We are created for intimate relationships – with God and with one another. There is a hunger deep in our souls for an intimate relationship with God. There is also a hunger for intimate relationships with other human beings. While the concept of “relationships” is broad and varies from person to person, we all have personal, intimate relationships in our lives. There is a tangible difference in intimate relationships: an extreme closeness, the kind of closeness that only happens with proximity. The most important intimate relationship is the one we have with God.  

Have you ever found yourself starving for real intimacy with God? The idea of intimacy is difficult to get your arms around. How can I find intimacy with someone I can’t see, hear, or touch? God and I can’t text with each other or meet for lunch. Yet we know that God created us for an intimate relationship with Him. But what does that mean and more importantly what does it look like in real life? There is no standard formula for developing an intimate relationship with God. But consider the story of Simon the Pharisee found in  Luke 7. 

Simon served God religiously. He was in the same room as Jesus, yet he wasn’t in an intimate relationship with Him. He completely missed having an intimate relationship with Jesus because he was wrapped up in his piety and good works. Contrast this to Mary, the sinner who fell at His feet: no act of devotion was too big for her. She was overwhelmed with love and affection. She worshipped Him with all she had, her most precious perfume and her hair. Jesus accepted her devotion. We want that intimate connection that Mary had, but too often we are slipping toward Simon, spending all our energy trying to do great things for God but lacking that true intimate relationship with our Savior.   

There will be times in our lives when we have a real hunger and desperation for God. There will be times when we just can’t get enough of Him. There will be times when we feel His presence in tangible ways. At times like these God will feel close and there will be the intimacy we seek. But real intimacy means we do those things even during times of trial or when bad things just keep popping up and it is a labor of love to pray, to spend time in the word and to serve. The deepest growth in intimacy in our personal walk with God began when we want to seek to worship and serve God regardless of the circumstances. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What keeps you from having a more intimate relationship with God?
  2. How can we improve our relationship with God?

Building Trust With Others

“But Jesus did not yet entrust himself to them, because he knew how fickle human hearts can be. He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he fully understood what man was capable of doing.” – John 2:24-25 (TPT).  

Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship. In fact, nothing brings out the best in people faster than having somebody believe in them and trust them. But as essential as trust is for healthy relationships, trust is also tricky. Trust will not just happen. The past is often seen as the best predictor of the future. We want to know how someone acted in the past when faced with a similar situation. Last time I confided in him, did the information show up in the grapevine? When she said she could complete the project by a certain date, did she do it? Last time I loaned my brother-in-law money did he pay it back? You get the idea.

Whether you are trying to win the trust of someone or someone is trying to win your trust, a trust is not won instantly; instead, it is earned by consistent actions repeated over time. You become trustworthy by proving that you can be trusted. Trust is making yourself dependent upon another person for some result or outcome. So the question is this: If you are in a relationship, to what degree is that person trustworthy? And yes, the next question is, are you a person of trust? 

There is nothing more relational than trust. If we trust our wife or our husband it means that we don’t have to check on them. If you trust your teammate, you know they’ll be there when you need them to be. If you trust your friend, you know they’ll keep their promise. Trust develops and even in the times when we don’t know for sure what they will do, we don’t sweat it, because we know their character well enough to trust them to do what is in our best interest.

Real trust that leads to radical relationships assumes that the one you trust demonstrates the characteristics of honesty, fairness, truthfulness, justice, morality, ethics, and consistency. When reading that list most people would be sighing and saying, “that leaves out everyone I know.”  But it does leave virtually everyone out, except for God. God’s character encompasses all those things and more. He is the ultimate example of one who is moral, ethical, and consistent. He is unfaltering. He is dependable. He has earned our trust. He is worthy of our trust. And by trusting Him, we can develop trust in horizontal relationships as well. 

Our hope, our trust, and our faith do not find their strength or confidence in the actions of a fellow sinner, but in the steadfast love of a sinless Savior. There, and there alone, will we find a well of trust that never runs dry and never betrays.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you respect someone you do not trust, and can you trust someone you do not respect?
  2. What can I do this week to trust God and trust others? 

Radical Connections

“Four of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship to God while the other six deal with our relationships with people. But all ten are about relationships.” – Rick Warren. 

Remember “WWJD?” Or “What would Jesus do?” That is an excellent question to ask if we are faced with uncertainty in some aspect of our lives. When we are talking about relationships, perhaps we should ask the question a different way: “How would Jesus live my life if He were me?” Or in other words, what would it look like for my life to be centered on Him? Jesus practiced radical love and it transformed the hearts of those He encountered. So what would the relationships in our lives look like if our life was centered on Him? That is the perspective we need if we want all of our relationships to reflect Christ in us. 

Relating to others begins with how I relate to God. Until I love the Lord with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength, I will be unable to fully express that love unselfishly to others. As I experience His love and grace, my outward actions of radical love will begin to transform my relationships the same way they did for those whom Jesus loved throughout scripture. The better the relationship with Jesus the better friend, better coworker, better spouse, etc, we will be.  

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible reveals that our relationship with God affects our other relationships. As Christians, we want to experience intimacy with God. Psalm 73:28 tells us, “…how good it is to be near God!” And we want to hear and act on what James tells us in Chapter 4 verse 8: “Come close to God, and God will come close to you….” (James 4:8). We serve a living God who wants intimacy with us. God wants to draw near to us. Sometimes we have a hard time drawing near to God which is why we should be thankful He works in ways that draws us, even when we don’t draw near on our own. In the same vein, we can have intimacy in our relationships when we make it a point to draw near the other person even if they are not drawing near to us.

But once we are kind of centered on Jesus, what does that change in our everyday life? How does that overflow into our relationships? So, if we want our relationships to look like Jesus, then they’re gonna have to be defined by sacrificial love. Our love is more often conditional than it is unconditional. We want every relationship to look more like Jesus, if I really want that, then my relationships, all of them, are going to be defined by sacrifice.

And so that we would love sacrificially. That we would love when it’s inconvenient to do so, and that we would love people in a way that looks more and more like Jesus. And when we understand that, then we’re going to begin to see Christlike relationships in all things. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What causes a relationship to be classified as radical?
  2. What can we do this week to improve our relationships?

Hope For The Cynic

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Have you ever been cynical at one time or another to one degree or another? We can go seasons of life being happy and grateful and then find ourselves bitter and crotchety.  Cynicism results from circumstances in our life that explode and make us jaded. Sometimes things don’t turn out how we wanted them to or how we expected them to and suddenly cynicism has a foothold. As we work to be a new and better person in the the next decade we will most likely have to face cynicism or despair in our life. 

The cynics thought they were winning on the last Thursday of Jesus’s life. They were certain they had the final word on Friday. They were in control. They had won. Cynicism had won. The disciples seemed to think so because they went home. But nobody saw Sunday coming. Nobody saw resurrection to life. Jesus stared hate in the face and met it with love. He confronted cynicism and despair and made it abundantly clear it wouldn’t win. Of all people on earth, Christians should be the least cynical. After all, the gospel gives us the greatest reasons to hope. Our hope isn’t based on an emotion or a feeling. It lives in a living Savior who beat death itself to rescue us. 

We have hope for the future, that we will be redeemed. Hope for the present, that we are not alone, but are loved and have purpose. Hope even over the past, that our failures are not greater than God’s power to transform. When we as believers speak of hope, we don’t mean a desire that may or may not be fulfilled. No, our hope is certain. Our hope rests on the finished work of Jesus. That hope is s stronger than illness, or an unethical boss, or financial hardships. If cynicism is knocking on your door, trust God. That’s the hope found in Jesus Christ. And that, in the end, is what defeats cynicism.

Amazing things happen when the full power of the gospel gets a firm foothold in your life. That is when transformation happens. You’ll realize that tomorrow can be different from today, and you’ll affirm the promise that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. Imagine yourself in 2029. What’s happened to you in the years between today and then? Has your heart grown? Has it hardened? Are you alive and filled with wonder? Or have you become a little more cynical?  

It’s easy to be cynical. 2019 was a tough one for many people. It’s also easy to despair. But the new year and the new decade are full of opportunities and possibilities with the possible outcome being a new you for a new decade.   

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think makes people grow cynical?
  2. It can be so hard to trust again, to hope again and to believe again after you’ve stopped hoping, trusting and believing. How does Ephesians 1:15-20 show you that God will help you do that?

True Repentance: What Does It Mean?

God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him.” – Acts 17:30. 

Do you understand what it means to repent? What does repentance mean? Briefly defined, repentance is turning away from sin and self and looking to God for forgiveness and salvation. One example in the Bible is the story of Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 19. 

If you grew up in church, you know Zacchaeus was a short person who because he was a tax collector was seen as a thief and a traitor to his friends, his family, and his people. But then he meets Jesus. Jesus wants to go to his house. Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree “and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy.” (Luke 19:6)  In verse 8 Zacchaeus stands before Jesus and says, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!”  That’s what repentance looks like. 

There is a difference between regret and repentance. A deep rift in a marriage isn’t solved by buying flowers. As kind a gesture as that is, what needs to happen is change. Regret buys flowers. Repentance confesses and seeks to change. Regret says “I’m sorry.” Repentance risks being hurt by saying, “Please forgive me.” 2 Corinthians 7:10 (TPT) says, “God designed us to feel remorse over sin in order to produce repentance that leads to victory. This leaves us with no regrets….”

Repentance carries with it the idea of changing; changing your mind, changing your attitude, changing your ways.  It’s not a fickle change of mind, but rather a transformation of outlook, an entirely new way of seeing things. It is a change of direction. We turn around. We go in the opposite direction, like Zacchaeus. 

Repentance is not a one-time thing. We cannot be free of repentance until we are free of sin. As a result, it is a daily discipline. Repentance seeks to be restored to a right relationship with God. I have grieved a holy God with my sin and I need to be restored to Him. We often regret our sin, but we fail to truly repent. Seeing the difference between the two can help us better understand the grace of the Gospel and receive the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you know if repentance is real? What does genuine repentance look like?
  2. What can you do this week to take up a posture of faith and genuine repentance?