Getting And Giving Grace

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” – 1 Peter 4:10 (ESV)  

When we hit the rewind button on our day, we typically find times in the last 24 hours where we were irritated, critical, or upset with others because of their attitudes, actions, or words. Most likely, there will be one or maybe multiple occurrences when we simply won’t let the person(s) off the hook when they make a mistake. And there will be other times when we were willing to extend forgiveness and grace that we experienced in Christ Jesus to others.   

Culture tells us to put our needs before the needs of others, and to treat others as they treat us. The Bible takes the opposite position. Our job as followers of Jesus is to love and extend grace. “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” (Colossians 3:13) 

Responding to others with grace means acknowledging that everyone has areas of weakness and that we all are works in progress. It means loving people in spite of any warts they may have. 1 Peter 3:8 says, “Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.”

Jesus helped us understand this concept when He told His followers to “… love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that…?” (Matthew 5:44-46)

It easy to take grace for granted; at least in the sense that it can be viewed as one-way, God to me. We need to remember that we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. We expect others to extend grace to us in certain situations. There are times when we say things in a way that we didn’t intend to, or we do things without thinking about the consequences.  When someone extends grace to us in those moments, we are grateful and relieved. We should strive to be the kind of person who loves others as ourselves and extends grace willingly. Joseph extended grace to his brothers, even though they did not deserve it. That’s why it’s called grace; it’s unearned, unmerited, undeserved. 

The story of Joseph should inspire us to extend grace to others. God knows that it’s not natural for us to show grace to people (especially difficult people), but when we do so, we are imitating Him. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to show grace to others?
  2. Why is it important to show grace to others?

Character In The Midst Of Setbacks

“There is no indication that God explained to Joseph what He was doing through those many years of heartache or how the pieces would eventually fit together. He had no ways of knowing that he would eventually enjoy a triumphal reunion with his family. He was expected, as you and I are, to live out his life one day at a time in something less than complete understanding. What pleased God was Joseph’s faithfulness when nothing made sense.” ― James C. Dobson.

Randy Pausch, the professor whose “last lecture” went viral just before he died, wrote that “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” He added that there is good news: in every situation, you’ll always walk away with something, even if that something is more experience.

The wisdom in what Randy said becomes more obvious when things don’t go our way, when things don’t turn out the way we planned or hoped. But regardless of how things turn out, God doesn’t let those experiences go to waste. He’s been in the business of turning troubles into triumphs for a really, really long time. God is more interested in our character than our comfort. God uses setbacks, troubles and tragedies to shape us and mold is into His character.

 If you read the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis you will discover that the pit and the prison were only the first in a long line of inconvenient irritations and setbacks he was to encounter on the road to where God was leading him. When we step back and think about the entire story of Joseph, we can see that God has stepped into this family to do a redemptive work. God’s purpose was to exalt or lift him up to be the next to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Joseph never let his situation cloud his perception of his relationship with God. Whether in good days or bad days, Joseph always knew he had a relationship with God. God was always there for him and with him.   

If God has allowed you to experience disappointments or setbacks in your life, it is generally because He has a greater purpose. Life’s setbacks are often engineered by God to achieve a greater purpose that we could ever imagine. If you’re in the midst of building experience through hard times, remember that God is with you. 

While we may not be called, as Joseph was, to save a nation from starvation, we are no less significant to God. No matter what is happening in our lives today, God is in control. He’s growing us little by little, building us up so that we can accomplish more for His kingdom. Someday we may just look back and see how the experiences we gained during setbacks were part of the preparation for something much bigger.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are there any good things happening in your life right now? What might God be up to in the midst of those for your good and His glory?
  2. Are there any hard things happening in your life right now? What might God but up to in the midst of those for your good and His glory?

The Story Of Gideon

“The Midianites were so cruel that the Israelites made hiding places for themselves in the mountains, caves, and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, marauders from Midian, Amalek, and the people of the east would attack Israel, camping in the land and destroying crops as far away as Gaza. They left the Israelites with nothing to eat, taking all the sheep, goats, cattle, and donkeys….And they stayed until the land was stripped bare. So Israel was reduced to starvation by the Midianites. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.” – Judges 6:2-6. 

In the midst of the oppression of Israel by the Midianites, Gideon has a conversation with an angel of the Lord: “ Sir,” Gideon replied, “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about? Didn’t they say, ‘The Lord brought us up out of Egypt’? But now the Lord has abandoned us and handed us over to the Midianites.” – Judges 6:13   

Gideon could not understand these negative circumstances if God truly was with his people. They had heard the wondrous stories of God’s power, but since they had never seen it displayed, they wondered if it was an urban legend.  Looking at the circumstances, Gideon saw no evidence that God was there or that God cared. So Gideon asked the same question that we still ask today. “why do we have so many setbacks when a loving God is supposedly in control.”

God was not absent. God was preparing Gideon for battle against numerically overwhelming odds: “The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many warriors with you. If I let all of you fight the Midianites, the Israelites will boast to me that they saved themselves by their own strength. Therefore, tell the people, ‘Whoever is timid or afraid may leave this mountain and go home.’” So 22,000 of them went home, leaving only 10,000 who were willing to fight.” (Judges 7:2-3) Now the army was 10,000 to fight an enemy of 135,000.  But it was still too many. A water drinking exercise reduced the 10,000 to 300. The plan was simple but brilliant: Gideon divided the 300 men into three groups, equipped each of the men with a trumpet and a pitcher covering a lighted torch. He instructed them, “As soon as I and those with me blow the rams’ horns, blow your horns, too, all around the entire camp, and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon!’” (Judges 7:18). In the dark the Midianites panicked at the tumult of shouting, trumpet blasts and breaking pitchers and the sight of torches surrounding them. In their terror and confusion they fought and killed each other. Gideon’s men emerged unscathed.

Their battle with the Midianites shows us how active God is, how He never leaves us or forsakes us all along the way, in both the good and the evil things we experience. “…“I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” (Hebrews 13:5)  No matter what you are experiencing, sweet or bitter, good or evil, no matter how long it has lasted, He has not left you alone.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the Bible mean when it says that the Lord is with you?  
  2. Can you think of a current situation you’re in (or one you might soon be in) that would give you the opportunity to demonstrate to other people that your confidence is in God?

Experience The Presence of God

 For you and me, just knowing His presence is all around us can help lift us from the darkest night, embrace us in the loneliest hour, give us strength when we are tempted, and enable us to live confident and secure in His promises.” – Diane H. Moody.

The Bible has many verses on the presence of God. Exodus 33:14 (ESV)  says, “… “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Psalm 16:11 (ESV) adds, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Genesis 19:27 (NLT) says, “Abraham got up early that morning and hurried out to the place where he had stood in the LORD’s presence. How about Samuel: “And the LORD blessed Hannah, and she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD.” (1 Samuel 2:21 NLT) “Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11 NLT). And finally there is Psalm 84:4 (AMP) which says, “Blessed and greatly favored are those who dwell in Your house and Your presence; They will be singing Your praises all the day long. Selah.” 

One of the greatest gifts of the Christian life is experiencing the presence of God. His presence is essential to knowing Him. Experiencing the presence of God sounds a little scary and very difficult to achieve. Yes, we want it,  and sometimes we experience it, but it still remains elusive. Because it is God, we expect His presence to be grand, to be mesmerizing.  But in reality, God’s presence can be simple or spectacular. Many presence of God moments happen when we are on the mountaintop. Many don’t.

He is just as real and present in your setbacks and your pain. When we feel a peace that “transcends all understanding” in the midst of tough circumstances, we are experiencing the presence of God in our lives.  God shows up even when we’re not on retreat or having a quiet time. He is there when we are paying a parking ticket, or eating lunch, or in chemistry class. His presence can show up in ways we expect, and in ways we do not.

To seek God is to encounter God. Emotions aside, complexities cast away—God is already with you. His Spirit, His presence in the earth, never leaves you and never forsakes you. And when you turn your attention toward Him, you can encounter Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever had a “season of dryness” concerning God’s presence in your life? Are there ways you already experienced God’s presence without realizing it? 
  2. What can we do this week to better feel God’s presence? 

What Is Your Spiritual Temperature?

 “I know of no better thermometer to your spiritual temperature than this, the measure of the intensity of your prayer.” – Charles Spurgeon.

There are many things that we use in life to measure other things. A barometer measures atmospheric pressure; a speedometer measures speed, a pedometer that tells you how many steps you have walked, a thermometer measures temperature. But is there a device that measures one’s spiritual temperature? Is there a spiritual thermometer?  

We know from Revelation 3:15-16 that God doesn’t think much of His followers being lukewarm: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!”  We don’t want to be lukewarm, nor do we want to be cold. We want to be “on fire for God.” To some people, it means being “excited about God. ”They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

A good example of being on fire for God literally and figuratively can be found in the Acts 2 church. “Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.” (Acts 2:3-4) Acts is the story of a handful of men and women who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, changed the world. 

We are now 282 days into 2019. How are you doing spiritually?  Are you becoming more like Jesus? Ask, is my love for God becoming more passionate, or has it cooled even a little? Are you making progress, but not as much progress as we would like?  

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves. He also said “your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35) Love is really the only thermometer/barometer that is an indicator of our spiritual condition. Am I loving God more each day? Do I love others more each day? If the answer to those questions is yes, then you are headed in the right direction.  Real love is more about knowing Jesus, and less about a to-do list of spiritual chores.  Passion is what keeps the spiritual temperature rising. As you do, your thermometer readings will begin to shift away from indifference … and towards the “fire” end of the scale.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How often do you take stock of your spiritual temperature? Would you say your temperature is where you would like it to be? 
  2. What can you do this week to move your spiritual temperature a few degrees upward? 

Focus On What Matters

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:31-33.

I was watching a college volleyball game when a noise from the stands distracted one of the players for a fraction of a second. Long enough for the Molten volleyball to careen off his forehead and into the air where his teammates played it and won the point. Play continued but the red mark on the player’s forehead was a testament to the distraction.  

We may not face volleyballs coming at us at high speeds, but we will face the consequences of distractions nevertheless. There are texts that need to be answered. There is that nagging back pain what just doesn’t seem to go away. There’s binge watching a popular TV series rather than spending quality time with our spouse. We allow worry, anxiety, busyness, work, parenting, marriage and temptations (to name a few) to distract our hearts and we slowly begin to feel disconnected from God; side tracked from His ways and His Word.

Our goal is to stay focused on Jesus Christ each day by ignoring the distractions that come into our lives. Sometimes we will lose our focus and those distractions can cause us to stub our toe or even do some significant damage to our walk with God. It starts gradually, it may only last a few hours or a few days. Regardless, of the circumstances or the time period, this is the time we need to refocus.  

Staying focused on God is not easy. It is a heart thing and heart thing are seldom easy. This is why Solomon boasts the importance of guarding our hearts and minds in Proverbs 4:23 where he says “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”  Then in verses 25-27, he says “Look straight ahead, and fix your eyes on what lies before you. Mark out a straight path for your feet; stay on the safe path. Don’t get sidetracked; keep your feet from following evil.”

When we aren’t diligent in staying focused on Christ in our everyday lives, we give the enemy a foothold. Yet when God’s Word becomes the focal point of our lives, we are better equipped and more aware of how to handle distractions when they arise.

The truth is, we will all lose focus, stumble and fall every now and then. We may even get sidetracked for a while. But what joy it brings to know that when that happens, God will always be there to pick us up, tend to our wounds, give us the courage to trust Him, and the strength to begin again. Even when we get sidetracked, God will always help us find our way back if our eyes are focused on Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What types of things cause you to get spiritually sidetracked? 
  2. How do you refocus to get back on track?

What Are You Doing Here?

“There he came to a cave, where he spent the night. But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” – 1 Kings 19: 9. 

Recap:  Elijah had just slaughtered the prophets of Baal, the false god of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Queen Jezebel was cruel and now she was after Elijah. She had every intention of avenging the lives of her slaughtered prophets. 1 Kings 19:3 says, “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life.” 

Have you ever been there? Have you ever just had enough? Have you ever wondered what is the point of your life and your voice in the first place? When we look around, so often all we see is setbacks and failure. Elijah had just angered a powerful and evil woman. She had significant resources and countless ways to end his life. So Elijah looked at the possibilities and saw no way out. He was done. 

“Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Later a voice asks “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah complains about the Israelites breaking their covenant with God and that he was the only prophet left. The Lord asks him to stand before Him on the holy mountain. A great wind (strong enough to split mountains and break rocks in pieces) came up. After that an earthquake, followed by a firestorm. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:12-13)

There will be times in our Christian walk when we will experience the Elijah-like shift from Mount Carmel to the cavern of Horeb – the overwhelming experience of God’s fiery power followed by times when we cannot feel God’s presence and are alone. God doesn’t speak until Elijah travels to Horeb, and then it isn’t comfort or guidance, it’s a question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Now God has a new command for him. “Go!” Go back into the world that is fraught with problems and full of reasons to fear. It is good you left it for a time. But just as I have been with you in the silence, I will be with you through all the storms ahead. Go, there’s work to be done. Go, don’t give up. I will be with you, and I will sustain you. Now go! 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you think of a time in your life when you were scared to do something you knew you had to do, but you went through with it anyway? How did you feel afterward?
  2. Knowing God and His Word allows us to face our fears with faith. Why? How can you do this in practical ways?

Rest For The Weary

“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” – James 3:2 (ESV).  

One of the well-known stories in the Bible is the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal found in (1 Kings 18:19-39). Elijah said to the Israelites, “If the LORD is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!”  The prophets were challenged and God sent fire from heaven and then ended a long drought with a great rain. Elijah must have felt a sense of victory; the evil King Ahab could not deny the one true God. 

But trouble awaited Elijah in the form of Ahab’s wife—Jezebel. When Jezebel heard what Elijah had done at Mount Carmel, she threatened to kill him. “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.” (1 Kings 19:2) Elijah ran away and hid in the wilderness. “Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there.” (1Kings 19:3) Elijah went from a man faithfully and confidently praying for God’s glory to be displayed at Mount Carmel to a man begging the Lord to take away his life. (See 1 Kings 19:4.)

I love how the Bible has a way of portraying the saints, warts and all. Elijah had had such an incredible victory on Mount Carmel only to be defeated by fear, anxiousness, and panic.  Even the most committed of God’s servants may at times experience discouragement, pessimism, and a desire to call it quits. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of how the mighty Elijah succumbed to human weakness. Basically, he was burned out.  

You can read about a very tired prophet in 1 Kings, Chapter 19. He was exhausted. He tells God, “I have had enough Lord. Take my life . . .” Then he falls asleep. He is spent. Elijah is just too physically and emotionally drained. He is not that different from the rest of us attempting to push ahead in our own strength. God knows that we are very vulnerable to life’s circumstances when we are tired or when we are overwhelmed. Like Elijah, we can fall prey to “nobody knows what I have to deal with — and worse, no one cares!” There are times when we simply need to shut down, take a nap, or just be alone to read, refuel and re-energize through prayer and rest. There is nothing wrong with saying no when we need rest. After a while, God tells Elijah to leave the cave and get back to work. But first, he is allowed to rest. There are times when we need to do the same.

Some days we feel exhausted. Worn out. Feeling like we can’t go on. None of us are immune. Parenting, marriage, job, relationships, fears, worries about the future – it all can leave u s beaten down and worn. But no matter what we face, we can be assured: God is always with us just as He was with Elijah in the wilderness. For those who are weary we can find rest in Him. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways can you relate to Elijah when he says, “I have had enough?”
  2. Is rest important to you? Why? Do you have enough margin in your life?

Think Before Speaking

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.”  –  Colossians 3:1-3. 

We have all, at one time or another, spoke and reacted to something or someone without really thinking it over firsthand. There are also times when we jump into action without even pausing to get a full grasp of the situation at hand. Doing this can cause intended and unintended consequences on others and on ourselves. The Bible says, “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” (Proverbs 18:13).

Just because the thought comes into your head does not mean it should come out of your mouth. The wise course of action is to think before saying anything. The apostle Paul urges believers to “…seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2 ESV) If we habitually seek Christ and continually set our mind on things above we can control our thoughts and our words.  2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.”  If we continually look to God for help with how we think, He will mold our heart and shift our attention to things above rather than things below. 

Thinking before speaking is another reason to spend a little time with Jesus each morning so that He can prepare us for what we will face that day.  We will often read a verse that God will speak through during the day. And it may be that verse that God uses to say, “whoa, slow down, let’s pause” before we react to something that happens during the day. Psalm 139:1-4 says, “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. you know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.”

The Lord perceives the thoughts we’ll think and the words we’ll speak in response and He wants to prepare us, interrupt us, and maybe even rearrange us. He loves us enough to desire to protect us from ourselves. So, who wants to commit to spending a little more intentional time with Jesus?  And pausing before speaking?  

Discussion Questions:

  1. When was the last time your tongue got you into trouble?
  2. Today, what can you do to start thinking before you speak?

The End Or The Beginning?

 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – Revelation 22:13.

In today’s world, meals are cooked within minutes and whole conversations happen within the exchange of just a few text messages. We are a culture of instant gratification. So hope and faith are needed when the fulfillment of a promise doesn’t happen instantly. It’s hard to wait and hope for the answer when something isn’t done instantly and conveniently. People aren’t used to having to wait, but waiting is something God expects you to do. One example is Abraham: God’s promise to him took several decades to come to pass. We all want God to fulfill His plan in our lives. But typically, it doesn’t happen in our timetable. So what do we do when we are waiting? We simply need to keep believing that nothing in His plan will ultimately harm us, and everything in His plan will ultimately be better for us. (Romans 8:28)

When serving God, failure is never the end; it can be the starting point of a comeback. Here is why it is so important that we trust Him. God knows the beginning from the end and everything in between. Isaiah 46:10 says, “Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish.” He knows ahead of time, the setbacks I will encounter and the choices and actions I will take.  He knows I will fail.  Often setbacks and circumstances in our lives take us from what’s “oh so familiar” and redirected our paths into the unfamiliar.  You don’t understand what’s happening in your life; what to do or where to go. But God knows where you are and where you need to go and the best thing for us to do is hold onto His promises.

Remember what Revelation 22:13 says, “ I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Only God can say that.  So when you don’t understand what God is doing in your life, consider the source. We are fallible; we fall short and at times we’re unable to keep our promises.  People can give us instructions that are misleading and imperfect.  With God, none of these things are possible.   

No matter how much you don’t understand life as it is right now; no matter how uncomfortable it may seem or how hard it gets, don’t give up.  If God is with you –  the same God who spoke life into you, the same God who is and knows the beginning and the end, the same God who knew you before the foundation of this world is with you, then ask yourself who or what can stand against you.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to trust God? What is the difference between passive trust and active trust?
  2. What makes it so difficult to fully trust God?