WHAT IS GOD BUILDING IN NORTHWEST FLORIDA?

“Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.” – Ephesians 2:20-22

It is common for Paul to use multiple metaphors to make a point. In Ephesians 2, he describes the church as a kingdom, family, and building. In the building metaphor, Jesus Christ is the cornerstone. But what is God building in Northwest Florida and around the world?

There are many shows where people come in and completely transform a house or apartment from plain to beautiful. God is also in the construction business. His building skills, however, are beyond our wildest imagination.

God’s construction project is the church – not just physical buildings, but the fellowship of all people who believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the chief cornerstone, which determines the other stones’ position in a structure. Without Him, it loses its reason for being. The question is, why did God decide to put so much effort into building it? Did God build His church to give us a place to meet each Sunday? Did He build His church to help the less fortunate in our communities? Or did He build it so believers can encourage each other in their faith?   

The church’s purpose is to be the believer’s spiritual family. Through the church, God takes people with different personalities and gifts, unites them as a single body, and equips them to care for each other and reach the world. We were not meant to live the Christian life alone; surrounded by the church’s biblical teaching and loving community, we find our own purpose in life.

Acts 2:42 explains the internal function of the church: “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.  Yes, the church has often failed in this mission, but God knew this would happen when He started the construction project. After all, he’s dealing with imperfect people. Nonetheless, He loves us. He wants to build His church family. For this to happen, He uses His church body to show the world who He is.

All we want for people on the Emerald Coast and the world is for them to encounter Jesus—really encounter Him. We want them to see the living God—how loving, kind, active, and present He is in our lives because we believe everybody needs and should hear about the transforming love of Jesus.

Discussion Question:

  1. How do you answer the question, what is church?
  2. What do you like about the church? What do you dislike?
  3. What can we do this week to build the church? 

THE JUNK DRAWER OF MY LIFE

Is Jesus your all in all or is He just a compartment in your life?” – unknown.

Every house has a junk drawer. That one drawer, often the kitchen, is the designated place for unrelated stuff that has no home. This drawer is not organized. When looking for a miscellaneous item, mom or dad can often be heard asking, “Did you look in the junk drawer?”

It is easy to live a functionally compartmentalized life. We try to divide our lives neatly into two drawers: real life and spiritual life. The real-life drawer is the one that holds a lot of the stuff of everyday life, like a job, physical health, friends and family, leisure, money, possessions, and daily routine. This drawer is where we expend most of our emotional and physical energy, and where most dreams will be realized or dashed. The contents of this drawer are the location of our highs and lows, our joys and sorrows.

Then, they have a second drawer—the spiritual life drawer. All the “God” stuff goes here. It’s the drawer for Sunday worship, small groups, tithes and offerings, short-term mission trips, and spiritual conversations with neighbors or extended family members.

The Bible tells us there is only one drawer. God has a radical, single-drawer purpose for your life. The best word for that purpose is ambassador. A U.S. ambassador is the President’s highest-ranking representative to a country or international organization abroad. The ambassador leads the diplomats and staff serving at a U.S. embassy or mission. Ambassadors are not always popular because what their country is doing or has not done is not liked in the home country. But an ambassador is not to be judged on how “popular” he or she may be but on how faithfully they represent the message of the leader who sent them. That is what an ambassador does. They are to represent their leader and convey his messages to the citizens of the country in which they temporarily serve.

So 2 Corinthians 5:20 says a lot of things to us as Christians: “So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” Like an ambassador, we live in this place temporarily, and we will be judged not on how popular or successful we are here in this world, but by how faithfully we represent our King while we are here. The only thing an ambassador does is represent the ruler who sent them—every day, all the time, in everything you do.

Therefore, our purpose in life is to make the invisible presence of Jesus visible in the lives of others.  You are the look on Christ’s face. You are the tone of His voice. You are the touch of His hands. You are the physical representative of His grace.

This is your mission in every situation, location, and relationship of your life—to make the grace of the invisible King visible. This is our one drawer.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Many people are tempted to compartmentalize their faith rather than allow God to influence every aspect of their lives. What are some of the reasons for this? 
  2. How have you experienced the benefits of a single-minded focus on God?
  3. Pray and ask God for the wisdom to occupy all the compartments in your life.

ARE CHALLENGES THE BEST WAY TO CHANGE?

“Sometimes the worst conditions can often provide the best atmosphere to act in faith. God doesn’t want our confidence regulated by our audience. If faith-discouragers can shake our confidence badly enough to disable us, our confidence may be in ourselves instead of God.” — Beth Moore

Sometime in our lives, we will experience challenges. Those challenges can be found in virtually every aspect of life. Maybe you haven’t been hit by “hard times” but you are overwhelmed by all the small things going wrong in your life. Maybe you have too many balls in the air, and the little things at work and at home with the kids have you flustered and overwhelmed. Learning how to see those challenges as a conduit for change is not a statement; it is an exercise. It is a faith-stretching exercise, one that is all about perspective. One person in the Bible experienced more than his fair share of challenges in life only to find out that those challenges moved him forward in ways he could not have imagined.

Joseph (Genesis 37-50) was plucked from his family life, sold as a slave, and lived his life as a prisoner for many years. Not one of those is a trivial challenge. If your siblings sold you as a slave out of family life where you were the favorite child, you would be angry and bitter. He became a slave to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard, a man who was a high-ranking official in Egypt. But Potiphar grew to like the young slave. In fact, the more supervision and responsibility he delegated to Joseph, the more the Lord blessed his servant, so Potiphar was also blessed. Joseph became Potiphar’s administrative assistant with full charge of every facet of his enterprises. But Potiphar’s wife propositioned him. Joseph said no repeatedly. So the angry, spurned wife accused Joseph of attempted rape, and into prison he goes. Another challenge. He is soon running the prison and interprets a dream for the King’s cupbearer and baker, asking that they remember him when they are released. They forget him until Pharaoh has a dream, and Joseph interprets it. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he became prime minister of Egypt.   

Joseph forgave without knowing if there would ever be reconciliation. He accepted that the trials, setbacks, and challenges he went through were all part of God’s plan for refining him to be the leader he needed to be. The same is true of each one of us. That perspective is difficult to buy into because the thought of accepting pain, betrayal, and difficulty doesn’t sound all that appealing.

It often takes a few challenges and detours in the Christian life before we begin to catch on and learn to trust God for a positive outcome. Let Joseph’s story inspire you as an example of what God can do when you surrender your will to His in times of frustration and disappointment. God loves us. He does not and will not give us trials or challenges without intention. He loves us enough to refine us for the perfect plan that He has for us.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would going from chosen son to slave affect your faith in God and dreams?
  2. How does the story of Joseph change how you look at challenges?  

“YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN: OK. JUST DON’T GO TOO FAR”

“The Spirit of God doesn’t work where there is division, and what we want today is the spirit of unity amongst God’s children, so that the Lord may work.” – D.L. Moody

Have you ever watched elite gymnasts? Gymnasts combine tremendous strength with double-jointedness. If the average person tried to use their body like a gymnast, they would be in traction for a month. The routines get more difficult every year. Sometimes, you have to wonder if it is possible to go too far.

Christians can ask the same question: “Is it possible to go too far?” On the surface, this question seems a little ambiguous. After all, Christians are not doing multiple backflips on a four-inch wood beam.  Can someone take religion too far?  If by “religion” we mean “having a true and growing relationship with God,” then the answer to the question is, “No, you can’t take religion too far.” Can you ever have too much of a genuine and growing relationship with God?

You cannot be too devoted to Christ. You cannot love Him too deeply, read His Word too much, or pray too long, no matter what some people say. Many people have a “you do you” kind of attitude. They don’t care that you’re a Christian, just so long as long as you don’t take it too far.   Their view of Christians going too far is often precisely what we, as believers, should be living. It means going out of our comfort zone to attend to the needs of those around us. It means denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily seems to be taking things too far for many people.  It means praying without ceasing and that God is worth everything to us. Going too far is loving people that most people don’t.

There is no such thing as reading the Bible too much. No human can study the Word of God too much, read it too long, or exhaust its supply of wisdom. It’s the way God speaks to us. God cannot run out of words to tell us, so His Word never can either. And there is no such thing as being too recklessly abandoned to the will of God.

How can you love too much? It is not taking it too far if we follow Jesus’ incredible and somewhat incomprehensible type of love.  Jesus loved people. He loved thieves, prostitutes, and tax collectors, diseased and poor people. He loved people who were devoted to Him and those who were different from Him.

Since the greatest and second greatest commandments are involved in these things, we know they are important to God. So perhaps the best thing we can do today is take an honest, lingering look at the way we love others, decide what needs to be changed, and ask God for the wisdom and courage to do the most loving thing we can do for somebody today.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you know when you have taken spiritual things too far?
  2. How do you tell when you haven’t taken spiritual things far enough?

IS GOD A PART OF YOUR RESUME

 If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” – 2 Corinthians 11:30

Candidates who interview for a job are often in the awkward position of trying to sell themselves to a potential employer. They list their accomplishments and describe their strengths to portray themselves in the best possible light. A resume is your way of introducing yourself and giving that potential employer a chance to determine if they want to get to know you any better.

The resume helps distinguish your work and experience from the hundreds of other resumes. In Philippians 3, Paul presents us with his religious resume. And what a resume it was: his resume has a pretty long list of accomplishments and achievements.

In Paul’s day, many people confused their religious resumes with faith in God. Their resume was built on an individual’s accomplishments rather than what God had done in, through, and for them. That is still true of us today. We’re told to be productive, make a name for ourselves, and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We’re told to harness the power of positive thinking, to tap the secret deep inside ourselves, to be self-made people. We are self-made, on our own, and completely self-sufficient. The problem with focusing inward and cataloging our accomplishments is that, after a while, we begin to believe our PR.

Then, Paul reminds us of our priorities. It’s all about having a relationship with Christ. It’s bigger than us. It’s about our values, attitudes, and behaviors shaped by Jesus Christ. It has nothing to do with what people think of us or whether we’re keeping up the right religious appearances. None of it matters. All that matters is Jesus.

Yes, that is counterintuitive to what society tells us, but this is really good news. We don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. We don’t have to be a mega Christian. We don’t have to have a sparkling spiritual resume. We can be ourselves with all our doubts, fears and shortcomings as anyone else in the room. We come to the realization that everything does not rise and fall on our personal accomplishments, because we are part of something greater than ourselves.

If you have worked on being a self-made Christian by beefing up your religious resume, consider Paul’s message to press on even more diligently in winning the prize, which is a life with Jesus.

Discussion Questions:

1. What is Paul’s number one priority? What is your number one priority?
2. What can we do this week to build our spiritual resume?

WHAT IS SPIRITUAL PERSEVERANCE?

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  – James 1:2-4.

In every life, there will be moments when you have to endure. In every Christian journey, there will also be times you have to endure. God calls His followers to persevere, to walk forward in faith, trusting God even when trials and sufferings come.

The Bible is full of stories of men and women who persevered. The apostle Paul often wrote about perseverance. If anyone demonstrated endurance, it was Paul. He urged believers not to tire of following Christ, even when persecuted. He’d been beaten, stoned, whipped, driven out of town, shipwrecked, reviled, and abandoned. Despite having a thousand reasons to put perseverance on hold, he trusted and obeyed God.

Perseverance is not easy. Just ask any long-distance runner. It hurts to keep running when everything in you longs to stop. The motivation to continue is the reward. The same is true spiritually. Considering it a joy to face trials does not mean we enjoy the hardship. God is not asking us to be in sour circumstances. Jesus did not want to go to the cross…but “because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross.” He is our reward.  And to be mature in Him, we must learn to persevere.

When we “hit the wall” in the marathon of the Christian life, the cause is usually spiritual rather than physical. It can be due to various reasons, one of which is we always seem to fall short. Don’t be discouraged or feel guilty when you fall short. We all are human and will respond imperfectly at one point or another. What’s important is what we do next.

Whenever you’re in a difficult moment, remember the words Paul wrote to the Galatians: “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:9).  Everybody fails. It may be your fault, but it may not be your fault. You are not a superhero. We all make mistakes, we all have down times, and we all fail sometimes. Persevering people decide to keep moving on.

Perseverance is not a one-time event; it must become a lifestyle. You will need to do it continually if you are determined to succeed. Those who persevere will succeed because they refuse to give up. Our Christian life is a race to the finish line; we are not aimlessly running around as if we have no destination. In any race, the one who persists, who never gives up in the face of difficulties, will always triumph.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what areas of your life do you need more perseverance?
  2. What can you do this week to improve in those areas? 

  

THE POWER OF INTERCESSION

“Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth. “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” – John 17:18-21

Amid His greatest trial, Jesus prayed fervently. What would you have prayed about when facing torture and death? It’s fascinating to see what was on Jesus’ mind as He prayed, not only for Himself (Luke 22:41-42), but for His disciples and us, as evidenced by the John 17 passage above. Jesus did not just focus inward. He prayed for the disciples—and us—out of love and deep concern.

We, too, should pray for others, including those we know who are far from the heart of God. Intercessory prayer is prayer for others. Scripture tells us that when we say intercession prayers, we build bridges between God and those we pray for. In 1 Timothy 2:1–2, Paul writes: “ I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. 2 Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.”

Intercession enhances our spiritual growth. We cannot pray for the Lord to strengthen others without strengthening ourselves, and we cannot ask God to soften someone else’s heart without softening our own. We grow closer and closer to God each time we pray for someone else.

By definition, intercessory prayer means focusing on others rather than ourselves. Jesus focused on others throughout His ministry. Seeing how God intervenes in the lives of those we have prayed for gives us the chance to thank and praise Him for all His goodness.

Millions in the world do not know God. The lost people should be our priority in intercessory prayer. We should pray for those who ask us to pray and for our “enemies” like Jesus instructs us in Matthew 5:44. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “In intercessory prayer, the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner.”

The Lord urges us to pray because He knows its power. He knows what prayer can do, not only for the ones we have prayed but also for us. We need to pray not to impress God but because it increases our faith. Intercession helps us see the needs of others with spiritual eyes and lift our voices on behalf of others.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does intercessory prayer mean to you? 
  2. Do you pray for other people? Do these prayers work? What do you do when a prayer is unanswered (as you thought it would be)?
  3. What lost friend or relative can you intercede for today? 

HEROES TAKE RISKS FOR GOD

“Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.” – C.S. Lewis.

When you hear “risk-taking,” does your adrenaline start to flow? Are you excited or concerned? The thought of facing a tough challenge or taking a risk is not as exciting and adventurous as the big screen portrays. In reality, we find safety in remaining in our comfort zones, protected and secure. But are we truly content with where we are? Do we long for more out of life?

Most followers of Jesus will exercise two levels of faith at one time or another. One level is to be inactive and wait patiently for the Lord to move. This level of faith involves believing that God will bring about a solution apart from any effort on our end. It is predicated on being still and waiting for God to act. The second level of faith is being proactive and assertive. We take the initiative to find the answer to a need. And by moving forward, we force ourselves to a dependence on the Lord that wouldn’t be possible if we merely sat still.

Time and again in the Gospels, we see examples of people taking risks motivated by their faith in Christ. In Matthew 8–9, for instance, we see no fewer than six examples of individuals who took a risk and stepped out in faith: the leper who alone approached Jesus (8:1–4), the centurion with the paralyzed servant (8:5–13), the paralytic and his friends (9:1–8), the ruler whose daughter was ill and the hemorrhaging woman (9:18–26), and the two blind men (9:27–31). In four situations, people took risks and were rewarded for their faith.

The Christian life is taking the radical step of faith to follow Christ and fulfill His purposes for your life.  What makes that step radical is that it always involves significant risk because where there is no risk, there is no faith. The Lord brings us back to Himself when we step out in faith. Our hearts are turned to Him. Our relationship with God is deepened. We encounter God rather than just knowing about Him. He is no longer a God on paper but living within us. Risk helps reignite our relationship with God, bringing us back to Himself.

So when does God want us to operate at level one faith and when at level two? If we are facing a seemingly insurmountable problem–a situation that we believe we are powerless to influence–we should be still and wait on the Lord. But there will also be times when action is required, where we may be asked to take bold steps, and yes, to take some risks. Faith is simply doing what God tells you to do whether you feel like it or not, and in fact, especially when you don’t feel like it, regardless of the circumstances, because He said it and His Word is true.

Discussion Questions

  1. How will you know what God is going to do in your life, unless you take risks?
  2. As you’ve taken risks of faith, did God’s path seem impractical, at first? In what ways?
  3. What are some of the promises of God that you can trust as you take risks?

THE HEROES OF THE FAITH

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.” – Romans 15:1-2.

Most of our “heroes” are related to human achievement and glory, but the Bible has a very different concept. The Bible sets forth numerous examples of virtue, resilience, integrity, and courage, showing that heroes come in various forms.

Heroes can be men, like the courageous David, who stood against Goliath, or women, like the loyal Ruth, who showed steadfastness. They can be leaders like Moses, who led the Israelites to freedom, or workers of miracles like Elijah and Elisha. They can also come from unlikely backgrounds, like Esther, a Jewish orphan who became a queen and saved her people.

Each hero of the faith had traits and characteristics that made them stand out. Paul’s boldness and tenacity were evident. Would have had the faith to get out of the boat as Peter did. But we can’t forget they were human and messed up as we are. David committed adultery and killed his lover’s husband to cover it up, yet God still kept him on the throne and used him. Paul spent a lifetime killing Christians before he became one. Jesus once called Peter, “Satan” because of his attitude. We can point to significant flaws as we look at all these great leaders. If they weren’t disqualified, then neither are we.

These heroes are defined not by extraordinary powers or worldly achievements but by their faith in God and willingness to act according to His will.

A hero is someone who does something selfless, something sacrificial. A hero is someone who puts the needs of another above his or her own. One unsung hero from the New Testament is Andrew, Peter’s brother. Andrew didn’t get a lot of ink in the New Testament, but what we do read about him is significant. Andrew did what he was supposed to be doing. As soon as he was convinced Jesus was the Messiah, he first went and told his brother, Simon Peter.

While Peter was much more visible in his role in building the church, Andrew was like that silent partner who might not say much publicly but was essential in building the church and bringing people to Jesus. There are so many heroes of the faith today who might never stand in front of an audience and preach or teach but are incredible witnesses for Jesus in their day-to-day lives. Every time we read about Andrew, he brings someone to the Lord.

We would love to be like one of the heroes of faith. What if God was compiling a list of heroes, what would it take to be on it. What do you think it would take to become a hero of faith? Follow the examples of Jesus’ disciples and the heroes of faith, and hear, believe, and obey God daily. We have the power to change the world for Jesus Christ!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Without Jesus, you are not what you were made to be; only He can help you become that. Do you feel like you were made to be a hero? Why or why not? 

DEPENDING ON GOD

“They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.” –  Jeremiah 17:8.

The prophet Jeremiah gives us a picture of a tree planted next to an ever-flowing stream of water. Its root system gradually digs deep into the moist soil. It never lacks liquid nourishment for the green leaves high above the ground. Jeremiah is telling us that when we depend on the Lord, we are like one who stays planted beside His living water. Daily doses of Jesus grow us in grace. Reliance on Jesus is the door to faithful and fruitful living. It means we are transformed by what the Lord says and thinks; therefore we can depend on Him for wisdom and insight.

We need to be dependent on God. But here is the catch: you and I don’t always like depending on God. So, instead of learning to rely on God, we spend our whole lives trying to supplement our dependence upon Him.  We try to put enough money in the bank so we don’t have to depend on Him for our daily bread. We try to control our decisions, so we have some control over how much we need to depend on God. Jesus is not an add-on to a full and balanced life—He is our life. We trivialize our Savior when we use Him as a last resort only after we have exhausted ourselves and our resources. In contrast, when our confidence is in Christ, our default is to depend on Him.

Dependence starts by acknowledging Almighty God as the owner of everything and the controller of every circumstance. Nothing is impossible with God, and everything is within His reach. Your part is to trust and obey, and His part is to do the rest. Dependency depends on Him working in and through you.

Hudson Taylor says, “I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realize this; for He, I know, is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where he places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest position He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient. It little matters to my servant whether I send him to buy a few cash worth of things, or the most expensive articles. In either case, he looks to me for the money and brings me his purchases. So, if God should place me in serious perplexity, must He not give me much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources will prove unequal to the emergency! And His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would you want to depend on God’s unfailing faithfulness rather than your well-intentioned efforts?
  2. What changes could you make so you will be dependent on God in all things?