Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Breaking the Cycle

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I recently returned from a trip to Disney’s California Resort with my family.   We had a fantastic time together going on rides, watching shows, eating treats and reminiscing about previous trips there.  I love Disneyland, even if it is just the tiniest bit over-stimulating for me.

The only part I don’t like is this little issue I have with motion sickness (and I’m slightly in denial about it).  Posted outside each thrill ride is a very clear warning listing all of the horrible things that could happen to people subjecting themselves to it.  The signs clearly state that motion sickness will be “aggravated” by the rides.  Every time I strapped myself in, I knew what the consequence would be, but I didn’t want to miss out on having fun with my family.

After one ride full of steep climbs, sudden drops, sharp turns and upside down loops, I decided to take a break.  I needed to let my stomach and head find their equilibrium again.  I waved happily from a bench as my husband and kids headed back for another round.  After I’d recovered a few hours later, I got in line with them for yet another roller coaster and walked past yet another warning sign.

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My stomach had finally settled, but I didn’t want to miss out on being with them.  The familiar queasiness returned as soon as we made the first high-speed turn.  At the end of the ride my upset stomach told me it was finished with thrills for the day.  I listened to my body and steered clear of roller coasters after that.

Surprisingly, my little adventure with the roller coasters has a few parallels with Nehemiah chapter 9.  Like me, the Israelites were given clear warnings, but they failed to heed them and doomed themselves to repeat the same “roller coaster ride” for much of their history.  In Nehemiah 9, the Israelites prayed and reviewed the pattern of their people, starting with Abraham.  They recognized the cycle that their ancestors followed from one generation to the next:

1) Receive God’s Blessing and Faithfulness

2) Rebel/ Fall Away / Face Hardship

3) Receive God’s Discipline and Repent

4) Reconcile with God/ Receive God’s Blessing

The people of Nehemiah’s time saw how they continued the cycle and realized God’s faithfulness in spite of their faithlessness.  They confessed to God and sought His help:

In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly. Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways. But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.”  (Nehemiah 9:33-37)

The people were in “phase three” of their usual cycle and trying to move to “phase four” from my list above.  Sadly, this would not be the last time the pattern would repeat.  Among the many lessons we can learn from the Israelites, two stand out to me.  First, they didn’t deal well with difficulty.  Second, they didn’t remember God in their times of ease.

Dealing with Difficulty

Kelly Minter explains:  “whenever the Israelites faced difficulty in the desert they chose to believe something false about God.  Three of the biggies were that He had abandoned them, withheld from them, or wouldn’t meet their needs.”  (Nehemiah:  A Heart That Can Break p. 125).

Like the Israelites, we can make big mistakes when we view difficulties as unusual or when we expect to be spared from them.  Hard things happen, but God is still good.  In fact, He often uses hardships to refine our faith and draw us closer to Him.  Jesus said it clearly,  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

When we have established in our hearts and minds that God is good then the difficulties we face cause us to rely on Him instead of questioning Him.  Similarly, when we believe God is sovereign, we trust Him to handle the injustices we experience.  Even when we don’t understand the trials we face, we know He’ll use them mature us and refine our faith.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  (1 Peter 1:3-9)

“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)

Forgetting God in Times of Ease

Nehemiah 9:35 explains that even when the people were enjoying God’s “great goodness” and the “spacious and fertile land,” they failed to acknowledge Him.

Sometimes it is harder to remember to focus on God when life is easy and things are going well.  We get lulled into thinking that the ease of our circumstances is our “new normal” or that we’ve done something right to deserve it.  We can become complacent, apathetic and spiritually lazy.  Our circumstantial peace should allow us time to study God’s word, grow with Him and serve Him.  Yet sometimes when circumstances are smooth, we tend stray away and give our time and attention to other things.  We take God’s goodness for granted and forget to use His blessings to benefit others and honor Him.

Jesus makes a strong point about this in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.  In His story, a wealthy landowner calls his servants to him before leaving on a long journey.  To each he gives a sum of money called a “talent.”   Each one receives an amount “according to his ability.” To the first, he gives five talents, to the second two and to the last, one.

When the landowner returns, he discovers that the first and second servants have invested the talents wisely and have doubled their amounts.   The landowner praises each of them similarly:  “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness.”  (John 25:21).

The third servant has only the original one talent to return to his master.  Instead of investing it, he simply dug a hole and hid it, fearing his master.

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?  Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’ “ (Matthew 25:26-29)

The servant given the smallest load to bear failed miserably.  My Bible’s study notes put it this way:  “The talents represent any kind of resource we are given.  God gives us time, gifts, and other resources according to our abilities, and he expects us to invest them wisely until he returns.  We are responsible to use well what God has given us.  The issue is not how much we have, but how well we use what we have.”  (Zondervan Life Application Bible 1991)

When life is going smoothly, it is the time to use our health, wealth, skills, experience, education and spiritual gifts to bless others and honor God.  It is not the time to coast and live a life of ease and comfort, but a time to stretch, grow and help further the Kingdom of God.

Let’s choose not to be like the Israelites, continually cycling through obedience, rebellion, discipline and repentance.    Getting caught in a pattern like that consumes energy without producing growth or maturity.

It’s a bit like my roller coaster experience.  I knew what rides might make me sick, but I went on a few anyway hoping for a different outcome.   I quickly realized that not heeding the posted warnings would ruin my day.   My body was telling me to stop and if I ignored it, I would have been too sick to enjoy the day at all.  I had to break the cycle.  Once I did, my stomach settled and I had a great time instead of muscling through more hours of nausea.

If you find yourself stuck in your own version of “the cycle,” be encouraged.  You are not the only one!  When you’re headed for that roller coaster you know you shouldn’t be riding, pray and ask God to help you step out of line.  Click on the link below to hear Josh Wilson’s song “Know By Now.”  It will remind you of God’s sovereignty, faithfulness and patience with us in spite of our failings.

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God’s Word for Every Generation

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My husband’s parents gave him a precious gift this past Christmas.  It is a family Bible that has been passed down through four generations.  A hand-written note tucked in the front of this fourteen-pound, four-and-a-half inch thick heirloom states that his great-grandfather would pay $25.00 for the Bible.  It is dated March 22, 1886.  Twenty-five dollars in 1886 equates to $629 today.  That is a substantial investment for a Bible.  It’s a blessing to belong to a family that has valued the Word of God for so many generations.

The book of Nehemiah describes a similar value for the Word of God.  Nehemiah and the Israelites finished rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem in an incredible fifty-two days after it laid in ruins for nearly a century and a half.  Once it was completed and the exiles had returned to the city, they tended to some important business.

First on the agenda was gathering the people to read from the Book of the Law of Moses.  This was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Nehemiah chapter 8 tells us the men, women and children stood before the priest, Ezra, as he read aloud “from daybreak till noon…And all the people listened attentively”  (8:3).

Did you catch that? Men, women and children stood and listened for five or six hours while God’s Word was read aloud to them.  At the conclusion “Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen!’ Amen!’” (8:6).

I looked up the definition of “Amen” in my Webster’s Dictionary.  It is a Hebrew word “used to express solemn ratification or hearty approval.”  This is amazing considering that “all the people had been weeping as they listened to the word of the Law”  (8:9b).  Instead of being defensive or indignant when they learned how far they had strayed from God’s Word, their hearts broke with remorse.  They didn’t try to make excuses or rationalize their failure to follow it, they sought to make things right.  How refreshing that response seems in comparison with people who want to ignore the parts of the Bible they find convicting, inconvenient or outdated.

Kelly Minter describes the Israelite listeners this way:  “The Lord had given His Word to them, and it was far from obsolete or impractical to their daily lives…The people were deeply aware that they were to live every moment of their lives by God’s words…they recognized that ordinary life was to be inspired and directed by the rule and reign of God”  (Nehemiah:  A Heart That Can Break, p.103).

What was true for the Israelites returning to Jerusalem is still true for us today.  We need God’s Word to inform our lives and the choices we make daily.  We need to trust that His Word is a lamp for our feet and a light for our paths, as Psalm 119:105 describes it.

The Bible is not a list of rules to read once and then put on the shelf as a reference book. “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”  (Hebrews 4:12).  The Bible is not just words on a page; it is living and active.  When we engage it and apply it to our lives, it changes us.  It changes our attitudes, our desires, our relationships and the things we value.   It is a guide for every aspect of daily living.  It is our solid foundation and the plumb line that keeps us aligned with Truth.

I’ve begun to notice a clear difference between the lives of people who are actively engaging God’s Word and people who simply embrace the Christian lifestyle and its values.  People who spend time in the Bible have a passion and a sense of purpose in what they do.  They serve others out of gratitude to God, not as an obligation.  They grapple with hard truths and have teachable spirits.  They are hungry to know more about God and how He’s calling them to live.  They don’t follow rules and checklists–they abide with Jesus and let the Holy Spirit guide them.  Their lives are not safe and predictable.  They trust God when things get messy and complicated.  They have too much integrity to worry about whether or not they are “showing well.”  They are profoundly aware that they are sinners only saved by Gods’ grace.  Their resulting gratitude causes them to give their lives for God’s Kingdom purposes.

For the Israelites in Nehemiah’s time, living out the Word of God meant they began observing festivals that had been forgotten for many years.  “They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast”  (8:14).  They were obeying God’s command to celebrate the Lord’s Feast of Tabernacles.  While it might not have been convenient to build and live in temporary shelters for seven days, the purpose of the feast was to remind the people in each generation that God brought them out of Egypt.  (You can read the specifics in Leviticus 23:40-43).

God knows people are prone to forget Him, so observing different festivals provided tangible reminders of His faithfulness at regular intervals.  Maybe part of the reason the people wept when they heard Ezra read the law is that they realized the many blessings they’d missed.  The generations before them had failed to obey God’s command given through Moses:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:1-8).

Today we are not exempt from this command to marinate in God’s Word and impress it upon the younger generations.  Whether we are parents, grandparents, or have never had kids, there are younger people around who need to know the Word of God.  We can do this as youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, or volunteers in the nursery.  We can be a safe haven for kids in our neighborhoods or godly volunteers in public or Christian schools.   We can mentor at-risk kids or lead at Vacation Bible School.  We can open our homes to foster children or even adopt a child.  We can sponsor kids through Missions organizations and send them letters reminding them of God’s love, faithfulness and provision.

Impressing God’s Word on children starts first and foremost at home.  Here are some ideas for incorporating Biblical influence into your home, for the sake of your own kids and any others that might walk through the door.

-Listen to Christ-centered stories in the car and at home instead of only watching shows or playing video games.  Focus on the Family has great radio dramas such as “Adventures in Odyssey.” The Vision Forum also has Biblically-based audio dramas such as “The Adventures of Jonathan Park.”

-Listen to Christian music at home and in the car (Try KLOVE, which is nation wide on FM radio, or The Message on satellite radio)

-Try having family meetings weekly.  Use the time to read through a portion of the Bible, share prayer requests and pray together as a family.

-Read a devotional with your kids as they eat breakfast in the morning or at night before bed (the student version of Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling is a current favorite for us)

-Read Christian-themed books aloud to your kids or encourage them to read them to themselves.  Janet and Geoff Benge have a great series of biographies called “Christian Heroes:  Then & Now” (Christian books and magazine subscriptions are  great gifts in an Easter basket for any age)

-Invite some friends to do a Christian parenting study with you  (Chip Ingram’s DVD series “Effective Parenting in Defective World” is a great place to start)

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the suggestions above, take a deep breath.  Resist the urge to feel like you have to do them all.  Stop before you start to feel inadequate or critical of yourself.  Don’t let yourself get legalistic by creating a checklist to complete.  Start by praying and asking God to reveal one area where you can influence your own kids or others with God’s Word.   Whatever you do, make sure it is authentic and done with pure motives.  If you have a spouse, talk it over before jumping to action.  Incorporating these things into your life might stretch you but they should still align with your character and not be forced on your family in a way that will turn them off.  Pray for their hearts before you announce implementation of a great new plan to get them into God’s Word more!  Do what blesses you and your family, not what feels like a burden.  If you’re already actively doing something that impacts kids with the Bible, please post a comment to give other readers ideas.

Click on the link below to hear Matt Maher’s catchy song “And All the People Said Amen.”  Although it’s inspired by 1 Chronicles 16:36, the sentiment is quite similar to Nehemiah 8.


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Straining Out Truth From Lies

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Nehemiah was an impressive man with a singular focus.  One of the things I most respect about him was his ability to discern truth from lies quickly and not to second-guess himself or God.  In Nehemiah chapter 6 his enemies hatch a scheme to derail him while he leads the people of Jerusalem in their wall re-building efforts.  The three schemers, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem repeatedly send messengers asking Nehemiah to stop work to come and meet with them.   When he refuses, they finally fabricate a lie to strike fear in him.  They write and tell him there are rumors that he is planning a revolt and offer to “confer together” with him.  I love Nehemiah’s response:  “I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’”  (Nehemiah 6:8)  Nehemiah goes on to explain:  “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’  But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.’”  (Nehemiah 6:9)

Nehemiah saw the lie for what it was and didn’t let it upset him.  He didn’t lose his focus or spend time fretting over what other people might be thinking about him.  He didn’t worry about politics because he knew he was doing the right thing and that he had the king’s support.   His only response to their threat was to pray for strength and continue building.

Nehemiah’s story gives a great example for what Satan often does in our lives.  Sometimes we are working steadily toward accomplishing God’s call for us when Satan slips in and sows seeds of deception to get us off track.  Sometimes he uses other people, as he did with Nehemiah, and sometimes he uses our own doubts and insecurities.

We see a clear example of this in the New Testament in a conversation between Jesus and Peter:

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’  Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’”  (Matthew 16:21-23)

Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends, but Jesus recognized Satan was using him. Peter’s words were dissuading Him from carrying out the very purpose for which He came to earth: to suffer and die for the sins of all people.  Although Peter didn’t understand his error, Jesus recognized that his friend’s “supportive” words were actually clouding His focus.

Jesus knew well that lies and deception came from one source.  In an earlier exchange He has with a group of Jews who refuse to accept Him He says:  You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

Both Jesus and Nehemiah immediately recognized Satan’s attempts to distract them from God’s goals for them.  Satan isn’t very creative and tends to grab from the same bag of tricks to derail us over and over again. The best way we can arm ourselves from falling for his lies is by knowing the truth of God’s word and having our gaze singularly focused on Him.  Satan wants nothing more than to render us ineffective by succumbing to our weaknesses and insecurities.  Lukewarm, complacent, insecure Christians rarely make an impact for the kingdom of God.

Our best defense against believing lies is being able to recognize God’s voice.  This happens when we spend time with Him and in His word consistently.  Jesus explains this using the metaphor of a shepherd (God) and His flock (us):  “The gatekeeper [shepherd] opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”  (John 10:3-5)

There are many times in my life when I haven’t stopped to think about the voices I’m hearing.  Without God’s wisdom and discernment, I easily fall prey to Satan’s lies.  One of the fastest ways he does this is by causing me to focus on myself.  When I wallow in my feelings of inadequacy and insecurity I prevent myself from being used effectively for God’s purposes.  When I find my confidence in Christ and focus on God and what He can do through me, He moves in my life in powerful ways.  This can be as simple as taking my eyes off myself to smile at a stranger or as involved as saying “yes” to a ministry opportunity that is going to stretch me beyond my comfort zone.

A few years ago I attended a silent retreat sponsored through our church.  Included in the materials was a handout called “Three Voices” that provided wisdom for discerning between God’s voice, Satan’s voice and the world’s voice.  It has been like a spiritual and mental strainer for my mind.   All the internal and external voices I hear throughout the day get filtered through it.  I hold onto the voices containing God’s truth and discard the rest.  Over time, I’ve added to the list through my own experiences and observations.  I hope you’ll find it a useful tool as you learn to strain out truth and let the lies wash away.

Three Voices:

God’s Tone of Voice is:  soothing, quieting, peaceful, encouraging, invigorating, inspiring

Satan’s Tone of Voice is:  insistent, demanding, mesmerizing, hurried, rash, accusing, discouraging, doubt-producing, pride-building, vengeful, selfish, self-centered, critical, negative, defeating

The World’s Tone of Voice:  agrees with the world’s standards and attitudes, is driven to be accepted and acceptable, lets the culture set personal standards, compares self to others, believes we are what the world says, is fearful of what others think, seeks value in exterior and measurable qualities, constantly struggles to “measure up”

God’s Motives and Character:  builds relationships, empowers us, give us courage, provides wisdom, gives peace, stretches and challenges us, reassures us, convicts us to bring positive and healthy changes, offers grace, understands, forgives

Satan’s Motives and Character:  destroys, deceives, accuses, divides, isolates, turns people away form God, lies, makes us feel guilty, creates self-loathing, capitalizes on insecurities and doubts, exaggerates faults, magnifies misunderstandings

The World’s Motives and Character:  to please people, to fit in, to satisfy self, to look out for self, to judge self and others, to compare self to others

As you ponder the voices in your own life, let the verses below encourage you:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  –Romans 12:2

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” –Philippians 1:9-11

Click on the link below to hear Jason Gray’s song “Remind Me Who I Am.”  It’s a great encouragement to keep our minds fixed on God’s truth and not to believe the lies that assault us throughout the day.