Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Seeking Biblical Truth in the Post-Truth Era: No Other Gods Session 3

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(Third in a series of posts inspired by Kelly Minter’s Bible Study No Other Gods.)

Turning up the volume on the radio, I wasn’t sure I’d heard the announcer correctly. She was sharing her thoughts on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. It is an annual event for the dictionary staff to narrow down a list of words that highlight the ways the English language is changing in response to current events. In case you haven’t heard yet, this year’s word is “post-truth.” The official definition is: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” So, basically, post-truth means defining what is true based on feelings and personal beliefs rather than actual facts.

For followers of Jesus, navigating life in the era of “post-truth” means we must swim against the current of our culture. While people around us are deciding what they want to be true based on their feelings, we must hold firmly to the truth of God’s Word. I see a clear connection here to what I’m learning about lies in No Other Gods. Author Kelly Minter says, “I don’t see God’s heart in Scripture telling us to separate ourselves with a self-righteous finger that points at all the ‘sinners’ in pop culture. Instead God clearly teaches us to love all people. But loving is very different from putting ourselves in the way of messages that oppose His truth. It’s different than leaving open doors for the lies of culture to waltz into our hearts.” (No Other Gods, p. 67)

The lies of our culture permeate our lives, subtly and continually influencing us to revise our stance on what is actually truth. Reading through 2 Timothy 3, it’s easy to see connections to our world today: “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NIV)

So many examples from current culture come to mind as I read this that it’s hard to know where to start. With the onslaught of technology and the rise of social media, it’s become commonplace to embrace and celebrate every one of those things. It’s not hard to see pleasure and comfort are valued more than almost anything else. Many movies, shows, theater productions, magazines, popular songs and famous people model and promote living in a way that lacks self-control and values self-absorption (and pretty much everything else listed).

As followers of Jesus, however, we are called to a different standard. We cannot afford to be “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim 3:7, NIV) God’s Word is our standard of truth, but it’s up to us to absorb what we learn and then to live like we believe it. In a world that no longer cares about actual truth, this is especially challenging. The more we make choices that honor God, the more unusual we will appear to others in our culture.

Now that you’ve seen what NOT to embrace, maybe you’d like some specifics to help you understand how to honor God and stay aligned with truth.  Here is a great start: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”  The final statement of this passage explains what we gain as a result: “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8, NIV)

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to follow Jesus, I don’t want my endeavors to be ineffective or unproductive.  I don’t want to ride the fence and dabble in my faith while simultaneously letting the world shape my values and opinions.

I also don’t want to be someone who knows the truth of God’s Word but chooses to embrace the lies of the world or let my emotions lead me.  People like this are in the worst position of all: If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-21, NIV)

Living according to God’s Word is the path to freedom, hope, wisdom joy, and salvation. Our culture continually feeds us lies to distract us from this truth. God’s ways and plans are best, but the Enemy will stop at nothing to make us forget this. He loves to lure people into compromising what they know is right so that they can find fleeting acceptance, false hope or temporary comfort. But we know better, don’t we? Hold tightly to God’s Word and continue to study it diligently. Although you can’t entirely remove yourself from the lies that permeate our culture, you can learn to identify them and reject them when you know the truth.

In Session 3 of No Other Gods, Kelly Minter includes lyrics to a song about lies written and performed by one of the “NOGS.” To hear “Liar’s Dream” by Alli Rogers, click on the link. If you have your book handy, you can follow along by reading the lyrics on pages 71-2.

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When “Good Enough” Isn’t

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Dipping my paddle in the water, I balanced on the board and pulled hard, ignoring my body’s protests. It had been twelve weeks since I’d fractured my elbow and wrist in a bike accident. I’d been looking forward to vacation and assumed I would be “back to normal” so I could enjoy biking, paddle boarding and swimming. The doctor had assured me the bone would be fully healed by then but my physical therapist was still concerned by my ongoing pain and stiffness. The tendons and muscles that had constricted to protect the fractures were still tight, preventing full range of motion.  My therapist pushed me hard in our sessions leading up to the trip, not wanting me to settle for “good enough.” She’d had other patients who didn’t want to do the hard work to be 100% recovered.   Beyond the concern about my quality of life and ability to use my arm fully, she worried about future problems that would arise, particularly the early onset of arthritis in my elbow joint.

Just before I left on vacation, she gave me a list of exercises to do daily and encouraged me to press on toward healing. A few days later, taking my first spin on a paddle board in the harbor, I remembered her words. With each dip of the paddle, the pain and stiffness that were so strong at first began to subside. By the end of the day, my arm felt loose and almost normal after all of the activities I’d done. But with the dawn of the next day, I was right back where I started. Some days it was tempting to give myself a break and not do the exercises she’d assigned, but I knew this would only prolong my recovery.

I had to trust that my efforts were incrementally improving my range of motion and flexibility, despite the discouragement of the painful stiffness returning each day. It started me thinking about a passage of Scripture written by Paul:

“Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1Timothy 4:7b-10, NIV)

Physical training produces a healthy body, but it is not a one-time event. Whether it’s doing physical therapy to regain full strength or just exercising consistently, we must move our bodies to maintain health. Similarly, we need to engage daily in training ourselves for godliness. The difference is, this kind of regimen has eternal significance.

As believers, we know this–yet why is it so difficult for us to put into practice? Maybe it seems easier to just coast through life without spiritual discipline. Laboring and striving sound like hard work, so we settle for “good enough” instead of pressing on in our pursuit of Christ. We want to amble along comfortably instead of living with a sense of urgency. Yet there is so much we miss when we surrender to this lackadaisical attitude. We limit the exciting things God wants to do in and through us and we fail to experience the abundant life he promises.

The pain in my elbow reminds me throughout the day that I need to keep working and pressing on with my therapy. I’m praying that circumstances in my life will prompt the same sense of purpose in my walk with God. Will you join me? When facing a difficult situation, let’s pursue God and see what he wants us to learn instead of defaulting to self-pity. When we encounter the same issues over and over again, let’s confront them head on and lay them at the feet of Jesus instead of growing weary and giving up. Let’s not ignore  baggage that will only weigh us down or hold us back. Let’s trust him to use ongoing challenges to refine our faith and make us more like him. With each day, let’s make it a priority to spend time aligning with God through praying and reading his Word before jumping into the day.

One of the best ways to labor and strive in your faith is to commit to studying the Bible regularly.  During the summer months, it’s easy to let this discipline slide. As you prepare for the busyness of fall, why not prioritize time for a weekly study? If your schedule feels overloaded, this is not the activity to jettison in an attempt to simplify your life. Don’t settle for “good enough”  by keeping your walk with Jesus on the back burner. Press on and see what new things God has in store for you. Discover deeper truth in the Bible as you delve into it with others. Then strive to apply it to your life. Yes, some days it will feel like hard work and other days you will not follow through. But setting a goal to be consistent will give you a clear focus and over time you’ll begin seeing results.

I imagine I could function for the rest of my life with a right arm that doesn’t extend fully, but I don’t want to settle for that. I don’t want my daily life to be less than it could be and I certainly don’t want to set myself up for even bigger problems in the future. In a similar way, I don’t want to be stunted spiritually. I don’t want to settle for a lukewarm faith. I want to keep moving forward and discovering new things about God, his Word and how he wants to work in and through me to impact the world and further his kingdom. Will you labor and strive with me to do this? Will you commit to doing the hard work for your sake and the sake of those around you? I guarantee, it’s worth the effort.

Click on the link and make Third Day’s song “Soul on Fire” your prayer today.

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Living Intentionally Engaged- What Love is Week 7

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Stepping into the sunshine, my husband and I set out on a walk in the cool of morning. It had been weeks since we’d had a free Saturday to spend an hour outside together. The brisk air spurred us on as we passed cozy homes in our neighborhood. Many displayed rustic Adirondack chairs with colorful pillows that begged for someone to sit down and enjoy them. Turning to my husband I asked, “How many of these chairs do you think people actually use?” Smiling, he gently turned the question on me, “When was the last time we sat on our porch together?” Sadly, I couldn’t remember.

I thought back to times we’d enjoyed in the past, lounging on the benches with a cup of tea in the morning sun or sharing a meal with our boys on a warm evening.   We hadn’t done that in a long time and there was only one reason: we’d let busyness rob us of this simple pleasure.

As I thought more about it, I realized that my “to do” list over the last few weeks had caused me to be distracted and disengaged from my husband and kids. Even when I was physically present with them, my mind was somewhere else.   Realizing this turned my thoughts to a concept I’ve been learning about in First, Second and Third John:

“The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:24,NIV)

The word “lives,” used twice in this verse, translates from the Greek word, “meno.” It means: “to stay (in a given place, state, relation or expectancy) to abide, continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand or tarry.” (James Strong, Dictionary of the Greek New Testament)

The part of the definition that catches my attention is the phrase “be present.” Over the course of studying these books, I’ve been learning the importance of being present in my walk with God– of living intentionally engaged with him by his Spirit so that I can let his love fill me. When I do this consistently, his love ultimately overflows from me and affects those around me. John explains this reciprocal process: As we are present with God and remain in his love, his love continues to dwell in us.

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives [meno] in love lives [meno] in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16, NIV)

In this passage John echoes a concept he learned from Jesus, who told the disciples:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain [meno] in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV)

I’m realizing anew that remaining in Christ requires that I fix my mind on him intentionally and continuously. We aren’t accessing his power when we live on autopilot, doing things out of habit without truly engaging him. Being present and intentional requires relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us throughout every day. There is no other way we can live in obedience to Christ and walk as he did. Apart from him, we can do nothing of lasting value.

This brings me to a related passage of Scripture written by the apostle Paul:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NIV)

If God is love (and 1 John 4:16 tells us he is), then this passage emphasizes that even the good or spiritual things we do are worthless unless God is in them. Again, this reminds me that all that we do requires intentional engagement—even actions that seem positive on the surface aren’t worth a thing if God isn’t in them with us. We must be present [meno] with him so that he can work in and through us.

I’ll be thinking about the word “meno” for a long time. The benches on my front porch will be a daily reminder to be intentionally engaged in each moment with God. Only then can I be fully present with my family and others so that he can bless them through me.

I couldn’t resist including a song with an English translation of my new favorite word, “meno”, in the title. Click on the link to enjoy a worship moment with Kristian Stanfill’s rendition of “One Thing Remains.”

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Confident and Unashamed- What Love Is, Week 3

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And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.  1 John 2:28 (NIV)

 Writing to the disciples of Jesus, the apostle John speaks tenderly, reminding them how much their Father in heaven lavishes his love upon them. He calls them “children of God” and gives them clear explanations for how their lives can reflect this profound truth. John writes passionately to believers that were being thrown into confusion by false teaching and ungodly influences in their culture. It doesn’t sound all that different from our current times.

In the verses spanning from 1 John 2:28 to 3:38, John lays out three clear explanations for children of God to understand how they can remain confident and unashamed in their faith. Applying John’s teaching would enable them to stand firm in the truth of God’s love. It will do the same for us as we contend with today’s culture.

Dealing with Sin

John repeats the same topic several times in this chapter: No one who lives in Christ keeps on sinning. Obviously we don’t become permanently sinless after we confess our sin and accept Jesus into our lives. But, as Kelly Minter puts it, we are “free of the dominant power of sin…our not sinning is not about how much harder we try. It’s about our relationship with our Father and His Son.” (What Love Is p. 89)

Just flipping through channels on TV, popular magazines, websites and books, it’s clear that our world celebrates sin and promotes self-gratification above all else. We’re rarely called to consider the consequences of our choices on others or ourselves. And we’re certainly not encouraged to think about how they affect our faith journeys.

However, as we grow in our relationship with God and understand the life he calls us to live, we’re drawn toward him and away from sin. Sin no longer entices us the same way because we know it’s going to hurt God and us. And when we do slip into sin, we’re quick to confess it because we know God will forgive us and we want to restore our relationship with him.

Don’t be Led Astray

John makes a point to say, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” (1 John 3:7, NIV) He admonishes us to look at the lifestyles and choices of the people that we trust for wisdom and advice.

There are countless places we go for these things: family, friends, magazines, blogs, websites, books, and personalities on TV, to name a few. It’s crucial that we consider the sources we’re allowing to influence us and that we ensure they hold to the same biblical truths we do. It’s not uncommon for followers of Jesus to embrace views in popular culture without a second thought, never realizing they are contrary to God’s Word.

Before reading articles, logging onto blogs or watching favorite shows, think about the messages you consistently receive from them. Compelling plots and interesting characters can get us hooked on books or shows that are shaping our views in ways that don’t honor God.  And just because a person looks appealing or speaks with authority doesn’t make their opinion worth adopting. Stop and think about how their words and actions measure up with the gospel. If they’re out of sync, you might be opening yourself up to being led astray.  Once you recognize the discrepancy, you can decide if they are still worth your time or if you would be better off without them.

 Love One Another

In the last portion of the chapter, John moves on to explain that loving one another is a powerful witness to our relationship with God. Over and over John tells us that we should love one another, regardless of whether we’re treated well or not. He says, “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18, NIV)

I’m amazed by how often in our culture we’re encouraged to withhold forgiveness, hold grudges, seek revenge and let our negative emotions dictate our actions and attitudes. Some of today’s most popular songs and shows regularly espouse messages of hate. It seems that being angry and vengeful equates with being powerful in today’s culture. God’s Word tells us nothing could be further from the truth.

 Tying All Three Together

I used to have a favorite magazine that I only bought on vacations. I thought it was harmless looking at pictures of famous people, catching up on the “scoop” in their lives and learning about the latest trends. However, once I had kids, I realized that I was exposing them and myself to lifestyles and ideas that were totally contrary to God’s ways. What seemed like a “guilty pleasure” was subtly influencing me. The magazine celebrated people who were confident and unashamed of their poor choices, desensitizing me to sins so prevalent in popular culture. At the same time, it was causing me to view the lives of the people in the pictures and articles as fodder for gossip.   I didn’t see them as real people loved by God, I was only interested in the entertainment their colorful lives provided for me. As the Holy Spirit worked in my life, the magazine not only lost its appeal, it sickened me. The allure was gone.

Dealing with sin, avoiding being led astray and loving others aren’t the source of our salvation, but evidence that we follow the one true God. Following John’s advice makes us confident and unashamed in God’s presence and provides light and hope for a world wallowing in darkness.

Click on the link and be reminded of theses tremendous truths by listening to “Children of God” by Third Day.

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Fortifying Your Foundation- Sermon on the Mount Part 10

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Two houses built on contrasting foundations illustrate Jesus’ final point in the Sermon on the Mount. They are metaphors for two kinds of lives: one built on the solid foundation of a relationship with Jesus, the other built on the shifting sands of the world. When the storms of life overwhelm us, He shows us that trusting Him is the only way to remain rock solid.

Acting on Jesus’ words instead of trying to muddle through on our own worldly wisdom fortifies our foundations. God has shown me the truth of this time and time again. Ironically, one of the most significant opportunities involved the actual house where I live and occurred from 2010 to 2012. To share this story, I’ve chosen excerpts from the first and last chapters of a book manuscript I wrote. As you read, think about the storms in your life, both past and present, and what they reveal about your foundation.

Paragraphs below are excerpted from my unpublished book manuscript entitled: From Our Mess to God’s Best: Remodeling a Heart and a Home.

Ripping out the filthy carpet felt liberating.   Matted and stained from heavy use and construction dust, it barely resembled the pristine cream color it had once been when we’d bought the house almost sixteen years earlier. I longed to be rid of it, but also wondered what we’d find underneath. What I discovered was not the 1950’s hardwood floors I’d expected to see in our little one-story house. Instead, it was a patchwork of particleboard and tattered wood planks sloppily covered with white paint by a previous owner to seal in strong odors. This is hideous, I thought.

As I worked, I mulled over the painful transformation occurring within me. God must have a sense of humor–this floor reminds me of myself. How could I have known a remodel would strip away all of my façades and show the ugliest parts of my character? Just when I thought I was spiritually mature and had life figured out, God keeps revealing that I’m not the person I thought I was.

Christmas music played over the soft hum of our new furnace, contrasting the cold, grey day outside our front window. Tearing out the living room carpet wasn’t the activity I’d planned to do with my boys over Christmas vacation, but it had to be done. It felt good to have work progress after using this one room for making meals, eating, doing homework, watching TV, playing and being together. With our kitchen and family room under construction, it had been our only living space for seven months. The physical chaos of living in the house while it was remodeled had been nothing compared to the emotional upheaval of working with our unreliable contractor, who would disappear for days at a time leaving us wondering if he was ever coming back.

 Over the months, the process of remodeling our tiny home had been filled with revealing moments like this one. Some of them had been structural, as we’d watched our kitchen and family room being torn out–others had been spiritual as God refined us using unexpected challenges.   We’d anticipated the financial cost of the project and the inconvenience it would cause, but had failed to recognize the emotional and spiritual toll it would take on us.

The thought of having our faith stretched by our remodel hadn’t occurred to my husband or me. We’d learned to trust God through a number of hardships and had favorite Bible verses that comforted us through job transitions, difficult relationships, anxiety, depression and the deaths of family members. We believed God used hardships for good and had seen evidence of it in our lives.

However, we also prided ourselves in our self-sufficiency and our ability to problem-solve smaller issues on our own. Good planning and common sense had kept daily life orderly for almost seventeen years of marriage. We’d never considered that the Lord had things to teach us through the problems that arose from living in a privileged, industrialized society. God was using a mess of our own making to transform us from the inside out, whether we wanted Him to or not.

 The process of our remodel and the many other challenging events we endured over the course of it tested our faith and stretched us almost to the breaking point. By God’s grace, we learned to call on His name through these trials.   We learned to wait and watch for His answers in His timing. We let Him do His refining work in us, as painful as it was.

Through that process, God revealed many ugly impurities in me that needed to be surrendered to Him. First and foremost was my constant need to be in control. I operated for many years under the assumption that if I tried hard enough, played by the rules and planned ahead, I could keep life clicking along according to my perfect plans. God showed me that any control I have is merely an illusion. Any aspect of my carefully orchestrated life could change at a moment’s notice. I can make plans but must give God room to alter them according to His will.

God’s grace has become much more profound to me. Understanding that He sent His son for my sake, that He gives me the free gift of eternal life is more profound to me than ever before. What I didn’t grasp previously was the daily grace He shows me every time I sin. He loves me and thinks the best of me, even when I’m at my worst. I need to offer this same grace to others instead of filling in the blanks with negative assumptions about them. When I’m tempted to criticize, judge or condemn I need to show understanding, mercy and forgiveness instead.

As the remodeling process stripped away the old things and revealed the structure of our home, it also revealed the structure of our family. Both needed changes, but ultimately, their foundations were sound. Jesus describes the significance of a firm foundation in the gospel of Matthew. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25). I am thankful that He is the foundation of our family.   He carried us through and redeemed our home and our hearts in the process, moving us for our mess to His best.

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So, how does your foundation hold up when the storms of life blow in? What are you doing to fortify it when the going is easy? Is there one message from the Sermon on the Mount that would strengthen your foundation further? Ask God to guide you so you can make it stronger, starting today.

I can think of no better song to emphasize the importance of a firm foundation in Christ than “Cornerstone” by Hillsong. Click on the link to be inspired by this song.

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