The Nearness of God in Uncertain Times

The Nearness of God in Uncertain Times

If you’re anything like me over the past few weeks you’ve been vacillating between a confident trust in God and waves of panic and fear. For those of us who are Christ followers we want to trust the Lord but we get tripped up on wondering what exactly we can trust Him for—can we count on Him to spare us from looming hardship and make sure everything turns out okay on our terms? We know He’s bigger, greater, higher, stronger, but what does that mean for the very real and ominous threats we’re facing?

I’ve been reflecting on the account of Jesus calming the storm that threatened to overtake His disciples in Matthew 8:23-27. Since I think we can collectively agree we’re in a pretty big storm right now, I think this a timely passage that helps solidify what Jesus has promised us.

THE NEARNESS OF JESUS

“As [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. Suddenly, a violent storm arose on the sea …” (vv. 23-24). Right away we find it’s possible to be a follower of Jesus who follows Him straight into a storm. This is something we don’t talk enough about.

The context is also important. Right before this story Matthew tells us of two other “disciples” who wanted to follow Jesus but who either didn’t count the cost of following Him or didn’t count the value. Regardless of their hang-ups, those two were safe on the shore while the true Christ followers were scrambling for their lives in the storm tossed boat.

But—and this changes absolutely every single detail of the story—the disciples who were in the storm were also the ones who were in the boat with Jesus. My fears get the best of me when I believe that God delivering me from the storm is more valuable than His presence with me in it. We don’t know what today or tomorrow holds, but we can lean into the unshakable reality that He is with us and promises to never leave us. He is able to comfort, speak, guide, and offer peace in tumultuous times.

THE GODNESS OF JESUS

We’ve often used this story to assure others and ourselves that God will calm the storms in our lives. And He certainly can, no question! He’s done it over and over in my life. But I think there’s more to the story here.

I appreciate what Dr. Craig Blomberg says, “…the focus of this passage remains squarely Christological—on who Christ is, not on what he will do for us.”[1] In Psalm 89:8-10 the psalmist describes Almighty God as the One who is able to rule the raging sea and still the surging waves.

The disciples would have known from the Old Testament that the only One who had power over nature was The Lord of Hosts. By rebuking the wind and the waves Jesus was showing His disciples that He is God!

This doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t do mighty things for us during uncertain and troubling times. Of course He will. But what we can absolutely count on during the trials in our lives is that Jesus is God Himself. He alone holds the power over storms, viruses, stock market crashes, and our personal health and finances. It brings me great comfort to remember that just as He brought the wind and waves under His control, so any other storms He rebukes must also obey.

THE HOPE OF JESUS

The other night I read this story out of a children’s Bible to my 9-year-old nephew, Will. He said, “If I was in that storm I would have woken Jesus up and asked Him to read me a bedtime story, because I would know everything was going to be okay since Jesus was there.” And Will’s not wrong. But the question he will wrestle with later in life is, what does it mean for everything to be okay?

My prayer is that he will continue to understand that in Jesus everything will ultimately be okay because of the enduring hope we have in Him. And because of Jesus’ ultimate power over death, sickness, and evil, one day all will be made right and we will dwell with Him forever. In the meantime, He is present in us and through us now to bring redemption here on earth.

We hear this ring of hope in Jesus’ question to His disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (vs. 26.) I think Jesus was trying to communicate to His followers, though not yet in full, that they were ultimately safe because He had come to conquer the storm of sin through His death and resurrection. He had them once and for all whether He stilled the immediate storm of the moment or not. And He has us both now and forever.

The post What Happens When You Study God’s Word? appeared first on LifeWay Voices.

The Blessed Life: 14 Day Devotional Series

The Blessed Life: 14 Day Devotional Series

I’ve been praying and thinking about ways I can meet you with encouragement during these uncertain times. Jesus’ Word has always brought me unrivaled hope and comfort, so I want to pass it on in whatever way I can. For the past couple years I’ve spent time studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. It’s a message that’s stirred my heart and deeply affected my personal life and ministry. I would go so far as to say it’s touched every part of me in some capacity.

So here’s what I want to do: For the next 14 days I’ll send you a daily devotional along with a few reflection questions from Matthew 5-7. This will keep us in touch with one another, encouraged, and focused on Jesus during these difficult days. All you have to do is click the link below, sign up, and a new devotional will come straight to your inbox every morning. It’s called, The Blessed Life: 14 Days of Hope from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Studying Scripture During Lent

Studying Scripture During Lent

I love when I learn something new, but what I appreciate even more is learning something that helps expand my capacity to learn more new things. My friend gave me a cookbook for Christmas called The Food Lab. While it has recipes in it, what the author really wants you to know is the science behind cooking so you don’t need as many recipes. If you know what types of ingredients go together and how to prepare and season them, the idea is that you can successfully cook without having to follow step-by-step recipes because you understand the basic principles of putting together a good meal.

Studying Expands Our Capacity To Grow

The same is true for Scripture. When we learn basic principles like how to study Scripture, how to interpret certain texts, and what we’re looking for when we study, our capacity to learn increases. Ultimately, the goal is not for more knowledge, but for loving Jesus with more of our hearts and lives.

As we move into a season of Lent—a time when we set aside something so that something new can grow—stretching our minds in our pursuit of Jesus should be a part of our process. Maybe read through a book on the latter days of Jesus, the crucifixion, or the resurrection.

Knowledge Affects How We Live

What I think directly affects what choices I make. And what I think is directly influenced by the knowledge I have.

My brother makes homemade pizzas that are better than anything in town, which is saying something. My knowledge of David’s great pizzas had a direct impact on the choice I made on Super Bowl Sunday to possibly have six slices. What I know affects my behavior. (I also happen to know that six slices makes me gain weight, which I really don’t want to do, but that’s another issue for another post.)

The more I understand about Jesus, His nature, His power, His love for us, the role He plays in history, His desire for those in my life to know Him, the more my life choices will be impacted.

For instance, knowing what Jesus says about our treasures in Matthew 6:19-24 changes what I do with my money. Listening to what He teaches about the worthlessness of worry in Matthew 6:25-34 helps me approach my fears and anxieties differently. Understanding what He says about not judging others in Matthew 7:1-6 is a constant reminder for me to look for the good in people instead of being critical.

Knowledge affects my behavior. And knowledge of Jesus not only affects my behavior, but also transforms my heart behind my behavior, especially if I’m walking in His Spirit.

Knowledge Makes Us Better And More Humble Teachers

While knowledge of God and His Word are encouraged throughout Scripture, we also know that knowledge can puff us up (1 Corinthians 8:1). And no one wants to be around a puffed-up person. But if we approach our studying with humble hearts learning new things in Scripture should actually make us more humble as we continue to realize how much more we don’t know. It’s like the phrase, the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

Learning more about Scripture will also make us better thinkers and teachers. We’ll have more to offer those around us by way of what we’re able to teach them, ultimately so they can grow in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

We’ll also have more confidence when we share with others why we believe what we believe about Jesus and the Bible. We’ll teach and evangelize with humility, love, and kindness, because this is what the Bible teaches. And we’ll know this is what the Bible teaches because we’ve have studied it.

The post What Happens When You Study God’s Word? appeared first on LifeWay Voices.

A Call to Simplicity

A Call to Simplicity

For the first time in 19 years, I stayed in Nashville over the Christmas break. I needed to air out. To clean stuff out. At first, it started with drawers and closets, under beds and inside wicker baskets holding all manner of sewing kits, lint brushes, and emery boards…I don’t think I’ve ever purchased an emery board in my life, but it turns out I have what it takes to become a supplier. Clothing I haven’t worn in a few years, papers “I need to get to” that are past needing to have been gotten to, cannellini beans that would have been savory in 2008—it all went away. I went to Goodwill, I recycled, I returned items I’d borrowed, I gave some things away, I took a trip to the dump. It was wonderful!

Paring down gives you eyes to see what’s important, it reminds you of the meaningful things you possess that you didn’t know you possessed because they were being obscured by lesser belongings, and it creates space for you to best utilize the essentials. What I didn’t realize is that this was a process the Lord wanted to do in my soul as well—paring down to the people and work He’s called me to so I can serve Him more effectively. It had been too long since I’d taken a good inventory.

Relinquishing the Good for the Best

This is certainly not new, but it bears repeating: The good things that tug on us get in the way of the best things. Most everything I pulled out of a drawer or closet was good and useful, but I had better and more beneficial items available to me. The former only got in the way. Similarly, after taking inventory of my year, I realized I’d said “yes” to many good activities that ended up stealing from the best ones I could put my mind and hand to. Whenever we say “yes” to something we’re necessarily saying “no” to something else. While it always pains me to part with something good, the freedom and efficiency that come with clinging to what is best never carry remorse. “Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts” (Psalm 90:12).

Unloading the Bad for the Best

Perhaps my favorite trip of the great year-end purge was my drive to the dump. I unloaded items that weren’t fit to be given away or even recycled—they simply needed to go. Like heaving sandbags off a hot air balloon, after removing those items my home felt lighter and airier. Nothing left to trip over or maneuver around. It wasn’t but days later that the Holy Spirit showed me things in my heart and habits in my life that also needed to go. The intangibles like pride and self-reliance, but also the specifics such as too much time on my iPhone, or spending time on frivolous things that rob me of what’s meaningful. I made some adjustments and set some boundaries. These disciplines will help me get rid of what ultimately keeps me from flourishing. I will never tire of the imagery the author of Hebrews uses, “Therefore since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Sorting the Unnecessary from the Necessary

This step overlaps the first one—Relinquishing the Good for the Best—but it’s different in that it requires a good look at the people and work to which we’re called. I plotted out on a piece of paper the major parts of my work that I know I’m called to and thought about the people the Lord has entrusted to me as an aunt, sibling, daughter, friend, or minister. This gave me the clarity to see what the essentials are in my life. The nominal or simply good activities are more easily spotted once we’ve determined what’s non-negotiable. I think of Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:19-21 from His Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Oddly enough, treasures in heaven can only be stored up from here on earth. As you consider what are the heavenly treasures the Lord wants you to seek, beware of the competing “good” things, be ruthless with getting rid of the competing bad things, and pare back on all things so you have the clarity to see what’s important. I have a feeling you’ll find more treasures worth living for than I found emery boards. And that’s saying something.

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Slow and Steady Faithfulness in the New Year

Slow and Steady Faithfulness in the New Year

As we untangle the lights from the tree, store our precious ornaments in the attic, and make tentative plans to come off sugar at least until the second week of January, many of us will make resolutions for the coming year.

Charting plans and making goals at the top of the year seem like wisdom to me—no time like January to consider what we want to do with a fresh beginning. But what will prove more significant than the one or two major tasks we hope to accomplish this coming year will be our small, daily, faithful acts of obedience to Jesus. These are what will make a far greater difference in our lives when we pull those lights back out next year (and half the bulbs aren’t working). Our daily obedience to Christ in the seemingly small and hidden places will also put us in the best position to experience our Savior.

ZECHARIAH, ELIZABETH, AND THE NEW YEAR

Though we tend to think of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s account in Luke 1 as a Christmas story, their faithful obedience is also a good New Year’s one. Luke goes out of his way to detail how good and faithful these two servants were (Luke 1:6). He also goes out of his way to detail the plight they bore as a childless couple (Luke 1:7). Can you imagine how many times Zechariah showed up for work for his daily tasks as one of 18,000 priests? Or how many times he ran through his ritualistic duties, offered a sacrifice, or prayed for a worshipper, meanwhile wondering when God was ever going to answer his and Elizabeth’s own prayer for a child? Not to mention their prayers for a long-awaited Redeemer to come and rescue their people. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s daily obedience was being worked out when it’s most difficult to obey—in their trials and longings.

 
How many times do we tire of taking the next right step or simply doing the next thing we know we’re supposed to do? The regular and sometimes mundane tasks of the day can seem like the least likely place for God to show up. And yet isn’t it true that most of the supernatural happenings we read about in the Bible took place in the middle of someone’s otherwise “normal” circumstances. While supernatural happenings solely belong to God, our daily faithfulness and obedience tend to put us in the places where we’re most likely to encounter Him. This is exactly what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth.
 

A LONG OBEDIENCE IN THE SAME DIRECTION

After decades of serving, Zechariah was chosen for a special task of service in the Lord’s temple. This sacred opportunity came around once in a priest’s lifetime. As Zechariah was burning incense and the priests were outside the temple praying, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Your prayer has been heard.” Those words changed everything for Zechariah and Elizabeth. All those steps of quiet obedience, every faithful act, every uttered prayer had led to this moment. I’m not talking about works-righteousness here or the false idea that if you do the right thing you’ll earn a blessing. No. I’m talking about how much the Lord delights in a long obedience in the same direction (as Eugene Peterson wrote about), and how our small acts of daily devotion make a difference over the long haul.

As we begin a new year, do you find yourself praying the same prayers you were praying last year? Are you wondering if your daily faithfulness and obedience are really worth it? Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story should give you confidence. Not in your ability to be righteous and blameless, but in God’s power to accomplish His good work in your life. Not in your strength to crush the goals on your list for the new year, but in His grace to empower you to take daily steps of obedience, even when they seem small and insignificant. After all, God has been known to show up in the most unexpected places. And we want to be there when He does.

 

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A Place at the Table For You

A Place at the Table For You

Day 1: Preparing Our Hearts

As we seek to turn our hearts to the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, I pray these devotionals will be an encouragement to you, an anchor in a season that thrives on busyness and activity (and materialism while we’re at it.) For some of us the Christmas season is truly one of our favorite times of the year, yet we can blink and miss everything that matters about it. For others, it’s a challenging time when we’re reminded of what we don’t have or all the ways our Christmas can’t measure up to our ideal. No matter how you’re entering the season, we can all find hope and refuge by turning our hearts to the Christmas story and the life-changing message of Jesus. 

We often think that Jesus’ birth begins the Christmas story, but there’s a story before the story. Luke 1 opens with a couple named Elizabeth and Zechariah. Both were from distinguished Jewish lines and both were righteous people who earnestly followed God’s commands. What’s more, Zechariah was a priest in the house of the Lord. In modern terms these are the people who can trace their ancestors back to missionaries or church-planters, who teach the kids in Sunday School, who always have a casserole ready for the neighbors. We love these kinds of people, and if we’re honest we expect that the really good guys should enter Christmas blessed in all the ways we think of as blessed. 

But there was a problem. An ache. A prayer that had long gone unanswered. Luke 1:7 tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah had no children. Elizabeth was barren, and both of them were old and past child bearing years. Not being able to bear children in first century Judaism was a deep grief not only because of the obvious void, but also because it cost you your legacy in Jewish culture. You were unable to carry on your family name and line. In many ways, it cost you your status in society and even your standing in your religious circle.  

We’d expect Luke to write that because they were righteous God blessed them with a large family, filling every room in their home with children. But that’s not what the verse says. Something that’s always stood out to me about this story is the way Luke puts Zechariah and Elizabeth’s blameless walk before the Lord right up against their barrenness (Luke 1:6-7). I think Luke wanted to tell us many things here, but one is that just because you’re going through a trial doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. And just because you’ve prayed a prayer that hasn’t been answered yet doesn’t mean God has abandoned or forgotten about you.

Scripture Reading and Questions for Reflection:

Read Luke 1:1-7.

  • According to verses 3-4, why did Luke write the way he did and what did he want his readers to feel confident about?

  • What two reasons does Luke give for why Zechariah and Elizabeth couldn’t have children (verse 7)?

  • Are you going through something that seems impossible for more than one reason? What are they?

  • Does it encourage you or discourage you to see that two really good people who were following the Lord also were experiencing a painful void in their lives? Explain.

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