Ryan Strother

Check Your Heart First

God teaches us an important lesson through Gideon: focus on your heart before you focus on others’ hearts.

In Judges 6, Gideon knew that God was raising him up to save Israel from the oppression of Midian. The very night that Gideon had a revival moment with God, building the altar called the Lord is Peace, God gave him his first instruction. It is not a war plan; it’s a worship plan.

Priorities! You would think that God would unveil some great military plan to stop the Midianites,

sort of like he did to Deborah and Barak. But God takes a different course of action here and we must catch this lesson. Israel wanted peace. They experience oppression for seven years under the hand of Midian and cried out to the Lord for help. God raised up Gideon to save them, but they needed to look into their own camp for peace and freedom before thinking about Midian. Israel was filled with idolatry and God told Gideon to tear down to the altars to Baal and Asherah in his own town before he gave him any instruction about the Midianites. God was reorienting their heart to Him–a worship plan!

You must get your priorities right in order to be at peace with the Lord. You can cry out to him when you’re in difficult moments (like Israel), but if you’re still trying to find satisfaction and peace in idols, it’s going to be very difficult to see the Lord for who He is and who He needs to be in your life.

Check your own heart before you try to step out in faith to accomplish what the Lord has called you to.  

Photo by Taylor Nicole on Unsplash

Five To Focus 21. Let Scripture Correct

The third of four roles of Scripture in your life: it will correct you.

Scripture reference: 2 Timothy 3:16

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Overcoming Doubt By Trusting God’s Character

Fear can cripple us from obeying God. We will come up with all kind of excuses, like Gideon. Judges 6 introduces Gideon as a fearful man. We are introduced to Gideon in verse 11. He is threshing wheat in a winepress. Now, what is wrong with that—threshing wheat in a winepress? It is unusual, but it is also clear from verse 11 that he is hiding from the Midianites. He can’t be out in the open with this or they’ll take it.

What Gideon didn’t realize is that God has chosen him to be the next Judge, the one who would rescue Israel from this oppression from the Midianites.

The Angel of the Lord visited him and said “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (v.12). Two parts- first, a reference to the Lord, and second, a reference to Gideon.

Gideon takes issue with the first reference—God? where is God?

There’s something really interesting about Gideon by the way— if he’s no older than 40-50 years old at this time (maybe the average lifespan of a man at that time), then he was born into a time of peace in Israel. Prior to being put into Midianite oppression, Israel experienced 40 years of peace.

All he knew was peace. These last 7 years were something so foreign to him.

So, he was doubting the character of God, and it didn’t take long for him to get to that point. He might have lived for 40 years hearing the good accounts of God to Israel, and then in 7 short years, his view of God changed.

Circumstances can quickly change your worldview if you’re not careful to keep a proper focus.  

Gideon also took issue with the second part of what the angel of the Lord told him—that he was a mighty man of valor. He explained how he was the youngest person in his family, which was the weakest family in their tribe.

God doesn’t say, ‘Oh no, you’re not that weak’; he doesn’t correct him. It’s true: Gideon really must have been weak! But God told him what would forever change his life and lift him out of his crippling doubt and fear: “I will be with you” (v.16).

Eventually, Gideon built an altar to the Lord and called it “The Lord is Peace” (v.24). He stopped thinking about himself–his limitations and his lack of understanding–and found peace by remembering God’s character.

Think about the name of this altar. The Lord is Peace. The name addressed every doubt that Gideon had. He remembered who God is. The fears, hiding, doubting—all of that is met in the God of Peace.

Is fear crippling you from obeying God? Don’t make excuses from your personal limitations, but trust in the character of God to complete what He started in you (Phil. 1:6).

Five To Focus 20. Let Scripture Rebuke

The second of four roles of Scripture in your life: it will rebuke you.

Scripture reference: 2 Timothy 3:16

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Circumstances Blind Us to God’s Faithfulness

You’ve probably heard the account of Jesus feeding of the 5,000–all these people getting hungry, no food, doubting disciples, and Jesus miraculously multiplying the five loaves and two fish to not just feed everyone but have much left over as well (Matthew 14:13-21).

Notice that the phrase “desolate place” occurs twice (verses 13 & 15) in this passage. That’s part of the setting. A desolate place and hungry people.

Now fast forward to Matthew 15:32-39 where the feeding of the 4,000 is recorded. This situation is similar but different from the feeding of the 5,000 (Jesus acknowledges both in Matthew 16:9-10). The similarity is that people are gathered to hear Jesus teach and they are hungry (16:32). Jesus told his disciples that he had compassion for those hungry people and desired to feed them.

But look at what the disciples ask Jesus right after he says that:  “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?”

Wait-WHAT??!!! Did they already forget what happened possibly within just a week prior?

  • The desolate place.
  • Enough food.
  • So great a crowd.

ALL of that was true for the feeding of the 5,000. Two desolate places. Enough? There was more than enough–12 leftover baskets in fact (14:20). So great a crowd? They just saw a great crowd miraculously fed.

Somehow, all of a sudden, the circumstances blinded the disciples from God’s faithfulness and the power of Christ.   

Does this happen in your life? You have seen God provide and have seen his grace over and over. But for some reason, when that difficult situation confronts you, you somehow go blind to His faithfulness.

Find great comfort in 2 Timothy 2:13: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”  The context of that passage contrasts denying Christ with being faithless. The ESV Study Bible footnote says that being faithless is a temporary lapse in trusting Christ, for which there is still hope because Christ is faithful to pardon, restore, and keep those who are truly his.

Even when we find ourselves like the disciples having a temporary lapse in trusting Christ, there is still grace and forgiveness. Right after the disciples ask Jesus how they could feed so many people, Jesus doesn’t just slap them across the face and say don’t you remember last week??!!

No, our gracious Savior lovingly said, “How many loaves do you have?” Grace on display! The Lord could look into your circumstances and calmly ask you to tell him all about it, then trust Him, and rely on His grace for every situation.   

Five To Focus 19. Let Scripture Teach

The first of four roles of Scripture in your life: it will teach you.

Scripture reference: 2 Timothy 3:16

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How To Listen to Boring Preaching

Ever listen to a boring sermon? As I preacher, I can honestly say that some sermons are more effective than others due to the preacher’s preparation and delivery. But the effectiveness of a sermon could also rest on the listener’s preparation and reception.

Preaching should explain and apply Scripture. It is a laborious work to preach; and it is a laborious work to listen and interact with a sermon. You might find Daryl Crouch’s article helpful on the listener’s preparation side, and I want to address the reception side by sharing a practical method of interacting with a sermon to allow it to be most effective in conforming you to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

I first read about the DOOR method from Adam Feldman in his book Journaling: Catalyzing Spiritual Growth Through Reflection (chapter 6). I want to share that outline, adding a few comments to each part.

When listening to a sermon, take notes! Here’s an outline you could use:

D- Details

Adam says to write down the important details about the sermon preached, like the date, preacher’s name, sermon title, and Scripture reference(s). When I was preparing to officiate a funeral, I looked through the Bible of the godly woman we would remember. I was struck by how she wrote these details in the margins of her Bible. She has my name and “1st sermon at Central” by the passage I first preached there. The memories were remarkable!

I would also add that if you are listening to a sermon and these details are not easily found, especially the Scripture reference, you might want to consider if you are actually listening to preaching. Also, being able to look quickly to compare your notes when you’ve heard sermons from the same passage could be very helpful to remind you of the applications you made during those different seasons of life.

O- Outline

Adam recognizes that you must discipline yourself to listen for the “flow” of a sermon. Some preachers readily and easily give an outline, whether in print or verbally. I think this part of your sermon notes could help you become less distracted. You have to be intently listening in order to complete this section of notes. Listening for the outline/flow of a sermon will keep you from cherry-picking tweetable quotes without understanding the context in which they were given.

O- Observation

Adam points out that you should be observing three persons: yourself (What is going on inside of you as you listen? Are you open to receiving this message?), the preacher (what is he most passionate about in the sermon?), and the Holy Spirit (What is He saying to you?).

I like this reflective model of listening. It takes the main points you might list in the “outline” section of your notes a little further, setting you up for recognizing how you should be transformed by that Scripture. While Adam is right in focusing on your reactions to the message, I would say that you must be careful not to let your feelings during the sermon blind to the meaning of the biblical text.

For example, I know people who were upset after a sermon I preached it touched on a particular sin they were involved in. If they were note-taking during that sermon, they might have noted how they felt. Ultimately, they stopped coming to our worship services because they allowed their emotions to supercede Scripture. Always conform your feelings to the truth of Scripture, not the other way around.

R- Respond

Consider asking, “How will I apply the Word preached today in the coming days?” I like this final point because it does not allow you to leave a sermon as an academic or philosophic pursuit. The Bible is to be learned and lived!

Two common mistakes in responding is 1) being too general or 2) putting too much. If you are too general, you won’t actually do anything. Saying, “Speak encouraging words to my neighbor when I see him outside” is better than “love others more.”  If you write five specific responses, you risk being overwhelmed and potentially inactive.

Try the DOOR method this Sunday. What other ways do you interact with a sermon?

Five To Focus 18. Sixty-Six Books Tell One Story

A common argument against the inspiration of Scripture: The Bible is a collection of unrelated books. From the outside, it is kind of strange how Christians talk about the Bible: is it a book, or is it 66 books? Find out how you can get more from the Bible by keeping the larger story in view.

Scripture reference: 2 Peter 1:19

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Be Thankful for the Deborahs In Your Life

My mom’s name is Deborah, and I’m thankful for her. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I am referring to the relationship between Deborah and Barak in the book of Judges (chapters 4 and 5). Deborah was a prophetess, meaning she spoke God’s word to His people.  She was a wise woman, settling disputes under a palm tree. Barak was a military leader who faced the ruthless and technologically-superior Canaanites in order to deliver the Israelites from their oppression. This victory was an act of God’s grace for His people (Israel), and Deborah and Barak were major players.

In Judges 4:6-7, Deborah summoned Barak and said, “Hasn’t the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you: ‘Go, deploy the troops on Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the Naphtalites and Zebulunites? Then I will lure Sisera commander of Jabin’s army, his chariots, and his infantry at the Wadi Kishon to fight against you, and I will hand him over to you.’”

When I was reading that recently, I noticed something–God had already told Barak what he was to do and had already promised victory. Deborah was admonishing Barak to be faithful to what God had already said.

My point:  be thankful for the “Deborahs” in your life who admonish you to be obedient to Scripture.

God has spoken and we have that record in the 66 books the Bible. It can be painful to hear someone say, “Didn’t God say…,” pointing out sin in our lives, but we need to be humble as we’re admonished toward obedience to God’s Word.

Be thankful for the Deborahs in your life.

Remember and Repent

David messed up pretty badly when he slept with Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) and then tried to cover it up. When that didn’t work, he had Uriah killed and then took Bathsheba as his wife (2 Samuel 11). It’s easy to wonder how a King of God’s people could get into such a situation, and it would be easy to think that he could never be restored to the Lord after that.

But God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love (Ps. 103:8). He forgave David when David confessed his sin, repented, and asked for forgiveness. David suffered under the weight of unconfessed sin, however, and he wonderfully recorded the internal struggle at the beginning of Psalm 32, even remarking on how it impacted him physically.

Psalm 51 is David’s penitent prayer after he finally acknowledged his sin (read how a prophet helped him realize his sinful ways in 2 Samuel 11 and 12). It is the source of at least one great song and is a go-to passage on sin and repentance.

In verses 7-12, David expresses his desire for forgiveness and what would come with it. He desired joy, gladness, rejoicing, purity, a clean heart, and a right spirit. Then at the beginning of verse 12 he says Restore to me the joy of your salvation…

David was following a pattern that Jesus later gave in the book of Revelation. Jesus told the church in Ephesus:  “Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. . .” (Revelation 2:5, CSB)  The two verbs there (remember and repent) show us how the joy of our salvation can be restored after we sin.

David remembered the joy of his salvation.

Maybe he was recounting all the blessings of the Lord and the incredible work of God in his life. He could think back to times of joy that came when he was abiding in the Lord and saw the blessings of obedience. He wanted that again. Sin stole his joy.

David repented of his sin.

He confessed his sin, realizing that he had sinned against God. He knew that if he could be forgiven of sin and purified in his heart, then he could have that joy that was stolen. The chasm that sin created between God and him (Isaiah 59:2) could be removed and he could live in the power of the Lord with joy. This power and joy is why repentance is still a necessary part of a Christian’s life.

Sometimes remembering how far we have fallen helps us come to the humble place of repentance. Recounting your testimony of how you came to the Lord and received new life reminds you of perfect fellowship with the Lord. We can remember where we once were with the Lord, and then remember that He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love.

Remember, repent, and find joy restored.

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