Christian Living

Helpful articles to encourage followers of Jesus.

Finish Well By Staying Focused

It has been amazing to hear the stories of Billy Graham’s impact on so many people in the last few weeks since his death. Billy Graham is a man who finished well.

I’ve been preaching through Judges some recently and we see a different story in Gideon. He didn’t end well. We can learn at least two ways to end well by looking at Gideon’s poor example. This post is the first way–stay focused. Stay focused on God’s ways for your life.

Two manifestations of Gideon not being focused on God’s plan:  

Pursuing his own desires

Gideon didn’t finish well because he became consumed by pursuing his own desires. In Judges 8:4, he leads his 300 men across the Jordan toward the east to pursue two kings from Midian. God won a large battle for the Israelites over the Midianites (recorded in chapter 7), and used Gideon as a leader in that work. In chapter 8, though, there is no mention of the Lord working–just Gideon.

First, he pushed past boundaries that seem unwise. He crossed back over the Jordan, which would go beyond the area of the Promised Land that God gave. His motivation is clear: retaliation. The kings killed his brothers, so he wanted to kill them (Judges 8:19). Nothing seemed unreasonable to Gideon in that pursuit.

Being harsh with God’s people

Gideon could be seen as a brutal aggressor in this passage, even to God’s people. Succoth was established by Jacob initially, and Penuel was the site where Jacob wrestled with God and God dislocated his hip (Gen. 33).

Gideon asks them to supply bread and both refuse. Gideon’s response to Succoth when he didn’t get his way: “So Gideon said, ‘Well then, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will flail your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.’” (Judges 8:7, ESV) Woah! If you have that response to people who don’t go along with your plan, there’s something wrong with your heart!

Gideon told Penuel that he would break down their tower, probably referring to the defensive tower of the city. In other words, I’ll make you vulnerable and defenseless. Sadly, these weren’t empty promises (Judges 8:13,17).

Gideon wasn’t focused on the Lord’s plan all the way to the end. The last records we have of his leadership over Israel is this debacle and what we’ll look at next week.

What is your motivation, and how do you love others?  Answering this will help you know if you are focused on the Lord’s plan for you.

 

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God’s Commands Are Not Burdensome Because You Are A Conqueror

If the pressure of the world is mounting, remember that if you are in Christ, you are staring at a defeated foe. You are no longer under the control of the world’s ways. Don’t give up!

3For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. And his commands are not a burden,  4because everyone who has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3–4, CSB)

God’s commandments are not burdensome, contrary to what some might think. God’s commands not being burdensome is connected to the fact that those who have been born again have overcome the world. Do you see the first word of v.4— “because”?

Think about how the world impacts us. When the bible talks about the world in the figurative sense, it is talking about the ways associated with a sinful fallen world.

24The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient,  25instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth. 26Then they may come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26, CSB)

Do you realize that we are born into sin, and therefore, are slaves to the will of Satan?  We are in bondage to sin. If you think God’s commands are burdensome, then you don’t understand the futility of the world’s ways.

It’s burdensome to pursue greed; lust; anger; wealth in order to find satisfaction because they will never bring lasting, eternal fulfillment.

Yet, while being in bondage to sin and burdened by the world’s ways, some ironically look at the way of freedom that Christ offers as being burdensome!

Here’s what John says: His commands are not a burden, because everyone who has been born of God conquers the world. The burden has been released by Christ! His ways free us from the world’s futile ways and lead us into the way of righteousness. We have overcome the world, so the way of freedom is not a burden!

In fact, our slavery has been flipped around in a sense:

17 But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching to which you were handed over,  18 and having been set free from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. 19 I am using a human analogy because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification. (Romans 6:17-19, CSB)

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You Don’t Need Scripture & Your Fleeces To Trust God

What’s the deal with Gideon’s fleece in Judges 6:36-40? This passage is one of those strange ones in the Old Testament that makes you wonder how we are to apply it to our lives. Here’s the summary:

Midian and other pagan nations gather together, cross the Jordan River, and camp at the Jezreel Valley. The battle is set between this pagan nation and God’s people, Israel. The Spirit of the Lord is empowering Gideon and God’s people gather when Gideon sounds the trumpet and sends messengers to bring them in. This is going to be a big battle!

You would think that Gideon would be fully confident because God already told him that He would save Israel through Gideon. But instead, Gideon asks for another sign (God has already been gracious to give some) that God would do what He said He would do. He asks him twice to perform a sign with a fleece he lays down. First, to put all of the dew on the fleece and not on the ground around it. Second, all the dew on the ground but not on the fleece.

Gideon is testing God.  And that was a sin. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16, ESV). Gideon must have known this because he asks the Lord in verse 39 to not be angry with him! In fact, there is only one time the Lord says it’s okay to test him, and that is with bringing in the tithe and seeing God’s blessing (Malachi 3:10).

This passage is an example of a descriptive passage (explaining what happened, not necessarily endorsing it), not a prescriptive passage (command). We know it is a descriptive passage because Gideon is committing a sin and he even knows it.

Some people ask the Lord for a supernatural sign of some kind before stepping out in faith. But He has already given us His Word! The whole time someone might be asking for a sign, the Lord has already given guidance for the right things that are to be done. Some believe that there will be a new revelation from God, something outside of his already-complete Scripture (the 66 books of the Bible), and they cherish that false idea more than the truth that God has already given to them.   

Just because Gideon put out a fleece and God answered his request to make it wet and the ground dry does not mean that this is how God speaks to everyone. Don’t think that you need the Bible and your fleeces (or just your fleeces) to hear God speak. God was gracious to Gideon–his was a very specific situation of a timid servant needing some reassurance.

Let’s put our trust in the Lord and His Word and not in signs.

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Two Reminders for Overcoming Timidity

A page in A.A. Milne’s book The House At Pooh Corner said,

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Have you ever felt that way with God? You just want to be sure of His presence with you. In moments of weakness, we can be timid in obeying the Lord. Yet, Psalm 100:2 tells us to serve the Lord with gladness. How do you reconcile those feelings?

Let me encourage you: by God’s grace, timidity can turn to confidence.

2 Reminders For Finding Victory Over Timidity:  

You are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

In Judges 6:34, The Spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon. He was completely covered and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God for his task. In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit would empower people for specific purposes at specific times.

The difference now is that the Holy Spirit dwells permanently in all who have repented of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…” (Ephesians 1:13, ESV)

Christians are in the spirit, not the flesh. The flesh can become timid, but living by the Spirit can change that.

9You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9-11, ESV)

You have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in you that dwelt in Gideon and even raised Jesus from the dead!  So when you look out at your task for the Lord and you feel timid, remember that you are not working out of your own power—take time in prayer to experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s strength in you.

You have the truth of God to guide you (36).

V.36 is so interesting. Gideon starts by saying “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have said…”  When did God become a liar?  If He already said it, why would you question if He’ll do it?

Timidity comes when you don’t trust the words of God. If you don’t trust the words of God, then what are you going to trust-your words? The words of others? Everything becomes shaky at that point. God has spoken, it is true, and we can follow it faithfully.

“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” (Proverbs 30:5, ESV)

“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19, ESV)

To be guided by Scripture, you need to listen to what the Lord has said and obey those commands. As you’re faithful in those, you’ll grow in faith and gain more wisdom and discretion to be faithful in more specific situations in your life (Proverbs 3:21).

  • You might say I just don’t like this job and I hate going everyday.  The Lord has commanded that we work with all of our heart (Col. 3:23), so you need to be faithful to that command until another door might open.
  • You might say I just feel like I have no control of my children. God has given much instruction on parenting, so study those passages and put them into practice.

You have the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of God to guide you! Be faithful and bold to be committed to the work God has for you.

Are there specific verses or ways that help you overcome timidity in your life?

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.  

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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).

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.   

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?

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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