On Studying Well

Something I get asked fairly often is “how do I get to the point where I actually want to spend time in the Word and enjoy it?”

My short answer is probably frustrating and redundant: “by spending more time in the Word.”

As Christians, we know that we are supposed to be familiar with what God says to us. We accept the authority the scriptures, their place in history and their effect on human events. Most of us desire to gain knowledge from our study time, which is good and noble. Why then, do so many of us struggle to even want to dig deeper? We have everything we could possibly need and more at our fingertips… commentaries, books, studies, you name it. Yet we simply don’t make the time. When we do, we often stop at the knowledge part and never move on to much application.

When I was a teen, the big buzzword in our church youth group was the “devo”, short for devotional. We would carve out time every morning to do our devo, journal some verses, and dutifully pray over what we studied. I even had a notebook that was neatly divided into four sections for praise, thanksgiving, confession and requests. It was well-intentioned and helped me build a good foundation for understanding God’s word, but something was still missing.

Years go by and we grow and change, our study and understanding of Jesus and His word hopefully growing and changing with us. There are high points and low points, times when we stubbornly turn our backs on Him and moments when we run straight into His arms. It took years of spiritual rollercoaster-riding for me to finally put into place some practical steps that helped me stay connected and abiding. Realizing this was His will all along, I tasted the freedom and joy it brought and never wanted to go back. Here are some of the “big ideas” that helped me, I hope they can help you too:

  • Just be a branch. In John 15, Jesus gives us a powerful picture of our position in life. We are branches attached to the Vine. It is through constant and consistent abiding in Him that we receive everything we need to be alive and bear fruit. The burden producing fruit isn’t on us, it’s a natural occurrence to our staying connected. Branches don’t disconnect one day and reconnect the next… they simply stay connected and receive what they need. Study the branch and vine relationship!
  • Camp out in the Word. It’s easy to want to follow a chronological reading plan, and they can be useful in giving us a total overview of what the Bible is about. It is important to study the entirety of the Bible for ourselves. Often, He wants to speak a specific word to us and have us meditate on it. If we are bouncing all over the place trying to keep up with a reading plan, we can miss out. When God places a verse on your heart, don’t rush on to the next thing. Cross-reference it, look up commentary about it, journal it, and let it sink in. If it’s too hard to believe at first, that’s ok. Our job is to remain and allow Him to clarify things and change our hearts in the process.
  • Stay Thirsty. Ok, yes I realize this is a slogan from a beer commercial, but when it comes to our spiritual growth, it’s true. No matter the circumstances, we must stay thirsty for more of God. Great times should push us forward just as much as difficult times. Psalm 34:8 tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Once we have experienced the joy that comes from abiding, it’s only natural that we will be thirsty for more.
  • Remember Obedience. This part isn’t very fun or cozy feeling, but it must be said. The Bible is clear that life is not always going to go our way. We can’t just go around doing whatever we please and expect God to bless our endeavors. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that a condition for discipleship is denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (Luke 9:23). Obedience can be a sticking point for us though, if we see it in the wrong light. We don’t obey just to get a reward, we obey because we love Him and cherish His commands. We don’t follow rules out of legalism, we do it because we are in relationship with Jesus and because He has freed us from sin so that we may obey Him. It’s a privilege and a blessing to want to live in accordance with His word. We’ll mess up, we will fall short… but when our hearts are set on following His direction, we say no to the wishy-washy rollercoaster life that gives sin such a foothold over us.

I often think that we make it too hard on ourselves. We feel so overwhelmed by the sheer number of Bible studies and books and seven-step programs out there that we never really get started. We forget that God Himself is our source and He’s all we need. James 1:5 tells us, “if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. How encouraging this should be for us! We can start right where we are at, with our questions and our doubts. We should actually expect Him to illuminate His word and clarify it for us.

We can’t live for very long on the spiritual experiences of others or expect anyone else to do the digging for us. The challenge (and blessing) of getting in the Word for ourselves is that we have to get our hands dirty. We must taste for ourselves that the promises are true. Once that happens, I promise you, you’ll never want to go back to a lukewarm relationship with His word.

Stay thirsty, friends.

The Choice To Start

I wrote the other day about how disappointed I felt in myself for not following through with some things I wanted to do last year. The biggest one for me by far was not making the time to sit down and share with my boys things that I felt would be helpful to them in their walk with Christ. There were a few books that really impacted me, books that deal with this crazy upside down culture and our role as Jesus-followers in it. If you have kids, you know the feeling: I want them to get this! I want them to understand this! If they can just see through all this nonsense to the truth… maybe they won’t fall for the lies… maybe they will be different…

I spend a lot of time floundering around in the sad reality that we live in a world that is basically amusing itself to death, sacrificing everything meaningful for superficial ‘likes’ and virtual approval from total strangers. This isn’t the world I grew up in and it’s hard for me to relate to how deeply this affects them sometimes. The things I struggled with seem like small potatoes compared to what my kids have already seen first-hand. You Tube influencers confound me. Idol-worship of people so completely in love with themselves makes me cringe. The absence of the ability to think for themselves scares me. G.K. Chesterton said, “We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with news that the grass is green.” We are there, and sometimes I feel like an eighty year old grandmother who can’t adjust to the times. The reality though, is that I am a Jesus-follower and a parent who is charged with discipling two young men in a world turned inside-out. The reality is that God never changes, even when culture does. The truth is, in the past I have let it overwhelm me to the point of inaction. It’s so much easier to just cruise on through the days, dealing with things as they come, but never really being intentional about getting to the heart of it all. What’s that old saying? “The days are long but the years are short.” It’s true. Suddenly I have a high schooler. In a moment he will be out on his own. A minute after that, his brother will follow. What do I want them to hear from me before they go? We spend our time doing the best we can, telling them what not to do, lecturing them on the dangers that lurk behind every corner, but are we giving them something to actually live for?

Proverbs 29:18 says “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint.”  We have to have a vision from God, something positive and promising to go after, if we are going to really live. Without it, we just run wild without any direction or intent. This explains why “good” kids do really dumb things. Adults too, for that matter.

So this morning, I decided to just get going. I sat down and began a little folder for each of my boys. I don’t really have a well thought out plan, and that’s ok. The problem I encountered last year is that I had so much I wanted to share, I didn’t share anything. I couldn’t organize my thoughts, so I did nothing. Today, I started with this verse and a C.S. Lewis essay called “Men Without Chests” about how head knowledge is no match for the unbridled passions in our belly that override our reason. We need a chest to help the head rule the belly. Strong men know how to keep the fire in the belly from burning down the house. Seemed like something good for young men to hear. I crudely typed out some thoughts, printed them out and stuck it in a folder for each of them. I boldly asked for 20 minutes of their time, which in a world where online games rule the day, is a bigger deal than it may seem. We started. They were mildly interested, and that’s ok. I hope we can build on it.

We put too much pressure on getting things just right before we start anything and we wind up doing nothing. I liken our time today to the first time a person exercises in awhile… kind of a hot mess, but better than nothing. Little moments of faithfulness every day, like exercise or a good daily vitamin, is worth far more than sporadic moments here and there. I have a vision based on God’s promises and that gives me hope that we can grow together in His wisdom. It’s never too late. There will be eye rolls along the way to be sure, there will be dramatic whining and bad attitudes at times, and that’s ok. It won’t be perfect, but with time and faithfulness, I hope that they can have a prophetic vision all their own to keep chasing after.

Heart Resolutions

“On a note of hope, on a strong amen

“I will start anew, I will make amends

And I’ll thank the world and remember when

I was able to begin again!”

Ebenezer Scrooge (Albert Finney), Scrooge

We made it! Another Christmas season come and gone. While normal people are sitting around the tree enjoying their homes and families, I am packing away Christmas like it’s my job and staring excitedly at my 2019 planner. Not because I don’t like Christmas, I love it. I love it so much I may have started decorating for it just after halloween. We celebrate long and hard, but when it’s done, my greatest present to myself is a clean-ish house and a fresh start.

We wrapped up Christmas night with a final watching of one of our favorites, Scrooge, and the timeless story of a changed heart and new beginnings. The end always gets me, when Ebenezer’s eyes are finally opened to the beauty around him and he stops focusing on the wrong things. We use the New Year as our jumping off point for new beginnings. Hope is a powerful thing. We all know though, that by early March the shiny promises have begun to tarnish a bit.

The beauty of this story to me is that Scrooge isn’t making any New Years resolutions or empty promises, his heart really is different. You just know that this isn’t going to fade away. The difference between heart and head decisions are big ones. There’s a lot of things in my head I’d like to accomplish, but unless they are planted in my heart, I know all too well not much is going to happen. Good intentions always lead me into frustration because they don’t have much backing them up when it gets difficult.

We need times to ‘start anew’… we need hope… we need to make our amends and move forward, even if it is into the unknown. Each new calendar year gives us the chance to do that in part, but the freedom we have in Christ means that every day can be our January first.

Before any lofty goal can change us on the outside, God’s words to us must ba able to start their work from the inside. “My son give attention to my words; For they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep your heart with diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:20-23

Every single day can be a new start with Him. He doesn’t hold our past against us, He holds out His hand anew to us every morning and just invites us to step back in to our story.

Just Go Fishing

“The world seems to have a real genius for being wrong, even the educated world. I can see how a right man might live in a wrong world and not be affected by it except that the world will not let him alone. It wants to educate him. Society, being fluid, usually moves like the wind, going all out in one direction until the novelty wears off. Whatever people happen to be interested in at the moment must be accepted as normal… our highest ambition should be to become integrated to the mass, to lose our moral individuality as a whole.” AW Tozer  Culture

AW Tozer wrote here in this essay of just wanting to go fishing, but the world and its nonsense just wouldn’t leave him alone. I’m sure we all can relate. There are times I walk into a room and my husband is watching the news and I just walk right out… my brain just can’t handle it. It’s like Alice in Wonderland up in here, and everything is topsy-turvy.

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The Brains God Gave You

“My oldest son recently became a teenager and I attended a meeting for youth group parents at my church. The leaders said they’d be tackling a myriad of topics this year, ranging from respecting one’s parents to unpacking the transgender phenomenon permeating our local high schools. A parent asked, “What curriculum are you using?” The leader responded, “The Bible.” We need more of this, please and thank you.”

A really insightful article today at Uncomfortable Grace discussing our need to use the brains God have us when discerning who and what we pledge our allegiance to. In this age of opinions and outrage, we must be careful to not set our minds to autopilot when it comes to deciding where we plant our own flag.

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Baby Tigers and False Peace

“Is it even possible to live a holy Christian life? The kind of life we talk about and aspire to, but seem to fall short of on a daily basis?”

Some form of this question has been buzzing around in my conversations the past week or so with different people in my life. I’ve come to the conclusion that we humans fall into two categories on this subject: man-centered or God-surrendered.

A man-centered approach to this life assumes (rightly so) that we are a hopelessly flawed bunch of people trying to do our best. Not just flawed, but sinful. We float from one good intention to another, sometimes succeeding, but often falling short. We hope that we can meet the goals we’ve set, but we are realistic about the fact that we are mere mortals and certainly not saints. The bar is always just a little bit out of reach.

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For The Simple Folk

Reading backwards through the Psalms this morning… does anyone else have that habit of flipping through a magazine from back to front? It probably means something weird psychologically, I don’t know. I noticed some neat things when I read them from the bottom up:

“The Lord will perfect that which concerns me.” 138:8

“I have chosen the way of truth.” 119:30

“Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with a whole heart. You have commanded us to keep your precepts diligently.” 119:2-4

“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” 119:11

I’m not one for ten-step programs or reducing God’s word down to bullet points, but I think there’s something really beautiful here in the Psalms and in the way they all fit together to give us a bigger picture:

We hide His word in our heart > we whole-heartedly obey Him > we choose to make His truth our truth  > He works out and perfects everything that concerns us.

So often, we read a verse like 138:8 about God working things out for us, and we shut our Bibles and think ‘well, God’s in charge!’ and move on doing our own thing. We want the end result, but aren’t willing to really dig in deeper to see what our role may be. Psalm 119 is all about Gods word and how we are to treasure it in our hearts. Without first doing that, we aren’t able to obey Him or choose truth. It follows that our obedience to His word knits us together with His will which brings us to that much-coveted outcome of Him perfecting the things that concern us. I don’t like formulas, especially when they concern our living, breathing relationship with our Creator. We are way too easily swayed by human catch phrases… but I do know that we as Christians must treasure His words to us more than anything else.

“The entrance of Your words gives light. It gives understanding to the simple.” 119:130

You don’t have to be a theological scholar to know the truth, you just have to love His word and give it priority in your life. When we love what God has to say, we actually can’t help but “hate every false way” (119:104).

But we straddle fences we know we should get down off of.

We dip our toes into waters that have a potential to sweep us away.

We casually play with fire knowing full-well it could burn our house down.

And we lament the fact that God isn’t “perfecting” the things He said he would.

I saw a pretty little picture frame at a boutique the other day that read “Nothing can stop Gods plan for your life”. Is that true? In theory, yes… God is God and He has a marvelous plan, but we have choices to make that either keep us on the path or knock us off. That phrase implies we can do whatever we want and God’s blessings will still come to pass. We need only to glance around at the world to see that doesn’t work.

Yolk yourself closely with an unbeliever and see what comes to pass. Allow drugs or alcohol to rule over your body and see what happens. Keep anger and unforgiveness stirred up in your heart and show me how that little phrase can possible be true. It can’t.

God is the great redeemer of all those things and more, so let’s not think we need to be perfect or that I’m throwing any stones here. I’m saying we can really clog up the works when we don’t treasure and love what He says in His word. His mercies are new every morning, we never fall too far out of His reach. It should be our hearts greatest desire to choose Him over and over again so that we don’t have to live in a constant state of panic. We say we want a steady and blessed life, but we place ourselves too far out of bounds for that to be possible. the Bible tells us we are like sheep and our only safety lies in sticking close to our Shepherd. Wandering off to greener pastures invites disaster. He’ll come and get us, He’ll “leave the 99” (as the ever-popular Reckless Love song plays over in my head)… but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s ok to go wandering off like a dumb sheep all the time. He wants us with Him. He gave us this wonderful Word of His so that we would actually desire to stay close, sober and alert. That’s how things get “perfected” in our lives.

My girl Lisa Whittle sums it up nicely, so I’ll leave you with these thoughts:

“At a certain point we have to ask ourselves if we want to continue to settle for a hot and cold Jesus life and if we can really stomach one more year of the spiritual roller coaster. At some point, we have to choose to do something else. When we are truly tired of being on the spiritual roller coaster, we will do something about it. Until then, we are only a little weary and a lot on the fence. A true commitment to God is a thorough, overarching commitment over every area of our life. It’s the kind of commitment that lasts, and keeps us off the highs and lows of Christian living. Commitments to Him have never come cheap. It’s not enough to say “Yes, I accepted You as a Savior” and then go on our way. It has to be about “Today I choose You again.” And if there is to be a sacrifice in all our choosing, let us not look at the denial but at the better that has come from it. For in our love and obedience, we become grounded, steady, solid as a rock. It’s not our figuring out how to get more brace or lifting more spiritual weights by joining every Bible study we can get our hands on. It’s in the choosing of our God and choosing Him over and over again.” 

Choose Him today. Choose Him when it’s hard, love His Word more than you love your own way. God knows we are simple people, He doesn’t ask that we figure it all out, He just wants us to be all-in so He can do all that ‘perfecting’ we so desperately want and need.