Episodes

  • Day 197

    Today’s Reading: 2 Timothy 1

    The apostle Paul gets three verses into Timothy’s second letter as a young pastor and reminds him that serving God must be done with a clear conscience: “Timothy, I thank God for you—the God I serve with a clear conscience, just as my ancestors did. Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers” (2 Timothy 1:3, NLT).

    Serving God with a clear conscience. This is paramount in our relationship with God. For the most part a clear conscience helps us to know the voice of God. One of my dear friends and mentors Winkie Pratney said: “A clear conscience is absolutely essential for distinguishing between the voice of God and the voice of the enemy. Unconfessed sin is a prime reason why many do not know God’s will.”

    Your conscience is where you hear the whisper of God and feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The old saying goes, “Conscience does not keep you from doing anything. It just keeps you from enjoying it.” I love a small boy’s definition of what the conscience is: “something that makes you tell your mother before your sister does.” A clear conscience makes you stop before it’s too late. It helps you to slam on the brakes before you say and do something that you will regret later.

    So many people skip a clear conscience and keep going till consequences show up. And so many Christians assume it’s okay to blow by the warning of their conscience and to continue on when really God has given us a mechanism to pause before moving forward.

    Our goal is to have a clear conscience. There are different types of violated consciences in the New Testament, which are important for us to take note of. It comes after a conscience that was not kept clear:

    • Paul warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:2 of a seared conscience.

    • Paul tells Titus in Titus 1:15 to be aware of a defiled conscience.

    • The writer of Hebrews in Hebrews 10:22 warns of an evil conscience.

    I believe that every time we fail to keep our consciences clear, you border on a defiled or evil or even seared conscience. Do not dismiss conviction. It’s the brake for moving forward into regret. Many of us have regrets because we did not respond to conviction. And so it’s important for us to respond to conviction instead of waiting for consequences.

    What makes us stop and pause? Conviction or being caught?

    Conviction is when we feel something deep inside that is like an alarm telling us there is an intruder. Embarrassment will make us stop late, but conviction will go deeper to make us seriously pause early.

    Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and was about to say something that was not edifying about a person, something that was gossip, and you felt this feeling, Don’t say it. That’s God’s warning mechanism for a clear conscience.

    Don’t finish that statement. Don’t start that joke—it compromises who you are. Don’t . . .

    Stay in tune with the whisper of God. That will promote a clear conscience every single day, not just on Sundays at church. When you serve God seven days a week, you fight every day to keep a clear conscience.

    There was a ship that had a regular route from California to Colombia. One day shortly before leaving for California, some drug dealers sent the ship’s captain a message that offered him $500,000 to allow a small shipment of drugs to get through to the United States. The captain replied with a no. On his next three trips, they raised the offer each time until they reached $2 million. He hesitated, and then said, “Maybe.” Then he contacted the FBI, which set up a sting operation, and the drug dealers were arrested. One of the FBI agents asked the captain, “Why did you wait until they got to $2 million before contacting us?” The captain replied, “They were getting close to my price.”

    Do you have a price? Is it 20 percent off a coat or a dress using your friend’s employee discount, which belongs to them and not you? But since they said they would buy it and you can pay them back, it must be okay? It isn’t. Don’t violate your conscience. Keep it clear. As A. W. Tozer said: “An honest man is strange when in the midst of dishonest men, but it is a good kind of strangeness.”

    The story goes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, played a prank on five of the most prominent men in England. He sent an anonymous note to each one that said simply, “All is found out. Flee at once.” Within twenty-four hours, all five men had left the country. Their conscience wasn’t clear.

    What if you received that note? Would you have left or stayed?

  • Day 196

    Today’s Reading: 1 Timothy 6

    There’s a word in the game of football that keeps enduring—Hut! An article in The New York Times pondered why this word keeps hanging around:

    It is easily the most audible word in any football game, a throaty grunt that may be the sport’s most distinguishing sound.

    Hut!

    It starts almost every play, and often one is not enough. And in an increasingly complex game whose signal-calling has evolved into a cacophony of furtive code words—“Black Dirt!,” “Big Belly!,” “X Wiggle!”—hut, hut, hut endures as the signal to move.

    But why? . . .

    “I have no idea why we say hut,” said Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce. . . . “I guess because it’s better than yelling, ‘Now,’ or ‘Go.’”

    Joe Theismann, the former Washington Redskins quarterback . . . reckons he shouted “hut” more than 10,000 times during games and practices. . . . “I’ve been hutting my way through football for 55 years—but I have no clue why.”

    The article conjectures that “hut” may come from the military backgrounds of many early pro football players. But that’s just a guess.

    This is similar to what Christians believe and why. Many people have been told what to believe without the why or the rationale behind that belief or doctrine. And it’s been around so long, they don’t have a clue about the explanation.

    The word doctrine means a set of beliefs or teachings from the Bible. Why do we believe what we believe? Or are we just saying hut, hut every Sunday and not knowing why? Will we get thousands of years into Christianity since the resurrection of Jesus and be asked why we say and do certain things and not have an answer?

    Fortunately, we learn some answers in today’s chapter, where Paul tells us the why. Paul takes a thirty-thousand-foot view of doctrine. He talks about doctrinal diversions but gives us one big statement. Here are Paul’s important words:

    "If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain." (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

    There it is: the bombshell phrase, the thirty-thousand-foot view of why we believe: doctrine conforming us to godliness. To know if a belief system is true, the end result of our belief should make us godly, which means it should make us look more like Jesus.

    Religion tries to get us to look like the club, the people on Sundays and in the pew. The goal is not to look like Sunday people but to lift our eyes a lot higher to heaven. Our goal is not to look like the person in the pulpit but the One who sits on the throne of heaven. That’s what doctrine is supposed to do. It conforms us to godliness. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “If your knowledge of doctrine does not make you a great man of prayer, you had better examine yourself again.”

    Paul wants to help us better understand how it plays out practically, so he offers the question “Can you be rich and a Christian?” as the test case. The answer is “yes, absolutely.” But Paul reminds us of some things in our lab work:

    "Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (Verses 9-10)

    Paul challenges not being rich, but the reason behind why we want to get rich. It’s not the money but the motive that is destructive. If we want money we will fall into temptation and a snare to many foolish desires. That desire is so powerful that people have wandered from the faith.

    But Paul says that you can be rich with the right motive. He doesn’t stop there, though. Remember he says doctrine should conform us to godliness. We cannot say to Christians that we need to be rich or we need to be poor. That is religious. We can say to Christians that whether we are rich or poor, we must make sure we look more and more like Jesus.

    If it’s the prosperity doctrine telling people that gain is godliness, they are wrong. If it’s another camp telling people that poverty like Mother Teresa is what God wants, that doctrine is just as bad.

    Our goal in life is not to look like a rich televangelist or like a woman in India. Our goal is to look like the Man who died for our sins.

    Paul continues by saying this to the rich people in regards to godliness:

    "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed." (Verses 17-19)

    Those words are really for all of us: Do good. Be rich in good works. Be generous. Be ready to share.

    Nineteenth-century preacher J. C. Ryle captured it well when he said: Doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. . . . Something of “the image of Christ,” which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, and habits, and character, and doings.”

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  • Day 195

    Today’s Reading: 1 Timothy 5

    A truck driver had been hired to deliver fifty penguins to the state zoo. As he was driving his truck through the desert, his truck broke down. Three hours passed, and he began to wonder if his cargo would survive in the desert heat. Finally he was able to wave down another truck. He offered the driver five hundred dollars to take the penguins to the zoo for him, and the other driver agreed.

    The next day, the first truck driver finally made it to town. As he drove, he was appalled to see the second truck driver walking down the street with the fifty penguins walking in a single-file line behind him! He slammed on his brakes, jumped out of his truck, and stormed over to the other trucker. “What’s going on?” he shouted. “I gave you five hundred dollars to take these penguins to the zoo!” The other trucker responded, “I did take them to the zoo. And I had some money left over, so now we’re going to see a movie.”

    Miscommunication leads to complication and confusion. Just a little miscommunication can mean a lot of problems. In today’s chapter, Paul gives us a lesson on effective communication. As author William H. Whyte so aptly said: “The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.” Paul wants to remove the illusions for us. And his advice is priceless. He starts off 1 Timothy 5 with explaining how to communicate to people:

    Never speak sharply to an older man, but plead with him respectfully just as though he were your own father. Talk to the younger men as you would to much-loved brothers. Treat the older women as mothers, and the girls as your sisters, thinking only pure thoughts about them. (Verses 1-2, TLB)

    This passage can so easily be passed over and we miss Paul’s powerful lesson on how to communicate to different groups of people. All people don’t hear the same way; ages and gender contribute to that. Paul tells us the importance of knowing who we are speaking to and how to speak to them. It’s about knowing our audience.

    I have had the privilege of doing chapels in different venues. I have spoken to MLB and NFL teams, and in those environments, I make sure I do certain things. The window is short, and I realize for the entire season, this is these professional players’ church. I must not only respect their time but also must make sure I am making use of their time. Here are my two rules in these settings: lift up God’s Word and lift up God’s Son.

    First, I always bring a physical Bible and read from it. Why? Isaiah 55:11 says, “My word shall never return void.” That means better than a leadership principle or a pep talk, the best thing I can do for those players is give them a Bible principle, because it will always be productive. Second, I lift up God’s Son. Jesus said in John 12:32, “If I’m lifted up I will draw men to Myself.” When we don’t lift up Jesus, then people are attracted to the wrong thing: us. And we don’t have what they need.

    The apostle Paul gave us his important chapel rules as well when we are talking to certain groups of people. He said when we have to have a hard conversation with a person older than we are, harsh and hard talk must be dispensed with and we must take the posture of a son and see that person as a parent. This strategy goes from if we’re a supervisor with senior citizens on our staff, to having to tell our elderly neighbor to keep their dogs off our lawn.

    Plead with them as if they were your own father. He says the same treatment goes for elderly women. His plea about how we speak to our peers is much needed also in our generation. Young men talk to other young men as beloved brothers, as though they are our own flesh and blood. And when we see a young lady, we treat them as flesh and blood also and keep our thoughts pure about them. This is profound communication advice from Paul for all of us.

    Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world, was recently with some young entrepreneurs who asked him to share one piece of advice for twentysomethings who’d just graduated from college. He told them: “The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now—at least—is to hone your communication skills. . . . If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark—nothing happens. You can have all the brainpower in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it.”

    First Timothy 5 keeps us from winking in the dark. Knowing how to talk to people is an art and hard work, and there is much to consider. According to the Harvard Business Review, “The number one criteria for advancement and promotion for professionals is an ability to communicate effectively.”

    Thanks to Paul, you can communicate effectively because of the tool he provided in 1 Timothy 5.

  • Day 194

    Today’s Reading: 1 Timothy 4

    How long does it take to become an expert in something? In the Development of Talent Project, Dr. Benjamin Bloom of Northwestern University studied the careers of world-class sculptors, pianists, chess masters, tennis players, swimmers, mathematicians, and neurologists. Across the board, he discovered that it takes between ten to eighteen years before someone can reach world-class competency. The point of the study was that it takes time to be the best at whatever chosen career or path you aspire to.

    In Outliers, author and researcher Malcolm Gladwell calls “becoming an expert” the ten-thousand-hour rule. How do you become the greatest band of all time? An expert in rock and roll? You work at it for ten thousand hours. Gladwell speaks about the Beatles seemingly instant success that many think happened on the Ed Sullivan show in one night. Gladwell says that’s not the case. Before landing in America, they’d already been playing together for seven years. It was the band’s ten-thousand hours of playing that made them who they were, not a night on American television.

    They’d started out doing one-hour sessions, in which they performed their best numbers, the same ones, at every one. But then they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany. While there, they played eight hours, seven days a week. Gladwell explains much of their ten-thousand hours:  

    The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. . . . Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.

    Gladwell considers that the key to success in any field is simply a matter of practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with twenty hours of work a week for ten years.

    Paul gave this challenge to Timothy in one word:

    Have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

    Discipline!

    The grandmaster level chess player, a concert pianist, a high-level athlete all have the word discipline in common. The saying goes, “The distance from your dreams to reality is called discipline.” This is why most people miss their dreams. The other side of an undisciplined life is disappointment.

    Paul was telling Timothy that the goal in discipline is godliness. Or putting it another way: “godliness” is not automatic. We have to work toward it. Getting born again? Christ did the work for us. Getting godly? We have to discipline ourselves. Listen to the passage from The Message: “Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.”

    I had a friend tell me one time that he was speaking to the boxing welterweight champion, who told him that he would set his alarm for 1 a.m. every night so he could get up and do one hundred sit-ups and one hundred push-ups. When my friend asked him why he would do that, he said, “I knew I was working while my opponent was sleeping, and I wanted the edge on him.”

    That’s where ten-thousand hours comes from. Discipline and effectiveness, discipline and success travel together.

    Theologian Henri Nouwen spoke about discipline for our spiritual lives: “Discipline means to prevent everything in our life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere we’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that we hadn’t planned or counted on.”

    Jim Elliot was a modern-day missionary and martyr, who practiced ten-thousand-hour devotional living. He wrote these powerful words: “I may no longer depend on pleasant impulses to bring me before the Lord. I must rather respond to principles I know to be right, whether I feel them to be enjoyable or not.”

    Discipline is focus. Discipline is work. Discipline puts blinders to things that are crying for our time and attention. Because Timothy joined Paul before AD 50 and Paul was writing in the early sixties, Timothy was at least in his mid-twenties and could well be in his early or mid-thirties. This term for “youth” (in verse 12) could apply up to the age of forty in that culture, although it usually applied especially to someone under twenty-nine. And the challenge to young Timothy was that he would have a lot of distractions in life, so it was important to get focused on the right thing.

    Paul challenged Timothy to make his discipline not simply about going to Planet Fitness; reminding him that disciplining ourselves physically isn’t wrong or bad—it’s just that there’s a better discipline, and that is about pursuing eternal things. Listen to Paul’s admonishment again: “Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever” (verse 8, MSG).

    No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, and disciplined. Gary Player, one of the greatest golfers in the world, was known for his discipline. When he was 80 years old, he still got up every morning at 5 a.m. and did 1,300 sit-ups. One day while hitting off the practice tees, he heard someone say, “I wish I could hit a ball like that.” He turned around and said to the onlooker, “No, you don’t. You know what it takes to hit a golf ball like [I do]? It takes getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to hit 1,000 balls until my hand bleeds, then I go to the clubhouse to bandage my hand, then go back and hit another 1,000 balls.” 

    We want the results but not the discipline. Godliness is the goal for us, says Paul, and discipline is the key.

  • Day 193

    Today’s Reading: 1 Timothy 3

    One of the toughest tasks for a church is choosing a pastor. One church was in this painful process, as the board kept rejecting applicant after applicant. Finally, frustrated with the board’s No one is good enough attitude, one of the members submitted a bogus application to see what the board would do with it:

    "Gentlemen: Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position. I have many qualifications. I’ve been a preacher with much success and also some success as a writer. Some say I’m a good organizer. I’ve been a leader most places I’ve been. I’m over fifty years of age. I have never preached in one place for more than three years. In some places I have left town after my work caused riots and disturbances. I must admit I have been in jail three or four times, but not because of any real wrongdoing. My health is not too good, though I still get a great deal done. The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities. I’ve not gotten along well with religious leaders in towns where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me and even attacked me physically. I am not too good at keeping records. I have been known to forget whom I have baptized. However, if you can use me, I shall do my best for you."

    The board member looked at the others on the committee. “Well, what do you think? Shall we call him?”

    The board was appalled. “Call an unhealthy, trouble-making, absent-minded ex-jailbird? Are you crazy? Who signed the application? Who had such colossal nerve?

    The board member looked at them. “It’s signed, the apostle Paul.’”

    Drop the mic. I think we have gone adrift from what a Christian leader looks like and have bought into the lie of what we see in the media. In today’s chapter, Paul gives criteria and qualities of what a pastor and deacon should have:

    A pastor must be a good man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must have only one wife, and he must be hard working and thoughtful, orderly, and full of good deeds. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must be a good Bible teacher. He must not be a drinker or quarrelsome, but he must be gentle and kind and not be one who loves money. He must have a well-behaved family, with children who obey quickly and quietly. For if a man can’t make his own little family behave, how can he help the whole church?

    The pastor must not be a new Christian because he might be proud of being chosen so soon, and pride comes before a fall. (Satan’s downfall is an example.) Also, he must be well spoken of by people outside the church—those who aren’t Christians—so that Satan can’t trap him with many accusations and leave him without freedom to lead his flock.

    The deacons must be the same sort of good, steady men as the pastors. (1 Timothy 3:2-8, TLB)

    If this is the criteria for hiring a pastor or selecting a deacon, I think we have been using the wrong grid and criteria. Some places have used the vote method instead of following this passage. Titus 1 adds a few more things, and they both comprise a powerful grid for pastoral leadership.

    Paul lists twenty-five qualifications. Of the twenty-five, only one deals with preaching. Several translations, including the King James Version, says the pastor must be “apt to teach.” I love that word apt. It sounds like he doesn’t have to be an amazing preacher. Why? Because there are twenty-four other things churches have to look at. If this list is a good grid to start, that means “communicating” is 1/25 of the pastoral skill set, which is 4 percent. If the main thing we do in choosing a pastor is simply listen to their sermons, we may be in for a train wreck. Remember, I am speaking as a pastor. Preaching is hard work, but so are the other twenty-four things. I’m afraid we have exalted and been in awe of that 4 percent in pastors, but neither them nor churches ever examined the other 96 percent.

    Think about some of the other things pastors are challenged with keeping in order:

    • being free of greed

    • keeping their households the priority

    • being the husband of one wife

    • being self-controlled

    • remaining above reproach

    • being prudent 

    • being hospitable.

    Think of the challenge your leaders have to face to be an effective husband, father, and minister all at the same time. How do they schedule all of this? I have always said it’s harder to be a pastor than a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You can be a CEO and have a messed-up marriage. You can be a CEO and have messed-up kids. You can be a CEO and have a messed-up life. You can be a millionaire, an entrepreneur, a successful businessman and have everything in your life falling apart yet still have a job. This is what makes ministry different. If your personal life, your marriage, and your children are messed up, then you’re out of a job. In fact, if only one of these areas are messed up, your job is in jeopardy. Your pastor has got to give his attention to three priority areas of his life.

    Therefore we need to find a way to help our pastors and leaders and not criticize them. So as a pastor and on behalf of my fellow pastors, let me say this: we need your help and we need your support. When someone says we are dropping the ball in one of those areas, it would help us if we can have a support system who says, Let’s pray for our pastor and find a way we can make him the best he can be.

    Every Sunday will not be a Billy Graham message. At times our marriages will need an oil change to get better. And our children will not always be the poster kids from child expert Kevin Lehman’s books.

    When you hire us, help us.

    When you are disappointed by us, help us.

    When we don’t meet your expectations, help us.

    How can you help your pastor? Yes, pray. And you can do more. Just to hear a word of encouragement or a board finding a way to give a pastor’s family time off to recharge would be amazing. Remember that pastors are never off the clock. So they need your support.

  • Day 192

    Today’s Reading: 1 Timothy 2

    I want to help you get involved in politics.

    I knew that would get your attention. When it comes to being a Republican or a Democrat, let’s be careful before labeling ourselves. I am of the school of C. S. Lewis, who said these important words about politics: “He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.”

    Our heart, emotions, and energies first belong to God. We must be careful of giving these to a candidate to stay in office or to get one in office and give God less. So what part do we play as Christians in politics? There is a part we play, according to Paul, and its outcome is best for us:

    "The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live. He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned." (1 Timothy 2:1-4, MSG)

    Wow! Our involvement is first on our knees.

    I am grateful we have Christians in government. I am grateful we have chaplains in Congress. I am thankful we have men and women fighting for godly principles. But the best way we unify the church is not around a candidate but around a king—the King. The way we unify the church politically is by getting the church to pray. And notice, Paul was saying for those in office not for those to beat those who are in office. Whether or not we agree with their politics or policies, our responsibility is to pray for our leaders in local, in state, and even in the White House and on Capitol hill.

    Paul says, “This is the way God wants us to live.” What is our prayer? We are first to pray that they rule well. And if they don’t, then pray more. The Passion Translation says it like this: “Pray for every political leader and representative, so that we would be able to live tranquil, undisturbed lives, as we worship the awe-inspiring God with pure hearts. It is pleasing to our Savior-God to pray for them” (verses 2-3).

    We pray for them “so that we would be able to live tranquil, undisturbed lives as we worship God.” We are praying for our leaders so our lives can find peace and quiet instead of contention and division. Our government may be in the condition it’s in because of the condition of prayer in the church. Call a prayer meeting for your church to pray for your local, state, and national leaders and see how many show up. That may be the reason we are in trouble—not because of a Republican president or a Democrat Congress or vice versa, but because of a non-praying church.

    A prayerless church messes up our government more than the government messes up the government. Don’t dismiss this. Why is this country everything but quiet when it comes to the political landscape? Because this prayer has not been answered; because this prayer has not been offered. The part we play in politics is to pray for our leaders—not the leaders we wish were there and not just the leaders we agree with. Let’s for a moment remove the adjectives before the word Christian. There is no such thing as a Republican Christian or a Democrat Christian or an Independent Christian or a Libertarian Christian, we are Christians! Which means we pray regardless of the election and its outcome.

    Why do we pray for our leaders? Paul says pray for this outcome: “This is the way our Savior God wants us to live. He wants not only us but everyone saved” (verses 3-4, MSG). The “everyone” here are the politicians. We pray for them two ways—that they would rule well and that they would become Christ-followers. That must be how we as Christians are first involved in politics. Anything else is a distraction and a disturbance. As W. Ian Thomas says, “Make sure it is God’s trumpet you are blowing—if it’s only yours, it won’t wake the dead; it will simply disturb the neighbours.”

    I want to wake the dead in DC. I want them to find Jesus.

    Many years ago, government officials in The Hague invited Van Courtonne, a famous preacher in Paris, to preach in the State Church chapel. He agreed under the condition that all the government officials had to attend. They agreed, so he went and preached on “The Ethiopian” in Acts 8. Remember the Ethiopian eunuch was a government official on assignment. His sermon contained four points about the Ethiopian government official.

    Remember the story? The Ethiopian had just visited Jerusalem and left with a scroll from Isaiah 53. Philip came alongside his chariot and explained what the man was reading. The government official became a Christian and ordered the chariot to stop and be baptized.

    Now, here were Van Courtonne’s points:

    1. The Ethiopian was a government official who read the Bible: something rare.

    2. He was a government official who acknowledged his ignorance: something rarer still.

    3. He was a government official who asked a lesser person for instruction: something extremely rare.

    4. He was a government official who got saved: the rarest thing of all.

    Let’s get involved in politics. So let’s get on our knees and pray.

  • Day 191

    Today’s Reading: 1 Timothy 1

    Erwin Lutzer, author and long-time pastor of Moody Church in Chicago said, “There is more grace in God’s heart than there is sin in your past.” This is something the apostle Paul knew and wrote about in today’s chapter:

    "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 1:12-14)

    A. W. Tozer tells us how right Paul is:

    Sometimes I go to God and say, “God, if Thou dost never answer another prayer while I live on this earth, I will still worship Thee as long as I live and in the ages to come for what Thou hast done already.” God’s already put me so far in debt that if I were to live one million millenniums I couldn’t pay Him for what He’s done for me. 

    The only currency we have to offer God for all He has done for us is thanksgiving. And sometimes we don’t do well with gratitude. How can we get better? Here’s a good place to start from Priscilla Maurice:

    Begin by thanking Him for some little thing, and then go on, day by day, adding to your subjects of praise; thus you will find their numbers grow wonderfully; and, in the same proportion, will your subjects of murmuring and complaining diminish, until you see in everything some cause for thanksgiving.

    The apostle Paul starts off by thanking God for putting him in the ministry. The Message says it like this: I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work. He went out on a limb, you know, in trusting me with this ministry” (1 Timothy 1:12). And just like Priscilla Maurice said, as he started thanking God, the list grew. After thanking God for trusting him with the ministry, his heart went into the past and realized that God had gone out on a limb to pick Paul to represent Him. Here is the limb God went out on for Paul: “Even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus” (verses 13-14).

    Paul used three words that built to a climax—blasphemer to persecutor to violent aggressor. What’s crazy is how important our crazy past is. Instead of being tempted to hide it or ignore it, he shared it. Author Brennan Manning encourages us to do the same—to tell our terrible stories: “In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” And as Warren Wiersbe reminds us: “The past is a rudder to guide you, not an anchor to drag you.”

    That means Paul used his crazy past to guide his gratitude and thanksgiving. Maybe we don’t think enough of our past and so our praise limps. Here is what Paul did. The thing that stands out in this passage is Paul’s insistence on remembering his own sin in a very revealing ascending order. He piled up his words on top of one another to show the awfulness of what he had done and the kind of person he really was. Paul said he was an insulter of the church. He’d flung hot and angry words at the Christians, accusing them of crimes against God. Then he moved up to being a persecutor, taking every means to annihilate the Christian church. Then he moved up again and admitted he became a violent aggressor.

    The word in Greek indicates a kind of arrogant sadism; it describes someone who is out to inflict pain for the sheer joy of inflicting it. Paul was showing us a dark heart. He had found delight in the suffering of other people, especially Christians. That was what Paul once was. Then Paul, amazed, said that God went out on a limb to put him in the ministry. That’s definitely something to thank God about.

    The Puritan pastor, Thomas Goodwin, wrote an insightful letter to his son:

    When I was threatening to become cold in my ministry, and when I felt Sabbath morning coming and my heart not filled with amazement at the grace of God, or when I was making ready to dispense the Lord’s Supper, do you know what I used to do? I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past life, and I always came down again with a broken and a contrite heart, ready to preach, as it was preached in the beginning, the forgiveness of sins. I do not think I ever went up the pulpit stair that I did not stop for a moment at the foot of it and take a turn up and down among the sins of my past years. I do not think that I ever planned a sermon that I did not take a turn round my study table and look back at the sins of my youth and of all my life down to the present; and many a Sabbath morning, when my soul had been cold and dry, for the lack of prayer during the week, a turn up and down in my past life before I went into the pulpit always broke my hard heart and made me close with the gospel for my own soul before I began to preach.

    When we remember how we have hurt God, hurt those who love us, and hurt others, and when we remember how God and our neighbors have forgiven us, that memory must awake the flame of gratitude within our hearts. That’s exactly what Paul did here in 1 Timothy. Let’s read what Paul said after he recounted his awful past:

    Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus. Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever. (verses 14-16, MSG)

    Paul’s past was forgiven and now he was telling others the amazing forgiveness and mercy of God. Let’s follow his example.

  • Day 190

    Today’s Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3

    I recently read this quote: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back, everything is different?” The apostle Paul encourages us in our day by day in 2 Thessalonians 3. He reminds us that the day-to-day responsibilities and duties can be wearying but worth it in the long run: “Do not grow weary of doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).

    I don’t know who said it but it is so true: “The years reveal what the days do not tell.” That’s what Paul is trying to tell us—that doing what’s right and good every day without getting exhausted is our challenge.

    Fred Craddock, in an address to ministers, caught the practical implications of how the day-to-day things matter when he said:

    To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself out for others . . . to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom—I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. 

    We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table— “Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.”

    But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, “Get lost.” Go to a committee meeting. Give up a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. 

    Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; It’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.

    My prayer is this: “Jesus, help me to be consistent with my twenty-five cents a day. Teach me that faithfulness counts. Teach me not always to look for the big moment but to look for the little places where I can show charity—especially where no one is around and no applause can be heard, except a Well done whispered in my spirit.” Those twenty-five-cent days are the day-to-day good decisions Paul is talking about. Not big exchanges of cash but little quarter decisions that pay off over time.

    I want to tell you a cheese story. We know the guy but forgot about how a cheese delivery changed his life. He was doing a good thing for his dad and his brothers and because he did not get weary in submitting to his father, it changed the trajectory of his life. The delivery guy? David.

    How did David start on the journey toward his destiny of eventually becoming king? A cheese delivery—saying yes to an errand his dad asked him to do:

    “Take these ten wedges of cheese to the captain of their division. Check in on your brothers to see whether they are getting along all right, and let me know how they’re doing—Saul and your brothers, and all the Israelites in their war with the Philistines in the Oak Valley.”

    David was up at the crack of dawn and, having arranged for someone to tend his flock, took the food and was on his way just as Jesse had directed him. (1 Samuel 17:18-20, MSG)

    David’s destiny started by simply doing a small errand for his dad. And he took the cheese out of his hand and put a sling and rock in it shortly after. But who knew? Don’t get weary of doing good.

    I believe entry ramps into your destiny starts with humble little tasks that don’t even match what you want to do in the future. I really don’t think David’s dream was to be a Velveeta cheese delivery guy. But he was faithful in doing the little things. As Hudson Taylor said, “A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in a little thing is a big thing.”

    Don’t dismiss little things that are good. Many times the people who can defeat the giant are never selected because they hate cheese assignments. Don’t be a cheese hater. You don’t kill goliaths on goliath missions but on cheese missions. Cheese deliveries are the good things that Paul said may be small but good. It is doing something for others that will never get noticed or praised or seem significant enough to put on a resume. Don’t try to find your destiny. Just say yes to small tasks and your destiny will find you. What you see as a cheese delivery, God sees further.

    An unknown author powerfully summarized the power of being willing to say yes to the small tasks:

    You know the world is a better place because Michelangelo didn’t say, I don’t do ceilings.

    The world is a better place because a German monk named Martin Luther didn’t say, “I don’t do doors.”

    The world is a better place, because an Oxford don named John Wesley didn’t say, “I don’t do fields.”

    Go from the beginning of the Bible to the end, and you will see over and over again the story of men and women who had servant hearts, minds, and spirits. And the world is a better place, because:

    Noah didn’t say, “I don’t do boats.”

    Moses didn’t say, “I don’t do deserts.”

    Rahab didn’t say, “I don’t do hiding spies.”

    Ruth didn’t say, “I don’t do mothers-in-law.”

    David didn’t say, “I don’t do cheese.”

    Jeremiah didn’t say, “I don’t do weeping.”

    Amos didn’t say, “I don’t do speeches.”

    Mary didn’t say, “I don’t do virgin births.”

    Mary Magdalene didn’t say, “I don’t do feet.”

    Paul didn’t say, “I don’t do letters.”

    Jesus didn’t say, “I don’t do crosses.”

    As Augustine said, “The last day is hidden that every day may be regarded as important.” So spend your quarter today.

  • Day 189

    Today’s Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2

    If you are a parent, you have most definitely heard these words from your children at one time or another, “But you said...” What that means is they are holding you to your word. Nothing is more incriminating than being quoted and held accountable. It seems that the only time they do listen is when it’s a promise or commitment.

    God is a Father and He who keeps His word loves to hear His children tell Him, “but You said.” I think that thrills the heart of God. In Hebrews 4:12, we are told that the Word of God is powerful. If you take God’s powerful Word and pray it back to Him, that is exponential in power. Adding a “You said” to your prayer language gets God’s attention just as a “you said” does for any parent. I don’t think anything is more powerful than when you pray the Scriptures. You are just reminding God of what He told you.

    I want to give you a great prayer to start your day. It’s using God’s words in prayer. It is basically saying, “If You said, then why wouldn’t You hear and respond”: “May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, MSG).

    Consider the trilogy of requests: put a fresh heart in me, invigorate my work, enliven my speech. Let’s briefly unpack each of these so we can spot it when God answers it in our day. That’s called “watch and pray.” If we ask for something, we have a responsibility to watch with expectancy.

    First, ask God to put a fresh heart in you. Fresh is the word you would use when describing how you look when you’ve just returned from a two-week vacation. How do you freshen up your heart? How do you make your heart look as though it just got off vacation? Let your heart take a trip . . . a trip to heaven. Each morning let your heart take a trip into the presence of God. You cannot make that trip without coming out with a fresh heart.

    Second, ask God to invigorate your work. The word invigorate means to give strength and energy to what you do. How does God invigorate your work? He has to refocus your attention on who you are doing it for. Listen to what the apostle says in Colossians: “Put your heart and soul into every activity you do, as though you are doing it for the Lord himself and not merely for others” (Colossians 3:23, TPT).

    Your work is invigorated when you do it for Jesus. Every activity counts, not just church activities. Martin Luther King Jr. said it like this:

    If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. . . . Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

    Whatever your occupation—CVS cashier, TSA agent at the airport, police officer, first responder, teacher, or ambassador. Whether you work for the government or the church, may God invigorate your work. You work for the Boss, so you’re doing it for Him.

    Third, ask God to enliven your speech. The word enliven means to make your speech more entertaining, interesting, and appealing. When you open your mouth, you want life to come out. Not complaints, not ingratitude, just joy and encouragement.

    As Proverbs 18:21 reminds us: Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose” (MSG). Let’s choose words of life today.

    My prayer for you and me today is this: “God, put a fresh heart in us. Invigorate our work. And enliven our speech. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

    Now go and have an amazing day!

  • Day 188

    Today’s Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1

    When the famed cellist Pablo Casals reached ninety-five years old, a young reporter asked, “Why do you still practice six hours a day?” To which Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

    Your goal is to make progress every day of your life. We call it growth. As John Newman said, “Growth is the only evidence of life.” That is true naturally and especially spiritually. The Thessalonian Christians were new Christians and more importantly growing Christians.

    The Thessalonian church was under heavy persecution, yet continued to grow through it. This is important: they were not just going through it but growing through it. What a lesson for us. That when we are faced with difficult times, we remember that we can grow through them.  Growth is not arrival, it’s movement. Growth is not perfection but better.

    The writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, said it best: “I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be; but I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’”

    Listen to Paul’s words of commendation to these young Christians who were not what they used to be but growing:

    You need to know, friends, that thanking God over and over for you is not only a pleasure; it’s a must. We have to do it. Your faith is growing phenomenally; your love for each other is developing wonderfully. Why, it’s only right that we give thanks. We’re so proud of you; you’re so steady and determined in your faith despite all the hard times that have come down on you. We tell everyone we meet in the churches all about you. (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4, MSG)

    These new believers were growing through hard times. They were growing in two areas: their love for others was developing wonderfully and their faith was growing phenomenally—the New American Standard Bible says, “your faith is greatly enlarged.” And all of it happening in difficulty. He was basically saying, “Your faith is getting supersized.” We know that word supersize because we know McDonald’s. Supersize to us means bigger fries and bigger Coke. But it does cost to supersize. Paul was saying, “You paid the extra cost for the supersize of faith and it’s evident.”

    What was the cost? That’s the next verse: “Your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure” (verse 4). Notice it says “persecution and affliction.” Those two words are important. One is about the outside battles. The other is the mental battles. And Paul was commending them by acknowledging, “You are getting hit outside and inside and holding your own, because you are holding on to God.”

    A family-owned coat store in Nottingham, England, has a sign that hangs for all to see:

    We have been established for over 100 years and have been pleasing and displeasing customers ever since. We have made money and lost money, suffered the effects of coal nationalization, coat rationing, government control, and bad payers. We have been cussed and discussed, messed about, lied to, held up, robbed and swindled. The only reason we stay in business is we can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.

    It seems that the Thessalonians should have put that sign on their church. Tomorrow for the Thessalonians was phenomenal faith and developing love. Tomorrow for many is fearful but not for these new Christians. They were growing through their adversity.

    A daughter complained to her father about how difficult things were for her. “As soon as I solve one problem,” she said, “another one comes up. I’m tired of struggling.”

    Her father, a chef, took her to the kitchen where he filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In one he placed carrots, in the second, eggs, and in the last, ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. 

    The daughter impatiently waited, wondering what he was doing. After a while, he went over and turned off the burners. He fished out the carrots and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. He poured the coffee into a bowl. Turning to her he asked, “Daughter, what do you see?” 

    “Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied. 

    He brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. He then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked her to sip the coffee. She smiled, as she tasted its rich flavor. 

    “What does it mean, Father?” she asked.

    He explained that each of them had faced the same adversity—boiling water—but each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting, but after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg was fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. By being in the boiling water, they changed the water.

    He asked his daughter, “When adversity knocks on your door, which are you?”

  • Day 187

    Today’s Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5

    My mentor R. T. Kendall said: “The happiest pillow on which you may rest your head is the knowledge of God’s will. I cannot imagine a more miserable situation than consciously to be out of God’s will.” Paul gives us two pillows to rest on in 1 Thessalonians. Those pillows are the clear will of God. And Paul makes it very clear that we know this is what God wants for us. My friend Winkie Pratney says, “Many say they can’t get God’s guidance, when they really mean they wish He would show them an easier way.”

    Yesterday we looked at the first verse: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Sexual purity is God’s clear will, that is pillow #1. Here is pillow #2: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

    Paul couldn’t have stated God’s will and guidance for us any clearer: sexual purity and thanksgiving in everything. Difficult verses to live out? Absolutely. Possible to live out? Absolutely. But not without God’s help. Always remember, God will never ask us to do anything that He will not give us the power to obey.

    Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica about AD 54 while he was staying in Corinth. This was also the first letter of his fourteen Epistles Paul ever wrote. It was written mainly to Gentile converts, and was in effect, a design for discipleship, a practical primer on living the Christian life. So here in the fifth chapter of his first letter he ever wrote, he tells them, in everything give thanks. Paul did not say for everything but in everything. To say “for everything” would almost seem inhumane. No one can give thanks for everything, because some really horrible things happen to us. But when it gets hard, we can find thanksgiving in the situation. We can always find something to thank God for. And that’s what Paul is telling us to do: in every situation find something to give thanks for.

    How was your day? Terrible. I had a flat tire on the way to work. No. Give thanks in everything. We can thank God that He gave us a car to get a flat tire with, a job to pay for the car that we got a flat tire in, the jack in the back that was there when we got the flat, and breath that we still have because the flat tire did not go bad and hit any other cars causing a fatal accident.

    Want to read the craziest I’m-thankful-in-everything scenario ever said? It has only been said in this place by only one man. Strange sounds, organs, all around him and here is the verse: “I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving” (Jonah 2:9). No big deal, you think? It is a big deal when you realize who said that! Jonah—while he was in the belly of the whale. He gave thanks when he was inside a whale. If Jonah could say it where he was then you and I can be thankful in whatever situation we find ourselves.

    Famous English Bible scholar Matthew Henry was once attacked and robbed. Afterward he wrote in his diary: “Let me be thankful, first, because he never robbed me before; second, although he took my purse, he did not take my life; third, because although he took all I possessed, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.”

    I believe it’s God’s will to thank Him before you ask Him. As Philippians 4:6 says, you are to make your requests known with thanksgiving.” Thank Him before you ask Him. It will purge your asking. How does thanksgiving purge the ask? Thanksgiving reminds you of all that God has already given to you.

    Former New York Yankees second baseman, Bobby Richardson, who is also a strong Christian, prayed at a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. This was his short prayer: “Dear God, Your will: nothing m

  • Day 186

    Today’s Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4

    God’s will is the exact place God wants you to be at the right time. It’s being in the right relationship, the right job, living in the right city, reading the right book of the Bible. As Elisabeth Elliot said, “The will of God is not something you add to your life. It’s a course you choose. You either line yourself up with the Son of God . . . or you capitulate to the principle which governs the rest of the world.”

    First Thessalonians 4 teaches us something very valuable about understanding the will of God for our lives. God’s will is the safest place on the planet. It is safer for me to be in the most anti-Christian country (such as North Korea) in God’s will than it is to be living in a mansion in Cabo San Lucas outside of God’s will. There is peace and safety and confidence in God’s will, but it’s not always easy. As missionary Joanne Shetler said: “God never said doing His will would be easy; He only said it would be worth it.”

    But how do we know if something is God’s will? I know of people who have tried flipping through the Bible and whatever passage they land on is what they are going to do. The story is told of a man who used this flip-open-the-Bible method to see what God wanted him to do in his life. The first verse he landed on was Matthew 27:5, which says Judas “went away and hanged himself.” Since he was not sure how this verse applied to him, he flipped to another passage. The Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: “Said Jesus unto him, ‘Go and do the same.’” The man was quite upset and did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell on John 13:27: “Jesus said to him, ‘What you do, do quickly.’”

    Not a good way to figure out God’s will.

    I think it is a lot simpler. The problem is that the will of God always seems to be this treasure hunt that everyone is on.

    Where should I live?

    What should be my career?

    Should I go, should I stay?

    What college?

    Do I buy this house?

    Do I rent this apartment?

    Do I date this guy?

    Do I marry this person?

    We treat the will of God like God whispers it one time and if we miss it, we’re left on our own to figure it out. I wonder if we don’t know more of God’s will for our personal lives, because we have not done what is clearly spelled out. Sometimes we don’t get more specific future instructions because we have not obeyed what is clearly written for us right now.

    There are two will-of-God verses that Paul clearly spells out for us in the Bible. We know this because Paul says, “for this is the will of God.” Let’s look at one today and one tomorrow. I believe if we follow these two verses, other future decisions will become clearer for us.

    After reading each of the verses, ask yourself: Am I doing this? If you aren’t, here’s something to ponder: why would God entrust you with more if you won’t do what is right before you?

    Here is the clear will of God for our life: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Let’s be really clear and define sexual immorality: it is having sex outside the boundaries of marriage.

    “I love him” or “I love her” does not make sex outside of marriage right. “We are engaged” does not change what God has said. To engage before the marriage commitment is to sabotage your marriage before it happens. Why? The Bible says that “love is patient.” That is the first definition of love in the long list. If you can’t be patient till the wedding day, then love is suspect. The will of God says abstain from sexual immorality. You will prove your love to the person you love by your patience to do things the ri

  • Day 185

    Today’s Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3

    No one seems to wrap gifts anymore in boxes and wrapping paper. We use a gift bag and some colored tissue paper on top. If we forgot the occasion, whether it’s a birthday or an anniversary, usually a gift card (which means I forgot to shop) lies beneath the tissue paper. Here in 1 Thessalonians 3, the apostle Paul shows us a special gift that we can easily miss because of the packaging and its wrapping.

    At times I have prayed for things and never realized that the answer came in wrapping I never expected. We know Paul spent some months with this Thessalonian church and preached in their city. After being gone a few months, Paul sent Timothy to check on the church there. He wrote this letter to encourage them, because they faced false teachers, whom he did not want infiltrating the young church, as well as some difficult persecution. He knew that in the midst of those difficult times, they needed strength and encouragement “so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this” (verse 3).

    Those words, disturbed by these afflictions, are revealing. In fact, the actual word is deceived [by these afflictions]. I have learned that hard times can deceive people. Hard times can deceive us about God, deceive us about ourselves, and deceive us about life. We begin to believe the lies that say, God doesn’t love me. That’s why I am going through this and These hard times are punishments for the bad things I have done. I’m the only one who goes through stuff like this. I am all alone. It’s the deception of hard times. When people go through difficulty, so does their faith.

    So Paul sent to these young Thessalonian believers much-needed gifts: encouragement and strength. But the packaging was different. Listen to verse 2: “We sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith.” God packaged strength and encouragement in a person—Timothy.

    The movie The Blind Side chronicles a Christian family, the Tuohys, who took in a homeless young man, Michael Oher, and gave him the chance to reach his God-given potential. That homeless boy became the first-round NFL draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens in 2009. At a recent fundraiser, Sean Tuohy noted that the transformation of his family and Michael all started with two words. When they spotted Michael walking along the road on a cold November morning, Leigh Ann Tuohy uttered two words that changed their world. She told Sean, “Turn around.” They turned the car around, put Michael in their warm vehicle, and ultimately adopted him into their family. Hope was packaged for Michael Oher in the Tuohy family. Sometimes we don’t recognize the packaging.

    The Thessalonian church was about to discover their friend in their adversity. They just needed to be aware of God’s packaging for this gift who was coming. Sometimes we ask for things and miss God’s answer because of the packaging. We all need strength and encouragement every day. What does that answer look like? Paul told the church of Thessalonica that they needed strength and encouragement so “we sent Timothy.” Timothy was to be their strength and encouragement.

    That is why God places a high value on making sure we stay right with brothers and sisters. That person you are fighting with may contain your answer to prayer. Locked up in them may be your strength and encouragement for today. God’s packaging of His answers is usually wrapped up in flesh and blood. How about the greatest “flesh and blood” packaging? Jesus.

    Is there a friendship that needs to be repaired with an apology? You may be missing more than a friend, you may be missing your answer to your prayer. Make it a priority not only to call today

  • Day 184

    Today’s Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2

    Listen really carefully: whatever God backs, Satan attacks. In today’s chapter Paul has a great desire to be with the Thessalonian Christians, but Satan fights to stop it from happening. I wonder how many things we have in our hearts to do that Satan fights against. Listen to Paul’s desire and fight in 1 Thessalonians 2:18: “We really wanted to come. I myself tried several times, but Satan always stopped us” (CEV).

    We have forgotten that we have an enemy who wants to disrupt our plans. Sometimes the best confirmation that our plans and desires are from God is Satan’s attack on them. The last thing the devil wants us doing is the will of God.

    Paul has a desire to go to this new church in Thessalonica, and Satan is bent on stopping the apostle from visiting. Sometimes Satan succeeds. Those last words of this verse remind us of the war we are in: “I tried several times but Satan always stopped us.” These aren’t the words of a one-hit wonder. This is the apostle Paul. And Paul tries a number of times and cannot seem to get through Satan’s roadblocks.

    C. S. Lewis was right when he said: “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” Always remember there is a counterclaim happening. Whatever God backs, Satan attacks. Or as Robert Murray McCheynne said, “I know well that when Christ is the nearest, Satan also is busiest.” The closer you get to what God wants you to do, the closer Satan comes in.

    But some people don’t believe in the devil. Two boys struggled with the problem of the devil’s existence. As they walked home from Sunday school after hearing a message about the devil, one boy said, “What do you think about all this Satan stuff?” The other replied, “Well, you know how Santa Clause turned out. It’s probably just your dad.” 

    In his classic work The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis reminds us of two errors when it comes to Satan: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” You can give the devil too much or too little attention.

    The Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament gives us an insight to the enemy’s tactics. The verb enkoptō, which literally means “to cut into,” originally referred to the military practice of cutting up a road so as to make it impassable for a pursuing army. Paul wants his readers to know that his present absence from them is not due to his personal choice but to the activity of Satan, who, in typical military fashion, has destroyed the apostle’s path back to Thessalonica. “We are evidently no friends of Satan,” says J. C. Ryle. “Like the kings of this world, he doesn’t war against his own subjects. The very fact that he assaults us should fill our minds with hope.”

    I want to challenge you. What is it that you have been trying to do lately, and you are really convinced it’s something God wants you to do, but you can’t seem to make it happen? Maybe you are being hindered by Satan from doing God’s will like the apostle Paul was.

    Maybe it’s purity in a relationship. Maybe it’s inconsistency in reading the Bible. Maybe it’s going to church or serving at church. Perhaps it’s forgiving an offense that is still lingering in your heart. Whatever it may be you have tried multiple times but have failed to gain any ground. What should you do? It may be time to launch a “gnu” attack.

    There is a strange animal called a Gnu. When it catches sight of one of its predators, its enemies, it immediately drops down on its knees

  • Day 183

    Today’s Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1

    Some time ago I was flying on a 10 p.m. flight. Earlier that day I’d preached four messages. I was exhausted. I noticed the man sitting next to me was reading Heaven Is for Real.

    This is good. He is a Christian, I thought. I can go to sleep because we are both going to heaven.

    He saw my Bible, which I’d pulled out to read, and began talking to me—a lot. Come to find out, he was part of a cult. I prayed the strangest prayer that flight: “God, I am so tired. Please don’t use me. Find someone else. But I do ask that You don’t let this kid die and go to hell.” I felt terrible praying that way, but I simply didn’t have the energy to engage him in conversation.

    As disappointing as I know I must have been to God, the amazing thing is that I was still secure in God’s love for me. His love did not decrease one ounce because of my poor tired attitude. He loved me exactly the same when I prayed that lame prayer as when I preached for Him.

    One of the saddest things that happens in Christianity is that we overemphasize what we do for God rather than what God has done for us. I used to think God loved me only when I was doing good. But 1 Thessalonians reminds me of the truth.

    Paul starts chapter 1 with a thunderbolt. In fact, I consider it the greatest truth I know, and it’s all in verse 4: “My dear friends, God loves you” (CEV). God loves you! Those words change everything and cost everything. 

    I came from a background in Christianity where the emphasis was on how much we love God and not on how much God loves us. In fact, I thought my actions determined how much God loves me.

    But there is not one thing you and I can do to make God love us any more than He does right now. We believe this in theory but we don’t live this way. We think God loves us more when we are at our spiritual best. Here is good news: God loves us the same when we are at our worst on planes praying Don’t use me prayers.

    William Coffin reminds us: “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.” Every religion in the world is based on what we do. The stars in those other religions is anyone who dies a martyr, carries a briefcase, rides a bike, or gives up years on the mission field. In Christianity, however, it’s all about what God has done.

    One of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, said: “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.” That’s the scandal and that’s the deal of the century. So if those words, God loves you, are difficult to accept, let me help you today.

    There is no greater place to deal with doubts of God’s love than at the only place that settles the question—and that’s at the cross. In the man Jesus, the invisible God became visible and audible. God can’t not love us. The cross is the proof of His love—love that He demonstrated at Calvary. The well-known saying goes like this: I asked God how much He loves me, and He said this much. And He held His hands wide to his side and died for me.

    When you look at the cross, you see what price you are worth to God. God loves you just as you are and not as you should be. He died for you at your worst. He did not wait for you to change in order to die for you. Isn’t it staggering to think you are worth the death of someone and most of all, God? That is what puts a large gulf between Christianity and other religions, such as Islam. Islam asks you to die for Allah, but Christianity has God dying for you.

    Brennan Manning tells an amazing story in Souvenirs of Solitude:

    More than a hundred years a

  • Day 182

    Today’s Reading: Colossians 4

    Colossians 4 contains only 406 words. And of those 406 words, one in particular is big. It tells a story all by itself. But in order to grasp its importance, we need to call in two Bible verses. The one word is a name, and it’s in verse 14: Demas.

    Paul was finishing up an Epistle unlike any other he had written. We call it a polemic letter; it’s a written debate. Maybe a better way to put it is that he issued fighting words. The church in Colossae was under attack, and Paul had to write a fighting letter, not to them but toward those trying to add anything outside to Christianity.

    In chapter 1, he challenged them to be grounded in truth, and there is no better truth to be grounded in than the Person of Jesus. In chapter 2, he put on the boxing gloves and challenged those who were trying to get the new Christians to add special days, rituals, and visions to their newly found salvation. Paul told them to have nothing to do with that. In chapter 3, Paul told them what Christianity really is. Paul closed out chapter 4 by mentioning some important people who had been part of spreading the truth of Jesus. He brought up eleven names, and with almost all of them, he included something of their contribution:

    There was “Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord,” who would “encourage your hearts” (Colossians 4:7-8). There was “Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who [was] one of your number” (verse 9). Justus, who “proved to be an encouragement to me” (verse 11). “Epaphras, who [was] . . . always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God” (verse 12). And Nympha, the woman who had church in her house (verse 15). Luke, “the beloved physician” (verse 14). Name after name included with some information. And then there was “also Demas” (verse 14). Demas was surrounded by eleven people who had godly contributions connected to their names, from praying to encouraging to providing their home for church services. He had nothing attached to his name.

    Why is this something we must take notice of? Because two years earlier, Paul wrote another letter called Philemon, and mentioned Demas in that letter. And in that letter, Demas got an attachment: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers” (Philemon 1:23-24). Demas was considered one of Paul’s fellow workers. Two years later in AD 62, when Paul wrote Colossians, “fellow worker” was removed from his name and it was just Demas.

    Demas gets one more verse in the New Testament and it comes all the way at the end of Paul’s ministry, in AD 67. In fact, it’s in the last letter he wrote, 2 Timothy. Paul wrote, “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me” (4:10). Five years after the Colossians passage, we learn that Demas deserted Paul. The Message says that Demas “left me here” because he was “chasing fads.” How did one of Paul’s workers go rogue? How did he turn from loving Jesus to loving this present world?

    I think the three-verse progression may explain it. In Philemon, Demas was called “my fellow worker,” along with Luke and Mark. Other translations calls them “coworkers” (MSG) and “companions in this ministry” (TPT).

    Then something happened two years later, in which “worker” was disconnected from Demas’s name. He was no longer a coworker. He was no longer a companion. He was just a name in the church, but not a contributor anymore. It seems Demas vacated his job of serving.

    I think that was the set up. That was the thing that turned his heart. It didn’t take long for Demas to exit when he was no longer invested.

    When we get to the end of Paul’s ministry, the Cont

  • Today’s Reading: Colossians 3

    Every spring and summer, fields all over the United States are filled with athletes playing baseball. In the major leagues, the Bigs, the best players in the world come together in the thirty stadiums around the country. They draw great attention and praise. But those games wouldn’t happen or go well without the people on the field dressed in black jackets. They look different from any other person on the field, and they are called umpires.

    No matter how good the players are—how fast they can pitch, how far they can hit or throw . . . the emotions of the game can cloud their decisions. And they need those umpires to keep order. Umpires decide the course and calls of the game. Who is safe and who is out. Which pitches are balls and which are strikes. 

    The baseball diamond needs a neutral party who sees the situation clearly and makes the correct call—not the call the fans or the players want, but the right call. They cannot be impaired by emotion, peer pressure, or even popular opinion. They must be moved by justice and the right thing.

    Baseball isn’t the only thing that needs an umpire. We need an umpire for the same reason. Emotions can cloud all our decisions. We want to do the right thing, but we have so many forces fighting against us. When peer pressure comes, and the voices from the outside try to get you to move into chaos, you too have an umpire to make a call. The apostle Paul tells the Colossian believers who are being inundated with outside religious opinions and additions to walk very carefully and keep Christ in focus. He says, “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness” (Colossians 3:15, MSG).

    Think about this phrase, Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. The peace of God is your umpire. The key word is rule. In Sparkling Gems from the Greek, Rick Renner discusses this word:

    I especially want you to notice the word “rule” in this verse. It is from the Greek word brabeuo, which in ancient times was used to describe the umpire or referee who moderated and judged the athletic competitions that were so popular in the ancient world.

    Paul uses this word to tell us that the peace of God can work like an umpire or referee in our hearts, minds, and emotions.

    Peace must guide us to each place and in each decision. Colossians 3:15 could be translated: “Let the peace of God call the shots in your life”; “Let the peace of God be the umpire in your life and actions”; “Let the peace of God act as referee in your emotions and your decisions.”

    If we have no peace over something, then we are out at first base, and we need to get off the field. If we have peace over a decision, the umpire has told us that we are safe and we get to stay and continue on. Peace is the guiding principle for the believer—the umpire that tells us what’s right so that chaos doesn’t ensue.

    Do you ever say about a decision, “I feel funny about this” or “Something doesn’t feel right about going here or doing this”? That means you don’t feel peace.

    Don’t overrule the umpire. Peace is God’s mechanism to help you make good decisions today and stay on the field. As Curtis Hutson said, “When the believer is faced with a decision regarding a questionable matter, he should never proceed unless he has complete peace about it.” A host of emotions come to us because life throws so many things at us. And nothing can blur our decision making like emotions.

    Look at what Paul tells us after the peace verse. It’s brilliant: “Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense” (verse 16, MSG). Paul i

  • Day 180

    Today’s Reading: Colossians 2

    Charles Spurgeon told of an event that took place in ancient Rome. A severe famine had struck the North African colonies, so Emperor Nero sent ships to the stricken area. When the starving people saw the ships arriving, they shouted with joy. But Spurgeon recounted the tragic end of the story. When the ships sailed into port, the North Africans discovered they were full of sawdust to lay on the floor of the circuses Rome was exporting to the colonies. The people yearned for sustenance; they received sawdust.

    Unlike what was exported from Rome, I’m happy to say that in the book of Colossians we are about to find the arrival of something that will fill our hearts and souls—Jesus. The book of Colossians is a vessel bringing Christ back to His rightful and proper place and it’s a book that fights religions that want to export sawdust and a circus!

    The apostle Paul said to be very careful of people wanting to distract you from the main attraction. Consider his warning:

    "Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too. His power extends over everything. . . .

    So don’t put up with anyone pressuring you in details of diet, worship services, or holy days. All those things are mere shadows cast before what was to come; the substance is Christ. Don’t tolerate people who try to run your life, ordering you to bow and scrape, insisting that you join their obsession with angels and that you seek out visions. They’re a lot of hot air, that’s all they are. They’re completely out of touch with the source of life, Christ, who puts us together in one piece, whose very breath and blood flow through us." (Colossians 2:8-10, 16-19, MSG)

    When you have a lot of people, you have a lot of opinions. And you can have a lot of opinions, but not have a lot of truth. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own truth. There is a difference between truth and opinion. The problem comes when you think your opinion is the truth.

    We have to define what is opinion and what is truth. We must hold on to truth for dear life and hold onto personal opinion very lightly. Truth is that which is true for all times, all people, and all places. It can’t be an American truth. It can’t be a Democrat or Republican truth. Truth is truth. Opinions are for our personal world and always have an expiration date. Opinions don’t last forever. But truth doesn’t expire; it has no expiration date.

    Author and pastor Charles Caleb Colton once said, “The greatest friend of truth is time, her greatest enemy is prejudice, and her constant companion is humility.” What is catastrophic is when we think our opinion is truth and we are unwilling to listen to those who see it differently.

    The apostle Paul is telling the church to grasp onto truth and not opinion. Colossians is a fighting book, and Paul is telling us to fight against syncretism. Syncretism is when we combine Christianity with so called “cool stuff from other religions.” In Colossians, Paul was fighting against this because the believers were trying to get two things synched with Christianity—ceremonies and philosophy, or more specifically, Jewish ritualism and eastern mysticism.

    This is not just a first-century issue and problem. It is also a t

  • Day 179

    Today’s Reading: Colossians 1

    C. S. Lewis once said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” Lewis is reminding us that even if good second things get first, we end up with nothing. If church is first, your denomination is first, worship music is first—those are good but they have to be second.

    In today’s chapter, Paul makes it really clear that Jesus is first and Jesus is everything. Paul is telling us what is at the heart of Christianity.

    What do lollipops, truffles, and the Christian life all have in common? It’s what’s at the center that counts! If you get to the middle of your lollipop or truffle and discover nothing, then there is nothing but disappointment. 

    This may be obvious, but you can’t have the word Christianity without Christ. Otherwise, it’s just ianity. Like that makes sense. You can’t be a Christian without Christ, then the word is just ian. It doesn’t make sense. And if the chewy-centered Tootsie Pop or truffle of the church, or the Christian life, or the Bible, or prayer is not Christ, then it’s nothing but a farce and failure.

    Here is the center for Paul—and I’m replacing the pronouns with the name of Jesus, so it’s very clear:

    Jesus rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Jesus, in Jesus we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. For by Jesus all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Jesus and for Jesus. Jesus is before all things, and in Jesus all things hold together. Jesus is also head of the body, the church; and Jesus is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that Jesus Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Jesus and through Jesus to reconcile all things to Jesus, having made peace through the blood of Jesus’ cross. (Colossians 1:13-20, author changes in italics)

    Jesus first and Jesus everywhere.

    The word to describe this is preeminence. That big word means Jesus is first and everything. That’s what Paul is telling us in Colossians 1: Jesus is the center, not the circumference. My favorite part of Paul’s praise is in verse 18 where he states “that He would have first place in everything.” There is no place Jesus is not first and preeminent. 

    Consider these words from Charles Spurgeon: “I believe there will be more in Heaven than in hell. If anyone asks me why I think so, I answer, because Christ, in everything, is to ‘have the pre-eminence,’ and I cannot conceive how He could have the pre-eminence if there are to be more in the dominions of Satan than in Paradise.” 

    That is so good. There will be more in heaven than in hell. Why? Because He must be preeminent.

    You are familiar, no doubt, with one of the most famous paintings ever done by any artist: “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, that classic portrayal of Christ and the twelve apostles at the table. Many stories have sprung up over the centuries about the painting. Many students of art history believe that the painting, when first created, was different from the version we now see. They believe that initially, an exquisite lace border ran the outside length of the tablecloth. Upon completion, when da Vinci invited a group of art students to view his masterpiece, they were impressed by the delica

  • Day 178

    Today’s Reading: Philippians 4

    Did you know Amazon keeps track of your highlights? When Kindle readers mark sentences, the online retailer notes it so that everyone can see a faint dotted line on their e-reader that tells them someone underlined the sentence or passage. Readers can also see how many other people underlined that same passage.

    Recently Amazon released a list of the most popular passages in some of its bestselling books, such as The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series, and classics like Pride and Prejudice. Amazon also included the Bible in this list. Guess what the most highlighted passage in the Holy Bible was around the world? I covered the answer to see if I could guess correctly. I was certain it had to be one of three passages: John 3:16, Psalm 23, or the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. But no, it was one that’s striking a deep chord in today’s worried world, and it comes from today’s chapter:

    Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)

    Kindle readers throughout the whole world highlighted this Bible passage on their Kindle more than any other verse. Here’s the passage from The Message:

    "Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life."

    I love that part—“Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers.” As author Tiffany Berry once said, “If you’re going to worry, there’s no need to pray, and if you’re going to pray, there’s no need to worry.”

    We live in a worried world. And anxiety can get the best of us. In The Me I Want to Be, pastor John Ortberg offers insight on how to respond to anxiety:

    "Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says it like this: Never worry alone. When anxiety grabs my mind, it is self-perpetuating. Worrisome thoughts reproduce faster than rabbits, so one of the most powerful ways to stop the spiral of worry is simply to disclose my worry to a friend."

    In today’s chapter, Paul tells us who our best friend is to disclose our worry to: God Himself. As Donald J. Morgan says, “Every evening I turn my troubles over to God—He’s going to be up all night anyway.” According to the apostle Paul, we choose to shape worries into prayers and that in essence is disclosing it to our Friend.

    I had someone once talk to me about their week. This person said, “I have sighed more than I breathed.” Wow, I have been there. Those are weeks weighed down with worry and not peace. When we’re in those kinds of weeks, as the saying goes, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” Philippians 4 gives us a way to carry the load—by shaping our worries into prayers. 

    When was the last time you meditated on a Bible verse? Some people get weird definitions of what “meditation” is. Let me explain it like the Puritan writers of the past explained it. They said you know how to meditate if you know how to worry, as worry is simply negative meditation. When you worry, you think about the problem all day long.

    When you meditate in a positive way, you take a Bible verse and turn it over in your mind all day long. This is one of those verses I would attempt to meditate on. Write it down and put it in your car so you can see it as you drive. Tape it on your bathroom mirror so that as you get ready for work in the morning, those are the first wo