Rising Above the Hostility of This Age

Text: Daniel 1:1-21

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” —Romans 12:2

It’s one of my son’s favorite workout songs—one I often hear blaring from the garage when Zach is lifting weights. “Rise Above It” is the theme from the movie Cool Runnings, the story of four Jamaican athletes who set out to make history by becoming the first Olympic bobsledding team from their nation. They must overcome extensive adversity and malicious opponents to attain that glory.

“Rise Above It” was the idea behind the conversation I had over lunch last week with a couple of inner-city boys I’ve been mentoring, one twelve and the other fourteen. We talked a great deal about current events and the turmoil in our nation, and most importantly, how to rise above the fray of all the social propaganda and political divisiveness, so we can truly see the world’s deepest need from the lens of biblical truth and gospel-centered justice and reconciliation. It is through this corrective lens that we realize the greatest virtues we can contribute to any society don’t come from merely “conforming” to what the culture demands that we be, but by becoming what God—the Almighty Creator—divinely “purposed” us to be “for such a time as this.”

God never puts us in a time and place to merely conform to our environment, but to “come out and be separate,” as a people who look, live, and think different than the world’s system. We are not here by accident or coincidence. We are not here to evolve into hostile people simply because hostile people want us to conform to their image. We are here to stand out in this historic moment, and reflect that we serve a greater Kingdom than this world’s man-made institutions. Romans 12:2 instructs believers: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The difference between conforming to this world versus discerning and fleshing out “the will of God” is fought on the battleground of the mind. Our minds are under a constant daily barrage to think a certain way, which in this hour often evokes conforming to malice. We must rise above it. If we are to “shine like lights in the middle of a crooked and perverse nation” (Philippians 2:15), we need to think differently than a society that is in defiant rebellion against God. We see a perfect example of this in today’s devotional text. It’s a short history lesson about Daniel and his three friends, teenage exiles, trying to faithfully serve their God in the midst of a godless society in Babylon—a land of tyranny, pagan idolatry, and cultural conformity.

In Daniel 1, we see a brainwashing strategy in motion. The narcissistic King Nebuchadnezzar sought to assimilate these exiled youths into Babylonian culture by obliterating their religious and cultural identity and creating dependence upon the royal court. He ordered that these Hebrews under his subjugation must attend Pagan University. The goal of Pagan U was to strip these guys of their former identity—national and cultural heritage—while indoctrinating them with Babylonian language, customs, and beliefs. Their birth names, which once reflected their faith in Jehovah, were changed to reflect the gods of the land. They were schooled in the language and mythological literature of the Babylonians. The bullying and intimidation tactics of Pagan U would’ve been more than enough to cause any faint of heart to compromise, but these were no faint-of-heart teenagers. They didn’t just go with the flow and give in to what social psychologists of our day define as the “groupthink” mentality. It wasn’t easy, yet these bold young people didn’t abandon their faith and convictions for cultural conformity.

Though they were appointed a daily provision of the king’s delicacies, Daniel and his friends resisted them. Why? Verse 8 says: “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food…” They considered the king’s food defiled for at least three reasons. First, it wasn’t kosher. Second, it was very likely sacrificed to idols. Third, eating the king’s food implied fellowship and conformity with Babylon’s institutional and cultural defiance of God. Surely this would label them as being uncooperative and bring them under threat of punishment. Nevertheless, Daniel didn’t do what the culture demanded of him because his priorities weren’t about staying relevant, preserving his social status, or amassing likes on his social media posts; Daniel’s first order of business was an unflinching conviction that he would not “defile himself” by compromising what was all-important to His God. He and his friends risked everything, reputation and livelihood, to remain faithful to their God-given purpose.

But we see another principle at work here. While Daniel and his friends refused to conform, they also showed respect to the pagan authorities in the king’s court. This undoubtedly worked in their favor when Daniel proposed to them a “better” meal plan. His solution was embraced because their stance wasn’t one of hostility and vitriol. God gave them favor with those in power, and those in power not only listened to them, they were influenced by the youths’ faith and wisdom. “They stood before the king. And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.”

Imagine if their whole purpose or agenda in life became relegated to the triviality of just fighting King Nebuchadnezzar. They would’ve missed their whole mission. What a shortcoming of their destiny that would’ve been. Instead, God had a much bigger plan. It was to focus on His agenda and for them to become grace-filled agents of light in a dark world. They couldn’t do that with malice in their hearts. They had to recognize that their battle wasn’t against flesh and blood, or other human beings, but against “the god of the age that was blinding the minds of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We see this unfold throughout the entire book of Daniel.

Consider that this world is transitory and not your home—you are just passing through. Know that there isn’t time for conformity for the sake of preserving social status. God put us here in this specific time to shine as lights in a dark place, and like Daniel, we have a small window of opportunity to make a difference—to be an agent of grace and not an ambassador of malice. Make the days count. Reconsider your diet—instead of feasting daily on a buffet of negative media, turn to God’s Word for a healthy nourishment of Good News. Remember that there is a wrong way to be right. Standing up for God’s truth in a wrong spirit (vitriol, animosity, disrespecting and disparaging your opponents) is toxic to movements of grace. Learn from Daniel and his friends. God favored them because they had character to resist, courage to stand, and gentleness and respect for those of pagan worldviews (1 Peter 3:15-16). That’s why their legacy is enduring. What will be your legacy? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him in these times.

PRAYER

Dear God, help us in our struggle to resist conforming to this world’s pattern. The lure of conforming to the agenda of human malice is so powerful in these times. Let our heavenly mission not become hijacked by earthly motives. Holy Spirit teach us to discern your perfect will, that we would know how to shine as lights in a dark time. Renew our minds with discernment and understanding, guard our hearts with compassion and mercy, fill our words with grace that speaks truth along with dignity and respect. Keep us about our Father’s business and let us not get tripped up by cultural conformity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. How might a non-Christian acquaintance describe you? When have you taken a Christian stand in a non-Christian setting?
  2. What were the characteristics of the teenage captives? (Daniel 1:3-4)
  3. What was Daniel’s resolve and how did the chief official respond to Daniel’s request? (Daniel 1:8-14)
  4. What was the result of the test? (Daniel 1:15-16) What did God give to the four men and what did Nebuchadnezzar conclude concerning them? (Daniel 1:17-20)     
  5. This week, what is something you can do to rise above the cultural hostility and toxic malice of our times? How can you win the battle of the mind—to resist fighting against flesh and blood and turn your focus toward the spiritual warfare that exists with the “god of this age”?

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This VBS curriculum is based on the Old Testament book of Daniel. The theme teaches children how to live with courage in uncertain times. It was designed as a camp curriculum for children 8-12 years of age. Can also serve as a 5-week Sunday morning children’s ministry teaching series.

Redemption: Our Only Hope is Not Just a Cliché

Text: Ruth 4:1-22

“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer…” —Ruth 4:14

What do you think it will be like to experience redemption from all of your pain, suffering, and hardship? What will you do in the climax of that moment—when every sorrow is turned to joy, every hurt is healed completely, every loss is swallowed up by triumph, and every injustice has been rectified? That day will surely come, beloved, and we do well to picture what our response will be when it happens. It can remedially shape how we “patiently endure evil” in this present time (2 Timothy 2:24).

As we conclude our final devotion in this series from the book of Ruth, we see that God is still at work even in troubled times. The book of Ruth has been described as the story of God “through the eyes of women.” One of its characters, Naomi, has been compared to a female Job. She suffered from a severe famine and the tragic loss of her husband and two sons. It’s plausible she lost even more than Job did—her essential livelihood. She dwelt among society’s most marginalized: the poor and the widowed. Bitterness had taken such a root in her soul that she chose to redefine her existence (“Mara”). What she didn’t realize is that God wasn’t finished writing the story of her life—an epic chapter was still to come!

Naomi’s faith might’ve been wounded, but it wasn’t dead. Even when we have a crisis of faith, God remains faithful. He never abandons us in our distress, or when we struggle with doubts. He never stops rescuing us from ourselves! His extended grace enables Naomi to take those difficult next steps even as her soul is ailing and everything in her says ‘give up.’ It’s likely a pure ‘faith over feelings’ moment when she urges Ruth to boldly propose to Boaz, who was a legitimate kinsman redeemer in accordance with their ancient cultural laws. This was an act of faith rooted in God’s Word. Naomi finds a way to take a “faith step” despite overwhelming feelings of grief, bitterness, and sorrow.

The outcome was favorable. Boaz and Ruth were married and soon had a son named Obed. Naomi’s misfortune turned to joy when she held that little grandchild in her arms. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him” (Ruth 4:14-15). Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. It’s a glorious redemption moment. The child brought great joy to Bethlehem, became the grandfather of a godly king (David), and ultimately the ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

We can learn much from Naomi. Even when we can’t see the bigger picture and life is under duress, God’s plan is still perfect and filled with love. He knows what He is doing. All things do work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

We must also understand who the main character is in this story. It isn’t Naomi. It isn’t Ruth. It isn’t Boaz. The real Hero is Christ, the Redeemer. He is the protagonist in the story of our lives as well. Our stories are not fundamentally about us; our lives are simply a canvas for God to write out His redemption for the world to see His glory. He is the One Who provides a future for Naomi and Ruth, two widows with such little prospects for a future. It is through the canvas of their lives that we see how God cares for the marginalized, just as He commands us to do (Jeremiah 22:16; James 1:27).

The final takeaway is that we need to keep our eyes on our Redeemer, not the bleakness of the moment. It is not a cliché to say that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the only hope for our world today. Social and systemic injustices will never be remedied without true humility and repentance. Bigotry, bitterness, and hatred in the hearts of people will never be holistically remedied apart from the love of Christ. Violence, vitriol, and vindictiveness will never usher in real justice. Legislation will never change a heart. Only God can do that. Our only cure is looking to Jesus.

We must recognize Jesus not merely as some historical figure, but as the living Redeemer of all the restoration and reconciliation God wants to bring about in our world today. Ignoring Him leads to pride. Looking to Him is what humbles us (Philippians 2:1-11). As Laura Gallier, one of my daughter’s favorite authors, said, “Of all the countless acts of injustice committed throughout mankind’s history, none compares to the atrocious beating, scourging and crucifixion of Christ, which he willingly suffered on our behalf, motivated solely by God’s love for humanity. This revelation becomes our foundation for repenting of our own sinful actions and also forgiving acts of injustice committed against us.” Looking at Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for our sins humbles us. That’s why so many people ignore the cross—they don’t want to humble themselves. Thus they remain poisoned by their pride, bigotry, hatred, bitterness, and animosity toward other human beings.

Our hope begins at the cross. It is here that we humble ourselves at the feet of Jesus, allow His revelation to transform our hearts, and let him replace our Mara (“bitterness”) with healing. It is here that we find forgiveness and restoration. The cross is where hate is overcome by love, vengeance overcome by mercy, and animosity overcome by reconciliation. It’s where we recognize our humanity with all of its flaws, see a God Who created every person in His very own image, and willingly laid down His life so that His creation can be saved, healed, and redeemed.

Just like Naomi and Ruth in their distress, God has not left you without a Redeemer. He is still writing on the canvas of repentant lives today. Will you trust Him? Will you turn to Him? Will you view your broken world through the reconciliatory lens of the cross? Will you walk, love, and serve others in humility? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, sometimes there are no words to describe the sorrow, the injustices, and the evil that we experience in this fallen world. It is impossible for us to make sense of it all. People need hope. And the only path toward a redeemed future begins at the foot of the cross. Our bitterness doesn’t engineer a favorable outcome. Thank you for your grace, which leads us to that place of surrender so that we can see you write a better story than we could ever imagine. Grant us humility to turn to you, to release our angst, our grief, our sorrow, and all of our fears and doubts. Save us from ourselves. Holy Spirit, reveal to us the path forward. Though often assaulted and sometimes faltering, may our faith be found trusting you to bring about the ultimate redemption in this story we are living. In Jesus’ name, and for His glory, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What are some of the etiquette or unwritten social rules in your family? What is essential to treating others with dignity and respect?
  2. What is the central event in this chapter (Ruth 4:1-12)? How is the elders’ blessing on Boaz and Ruth’s marriage significant in light of the rest of the chapter? (Ruth 4:11-13)
  3. How is this chapter an example of God’s providence in our lives? What can this story teach us about God’s redemption plan for our world today?
  4. Why do we tend to overlook or ignore the power of the cross in our daily lives? Like Paul, how can we “die daily” so that we can serve the Lord faithfully (1 Corinthians 15:31)?
  5. What feelings of bitterness, anger, grief, sorrow, vindictiveness, or animosity might you need to bring to the cross today?

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Desperate Faith: “We Bought a Zoo”

Text: Ruth 3:1-18

“In whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” —Ephesians 3:12

When was the last time your faith moved you to do something bold… even seemingly crazy? When was the last time you were moved out of your comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory, taking a necessary risk because you were desperate to follow the way of Jesus?

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” refers to actions that might seem extreme under normal circumstances but are more appropriate in times of adversity, distress, or when duty calls. “We Bought a Zoo” is a film about such measures. It tells the true story of a widowed father, Benjamin Mee, who desperately tries to pick up the broken pieces of his life and lead his grieving children forward after they lost their mother to cancer. He does something quite “ridiculous,” and it ends up being the remedy his ailing family needs in their journey to recovery. Yep, you know where this is going… they bought a run-down zoo and worked to renovate it and restore its faded glory. Benjamin, who had to get unstuck from his depression, later told his struggling teenage son:

“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you something great will come of it.”

In our continued devotional series through the book of Ruth, we come to a place in the story that is a fitting picture of Benjamin Mee’s thesis on life. Here we find twenty seconds of insane courage and vulnerable bravery. Naomi coaches her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, to put on some perfume, go down to the threshing floor where Boaz is sleeping, snuggle right up next to his sleeping bag, uncover his feet and tickle them. When he wakes up, propose to him. Okay, that is a very loose translation but there’s not a scholar alive who can convince me that it didn’t tickle his feet! Boaz was startled.

“At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.’” What a proposal! Talk about the possibility of looking like an idiot. What if he rejected her?

Ruth and Naomi are desperate. It pays off. The sounds of wedding bells are in the future. Ruth’s twenty seconds of courage is more than just scheming to attract the attention of Boaz. Her actions reveal a bold faith in the promises God. Both Naomi and Ruth knew that Boaz was, according to Jewish law, a kinsman-redeemer as instituted in Leviticus 25. They weren’t following blind or random courage; they were taking God at His Word and acting out of a desperate trust in His decreed faithfulness. Boaz was the man fitting to bring about their redemption story according to scripture, and in the much broader picture, he also foreshadows Jesus Christ, the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer who will redeem a bride for Himself—the church.

Where do you need twenty seconds of bold faith right now? Where do you need to dig down deep and pull out that last ounce of courage you have, and act faithfully in obedience to what Jesus tells you to do—renouncing your fears, your comfort, your vulnerability, and your trepidation? Maybe it’s in choosing to focus on the size of your God rather than the size of a pandemic. Maybe it’s a deliberate choice to forgive that person who wounded you. Perhaps picking up the phone and reconciling a severed relationship, apologizing to your spouse or children, or praying for enemies and political personalities you despise. It might be an act of advocacy, or starting a new ministry to serve the needs of others.

It might only take about twenty seconds of courage to set in motion a series of events that revives something in your life and opens up the floodgates for God’s kingdom to breakout all around you. Where can you flesh out that courage in your life? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Dear Jesus, our Kinsman Redeemer and Lord over all, lead us by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to know where we need to enact courage and bold faith in the days ahead. There is bitterness, darkness, and unrest all around us. Desperation hovers over many. Move us to make a difference, taking that first bold step of faith, then seeing you open the floodgates of heaven upon our obedience. Lord, thank you for your faithfulness.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you ever found yourself in a “desperate” situation like Ruth?
  2. What motivated Naomi to tell Ruth to go to Boaz (Ruth 3:1-2)? What specific instructions did she give to Ruth (Ruth 3:1-4)?
  3. How did Naomi refer to Boaz, and why is this significant (Ruth 3:2)?
  4. What does Ruth’s obedience to Naomi reveal about her character? What does Boaz’s willingness to fulfill his obligation reveal about him? What positive character traits stand out in this story?
  5. Judging from this passage, what does God want you to do when you cannot see the solution to a problem in your life? Where is God beckoning you to act boldly and courageously—even desperately?

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The Last Dance: What Will Yours Look Like?

Text: Ruth 2:1-23

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” — Romans 8:18

Like millions out there today, I was inspired by “Air Jordan” in the 80s and 90s, and often dreamed I could “be like Mike.” I loved to come home from school and play hoops for endless hours. When Cindy and I were newlyweds, some of our date nights involved going to the local park where I would practice “fade-aways” for an hour and she would grab my rebounds. Yep, that girl is pretty amazing!

Though I never was able to dunk a basketball—I don’t think I drank enough Gatorade!—the sport has been a meaningful part of my life. Basketball was one of our first sports ministries to at-risk youth in Florida juvenile detention centers during the late 90s, and it’s a big component of our summer camps for prisoners’ kids and disadvantaged children in East Tennessee. It’s also been a touch of heaven bringing mission teams to the Dominican Republic to do sports ministry with the kids on a basketball court we built for an orphanage a few years ago.

Because so much of my basketball passion was fueled by Michael Jordan, the hype surrounding ESPN’s new documentary The Last Dance has stirred many hoop memories for me. In 1995, When MJ returned to the NBA after a brief retirement, I mused along with the rest of the world: Can he still compete at the same level? Can he still win? Could he silence all the critics who doubted the possibilities? Well, not only did he win, his team dominated the league while showcasing one of the greatest basketball teams to ever take the court. The “Last Dance” revealed that the best was still to come, despite all the tension coming from the skeptics and doubters.

Are my best days behind me, or in front of me?

This internal question is something many of us ponder as the drama of our lives continues to unfold. In this devotional series, we’ve been looking at the book of Ruth the last couple of weeks. During a time of famine, Naomi and her family had left the Promised Land and went to Moab, where she would face unimaginable tragedy—losing her husband and her two sons. It was a season, surely, when the widow must’ve questioned whether her best days were now behind her. She even renamed herself “Mara” (meaning “bitter”), describing what her life now felt like. Her homecoming is one of sorrow and grief. What she didn’t know was that God was orchestrating a “last dance” that would give rise to a redemption story for the ages.

Naomi and Ruth faced agonizing hardship, but with God, hardship never spells hopelessness. As widows, they benefited from an ancient tradition that helped those affected by poverty (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law commanded farmers in Israel to “cut corners” in harvesting, for the purpose of leaving behind some bundles of grain for the less fortunate in the land. It was a win-win social assistance program intended to help farmers have a generous heart while giving the poor an opportunity to actively work for their food in a way that restored their dignity.

Ruth, demonstrating a hard-working spirit, set out to glean in the fields to support Noami and herself. Whether directly from God himself (Ruth 2:12), or through a human channel “in whose sight I shall find favor (Ruth 2:2),” her faith expected to see God show up (Hebrews 11:6). Despite being a Moabite and a foreigner, she was wiser than many in Israel when it came to recognizing the Lord’s hand in her labor (Colossians 3:23-24, Galatians 6:9, Psalm 128:2, Psalm 90:17, Proverbs 14:23). Her faith is seen in the way she works. James would be proud! (James 2:14-26)

The beauty in Naomi and Ruth’s last dance is seen where faith and hard work intersect with divine intervention. Their story—as does the story of your life—has a redeemer. As Ruth’s faith is thrust into action in the barley fields, she “happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech” (Elimelech was Naomi’s deceased husband). The odd construction of this sentence in the original text is deliberate. In colloquial English, we would say, “As her luck would have it…” But the statement is ironic. The storyteller intentionally uses an expression that forces the reader to sit up and muse how Ruth just “happens” to land in the field of a man who was not only gracious (Ruth 2:2) but also a kinsman who had the right to marry Ruth after the death of her husband (according to Jewish law). As the story plays out, we see that Ruth’s arrival at Boaz’ field has nothing to do with sheer coincidence or happenstance, but indisputable fingerprints of God’s providential hand.

Suddenly, the future is looking much different for these two women who have suffered agonizing misfortune. Why? Because a redeemer is now in the picture, and this changes everything, as we will conclude next week.

Tragedy. Loss. Unemployment. Financial hardship. Sorrow. Grief. Depression. Addiction. Anxiety. Sickness. Pandemic. These stories are all told differently when a redeemer is present. Your Redeemer lives, beloved. No matter what kind of hardship or setbacks you have experienced, be assured that your best days are still to come. Your next dance—last dance, or whatever you want to call it—will be full of favor and beauty, but not due to luck, coincidence, or human sufficiency; it will be brilliant because of the fact that The Almighty is the Choreographer and HE upholds you. He will never leave you nor forsake you in this dance. You can trust His next steps!

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, what a picture of hope for the battered and weary soul. You always have a plan and a process. It’s a process that we can trust because we know Your heart. Remind us this week that the best is still to come. Our redemption draws nigh because You purpose for the world to see Your glory—not just in some abstract way, but very directly and specifically on the canvas of our lives. Increase our faith. Stretch our hope. Ignite our prayers. Kindle us with a passion to serve you in this hour with great expectancy of the redemption to come. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you ever faced danger in doing what you thought was right? When has your faith put you in a vulnerable situation?
  2. How did Boaz’s foreman describe Ruth (Ruth 2:6-7)? What character traits of Ruth stand out to you?
  3. What specific instructions did Boaz give to Ruth, and how did she respond to him (Ruth 2:8-11)? In what ways is faith different from optimism or mere wishful thinking?
  4. Judging from the events in this story, what character traits does God honor in His people? What is a step you can take this week toward developing your character?
  5. How have you seen God’s providence at work in your life? How could you demonstrate your thankfulness to the Lord for His provision for you?

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When Feeling Bitter With Life

Text: Ruth 1:19-22

“Indeed it was for my own peace that I had great bitterness; But You have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption, For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.” —Isaiah 38:17

Have you ever had a crisis of faith? If God is so good, then why did this happen to me? How do I believehopepress on, when I have known such indescribable pain and loss? That’s where we find Naomi in her return to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22).

When Naomi set out for Moab years earlier with her husband, Elimelech, she was filled with such high hopes and vibrant dreams of what her life would look like. Yet in Moab, all she seemed to encounter was a series of disappointments and hardship. She loses her husband, and then both of her sons. Impoverished and bereaved, she finds herself on a painful journey back to her homeland, along with her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth. It’s hard for Naomi to see that God is near in the wake of such sorrow, loss, and devastation. “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty,” she says. “Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

The wounded widow is referring to the meaning of her name, which means “pleasant.” She tells her people, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Mara means “bitter.” In a sense, Naomi is trying to rewrite the story of her life based on the cards she has been dealt. Like many of us do from time to time, she is not associating her name with her God-given identity, but with what has happened to her. Her pain has errantly become her identity.

Disappointments are not meant to define us. You are NOT what has happened to you. Too often that’s how life unfolds; we feel branded by our hardship. In her grief, which can be very messy, Naomi presumes that God is punishing her. She laments that the Almighty has dealt her a very bitter hand. Notice the wordplay on God’s sovereignty (“Almighty”). It seems that Naomi is charging that because God is sovereign over all things, He didn’t have to let this happen. But He did… so it’s an indictment on His goodness—thus the crisis of faith.

Naomi can’t see the bigger picture in this particular chapter of suffering. As we keep reading the next chapters, we see God’s blessing and favor materialize, and Ruth playing a key role in the rehabilitation of Naomi’s faith. God demonstrates his grace, goodness, and faithfulness in manifold ways. Naomi’s bitterness will soon be turned to joy, as her life will illustrate the power of God to bring something good out of bitter circumstances.

How about you, beloved? Have circumstances derailed your faith? Have you allowed what has happened to you come to define you? Has bitterness distorted your interpretation of what God is up to in your life at this moment? Despite our own misinterpretations about God’s plan and our indictments about His intentions toward us, His redemption always tells the story rightly in the end. His grace narrates the drama more completely—and it’s always in our favor (Hosea 6:1, Isaiah 61:7, Job 42:10, 1 Peter 5:10). Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, thank you for your goodness despite our often misinterpretations about what you are doing. We are too near-sighted to see the bigger picture of what Your redemption is painting on the canvas of our lives. Help us to trust in your goodness, and wait patiently for the redemption that is sure to come. Thank for your grace and favor, which will ultimately speak over all of our disappointments and sorrows. Weeping may endure for a moment, but joy comes in the morning. We worship you because YOU are worthy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In what things do most people in our society seem to find their identity?
  2. Why did Naomi call herself Mara (Ruth 1:20-21)? Why do we so easily accept what has happened to us as our identity?
  3. Have you ever charged God with ill intentions, or questioned His goodness, because of something that happened in your life?
  4. How does the relationship between Naomi and Ruth speak about how God uses others to bring about redemption in our stories?
  5. Rather than finding your identity in the things that have happened to you, what can you do this week to find your identity in the redemptive story that God will one day tell more rightly—completely—about your life?

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Orpah Kissed Naomi, But Ruth Clung to Her

Text: Ruth 1:1-18

“For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” —Ruth 1:16

I used to think of myself as a football fan (American football, not soccer!), that is, until I moved to Tennessee. Once I found myself surrounded by such diehard college football enthusiasts, I eventually learned that I’m not really a true fan (fanatical follower), just a casual spectator who enjoys the game. There is a huge difference.

The casual spectator can watch a game without experiencing any animosity toward an opposing team. On the other hand, the fanatical fan experiences a whole different spectrum of emotions during and after the game. They will carry their passions from the game—its hostility withal—to their workplace for the rest of the week! Husbands and wives with divided team loyalties might even have to sleep in different rooms following a game! A true fan doesn’t just watch the game; this person will live vicariously through their team’s identity, even claiming to “bleed” that team’s colors.

I eventually realized that, when it comes to football, I’m not in the same league as fanatical followers.

In this week’s devotional passage, we see a similar contrast. In only four short chapters, the book of Ruth reveals an epic love story, depicting unwavering faithfulness and relentless devotion. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, had been sojourners in the land of Moab after a severe famine drove them out of Judah. But now, years later, Naomi’s husband and her two sons have all died, leaving Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law widowed, vulnerable, and without any support.

The three of them set out for Naomi’s homeland together when we get to a pivotal scene in the Scriptures. Naomi, recognizing the difficulties that lay ahead, gives her blessing for the two women to return to their native mother’s house in Moab. Ruth 1:14 tells us that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, but that Ruth clung to her. Picture this devotion for a moment. Ruth desperately wraps her arms around Naomi and adamantly refuses to let go. Though her mother-in-law urges her to let go and turn back, she will not.

The word translated as “clung” in this passage means: to stick to, adhere to, cling to, join with, stay in close proximity to, and which yields the noun form for “glue.” The same word is used when Moses told the Israelites they were to “hold fast” to the LORD God because “this is your life and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:20). It conveys the ideas of loyalty and devotion, as it is used in Genesis 2:24 to associate how a man shall leave his father and his mother, and “cleave” to his wife. It emphasizes the basic meaning of being intimately joined to another and of being identified with another, even as Ruth was now committing to no longer being “identified” with the Moabites but primarily with Naomi, her people and her God.

Ruth’s act of clinging to Naomi is a reminder to all of us that even in times of seeming abandonment and despair, God calls on us to cling to Him with all of our intimate devotion. Orpah’s kiss was respectful and considerate, but also showed how easy she found it to turn back in the face of difficulty. It’s one thing to be a casual fan of Jesus—a fair-weather worshiper; it’s an entirely different “ballgame” to cling to Him in times of adversity—famine, loss, unemployment, sickness, pandemic.

Alexander Maclaren writes that as Orpah goes back to her home and her idolatrous gods, “She is the first in the sad series of those, ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34) who needed but a little more resolution at the critical moment, and, for want of it, shut themselves out from the covenant, and sank back to a world which they had half renounced.” Matthew Henry, referring to Orpah’s apparent resolution to do but failure to follow her words with actions says, “Strong passions, without a settled judgment, commonly produce weak resolutions.” Henri Rossi notes that Orpah’s good intention is not enough, “For nothing less than faith will do in order to enter into relationship with grace… It is possible to have a very amiable character without having faith. Faith makes a gulf between these two women who are so similar in so many ways. Confronted with impossibilities, the natural heart draws back, whereas faith is nourished on impossibilities and so increases in strength.”

True faith leads us to abandon our idols, give up our gods of self-sufficiency and illusions of control, and turn to the one true God as our only hope. True faith will inevitably make a distinction between the casual, “cultural Christian,” and the markedly devoted follower of Jesus Christ. That’s what is so precious about the faith Ruth displays—it’s full of resolution, clinging, and submission. Naomi is everything to Ruth because Ruth now cleaves to Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16). She now “bleeds” a newfound loyalty to the King of kings and the Lord of lords. This changes everything. Unlike Orpah, her decisions are no longer dictated by a path of ease and comfort, but dictated by a path of what glorifies her God.

A kiss of outward profession to Christendom may be an act that appears sincere (Matthew 26:48, 49 Luke 22:47, 48), that is, until you see it contrasted with what real and true devotion to Jesus Christ looks like. In this moment of your life, does your association with the Divine look more like a respectful kiss (going through casual religious motions), or more like a fanatical-and-desperate-all-out clinging to Christ as your only path forward in life? Think about this contrast as you seek to abide in Him this week.

Unsure about what it means to be “saved by grace” and have a real, personal relationship with Jesus? Go here for answers. God is closer than you think.

PRAYER

Dear God, I don’t want to give you a casual kiss of appreciation from time to time. I want my life to be spent relentlessly clinging to the Lord Jesus Christ with wholehearted abandon. Teach me what unreserved devotion looks like. Confront my fears, my trepidation, my pride, my complacency, and my hesitation. I don’t want to turn back to the land of idols. Lead my heart in a path of repentance forward. Holy Spirit, free me to live wildly and passionately for the God I love, and the Savior I worship. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What is one of the nicest things someone has ever done for you?
  2. What kind of relationship did Naomi have with her daughters-in-law? (Ruth 1:8-10)
  3. What could Ruth expect for her future when she decided to go with Naomi to Judah, and how did that involve faith? How does Ruth’s commitment to the God of Israel offer hope and encouragement to you?
  4. How would you describe a person merely going through religious motions versus a person fully devoted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? In his teachings about discipleship, why do you think Jesus talked about “counting the cost” and “taking up your cross” as part of the process?
  5. In what way might your faith sometimes resemble Orpah? How can it look more like the devotion of Ruth?

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A Good News Heart in a Bad News World

Text: Psalm 112:1-10

“He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” —Psalm 112:7

Nobody likes bad news, although I did have quite an affinity with the “Bad News Bears” of the 70s when I was a kid. I think that film resonated with me due to my love for baseball intertwined with much dysfunction I experienced in childhood. I could truly relate with those outcasts, though the hard-drinking, grumpy coach in the movie had nothing on my real Little League coaches who smoked marijuana during our practices.

I would’ve never imagined back then that my “baseball” future would entail sharing the Gospel with kids all over the world through a global sports ministry. God has certainly redeemed the game of baseball in my life!!!

Psalm 112 speaks of a person with a Good News heart in a bad news world. Because this worshiper “fears the Lord,” and “greatly delights in His commandments,” he “is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” Charles Spurgeon noted, “He is neither fickle nor cowardly; when he is undecided as to his course he is still fixed in heart: he may change his plan, but not the purpose of his soul.”

Living with a fearless heart isn’t about being oblivious, impervious, in denial or dismissive of reality. It’s about having the utmost confidence in the One Who still speaks to this present storm, and trusting His heart when things are spiraling out of your control. Bad news might come to us from our family, the doctor, the economy, the unfaithful, the culture around us, or from politics. Yet the one who fears the LORD will not be afraid.

Too often we have the right theology, but not the right doxology. Though our mind knows the lyrics to that historic creed, we still find our heart singing a song of anxiety and panic. We tend to go “off-pitch” when our circumstances are in disharmony with our faith. We might know all the Sunday School answers, and yet still recoil at the pressures of the real life test. The psalmist wants us to be sure—“His heart is steady; he will not be afraid” (v.8)—that the Good News is greater than the bad news.

This kind of fearlessness isn’t about shrugging off reality, or retreating into some place of passive resignation, but with a very intentional and deliberate active trust in the goodness of our Father. I pray that the next time you are feeling overwhelmed with bad news, you will be reminded of all the good the Lord has promised you, and focus on the glorious redemption that is sure to headline your future.

PRAYER

Dear God, how I yearn for the steadiness that David highlights in this Psalm. Teach me how to have a steadfast heart that beats confidently in a circumstance-challenged body… a fearless calm when surrounded by gloominess and uncertainty… a Good News heart in a bad news world. Holy Spirit, liberate my soul to trust and not fret… free me to worship more and worry less. In Jesus’ blessed name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What are the things that worry you, or unsettle you about the future?
  2. Why is it often difficult to have a Good News heart in a bad news world?
  3. Where does the godly person find his or her sense of security? (Psalm 112:7) What can this person expect in the future? (Psalm 112:8)
  4. When have you seen God redeem something bad and turn it into something good?
  5. Where might you need a change of perspective to become more like the person described in this passage?

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Have We Lost Our Wonder?

Text: John 1:1–18

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” —John 1:14

Have you ever seen a celebrity in person and felt a sense of awe about that moment? I’m not sure what it is that causes that kind of marvel when we are in the presence of a famous person, but it’s a sharp contrast to the way we might feel in the mundane norms of life, where God is always present. It’s something worth considering. Have we lost our sense of wonder for the God of the universe—the omnipotent One who is present with us in every moment of every day?

In John 1, it says that Jesus put on flesh and blood, became incarnate among His own creation, and yet they failed to marvel at His presence:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9-11)

Think about it: The Supreme Deity “became flesh and dwelt among us”—this was the most amazing event in all of history. The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time – yet many of them still shunned Him. They failed to wonder at His majesty. How much more might we be disinclined to marvel at His presence having never seen God in the flesh?

The Greek text “dwelt among us” can mean more literally “pitched his tent” right next to us—an allusion to God’s dwelling among the Israelites in their tabernacle (Exodus 25:8–9; 33:7). In the past, God had manifested his presence to his people in the tabernacle and the temple. Now God takes up residence among his people in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Thus, the coming of Christ fulfills the Old Testament symbolism for God’s dwelling with man in the tabernacle and the temple. Later, through the Holy Spirit, Christ will make into a temple both the church (1 Corinthians 3:16) and a Christian’s body (1 Corinthians 6:19). God has come so close to us in Jesus Christ that we don’t have to struggle to find Him. He is very near. It’s just that we may not be looking to Him with eyes of faith.

This thought is so familiar in Christianity we may no longer be staggered by it. A prayer of the Eastern churches conveys well the breathtaking wonder: “We see most eloquent orators voiceless as fish when they must speak of Thee, O Jesus our Savior. For it is beyond their power to tell how Thou art both perfect man and immutable God at the same time.”

Maybe you’ve heard the song “Wonder” from Bethel Music. The lyrics go like this:

May we never lose our wonder

May we never lose our wonder

Wide eyed and mystified

May we be just like a child

Staring at the beauty of our King

Cause you are beautiful in all your ways

You are beautiful in all your ways

There is a place of marvel that we enter into when our hearts are fully embracing the presence of God. This place of worship is where our soul gives way to uninhibited delight at the dwelling of God among us. It is here that we are filled with the wonder and awe of our Creator, and life sustainer. This kind of worship is found throughout the Bible…

Abraham fell on his face in holy wonder as God spoke to him (Genesis 17). Moses hid his face before the presence of God in the burning bush (Exodus 3). Paul could hardly tell whether he was in or out of the body when he was allowed to see the indescribable wonders of the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12). When John saw Jesus on the island, he fell at His feet as dead (Revelation 1).

May we never become so familiar with the dwelling of God with us that we lose our sense of wonder and awe, especially as we remind ourselves of the high cost of Jesus’ blood that was shed so that a holy God could dwell among such sinful creatures. Think about that as you seek to abide in His presence this week.

PRAYER

God, you are holy and awesome, yet you have chosen to pitch your tent among us—sinful creatures. This is only possible because of what Christ did for us at the cross, sacrificing his life to make the payment for our sins. Thank you for the light you have brought into our darkness. Holy Spirit, help us to not take that light for granted in the every day norms of life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you been a little star struck by the presence of a celebrity?
  2. In what ways can familiarity cause us to lose our sense of awe or wonder?
  3. Why did the Word become flesh and live among us?
  4. How should the reality that God became a man affect your life today?
  5. How should the reality that God has made His dwelling within you affect your life today?

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The Risk You Must Take

Text: Philippians 2:1-30

“For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” —Philippians 2:21

As a child growing up in Maryland, I often emulated my favorite baseball players. In the basement of our townhome I would throw a tennis ball against the wall imagining I was a big league pitcher. I studied and learned the distinct batting stances of each player on the Baltimore Orioles lineup, imitating their swings in my grandmother’s backyard. I wanted to play the game well, so I modeled my practice after successful big leaguers.

In Philippians 2, Paul wants Christians to experience a deep, abiding, internal unity among one another. In order to have that type of “full accord” and oneness of mind, they must emulate the humility and mind of Christ.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Think about this for a minute. Who do you know that lives this way? What makes people want to count others more significant than themselves? In Paul’s estimation, it is having the “mind” of Christ—“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…”

Then the apostle gives us two big league examples of those who actually emulated Christ in this way, highlighting the very sacrificing nature of early church life. Their names were Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul said of his mentee, Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:20-21).

In addition to writing about Timothy’s “proven worth” as a servant of the gospel, he also points to Epaphroditus, as a “fellow soldier” who nearly died for the work of Christ, “risking his life to complete what was lacking” of others. The ancient Greek phrase “risking his life” uses a gambler’s word that meant to risk everything on the roll of the dice. For the sake of Jesus Christ, Epaphroditus was willing to gamble everything for the benefit of others.

In the days of the Early Church there was an association of men and women who called themselves the gamblers, taken from this same ancient Greek word used in risking his life. It was their aim to visit the prisoners and the sick, especially those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases. Often, when a plague struck a city, the heathen threw the dead bodies into the streets and fled in terror. But the gamblers buried the dead and helped the sick the best they could, and so risked their lives to show the love of Jesus.

Imagine this kind of emulation of Christ in our communities today—people who risked everything in seeking the welfare, dignity, and interests of others. Imagine communities where people did not engage primarily to get something out of it for themselves, but to contribute something exceedingly beneficial to others. Imagine how emulating Christ’s humility could shape our esteem of one another. If I consider you above me and you consider me above you, then a marvelous thing happens: we have a community where everyone is looking up and no one is looked down on. Think about this as you seek to abide in Christ this week.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, teach us how to emulate your humility, compassion, and sacrificial love for others. Help us to risk ourselves in ways that bring glory to You and good to others… that we may truly live, and become fully alive. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Who is one of the most selfless people you have ever met? What do you think motivated that person?
  2. When have you risked something in your life for the sake of someone else? What might constitute a foolish risk versus a necessary risk?
  3. The text says that Christ emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. Why is that important for us to emulate? How does that touch on pride and humility?
  4. Why is it important that the church be “in full accord and of one mind”? What is at stake if we aren’t?
  5. Where do you need to apply the biblical examples of “seeking the interests of others” in your life this week?

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Don’t Forget What It’s Like to Be Lost

Text: Ephesians 2:1-22

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” —Ephesians 2:13

Has your GPS ever done you wrong? Mine sure has, and apparently I’m not alone. I read about a 67-year-old Belgian woman who drove 900 miles off course, over a two-day period due to a faulty GPS combined with her own disorientation. Her actual destination was only 90 miles away.

During Sabine Moreau’s odyssey, she stopped two times to get gas, slept for a few hours on the side of the road, and even suffered a minor car accident. She ended up in Croatia! Moreau later explained: “I saw all kinds of road signs: first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I kept driving because I was distracted. Suddenly I appeared in Zagreb and I realized I wasn’t in Belgium anymore.”

To those early Christians in Ephesus, Paul reminded them of what their lives looked like when they were spiritually off course and disoriented in a world of lost-ness. It seems that he doesn’t want his readers to forget the reality of what that was like. Remembering, perhaps, would not only cause them to worship God more gratefully, but also help them to be more compassionate toward those still in a state of spiritual darkness.

The apostle writes: “you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:12-13)

Let those words sink in for a moment—“having no hope and without God in the world.” This is the condition of so many of those around us. I think oftentimes we forget what it is like to be in this cold and lonely world apart from Christ. This is especially true for those of us who have been “saved” for many years. Though we still have struggles, trials, troubles, persecutions, and suffering, we still tend to forget what it was like to go through these hardships alone.

Though we were once “far off,” the blood of Christ has brought us near. We are no longer slaves to this world’s faulty GPS system—lies, disillusionment, moral myopia, and spiritual disorientation. Our minds are no longer blinded by the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4); we have had the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, and what are the riches of his glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:18). We have a new and reliable GPS—the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13).

He wants us to remember that we have been saved by such amazing grace. This grace was demonstrated in that Jesus offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. In His great mercy, God has reconciled us to Himself and brought us near through the ransom of Christ’s blood. He also doesn’t want us to forget what we have been saved from, and that people all around us are still in that alienated condition, afar off—hurting, blinded, lost, and without hope. Ask God to give you eyes to see this brokenness and the hands to reach out to those enslaved by the world’s faulty navigation system. They need your testimony. They need your witness. Pray about this as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, you have saved us from a world without hope. Help us to never forget the great price and ransom that you paid to save us from this spiritual darkness. May our meditation of the depth of your grace cause us to worship YOU more fully. May the remembrance of what we have been saved from cause us to love and serve others more diligently, especially with great compassion toward those who are presently far off. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When was the last time you were physically lost? What happened and how did you get back on course?
  2. Do you remember what it was like to be spiritually lost? How would you describe your life when you were “far off” from God?
  3. Why do you think it is important to remember that we have been saved by grace alone (God’s free gift of salvation), and not our own doing?
  4. Why do you think it is important to remember what it was like to be lost and without God in this world?
  5. Who are those in your proximity or network of relationships that may be lost in this world and in particular need of your prayers, witness, or outreach?

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