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?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

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?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

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?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

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?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

Big ‘Buts’ in the Bible

Text: Psalm 55:1-23

“But I call to God, and the Lord will save me.” (Psalm 55:16)

I once preached a sermon series called “Big ‘Buts’ in the Bible.” Yep, you read that right. “But” is a very important word. In Greek it is the word “alla.” Throughout scripture there are many big time game changers in the form of ‘buts’…

“Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). That’s an important but. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Where would we be today without that but? “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess [Jesus]…” (John 12:42). Fear is a big but that keeps many people from becoming fully alive in Christ!

Psalm 55 contains one of those game changing buts. David holds nothing back in his restless complaint to God about injustices that are all around him. He describes it as “the noise of the enemy… dropping trouble upon me.” There is violence and strife in the city, oppression and fraud in the marketplace, while the man of God has experienced the betrayal of a close companion—a “familiar friend.”

Have you ever had a season like this? One in which you longed for “wings like a dove” so that you were able to fly away, finding solace and refuge in a remote wilderness. A five star paradise resort with a masseuse would be ideal; nevertheless just a quiet getaway will suffice!

Then as David is petitioning for the death and destruction of his enemies, we see one of those really big ‘buts’ come into play:

But I call to God, and the Lord will save me… He hears my voice… He redeems my soul in safety from the battle… (Psalm 55:16-18)

Then we can picture David turning his attention to his own soul and giving it a command: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” (Psalm 55:22)

The word “burden” means whatever is given you, or your appointed lot. What will we do with the burdens God allows into our lives? Will we keep dragging them to our own undoing, or will we cast them on Him for an exchange of grace? George Campbell Morgan underscored the transitions in this psalm from fear to fury and now finally to faith. “Fear leads only to desire to flee. Fury only emphasizes the consciousness of the wrong. Faith alone creates courage,” he noted.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes my soul needs a real good kick in the… hindquarters. My flesh wants to groan and complain. I want to pity myself. The “noise” of everything that is wrong about the world becomes the anthem of my heart, as the “death” and “destruction” of evildoers becomes my chorus. BUT God is faithful—He calls me to courageously cast my burden on Him, promising to sustain me in every way. As I do that in faith, the toxins in my heart are flushed out by His grace and mercy. I find peace in the storm, forgiveness for those who have hurt me, and compassion for all those “sinners” who don’t know how to act like anything else but… sinners.

It is also in this place that I recognize I myself am my greatest enemy: I’m the sinner in need of saving. Just because I prayed a sinner’s prayer as a teenager over three decades ago doesn’t take away the fact that I still need to be saved from myself every day. Casting my burden on the Lord means bringing Him everything—my bitter complaints, my fury, my suffering, my weaknesses, my hurt, my struggle, my addiction, my loss, my grief, my disappointments, my failures, my need for recognition, my pride, my self-sufficiency… and on and on that list goes.

God never imposes burdens to crush us; He allows them so that we will come to the place where we say, “But I will trust in you.” Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Lord, your purpose is not that the burdens of life would crush me, but that they would bring me to you. Help me to recognize the toxins that seep into my heart when I try to carry these burdens alone. Teach me what it means to cast my burdens on you and to experience your sustaining grace in all the chaos. Thank you for never failing me. Jesus, I will trust in you. Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. How do you typically handle disappointment?
  2. How did David describe his heart’s pain, and what does the psalm say he wished he could do? (Psalm 55:4-8) When have you wished you could escape from a problem?
  3. What made David’s situation especially painful? (Psalm 55:12-14) How do people usually react when they feel betrayed or let down by a trusted friend?
  4. How did David deal with his pain and anger? (Psalm 55:16-23)
  5. What words of instruction does this psalm offer us? For what friend or enemy do you need to pray this next week? How can you commit a sense of anger or hurt to the Lord?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

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?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

You Can’t Make a Difference Without Proximity

Text: 2 Kings 4:8-37

“Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” —Proverbs 27:10

In the film Amazing Grace—the true account of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade—Wilberforce has a way of making the distant reality of slavery troubling to those who are far removed from its deplorability. He leads a group of high society dames and dandies on a pleasant harbor tour, eating and chatting on the deck of an elegant ship. Wilberforce has the vessel guided to a particular spot of the harbor, where the high society crowd begin to wrinkle their noses, then cough and cover their faces at a horrific odor that begins to fill the air. He then announces that what they smell is the stench of death, disease, and unimaginable suffering coming from a slave ship docked nearby.

Wilberforce seemed to understand that the only way he could get people to make a difference was to give them an up-close perspective of the pain—a nearness to the suffering.

In chapter four of 2 Kings, a wealthy Shunammite woman who had shown generous hospitality to the prophet Elisha over the course of his ministry, suddenly faced a personal crisis. Her son, whom Elisha had prophesied would be born, later fell dead. She came to Elisha crying out in bitter distress. Elisha’s initial response was to send his servant, Gehazi, on ahead to lay his staff on the face of the child. But when his efforts returned no results—no sound or sign of life—he returned to meet Elisha and told him: “The child has not awakened.”

Upon coming to the house and seeing the child lying dead on his bed, Elisha went in and shut the door behind the others and prayed to the Lord.

Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (2 Kings 4:34-35)

This imagery may appear a bit strange, yet I believe it yields a parabolic picture of God’s kingdom servants resuscitating life in a world of widespread suffering. God doesn’t need us, but He certainly chooses to use us. Most of the time, we can’t make a difference from a distance. We can’t help heal the brokenness without proximity to the suffering. It’s not enough to merely send our staff like Elisha did with Gehazi; we have to show up hands on hands, flesh on flesh, and life on life.

Jesus said that His disciples would be the “salt” of the earth. But salt loses its preserving and healing qualities without proximity. If we long to see our neighbors coming to Christ, the lost being found, the broken being healed, hearts and minds transformed by the power of God, and revival sweeping across this land, it will require something of us. That something is called proximity. We have to be in the world, not of it (John 17:15-17). This is at the very heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus didn’t save the world by keeping His distance—He pitched his earthly tent right in the center of its brokenness.

It’s a fallacy to assume we can be God’s change agents solely by electing officials we believe will uphold our values. Legislation doesn’t change hearts. We can’t expect to resuscitate hope for those numb in despair or to bring truth to those entangled in spiritual/moral confusion by simply posting a few inspirational Tweets, Instagram Bible verses, or Facebook sermonettes from a distance. God wants us life on life with people who are struggling, people who are hurting, and those in need of the Gospel. Where can you flesh out life on life ministry to those in need around you—in the workplace, at school, to your neighbors, with your peers, or to the marginalized and less fortunate in your community?

It’s been said that you can impress people from a distance, but you can’t influence them without getting close. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for all of those who participated in your kingdom work of helping to resuscitate our lives when we were lost without hope. It’s on those shoulders that we now stand as you call us to be agents of resuscitation for those on their bed of despair—those alienated by others, trapped in injustice, deceived by darkness, imprisoned to ideologies, wounded by humanity, or dead in their own sins. Show us how to live in proximity with those in need—life on life—and teach us how to be your ministers of reconciliation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Who have been the agents of resuscitation God has used to revive things in your life?
  2. Whose prayers do you want when you are facing life’s most daunting problems?
  3. What did Elisha do when the child didn’t immediately resuscitate (2 Kings 4:34-35)? What can this imagery teach us about persistence in ministering to others?
  4. If God can perform miracles without us, why do you think He chooses to use our proximity to cultivate life and healing with others?
  5. Where might hope and faith need to be resuscitated in your life right now?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

Unless The Lord Builds the House

Text: Psalm 127:1-5

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” —Psalm 127:1

What do you do when you have reached your limits? What about when you realize you don’t have what it takes to fix a problem, to settle a dispute, to restore something that is broken, or to achieve the next level of success? Though not necessarily directly against us, we realize there are so many things beyond our control and also so many forces that still resist our efforts. The good news is that we find peace and strength in taking it to the Lord.

The crowning achievement of Solomon’s life was building the temple—the house of God in Jerusalem—and in Psalm 127, this poster child for wisdom reminds us that it is foolish to undertake any venture that leaves the Lord out of it. Whenever we leave the Lord out of our labor, we sabotage our own endeavors and undermine our own hard work.

God is the source of success in whatever we seek to do and all of our efforts are in vain without Him. Jesus alluded to this principle when He said, “I only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19). He also spoke to his followers saying: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

This is so true. Time and time again, I look at things and I am amazed at how they come together with no other explanation than “only God.” Only God moments come from giving God all of our effort through blood, sweat, and toil, and then resting with all of our trust that He will bring everything to fruition for His glory and our good.

Obviously, those who build a house must labor on it, and the watchman of a city must stay awake in responsible fashion. At the same time, they must carry out their efforts in faith—trusting God to make the work prosperous. Wisdom promotes diligence but clarifies that diligence is neither greed nor restless anxiety (Proverbs 10:22; 23:4–5). Diligence is the act of working with all that is in us because our faith and trust is in the notion that God does use our efforts to contribute to outcomes only He can establish—things that are bigger than our abilities and beyond our control. Thus, God gave us the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:8–11) as a gift to enable us to live by faith and trust Him for His sufficiency in all of our hard work and with all of our inadequacies.

There is a line in a hymn that says, “O what peace we often forfeit; O what needless pains we bear; all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” It is wise to make sure our focus is on the Lord, resting in the One who is able to give us the ability to have joy, peace, contentment, fruitfulness, and favorable outcomes in all of our endeavors. We don’t need to be in control of outcomes when the One Who established the universe is the contractor and interior designer of “the house” in which we labor. He is the Master Builder, beloved. Take comfort in that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for the strength you give when we are feeling weak, insufficient, and inadequate. Unless you build the house we labor in vain. I trust you to finish everything that you have started in my life—bringing it to fruition for your glory and my good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you built something you were most proud of?
  2. Think of a situation where you worked hard to achieve something but it wasn’t working out the way you hoped, despite your best efforts. How did you feel about yourself and God during that time?
  3. What are some of the “only God” moments you have witnessed lately?
  4. Is there any restless anxiety that you need to bring to God in this hour?
  5. In what specific area of your life could you depend more on the Lord and less on confidence in your own abilities?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

Changing The World Doesn’t Have to Be Intimidating

Text: Esther 2:1-11

“And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her.” —Esther 2:11

Most of us have heard of the name Billy Graham. As a teenager growing up on a dairy farm in North Carolina during the Great Depression, he grudgingly attended church with his family. The young Graham often felt restless and resentful during his family’s Bible reading, praying, and psalm singing. But that all changed one night after he surrendered his life to Christ at a tent revival in Charlotte. He went on to become a legendary preacher—for decades, Billy Graham held numerous preaching Crusades in stadiums and sports arenas across the United States and the world, leading millions to faith in Christ.

We know about Dr. Graham’s legacy. But do you know the name of Graham’s teenage friend who invited him to that tent revival? Most do not. His name is Albert McMakin. He invited Billy to the meeting by saying, “Why don’t you come out and hear our fighting preacher?” The deal was then clinched when McMakin offered to let Billy drive his dairy truck to the meetings. The rest is history.

Do you know what McMakin was doing? He was simply doing for one what he wished he could do for all—constructing opportunities for people to encounter Jesus. God used McMakin in the tapestry of Billy’s life. That young man helped shape eternity in many by investing in the one right in front of him. Though that may not always seem far-reaching, it is much bigger than you realize.

Oftentimes when we think about the story of Esther, we are mindful of the orphan minority girl who bravely saved her people from genocide. We might tend to overlook the simple example of how Mordecai—the devoted foster parent, the consummate mentor, and the intentional discipler—changed the world by investing in ONE vulnerable young person. He didn’t change the world or redirect the course of history by pastoring a mega church, building a mammoth non-profit organization, preaching mass crusades, or producing faith-based films that influence millions.

No, Mordecai changed the world by investing in the faith of ONE person caringly and consistently—Esther!

Mordecai took Esther in and raised her after she lost her parents. He nurtured her, bringing her up in a God-fearing home. He endowed her with courage, faith, and dignity. He empowered her to use the gifts she had for the right purposes in serving others rather than self-preservation. Then he unleashed her potential by sending her out with confidence (though he wasn’t in control of her destiny). Furthermore, he continued to walk by the king’s palace every day to check on her as she was preparing for her big moment with the king.

Mordecai invested so much into one. Who is that one that God wants you to intentionally invest in right now? Is there a colleague or friend in need of spiritual answers? Where do you need to mentor, disciple, parent, or just be there for one presently in need of encouragement, guidance, or strength. Whose corner do you need to stand in right now in this season as they endure hardship or trials?

Changing the world doesn’t have to sound intimidating, it’s simply a matter of saying “yes” to Jesus regarding those in your path of responsibility or proximity of influence. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, help us to be encouraged as disciplers and world changers—salt and light in a land that is desperate for gospel saturation. Guide us each day into those contexts and relationships where we can flesh out the gospel and invest in a future generation that will serve you faithfully. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why does changing the world feel so intimidating?
  2. In what ways might accomplishing ordinary things for God make us instruments of change?
  3. Who has God brought into your life that you have a sense of responsibility to mentor?
  4. In what ways does the story of Mordecai and Esther challenge your faith?
  5. How does knowing that you were made for such a time as this affect the way you approach each day you’ve been given in this lifetime?

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.

Scrapping Your Way Through a Slump

Text: Psalm 22:1-31

“But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!” — Psalm 22:19

Not long ago, Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles found himself in the middle of the biggest slump in major league baseball history. Davis set an MLB record that nobody wants attributed to their name when he went hitless in 54 consecutive at-bats. When he finally got a hit in the 2019 season, the Orioles dugout broke out into frenzy—there were cheers, the banging of helmets, and the pounding of lockers as his teammates celebrated in support.

Why were they so excited for the guy who once smashed 53 homeruns in a single season and finished in the top three for the MVP award? Why did one teammate say, “We were jumping for joy like we got the hit”? Because slumps in baseball are inevitable for everyone—even those at the highest level of the game. Not one player is immune to a hitting drought. That’s why the younger 24-year-old outfielder Cedric Mullins said:

“He continued to show us how to be a professional. Going through the struggles that he has, he kept his chin up no matter what. To witness that in person, it’ll help me maintain my composure when I go through the same thing.”

None of us are immune to slumps in life. What makes the Bible so relatable is that when we read about a person’s strengths we also get the revelation of their weaknesses. The Word of God never sanitizes or covers up the struggle—especially in those who walked with God so faithfully.

King David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), also found himself in a slump. That same guy who took on Goliath, championed numerous military battles, and established sweeping justice throughout his kingdom, also experienced a low point in his relationship with the Lord. It was a time when he didn’t feel God’s presence. Psalm 22 begins in this fashion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Israel’s all-star, their chosen one of God, was feeling isolated and distant from God. It’s the same heart cry of Jesus in Matthew 27:46 as He hung suspended on the cross.

As Christians, we all go through it at some point. A prayer seems to fall on deaf ears, or our quiet time feels cold and dry. Our soul is in a drought, our spirit is in a funk, and we feel alone. But if we keep reading Psalm 22, we find that even though David’s “strength is dried up,” he tunes his heart to praise (Psalm 22:23, 25-26). He remembers that his current circumstances won’t last forever; he recognizes that his slump is not permanent, but that God’s promises are.

David envisions the glory of God being revealed from one generation to the next—even to a people yet unborn (v. 31). He foresees the ends of the earth turning to the Lord, all the families of the nations worshiping before Him, and the afflicted being heard and rescued (vv. 24-26).

Slumps don’t last but God’s promises are forever. One of the most important things we can do while in a slump is to focus less on the temporary and more on the eternal. We can praise Him even in the midst of a hitless streak and it will impact future generations. Whatever you are going through right now, someone is watching you go through it. How you go through it will have an affect on them. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, slumps are real. They are inevitable. It’s part of the human struggle. In those discouraging times of drought, help us to fix our minds more on the eternal over the temporal. Remind us of your faithfulness throughout all generations and tune our hearts to praise you. Help us to be mindful of your promise that you will never leave us or forsake us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When was the last time your life was in a slump?
  2. When was a time that you felt God was unreachable or silent?
  3. How would you sum up the focus of David’s prayer in Psalm 22?
  4. What changed David’s attitude in verses 22-24? How does praise affect our focus?
  5. Even in a slump, what vows did David make to the Lord? (vv. 22-31)

Subscribe to “Abiding In Him” and get the latest devotional in your Inbox once a week.