Resilience: Facing Your New Reality

Text: James 1:1-18

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” —James 1:12

“Resilience is accepting your new reality,” said Elizabeth Edwards. “Even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”

I thought much about the spirit of resilience as we ministered to folks in our community who were affected by tornadoes that struck down in Cleveland on Easter Sunday, shredding dozens of homes. As our team served those in an area thrashed by the storm, we saw many faces of resilience, including a man who survived with a broken pelvis, though his mobile home was ripped apart, and a woman in her nineties who came out unscathed despite having her roof impaled.

My heart was touched when an elderly woman picked two bright red flowers from a bush in her debris-riddled yard, to give to my wife and daughter. It was as if she had nothing else in this world to offer, but a few blossoming spring flowers that had survived the storm, and just wanted to bless someone. This is the face of resilience—looking around at what is left, and being determined to bless someone with what remains, no matter how little it may seem.

Resilience is in our DNA as created beings. We are built to weather storms. The virtue of being able to adapt to stressful life changes and “bounce back” from hardship is essential to our growth and progress. The Bible gives us many admonitions about pressing on in adversity (Philippians 3:13–15), overcoming hardship and temptation (Romans 12:21), and persevering in the face of trials (James 1:12). It also gives us countless examples of people who suffered greatly yet continued to pursue God’s plan for their lives. Proverbs 24:16 could be considered a motto for the resilient: “Though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”

In the ancient story of Job (held by scholars to be the oldest book in the Bible), we see a man who demonstrated great resilience in the face of tragedy, inexplicable loss, and incredible agony of soul and body. After losing everything, Job refused to curse the Lord or give up: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). Later, when his suffering intensified, Job’s wife counseled him to “curse God and die!” (Job 2:9), but Job never folded. I can imagine him picking some of those budding spring flowers in East Cleveland, holding them upward and declaring, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand in this place.” This man has become the poster child for perseverance throughout the ages.

Perhaps you find yourself in the center of a new reality right now, needing to adapt and adjust to what has pummeled your life. Resiliency is in your DNA. Embrace it. Let the words of Psalm 37:23–24 be your encouragement today: “The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

Resilience is ours because of the Hand that upholds us. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Father, change can be difficult, especially when it is accompanied by loss or defeat. You never promised us a life immune to hardship, but You have promised to uphold us that we will not stumble and fall when tornado-like trials come. Teach us the virtue of trusting Your heart. Holy Spirit, help us to live out our days with an anticipation of the redemption that is sure to come. We bless You with our worship and praise, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why would you agree or disagree with the statement, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to what happens to you”?
  2. What attitude did James tell people to exhibit when they are facing trials? (James 1:2)
  3. What is produced when our faith is tested, and what is God’s response when we ask for wisdom? (James 1:3-5)
  4. What good has ever come out of a difficult situation in your life? How does a person’s relationship with God change as he or she goes through trials and problems?
  5. In what specific areas do you need to ask God for His wisdom or resilience this week?

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How To Survive Pandemic, Pressure

Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-18

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” —2 Corinthians 4:16

At the time, the Thresher was the fastest and quietest nuclear submarine ever built. She also had the most advanced weapons system to date. But in one tragic event in 1963, Thresher sank during deep-diving tests, killing all 129 crew and shipyard personnel aboard. Once the doomed sub had finally been located, they found it broken into six pieces. Though the cause has been hard to decipher, ultimately it appears the Thresher collapsed because they were at a depth where the pressure on the outside became greater than the pressure on the inside.

The Covid-19 crisis has rocked our world in ways unprecedented to this generation. The pandemic has had an ongoing affect on physical and mental wellness, the economy, family life, schooling, jobs, and for many, the ability to pay bills. As we plunge further and further into the depths of a post-Coronavirus world, the pressure on the outside can become greater than the pressure on the inside. When suddenly all of those things we’ve been hanging on to are no longer able to withstand the stress, it can sink us. It can collapse our sense of hope.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has some powerful words for those who feel on the verge of sinking. It’s a message that is surely relevant to the times in which we are living:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair… Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

What was the great secret to Paul’s triumphant hope in the face of such crushing, overwhelming pressure? The most evident thing we see is that he didn’t focus on the exterior circumstances as much as his interior health. When the human spirit is continually being renewed inwardly, it can withstand all the negative forces that beat against us outwardly. That’s why it is important to keep our focus on what truly matters. For Paul, this meant keeping a perspective on what was eternal over what was temporal. His afflictions impelled him to keep that perspective.

Paul knew the power and victory of Jesus in his life because he was continually in situations where only the power and victory of Jesus could meet his need. You might be in that place right now. Sometimes losing our sense of control can get us to that place, where Christ becomes our all-sufficiency in real-time, not just theological belief. We do well to consider that everything Paul said about suffering, he said as a man who very likely suffered more than we ever will. This was not theory to Paul but real life experience. When he writes about “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,” it seems he believes the death of Jesus was not only historical fact, but truly working in him an effect of dying to self.

What an amazing paradox—where loss leads to gain, death fosters life, suffering produces hope, trials forge strength, and the loss of control leads to more of God’s peace. Truth is, there are some aspects of God’s sanctifying grace that we will only experience through trials, suffering, the diminishment of our comforts, and by coming to the end of ourselves. It’s certainly not cozy getting there, but what a peace we find at that place of surrender.

The pressure on the outside couldn’t overwhelm what was on the inside of Paul, because he constantly lived in a state of Christ-sufficiency. If the pressure of our times has revealed how very much you need the saving and sanctifying sufficiency of Christ, you are in a very good place to get an eternal perspective over the temporal. Think about that as you seek to abide in him this week.

PRAYER

Father, remind us that greater is He that is in us than anything we will ever face in this world. When we feel overwhelmed by the pressures of what’s happening in real-time, may we find that Your grace is sufficient in every way. Lead us to that place of surrender—that place where the will has been broken, and we come to the end of ourselves. Let us not be overcome by the pressures of this world. Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with peace as we abide in the promises of Scripture. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. For what reasons do you most often get discouraged? How would you define faith?
  2. What areas of life are difficult to entrust completely to God?
  3. Why did Paul tell the Corinthians not to lose heart? (2 Corinthians 4:1) How did Paul contrast his own weakness with God’s power? (4:8-9) What value did Paul see in his sufferings? (4:10-12)
  4. What elements of the Christian faith that we cannot see are central to our life with Christ? What does it mean for us to renew our faith? What makes it difficult for us to fix our attention and hope on God?
  5. When have you felt inner peace in spite of trying circumstances? What do you want to remember the next time you feel discouraged?

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Hope Is Rising

Text: Malachi 4:1-5, Luke 24:1-35

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” —Malachi 4:2

Imagine trying to help out the sun by lighting a candle on a sunny day. What a futile intent that would be! It would be as effective as trying to “improve” the work of salvation Jesus wrought for us by adding to it with our own works of righteousness. There is absolutely nothing we can do to “better” God’s grace, improve His redemptive plan, or enhance His divine timing for deliverance.

Perhaps in the age of Coronavirus we need to consider that it’s not more candles we need; OUR ONLY HOPE IS THE RISING OF THE SON. We are not in control. We are being forced to accept this, and learn—or relearn—to trust the heart of the One Who is in control.

In the fourth chapter of Malachi, we find the last few prophetic words of the Old Testament before God’s oracular voice becomes silent for some 400 years. Malachi warned Israel to hold fast to God’s law, to know that a day of reckoning was looming for evildoers, and a new hope would be rising for those who fear God’s name. They were exhorted to look with expectancy toward a covenant renewal in which “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” From the time of early Christians like Justin Martyr to today, Christians have regarded the Sun of Righteousness as a Messianic reference to Jesus.

We never need to despair when God seems silent, because what He has already pronounced is invigorating enough—if we will only remember… if we only pull back the curtain.

Malachi’s generation needed to remember that it wasn’t a matter of “if” the Sun of Righteousness would come, but “when” He appeared, all things would be made new. It’s what God does! He brings healing in His wings. Restoration. Deliverance. Renewal.

On this particularly unique Easter Sunday, when churches across our land are empty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s vital that we remember that the tomb is also empty. That image should stimulate your worship. The Sun of Righteousness is alive indeed! That empty tomb still proclaims that hell has been defeated, sins have been forgiven, shame has lost its grip on you, condemnation has been evicted, and redemption is your new song.

Maybe instead of trying to figure out how to light more candles in this pandemic in which we find ourselves, we just need to pull back the curtain on what has already dawned and let hope arise. Many of the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus when He appeared to them after the resurrection (Luke 24:16, 37; John 20:14; 21:4). I find that intriguing being that these were those closest and most intimate with Him during His tenure on earth. Whether it was due to doubt and unbelief, or simply Jesus appearing to them in a new way, they initially struggled to accept that HOPE was alive. It is encouraging to me that even the most faithful of Christ’s followers wrestled with apprehension. But the curtain was inevitably pulled back and the Sun of Righteousness brought healing in their lives.

Where might you need to simply put down the candle of control and just open up the drapes to what God has already dawned? Pulling back those blinds will radiate light on our most gripping fears, our darkest sin, and our stubborn pride. Hope is rising? Will you go out to meet it?

If you are unsure about your relationship with God, go here to find peace.

PRAYER

Father, You are good, and You are perfect. There is nothing errant about your agenda, your ways, or your timing. The errors are within us. We struggle to understand. We struggle to believe. We struggle to do right. We struggle to remain faithful. We struggle to surrender. Holy Spirit, our Counselor, help us to come to the end of ourselves and all of our striving for control, to pull back those drapes and let the Sun of Righteousness illuminate our lives with hope, peace, and renewal. Bring us into holy and humble submission, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In your opinion, what is the most significant event in history?
  2. Read Luke 24:13-35. How had the events of the last few days crushed the expectations of the two men talking with Jesus (v.21)? Why did Jesus explain the Scriptures to the men (vv.25-27)? What did the men recall after they reflected on their conversation with Jesus (v.32)?
  3. How do life’s trials tend to change our expectations of the Christian life?
  4. When have you been guilty of unbelief? What great truths has God taught you that you failed to understand at first?
  5. What might it look like for you to pull back the curtain today and let the “Sun of Righteousness” shed light on our doubts, fears, and apprehensions?

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When God Goes Before Us

Text: Deuteronomy 9:1-29

“Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God.” —Deuteronomy 9:3

For those of us living in the U.S., authorities say that the next couple of weeks will be the most critical regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. This will be our “peak” moments of confrontation with this invisible Coronavirus giant, when it’s expected to hit closest to home for many of us. As we deliberate this grim forecast, may I reassure you of ONE UNCHANGEABLE TRUTH…

The Lord has already gone before us. He abides in the future. He is not just aware of the days ahead; these coming days are in the palm of His hand. He’s already there. God exists in that place of our deepest dread—that place causing us the greatest fear. That place called tomorrow.

In Deuteronomy 9, the destiny of God’s people was about to bring them face to face with enormous giants they had never seen before. Their future would consist of reputed adversaries, “great and tall,” of intimidating stature. They were the sons of Anakim, “whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’” They were paralyzing God’s people with gripping fear—a terror that made them feel so vulnerable that they thought of themselves as “grasshoppers” (Numbers 13:33) doomed for defeat. Moses challenged the people’s fears over and over again (Deuteronomy 2-3), reassuring them of God’s supremacy over the battle for their future. Then he gives them this charge:

“Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them [these giants] and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you.” —Deuteronomy 9:3

Do you see the Lord as a “consuming fire” going over before you? Do you believe that the winds, the waves, and even viruses still know His name? The battle mentioned in Deuteronomy was much too big for God’s people, but not too big for the LORD. They were admonished by two mutually inclusive facts: That in themselves, the battle was impossible (without Me you can do nothing, John 15:5), but with God the battle could not be lost (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, Philippians 4:13).

Rightly preparing ourselves for two weeks of “hell on earth” (as some have described it) isn’t about stockpiling and hoarding as much as we are able—trying to be in control of our own fate. We can have more goods than all of our neighbors combined and still be “plagued” with anxiety, worry, and fear, leading to heart disease. Being rightly prepared is about being poised to face our giants with audacious trust in the ONE SUPREME GOD Who has already gone before us. The problem with ancient Israel is that they feared not being in control. Instead of trusting God with what they couldn’t control, they built a Golden Calf to give them a sense of their own security—thus worshiping a god they had control over. True worship is about giving over our “illusion” of control to the One Who is truly in control. It’s about trusting the hand that holds tomorrow. Corrie ten Boom, who survived a Nazi prison camp during World War II, said:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Do you trust Him, beloved? That’s what He is after. Without faith, it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6). When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth (Luke 18:8)? God is looking for hearts that trust Him.

As we move into a closer engagement with this invisible giant that has gripped our world with torment, I pray that you would be sustained by the unrivaled peace of God’s presence in your heart, as well as the confidence that His presence is already there in your future. He is bigger than this invisible giant! May you abide in that assurance this week. May you abide IN HIM.

PRAYER

Lord, like a consuming fire you go before us. Our future is one of promise because You are already there. Help us to see our giants in proportion to WHO YOU are, not the other way around. Holy Spirit, rest our hearts in Thee. Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, especially in that place of our deepest dread and greatest fear. May you find us faithfully worshiping in our most fearful moments, because we trust in Thee. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. How strong were the nations Israel was going to fight against and how does the Bible describe these enemies? (Deuteronomy 9:1-2)
  2. In what way would the Lord go over before His people (9:3)? What is significant about this description or imagery?
  3. What was Israel told not to say to itself (9:4)? What does Moses say about Israel’s rebellion against God (9:7)? In what way did the Israelites try to control their own fate (9:16)?
  4. What might “golden calf” building look like in our modern world? What might it look like in our individual lives?
  5. What does this passage teach us about the grace of God? What areas of your life might you need to surrender an “illusion” of control over to the One Who holds the future?

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Coronavirus: “The Bitterest Part”

Text: John 11:1-44

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’” —John 11:25

In Italy, thousands of families have been devastated by Coronavirus. When infected patients are hospitalized, their loved ones cannot visit them due to the contagion. Multitudes have perished in seclusion without family members by their bedside. Proper funerals are not possible during the pandemic lockdown, as the deceased are piled up in coffins and quietly taken away. As well, grieving family members are left to mourn in isolation without the typical closure of a funeral accompanied by the support of other loved ones. “This is the bitterest part,” said one Italian.  

In John 11, Martha and Mary are having a bitterly grievous moment, devastated by the loss of their dear brother, Lazarus. “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died,” they both cried (John 11:21, 32). To make matters worse, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he delayed two days before coming to Bethany. His lack of urgency might’ve mystified the disciples and the distressed sisters.

Have you ever felt this way? Lord, why did you delay in coming to our aid? If you had only showed up, this wouldn’t have happened? Why didn’t you get here in time?

When Jesus finally arrived, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled, asking, “Where have you laid him?” Then we have the shortest Bible verse ever recorded: “Jesus wept.” In this moment Jesus hurts like we hurt. He grieves like we grieve. He suffers and mourns as we do. He steps into our pain, identifying with us that “the bitterest part” of our earthly journey is the human loss of our dearest loved ones. I’m so comforted that we have this moment in the Bible—Jesus pausing to grieve. He takes time to feel the pain. It shows that HE understands our suffering (Hebrews 4:15).

I’m also comforted in the fact that there is more to this story. Jesus has shown the disciples that he feels their pain, their loss, and their bitterness. Now he is about to show them that this chapter of agony is not the final chapter in life. As Paul Harvey used to say, “You know what the news is—in a minute, you’re going to hear the rest of the story.” Martha and Mary are overwhelmed by bad news, but they are only moments away from being overcome by the good news.

Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He told the disciples to take away the gravestone. Then he prayed to the Father, and commanded Lazarus to “come out” in a loud voice. “The man who had died came out,” the Bible roars. The next chapter begins with Lazarus sitting at a table with Jesus doing dinner church! (John 12:1-2)

What a glorious picture of the resurrection. We are just a few weeks away from Easter, a time when the church celebrates the resurrection life of our Lord and Savior. It’s a time when we proclaim over all of our present pain, loss, tears, and suffering that a better day is coming. Jesus didn’t just preach about resurrection and life, He dramatically hailed, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.” He promised that whoever believes in him, though he die, yet shall he live.

Whenever we find ourselves in a chapter of sorrow and anguish, may we be reminded that there is still another chapter to come. One day we will sit at the King’s table during the marriage supper of the Lamb and we will have “church” like never before. Our ashes will be turned into beauty. Our weeping will be turned into laughter. Our grief will be turned into dancing—one day, beloved, one day. Let that resonate with your soul as you seek to abide in Him this week.

I have posted an audio message on my website from Francesca, our Breakaway Outreach Italia representative, about her EASTER HOPE. It’s a short voice message that I believe will inspire your faith in these days. LISTEN TO IT BELOW. If want to know the peace that comes with knowing Christ as Lord, go here.

PRAYER

Lord, sometimes it feels like you don’t understand our urgency. But we need to remember that our timing is not your timing, and your delays are not denials. There are things in our world and sufferings in our lives that we can’t understand in this moment. We may have the news, but it isn’t the whole story. We patiently wait for that day when our Redeemer will appear, redeeming everything that is lost and restoring everything that is broken. Help us to trust you in these times. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What is one of your greatest disappointments in life? When has God given you comfort in the middle of a sad time of life?
  2. What did Martha say to Jesus about His having come after Lazarus had died? (John 11:21-22) What did Jesus tell Martha that Lazarus would do? (John 11:23) 
  3. How did Martha misunderstand Jesus? (11:24) What did Martha and the others learn about Jesus’ identity? (11:25)
  4. What did Jesus say would happen to those who believed in Him? (11:26) How should that shape our faith in this present time?
  5. What attitude of disappointment do you need to confess to God and change to trust in His sovereign control? How can you be a comfort to a struggling or hurting believer this week?

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Coronavirus and Social Distancing: 5 Things to Remember

Text: Nehemiah 1:1-11

“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” —Nehemiah 1:4

For this week’s Abiding In Him devotion, I want to share with you five things we can remember during an unprecedented time of social distancing due to the Coronavirus.

1. Remember how God defines His Church.

With church doors temporarily closing all over the country, it’s important to remember that the New Testament “church” was never defined as a building, a service time, or a particular denomination. Even though these may speak to aspects of how we gather “as” the church, they don’t define the church. Church isn’t something we go to, it’s WHO WE ARE as God’s body—practically His hands and feet in a broken world. The inconvenience of the Coronavirus gives us an opportunity to pause and remember WHO WE ARE as “salt” (a preserving agent) in the world today (Matthew 5:13). We are thankful for the technology of Zoom and WhatsApp that has helped us to continue to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we’ve also had time to have refreshing conversations about church as our identity, and not merely just a place in which we gather. Jesus is building His Church. HE is the UNCONQUERABLE King advancing an UNSTOPPABLE kingdom, of which the gates of hell will never prevail against. His throne hasn’t been rattled by this Coronavirus—it remains UNSHAKEN (Hebrews 12:27). Be encouraged by that, and remember WHO YOU ARE as His beloved.

2. Remember that discipleship begins in our homes.

According to scripture, parents are to be the primary disciplers of their children. In some ways, that idea can get lost in our Western Christian paradigms. This is a great time to be mindful that God never intended for you to outsource the discipleship of your children to “the trained professionals.” Take this time to get into God’s Word together. You don’t need to have all the answers to questions that arise from your Bible discussions together. In fact, your kids will respect your example more when you admit that you don’t have all the answers about the infinitely complex Creator of this universe. With such a BIG GOD, there is supposed to be room for wonder and mystery. It’s those who think they have all the answers that reveal their perception of God is very small, especially if God can be entirely explained by such finite human minds. The enigma of Isaiah 55:8-9 reveals that our God is so much bigger than our limited comprehension. David never considered the size of Goliath because he knew the size of his God was beyond comprehension. You are a disciple-maker right now, right where you are. That’s the mission of the Church. You can be about your Father’s business in your own home. Git-R-Done!

3. Remember the lostness of our world.

This week, I read that in Iran, a person dies from Coronavirus every 10 minutes. Let the thought of tens of thousands of people dying and slipping into eternity break your heart—especially as it pertains to those who are lost without Christ. Nehemiah’s heart broke for the things that broke God’s heart. I wrote a book about this called “Shapers.” When Nehemiah had his heart broken, he didn’t spring into his construction and renovation project immediately. He spent four months in isolated prayer. His social distancing prepared him for an unimaginable work that later contributed to reviving a whole nation. Once he was catapulted from that prayer chamber, in God’s right timing, all of the provision (the king’s throne) of the kingdom of Persia stood behind him. God gave him the favor of a pagan king with unlimited resources to do the job. Imagine the kind of gospel influence that can emerge from this present crisis when the church is catapulted back into everyday societal norms with a renewed missional focus. We have a much bigger throne behind us than a pagan king!!! Pray for God to break your heart for what breaks His, and to give you a renewed vision for how you can be His witness to gospel-destitute souls.

4. Remember that there are still ways to serve our neighbors and the marginalized, the underserved, and those at risk, even when we are “social distancing.”

Compassion hasn’t been canceled. Kindness hasn’t been canceled. Generosity hasn’t been canceled. As part of our normal programs throughout the calendar year, Breakaway Outreach helps to provide holistic supplementation (including meals, nutrition, and hygiene) for at-risk children affected by economic insecurity in our area. As Coronavirus affects closures to schools and after school programs, we are working creatively with others in our network to make sure no kiddos go hungry or get neglected of wellness resources. I’ve been inspired by many stories of altruism this week—churches utilizing their buildings to serve children of healthcare professionals who are working tirelessly around the clock, college students going grocery shopping for vulnerable elderly folks so they don’t have to risk leaving their homes, young people organizing donation centers to get food and supplies to low income families who don’t have the privilege of being able to stockpile goods. There are ways we can serve others without being exposed to large crowds. This requires getting quiet before God and letting Him speak into our hearts about how we can creatively flesh out compassion and generosity in such a time as this.

5. Remember to pray through a scriptural lens.

Many people have been asking, “Why is God allowing this?” Though our tendency may be to pray for God to just miraculously take away this plague and all of the inconveniences and suffering it brings, it’s also important to search the scriptures and pray according to God’s Word (the final authority in every aspect of a believer’s life). Dr. Roger Barrier has written a worthy response to why God allows plagues and how we should respond through the lens of scripture (our family had a great discussion and prayer time together while navigating this post). Sometimes it was to abolish idolatry, confront arrogance, reveal sin and disobedience, or lead people to repentance. Regardless of how we interpret the reason for this pandemic, and I try to be very careful about making assumptions, we should be earnest about praying for God’s purposes to be accomplished through manifold unknowns. We should pray for God to convict hearts, reveal sin, confront our personal and cultural idols, bring hearts to repentance, and draw people to Himself. We should pray for miracles. We should pray boldly for protection. We should pray for healing where there is infection. We should expect God to show forth His power, yet not to the neglect of spiritual introspection and biblical examination of ourselves. We should pray for the Holy Spirit to show us things we need to see about our communities, our nation, the world, and ourselves. If we do this, we may even see a major revival on the other end of this global crisis.

Think about these five things as you seek to abide in Him during times of social distancing.

PRAYER

Father, remind us that there is a purpose to every season in life. No matter what we face, we can be assured that You are on the throne, sovereign over all things. We trust Your heart, even in our constraints. We seek Your heart for the things that need to break ours. Holy Spirit, revive our prayer life. Confront our idols. Convict us of sin. Lead us to repentance. Bring healing through confession. Give us a healthy ecclesiastical identity and stir our missional creativity for discipleship. Show us our place in this moment, and remind us that we were made for such a time as this. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What has been the hardest part of your social distancing during the Coronavirus emergency? What has been positive?
  2. Of the five things listed above that are worth remembering, which one most resonates with you in this moment?
  3. Read Nehemiah 1:1-11. What was significant about Jerusalem’s walls of protection being destroyed? How did Nehemiah react to the news about suffering Jerusalem and the exiles? (Nehemiah 1:4)
  4. How did Nehemiah describe God in his prayer (Nehemiah 1:5)? What are the benefits of focusing on the attributes of God?
  5. What is the major theme of Nehemiah’s prayer? On whose behalf did Nehemiah pray and fast? What specific request did Nehemiah ask God to grant him? What can we learn from Nehemiah’s prayer life that may help us during this pandemic?

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Coronavirus and “One Anothering”

Text: Hebrews 10:19-25

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” —Hebrews 10:24

In Italy, the entire country is on unprecedented lockdown due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The northern regions are seeing a “tsunami of patients,” and according to one spokesperson, the healthcare system is “one step from collapse.” Their Prime Minister has called it Italy’s “darkest hour.” So far, Italy has more than 15,000 infection cases with over a thousand deaths—the most of any country outside of China.

Churches haven’t been able to assemble together in weeks. I have been speaking with some of our Italian friends and the situation is quite demoralizing, as well as panic inducing. Francesca and her husband, Victor, are the Breakaway Outreach Italia representatives in the Veneto region, organizing our local sports outreach camps over the last three years. Francesca’s voice quivered as she shared from the heart the anguish of being in forced isolation.

“We are missing, like crazy, going to church and giving hugs to one another; talking personally, supporting one another, and praying together. It’s horrible. But we have faith it’s not going to last forever. When you have that freedom taken away from you, wow, it’s tough; but it’s useful, especially if you are a believer. When this time will be over, we will give more importance to the right thing and less importance to things that are not really important.”

Her message was edifying to our community here in Tennessee. Our privilege of being able to worship together, support one another, and flesh out God’s mission together is something we should never take lightly. Having people in our corner is something we can often underappreciate, until we are going through a season of suffering. As my heart breaks for what my friends are facing in Italy, I look around at the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I have the freedom of doing life and serving on mission together. I value that privilege! I love my tribe!

God’s Word admonishes us:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” —Hebrews 10:23-25

The ecclesiological connection in this passage has a markedly deeper meaning than just surfacely attending a church assembly. It speaks of a shared spiritual intimacy entrenched in missional togetherness with others—think of the allegorical bond depicted in Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Ring.” All of mythical Middle-Earth hangs in the balance of that fellowship’s faithfulness to their mission. More poignantly, ours is a fellowship of the one-anothers, with real eternal consequences attached to our gospel faithfulness.

There are over 60 “one another” commands in the New Testament that reveal God’s passion for this fellowship of the one-anothers: love one another (John 13:34), honor one another (Romans 12:10), build up one another (Romans 14:19), care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). It’s quite clear: God has made us for “one-anothering.” We find two of them in Hebrews 10:24-25: “stir up one another” and “encourage one another.”

God didn’t wire us for isolation. That early church knew that they needed each other to carry out Christ’s mission in the world. My friends in Italy understand, perhaps now more than ever, how much they need one another. None of us were created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in humble dependency upon God and loving interdependency with others. As one writer described it, “Our lives were designed to be community projects.” Reflect on your need for this kind of missional community as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for the privilege that comes to those who have been brought into a right relationship with you, through the redeeming blood of Jesus. Holy Spirit, help us to remember that our privilege comes with many interdependencies and responsibilities to our faith community. Teach us how to one-another well in light of your Word, in the power of your grace, for the sake of your gospel, and to the glory of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Are you the kind of person who easily assimilates into community, or does your personality find it more challenging?
  2. Our modern culture lauds self-sufficiency and independence. In what “communal” ways has Jesus called his followers to be countercultural?
  3. Sometimes even our church cultures/models/structures can breed individual consumers over communities that share intimate life and mission together. In what ways might this be course-corrected?
  4. What privilege comes to those who are part of the “house of God” (Hebrews 10:22)? With that privilege comes responsibility. What kind of behavior should privileged Christ-followers exhibit toward one another (Hebrews 10:24-25)?
  5. Is there a specific person God wants you to encourage or “stir up” toward love and good works this week, especially on the threshold of a global pandemic?

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If God Is With Me, Why Did This Happen?

Text: Judges 6:11-13, Isaiah 55:8-9

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” —Isaiah 55:8

Have you ever asked, “If God is with me, then why did this happen?” If so, you are surely not alone.

In today’s text (Judges 6:11-13), we find a young man named Gideon threshing wheat in a winepress. This is indeed a strange scene. It would be akin to practicing your golf swing in a closet. This was both difficult and humiliating for Gideon. Wheat was not normally threshed in a sunken place like a winepress. There wouldn’t be much room to do the work in such a confined space, as winepresses were vats sunk in the ground. Wheat would have been threshed in wide-open spaces, typically on a hilltop so the breeze could blow away the chaff. Yet this was Gideon’s little hideaway, his escape. He did his work here, for fear of the Midianites, who were accustomed to stealing the wheat once it had been threshed. Gideon’s daily grind is governed by fear, hardship, and humiliation.

Why such dire straits? Well, Gideon’s people had betrayed the Lord. They had turned their backs on God in a downward spiral of apostasy. God had not abandoned them, but they had abandoned Him. Consequently, their enemies—the Midianites—were crushing them. Though they were makers of their own demise, God was still faithful. He wasn’t done with Israel despite their failure, and He wanted to get their attention once again.

In his routine toil one day, Gideon gets an unexpected visit from the angel of the Lord. Some Bible scholars refer to this angel as the Lord’s designated messenger, while others describe it as a theophany—an Old Testament appearance of Jesus Christ, in human, bodily form, before His incarnation. What’s most significant is that God shows up in this time of distress and despair. Note that this visitation comes as Gideon is laboring diligently. He isn’t idle, fatalistic, or reserved to apathy because of the tough times his people are facing. Even though he questions the reason why all this misfortune has unfolded, and his faith might be staggering, he hasn’t given up. He is hard at work.

The angel says to him: “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” Sounds a bit out of place, being that Gideon doesn’t appear very lionhearted. He’s struggling to believe how God could be for him in all this drama. Maybe he looked back over his shoulder to see if there was another person to whom the angel spoke. We see his trepidation in his response: “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

I’m sure there has been a time or two when you felt like Gideon. If God is with me, then why has He allowed all this to happen? It feels more like He’s checked out and left me to my own survival instincts. There couldn’t be a bigger picture to all this madness; all that’s left is for me to just cope. You’ve been here, haven’t you? I sure have.

So what do you do when you find yourself in the winepress and it seems that God is very distant? Gideon was a simple man living a very ordinary life, going about the daily grind while facing a ton of adversity. As discouraged as he may have been, the angel apparently found him going about his daily duties with much diligence. Some of the most dynamic God-encounters in scripture happen when people are hard at work. They might not be expecting anything out of the ordinary, but their character and work ethic is setting them up for a divine appointment. Consider that Moses discovers his burning bush while keeping the flock. David was tending the sheep. Elisha was plowing the land. The apostles were fishing, washing, and mending their nets. As David Trapp says, “He usually appeared to the busy in visions, like as Satan doth to the idle in manifold temptations.”

I think the most important application in these precious few verses is not looking ahead at what God is going to do through Gideon in the extraordinary chapters of life (as we see further in the story), but Who God is in those very ordinary chapters of life. He is nearer than we think. He hasn’t checked out. He hasn’t abandoned us to ourselves. Thank you, Lord!

Gideon doesn’t have all the spiritual answers in this moment. He can’t understand how God could still be for him when his circumstances are shouting that God is very, very far away. We are left to a mystery of what the Almighty must’ve seen usable in this guy. We see fear. Trepidation. Doubts. Questions. In himself, Gideon sees inferiority and victimhood. But God saw something we, or Gideon, can’t see. He always does. Let that sink in as you seek to abide in Him this week.”

PRAYER

God, You haven’t left us to face this drama alone. You are faithful despite our failures and fickle hearts. You pursue us despite our trepidation, fears, and inhibitions. You never change, though our faith can sometimes feel like shifting sand being pulled out by the tide of doubts and uncertainties. The one constant is Your presence, Holy Spirit. Thank you for Your nearness, regardless of what my circumstances roar. I trust You with the unknown, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you had a Gideon-like “If God is for me then why…?” moment?
  2. In what ways can you relate to Gideon’s circumstances, doubts, or wavering faith?
  3. Read Isaiah 55:8-9. What does this tell us about God’s perspective on our lives?
  4. Why do we tend to feel we should have all the answers to life’s drama? What says more about our faith, having all the right theological answers or trusting God’s heart when we don’t?
  5. Where might you need to stop searching for specific answers to certain circumstances and trust more in God’s ever abiding presence in the those circumstances?

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Prone to Wander

Text: Psalm 119:9-16

“With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” —Psalm 119:10

Robert Robinson was a fatherless teenager when the powerful preaching of George Whitefield first influenced him to surrender to Christ. This uneducated barber-turned-poet preacher, described as a perpetual wanderlust, often wrestled with his beliefs and frequently moved between denominations and theological camps. In his twenties, he wrote the hymn “Come, thou Fount of every blessing” (1758), in which he confessed that his heart was “Prone to wander… Prone to leave the God I love.”

The hymn as a whole is a great testimony to the grace of God that had saved him, notwithstanding his nomadic heart. It has resonated with many a heart for more than two hundred and fifty years, attesting to God’s faithfulness in times of distraction, doubts, and drifting. Robert Robinson wasn’t alone.

In ancient Israel, the psalmist cried out: “With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” (Psalm 119:10)

Though we may not deliberately choose to wander, our hearts do tend to drift. Like Paul, we sometimes find ourselves doing what we despise (Romans 7:19)—lusting after the things of this world, judging others though we ourselves don’t want to be judged, gossiping rather than edifying, losing our cool and getting caught up in the moment, doubting God is going to come through for us though He has never failed us in the past. It’s in these times that we desperately need a Rescuer from our wandering. How grateful we can be for a God of mercy—a compassionate heavenly Father—whose grace is all-sufficient and never exhausted.

In that hymn, Robinson also wrote: “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God.” He knew that though we turn to our own way again and again, God keeps bringing us back. We must daily bind our wandering hearts to Christ. Psalm 138:8 speaks of His constant shepherding as the remedy to my drifting nature: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

PRAYER

God, you know my wandering heart. You know it better than I know myself. Thank you for pursuing me even in times of drift, doubt, and distraction. Holy Spirit, teach my heart to align with you more, and to wander less. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What causes friendships or other relationships to deteriorate?
  2. What advice does this psalm give to its readers? (Psalm 119:9-16)
  3. What do you think is meant by “storing up” God’s Word in our hearts? (v.11)
  4. What benefits can we expect from disciplined meditation on God’s Word?
  5. In what ways will you aim to store up God’s Word in your heart this week?

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When Facing Your Red Sea

Text: Exodus 13:17 – 14:14

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” —Exodus 14:13

Dr. George Campbell Morgan tells of a man whose shop burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The next morning he arrived at work carrying a table, which he set up amid the charred ruins. On it he placed a sign that read, “Everything lost except wife, children, and hope. Business as usual tomorrow morning.”

It’s been said that the acid test of character is determined by how much discouragement you can take without giving up. God may allow hardship into our lives to shape something in us, but never without the aim of showing off His power and might.

When God led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, He didn’t lead them by the shortest route, or most convenient, but the one that would shape their hearts the most. Unmovable from their side, the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. He led Israel into what seemed to be a trap. There was no way of escape except the way they had come in, and the Egyptian army had that path blocked.

At one point, God even commanded the Israelites to turn backward as if to bait Pharaoh into pursuing them. Seems a bit strange if God was only in it for Israel’s good. But there is more to the story—and to our story as well—God isn’t just in it for our good, He is in it for His glory. God promised that through this seemingly counterintuitive move “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:1-4). God would prove Himself to them throughout every uncertain twist and turn of this journey.

God is not just working for our good and wellbeing (Romans 8), but chiefly for His glory to be demonstrated through the entire process of our lives. Each day that we live and breathe is an opportunity for God to flex His muscles in every circumstance, from our most disheartening setbacks to our most rousing victories. The Almighty is shaping our heart to love Him and trust Him.

We tend to spend much of our days striving in our own strengths, abilities, and sufficiency. God certainly gave us talents and abilities to use for His glory, but He wants us operating and functioning in a dependence on Him. He wants us to learn to trust what He can do through us, as our cloud by day and our pillar by night. We often yearn for the easy path, the most convenient. Yet we frequently find ourselves on an inconveniently rugged, agitating and adverse path toward our promised land. What’s the deal?

Nature itself teaches us that it’s impossible to succeed without going through adversity. If a seedling tree has to struggle its way up through rocks to get to sunlight and air, then wrestle with storms and frost to survive, you can be sure of one thing: its root system will be strong and its timber resilient. If you’re successful and haven’t experienced hardship, you can be sure someone else has experienced it for you. And if you’re experiencing adversity without succeeding, there’s a good chance somebody else will succeed because of the price you paid. As Brad Pitt says in the film Moneyball, “The first one through the wall always gets bloody.” In any case, there’s no achievement without adversity.

It made sense for Israel to be afraid. They could see Pharaoh’s armies on one side and the Red Sea on the other. Maybe you find yourself facing similar disheartening odds. Just know beloved, your God is up to something that transcends your human understanding. Though Israel’s situation looked bleak, God assures them that the coming events, regardless of how they are perceived, are governed by his power and purposes. The Lord does tell Moses that he will “get glory over Pharaoh,” but He does not tell him just how that deliverance will be accomplished. It requires faith with every step and trust in every moment.

Between the time of the plagues in Egypt and the journey to Sinai, the events at the Red Sea show Moses as a maturing leader who learns to trust in the word of the Lord (Exodus 14:13–14), as they also illustrate Israel’s need to do the same (Exodus 14:10–12). How about you, my friend, are you maturing in your faith and trust in God’s providence for your life? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Lord, You are in this for my good and Your glory. Therefore, You will never abandon me. Your love will never fail. I rejoice in your salvation alone. No matter what stands in front of me, You have already gone ahead and You will faithfully take me through. I praise You for Your goodness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What was God’s reason for directing the Israelites toward the Red Sea? (Exodus 13:17-18)
  2. What did the Israelites cry to Moses when the Egyptians came after them? (Exodus 14:10-12)
  3. How do you imagine God felt when the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt?  
  4. What do we have to do to be obedient to God even when we don’t feel like it?
  5. How can you give your fears to God this week?

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