Saturday, January 30, 2010

Two Essential Secrets to Bible Reading

One of the reasons that many people view Bible reading as a chore is that we often go about it the wrong way. First, we do it just like we would do homework or preparing a report for work: we try to just sit down and do it. But the Bible is not simply a book. It is a message from the Living God. The Bible even says that its words are "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). There is something spiritual going on here. We can't experience the Bible meaningfully apart from experiencing God. So we need to pray and invite God to act as we read. Here's a promise I love: "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." (James 1:5). My habit now is to ask God for help and understanding every time I sit down to read the Bible.

So don't try to go about Bible reading mechanically, like digesting a math assignment. It's a spiritual thing, and you need to go about it in a spiritual way. Pray for God's help, pray about what you read, and listen to the words to see if God stirs anything in your heart. When you hit something that really moves you, stop and spend some time thinking about it and asking God to show you what He wants you to do with that.

A second problem with our Bible reading is that most of us do it because we think we're supposed to. That's like saying we have to eat because we're supposed to. Yes, we are supposed to eat. Life doesn't function well if we don't. But are we stuck eating dirt and grass? No - we have an incredible variety to choose from, and we can usually eat what we enjoy! The same thing is true of Bible reading. Reading your Bible is a gift - it's something God has given to you in order to help you find the life He created you to enjoy. So approach it expecting something good to happen. Don't do it in the hope that if you stick with it for the rest of your life, God will approve of you. That's not how faith works.

God approves of those who trust in Him and pursue a relationship with Him in the heart. He doesn't keep score of your obedience to see if you've made the cut. He pays attention to whether you have the right attitude about Him and really want to know Him. He looks to see if you want to experience what He has prepared for you. So don't read your Bible as if you can earn God's blessings by doing your homework faithfully. Read your Bible with hope, trusting God that if you spend time with Him in the words He has given you, something wonderful will happen. In other words, do it because you are trusting Him that you will find satisfaction if you seek it through Him.

Bible Reading Made Easy

The way I started reading my Bible every day was by reading Proverbs. My father-in-law suggested it because there are 31 chapters, so you can read a chapter a day and that will take you through the whole book in a month. It's easy to keep track of, and having a sense of accomplishment right away is helpful. After working through the book four times, I really wanted to expand and experience the rest of the Bible. In the previous 10 years I had managed to read through the Bible perhaps twice, over a long period of time. But after starting simply by doing Proverbs chapter by chapter, I was hungry for more of the change in my outlook that I had experienced in those four months of daily Bible reading.

Just like any new habit, the key to sticking with it is to avoid biting off too much to chew at the beginning. Start with too much ambition and you're likely to get discouraged. It's more important to start and stick with it than it is to accomplish a certain goal right away. So where do you go after Proverbs? Or should you start somewhere else? There's no right or wrong place. The entire Bible is valuable. Listen to how Paul cherished it: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

So all Scripture is useful, and you can start wherever you are most interested. If it helps to have a suggestion, I recommend starting with Matthew 1 and going through all four Gospels at whatever pace works for you - even just half a chapter a day. Spending time listening to and observing Jesus each day will do amazing things for your life.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Don't Get Discouraged If You Don't Feel It

I want to make clear at the outset that this was a process. For example, I didn't just wake up one day and decide I really wanted to read my Bible every day, and then happily take to the habit. At first the changes were very small and slow, and it was all I could do to get myself to keep the ambition of reading some of the Bible almost every day. I would miss days and then try to catch up, and sometimes it felt like an obligation that I wasn't excited about taking time for. But I knew that the way I had been doing things before had left me disappointed and unhappy. I knew that my previous pattern of life had failed. So I was trusting God that there was something better for me if I devoted myself to reading the book He gave us.

I would say that for the first several months Bible reading often felt like doing homework. You learn interesting things, and sometimes you have a pleasant time, but often it feels like a chore to get out of the way. So if anyone has tried this or is trying it and has found it to be difficult to stick with, I can empathize. I've been there, but I also can testify that sticking with it caused something wonderful to happen for me that was well worth it. The Bible is full of promises that God will give wisdom, hope, and encouragement to those who read and listen to His Word. The more I read, the more I placed my trust in Him that something would happen in me if I kept at this habit. And I gradually found that I really wanted to read my Bible - in fact, I began to realize that I was generally happier and less overwhelmed during the day if I had made time to read my Bible that day. As I stuck with it, I could see the difference between days I read the Bible and days I didn't. My spiritual mindset was beginning to change.

How I Discovered Satisfaction in God

This post is basically the overview of what made me come alive and taste real satisfaction. The posts to come will expand on the outline here and show how it all played out. I was raised without any belief in God for nearly 19 years. Sometime I will share how God opened my eyes to see the truth about the spiritual life and convinced me that Christ is my Lord and my Savior. But in my first post here I emphasized that there was still something missing from the faith I was living. This post starts to lay out how I went from being a Christian who believed and prayed, but was disappointed and still caught up in desires for sin, to becoming a Christian who enjoys God and finds satisfaction in simply experiencing Him.

I can't give you a secret recipe that will automatically introduce you to satisfaction in God if you just take the steps in the right order, because finding satisfaction in God happens through developing a personal relationship with Him. It's not mechanical – it's a dynamic, living, spiritual experience of coming close to the Divine and learning to know and trust Him. You let Him quiet your mind and release your tension in prayer, you listen to Him, you tell Him what troubles you, you wait for Him to do things in your life and in your heart, and you learn by experience that He is faithful and gives you what you need. Truly knowing God and finding satisfaction in Him is not like following a map or trying to learn how to operate something. It is much more like falling in love and starting a new relationship.

Thankfully, a lot of people before us have developed this relationship and have left great advice on how they went about it. The relationship still depends uniquely on the interaction between the two people involved and how they relate to each other, but the experiences of others give us a good idea how to get started. Most importantly, a relationship with God is unique because He gives and invests far more than you do and He actually works spiritually inside you to change you. So it will differ somewhat for each person, but the things below were fundamental for me, and from reading widely through what other Christians over the centuries have experienced, I believe these things will be fundamental for most people in finding a steady satisfaction in God.

  • I began reading my Bible every day.
  • I was genuinely unhappy and dissatisfied with where I was spiritually and with
    the results of my own efforts to manage my life. I confessed that I had done a
    lousy job and that I was not keeping God's Word faithfully on my own. I wasn't
    succeeding in fighting the desire for sin, and I was sick of being trapped in a
    cycle of doing things I was ashamed of and then having remorse and guilt.
  • I learned to consciously focus on admitting I could not do what I needed to do
    myself and putting my trust entirely in God to do it instead. I was learning
    that prayer doesn't just include asking God for what we think we need, but also
    includes asking God to change us and do in us what He desires to do. I learned
    that you don't keep God's commands by trying harder; you keep them by asking Him
    earnestly to make you obedient and trusting Him that He will do it.
  • I truly desired to know God more and find satisfaction in Him – I was becoming
    convinced that we were meant to enjoy God Himself for who He is, not just for
    what we get from Him, and I wanted to learn how to do this.
  • As I read the Bible daily, I was learning to trust God's Word and His promises
    instead of having my attitude shaped by how I felt or what I saw in my own life.
    I was learning to put aside my own expectations of what was possible or what was
    going to happen and believe that all things are possible with God instead.
  • I began to trust God that I could really let go of the things I had been holding
    onto for comfort and pleasure, and that He would replace them with something
    better and more satisfying. I learned to practice turning to Him when I was
    tempted by sin, trusting that He would ultimately give me more satisfaction and
    pleasure than sin could – without any shame!
  • I made my relationship with God and my time with Him my highest priority.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

That Sounds A Lot Like a Conversion…

This is a short post, but includes a long list at the end.

Some people would say that this sounds a lot like the difference between having faith and not having it at all. But I believe there were many signs to demonstrate that I truly believed in Christ and had faith before this happened. It seems to me that I was a genuine Christian, but I was also stuck in a shallow state of sanctification that I needed to be pulled out of. I have known other Christians who seem to have been through the same process or are still struggling with it. It is important for Christians to think about when faith actually begins and how we can know if we are truly alive in Christ or just deceiving ourselves like the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus and the Early Church. You need to be sure that you really know God, not just some imitation you have created for yourself to justify your way of life or make you feel important. But for the moment my purpose here is to encourage those who already believe in Christ who are nevertheless still struggling with satisfaction and yearning to experience the abundant life that Christ promised.

I also want those who may read this who don't believe Christ is their Savior to see just how extraordinary and powerful the pleasures of knowing God can be. If what you read is moving you, then I encourage you to take a Bible and literally ask God out loud to show you whether Christ is the answer. As you listen for Him, read the passages below and see what happens in your heart and mind. No one can explain quite how faith happens - it's a spiritual thing - but this is the way many people have found confidence to believe that Jesus Christ is who He says He is.

"but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear." Isaiah 59:2

"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… ." Romans 3:23-24

"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Romans 5:1

"but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Romans 5:8

"if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Romans 10:9

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." John 3:16-18

"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." John 1:12-13

"By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. …" 1 John 3:16

"For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus… ." 1 Timothy 2:5

"He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."
Colossians 1:13-20

"For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'" Romans 10:13

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Ephesians 2:8-9

"yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." Galatians 2:16

"'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.' And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house." Acts 16:30-32

"these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John 20:31 (which means there is more to see if you keep on reading!)

Scripture quotes courtesy of this excellent online Bible website: ESV Bible Online

I also recommend: Bible Gateway (many, many different versions can be searched)

Friday, January 15, 2010

What Does Satisfaction in God Mean?

I am absolutely convinced that what happened in my life to introduce me to lasting satisfaction and joy was the work of God. There is no other way to explain the radical change in my heart and mind that caused me to lose interest in sin and awakened me to find satisfaction in experiencing God. What I mean by "experiencing God" is a peace, fullness, and contentment that come from thinking about God, reading the Bible, praying, loving other people the way He taught us to, and enjoying hope because of all the promises God has made to us.

This amazing fullness and satisfaction is not something that can be directly compared to anything else in the world. It is superior in every way. But the pleasure we get from many things in life bears some resemblances. If you look at the most beautiful thing you know through a spyglass that is grimy and covered with dust on the end, and then look at it with a completely clean glass, you will have some idea of the difference. The pleasures of earth are a dim shadow cast by the pleasures of God - a foggy reflection.

For most of us, the strongest and most satisfying emotion we have experienced is love. What you feel for your spouse or your boyfriend or girlfriend, or for a child or a parent, is a good starting point for thinking about what experiencing satisfaction in God means. I think that might be one of the reasons He gave us these experiences, and why He uses marriage so often in the Bible to illustrate His relationship with His people. Being satisfied with God is a lot like love: you are happy just thinking about Him or remembering something He said to you (e.g. in the Bible), or joyful because you know Him and can come close to Him in prayer. But it's better. It's deeper, and it never ends because He is always available to you anywhere, at any time, forever.

Many people find it hard to believe they can feel this way about God. I used to be one of them. But something changed in my heart in an incredible way so that I started experiencing this very powerfully. My goal here is to explain how and why I believe this happened, and I will start laying that out after the next post.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So Why Should I Keep Reading... ?

If you don't believe in the Christian religion, then my last post may have left you thinking there's nothing here that will be of use to you. You're wrong. Part of what I will do on this blog is explain how I changed from being dissatisfied with life - disappointed by all the pleasures we try to satisfy ourselves with - into a person who has found satisfaction and contentment. I'm talking about the kind of satisfaction that is fulfilling enough that you don't feel like you need to go chasing after anything else. Even if you don't believe Jesus is helpful to you, I am certain you want to be satisfied and fulfill the deepest desires in your heart. It hurts to feel empty and to be disappointed. So take a listen to what happened to me, because you just might find that the results are worth trying for.

A second reason to keep reading is that you might be surprised by what happens. Right now, you might feel like you've heard enough about Jesus from other people and that nothing new is going to make a difference to you. But when I talk about what happened in my life, I'm going to share how the Bible made a difference in my happiness. The Bible also says that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (In other words, through the Bible – Romans 10:17). It also says that the people in the church in Galatia in the 1st century received the Spirit of God by "hearing with faith" (Galatians 3:5). So I have some confidence that if a person listens to what God has to say and listens to what God has done for me, something might change in the way he or she thinks about God and the Bible. It's a pretty safe challenge: if there's nothing to what I'm saying, then you probably won't change your mind. But if what I'm saying is true, then God has been at work here and reading onward might open a door for you to a place you are longing to go.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Without Faith, Nothing Else Works

I want to make sure I make something perfectly clear before I continue: The pattern of events that brought me to deep satisfaction in life will not do a person any good if he or she doesn't have faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you don't confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead so that you could have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, then you need to start at the beginning (see Romans 10:9). The things I will say here have proven to be of great benefit and encouragement to me in living the Christian life, but you have to begin that life by putting your faith entirely in Christ to save you from sin and death.

The things that changed my life are not part of a self-help regimen or the elements of a good productivity and personal improvement plan. They are part of a supernatural work of spiritual transformation in a human life. That's the only thing that will save a person from the dissatisfaction that comes from trying to satisfy your soul with what the world has to offer. This change is more than physical or emotional: it is spiritual, and it comes through the original, Almighty Spirit of God Himself. Reading the Bible can help you see Christ for who He is and may be the very thing that leads you to put your faith in Him, but you won't experience a transformation of heart and mind until you do place your faith in Him. And that transformation is what is necessary to find satisfaction.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Does God Want Us To Be Satisfied?

God's desire for us is that we be satisfied in Him, not discouraged and thirsty: "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." Psalm 37:4. Jesus said, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" John 7:37-38. And elsewhere He said to the woman drawing water from a well, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:13-14. And in Revelation, which is placed last in the Bible because it deals with the end of all earthly things and the beginning of man's new life in heaven, God says "To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment." Revelation 21:6. In eternity with God no one will be thirsty.

Peter told the crowds in the temple in Jerusalem: "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus[.]" Acts 3:19-20. The Lord wants to refresh you. In fact, Jesus said this about the reason He came into the world: "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." John 10:10. In other words, when Christ came from God He brought to us the full life that we lacked. When we respond and come to Him, we are filled up - satisfied.

The Beginning of the Journey

I read C.S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity" a couple of years after I first believed in God. It was a great blessing in my development as a Christian. Yet for many years after, I struggled to find contentment in my Christian life. My growth was slow and halting, and the evidence of grace in my life was at many times barely perceptible. In other words, I sinned a lot and wasn't too successful in staying away from it. Looking back, I can best describe those years by saying I was always thirsty. I was longing for something I didn't seem to have, and I wasn't satisfied in what I did have. This left me vulnerable to wounding and scarring from disappointment, depression, and sin – not to mention the effect on others.

I now count one of the greatest demonstrations of God's mercy in my life to be His delivering me from this long season of spiritual thirst by showing me how to find satisfaction entirely and completely in Christ. The difference is so dramatic and amazing that it will take many conversations to describe it accurately, but the bottom line is that I've found a fountain of life that truly satisfies when nothing else will. There are still times when I feel pain, discouragement, weariness, and temptation just like any other person does. But when I feel dry or thirsty, I now know where to go to get filled up. Instead of feeling like something's missing all the time, or running after other things that don't really solve the problem, I am learning to go directly to God and receive satisfaction from the source.

I can testify that this works: God does satisfy deeply, and the desire or need for things that are sin is weakened and much easier to defeat when you experience satisfaction in God. But there are many Christians who don't have this satisfaction, just as I didn't have it for years. There seem to be plenty of books, and good ones, that will introduce the new convert or the skeptic to the basics of Christianity. It is the middle ground between that and between truly living with a satisfaction in God that seems to be in need of more explanation and accessibility. Countless believers throughout the history of the Church have found their satisfaction in God and learned the secret of the contentment that Paul describes in Philippians 4:11-13. Yet experience has convinced me that many Christians are struggling in this middle ground and are finding it to be a very discouraging place.

You can't love anyone else without wanting them to experience as much happiness as you do. So my mandate for writing this blog is that other people would experience real satisfaction in Christ and learn how Christianity truly provides contentment. My goals are to wrestle openly and honestly with the things that make life hard for all of us, and the things that really hurt and disappoint us; to share the ideas and the truths that have blessed me and given me the most satisfying encouragement and fulfillment; to show how God has helped me understand my own suffering and my own sin, and how He has shown me reasons to be filled with joy and encouragement; and to share how I have found rest for my soul and satisfaction in my life by seeing God more clearly and learning to enjoy who He really is. Although I will delve deeply into the actual experiences that led me to satisfaction in Christ and show how I got there, I will also share other thoughts that seem worth contributing. Readers can click on the tag "Finding Joy" to just read the posts on finding satisfaction in Christ.

I don't have the answers to all of life's problems in my head, but Christ does have the answers – indeed, He is the answer. My prayer for what I write here is that my experiences will lead others to find satisfaction in God as well so that their struggles become secondary to the joy they receive from our Savior.

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