How to Make Consistent Progress

delay

Immediately. At Once. Suddenly. Instantly.

Jesus’ ministry was not one of delays. In fact, it began with his baptism, “immediately” followed by 40 days of temptation (Mark 1:12-13). Then, he commissioned his first four disciples who followed “at once” and “immediately” (Matthew 5:18-22). When he healed, illness left “suddenly” and “instantly” (Mark 1:31, 42). Nothing he did met with delay, and he accomplished his purpose within three years of ministry.

Why the absence of delay? As I struggle with lack of progress and even feel like I’m going backward more than forward, I’m especially drawn to the absence of delay in Jesus’ ministry.

What can Jesus’ ministry teach us about how to make more consistent progress within God’s will?

1.) Jesus’ purpose was crystal clear. He came to seek and save the lost, plain and simple, and he never deviated from that purpose.

“Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’” (Mark 1:38)

2.) Jesus’ every action drove toward his purpose. Every action and every word was a step toward fulfilling His purpose.

“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.” (Mark 1:21)

3.) Jesus made connection with God the Father a priority. He consistently made time for his most important relationship.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

How would your life change if you held to a simple clear focus, made every action drive toward that focus, and made relationship with God the Father your top priority?

When I lay my life against these three aspects of Jesus’ ministry, I am better able to see why I stall and go backward more often than I move forward.

On most days I have a simple and clear purpose, I spend time alone with God, and my actions drive toward my purpose. But, also on most days, I let my attention get easily drawn to other things, and I spend too much time comparing myself to others which results in losing confidence in what I know is my purpose. I also too easily let myself look to other areas of interest — good things — and forget that I must often chose between good and best in order to stay in God’s will.

When I realize how Jesus stayed so focused during his early ministry, I understand where I fall short and need to reestablish myself. How does seeing his focus and the reasons for it help you with your focus?

Going Public

FearFor many people, myself included, telling others about Jesus seems a bit like telling people about Amway. At least, the discomfort (fear?) ahead of time feels similar, and the reaction received is also strikingly similar. (I’m not at all proud of this truth, by the way.)

But that’s stupid. Isn’t it? I mean, Jesus is the best news ever, but people seem to receive words about him with as much disdain and skepticism as they do multi-level marketing.

Not exactly sure why this is, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Loving Jesus is a lifestyle, it’s actions, and not simply the words we use. As I thought about this and realized my struggle in this area, the Holy Spirit turned on a light that showed how sharing the Gospel — talking about Jesus — really is not difficult.

  • Focus on Gratitude — Letting people know what Jesus has done for you comes from a place of gratitude, not fear. So, if you feel fear, try focusing on being thankful.
  • Remember Your Anointing — Isaiah said it first, and Jesus quoted him. They said the “anointed” would proclaim the good news to the poor. We also know that the anointing abides (dwells) within us (1 John 2:27). So, no matter how we feel about our abilities or how about we’ll be received, the anointing exists to qualify each one of us.

Public 1

  • Focus on What You Know — What you know best is what Jesus has done for you. Simply speak to what you know about him personally.
  • Don’t Force It — Don’t focus on where you see others headed without Jesus, at least not at first. Let them see Jesus in you first and wait for the opportunity to go further.
  • Create Awareness — Do this by the way you live life with Jesus. Let his peace and power be seen in and through you amidst the chaos of life, and let others be drawn to him as they desire that same peace and power. Trust the Holy Spirit to do the drawing.

Yes, Jesus and the Gospel of salvation seem too good to be true. The idea that our past can be erased and that we can be made new and pure is amazing. The fact that it’s free to us is baffling. In today’s culture, many people want something for nothing but avoid that which truly is free to them. Salvation is free to everyone, but making him Lord requires giving all of what we are.

“If you live for Jesus as a secret agent, you’ll eventually wake up as a double agent.” (Pastor Steve Miller)

Don’t keep Jesus a secret. Don’t try to live for him on the inside and neglect doing so on the outside for fear of what others might think. The Great Commission says to “go and make disciples.” This “go” really means “in your going,” in other words, “as you go about your life.”

For me, this means as I write and teach. It means as I parent my two boys and as I fulfill my marriage covenant. It means taking the opportunities God gives to share Him and realizing these opportunities often come through the way that I live life and the way I react when life runs me over.

Forcing things in my life has never turned out very well. In fact, it’s almost always gotten me overwhelmed and in places I knew weren’t meant for me (jobs, commitments, etc.) But waiting for God to open doors always leads down the path of balance.

It’s hard to resist creating my own path. After all, the worlds’ wisdom says I need to make my dreams happen. But that’s just never worked for me. Every opportunity that’s held God’s anointing came when He created the path as I waited for him to do so. Taking steps down the path he creates isn’t always easy and require a lot of effort on our part, but they will always lead to a place where going public about Jesus comes from who we are in him and not from forced “shoulds.”

DISCUSSION: How do you feel about “going public” about Jesus?

Face Over Hands

Face First

Seeking God’s face means getting to know Him and not only looking to what He gives to and does for us. This involves an honesty of intention in our searching.

Seek 1

Quite a few places in scripture emphasize the idea of seeking God’s face over his hands. Psalm 27:8 tells us God creates a longing in our hearts for connection with Him. Psalm 104:5 and 1 Chronicles 16:11 are duplicate words of David’s seeking God’s presence and his strength continually.

1 Chronicles 28:9 gives us much of what we need to understand the importance of seeking His face:

“And Solomon, my son, get to know the God of your ancestors. Worship and serve him with your whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord sees every hear and understands and knows every plan and thought. If you seek him you will find him. But if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.”

How can we apply this directive to know God – to truly see His face over what He does for us – in our lives today?

  1. Sincerely seek God’s face. Reading the Old Testament is a great way to get to know God’s character as he interacts with his people.
  2. Worship him. When he does show is hand, recognize what he has done and be grateful to him for it.
  3. Serve him. Reading the New Testament gives much in the way of how to serve God. Never stop studying this.
  4. Give your whole heart. Continually allow God to show you what you have placed above him on your priority list.
  5. Keep your mind teachable. Turn to God for direction on how to live your life & be open to having your faith challenged.
  6. Don’t neglect God. We get busy so easily. Knowing this, we can build in habits that ensure our regular attention toward him.

Seeking God’s face — his character, who he is as a person — really involves simply choosing to spend regular and consistent time with him. It involves listening to him, talking with him, and caring about his desires.

As we get to know God better and better, we realize the role faith plays in that relationship. We begin to understand that we must trust that he rewards those who honestly seek him…

Seek 2

…and this means seeking him and letting him decide what happens next. We must trust that he’ll do what’s best for us. This growth of trust results in more seeking of him and less asking for his hand to move in our lives.

Now is always the best time to seek God. Don’t wait for a better time because there isn’t one. Putting it off means making any further seeking more difficult because it increases our distance and the stuff we put between us and God. Fortunately, God doesn’t move or hide; he’s always right where he is at this very moment ready for us to seek and find him.

DISCUSSION: What keeps us from truly seeking God’s face, his character? Why do we so easily seek God’s hand, what he does, instead?

Be Prepared

Prepared 1“Got your food bar and water bottle?”

“Yep.”

“What about your spikes?”

“Yep.”

So went the conversation just before my son left for school the day of his first track meet of the season. I wanted him to be prepared to do his best, and that meant not having to stress over forgetting something. This conversation really just represents one of the many I’ve had with my boys.

My husband, knowing I’m not a morning person, has told me more than once that he’ll see the boys off to school in the mornings while I get a bit more sleep. But, I just can’t release the need to make sure my boys are prepared for the day ahead. I remind them often to prepare the night before, but being teenagers and also boys, they usually don’t. While my husband is a terrific father, and good at many things, planning ahead is not his strong suit. Plus, he just doesn’t have mom radar.

Being unprepared can be frustrating and embarrassing. It can turn an ordinary day into a bad one very quickly. And too many unprepared days usually lead to an overwhelmed life as getting by consumes any best that might otherwise exist. A habit of unpreparedness eventually creates a reactionary, drama-filled life. And that sort of life comes characterized by relentless stress and exhausting overhwelm.

The Value of Preparedness

Prepared 2I want my boys to learn the value of being prepared because I know this habit sets them up for an effective and successful life. Vastly more important, though, is them knowing the concept of preparedness as it relates to their spiritual states. I want them to know that their heavenly Father also values being prepared and wants them to always stand ready.

Matthew 24 conveys God’s preparedness message aptly. In it, we have Jesus’ words telling us to not panic and to instead prepare to endure to the end. The idea of panic and endurance tells us the situation will be dire and feel desperate at times.

Jesus also tells us what to pay attention to and what not to let steal our focus. In that, he directs us to…

  • Know the Truth (His words, Scripture, prophecy, etc.)
  • Know what’s coming
  • Know what you don’t know (the exact timing)
  • Know your responsibility as these events unfold

This chapter in Matthew ends with a call to preparedness, to

“You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.” (Matthew 24:44)

Jesus gave us what we need to be prepared, and called us to a continual state of preparedness.

A Habit of Preparedness

Living with a habit of preparedness based on the information you have creates the mindset necessary to be ready for THE event of all time — Jesus’ return. This is ultimately why I teach my boys the mindset of preparedness. My hope is that doing so will create a way of thinking that flows into every area of their lives, from the small events like track meets to the big ones later in life, but most importantly to the only thing that ultimately matters — their individual relationship with their Savior.

Seeing the connection of everyday habits to our eternal perspective helps us better see the truth in how all we do can truly be to His glory.

“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Preparedness is, for me, one of the most powerful examples of this principle.

DISCUSSION: How would you describe your level of preparedness, both in life and eternally?

Are You Using A Broken Compass?

Compass 1In Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Jack Sparrow, and at times others too, uses what initially appears to be a broken compass to achieve his goals. Turns out, the compass points to what the holder wants most and not to true north, which means the person holding it must actually know what he wants in order for the compass to be of use.

At one point, the compass spins without fixing in one direction because Jack doesn’t know what he wants. The compass follows the holder’s heart, after all, so if the heart is confused, so too is the compass.

When I lose focus, I feel like I’m trying to follow a compass that spins in circles too. My path gets confused with too many options, and I don’t know which direction to take. Like Jack, I become lost in a vast, unending sea, sort of floating around in aimless frustration.

Lost and Wandering?

Compass 2“People will stagger from sea to sea and from the north even to the east; they will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:12)

“Behold, I go forward but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him; when he acts on the left, I cannot behold Him; He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.” (Job 23:8-9)

“The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city.” (Ecclesiastes 10:15)

These Scriptures aptly describe life with a confused focus or “broken compass.” They also help us see why we remain unable to move forward in ways that matter for eternity when our compass spins uncontrollably.

  1. We never settle on God’s Word, and instead seek solutions elsewhere.
  2. We think God can’t see us just because we can’t see Him.
  3. We fail to fix our thoughts on Him and become increasingly confused.
  4. We get hung up on our ability to understand or figure God out.
  5. We become overwhelmed by the temporary cares of life this side of Heaven.

Though I stay in that wandering state less than I used too, it still happens way too often. Maybe you feel this same frustration too.

Only when we focus our hearts do we know the right direction to take. But how do we get that focus? Sometimes even more difficult, how do we keep that focus once we obtain it?

The Power of Intercessory Prayer

Intercession 3

Check Your Contacts

Every couple of years, usually when I upgrade my smartphone, I perform a thorough cleaning of my contact list, mostly removing outdated contacts (past year’s teachers, duplicate information, etc.). Between those times of major renovation, I periodically go through the list to make updates to photos and other information.

Recently when making updates, I paused as I realized the unusual number of people no longer an active part of my life. Some moved away, and we simply grew apart as a result. Others, the circumstances that disrupt life just sent us in different directions.

A part of me will always be sad, I think, about faded relationships. While bridges aren’t burned, things will never return to the way they were either. Impossible, really, when the people involved change along with their priorities and focuses. If I dwell on these feelings, I get stuck in the past focusing on regrets instead of remembering the positives.

Relationships as Opportunities for Prayer

As I went through my list this time, I also began seeing the relationships represented more as opportunities than just a list of people I know. I’m seeing it more as a prayer list, which allows me to still be a part of each person’s life even when connection fades. I’m finding tremendous peace in this because no matter what happens in my life or theirs, a prayer connection can always exist.

More specifically, there will always be intercession (prayer to God on behalf of another), and this can actually be the maintenance plan for every relationship we have, regardless of its current state of elasticity. Oswald Chambers said we should

Intercession 1

This means that the focus goes to God, not to the individuals involved. It means we look to Him to work in each individual’s life, and that we rely on His work, not our own, in their lives. In this sense, prayer exists as the way we can be the most helpful to the people we know regardless of the status of the relationship.

Does this undertaking of intercessory prayer seem overwhelming to you? It does to me. In fact, I feel the heaviness of my inability to follow through in an effective way. Fortunately, I don’t have to rely on my own ability in praying for others.

Intercession 2

Paul doesn’t say to pray perfectly, and he doesn’t say to do it eloquently or only when I know the situation. With the help of the Holy Spirit, as best as I am able to do so, I am to pray for others in whatever way comes to mind. In other words, be obedient and let God do his thing.

DISCUSSION: How does intercession live and breathe in your life? What Scriptures come to mind as guides for how we can pray for others?

 

Hear. Listen. Understand.

Hear

Most people are very good at hearing. We know the right stance and facial expressions and even the appropriate verbal responses to confirm our hearing. But hearing remains only a physical act if we fail to fully engage in the process.

My 14-year-old has perfected the art of hearing. Eye contact. Mostly stationary. “Yeah” and “Uh huh” in the right places. Yet, his behavior later often confirms that he stopped with only hearing my words.

Listen

Once we hear, the next step involves truly listening. This means we choose not to form our response while another person talks. It means we decide to give value to the words we hear because we value the person saying them. Listening means we recognize that the words hold meaning and purpose beyond their initial point of origin.

As my boys mature, they move beyond only hearing my words and into listening for value. They attempt to apply instruction not just in my presence but as a choice for responsible behavior. They seem to grasp, at least at times, what many adults seem to be conveniently confused about, that those with experience and who love us quite possibly have valuable instruction to help better our lives.

Understand

Next comes understanding. After we hear and choose to truly listen, application starts to become a reality through our habits, and understanding grows. As understanding blossoms, the activity of hearing and listening changes from surface value to one of depth. A sure sign of understanding involves a person seeking out opportunity to hear and listen rather than waiting for them.

When my boys seek out my or their father’s advice, we see signs of this process happening. When a student takes notes and asks questions of a teacher, understanding is being sought. When someone spends additional time, perhaps in meditative prayer, reading or studying, they show a desire for the process of hearing, listening and understanding to become habit.

Jesus encourages this process in Matthew 13 as does Isaiah in 6:9-10. Lots of other places in Scripture emphasize the point too. Only when someone truly gives himself to hear, listen and understand does he finally see the significance of the repetition.

“Then the godly will shine like the sun in their father’s kingdom: Anyone who is willing to hear should listen and understand.” (Matthew 13:43)

DISCUSSION: How does the “hear, listen & understand” process exist in your life?

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You Can’t Lie to Yourself

TruthA college professor of mine, intrapersonal communication I think, told us the first day of class, “You can’t lie to yourself.” He explained that when we tell ourselves something long enough, we eventually accept it and then live it as truth.

We do this when we try to show satisfactory reasons or give excuses for doing something. Doing so brings us to the dangerous side of justification.

When we justify, we shape our thinking to avoid having to change our behavior. We create a reality in our minds that allows us to avoid the discomfort of growth, which involves admitting mistakes, preferring others, and being teachable, among other things. And the longer we do this, the more deaf we become to hearing the actual truth because we’ve created our own alternate reality, our own version of the truth, for so long.

The Pharisees did something of this sort when they refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.

“But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, ‘No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.’” (Matthew 12:24)

Of course, Jesus easily refuted their claims created to justify their unbelief, but they remained stubbornly in their own, self-created realities, ones that would allow them to stay deceptively secure in their comfort zones.

unrealityChange or Justify?

The more I read about the Pharisees, the more I dislike doing so because I’m usually reminded of some way of thinking of my own that’s too much like theirs. And this leads me to either needing to change or add another level of justification to avoid having to change.

When I don’t want to do something, say reach out to someone or admit I’m wrong, I’m very creative about why doing so isn’t necessary and even how it’s possibly detrimental in some way. In reality, these things just make me uncomfortable, so I want to find reasons — I want to justify — why I don’t need to do them. It’s really a control issue at heart, if I’m to be brutally honest with myself.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking also happens often when it comes to deciding about Jesus. Alternate realities are created where he either isn’t seen as who he is, he’s seen as a big disappointment in some way, or we just keep too busy to truly make him Lord of our lives or even think about how we might need to change our thinking.

Jesus actually calls the Pharisees’ words “idle” (Matthew 12:36). In essence, he’s saying that their attempts — and ours — at creating a false reality where we get to stay in control is really “idle” (of no real worth, significance or importance) thinking. And of that thinking, Jesus uses justification in another way.

“The words you say now reflect your fate then, either you will be justified by them or you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:37)

In other words, the reality in which we choose to live either leads to the only authentic justification that exists — the kind that comes only through Jesus — or to eternal destruction. One day, every reality will be based on actual truth, God’s truth, and we’ll have no say in the creation of that reality. In fact, all our false truths will fall away. This motivates me to get my truth, the reality I choose to live by, as much in line with God’s truth as possible before time expires.

DISCUSSION: How have you lived within a false reality? How do we align the truth we live by with God’s truth?

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Consumed With “Shoulds”

mercy not sacrificeAll to often, I become easily consumed with thoughts of what I “should” do to truly be a good wife, mother, friend, writer, church member, daughter, Christian, etc. Those ideas are usually based on what others say, think and do and how I appear in comparison. Of course, this comes all filtered through my own perceptions and assumptions. And this line of thinking always leads to internal defeat as I realize my desire to promote self and feel good about where I fall in the lineup.

In this way of thinking, activity becomes the focus. The more activity, the better. But I always end up feeling restless and unsettled. Never arrived. Never content. Why?

When my heart’s focus lies with appearances, with going through the motions of “shoulds,” I’ve filled my life with activity (with busyness) that appears meaningful but really exists as quite the opposite. Seems a lot like a focus on the rule following of the Pharisees, doesn’t it?

Filling our lives with the activity of sacrifice (busyness) provides ample distraction from addressing the true condition of the heart. Being busy (offering sacrifices)results in appearing accomplished but fails to consider the state of our intentions and motivations.

Inward Faith Before Outward Expression

Jesus used the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:12-13 & 12:7) knowing the generational familiarity it held for his listeners. The Life Application Study Bible says it this way:

God does not take pleasure in our outward expression if our inward faith is missing.”

Old Testament connections to this are many… 1 Samuel 15:22-23, Psalm 40:6-8, Psalm 51:16-19, Jeremiah 7:21-23, Hosea 6:6, & Micah 6:6-8. All get at this tenant point of Scripture… our heart attitude toward God comes first, then we can make acceptable sacrifices.

These Scripture represent the truth of what God asks of each of us. He doesn’t first ask for busyness (sacrificial activity) but for a sincere faith and devotion to him. He asks for loyalty and obedience. He asks that we are fair, just, humble and merciful. Only then is anything we do — our activity & our busyness — pleasing to him.

Isaiah 1:11-17 gives a succinct path for learning to live out this pattern of being over doing.

Respect. Follow. Love. Serve. Obey.

Of course, God exists as the object of these action steps. He exists as the focus of our activity. And as we seek to live this pattern, we find that the busyness of the world falls away. The “shoulds” disappear from our radar, and we move into the rhythm he meant for us to follow.

No longer do we focus on offering sacrifices — keeping ourselves busy with going and doing — but we instead find ourselves living in a way that naturally loves and serves. Only then do we live driven by our heart’s inward faith instead of trying to create the perception of an inward reality that we think makes us acceptable.

DISCUSSION: How does the truth “obedience over sacrifice” become a reality in the life of a believer?