Morning Reflection - Monday, August 16
Holding Out on Forgiveness
Reflections on the Gospel of Matthew
Last year I was hurt by a close friend, and my reaction was to cause hurt in return. Actually, it may have been the other way around. The entire incident was so passive and internal that it’s hard to say how it all started.
Either way, it resulted in sulks, resentment, licking of wounds, and finally, grudging apologies. We’ve been on relationship probation ever since. When we see each other out in public, we smile and try too hard—neither one admitting our resentment. Feeling like I was owed something, I never made an attempt to mend our relationship. Why should I give in first? After all, it would be foolish to make myself vulnerable to that person.
But the last time I checked, Jesus doesn’t bless the ones who hold out the longest for an apology. In my reading of Matthew, I found quite the opposite: He blesses the peacemakers. And in the Sermon on the Mount, he shows us exactly what peacemaking entails:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23–24).
Jesus doesn’t say “go and ask for an apology,” “go and make excuses for your behavior,” or even “go and tell your side of the story.” He says go and be reconciled.
Jesus goes on to explain what a response to being wronged looks like:
“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt 5:38–42).
He uses examples of some very public wrongs—a slap across the cheek and a lawsuit.
It’s often harder to back down if it means losing face. I don’t swallow my pride easily, and I know exactly what I would do if I were literally slapped across the face: I’d turn the other cheek with such an exaggerated, provoking attitude that I would deserve that follow-up slap.
Jesus is describing a much more humble attitude—one that perhaps includes a tacit recognition of the other person’s hurt or anger.
His words within the Lord’s Prayer are a reminder of why we should forgive: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
Forgiveness isn’t grudging or passive—it’s actively showing acceptance. And it’s not contingent on whether I feel the other person is deserving of that forgiveness. It’s in response to the unbelievable and undeserved forgiveness that Christ offers me.
Evening Reflection - Monday, August 16
Reflections on the Gospel of Mark
“Who touched my garments?” Jesus’ voice rises over the chatter. A great hush falls over the crowd. Heads turn left and right, looking for the person in question.
One of the disciples pipes up: “You see the crowd pressing against you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
Slowly, one woman emerges from the multitude. Trembling, she comes forward and falls at Jesus’ feet. She begins to tell her story—that she has been bleeding for 12 years, suffering despite the efforts of many physicians. In vain, she had spent all she had, but the condition had only worsened.
“I heard the reports about you,” she says—her knees sunk into the dirt, the crowd on their feet around her. “I remember saying, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well,’ and that is what happened.”
Many of us know this story from the Gospels. We see this picture of Christ’s grace, mercy and restorative power in Mark 5:25–34. But while inspiring and thought-provoking on its own, the account is missing something for the average reader: the historical and literary context found in the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus is a book full of laws, standards and rituals that, for the most part, we no longer follow. The laws defined Israel as a holy people, set apart for God. They also established ritual practices that narrowed the gap between God’s holiness and their uncleanliness. Today, we don’t consider issues of ceremonial cleanliness and ritual purity. But in Jesus’ time, these matters held great importance.
The woman who touches Jesus’ garments in Mark 5:25 had been ceremonially unclean for more than 4,000 days. In Leviticus 15:25–27, we get a glimpse into the type of life she led:
If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity.
For 12 years, people had avoided touching this woman so they could stay clean and maintain ritual purity. Inanimate objects she touched were deemed unclean. Even more tragic, according to the laws in Leviticus, she was ceremonially unfit to be in God’s presence. She would not be allowed to worship in the temple, and anyone who came in contact with her was banished until evening (Lev 15:19–27). Her physical condition prevented her from being part of God’s holy people. For this woman, the law was insufficient to bridge the gap between her and God; ritual purity was impossible.
According to Leviticus, the act of touching someone else’s garments spreads uncleanliness to the wearer. Yet the woman’s faith in Jesus changes everything. Instead of her making Jesus unclean, he makes her clean—not on the basis of ritual purity, but on the basis of her faith in Him: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your affliction” (Mark 5:34).
In this moment, the Gospel of Mark shows us that Jesus is ushering in a new era. If we have faith in him, no ailment, condition or stigma can keep us from communion with God. The context of Leviticus is a great reminder of who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
Morning Reflection - Tuesday, August 17
Is This Where God Wants Me?
Reflections on the Gospel of Luke
I often wondered whether business in general, and sales-related business specifically, could be amenable to the Gospel. As a 20-something young professional finding success in the business world, I began to feel uneasy about my work. “Can I follow God in this position?” I wondered. “Is this really where he wants me?”
Search as we might, we won’t find a Bible passage that tells us whether our current job is the right one. However, there are helpful texts, such as the two stories of men meeting Jesus for the first time found in Luke 18–19. Their responses illustrate what following Jesus actually requires.
What If My Job Is Questionable?
Luke 19 tells the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector—a detested job if ever there was one. Luke tells us that the crowd is shocked by Jesus’ request to stay at Zacchaeus’ home. To them, he was a sinner by virtue of his trade. Luke also mentions his wealth (19:2). Not only did Zacchaeus have an unpopular career, he was good at it.
If anyone could expect to be called out of their job, it would be Zacchaeus, and yet that wasn’t the case. Instead, Jesus praises Zacchaeus for his change of heart. Brought face-to-face with Jesus, Zacchaeus says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (19:8). Jesus recognizes Zachaeus’ generosity as a mark of his role in the family of God: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). While Christians ought to refuse any work that causes others to stumble (Luke 17:1–2), Jesus appears less concerned with the “what” of our work and more concerned with the “how.”
When Our Work Obstructs Our Faith
There are some instances, though, where we must prayerfully consider whether our career hinders our pursuit of Christ.
In Luke 18, a rich man of influence comes to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). He claims he has kept all the commandments. “What more could I possibly do?” he seems to be asking. Jesus’ response: Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me (Luke 18:22).
These words hold true for us: Christ must come first. Typically our jobs are not evil in and of themselves, and we can follow Jesus while working diligently in them. But they can become an idol if we let them, and we are called to rid ourselves of idols.
In Ephesians 6:5–8, Paul advises his readers to work for earthly employers “not only to win their favor … but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” We are to “serve wholeheartedly” in our work, as if we are working for God himself, but we must be certain that God comes first. We must be careful not to allow our work or income to replace the priority of serving God and loving others.
Following God Where You Are
The Bible does not attempt to tell each Christian whether their current job is the right one. And yet, in these two examples, we see that (almost) any job can be where we are “supposed” to be—as long as we follow Christ in them, refusing to make our career an idol. If we find we cannot follow God without leaving a job, we can trust his Spirit to lead us in his will through prayer for discernment (Jas 1:5; Phil 4:6–7).
In most cases, however, God calls us to follow by selflessly devoting ourselves to Him—right where we are—as living sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5; Rom 12:1), as joy-filled agents of redemption, and as part of a complete cruciform life. Such a calling can be just as daunting as dropping our nets to follow him.
Evening Reflection - Tuesday, August 17
Abiding in the Vine
Reflections on John’s Gospel
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4 esv).
When Jesus first spoke of abiding in him, the disciples were comforted by his poetry and promise.
But then follows for the disciples a dichotomy of words: “But now I am going to him who sent me” (John 16:5). When he spoke of leaving, the disciples were confused. He offered his presence and asked them to remain with him, yet he warned them that he would go away—where he was going they could not yet go.
The concept of abiding transcended the disciples’ understanding of physical space. We know what they didn’t know: that Jesus took on their sins and emptied himself so that they could live eternally. We know that they shared in his death and his resurrection, and that he sent his Spirit to them. But what are the implications for us today? How can we understand and live this figure of speech?
The metaphor of a vine and branch represents a relationship unlike any other. Though they are two separate entities, they are joined together. The branch relies on the vine for food and life—connection and sustenance. And the vine nourishes the branch so that it can bear fruit.
Jesus’ command to abide in him is followed by him showing that we’re completely reliant on him. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Just as Jesus emptied himself, we are to empty ourselves for others. He tells his disciples in John 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” His love for us leads to us loving others. Only when we remain in him do we grow and bear fruit that brings glory to God (John 15:8).
And we should move beyond loving those who love him. Jesus prays to the Father: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20).
Just as branches are connected to the tree, we should always be connected to Christ. He sustains us. He provides the nourishment we need. Even now, he sends us his Spirit to dwell within us, to abide within us. He demonstrates an eternal presence and an unbroken commitment to loving us. His Spirit has made his home within us to keep us fresh and to bear fruit. This sustenance is eternal. May we be inspired to abide in him and bear eternal fruit.
Morning Reflection - Wednesday, August 18
Writing the Story of Your Life
Reflections on Acts of the Apostles
Luke recorded years of the early church’s development in his letter to his friend Theophilus (recorded in the books of Luke and Acts). His detailed notes on eyewitness accounts and his own experience bring clarity to the founding of the church and Paul’s ministry. What if he had never written his observations down?
“Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you,” the Lord instructed the prophet Jeremiah (30:2).
This caught my attention recently, because writing is such an integral part of my devotional life—I have over 25 years of my life documented in journals. While the circumstances and context of God’s instruction to Jeremiah are very different from our experiences with God, “writing in a book” is a helpful tool for bolstering our devotional lives.
Journaling forces me to linger over a verse longer than I normally would. During my devotions, if a particular verse or phrase catches my eye, I write it down and begin meditating on it. Reading through Jeremiah recently, this phrase jumped out at me: “Their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen” (Jer 6:10 esv). As I wrote this phrase, I pondered what it meant that they had uncircumcised ears, noting some of the things that came to mind: ears that are covered, blocked, unable to hear God’s voice.
As I wrote out the passage, I remembered that circumcision is also described in God’s Word as a sign of: spiritual rebirth (Rom 2:29), God’s covenant (Gen 17:11), and spiritual humility (Deut 10:16). I was reminded of some key spiritual truths I had not considered in a long time. I prayed something like: Lord, circumcise my ears, so I can hear you when you speak. Let me hear your warnings, your instructions, your encouragement, and your assurance. The concept of uncircumcised ears became more meaningful when I incorporated it into my prayers. Suddenly, a passage that seemed only about the history of rebellious Israel had a very practical, personal application.
My journals also serve as a spiritual autobiography. I don’t remember some of the things I prayed about as a fifteen-year-old, but reading through my childhood journals, I see a young girl who earnestly sought God. I can also look back on some of my darkest seasons and see how God was with me, even when I had stopped seeking him.
Journaling also prepared me for a trial I experienced while serving the Lord in Asia. I was following a Bible-in-a-Year reading plan, and one morning, my reading included Hebrews 10:34, “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (esv). I didn’t know why at the time, but I marked that verse in my Bible and wrote it in my journal. Later that week, my room was plundered, and some of my property was stolen. Normally, I would have been shaken by such a violation, but I thought of what I had written in my journal and had a calm peace—an assurance that God had prepared me for it. I dealt with the situation much more joyfully than I would have otherwise, which served as a powerful testimony to the Muslim students I was working with.
Why not make journaling part of how you connect with God? I suspect that, like me, you will be amazed as you read through the pages of old journals and see what God has done. You will see prayers that were answered, problems that were solved, and people who were saved. Keep a record of how God moves in your life, and over time, you will see how intimately God is involved. Then, one day, you will read with awe the testimony God has written on the pages of your life.
Evening Reflection - Wednesday, August 18
The Cure for Suffering
Reflections on Romans
When I enter my weekly Bible study, I know I’ll hear laughter. Not always from every person, but definitely from John. His laughter is loud and rhythmic—that sort of from-the-gut outburst of emotion. He’ll laugh after a set of worship songs, during a prayer request, or when my two-year-old son runs and jumps into his lap. One thing makes his laughter unusual, though—John is blind. What’s more? Just six months ago, John’s wife died unexpectedly, removing the one who filled in for his eyes. But John still laughs.
Why does he not resent God? Why the joy? John would affirm, with Paul, that “God works all things together for good” (Rom 8:28). But Romans doesn’t speak of blindness, death or laughter. And it certainly doesn’t explain why good people suffer. Rather, this passage puts the focus on God: “Who are you, O person, to answer back to God? Will the clay say to its Potter, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ ” (9:20).
In this passage, Paul is wrestling with Israel’s rejection of Christ. He uses the example of Pharaoh to make the point that we don’t always know why or how God acts. We don’t know why Pharaoh was raised up as a leader, other than that he was a tool in God’s plan—a tool that ultimately led to God’s glory.
The imagery that Paul uses can also be found in Jeremiah. God instructs the prophet to go to a potter’s house. Jeremiah watches as the clay is “spoiled in the potter’s hand,” and then “reworked … into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do” (Jer 18:4). Then God says, “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand” (18:6).
The Bible doesn’t tell us why bad things happen to good people, but it affirms that we serve a Potter who molds his clay with wisdom, intention and goodness. Paul insists that God is faithful to his promises (Rom 9:6–8)—merciful and compassionate to those he loves (9:14–18). God will—in the end—break open his treasury and lavish his people with “riches of his glory” (9:23).
When our life experiences don’t seem to reflect this, we need to rest in God. Sometimes the best antidote for our suffering is not an answer but an affirmation that God is God.
John believes this. He loves God. And he is happy that God is on the throne and he is not. And that’s why John laughs—in that deep, rhythmic, from-the-gut sort of way.
Morning Reflection - Thursday, August 19
Turning Our Lives from Noise to Music
Reflections on 1 Corinthians
“Focus on your relationship with Jesus.” When my friend—whom I had traveled several thousand miles to see—said this, I knew it was the answer to all of my questions. I had been so focused on God’s calling that I had neglected my relationship with the caller, Jesus. My pastor had warned me of this, but I hadn’t listened. And this is precisely Paul’s message when he says to the Corinthian church, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a ringing brass gong or a clashing cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Without love, our lives are simply noise.
When God provides us with great gifts or reveals our calling, our response should be to fall more in love with him. But often, we fall in love with the gift or vision instead. We forget that it’s not about where God is taking us—it’s about God himself. We may feel that we know “who we are” and “what we’re all about,” but we know absolutely nothing if we don’t know God. We’re like an orchestra trying to play music without a conductor.
When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, his goal was to help the Corinthian believers refocus. They had become so consumed with spiritual gifts that their worship services had become disorderly. They were beginning to act like those who practiced other Graeco-Roman religions. Paul tells the Corinthian church:
If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I parcel out all my possessions, and if I hand over my body in order that I will be burned, but do not have love, it benefits me nothing. (1 Cor 13:2–3)
Without love, everything becomes out of tune—and anything can be misused. Love holds everything together. Paul changes the behavior of the Corinthians by showing them the simplest, yet most profound, message of all: Make your lives about love. One of my closest friends once said, “The wisest thing someone with immense spiritual gifts can do is to read 1 Cor 13 every day.” If we really want to know God’s work and will—and to wisely steward his call upon our lives—we must be grounded in love. This is how we join God’s orchestra. Paul says:
Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous, it does not boast, it does not become conceited … [it] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will pass away. If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Cor 13:4, 7–8)
This is what love sounds like. And when we ground ourselves in Jesus, who is love, we see God’s way and we play his song (1 John 4:7). We may all be small instruments, but each of us has a part to play (1 Cor 12:12–19). All things may pass away, including spiritual gifts, but love will not. Its song goes on.
It took a several-thousand-mile journey for me to learn that I needed to refocus on my relationship with Jesus. And it took the honesty of another friend for me to see that all of God’s gifts are really intended to help me love him more. These are things that I knew in my head but didn’t really believe in my heart.
How about you? Are you ready to fall more in love with Jesus—for who he is, not just for what he can do for you? Are you ready to change your melody and start singing his song?
Evening Reflection - Thursday, August 19
Sorry, Not Sorry
Reflections on 2 Corinthians
During my senior year of high school, several of my Christian friends began running with a rougher crowd—and picking up their vices as well. Concerned and perhaps a little self-righteous, I approached my friends, questioning their behavior and urging them toward holiness. I was taken aback when they were not only offended but also accused me of being judgmental rather than loving. One girl hissed, “Only God can judge me!” My friendship with them quickly dissolved.
Brokenhearted for years after the incident, I avoided any confrontation that might sound judgmental. Jesus is all about love, I concluded, and pointing out where people are wrong seems unloving. I struggled as I attempted to love people who were destroying themselves and others.
It seems that at times Paul also fumbled with confrontation. In 2 Corinthians, Paul again writes to the Corinthian church after a painful visit and a harsh letter condemning the sin of a church member (2 Cor 2:1–2, 5–11). We don’t have all the details about the confrontation, but it appears that both Paul and the Corinthian church were reeling, unsure of their relationship with one another.
While the Bible hardly constructs a blueprint for loving confrontation, Paul’s letter offers helpful guidance as he attempts reconciliation:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it.… For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8–11).
We are often caught between two extremes: avoiding conflict altogether or critiquing without compassion. Paul shows us a third way: loving while sternly confronting sin—all with the goal of reconciliation with God and one another. Paul is sorry that his confrontation caused grief, but because the grief led to repentance from sin, he is not sorry for the confrontation. Had he remained silent, the sin would have continued and only brought deadly results.
Paul loves the Corinthians too much for avoidance or self-righteousness. Throughout his letter, Paul humbly claims that his competence comes from God and not himself, that he and his coworkers are merely jars of clay that carry the powerful treasure of Christ. He is a servant of God (2 Cor 3:5–6; 4:7; 6:4). He repeatedly declares his love for the Corinthians and pleads for them to make room in their hearts for him (2 Cor 6:13; 7:2). He pursues full reconciliation, though he seems to have also been hurt by the incident (2 Cor 2:4). Paul is not focused on being right or superior, nor does he avoid confronting sin or the risk that comes with doing so.
Ultimately, Paul reiterates the gospel throughout the entire letter. He reminds the Corinthians—and us—of God’s grace for all sinners. Jesus’ sacrificial work for reconciling the world to God allows restoration from sin, provides a model for reconciliation with one another, and humbles those of us prone to self-righteousness.
Rather than deflecting confrontation as judgment, may we imitate Paul’s humble approach.
Morning Reflection - Friday, August 20
Reflections on Galatians
Admit it. We’ve all done it, seen someone do it, or thought about doing it at some point during our education: cheating.
If you won’t admit it, I will. From one saved-by-grace cheater to another: there’s no way I would have passed my freshman-year, high-school Latin class without the pimple-laden brunette who sat just ahead of me and to my left. (She was gifted with an uncanny ability to conjugate.) It’s easy to justify cheating on a dead language, so I did.
I was later caught in another class. (I didn’t have the brunette this time.) I was forced to consider the consequences of my unrighteous actions. My punishment was light and exceptionally merciful: I had learned my lesson. I also learned that God is more interested in my character than my grade-point average.
Fast forward more than a decade later and picture this: I’m sitting in the back row of my seminary class. I’m having a near-Garden-of-Gethsemane moment—sweating something close to blood. When I turn to check the clock, I catch my colleague using one of the oldest tricks in the book: He had written the answers to the exam on his hand—caught.
Though distracted, I managed to finish my exam while catching short glimpses of him copying down the answers from his sweaty palm. The professor calls “Time.” As I walk to the front of the class, I catch my friend’s gaze for what seemed as long as the eschatological millennium. I knew I had to say or do something.
I mixed complete avoidance with a moment of prayerful consideration; I then looked into Scripture for an answer to my predicament.
How odd: I didn’t find any verse that gave instructions on how to confront a seminary colleague caught cheating on an exam.
What I did find was a verse in Galatians that provided me with a framework for dealing with the situation. It also gave me courage to confront him:
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted (Gal 6:1 nasb).
The verse is pretty straightforward. But restoring someone who has trespassed against their family, friends or colleagues—or in my friend’s case, an institution created to make people like him godly leaders—can be very painful. This is why Paul suggests we be gentle. The implication is that if we do not gently work to restore those who have sinned, and examine ourselves in the process, we may be tempted to make the same mistakes.
I wanted my act of restoration to be without the inevitable pain associated with sin. I intuitively knew this was impossible, but needed a reminder. This verse in Galatians helped me realize that the confrontation was going to require a spirit of gentleness and an act of painful rebuke.
After silencing my fears, and trusting the Lord with the outcome, I confronted my colleague about what I had seen and challenged him to do the right thing. The pain on his face was telling. His response, though, was Spirit-filled. The professor was merciful and let him drop the class without penalty.
I pray that you will follow the model that Paul suggests and humbly, yet boldly, restore your fellow brothers and sisters caught in sin.
Evening Reflection - Friday, August 20
Finding Time for God
Reflections on Ephesians
When I gave birth to my first child nearly eight years ago, I was totally unprepared for the immense change she would bring to my life. Sure, I knew about 2 a.m. feedings, sleepless nights and endless piles of laundry. I was aware a newborn would be dependent on me and that this job would consume me like no other occupation. However, I could never have prepared for how emotionally and spiritually consuming this job would be. I had no idea that a child could take such possession of your heart.
At seven and three my daughters no longer require the constant care that they did just a few years ago. Yet the mental and emotional energy my job as a mother requires often leaves me exhausted, with very little to offer my husband and friends. Meanwhile, I imagine God watching in the distance, waiting for me to come and sit with him, only to be addressed by my half-conscious form as I fall into bed, thanking him for his blessings—for getting us through another day.
I’ve spent a great deal of mental energy in my mothering years trying to figure out ways to enhance my time alone with God. I’ve tried it all—rising early, staying up late, utilizing naptime and even, horror of horrors, putting on a tv show while I sneak away for devotional time. My children, however, seem to have some internal alarm that goes off as soon as I open my Bible and before you know it, someone’s been hurt, had a nightmare or needs my attention right now (think: potty training). In the rare times that I haven’t been interrupted, I find my thoughts wandering to the dentist appointment that needs to be cancelled, the poor grade on the report card or the sweet exchange I witnessed between my daughter and her Daddy earlier that day. Before I started down the road of motherhood I could pore over passages of the Bible and mull them over for hours on end. I prided myself on my analytical abilities and my love of reading. These days I consider it an accomplishment if my attention span holds out until the end of a paragraph.
So, I often conclude my devotional time feeling frustration and guilt, resolving to try harder next time. When I think of other young mothers with many more children and much more on their plates who manage to study the Bible and spend quality time with God, I wonder, is there something wrong with me? Maybe with a little more perseverance or a more engaging topic I’ll have more success. I resolve to find the right study, the right time, the right method—I will leave no stone unturned until I discover it. And if I don’t, my youngest will be off to college in a mere fifteen years. Will it be too late for me to begin then?
Lately, God has been challenging me to look at the process a little differently. He keeps drawing me back to the theme of loaves and fish (Matt 14:14–21). Jesus himself was faced with a seemingly insurmountable task. There he was in a remote place with a large crowd and dinnertime was quickly approaching. His disciples surveyed the crowd and all they could find was a boy with five loaves and two fish. Under no circumstances would that be enough. They advised him to do the only logical thing, send the people away to find some food. Instead, Jesus took a child’s paltry offering and fed the five thousand, collecting twelve baskets of leftovers. Not just enough, more than enough.
I believe in a God who specializes in making something out of nothing. His Word says he is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20 niv). I have seen this principle carried out so often in my life: my health, my finances, my human relationships. Yet, when it came to my relationship with God, I found myself believing that I would have to sustain it on my own, that somehow I had the power to do so.
What I hadn’t realized was that while I thought that I’d been upholding our relationship in the past, it was God doing the work in me all along—His strength made perfect in my weakness.
So when I carve out a moment to come to him now, I visualize myself holding a paltry offering of too little time and attention. It will never be enough. But I bring it in faith, trusting that he will multiply the little I have and provide me with enough nourishment for that moment, with some to spare.
Morning Reflection - Saturday, August 21
Reflections on Philippians
For most of my childhood, I didn’t know I was weird. I grew up homeschooled, and most of my friends came from conservative Christian households similar to my own. When I finally figured it out, I embarked on a series of attempts to fit in. Often that meant repeating jokes I didn’t understand, quoting movies other people liked, or pretending to be familiar with music I didn’t listen to.
I became an expert on a topic overnight in an effort to create a niche for myself. My contributions to conversation always began with things like, “That’s nothing. One time, I …” And while there was nothing inherently wrong with my desire to have friends and fit in, my attempts at belonging became unhealthy when my goal changed from finding human connection to establishing my own importance.
My mother was the first to suggest that seeking to be the center of attention was not the best way to make new friends. Instead, she suggested, “Find someone at the party who doesn’t have anyone to talk to. If you can make their night better, you’ll end up having fun too.”
Mom’s advice to look outside my own self-interest was a practical application of Paul’s instructions for the Philippian church:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:3–4).
Earlier in his letter, Paul warns the Philippians that some men were preaching the gospel to inflate their own self-worth (1:15–17). When discussing those who were not preaching the true gospel, Paul appeals to Christ’s example of humility.
In my search for approval, I was trying to fulfill my own needs, but I had little motivation to look out for others’ interests. Feeling well-liked inflated my conceit—it didn’t teach me to elevate others above myself or to sacrifice for them.
Little by little, I changed my approach. I began to look for the new person in the room. Instead ofdominating the conversation, I learned to ask questions. On the surface, I was practicing useful friend-making strategies, but underneath I was undergoing a change of heart. In his letter, Paul goes on to admonish the Philippians to take their example from Jesus Christ:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (2:6–8).
This call to imitate Christ’s humility can be hard for us to hear. It turns our working model of social class on its head. We like knowing our place—especially if it’s a good one. But the gospel levels the playing field. We are all sinners. And if we are all equally in need of God’s grace, how can we evaluate our worth by comparing ourselves with others?
Evening Reflection - Saturday, August 21
Lifting Our Gaze Upward
Reflections on Colossians
The previous months had been rot with bad decisions and the consequences were catching up with me. I worried about the things I needed. I became angry when situations didn’t go as planned. I tried to hide my shortcomings from people and from God. I was frustrated with my sins and their consequences. I was trying to get rid of old habits, but I was missing something.
I read a passage in Colossians that brought clarity to my frustration.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 1:3).
Make a List
Being a new creation means seeking the things that are above—a new way of life. Try making a list of the ways in which your eyes get stuck gazing at things on this earth. Then, list next to that column the new habits that will help you lift your gaze upward.
You know your own struggles. List them. Be honest and be specific.
To be a new creation is to step into a new self—to be transformed by the power of Christ’s blood. Colossians elaborates on this new self. Paul says that through Christ’s blood, we are able to put to death those things that keep our eyes downward and be renewed in the knowledge of Christ.
What does it mean to die with Christ—for our life to be hidden in his (Col 1:3)? When our lives are hidden in Christ’s, our old habits no longer have power over us. We put away our anger, greed and lies by filling our minds with the knowledge of Christ (Col 1:5–9).
We do not become a new creation on our own. We’re transformed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is able to have that power because our sins were nailed to the cross with Christ (Col 2:14). Paul says that Christ’s death is the reconciliation of all things—that means us (Col 1:20). In Christ, we are free from our old ways.
Being a new creation is not just cutting out the wrong behaviors. It’s learning to live anew. Paul says in Colossians 3:3 that we who believe in Christ have died with him. Through Christ, we are able to seek those things that bring new life—we’re able to have new life.
We have to be intentional about replacing practices that reflect things on this earth with practices that resemble “where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). Paul explains what seeking “the things above” looks like in Colossians 3:12–17. It means we practice compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and love for one another.
I keep this list in my Bible as a regular reminder of who I desire to be in Christ. I’m learning to trust God to provide. I’m learning to forgive myself and others and exercise patience in God’s plan. I’m learning to be honest about my sins and find friends to hold me accountable.
Morning Reflection - Sunday, August 22
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians
This past year, my husband has been praying and studying the Bible with Robert, a new Christian. Robert is a former addict, and his life reflected sins from that lifestyle. While he is now committed to Christ, he continues to walk in some of those sins. Many Christian men who have mentored Robert gave up when he didn’t stop sinning on their timeline.
Walking alongside a new Christian with years of ingrained sinful habits can be discouraging. While the Bible doesn’t provide a blueprint for quick discipleship, Paul provides an encouraging model in Thessalonians.
For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe (1 Thess 2:11–13).
Paul’s example is the example of Jesus himself. Rather than simply commanding holiness, Paul and his team lived holiness among the Thessalonian church. Paul became a “father” to them. The work of a parent is ongoing and sometimes arduous—repeated instructions, reprimands for rules broken, and the modeling of a godly life. Paul guides the Thessalonians to holiness by wielding words with love and urging them on in faith.
He commends the faith and love of the Thessalonian believers, but he still warns them against particular sins like sexual immorality, laziness and revenge (1 Thess 4:3; 5:14–15). These believers found it difficult to adhere to the strict ethical code of their new faith. Yet Paul, recognizing the work ahead of them, encourages them because God is at work.
Despite what we may see outwardly, there is a patient, intimate work that God is performing in his people. While Robert is still sinning, he is now faithful in many ways he was not before. He continues to struggle with many sinful habits, but his new life is not the same as his former. While his progress may seem slow and messy, Robert’s life demonstrates the Word of God at work in those who believe.
Those of us whose lives look pulled together—who have learned to behave properly—may forget God’s patience with our own sin. I have years of sins like pride and snap judgments that God has not instantly transformed into humility. Yet these sins receive some of the harshest criticism in Scripture (Psa 101:5; Gal 6:3; Jas 4:6).
Since God is holy, he calls us to holiness. He also provides us with the Holy Spirit to answer that call. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:7–8, “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
As we disciple new believers, we must teach them to rely on the Spirit for complete deliverance—and we must stand with them as God works out that deliverance. He is performing the very same work in our own lives.
(Robert’s name was changed to protect privacy and identity.)
Evening Reflection - Sunday, August 22
Faith Doesn’t Sit Still
Reflections on 2 Thessalonians
Persecution is rife. A group of Thessalonians abandoned state-sanctioned idol worship and broke social convention by taking on a radical new faith. Yet Jesus Christ, the hope of this new faith, had not returned as soon as anyone hoped or expected. With Paul and his associates prematurely “torn from them,” the Thessalonian believers are facing persecution from their fellow citizens without the support of their spiritual guides (1 Thess 2:17).
Paul has reason to be concerned. His letters of encouragement to the fledgling, yet faithful community demonstrate an important characteristic of a Christian disciple, even (or especially) in difficult circumstances: Faith doesn’t sit still.
Paul praises their faithfulness, but he urges them “as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God … do so more and more” (1 Thess 4:1). Allegiance to Jesus means self-sacrifice as displayed in the lives of Paul, Timothy and Silvanus, who shared “not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves” (1 Thess 2:8). He tells them to “walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). Instead of the spiritual and physical laziness practiced by some awaiting Christ’s return, Paul encourages action, giving and living as “children of the day” who shine the light of God with faith, love and the hope of salvation (1 Thess 4:9–12; 5:14, 8–11; 2 Thess 3:10–12).
Active faith has one foundation—God. The Thessalonians had been given faith by God through the gospel “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5), and they will continue in that power. God would make them “worthy of his calling and … fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thess 1:11). Although he is beyond the Thessalonians’ reach, Paul knows this work is occurring, and will continue, because it is God who works in his people (2 Thess 2:16–17; 3:3–5).
The Spirit empowers the lives of fledgling believers, not in spite of circumstances, but through them. God will not abandon us; rather, he will help us live the life to which he calls us. For that reason, do not sit still. Go, in his power, and live like children of the day.
Zabel, E. (2014). Abiding in the Vine. In J. D. Barry & R. Van Noord (Eds.), Moment with God: A Devotional on Every Biblical Book. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.