Religious Lifestyle or Living Relationship?

1 Peter 3:15 instructs us as Christians to always be prepared to share the reason for the hope we have in Jesus Christ – in other words, to be ready whenever the opportunity arises to share our personal testimony of how we came to know Christ. I especially like the New Living Translation wording of this verse.

“… you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.”

During recent weeks, our iConnect Bible study class members have been taking turns sharing our personal testimonies of how we came to know Christ. The goal has been for each of us to prepare and share a brief, two to three minute testimony of our life before knowing Christ, how we came to know Him, and how receiving Christ as our Savior and Lord has changed how we live. Then, when God opens the door to  share this with someone who does not know Christ as their personal Savior we’ll be prepared to explain what God has done in our lives and what He is able and willing to do in their life.

This is my personal testimony.

I was born into a Christian family. My father and my mother had both accepted the Lord as their personal Savior at an old fashioned camp meeting revival before they were married, and by the time I came along over 20 years later, our family lived a Christian lifestyle.

Two of my earliest childhood memories are of my father sitting in his red leather rocker every morning before leaving for work reading his Bible, and of my mother kneeling beside her bed each night praying. And going to church was simply what we did – every time the doors were open. It was as much a part of my lifestyle as a child and teenager as going to school.

We attended a Methodist church that was at the end of the block where we lived, and I remember walking to the church early every Sunday morning. During the week, I also spent lots of time at the parsonage which was next door to the church, visiting with some of my best friends, our pastor’s daughter and another friend who lived next door.

My father was a deacon in our church, my older sister who still lived at home a children’s Sunday School teacher and choir member. And by the time I was in high school I was either working in the nursery or teaching the youngest class of children most Sundays.

When I went away to college in 1966, I continued to attend church. A large local Methodist church sent a bus to the campus to pick up students, and I seldom missed a Sunday.

When I graduated from college in 1970 and moved to the town north of Baltimore where I had a job teaching kindergarten, one of the first things I did after my roommate and I got unpacked and settled in an apartment was to start looking for a church. I found a nearby Methodist church and started attending. And this church is where my life changed.

At this church, my life changed when Christianity became more than a religious lifestyle. It became a relationship, a personal walk with Jesus Christ. It was in this church that I first understood that the only way to be a real part of God’s kingdom is by being born again. For the first time, I understood that my religious lifestyle wasn’t enough. I understood that my sin separates me from God, but that God had provided a way to bridge that gap.

Even though I had attended church all my life, even though I considered myself a Christian, for the first time in my life I recognized this wasn’t enough.

For the first time, I understood why Jesus had to die on the cross, and the steps I needed to take to benefit from His sacrifice.

  1. I now saw myself as a sinner who needed salvation.
  2. I understood that the just penalty for sin is death.
  3. I acknowledged that Jesus paid that penalty for me when He died on the cross.
  4. I recognized that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, one we accept by faith.
  5. I received that gift by faith, as I accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord. And I was born again – and since that day my life has never been the same.

My life as a new Christian began me down a new road, one that definitely hasn’t always been easy. But I’ve never regretted the decision I made so many years ago. Jesus has been with me, walking at my side, through every trial I’ve faced, and my relationship with Him has been my source of strength.

Do you have a similar story you can tell? If not, now is the time to take these same steps I took. Moving from religion to relationship has the power to transform your life.

If you’ve already received this free gift of salvation by faith, are you prepared to share the reason for the hope you have found in Christ Jesus? Have you taken the time to prayerfully prepare a brief testimony of the work of God in your life to bring you to salvation? Acts 1:8 says the Lord has called us to be His witnesses, to our Jerusalem (the city where we live), our Judea and Samaria (the area nearby), and to the ends of the earth. Are you prepared to be His witness whenever He opens the door for you to do so? If not, don’t wait another day to get ready.

 

God’s Purposes Will Be Accomplished!

I came across an interesting story today as I was preparing my lesson for this week’s Sunday school class, one that was such a good example of how God uses situations we see as negative to accomplish His purposes in our lives.

Chris, a rambunctious, athletic nine-year old was diagnosed with mononucleosis. His doctor ordered him to stay indoors for the entire summer, which was like a prison sentence for the young boy who was looking forward to Little League baseball, fishing trips, and bike rides.

Chris’s dad was a man of faith, and he resolved to find something good in the quarantine. He personally enjoyed playing a guitar, so he got one for Chris. Every morning, before he left for work, he taught young Chris a new chord or technique and told him to practice it all day. They soon learned that Chris had a knack for playing the guitar. By the end of the summer, Chris was playing Willie Nelson tunes and beginning to write some songs of his own. Within a few years he was leading worship in churches.

Today, he is regarded as the “most sung songwriter in the world.” I’m sure you’re familiar with some of his original songs – like “How Great is Our God” and “Good Good Father.” And God’s purpose in Chris Tomlin’s life may never have been fulfilled if God had not allowed him to be diagnosed with mononucleosis at age nine.

How Can I Say Thanks?

Entitlement. The “I deserve it” attitude: I deserve love. I deserve peace. I deserve comfort. I deserve an easier life. I deserve more help. I deserve happiness. I deserve it and I want it now.

No other quality so marks today’s culture. And no other quality so quickly destroys the attitude of gratitude we’ve been learning to purposefully choose during this study of Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth’s book Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy.

Do you see remnants of entitlement surface in your life from time to time? I know I do. During this past week, I’ve faced a daily battle to not give place to this destructive attitude that is so prevalent in our society. After accomplishing some major steps last week toward bringing closure to this season of loss after the November death of our son, I had high expectations that this week would be different, as we began moving forward into the future God is preparing our family for.

Instead, this has been another difficult week. I faced another outbreak of the stress-related hives that begin in early December that has made me miserable physically. Now that the medical equipment and supplies were no longer blocking my access to David’s room, it was time to start sorting through all of his personal things, which was difficult emotionally. Instead of the hoped for closure, it’s just seemed like more of the same trials. I’ve battled such thoughts as “I deserve an easier life,” and “I’m tired of waiting for _ _ _ _ to be done,” and even “it’s not fair that the rest of my family gets to eat this dessert but I can’t without blowing my diet.”

To choose an attitude of gratitude often begins by kicking an attitude of entitlement out of our lives. So how do we get over an “I deserve it” attitude? By recognizing God has already given us more that we could ever ask or imagine. and humbly thanking Him for His amazing goodness toward us as His adopted children. Humble gratefulness toward God and the people He has placed in our lives is the key to overcoming an attitude of entitlement.

The chapter we are reading this week in our study of this book on the grace of gratitude is filled with some practical ways of putting to death an attitude of entitlement and replacing it with a true spirit of gratitude. True gratitude is so much more than walking through the motions or completing a list of things we feel obligated to do. Genuine gratitude is the natural outflow of a truly grateful heart. It is a change of lifestyle.

So how do we cultivate a heart and lifestyle of gratitude? What are some practical ways to turn away from a heart rooted in entitlement and develop a heart and lifestyle of gratitude? Nancy lists several in this chapter.

  1. Speak it aloud. Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Gratitude “begs to be expressed, both to God and to others.” Or as author Gladys Berthe Stern said, “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone. Spoken words of thankfulness have the power to dissipate a spirit of heaviness in the lives of those around us (Isaiah 61:3).
  2. Sing it out. “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” (Psalms‬ ‭30:4)‬ ‭ Whether you have natural musical talent or the best you can do is “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 98:4), music is a powerful means of expressing gratitude to God for His goodness to us.
  3. Kneel down. “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6) Kneeling before God symbolizes worship and honor to God. Kneeling during prayer or worship is a sign of humility, by it we humble ourselves before Him and recognize Him as Lord. Romans 14:11 says the time will come when, “every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” As believers in Christ, we are encouraged to do that now as a part of our gratitude to God.
  4. ‭‭Privately and publicly. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” (Psalm‬ ‭57:9‬) Gratitude should be expressed everywhere, and at every opportunity, both privately before the Lord and publicly before others.
  5. When and where. Just as the ways to express gratitude are varied, the times and places where it is appropriate are unlimited. While definitely a part of celebrations and holidays (“holy days” or even secular holidays), each day presents us with opportunities for giving thanks. 1 Chronicles 23:30 says praise and giving thanks are to be offered every morning and at evening. Daniel taught by example the discipline of giving thanks three times a day. Psalm 119:62 says, “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.” And to make sure we know that gratefulness and praise are always appropriate, Psalm 34 begins with these words, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

“Of Whiners and Worshipers”

Frances Jane Crosby, better known as Fanny Crosby, prolific writer of over eight thousand hymns including such well know classics as Blessed Assurance and Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross, wrote the following in her autobiography concerning how she became blind as an infant and her response to this misfortune.

“When I was six weeks of age a slight cold caused an inflammation of the eyes, which appeared to demand the attention of the family physician; but he not being at home, a stranger was called. He recommended the use of hot poultices, which ultimately destroyed the sense of sight. When this sad misfortune became known throughout our neighborhood, the unfortunate man thought it best to leave; and we never heard of him again. But I have not for a moment, in more than eighty-five years, felt a spark of resentment against him because I have always believed from my youth to this very moment that the good Lord, in his infinite mercy, by this means consecrated me to the work that I am still permitted to do.”

If anyone has a “right” to feel resentful and whine, it was Fanny Crosby. Yet as a young child she decided this was not the life she wanted to live. Her first recorded poetry, written at age eight, reflected this decision.

The message from the life of Fanny Crosby is clear. Whether we will be a whiner or a worshiper is a decision we must make for ourselves. No one else can do it for us. No matter what circumstances we are currently facing, we can choose the highway of worship and gratefulness. Or we can choose the path of whining and ungratefulness

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth begins this week’s chapter by sharing that life often requires us to make a choice of which path we will walk, using Fanny Crosby as an example. This is where I personally was when I sat down Wednesday afternoon to write this post for today’s study.

Since early December, when we had the memorial service at our church for our son David, we have been working to bring closure to this season of our lives where grieving the loss of our son has never been far from our conscious thoughts. But one major task was still facing us, the actual burial of David’s remains. Since he was totally dependent upon us, David was eligible for burial in the plot where my husband and I will later be buried, at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Houston. But for that to happen, we needed a letter from his doctor confirming his level of dependence. Because of a change in doctors shortly before David passed away this was complicated, finally requiring us to go back to his longterm doctor who wrote the letter for us. We were recently able to get the needed letter and to schedule the internment of David’s remains for this Friday.

On Wednesday, as I sat down to prepare this post, I was struggling. My mind had been focused all day on the upcoming internment, and even though I’d spent time in God’s Word and prayer I was definitely not feeling grateful. The last thing I felt like doing was writing an article on choosing gratefulness. But I knew what needed to be done and chose to do it.

As I did some research on the life of Fanny Crosby for the introduction to the article, God began to change my focus back to where it needed to be. I was once again able to begin walking out the lesson we all are learning through this study, that there are times when we must go against our emotions to choose gratefulness.

The rest of this chapter gives contrasting portraits of these two ways of living. The author names six positive characteristics of a grateful person and the corresponding six negative qualities found in the lives of the ungrateful.

  1. A grateful person is a humble person, while ingratitude reveals a proud heart.
  2. A grateful heart is God-centered and others-conscious, while an ungrateful person is self-centered and self-conscious.
  3. A grateful heart is a full heart, while an unthankful heart is an empty one.
  4. People with grateful hearts are easily contented, while ungrateful people are subject to bitterness and discontent.
  5. A grateful heart will be revealed and expressed by thankful words, while an unthankful heart will manifest itself in murmuring and complaining.
  6. Thankful people are refreshing, life-giving springs, while unthankful people pull others down with them into the stagnant pools of their selfish, demanding, unhappy ways.

As Nancy shares these six characteristics of a grateful person and the opposites found in the lives of the ungrateful, she asks us to take assessment of our personal lives.

  • Do you more often manifest a humble, grateful spirit, or a proud, self-sufficient, ungrateful one?
  • Do you tend to be more focused on your own needs and feelings or on what you can do to minister to others and meet their needs?
  • Are you more likely to center your thoughts on what you have or on what you wish you had, on your blessings or on your unmet desires?
  • Are you content with what God has provided, or do you resent difficult circumstances or people and become upset when others fail to live up to your expectations?
  • Are your thoughts more focused on your blessings or your problems?
  • What impact does how you respond to the situations touching your life have on the lives of those around you?
  • When others spend time with you, do they leave feeling refreshed or even more drained than when they came?
  • Which kind of person are you? Which kind of person do you really want to be?

Take time today to ask yourself these questions. And if you don’t like what they reveal about your heart, recognize that only you can decide to make the needed changes.

But also remember God doesn’t call us to make the changes in our own strength. He has given us the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower us to both will and to do what pleases Him. Or as Philippians 2:13 says in the New Living Translation, “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”

  • Thanks… for Everything

    “What are you thankful for? Gratitude 101.”

    The message of this chapter is one that is usually shared around the Thanksgiving table, but Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth shares that she purposely waited until the back half of her book Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy to address this. The focus of this book is to present Christian gratitude, in contrast to what she speaks of as the “simple garden variety” gratitude.

    The first thing to understand concerning Christian gratitude is the importance of matching up the gift and the Giver. That has been a major goal of the earlier chapters in this book, to remind us of the truth of James 1:17, that every good and perfect gift ultimately comes from our heavenly Father, regardless of whose hands it passes through on the way to us.

    “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

    The underlying principle of Christian, God-centered gratitude is the goodness of our God. If we miss this truth, it’s like building a house directly on the ground, skipping the foundation. Christian gratitude is built on the foundation of the goodness of our God. And on this foundation, we can build a lifestyle of purposeful gratitude that won’t crumble the first time we face a difficult set of circumstances.

    Psalm 34:8 is a good verse to memorize about this attribute of God.

    “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

    Nancy says, “My desire is simply to free us to experience and express more of God’s goodness, and to keep us from grieving His Spirit by failing to recognize and express appreciation for the benefits we have received from Him and from others.”

    How often do you look at the practical blessings that surround you daily and see them as a reminder of God’s goodness and boundless grace? Reminders that He cares for us and provides for our every need?

    Let’s close this week’s lesson by a time of practicing gratitude to God in each of the three specific areas covered in this chapter. Grab a journal or notebook and let’s take fifteen minutes of practicing gratitude in these three areas.

    This exercise is to enable us to see how many things we truly have to give thanks for. As the songwriter put it:

    “Count your blessings, name them one by one,

    And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”

     

      The first area mentioned includes the visible, material blessings the Lord gives us (pages 113 – top of 114). Take time now to get out your Gratitude Journal and make a list of as many of these as you can think of in five minutes.
      Next, she writes of our spiritual blessings, giving a few examples on pages 114 – the top of page 119. How many spiritual blessings can you think of in five minutes?
      Finally, she writes about relational blessing, on pages 119 – 121. Take another five minutes and make your own list.

    Let’s close today with a song that reminds us we’ve “been blessed beyond all measure.”

    A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

    Charles Spurgeon, a nineteenth century British pastor, was well acquainted with suffering. Debilitating gout, rheumatism, neuropathy, kidney inflammation, painful slander, recurring depression – all were a part of his life. Yet in physical, spiritual and emotional suffering, Spurgeon chose to trust God’s heart. He said concerning the suffering that touched his life:

    God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.

    “Our infirmities become the black velvet on which the diamond of God’s love glitters all the more brightly.”

    Many of those who read my blog posts have been diagnosed with a wide variety of chronic illnesses. If you fall into this group, you too are well acquainted with suffering. Even if you don’t deal with the daily challenges of chronic illness, you still likely have your own story of suffering. We all long for days when suffering will no longer be a part of our lives. Unfortunately, suffering, pain, illness, sorrow, and death – all are a part of life on this earth which is under the curse of sin.

    Revelation 21:4 speaks of a time when this will no longer be true, when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” While as Christians we have this to look forward to, it is a future hope, one that will be fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth. Life on this earth will never be totally free of suffering for any of us.

    As the introductory quote for this chapter says, giving thanks for trials of all kinds – for suffering, for pain, for loneliness, for loss of loved ones, for unkind words spoken to us that hurt deeply – is “a very difficult duty.” Yet this is what the Lord asks of us. Giving thanks to God in the midst of our difficult circumstances is our declaration to those around us and to the spiritual forces of wickedness that God is good, no matter what happens.

    Scripture clearly calls for us to give thanks even when to do so is a sacrifice.

    “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High… The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” Psalm‬ ‭50:14, 23‬ ‭‬

    Gratitude is costly. It is a sacrifice. It is something we admire in the live of those we see as spiritual “superheroes” – people like Joni Eareckson Tada or Elisabeth Elliot or Corrie ten Boom. But as Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth says, “The capacity to respond to adversity with faith and gratitude is not limited to spiritual ‘superheroes’ and biblical characters.” We too have been given the ability to “endure the worst life has to offer and still come up ” thankful.” And when we chose to do this, we glorify God and experience His salvation and deliverance.

    Sometimes, when we choose a grateful attitude, God’s will is to change our situation. Other times, His will isn’t to change our circumstances but instead to change us in the midst of the situation we would love to see changed. Ultimately, anything that reminds us of our need for God is, in the truest sense, a blessing. While an attitude of gratitude doesn’t always result in a change in our situation, it does put us in a position to experience the good God has for us in the midst of the difficulties that touch our lives.

    Nancy concludes, “the only thing more debilitating than what they’re going through” – than what we’re going through – “would be going through it ungratefully.” Those who say “No” to resentment and ingratitude, who look for the evidence of God’s goodness even in the presence of excruciating pain and incredible loss, are the ones who survive and even thrive spiritually. Will you choose to be one who says “Yes” to a walk of gratefulness and trust that God is good, no matter what you are currently facing?

    Peace In Tough Situations

    My devotional reading this morning in Breaking Free Day By Day, by Beth Moore, began with the following question.

    “Have you had a time when you were surrendered to Christ in the midst of real difficulty and you found His peace beyond understanding?”

    This immediately brought to mind the day in November 2018 when I was in a small room in the emergency center of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Houston Medical Center. We had already been told that our son David was in critical condition, and while the medical staff was doing their best to stabilize him, his private duty nurse and supported home living aide and I were taken to a nearby room to wait. As I sat in that room, it became a sanctuary of God’s presence. The Lord clearly spoke to me that He was ready to take our son to heaven to be with Him. The words brought no fear, no fight, simply a deep willingness to surrender our precious son to the Lord.

    For years, as we battled through one life-threatening situation after another in David’s life, I had dreaded the time when God would take him home. Even in recent years, fear of David’s death had been my biggest source of anxiety. Yet as we faced the time of surrendering our special-needs son to the Lord, there was no fear, no dread.

    Concerning situations such as this one, Beth Moore said:

    “When we are in crisis and finally give up trying to discover all the answers to the whys in our lives, His unexpected peace washes over us like a summer rain… Peace comes only in situations that are completely surrendered to the sovereign authority of Christ.”

    Elisabeth Elliot said in the deepest valleys we walk through, we gain the deepest insights about our God. This deep valley has taught me much about God’s peace. The Greek word translated peace, as used in Philippians 4:7, refers to the sense of rest and contentment that comes from living in harmony with God, accomplished through the gospel.

    As I read this brief devotional this morning, my eyes were opened to truth of why God spoke to me that day in the hospital. God was not asking my permission to take David home, I already knew that. In reality, He was inviting me to walk through this very painful situation in His peace. Through surrender to His clearly revealed will, I’ve walked through one of the most painful seasons in my life with a deep sense of peace. Yes, we miss our son. Yes, we have grieved his loss. But if I had to find one phrase to characterize these last four months it would be supernatural peace, that peace spoken of in Philippians 4:7 that makes no sense in the natural, that surpasses our human understanding and is a gift from God.