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Cultivating a bible study routine

I’m a snacker.

I eat a good breakfast and a healthy evening meal, but I don’t really do lunch. Instead, throughout the day, I graze my way through whatever snacks are within reach—crisps, chocolate, cookies, cake. Consequently, by the evening my body is crying out for some real nourishment. Snacking offers instant relief from hunger, but it’s not long-lasting. It doesn’t truly satisfy. What my body really needs is a good, healthy meal.

It’s easy to have a snacking approach to bible reading, but quickly skimming over a couple of verses or a favourite Psalm in the morning isn’t going to keep us spiritually nourished and sustained for the long term. We need more.

For many of us, life is busy and we often feel over-stretched. I don’t want to compound any feelings of guilt you may have about not spending enough time reading the bible. But I do want to encourage each of us to make the most of the time we have. And that means replacing some of our snacks with a hearty meal.

If we want to get to know God better through his word, we will need to spend some time feasting on it—digging below the surface, asking questions, meditating on the truths we uncover, delighting in the God who reveals himself to us, and letting his word renew our minds and transform our lives (Romans 12:2).

That might sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need a seminary degree to learn how to feed your soul well. You can begin right now—at home. Here are 4 steps to help you get started.

Pray… for desire and discipline

The two biggest obstacles to regular bible study are a lack of desire and a lack of discipline. We can’t overcome these obstacles in our own strength, so we need to pray. First, we need to ask God to awaken our hearts to love him more and desire to meet him in his word. And then we need to pray for the discipline to make time, open our bibles, and get started.

I have a friend who feels uncomfortable praying for a desire to study the bible. She feels that she should naturally be enthusiastic about it—and that God must be offended when she isn’t. But God knows us intimately—he understands our thoughts, feelings, desires (and lack of them) far better than we understand ourselves. And so we can confess our lack of desire to him and ask him to redirect our hearts so that we will want to know him more deeply through his word.

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3)

Pray that God will make you hungry for his word, but don’t wait for desire before you get started. I have often found that discipline fosters delight. As I discipline myself to study—even when I don’t feel like it—I begin to enjoy it more. My feelings catch up with my habits.

We also need to pray for discipline to study. There are so many demands and distractions that will keep us from opening our bibles if we let them. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to guard our time in the word. Why not look through your calendar at the beginning of each week and schedule in your bible study time—just like you would any other important appointment. Then pray for the discipline to keep that appointment. Of course, unexpected things crop up that genuinely need attending to, but, as far as you’re able, try to guard your study time and be disciplined to use it for study—not scrolling!

Plan

Whether you’ve got 10 minutes or an hour, your bible study time will be more fruitful if you have a plan.

Start by planning what you will study. Rather than jumping from one passage to another, choose one portion of scripture to feast on over several days or weeks. Lingering longer in one place will give you time to understand it more fully and let its truth take root in your heart. Start with a small portion: a New Testament letter, such as Colossians; or an Old Testament narrative, like Jonah. Plan to read through the text regularly so you become familiar with it.

Be realistic. If you’re in a particularly busy season, plan just one session each week for longer study but aim to read some or all of the text on the other days. That way, you’ll be able to reflect regularly on what you’re learning. You could also listen to it on an audio bible app while you’re driving. Don’t feel discouraged if you only manage to read a few verses some days—it will still do you good. Not all of our physical meals are spectacular feasts but they still nourish us. In the same way, these times of repetitive reading and reflection will feed our souls and help us become more familiar with the portion of scripture we’re studying.

Write out some simple questions that you can ask as you read through the text (I have these written on a card in the front of my bible):

What does it say? (Specifically, what does it teach about God?)

What does it mean?

So what? (How should I respond?)

For your longer study times, you may find it helpful to have some more detailed questions prepared—especially for your first study in a particular book/letter:

What genre of writing is this (narrative, history, prophecy, letter, etc)?

Who is writing?

Why are they writing—what is the context?

Where does this fit in the big bible story?

What is the main point the author is making?

You may want to use a study bible, commentary or online bible tool to help you answer some of those questions, but you’ll be able to work some of it out as you read and re-read the text and look up any cross-references given.

It’s also helpful to plan some accountability for your study times. Tell a friend what you’re planning to study and invite her to ask you how it’s going and what you’re learning. This will help you to be disciplined in keeping to your schedule, and encourage you to persevere as you see your progress. Your friend may decide to study the same bible passages so you can reflect on them together.

Prepare… to meet God

There are some practical things we need to do as we prepare to study. We’ll want to find a place to study, gather our bible, notebook, pens, and any study materials we’re using. But we also need to prepare our hearts and minds for something extraordinary. Because as we get ready to study his word, God is ready to meet us in it.

Jesus is with us as we open its pages. His Spirit is ready to guide our minds into understanding and our hearts into obedience. We may sometimes be unenthusiastic or half-hearted as we approach God’s word, but he is always whole-hearted and enthusiastic in his desire to meet with us. Isn’t that astonishing? The God who spoke stars and solar systems into existence is ready and eager to speak to you and I through his word. He wants to reveal more of himself to us—so we can know him in deeper, richer and fuller ways than we thought possible.

So as we approach bible study we want to prepare to encounter him. If I’m honest, I don’t always open my bible with this expectation. Sometimes the familiarity of the habit inhibits my sense of wonder and anticipation. I’ve found it helpful to pray, with the Psalmist:

“Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of your law…Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” Psalm 119: 18, 37

Praying like this before opening my bible reminds me of the joy and privilege that awaits me. It redirects my attention away from the trivial and toward the eternal. It refocuses my gaze from myself to my Saviour.

Practise!

Bible study takes diligence and patience. Some passages are hard to understand—and even harder to apply. The rewards aren’t always instant, but it’s worth persevering. And, as with any habit, it becomes more natural the more we practise, so don’t be discouraged if you find it hard at first.

Remember the goal of bible study: to know and enjoy our majestic, holy God, and to be transformed into the likeness of his Son—bearing fruit that will last into eternity. Anticipating this delight should spur us on to persevere when study seems hard or when distractions press in.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

(This article was first published at Servants of Grace)

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An Invitation to Extraordinary Hospitality

Oh no! You’re not going to tell us we need to have more people round for dinner, are you?

That was my friend Debbie’s response when I told her that I was writing a book about hospitality. I was surprised: Debbie is a fantastic cook, confident and outgoing, and always seems to have people staying in her home. But even she evidently feels over-burdened and exhausted by the idea of hospitality.

I have felt like that too.

One low point came after a particularly long morning at church. I had arrived early to practise with the band, played for the service, had long conversations with a few people I knew were struggling, prayed with a couple of others, and was now trying—unsuccessfully—to extract my kids so we could get home. A well-meaning woman drew me aside and suggested that I think about having more people round for lunch on Sundays. She was concerned that my husband had been the pastor of our church for a couple of years and there were people we still hadn’t had over. Yes, I had small children, worked part-time and was involved in several different ministries; but another local pastor’s wife always had ten people over for Sunday lunch, she pointed out, while I only ever seemed to invite a few at a time. I went home feeling guilty, discouraged and exhausted. The idea of hospitality had become a burden.

A few years later, I was teaching on the New Testament qualifications for church leaders (in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). As we noted that an elder must be hospitable, I found myself asking, Does Paul really mean: “His wife (if he has one) must be great at cooking for loads of people?” What if he doesn’t marry? What if he marries a wife who struggles with anxiety or depression—or an eating disorder? What if he suffers with those things himself? What if he lives in a tiny flat with no dining table? What if he’s an introvert? What if…?

It is not just church leaders: the Bible calls all followers of Jesus to “practise hospitality”, regardless of marital status, salary or house size—and to do it “without grumbling” (Romans 12 v 13; 1 Peter 4 v 9). But nowhere does it talk about tableware or traybakes. Neither does it link hospitality with expense, exhaustion or an extroverted personality. So I don’t want to do that either. I want to show that hospitality doesn’t have to be exhausting and overwhelming. And that is because it is not so much about what we do, but why we do it.

I want to invite you to join me on a journey, learning to welcome like Jesus does. You won’t need a large house or a dining table that seats eight—Jesus never hosted a fancy dinner party! You won’t need a big food budget or lots of free time. You won’t even need to be especially outgoing or confident. You just need to delight in God’s welcome and desire to reflect it to those around you.

I imagine that, like me, and like Debbie, you feel very ordinary. I don’t want to persuade you otherwise—we are ordinary. But our God is extraordinary. He invites us to reflect him in ordinary places to ordinary people—and he can do extraordinary things through us as we do.

(This is an extract from the introduction of my new book, Extraordinary Hospitality (for ordinary people): 7 ways to welcome like Jesus. You can read the complete introduction here.)

 

 

 

 

Hospitality in lockdown?

My book, Extraordinary Hospitality (for Ordinary People), is released in a couple of months. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned while writing it, so it was great to be interviewed by Sarah Dargue for her blog. She asked,

What does it look like to develop a hospitable heart, amidst the restrictions, tiers and unending limbo we find ourselves in? Where have you been challenged and encouraged in this, and how could this limbo season be used for God’s glory?

Here’s my answer:

If it’s true that we become what we behold, the key is to lift our gaze from our own fears, frustrations and failings, and onto our God. As we reflect more deeply on his incredible generosity and compassion in welcoming us into his family, our hearts will be more tender towards others who need that same welcome. As we contemplate Jesus’ sacrifice for us, we will be more willing to embrace the inconvenience of trying to do that – even as we struggle with restrictions and uncertainties.

I have been especially challenged during this season to look for ways to offer friendship to those who live alone or who are especially anxious about the virus. Lockdown life has been exhausting, and it’s tempting for me to hide myself away and enjoy some solitude (I am an introvert!). But when I reflect on Jesus’ earthly ministry and, in particular, his compassion for the hurting and helpless, I am moved to reflect that in small ways as I have opportunity. I have also been encouraged by the example of church family members who have faithfully and persistently pursued those who are on the fringes of church life. Their willingness to spend time calling, messaging, and extending love to people they are not especially close to – and who may otherwise be left out – has spurred me on when I am weary and reluctant to sacrifice my time and energy on behalf of others.

I wonder if we’ll be surprised at the fruit we see from this season. It’s tempting to believe that God is most glorified through big, impressive acts of service rather than in small acts of kindness and welcome. But Jesus calls us to everyday faithfulness – to serve the people he has placed us with, using the gifts and opportunities he gives us. As we look and pray for ways to share his generous, compassionate heart through simple words of encouragement and ordinary acts of kindness, he is glorified. 

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

You can read the script of the full interview here.

Extraordinary Hospitality (for Ordinary People): Seven Ways to Welcome Like Jesus is released on April 1st, and is available for pre-order here

Top 5 books of 2020

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One of my goals for this year was to read less. I have not been successful.

To be clear, it’s not that I no longer enjoy reading. I just felt towards the end of last year that I was consuming too much to be able to process properly. I wanted to create more space to reflect and respond to what I read. But it’s hard to break habits. And there was lockdown!

So I have continued to read widely and voraciously. And, because other activities have been suspended, I have also taken time to thoughtfully apply what I’ve read.

I have tried to focus most of my non-fiction reading on specific areas of discipleship I want to grow in and issues I want to think through. I’ve appreciated the way various books have complemented each other and given me a broader perspective on some topics. And it’s always a joy to stumble across writers whose work is new to me. His testimonies, my heritage was particularly helpful in this regard.

This year’s favourite biographies/autobiographies are Born again this way by Rachel Gilson, and Fierce Convictions: The extraordinary life of Hannah More by Karen Swallow Prior. I’ve read a wide range of fiction, including some new-to-me authors, but my focus during the first part of the year was on the stories of African-American slaves – I am recommending a few of those below. Although upsetting to read, this is history we can’t ignore. Mother to Son by Jasmine Holmes (recommended below) is a helpful read for those wishing to understand some of the tensions, fears and heartaches our brothers and sisters of colour continue to experience – even in the church.

I’ve read several short, popular commentaries this year. Among my favourites is Destiny by David Gibson. I couldn’t quite fit it into the top 5 books, but it’s a highly recommended walk through the book of Ecclesiastes.

December’s Books: Top 5 books of 2020

  1. The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley
  2. His Testimonies, My Heritage edited by Kristie Anyabwile
  3. Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne
  4. Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel
  5. Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortland

The Common Rule: Habits of purpose for an age of distraction

common ruleI read several books about habits last year but didn’t discover this one until a few months ago – it was recommended by a few writers I enjoy. It’s easy to become over-busy, anxious and stressed as the demands of modern life and distractions of social media compete with our soul’s desire for rest and freedom. Justin Earley offers 4 daily and 4 weekly habits designed to reorient our hearts and minds towards the life of love and peace we were created for. Each habit is simple, ordinary and realistic – for example, spending an hour each day away from the phone, or a weekly conversation with a friend. But these simple practices form a pathway to personal transformation and deeper intimacy with God and neighbour.  “Rule” implies restriction but, rightly applied, these habits are gifts that push us towards a richer enjoyment of life rather than resigned endurance. This is a book I’ll be returning to often.

His Testimonies, My Heritage

heritage29 reflections on Psalm 119 written by a diverse group of exceptionally gifted women – what a treat! This book is filled with wisdom, insight and honest conversation from godly women whose unique voices and experiences blend together beautifully as they offer praise to our great God. I love Psalm 119 and read it often, but reading through the eyes of these sisters, I saw things I have never seen before. I was moved by many of the personal stories the authors shared, but much more by the glory of the God they point to as they reflect on his word. It is humbling to witness the unwavering faith, certain hope and deep joy of women who cling to God’s promises through trials and suffering.  It is a privilege to learn from them. This book will refresh and encourage weary hearts, and gently lead them back to the life-giving word of God. (And it’s not just for women!)

Union with Christ: The way to know and enjoy God

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I LOVE this book! It was always going to be a delight to think more deeply about the doctrine of Union with Christ, but Rankin Wilbourne applies this glorious truth to the questions, concerns and struggles of daily life with a lively and infectious enthusiasm that both excited and surprised me. His writing is clear and practical, engaging and tender. He writes with a pastor’s heart, showing his readers how the ideal Christian life portrayed in the New Testament really can be a present day reality. Those who have not previously considered the implications of Union with Christ will be stunned by how many aspects of life (all, really) are impacted by this truth. Those who have spent years contemplating the doctrine will be thrilled to discover again, in fresh ways, the wonder of this mystery.

Surprised by Paradox: The promise of And in an either-or world

paradoxJen Pollock Michel is one of my favourite writers. She thinks deeply and communicates clearly. Every sentence is beautifully crafted. I loved her previous two books so waited with anticipation for this one. I was not disappointed. With warmth and wisdom that is typical in her writing, Jen Michel invites her readers to embrace the mysteries of faith – the wonders that cannot be reduced and squeezed into human categories. To make peace with the tensions of kingdom life. As she works through the biblical themes of incarnation, kingdom, grace and lament, Jen shows the beauty and richness of a both . . . and faith. She inspires delight in the unanswerable. She leads us into greater awe and worship of the God who transcends our understanding. 

Gentle and Lowly: The heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers

gentleI know everyone is recommending this book, but there’s a reason why. Dane Ortland offers a work that is both deep and accessible, truth-filled and tender, inspiring and comforting. Starting with Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:19, and drawing heavily on Puritan writings, he aims to take his readers into the heart of Christ. To show how gentle, compassionate, patient and inviting he is. How tender-hearted towards his beloved brothers and sisters. How eager to forgive and welcome and comfort. These precious and beautiful truths are presented in language befitting of them. Dane Ortland is a skilled writer – he uses words and images that engage the heart as well as inform the mind. Reading this book was a deeply worshipful experience for me. It’s impossible to read it attentively and not be encouraged, refreshed and wowed by the heart of our Saviour. It’s definitely one to read slowly – and then read again and again!

Further recommendations from this year’s reading:

Destiny: Learning to live by preparing to die by David Gibson

None Greater: The undomesticated attributes of God by Matthew Barrett

Worthy: Celebrating the value of women by Elyse Fitzpatrick & Eric Schumacher

Beautifully Distinct edited by Trillia Newbell

Habits for our holiness by Philip Nation (I know, another book about habit!)

Humble Calvinism by Jeff Medders

Seeing green: Don’t let envy colour your joy by Tilly Dillehay

Together through the storms by Jeff & Sarah Walton

As kingfishers catch fire by Eugene Peterson

Mother to Son by Jasmine Holmes

Born again this way by Rachel Gilson

Fierce Convictions: the extraordinary life of Hannah More by Karen swallow Prior

Love big, be well by Winn Collier

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Incidents in the life of a slave girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs

Uncle Tom’s cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

12 years a slave by Solomon Northup

Continue reading “Top 5 books of 2020”

An Advent carol

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It’s officially Advent, so it seems appropriate to share my favourite Advent carol. Written in 1744 by Charles Wesley, it’s a prayer based on words from Haggai 2:7. 

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. 

Wesley was concerned about the class divide in Britain during the 18th Century and, in particular, the desperate situation of the orphans living in poverty around him. Reflecting on the prophet Haggai’s words, he wrote a prayer which he later adapted into a hymn:

Come, O long-expected Jesus, 
come to set your people free!
From our fears and sins release us, 
Christ, in whom our rest shall be. 

Israel’s strength and consolation, 
born salvation to impart; 
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart. 

Born your people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King;
born to reign in us for ever,
now your gracious kingdom bring.

By your own eternal Spirit,
rule in all our hearts alone;
by your all-sufficient merit
raise us to your glorious throne. 

As we sing these words, we enter into the hopeful longing of faithful Israelites – waiting for the Messiah to come and bring freedom from the burden of sin and rest from their enemies. The promised King who would come to deliver his people and rule over them with righteousness and justice.

But we also sing as those who, having been delivered from sin, still wait with hopeful longing for the final return of our King and the consummation of his kingdom. For release from the consequences of sin that still burden us. For an end to all oppression and injustice that, like Wesley, we witness in our communities and throughout the world. We wait for true rest, unending joy and eternal peace. 

And as we wait, we pray for the King to reign in us by his Spirit. To rule our hearts so that we will be agents of rest and joy and peace to those still burdened by sin and oppression. 

Create or Consume?

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A few weeks ago I listened to a conversation between Dan Darling and Jonathan Rogers in which they talked about the tension between consuming and creating. To create something beautiful – whether it’s words, music, art or anything else – necessarily involves a degree of consumption. Ideas are mostly inspired and shaped by what we see, hear or experience. It’s often seeing or hearing what others have produced that inspires creativity of our own.

Humans need to consume because we are not God. We are not all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-present, so we need to hear and learn from those who know more than we do. But, as Dan Darling says, part of being an image-bearer means that we can’t always consume. We must also create. This is how we image a creative God. We don’t simply consume creation; we cultivate it. We create new things with it. It’s helpful – even necessary – to read, listen and absorb promiscuously (to adapt a phrase from Karen Swallow Prior), but there has to be a point where we stop consuming and start creating.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I completed a book manuscript a few months ago and, for a while, I’ve felt depleted of any creative thought. The juice has run dry. I have no words left to share. I understand this is not unusual, and I’m happy to take some time to feed my thoughts and imagination with input from others. But at some point, I need to output again.

This is harder than ever in our social media-saturated age where every App feeds the temptation to consume. Faced with endless opportunities to discover, learn and gather information, we take in more than we can begin to process. Output slows until we’re almost standing still, exhausted by endless input.

As I try to rebuild some creative rhythm, Jonathan Rogers is helpful:

“The internet should be an interruption to work, not the other way round.”

In other words, creating is the norm; consumption a short interruption to aid the work. I’m still thinking about what this should look like for me, but I’m trying to be more aware of how much I consume compared to what I produce. Today that’s looked like putting the commentaries away and actually writing my bible study. Other times it’s meant turning off Spotify or YouTube and practising my own arrangements on the piano.

The activity of creation is much harder than the passivity of consumption. But there is joy and satisfaction in imaging our Creator God as we cultivate the gifts he has given and walk in the works he has prepared (Ephesians 2:10). Our goal is worship. In all our creativity, we seek to worship God ourselves, and reflect his goodness to others so they might worship him too. Remembering this goal is a powerful motivation to create rather than consume.

So perhaps there’ll be more on the blog this season. And maybe you’ll join me in looking for ways to reflect our creative God each day.

Introducing Jesus (from Colossians)

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A couple of years ago I memorised the book of Colossians. It’s a short letter but it is packed with rich truths that both encourage me and spur me on to love Jesus and his church with all my heart. One of the things I especially love about this letter is that it is so full of Christ. He is the answer to every question, worry or doubt the Colossian believers may have faced. And he is the answer to ours too.

Below are some of the ways Jesus is described in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Why not take some time this weekend to meditate on our Saviour and praise him for who he is?

Jesus Christ is:

  • the Son of God, loved by him
  • the image of the invisible God
  • the firstborn over all creation
  • the creator of all things: in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, thrones, powers, rulers and authorities
  • the one all things were created for
  • the one who is before all things
  • the one in whom all things hold together
  • the head of the church, his body
  • the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead
  • the one who reconciles us to God
  • the mystery of God
  • the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge
  • our Lord
  • the fullness of the deity in a body
  • the head over every power and authority
  • the one who has triumphed over the powers and authorities
  • seated at the right hand of God
  • our life!

5 short books

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I enjoy reading long books – I like to get fully immersed in a writer’s thoughts and feelings. I’m always a little sad to get to the end of a really well-written book – whether it’s a book about theology or discipleship, or a novel in which not very much happens. I have a friend who will not touch a long book. For her, reading is a chore rather than a treat, so I’m trying to encourage her to read short books that will encourage her heart but not feel burdensome.

Short books can offer a good introduction into a topic for those who don’t want to get lost in all the details. Some manage to be comprehensive – all that needs to be said is said in a few short chapters. Here are a few of my favourite short books. All stand alone – no additional reading is required to engage with the topics. Perhaps you’ll have time this summer to try one or two.


July’s Books: 5 short books

  1. Before you open your Bible by Matt Smethurst
  2. The freedom of self-forgetfulness by Tim Keller
  3. Enjoy your prayer life by Mike Reeves
  4. Heaven, how I got here by Collin Smith
  5. The everyday gospel by Tim Chester

 

Before you open your bible: Nine heart postures for approaching God’s word

bibleIf you struggle to read your bible with joy and anticipation, if your bible reading has become dry or routine, let Matt Smethurst help you. In short, easy-to-read chapters, he teaches us how to approach God’s word rightly – with hearts and minds that are prepared to hear and respond to God’s voice. This book is fresh, creative and packed with practical wisdom. Matt works through nine heart postures we should adopt before reading the bible, but these are not intimidating, or time-consuming. Rather, they lead us to read with expectancy and wonder. They help us connect with the bible in deep and thoughtful ways. They draw us into its truth and prepare us to be transformed by it. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you only read one from this list, make it this one!


The freedom of self-forgetfulness: The path to true Christian joy

freedomDo you ever worry about what people think of you? I’d guess most of us do to some extent. Whether it’s a fear of under-performing in work or ministry, under-achieving academically, or under-whelming those we want to impress, it’s easy to be driven by fear. These fears often result in self-focus and introspection rather than joyful serving. Tim Keller’s solution is the gospel: “When a heart is truly captured by the gospel, the result is a life that is transformed from self-focused to one that is self-forgetful.” In this short, practical book he shows how the gospel grows humility and frees us to think of ourselves less – and others more. It frees us to care more about people – not just their opinion of us. And it leads to great joy.


Enjoy your prayer life

EnjoyPrayerThis is not a guilt-inducing book. Rather, it is a refreshing reminder of the privilege of communicating with a loving Father whose favour is not increased or diminished by our consistency or confidence in prayer. Mike Reeves is honest about the problem of our prayerlessness. He identifies a false thinking: prayer is something we must do rather than something we can enjoy. And he shows how our prayer life reveals how we think and feel about God – how much we depend on him, how much we delight to be in a relationship with him. But, while it’s challenging to face up to our prayerlessness, this is a hope-filled book. Prayer is an expression of faith in Christ, so the way to grow in prayer is to look at him. Mike helps his readers to do just that. In particular, he reminds us how Jesus prayed. “Prayer is learning to enjoy what Jesus has always enjoyed.”


Heaven, how I got here: The story of the thief on the cross

heavenCollin Smith is a great communicator, and this is a great book. It records the story of the hours leading up to the crucifixion, written from the perspective of the thief who died next to Jesus and was reunited with him in heaven.  Collin writes in a dramatic, compelling style. Even though I have read the crucifixion accounts hundreds of times I was gripped by this biblically-informed imaginative retelling. More significantly, I was overwhelmed by the extravagant grace of God. The crucified thief is proof that salvation is not earned – either by good works already done or the promise of future faithfulness. Jesus’ offer of life is for all who will come to him – he will turn no one away. This is an encouraging read for Christians, and an ideal book to give to unbelieving friends. I have bought a copy for my neighbour.


The everyday gospel: A theology of washing the dishes

gospelThere are hundreds of ordinary activities we engage in every day – from food shopping to folding laundry, driving to work to drying dishes. How does the gospel impact these daily tasks?  In a few short chapters, Tim Chester shows his readers how the everyday moments are opportunities to both serve Jesus and share Jesus. There should be no divide between the sacred and secular parts of our lives; each moment can be holy when the Holy Spirit infuses them with the presence of Jesus. We can reflect God and point to his goodness and grace as we work in the very ordinary spaces of life. And we can find joy in the most mundane activities when they are done out of love for God and love for others. This book will encourage you – even as you wash the dishes.


Further recommendations:

The glories of God’s love by Milton Vincent

True Friendship by Vaughan Roberts

5 things to pray in a global crisis by Rachel Jones (& all the books in this series)

Can I really trust the bible by Barry Cooper

Why bother with church by Sam Allberry

Keeping the heart by John Flavel

Enough by Helen Roseveare

Unbreakable by Andrew Wilson

Where was God when that happened? by Christopher Ash

God of Word by John Woodhouse

A tale of three kings by Gene Edwards

Suffering and singing by John Hindley

The joy of service by Julian Hardyman

You don’t get your own personal Jesus by J. D. Greear

And so to bed… by Adrian Reynolds

The yellow wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (just because I’ve read it recently and found it both fascinating and disturbing in equal measure)

Continue reading “5 short books”

Debts cancelled!

brown wooden cross

Writing my book has left little time for regular blogging here, but it’s almost finished so I hope to be more active again. In the meantime, here’s a short devotional piece I wrote for Servants of Grace last week.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:13-14

If a friend asked you to summarise the heart of the gospel message what would you say? Paul does it here in two verses. He reminds the Colossian believers—and us—of our condition before God intervened. Then he stuns us with a detailed account of God’s work on our behalf.

Paul reminds us that before God saved us we were dead. We didn’t realise it—just like our friends and neighbours don’t realise that they are dead. Our hands and feet moved, our vital organs functioned, and blood flowed through our veins. But our souls were dead. Dead in sin and dead because of sin. We were dead not only as a result of specific sins we had done but also because of our sinful nature—the natural disposition which prompts us to sin. It’s an unflattering truth but one we must face if we are to truly grasp the immense and glorious change that God has brought about. We were once dead—but now we are alive! This is a miracle only God, the divine surgeon, could perform. Through Christ’s death we have been brought to life. Life in all its fullness.

This is reason enough to celebrate but there is more. Paul reminds us that we have not only been raised from death to life, but we have also been delivered from the guilt of our sin. Our guilt was like a record of debt—a debt we owed God because of our rebellion against his rightful rule. The more we sinned, the greater our debt became. And the record of our debt stood against us—it testified to our guilt. But Christ took this record of our debt on himself. It was charged to him—and he made the payment by his death on the cross. The record itself has been nailed to the cross along with Christ. The document that condemned us has been taken away. God has put it out of sight—forever!

We are now free from guilt and the sentence of death has been lifted. The record of our debt can no longer condemn us. God has forgiven all our sins—the long list of every sin we have ever done or will ever do. And because our sin has been removed from us, nothing stands in the way of worship. There is nothing we need to do to make ourselves—or our worship—acceptable to God. He has done it all. We can now sing with confidence:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

(This article was first published at Servants of Grace)

Remaining in Christ

abstract dew fresh garden

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2: 6-7

It’s easy to be impressed with people who seem to have it all together. I can think of Christian leaders I have admired because of their charismatic personalities, creative presentations and clear perspectives on issues that I had to wrestle with. But, sadly, it’s not uncommon to hear of the moral failure or serious character flaws of such leaders. They may have appeared to be credible, but they have been shown up to be frauds.

The believers in Colossae were in danger of being impressed by people who appeared wise and knowledgeable, and who claimed to know how to attain a deeper spirituality than the Colossian Christians. Paul wants to protect the Colossians from being tempted away from the gospel by these people. As we have seen, he reminds them of the glorious gospel they have received, the supremacy of Jesus, and his sufficiency to supply all their spiritual needs.

Verses 6 and 7 of chapter 2 summarise Paul’s teaching in the rest of the letter. Those who have received Jesus Christ as Lord must learn to live under his Lordship. We have been saved through Christ’s death, and given life in him. We must now continue to live out our new life in him.

Firstly, Paul reminds his readers that they—and we—have received Christ Jesus as Lord. Receiving Christ is more than simply accepting him. It means receiving the teaching about him—the “true message of the gospel that has come to you” (Colossians 1:5-6). It means acknowledging him as the one who fulfils all the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament; agreeing that he is the only way of salvation; submitting to him as Lord and King—the ultimate authority over our lives. If we want to stay spiritually safe, if we don’t want to be swayed by false teaching or seduced by sin, we must continue in the same way we were saved—in Christ.

What does this mean? Paul tells us in verse 7.

We must remain rooted in Christ

Like a plant whose roots are embedded in good, rich soil, so our roots must be embedded in the good soil of Christ himself. Only then will we grow and mature. Only then will we be secure. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5). As the life of the vine flows into its branches, so the life of Christ flows into those who are in him. The deeper our roots in Christ, the more fruitful our lives will be.

We must be built up in Christ

Paul switches metaphors from a plant to a building. He’s making the point that being rooted—or planted—in Christ is not enough; the Christian life is about growing up in him. God’s people are being built, together, to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2: 22). Our foundation is Christ—we are rooted in him. And our lives must be spent becoming a building worthy of such a great foundation. We don’t do this on our own, but together with our new family.

We must be strengthened in the faith

The Colossian believers may have been tempted to move on—or graduate—from the gospel they had received into a more mystical faith. But Paul wants them to remember what they have been taught. For the Christian, growing up doesn’t mean moving on. It means becoming more secure and confident in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must not “move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Colossians 1:23), but continue in it, “as you were taught.” This doesn’t mean just increasing in our knowledge of Christ; it means growing in trust and dependence on him. It means growing in our love for him.

We must be overflowing with thankfulness

Gratitude is a key weapon in our war against wandering. And gratitude is also a mark of our spiritual health. Like a spiritual thermometer, it indicates how healthy we are. A lack of gratitude reflects a heart that has forgotten the grace of Christ and the privilege of being “in him.” When we forget who he is and what it means to be in him, we are vulnerable to being pulled away from him. But when we treasure him as our King, and live in joyful submission to his rule, we will not be tempted to exchange the delight of being in him for lesser glory.

Jesus is a perfect Saviour. He has done everything necessary to atone for every sin. Just as we have received him as Lord, we must continue “in him.”

(This article was first published at Servants of Grace)