Podcasts

Four Tools & “What Bible Should I Use?” for Spiritual Journaling

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For the last few weeks we’ve been talking about the making the daily reading of the Bible a foundational part of building our relationship with God.

Last week we talked about two traps that we need to avoid before we start doing those. I said that since this is a relationship, there is no “right way” or “easy way” to do it. It’s going to be different and special for each of us as God meets us in unique ways – but it’s going to take work and practice and we will be blessed if we learn some methods from others about how to build this relationship. Then we can take those methods and adapt them to our own needs.

Today we are going to talk about one way of connecting with God, which is my way. I call it “Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide.” (It’s not a very catchy title, but it is accurate!) It isn’t unique or remarkable in any way since people have been doing it for generations, but it’s the way I’ve been doing it for a while now. It’s certainly not the only way to meet God, but it is something that has been working for me and I believe can work for others. Again, if you don’t know where to start, then feel free to copy what I do. But I also encourage you to learn from it, adapt it, and make it yours. Are you ready?

An Overview

Let me start with an overview of what it’s all about, and then we can get into the specifics.

You’ve no doubt heard of “journaling”. A lot of people keep a “journal” or a “diary”, which is by definition, “a daily record of news and events of a personal nature.” This is your classic “Dear Diary… today I did this, saw that, thought this and experienced this.”

Some people do this every night and give a breakdown of their days events. Others make a journal of special events, like their pregnancy or a special trip or vacation.

What I’m talking about is similar, but different. It’s not a journal, it’s a “Spiritual Journal.” In other words, it’s not merely a “daily record” of the events of your life, but a record of what is going on inside your soul. In this journal you are not talking to your diary, yourself, or even to your future self, but instead you are writing down your conversations with God.

It’s not a “prayer journal” either. A prayer journal works a lot like a letter you write to God where you start with a little reflection of how you feel, then write a prayer, and keep track of the answers that you receive. Those are great, but what I’m going to describe is different than that.

Each word that you write is part of a prayer, but it’s not a one way note. It’s a conversation between you and God, focusing on what is going on in your heart and in your life and then interacting with God as He talks to you using scripture. That’s why I call it “Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide”. This isn’t a free-flowing, off the top of your head, whatever you feel like saying, prayer – it’s a conversation. That’s the most important thing to remember, and the most powerful part of this method to me – that it’s not a one way talk, like so many of our prayers, but a conversation with God.

The Tools

I will explain more about what that means later, but first, I want to get intensely practical and talk about what you need in order to do this.

1. A Plan

New JournalThe first thing you’ll need is a plan for where and when you’ll do this. I’m not going to repeat last week’s sermon about making plans, but you do need to decide where and when you are going to be. For me, the “where” is at my desk and the “when” is “whenever I get to my desk.”

I don’t wake up in the morning and run straight to my desk, it just doesn’t work with my family. So I wake up, have breakfast the family and tea with my wife, and then I toddle downstairs to start my day. The first thing I do when I get there is set my keyboard aside, stick on my isolation headphones, turn on some classical music or jazz, and then get my journal and my Bible.

But there are some days where I have meeting in the morning, my family needs something, or I get interrupted. If that’s the case I come back to my desk later in the afternoon. I’ve tried to be religious about keeping an exact time, but it’s never worked for very long. For me, I’m most consistent when I say, “When I get to my desk, the first thing I will do is spend time with God and His Word. No e-mail, no Facebook, no work, no nothin’ until after my devos are done.”

You need to figure out where and when works for you.

2. A Pencil or Pen that Flows Well & a Highlighter

Second, you need a pencil or a pen that flows well and a highlighter.

I always, always write in pencil. I have a special pencil I use, which is an “F”, not an “HB”, and I manually sharpen it with a special sharpener. That allows me to write smaller and clearer than with a pen, make scratch notes in my bible (and erase them if I make a mistake). I find a pencil works better for me, but if you are a pen person, then go ahead. My encouragement is to be consistent with it, keep the same one, find one that flows and doesn’t distract you.

Get a nice highlighter, something bright – I recommend bright yellow – or a few colours if you have some kind of a system or just like pretty colours. Then when God speaks to you, you can make it stand out and write something down beside it so you remember what He said. This method is all about being able to interact with the scriptures and see your conversation with God

 

3. A Composition Book

The third thing you’ll need is what they call a “Composition Book”, commonly used by writers and students to take notes. You’ve seen these everywhere. They have a marbled cover with a blank label on the front. You can get them for only a dollar from the dollar store, but they do make more expensive ones with better binding.

The reason I highly recommend this style of journal is because it is a little smaller than an 8.5×11 sheet – so you don’t feel so daunted by all the white-space, but still has the right margins. What you are really looking for are the proper margins. I’ll explain why next week, but it’s the key to this whole system.

 4. A Bible

Fourth, you’ll need a Bible. The immediate question is “which one?” My immediate answer is “whichever one you want”, but let me answer a few questions to help you decide. This is where we’ll spend the majority of our time today because I think it’s important we all understand why there are different kinds Bibles and which one to choose.

What Translation?

There are around 50 English versions of the Bible available today, and each one has its fans and detractors, so question one is usually “What translation should I use?” As one website I read this week said, “The fact that there are so many English Bible translations is both a blessing and a problem. It is a blessing in that the Word of God is available to anyone who needs it in an easy-to-understand, accurate translation. It is a problem in that the different translations can create controversy and problems in Bible studies, teaching situations, etc. The differences between the translations can also be a subject of great division within the church body.”

I completely agree, so here are a few questions to ask when choosing which Bible to use. Now remember, you’re not doing a “Bible Study” where you need to compare various translations, get out your concordance and do word studies. You’re just looking for a good translation which you can enjoy reading and through which God can speak to you.

“Word for Word”, “Thought for Thought”, or “Paraphrase”?

Each has their own merit. Some people want a “word for word” translation like the (New) King James Bible, The English Standard Version, New American Standard, Revised Standard, or the Amplified Bible. These translations try their best to translate the Hebrew and Greek words into the closest corresponding English word possible. Consequently you have a more “accurate” translation, but it often uses uncommon words, is harder to understand, and doesn’t flow as nicely when reading.

Others prefer a “thought for thought” translation like the New International Version, New Living Translation, New Century Version, or the Holman Christian Standard Bible. These versions try to help the English reader understand what the words mean. They still shoot for technical accuracy in the words they use, but the translators take a few more liberties with interpretation because they use colloquial (every-day conversational) language and create sentences and paragraphs that are easier to understand.

Some people criticize these versions for not being “word for word” (and therefore accuse them of being “wrong”) but they aren’t meant to be. They have a different goal. The writing style flows much better, they are easier to read, make hard theological concepts easier to understand, and are more accessible to younger ages and people with reading disabilities.

The third type of translation called a “paraphrase”. These are special versions of the Bible that aren’t meant to be for study, but to bring a new and fresh perspective to what these verses mean. These are versions like The Message Bible, The Living Bible, The New International Readers Version, The Contemporary English Version, and The Good News Bible. These translations aren’t trying to be word for word accurate, but capture the spirit of the chapter or verse in a poetic or striking way that opens up the reader to grasp the big-picture of God’s Story.

These bibles are often given to children or new believers because they are the most like the popular reading that they are used to, and have a more simplistic or imaginative style.

Let me give you an example of these different translations:

Here’s Romans 3:23-25 from the English Standard Version, which is “Word for Word”:

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

Here’s the exact same verses from the New Living Translation which is “Thought for Thought”. You’ll notice it’s a lot longer because the translators are trying to get express some big, theological concepts with everyday words:

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past…”

Now, here’s the same passage from a Paraphrase called “The Message” written by Pastor and Author, Eugene Peterson. You’ll see it’s very different, but it still captures the same idea – only more poetically. In fact, the Message Bible doesn’t even use verses because the author is often overlapping concepts from one verse to another. Here’s what he says:

“Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public—to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured.”

So, when you’re choosing a Bible translation, choose one that you are comfortable reading, which meets your needs, and that you can enjoy. If you’re used to the KJV, you understand it, and it’s close to your heart, then go for it. For others, using the KJV would be a terrible idea because they wouldn’t understand it!

I would say this though. If you are looking to reconnect with God, or want to experience him speaking to you through His word in a new way, try reading a different translation of the Bible. If you are just starting to read the bible, and you have good reading skills, I recommend a “thought for thought” translation. If you are not used to reading, then choose the Contemporary English Version or the Good News Bible. You’ll learn lots and enjoy the read.

If you always use a “word for word”, then grab a “thought for thought” or “paraphrase” version which will help you read familiar verses in a new light. And in the same way, if your regular bible is a “thought for thought” version, then try a “word for word” version.

Choosing the right translation for your needs could be the spark you need to bring life and reconnect you to God’s word and help you have that spiritual conversation with him in your journal.

Study Bible, Devotional Bible or “Just the Text”?

There’s a lot to consider here, so let’s go through them.

ESV Study Bible

A Study Bible is a bible that has notes and cross-references surrounding the text that help you understand what’s happening in each verse, link you to other parts of the Bible, explain concepts, and often have illustrations to visualize what you are reading. They are meant to be used as an all-in-one help so you grow deeper in your understanding of scripture.  I think every Christian should have a good Study Bible, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for them to use during their Spiritual Journaling time.

A Devotional Bible usually doesn’t have notes and cross-references, but concentrates on themes throughout the bible like marriage, leadership, women’s issues, addiction recovery, or a million other issues. You can get devotional bibles by famous Christian authors, or that are designed to be interesting to children, or teen boys and girls.

Real Life Devotional Bible for Women

Devotional Bibles have their place, but for the system I’m use, I suggest you avoid them because you tend to be reading someone else’s reflections and conversations with God rather than having one of your own. They’re not explaining what the Bible says (like a Study Bible) but ask leading questions and give explanations about their given theme.

Then there are bibles that have only the text. These are easy to find and fairly inexpensive. You can also get a “Reference Bible” which has no notes (or minimal notes) but does give you cross-references in case you want to find the same theme somewhere else in the bible. Or, some publishers are coming out with “Readers Bibles” which strip everything out except the text.

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My NIV Study BIble

Personally, I use an NIV Study Bible because it is an easy to read translation, and when I get stuck on something I don’t understand, I can read the little note and it helps me. Otherwise I get bugged by not knowing what I just read. Having that little explanatory note helps me to get past a hurdle in my mind, and get back to my conversation with God.

For other people, the study notes might be distracting because they contain way too much information to process, or they draw you into studying the verses rather than having a conversation with God about them. Remember, this isn’t Bible Study – that comes at other times – this is Spiritual Journaling with Scripture as your Guide.

My suggestion is that you try it for a while with a Study Bible and if you don’t like it, to get one without any extra notes in them. The important thing is to find one that speaks in a language that you can understand and where God’s Word is the primary voice – not someone else’s.

Tune in Next Time

Ok, that’s enough for today. Next week I want to look at how to set up your bible to get a balanced scriptural diet, the reason why journaling is important, and the actual technique of using scripture as your guide to what you are going to say to God and then listening to what He wants to say to you.

Two Traps to Avoid in Your Daily Time with God

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Podcast Audio:

In the last three weeks we have been talking about the making the daily reading of God’s Word the core part of our lives – the foundation of our relationship with God. We’ve said that God’s Word, the Bible, is our umbilical cord to Jesus.

We started with looking at the Parable of the Four Soils and which was a story Jesus told about how receptive our hearts are to hearing the voice of God. God is speaking all over the place, and makes His voice available, but the condition of our heart can make it so that we completely miss hearing Him.

Next we talked about the problem that our hearts are so messed up that not even we know what’s going on inside them most of the time. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). And the solution to that problem was to cultivate desperation for the presence and the power of God that comes through knowing Jesus as our personal Savior and reading His word.

Last week we talked about how the Holy Spirit uses our daily Bible reading, not only to connect us to Jesus, but to give us a road-map of what is going on inside our hearts. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)The living and active word of God is the living and active Jesus! The voice we read in the bible is the very voice of God speaking to us every day.

Today we are going to start to get practical. I’ve already covered the problems that come with not reading our Bibles, and hopefully I’ve made a case for why we need to be in proactive in our daily bible reading and spiritual discipleship process. That, without coming to Jesus for our daily spiritual bread, we will spiritually starve. And so today I’m going to begin to share with you a practical guide to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture.

Let’s talk about some traps first. These are some of the thoughts that cripple us before we ever get started and I want to address them first.

Trap 1: There is a “Right Way”

The first trap is believing that there is a “right way” to do this. I’ve known people (and I’ve struggled with this myself) who don’t do daily devotions, never journal, and rarely read their Bibles because they never really feel like they’re doing it “right”.

Maybe you’ve felt this? You feel God saying that you and He need to spend more time together. You get inspired to go deeper with God. So what do you do? You look for a way to do that. But how does one “go deeper with God”?

You think, “Maybe I should get a book that teaches me how to do this?” – but you get stuck on which book. There are like a million books on how to connect to God. So you put it off until you can get some advice on which book to pick. Someone says, “just read the bible!” And you think, Ok”, I’ll do that.”

But now you need to find a good time. Do you do it early in the morning? Nah, you’ll never stay awake? Before bed? No, tried that and always ended up putting it off. During lunch? That worked for a couple days, but it was hard to stay consistent.

You think, “Well, maybe I’ll just fit it in when I go to the bathroom and have nothing better to do – and I’ll call my time in the shower my prayer time!” But that makes you feel guilty and never really fills your spiritual tanks. So you get frustrated.

Ever been there? I have. It’s easy to give up when you feel like you’re always failing in what you are doing, that it never gets any better, and that you’re always letting God down.

Avoiding Trap 1 – A: Remember Relationship

So let me share with you a couple of ways to avoid this trap of having to do it the “right way”.

First, remember that this is a personal relationship, not a meeting. A lot of people treat their relationship with God the way they would treat their boss. Check in once or twice a day to make sure that everything’s ok, but then get back to working by themselves. That’s not a relationship. I like what Rick Warren says in the Purpose Driven Life:

“Because God is with you all the time, no place is any closer to God than the place where you are right now.”

That’s why we are encouraged in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Jesus wouldn’t ask you to do this if it was impossible — or if He was unwilling to help you.

What I’m going to share with you over the next while is a method for how to start your day with God, but that doesn’t mean when you walk away from your Bible that Jesus leaves you alone.

Let me quote one more thing from Rick Warren that I appreciated.

“The key to friendship with God, he said, is not changing what you do, but changing your attitude toward what you do. What you normally do for yourself, you begin doing for God, whether it is eating, bathing, working, relaxing, or taking out the trash.… This is God’s ideal. In Eden, worship was not an event to attend, but a perpetual attitude; Adam and Eve were in constant communion with God. Since God is with you all the time, no place is any closer to God than the place where you are right now.”

So even if you can’t finish the whole thing, or if it’s happening at odd times during the day, or you miss a day, or you don’t know where to start, or you’re not feeling it. Just start with something and continue in the presence of God that day.

Ask God for forgiveness – again – that you didn’t plan properly, that your flesh is weak, and then make time to do it later that day. Remember the story of Jesus who was on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter when a woman who had been suffering for 12 years snuck up behind him and touched his cloak and was healed. Did He just keep going? No, he stopped, looked down and sought her out to bless her. (Mark 5:21-34)

In the same way, Jesus is always available to us. He’s not too busy, and doesn’t mind if we mess up our schedule and then sneak some time with him later that day. It shows that our heart desires Him, and that’s a blessing and an act of worship.

I strongly believe that as you develop the habit of starting your devos – even if you don’t always finish them – that your priorities will shift, your hunger and desperation will grow, your desire to be with Him will grow, and you’ll find more and more time and desire to finish your Daily Devotions.

Don’t get stuck believing that if you can’t do it 100% right, then you won’t do it at all. I believe that’s a demonic trick when you hear the words, “Isn’t God worth more of your time? Doesn’t he want you to do this right? He doesn’t want you to rush through it. You should put it off until you can really do it right… maybe this evening… maybe tomorrow when you’re fresh. Maybe you should get a new journal… a different version of the bible… you shouldn’t do it on your phone because it’s not right… it doesn’t count if you’re at work…” That’s not God’s voice. His voice beckons you to come to Him, not to avoid Him until you can measure up. That’s not the gospel at all! That’s either your own perfectionism or the voice of Satan giving you an excuse to avoid the voice of God, habitual prayer and bible reading.

Avoiding Trap 1 – B: Learn, but Don’t Copy

The second way to avoid this trap is to avoid copying people exactly. That’s the problem with a lot of people’s devotional time, journaling technique, or Bible reading plan. It’s not their own.

This week, Anita wanted to take the kids on a bike-ride. Her bike and mine are almost exactly identical except mine is about 2 inches taller. She grabbed my bike because it had the trail-a-bike connector and thought she could ride it. It wasn’t too long before she realized that those two inches make the bike very uncomfortable for her and she had to switch over to her bike.

In the same way, someone else’s devotional method can be helpful to get you started – you can learn to ride on their bike – but that bike won’t fit you when you really want to get going. You’re going to need something custom made for you, your relationship with God, your schedule, your family structure, your proclivities and your needs.

I realize how ironic it is, to start by promising to teach you a method, and then say that you shouldn’t follow someone’s method. I think it’s important for us to learn from other people and adapt what they’ve done to our own use.

Learning from others has a lot of advantages. They can challenge you to do things you haven’t tried before (like reading the bible in a year or memorizing pieces of scripture). It can also solve problems that you don’t have a solution for (like learning a system for how to highlight things and take notes in your bible or a prayer format that helps you remember to include different aspects of talking to God (A.C.T.S. – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication)). It can give you a boost of encouragement when you need it and guide you to experience things you hadn’t before.

You do want to learn from them, but you don’t need to copy exactly what they do. Eventually, you need to personalize it.

How Do You Devo?

So, for fun, I asked some people to send me pictures and descriptions of what they do during their daily devotional time. My hope is that you will be inspired to see that there is no “right way” to pray and read your bible, but that God can meet us in different ways. (Some of these have been edited for length.)

SAMSUNG
Denis with his PK app

This is Denis’ method. He does his daily devotions using the Promise Keeper’s mobile app which gives access to daily scriptures, a devotional, articles and podcasts. He says, “It allows me to do my study no matter where I am.”

This is Andrew’s method. He says, “I need a ‘spot’ for it to happen. For me now, it’s [a] comfy chair in the corner of my office. No music or other distractions.” He says he starts by “clearing” his head then having a quick look at a couple verses on his iPad from the YouVersion and The Essential Jesus apps. He then does a bit of a bible study from his study bible, pray through the passages, pray about other things and “sometimes jot down a few key ‘learnings’ into a journal.” He says he’s “…been trying to live by the creed ‘no Bible, no breakfast’.”

Andrews “Spot”

Sue sent a picture of her own chair and says this about her method, “I’m reading Living Truth’s daily devotional called My Daily Journey with Christ. It gives me a great start to my day and I’m also doing the ‘read the bible in a year’ prompts from the same devotional. [Her husband and her] pray together before this and then we go off do our own thing separately.”

Charles says, “My devotional life takes place in two parts, namely, a personal time after the dog is walked and a joint time later in the day with my spouse. The two are quite different. The morning time is always in the same quiet place and at the same time each day. This avoids drifting away to other pursuits. I make detailed notes from the scripture passage for later use and review. Some of these notes actually seem fairly inspired on later reading. The evening session with spouse is also at the same time and place (though different from the morning one), but consists of a daily reading from the Bible and notes from a Scripture Press booklet…. Both sessions end with prayer.”

Jay says, “I tend to catch a sermon while I’m in the truck [on the way to and from work] and I read a book of the bible while on the john in the morning. Right now I’m in 1 Kings. I started in 1 Samuel and just kept going. I just finished Malachi in the truck and [my wife] and I are slowly doing James in the evenings. To be honest my prayer life is pathetic.”

Sue 1
Sues Chair

Doris describes her daily time with God this way: “I start my day with coffee time with [my husband], than after about an hour I go to my room where there is an old sofa facing a window.  I usually sit down comfortably and within arm’s reach is my Bible, concordance, journals, hymn books, and some other books. Most times, I start with prayer….. Sometimes, a thought would come into my mind, and I would think about it, (e.g. worship, idolatry) and then a verse will come and it expands my thinking on that topic…. Sometimes a song comes, sometimes a prayer, and I journal these in my book…. Since January, I am using the Bible League diary as my devo. [I] read the daily verse and follow the readings…. My Bible reading since March has been here and there and not following through a [reading plan]. I am finding that following through the book, no matter how long it takes, is more beneficial for me than jumping here and there….”

Each of these people is working out their faith in different ways, seeking God, struggling in some ways and growing in others. My hope is that we will all be encouraged to keep seeking God, learning from people, but also building that personal relationship with Jesus in a uniquely personal way.

Trap 2: Shortcutting it.

Now, let’s talk about the other side of the coin: the trap of shortcutting your time with God. I get that we are a busy culture, and I don’t want to preach a sermon on the sin of busyness, but we have to realize that Satan, the world and our flesh always wants us to take the easy road that leads to spiritual death.

There seems to be a lot of Christian authors trying to deal with society’s ever-filling schedule and ever-shrinking attention span by putting out books that can cut our devotional time down to only a few minutes. They take 365 key verses, put them in a cool font, write a couple sentences about it, and then a question to think about. There’s a plethora of daily verses, posters, and inspirational quotes that people are using as their sole source of devotional time with God.

I’m not going to slam these authors, because I think a lot of them are writing with the hopes of helping people get closer to Jesus, and they may have their place somewhere. I’m assuming that the thinking is that if they can make it easy, and people will see how wonderful even one minute with Jesus is, then they will grow into wanting more. However, that might be a little too much wishful thinking. I don’t think that the path of least resistance is the way to build any kind of spiritual muscle.

That’s something like feeding people candy and treats in hope that one day they will want to experience a fully prepared steak dinner. Or giving people couch exercises to do during commercial breaks while they watch TV and eat chips in hope that it will inspire them to turn off the TV and join a gym.

The problem is that the little bits don’t seem to inspire people, but instead they inoculate them. They think that they’ve done something. They’ve put in their time. They can tell themselves that they think about the verse all day – but they don’t. They can walk around feeling like did something holy, and that now God will get off their back. They can tell everyone that they do their devos, and even share them on social media so everyone can see that they did it.

But they’re not really growing. They’re not really being challenged to dig deeper. They’re not reading the verses in context. They aren’t being fed the full counsel of scripture. They are getting Tim-bits (doughnut holes)… tasty little bits that neither fill nor satisfy… and which eventually cause spiritual health problems.

Avoiding Trap 2: Make a Plan

So the solution to “shortcutting it” is to set a time, place and make a plan.

God is all about humble planning. What is humble planning? It means being diligent about organizing resources and preparing for the future, always realizing that God is the one who gives resources and who knows what is supposed to happen. Proverbs says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” (16:9) And it also says that a wicked man “dies for lack of discipline.” (5:23) It says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (3:5-6) but it also says, “…keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck.” (3:21-22)

Make a plan, be diligent and wise in your planning, but realize that it is God who sets the path at your feet. His plans are bigger than your plans. That’s one of the big reasons that you need to be listening to His voice in the first place – to find out what God wants you to be doing!

God’s Plan / My Plan

Solomon’s Temple from ESV Study Bible

A lot of Christians struggle with this idea of making a plan. Should we? Isn’t that presumptuous? I was really struck by 1 Chronicles 28 where David is making plans for the Temple. It’s an amazing back and forth between David’s plans and God’s plans.

Verse 2-3 says,

“Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood.’”

David made a plan to do something great, but God had other ideas, showed up in a special way and told him. David was listening and heard God’s voice. But keep reading.

Look at verse 9. It says “And you, Solomon my son…” Whose son? David’s.Then look at verse 10, “Be careful now, for the Lord has chosen you….” David chose his wives, even in sin with Bathsheba, and God chose the heir to the throne and the builder of the Temple.

Look at verse 11, “Then David gave Solomon his son the plan…” Who drew up the plans and gave them to the people who would build it? David. He drew up detailed plans on how it would look.

Now look at verse 19,

“All this he made clear to me in writing from the hand of the LORD, all the work to be done according to the plan.”

David plans and acts, God guides and directs. David listens to God and does his best planning. When he goes too far, God stops him. When there’s a decision to be made, David listens. That’s what we’re doing. Making plan, listening to God all the time for His “Yes” or “No”. Desiring to do something great in our heart, and build up our Spirit, and choosing a way to do it… but always remembering that it is the Spirit of God who inspires and makes the work of our hands great. The building of our Soul is a partnership between us and God. We make ourselves available, give him all our resources, work out our faith with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), and God directs the course of our life.

I think this works exactly the same in our devotional planning. So, as I said before, use someone else’s plan at first, or adapt a few for your own use. Get a bible reading plan, a journal, a pen, a study bible and then set a time / place that you will meet with God each day. You can even write it down.

“Every day, after I get up, I will grab a coffee, sit down with my bible at the table, and spend 10 minutes reading and 5 minutes praying.”(It doesn’t have to be exactly that. I can be whatever time works for you. I do recommend it’s the beginning of the day though. If we are to “put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18) every day, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put it on at the end of the day…)

Start with a plan, and then realize that God might change it up, that it might be wrong at first, and that things may have to be flexible for a while until you really sense what God wants to do with you. Make a plan and then adapt it. It took me years to hit a system that worked for me. Don’t be a Pharisee that locks down your man-made rules and makes them as important as God’s rules, but do have a plan. Don’t shortcut your time with God either. It’s not about how little you can do, but how to grow in Him so that His presence and voice inhabits your whole life.

So that’s a couple of the traps that we can fall in before we ever get started. Next week we’re going to look at the tools to use and get into the nitty-gritty of Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your guide.

Blogiversary Giveaway!

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Happy 2nd Blogiversary to me (and you)!

It was 2 years ago yesterday that I started blogging and I want to celebrate by having a giveaway! I scoured my library looking for something new and worth giving away and finally found it in RC Sproul’s 10 message CD series on Predestination from Ligonier Ministries. It’s brand new in the package (I had 2) and I guarantee you’ll get a lot out of it.

I’ll keep the entries open for the next two weeks and choose a winner on Friday May 30th, 2014 at 12pm EST.

UPDATE: CONTEST IS CLOSED. Congratulations to the winner, Jamie!

Here’s a video of the draw:

The Double Edged Sword – Why God’s Word is So Powerful

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Over the past couple of weeks we have talked about the importance of making the daily reading of scripture the core part of our lives, and the foundation of our relationship with God. This all started because I wanted to share a way that God has spoken to me through my devotional times. I’ve noticed that most Christians don’t have a daily devotional time with God – in prayer and Bible reading – and that breaks my heart because they don’t know what they are missing.

Christians in Crisis

I watch as believers run around chasing after foolish things, distracted by the world and frittering away their lives. I see them struggling with temptations, falling over and over, and not knowing what to do. They try will-power or setting up guards and traps for themselves, but it doesn’t work and they feel like spiritual failures all the time so they just give up and go home.

I watch Christian people come to church, but never really engage with the worship music or the fellowship of other believers. They come because something draws them, but they float 6 feet above everyone, seeing what is happening but never experiencing what it means to truly meet God, know Christ, or be part of a church.

I watch as marriages and families disintegrate around me because the men and women are selfish and weak, addicted to money or porn, don’t know how to work through their problems in a biblical way, and refuse to ask for help because they are afraid of what people will think of them. Their faith is crippled by feelings of hypocrisy and shallow faith.

I listen to other pastors who lament the lack of maturity of the Christians around them. There is an absolute vacuum of good, godly leaders and elders. We scratch our heads as people who have been believers for decades stagnate in their spiritual lives, increase in their acceptance of sin and heretical beliefs, and continue to ask basic questions that should have been settled long ago. They remind me of when Hebrews 5:12 says, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food…” Churches full of spiritual babies who never get any older as the years go by. Year after year, same immature problems, same immature beliefs.

Single women and fatherless children are crying out for good, godly, mature Christian men who will love them like Jesus – but can’t find any. Young men are looking for godly mentors to follow and a mission to give their lives to, but they aren’t finding it in the church of Jesus Christ. Churches pull further inward, afraid of the culture around them that they don’t understand or want to be a part of. Christians are in moral, theological, spiritual and relational crisis because Christians are far from Christ.

Come to Jesus

What can be done? The only thing I know that can be done is to push, pull, draw and drag people back to Jesus. He is the one who builds his church. He is the one who defends it. He knows what plans need to be taken up and what needs to be cut off. The Holy Spirit knows how to worship God best. He knows where we are to serve. He teaches us how to fix our eyes on God and fix our relationships with others. He deepens us in maturity and guides our spiritual discipleship process. He is the source of all that will repair our relationships, fix our hearts and restore our churches.

That’s why I’m so excited about this series, and why I believe the message is so very important. If the answer to everything we need for our individual, familial and corporate spiritual lives is found in Jesus, then we all need to know how to connect with Him.

Why isn’t everyone connecting to Jesus? Here’s a few reasons I’ve come up with.

Some because they don’t understand what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. They think that Christianity means being nice, avoiding fun, following rules and going to church. Just like we said during the study of the Four Soils, they don’t know Jesus personally.

Some don’t do it because they don’t want to. They have no desperation for Jesus. They are like the rich young man who believe they have done everything that is necessary to get to heaven, and don’t really need to spend time with Jesus. And when Jesus tells them to give something up in order to grow closer to him, they walk away sorrowful, not wanting to give up their worldly comfort.

And there are some don’t do it because they don’t know how it’s supposed to work. They’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. They get bored, distracted, and get nothing out of prayer or reading the Bible. They try for a while, but the world gets busy and they put it aside thinking that it’s not really for them. Maybe it’s for other types of people who like to read and write – not for them. They do have a desire to meet God, but it’s too hard – and they just don’t want to try anymore.

And each of these people is spiritual starving. They are not coming to Jesus for their daily spiritual bread, they don’t have the everlasting fountain of life within them, and so they are spiritually starving. So they try to fill their gap with other things – pleasure, pain, knowledge, stuff – but it never gives them what they need. Because it never gives them Jesus.

Salting the Oats

That’s why, for the first two weeks, I talked about evaluating the condition of our hearts and cultivating a desperation for him. I can’t make you want to read your bible and pray every day. All I can do is try to show you the condition of your heart, and then try to help you see the benefits of being with Jesus.

Someone once said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And the response is, “Sure… but you can salt the oats.” That’s what I’m trying to do before I give you a practical guide to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture. There’s a million different helps out there, but none of them mean anything if you don’t want them.

I want you to get a thirst for the presence and power of Jesus. I want you to see the depravity of your heart, the lack you have in your soul, the desperate need you have for a Saviour, to get a good look at your foolishness and your need for God’s wisdom. I want you to see the problems in your soul and want a solution. And I want you to know that the solution is a deep relationship with Jesus.

I’m not advocating a religious practice. I’m not pointing to an easy solution. I’m not giving you a bible verse, and this isn’t about ‘name it and claim it’ prayers. I want to share with you a way to know the One and True God, and trust and depend on Him for everything.

So, before I give you the practical guide, I want to do one more week of salting the oats. I want to tell you about this book that I’m pointing you to. I want you to see how different it is from all the other books in the world, and why it is important to read this one.

I’m not talking about reading books about the Bible – but to read the bible itself. Put down the moral story books and read the source of morality. Put down Christian authors who tell you what’s in the Bible and pick up the book written by the author of life. The Bible is alive, and has power unlike any other book ever written.

Our Umbilical Cord

Turn to Hebrews 4:12-13. If you recall last week I said that I want you to read this passage as a plea from a pastor to his people to be desperate for the word of God. That he wants his church to experience the presence of Jesus by experiencing the power of the Word of God, the Bible. He wants them to see the words of scripture as their umbilical cord, connecting them to Jesus. I also said, last week, that it’s not about reading your bible, but seeking and wanting the presence and the person of Jesus Christ. Here, in Hebrews 4 we see the scriptures and the Lord Jesus connected together. The Word of God is Jesus.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

What I want to do for the remainder of our time here is go through this passage and look at the words that are used to describe the Bible, the “Word of God”.

“Living”

Look at how it’s described in verse 12. “For the word of God is living and active…”

The word “Living” is the word ZAO, which is where we get our word Zoo, and it is used to describe life or living things. When a dead thing is given life, or something is fresh and strong, they are ZAO. It’s used of a fresh spring of running water. It’s alive and the source of life.

I want you to remember that the way the Bible is being described here is not the way we would describe words in a book, but as a living, breathing, personal being. These aren’t merely words on a page, but the active, alive, person of God – the very presence of Jesus.

Our interaction with the text is an interaction with God. As we read the words, it is not merely coming through our eyes and into our mind, but is the voice of God being spoken into our soul, our spirit, and our hearts. It is as though God is reading them to us. It’s as though Jesus was standing next to us, speaking in our ear the words we need to hear, reminding us of what He’s all about, what His plans are, how He sees you, and what His promises are.

This is why we talked about the importance of preparing and cultivating our hearts to be receptive to Him. He’s sowing seeds as we read… will they take root in our souls. This is why we talked about having desperation for His voice and presence. Do we care that He’s standing there, speaking the words of life? Are we thirsty for him? Do we realize that the words we are reading are Living words?

“Active”

The next descriptive word is “Active”. It’s the Greek word ENERGES from which we get the English word “Energy”. The Bible is Alive and full of Energy. It’s a word used to describe something that is powerful, effective, able to make things happen. It’s a word used to describe land that is good for crops, ready to accept seed, full of potential energy.

I studied physics in school and there are different forms of energy. There’s “potential energy” which describes something that has yet to move, but can. All it needs is something to convert the potential energy into some other form. The Bible is full of potential energy for anyone who would read it. And the moment we open it and read it with receptive hearts, that energy is converted into Kinetic energy – moving us closer to God and making us active in God’s will. It’s converted into Thermal energy – heating up our lukewarm hearts and making us lights unto the world.

These are the words of Jesus, the same one who could speak to the dead body of Lazarus, buried four days in a tomb, and command him to “Come out!” (John 11:43).

These are same living and active, powerful of Jesus, who was able to rebuke the storm by saying, “Peace! Be Still!” (Mark 4:39)

These are the words of Jesus who can look at a demon and say “Be Quiet! Come out of Him!” and they must obey (Luke 4:35)

Just as God is Living and Active, able to make things happen, so God’s Word is Living and Active, full of Energy to make us alive and calm the storms in our heart.

“Sharp”

The next word used to describe the word of God is “Sharp”.  It is “sharper than any two edged sword.” A sharp sword is a dangerous weapon, but this word describes something even more dangerous. This is the word TOMOS which doesn’t describe a cut from a sword blade, but the precise incision of a scalpel. It’s not the swing of a sword, or the stab of a dagger, but the keen and direct cut of a surgeon.

You see the word TOMOS at the end of surgical words like “appendectomy” (the removal of the appendix), or “hysterectomy” (the removal of the uterus) or “rhinectomy” (the removal of the nose). When a surgeon removes an exact thing (and no more) they do an -ectomy .

This is what the Bible does. It slices us open. In the context we see that this whole section is about the scriptures being “sharp”, “piercing” inside of us, and splitting us open so that the very “thoughts and intentions of our heart” can be seen.

Think of the story of King Josiah reading the book of the Law after it had been lost for so many years, and then discovered when they were rebuilding the Temple. It says,

“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. And the king commanded… saying, ‘Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’” (2 Kings 22:11-13)

After reading the word of God, King Josiah was taken apart and terrified by the judgment of God. It had revealed his disobedience and how far the people of God had fallen away from what God wanted. And it had revealed how God would punish. But it had also revealed how God would forgive His people when they turned back to Him so he calls to the priests, the government officials and the servants to get right with God!

This could be one reason that a lot of people avoid reading the Bible. For the same reason they don’t visit the doctor, or refuse to have an operation that could help them. They are afraid or they want to live in denial – and pretend they don’t have the problem.

Whenever they read the scriptures they feel the keen sting of God’s scalpel starting to cut open their chest to expose their hearts, and before God can go too deep, they close the book and tell God to go away. Sure, God’s going in there to cut out the cancer, to repair their heart, to remove the stones inside them, to cut out the dead flesh and restore life – but it hurts.

Jesus said it this way in John 15,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser (“Gardener” NIV). Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)

God’s word is sharp, like a scalpel, like a pair of pruning shears.

“Piercing”

The next word takes God’s surgery a little deeper. It says that the word of God is “piercing”. “Piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow”. The root of the Greek word is the word DIA which simply means to go “through” something, to penetrate it, to reach through something. We all know what a piercing is. It’s when people put metal through parts of their body. God is so exact in his cutting that he is able to exposes the very core of our being – he pierces through us.

One of my favourite uses of this word is to describe projectile or range weapons like arrows, javelins, slingshots or catapults that can be shot with precision into enemy lines. Today, we’d call them a sniper. God’s word cuts through the mess, gets around the rest, finds exactly what the problem is, and like a sniper, finds the thing that needs to die and kills it. No collateral damage, no accidents, no unnecessary casualties.

It says it is able to divide the separation of “joints and marrow”. Literally meaning the joint where the bones connect and the marrow inside the bones. God’s surgery doesn’t make mistakes. There’s no accidental cutting. His word hits the mark every time.

It says that God’s word is able to penetrate so deeply and so perfectly, that it can separate one’s “soul” (PSYCHE – our inner self, motives, personality, what makes us who we are) from their “spirit” (PNEUMA – their spiritual self, used of Holy Spirit and demons, that part which is inspired by God.) We can’t see the difference, and I can’t really explain it, but God can.

How does this work? Well, we can put on a good show, be religious at the right times, but when we are confronted by the Word of God, our true hearts are shown. Someone hears God’s word read or preached (or they read it themselves) and it hits them exactly where they needed to be hit. It exposes their sin, their hypocrisy, their depravity and the evil in their hearts. And they are forced to contend with it. To repent and accept forgiveness, or to harden their hearts and turn away.

Or, in the positive sense, God’s word is read or preached and it speaks exactly the words of comfort they needed to hear. They find the answer their soul has been looking for, the healing which they so desperately have desired.

That’s the power of God’s word, and I believe with all my being that when we are in the word every day, prayerfully reading and interacting with God through the text, that he pierces and divides us, speaks to the core of who we are, shows us our exact intentions, doesn’t sugar coat things – but tells us exactly what we need to hear that day. And he can do it with only a few words because those words are sharp as a scalpel, as powerful as a sniper.

“Discerning”

The final word used to describe God’s word is “Discerning”. It’s the Greek word KRITIKOS from which we get our English word “Critic”. It also means “judge”.

I would love to be a movie critic, and sometimes after watching a movie, I write little reviews on Facebook. A critic, whether for movies, music, wine, restaurants, consumer products, or whatever, is someone who is supposed to see things more deeply than the average person. They have more experience with more versions, and can tell you why something is empirically good or bad – and why. We depend on critics so that we don’t waste our time and money on worthless things, or so that we can set our expectations to the right level before we go somewhere.

God’s word is the ultimate and perfect critic. Because the Word of God is living, active, sharp and piercing, God uses it to “discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart.” God sees it, and the Bible shows it to us.

Remember last week when I said that our problem is that we don’t know our hearts? I read Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”. But the solution is that God does know our hearts, and that He gives us His word as a roadmap to our hearts. This is what I meant.

James 1:22-25 describes the word of God as being a mirror,

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

That’s a warning to us who read God’s word because it will show us who we are. This has happened to me so many times, I cannot tell you. I’ve even taken to circling them. I will start by writing out a concern, or a problem, or something that is bothering me, or a request, or a question – just something that is on my heart.

And over and over, as I read the words of God, He will open me up like a surgeon, pull out my heart, and then show it to me.

“This is what you got wrong there.”

“This is what you really meant.”

“This is what’s wrong with what you just said.”

“This is how I’m going to answer that prayer.”

In that moment, on that day, God speaks directly to me… and I can literally draw a line from my issue to God’s response. But there are so many days when I close the book, walk away, and forget the incredible thing that just happened! I forget that the God of the universe just spoke to me. And it shames me.

Perhaps you know this feeling too. You are reading scripture or listening to a bible teacher and God shows you what you are really thinking, feeling, and doing. He pulls out your ideas and desires and mental conversations and then shows you exactly what’s going on there. He replays them for you and then tells you exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.

He shows you that you are cultivating lust, or talking down to yourself, or are harboring bitterness or hatred, that you are being selfish and reinforcing bad behavior… in your mind… and he lifts the veil of your thoughts and shows you exactly what is happening in the background.

You start to pray, and you open the word, and he shows you your own intentions. He shows you what you were really thinking when you did that, why you really did it, and all the reasons behind it – that no one else really knew. He holds up a mirror to your very soul.

In this way He is softening your conscience and teaching you about yourself. He’s giving you a roadmap of your heart, a picture of who you really are. And it draws you closer to Him because you realize that you need Him to help you, save you, forgive you, change you, open you up and clean what is inside.

Where Can I Run?

Verse 13 of Hebrews 4 reminds us that

“…no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

For some, that nakedness brings nothing but shame and fear, so they close the book and refuse to open it. For others, being exposed to God is a comfort, knowing there is nothing between them, and that they are not hiding like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ashamed of their sin, but standing in the presence of their Creator, forgiven and unashamed. It is my prayer that you would run to God, that you would allow him to open you up every day, to do surgery on your heart every day, to bring you more and more healing every day – by reading and prayerfully interacting with His word.

Let’s close by reading Psalm 139, which is prayer to God thanking Him for His perfect knowledge.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you….

 Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting!

Cultivating Desperation for God’s Voice

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We’re continuing our sub-series in the Gospel of Mark which I’m simply calling “God Still Speaks”. Last week we talked about seeing the condition of our hearts, and how we have a responsibility to make sure we are not crowding out God’s voice with unrepentant sin or other things we are giving higher priority.

But there’s a problem, isn’t there? We look inside ourselves, and we see dry ground, or stony ground, or thorns taking up places where God’s Word should be – and we don’t know what to do about it! Half the time we don’t know what’s going on in our hearts, so we can’t make a decent diagnoses of what’s wrong, and certainly don’t know what to do to make changes.

Perhaps you felt that this week. You went home last week convicted, but looked inward and didn’t know where to start. Or you did try to do something different, but failed after a couple of days. It just didn’t work. Why?

The Problem: We Don’t Know Our Own Hearts

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Whenever you hear the word “heart” in a context like this, you need to read it as an all-encompassing phrase talking about our thought life, reasoning, wills, and emotions. It’s describing who we are on the insides, why we do what we do, how we make decisions, and how we set our priorities. The core of our being.

And our “hearts”, without the presence, power and guidance of God are messed up. They are “deceitful”, lying to us, tricking us like trying to drive on a crooked, bumpy, twisting, dark road. We don’t know what’s going on and never know when the next curve or crash is coming from.

And they are “desperately sick”, incurable by any human method. They are easily addicted, easily broken, and extremely weak. So, that being the case – that our hearts are twisted and dark, and are sick beyond help – how can we possibly understand what is going on in there.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. You sin and you wonder why you just did that! You knew better, you knew the consequences, and you did it anyway. And you think, “What’s wrong with me?” We are attracted to things that are harmful to us, and which hurt us – and we don’t even know why. We like things, but we’re not sure why we like them. We fall in love with someone, and have no real idea why that person attracted us. Or, we are attracted to people we don’t want to be attracted to, because they are harmful or because we are already committed elsewhere.

For no reason you can understand you find yourself crying, or angry, or lusting or afraid. You try to talk yourself out of it, but it doesn’t work. Depression sets in and no matter how hard you try, you can’t break free. You’ve tried to tell your heart to get with the program, cheer up, and get over it – but it won’t. And you feel trapped within yourself – hating your heart, fearing your heart, crushing your heart, and trying to turn it off so that it doesn’t cause any more problems.

And we look at our hearts and we think – “What is wrong with me? I don’t understand why I do what I’m doing. It’s like I don’t even have control of my own decisions. I feel like a ship tossed about on a stormy sea of my whims, emotions, desires, and fears.”

Then a counsellor sits across from you and asks, “Why did you do that?” And you think, “I have no idea! I just wanted to. It felt good for some reason. My brain said no, my spirit said no, but my feet and hands kept going. I don’t know what happened.”

God Knows Our Hearts

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” That’s the question. Jeremiah 17:10 gives us the answer, “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” We may not know what’s going on in there, but God does.

God is the perfect judge, and in order to be that, He is able to know what is happening inside the heart and the mind of every individual on earth. And He offers to us – who are struggling with understanding what is going on inside of us, our thought-life, motives, temptations, and all the rest – two important things: a new heart and a map of our heart.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 gives us a picture of what being saved by Jesus is like:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

When David comes to God to ask forgiveness of his sins he knows that the changing of a person’s heart can only happen by God’s power so he says,

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

In the New Testament, there were people wondering if Gentiles could be saved. Did Jesus really die for everyone in the world? The Apostle Peter said,

“And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:8-9)

God knows our hearts and cleanses our hearts when we put our faith in Him.

Paul says it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17,

“ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

That new creation includes a heart.

This isn’t something we do ourselves! The world teaches that we can “self-help”… but we can’t. The heart is still a mystery to us. In fact, most things are still a mystery to us. We like to think we’re so smart, scientific, enlightened and educated – but we’re still incredibly in the dark about most things in this world, under the earth, and the universe which surrounds us – and we are perhaps most ignorant of the inner workings of ourselves and our own hearts. The presence of evil still mystifies us. Why people would do anything good or self-sacrificing is still a wonder to us. And when we look inward at our own condition – we are even more confused about what’s going on in there.

God’s Word is a Map to the Human Heart

This is where the great gift of the Word of God comes in. When believers read the Bible, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their life, it shows them the condition of their hearts. God’s Word is like a map that explains what’s going on inside us.

Like a good doctor, it analyzes what’s going on in there and then explains it in language they can understand. And then, like a good doctor, it and then gives us access to what we need in order to make changes. Sometimes it means doing something simple like changing our habits or learning something about ourselves, and sometimes it means allowing God to do a complete overhaul of something that is completely broken in our life.

Cultivating Desperation

What I want to do today is build a case for why it is so critical for us to be in God’s Word every day – because it is the way by which we can know our own hearts, and the means by which God changes us. Now, please don’t tune out just yet.

I have no doubt that every person here would agree that they should be reading their bibles more, and probably every day. I’m not looking for intellectual assent to the idea of reading our bibles – I want to talk about the need for cultivating a desperation to experience the presence and the power of God by reading the scriptures. I’m talking about seeing our time in the Bible as more than an option – something to do when I feel like it – but more the way we see eating or breathing – absolutely necessary for life, and without which we starve and die. This is part of what Jesus meant when He said in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

This is what the Psalmist meant when he said,“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1-2). In Psalm 63:1 we read about how David felt when he was on the run, deep in the wilderness, far from God’s people and the reading of the Word of God. He said, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

How can we become desperate like that for presence of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, through the reading of God’s Word? I believe that it has to do with how we see the Bible.

More than a “Good Book”

Some Christians read the Bible – though not as many as used to, considering the articles I’ve been reading about how biblically illiterate most people are. A few Christians study their Bibles – which is good, because I’m a big believer in Bible Study. But I believe there are only a slim few Christians today who prayerfully read the Bible as God’s message to them every day. As I said last week, there are a lot of people who study God through His book, but there are precious few who listen to God as He speaks to them from His book.

Reading, studying and meditating on the scriptures has to be so much more than simply the reading of a good book – even “The Good Book”, or the pondering of great, godly thoughts. When we pick up our Bibles, we aren’t meant to be simply learning about God and storing up wise thoughts that will help us live out our life. What we are reading is more than just wonderful stories of good and bad, moral and immoral, faithful and unfaithful people that lived long ago, from whose lives we are meant to learn lessons. If those are the reasons you read your Bible – to ponder big ideas and learn morality– then you are missing the most important part of reading the Bible! You’re missing the fact that the scriptures are your connection to Jesus.

The prayerful reading and studying of scriptures is perhaps the most important way for us to connect to Jesus. We know Him, experience Him, understand Him, and hear his voice, when we read the Bible.

The Living and Active Word of God is the Living and Active Jesus

Let’s look at Hebrews 4:9-16. I want to study this passage in depth next week, but I want to read it for you today so you can, perhaps, hear it in a new way. Maybe you’ve read it before thinking that it’s talking about the importance of regular reading your bible every day, or going to a weekly bible study, but I want you to hear it again in a different way. I want you to hear it as a plea from a pastor to his people to be desperate for the word of God. He wants the church to experience the presence of Jesus by experiencing the power of the Word of God, the Bible. He wants them to see the words of scripture as their life line – their umbilical cord – connecting them to Jesus. Listen to how he builds his case…

“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (v 9-11)

Do you see that? In God there is rest. And the writer of Hebrews wants Christians to strive to enter that rest. He wants them not to make the mistakes of the people of Israel under Moses who refused to enter into the Promised Land because of fear, but to do everything they can to take hold of the promises of all the promises of scripture – peace, joy, love, purpose, heaven, eternity with Jesus. All of those things can be summarized in that one phrase: “Sabbath Rest for the people of God.” And that rest is available to everyone who believes in Him. But how do we “strive” to get that? How do we enter into that kind of rest? How do we avoid missing it by our disobedience?

 “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”(v 12-13)

We enter that rest, and connect to Jesus, through the Word of God. Not just reading it, not just studying it, but by allowing the Spirit of God, who is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, to change us through us experiencing, interacting with, submitting ourselves to the text. By submitting ourselves to the word and listening to what it says, we are submitting ourselves to Jesus and listening to what He says. And Jesus is always seeking to lead us closer to Him, closer to God, and into that Sabbath Rest.

The writer of Hebrews makes the connection obvious in the next verses as he shows that the “Sabbath Rest for the people of God” is connected to the “Word of God”, which is connected to the person of Jesus.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (v 14-16)

Do you see how our connection to scripture is our connection to Jesus – and He is our connection to reconciliation and peace with God? It’s all about connecting to Jesus and listening to Him through His word.

Jesus is the Answer

To you who are hungry for something greater than what this world offers, Jesus says,

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

To those who have tasted what this world is giving, who have been drinking from the temporal well and are always thirsty, Jesus says to you what Jesus said to the woman at the well,

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

To those who have felt the dryness of their hearts, who desperately need the healing rains to come down to their parched and gasping souls, Jesus stands up and cries out,

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)

To you who are weary of chasing the fleeting and useless things of this world. Who have amassed piles of garbage that you carry with you everywhere you go. Who have a weighed down soul full of burdens and cares, anxieties and fears, Jesus says,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)”

To you who are in the dark. Who live in the shadows of sin, who only crawl out to go to work or be somewhere you must be. Who live in the dark land of secret sin, always battling your private demons, never winning, and who have resigned themselves to living forever in the dark — Jesus says,

“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

To you who have been desperately looking for the answer to salvation and eternity. To you who seeks the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Who have tried the world’s faiths, human wisdom, atheism, deism, and can find no rest for your soul. Jesus says,

“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:9-10)

To you who have looked at all the religions this world has to offer and see nothing but thieves and wolves. To you who have been let down by the leaders in this world. Who gave your life to politics, but found the politicians corrupt. Who gave your heart to a human, and had it stepped on. Who found a leader you thought you could follow, but who it turned out was only in it for themselves. You who is so tired of giving your life to people, systems, governments, ideas, programs and religions, only to be let down again and again, Jesus says,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)

To you who have lost a loved one in Christ, or who is looking in to the face of eternity. You are facing death and wonder at its mystery. You who see the end as nothing but an abyss of darkness, uncertainty and dread. Who live everyday feeling the grip of time and the uncertainty of tomorrow. Jesus says,

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)

To you who have been lied to and believe that there are many ways to see God. Who has been told that there are many truths, and that all religions are basically the same. To you who think that salvation is of their own doing, that it is found in your good works, or that God saves everyone, or that salvation is found in any other name (Acts 4:12), Jesus says, “Jesus said to him,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

 And finally, to you who desire to know why they are here, who wants to know their purpose – their reason for being. To you who feels like they have no worth because they have no direction in their life. To you who lack wisdom and needs instruction, who sees but does not understand, who is surrounded by options and doesn’t know what to choose, who cannot figure out what is right or just or fair, who is up to their ears because of their foolish decisions and wants a better way, who feels simple and stupid, who fears their inexperience will cause harm to themselves and others, who wakes up in the morning and has no idea what to do with themselves, or who has so many different thoughts that they don’t know where to start, Jesus says,

“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. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

Seek, Seek, Seek, Jesus!

It’s not about reading your Bible — it’s all about seeking and wanting Jesus. We show our love for Him by seeking Him in his Word. We show our desperation for Him when we are desperate for His Word. We show our dependence on Him by having a dependence on His Word. Over and over in scripture we are told to seek God.

Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

In Deuteronomy 4:29, “…you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

And Isaiah 55:6 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near…”

In Amos 5:4 he says to His people, “Seek me and live…”

In Lamentations 3:25 he says, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.”

In 1 Chronicles 16:11 we are told to “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!”

In Hebrews 11:6 it says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

And Jesus Himself says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

It is though our love and desperation for, and dependence on, Jesus that we are able to draw near to the presence of God with confidence. And it is there that we find the mercy and grace that our spirits so desperately need.

Eco-Friendly Coffee: Which Reusable Keurig System is Better?

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I want to do something – as Monty Python used to say – “completely different”. A couple days ago I walked into one of my favourite coffee shops to buy some grinds and – after one thing lead to another – one of the managers asked me to review a new coffee making product! I can’t tell you how excited I was! I love writing, coffee, Keurig, and new gadgets, so this was perfect!

The Problem

It (sort-of) fits with this blog’s mission too because our Christian worldview gives us more reason than anyone to take care of the planet God gave us. One of the ways we can do that is to think and act in environmentally sensitive ways. The Keurig K-Cup system, however, is very environmentally unfriendlySee here too. And here. And, ironically, here. So what to do? My answer has been to use a reusable coffee pod-system.

Three Options

I love my coffee and I love my Keurig. It’s fun, fancy, super convenient, has a bazillion flavours, and the sounds it makes after I push the button gives me the illusion that I’m a fancy-schmancy barista.  But there’s no getting around it – it’s the most wasteful and environmentally unfriendly way to make a cup of coffee. That’s why I’ve been exploring more eco-friendly options. So far I’ve tried three different reusable systems.

The KiennaCUP is definitely the worst of the bunch. It’s annoying to use, messy to clean, and still makes garbage by using a tea-bag-type system. On top of that, none of the three coffees I tried tasted very good (Columbian Supremo, Canadian Maple, & Hazelnut).

The system I’ve used for the longest time is the Keurig My K-Cup. It’s simple to use, easy to clean, and can use any type of grinds. I didn’t like it at first because the coffee was weak, but after some internet research and tweaking I was able to adapt it to make a decent brew. I’ve been happy with it for a long time.

I recently went to get some Mufferaw Jo from Equator Coffee Roasters Inc. and was asked to review a new, Canadian system called the EZ Way Pod Filter. It’s similar to Keurig’s My K-Cup but with two important differences. First, rather than having its own housing it fits into the existing K-Cup Holder, which is nice because it eliminates a step. Second, it can be pre-filled and stored, which might make bleary-eyed, pre-coffee mornings a little easier.

Comparative Review

But, is it better than the Keurig My K-Cup? Here’s my comparative review:

  • EZ’s system is a couple bucks cheaper than Keurig’s. Advantage: EZ.
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    3mm Diameter Difference

    EZ Way is a small, Canadian company from Trois-Rivieres, QC. Keurig is a huge, American company. Advantage: EZ (Go Canada!).

  • Both are easy to use. Keurig has a twist lid while EZ uses tight silicone topper. Advantage: Tie.
  • EZ doesn’t make me take apart my Keurig machine to use it, but its design means EZ’s filter basket has a 3mm smaller diameter than Keurig’s. It’s not much, but millimeters matter when you’re trying not to spill precious grinds. It also means that you fit less coffee. Advantage: Keurig.
  • EZ’s filter basket has a much finer mesh than Keurig’s, therefore I didn’t have to adapt it to get a stronger flavour. However, it came out slower and the coffee was a little bit colder. Advantage: Tie.
  • DSC08200
    EZ’s Storage System

    EZ’s storage system is probably a cool idea if you buy a few of them and fill them in advance. However, since I only had one, it was quite a pain to clean (literally, since the filter was quite hot) so I could make a second cup for my wife. Advantage: Keurig (Unless you buy more than one, then Advantage: EZ.)

  • Because of EZ’s smaller size and extra fine filter, it is also harder to clean than Keurig’s. I had to rinse and rinse and brush and scrub to get all the coffee out, something I never had to do with Keurig’s. Advantage: Keurig.
  • I can’t comment on EZ’s longevity since I’ve only had it for a short time, but its open design and silicone topper don’t feel as sturdy as Keurig’s hard plastic system. Potential Advantage: Keurig.
  • But how’s the coffee?! If I hadn’t adapted the Keurig My K-Cup, EZ would win hands down. However, with the fix, they are about the same. Advantage: EZ.K Cups will always be more convenient than a reusable system, but not by much. I’ve made the switch and I’m not going back. Whichever one you use, I hope you ditch the K-Cups and switch to a reusable, eco-friendlier system right away. It will help the environment and you’ll get to experience a lot more types of coffee that aren’t available for the K-Cup system.

Conclusion

So there you go. K Cups will always be more convenient than a reusable system, but not by much. I’ve made the switch and I’m not going back. Whichever one you use, I hope you ditch the K-Cups and switch to a reusable, eco-friendlier system right away. It will help the environment and you’ll get to experience a lot more types of coffee that aren’t available for the K-Cup system. I’d love to hear some feedback from you about this article. How do you make coffee? Which system do you like? Did you agree with my review? Should I do more things like this? Let me know by e-mail or in the comments section on the blog. Thanks for listening!

If God speaks today, why don’t we hear Him?

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God Speaks Today - The Four Soils - TITLE BANNER

Podcast Audio:

We’re getting back into the Gospel of Mark today, but as we step back into it – into Chapter 4 – I want to do it by way of a mini-series, of hopefully only two or three sermons, about something that is very near and dear to my heart – meeting God through bible-reading and devotional journalling. I’ve preached on “how to study your Bible” a few times, but this is different. This is about listening to God speak to you, individually, every day. This isn’t about studying God through His book, but listening to God as He speaks to you from His book.

God Still Speaks

My premise today is that God still speaks, and we need to be careful to listen. I hope you can appreciate what I just said. I hope that fills you with awe, and wonder, and hope and fear. “God still speaks.” I don’t mean “God wrote the bible, and we need to read it” or “I’m preaching so you better listen to me because God’s speaking.”  No, what I mean is that “God Himself still communicates with His people, in special ways, on an individual level.”

The Creator of everything – the One who holds all things together – who writes history, knows the beginning and the end, formed the oceans, the moon, the stars, the mountains and even you yourself in your mother’s womb. I believe, with every fibre of my being, that He still communicates with people on an individual basis, in special ways, today.

Don’t Misunderstand Me

I realize that what I have just said is an incredible statement. One that can be misinterpreted and turned into something very dangerous. I’m not saying that God is giving new Bible books to people. No, we believe that the providence of God has given us the full counsel of scripture – what theologians call “the closed canon of scripture.”

I’m also not saying that God always speaks audibly to everyone. Clearly, that’s not the case. There’s no biblical reason that says God wouldn’t speak audibly today, and we certainly have enough proof in scripture that He has. Over the course of the 1000s of years of history the Bible covers, God speaking audibly only happens a handful of times, so clearly this is the exception, not the rule. And even then, it’s not always clear that it’s not just an “inner voice” or a “mental impression”. (Got Questions)

What I’m saying is that if a Christian is paying attention to God, He will communicate with the believer regularly and specifically.

God speaks “Regularly”, meaning that we’re talking something that happens all the time – in daily devotions, during special prayer times, during times of crises, during worship times, or after asking for wisdom and guidance.

God speaks “Specifically” meaning that it’s He doesn’t just speak in general principles, but gives unique and clear answers to current and relevant situations that believers face every day. He may point to a principle, or to a general rule, but it will apply to the specific need in the believer’s life.

Only Special People?

I’m not sure that most Christians really believe that God speaks regularly or specifically though. I haven’t met many who do, anyway. Sure, they believe that Jesus died for their sins, and that they need to be renewed, and that God gives really good principles for living, and even listens to our prayers… and even answers our prayers. But I don’t know many Christians who really believe that communication with God is a two way street – or have experienced it.

There are some Christians who will say that God still speaks today, but just not to them. God speaks to foreign missionaries, and people like Mother Theresa, but He doesn’t speak to everyone… does He? I believe that He does! I believe that God’s voice is available all the time, that He is sowing seeds all the time, and that it is not He who has stopped speaking, but we who have stopped listening.

We read stories like Moses and the burning bush, or the young boy Samuel hearing God when he was in bed, or Job hearing God’s 70 questions to him, or the appearance of the angel to Mary, or the tongues of fire coming on the people at Pentecost, or Paul’s Macedonian dream… and we think in our heart of hearts… “Why doesn’t God come like that anymore? If I could just have that kind of experience, then my life would be changed!” My message today is that the experienceyou are longing for is available today, and you can truly hear from God regularly and specifically, if you are willing to listen for Him.

That’s where my passion for this topic is coming from. I’ve experienced the difference in my life that comes from hearing God speak regularly and specifically in my life, and I want that for you.

Imagine how radically different your life and ministry would be if you heard from God regularly and He was addressing specific issues in your life. Imagine how different the churches, families, marriages, and communities around would be if people were coming to God for direction, listening to what God was saying, and then obeying Him in what He told them to do! What a world this would be!

Access Isn’t The Problem

I believe that God is always speaking, but most don’t listen. It’s like a radio station. It’s always on, the waves are in the air, but most people aren’t tuned in. Or, to use an illustration from Jesus, God is constantly sowing seeds, throwing them everywhere, easy to find, but people are not allowing that seed to penetrate the soil of their hearts, let it germinate in their souls, and grow and bear fruit in their lives.

We live in a time that is literally called the “information age”. We are inundated with messages all the time. We can access information on anything, at any moment, almost anywhere. If I want to know the capital city of Uganda, I can pull it up on my phone while waiting for the bus. If you can’t remember the name of a song, there is software that you can hum the tune into and it will tell you what song you are humming. People anywhere in the world can connect with people anywhere else in the world instantly!

And we who are seeking God’s will, and who want to hear from Him, not only have access to him in prayer and Christian friends, pastors and counsellors, but we have access to more Bibles, commentaries, preachers, teachers, schools, retreat centres, nature walks, Christian book stores, internet sites, blogs, songs, radio stations, than any culture in history. We can pray everywhere about anything. There are dozens of churches and pastors and elders and Christian counsellors around to ask questions of, and a zillion other resources that can help us understand God’s word.

We have more time-saving devices and technological help than any generation before us, but we are busier and more stressed out than ever. Our work has become easier and more efficient, but we remain anxious and overwhelmed. God has given us the time to be able to do exactly what He wants us to do, and the energy to do it – and access to Him for the wisdom, resources and help to get it right – but our society is more distracted, relationally distant and addicted than ever!

What’s the deal? It’s because we aren’t connected to God every day. We are lost, and at the end of our means and abilities, and instead of turning to God for help, comfort and sustenance – we go elsewhere. We get busier.

God voice can be heard all the time, everywhere. He speaks externally to our eyes and ears, and internally to our hearts, minds and spirits. The question is simply… are we listening? The need to hear His voice and feel His presence is desperate, and we all feel it, so then, why don’t we do it?

The Parable of the Four Soils

Please open up to Mark 4:1- 20:

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

I know that there have been times in my life where I have chosen not to listen, been too distracted to let it take root, or allowed negative thinking or worldly gain to become more important than God’s voice — and there have been times when I have listened very carefully. And I can tell you that during those times when I really want to hear from God, He has never let me down, and is always there to tell me something, show me something, or let me experience something that tells me more about who He is, explains something I’m going through, or where He simply allows me to know that He is near and draws me closer to Him.

But that doesn’t happen when I allow my heart to get hard. And I believe, based on scripture, the hardness or softness of our hearts is based on the choices that we all make.

How Does a Heart Harden?

Hardness of Heart is something that happens as a result of our decisions and by the will of God. Both are present in scripture. When a person’s heart gets hard, two things are happening. First, the individual is rejecting the Word of God. They have sinful habits or attitudes like pride, hatred, lust, addiction, gossiping and it produces a condition where their hearts are not as soft towards God. While at the same time God is allowing this to happen as a consequence of their sinful attitudes. Their hard heart is their decision, and God is allowing it to happen. Let me read you a few scriptures.

In Hebrews 3:8 we read an exhortation from God saying, “…do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness.” Here, God is saying that just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, our own bad attitudes, frustrations and grumbling about our situation can harden our hearts towards God.

A couple verses later Hebrews 3:13 we read, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Before it was our attitudes, but here, our decision to sin causes the further hardening of our hearts.

Both of these imply that the hardening of our hearts… or from the parable, the condition of our soil, is a choice we make.

Our desire for sin allows satanic birds to land in our hearts and steal away what God is trying to say before it ever really reaches their ears. Our lack of listening to God means we are probably listening to other voices – and that allows anxiety and fear to take over as the primary voice in our life. Or, our hearts move from loving God to loving the world and we start to believe the “deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things enters in” and we are no longer listening to Jesus who says, “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) and our soil gets harder and God’s words about simplicity, generosity, and storing treasures in heaven don’t take root.

Confusing Verses in the Middle

Which helps us understand the somewhat confusing verses that come in between the parable and the explanation in verses 11-12, which I want to look at first. It says,

“And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand,   lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”

What is Jesus saying? And why is it here? He seems to be saying that He tells these simple stories, these parables, no so that people will understand and get saved… but so they won’t understand and they won’t get saved! What does that mean?

Well, this goes right back to the condition of our hearts. We’ve all asked the question, “Well, if God really wants to make Himself known, why doesn’t He just show up in the sky? Write a big message on the moon, or take over all the tv’s and show us that He’s there. Make the ocean freeze over, or turn the Rocky Mountains upside down or something. Why doesn’t He make it obvious?”

What Jesus is saying here is part of the answer. Jesus says that the reason that God doesn’t do these things is to show the conditions of people’s hearts. To those who are listening, and who want to hear, and want a saving relationship with Him, His Word is available loud and clear! For them, these parables unveil truth, open up mysteries, change their lives, and let them know God better. But to those who are like the Pharisees, with hard, rebellious hearts, these simple stories are mysterious, confusing and frustrating.

Think of it this way. It’s like going to a 3D movie. Imagine if some of the people knew it was 3D and got the glasses, but others didn’t. For those with the glasses – the eyes to see – the movie would be jaw dropping, beautiful and interactive – a great experience.  They would tell their friends, and would want to go back and see it again! But for those who did not get the glasses, who didn’t have the eyes to see – their experience of the same movie would be blurry and confusing and they would walk out complaining, confused and want their money back. Same movie, but only some had the eyes to see.

I believe that today, the movie is playing all the time… God is speaking all the time… but He does in a way that expresses the condition of a person’s heart. Only those humble hearts that desire His voice… quiet minds that want to listen… repentant hearts that know they have done wrong… broken people who know they need mending… lost people who know they need finding… sinful people who are desperate for cleansing… only they have the soft heart to listen.

That’s why Jesus speaks in parables and why God wants us to come to Him humbly. It shows Him, and us, the condition of our hearts.

Which Soil are You?

But there’s not just one condition of our hearts – and not just one way that our hearts get hard. In Jesus parable there are four kinds of soil. That’s an amazing thought. Even though Jesus is the sovereign Son of God, with power over every atom in creation, He does not take over our freedom to make a choice. He allows us to choose. He opens the door, and invites us to walk through. He sets out the food, and invites us to eat. He brings out the signed adoption papers, but asks us to put our name on the line. He sows the seed, but we are the ones who control the condition of our soil… and there are four types of responses.

1. The No-Growth Response

First there will be the No-Growth response. There are people who will walk around the gospel and the message of salvation, who will have the scriptures and the love of God available to them, who will have access to the voice of God… but they will not listen. Verse 15, “And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”

This has less to do with the birds and more about the condition of the soil. God speaks something to them. either through a person, a book, a song, a billboard, or into their heart, their mind or their spirit… , something that specifically address their deepest need, that tells them exactly what they need to hear to find peace and joy and hope…  and as soon as they hear it, even though it is absolute truth that can change their lives forever… they have a hardened shell of emotional or intellectual barriers that simply won’t let God’s voice in. Their wills are set against repentance. They may hear it, but there is no way that they are going to change their minds, or turn around and go the other way with their lives. So the seed bounces off and goes nowhere. They outright dismiss the wisdom and guidance of God.

You can hear these folks, and perhaps you’ve even done this in your mind. A truth comes in like “You need to put that down… you need to admit your wrong and ask forgiveness… you need to submit to that authority… you need to soften your heart… you need to be generous with that blessing…” and immediately it’s countered with “NO! That’s mine! I don’t want to! I earned that! It’s their fault! I need it! That’s crazy! That’s too hard!” And our hard heart causes God’s voice to bounce right off, the seed takes no root, and no effect happens at all.

This is most often what happens when unbelievers hear the Gospel message, but their hearts are hard towards God. They won’t listen to the Gospel. But this also happens to Christians who are caught in habitual sin or are distant from prayer and reading their bibles. God’s voice gets quieter until it has no effect. And it happens so gradually to believers that sometimes they don’t even notice! They don’t realize they’re ignoring God. He’s been speaking, but they’ve been tuned out.

What does one do about this? This requires a miracle, so we must pray. No matter how much seed we scatter on dry ground, it won’t take root until the rains come. We must pray that God sends rain. If you sense your heart getting hard, then pray and ask others to pray for you. If you know someone who has a hard heart, who won’t listen to God, who is falling away and is despising the word of God… the only response is prayer. No matter what you say, it won’t penetrate. Only God can change a hard heart into a soft one.

2. The Shallow Growth Response

Second is the Shallow-Growth response. These are the ones to whom the voice of God is like seeds “…sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away”

So God is speaking, and these people hear what He says. Their soil isn’t dry and hard, but it’s full of unhelpful things. At first, God’s message is very exciting to them, but it doesn’t go deep. They hear of Jesus dying on the cross for their sins… but they don’t repent of their sins. They hear that God has a plan for their life, but they don’t make Him their Lord. Their love for Him doesn’t captivate their wills, change the way they see life, reorient their hearts, and put them onto a totally new path. They are emotionally affected, or intellectually stimulated, but it doesn’t impact the rest of their life. They don’t grow in maturity. For them, a relationship with God is about what they get from Him… not about knowing Jesus as their Lord, Saviour and Friend.

These are the folks that are “born again” at a revival, or turn to God during a tough time in their life, or they feel something during a powerful moment of someone sharing with them… and they are interested in a time, but it doesn’t go anywhere. They never get involved in a church. Or if they go to church, and they stay on the periphery. They don’t share their burdens or sins or temptations with others, and never go deep with the Christians around them. Their prayer life is scattershot, their bible reading is sparse, and when they do pray it’s more like a list for Santa Clause, or like a note to the suggestion box, telling God what they want and don’t want, rather than the deepening of a relationship with someone who loves them.

And so when tough stuff happens they don’t have a substantial relationship with Jesus which can sustain their spirit. They never anchored themselves to Him, and are still adrift. They don’t have the answers to tough questions like “Why does God let bad things happen?” and “What do I do when I’m tempted?” or “Does God still love me when I sin over and over?”, or someone starts to mock them, or challenge their faith… they don’t know what to do. So, they fall away out of guilt, or shame, or fear. God isn’t saying what they want to hear, so they go back to the voices they used to listen to… and their spirits shrivel up.

This happens to a lot of church people, and most people I know who claim to be Christian are in this position. They like the idea of God’s love and forgiveness, but not of His wrath, judgement and requirement of obedience. Being a real Christian becomes too demanding for them. Jesus asks for too much. He wants full commitment, but the cost is too high. They were fine when it was about being saved and going to heaven, but when Jesus starts asking them to give up their idols, their addictions, their comfort, their relationships… it’s too much. They love being forgiven by Jesus… but granting forgiveness is another thing. So they say no.

So they come to church, sing the songs, but when anything tough comes, they walk away – join another church that requires less of them and talks less about sin, they stay home for a few weeks, or quit coming altogether. And they form a Jesus in their own image that does things the way they want him to.

How do we combat this problem with having soil that is too shallow? The answer is commitment. We need to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to God. Fish or cut bait. No lukewarm faith. In or out. It means going all in with Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord and our God. Not dancing on the outsides in cultural Christianity, or religious feel-goodness… but saying to God, “I’m all yours and I will do whatever is necessary to obey you!”

Have you made that commitment yet? Is Jesus your Lord? Your Boss? Your Commander? Combat shallow faith by committing wholeheartedly to Jesus.

3. The Stunted Growth Response

The third response are those who have Stunted-Growth.  This is where God speaks, and is received, and their heart is affected, and they want change… but they have a divided mind. They are seeking to worship two gods, live two lives, have two sets of priorities, and it kills their faith.

These are the ones who Jesus says the voice of God is “…sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”

These people become a large plant, they have deep roots, emotional faith, intellectual faith, good standing in the church, and may even have a regular prayer life. They really try to listen to God… but their heart is divided. Their trying to grow two things at once in their soil – fruit and thorns – and hoping they will coexist.

They have worries and concerns about all the other things in their life other than the kingdom of God. They want financial security, a good job, comfortable living, a good reputation, lots of friends, an easy life, new things… or something else they value as much as their relationship with God, so they forfeit times of spiritual growth so to ensure they get it.

If you ask them about their faith, and they can tell you their testimony, when they were saved and baptised, and all about the scripture they read that week. And with the same energy, though usually more, they can just as tell you all about their job, their boat, their stock options, retirement plans, sports teams, tv shows, the clothes in their closet, the car in their shed, favourite hobbies, exercise routines… and all these other desires choke out the priority of hearing God’s Word. They are distracted by these other good things, and they lose out on the greatest thing.

Yes, they have deep roots, but when it comes to bearing fruit, they can’t. Lots of height, lots of depth… no fruit. This is another group of Christians I meet in the churches I’ve pastored. People that can quote bible verses and attend every event, but they don’t share their faith with anyone. If you ask them for a story of something God has done in their life, the stories they tell are decades old – because they haven’t seen fruit in many years.

They are nice, but they don’t sacrifice their time for others. They are happy enough, but they don’t spread joy. They sing songs and serve in church, but there is no passion in their hearts. They give out of their excess, but never at great cost to themselves. Their time is divided between their worldly interests and the Kingdom of God, and if push comes to shove, the Kingdom comes in second. Their money and energy are tied up in gathering toys or building worldly security, so it cannot serve God’s purposes, and they bear no fruit.

They will attend a dozen business meetings and talk about whether to spend 50 or 100 dollars on something… but there is nothing in their life that God is using to change their neighbourhood. They will get elected as teachers, deacons and elders because they’ve been around, know their Bibles, and are willing to take the position… but they have not borne fruit, are overwhelmingly dispassionate about ministry, and skate over the surface of everything they are involved in. They don’t prepare for teaching, or meetings, or anything because after all “it’s just the kids, it’s just small group, it’s just the church”… and all the people they affect are equally dispassionate… because the church follows their leaders.

Their branches grow high for all to see… they have roots in God and will be saved in the end… but they bear no fruit because they have two loves – God and the world. Whenever God tries to steer them towards Kingdom things, in their hearts the Kingdom is put at the same level as the world, and the voice of God is choked out.

What must we do to solve this? To have our priorities straight. Jesus said it this way,

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”(Matthew 6:19-21)

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5)

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17)

It is not that we ignore material things, but they must come after Kingdom things. Our anxieties and worries are not to be ignored, but they must be seen in the light of our faith. Our other pursuits may be of value, but they must come second place to the kingdom. Our other interests are often gifts from God, but they can be used by Satan to distract us from His voice, and become so important to us that we are unwilling to obey what God wants from us.

Jesus says in John 15 that God prunes us so that we will bear more fruit. But if we love the world too much, we will not submit to that pruning – we won’t let go of the things that are stopping us from bearing fruit – and we will become a dead branch.

4. The Full Growth Response

Let’s end on the good news. The Full-Growth response. “But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (vs 20)

I hope that today, you are able to say that you are fertile ground, accepting the seeds that God is saying casting onto your heart. I hope you’re tuned into his station. It is my deep prayer that you are receptive, listening, not distracted, and soft enough to embrace what He is saying and do what He is asking you to do.

That’s my prayer for my life. That I would hear God’s word, accept it readily, and then go out and bear much fruit. The only way that I, or anyone, is going to be able to be able to hear the words “well done my good and faithful servant”, is if we are willing to give it all up for His sake. To listen and obey. To till the soil of our hearts and be open to whatever He desires.

And over the next couple weeks, I hope to give us a tool to be able to do that.