Why Should Believers Today Care About the Psalms? (Feat. Special Guest Wyatt Graham!) (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 31)
The 31tst episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
Reading & Praying the Psalms Today
What can a bunch of weird, old poems from ancient Israel do to help us with our prayer life? A lot, as it turns out. Our special guest Wyatt Graham helps us understand the amazing relevance of the psalms to our daily walk of faith today.
Wyatt’s Book Recommendation Link:
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Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I said that the system I’m teaching isn’t the only way to meet with God, but it is one way that has worked for me and I want to pass on to you.
What I’m going to be teaching today is how to have a conversation with God every day. Not a one-way prayer, but a conversation. I’m not talking about a type of mysticism where we hear special revelations from God, but a system where we bring our sins and needs, cares and concerns, desires and fears, before God, and then listen to Him as He talks to us from scripture.
This isn’t a free-flowing, off the top of your head, whatever you feel like saying, prayer – it’s a conversation. It’s not us trying to shoe-horn God’s Word to say whatever we want it to say either. It’s us speaking our heart to God, and then opening ourselves to hearing what God wants to say to us.
Last week I introduced the concept by looking at some practical tools to get us started. The majority of our time was spent talking about why there are so many kinds of bibles and which one would be best to use, so this week I want to look at the rest of the story. First, why journaling is important, second, how to set up your Bible to get a balanced scriptural diet, and then third, I want to share the technique of using scripture to guide to what you are going to say to God and then listening to what He wants to say to you. Ready?
So let’s start with the question, “Why Journaling?”
Let me start with the assumption that you have agreed with the last 5 sermons. You agree that God’s voice is available and that you want to hear it. You agree that your heart is hard, twisted and deceptive and you need God to give you a new one and then explain how it works. You agree that God’s Word is more important than your daily bread and that without connecting to Him in a meaningful way, you will spiritually starve. You agree that the Bible is like our umbilical cord to Jesus, the way that God has given us to connect to Him. You agree that the Bible has supernatural power, and that God uses the reading of it to reveal our souls and make us more like Jesus.
You agree that you’ve struggled with forgetting that being a Christian means being in relationship with a real person named Jesus Christ, and that you’ve sometimes slipped into perfectionism (trying to “do your devos right”) or carelessness (where you shortcut your time with God). And you agree that you want to connect with God in a consistent, meaningful way, and are open to trying something different to see if that helps you grow closer to Him.
So, beginning there, the question is this: Why can’t I just say it in my head? Why do I need to write it down? What’s so important about writing my prayers?
Let me start with this. You don’t have to write your prayers, but I encourage you to try it. I said that this is my system and that you should try it, and then adapt it. If you find it helpful, then keep it. If not, then try something else. There’s nothing in scripture that says that writing out your prayers is more holy, or more effective, than speaking them aloud or in your mind. However, I believe there are some benefits to journaling your prayers. (I really appreciated Stephen Eyre’s section on journaling in his book “Drawing close to God: the essentials of a dynamic quiet time”)
People of the Book
First, Christians are people of The Book. We love the Bible. For centuries people have used Scripture as a key text in their spiritual, moral, family, governmental, and educational lives. For a lot of people in the world, as missionaries translate the bible into more and more languages, the Bible is the first book they ever read. As we’ve said before, we believe God gave us the Bible and that His written word has power.
Therefore, reading and writing have always been an important part of Christianity. God introduced us to Himself by asking prophets to write down what He was saying. Throughout the years Christians have written more and more books to help believers grow closer to God. And, although in our journaling we are not going to be writing scripture, and perhaps no one will ever read our journal, humanity’s relationship with God has been indelibly tied to the written word.
Writing Helps Us Process
Second, writing things down helps us process what is going on inside. You’ve probably experienced trying to pray and having a log-jam of thoughts and emotions all come crowing to the front. Or, sitting down to pray and realizing you have absolutely nothing to say. You know you should. It’s not like your life is perfect and you know everything – but you don’t know what to say.
Having to form sentences and choose words – and then write them down – helps our brains to process the complex thoughts and emotions that are rolling around our hearts and minds. It might be hard to start writing sometimes, but as you start, you’ll find that more thoughts start to come. Maybe you start with a question or a request. It doesn’t matter how you start writing because what you are doing is beginning a conversation with God. He’ll take you where He wants you to go. You’re obedience to sitting down, concentrating and opening His Word gets the ball rolling and gets you set to both speak and listen.
My journal entries more often or not start with either the words “Good Day, Lord.” Or “Bad Day, Lord.” And it starts to flow from there.
Writing Makes Our Prayers Feel More Solid
Third, writing out prayers makes them feel more concrete to us. Our prayers are always heard by God, but sometimes our prayers feel like they float away into the ether – they don’t feel very solid. Sometimes after we’ve said amen, we don’t remember what we’ve just said, we’re not really sure what to expect an answer to, and we can’t remember what God had been saying. Certainly, if you were to ask a week later what our heartfelt conversation with God was about, we wouldn’t remember hardly any of it.
However, once you start to write out our prayers you are able to see a record of what you’ve been thinking, feeling and experiencing with God. You’ll be able to look at a transcript of your conversations with Him, see patterns in your prayers over a period of time, and be able to see how God is answering prayers in specific ways. You’ll see that when you ask questions, someone is answering those questions. You can look back, even after a year, and see how God has given you new perspectives, new understanding, and changed you into a different person. You may not have even realized it, but God had been doing some really good work in and through us, incrementally, in small steps – and when you are consistent in meeting Him every day, and writing down your conversations, you can see His work in a tangible way.
Let me give you an example from my own journal of what I mean. This is an actual entry in my Journal from April 22nd this year. This is how it started:
“I don’t feel very good, Lord. Not sure what’s wrong. Too much uncertainty of good and near certainty of bad, I suppose. That and changing my diet, the spiritual attack of Holy Week, my constant distractions, and all the rest… I’m not angry, just… I don’t know. So, God, I just need a rest in you. I’ll take what you give me, but I just need a rest in you for a bit.”
You can see that I didn’t really know what to write, or where to start, or what I was feeling – I just knew I needed God. Then I got into my Bible reading. I’ll explain my Bible Reading System in a moment, but let me first show you what God did so you can see some of the fruit. Remember, this isn’t me choosing my favourite verses or searching through my concordance for certain words. This is just me reading whatever came next in my plan.
First I came to the book of Philemon. It’s only a chapter long, so I read the whole thing. And verses 6 and 20 jumped off the page. Verse 6 says, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” And verse 20 ends with the words, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Here’s what I wrote:
“That’s what I need, Lord. And you remind me that being active in sharing my faith will give me an understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. God help me share my faith and please refresh my heart.”
I then turned to Luke 18:33-43 which tells the story of the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus. I wrote this: “Lord, in the same way as the beggar, I have no idea how you can do it, but I need your help. God, changing things isn’t much fun and I’m already facing resentment for it. God help my attitude. Help me be a better husband, father and Christian.”
Then I read Isaiah 40 which starts, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” and ends with:
“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I didn’t go looking for these passages. They were just next in line in my reading plan. I wrote in response:
“God, I’m weary, give me strength. I’m weak (so weak, Lord), give me power. I’ve stumbled and fallen and I don’t know where to walk, renew my strength. Help me to live in your promises.”
Then I opened to the next bookmark which was at Psalm 146 and says,
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.”
And I wrote:
“God, you are hearing me, I know. Another reminder of your goodness to the weak. I fear, that when I close this book I will go back to sadness, but for now I’m so thankful for your words of hope.”
And then I read 1 Chronicles 17 which has the prayer of David where he says,
“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men. What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? For you know your servant, Lord. For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises…. You, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. So your servant has found courage to pray to you. You, Lord, are God! You have promised these good things to your servant. Now you have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Lord, have blessed it, and it will be blessed forever.”
I simply wrote:
“God, you bless and protect your people out of your love and generosity. I trust your love and generosity today. God, help me live in it.”
I remember feeling then, and still feel, so very overwhelmed by how specifically God was speaking to me. Gently reminding me of his love, showing me how to find strength, and then closing by reminding me of this promise that my salvation and blessing is secure because He is God. He has promised me great things and though it is sometimes hard – just like David’s life was blessed, but hard – I am one of His children.
I don’t tell you this to show off or make myself seem super spiritual, but to show you that Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as Your Guide has deeply affected me, and it is my great prayer that passing it along to you will help you as well.
I needed to hear from God so badly that day. And God was there, just as He always is. And I can look back over and over to read that promise, and it is just as precious to me today as it was the day when I had that conversation with God.
5 Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet
This all comes from scripture, so what I want to do now is explain to you a way that you can set up your Bibles in a way that I call “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet.”
The Danger of Only Reading Favourites
Let me start with a picture: A friend calls you up sounds pretty desperate to have a conversation with you. You suggest that they come over to your place, or go out to a coffee shop where it’s quiet, so you can talk. A short time later, you’re together and they say to you, “I really appreciate your friendship, and I value your advice. You know me better than anyone, and I have a few problems right now that I want to run past you.”
You take a sip of your coffee and look at your friend, concerned and full of love for them, and say, “Ok, sure… what’s on your mind?”
And as they begin, they reach into their back pocket and say, “Well… before we start, I’ve got a few recipe cards here that I’ve written some of my very favourite things you’ve ever said to me. They are so powerful, easy to remember, and really wonderful to hear. So, I’m going to tell you everything, but when you answer me, it would be great if you’d only answer by reading from these cards, ok?”
That doesn’t give you a lot to work with, does it? But that’s what we do with God when we choose only a small pile of verses to read or live our life only reading certain parts of the Bible.
I love memory verses and we all have our favourite passages of scripture. Some people even have a life-verse that they hang onto and is special to them. But, to hear from God in a balanced way, we need to be reading the whole book, not just our own favourite parts. In order to have a conversation with someone, we need to let them speak to us freely, not assuming what they are going to say and then giving them a multiple-choice answer sheet to pick from.
RE: Bible Reading Plans
So what we need, to make sure we are reading the whole Bible, is reading plan. There are lots and lots out there. Some go through the Bible in a year, others in 90 days, others in 3 years. Some take you through the Bible from cover to cover, others jump around, others go through it chronologically.
I don’t think it matters which one you use as long as you remember that a bible reading plan is guide, not a rulebook. Stick to the plan as much as you can, but if you find yourself getting behind, don’t stress out, just keep going. Remember, you’re not in a race to get to the end, but having a conversation with God.
I’m sure you would find it frustrating to talk to someone who kept telling you to hurry up and talk faster so you can get to the end. And you wouldn’t want your friend to feel the need to talk to you for 17 straight hours because they forgot to call you last week. Just go at the same rate and you’ll either catch up, or you won’t. Getting to the end isn’t the point anyway.
So here’s my method for setting up your “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet”.
This plan is setup to be done 6 days out of the week and requires putting bookmarks in five different sections of the Bible. When you get to the end of a section you just put the bookmark back at the beginning and start over.
Bookmark 1 goes into the Stories of the Old Testament, also called the “Law and History” by some people. It starts at the beginning of the book of Genesis and goes to the end of the book of Esther. That’s 436 chapters, and if you read it 6 days out the year you’ll get through the whole thing in about a year and a couple months.
Bookmark 2 goes into the Poetry of the Old Testament, also called the “Wisdom and Worship” books. It starts at the beginning of Job and goes to the end of Song of Songs. That’s 243 chapters, and if you read it for 6 days a week, you’ll get through it in around 9 months.
Bookmark 3 goes in the Prophecy of the Old Testament, also called the “Major and Minor Prophets”. It starts at the beginning of Isaiah and ends in Malachi. That’s 250 chapters and if you read it 6 days per week, you’ll get through the whole thing in around 9 months.
Bookmark 4 goes at the beginning of the New Testament in a section about Jesus and His Church, also called “The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.” It starts at the beginning of Matthew and ends in Acts. It’s 117 chapters and if you read it for 6 days per week you’ll have read it almost three times in a year.
The last Bookmark, number 5, goes in the Letters of the New Testament, also called “Theology and Eschatology”. It starts in the book of Romans and goes to end of the book of Revelation. It’s 143 Chapters and if you read it for 6 days out of the week, you’ll have read it more than twice after a year.
Doing this has a couple advantages:
First, it will keep you from getting bored. Maybe it’s just me, but reading 4 chapters of Leviticus in a day – and knowing that that’s where I’ll be for the next month – and only looking forward to the book of Numbers – isn’t much fun.
That’s why I set it up this way. So when your slogging your way through Leviticus, you only have to read one chapter and you know that you’ll be getting to a story in Kings and the Gospel, and you’ll be able to read a Psalm. When the Prophecies get confusing and you’re not getting much out of the Psalms that week, something in the Letters will be a spark for you. Not every chapter of every reading will be mind-blowing. Sometimes it’s about just reading and seeing the big picture of the story of the Bible.
Second, you’ll be amazed how the themes and history of scripture come together. You’ll read things in the Old Testament that will make passages in the New Testament make so much more sense. The names of Jesus, or some of Paul’s illustrations for the church, will come alive as you see that theme in Genesis, and the Psalms and Prophets. Stories you read in the History books will make all those weird prophecies start to make sense. The stories you read about the life of David will bring so much more meaning to the Psalms he wrote.
So, now that you have your bookmarks in the right place, your Bible is open, your pencil is in hand, and your Composition Book is sitting in front of you, what do you do? Here’s the technique and it takes me about half an hour to finish – sometimes more sometimes less. And this is where the importance of the margins I talked about earlier comes in.
1. Write the date and the day of the week on the top corner of the page. Why? Because when you look back on it, you’ll be able to get a lot more out of it if you can see when you did it. You’ll see things like “Oh, that was close to my birthday and I didn’t even notice how much it was bothering me.” or “I seem to get tempted in the same way on the same day of the week.” or “I can’t believe how much the winter affects my attitude. I’m such a different person in the springtime.” or “God was really preparing me for the Easter season, or for that tough thing that was coming in my life. Even months before I can see him getting me ready.”
2. Write what’s going on in your heart at the top of the page. God is there and He’s listening. You are going to talk to Him, He will talk to you and you will listen. This is where you start the conversation. The rest of the journaling may not go where you expect it to because maybe God has something different for you, but many times you’ll find that God meets you exactly where you are at and gives you what you need. And it all starts here.
So just start writing, as we talked about before. You don’t have to be eloquent, but you do need to be honest. Write from the top of your head and just begin. What is your most pressing concern, need, fear, praise, hope, desire… start there. What question do you need an answer to? What series of questions are bugging you? It can be a short sentence or two, or a whole paragraph. Sometimes mine takes more than a page because there’s a lot on my mind, but as you saw in my example, sometimes it’s only a jumble of thoughts and feelings in a short couple sentences.
3. Read the first bookmark and talk to God about it. Sometimes I start from the Old Testament and go to the New, other times I start with the New Testament and go to the Old. It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be amazed how whatever you’ve just read connects to the paragraph you just wrote off the top of your head. Or, you’ll see something else and God will start to build a new idea in your mind.
You’ll begin to realize that he’s answering the question or concern you just raised in a way that you would have never seen before, and that is far more than coincidence.
Now remember as you read, that it’s not a race. There will be times that you’ll read a chapter from beginning to end and that’s good. Other times you’ll want to continue the story and you’ll read a couple. Sometimes it’s a list of names, so you skim them over for a few chapters. By the way, when you get to those lists of names, don’t go too fast or you’ll miss some good stuff. Look for descriptive phrases like “he was a mighty man” or “they cried out to God and trusted him” or “they broke faith with the God of their fathers.” They are little nuggets that speak volumes about these names, and that God can use to speak to our own hearts.
Sometimes (and this happens to me in the Gospels a lot) you read only a couple of verses and they hit you like a two-pound hammer, and that’s more than enough for the day. That’s ok. Just leave your bookmark there and come back tomorrow!
Once you’ve read your section for the day – whatever the length – write down what you see there.
- What did God just tell you about Himself?
- What did you just learn about humanity?
- What sins where there? What blessings?
- What kind of promises di you just read?
- Were you convicted of anything, or did you learn anything?
- Did God bring to mind something you need to do?
Write it down as a prayer to God.
- “God, I see this in here…”
- “Lord, I see a mistake that this person made and I’ve done that too…”
- “Jesus, I hear your promise here, and it means this to me…”
- Sometimes I’ve just written: “I have no idea what this means, and I don’t know what’s going on, but I am reminded that you are God and I am not.”
And as you’re writing, that’s a good time to highlight the specific passage that God spoke to you through. Maybe you don’t have one for each chapter, and that’s ok. But there will be sometimes that God really speaks through a specific verse or section. Highlight it, make a note next to it, circle it. Interact with the text and your journal as you are having a conversation with God.
You’ve probably had conversations with people who like to draw things out, right? They grab a napkin or a piece of paper or they set-up the salt-shakers and spoons to explain what they’re talking about. That’s what I’m talking about. God is there talking to you. Highlight the text, circle the word that jumps out. Draw a line under the sentence and then draw a big line across the page to the verse it connects to, and a star next to it. It doesn’t have to have any more rhyme or reason than that it is your interaction with your Bible as you are interacting with God.
4. Work your way through the bookmarks. Then move to the next bookmark and do the same thing. Watch for themes as God starts weaving His message out for you. Listen for God’s voice to speak to you. Don’t try to shoehorn meanings in there, just take what is naturally in the text, and write down what you are hearing God say. Have a conversation with God. You speak, He speaks, You reflect and speak, He speaks some more…
5. Look back through your conversation. When you get to the end, take a moment to read what you just wrote and look over the highlights in your Bible. See the conversation as a whole and realize that God was speaking to you. I’ve even taken to circling some of the things that connect together and have drawn a line from point to point as God spoke.
6. Optional: Write a Title for the day. At the very top of the page, if your time with God was especially meaningful that day, and it’s something you just know you’re going to want to look back on later – either to remind yourself or share with someone else (because sometimes God gives you a message for someone else and it’s way easier to give the message if you’re reading it!) – then write a title on the top of the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve written things like “this is how to pray” or “the dangers of sin” or “God wants humility” either as a title, or right in my bible.
7. Pray through your prayer list. The last thing you do, before you’re done, is to pray for others. In the little margin, on the left side of the page is a perfect little section to keep the names of people you’re praying for. Start with your immediate family and work outwards to your friends, church, neighbourhood, country and the world. Write down each name. Then, when you come back the next day, you’ll have a list to start with and to add to.
So there’s the system. If you have any questions or comments, please leave it in the comments section below or contact me personally.
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.)
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’.”
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.”
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
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.
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.