And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

I hear this verse quoted on a regular basis.  Sometimes it is used to encourage those battling tough times.  It is often said to motivate people to pursue righteousness.  However, every time I hear it, I can’t help but to think about how selfish it sounds.

It comes across as a promise, a guarantee, a reward.  It’s like we are saying “If you want things to go your way, love God.  Then your life will be awesome.”

If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that following God is uncomfortable, difficult, and downright dangerous.  You are supposed to die to yourself, take up your cross, and sacrifice every desire of the flesh to do what is right in His eyes.

So how does that mesh with this frequently quoted scripture?  Am I saying that this is a false promise?  Absolutely not.

If you love God with all your mind, body, soul, and strength, and you respond to His call to fulfill your purpose, what would you consider to be “good?”  If you die to yourself, what kinds of things will you want to happen?  If you spend every moment trying to produce fruit, what will your results look like?

When most people quote Romans 8:28, they seem to imply that the “good” we will receive will be worldly rewards.  We use it to encourage folks looking for employment or money.  We share it bring comfort to those in pain.  But are those things really the “good” that this verse promises?  It may sound callus, but I don’t think it is.

If I am completely sold out for Christ and doing everything in my power for Him, I can’t imagine that I would be concerned with whether or not I get a promotion.  I won’t spend any time thinking about my feelings being hurt or my pride taking a hit. 

If I am living for God, my “good” will become more and more like His good.  I will want His will to be done and His love to prevail, no matter what impact it has on my life.  Selflessness means that my “good” is based on His plan and my plan no longer matters.

I hope I can someday get to that point.  What about you?  What is your “good”?

I knew this day would come, and I have dreaded it for quite some time.  My children have been imitating me for quite a while, but today they started imitating each other.  It was scary enough for me to have to watch my words and actions, but there is even less I can do to keep them from sharing bad habits with one another.  My home has become a scary place.

To some degree, though, we all end up imitating those around us. That also means that there are folks following our examples.  However, this is a responsibility that many of us take for granted.  We say we don’t care what people think.  Or, even worse, we try too hard to be something that we are not. 

So what is the right way to approach this responsibility?

And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.  (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT)

I don’t know about you, but I get a little uneasy when I read this verse.  Paul must have been pretty confident to say this to the church at Corinth.  I, on the other hand, feel like it is more pressure than I can handle.  But what is that pressure about?

I used to think that this verse overwhelmed me because I was worried about people following my lead.  I don’t want to cause people to stumble by showing them the wrong way to do things.  I don’t want to lead them away from Christ through my mistakes and limitations.  I would rather they imitate someone else…somebody that is better at this whole Christian gig than I am.

But, you know what?  That is a cop out.  That is an excuse. 

My real fear is that I am afraid of fully committing to imitating Christ.  I know the type of sacrifice, pain, suffering, and selflessness it will take to imitate Him.  And that scares me to death.

I am fine with people following my lead.  But if I claim this verse to be a staple of discipleship, my lifestyle must undergo a complete renovation.  If I am going to encourage people to follow me as I imitate Christ, I have to be more like Jesus.  I have to be less like me.  No excuses.  I have to.

One day in our Sunday school class, we challenged our students to name the Ten Commandments without looking them up.  It was a challenging task.  Even with the help of the adults, it took us a few minutes to recall all ten of them.  Luckily, thanks to what the kids are calling the internet, we can look them up whenever we want.  All we have to do is search for Exodus chapter 20.

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:2-17 NIV)

As you may remember, however, there came a time when Moses got mad and broke the tablets on which these commands were written.  So he went back up on the mountain, and God made him another copy.  And what was in that edition?  Check out this excerpt from chapter 34.

Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.  Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.  Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you.  Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.   Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

“Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices.  And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.

“Do not make any idols.

“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

“The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock.  Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons.

“No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

“Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

"Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.  Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel.  I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.

“Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.

“Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.:  Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.  (Exodus 34:10-28 NIV)

So…what are the Ten Commandments again?

Obviously, the rest of the Old Testament supports the list found in chapter 20.  And that list definitely makes more sense if God is giving us a set of ten fundamental rules.  But this is interesting, right? 

Are there any other head-scratchers in the Bible that you have stumbled upon?

In a recent Sunday school class that I led, we took some time to talk about hope.  We discussed the hope that all Christians have in Jesus Christ, what that means for our lives on earth, and why it is so important that we share that hope with others.  These are mostly simple concepts that are very easy to forget when times are tough.

After an overview of how to define hope, I asked the students to recall a time when somebody had given them a message of hope during a troubling time.  As I waited for the students to come up with answers, I started thinking about how I would answer that question.  So I decided to share the following story with the class.

Almost two months before my son’s due date, my wife was rushed in an ambulance to a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit in the middle of the night.  We were both panicking beyond belief.  We had no idea what would happen to this baby of ours.  We didn’t even know what was going on with my wife.  At times, it felt incredibly hopeless.  It was easily the most scared we have ever been. 

When we arrived at the hospital, our pastor and Sunday school teacher were there.  While my wife thought that meant she was dying, it was very comforting to have their support.  We had friends show up and wait all night with us to see if we would be meeting our baby that night.  They were fantastic.

As it turned out, things were not as urgent as they seemed.  But they were still not good.  We stayed in the hospital for three more weeks waiting to see what would go wrong next and praying for a miracle so we could go home.

During that time, we had dozens of visitors.  Pretty much everybody we knew from our church, and many folks we didn’t, stopped in to wish us well and pray for us.  Our friends showered us with gifts to make our hospital room feel more like home.  Our family kept us well fed and took great care of our dog.

To be perfectly honest with you, I can’t remember a single word that was said by anyone during that time.  There were no inspiring speeches or life changing conversations.  But just by showing up, we were given hope that we did not know existed.  When things looked grim, we felt like things would never be the same again.  But with all of the love we were shown through the presence of our friends and loved ones, we were reminded that God is greater than any dire situation.  We are loved by God and His people were sent to help us remember that.  And we knew that, no matter what, He would take care of us in a way far better than any of us could ever imagine.

In case you were wondering, it all worked out like this:
For my wife and I, we had experienced God and we recognized His love.  We just needed a little refresher when things got tough.  There are people out there, though, that have no idea what kind of hope He provides.  It is our job to show them that, through Him, all things are possible and all things will ultimately be made right according to His perfect plan. 

You don’t have to say all of the right things or even say anything at all.  Your love is made known through just being there.  Your willingness to show up gives hope to those that need it.  You have the ability to show others who Christ is just by being present. 

Seems easy enough, doesn't it?  Let's make it happen.

Here we are, December 31st.  This is my 261st post of the year.  Averaging more than 400 words per post, I’ve written and posted somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words this year.  I feel like that puts a little bit of pressure on these last few.  But hey, I’m clutch.  They don't call me the Knowledge Dropper for nothing.

First, I want to offer a bit of thanks.  I made it my goal to post a spiritual message each weekday of this year, and thanks to your support I have pushed through to reach that goal.  Many of the messages were things that I was personally interested in.  Others were put on my heart by the Holy Spirit.  A few were suggested by friends. And some…were just for fun.

Since I will be moving to a weekly post format in 2013, I feel like this is the end of an era.  So I want to leave you with one final message that I hope sums up my work this year.

Friends, we are way off from the work of the early churches.  Their passion in their pursuit of spreading the gospel is unidentifiable in the vast majority of churches today.  We focus way too much on meeting our own needs, fitting in with popular culture, and trying to satisfy the “tradition” of what has come before us.  We seek to please ourselves and keep our church members content before we think about pleasing God and meeting the needs in our communities.

I really think that we all see this problem.  We notice the missed opportunities and the ministry needs that are not being met.  We identify the church practices that are self-serving and do nothing to advance the Kingdom of God.  We are convicted when we realize that we are living with Christ in our lives, and not living our lives for Christ.

The issue is that we believe that it is bigger than us.  And I agree with that.  Our culture of complacency and selfishness is far bigger than you or me.  Yet, our lack of faith keeps us from realizing that it IS NOT bigger than God.  We say all the time that all things are possible with God.  But we do nothing to show that we believe it.

If you see the mess that I see in the modern church, then the change starts with you and me.  To cause change, we must change.  If we want to see a different brand of Christianity, then we ourselves must be different. 

It is going to be awkward.  It is going to be uncomfortable.  It is going to be painful.  But it must be done.  Join me, will you?

Several months ago, I had a friend tell me about several non-Christian friends that he converses with on a regular basis.  As he shares his faith, they keep throwing up the same road block.  It is a question that I think we all struggle with from time to time.  But it is also one that many non-believers cling to as their “evidence” for not believing.

How can a loving God let so many people suffer and die?

God loves us.  We even claim that God is love.  Yet, thousands upon thousands of people are oppressed, abused, and murdered every day right under His nose.  His creation, under the reign of His infinite power, allows people to suffer in brutal, unimaginable ways.  How is that possible?

Perhaps the most loving thing God has ever done, aside from creation itself and that whole “sending His Son to die” thing, is giving us the power of choice.  Free will gives us the option to choose God or to turn away from Him.  It allows us to make decisions based in love or decisions based in selfishness.  He loves us enough to give us the power to choose.

Unfortunately, there are many ramifications for that.  Since God loves us all equally, He refuses to take free will away from anyone, no matter what they plan to do.  While it may be difficult for us to understand, God loves James Holmes (Aurora, CO), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Osama Bin Laden, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler.  God loves them so much that He refused to take their free will away.  I know that sounds too simple.  I know it sounds very convenient.  But if you consider the power of choice that God’s love provides, there is no denying it.

As for the disease and famine in the world, I am afraid the answer is a bit more painful.  It is still rooted in free will, but the blame does not lie on a few sinful individuals.  Unfortunately, the blame lies on me.  And you.  And every other person that has more than they need.  I have enough money to share and feed a hungry person or two, and chances are you do too. 

God created us to take care of one another.  Jesus commanded us to take care of the least of these.  Yet, we continue to buy nicer cars and bigger televisions.  We spend our time on hobbies and leisure activities when we should be volunteering and donating.  You and I are responsible for all of the people in need in this world…don’t blame God.

I agree that earth is a pretty messed up place right now.  However, the problems that we see are not evidence that God does not exist.  On the contrary, it is proof of the free will that we have all been blessed with, and the sinful choices that we make every day.  And if we want to see it change, we need to pray to God that He will help us change.  We are the problem.  Not Him.

Let’s play a little word association, shall we?  What’s the first thing that you think of when you think of Jonah?  If you didn’t say a whale, you are probably lying.

That’s what the story is all about, right?  Well…not really.  The story is about obedience (or the lack thereof).  It is about a man that refuses to obey God, and how God deals with Him.  It’s about redemption.  It is about mercy, compassion, and unfailing love. 

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them that they will be destroyed because of their wickedness.  Jonah runs the other way and hitches a ride on a boat.  There is a big storm, the others on the boat figure out that the storm is God trying to get Jonah, and they throw him overboard.  That is when the big fish is finally mentioned.  After Jonah prays a prayer of repentance, the fish spits him out and Jonah goes to Nineveh.

When the people there hear the message from God, they change their ways and God changes His mind.  Jonah gets mad cause he says he knew God would do this.  God then provides an example for Jonah to see how hard it must be for God to wipe out so many people out.

Isn’t that awesome?  The story of Jonah is so deep, and it shows us so much about the character of God.  We see God condemn, forgive, redeem, and work miracles.  Yet, we always talk about the whale.  The fish, however, is but a small detail.

How often do we do this in our own lives?  God provides for us in a mighty way, but we keep looking for “what’s next”.  God helps us through a hurtful time, but we focus on the pain.  God offers forgiveness and redemption, but we focus on our mistakes.

God is awesome.  And if He is going to intervene and display His awesomeness in our lives, then the least we can do is marvel at His splendor.  Yes, the details are important because He is in them.  However, let’s try to keep our focus on His presence and not on our selfish interests.

So [Jonah] complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.  Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”  (Jonah 4:2-4 NLT)

My wife and I are very thankful for our jobs.  Not only are we doing work that we love, but we also get some great benefits.  One of our favorite benefits is the time off around Christmas.  It makes travel plans flow more smoothly, allows room for family time, and lets us rest a bit.  This year, however, we decided to take on a special project…potty training our two year old.

When we trained our first child to use the toilet, it was a nightmare wrapped in a series of anticipated paper cuts…miserable.  However, our youngest is taking to it rather well.  That’s good in that it has been pretty stress free and will save us money on diapers.  However, it also means we have to stop every 20-30 miles to use the bathroom during holiday travel.  That is an even bigger problem when everything is closed on Christmas day.

Deep down, I fully support closing your business in observance of Christmas day.  Give your employees the day off to spend with family.  Put your focus more on respect and love than making money.  However, boy was I thankful for the handful of gas stations that we were able to find on Tuesday.

Yet, as I exited each establishment, often without buying anything, my eye was caught by the lonely employee spending Christmas at work.  I spoke to a few of them, trying to be cheerful and thankful.  But I felt as though they needed more.  So that gave me an idea.

Since I am pretty sure that the massive closure of businesses only happens on Christmas, I sincerely hope I don’t forget about this before next December.  Wouldn’t it be a cool ministry to drop in on those working on Christmas to bring a little blessing to their day?  Perhaps I could take a gift, or a pastry or some other sort of treat.  Maybe I could get some friends together and sing some Christmas carols.  There are so many ways to bless these people that are not able to be with their families.

At first, I thought this would be a great venture to take on in our travels.  However, that would limit the number of Christians available to serve in this way.  Then I realized that it would actually be more impactful and organized if we did it within our own home towns. 

Find out beforehand which businesses will be open in your area on Christmas day.  More than likely, these will all be gas stations.  Get a ministry team together and figure out how to serve these people.  What kind of ministry would have a big impact on their day at work?  How can we show them the love of Christ when they are stranded away from loved ones?  How can we be Christ to them when they feel all alone?

Let the planning begin.

Merry Christmas!  Today is the day that we celebrate the birth of our Savior.  A miracle birth, nonetheless, with a virgin mother and a host of unlikely visitors.  The Messiah came to earth, not as a warrior looking to lead Israel out of oppression, but a baby prepared to live the perfect life that we couldn’t and die the death that we all deserve.

Today is His birthday.  While I maintain that the celebration of the resurrection is a more important Christian holiday, Christmas represents a time of hope, love, and peace that seems to be a bit more inviting.  Christmas gives us more time to spend with family, showing our love through quality time and, of course, gifts.  Christmas gives us time off of work and that makes the holiday feel more special.  Christmas is full of warmth, joy, and anticipation.

However, we sometimes get drawn in to the pressure of buying the perfect gift, the expectation of making everyone around us happy, and a busy schedule that keeps us from experiencing Christmas as advertised.  We end up focusing on our to-do lists and family obligations more than the love that Christ’s birth represents. 

God wrapped Himself in flesh to come down here and save us from ourselves.  We need to make sure that we keep this significance in mind as we get bogged down in the hustle and bustle of our celebrations. 

Now, go worship our Savior.  Go love on your family.  Experience the peace, hope, and love that this season represents.

How smart are you?  Come on, give yourself a little credit.  Modesty is a fantastic trait, but I think we all believe that we are pretty intelligent.  At least, I know I am.  (Insert laugh track here.)

Regardless of how intelligent you think you are, I think we can all agree that it is always a good idea to be surrounded by smart people.  If you are looking for advice, or fresh ideas, or just help with a project, it’s great to have people around you that can support and contribute to your productivity.

As legend has it, and by legend I mean the Bible, Solomon was the wisest man that has ever lived.  God gave him wisdom because that is what he asked for.  Yet, the Bible also tells us that Solomon surrounded himself with trusted advisors.  He had people that he trusted to give solid advice and input.  Even the smartest guy alive sought wise counsel.  You’d have to think this was an all-star team of advisors, right?

After Solomon passed away, his “cabinet” stayed around to help the new king, Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.  Talk about a setup for success.  That’s like being drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1995.  There is very little you can do to screw things up.  However, Rehaboam found a way.

When confronted with his first issue about the labor requirements of the people of Israel, Rehaboam tried to figure out whether to make the burden lighter on the workers, or to push them harder.  He sought counsel from Solomon’s advisors, and also asked his friends for help.  After three days of deliberation, he opted to listen to his contemporaries and make life harder on the labor force.

And to this day the northern tribes of Israel have refused to be ruled by a descendant of David.  (2 Chronicles 10:19 NLT)

Rehaboam’s inability to listen to wise counsel led to great dissention, and ultimately destruction, of the Israel that David built.

I know that you and I not necessarily rulers of nations, but our decisions do affect people.  Our choices have an impact on the lives of others.  That impact has both immediate and eternal implications, and should be taken very seriously.

Thankfully, we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with Godly, wise, prayerful individuals.  We can choose to take advice from those that have more experience, can see the bigger picture, or have a stronger leading from the Holy Spirit.  We have a chance to be smarter than we are by simply allowing others to play a role in our decision making.

We all play our own parts, and serve in individual roles in the body of Christ.  But let’s make sure that we utilize the other parts as well. 

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  (1 Corinthians 12:26-27 NLT)