Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ. ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:5
a prayer that He will guide my heart
to two destinations…
1. the love of God &
2. the patience of Christ
personal experiences with Him
observable qualities in me
only through knowing Him
can I make Him known
guide my heart, Lord!
The book of Judges is an account of one of the darkest periods in the history of God’s people. Armed with His promises but weak in faith, the first generation to enter the Promised Land convinced themselves it was too hard to drive out the Canaanites. Defeat became a way of life. Settling down to live with the enemy, God’s people continued to speak His name, but they forgot who He is and what He had called them to do. The God of Abraham and Moses was reduced to a place of mere recognition among the gods in this world. Exclusive devotion to God disappeared.
But the God of grace and mercy did not forget His people. Keeping His promises to their forefathers, He pursued a very lost generation. Sending years of pressure into their lives, the Father waited on His people to cry out to Him… to genuinely turn away from all of the gods of Canaan, and to return to Him with all their heart. Hearing their cries, the Father would then send a deliverer – called a “judge” — to go against and remove the disciplinary oppression of God’s people. This cycle of forgetting God when at peace and remembering God when under distress is repeated by the people until it seems darkness has triumphed. However, by the end of the book, God’s people have stopped crying out. There is no happy ending… Judges is not a “feel good” story about the natural condition of the human heart.
During one of the cycles, the Midianites were invading the land during the annual harvest. As soon as the Israelite crops were ready to be brought in, the parasitic oppressors would arrive, driving God’s people into the hills, and destroying everything Israel had earned in that year. This went on for seven seasons. Then the Bible reports: “And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD.” (6:6)
And He heard their cry.
A young man named Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press. Hiding his meager efforts to keep some of the harvest for his family, Gideon was not on a mission to oppose the enemies of God’s people. He was just trying to get ahead. He was a product of his age. A farmer. A survivor. An idolater.
To get ahead in Gideon’s day meant doing business with the local gods. Asserting that they controlled the weather and the harvest, Canaanite deities had to be appeased if you were going to be successful. If you wanted to trade with Canaanites and marry their daughters, you had to show some respect for their beliefs and values. So you kept your identity as a devotee of Yahweh, but you engaged other gods too, unconsciously embracing a Canaanite worldview.
Years later the Psalmist described the creeping syncretism that was blinding the people of God…
“They did not destroy the peoples, as the LORD commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.” Psalms 106:34-38
The altars of Canaan were used for child sacrifice and sexual perversion on a massive scale. The people of God had become Canaanized in every aspect of their lives. In the sight of God it was sin (3:7, 12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). In their minds, it was the right and sensible way to live (17:6, 21:25).
In order to go on God’s mission, Gideon first needed to know God. God cannot be just another “priority” in a busy life. God does not hang around just to bail us out of our latest predicament. God does not exist for us.
We exist for Him.
He will never be satisfied with the tiny spaces given him by His people (then or now)… to exist as one god among the “gods” in our cultural pantheon. I can’t give him a few minutes of reflection on Sunday, and then live as if He doesn’t exist the rest of the week, sacrificing my life on a dozen other altars in my heart, and doing what everyone else does (unthinkingly) to be happy and get ahead. He will not accept anything less than all of my devotion. Jesus said it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
As Gideon begins to understand this truth, he builds a personal altar to Yahweh. But it’s not enough. He has other idols roaming around in his life. Listen…
Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace… That night the LORD said to him, “…pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the LORD your God…” Judges 6:24-26
There can only be one altar in my heart… not two. If Gideon… or anyone… begins to draw near Him, the other gods of the heart must be decisively evicted. Why? If He is who He says He is… the one true God and Creator and Sovereign Lord of all creation (including me)… then He alone can be trusted to tell me the truth about my life.
All the other “gods” are nothing more than powerless pretenders and silver-tongued liars to the human race. Fake gods are not worthy of my faith. All they can do is promote a self-actualized distortion of my humanity, pushing an illusion of happiness to dispel the deep foreboding undertow of hopelessness… calming me with a few fairy tales on the road to hell.
Yes, every other altar must be torn down until only one remains.
“…being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Does the Bible really say that? I was stunned sitting in that pew on a Sunday night… and deeply moved.
A few months earlier I had been sitting in my dorm room at the University of Texas in Austin, when someone knocked on my door. David Procter, a staff member from Hyde Park Baptist Church, had dropped by to invite me to their college ministry. He later introduced me to a deacon, Alphonce Brown, who soon started picking me up for church on Sundays. As a year-old Christian, I had nothing to offer the church, but they invested time in me. Their love for Jesus was infectious… and their influence on me would last for decades.
So that’s how I came to be sitting in that pew on a Sunday night. That was the moment when I heard our pastor, Ralph Smith, mention a verse of scripture I had not heard before. I don’t recall anything else about the sermon, except I couldn’t wait to figure out where that verse was located in the Bible. After the service, I moved down to the front, surprised that no one else was lined up to speak to Dr. Smith (usually there was).
“Pastor,” I asked, “you quoted a verse… something about God completing a work that He begins.” He smiled. I was one of those who regularly queried him after his sermons. With a notebook in hand, I wasn’t challenging anything he said, but I always had questions. He told me where to find Philippians 1:6 and then, as we briefly discussed what it means, a truth formed in my heart that has never left: what God starts, God finishes! I really needed to hear that.
As a young believer, all I could see were my ongoing struggles with sin and my failed attempts to live for Him. I wanted to get it right, but it seemed like I was always getting it wrong. I was focusing on what I wanted to do for God, instead of what God was already doing in me. I needed to understand that when I first trusted Jesus, God began a work in me that is unstoppable. What God starts, God finishes!
In me — just me — nothing good dwells (Romans 7:18). On my own, I will always stumble and fall.
Every failure reminds me that I cannot live without Him. Jesus Himself said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Today, I am thankful that He never fails to finish what He starts, and that He long ago started to work in me. Steadily, unfailingly, and relentlessly…
He is finishing what He started.
“Things are not as bad as they seem, things could get worse, but they will get better.” ~ Ralph Smith (1931-2017)
Dr. Smith was the pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas for 36 years. Click here for a brief account of his life from the Austin-American Statesman newspaper.
“…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” ~ Hebrews 12:2-3
When your heart is dry, and life seems to hold little promise of joy, and your passion is burning low, what is happening and what can you do?
The causes of your spiritual and emotional malaise may be complex, but the effect is the same… your inner world becomes a mess. The entire vision of your soul is filled with the immediate demands of the latest wave of distress. You see no way forward. You can’t see beyond this moment. Darkness settles in.
Jesus faced the very worst circumstances and people. He was criticized and betrayed. He was attacked and falsely accused. He was insulted and threatened.
Yet, even in the moments before His death, He had a way of looking past the hurt and pain. The writer of Hebrews says it this way: “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” He preoccupied Himself with the joy that lay just ahead… a joy so great that it flooded his present existence with meaning. He kept on. Not out of duty or discipline, but from a controlling vision of reality — the truth about His life and identity and His relationship to the Father — that became a vast reservoir of hope in His soul.
What you “see” in your heart controls your inner thoughts and emotions. When the “eyes” of your heart are distracted from Jesus, you will “grow weary or fainthearted” within your soul (Heb. 12:3). That’s why the writer calls us to look to Jesus… to “consider Him.” The options are clear: look at everything but Jesus, and grow weary in soul, or look to Him only and gain a new vision.
He wants you to stop and turn to Him with your weary and overloaded life. He invites you to come now… with your very real and imperfect self (Matthew 11:28-29; Psalm 27:8). He is not a set of religious beliefs and practices; He is a Person. And knowing Him personally is the only way that any life gets real and dense with meaning (John 17:3).
Where can you see Him? Pick up a New Testament and read the historical accounts of those who walked with Him (found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Rediscover the language of His heart by reading His Words. Watch how He moved among people then… He has not changed. Hear His words and place yourself into the stories. Lose yourself at His feet. Allow Him to invade every moment of this day. Discover the reality of His presence with you and in you. Abandon yourself to His authority and mission. Yield to the gentle pressure of His Spirit. Then you’ll see.
Seeing Him changes everything.
In the summer of 1980 I worked as a night watchman for an airline. As a new Christian and college student, I spent long hours reading God’s Word for the first time. Tears and laughter filled my nights as the Lord opened up the Scriptures to my young heart. Early in my Christian walk I discovered a love for reading the Bible.
Whether you are a new child of God or a long-time follower of Jesus Christ, Bible reading is an essential discipline for every Christian. Many believers make resolutions to begin a Bible reading habit, only to flounder when they fall behind schedule or encounter difficult-to-read passages in the Old Testament. It is vital that you and I cultivate a habit of Bible reading. Why?
Without reading the Bible…
- I am depriving myself of LIFE. In the wilderness the Israelites learned that their lives were dependent on the Word of God (Deuteronomy 8:3). The provision of bread in the wilderness was a daily reminder that life is more than sustaining a heartbeat or holding off hunger. Real life is defined as an intimate relationship with God—which is of greater value than physical survival. God’s Word is the source of spiritual life.
- I am stunting my GROWTH. By the time we had our sixth child, my wife and I had learned to distinguish between the cries of an infant. Crying indicated different needs for diaper changes, relief from gas, entertainment, or milk. In 1 Peter 2:2, Peter challenges us to desire God’s Word in the same way—as a baby craves milk. Why? So that we can grow!
- I am undermining my FAITH. In Romans 10:17, the Apostle Paul explains that faith comes from hearing the message of Christ. Faith in Christ is strengthened as I continue to read about Him in His Word. Because He is unchanging, what I observe in the Scriptures helps me to trust Him in the present. Confusing circumstances and painful experiences can undermine and weaken my faith. Faith is strengthened through a regular diet of truth.
- I am steering away from personal PURITY. In Matthew 4, Jesus Christ responded to each satanic temptation with the same phrase, “It is written…” If Jesus could not combat temptation apart from a personal knowledge and understanding of God’s Word, how can I escape temptation without a daily engagement with the Scriptures and an intentional effort to saturate my mind with God’s Word?
- I am cutting myself off from GUIDANCE. God “breathed” the Scriptures to change me through a relationship with Him. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul highlights the four types of guidance found in the Scriptures: teaching (what is true?), rebuking (what is wrong with me?), correcting (how can I literally straighten out what is wrong with me?), and instruction in righteousness (how can I live routinely in the will of God?).
- I am abandoning the primary source of all effective MINISTRY. In 2 Timothy 3:17, Paul also links effective ministry to our handling of the Scriptures. God’s Word is sufficient to change my life and the lives of those I minister to. By submitting to the life-changing guidance of the Scriptures, I am equipped to impact the lives of others.
In the busy world we live in, finding the time to read and study the Bible can be a challenge. Even after thirty years of pastoral ministry, I have found that the most intense spiritual battles erupt around my efforts to fellowship with God through the Scriptures. The devil will do all he can to distract you and me from simple devotion to Jesus Christ.
Here are five simple Bible reading strategies for developing and maintaining a consistent and meaningful time alone in God’s Word.
Strategy No. 1: Read the Scriptures to Deepen Your Relationship with God
“It came as a surprise to me that one of the problems I faced in the ministry was that when I opened the Scriptures I found it extremely difficult to forget the need to determine the background, outline the passage, divide it into an appropriate package for delivery, and think of ways to get this particular truth across to others.” – Curtis Thomas, Practical Wisdom for Pastors, Crossway Books, Wheaton IL, 2001, 21-22.
Pastors and teachers are susceptible to reading Scripture just to prepare for the next sermon or lesson. When we read the Scriptures, we should seek Him first. To know Him is our highest privilege and should be our primary aim when we open up God’s word. He wants to reveal Himself to you and He wants you to know Him. Through His Word, He has provided all you need to know about Him on this side of heaven.
Reading the Scriptures is our primary vehicle for knowing and serving God. In an authentic, passionate relationship with God, His Word fills our hearts and our homes (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
If you struggle with a reading plan that takes you through the Bible in a year—relax! God wants to meet you in His Word throughout your life. There is no biblical requirement to complete the entire Bible in a year. In fact, every seven years the nation of Israel was supposed to gather for a public reading of the first five books of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 31:10-11). When was the last time you came across a 7-year Bible reading plan?
Bible reading plans come in all shapes and sizes. You will find Bible reading plans in bookstores, on the Internet, and in many Bible software packages. There are 1, 2, and 3-year plans. To allow for missed days, some plans are based on 5 readings per week (instead of 7). While some reading plans guide the reader straight through the Bible, other plans encourage a daily mix of Old and New Testament readings.
Do you really want to read through the Bible in one year? You will need to allow about 80 hours. Be prepared to commit 10-15 minutes per day. You can also read through the Bible in one year by simply reading 3 chapters per day and 5 chapters on Sunday. A more aggressive approach is to read 3 chapters in the Old and New Testaments each day. You will read through the Old Testament once and the New Testament four times each year.
However, a Bible reading plan is valuable only when combined with a thirsty heart—a heart that longs to know God (Psalm 42:1-2).
Strategy No. 2: Read the Scriptures Until It “Burns”
“I think a new world will arise out of the religious mists when we approach the Bible with the idea that it is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking.” – A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, Christian Publications Inc., Camp Hill PA, 1982, 82.
God still speaks to us today through His Word. When He does speak, the words of the Bible come alive and glow with a brilliant relevance to our lives. He uses the Scriptures to place truth in our minds, inject truth into our decisions, and impress truth on our hearts. He comforts us and corrects us. Our hearts are captured and stirred by His Word.
In a post-resurrection appearance of the risen Christ, Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize Him at first. After he disappeared and they realized Who had been teaching them, they exclaimed, “Weren’t our hearts a blaze within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
Read the Scriptures with an expectation that God is going to speak to you. Listen for His voice. Depend on the Holy Spirit to open your ears. Read the Scriptures until His voice sets your heart “ablaze.” Do not be satisfied with checking off the day’s reading assignment—long to encounter Him in His Word.
In World War II, Corrie Ten Boom and her fellow prisoners were enduring the horror of the Holocaust. Each day she secretly shared the Scriptures with other women around her. If caught she could have been executed by the guards. Years later, she described the immediate, life-giving properties of God’s Word in the midst of that dark experience. She wrote,
“I would slip the Bible from its little sack with hands that shook, so mysterious had it become to me. It was new; it had just been written. I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry.” – Lawrence Kimbrough, Words to Die For, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville TN, 2002, 168)
Strategy No. 3: Read the Scriptures Every Day
“Those who are willing to immerse themselves daily in God’s Word will find that he reveals enough to keep them busy for the day at hand!” – Henry and Richard Blackaby, Hearing God’s Voice, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville TN, 2002, 110.
Read the Bible daily. Although the amount of Scripture read may vary from person to person, the believers who read it daily are better prepared spiritually for the journey ahead. The kings of Israel were expected to copy the first five books of the Law (the Torah) and to read it “all the days” of their lives (Deuteronomy 17:18-20, Joshua 8:34-35). Each day the king was to take up his handmade copy of the Law and read it.
Read the Scripture in the morning. Even if you intend to read more later in the day, do not start your day without the intake of God’s Word. For your regular reading time, choose a time and place that is right for you. If you cannot stay awake, let me suggest you choose a different time of day for your reading!
Sit upright in a well-lit, private location. Choose a plain text Bible with a readable type. In order to concentrate on the text, consider using a Bible that does not have annotations or study aids—they can be distracting and keep you from the actual text. Using different translations each year can help you “see” passages in a new way.
Strategy No. 4: Study the Scriptures Every Week
“There is a freshness and a vitality about every sermon which is born of study; without study, however, our eyes become glazed, our breath stale and our touch clumsy.” – John Stott, Between Two Worlds, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982, 180.
John Stott stresses the importance of personal Bible study for preachers. It is true for all believers. I would argue that your best Bible study is going to be birthed out of your daily reading. As God calls your attention to particular issues or passages, He is often teaching you something that will be of benefit to others. In your Bible study time, go deeper into the questions raised during your reading. Bible study helps and commentaries will help unfold the meaning of Biblical concepts or difficult passages.
However, daily Bible reading and Bible study are not the same activity. In fact, you should avoid mixing the two. As you read the Bible, keep a journal handy and jot down issues, questions, ideas and topics for further study as they arise. Then set aside time each week for in-depth study.
Strategy No. 5: Remember What is Written
“Nothing perhaps more strongly indicates the tone of a believer’s spirituality, than the light in which the Scriptures are regarded by him.” – Octavius Winslow (writing in 1841), Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle PA, 1978, 17.
When we are passionate about a topic, we learn all we can. With great ease, we are able to recite, dates, statistics, and facts concerning our passion. Why? Because we remember what we love!
The writer of Psalm 119 described God’s Word as sweeter than honey (Psalm 119:103). You will not be able to sustain a meaningful reading habit apart from a real passion for God Himself. Remembering what He says to you each day will help keep your passion for Bible reading white-hot. Mark down the truth in your Bible or journal, and it will help you mark it down in your soul.
As you read God’s Word, write down the truths that God brings to mind. Make brief notes in a journal or in the margins of your Bible. Underline and memorize the verses with special meaning. Talk about what you are reading with your spouse or friend—share what the Lord is showing you. Be alert to ways the Lord will use your reading to help others. God will often use your reading to help someone else during the week!
He will also use His Word to fend off the attacks of the enemy. As Jesus recalled what was “written” when He was being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4), so He will bring His Word to your mind in the face of temptation and challenges to your faith.
With great fondness I can recall the life-changing lessons learned during those long summer nights of Bible reading many years ago. I can show you the notes in the Bible I was using, but more importantly, I can show you the changes He made in my life.
Still looking for ideas? Here are some online resources that may help:
For most of my journey as a Christ-follower, I have repeatedly asked the questions, “How does God change a man?” and “Am I changing?” Consequently, I am—at best—a student of what happens to someone in the Presence of God. No experts here—so I pen these words with a continual readiness to be corrected and better informed. However, there are ways of applying the good news of Jesus that reduce it to a manmade religion of self-effort and human accomplishment.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” – Mark 7:21-23
In Mark 7, Jesus warned against a preaching ministry that relied solely on words: words aimed at chiding a congregation to achieve an external set of standards of behavior. Such a ministry is functionally bankrupt from the outset, since the locus of true change lies within us (Mark 7:21-23; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Preachers must preach the truth with words, but they must aim at directing hearts to the Presence of God (Mark 7:6).
Why? The thoughts that lead to actions flow from the heart. Powerful emotions that lead to sinful acts begin as sinful desires and attractions of the heart. Pride and deception live in the heart. Unless the heart is engaged and transformed, you will not change. Jesus does not simply want to change your behavior: He wants to change your heart.
How do you change a heart?
Many spiritual disciplines and practices come to mind. They can be excellent tools for transformation, but they cannot replace the Author of transformation. By themselves, the disciplines can rapidly devolve into a body of strict, lifeless habits. Using discipline, you can control your behavior and silence the internal “voices” – but you cannot change the root impulses and “messaging” of the heart. Many religions embrace various forms of discipline, but the hearts of the practitioners remain unchanged.
I believe that a community of Christian believers can be a major force in spiritual transformation. True believers want to be with others who love God, seeking to follow Him with their whole life. But involvement in a vibrant community of practicing disciples is not enough…
I am an advocate for Scripture memory and meditation. God speaks to my heart through His Word, challenging me, correcting me, and guiding me into ways of living that please Him. It’s a non-optional and essential ingredient in the process of transformation, but it’s not enough…
I can contribute to the change, and I can cooperate with the Author of change, but I can’t cause my heart to change. The Author of change is Jesus, Who comes and dwells in the heart when someone accepts His invitation to abandon self-rule (a form of rebellion against God), to accept responsibility for personal sin, and to surrender life governance to Him. The result becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Spirit of Christ indwells a person for the purpose of salvation… not just from a future hell of separation from God, but also from the present “hell” of being dominated by a dark and unruly heart.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit…” – John 7:37-39
Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The “flow” of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of my heart begins as I accept and trust the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates my heart (Psalm 51:10-11). My only hope for change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of my heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
However, Jesus limits this process of heart transformation to those who are “thirsty” for change (John 7:37) and those who are weary with the “self-made” approach to doing life (Matthew 11:28-30). So let me pause here a moment before I wrap this up [selah]:
- Am I thirsty?
- Do I really want to change?
- Am I ready to abandon my efforts “to make it” and to be “successful” in the eyes of others (or even in my own eyes)?
- Am I ready to accept His “yoke” and enter into a learning relationship with a living Jesus who is self-described as “gentle and lowly in heart” – knowing that He is going to make my heart like His heart?
What are the implications here for ministry?
“If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” – Luke 11:10-13
In Luke 11:10-13, Jesus makes it clear that the Father is ready to release His Spirit into the life of the man or woman who “asks” (or “thirsts” in John 7). I need to ask… I need to thirst… I need to want His Spirit to transform my heart. I need to engage Him with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)—the Holy Spirit is a Person who can be “grieved” and “quenched” (Ephesians 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Change is not automatic, but requires my cooperation with and sensitivity to the Spirit.
Jesus ridicules the notion that earthly fathers would give their children stones, serpents, or scorpions. The father’s heart should be tender towards the child who is crying and hurting. Our churches are populated with individual pastors and members who are crying out for change. They are longing for God to come and transform their churches, their communities, and their lives. They are asking and they are thirsty. They want more than the external activity and programming of the average church… they don’t long for a building or relocation program (“stones”?), a lengthy “how to be a success” sermon series (“serpents”?), or an ecclesiastical power struggle (“scorpions”?).
They want the “real deal”—they want Him—a life in the Spirit.