Saturday, May 2, 2015

Iron Sharpens Iron (ISI) 1: A Full, Abundant Life

[This Bible Study starts here.  And remember that my answers to some of the questions are in [brackets].]

Icebreaker Question:
Briefly describe your life/spiritual life up to now.  And what are some of the most exciting or memorable times in your life so far?   

Have someone open the meeting with prayer

Read Lesson:

            In John 10:10, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

            We hear all different kinds of things today about the kind of life God wants for us.  I have heard preachers say that God wants us to wear fine clothes and live in big homes because we are the “children of the King.”  And so we shouldn’t be living like paupers.  [And this notion probably appeals to a lot of us because we would love to believe that we should be getting all we want on this side of eternity.  Isn’t that what life is about, after all?  Rack up as many toys and as much happiness as you can before the final trumpet blows?  (Note the sarcasm.)]

            But I have also read that we should basically live as paupers, giving no thought to our needs while we take care of God’s Kingdom and the poor.  [And while this thought appeals to very few people, these “sacrificial givers” are the ones that we admire the most.  They are the ones that make us say, “I wish I could be more like them.  They are so inspiring.”  But then we get back in our fancy cars, sipping our $5 coffee, and go back to our full homes and play with our many toys.]  And we shouldn’t do anything special for ourselves or worry at all about our appearance or happiness because that stems from vanity, pride, and self-centeredness.  

            So which is it?  What kind of a life does God want for us?  What does Jesus mean when He says that He wants to give us a “full life”?  One female "minister" recently made the claim before the Senate Judiciary Committee that when Jesus said He came to give us a "full life," He was advocating for social rights that would allow us to have the life we want, which includes having access to birth-control.  (And I say ... "What!?!")  

            Is that what Jesus means, that we should be able to have the life we want?  Is the "full life" about our happiness and comfort and ease?  About living fancy or plain lives?  Does the “full life” even relate to physical life on this earth, or is it talking about our spiritual lives and eternity?  Or is it both?  And what does all of this mean for how we live our lives today?  Do Christians today even look any different from the world, or are we pursuing the same things they are?

            Personally, I am very bothered by the “prosperity” teachings that we hear nowadays.  The ones that tell us that we should be living royally now because our Father is the King and we are princes and princesses.  I do not think we should necessarily be depriving ourselves of enjoyable things (or that we should neglect ourselves in any way), but I do not think we should be pursuing them either as our “rights” or as an end goal. 

            But where is the dividing line between enjoying God’s blessings yet not building up our treasures on earth?

            Society today seems to be all about consuming – getting more things, getting bigger things, filling our stomachs and homes to the point of bursting.   Commercials tell us that if we buy their product, we will have a satisfying life.  We’ll be pretty and popular, and people will want to be like us.  And many ads tell us that “we deserve it” and “we are worth it.”  Even the most content people sometimes feel like they are missing out on something, like they need something more in order to be happy.      

            But is that true? 

            I mean, we have all heard stories about people who got everything they wanted, and they were still unhappy, some to the point of suicide.  They found no real meaning or purpose or satisfaction in their possessions and accomplishments.         

            Not to mention that Jesus talks about how hard it is for the rich to get into heaven.  It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven.  (Matthew 19:23-24)  Why is that? 

            And even if we manage to find salvation while having an abundance of possessions, how easy is it to get distracted by our “stuff”?  It scares me (and humbles me) to read the Old Testament and see how many people start out with a passion for the Lord, and then fall away later in their life when they have grown too comfortable.  They are cautionary tales, reminders that it can just as easily happen to me.

            But is self-deprivation the way to go?  Would it be better to deny ourselves all pleasures and to give away all we own?  Does God want us to enjoy the blessings that He gives us today or to give them to others?  Where is the balance?    

            And just what is a “blessing”?  Do we view it differently than God does?  We seem to think of ourselves as more blessed when things are going good and going our way.  Good health and enough money and enjoyable opportunities mean that God is happy with us and is blessing us, right? 

            Some preachers even teach us that God will answer our prayers the way we want and will heal all of our ailments if our faith is strong enough, if we pray in the right way or follow the right “formula,” and if we are without sin.  But is this the way the Christian life really works?  Is this the way God works?

            I don’t think so.  While there are biblical commands and instructions that need to be followed to have the best spiritual life and the best relationship with God possible, there is no formula for getting God to give you the life you want.  (Trust me, I have tried!) 

            And if we live like there is, I think it shows that - deep-down and at the root of it all - we are really pursuing our happiness and not pursuing God.  Because we are not seeing God for who He really is but for who we want Him to be.  We see Him as a code to be cracked to get what we want.  If we can just find the right combination of proper behavior and proper words and proper attitude then He has to give us what we ask for, right?

            But I don’t think this is a genuine faith in God.  I think it’s “faith in our faith” - faith in our ability to “pray right” or to live appropriately enough that we “earn” the right to get the life we want.

            And the problem is that when trials come or we don’t get the answers we want in prayer, we begin to doubt our faith and God.  We wonder what we are doing wrong and if God is unhappy with us.  We feel abandoned by Him.  We think, I did everything right, so why didn’t my “faith” work?  

            But is God a code to be cracked?  Is faith a formula?  Is prayer?  Are trials and hard times always indications that something is wrong, that God is displeased with us?  Does God always bless us in the ways we think He should?  Or can trial and pain be a part of His plan for us?  What does “the full, abundant, blessed life” look like and how might we be viewing it incorrectly?

            Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”  (Gen 6:8)  And this favor earned him 120 years of hard work building an ark by hand, most likely facing ridicule the whole time from those around him.  And then, he was closed up in a box for almost a year while everyone around him died off.  And then, he got to work the ground from scratch in order to keep his family alive. 

            Abraham was childless for 100 years, waiting for 25 years before God fulfilled His promise to give him a son.

            Joseph was favored by God, but it sure seemed like God had a funny way of showing it at first.  When Joseph worked for Potiphar after being sold into slavery by his brothers, God poured out blessings on “the household of [Potiphar] because of Joseph.”  (Gen 39:5)  Someone else got the “blessings” because of Joseph’s faithfulness to God.  And Joseph got slavery.  And God showed favor to Joseph while he was unjustly imprisoned on false charges.  (Gen 39-40)  But even with this favor, he still spent at least two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

            Daniel was taken into captivity as a young man and lived as a captive for decades.  And his faithfulness to the Lord could have cost him his life when the king threw him into the lion’s den for praying to God. 

            Samuel was raised not in the warmth and care of his home by his godly mother, but in a temple by a priest who couldn’t even raise his own children in a godly way.

            Jeremiah was called to be basically a failure, preaching for decades to people who would reject his message. 

            Moses gave up the comforts of Egypt to live as a shepherd.  And then he spent the rest of his years wandering the desert with a group of rebellious, complaining Israelites, not even being allowed to set foot in the Promised Land because of one outburst.

            Elijah was instructed by God to live alone in a desert, being fed by ravens, and to beg food from a widow.  And he faced death threats from Jezebel. 

            Elisha died of an illness after serving God faithfully. 

            Ezekiel was instructed by God to “bear the sins of the people,” being forced to lie on his side for over a year.  And then to illustrate a point to the ungodly people, God took Ezekiel’s wife.  He took the wife of the man most committed to Him for the sake of the people least committed to Him. 

            Job lost everything he had but his life and wife, despite the fact that he was fully committed to God. 

            Paul was beaten and imprisoned all throughout his preaching career.  And when he asked God three times to remove the thorn from his side, he was denied.

            Because of his faith, John was banished to the island of Patmos to live out his time.  

            And many believers today have to live with chronic illness, fruitless job searches, and broken homes and hearts.  Many watch their children die of illness or starvation.  Many willingly face the horrors of Ebola and leprosy and other diseases and disasters in order to help those who are suffering and in need.  Many are losing their homes and lives and heads for their faith. 

            But, hey, forget all that! 

            Here in America, we have God’s promise that we will be rich and healthy and have an abundance of stuff, whatever we want.  If you want a great job, you’ll get one.  If you want health, you’ll have it.  If you want a blue Corvette, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have one.  Just ask God in faith and He’ll provide it (unless your faith isn’t strong enough).  And remember to tell Him what seat color you want.  Reach out and grab the blessings He wants to pour out on you, that He has promised you.  Remember, you are the children of the King.  You are princes and princesses!  Money, fame, success, big home, expensive car, health, parking spot near the front!  It’s all yours, if you just ask for it and claim it.  (Once again, note the sarcasm.)

            Does this sound right to you?  Seriously!  Do you really see this promise anywhere in Scripture?  Or does our own desire for more, for abundance, for happiness convince us that these promises are there? 

            Because what I find in Scripture is this: 

            Matthew 10:22:  “All men will hate you because of me . . .”

            2 Timothy 3:12:  “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . .”

            James 1:2-4:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

            Matthew 6:19-21, 24:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Money.” 

            And look for moment at the rich young man who wants to know what else he can do to inherit eternal life.  In Mark 10:21, Jesus tells him, “One thing you lack . . . Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  And the man went away sad because he had a lot of wealth.

            I don’t think Jesus was saying that wealth is bad, but He was exposing this man’s idol.  He was exposing the one thing that kept this man from fully committing his heart to the Lord: his wealth.  Jesus was pointing out that this man put wealth above God, and he couldn’t truly follow Jesus unless he let go of that idol. 

            How many people in our country have made idols of money and possessions?  How about success and popularity?  Health and youthfulness and happiness?  How many have an abundance of stuff stored up on earth but nothing in heaven?  And how many people fail to engage in the spiritual battle for souls because they are too busy playing with temporary toys?

            Honestly, the “prosperity gospel” makes me queasy.  In fact, I am more on the anti-“prosperity gospel” side.  Not the one that says you should neglect yourself and practice self-punishment and deny yourself all pleasures, comforts, and possessions.  (I think that while extreme self-denial and self-punishment can be symptoms of an extremely damaged self-esteem, there are some people for whom it’s really a form of self-glorification, even though it looks super humble and sacrificial.)  But the one that says that God will bless our obedience, but that He gets to decide when and how.  The one that says the best blessings are in eternity, not the ones that will burn up at the end of this life.  The one that says we are to not worry so much about how much or how little we have, but that we are to honor and glorify God with whatever He has given us.  The one that believes that trials grow our faith, that neediness and weakness humbles us, and that it’s what’s on the inside that really matters. 

            The thing is, we want to lead and have control, don’t we?  We want to have the life we want, the happiness we “deserve.”  And we feel like if we are pleasing enough to God and say the right things and act the right way, He will give us the life and happiness that we want. 

            But a big problem is that this leads us to evaluate what kind of a God He is by our circumstances and by the answers to our prayers.  And as I said, it is putting our faith in ourselves and in the strength of our faith, not in God.  Our focus and priorities are all wrong. 

            I have come to realize that what I am really trying to do when I believe that my “strong faith” will make things happen is to manipulate God to do what I am asking.  I am saying, “See how much I believe in You to do this?  So now You can’t let me down.”  I am putting my faith in the strength of my faith to get God to do what I want, instead of putting my faith in God to work things out the way He wants.  Does that make sense?  Because it does to me.

            While we are praying, “I have faith in You that You can do what I am asking You to do,” God might just be saying, “Yes, but will you still have faith in Me if I don’t do what you’re asking Me to do?” 

            And I think sometimes, God deliberately denies certain prayer requests to test our faith, to see if our faith is really in Him, as He is, no matter the circumstances, or if it’s really in ourselves and our ability to get what we want and the version of God that we created in our mind. 

            Genuine faith in God is not one that says, “I prayed correctly and I am living the way I should, and so I know that You will do what I am asking You to do, that You will give me the life I want.”  That’s presumption about what God wants and about how He should answer. 

            A genuine faith in God isn’t one based on what kind of answers we get.  Genuine faith says, “I can’t see what’s ahead and I may not get what I want, but I still believe in You.  I believe that You can do what I am asking; but if You don’t, I know that You are good and that You will work all things out for good.  Whatever happens, I still believe in You and trust You.  And I will follow where You lead.  You are God and I am not!” 

            This is putting our faith in God.  This is humility.  And to be honest, this is very, very difficult!  (Even though it shouldn’t be.  Not when you have gotten to know God for the faithful, trustworthy, loving God that He really is.)  

            If we let trials, God’s “no” answers, heartache, pain, unfulfilled dreams, and unmet expectations destroy our faith in Him then we didn’t really have faith in Him to begin with, did we?  We had faith in our faith, faith in our own ideas of how God should be. 

            But a faith that is grounded in God as He is in the Bible - mysterious, powerful, far above us, loving, holy, faithful, etc. – makes it easier for us to trust Him, even when things don’t go our way.  Because we have learned to let Him be God.  We have learned that - even in the pain - He is trustworthy.  We have learned to take comfort in the fact that this life isn’t all there is and that He is working things out for eternity and He will work all the bad into good and He will someday make everything right again. 

            Oftentimes, many of our “faith struggles” during the hard times are because we are not looking for God as He is but because we are looking for an easily-manipulated, Vending-Machine God who will give us what we want when we put our prayer in and push the button.  We want Him to be there when we want something but to basically leave us alone the rest of the time. 

            But this is not who God is.  And this is not what faith is.     

            And our thoughts of what makes a “full, blessed, abundant life” are far different from God’s.  Just look at the lives of some of the greatest biblical God-followers.  Their lives were anything but comfortable and “happy.”  (They had joy, but not necessarily circumstance-based happiness.)  Trials were a big part of what refined their faith, what helped them learn true humility, and what purified their trust in Him, their priorities, and their focus. 

            And as their faith was refined and grew, they learned to say (even with tears in their eyes), “No matter what happens in life, it is well with my soul!  I will glorify You regardless.  And I know that You are a good, loving Father who will redeem all things in the end and turn all ugly things beautiful.” 

            They lived for the eternal, not the temporary.  They lived for the Lord, not for themselves.

            I think a lot of us want to grow closer to the Lord, to have our faith grow more mature and be strengthened.

            We just don't want the difficult journey that gets us there!  

            Jesus modeled the right kind of trust and humility and faith in the garden of Gethsemane.  In His humanness, He desperately wanted to live, to not go to the cross.  He pleaded with God three times to “take the cup” of suffering from Him.  And yet in the end, even though things didn’t go the way He wanted, He still trusted and loved the Father enough to say, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” 

            He had enough faith in the Father to accept the hard times, to embrace the “no” answer, and to let His life – good times and difficult times, blessings and sacrifices – bring God glory.  Can we expect to do any less?    

            Can we praise God in the pain and bring Him glory?  Like Jesus in the garden, can we still call Him “Father” in faith and trust and love, even when the times are dark?  Do we cling to Him in our desperate times because we know Him to be a good, loving, faithful Father who will work all things out in the end? 

            Or are we only faithful to Him when we are getting what we want?  Do we live like God owes us something, like He is a Heavenly Vending Machine that is here to give us good things, and like we can only really be “happy” when we get bigger and better and more?  Do we evaluate how blessed we are and how full our life is based on our circumstances?  Should we?  How different is God’s definition of “the full, abundant, blessed life” than ours? 

            I know Christians (as I’m sure we all do) who have an abundance of stuff or pursue an abundance of stuff.  And I know Christians who have always had to struggle, to learn to be content with little.  And I have to say that the strugglers generally are the ones with the much sweeter dispositions, the gentler and humbler spirits.  Possibly a bittersweet disposition and a humble yet aching spirit, but they have learned that spiritual rewards and valuable lessons come with the struggles.    

            They have learned to accept the trials and struggles as from God’s hand and to seek Him in the midst of their pain, instead of just seeking ways out of the pain.  They have learned to lean on His strength and wisdom, instead of their own.  They have learned to wait for His timing, instead of forcing theirs.  They have learned to follow Him, instead of trying to lead.  They have learned to run to God when things go wrong, instead of running away from Him.  They have learned to say “Blessed be Your name,” even when their hearts are hurting.  And they have learned to prioritize according to eternity.  (Not all of them, of course.  Many believers get stuck in bitterness or envy or self-pity.  And part of the spiritual journey is working through all that so you can have faith in God, no matter the circumstances.) 

            When you have too much stuff or pursue too much stuff, it’s too easy to focus on stuff and to find your value in stuff.  (Or maybe you find your value in success or relationships or your accomplishments or your looks or other people’s approval . . . or whatever your area of temptation/weakness may be.) 

            But when you struggle or lack something or fail, you are forced to find your value and your security in something other than your stuff and your strength, abilities, wisdom, and self-view.  You are forced to find security, value, help, and contentment in God’s strength, abilities, wisdom, and His view of you. 

            In struggling with unmet “needs” and longings and failure, we learn lessons that we can’t learn when we have an abundance of stuff and when everything goes our way and when we are in control. 

            It is in the “lack of . . .” that we begin to understand what contentment really is and what “trust in God” really is, how to trust Him and praise Him and obey Him and bring Him glory even in the midst of “no” answers and heartache and disappointments.  It’s where we learn to walk humbly with Him, letting Him lead while we follow and obey.  It’s where we learn to let Him order our priorities.  It’s where we discover a deep compassion for those who are in need, who fail, and who struggle, too.  It’s where we learn that His grace is sufficient for us and where we learn to give it to others, too. 

            It where we learn about who He really is and who we really are. 

            Through the trials, you learn that you are not big enough . . . but God is!  You learn that you are not the center of the universe . . . but God is.  You learn that you are weak and that you need Him - really need Him - and not just the things He can give you. 

            And you learn that it’s okay that you are not big enough and that you are not the center of the universe and that you are weak and needy . . . because God loves you immensely and He is walking through the trials with you and He will work it out for good.  Because He has a plan for you.  He wants you to lean on Him, to need Him, and to let Him carry you.  He wants you to find your strength and your worth in Him - not in yourself or your possessions or your accomplishments - because you matter to Him more than anything.  Just because you are His!  And He loved you enough to send Jesus to die for you so that you could have life.  A full, abundant life!  A life that can only be found in Him!       

            Many of the most godly people in the Bible didn’t get things they wanted or “needed.”  They didn’t get health and success and prosperity and “happiness.”  Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, Samuel, Jeremiah, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Job, Paul, John, etc.  And even Jesus, who left the glory of heaven to put on a mortal body and come to our filthy, little earth to save us. 

            All of them knew pain, want, heartache, persecution, and neediness.  But all of them found their richness and abundance and “full life” in the invisible and intangible and eternal, not in the visible, tangible, and temporary.  Many times in the Bible, the most godly people had to go through the hardest struggles, and oftentimes it was to be a witness to the less godly people around them. 

            Doesn’t seem fair, does it?  Doesn’t fit at all with the “prosperity gospel” teaching of today.  What would the “prosperity gospel” preachers say about these people?  What would they say about Jesus who gave up the riches of heaven so He could come down here and sacrifice Himself for others?  What would they say to those today who struggle with financial problems and health issues?  Are parents who have chronically-ill children somehow less blessed by God or less pleasing to Him, so He has chosen to not bless them with health?  What about people who fruitlessly try to find a job so they can support their family or who work at their job with all their hearts, yet somehow they still cannot get ahead financially?  Are they being punished by God or less worthy of blessing, that He wouldn’t answer their prayers or give them as much as other people have?  What about those born in third-world countries?  Those dying of starvation?  Those living under ruthless dictators, severe religious persecution, bloody civil wars?  What about their “full life”? 

            After thinking about all this, I honestly have to say that I would take the struggle and the “neediness” any day over the “prosperity gospel.”  (I wouldn’t necessarily ask for the struggle, but I can see the value in it.)  I think struggling leads to a fuller life than an abundance of stuff does.  Because struggle and neediness and weakness draw you to God and grow you in ways that “abundance” never could.  They humble you in ways that abundance can’t.  They help you keep your mind on eternity and on what really matters in this life.  And they give you a genuine compassion and tender heart toward others who struggle or are in need.

            If you’ve never had to struggle or never been in desperate need for God’s grace and mercy and providence, you probably haven’t learned to be truly thankful for the little things, to have a tender heart towards others who hurt, to see your life through God’s eyes, to be faithful to Him and patient in the hard times, to trust Him no matter what, to praise Him in the pain, and to live for eternity.  (However, even if you have struggled, you could still miss out on learning these things if you give yourself over to despair and bitterness.) 

            Psalm 34:17-18: “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 
            The more stuff you have or want, the greater the temptation to turn it into an idol, to find “fulfillment” outside of God, and to find ways to excuse the sins that you commit in the pursuit of your “happiness.”  Do not buy into the “prosperity gospel” teaching, always striving for more stuff to make you happy, getting distracted with things that don’t matter, formulating selfish desires and ways to fulfill them.  This is not faith!  This is not Christianity!

            But also do not think that if you have to struggle in life it must mean that you are displeasing God, are not richly blessed, or are not being lovingly cared for by your heavenly Father.  Just because someone has a lot of stuff or has an easy life doesn’t mean that they have been blessed in the ways that really matter and that will last.  They might just be trading heavenly treasures for earthly pleasures!

            And so once again, I ask, “What is ‘the blessed life’?  What does the ‘full life’ that Jesus offers look like?  How do we make sure that we have our priorities right?” 

Read Bible Verses:

Psalm 51:17:  “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

1 Peter 3:3-4: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”  (Yes, it’s specifically about women, but apply it to all of God’s people.) 

Matthew 6:19-21, 24:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Money.”  

Deuteronomy 6:11-12:  “. . . then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

Matthew 6:25, 33:  “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (If you want to, open your Bibles and read all the verses in between, too.)    

2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

1 Timothy 6:6-10:  “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”


1.  Does this topic trigger any thoughts or questions you want to share?  Can you find other verses that relate to the kind of life God wants us to live?

2.  Think of an illustration for your life, for how things have gone so far.  And finish this sentence, “For me, life is like . . .”  (And don’t say “a box of chocolates” because we all know that’s from Forest Gump.)

3.  How has faith and life gotten easier over the years?  How has it gotten harder?  Was there a time in your life when your faith became most real, when it truly became "yours" or grew in a new way?

4.  Why did God make people in the first place?  What are some of the basic things He wants for our lives, provides for us, and expects out of us?

5.  What are some messages you have heard about how Christians should be living?  What do you think about them? 

6.  What do you think the verses above are telling us about the kind of life believers should have/will have?  Plain or fancy?  Rich or poor?  Carefree or trials?  Does it matter?  (Take into consideration the fact that God loves to bless people and pour out good things on them, but that He also warns against loving money and building treasures on earth.)  

7.  What do “blessings” and a “full, abundant life” look like to the world?  To you?  How might God see it differently? 
            [My answer:  I think the world would say you are blessed and have a full life if you can reach the happiness that you pursue, if you are successful in your endeavors, if you have enough money to live comfortably, and if you never have to know real neediness. 
            But I think God knows that we cannot have the full life He is talking about if we find fullness in anything but Him.  And so He allows enough trials and heartache to drive us to our knees in neediness. 
            Working through trials and pain is a journey, a process.  But as we do it – with Him – we grow in faith and trust and contentment and joy.  And then we begin to see those trials and heartaches as “blessings in disguise.”  And our life – even if it is still full of trials and pain – will be fuller because our spirit is fuller. 
            Your temporary life can be bursting at the seams, filled with all sorts of pleasures and possessions and successes; but if your soul and your heart aren’t filled with Him then you will never be truly content and joyful.]

8.  What do you think Jesus meant when He said that He came to give us a “full life”?  Is it about this temporary and physical life, or the eternal and spiritual life, or both? 

9.  How do trials factor in to a “full, abundant life”?  How might we view them differently than God does? 
            [I think God especially uses trials to refine us, to grow us in Him.  A trial-free life tends to create comfortable, selfish, self-sufficient, weak, lukewarm Christians.  But it is in the “furnace of trials” that we learn humility, to let Him be God, to trust Him regardless, to live for eternity and not the temporary.  And as these trials develop our spirit and grow our faith, life becomes so much more than just what we see or what we have (or don’t have).  And we find our treasure (richness) and our value in Him, not in what this world offers. 
            But we have to guard against getting bitter and pulling away from God when the trials come.  This will only make the journey and the process that much harder and it will bring consequences that God never wanted for us.  We have to learn to humble ourselves before Him and walk with Him through the hard times, instead of trying to run away and to fix it on our own.
            Of course, there are trials that He helps us avoid and get out of, but there are others that He intends us to walk through with Him.  And part of the journey is learning which is which, figuring out when He has provided a way out and when He is calling us to walk forward into the hard time in obedience, holding His hand in faith and finding our strength in Him.]

10.  How do you handle the trials?  What has gotten easier over the years and what has gotten harder over the years? 

11.  What gets in the way of having the “full life” that Jesus is talking about?  Expectations, misconceptions, sins, ritualistic practices, fears, the need to please, money, our stuff, etc.?  What are some other “heart idols” that might get in the way, things that we pursue instead of pursuing God?  How might all these things interfere with our “full life,” our relationship with God, our faith, and our spiritual growth?  (How about for you personally?)

12.  What does it mean to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness”?  And how can this be applied practically to our lives?  Do you know of any examples of people doing this?
            [I’m still learning to do this one daily.  But I think it means that we need to take our eyes off of temporary pleasures, trials, concerns, and rewards, and set our eyes on eternity.  Or more accurately, we need to look at all of those things through the lens of eternity.  With and through the blessings and trials, we need to do what we can for His Kingdom, for the people that He loves so dearly and wants to spend eternity with.  And we need to do all we can to actively seek righteousness.  This does not mean going through mindless, ritualistic, or legalistic disciplines, but it does mean actively seeking to know Him better, to become more like Him, and to bring Him glory. 
            But we can’t become more like Him if we do not know Him well, through prayer and His Word.  The more we know His character, His heart, His leading, what He wants for us and from us, and His love, mercy, grace, and truth, the more we will want our lives to be honoring to Him, to walk in the way He wants us to walk, and to reflect Him better to others.  Because His passion for His people will become our passion, too. 
            I think a great example of this is, of course, Mother Teresa.  She cared not for the spotlight or the applause.  And she didn’t live to impress others or build up earthly treasures.  She just wanted to do her humble part to love the people that God loves.  She is an amazing, rare example of godly selflessness and being a living sacrifice.]   

13.  What are ways that we put “earthly treasures” over heavenly ones? 
            [Whenever we passionately pursue possessions for the sake of having them or making ourselves feel better, instead of passionately pursuing God.  When our focus is on trying to impress others with what we have or with what we are, instead of seeing that God is glorified through it.  When we desperately try to gain more because we are discontent with what God has given us, instead of being thankful that He has already given us so much.  When we find our value in our stuff or in our accomplishments or in how the world sees us, instead of finding our value and worth and meaning in Him.  When we focus on ourselves and our concerns, instead of seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness.  When we love this world more than loving Him with all of our heart and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And when we forget that eternity is right around the corner and that only what we do for His Kingdom will last.  These are all times that we put earthly treasures over heavenly ones.]

14.  As the Deuteronomy verse warns us, it is possible to “eat and be satisfied” and forget the Lord.  This can be seen a lot in the Old Testament and in Christians around us and in the media.  Passionate, devoted Christians can get too comfortable with this life and “fall asleep” when they get all they want.  Why is this?  And what lessons can we learn from this? 
            [I think we tend to do this when we start enjoying the gifts more than the Giver, when we fail to maintain our spiritual armor, and when we fail to remain fervently close to God, relaxing our spiritual disciplines and thinking we’ll be just fine with only occasional Bible reading and prayer. 
            And when we get too comfortable with this life and have too much, we forget how much God has cared for us and how much we need God to sustain us.  We forget that we were created for Him; He was not created for us.  That He leads and we follow.  And we don’t feel the need to be on our knees and to listen carefully for the Spirit.  And maybe, we feel like God must be so pleased with us to have granted us so much that we don’t even stop to think that we might be drifting. 
            And I think we fall asleep when we forget that we are in the middle of a spiritual battle, that there is a supernatural world at work around us all the time.  We forget that what we do or don’t do in that battle matters for all of eternity.  We forget that people’s souls are on the line.  And the lesson to be learned here is that we have to always be deliberate and conscious about keeping eternity and God’s Kingdom and His righteousness at the forefront of our minds.  And we should be thankful for the trials that serve as great reminders to us that we desperately need God – daily - and that this world is not our real Home!]

15.  How can you tell if another Christian (or yourself) has become too concerned with possessions and adornments?  With impressing the world?  Have you seen examples of this?  What other things might we be too concerned about or enamored with?

16.  What is the danger in this, especially given all the leaders or Christian celebrities we see that become enamored with fame and living richly?  Should we be concerned about the example they set? 

17.  What can we say to those who rationalize their lifestyles and poor choices by saying “It doesn’t matter how we live because God knows our hearts”?  Where is the truth in that saying and when does it become an excuse for extravagance, sin, and idolatry?
            [I think that many of us don’t even realize what an excuse that is.  We can rationalize almost anything – not praying or reading our Bibles, gossiping out of “concern” for others, seeking more possessions or success, failing to obey, etc. – by claiming that “God knows my heart.”   We act as though it doesn’t matter what we do as long as, deep in our hearts, we wanted to do the right thing.  We act like our intentions matter more than our actions. 
            The truth in this is that God does look at our intentions, at our motives, at our heart.  He sees why we do things and what/Who we are doing it for.  If we wash dishes to the best of our ability, with a desire to please Him and see Him glorified, then it is honoring to Him. 
            But the other side of the coin is that when we do things that we shouldn’t do or don’t do things that we should, we sometimes try to convince ourselves that as long as God knows that we intended to obey and to honor Him, then our disobedience or sin or idol-making can’t be counted against us.  But this is where we go wrong.
             Intending to obey is not the same as obeying.  Intending to honor God is not the same thing as honoring God, especially when what we do is dishonoring to Him.  Intending to spend time with Him in prayer or in His Word is not the same thing as actually spending time with Him.  
            The fact that God knows our hearts shouldn’t be used as an excuse to sin or to be relaxed in our commitment to Him.  The fact that He knows our hearts should be sobering.  It should make us all the more concerned with letting the Spirit purify our hearts, our motives, and our choices so that we can better reflect Christ to others.  This is what is honoring to Him, whether we have big jobs or little jobs.]   

18.  Is living a life of self-denial and self-deprivation more godly?  If so, in what ways is it more godly?  And when does it become unhealthy and self-glorifying?

19.  How can we balance enjoying God’s blessings and yet making sure that we store up our treasures in heaven?

20.  Do you think Christians (in general) are doing well or doing poorly with “seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first” and with “building up their treasures in heaven and not on earth”?  Why do you think this and how does it make you feel?  Is there anything you can do in your own life to counter it?

21.  What should being a “child of the King” really mean for us and for how we live our lives?
            [I don’t think it has much to do with what we have or don’t have.  But it has to do with how we use what we have and Who we use it for.  If we can point others to Jesus and bring Him glory and pursue Him passionately - no matter what we have or are going through - then our lives will show others that we are His children and He is our Father.  The best proof that we are His children is not found in the stuff we accumulate or in the stylish, costly haircut and clothes we wear; it is seen in the way we humbly live our lives with Him and for Him.] 

22.  Do you feel like you have a “full life,” physically or spiritually?  If not, what is lacking and what is getting in the way of having a full life?  But if so, what makes it full?  (You don’t have to answer this out loud, but what sins, misconceptions, fears, heart idols, expectations, wrong goals, attitudes, etc. are keeping you from experiencing the life God wants you to have?  What strongholds or toe-holds does Satan have in your life?  Pray about it.  Confess it.  What does God want you to do about it?)   

23.  How would you define “faith”?  How do we live it out, practically and daily?  When and why is it hard sometimes? 

24.  What misconceptions might some Christians (or you personally) have about faith, prayer, and God?  What are some ways we (you) might try to manipulate God into giving us the life we want?  What effect does this have on us and our faith?

25.  What are some reasons for the trials people face?  Brainstorm as many as possible, such as God’s discipline, our own poor choices, or it’s just part of living in a fallen world with fallen bodies, etc.  How might we trials and pain wrong?  Can you think of examples from life? 

26.  How might the hard times and the difficult trials affect our faith, for good or bad?  How can they be used for good, and what kinds of good things might trials accomplish in our hearts and lives and faith?  Examples from your own life? 

27.  How can we keep our faith strong in the hard times, instead of falling away from God?  What are some of God's promises when it comes to our trials and pain?  (Bonus questions:  Why do you have faith?  Why keep believing in God if it doesn't bring us the comfortable life we want?)    
            [Trials are a fork-in-the-road of faith.  Will we turn to Him or away from Him?  Will we trust Him as God or will we kick Him off the throne and try to do it ourselves?  A trial doesn’t affect our faith as much as our response to the trial does, if we turn to Him or away.
            I tend to fall into the trap of “If God is happy with me, He will answer my prayers the way I want and give us good health and keep us safe.”  I never cared much for an abundance of possessions, but health and safety are very important to me.  And so whenever we face a health crisis or He doesn’t answer my prayer immediately, I freak out and begin to doubt and to wonder what kind of Christian I am, what faith is, if prayer works, and if God is really listening or if He still intervenes. 
            I do not think it is wrong to have these fears and doubts.  But I do think it is critical to bring them to the Lord and to work through them, to figure out where their roots are in my heart and in my mind, and to replace them with God’s truth.  This is what grows and purifies my faith, helps me learn humility, and helps me learn to trust Him more. 
            But this cannot happen if I turn away from Him during the trials.  I have to turn to Him and cling to Him - until He shows me that He is the faithful, trust-worthy, loving God that He is.  When I give Him time and humble myself before Him and seek to follow instead of lead, He always proves this to me.  And my faith is strengthened. 
            But, I’ll be honest, sometimes it takes a really long time!  A really, really long time.  And the “simple” acts of clinging to Him and being still before Him and waiting on Him can be really hard.  Some of the hardest things I’ve had to learn to do.  Yet, He seems to keep giving me opportunities to practice those things, and I am learning and growing.  Slowly.  But I’m learning.]  

28.  Look at Romans 5:3-5:  “. . . but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”  What do you notice about the order: suffering, perseverance, character, hope?  Discuss this and how it applies to trials?
            [What struck me most as I read this is that hope comes at the end of the list.  Usually, we say that hope is what gives us the strength to get through the trials.  We hope that things get better.  We hope that things work out.  We hope that the trials end soon.
            But this passage basically says that hope is the reward that comes after persevering through the trials.  (What is this kind of “hope”?) 
            It isn’t so much that hope keeps us going.  It’s that as we fight through the trials, as we persevere by clinging to God’s Truth, and as we work through the fears, lies, doubts and misconceptions deep in our hearts and minds, we will develop a greater godly character.  And as we clean out all the junk that has accumulated in our hearts and minds – all the junk that interferes with a close, authentic relationship with the Lord – we will be filled with a genuine hope, because we will begin to see and know Him as He really is.  We will experience His love and goodness as we were meant to, without all the junk interfering.  And that is what real hope is.  I think.]

29.  James 1:2-4 says that perseverance under trials is necessary to make you complete and mature, not lacking anything.  What are some ways that we avoid trials or “give up” and fail to persevere?  What kinds of things might we lack and be immature about if we have not gone through trials or if we didn’t persevere under trials and just gave up?  (In other words, what effect does “persevering” have on our faith and what effect does “failing to persevere” have?)
            [We sometimes avoid trials that we are supposed to persevere through by settling for something we know is not God’s desire for us, by choosing a path flippantly or in our own wisdom instead of seeking God’s input, by giving in to a temptation, by “giving up on God” and going our own way when the waiting gets too hard.  These are just some ways we fail to persevere.
            If we have not learned to persevere through a trial and to follow/wait on God till the end, then I think we miss out on a lot of spiritual gifts and skills.  We will not have learned to exercise patience in the midst of anxiety, or to hear His voice and leading above all others, or to obey even when we don’t feel like it.  We’ll never learn to be brave enough to take a step in faith, especially when everything is dark except the next step.  And ultimately, we will miss out on His best plans for us and the Kingdom of God will suffer.  If we do not learn to be obedient – going when He says “Go,” or stopping when He says “No,” or waiting when He says “Slow” - then we will not be doing His Work the way He wants it done.   
            But if we can learn to trust and wait in faith and listen for His voice and take a step only when He says to, then we will experience the delight of seeing Him work out His plan over time.  And we will find ourselves amazed again and again at what a good, creative, faithful God He is.  And our faith in Him will grow.  And this will help us make it through the next trial or hard time that comes along. 
            Trials are the best opportunities for us to fight for our faith, to let God prune off things we don’t need in our hearts and minds, to help us practice patience, trust, and obedience, to help us weed out any misconceptions that we have about ourselves and about God, and to test our motives and priorities and desires.  Never waste a trial.  And never see it as a waste.  It’s how God purifies and strengthens our faith.  We may not be able to see things clearly now, but we will in eternity.  Till then, we have to learn to persevere.]   

30.  What does our willingness (or unwillingness) to praise God during the trials tell us about the condition of our faith?  What does “praising Him in the pain” look like?  Does it mean plastering on a smile and saying, “Yes, Lord, I love it!  Bring more pain!  Whatever You want is fine with me!” even when our hearts are breaking?  What does He expect from us during the painful trials, and how can we genuinely humble ourselves before Him when we are hurting deeply? 

31.  But then there are those Christians who love to walk around with joyless scowls, acting like “suffering servants” or “martyrs for the sake of the Lord” with every little trial or disappointment that comes along, acting as though it pleases God more to see them so willing to suffer for Him.  Is this appropriate for a Christian?  Is it genuine?  Is it what God wants for us?  If not, why?  And what would be a more appropriate way to live and present oneself in these circumstances? 

32.  I talked about having joy, instead of circumstance-based happiness?  What do you think this means?

33.  What are some of the unexpected ways that God blesses us?  How about for you specifically?  What are some of the blessings that came from the hard times or in strange ways, the “blessings in disguise”? 

34.  Earlier in the lesson, I said this:
            It is in the ‘lack of . . .’ that we begin to understand what contentment really is and what ‘trust in God’ really is, how to trust Him and praise Him and obey Him and bring Him glory even in the midst of ‘no’ answers and heartache and disappointments.  It’s where we learn to walk humbly with Him, letting Him lead while we follow and obey.  It’s where we learn to let Him order our priorities.  It’s where we discover a deep compassion for those who are in need, who fail, and who struggle, too.  It’s where we learn that His grace is sufficient for us and where we learn to give it to others, too.  It where we learn about who He really is and who we really are.”
            And near the end, I said this:
            “If you’ve never had to struggle or never been in desperate need for God’s grace and mercy and providence, you probably haven’t learned to be truly thankful for the little things, to have a tender heart towards others who hurt, to see your life through God’s eyes, to be faithful to Him and patient in the hard times, to trust Him no matter what, to praise Him in the pain, and to live for eternity.  (However, even if you have struggled, you could still miss out on learning these things if you give yourself over to despair and bitterness.)”
            Do you have thoughts on any part of this that you want to share?  Have you experienced any of this? 

35.  In Luke 9:23, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.  What does this mean in the broad sense?  What does it mean for you personally right now?  Is there any area in which God is calling you to "deny yourself"?  Any cross you know you need to pick up and carry?  Is He challenging you to follow Him in any new way?  

36.  Can you think of any ways that God might be calling you to change the way you are living?  Anything you need to add?  Anything you need to remove?  Anything you need to change about the way you view Him, yourself, prayer, or faith?