Lay Down Your Gifts   

Let’s start today by revisiting Jesus’ commissioning of the seventy-two from a few weeks ago. The seventy-two certainly had something to rejoice in when they used the gifts they had received: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 10:17). And because of that, we tend to read Jesus’ response—“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (v. 18)—as something that happened at that very moment. I’m not so sure any more.

What if what Jesus really meant was this?: “I was there when Satan fell. I was there when he became so full of pride over what God had given him that he exalted himself above God. Be careful the same doesn’t happen to you.” It certainly would explain Jesus’ next words, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you”—because after all, you’re not the first, and you’re not always in good company—“but rejoice that your names stand written in heaven” (v. 19).

There may well come a time where we will have to lay down our very giftedness and callings before Jesus—when we will need to say, “This is yours, Lord, and I will walk away from all of it if that’s what you want.” Should that occur, it will likely be because we’ve allowed our identities to become so wrapped up in what we’ve been called to do by Jesus that our identities are really no longer in Jesus.

It’s very easy to fall in love with the idea of “I’m called to do this.” It’s much easier to get excited about something new and unique than it is to get excited about doing what everyone else is doing—or at least, should be doing. Every day, God calls us to many seemingly mundane acts of obedience that are no less important than our seemingly “special” acts—and might well, in fact, be more important.

Doing God’s will and living in God’s will, while certainly related, are not the same thing. One involves obeying a very specific directive from God; the other is God giving us the freedom to live creativity within his broader will. Both please him—if they’re done in a spirit of obedience. As important as it is to use the gifts God’s given us and to follow his calling, it’s more important to develop the fruit of the Spirit—those qualities that grow from our new life within.

Jesus’ ministry was literally crucified. Why should we dare to think that our ministries and good works would be exempt from such testing?

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. . . . If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:4–5, 7)

Lay down your gifts, and concern yourself with abiding in Jesus. He knows how your gifts should be used—and whether they should be used—better than you. Apart from him you can do nothing. As your desires become his desires, his gifts and calling upon you will be used in ever-greater ways—because they’ll truly be his gifts and his calling.

Lay It Down Today
Let’s take another cue from the Sermon on the Mount for today’s prayer time:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–25)

I want to expand the parameters a bit past this text’s original meaning, but with an intent that I think you’ll agree is thoroughly biblical. We may not bring physical gifts to the altar, but we do have gifts we need to offer up to God. There are ways we need to love those around us more, whether it’s a matter of anger and forgiveness (as stated here) or in other ways.

Therefore, spend some time in prayer today identifying the gifts God has given you and leaving them “there before the altar.” Ask God to help you be obedient, whether it’s something you’re gifted in or comfortable with or not—or no matter how “trivial” your act of obedience may be. Have the faith that God will use your obedience to produce what he wants in others’ lives—and in your own.

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And Then There Was One

The title (and subtitle) says it all. . . . but more from the author if you’re not convinced. . . .

Echols CoverMary Echols. And Then There Was One: An Emotionally Raw Journey through Spousal Grief. 118p., $13.99, Deep River Books.

“This is my journey, an extremely personal and intimate journey thru the land of grief after the death of my husband. These words and this story were never penned with the intention of being read by others. They were written for me and only me, but here we are. What lies ahead of you in these pages is an unadulterated and emotionally raw view of my life during my time of grieving. I have decided to share this time of my life with you in hopes that it might ease your journey and that you may know that you are not alone in your walk thru the myriad emotions and everyday challenges that come with loss and grief.  Most importantly, I want you to know that at the end of the journey thru the dark land of grief there awaits a new sun shining in the uncharted territory of the life that awaits you.”

—Mary Echols

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Lay Down Your Blessings        

Our new lives in Christ are just beginning. We are changed; but we are eternally far from finished. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). We will not be finished until even our new lives are fully laid down before Christ; and that cycle of blessing, crucifixion, and resurrection will continue until the day we meet Christ face to face.

More often than not, I value my comfort more than I value obedience to God. I want to hang on to the good things God’s given me, and pester him for more. As I do this, I reject the One who blesses me in favor of his blessings. Romans 1 speaks to the end of this condition, if not halted: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21–22a).

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Sermon on the Mount the past few months. (You will, too—but that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves.) At the time I’m writing this, I’m dwelling on the first half of Matthew 6—and it’s been dwelling on me, too. Specifically, there’s this rhythm Jesus repeats over and over, to the effect of: And when do this good thing, don’t call attention to yourself like the hypocrites do, so that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have already received their reward. But when you do this good thing, do it not so that it may be seen by others but so it is seen by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (see Matthew 6:1–4, 5–9, and 16–18).

“They have already received their reward.” Sometimes it’s OK to need reassurance or confirmation, but we need to move away from our dependence on it. God has given us many good things—and yes, sometimes as the result of the good things we’ve done in obedience to him—but sometime in the next handful of decades, I’m going to stand before God. How horrific it would be to hear, “You’ve already received your reward. I’ve provided for you, allowed your work to be recognized, even given you the joy of accomplishment. What more were you expecting? After all, you did it all for you.”

Now mind you, I’m putting hypothetical words in God’s mouth here. But the fact remains, many of the things we do for God are done with an eye toward how God will bless us, and how others will recognize it. (Virtual street corners count too, by the way.) Even if I’m doing it solely for the sake of eternal reward, my self-satisfaction about that, too, can become my reward.

God does promise us rewards and blessings as a result of our obedience to him. But we need to take a step further up—to learn to do things purely for God’s glory. That, truly, is its own reward. As we learn to do this, God can trust us to do the right things with the blessings he bestows upon us. Our Father is in secret. We must learn to become God’s spies in this world—as much as, if not more than, becoming “God’s spokespeople” or “God’s personal ambassadors.”

In case we still don’t understand, Jesus punctuates, and clarifies, all of his previous warnings to us with this:

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

Teresa of Avila put it this way: “Spiritual maturity and its reward do not consist in spiritual delights, but rather in the increase of love.” This is where we need to head; and God help us, we will.

Lay It Down Today

Before getting to your assignment, I want to note that I’m introducing you to  (or reminding you of) practices you can do well beyond this study. After all, laying down your life doesn’t end once you stop reading this blog. We don’t get days off from the lives God has given us.

This week, we’re focusing on prayer, and providing the context Jesus wants us to have for our prayers. Thus, it’s your turn to spend time in the Sermon on the Mount.

Every day this week, read Matthew 5–7. One hundred eleven verses won’t kill you, but they will convict you. As you read through these chapters each day, be sure to linger on The Lord’s Prayer, located dead-center of this sermon (Matthew 6:9–13).

Also, ask yourself: Where is Jesus’ sermon hitting you right now? Which parts of this prayer do you most need to experience or respond to? Don’t move on to the second half of the sermon until you’ve wrestled with this each day. As the Spirit brings up specific matters—in every part of this sermon—stop and lift each of them up to God. Then act on them, as needed. Forgive your enemies—in person, if possible. Set your eyes aside to deal with your lusts. Repent of your need to have your good works noticed and praised.

You could spend a lifetime dealing with what Jesus brings up here. And you will. Eternal life starts now.

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A Commentary on Romans

Not only that, but an applicational one. . . .

A Commentary on RomansJohn D. Harvey. A Commentary on Romans. 400p., $29.99, Kregel Academic.

This volume in the Kregel Exegetical Library combines up-to-date scholarship and concrete application to serve as an ideal guide for preaching and teaching the foundational New Testament book of Romans. After an in-depth introduction that surveys the book’s key elements, reception history, literary devices, and current scholarly debates, John D. Harvey provides a thorough explanation of every verse of Romans followed by theological insights and hands-on takeaways.

Readers will benefit from Harvey’s approach, which asks and answers three questions about each verse: (1) What did Paul say? (2) Why did he say it? (3) What should I do with it?

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Lay Down the Law (and Leave It There): a small group session

For this session, you’ll need . . .

  • the ability to darken your room
  • a whiteboard or blackboard

Laying Down Your Day (15 minutes)

Image result for light switchGive everyone a chance to settle in before starting your session. Once everyone’s relaxed and comfortable, turn off the lights in your meeting area (and make sure you’ve read question #1 to yourself before you do it!). Discuss the following:

  1. Share about a time when you’ve felt “in the dark” and disconnected from Jesus. What happened to finally turn the light on (or back on) for you?

Turn your lights back on in your meeting area. Then, discuss this question:

  1. Think about your reaction to the lights coming back on. Why might some people—even perhaps Christians—prefer to stay disconnected from Jesus and in the darkness?

The Bible says the Spirit’s already within those of us who believe in Jesus (Romans 8:9). You’d think it’d be pretty easy to connect, live life in the Spirit, and stay connected to Jesus, right?

But many times, we still feel disconnected from the Spirit, and from Jesus—like we’re going through the motions and/or we’re not sure what to do next. Many times, we’re just not very good at recognizing when the Spirit’s trying to guide us. We mistake our own plans for the Spirit’s guidance. We haven’t properly trained our “spiritual ears,” so to speak, to listen for the Spirit. And sometimes, we choose not to listen to what the Spirit’s trying to tell us. But if we want to walk in the Spirit day to day and moment to moment, we need to set aside what’s “just us” and learn to listen. Let’s dig deeper into this.

Laying Down the Word (30 minutes)

  1. How would you explain to a friend who the Holy Spirit is and what the Spirit does? What would you like someone to explain to you about the Spirit?

Ask for a couple volunteers to read Romans 8:1–6 and 14–17, and then discuss:

  1. Practically speaking, what does it mean to “live by the Spirit”? What does it actually look like? Let’s list some ways.

Write down everyone’s answers to this question on your whiteboard or blackboard. Be sure to acknowledge each person’s contribution as you do so. Then say something like, Now, let’s take these answers and apply them to ourselves.

Ask for volunteers to read Jeremiah 20:7–18, Luke 10:1–6, 17–20, and the following passage from “Lay Down in Safety.” Then, discuss the questions that follow:

Anyone who’s followed the Spirit’s leading into a new work knows how scary it can be. If you don’t know how scary it is at first, you will, once the excitement wears off and the difficulties come head-on. In fact, it’s often far more terrifying once it’s too late to turn back. Yet it’s an all-too-common experience for those who follow the Spirit’s leading. We’re taken past the point of no return before the lights are turned on—and it’s there that we discover who we’re really depending on. . . .

It is difficult to be overcome by God, and led into places where human safety doesn’t seem to exist. But ultimately, even in the worst of human circumstances, there is no better place to walk than in God’s care.

  1. Whose experience resonates with you more, that of the seventy-two or Jeremiah? Why?
  1. When has the Spirit led you “past the point of no return”? What did you discover about your ability to trust the Spirit? About how much you’d been trusting in yourself? Explain.

Ask for a volunteer to read the following passage from “Lay Down in Silence.” Then, discuss the questions that follow:

That’s the dirty little secret—let’s go ahead and say it: the satanic lie—behind much of our obsession with instant information, and with much of our busyness: It offers an instant substitute to our God-given desire to become a part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re not willing to wait for God to do his work in his time, so we turn elsewhere. And we are the lesser for it.

  1. How do you short-circuit the Spirit’s work in your life through your busyness? Be specific.
  1. Where do you wish you could more fully experience the Spirit’s power in your life? Share as much as you’re willing.

Laying Down Your Life (15 minutes)

Have everyone get into their pairs. If people are absent, help stragglers to get with another pair for the rest of this session. Again, it’s OK to have a triad, but have no more than three people together.

To close this session, we’re going to reprise the questions that closed this week’s readings:

  • What do you know God has called you to?
  • And: Where have you felt the tug of the Spirit—and therefore, where is your obedience actually being requested?

Hopefully, you’ve already spent a chunk of time meditating on those questions. Either way, share your answers to those questions with your partner right now. Once you’re done, spend another few minutes praying for one another. Ask for the Spirit’s guidance, clarity and empowering, so you’re able to walk out what the Spirit’s already put on your hearts.

Allow at least ten minutes for pairs to talk and pray, and then bring your group back together. If you have time, invite members to share their answers and prayer requests with the entire group. Close your time together in prayer, asking that the fruit of the Spirit would be evident in each person’s life, as he guides and works through each situation you’re praying for.

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The Limitations of Theological Truth

God has no limits, but man has plenty of them, and nowhere is this clearer than in the world of theology. . . .

The Limitations of Theological TruthNigel Brush. The Limitations of Theological Truth: Why Christians Have the Same Bible but Different Theologies. 336p., $19.99, Kregel Publications.

Theology is based on God’s true and unchanging Word, but does it supply an unwavering foundation for spiritual certainties? Brush contends that it does not, because, like science, theology is a human discipline and subject to our limitations of knowledge, interpretation, and objectivity..

In part one, Brush unpacks this contention, showing how Christians both past and present have arrived at conclusions that actually run counter to biblical teaching, and how these interpretive viewpoints have changed over time. In part two, he makes the case that flawed theological positions have resulted in views that needlessly conflict with science, and that these clashes can be resolved with more accurate formulations. Brush evenly evaluates questions including the age of the earth, the origin of life, and the end of time.

Christians who wish to better understand the relationship between their faith and science will be encouraged by the great harmony that Brush sees between scientific findings and biblical teaching. As he guides readers into an awareness of the inherent limitations of our knowledge, believers can cultivate greater humility regarding these contested issues.


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Lay Down Like a Lion

He crouched, he lay down like a lion
and like a lioness; who will rouse him up?
Blessed are those who bless you,
and cursed are those who curse you. (Numbers 24:9)

As I first pulled together the ideas for this book, I came across this passage from Numbers, which is part of Balaam’s prophecy over the nation of Israel. (By the way, it’s also a reprise of the man Israel’s [Jacob’s] prophecy over Judah in Genesis 49:9.) It’s a curious phrase, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve held off digging into it until now. But now’s the time. O Lord, is it the time. . . . I am so wrestling alongside you all with this one. . . .

What does it mean to “lay down like a lion,” and how does that fit into this week’s exploration of walking in the Spirit? Let me come at this sideways and then work my way in, because God’s been spending this past week (and especially today) spelling it out for me. . . .

So far, we’ve considered not only taking our sin seriously, and taking God seriously, but also to take his promises about us seriously. So today, let’s enjoy a brief respite from self-denial, and focus instead on receiving what the Spirit has for us—and resting in it.

In his book of the same name, Watchman Nee speaks of “the normal Christian life.” Think about that phrase for a moment. What comes to your mind when you hear that? I’m betting it looks nothing like what came to Watchman’s. Sadly, what we usually consider a “normal Christian life” goes something like, “go to church, serve others when we can, try to be a good person, and attend a prayer vigil when we’re feeling really spiritual.”

However, and as anyone who truly takes Jesus’ words to heart should already know, the truly normal Christian is nothing like that. The truly normal Christian is the one who’s following Christ—who’s following the Spirit’s lead in everything. We are, as the King James Version puts it repeatedly, “a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, et al.). And much as it might pain some to admit, following where the Spirit leads will only make us more peculiar.

We will resemble the world’s definition of “normal” less and less. But we will resemble Jesus’ definition of “normal” more and more. Isn’t that what we want?

I think the idea of “laying down like a lion” is part of that. It captures what the normal Christian life should look like—to us.

The wicked flee when no one pursues,
but the righteous are bold as a lion. (Proverbs 28:1)

lion-and-the-lambLook at the lion, and how he lays down. There’s intent. There’s vigilance. There isn’t hesitation. There’s confidence and boldness, and yet no arrogance—because there’s no fear.

Too often, we settle for something less than what God wants for us, and fill in the gaps with ambition, anxiety, uncertainty, and discontent. How can we become as “bold as a lion,” with the confidence and boldness God wants for us?

It will happen when God’s desires become our desires.

God wants us to remain in his will, but that’s not all he wants. He wants us to want his will. Ultimately, we can’t accomplish this on our own. We’re just too selfish. But as the Spirit trains us, guides us, rebukes us, consoles us—or more bluntly: kicks our butts, pulls us back up again, then gives us a shoulder hug for good measure—then our hearts become more conformed to his. We become more peculiar, and we also become more OK with that.

We are truly children of the King. For all the things we’ve dealt with—including all the things we’ve dealt with throughout these devotionals—we are still children of the King. As we walk in the guidance and confidence in the Spirit, we increasingly lose our fears. That’s certainly not to say it’s easy—again, think of all the things we’ve dealt with here—but that doesn’t make it any less true. As children of the King, we are becoming more and more like our Father—and like our “fellow-son” Jesus.

And remember: There will come a day when the lion will lay down with the lamb. Not only that, but the lion is The Lamb:

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:2–13)

One day, it will all make sense. One day, all will be as it was meant to be. So take heart. Be strengthened. Learn to lay down like a lion, because it truly is the normal Christian life.

Lay It Down Today

Presumably you’re reading this at the end of the week. Good. Use a day this weekend to take a full sabbath. Don’t be concerned about which day it is; just use it to be still before God and honor him. Don’t work (or get ready for work). Use the day in a way that’s most conducive to relaxing in Christ. Spend the day in your favorite chair (and tell your spouse I said it’s OK). Spend the day in nature. But spend it intentionally with God.

While you’re doing that, spend some time meditating again on this question: What do you know God has called you to? Where have you felt the tug of the Spirit—and therefore, where is your obedience actually being requested? Pray over these things. Resolve to put all your energies into them, and beg God to give you the time and energy to do them with all your heart.

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