Apathy in the Christian Walk – PURE Conference 2009

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Diagnosing Apathy

I would love to start by explaining to you why I wanted to teach on this topic and how I personally relate with it. I have found myself in a new place in my Christian walk in the past few years and I have had a difficult time understanding it and knowing what to do about it. I was not raised a Christian and was already a pretty wild and unruly heathen when the Lord saved me at age 14, so the bulk of my Christian walk for the first 15 years was focused on…

  • learning and understanding what it meant to even be a Christian,
  • painfully and slowly changing my lifestyle and mindset according to what I was reading in the Bible (for the first time in my life)
  • learning BIG lessons from scriptures and having mountain top experiences.

I guess you could say that the beginning of my walk with Christ was exciting, moving, passionate, and full of lots of major changes in regards to who I was and who I was becoming. And in addition to that it all took place during a time in my life when I was overly involved in ministries that were constantly challenging me and bringing me into heartfelt worship, authentic fellowship, repentance, and study of the Word.

But in the last several years, as my ministry involvements and circumstances in my life have changed, I have found myself in a very different place spiritually. I want to share with you some of the things I have seen in my own spiritual life. On the front of the hand out there is a table that lists the different words I am going to use to describe the spiritual state I have been in, and as I share with you how I see and experience it in my life I encourage you to think through how you may see or experience it in your own life, feel free to fill in the right side with those things, with my examples, or wait and fill it in later. Before healing can happen in any area of our life we must recognize and diagnose the problem, and this is what we are doing.

The Overarching Issue:

  • Apathy, “a lack of interest, enthusiasm, & concern; No deep internal response”
    • I don’t feel as engaged, moved and amazed by Christian writings and sermons.
    • Good worship does not draw me into God’s presence like it used to.
    • I don’t feel the desire to engage in fellowship and I don’t feel filled up or encouraged when I leave.

Aspects of Apathy:

  • Laziness, “Unwilling to work or use energy, a lack of effort, freedom from worries or problems”
    • While I am very committed and diligent to maintain a healthy relationship with my husband no matter what that means, I often take the first chance I can get to not have to get up early to spend uninterrupted time with God, I don’t focus on it as something of the utmost importance in my life, and I see it as a burden to have to “work” at it, I would rather it just happen or come naturally.
  • Dullness, “lacking interest or excitement, feeling bored or dispirited”
    • When I open the Bible I feel I already know what I’m about to read, I’ve either read it or heard it before.
    • I’m not passionate or interested in having discussions about the faith or friendly debates on religious topics.

Results of Apathy:

  • Disillusionment, “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.”
    • I am sensing cynicism and jadedness in my heart towards other Christians and the church. I love to talk about what the church is doing wrong and how they need to do things better.
  • Drifting, “To digress or stray to another subject; To move passively or aimlessly into a situation or condition.” and Distraction, “when things prevent you from giving your full attention to something else, often causing extreme agitation to the mind and emotions”
    • My mind is extremely distracted every time I try to have a quiet time or pray, which results in me feeling ungrounded in God’s Word and disconnected from His voice.
    • The responsibilities of my life overshadow my felt need for time with the Lord.
  • Doubting, “A feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; Includes cynicism, skepticism, and mistrust”
    • Thoughts come into my mind which question truth and bring doubt to my heart.
    • When someone is teaching/preaching God’s Word I find myself thinking really cynical and critical thoughts about them and what they are saying
  • Rebellion, “The action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention”
    • For me my rebellion is in very subtle ways, but it is still rebellion to God’s authority and control in my life.
    • I want things done much quicker and clearer than the ways God tends to do them. So I often get frustrated and feel “stuck” in my life, because I am trying to figure out how things can work out in a way that I think is best, and so I push against God’s ways and His timing.

Realizing it is Normal and Expected, but not ok

As I have struggled with this and asked God for help in this area I have come to see that it is not only normal to feel this way at some point in our Christian walk, but that it is probably a struggle we will all face through out our lives. My guess is that each of you related on at least one of those points, if not all, even if they manifest themselves differently in your lives. As I searched the scriptures for answers I saw that it is exactly this spiritual state that much of the Bible addresses in the hearts of Believers, in both the Old and New Testaments. And it does not address these issues like they are specific problems that only some Christians might struggle with, like alcohol abuse or adultery, but instead this problem is brought to light as a struggle that every believer in Christ will be threatened by. The Scriptures make us aware of this threat so that when we do face it in our own lives we can know what to do with it so that we don’t fall into despair, or even worse, become nominal Christians who are believers by name but don’t live in the blessings Christ has to offer.

Look at the quote at the top of your handout…

A famous 20th Century Spanish author, Miguel de Unamuno, put it this way:

“Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, not in God himself.”

In other words, if you struggle with these things it is a sign of a person with true faith and willingness to engage themselves in the harsh realities of living for Christ in a fallen world. It does not mean that you weren’t ever really saved, or you dropped the ball, or you did something wrong. However, it also does not mean its ok, the Christian life is about fighting for our faith and to live it out actively each day and experience God’s presence.

In the book of Revelation Jesus says,

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” (3:15-16)

Lukewarm is the same as apathy, and here Jesus says it is not congruent with the Christian faith, it does not work. When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was to follow, how we are to live as Christians, He answered:

“YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’  38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.  39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ (Matt 22:34-40)

Jesus says that these two commandments sum up the entirety of how God calls His people to live. Everything we are called to do is about these two things. And these two things are the exact opposite of apathy. Someone who is apathetic does not have the ability to love God or love others with all that they are, it is impossible. So the greatest threat we face to living out the Christian faith is the threat to our faith that starts with apathy and results in all the other things we talked about earlier, and it keeps us from living out the essence of the Christian life. As we look at the Scriptures, it is important to remember that apathy is not so much about what we are doing wrong as it is about what we aren’t doing at all. And Scripture speaks to this constantly, it is actually one of the main reasons that we have the Bible in the first place.

How do we Fight Apathy: 4 Things

We are going to primarily focus on the third chapter in Hebrews and also pull in some other Scriptures as we seek to understand how to fight this apathy in our lives. So go ahead and flip to Hebrews 3. The author of Hebrews has written this letter/sermon in order to encourage Hebrew Christians who are struggling with these same issues that we have been talking about. And chapter 3 encompasses much of what he has to say to them in regards to this, so this is what I want us to focus on today.

1. LOOK TO JESUS (the most important)

Look at Hebrews 3:1

He begins here with the word “therefore” – In the previous verses, he has just finished explaining the gospel – who Jesus is and who we are because of what he did for us. So basically, he is beginning this new section saying, “because Jesus saved you, understands you, and is God…”

“fix your thoughts on Him” or “Consider Him”

  • Here he echoes something he says earlier in chapter 2 where he told them to, “pay more careful attention to what they believe”. And then again in Hebrews 12 he will tell them to “fix their eyes on Jesus” and “Consider Him”.
  • What He was saying throughout the book of Hebrews is that they must pay closer attention to what is central to their faith, the most important thing, or they are going to start drifting away, that they must use their minds in their faith to focus, pay attention, be careful, consider, and fix their thoughts on the center of the truth. And he does this because they have allowed other things to steal their focus, they have drifted and their focus is now off of Christ. So he repeats it because it is crucial to their faith and he knows that they are very distracted and need to be reminded of what is most important.
    • EX: To understand this we can imagine a boat at sea. How do you keep a boat from drifting away? By dropping anchor. The anchor represents here what our focus should be, the truth of salvation in Christ, the gospel. The only way we won’t drift is by constantly being anchored in the truth, the basic and most central part of our faith. So dropping anchor means being focused on and dependent on God’s Word.
    • Now Read Hebrews 4:12-13

Here he reminds them that God’s Word is relevant and it speaks to us today in every area of our lives. It seeps into the darkest most hidden places of our lives and brings light into those places. So we must constantly be fixing our eyes on the Truth in God’s Word. If we desire change in our lives, this is where we have to start, His Word. It is our anchor. And we must learn to view all of our lives through His gospel, without that we are lost and distracted.

Application

What has happened here to the Hebrews happens to all of us over time, we stop living in the awe and wonder of God’s presence in our lives, we fail to ponder the unimaginable truth that we are saved because of what Jesus did. We learn the gospel and move on to other, maybe even more intellectual, things. We begin to focus on the application of the gospel and forget to continue grounding ourselves in it.

We make ourselves, our lives, our circumstances more important than God. Yet, as a Christian you will never be at a place in your faith when you don’t need to basic gospel anymore. The truth is, we need to be reminded of it everyday, because if we are not we will drift away from it.

So he says, everyday focus your mind on God’s truth, remind yourself of it. Drop anchor in God’s Word. Remember the power of sin and evil, look to Jesus as the one who covers over your sins, who gently leads you back when you drift, the one who desires confession and repentance more than anything, who you can turn to even in times of apathy, and the one who shows you how to live obediently and submissively to God. This is the first and most important step in fighting apathy.

As we talk about “fixing our minds on Jesus”, how do you suppose we can do that? How can we practically do this each day?

  • Having some sort of devotional, meditation, or prayer time each morning
  • Focus on reminding my self of the gospel, reading the gospels
  • Worshiping in the car when I can
  • Praying constantly

2. LOOK FOR GOD & LISTEN TO HIM

Look at Hebrews 3:7-11

This passage is taken from Psalm 95 and the author is simply repeating words God has already spoken to His people in order to remind them and help them not to make the same mistakes others before them have made.

v.7 He begins with the words “if you hear his voice”, which actually echoes the opening of the entire letter to the Hebrews which reminds us that God speaks to us, he spoke to us in the beginning of time, he spoke to his people in the past, and He speaks to us today. This means God is speaking to you today and everyday, but the question is whether you recognize and hear His voice or not.

v. 8 Then he says, when God speaks to you, because He will, “do not harden your hearts”

What does it mean to have a “hardened heart”?

One way to understand it is to think of the opposite, What would be the opposite of a hard heart?

    • It would be a heart that is soft, sensitive to God, trusting in His Word, receptive to whatever God has to say.
    • So a hard heart would be one that is not receptive to God’s will, even unable to hear God’s voice, and not trusting in God. Ultimately it is a heart unwilling to be changed or used by God. It is someone who doesn’t want to hear God, and resents Him and the life He has given them.
    • And it manifests itself in apathy, disillusionment, drifting, doubting, rebelling, etc… This is the Bible’s word for what we have been talking about!

How do our hearts get hard?

      • There are times in the Bible where God is responsible for hardening hearts in order to carry out His plan, but that is not the type of hardening that is being talked about here.
      • In commanding them to “not harden their hearts” he is saying we are fully responsible for the hardening of our hearts.
      • It is very important to understand this so that when we do sense our hearts becoming hard we realize that there is something we can do about it, we are not helpless victims. This is not works-based faith, we are not talking about salvation or earning anything, we are talking about how God has called us to live as believers and the process of sanctification while we walk in obedience and submission and the Holy Spirit enables and refines us.
      • When God speaks to us we have two choices.
        • To hear His voice (because we are looking for Him to speak to us), submit and obey, trusting in who God is.
        • Or, fail to hear Him, resist and rebel, hardening our hearts towards Him.

v. 8-9 In these verses he gives them example as a reminder of when their forefathers heard God’s voice but hardened their hearts resulting in rebellion and trying & testing God. He says “you” but he is referring to Israel, to his people, their forefathers. It says here that they were living in a difficult time, in the desert. Their lives were hard and they didn’t like that. So because they were unhappy with the path God had led them down they dug their heals in the ground and refused to obey and worship Him until He gave them what they wanted. They wanted something better, different, easier….they just pictured God saving them from Egypt differently.

The 2nd half of verse 9 is very important for us to take note of as we not only understand this passage but seek to relate with it. We read here that for 40 years they saw what God did, they witnessed Him providing for them, never leaving them, doing amazing and powerful things. The question we need to ask here is, Why did God’s works not give them hope?

  • Because when we harden our hearts towards God we can no longer see God’s hand in our lives, His love, His provisions.
  • This is a huge point, because the truth we are told in the Bible is that He is always with us, He never leaves us, He is always working in your life.
  • But it is up to us to look for it, to pay attention, to remember who He is and what He has done, to have softened hearts so that we can see and be receptive to Him.
      • EX: When you start looking for something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere! Seeing God’s hand in your life is the same way, it was always there but at times you weren’t looking for it.

v. 10-11 He concludes sadly with a summary of what happened with the Israelites in the desert:

  1. Their hearts were always going astray
  2. They did not know God’s ways – meaning they couldn’t see or understand God because their hearts were hard
  3. Because of this, they didn’t get to enter into God’s rest
    1. We don’t have enough time to talk about God’s rest and what it means here, but I included an explanation of it on your handout for your own study and time in the Word.

3. FIGHT FOR YOUR FAITH

Look at Hebrews 3:12-19

He has just presented to us a problem, now he tells us what to do about it, and the solution is simple to understand. Instead of living as their forefathers had he gives them a different way to live.

v.12        First, he says we must take responsibility for our own hearts and make

sure it doesn’t happen to us.

    • We must acknowledge that we will be tempted to harden our hearts and that when we are we are responsible for it.
    • How do we know when it is happening? It should be pretty obvious – is your heart being drawn into sin & unbelief? Do you see it in your thoughts and responses? If you do, then you are in danger of turning your heart away from God, having a hardened heart.

v.13 A very important observation is made here that we don’t want to miss. In  verse 13 he tells us the root cause of the hardening of our hearts.

  • It is the result of sin deceiving us. Sin is not outside us, it is in us…talking to us, wooing us, asking us to believe its lies.
  • And when we do listen to it and believe it our hearts become hardened.
  • When you experience a hardening in your heart you must remember that it is sin luring you into that place.
  • This too means that the root cause of apathy is the sin within us, luring us away from devotion to Christ and tempting us to not live out our faith actively.

v.14     He then says we are able to do this all by “holding firmly”

  • It is never going to be easy and we have to actively choose to live out our faith every day. Our struggles and sins will always threaten to cloud our confidence in Christ and threaten to weaken it….so he says hold firm.
  • This is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinth 9:24 when he says to run the race as if you are running for a prize, be actively engaged in your Christian faith!
  • Hebrews 10:22-23 He tells us tells us that holding firmly means drawing near to God and “holding unswervingly to the hope we profess”…
      • With a sincere heart
      • With full assurance & faith
      • Guilt free
      • Not only because we can, but because we must!
      • As we sit in the mornings, or on our lunch breaks, or last thing at night before we go to bed, and seek to spend time with God, this is to be the state of our heart, sincere, trusting, confident, and free of guilt. Our faith is not about shrinking away and wallowing in our guilt and sin. We are saved by Christ, the Son of God who is faithful, and we have more to celebrate than anyone who does not know Christ….so believe and know you are saved!

v. 16-19 Then he makes an almost humorous point. As we read about the Israelites who experienced God more tangibly on earth than we ever have we might be tempted to say “Who were those awful people and what was wrong with them?!”

And the author of Hebrews answers:

  • They were God’s chosen people
  • They were people who knew God
  • They were people who saw His power and might
  • They were people God had freed from a horrible situation
  • And his conclusion? You are no different from them. Just as they fell into unbelief and because of it missed out on the privilege of living in God’s blessing here on earth, so could you and I. (look at 1 Corinth 10:1-6 later, this is exactly what Paul says to the Corinthians!)
      • We face this danger everyday and we have to choose to hope in Jesus and cling to Him.
      • As it says in 1 Peter 5:8 – we must remember that the enemy is watching at all times to devour us like a roaring lion, so we must learn to always be on our guard, fighting for our faith.

The opposite of apathy is activity…and God will honor and bless your every effort. If you are feeling uneasy right now because you feel like this is bordering on a works-based faith or simply giving you things to do that you know you can’t do on your own anyway, let me share with you an analogy that Tim Keller recently shared at the Dedication of the new Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.

Tim Keller analogy

He related our Christian faith to a wood burning fire. He said, that for some, they are like a huge pile of ready to burn logs, doused in lighter fluid, full of all the good things you need to get a great fire going…and when the Spirit lights that fire they burn like a bonfire. Then he said that there are other Christians who began more like a small fire, adding wood over time, learning and growing in the faith from a young age at a steady pace. But either way, both need kindling to keep burning. Both need to continually be aware of the fire burning low and the need to continue adding wood to it in order to keep the flame burning. And if you want a big hot fire, you have to add more wood. This requires constantly assessing the state of the fire and its particular needs at any given time.

In the same way, we must constantly be checking the state of our spiritual growth and fire. Adding kindling when it is needed and not expecting the fire to burn on its own or magically start burning stronger without doing anything.

In a workbook I was doing recently called Listen to My Life, the author says:

“People don’t drift into maturity, purposefulness, and the abundant life that Jesus promises his followers. It takes intentional action – regular patterns or rhythms of activity that place a person before God, so he can produce life-giving results. This is how we grow up in Christ.”

If you are serious about fighting the apathy in your Christian walk then I would challenge you to spending a season of your life to do exactly this. Set an amount of time, such as 3-6 months, that you will dedicate to developing a spiritual rhythm in your life and focusing on spiritual disciplines. Come up with a spiritual action plan. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t pay off.

Recently I was answering some questions in this workbook and it asked me “Which Spiritual Practices give me life?” So I listed them, mostly from that earlier time in my walk when I really felt close to the Lord. And then it asked, “Which spiritual practices do I already engage in?” So I listed the things I am currently doing. The discrepancies between the two lists were impossible to ignore and gave me a clear picture of what I needed to be working on.

The last page of your handout is a guide to help you process what we have talked about. I encourage you if you have time before you leave this weekend, to sit and go through it. Answer the questions that seem to speak to where you are at, journal, pray, and really think through where you are. And at the end I listed three books that you could use to help you get on track with spiritual disciplines.

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2 Corinthians 1: How God Comforts Us

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In 1 Corinthians Paul addresses many problems that they were dealing with in the church. But his second letter is written after those problems had been dealt with, so there is more of a tone of encouragement as they persevere in the faith. One of my biggest prayers for our bible study this Spring is that we would really begin to understand what true community looks like. I think that this second letter even more will help us understand that so I encourage you to not just be thinking about how it applies to you personally, but also how applying these scriptures will help us to build community and love one another better, which is something we all desperately need whether we know it yet or not! The only thing that might be helpful to us as we start here in chapter 1, is to know that Paul is about to deal with what we are to do in the face of suffering and trials. He is actually going to deal with this a lot in 2 Corinthians as well, so this passage acts as our intro to his perspective on it.

2Cor. 1:3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4a who comforts us in all our troubles…”

Paul begins here by praising God in relation to our struggles, but why? Why can we praise God in the midst of our struggles? Paul offers two reasons…

We praise God because He is: The Father of compassion/mercies

What does this mean? What Paul is saying is that God is not distant, He doesn’t just sit in His throne room watching our lives saying things like, “Oh, wow, that sucks, too bad. Well, she brought it on herself.” or “That is too bad she is going through that, welp I’ve got bigger problems to worry about.” Instead, Paul tells them, God is a personal God. Not only is He aware of every little thing in your life and what is going on in your head and your heart, but He also sympathizes with you, He is concerned for your well being, He cares about you in a very intimate way.

The second thing Paul praises God for is that He is: The God of all comfort

So Paul adds on to our understanding of God by saying, He doesn’t just care, He gets involved. He doesn’t sit at a distance saying, “That’s too bad, hope someone helps her out” or “I hope someone makes her feel better.” Instead, God reaches down and He becomes the source of our comfort in hard times. And while worldly things or ideas can bring us temporary comfort, He is the only real and true source of comfort for us. So this means that if you ever feel true, deep, and abiding comfort in a hard time, it is from God. God has reached down to comfort you. And this also means that God uses others to extend to us His comfort, He uses people in our lives to speak words of truth and comfort to us.

Receiving God’s Comfort

Now many of us have gone through hard times and struggles and not felt God’s comfort. Why do you think that is? The truth is, in order to recognize God’s comfort we need to be open to it and looking for it. Which means in hard times we must turn to Him and rest on Him, trusting that he is God, so He is sovereign, good, and loving. We need to understand that God desires to give us comfort so we can trust He will as we turn to Him. But, If we run to other things for comfort and run away from God, then we will not be able to receive the comfort He longs to give us. It is only when we go to Him and trust in Him that we benefit from His comfort.

A Greater Purpose in God’s Comfort

Next, Paul is going to explain to us that God doesn’t just offer us compassion and comfort so that we feel better, there is far more purpose than that.

“4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

Here, Paul explains that part of God’s plan is that not only will we be comforted by Him in our struggles, but that we would then extend the comfort we have received to others who are suffering. So when we are talking with someone who is struggling, it is God’s desire that we think of ways that God has encouraged and comforted us in hard times, and then extend that to them to help them.

Now think through what some of the benefits are of knowing that our struggles can eventually bring comfort and hope to others. First, it encourages us to stay the course and keep our eyes on Christ because it could help someone else someday. It also gives purpose to our obedience and perseverance. And finally, it gives us great joy to know that we will be able to help and love another person because we will be able to relate with them. When we do this it helps us to not become self-absorbed in hard times so that we don’t get sucked into a situation and lose perspective. It helps us to understand even more just how much purpose God has in all things – He brings others into our lives who He knows we can bring comfort to. Just last week a friend of mine shared with me how she was struggling spiritually and since I had recently experiences something similar I was able to share with her what I learned and how I began growing out of that difficult situation. I received an email from her the next day thanking me for what I had shared and telling me how it had given her insight into her own struggles.

The importance of testimony

This is what makes sharing our testimonies so important. I shared my life story often when I was on staff with Young Life and every single time, someone was deeply touched and encouraged by something I had gone through and how God had worked in it. I remember the first time I ever shared about my brother being gay with a group of about 40 teenagers and I prayed fervently about whether I should share that or not, and after I did there was literally a line of people waiting to tell me how much they related and how much it encouraged them…one girl who had been living with her mom and “aunt” who was really her mom’s partner, another teen boy just stood in front of me and wept, I could only guess that homosexuality was a struggle for him and no one had ever talked about it so openly before. The comfort God had given to me I was able to extend to them. And of course, this is what The Bridge is about, that we as young women will hear the story of a 50 something year old woman and be encouraged by how God met her in her deepest struggles and find comfort in that. She is taking the comfort God has given her and extending it to us.

So Paul goes on to elaborate on this in the next few verses. In verse 5 he reminds them that it is all because of Christ that we can receive God’s comfort and know that it will come. Why? Because God delivered Christ from death, and through Christ’s sufferings and God’s compassion and comfort towards Him, we receive God’s compassion and comfort. What God did for Jesus we now know He will do for us. And what God does for us, others can trust He will do for them. So what Paul is saying is that if you are in Christ then you can trust in this truth. So in verses 6 and 7 Paul personalizes this. He says, because of Christ we (meaning he and his ministry partners) can know this….Just as Christ suffered, I have suffered, and you will suffer. But just as God comforted Christ, God comforted him, and God will comfort them. So Paul’s conclusion is that we will all suffer but suffering can be good – it can encourage others and help them to persevere when they are struggling, and it is through our sufferings that we get to experience God in such an intimate and personal way.

Real Hope

Think about this in your life. When has it comforted you to look at someone else’s life and see that they have faced something similar and been brought through it? In one of my commentaries the author says this about being encouraged by how God has moved in other’s lives,

“These glimpses do not provide answers to all our questions, but they give the help and encouragement we need as God’s children to see them through.” Let’s Study, Derek Prime, p.6

So it’s not always about finding answers or completely relating with someone’s difficult time as much as it is understanding that the same God that saw them through a hard time will also see us through it. This is one of the main ways that God seeks to comfort us and speak truth to us when we are struggling, so we should be aware of this and not only seek advice and encouragement from others, but we should also be eager to share our own stories with others in case it brings them comfort and encouragement.

Now Paul is going to open up about some of his own struggles to help them understand how to apply this to their lives and to see another purpose to the hard times we face…

2Cor. 1:8 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.”

Paul’s testimony

Paul explains to them something that happened to him when he was preaching the gospel in Asia. He describes what today we would label as deep depression. He explains the incredible pressure he felt and the hopelessness of the situation. He says that in the face of incredible persecution and difficulty, they had gotten to the point where they despaired of their lives. It was more than they could bear and it felt like the end. They were fully given over to discouragement.

Have you ever felt this way? Another good question to ask yourself as you read Paul’s words is, have you ever opened up that much with others and shared an incredible difficult time you have gone through in order to help and encourage them? Have you ever been that honest? The truth is, no matter who you are….Paul, Jesus, a spiritual leader…we are all susceptible to depression, despair, and feelings of hopelessness…and most of us will experience these feelings at some point in our lives. So Paul helps the Corinthians to know that it is ok that they are struggling and suffering, we all do. But what Paul cares about is that they understand what to do when they are struggling, because that is what will make the difference.

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”

Now Paul gives us several more purposes in our suffering. Suffering helps us to rely on God and not ourselves. In suffering we can trust that God is all powerful and can do anything, He can even raise the dead (Jesus!) In suffering we can trust that because God already delivered us from hell, He can deliver us from any horrible situation. Suffering points us to our one true hope. When we are suffering and others pray for us and see God’s deliverance it encourages and strengthens them and causes them to praise and thank God. Our suffering benefits others! This is how we should view hard times.

Feelings vs. Faith

A subtle distinction that we need to make here is that between our feelings and our faith. In hard times we might long for God to simply infuse within us some good feelings….God, just make me happy, make me content, I don’t feel your comfort. And our goal becomes just making ourselves feel better about the hard place we are in. But here what Paul is explaining is not about feelings, but about faith. Paul is helping us to understand that, the first thing we must do is find comfort cognitively in the truth of who God is and His love for us. Turning to Him and putting our confidence and trust in Him and what we believe is truth. Then as we put our faith and trust in Him, God gives us those feelings of assurance and comfort….and even peace and joy. So the feelings are actually a result of acting on our faith.

Application

Now, as we seek to apply all this what often happens is we put our confidence in the outcome we are hoping for, believing in faith that God intends to give us exactly what we want. So this results in false feelings of comfort, because the truth is we don’t know what God’s will is and what He will ultimately do. Instead, our comfort is to be much like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s in the book of Daniel when they faced the possible outcome of being thrown into the furnace of fire. Here is what they said in light of this,

Dan. 3:17 “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

These men found their comfort in God despite their acknowledgement that God may not even save their lives. Their comfort is in knowing that the God they serve really is God, and if He wanted he could save them, but either way He is still God. So their comfort came from their confidence in God’s character and sovereignty over their lives, and because of that it didn’t matter what God would do.

Singleness

When I was struggling with being single and longing for a husband, it wasn’t putting confidence in a husband I was sure God would provide that comforted me – because just like the men in Daniel, I didn’t know that God would ever give me a husband – but what brought me comfort was in knowing that no matter what my future held I could trust that as it says in several places in the Bible, God would never leave me nor forsake me (Heb 13:5), that as it says in Romans 8:28 He would always work for my good, and as Psalm 23:6 says, goodness and love would follow me all the days of my life…whether I was married or not. And that is where we must all find our confidence, in the truth and character of God.

Conclusion

Whether you are facing an incredible hardship like the one Paul described, or something more subtle like feeling lost and lacking purpose or vision for your life, this truth applies to you today. We are to always seek to find our comfort in God. And in this to recognize that as we turn to Him to give us comfort, He will give it, and sometimes through the words and lives of others. So we have to learn to look for that and listen to His voice when He speaks to us. And on the otherside, be sure to always share our lives with others knowing that it will encourage and comfort other people.

The past couple weeks I have been dealing with a difficult situation in my life and I reached a point where I was greatly discouraged. But as I sought God in it I can’t even tell you how many ways He encouraged me and how many people He spoke to me through. But I had to look to Him and look for Him to recognize how He was comforting me – or I could have easily missed it and sunk deeper into despair and confusion. And through doing that it helped me to keep perspective and persevere to discern what God wanted me to do. And the outcome was truly beautiful, and I had no doubt that God was in it. And that is what Paul was feeling when he began here in verse 3 saying praise God, our compassionate Father and God of comfort. When we learn to live this way it will always result in praising God and seeing Him more clearly.

Questions for Application & Discussion:

●       How has God comforted you in the past through the lives/experiences of others?

●       What is something that you have faced in your life that has given comfort to others when you have shared about it?

●       What is something you are facing right now and how do you see God comforting you in your hard time? Has He used someone else’s story to comfort you?

Elijah

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Overview: Where are we?

For a quick overview of where we are in the Old Testament  CLICK HERE for a timeline from creation to the Judges, and CLICK HERE for a timeline from the kings to the prophets which is where Elijah is found.

Who is Elijah?

Before we settle into the passage we will be look at here, let’s get a little familiar with what has been written about Elijah up to this poin. Look at 1 Kings 16, 17 & 18. In chapter 16, verses 29-33, we are told that Ahab is king of Israel during Elijah’s time and that he “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of [the kings] before him.” (v.30) Ahab considered sin trivial, he married Jezebel who was not an Israelite (which God had commanded His people not to do), and he began to worship Baal instead of YHWH, building temples and Asherah poles for worshiping Baal. In chapter 18 we are told that Jezebel went on a killing spree killing the LORD’s prophets. Then in chapter 17 Elijah is introduced as a servant of YHWH and God sends him to Ahab to pronounce judgment on him, God will implement a drought to punish Ahab’s sins. Then God sends Elijah to the countryside where he is fed by ravens sent by God. When the ravine where he gets his water dries up God sends Elijah to a widow who feeds him. When her only son dies, Elijah asks God to bring him back to life and through this the woman gains faith in God. In chapter 18 it’s been 3 ½ years and God finally sends Elijah back to Ahab. Here we meet Obadiah (author of a book in the Bible) and he fetches Ahab. Elijah tells Ahab to bring the prophets of Baal and Asherah to Mount Carmel. Once there Elijah calls them to choose between Baal and YHWH (look at 18:21) but the people don’t respond. So he challenges them to a dual, let’s set up two sacrifices, one to Baal and one to YHWH, and see which god shows up to consume the sacrifice. So they do this, but Baal never comes and YHWH does so the people acknowledge that YHWH is God (Look at 18:36, 39) After this God sends rain, once again showing His power and that He is God. And then we read in 18:46 that Elijah is filled with the power of the LORD and runs in the rain for about 20 miles.

So this is where we find Elijah. Just imagine the spiritual high he is on. From the time the drought began all the way to now, Elijah’s life has been full of God’s presence, His provision, and His power. If there is a single man in the world who should feel confident and be able to stand firm in his faith it is Elijah, right? Because of this, what happens next is shocking.

BEGIN BY READING 1 KINGS 19:1-18

The first thing we see in verse 1 is that while Ahab was amazed by what happened, he attributed it to Elijah and not YHWH. So he returns, and tells his wife, Jezebel, and in response she also attributes what had happened to Elijah and not God. She then sends a message to Elijah to let him know she is not going to let him get away with it, she is going to hunt him down and kill him before 24 hours has passed, and in it, she affirms her faith in other gods. Despite all Elijah has been through in the past few years, nothing has changed. Sure Israel has repented, but we’ve seen Israel do that before and they always end up turning from God again. The focus of everything that has happened in the past few years was on Ahab and Jezebel, so that they would repent and follow God as the leaders of God’s people. But all was done in vain, they both returned to their evil ways and worship of Baal.

Have you ever experienced something like this? A friend or a family member has heard the gospel in a very convincing way, or maybe has even had an encounter with God, but they just won’t believe and they return to a life without God? This was my life as a Young Life leader, constantly hoping for those kids to know the Lord, watching many encounter Him and put their faith in Him, but then return to a life without Him. It was heartbreaking and with some of those kids who I was especially close to and had invested my life in, my sorrow and discouragement lasted for years and often led to struggling with feelings of hopelessness and failure. This is just an ounce of what Elijah must have been feeling.

So Elijah reads the message, finds out that nothing has changed and all was in vain, and immediately runs. He goes over 300 miles on foot. He even left his country!Why is Elijah caught off guard? Because, often after a victory in our lives, after something really good happens, we are vulnerable instead of stronger, because we relax and let down our guard. This is what happened to Elijah, he had faced death threats before and stood strong, but this was so unexpected so he responded in fear. One commentator compared it to when Peter is walking on water and takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink, in the same way, Elijah took his eyes off of the Lord for just a moment, and evil took him by surprise so he responded in His flesh instead of in faith.

Then in verse 4 we hear what is going on inside Elijah when he collapses beneath a tree and prays three things: I have had enough Lord…take my life…I am no better than my ancestors. What is Elijah communicating in these three statements? How did he feel and what was he thinking? Complete discouragement and despair. He couldn’t go on, he couldn’t fight anymore, he was done, he would rather die than have to keep doing this. It was the same story with those who were before him, nothing was ever going to change, the people are no different and he is no different than previous prophets and leaders.

So Elijah pours out his heart to God. But despite his situation and what has happened, he still turns to the Lord as God and his source of help. He ran away from Baal and the wickedness of the people and ran to God. While he is fed up with his life and these people, he still puts his faith in God and sees Him as Lord over all. This is key because so many times you and I get discouraged and we run to the things of this world instead of God, in fact, we often run away from God when things don’t work out how we thought they would. Elijah models for us what truth faith looks like in the face of despair.

So Elijah collapse in exhaustion and then an Angel wakes him and feeds him twice. And after the second time the angel announces “the journey is too much for you.” Suddenly, Elijah is no longer in control. He is done. So God steps in and does two things.

First, God sustains and provides for Elijah physically. How many times in your life has God done this for you in such little ways, but you knew it was from Him? Sending just the right person to say just the right thing to you. Allowing you to encounter something wonderful, like a rainbow. Providing for you exactly what you needed, no more and no less. This is what God did for Elijah. And notice, that when God does this, he is not directly meeting Elijah’s spiritual needs, He is first meeting his physical and emotional needs. Why? Because in order for us to gain perspective spiritually, often our physical and emotional needs must be met. God knows that sometimes life is too much for us, and so He steps in to care for us in ways we are unable to do on our own. That simple truth should make us stop and look at our lives to see if we are allowing ourselves to rest and recover from life so that we can have clear spiritual perspectives on our lives…

Secondly, God directs Elijah physically. On his own Elijah chose to run, but now God begins to lead him. And God leads him to Mt. Horeb, which is also Mt. Sinai where God’s presence was made known to Moses and Israel and where God established them as a nation. God didn’t just take Elijah on a little vacation to get some rest, but he led Elijah with a purpose to a specific place.

So now in verses 9-13, Elijah gets up and journeys again and finally makes it to the mountain where God is leading him. God has taken care of him physically, now God is going to restore him spiritually. God beings by asking Elijah a question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” As you read this question, what do you think the tone of this question is? Some think God was rebuking, chiding  Elijah. But I agree with those who say God was giving Elijah an invitation to pour out his heart. God wants us to talk to Him, He wants us to tell Him what is on our hearts. So he invites Elijah to do this, God knows it is part of the healing process.

So in verse 10 Elijah tells God how he feels, his perspective is very realistic and honest. If you and I were there we would nod our heads in agreement and then look at God to see what He would say to that. But, there is something funny about what Elijah says. We have met Obadiah who is a faithful servant of the Lord, heard of the 100 prophets of the Lord who were hiding in caves, and just learned of Israel’s repentance….yet, Elijah says he is the “only one” left and that “they” are trying to kill him. So we see here a little exaggeration. He is not the only one left and it is just Jezebel and Ahab who are trying to kill him. Why did he say this? Because just like you and I, he has reached the end of his rope. Things have not worked out as he thought they would so his vision is clouded and he can no longer see truth clearly. His vision is clouded by his fears and his feelings. And to him it feels like he is the only one left and that everyone wanted him dead.

God Restores Elijah Spiritually

Then we read next how God restores Elijah spiritually. If there are two things that I would want you to walk away with from this study, it is these two things. The only way we can be restored  spiritually is through being in God’s presence and listening to His Word.

The Presence of God. Elijah learns a very big lesson here. Our human nature is to long for supernatural events to sustain us in our faith. We seek out spiritual highs to continue affirming us and making us feel spiritual. 1 Corinthians 1:22 speaks of this with the Jews, it says “[They] demand[ed] miraculous signs.” But day to day, God is more of a whisper, something we must quiet ourselves to hear. His voice in our lives is often gentle, like a whisper, bringing peace not fireworks. God is always with us, we don’t conjure Him up, instead we quiet the voices in our head to hear him.

This is exactly what Elijah needed to do and be reminded of. He had just experienced something so great and miraculous that being still to hear God seemed strange and not right. God needed to show him that whether He showed up in spectacular ways as He had on Mt. Carmel, or in a quiet whisper as He did here on Mt. Horeb, that He is always there, always working, and always aware.

I have to say that I relate to Elijah very much in this. I had a pretty drastic conversion. I came from a non-Christian home and was already at age 14 living a life of alcohol, boys, drugs, and all sorts of fun things. And after God called me to Him I had about 6 years of incredible growth and learning, on top of having to be so dependent on Him during horrible times in my family and major financial stress doing ministry full time. So now, as those things in my life have leveled out, I struggle to just sit, be in His presence, and read His Word, to know He is still there….I would much rather see some more miracles and continue on those spiritual highs. So now, I am trying to learn how to listen to Him in the everyday mundane-ness of life and it’s not as easy as it was when things were crazy.

The Word of God. And the second thing that Elijah needed was to hear from God. He needed God’s Word because obviously his own words were leaving him hopeless and in despair. The truth that Elijah learned here was that it is God’s word that sustains and revives us, not supernatural events and miracles in our lives. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 4:4 that “…Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God’s word sustains us, and not only that, John 1 & 6 tells us that Jesus is the word of God and that He is the bread of life. So what we are doing in this study, understanding the entire revelation of God from the beginning of time, connecting it to Christ, is part of the word that culminated in Christ. Every word in the Bible is written to give us life, to revive us, to reveal God to us, to draw us to worship Him and live our lives for Him. This is what Elijah was being taught in that moment. So, through this, just as God met Elijah’s physical needs, now He has meet his spiritual needs.

And, next in verses 13-18, we read that in the same way God had given Elijah physical direction, He is now going to give him spiritual direction, or another way to say that is, perspective. Being in the presence of God gives us clarity spiritually. In order for Elijah to know what to do next God had to give him an eternal perspective, spiritual clarity. So now that Elijah is restored God asks him again “Why are you here?” And Elijah again states his confusion. And now that Elijah is physically and spiritually renewed, he is ready to hear God’s answer and what He has for him next. God gives Elijah guidance, He tells him what he is to do next. And in doing this he corrects Elijah’s misperception that he was “the only one left” by pointing out to him other faithful men and then letting him know there would be 7000 faithful Jews in Israel.

I find two things amazing about this. First, is that even though Elijah was a great man of God, even he was incapable of knowing the full truth of what would come next in his life, but God knew. As Isaiah 55:9 says, God’s ways are higher than our ways, we can’t even begin to imagine what His plan is for us, our only two choices are to fall to pieces and run from Him –or- run to Him and trust Him, asking for guidance. Secondly, God never rebuked Elijah, He cared for him in the state he was in. He heard him out, He restored him, and then he gently corrected his wrong thinking. What a gentle and loving God we have. One of my favorite verses is: Romans 2:4, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Instead of putting Elijah in his place God gave him hope and direction.

And in doing this God taught Elijah another lesson, we are never alone in our quest for truth and the battle over evil and sin. In Hebrews 11 we are remind of what a great cloud of witnesses came before us, in the New Testament that the Spirit is with us today as our counselor and our guide, in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that any temptation we face is also faced by others so we are not even alone in our temptations, and that we have a hope and a future that will come about, evil and sin will be conquered forever.

Conclusion

In the Jesus Storybook Bible on page 130, when talking about Kind David, Sally writes, “God can take even the biggest mess and make it work in his plan.” James 5:19 reminds us that Elijah was a man like us. We’re a mess on our own, but God has a plan for us that incorporates even the messes we make. We can’t see the whole picture and never will till the end of time, which is why we must look to God who does know the whole story and find our encouragement and hope in Him. When we reach a dead-end or are incapable of seeing any other options, it is God who gives us hope. It is God who gives us an eternal perspective so that we can keep going. God met Elijah in his discouragement and exhaustion and sustained him physically and spiritually, and gave him hope and guidance. When you are in despair do you run to God or do you run away from God? Because if you run to Him, he will restore you physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and He will give you hope and guidance.

Discussion and Application Questions:

  • Elijah is discouraged because in chapter 18 Israel & Ahab encountered God and saw that He was God, but then turned away from Him again. Have you ever felt discouraged like that over someone in your life who encountered God but then turned away from Him? How did it make you feel?
  • Think of one of the last times you were really discouraged, how did God restore you physically, emotionally, or spiritually?
  • What does it look like to quite yourself to hear God’s whisper in your life? What does that involve?
  • For next week read p. 144-175 in The Jesus Storybook Bible and spend some time looking over the books of the prophets in the Bible listed on the overview timeline from this week.