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As I look to a new year, I wonder if I have grown closer to God in the past 12 months. I examine my life and contemplate if I am any better at truly having a heart for God; any better at truly trusting him. The struggle remains in how much I am willing to follow the Spirit of God over my selfish desires.

Psalm 119:1-24 is instructive as I look at how to align my life more with God’s desires. Verse 2-3 encourages me to “keep his statues” not just out of compliance, but because I desire to seek God with all my heart — to follow his ways. That desire is expressed in verse four, “Oh that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!”

Verses 9-16 give us practical advice to guide us to “the path of purity (9).” This passage encourages us to live “according to your word (9);” to seek God with all our heart (10); to hide the word of God in our heart (11); to be open to God’s teaching (12); and to not grudgingly follow God’s decrees, but to rejoice “in following your statues (14).”

Verses 17-24 remind me to be teachable and to learn from my mistakes. Asking God to “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your law (18);” to seek to be “consumed with longing for your laws at all times (20);” to not just read the word of God, but to “meditate on your decrees (23).”

I praise God that he is a loving God filled with compassion and grace. I am thankful that he continues to pursue me as a counselor (24), pointing out my faults and working to shape me according to his laws. I pray we can all be resolute in the new year to seek God with all our heart.

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I have always admired the way Joseph kept his focus on God even though his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. Throughout Genesis 39-45, from the point Joseph is sold by his brothers to when he is reconciled with his brothers, Joseph continually lets his devotion to God guide his decisions. Yet there is one passage of scripture in all these chapters on Joseph that is easy to miss yet very thought-provoking.

In Genesis 41, after Pharaoh has placed Joseph as second in command of all of Egypt, he has two sons. When the second son is born Joseph remarks in verse 52, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering (NIV).” Even though he has become a powerful ruler of Egypt, he still calls it “the land of my suffering.” He is beginning to see how God has used his suffering to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

Joseph’s statement in verse 52 causes me to ask if I can see God’s fruit in the land of my suffering. Too often I am focused on the agony and not on what purpose God might have for my pain. In the midst of our enslavement and imprisonment in the land of our suffering, be mindful of the fruit God is ripening for his glory.

I am a self-made man. I relish my achievements because they endorse how great I am. From job promotions, to bank accounts, to awards, to the accomplished lives of my children, I constantly seek endorsements that I am better than those around me. This arrogance is what elevates me above God. This is not an attitude that brings me closer to God.

It is in the hard times that I am brought closer to God and his purposes for my life. We do not welcome the struggles in life. As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 12:6-10, we plead for God to take them away, to remove the thorn in our flesh that continues to torment us. It is difficult for us to see that the challenges we face in life are there to help prevent us from becoming conceited.

It is so very hard to think that God places a thorn in our sides to prevent us from becoming arrogant. For months, even years I have prayed for a young soul to return to Christ. I have helplessly watched as this person’s life has spiraled out of control. I desperately try to help, but it seems all my efforts are in vain. I feel weak and humbled. Paul’s words in verse 9 resonate, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It is not in my own abilities that I find the strength to manage hardship, it is in humble reverence to God that I find strength through Jesus Christ. When I am beaten down and worn out, that is when I am most open to the power of Christ within me. It is what Paul writes, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Jesus sacrificed himself to demonstrate the power of God to the world. On the cross He looked weak and defeated to the world. But through his death and resurrection, God’s power was made evident. Our ability to make Christ evident rests in our ability to die to self; to remain humble and not conceited. Paul’s words in verse 10 should encourage us: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” It is our acknowledgement of how truly weak we are to control this life that we find our true strength in Christ.

When it comes to giving, often we think of it in terms of donating things like money, food, or clothing to those in need. But how often do we think of giving in terms of time? Do we think of people starving for time or as being rich with available time?

Paul writes in 2 Cor 8:14-15 of having equality in resources so that those with excess can give to those lacking, and likewise when they are lacking they can obtain from those with plenty. If we apply this to time, we can think of those in our community who are time poor or time rich. Perhaps it’s the time poor single mom attempting to raise her kids on her own while working full-time, or the new retiree who is suddenly rich with available time. Imagine if the church could help provide time equality to both of these people.

Let’s play out Paul’s teaching in this example. Let’s say the new retiree becomes aware that the single mom is time-starved so she offers to do her cleaning and grocery shopping with no obligation for repayment. The single mom suddenly has time available in the evening to play or do homework with her kids. That in turns means her kids are less starved for time with mom.

Fast forward 15 years. The single mom’s kids are now graduated from high school and are off on their own. Now the single mom has an excess of time available. Meanwhile the retiree who gave her excess time over the years now has a disabling disease that now makes her time-starved due to rehab, doctor visits, treatments. and physical limitations. So a youth from church who is on summer break with available time helps the ailing retiree while the single mom helps out at the food bank.

You may have expected me to say that the single mom started helping the ailing retiree. But that would make it appear that the single mom was repaying a debt to the retiree. The bigger point here is that we all have seasons in life. We should simply give to those in need when we are able and receive in our times of need, no strings attached.

As Paul writes in verse 14, “Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal (NLT).” When those who had excess find themselves with little, others with excess give to maintain equality. In this way one of the most valuable resources we have, time, is also given freely to those around us.

After a year of neglect, my old garden plot was overtaken by weeds. Remnants of corn stalks and brown, brittle garden plants were barely visible in the sea of green weeds that now dominated the plot of earth.

“How did this happen?” I asked myself. It amazed me how the weeds now dominated the garden to the point where it choked out the fruitful plants. I asked “how,” but I knew the answer to my question could be found in 1Thess. 5:16-18 where Paul wrote, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks…”

The question is that if we are not filling our lives with praises for God, then what are we filling our lives with? The gaps presented by our inattention to God create opportunity for discourse and discontent with God. They become the small weeds in our fruitful garden that will eventually choke off the good plants if left to grow.

Praying without ceasing keeps us connected to God. It puts us in right relationship with Him. By rejoicing in all things; by giving thanks always; we are able to choke off the weeds of bitterness and anger that try to take hold when bad things happen in life. Praying without ceasing is like weeding our garden so that it will be more fruitful and filled with the joy of the Lord.

I stepped into the attic of our house and was amazed at how much stuff had accumulated in this small space. As I went through boxes and crates filled with things from my past, I kept telling myself, “It’s time to get rid of some of these things.” Suddenly I was struck by the discovery of an old Bible buried deep inside one box. It was a vivid reminder to me of how clutter can sometimes conceal God’s word in our life.

James 1:21 encourages us to “get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.” (NLT) Like that attic full of stuff, we can fill our lives with things that are not good for us. That in turn can hinder our ability to accept God’s word inside of us and our ability to live our lives according to God’s will.

It’s an imagery that Paul presents in 2 Timothy 2:20-21 where he describes the different utensils and their use in a household. “If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work.”

If that Bible buried in a box had been the only thing in the attic, it would have been easy to find God’s word and his purposes for my life. It’s a vivid reminder to remove the clutter from our life and to focus on God.

I stood in awe at the undeniable splendor of it all. A deep orange sun setting upon the lake as it painted the clouds above with hues of pink and lavender. The sound of waves lapping the shore and a gentle wind upon my face added to the beauty. I took in a deep breath and marveled at the scene before me.

For a brief moment I took my eyes off the sunset and glanced at the shore behind me. It surprised to see a large crowd of people gathered along the beach to watch the sun sink into the horizon. There before us was undeniable evidence of God’s creation in all its brilliance, yet I wondered how many would leave without thanking God or praising him – how many would slip back into the darkness of unbelief?

In Romans 1:20 Paul tells us, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Evidence of God’s presence surrounds us each day. He is there reaching out to us through his creation, his Word, his spirit and his people. God’s desire is to restore us to him through his son Jesus.

How often do we get so absorbed in the things of this world that we fail to recognize God at work in our life. How often do we see the beauty around us, but not acknowledge the source. How often do we get to the end of the day and realize we “neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Romans 1:21 NIV). Paul cautions us in Romans 1:25 not to be like those who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:25 NIV)

While the picture above gives you a glimpse of the sunset I saw that day, it cannot compare to actually being there. The same is true with God. A sunset is only a glimpse of the eternal beauty we will experience when we are reunited with God. They are daily reminders that God continues to reach out to us. He has given us a way to rid ourselves of the darkness of this world and to be reunited with him through his son Jesus. “He gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV) It is up to us whether we chose to believe in Jesus and follow him or settle for the artificial beauty of this world that will fade away like a setting sun.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been called an ecological disaster. As oil continues to flow from the damaged well deep below the surface, it continues to coat wildlife, beaches and wetlands with the gooey, black substance. A major effort is under way to clean up the oil, but the only way to solve the problem is to stop the flow of oil from the source by capping the well.

It’s a vivid picture of what sin can do to our lives. Sinful thoughts deep inside our minds don’t seem harmful until they spew forth, coating our lives and those around us with its gooey darkness. We struggle to clean the mess sin causes in our life, but the only way to really stop it is at the source. As Paul wrote in Romans 12:2 “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (NLT)

Each day becomes struggle to control our thoughts and our sinful nature. Paul describes this in Galatians 5:16-18 as a struggle between sinful desires and the Spirit. “These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions,” Paul says to break free we must let the Holy Spirit guide our lives. “Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves.” If we do not, then we become like Israel who Ezra described as “a land polluted by the corruption of its people.” (Ezra 9:11 NIV) Sin continued to spew forth, coating Israel in darkness.

So how do we capture sinful thoughts and focus on the Spirit? We must cap them at the source. “O Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?” (Jeremiah 4:14) We must fix our “thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” (Hebrews 3:1) We must let Christ and the Spirit capture our mind. “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7)

In today’s world, there’s no shortage of words. A recent article in Wired cites a University of California at San Diego study  that reports Americans consume about 100,500 written words each day. Then there are the thousands of words we hear each day. Add to that the thousands of words we speak on a daily basis and it quickly becomes apparent that we are surrounded by a hurricane of information.

So what exactly are we saying to each other with all those words? What are you saying? Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ getting through or is it getting lost in the massive number of conversations swirling around us. If you are not careful, you’ll get caught up in trivial

Does Jesus dominate your daily conversation?

 debates that leave Jesus in the background. Paul cautioned Timothy about getting caught up in worldly discussions. “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:23)

Jesus cautioned his disciples in Mark 13:5 “Watch out so no one deceives you.” He goes on to warn them of many who will come to try to deceive with their words. When we focus on the Word of God each day – immersed in prayer and conversation with Him — we are filled with words that endure and stand up to the test of time.  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mark 13:31 NIV).

Just as important as what you are saying, consider the words you are consuming each day. Are they nourishing your soul or are they distracting you from Christ? ”For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16)

When we fill our lives with the Gospel, we anchor our lives in God’s wisdom. That makes it easier to displace the trivial words of this world with the enduring Words of God.

You’ve repacked your suitcase with God’s good things, his plan for your life. Everything is in order the way it should be with Christ folded neatly inside. But 2 Timothy 1:14 reminds us that though the spirit of God lives within us, we must guard against the flesh that tempts us. Satan is never far behind trying to convince us that those sinful ways you left behind still fit you like a favorite sweater.

Sin has a way of creeping into our life under the same disguise as in Genesis chapter 3. It has the same appeal to us as it did to Eve, pleasing to the eye and desirable for wisdom (Gen. 3:6). It promises to give us something we think we do not already have in our life. Whether it’s the physical appeal that creates desire or the emotional appeal of knowledge and status, it tempts us to indulge; to be the God of our own life; to create our own definition of good and evil.

Even more dangerous is the component of sin that makes it infectious to others. There is that moment in Genesis chapter 3, after Eve took some of the fruit and ate it, that sin is still contained only with her. But verse 6 ends with “She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Adam was there watching the whole thing and decided to participate in the sin along with Eve. The same can happen to us if we expose ourselves to situations and people where sin abounds. Before we know it, the fruit is given to us and we take a bite.

That’s why it’s important to have a traveling companion on your journey through life – another believer in Christ who can tell you, “You know that old, worn sweater you’re looking at just isn’t you.” Someone who can remind you how bitter the fruit of sin tastes before you take a bite. Paul reminds in Romans 5:17, “The sin of this one man, Adam caused death to rule over us, but all who receive God’s gracious gift of righteousness will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.” (NIV)

Hebrews 10:25 encourages us to not give up meeting together so that we can “encourage and warn each other.” (NLV) It is in this fellowship with others that we are able to nurture our faith and strengthen our ability to avoid sin. With other believers by our side, we have the strength to say as Jesus said when he was tempted, “Away from me Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matt. 4:10 NIV)

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