How to Experience Real Joy This Christmas (and into the New Year)

People talk and sing a lot about joy, especially at this time of year, but as you look around, is there much joy to be found?

Most people in the world find joy in sentiment and circumstances and stuff, but the Christian has a different sort of joy—a godly joy.

Let’s look at some of the songs of the season and use them to compare the world’s definition with the Christian’s definition of joy. (I’ll admit up front, I love listening to all kinds of Christmas music this time of year, and I especially enjoy the classics sung by folks like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Perry Como, Mannheim Steamroller, and, of course, Burl Ives. But while I enjoy those songs, I don’t define my worldview by them!) Let’s look first at how secular Christmas songs define joy:

  • “Here comes Suzy Snowflake; Look at her tumblin’ down, Bringing joy to ev’ry girl and boy; Suzy’s come to town.”
  • “For every year the Christmas tree brings to us all both joy and glee.”
  • “Down thru the chimney with lots of toys all for the little ones Christmas joys.”
  • “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do . . . Oh what joy, what surprise when I open up my eyes to see a hippo hero standing there.”

Compare those with how our Christian hymns define joy:

  • Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
  • “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”
  • “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.”
  • Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies; With the angelic host proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

See the difference? Real joy is found in God’s loving gift to the world, not in stuff. It has less to do with what Jeremiah the bullfrog said and more to do with what Jeremiah the prophet said:

This is what the Lord says: “You say about this place, ‘It is a desolate waste, without people or animals.’ Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither people nor animals, there will be heard once more the sounds of joyand gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:10, 11, my emphasis).

Circumstances could not have been worse for God’s people at this time in history, yet, in the midst of such desolation, somehow the people would experience joy and gladness. How could this be? From where would such joy come? The only way to understand it is to know—really know—the “Lord . . . who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it” (v. 2). God is the source of true joy; it cannot be found aside from him. “Call to me,” he says to the prophet, “and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (v. 3). The Lord then goes on to show Jeremiah what he would do that only he could do. God’s power and provision for us are, most of the time, beyond our human understanding. Joy comes as “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

God is the source of true joy; it cannot be found aside from him. Click To Tweet

The apostle Peter had seen and literally walked with Jesus, but many of the people to whom he wrote years later had not. “Though you have not seen him,” Peter said, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8, my emphasis).

To experience that glorious joy, we must understand the nature of God—the all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, perfect Creator—and the nature of man. The chasm between us is so wide, his holiness so awesome, we might wonder how we could ever have a relationship with him. Yet this same God left heaven for us, lived in a human body for us, suffered and died for us. But even more incredible, he now lives in us. He sits at God’s right hand and intercedes for us. He listens to our prayers and answers us. He works all things together for our good. He regards us as his body. He loves us though we are sinners. He has prepared a place for us in Heaven. He provides life to the full and to overflowing for us and those around us. He considers us his ambassadors, as his ministers called to partner with him in reconciling the world to him. He considers us his friends as well as his bride.

I’m already feeling more joyful and triumphant! How about you?

This kind of “inexpressible and glorious joy” will not fade away on December 26 or when your new toy loses its luster or someone gossips about you, when you can’t pay your December bills or are struggling in a relationship, or when the doctor has bad news.

I find it difficult even to describe what this glorious joy looks like or feels like, because it’s, well . . .  inexpressible! It’s a presence, a power, a purpose for life that goes beyond this life. It’s a profound mystery—the joy that comes from being united with Christ as his bride (Ephesians 5:29-32).

Real joy is a lasting joy—something only God can give and has given to us through Jesus Christ. No, I don’t often see that kind of joy on cable news, but that doesn’t mean there is no joy in the world. We just need to look in the right places—internally, not externally. The Lord is our source of joy and we can see it in those who follow him; we can hear it in“the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord.”

Real joy is a lasting joy—something only God can give and has given to us through Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet

This Christmas, regardless of the circumstances, be filled with this glorious joy, express it as you worship the newborn King and proclaim that the Christ is born!

Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”



3 Ways to Deal with Your Stressors Today: Encouragement Letter

My wife, Heidi, has struggled with several stressors in her life this week. So, this morning I sent her a quick email of encouragement. Later I realized that many others may also need encouragement today. Hope this helps:

Take time to recognize Jesus’ presence with you; he’ll be with you through every single thing you do today. He is present with you now. He gives you your unique purpose in this world. He gives you all the power you need for today.

Let go of anxiety. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Remember, you don’t have to depend on your own understanding, knowledge, skills, etc. Instead, trust the Lord with all your heart. “Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

Have a GREAT day!

What to Do With Not Enough _____ (Money, Ability, Compassion, Faith …)

What do you do when you don’t have enough?

  • Not enough money to pay the bills.
  • Not enough skills or experience for the job you want.
  • Not enough patience or compassion to deal with, much less love, that person in your life.
  • Not enough leadership abilities or knowledge to lead that group or ministry or church or organization.
  • Not enough faith to keep going.

We’ve all been there. I’m there right now. I look at our situation and there’s simply not enough to make this work. I see it as a fact—the numbers don’t add up—and it feels so hopeless, doesn’t it?

Our circumstances are no surprise to Jesus. He’s been here before. There was the time when a huge crowd of people, 5,000 in all (but that may have been just the men) had followed him to hear him teach, but now they were a long way from town and were hungry. You know the story, right? Jesus charged the disciples with finding some food, and they brought him five loaves of bread and 2 fish.

That’s not enough food to feed so many people. The numbers don’t add up.

The disciples had seen Jesus miraculously take “not enough” before and do what only he could do. He took people with not enough strength in their legs because of birth defects or diseases or injuries and made them able to walk. He took people with not enough sight or hearing or even brain-cell or heart-beat activity, and was able to provide what was needed. Once, his disciples told him they didn’t have enough faith, and he was able to give them the faith they needed.

Let’s get back to those 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Jesus had the ability to work with nothing at all. He had done so before. He had the ability to multiply the small rations as the disciples held them in their hands. But Jesus responded with a phrase that we need to hear:

Bring them here to me (Matt. 14:18).

That’s what I need to do. It’s what you need to do with your “not enough.”

Bring the little, the “not enough” you do have to Jesus. He is able to do immeasurably more with your “not enough” than you can ask or even imagine (Eph. 3:20).

Take your meager finances and offer them, surrender them, to Jesus. He can take your “not enough” to pay the bills and, in his hands, do something that only he can do. But you have to give it to him.

Take your “not enough” skills or experience or patience or love or knowledge or faith or whatever seems like not enough to you—and take it to Jesus and see what he will do.

Maybe it’s time to dedicate your business or your job or your family or your budget to God. Begin treating whatever it is as his, not yours. Be a steward of what he provides you with.

Stay connected to the Vine. Apart from him, there’s never enough. But when you abide in him, you will not only have enough, you’ll bear enough fruit for others as well. He will take our “not enough” and multiply it into “more than enough.”


The Day of Overflowing Compassion

Today is a Day of Overflowing Compassion. To fully understand what happened on this day, it helps to see Jesus’ attitudes, actions, and words before he was put on trial and went to the cross. Once, as he was walking through some towns with his followers, the Bible says that when he saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:35-38).

As I reflect on what Jesus did on what we call Good Friday, I feel his compassion for me and for all those who are harassed and helpless in this life. At one time, I too was harassed by this life and felt helpless to do anything about it. I was trying to make it on my own, by my own efforts, under my own puny power. In 1988, with the help of my niece, Julie, and several other people like Thomas, I found the Good Shepherd, or rather, he found me. He drew me to himself.

At first, I was a skeptical seeker. For years I had investigated matters of faith in general and the accounts of Jesus and the Cross particularly. After lots of reading, discussing, and thinking, I could no longer deny, refute, or argue the facts of what happened that Day or especially how it transformed the lives of so many harassed and helpless people, including Jesus’ closest followers, afterward. Something unique and powerful happened that Day on Calvary and on the following Sunday morning.

In John 10, Jesus compared himself to a shepherd, a role rich in Biblical meaning. “I am the good shepherd,” he said, but what he said next is powerful: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11). That, my friend, is compassion, sacrificial love, God’s plan for connecting us back into a restored relationship with him. It wasn’t fair: the innocent paying the ultimate price for the guilty. Not fair, but incredibly compassionate.

In his compassionate love for people (see John 3:16), the Shepherd laid down his life for harassed and helpless people like you and me. It was the only way to make things right. He is the only way to a restored relationship with God.

Helpless is what I once was, but not today; today I have a Helper, a Savior, a Compassionate Shepherd who guides me through the circumstances of this life.

This is what it means to follow Jesus. On this Good Friday, I look back at what he has already done for me when he laid down his life for me and on Easter Sunday took it back up again (see John 10:17-18). But I also look forward to a Day that is coming, described toward the end of the Bible: “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’” (Revelation 7:17). What compassion!


The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned … #5 – Go with the Flow

One of my favorite topics to speak on is the principle of overflow. In my training, I use a pitcher to represent God and everything that he wants to pour into us and a glass to represent our lives. I use this illustration to show that God does not simply fill our lives to the full (John 10:10), he fills us to overflowing. Spiritual leadership is basically about two things: putting yourself daily in a position to receive from God and then naturally overflowing into the lives of the people he has put around you.

I want to live my life in this natural rhythm: receive and overflow, receive and overflow …

But, probably like you, I sometimes find myself with my glass upside down, trying hard to pour something out of my life–ministering out of my own strength and knowledge–which leads to both ineffectiveness and burnout.

I was in Brazil last month to teach about these vital topics, but God also used the trip to teach me this vital principle over and over again. In my last post, I talked about two examples of staying in the flow: driving in Brazil and a surprise preaching opportunity. But God used numerous other object lessons as well:

One of the things I teach about is the importance of keeping our priorities in the right order. Many times, those of us in ministry get these mixed up and out of the order God commands. Here’s the right order:

Unfortunately, we often turn this upside-down, which leads to … guess what? Yes, ineffectiveness and burnout, not to mention idolatry, broken marriages, and broken families.
I took my 19-year-old son Dru with me on this trip and I’m so glad I did. It was an opportunity for Dru and me to develop a deeper bond in our relationship, for him to grow in his own faith and ministry, and for him to get the opportunity to travel, something he hopes to do a lot more of in his life. Though I was in Brazil for ministry, it was clear to me what my priorities needed to be: my relationship with God, then my relationship with Dru, then the ministry itself.
The best times in Brazil were the times that God overflowed out of my life into my son’s life and then from his life into some of the people God put around him.
I’m a planner, but I needed to remember that as many and good and godly as my goals and plans might be, God’s purpose will prevail. I often found the need to let go of my plans and just go with the flow.
As in many other South American countries, Brazilians are not slaves to their watches and schedules. Often I thought I would be speaking at a specific time, and when that time passed, I became impatient inside my head (I tried not to let it show), wondering how long the person or program in front of me would continue. Often, as I thought one person was coming to a close, I’d anxiously get my notes together and move toward the front of my chair, when another person would jump up on stage to make an announcement or share a story. One Sunday evening, about the time I was scheduled to preach, some kids put on a very cute little show of singing and dancing. I enjoyed the first two minutes, but twenty minutes later I was anxious to get going. Then the children’s director stood up to talk about the children’s show. Then the pastor came up to thank and pray for the children. Then another pastor came up to read Scripture. I thought my turn was finally coming. No. The pastor began expounding on the passage–a sermon before my sermon. He was speaking in Portuguese and my interpreter wasn’t sitting next to me, so I wondered what he was saying, and if, perhaps, it might be on the same topic I was planning to talk about. When he finished someone else came up to give some more announcements. Finally, my translator, who was also the director of the ministry that brought me to Brazil, went up on stage. Finally, I thought. here we go! Then the translator began to speak in Portuguese. I glanced over at Dru and he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Finally, at long last, the interpreter invited me to speak. I jumped up on stage … and totally forgot what I was going to say. Actually, that’s not true. I’m glad God helped me to go with the flow and I just allowed his Spirit to flow through me.

There is a flow to leading, whether you are facilitating a small group discussion, leading a ministry or church, or leading anything else. That flow, when healthy, starts with God, not us, our ideas, or our own power. That flow means that I am not in control … which means I can relax and just let God speak and lead through me.

Our trip to Brazil taught Dru and me to trust God more, allowing him to be in control, enjoying the flow of the journey as he pours into us and then overflows into the lives of others.

Read the rest of the posts in this series on Brazil HERE

Trying Hard in the Spiritual Life: Rx for Burnout?

As Christ-following leaders–of small groups, ministries, churches, families, businesses, ourselves–we know that our relationship with God must come first. If we spend time with him, committed to walking with him, seeking him, and putting his kingdom first, he will take care of everything else and will overflow through us into the lives of those we lead.

We know that, don’t we? But how do we accomplish it?

Psalm 119:9-16 provides an answer, but I think the psalmist missed something. First, read his response:

How can a young person stay pure?
By obeying your word.
I have tried hard to find you—
don’t let me wander from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
I praise you, O LORD;
teach me your decrees.
I have recited aloud
all the regulations you have given us.
I have rejoiced in your laws
as much as in riches.
I will study your commandments
and reflect on your ways.
I will delight in your decrees
and not forget your word.

The psalmist shares a number of ways to work at obeying God’s Word, but none of these will bear fruit over the long haul without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Trying harder, by your own human efforts alone, to be a good Christian or a good leader will lead you to burnout and ineffectiveness.
I know this is true for me. I can try hard to find God, meditate on and memorize Scripture, praise him through songs and prayer, recite his Word aloud, study the Bible, and even rejoice and delight in God’s Word, and then, five minutes later, I can sin in the most vile way. Trying hard to do the right things in the flesh won’t work long-term, because we have a powerful enemy who sees our efforts and will take us down. I cannot fight this fight in my flesh, as well-meaning as I am. It’s only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yes, these things are the right things to do, but my efforts and your efforts to do them are not enough.

The Most Important Thing You Do Today: It’s Not Reading the Bible!

As I opened my Bible and started reading this morning, I had to stop myself after the first stanza of Psalm 104. Something was missing. Rather, someone was missing. I found myself reading to be reading. But that’s not what God’s Word is for.

So I stopped reading. I looked out the sliding glass doors that overlook the woods in our backyard and smiled at the beauty of the sun rising through the still-bare trees. The birds were singing in unison with all of nature at the beauty of the morning. I worshiped along with the birds and then simply talked to the Creator of it all, asking him to speak to me in his Word this morning. I asked him to guide me as I live for him today through the words I was about to read. I asked him to change me as only he could through his Holy Communication with me. Then I turned back to my Bible and began reading again.

Praise the Lord, I tell myself; O Lord my God, how great you are! You are robed with honor and with majesty (Psalm 104:1, New Living Translation). 

I write this blog for followers of Christ, but I especially want to use these posts to speak to small group leaders. I believe that God uses ordinary people like you to grow his kingdom and change the world, and he does that only as you receive from him what only he can give. Then he overflows his love, grace, power, peace, and wisdom out of you and into others.

The most important thing you will do today is spend time with God. So I want to remind you today to stop whatever else you may be doing and, if you haven’t already, spend some time with him. And don’t just read the Bible. Communicate with your Creator. See what he has to say to you. He’s waiting.

May the glory of the Lord last forever! The Lord rejoices in all he has made! (Psalm 104:31, NLT). 

Big Buts in the Psalms: The Secret to Real Success

In my reading of the Psalms, I’ve encountered several huge buts. The psalmist usually begins the psalm with a lament about his current circumstances, how bad things are, how everything seems to be falling apart. And then the writer uses this simple, three-letter, transitional word … but.

But … and though the situation itself hasn’t changed, the psalmist’s attitude does. His outlook and focus changes. He turns his attention away from the circumstances and to his God who is way bigger than the circumstances.

This is why I think Paul told the Colossians to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1) and to “set you minds on things above, not on earthy things (Col. 3:2). In other words, we need to put our hearts and minds on Jesus, our only real hope and source of peace and power, not on the things of this earth that waste away and have so little to give.

On another occasion, Paul said he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11), and this man’s circumstances were rough! He said he had learned the “secret” of being content in any and every situation (Philippians 4:12). That secret was in his relationship with God.

Here’s a big, challenging question: Am I more desperate for God or for what he can provide? He desires a loving relationship with me, not neediness. He’s my Master, not my minion. And I believe the best gift God can give us is the withholding of giving us what we want until we turn our eyes off ourselves and our circumstances and to him. The secret is in the relationship.

When we turn our hearts and minds from the problems of this world and to Christ Jesus, everything changes. This is why Paul could write,

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! …
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7). 

God is on his throne in heaven and he will not be unseated! He is a covenant-keeping God, and I can rely on and trust in him. So can you.

So … have you come to your “but” yet?

Love & Hate

To be holy is to hate what is unholy. To love a holy God is to hate what is evil.

You who love the Lord, hate evil! He protects the lives of his godly people and rescues them from the power of the wicked. (Psalm 97:10, New Living Translation)

To hate something (the Hebrew word here is ‏שָׂנֵא‎, sane, pronounced saw-nay) means to be set in your mind and heart against it. To truly love people (1 John 2:9; 3:11; 4:7, 19-21), I must hate that which destroys their souls. Satan is the author of evil and he uses it to crush people.

While that is true in a general sense, I must personalize this verse.  I must be careful about hating the evil that is affecting other people more than I hate the evil that is affecting me. I must learn to utterly despise the sin, the unholiness, in my own life. I must see it as something that is putrid, ugly, and to be avoided at all costs. God will protect me against this evil and rescue me from the power of the wicked if I give him control, Lordship, over my life. I do this not just once, but every minute, every time I have a decision between evil and holiness to make.

I choose to be holy and I can do this only in the presence, by the power, with the protection, and for the purposes of my holy, sovereign Lord!

Leader, how do you view unholiness in your own life? To be a vessel that God uses to overflow his love and power, you must remove the filth. Otherwise the filth will overflow from you. You can live a holy life only in his presence and power, under his protection, and ultimately for his, not your own, purposes.

How do you see the unholiness in others’ lives? Jesus saw the flaws in other people with a compassionate heart and he sought always to lovingly heal, not condemn.

God Is Calling You to Something New Today!

We love brand new things, 
but most of us settle for the same old thing. 

Sing a new song to the Lord! Let the whole earth sing to the Lord! (Psalm 96:1, New Living Translation)

Today is a new day.
This is the beginning of a new week.
Today could be the beginning of a new life.

In what same old ruts are you stuck?
What same old routines are binding your small group? Your church? Your family?

Ruts can become very comfortable places.
God calls his people out of the old and comfortable into new things.
God calls his leaders to new things.
(Think of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Elisha, Peter, Matthew, Saul, …)

To get out of the comfortable same old thing, you must count the cost.
And that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus has a brand new wardrobe for you to wear today!
Don’t cut it up to patch your old clothes!

He has new wine for you to enjoy.
Don’t put it in the same old container.

The Day is coming … “everything new” (Rev. 21:5)!
Jesus: the mediator of a new covenant through his blood (Heb. 12:24)
gives us a new birth (1 Peter 1:3).

Is it time to sing a new song to the Lord? 
What new things is God doing in my life right now? 
What new things is he teaching me? 
In what new ways can I serve him? 
What new, creative ideas will he give me today?
What new people does he want me to meet?
What new places does he want me to go?